When I started traveling, it was through books. For a long time, they were the only available remedy to my insatiable desire to discover the world, and I read incessantly. Books are inexhaustible sources of inspiration that can transport us into unknown worlds. And in my case, books encouraged me to finally embark on my own epic adventure. Even to this day, a good book remains one of my most essential travel accessories.
The following are 10 travel books that highlight the many wonders of Asia, one of the most fascinating and attractive places in the world!
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
Like Newby, I was also stuck in a job that I did not like, desperate to change and desiring to venture into the unknown. Former sailor and war hero turned into a salesman, one day Newby decided to leave everything behind to make true on his dream of becoming an explorer.
With no previous experience as a mountaineer, he sets out to conquer Mount Mir Samir in the Hindu Kush, a formidable mountain range between Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. Thus begins his fascinating journey through one of the most remote and beautiful places in the world, so inaccessible that most of us will never have the opportunity to travel to except through this book.
An essential classic written by one of the best authors of travel literature, who loved to travel above all and who, fortunately, shares it with us in such wonderful writing.
A fortune-teller told me, by Tiziano Terzani
This was one of the books that traveled with me during my first months of solo adventures in Asia. Those who have gone through the traumatic experience of sharing a flight with me already know of my fear of flying. On the positive side, it has helped me develop a real gift to find alternative ways of transportation either by land or sea that allow me to continue traveling. And, although for very different reasons, that is what Tiziano Terzani did during a year of his life.
After being warned by a fortune-teller in Hong Kong, he made the decision not to fly for a whole year because he was in danger of dying in a plane crash. Terzani, who at that time was a news correspondent in Asia for Der Spiegel, decided to follow his recommendation. Thus began his fascinating journey through Laos, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, among others. Tziano’s is a trip full of incredible adventures, reflections on the different beliefs and superstitions around Asia and the human condition itself. It’s an essential read for anyone curious to know more about Southeast Asia’s history and traditions.
Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China, by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux has spent more than 50 years of his life traveling the world from end to end, sharing his stories in novels such as The Great Railway Bazaar or The Tao of Travel, becoming a reference of travel literature.
In his book Riding the iron rooster, Theroux tells us about his one year trip around the immensity of China by train. Written in the late 80’s, Theroux offers an unforgettable portrait of the deserts of Xinjiang, the extreme cold of Manchuria, overpopulated Shanghai, Beijing or Canton and the hills of Tibet. A journey full of fascinating anecdotes about the oldest empire of humanity, and a reflection of its political and social situation, as well as its economic problems.
A wonderful trip told by one of the most intrepid adventurers of all time. If you are planning to travel to China any time soon, this is your book.
Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Casey finds Theroux a total snoozer and instead recommends a deep dive into the history of the central figure behind todays modern China with a flip through Mao: The Unkown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I should warn you though that this book is heavy, and I think impractically large – even for doorstop. However, Casey insists it’s an essential read for outsiders who want an inside look into the creation of modern day China.
Chang and Halliday’s book about Mao Zedong is one of the most serious and critical biographies about the leader of the Chinese communist movement. After 10 years of research, they tell us about his ambitions, his relationship with his wife, children and lovers, his rivalry with Stalin, and his career. After conquering China, Mao had a secret dream of winning over the world. His road to glory, financed with food and labour from villages, ended with the death of 38 million people. This biography portrays the rich and complex history of one of the worlds most extreme, controversial and authoritarian figures.
Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron
The British Colin Thubron shares his adventure along what was once the largest land route in the world, the so-called “silk route” that formerly linked the Asia and Europe. A frenetic journey of more than 11,000 kilometers across the Asian continent.
In this novel, Thubron tells us about one of the most difficult and risky journeys of his career in which he realizes how superficial the political boundaries created by man are, and that the true limits are marked by culture, language or religion. A unique vision of an ancient world immersed in a total transformation. The author goes through the different traditions, cultures and landscapes he observes during this exciting journey around more than 8 months from China, Afghanistan, Iran and the Turkish Kurdistan, up to the current Turkey.
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
The Snow Leopard is the unforgettable journey of writer Peter and wildlife biologist George Schaller on a trek to the Crystal Mountain in northern Nepal. What started as an expedition to study the Himalayan blue sheep and, possibly, to glimpse the rare snow leopard, turned into a five weeks pilgrimage through the Himalayas in a quest for inner peace.
An autobiographical novel, narrated in fragments of travel journals, combining mountaineering with mysticism, and the limits of the human being with the inner journey of oneself through the teachings of Zen Buddhism.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-hwan
The aquariums of Pyongyang is the heartbreaking story of Kang Chol Hwan and his family during the communist dictatorship in which thousands of people were killed by a tyrant. A first person narrated condemnation of the dictatorial and genocidal Kim Il Sung of North Korea.
After Kang’s family returned from Japan in search of a new egalitarian and socialist society, his grandfather, founder of the Korean Workers Party, is accused of disloyalty and conspiracy to the regime. His family is arrested and sent to the Yodok concentration camp, where they experience an inhuman life full of constant tortures, forced labor, punishments and, above all, hunger, that would last for ten long years. Kang is eventually released, and decides to escape for good. With this, a long, hard and dramatic journey takes him to South Korea, where he begins to make public his denunciation of the cruelty of his country.
Traveling to North Korea is not impossible, but meeting all the requirements needed to enter the country is extremely difficult and only a few do it every year. The aquariums of Pyongyang, besides being an exceptional narrative about the barbarities of the North Korean dictatorship, help us learn about a country that far too little is known about.
The Beach, by Alex Garland
Leaving aside Di Caprio’s famous movie, The Beach is a wonderful novel written in 1996 by Alex Garland. It is set in a Thailand where mass tourism has not yet arrived and where there are still secret caves, beaches and islands to be discovered.
Richard, the book’s restless young protagonist, embarks on a journey in search of a paradise that many consider a legend: a secret island in Thailand where a small secret community coexists. It will not take long for him to adapt to his new life away from modern society, on a beach of fine white sand and crystal clear waters. Over time he will discover that not everything is as it seems and that living in paradise has a high price. After the arrival of new travellers and seeing their island threatened, the community will do anything, even resort to violence, to protect their secret paradise. Undoubtedly, an exciting reading about the search for the unknown and other issues such as tourism exploitation in Southeast Asia.
Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin
Possibly one of the best books ever written about Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. It is as much a political analysis of the situation in Myanmar as it is a literary review of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, published in 1934.
In this exciting journey, Emma Larkin follows Orwell’s footsteps. She visits the places where he lived and worked, while giving a sincere reflection of Burmese society and political authoritarianism.