Travel writing remains unrivalled

The art form which continues to provide the greatest insight into other cultures

Isfahan, Iran

In 1953, whilst commenting on a trip he had taken a year earlier from Switzerland to Sri Lanka, Nicholas Bouvier noted: “Traveling provides occasions for shaking oneself up but not, as people believe, freedom…the traveller finds himself reduced to more modest proportions – but also more open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight.”

Travel literature provides us with a gateway to entire cultures, to experience the author’s curiosity, intuition and love at first sight. Yet, in recent years, it has also been criticised as biased, betraying the author’s personal judgements and reservations, and even fetishizing other cultures.

Never has this strange dichotomy been more evident than when comparing the works of authors Nicholas Bouvier and Robert Byron, who spent a year travelling through virtually identical terrain. In The Road to Oxiana (1933) by Byron and The Way of the World (1953) by Bouvier, they both drive through central Iran and then wander across the Afghan Hindu Kush mountains. They were of similar ages and similar backgrounds, and yet, the two books could not be more different.

Byron was arguably the greatest travel writer to emerge between the first and second world war. His descriptions of art and architecture are unparalleled, his eye for colour and form masterful. Describing the Iranian city of Isfahan he writes about driving “through avenues of white tree-trunks and canopies of shining twigs; past domes of turquoise and spring yellow in a sky of liquid violet-blue…”.

Bouvier’s writing seems a world apart. Arriving in Isfahan, he dismisses the city in less than a page as lacking in character, a city without a heart. He is not interested in art or monuments but instead invests his time in the characters he meets on the road – Serbian gypsies, prisoners of a Kurdish jail, and gossiping truck drivers weaving tales in an inn on the deadly Baluchistan road.

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With The Road to Oxiana, Byron very intentionally set out to write about Persian art. Indeed, his aim was to trace its history, and this provides vital context for his travels. Yet in doing so, he wrote very little about the people living within Persia. For every five pages which describe a mosque there are only a few lines on the devotees praying within.

Bouvier on the other hand, provides virtually no insight into the history and art of the people, but explores their way of life in detail. His most memorable descriptions do not contain remarkable visual imagery, but are remarkable in the way they describe human experience. He writes how “In the end the bedrock of existence is not made up of family or work or what others think of you but of moments like these when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love…”

Travel writing is an entirely subjective practice. As demonstrated, the events focused on are simply those the author found most interesting, and whilst it can inform people on ways of life in foreign lands, it is also prone to propagating stereotypes and misjudgements.

It is important to remember, however, that travel literature does not, and never has, pretended to be anything but subjective. Whereas the historian attempts to write objectively, often getting bogged down in grand structures or theories, the traveller only ever writes what they have seen, heard or experienced.

In doing so, travel writing has the capacity to convey the nuances of a place that are often left out elsewhere. It can describe the pleasures, frustrations and desires of a people – descriptions that often remain pleasantly relevant centuries later.

Take for example the work of Sicilian geographer Muhammed Al-Idrisi. His 1138 text, Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi’khtirāq al-āfāq (Literally The book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands), is one of the great geographies of the ancient Mediterranean, yet his description of Britain still feels relevant to the modern reader, 900 years later. He sees Britain as “set in the Sea of Darkness…This country is most fertile; its inhabitants are brave, active and enterprising, but all is in the grip of a perpetual winter”.

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Travel enables writers to study and explore foreign culture in a slow and unrushed way that would be unthinkable in fields such as journalism. Rory Stewart has remarked that “In an age…when articles are becoming shorter and shorter, usually lacking all historical context, travel writing is one of the few venues to write with some complexity about an alien culture”.

Ever since the publication of Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, the ‘foreign gaze’ has become linked to ideas of power dynamics. Today the foreign gaze is charged with propagating racism, orientalism, and also helping to justify colonialism.

But as Colin Thubron, one of the great travel writers of the last 40 years writes, “It’s no accident that the mess inflicted on the world by the last US administration was done by a group of men who had hardly travelled…” He goes on to say that “A good travel writer can give you…the generalities of people’s existence that are rarely reflected in journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline.”

The traveller, necessarily, views place from a foreign gaze. But, as with every discipline, there are good and bad travel writers. We should never allow the bad to obscure the good, and we should never let the importance of writing about, and humanising, alien cultures fall to the wind.