As a child growing up, I was an avid participant of the Book It! Club (who doesn’t love pins and free pizza) and even participated in Battle of the Books (super proud nerd). So it should be no surprise that books have played a huge role in our year of travel. Not only do we spend a lot of time on planes, trains, and automobiles, but some of our trips have put us in desolate locations with the gift of no cell phone reception. We have read like never before and have found that the stories add such rich context to the places that we travel.
So…if your New Year’s resolution is to travel more, here is a list our favorite books to fuel your wanderlust!
China – Shanghai – The Street of Eternal Happiness
The French Concession of Shanghai has become the epicenter of expat life. Visitors see tree lined streets bustling with cafes, restaurants, and foreigners and locals bicycling to their errands. Quan lived in Shanghai from 2009-2014 and has since returned several times. Each time the French Concessions’s gentrification becomes even more profound. Gone are the fish stands and fruit stalls of 2009, in their place an upscale butchery and multiple coffee shops. The Street of Eternal Happiness, which is the English translation of Changle Lu, gives you an intimate behind the scenes view into the lives of the true residents of this street in Shanghai. By telling the poignant stories of the shop owners and residents who have been slowly pushed out it is also an informative view of China’s rapid urbanization and the cultural and societal nuances that were cultivated by state policies set by Mao and now Xi Jingping.
Nepal – The Himalayas – The Snow Leopard
There is no shortage of great books inspired by Nepal and the Himalayas. On this trip we hiked to Everest Base Camp, Quan had previously traveled to Nepal to hike Poon Hill on the Annapurna Circuit. For those that are seeking adventure reading, Into Thin Air, even with all the controversies about its authenticity, is a thrilling read.
Nepal is also a country for spiritual seekers. Mountain hikes are lined with prayer wheels, stupas, and flapping prayer flags. On our hike down from Everest Base Camp we commemorated the anniversary of Quan’s dad’s passing by hanging prayer flags on a stupa. This is why The Snow Leopard stands out as the perfect companion book for the Himalayas as both an adventure book as one in spiritual seeking. On the surface it is a travel account of a two month trek in the Himalayas to study the Himalayan blue sheep and to spot the elusive snow leopard. The author’s wife had died of cancer prior to the trip. In his account he also weaves his own internal struggle with this loss making this book an invaluable meditation upon death, suffering, loss, memory and healing.
In case our love letter to Mongolia didn’t give it away, this has been one of our favorite countries and stops on this trip around the world. The only thing more fascinating than the rich complex landscape of Mongolia (desert steppes, red rock canyons, sand dunes) is the equally complex and perhaps lesser known story of its leader Genghis Kahn, who is revered and referred to as Chinggis Khan in Mongolia. We will admit that prior to our visit we stereotyped him as a brutal conqueror who raped and pillaged his way into forming an empire that took up half of the world. But did you know that Chinggis was an orphan who was enslaved after his father was murdered? His journey towards world domination really began as a quest to save his wife who was kidnapped by an enemy tribe. In his quest to win her back he formed strong alliances which became the foundation for his later victories. In the end the story of Ghengis Khan is a love story and this book gives a holistic view of the making of the Modern World from Ghenghis’ early childhood to the formation of his empire.
Morocco – A Street in Marrakesh
With the exception of Egypt, Morocco was perhaps one of the hardest places to visit in terms of cultural acclimatization. From a cultural context, it was perhaps the two countries that were the most far removed from the Asian and Western context that we understand. This was why A Street in Marrakesh was such a fascinating read. This is the story of an American woman and her family’s integration into a Muslim city in the process of change. Initially met with suspicion and hostility, the story shows how they built trust and gained acceptance from their Moroccan neighbors. Similar to The Street of Eternal Happiness, it is a window into the intimate look into the lives of several local families that helps to shape and inform a foreigner’s perspective of the country and its people.
Our time in India was short; only two weeks which we spent at Agra to see the Taj Mahal and in Rishikesh to stay in an ashram. We flew in and out of Mumbai and as the plane approaches the runway you immediately see the settlements adjacent to the airport. The settlements are essentially a shanty town where the city’s poorest live in makeshift homes. As our plane taxied on the runway, we saw children standing on mounds of dirt gleefully laughing and looking up at the sky as they flew kites in the air. Their joy in the midst of their impoverished surroundings reminded me of the interweaving stories in Behind the Beautiful Forevers which tells the stories of the residents. This is really a story of the human spirit and the burning desire to strive for better despite all odds.
Pakistan & Afghanistan – Three Cups of Tea – One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace – One School At a Time
While we did not travel to Pakistan on this trip, we were in the region during our Pamir Highway trip which took us to the border of Afghanistan, across Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Our month in the region provided great context for the power of girls education in remote regions like Pakistan and Afghanistan. The title comes from the saying “The first time you share tea, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family…” I loved this book so much when I first read this in 2010, but sadly, since then there’s been allegations of false claims and misappropriation of funds by Greg Mortenson which created such a scandal it led to his co author’s suicide in 2012. The personal accounts may be better approached as a fiction verses non fiction book. While the personal anecdotes may not be real, the need to promote female literacy is very much real. For this reason, this is a worthy read so that the cause does not get overlooked because of Mortenson’s mistakes.
Africa – Keepers of The Story
This is one we have not read yet, but is next in the queue as we are wrapping up our time in Africa. Written by Micah Springer, Quan’s yoga teacher, whose every class is like listening to poetry. She is a woman gifted with her words and deeply passionate about caring for the earth. She fought for this book to be printed with 100% post consumer recycled fiber, which is very rare in the publishing industry. Here is her description of the book which we can’t wait to dive into! We’re waiting for the release of the audio version so we can hear the story from the Michah herself!
“In 1993 two young women, Micah and Kas, set out alone to backpack through Africa for nearly a year. They leap headlong into cultural misunderstanding, crocodiles, and corruption, imperiling their lives and testing their lucky stars. The Motherland unveils her deepest mysteries when Micah falls in love with a nomadic warrior, and his rich tradition. Sex, alienation, danger, longing, unwritten languages, and moonlight dances become Micah’s pathway to inner wisdom and the divine.
This tribute to the Earth, and the people who live in balance with nature, welcomes us all to reclaim our place by our ancestors fire. We are now and have always been the Keepers of The Story.”