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If the World Was a Library, These Books Would be the Destinations I’d Pick.

inspiring travel books

Before I began to travel full time, the books I read based on the “best travel books” recommendations were mostly written by western travellers. You can probably guess some of them: Into the Wild by Jon Krakeur, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I found them inspiring back then and still admire the authors for their personal quests. But the more I travel, the more I realise that the perspectives in these travel memoirs often come from a place of privilege.

In my quest to discover lesser-visited regions around the world, I long to unravel their many layers through the words and perspectives of a local. To delve deeper into a country’s unique way of life, as shaped by its cultural and historical influences.

As a result, I’ve ended up discovering delightful books by local authors on my travels. And reading them while simultaneously exploring the country they’re set in, adds a dreaminess to my travels, like taking multiple journeys at once – physically, virtually and emotionally.

The “travel books” that fascinate me often transcend the travel writing genre, but I hope you’ll read them anyway:

Reading Lolita in Tehran

By Azar Nafisi | Iran

“It takes courage to die for a cause, but also to live for one.”

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Halfway through reading ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’, I decided that no matter what, I was going to explore Iran someday (I finally did, last month!). Set in Tehran after the 1979 revolution, this is the bold and inspiring memoir of Azar Nafisi, an English Literature professor who dared to start a book club among her best students – all women, reading classics like Lolita and The Great Gatsby, officially censored by the authorities in Iran.

Set amidst the backdrop of Tehran’s Alborz mountains and the Iraq war, the journey of Nafisi’s characters (her students) is interwoven beautifully with the characters they read about. The book left me simultaneously melancholic, hopeful and inspired – and was featured on the New York Times bestseller list for over a hundred weeks.

Read The Guardian’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: Why You Should Drop Everything and Travel to Iran Now!

From the Land of Green Ghosts

By Pascal Kho Thwe | Myanmar (Burma)

“I also felt like an exile, or a traveller lost between two unfamiliar shores.”

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As I was preparing for my epic land journey from Thailand to India through the length and breadth of Myanmar, I stumbled upon the incredible story of Pascal Kho Thwe in his debut book, From the Land of Green Ghosts. Raised as the chieftain’s son in the traditional Padaung hill tribe in Myanmar, the book charts his journey from a fascinating tribal upbringing, through the heartbreaking civil war in Myanmar, to his unlikely quest to study English Literature at Cambridge!

By the time I made it to the end of this awe-inspiring memoir, I could feel my eyes well up and my heart shudder at everything he’s experienced in one lifetime. And perhaps that explains the kinship I felt with the tribal folk I met in the remote Chin state.

Read The Guardian’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: The Epic Land Journey from Thailand to India via Myanmar

Ali and Nino

By Kurban Said | Azerbaijan, Georgia (the Caucasus)

“Close your eyes, cover your ears with your hands and open your soul.”

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Ali and Nino was one of the few books I found under ‘the Caucasus’ section at a bookstore in Georgia, and decided to buy it on impulse. I had no idea then that its author continues to be shrouded in mystery, for it was first published in the 1930s under the pen name Kurban Said, and once attributed to an Austrian baroness! Evidence has come to light since, that the book may have been written by Lev Nussimbaum who spent his childhood in Baku.

Set in the early 1900s, the book is inspired by the heartwarming love story of Ali, a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and Nino, a Christian Georgian girl – and the many obstacles that stand between them: Muslim and Christian, Oriental and European, and the Soviet invasion of Azerbaijan. Set across Dagestan, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the book offers an intimate glimpse into life in the Caucasus region, and left me with the overwhelming feeling that history keeps repeating itself.

Read Washington Independent’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: If You’re Looking for the “Shire”, Come to Georgia

Remembering Che: My Life With Che Guevara

By Aleida March | Cuba

“Farewell, my only one,
do not tremble before the hungry wolves
nor in the cold steppes of absence;
I take you with me in my heart
and we will continue together until the road vanishes…”

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On my first day in Havana, I walked into a small bookstore to seek respite from the sweltering heat of the city, and walked out with a copy of My Life with Che – written by Aleida March, Che Guevara’s wife, and translated from Spanish by Pilar Aguilera.

I had read Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara a long time ago, for it typically makes it to most “inspiring travel books” recommendations. I loved it at the time, but as a more mature traveller aching to better understand how Che’s travels shaped both him and his adopted country, “Remembering Che” became my companion on my travels across Cuba. March’s words are raw and simple, yet sometimes too honest to digest. As I travelled across Cuba, I saw the Cuban revolution through her eyes and came to appreciate Che’s altruistic yet flawed personality. At the same time, I felt like I was journeying through time to see how Cuba has changed over the years.

I remember sitting on the Malecon (sea face) in Havana, on my last evening in the country, reading the last few pages of the book, with the salty wind blowing through my hair. A strange nostalgia washed over me, as I wondered if Che and Aleida had ever sat there, in the same spot, watching the horizon, feeling what I was feeling. Only a handful of books are capable of inducing that.

Read an excerpt on Sydney Morning Herald | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: Unusual Solo Travel Destinations to Feed Your Adventurous Spirit

The King’s Harvest

By Chetan Raj Sreshtha | Sikkim (Northeast India)

“In the place of timber houses with leaky roofs were gigantic boxes of cement with harsh windows. The road was wider and topped with the same tasteless black cake…”

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When the “bookman” of Sikkim (the owner of the indie Rachna bookstore in Gangtok) highly recommends a book by a Sikkimese author, you’d better buy it. That’s how The King’s Harvest landed in my arms. Of the two novellas the book is split into, the first, An Open and Shut Case is the story of a woman who kills her husband and turns herself in. It weaves through a layered world of love, music and shared taxis – to reveal that a case like this isn’t exactly open and shut.

But it’s the second of the two novellas, The King’s Harvest, that lives within me even after all these years. The story takes you to a remote land in Sikkim where one man lives in solitude, toils on the land and joyfully gives a share of his harvest to his beloved king every year. When the harvest collector stops showing up, the man decides, after 32 long years of isolation, to personally visit the king, oblivious to how the kingdom has changed. Sprinkled with magical realism, I found this book just as enchanting as my first glimpse of Mount Kanchenjunga!

Read The Hindu’s Review | Order on Amazon India – or better still, buy it at Rachna Books in Gangtok.

Also read: Sikkim: The Lost Kingdom

Norwegian Wood | A Wild Sheep Chase

By Haruki Murakami | Japan

“Time really is one big continuous cloth, no? We habitually cut out pieces of time to fit us, so we tend to fool ourselves into thinking that time is our size, but it really goes on and on.”

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Ever since I read Norwegian Wood on a train ride along Canada’s Rocky Mountains, I’ve been hooked onto Murakami, his imaginative words, his mysterious characters, his bizarre plots and his surreal depiction of life in Japan. And when I finally travelled to Japan last year, I ended up meeting a local who indeed belonged in a Murakami novel!

Norwegian Wood, set mostly in Tokyo, explores love, relationships, sex and life through the lens of a young Japanese college student and the women he meets along the way. I remember, quite vividly, the riot of emotions that stormed through me as I became engrossed in his characters; emotions I never imagined a book could be capable of making me feel.

Since then, I’ve read many works by Murakami, and one of his earliest books, A Wild Sheep Chase, is one I keep thinking about. The bizarre plot is set in a stunning, remote village in Hokkaido, and is fascinating, mysterious and absurd, with all the charms of magical realism yet realistic characters. After reading it, I can’t wait to make it to Hokkaido.

Read The New York Time’s Review | Order on Amazon India | Amazon Worldwide

Also read: In Search of Murakami’s Japan

Neither Night Nor Day

Short stories, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil | Pakistan

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My Indian passport makes it very difficult to explore Pakistan. So to satiate my longing to explore the other side of the Indian subcontinent, I delved into Neither Night Nor Day, an anthology of short stories written by 13 Pakistani women. Spanning themes like familial expectations, immigrant life in London, partition and female infanticide, these stories explore the everyday lives of ordinary Pakistanis – and as an Indian, you quickly realise that despite the border between us, the battles and triumphs are the same. The stories are heartfelt, vivid and often soul-stirring.

Read DNA’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

Also read: Unexpected Ways Long Term Travel Has Changed Me

The Forty Rules of Love

By Elif Shafak | Turkey, Central Asia and Iran

“No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey, a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.”

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I first read about and fell in love with Shams-e Tabrizi – the mystic Sufi and whirling dervish who became the muse of the beloved Persian poet Rumi – while reading The Forty Rules of Love. This brilliantly crafted work takes you simultaneously into the intriguing (non-fiction) world of Shams and Rumi, and a contemporary (fiction) world where a woman embarks on a journey to meet the mysterious author of a fascinating manuscript. The latter story somehow elevates the philosophy, poetry and mysticism of the relationship between Shams and Rumi.

The book impacted me deeply enough to land up in Tabriz, the home of Shams, all these years later on my recent trip to Iran!

Read The Independent’s Review | Order on Amazon India / Amazon Worldwide

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PIN this post to add to your reading list.

Your turn, which unusual “travel books” have you stumbled upon on your travels?

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22 Comments

  1. I read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” when I was living in Bangladesh! Great book. After reading this post I really want to read “The Land of the Green Ghosts”, sounds like such an incredible story!

  2. You never stop inpiring me!
    Alchemist is a book which always inspri me in follwing a dream and finding meaning of life. I also corelate this to most of your writings.
    Am presently reading ”on the road by Jack Kerouac, its a timeless novel and tells about the journey of the protagonist who becomes a better, stronger person through his travel adventures!!

    • Himanshu Dutta says

      I love the book, especially the relationship that develops between Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.

  3. Thanks for your share. I’ve made a note of a few as I love books from other perspectives. Murakami is a prolific writer and if you want to read what I consider the best of what I’ve read of him so far, read 1Q84. I also have a readandwriteblog on wordpress if you want to see my 5 out of 5 reads.

  4. Jatin says

    Thanks for helping me make my to-read list for the coming year. I would add ‘Nine-Lives’ by William Dalrymple which left a deep impact on me when i read it for the first time.

  5. What a wonderful list, combing two of my favorite things: books and travel! Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful recommendations.

  6. manigoel says

    Loved this article. I am a huge believer of reading books while travelling. Just did a solo trip around Florence( inspired by you:), and read ‘In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri’ where she writes about her love for Italian language and her attempts to learn it while travelling in Italy. Beautiful read!

  7. Himanshu Dutta says

    Thank you so much Shivya for writing this amazing blog post. These books are so unique since they usually don’t feature on other popular lists. I think for me Khaled Hosseini’s books : The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed, though popular are excellent travel books because they provide such a unique and beautiful insight into Afghanistan.

    Chasing The Monk’s Shadow by Mishi Saran is probably my favourite travel book of all times. It’s about Central Asia, China and India. A must read.

  8. These are some awesome collection of the books. I have read Into the wild, I loved that book. Now I think I am going for “Reading Lolita in Tehran”.

  9. Thanks for sharing valuable article. Useful blog. Keep Sharing articles like this…..

  10. Anitha Karnam says

    So wonderfully written shivya ! Local books are such a treasure. I personally loved the books on design and architecture when I visited auroville. Other than that, my favourite is “notes from a small island” by Bill Bryson.

  11. Glad to know you’re a Murakami fan too. I’ve long since cherished the dream of visiting Japan and all those prefectures he talks about. Beautiful post, Shivya. Bookmarking. 🙂

  12. I somehow haven’t heard of any of these book but I love reading about other countries and cultures. I find it very inspiring. I have already ordered From The Land Of Green Ghosts because I really want to go to Myanmar 🙂

    Jenny | Local Leo

  13. I have read Norwegian Wood and am absolutely in love with it although I did read it in India itself. :/ But I would love to visit Japan soon to match the places names to the actual locations. Bookmarking this list for my bucket list! 😀

  14. Maietry says

    Shivya! It’s an interesting name 😀. I am literally hooked on your profile and journey so far!! Came to know about you through an Instagram post today and I am inspired a ton with bit infatuation!

    Half of books I have read from this blog but haven’t travelled anywhere!! 😐

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