I’ve got a bug for old travel books recently. There was Jan Morris — not an old book, but with many older essays in it — and before her Wilfred Thesiger, who makes me wish I could have been an Englishman stationed in Arabia before the Brits and French went in and carved it all up to make weird new countries like Iraq and Iran and basically screw up the rest of the century. It would have been nice to see the land before borders were dropped at the whim of imperialists.
And now I’ve gone further back, to Afanasy Nikitin’s Voyage Beyond Three Seas. Although Nikitin wrote his book in the mid-1400s, my edition is an imaginatively illustrated hardback published in the Soviet Union, complete with request from Raduga Publishers for readers’ “opinion of this book, its translation and design and any suggestions you may have for future publications.” Forget being nostalgic about the world of exploration before the advent of “adventure travel,” that line made me nostalgic for a time when, supposedly, publishers actually cared about the quality and content of what they printed.
Nikitin was a merchant in the 15th century who set out from his native Tver (now located between Moscow and Petersburg) for the reported riches of India, and is supposedly the first Russian ever to have reached India. Evidently, according to the publishers, India and Russia have always had a special connection: “Since olden times the peoples of the two great countries have lived in friendship, showing a keen interest in each other.” Which might explain why the two countries consistently produce more genius mathematicians than the rest of the world combined.
As a travel book, Voyage Beyond Three Seas leaves a lot to be desired by modern standards. There is little dramatic element, and descriptions of vast lands zip by so fast that I had to pull out an atlas and a guide to old city/country names to figure out where in the heck Nikitin had landed this time. Taken in the context of its audience, likely other merchants looking to make the arduous journey across seas and mountains, its descriptive power was considerable: “And near Ceylon precious stones, rubies, rock crystal, agates, amber, beryls, and emery are found. … The harbour of Pegu is not small, and it is mostly Indian dervishes there.”
Your eyes could glaze over reading too much of that kind of listing, combined as it is with enumerations of various fighting forces and servants and retainers and elephants of various leaders and warlords. Like I said, little dramatic element. But reading between these lines, and paying attention, you realize that Nikitin suffered massive hardships in his endeavors to trade the riches of India with the riches of Russia. From being attached and plundered by “pagan Tartars” to becoming madly depressed over his “sinful” decision to give up his “true faith” of Russian Orthodoxy for Islam, you get the impression that Nikitin dragged himself over the seas and land by pure force of will, often hungry, always lonely and desperate to return to Russia, very often nearly losing his life. (Note: the conversion to Islam is unclear, but scholars studying the text have concluded that he very likely did, explaining why he constantly referred to his “sinful voyage.”)
Compare this with the over-hyped experiences of travel writers who throw themselves into possibly life-threatening situations (or at least physically endangering themselves) and then can’t wait to rush home and write about it. Lacking introspection as well as true observation, these books and articles have to hinge themselves on adventure travel because the days of true exploration are over, which, as I’ve mentioned before, can leave a sadder literary landscape.
With a background of a home they will assuredly return to, most travel writers who follow this path fail to reach the desperate pitch of a muted and untrained 15th-century resident lost and hungry in a foreign land, who dragged himself home mile by mile and died before making it back to his hometown. The irony is that, when true adventure was possible, it wasn’t held to be admirable or desirable. Further irony — it’s almost depressing to know that in 2006 an Indian organization retraced Nikitin’s journey … by driving in SUVs.
Nobody sold Nikitin a package tour to India, touting hobnobbing with natives, and the risks he took were not to alleviate a privileged white boy’s malaise, but to expand the glory of his home country and bring something of the outside world back.
Of course, it’s debatable whether real exploration or adventure travel is more desirable. The former very possibly does more damage than the latter, as adventure travel has a vested interest in preserving wilderness and culture. But the writing is another thing entirely. It’s hard to take seriously so much of our modern adventure travel, written as it is with so little knowledge and historical context, when compared with the adventurers and explorers of bygone ages, people with a thirst to learn about a reachable speck of foreign lands, not just the limits of their physical capabilities.