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Unknown Mongolia

In 1910 an Englishman named Douglas Carruthers began a 5,000 mile journey that crossed Siberia and Asia. His goal was to see Dzungaria, the ancient Mongol kingdom. He published his account of the expedition, Unknown Mongolia, in 1913. It is just the type of early 20th century travel literature that I love. Its value is scholarly, the narrative is entertaining, and the author's photos accompanying the text are both beautiful and plentiful.

Carruthers and his companions traveled by "tarantass, canoe, boat, and raft, by ass, ox, camel, and pack-pony." Reindeer were also ridden, though by the locals rather than by those in Carruthers's caravan. Their supplies — they carried over 300 pounds of flour with them and shot game along the way — were transported by 20 horses.

While modern travel gives us plenty to complain about, Carruthers had more than the TSA to contend with. The Russian government wasn't forthcoming with the visas and the Russian maps were less than accurate. The Siberians accompanying the travelers were not always happy with the amount of meat; the Uriankhai herdsmen did not value money and could not be counted on to sell their reindeer. Hunger and cold were always on the itinerary.

A great many of us vacation, some travel, others journey, and a select few explore. A quick look through the history of travel literature reveals that mere vacations are not the stuff enduring books are made of. Mary Kingsley, for example, did not vacation. Travels in West Africa could never have been the end result of a tour with Cook's. Though The Wilder Shores of Love is often categorized as a work of biography or feminist studies, Lesley Blanch could not have written it unless she had been, in her heart, a traveler in the largest sense of the word.

Douglas Carruthers knew how to travel. Upon his return to England he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society Patron's Gold Medal. The RSA also honors him with a Douglas Carruthers Memorial Lecture. He is also remembered as a Long Rider, a select group that celebrates equestrian travel.

Michael Palin, the current president of the Royal Geographical Society, has described geography as "a sense of wonder fused with the hard truths of science." It's an apt description of travel as well.

Visit the Powell's Travel section here.

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Kirsten Berg has worked as a used book buyer for Powell's for more than 10 years. She is experienced with technical and general reading material, and enjoys working with out-of-print and rare material the most.

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One Response to "Unknown Mongolia"

    Paige March 2nd, 2010 at 11:51 am

    love this.

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