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Book Reviews

Hiking with Ghosts: The Chilcoot Trail, Then and Now

by Frances Backhouse

Footsteps in the Clouds: Kangchenjunga a Century Later

by Pat and Baiba Morrow

Japan Diaries: Toronto to Tokyo

by Geraldine Sherman

Smouldering Incense, Hammered Brass: A Syrian Interlude

by Heather Burles

This fall, when temperatures start dropping, I know I’ll start dreaming of travel. Fortunately, people like me, who cannot get away this year, will be able to choose from a variety of entertaining new travel memoirs. Together, these titles helped satisfy my wanderlust and stoked me with enough vicarious memories to sustain me through another snowy season.

In 1899, English explorer Douglas Freshfield and Italian photographer Vittorio Sella trekked deep into the unexplored regions surrounding Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain. Their first-ever circumnavigation of the great Himalayan peak took them into Sikkim, a tiny, isolated Buddhist nation ruled by a long succession of kings. One hundred years later, Freshfield’s classic book about the journey, Round Kangchenjunga, illustrated with Sella’s black and white photographs, inspired Canadian mountaineer and photojournalist Pat Morrow and American climber Paul Kallmes to retrace the pioneering expedition’s footsteps.

Morrow, the second Canadian to reach the summit of Mount Everest and the second person to scale the highest mountains on all seven continents, also hoped to climb Sikkim’s Mount Siniolchu, a striking 6,887-metre peak. By 1998, Morrow had assembled a nine-person party including his wife and journalistic collaborator, Baiba Morrow.

In Footsteps in the Clouds: Kangchenjunga a Century Later, the Morrows’ account of their trip, Baiba contributes most of the text, while her husband contributes a chapter on Siniolchu. As Baiba notes, Sikkim, now part of India, is evolving from the isolated nation visited a century earlier by Freshfield and Sella into a place more akin to Nepal, its much-commercialized neighbour to the west. (To her credit, she acknowledges that treks like hers are contributing to the decline of Sikkim’s fabled Shangri La-like ambiance.) Baiba describes remote villages and their inhabitants in straightforward language that brings them alive, and adds snippets of religious and political history to contextualize the trappings of modern civilization – the Internet, satellite dishes – that are invading the region. Pat’s photographs and some of Sella’s gorgeous images reveal Sikkim’s rugged beauty and the magnitude of the cultural changes the region is undergoing. There are few popular books about Sikkim and anyone who’s trekked in the Himalayas, or who plans to, will appreciate this book.

Another enjoyable trekking volume based on a historic anniversary is Frances Backhouse’s Hiking with Ghosts. Part travelogue, part guidebook, it takes readers on a hike along the Chilcoot Trail, one of the fabled passages from Alaska into the Yukon trod by thousands of stampeders during the Klondike gold rush of 1898. Today the historic 53-kilometre path is littered with decaying relics like horseshoes, telegraph wires, and rusty boilers, and is maintained and protected under the aegis of Canadian and American national park systems. Hundreds of people hike it every year.

Backhouse did it twice as research, and Hiking with Ghosts combines human and natural history with personal anecdotes that are as faithful a recreation of a week-long hike as you’re likely to read. A closing chapter contains useful If-You-Go tips, and the well-chosen historic photographs and contemporary images by Adrian Dorst are ideal complements to the text. If you’re planning to tackle the Chilcoot yourself, Hiking with Ghosts provides a clear picture of what to expect. For armchair adventurers, it’s a brief and highly satisfying overview of the trail and its rich lore.

Travellers who prefer sidewalks to footpaths may enjoy Geraldine Sherman’s Japan Diaries: Toronto to Tokyo. Twelve years ago, Sherman, a CBC radio producer, received an Asia Pacific Foundation journalists’ grant that allowed her and her spouse, Toronto journalist Robert Fulford, to spend six expenses-paid weeks exploring Japan, a country she’d always dreamed of visiting. They checked out museums, Shinto and Buddhist shrines and temples, gardens, markets, film festivals, and performances of traditional kabuki theatre. They rubbed elbows with diplomats and scholars, and were fêted at embassy dinners and other high-end functions. They learned to navigate the labyrinthine Toyko subway system. They loved it all, and 10 years later, courtesy this time of the Japan Foundation, they got a chance to do it again.

In Japan Diaries, Sherman’s regard for Japan’s people and history is obvious. She’s a keen observer, and her good humour through even the most frustrating moments makes her a likeable narrator. I learned a lot about bunraku (Japanese puppet theatre), tea ceremonies, and ikebana – the intricate art of flower arranging. I scratched my head, along with Sherman, at the Japanese belief that a person’s blood type predicts his or her suitability for certain jobs, and at how little sleep the average working Japanese gets.

Japan Diaries suffers from the fact that Sherman speaks little, if any, Japanese. She’s forced to rely on translators and English-speaking Japanese to get “inside” stories, so revealing character sketches are few and far between. Too, I could have done with fewer descriptions of meals, e-mail hassles, apartment hunting, and shopping trips.

A book that fortunately excludes such trivia is Heather Burles’ Smouldering Incense, Hammered Brass. In 1995, Burles, an Alberta-born software developer, travelled alone to Syria to live in the capital city, Damascus, and tour through the rest of the Middle Eastern country. In Damascus she rented a small house where she took Arabic lessons, taught English, and got to know her solicitous Syrian Christian hosts.

As a veteran world traveller, Burles understands that most trips exist in memory as fragments. Faces, meetings, conversations, buildings, a blazing sunset, people you meet for five minutes but who somehow touch you for the rest of your life, are all elements that add up to one’s mental construct of a place.

Accordingly, Smouldering Incense, Hammered Brass comprises short, pithy chapters that describe everything from being the guest of honour at a Bedouin feast, to the intricacies of Arabic script, to the pervasive fear instilled by the mukhabarat, Syria’s secret police. Burles notes how being alone – and knowing some Arabic – often gave her access to Syrian women, a privilege that was denied her when she travelled for a spell with her Canadian boyfriend. On the down side, her solo status often made her a target for the unwanted amorous attentions of Syrian men. At every turn, it seems, she’s fending off aggressive suitors. Burles is a gutsy traveller, and this a wonderful book.