Few places are as synonymous with isolation and vast emptiness as Siberia. Stretching across eight time zones and occupying one-twelfth of the world’s land mass, the region is as much a place as it is a metaphor. Although it’s faraway, unpleasant, and inhospitable — in other words, the cheap seats of the international baseball park — it is now the subject of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. Based on the New Yorker scribe’s experience over a dozen years and five visits to the often-frozen wasteland, this engrossing travelogue is full of infectious curiosity and surprising insights. Frazier shares his love of a place he calls “the greatest horrible country in the world” so that we might experience his awe (and the sub-zero temperatures) without ever leaving the warmth of home.
Frazier’s book got us thinking about other dispatches from distant (and often daunting) destinations that, for most of us, are better visited via the safety of an armchair. From the tips of the Himalayas to the depths of the Earth, here are ten other intrepid travelogues about remote places we’d probably never set foot but are glad that someone else did.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Thanks to the policies of oft-sunglassed leader Kim Jong-Il, North Korea is the world’s most isolated country. Although it’s almost completely inaccessible to foreigners, stories of life in the highly militarized state trickle out with its defectors. Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy introduces readers to life under repressive totalitarianism through the experiences of six North Koreans. By taking us deep inside a place few will ever visit, Demick opens the door to a closed world.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich
Population-wise, Greenland makes Siberia look like Midtown Manhattan. Home to just under 60,000 people (Siberia claims 36 million), Greenland is a treacherous place with few roads and few comforts. Part travelogue, part anthropological survey, Gretel Ehrlich’s paean to this mysterious territory is as accessible as the land is remote.
Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl by Robert Polidori
After the nuclear catastrophe in April 1986, the towns of Chernobyl and Pripyat were evacuated and declared uninhabitable. The so-called Exclusion Zone was once home to hundreds of thousands of people, but is now eerily devoid of human life. In Zones of Exclusion, photographer Robert Polidori’s haunting images take us into the ill-fated control room, ransacked hospitals, and debris-strewn schools of this post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s a documentary of a modern day ghost town and a chilling warning about the consequences of human innovation and error.
The Places In Between by Rory Stewart
Just weeks after the Taliban was overthrown, Rory Stewart embarked on a journey on foot across Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul. Already a writer/walker — he had previously spent nearly two years hoofing across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal — Stewart recounts this daring journey with his moving portrait of a land and its people. Through revealing encounters with everyone from villagers to aid workers to former Taliban soldiers, The Places In Between clarifies why the task of unifying and nation building in this war-torn land is so difficult.
Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth by James M. Tabor
Although there’s lots to be afraid of in a cave — asphyxiation, poisonous gases, hallucinations, and hypothermia, to name just a few — some adventurers find the thought of exploring damp, lightless places thrilling. In Blind Descent, James M. Tabor introduces readers to two teams of brave men on a quest to find the deepest nadir on earth. Claustrophobics need not apply.
Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden
The border town of Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is one of the most dangerous places on Earth. With an annual body count of more than 1,500, Juarez is a city besieged by drug trafficking and the violence that attends it. Charles Bowden’s dark and disturbing Murder City brings us the personal stories of those affected by such anarchy, while offering insightful meditations on the dystopic, and likely permanent, culture of violence.
Despite what the futurists promised us, we’re no closer to Jetsonain space-living than we were when man first rocketed to the moon. Although only a small number of men or women will ever travel to the stars, Mary Roach offers our inner-astronaut a chance to experience life in zero gravity in Packing for Mars. With her trademark wit and indefatigable curiosity, Roach shows us that, despite all that idealism about unexplored frontiers, people in space still require the same basics as the rest of us Earth-bound plebes: food, sex, and a place to pee.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory famously responded: “Because it’s there.” Perhaps almost as famously, Mallory later died there. Sometimes, it seems, the mountain does not want to be climbed. Such was also the case in 1996, when journalist Jon Krakauer joined a catastrophic expedition that claimed eight lives. This taut tale of tragedy reminds us that human nature — with its desire to conquer all — is often no match for mother nature.
Planet of Slums by Mike Davis
As the planet’s population grows, and urban areas encroach on rural communities, the poorest people in the world find themselves living in some of the most unimaginably horrible conditions: on a garbage mountain in Manila, in the favelas of Brazil, or in the squatter’s settlements (“gecekondus”) of Turkey. Full of charts and statistics, not to mention harsh depictions of life in squalor, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums is an eye-opening portrait of how one billion people are forced to live. And, as Davis argues, that number will only continue to grow.
At age 63, Helen Thayer and her septuagenarian husband set out on an 80-day trek across the unforgiving Asian dessert. Walking the Gobi is immersive and inspiring, as Thayer recounts their adventures with everything from uncooperative camels to problematic Chinese border patrols to elemental threats like sandstorms and heatstroke.