Summer, as we all know, is the season for travel—unless you are a semi-agorophobic bookworm addicted to armchair travel, natch. But what about those mosquito- or bullet-riddled places we’re curious about but would never dare tread? Skip the blisteringly high airfares and the can of DEET, and crawl back inside your Slanket™ with these five great travel books about places where most of us will never travel:
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle. Guy Delisle is the unofficial king of traveling to places so that his readers won’t have to. In addition to this hilari-fying guide to his stint working as an animator in North Korea, Delisle has penned graphic memoires about living in Burma, Shenzhen, China, and East Jerusalem.
Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams. Most readers know Adams as the beloved author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But he is also the author of exactly one nonfiction book, a chronicle of his search for the world’s most endangered species (as well as decent customer service). From the island of Komodo in New Zealand to the wild grasslands of Zaire, Adams gamely wades through guano in pursuit of rare rhinos, mountain gorillas, and something called the Rodrigues Fruit Bat, much of the time wishing that, like Ford Prefect, he’d remembered to bring a towel.
The Ridiculous Race, by Steve Hely and Vadi Chandrasek. In 2008, two future 30 Rock writers made a bet: whoever could circumvent the globe first without the use of airplanes wins a rare bottle of scotch and the lifelong right to yell Booyakasha! The pair set off in opposite directions, catching rides on shipping freighters, Mongolian ponies, and (almost!) an actual jetpack in Mexico. Whereas many “stunt” books have trouble sustaining readers’ interest once the novelty wears off, Hely and Chandrasek’s willingness to forge into the unknown, the exotic, and the just plain gross proves eminently, well, engrossing. Let them drink fermented horse milk!
Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier. If the phrase “travelogue” carries with it a whiff of propaganda, an inducement to actually travel to the territory in question, Frazier’s book might best be considered an un-travelogue. While you probably won’t be buying any tickets for the Trans Siberian after reading this, you will find yourself laughing at Frazier’s improbable exploration of gulag ruins and Russia’s most forlorn Shashlik stands.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler. Before he became a staff writer for the New Yorker and won a MacArthur award, Hessler spent two years teaching English at a local college in the small town of Fuling, China. This elegiac memoir tells us as much about the changing fortunes of life along the Yangtze as it does about the rewards and challenges of living life in translation.
What’s a travel destination you’d rather read about than visit?