12 Essential Travel Reads from the New Yorker Archives

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Yours truly in Paris, almost certainly reading the New Yorker.
To produce good writing, you must also consume good writing; that is why I read every issue of the New Yorker magazine religiously, no matter where I may be living or traveling. (If that approach hasn't exactly achieved the desired effect on my own writing, alas it is through no fault of the magazine's writers and editors, who consistently churn out the best content available in print.)

This week the New Yorker has opened its treasure trove. Hoping to entice new readers after a website redesign—and before introducing an online paywall at some as-yet-unspecified date this fall—for the next few months the magazine is offering unrestricted access to its online archives back to 2007, along with an expanded selection of earlier writings.

While the magazine consistently produces fascinating content on every subject imaginable, today I would like to recommend, in no particular order, a selection of the New Yorker's best recent pieces on travel, adventure, foreign cultures, and other themes explored in this blog. Enjoy these favorites while they're available:

1. The Grand Tour | Europe on fifteen hundred yuan a day (Evan Osnos, April 2011)
"We were approaching the hotel—a Best Western in Luxembourg—but first Li briefed us on breakfast. A typical Chinese breakfast consists of a rich bowl of congee (a rice porridge), a deep-fried cruller, and, perhaps, a basket of pork buns. In Europe, he warned, tactfully, “Throughout our trip, breakfast will rarely be more than bread, cold ham, milk, and coffee.” The bus was silent for a moment."

2. Only Mr. God Knows Why | The meaning of the Eurovision song contest (Anthony Lane, June 2010)
"Singers and groups don’t win the Eurovision Song Contest. Countries do. You are entered by your proud nation, just as a swimmer or a relay squad is entered for the Olympic Games. That said, swimmers tend to be chosen for their stamina and fitness, and relay runners for the dexterity of their handoffs, whereas the criteria that govern the selection of Eurovision contestants seem altogether less exact. To gaze upon this year’s Bulgarian contender, for instance, was to learn what would have happened to Tintin if he had decided to retrain, in bleached middle age, as an Elvis impersonator. And which choreographer, back in Sofia, had ordained that the presence of two male dancers, writhing around the singer with oiled torsos and what appeared to be shimmering incontinence pants, would truly be in the national interest?"

3. Ottomania | A hit TV show reimagines Turkey’s imperial past (Elif Batuman, February 2014)
"The Taylan brothers said that it was important for them that the script was written by a woman, and that it depicted the apex of Ottoman glory mostly from the perspective of slave women. They were unprepared for the furor that the show aroused. For a time after Erdoğan’s attack, “Magnificent Century” was the top item of national news. “Imagine—you create something, you gain the largest global following in Turkish television history,” Yağmur said. “Nearly two hundred million people are watching your show. But in your own country you’re living almost in fear of being put in prison.”

4. Travels in Siberia I Travels in Siberia II | The ultimate road trip (Ian Frazier, August 2009)
"Here we are in the city of Vologda, a hundred and thirty-five kilometres down the road, where Vyacheslav, the brother of a friend of Sergei’s wife, lives. Night has fallen. We are in a parking lot behind some buildings with our weakly idling van. Vyacheslav arrives. He is like a provincial nobleman from a nineteenth-century novel. He is tall and straight, with Tatar eyes, a round head, and Lenin-pattern baldness. He wears a well-tailored shirt of white, finely woven cotton, freshly pressed slacks, and polished brown loafers with silver buttons. His confident and peremptory manner shows not a particle of doubt. In the silvery aura of the headlights of his shiny new Volvo sedan, he says he knows an excellent mechanic who will repair the van tomorrow. For now, we will stay at his dacha, twenty-eight kilometres out of town. We will leave the van here in this parking lot overnight. Someone must stay with it to watch our things. This job falls to Volodya. He accepts it with a shrug."

5. Shopgirls | The art of selling lingerie (Katherine Zoepf, December 2013)
"Almost every Saudi woman appears to have had an experience like Reem Asaad’s. A young academic told me with wry indignation about a lingerie salesman who eyed the outline of her breasts under her abaya, then told her that she’d need a larger bra size than the one she had requested. Nermin mimed the furtive way that women shopped for underwear: heads ducked, grabbing whatever was easily accessible. “You’d take anything,” she said. Several women told me that badly fitting underwear, purchased in haste, is a long-standing joke among Saudi women."

6. A Star in a Bottle | An audacious plan to create a new energy source could save the planet from catastrophe. But time is running out. (Raffi Khatchadourian, March 2014)
"For the machine’s creators, this process—sparking and controlling a self-sustaining synthetic star—will be the culmination of decades of preparation, billions of dollars’ worth of investment, and immeasurable ingenuity, misdirection, recalibration, infighting, heartache, and ridicule. Few engineering feats can compare, in scale, in technical complexity, in ambition or hubris. Even the ITER organization, a makeshift scientific United Nations, assembled eight years ago to construct the machine, is unprecedented. Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world’s population, are invested in the project, which is so complex to finance that it requires its own currency: the ITER Unit of Account."

7. The Secret of the Temple | The discovery of treasure worth billions of dollars shakes southern India (Jake Halpern, April 2012)
"So far, no one has formally calculated the value of the treasure found in Vault A. But Harikumar, the temple’s executive—who has now seen the hoard on at least two occasions—has estimated that it is worth at least twenty billion dollars. Ananda Bose, the former director of the National Museum, in New Delhi, briefly led a team that has been charged with documenting the treasure. Bose told me that a proper assessment would likely take a year. He had done some research on other famed hoards—including those found in the tombs of the Egyptian pyramids—and said that none of them appeared to rival the temple’s treasure. “Maybe once in a thousand years something like this will happen—finding such massive wealth,” he told me."

8. Strange Stones | Two Midwestern refugees on the road to the Tibetan Plateau (Peter Hessler, January 2009)
"I had never seen a Chinese entrepreneur react so calmly when goods were broken. A second man emerged from a side room, carrying a broom. He swept the shipwreck into a neat pile, but he left it there on the floor. Silently, other men appeared, until three more of them stood near the door. I was almost certain it was a setup; I had heard about antique shops where owners broke a vase and blamed a customer. But we were hours from Beijing, and I didn’t even know the name of this county. Goettig had become extremely quiet—he was always like that when things went wrong. Neither of us could think of a better plan, so we started shopping for Strange Stones."

9. The Yankee Comandante | A story of love, revolution, and betrayal (David Grann, May 2012)
"Before Morgan was led outside La Cabaña, an inmate asked him if there was anything he could do for him. Morgan replied, “If you ever get out of here alive, which I doubt you will, try to tell people my story.” Morgan grasped that more than his life was at stake: the Cuban regime would distort his role in the revolution, if not excise it from the public record, and the U.S. government would stash documents about him in classified files, or “sanitize” them by concealing passages with black ink. He would be rubbed out—first from the present, then from the past. ... He had always managed to bend the forces of history, and he had made a last-minute plea to communicate with Castro. Morgan had believed that the man he once called his “faithful friend” would never kill him. But now the executioners were cocking their guns."

10. Modern Mecca | The transformation of a holy city (Basharat Peer, April 2012)
"On the site, King Abdullah started building the Abraj al-Bait tower complex, also known as the Royal Mecca Clock Tower complex. Constructed, at a cost of two billion dollars, by the Binladin Group, it is a cluster of connected towers housing a multistory shopping mall, food courts, a hospital, luxury hotels, prayer rooms, parking lots, and helipads. At almost two thousand feet, the Clock Tower is seven times the height of the minarets of the Grand Mosque. It is the largest, and second-tallest, building in the world. When I walked along the western wall of the Kaaba, the Clock Tower felt like a concrete djinn staring down at me, dwarfing the mosque. Filled with resentment, I lowered my head in anticipation on each circumambulation."

11. Climbers | A team of young cyclists tries to outrun the past (Philip Gourevitch, July 2011)
"As he plied his trade routes, Gasore watched the helmeted racers whiz by, dazzling in their tight Team Rwanda jerseys and shorts—in the national colors of blue, yellow, and green—crouched over the curved handlebars of their slender road bikes, pedalling in close formation. “I would chase them,” he told me. “Even when I had a passenger, I would race after the racers.” On the long descent to Gisenyi, he could keep up for three minutes at a stretch. He began to train every morning before work, pushing himself up hills and down. He called out to the racers to ask when they’d be by again, and he’d lay in wait for them. Once, he stripped everything he could off his fat-tired taxi-bike—passenger seat, cargo racks, fenders, kickstand. “Then, when I joined them, we were really riding together,” Gasore said. For eight months, he trained alone, until, he said, “I told myself, ‘I can do it.’”

12. In Deep | The dark and dangerous world of extreme cavers (Burkhard Bilger, April 2014)
"On his thirteenth day underground, when he’d come to the edge of the known world and was preparing to pass beyond it, Marcin Gala placed a call to the surface. He’d travelled more than three miles through the earth by then, over stalagmites and boulder fields, cave-ins and vaulting galleries. He’d spidered down waterfalls, inched along crumbling ledges, and bellied through tunnels so tight that his back touched the roof with every breath. Now he stood at the shore of a small, dark pool under a dome of sulfurous flowstone. He felt the weight of the mountain above him—a mile of solid rock—and wondered if he’d ever find his way back again. It was his last chance to hear his wife and daughter’s voices before the cave swallowed him up."

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