The best books that take you to fascinating, challenging places that some people think are too dodgy to visit

Who am I?

I’m an accidental travel writer. For 25 years, I’ve made frequent work trips to the developing world for workshops and research projects, traveling widely in Central, South, and Southeast Asia and Southern Africa. I record what I see and learn, and my conversations with people and write about them in emails, blogs, and later books. Stanland was the first, followed by Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys and Postcards from the Borderlands. I don’t need to be at a scenic overlook or a historic site to find interest. If you’re new to a place, the every day—things so familiar to those who live there that they don’t think about them—are worth recording.

I wrote...

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia

By David H. Mould,

Book cover of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia

What is my book about?

Across the vast steppe and mountain ranges, to fabled Silk Road cities, the Soviet rust belt, and the futuristic architecture of Kazakhstan’s chilly, glitzy, showpiece capital, historian and journalist David Mould travels to a remote, diverse, and strategically vital region—the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. That jumble of countries whose names end in -stan: Stanland. You'll meet teachers, students, politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists, cab drivers, and market sellers to learn about their history, culture, and struggle to survive in the post-Soviet era. You'll enjoy the stories and landscapes but be happy you skipped the dangerous flights and bad hotels.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation

Why this book?

I’ve travelled to more than 40 countries, and written about many, but when I’m asked which I’d like to explore more, my answer is always Indonesia. Elizabeth Pisani, a journalist turned epidemiologist, travelled across the vast archipelago, clocking more than 21,000 miles by boat, bus, and motorbike, and as many by plane. More than half a century since gaining independence from the Dutch, the world’s fourth most populous country, with more than 300 ethnic groups, is still struggling to establish its identity amid regional conflicts, the depletion of natural resources, and a growing wealth gap. With insight and wit, Pisani takes the reader on an enthralling, sometimes maddening journey from crowded cities to remote islands, where she bumps into people from many walks of life—from politicians to peasant farmers—as she tries to make sense of an “improbable nation.” 

Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation

By Elizabeth Pisani,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Indonesia, Etc. as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Declaring independence in 1945, Indonesia said it would "work out the details of the transfer of power etc. as soon as possible." With over 300 ethnic groups spread across over 13,500 islands, the world's fourth most populous nation has been working on that "etc." ever since. Author Elizabeth Pisani traveled 26,000 miles in search of the links that bind this disparate nation.

Book cover of Prisoners of Geography, 1: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World

Why this book?

This book has helped me to frame my own experiences of travel and how to write about other countries. In his wry, low-key, non-academic style, Marshall sweeps through history, arguing persuasively that geography—mountain ranges, seas, rivers, deserts, and so on—has been key to the rise and fall of empires and nations. Mountains form a natural barrier, not only to migration and commerce, but to invading armies; open plains make the movement of people, goods, and armies easier. Many national borders, especially those of former European colonies, are artificial and, unprotected by natural barriers, consequently fragile. Marshall, who has reported on conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, breaks down geopolitics in clear and simple terms, with insightful chapters on countries and regions.

Prisoners of Geography, 1: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World

By Tim Marshall,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Prisoners of Geography, 1 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this New York Times bestseller, an award-winning journalist uses ten maps of crucial regions to explain the geo-political strategies of the world powers—“fans of geography, history, and politics (and maps) will be enthralled” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram).

Maps have a mysterious hold over us. Whether ancient, crumbling parchments or generated by Google, maps tell us things we want to know, not only about our current location or where we are going but about the world in general. And yet, when it comes to geo-politics, much of what we are told is generated by analysts and other experts who have neglected…

Book cover of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

Why this book?

Millard’s account of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1913-14 expedition almost 1,000 miles down a treacherous, unmapped river in the Amazon is riveting, a twisting, suspenseful plot with larger-than-life characters. The rainforest literally comes alive, sometimes loud and threatening, sometimes dark and foreboding, physically and psychologically impenetrable. Time and again, the expedition encounters churning rapids, and has to decide whether to run them, risking lives or the loss of dugouts and supplies, or hack its way through the forest on a portage that can take several days. To research the book, Millard, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, embarked on a long and challenging expedition of her own across disciplines including anthropology, botany, ornithology, and tropical medicine, and through archives and collections in the United States and Brazil, to painstakingly piece together the written accounts of the expedition’s members. 

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

By Candice Millard,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The River of Doubt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1912, shortly after losing his bid to spend a third term as American President to Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt with his son Kermit, a Brazilian guide and a band of camaradas set off deep into the Amazon jungle and a very uncertain fate. Although Roosevelt did eventually return from THE RIVER OF DOUBT, he and his companions faced treacherous cataracts as well as the dangerous indigenous population of the Amazon. He became severely ill on the journey, nearly dying in the jungle from a blood infection and malaria. A mere five years later Roosevelt did die of related issues.…

Book cover of Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia

Why this book?

OK, I’ll confess. I have this Dr. Zhivago fantasy (that may also involve Julie Christie). I travelled more than 200 miles on the Trans-Siberian Railway while on a fellowship in Russia’s southern Urals. It was not as romantic a journey as I had expected—lots of forest and drunks in the restaurant car—but I wish I’d traveled further. David Greene, NPR’s former Moscow bureau chief, has traveled the whole line, more than 5,000 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. It’s not the view from the train window of the landscape of Siberia—spectacular though it sometimes is—that drives the story along. It’s the people Greene meets, the stories of their lives and hardships, and how passengers traveling together day and night for almost a week cope with the journey and each other. 

Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia

By David Greene,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Midnight in Siberia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Far away from the trendy cafes, designer boutiques, and political protests and crackdowns in Moscow, the real Russia exists.

Midnight in Siberia chronicles David Greene's journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, a 6,000-mile cross-country trip from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. In quadruple-bunked cabins and stopover towns sprinkled across the country's snowy landscape, Greene speaks with ordinary Russians about how their lives have changed in the post-Soviet years.

These travels offer a glimpse of the new Russia-a nation that boasts open elections and newfound prosperity but continues to endure oppression, corruption, a dwindling population, and stark inequality.

We follow…

The Lost Heart of Asia

By Colin Thubron,

Book cover of The Lost Heart of Asia

Why this book?

I’ve traveled to many of the places that Thubron, the acclaimed travel writer and novelist, visits, but his take on them is much different from mine. He delves deep into the histories of the peoples of the steppes, mountains, and fertile agricultural regions of Central Asia, their art, architecture, belief systems, and cultures. It is a broad historical sweep, from the rise of the Mongol empire to Stalin's deportations to the wrenching economic, social, and political challenges faced by the governments and populations in the post-Soviet era. Thubron’s research is impeccable, his descriptions of places and people engaging and lyrical. 

The Lost Heart of Asia

By Colin Thubron,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lost Heart of Asia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This describes a tour of the central Asian states of the former Soviet Union.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in travel, geopolitics, and Indonesia?

8,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about travel, geopolitics, and Indonesia.

Travel Explore 876 books about travel
Geopolitics Explore 21 books about geopolitics
Indonesia Explore 26 books about Indonesia

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Wall, The Alchemist, and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt if you like this list.