The UN states that there are 193 countries in the world. I am on a quest to travel to every country in the world. You can see where I have been so far. An important part of travel for me is reading. I try to read one book (sometimes two if I am lucky) pertaining to each country I visit. Reading a book can provide so much more context to your travels.
During my first visit to Russia, I read Peter The Great, a fantastic biography of this historical leader. When I visited St. Petersburg, the city came alive as I continually referenced his biography.
And yes, this list is not literally a list of 193 books, but an ongoing list of great books I have read that have enriched my travels.
A Little War That Shook The World, Georgia, Russia and the Future of the World. Abkhazia is a region of Georgia in the north-west on the Black Sea. In 2008, Russia and Georgia entered into a brief war, with the result of two new de facto states being created, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Read the account from a US diplomat who witnessed the march to war.
My Brother’s Road: An American’s Fateful Journey to Armenia. Monte Melkonian grew up playing baseball in California, but died in the battlefields in a distant war of freedom in Nagorno Karabakh. NK was formally an enclave within Azerbaijan but has historically always been part of Armenia. This book shares Monte’s fight for his historical homeland.
Angola: Promises and Laws. This petro state is not high on the list for tourists. Considered one of the most expensive countries in the world, limited tourist infrastructure, and a history of violence, turn off many travelers. This book traces the brutal and long civil war that took place after Angola’s independence from Portugal. Multiple players vow for power backed by a series of outside powers from the Soviet Union and the US to Cuba to South Africa.
The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird. This is another true story that reads better than any novel. Sharon Matola, an American woman, ends up settling in Belize. She starts a zoo, caring for orphaned animals. Big business comes to Belize in the form of building a dam that would flood the last nesting ground of the brilliant scarlet macaws of Belize. This begins a multi-year, international fight, where Sharon and her allies, battle government forces and corporate giants who are intent on focusing on profits and not this precious natural resource.
Married to Bhutan. A fish out of water story of a woman who moves to Bhutan, falls in love with a local, and gets married. The author recounts the cultural nuances and differences of the different lifestyles of the American wife and Bhutanese husband. She also weaves in interesting and novel Bhutanese history in this remote country.
Travels on the Road of Death and Other Adventures of a Yankee in Bolivia. The title sums up the book quite aptly. An American spends time traveling through Bolivia learning and encountering the peculiarities and culture of Bolivia. The author eats at Nazi Klaus Barbie’s favorite restaurant, spends time exploring dark and dank mines, learns about the 19th century war with Chile, partakes in Carnival and of course much more. A very readable travelogue of his adventures in landlocked Bolivia.
Two Seasons In The Bubble: Living and Coaching Basketball in Bulgaria This falls squarely in the genre of “fish out of water”. A Midwestern American travels to Sofia for his first time to coach and teach at the American high school. The author shares his trials and tribulations as he attempts to understand the unique psyche of the average Bulgarian. The book is filled with humor, sadness, and hope. I caught myself laughing out loud numerous time as the author tries to navigate and understand the high school players on his basketball team. The author also weaves in the history of this country on the edge of Europe. This book is a must read for anyone visiting Bulgaria.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers This is a first person account of a young girl’s experience growing up under the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge vicious regime in Cambodia. At the age of five she is cleaved from her family and begins her horrific existence under this genocidal regime. This non-fiction account is a testament to the immense courage in the face of horrific brutality. This genocide touched every single family in Cambodia and will engender greater respect and understanding during your visit.
Does It Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans. The author provides a humorous and illuminating account of his travels in Central Asia. He shares with us amusing and frustrating accounts one comes to expect when exploring in Central Asia. This is a great first hand account and introduction to the Stans.
Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia. Things changed dramatically as five new countries were born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan gained their independence in 1991. And over time Russia, China, and the USA began a dance of influence and power over these five states. This book provides an over view of the last two decades of a very complicated and nuanced geopolitical struggle.
The Statues That Walked I have been fascinated with Easter Island, the remote Pacific island which is part of Chile, since I was a kid. The island is populated with stone Moai statues. The book analyzes the competing theories of how the islanders came to populate the island and how the Moai were constructed.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China A three generation account of 20th century life in China proves once again that true life is grander than fiction. The author begins with her grandmother whose feet were bound as a child, and who was sold as a concubine to a warlord. Her mother lived through Mao’s revolution and was later denounced during the Cultural Revolution. This book traces the jarring vicissitudes of China during the last century prior to launching their economic rocket ship. Reading this book prior to your trip, you will appreciate the magnitude of changes through the eyes of the author.
Riding The Iron Rooster: By Train Through China Travel writing legend, Paul Theroux, takes the reader through the four corners of China via train. The books take place during 1988 between the threshold of communist Mao and burgeoning capitalism under Deng Xiaoping. For those visiting megalopolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, you will be shocked at the dichotomy depicted between present day China and that of China depicted in the book. Theroux’s unique voice and sense of humor will propel the reader on the iron rooster.
Congo, Democratic Republic
Dancing In The Glory Of Monsters: The Collapse Of The Congo And The Great War Of Africa. Over 80 million people live in the DRC, formally known as Zaire. The country is a smorgasbord of ethnicities, religions and languages. It is a country of amazing natural beauty but unfortunately poverty, war, and violence. The author attempts to explain it all in this daunting tomb. This is a bit of a slog to get through, trying to keep all the names and places straight, but a fantastic overview of the country.
Frozen In Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II. Greenland is part of Denmark and is not an officially recognized country by the UN, hence the categorization under Denmark. The author share with us a true account of an air force plane that crashes in icy, formidable Greenland. This is an epic tale of survival, and an intense display of courage by the rescuers.
I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation. There is not a vast choice of books in regard to Eritrea, but this book provides a highly readable account of Eritrea. Eritrea rests on the Red Sea next to Ethiopia and just gained its independence in the early 1990s. The book recounts a long and brutal history of wars, colonization, civil wars, and now a one-party dictatorship. Its nickname today is the “North Korea of Africa”.
Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji. The author, Will Lutwick, is plopped down in Fiji in the late 1960s while Fiji is preparing for independence and America is in the throes of the Vietnam War. Luttwick a Peace Corp Volunteer falls in love with a local Indian girl and clashes with the forces of the island’s conservatism. Light and interesting read to prepare you for Fiji.
Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya. This is an incredible account of two adventurers with a passion for exploration. Rumors of ancient ruins had been circulating in the western world. The two set off from NYC in 1839 to discover the lost Mayan civilizations throughout Central America. These two encountered unbelievable challenges from debilitating sickness, inclement weather, and avoiding the violence of war. Despite these obstacles, Stephens and Catherwood made amazing discoveries on behalf of all mankind.
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts What are the odds that a third string professional hockey player and part time Transylvanian pelt smuggler would become one of the most wanted criminals in all of Europe? Get lost as you watch anti-hero, Attila, transition from the hardest working goalie to gentlemen bank robber. Your visit to Budapest will not be the same after you read this book. It is near impossible to believe that this is a true story.
Homecoming: A Novel This highly readable novel traces some families in Ghana and the US over several centuries and the brutal and horrific impact of slavery. Read this book to feel the impact when visiting the Cape Coast Castle.
Shantaram This book will either unnerve you from any future travels to India or inspire you to board the next plane to the subcontinent to absorb the incredible mosaics and layers of this country. This mostly fiction but somewhat based on the author’s life takes place in Bombay in the 1980s. This nearly 1000 page tomb will consume you whole. The book will have you craving for the long promised sequel.
The Mountain Shadow Is the incredibly long anticipated sequel to the above Shantaram which has finally been published. Author, Gregory David Roberts, continues to chronicle protagonist, Lin, in the multi-layered city of Bombay. As you read The Mountain Shadow, you yearn to sip a beer with Lin and his friends in their favorite watering hole, Leopolds. You are beguiled by the introduction of new characters and enthralled to see former friends from Shantaram. The stories grasp and absorb you. It is difficult to put this book down, and I am already hoping for a trilogy.
Starman, The Truth About The Legend Of Yuri Gagarin. You can debate whether to place this book under Kazakhstan or Russia. Starman is the story of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Gagarin blasted off into space in 1961 from the Russian space port at Baikonur which is located in current day Kazakhstan. Gagarin stunned and fascinated the world with his accomplishment.
VANISHED KHANS AND EMPTY STEPPES A HISTORY OF KAZAKHSTAN: From Pre-History to Post-Independence. I was expecting a dry text book read of Kazakhstan’s history. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to read the account of this giant, landlocked country. It traces its history of nomadic people on the steppes, to Russian interference, to its incorporation into the Soviet Union, and finally its independence.
Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia. Another country that was born into existence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan is also landlocked and populated by people with nomadic roots and love of the horse. This account focuses on the post Soviet history with a book that reads like a novel. Too-good to be true characters jump of the page in twisting plots.
Gatecrashing Paradise: Misadventures in the Real Maldives. People all know the Maldives from their over-the-top water villas and dream like sunsets. But this book overviews the country’s interesting history. Located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, there are over 1200 islands with 200 inhabited by the locals and 100 developed with high end resorts. The writer travels the islands with a present day account and touching on the island’s history.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts. How is that for a title? That alone is enough to read this non-fiction account. Mali and the region is rich in historical documents from Islamic scholars. Abdel Kader Haidara spends years discovering and collecting the historical gems for a library to hold these treasures. The real story begins when he must save these priceless artifacts from Al Qaeda who overtakes the north of Mali.
Impossible Journey, Two Against The Sahara. This is one of those real world quests, that read better than any novel. The author, Michael Asher and his wife attempt to cross the Sahara, over 4000 km on camels. The protagonists fight the incredibly harsh desert environment, stubborn camels, and come across nomads and Bedouins as they start in Mauritania and make their way east.
Playing The Moldovans At Tennis There is not a lot of literature on this anonymous-like Eastern European country. But this book is an excellent and humorous introduction to Moldova. British comedian, Tony Hawks, makes a wager in a pub that is both improbable and incredibly creative. Watch as the author jumps into the deep end of the pool, attempting to win the bet at all cost. He needs to play and beat all of the players of the national Moldovan football team at tennis.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World Genghis Khan is known worldwide as a savage warrior who ruled an empire that ranged from Hungary to Siberia, more land than the Romans managed to capture over 400 years. But his genius lay beyond his superlative war skills, his real acumen was to be witnessed as a statesman. Khan melded disparate lands and cultures. Khan instituted the rule of law, established public schools, encouraged religious freedom, and established free trade. These trade routes also allowed for the free flow of ideas ranging from technology to the first international paper currency to a postal system. visiting Mongolia, you can follow his footsteps in the glorious, green steppes.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. There is no smoking gun or explosive reveal in this true account of a reporter who goes undercover to teach at an elite school in Pyongyang. Yet, the book showcases the paranoia, deception, and confusion that permeates life in North Korea.
Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. This is the unbelievable account of a North Korean man who is born into captivity. When imprisoned in North Korea, one person’s crimes will result in three generations being imprisoned in the prison camps. The prisoner in this true account grew up believing the world was flat and that every person in the world either lived in prison or was a guard a prison. He knew nothing else. This book is a horrific account of life within the Hermit Kingdom.
Papua New Guinea
Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II. A US military plane crashes into the jungle of New Guinea in World War II. Despite the crash site being only dozens of miles from the US base where the plane departed, it takes months for the military to devise a rescue plan to help the survivors. The survivors interact with the indigenous tribes while they wait for their rescue. These tribes are seeing non-natives for their first time in their lives and are living in the same manner as their ancestors did for countless centuries.
At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay. There are not a lot of reading options when it comes to this South American land-locked back water. Thankfully, the author provides a humor-filled account of Paraguay’s unique and quirky history with a overview of some tragic and fascinating past leaders.
Last Days of the Incas An improbable non-fiction account that reads like a novel. The author details how Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his 167 men defeated the Incas in 1532. In an epic battle where the Spaniards were outnumbered 200 to 1, horses and steel proved to be a decisive factor. A real life Guns Germs and Steel. Soon after the conquistadors seized Cuzco and present day Peru became a Spanish colony. This rag tag force became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams in the process. Today, you can stroll the streets of the historic city of Cuzco.
Peter the Great: His Life and World Read as Peter the Great propels medieval Russia into the modern world. Transport yourself back to the late 17th and early 18th century and watch as Peter the Great wills the new capital of Russia, the captivating St. Petersburg. The book details the equally fascinating Charles XII of Sweden as he battles Russia in a multi-year war. Dozens and dozens of landmarks still exist today in St. Petersburg and will complement any walking tour.
Young Stalin Before he was one of history’s biggest mass murderers and prolific butcher of Nazis, he was known as Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Georgia, a mesmerizing country in the Caucasus. His early youth is varied, as he spends time as a bank robber, seminary student, and statutory rapist. He eventually rises to become a member of the inner circle during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Visiting the country you can spend time meandering down Stalin Avenue in Gori, Stalin’s birthplace.
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice is a riveting non-fiction account of an American investment banker who enters Russia as the tip of the spear as it transitions to capitalism. It is the wild west., where fortunes are made and lost. This too could to be true account traces his story as he creates the largest foreign fund investing in Russia. But Russia, the bear, rears its head in the form of superlative corruption that results in the banker’s lawyer. Then follow him as he extracts his pound of flesh from Russia in a fight for justice. Could not put the book down.
Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia is an account of years of reporting by Russian speaking author, Anne Garrels. Russians often say there are two Russias. Moscow and the rest of the country. Garrels realizing this spends over two decades visiting Chelyabinsk. Chelyabinsk is in the hear of Russia, a former closed off military city. She traces its recent history as its transitions from communism, democracy/capitalism, and then Putin’s corrupt kleptocracy. She converses with ex-con taxi drivers, a mafia strong man, professors, and entrepreneur funeral directors to gain insights of life in this rust-belt city. The optimism and hope of the early 1990s transitions to fear and indifference as Putin increases his stranglehold over everyone’s daily life.
We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda. Many people are aware of the horrific genocide that took place in Rwanda in the mid-90s. Author, Gourevitch, shares with the reader the effects of colonialism on the two main ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. The book traces the macro happenings of the genocide as well as sharing stories of how neighbors killed neighbors. He then explains the tragic aftermath which creates a refugee crisis and the aftermath of how a nation attempts to heal.
The Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography Of Nelson Mandela. This pick is quite obvious, but an essential read for any visitor to South Africa. Nelson Mandela is a tremendously pivotal figure in South Africa as well as the world. This autobiography goes into great detail tracing Mandela’s entire life.
Tea Time with Terrorists: A Motorcycle Journey into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War. The author gets a bike and decides to understand Sri Lanka’s civil war by driving through the heart of it. Throwing caution to the wind, he spends time with terrorists, drug dealers, criminals, and ordinary people who are all part of this 30 year civil war.
Jasmine Fever Thailand has it all; dream-like islands, mountains dotted with hill tribes, and a bustling cosmopolitan capital, Bangkok. Many visitors are enthralled with their stays in this kingdom. And many opt to stay for the long haul. But brush past the surface of your ten day trip and scratch at the unique culture and people of Thailand. The author, American Frank Visakay, is a long term resident of Thailand who shares with the reader a series of highly entertaining vignettes, many detailing the intersection of farangs and Thai bar girls. This book is not winning any Pultizers but it is an interesting, light read.
City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism A near incredulous transformation of a village without electricity and legal slavery in the 1960s to an innovative city state. Today, Dubai is an amalgamation of superlatives and unique one-offs. Under the stewardship of the Maktoum family, Dubai is propelled into the 21st century. As a visitor you will be astonished at the transformation of present day Dubai from its recent historical roots.
The Teeth May Smile But The Heart Does Not Forget: Murder And Memory In Uganda. A story heard often throughout Africa, a country is birthed after a long history of colonialism and usually it is a difficult birthing. Uganda unfortunately fell into this category of chaos, death and civil war. In 1972, Eliphaz Laki, a government official disappears under the brutal regime of Idi Amin. Laki’s son over the years finds his father’s grave and tracks down his killers. The author weaves in Uganda’s history while detailing a son’s journey to learn about his father’s death.
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places If you wish to begin to understand the horrors that befell the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, you need to check out this memoir. Through the eyes of the author, you will witness the war as the pre-teen suffers through starvation, torture, rape, imprisonment, and death of her loved ones. You will be moved by the authors fortitude and courage and give you a new appreciation of this country’s people.
Zambia and Zimbabwe
Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone David Livingstone intrepid Scottish explorer traipsed for months through Africa attempting to find the source of the Nile and along the way “discovering” Victoria Falls, which visits both Zambia and Zimbabwe. Don’t be surprised if you can not put this book down. This 19th century explorer being followed by Henry Morton Stanley throughout Africa surprised the reader page after page.
Books For People Chasing 193
The Curious Case of William Baekeland Author (and friend), Harry Mitsidis details the amazing and fascinating account of extreme traveler William Baekeland. In this true account, Baekeland who presents himself as the heir to a billionaire ingratiates himself to the travel community. Then (allegedly) money deposited for future trips with Baekeland begins to go missing. Mitsidis starts researching this mysterious 20 something year old to find the truth.
Chasing 193 There are many clubs to choose from around the world, and they range from the pedestrian to the exclusive. One of these elite fraternities is the 536 people from 38 countries who have traveled to space as defined by the FAI. Another club with only a handful of members are the individuals who have traveled to every country on earth. The UN recognizes 193 countries. According to the authors of this book, Chasing 193, the club numbers less than 100 participants. So imagine that, more people have traveled to outer space than have traveled to this list of 193 countries.
The authors, Ryan Trapp and Henrik Jeppesen, spent time interviewing 20 members of this club. You will witness their motivations and the risks they taken to achieve this goal. Adventures have ranged from being jailed in countries you did not know existed, being felled by an unbearable case of food sickness, or being stranded on a remote Pacific Island. Some members have accomplished this goal while working full time with a modest salary and limited holidays. Others have been more fortunate with greater funds and ample free time. Whether you have never left your living room or you are on a similar quest, there are many lessons to learn from these dauntless explorers.
WAR: The Afterparty. The author takes a global tour of countries who have at one time or another have been to subject to the largesse of military action in the name of freedom and democracy. He spends time in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans and Central America. He spends time with the locals and networking learning about the effects of US military action and after the party, what are the effects. Enjoy the interactions with the locals and the telling anecdotes.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind. Simply put, this is an incredible read. The author takes the complexity of our world, and explains the history of man in a logical yet elegant manner. Questions such as why did Europe rule the world instead of the Chinese or the Arab world are rationally explained. He explains how the cognitive revolution helped sapiens dominate their peers over one hundred thousand years ago. A must-read.
Disclaimer: I receive a miniscule revenue share from Amazon if you purchase one of these books. So go ahead buy a bunch!