Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review of My Life as an Explorer by Sven Hedin



My Life as an Explorer is a quintessential book of world adventure and discovery.  Written in the 19 th century—a time before the internet brought the world to your fingertips—Hedin’s expeditions have an exotic flavor entirely impossible to recreate today save space travel.  Though many of Hedin’s exploits are questionable or possibly exaggerated for storytelling effect, My Life as an Explorer, which is an autobiographical ’best of’ his travels, nevertheless possesses a narrative difficult to put down, making it almost necessary reading for anyone who yearns to know more about the less-traveled parts of the world of yesteryear. 
 
Focused almost entirely on central Asia, My Life as an Explorer is a detailed account of numerous of Hedin’s expeditions in the steppe, mountains, and deserts of the East.  His exploits include crossing the Taklamakan desert, numerous excursions in the Himalayas, and trips in Persia.  His writing style easily accessible, Hedin’s prowess in the field goes matched by his skill with a pen (though some sources do believe Hedin had help in his native Sweden editing his records of travel).  Regardless, the narrative is at times nail-biting for the extreme situations Hedin finds himself in, funny for the culture clashes that often occur, and always colorful given the exotic (to the Western mind) nature of the lands he’s traveling though.  Having a particular love for Tibet, his descriptions of his time amongst the people are especially notable.

Where the book finds its value is not so much in Hedin’s “filling in the blank spaces on the map” but in his descriptions and drawings of the people and cultures he encounters.  Vividly coming to life in the mind’s eye, Hedin was as much an anthropologist as an explorer.  The clothing, the eating habits, the religious practices, all of these are described in a detail that shows Hedin’s fascination—much to our benefit.  The account of the Tibetan monk who blocked himself into a cave for his entire life is memorable.

A potential issue with the book is the reality of the experiences presented. Hedin’s description of crossing the Taklamakan desert is particularly concerning.  Without anyone to verify the experience we must take the author at his word.  However, there certainly feels to be more than a slight influence of a storyteller in this portion of the narrative, in turn casting a shadow of doubt upon his other accounts, as well.  Regardless of having been exaggerated for effect or not, the more time that passes since Hedin’s exploits, the more crucial the native details become to understanding history.

In the end, My Life as an Explorer is damn good reading for anyone who loves historical exploration of the more exotic cultures of the world, particularly those of central Asia.  The descriptions of the clothes, customs, and landscape are priceless.  Featuring trains of pack animals and paid retainers crossing the wilds of the world—China, Tibet, Persia, the stans, and the surrounds—Hedin’s autobiography is one of several works that instilled a desire in myself to see those places before the effects of globalization entirely re-orient the cultures.  Be warned, however, that the book seems to cross the line between historical travelogue and fictional adventurism, Hedin’s experiences seeming larger than life on a few occasions.

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