East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Karavansara Free Library: Robert Byron


A few days back I asked for opinions about the contents of this blog. I have been asked to do more posts about games, and about travelers and explorers.
And I say, why not?

So here’s a post about a writer and world-traveler I discovered during my second year in university, and he remains a favorite of mine. His books have contributed to fuel my interest for the Silk Road and the adventures and experiences of travelers in the years between the two Wars.
And you can get his books for free, so I think I’ll give you a brief introduction, and then let you enjoy the guy’s writing.

The guy in question was called Robert Byron, and he was a British citizen, born in 1905 in Wembley. He studied in Eaton, and he was kicked out of college, quote

for his hedonistic and rebellious manner

It was, after all, the roaring twenties, and the Bright Young Things ruled in Britain, or so we are told.
Byron was indeed a friend of the Mitford Girls (I should try and do a post on these ladies, sooner or later) – and Nancy Mitford had probably some romantic hopes, but Robert was gay. He was also a vocal anti-Nazi, which did not go down so well with Unity Mitford, that was so much into Hitler that got herself “Valkyrie” as a second name. Those Bright Young Things were a cartload of laughs, weren’t they?


Out of school because of that hedonism thing, unattached and curious, Byron got to travel. He visited India, the Middle East, Tibet, Persia, Afghanistan and Russia.
He wrote about his travels. About Greece and Byzantine history and architecture, about India and finally, in 1932 and in 1933 respectively he published the two books for which he’s most remembered: First Russia, then Tibet, in 1932, and then The Road to Oxiana in 1933.51FiH+NEulL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_
Both books are out of copyright in Canada, and you can download them in a variety of formats from the links above.

I first read the 1932 book.
I found a paperback copy abandoned on a shelf of a book store I spent my lunch break at as a freshman (and later).
I didn’t know the author, but the book was cheap, it was published by Penguin, and it had the word Tibet in the title. So I bought it, skipping my lunch.
It couldn’t be bad, I though.
I was right.

The supreme moments of travel are born of beauty and strangeness in equal parts: the first panders to the senses, the second to the mind; and it is the rarity of this coincidence which makes the rarity of these moments. Such a moment was mine, when, at the age of three, I ventured on to a beach in Anglesey, and found a purple scabious; such again, when I stood on the Jelep La and surveyed the peaks of Tibet; and such once more, as I walked up the side of the River Moskva late in the afternoon of my second day in Russia.
(First Russia, Then Tibet)

Some would later say that he was, after his travels, pro-Soviet, but the issue is still debated today. Certainly Byron was a keen observer and a fine writer, and his travelogues are a wonder to behold. At the time Peter Fleming (another excellent writer) was more popular, but Byron’s works have survived and enjoy today probably a wider popularity than Fleming’s.

Robert Byron died in 1941, when the ship he was serving on was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. His body was never recovered. He was 35.

Not much else to say – writers leave their books behind.
So read the books, because the books are what matters.
And these are beautiful.

Next up, some reflection on roleplaying games, as requested.
Let’s see what happens.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Karavansara Free Library: Robert Byron

  1. Thanks!
    I have to say how I was utterly unaware of his existence before today, and that’s great: I wouldn’t go into a second-hand bookstore to find bookshelves overflowed with well-known names.
    Of more importance, I started checking Internet to gains more informations about him and his bibliography and I’ve noticed how notorious “The Road to Oxiana” seems to be. From common readers to authors spend flows of words to describe its impact in the travel books genre, almost like to be a milestone.
    Now, I have a way of thinking about the classics even if I think is a pretty common thought: no matter if isn’t particularly appealing nor if isn’t your genre or is boring. It’s ok even if at the end you will dislike it. What’s matter is having read it. I’m pretty sure that out there exists someone who consider, dunno, Théophile Gautier a bad or a boring author, not a so improbable scenario. I don’t particularly care, ’cause what make a classic or a masterpiece isn’t notoriety or its name, but the influence that leave behind him across the various aspect of human knowledge. Thus, by reading it you will more appreciate whatever will be created later, together to many other things. I often imagine classics like fractals.
    Although I will surely read it, what kind of influence can have leaved to the travel book? I can’t explain why, but it seems to me a total different dimension compared to poetry, non-fiction, and fiction.


    • I think what Byron brought to travel writing was his eye for detail, and his direct involvement with the people and the places. Also, he saw those places and peoples through the lens of history and art, so that his books are actually cultural essays in form of travelogue. They are very personal and immediate, but they go deep.


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