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February 13, 2008

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by David Zuchowski

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  • Book reviews: The Africa Book and The Asia Book
    Books explore two massive continents with photos and facts
    Review by Dave Zuchowski

    Two companion hardbacks, The Africa Book and The Asia Book, have simple titles but are packed with a wealth of eye-opening information on the two largest continents on earth. Follow-ups to Lonely Planet's successful award-winning predecessor, The Travel Book, this pair of handsome photo-packed compilations takes the reader on a journey through all 54 countries in Africa and all 46 nations in Asia.

    Probably the least familiar and less traveled of all the continents, Africa is, nevertheless, home to 910 million people who speak 1,800 different languages and its 30.1 million square kilometer area comprises 20% of the earth's land mass. The Sahara alone is so huge it could swallow up most of the United States.

    By way of introduction, publisher Roz Hopkins has written forwards to both books that explain their organization and content overview. Especially interesting is a historical timeline in the opening pages that highlights important dates in the history of both continents.

    Africa's timeline begins with the period 14,000 to 9,500 B.C., when much of the Sahara was covered with vegetation that spawned early agrarian societies and continues through 2003, when Niger officially banned slavery. Asia's begins in 563 B.C. with the birth of Siddharta Gautama , the historic founder of Buddhism, and ends in 2008 with the XXIX Olympiad scheduled for Beijing.

    To stimulate a desire to travel to these unique lands, the publisher includes a number of suggested routes, mapped out in rough detail. One through Africa, for instance starts in Cape Town and ends 12,000 kilometers to the north in Egypt. Another in Asia extends over the ancient silk route beginning in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and continues through romantic Samarkand, across the plains of Inner Mongolia to Beijing, where the traveler is advised to browse the city's silk shops.

    The bulk of the book, however, is made up of dazzling color photographs of people, wildlife and landscapes taken by a mix of regional expert authors and everyday travel adventurers, along with a mix of interesting facts, figures and essays. Each country also gets short, succinct write-ups of information with headings like "Natural Beauty", "Myths and Legends", "Imports", "Exports", "Ecotourism" and "Future Directions".

    For the novice traveling to a featured country for the first time, the List of Essential Experiences points out must-see and do activities such as braving the spiral staircase of Cairo's Bab Zuweila for a panoramic view of the city's medieval core and drinking kymys (fermented mare's milk) and listening to a komuz (Kyrgyz lute) in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan.

    Small sections listed for each country titled Random Facts not only spice up the book with intellectual stimulation, they will probably also help increase your chances at winning at Trivial Pursuit. One entry for Ethiopia, for instance, mentions that "the missing body of Emperor Haile Selassie was found buried under the president's personal office toilet in 1992, seventeen years after his murder."

    Stunning photos include a look at the fiery sunset hue of the Koutoulia mosque in Marrakech, Morocco, in which an older man dressed in traditional garb walks across a brown stone floor with two young boys dressed in jeans and sneakers. For beauty, the expansive photo of a Masai warrior standing on the Laikipia Plains with Mount Kenya in the background contrasts with the mystical, purple-hued look at a trio of swans ornamenting the placid waters of the pond around Matsumoto Castle in Japan.

    Wildlife lovers should take a ken to images like a mother cheetah sitting with her two cubs in Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, a native resident holding a blown up pufferfish, round as a ball with a hog-like snout, in the Seychelles, and the eerie Saraka silk moth of Madagascar that looks like a colorful owl mask with a pair of gigantic wings.

    Some of the most poignant photos are those that capture the strange practices of humankind, such as close-up of the face of a Wodaabe man of Niger wearing makeup to enhance his features while competing for a wife and the back of a man in China undergoing a traditional cupping treatment.

    Cultural sophistication comes from photos that show a regal pose of a proud father and his three princes in Samode Palace in Jaipur and a novice monk decked out in saffron robes in Shedrupling Monastery in Kathmandu.

    Both books end with fascinating and thoughtful essays written by seasoned travelers familiar with their subject with titles like "Pop Goes Asia," "Flashing Back to the Asian Hippy Trail," and "African Music Sacred Rhythms". If you enjoy these books, two more in the series featuring Europe and the Americas are set to follow.

    The Africa Book, ISBN 978 1 741046 02 1 and The Asia Book, ISBN 978 1 741046 01 4 are both available at for $26.40.

  • BUY: Lonely Planet The Africa Book
  • BUY: Lonely Planet The Asia Book

  • Dave Zuchowski has been writing about travel for twenty years and his articles have made the pages of many newspapers and magazines across the country, including AAA, Pathfinders, West Virginia Magazine, Southsider, and Westsylvania. Currently, he is the travel correspondent for the New Castle News, a daily in the Pittsburgh area. In his spare time, he also puts his horticultural interests to good use on his 15-acre farm located near Centerville, Pa.

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