Publishing Info: Holt Paperbacks, 2008
Number of Pages: 315
Book Category: Humor, Travel
In 2007, two friends — Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran — embarked on a race around the world without using airplanes. Steve traveled West, and Vali traveled East. The first guy who circled the planet and make it back to Los Angeles would be declared the winner. The prize? A bottle of the finest Scotch they could find.
Not being just ordinary guys (both are writers for television comedy shows), they were able to get a book advance to bankroll their trip. The result was this book, which chronicles each man’s journey.
Steve — the more serious of the two and the one committed to racing by following the rules — starts his trip on board the container ship Hanjin Athens. As such, he is able to definitively answer the question: Is fourteen days on the Pacific a grand, romantic adventure or crushingly boring? To quote Steve:
The short answer is “crushingly boring.”
By the time we left port, it was clear that the greatest danger facing me wasn’t pirates or storms. Or sharks. Or giant squid, Or flesh-eating jellyfish. Or being raped and stabbed by sailors. Or string rays.
It was keeping my idle mind from destroying itself.
After this journey, Steve takes a road trip through China (including a gut-wrenching but hilarious night at the Peking Opera) and ends up on a train that takes him through Mongolia (with a brief stop at Ulaanbaatar , which he affectionately dubs “A City for People Who Hate Cities.”) Along the away, he becomes obsessed with drinking fermented mare’s milk. (Wonder what fermented mare’s milk tastes like? Here is Steve’s description: “Get some half-and-half and a can of warm Sprite. Mix the two in a glass. Let sit for a few days on top of your radiator.”) He then boards the Trans-Siberian Railroad and meets Vali at the “halfway” point in Moscow.
Meanwhile, Vali starts his trip driving to Mexico with a attractive woman he has hired to help him navigate and translate the country. (Did I mention they have a side bet on who can do the most awesome things during the trip — The Awesomeness Contest? With “awesome” being defined as “meeting and romancing the most beautiful girls possible.”) Vali’s goal is to visit the world’s premier designer of jet-packs, which Vali intends to purchase and use to fly across the oceans. However, jet-packs cost $250,000 and can hold only 30 seconds worth of fuel, so he is forced to scuttle this plan. After driving north back to the United States, Vali breaks the no airplane rule and flies to Brazil, where he joins a Brazilian graffiti gang. (In Rio, he begins having his trip-long problems with travel visas and document.) From there he jets to Europe and visits London, Paris (“Beneath my awestruck face my blood boiled. I was furious Paris was not overrated.”), Berlin and Warsaw — before meeting Steve in Moscow.
In Moscow, the two meet for a “truce day,” in which hijinks, practical jokes and obscene amounts of drinking set the tone. They then depart and go their separate ways.
Steve hits St. Petersburg and Finland before visiting Sweden, where he spends some awesomeness time with a lovely Swedish lass named Ingrid. He then takes a week-long jaunt around Western Europe before boarding the Queen Mary 2 (or “How I Crossed the Atlantic, or, Six Days Trapped on the World’s Most Luxurious Floating Nursing Home!”). (This part of the travel narrative includes a guide to “Paris for Weirdos.”) Once he reaches New York, the final part of his journey is accomplished via Amtrak and riding with a long-haul trucker.
Meanwhile, Vali hits his stride and travels to Cairo, Amman, Palestine and Dubai — wrapping things up with an eye-opening stay in Cambodia. (His description of the temples of Angkor made me want to add it to the list of places I must go someday.) He then jets home to Los Angeles.
Who makes it to LA first and wins the race? Who cares? It is the journey that matters.
This is not your standard travel narrative. This is a travel narrative written by two very funny, sarcastic men who will remind you of every immature doofus you’ve ever known. Thank Goodness!
This book was such a fun read — I was pretty much laughing throughout. Although there are moments of seriousness and you’ll learn a bit about the countries they visit, the goal of this book is not to educate — it is to entertain. And the authors are wildly successful. (The book flip-flops between Steve and Vali’s accounts of their trip so you get a roughly approximate feel for what they were doing at about the same time during the race.)
I just loved this book. I don’t think there is anything more to say about it — I tried to include a taste for the spirit of the book in the book overview so you’ll have a taste of what you are in for so if what you read was appealing, get the book today. OK … here is one last excerpt just to whet your appetite. It is from Steve and describes “The Cultural Wonders of Ulaanbaatar.” I picked this part (though I pretty much could have opened the book anywhere and started typing) because I think it perfectly captures the tone of the book and the mocking relationship between Steve and Vali.
There are only three things in Ulaanbaatar worth seeing. One is the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, which, according to my guidebook, has “an extraordinary array of stuffed animals.” I did not visit it. I can see stuffed animals in Vali’s bedroom.
Second is the Museum of Natural History. The dry air of the Gobi Desert is good for preserving fossils, so this museum has its pick of dinosaur skeletons. It’s totally awesome. Probably. I can’t say for sure, because it was closed when I went. I tried the old “but I’m a famous paleontologist from the prestigious United States Institute of Dinosaurs who has traveled all the way here to see the dinosaur skeletons but am only here for one day!” routine, but the guard understood me just enough not the believe me.
The third thing to see in UB is the Gandantegchilin (or you can just get away with “Gandan”) monastery. This is the only one to which I can give my wholehearted personal endorsement.
My Final Recommendation
A hilariously funny read. I loved it and recommend it wholeheartedly. If you are seeking a straightforward travel narrative, this is not for you. However, if a well-written, tongue-in-cheek, smart-ass, laugh-out-loud travel narrative disguised in the form of a race around the world is your cup of tea, this book is a no-brainer. Buy it now. You’ll love it!
To find out what other book bloggers are saying about this book or authors, visit the Book Blogs Search Engine created by Fyrefly’s Book Blog.