Travel writing isn’t dead; it can no more die than curiosity or humanity or the strangeness of the world can die. If anything, it’s broken out of its self-created shell, as more and more women give us their half of the world, and Paris is ever more crowded with visitors from Chengdu. When I was growing up, travel reportage used to smack of a somewhat colonial transaction, in which visitors from the privileged countries inspected the ‘natives’ of less materially fortunate places, from Patagonia to Kashmir. These days it consists of young writers from India – Anjan Sundaram, Samanth Subramanian, Rahul Bhattacharya – illuminating from within the Congo, Sri Lanka or Guyana, while Americans from Paul Theroux to Bill Bryson observe the quaintness of the ‘natives’ of Great Britain.
Of course there are forty people crossing international borders these days for every one in 1960; go to the Golden Temple in Kyoto, and what you’ll likely see are the (literally) 50 million tourists who visit Japan’s ancient capital every year. All that means, however, is that exoticism takes new forms today. If you wish to catch Istanbul in the twenty-first century, you’re better off in the Kanyon Mall than in the Grand Bazaar; perhaps the most eye-opening foreign country I ever visited was Los Angeles International Airport, where once I spent two weeks wandering the terminals, watching the global city of the future form and re-form around me.