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Following Richard Burton

July 28, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE

SINDH REVISITED: A Journey in the Footsteps of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton by Christopher Ondaatje (HarperCollins, $30, photos).

Richard Burton was perhaps the most remarkable of a remarkable breed: the English Victorian explorer. In the second half of the 19th century he journeyed to Mecca and Medina disguised as an Arab pilgrim; he searched for the source of the Nile with John Speke; he explored Brazil. His adventures make Indiana Jones look like Mister Rogers.

Though Burton wrote a number of popular books about his travels, his literary reputation today rests more on his English translations of the "Kamasutra" and "The Arabian Nights." He was a prodigious linguist, fluent in Arabic, Hindustani and Pashto (Afghan), among many languages. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he had a profound respect for Eastern cultures and seems to have been interested in all aspects, from eroticism to religious philosophy.

The Burton saga began in India in 1842, when he joined the British East India Co. as a 21-year-old ensign (the East India Co. had its own army). For the next seven years he explored the subcontinent, learning its languages and customs. He wrote several books based on these experiences, including "Sindh, and the Races That Inhabit the Valley of the Indus."

Writer Christopher Ondaatje, an unabashed fan of Burton and the Burton mystique, decided to travel to Sindh (now a province of Pakistan) and other places Burton visited in India to see them with modern eyes. In "Sindh Revisited," Ondaatje's weaves together his own journey with details about Burton's life and travels.

It's a highly idiosyncratic take on the subcontinent, where vestiges of the British colonial past are surprisingly prominent. Ondaatje is not the strongest of writers--he's a naive interviewer and is prone to rhetorical flourishes--but he's game. His journey, not unlike his idol's, encompasses everything from red-light districts and palaces, to wild tribesmen and cricket-playing officials.

SCRAMBLES AMONGST THE ALPS: In the Years 1860-69 by Edward Whymper (Dover Publications, $13.95, paperback, illustrations).

Artist Edward Whymper was another one of those intrepid Victorians. In 1860 he accepted an assignment to sketch some of the major Alpine peaks. Though he had never climbed a mountain before, he soon found himself dangling by ropes, swinging an ice ax and reaching summits.

Whymper's Alpine treks culminated in the first successful ascent of Switzerland's famous Matterhorn. This is a new paperback edition of a work first published in 1871 and revised in 1900. Whymper's prose strikes our 20th century ears as a bit pokey, but the excitement and joie de montagne that he brings to the climbs is undeniable. His account of the Matterhorn trip, in which four of his comrades fell to their deaths, is a climbing classic.

CALIFORNIA AND NEVADA: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit by James Lyon, Tony Wheeler, Marisa Gierlich, Nancy Keller and John Gottberg (Lonely Planet, $19.95, paperback, maps). LOS ANGELES: A Lonely Planet City Guide by John Gottberg (Lonely Planet, $11.95, paperback, maps.)

Long known as a top guide for the backpack set and specializing in exotic destinations, Lonely Planet has begun covering the U.S. Last year it published guides to the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain states and the Pacific Northwest. Now it's finally gotten around to us.

Both guides are comprehensive and handy. The state guide is particularly useful, one of the better one-book California guides around. The LP formula includes hotel recommendations in a variety of price ranges, starting with hostels and ending up with such luxury spots as the Hotel Bel-Air.

The California guide is dotted with mini-essays on a variety of subjects from climbing Mt. Whitney to the adobe buildings of Los Angeles. All LP guides are opinionated and have an insider tone. About the food scene here, it says: "L.A. represents the cutting edge of cuisine in the Western Hemisphere. . . . Creative chefs (many of them now celebrities, like the celebrated Wolfgang Puck) take bits and pieces from different traditions and combine them in a variety of fashions. Here, more than any other city on the West Coast, you'll find French Thai, Chinese Italian and Pacific Rim food." Take that, San Francisco!

SEASONAL GUIDE TO THE NATURAL YEAR: Oregon, Washington, British Columbia by James Luther Davis (Fulcrum Publishing, $16.95, paperback).

The polar opposite of most other guides. There's nothing here about cities, hotels or cathedrals. The only beaches recommended are those with tide pools or sea lions. A hot spot in this guide is Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, for the spring songbird migration.

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