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Asia's Mountainous Frontier

August 25, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE

THE ALLURING TARGET: In Search of the Secrets of Central Asia by Kenneth Wimmel (Trackless Sands Press, $16.95, photos).

Around the turn of the century, as Kenneth Wimmel points out in his introduction to "The Alluring Target," there were still a few blank spots on the West's map of the world. One of the biggest was the part of Asia lying north of the Himalayas, south of Siberia, east of the Caspian and Aral seas, and west of China.

Into this great unknown wandered a handful of doughty explorers such as Sven Hedin, Francis Younghusband, Alexandra David-Neel, Roy Chapman Andrews and Aurel Stein. For 40 years, these and other adventurers thrilled European and American audiences with their exploits. Now, they're mostly forgotten.

If Wimmel's book helps rescue some of these figures from obscurity, it won't be because of his thoroughness or elan. He details the adventures of eight explorers and one aerial expedition in less than 250 rather pedestrian pages. But the exploits are so remarkable (and some so dubious) that even the stodgiest retelling is filled with wonders.

Here is British officer Younghusband fighting Tibetan forces at 18,000 feet. Here is Stein excavating dune-covered cities along the ancient Silk Road to China. Here is David-Neel surviving subzero weather with the paranormal mental discipline of thumo reskiang. Blizzards, bandits and bad food were just a typical day at the office for this bunch.

Perhaps the greatest service of "Target" will be to send readers to the original manuscripts, several of which have the breathless quality of old-fashioned men's magazines. Here is Swedish explorer Hedin's description of a storm in the Pamir Mountains:

"I rode a big black yak, strong as an elephant. I left him to his own devices, for it was useless to guide him. I could not see my hand before my face, on account of the whirling, whipping snow. The yak waded, plunged, jumped, and slid downward through the snow, diving like a dolphin in the drifts. I had to press my knees hard, or I would have been thrown from the saddle by the yak's sudden and spasmodic jerks. At times, I lay back to back with the yak, only to feel, a moment later, the tips of his horns in my stomach."

THE CAFES OF PARIS: A Guide by Christine Graf (Interlink Publishing Group, $13.95, paperback, maps.)

Cafes are the multichambered heart through which pulses the life of Paris. They are fundamental. One afternoon in a cafe gives you more of a sense of the city than visiting a dozen museums.

Using a mix of history, gossip, personal observation and guidebook information, Christine Graf has done travelers a great favor with this charming guide.

Graf groups some of the cafes by clientele. One chapter focuses on cafes favored by the American literary crowd--F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and the like. Another discusses the French side of the equation--Voltaire, Guy de Maupassant, Paul Verlaine, for example. Other chapters have more unusual themes: cafes that may have been models for those found in Georges Simenon's mysteries; the art of the barman; a cheapskate's guide.

"Cafes" is filled with sparkling little sequins of history and quotes from famous cafe habitues, including this from Jean-Paul Sartre: "The fortunes of the Cafe de Flore . . . were made by the fact that it was just across the road from the station of Saint-Germain-des-Pres It had previously been merely an annex of the Deux Magots, but in 1939 or thereabouts, Picasso, Leon-Paul Fargue, and Andre Breton began to go to the Flore. A lot of cinema people followed their example, and a lot of successful painters and celebrities of one sort or another. I was only a shabby little teacher at the time, and I was too shy to go in."

Quick trips:

WESTERN GREAT LAKES LIGHTHOUSES: Michigan and Superior by Bruce Roberts and Ray Jones (The Globe Pequot Press, $19.95, paperback, photos). EASTERN GREAT LAKES LIGHTHOUSES: Ontario, Erie, and Huron by Bruce Roberts and Ray Jones (The Globe Pequot Press, $19.95, paperback, photos). Until these books came along I always thought of lighthouses as ocean-side phenomena. On the other hand, the Great Lakes constitute a huge inland ocean, full of shoals and storms and other hazards requiring navigational beacons. Each book features more than 50 lighthouses in the United States and Canada, including histories and driving directions. They are interspersed with bits of Great Lakes lore, such the disappearance of the huge freighter Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 and Commander Oliver Perry's naval triumph over the British in 1813.

KAFKA'S PRAGUE: A Travel Reader by Klaus Wagenbach (Overlook Press, $21.95, photos). A guide to the homes, favorite theaters and other landmarks in the writer's life. Includes descriptive passages from his letters and works.

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