Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewed by Anita Isalska
A quest to experience the world’s most polluted places isn’t the classic travel dream. But anyone who has felt a macabre pull to an off-beat destination can relate to the passion driving Andrew Blackwell to tour nuclear fallout zones and bob around on criminally polluted rivers. Rejecting the magnetism of pristine beaches and untouched forests, Blackwell looks instead to places where humankind’s footprint is unmistakeable — and often horrifying.
But this is far from ‘disaster tourism’: Blackwell goes much further than rubber-necking and there isn’t a shade of environmental hand-wringing in the book. Blackwell doesn’t skimp on ugly details, but he does temper every squeamish moment with piercing insights.
Blackwell eagerly describes the squishy deposits in the tarry Yamuna, India’s famously polluted river – ‘Coliform-rich, but refreshing’, he remarks with relish, on plunging in his hands – but he also gives the site’s sacred heritage its due. The balance of irreverence and earnest travel writing occasionally misfires, but travellers keen for a challenge might well be inspired by how accessible some of his adventures turn out to be. A toxic tour of Port Arthur is niche, but can be arranged, and Chernobyl’s ghost towns are open to tour groups (toting Geiger counters) galore.
While Blackwell is certainly a fan of novelty – there’s more than a note of glee when he declares, ‘I had found the nightlife in Chernobyl’ – he doesn’t let the reader slide into easy stereotypes. Before long, the reader’s comfortably one-dimensional view of sorrily exploited coal workers evaporates, replaced by a more developed analysis of China’s notorious Linfen coal industry. Exploitation of the Amazon is revealed as a complex web of environmental challenges. While his technical explanations have a whiff of condescension (‘any chump can get the basics’, he sniffs about nuclear fission), on the whole he unpicks some remarkably complex issues with aplomb.
And yet the book isn’t dry or difficult. The reader is whisked through amusingly futile travel quests as well as relationship ruptures (who, after all, would want to honeymoon in an environmental horror zone?). Deftly drawn characters and self-deprecation keep this darkly intelligent book nimble and hilarious.
Anita Isalska is part of Lonely Planet’s online editorial team in London. This book was not only a cracking read, but gave her a chance to reminisce on her own travels to the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
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