Arabia Felix: Happy Arabia. Who wouldn’t want to go there and find out why it was such a happy place? In fact, in 1761 not that many Europeans were going there, which left an opening for the culturally and scientifically minded king of Denmark, Frederik V, to make a name for himself and his country by supporting a Danish expedition to that fortunate land. New scientific discoveries could be there for the making and new accurate maps drawn, as well as a chance to prove some of the stories told about Moses and the Israelites; could they have left inscriptions as they fled from Egyptian persecution, writings which might be transcribed by a competent philologist?

One might be forgiven for thinking “Oh no, not another book on modern China… What could anyone possibly have left to say about it?” But Alexandre Trudeau does not simply write about what he observes, but, like all good travel-writers, shows us what effect the journey had on him. And he does so without thrusting himself into the foreground; there is no large talking head loudly proclaiming “look at me” in the foreground and with tiny buildings in the background incidentally pointing to a foreign location.

If you turn to page 105 in this book you will see two extraordinary figures standing and facing each other in a colored albumen print from 1872. They both have bare feet; one wears a light-blue three-quarter length robe, rather like an elegant silk dressing-gown, and the other a similar one of a darker color, with what looks a little like a skirt underneath. They have rather serious expressions on their faces, and medium-length thick, dark, dry-looking hair. They both have upturned mustaches, rather in the style affected by Kaiser Wilhelm II, although not quite as extreme, and they look as if they’ve been painted on.