Having a background in art history provides the traveller a useful layer of awareness. The way people behave and the cultures that form norms and traditions, the traditions that foreigners find as interesting as locals find essential, can almost always be best expressed in their art. In writing truly great travel literature, having a reckless sense of adventure doesn’t hurt either, much less a natural talent for writing.
Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana portrays the same sort of rugged adventure that one can find in Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, or Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, or Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. He documents, in consistent and often dry journal style, his travels through Persia and Afghanistan in the 1930’s (a time that seems at current reading at once more difficult and easier to explore as a westerner). His course descriptions of the people he met and the locales in which he found them epitomize exoticism before the word became cliché.
If you’re looking for what’s been called the finest pre-war travel book, Byron sets the standard many have recognized but rarely reach.