Travel Writing: Think Upside Down by Katya Cengel

Today we welcome back our guest columnist, Katya Cengel. Katya discusses with us how to take a fresh approach to travel writing and the ways in which this approach has benefited her. Enjoy!


School is out, the days are long and the weather is warm. Summer is the perfect time to travel. And that is exactly why I tend to stay home.

I have written about the art scene in Kyiv, Ukraine for Conde Nast Traveller and about walking tours in London for the San Diego Union-Tribune. I have reported on the elderly in India, brides in Haiti and villages that don’t exist in Armenia. I travel frequently for assignments. And I do it all in the off-season.

Travel writing is about finding the unexpected, a journey that begins with the timing of the trip. I went to Armenia in February. There was snow on the ground and the country’s famed orchards were bare. Armenians told me I had come at the wrong time. But the opposite was true. Armenia’s apricot orchards have been written about by many, but few have described the cozy wood fires families gather around in winter. In the rural villages there was nothing to do in the fields, so people had plenty of time to tell me their stories. In the city they were busier, but because they had so few visitors they were patient with my fumbles.

A bonus is the price. My airplane ticket was hundreds of dollars less than it would have been in the summer. I paid off-season rates for my lodgings — a shared room that I had to myself because no one else was there.

Of course, even in peak season, Armenia is not exactly the most popular destination. And that is another perk. The more popular a place is the more that has been written about it. You don’t need to find an undiscovered island. What you need to do is find a fresh angle on an old story.

London is known for its walking tours, but not many had heard of the Jack the Ripper jaunts when I wrote about them some years back. Go to Paris, but instead of talking about the romance of the city, write about how a recent divorcee should spend her time. Turn the classic or expected on its head. And in the process reveal something about the people and the place that other stories have missed.


Katya Cengel has written about everything from retired dancing bears in Bulgaria to the world’s largest machine gun shoot in Kentucky. She spent half a decade reporting from the former Soviet Union for English language newspapers and the San Francisco ChronicleWall Street Journal, and Marie Claire. She has reported from Africa, India, Europe, the Middle East and Haiti, and spent eight years as a writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal. Katya didn’t have to travel far for her latest story for National Geographic. More at her site: On Facebook: Katya Cengel. On Twitter @kcengel.

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