AQA · For Pupils · Language Paper 2 · Reading skills · Revision · Teaching Ideas

Travel Writing for GCSE English Language Paper 2

In the summer, I came across Rebecca Lowe’s compelling account of her recent bicycle ride across Europe and the Middle East: you can read her fascinating blog, The Bicycle Diaries, here. Her writing is evocative, personal but also accessible. Some of the content might be a little adult, so a little editing might be in order! Lowe’s story led me to try and find a similar resource from 19th century travel writing to act as a companion/comparison piece. There is a great deal of nineteenth century travel writing by women and this is available for free on Project Gutenberg amongst other places. I have been reading some of the work of Isabella Bird, a prolific traveller and writer and I chose an extract from her book Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan – available here:

The reason for my choice was obvious, I suppose. I wanted a companion piece to Lowe’s description of Tripoli and chose Bird’s description of the bazaars of Baghdad, then a city in Persia. I felt both were accessible and also might help open up a discussion with students about misconceptions, prejudices and attitudes towards people, places and customs.

I’ve included the two extracts below. On Dropbox I’ve included the word documents too: see here. I’ve also included a brief PPT that you can add to. It includes a recap of how to answer Q2.


The extracts

Source A: The Beautiful and The Damned from ‘The Bicycle Diaries’ by Rebecca Lowe

In 2015, Rebecca Lowe embarked on a 12 month long bicycle trip across Europe and the Middle-East. Here she describes her first night in Tripoli.   

Tripoli at dusk is a dispiriting place. As I cycle from the boat into the city centre, around me loom a series of sombre, grey tower blocks, rising like skeletal sentinels among a wasteland of debris. Several are sprinkled with bullet holes, I note with mild alarm, and I nudge Maud (my bike) along a little faster. I’m fairly sure the local mercenaries have downed tools for the time being, but I’m already far too far behind schedule to risk being shot on my first day (though it would admittedly do wonders for my social media profile).

I’m hoping to stay with the friend of a friend of a friend, but am yet to hear back from him. It’s worrying, as the motels look poky and miserable, oozing an aura of indecency and regret. I distract myself from my plight by buying a tea in a grimy café and counting the perplexing number of passing Mercedes and BMWs, which seem by far the most popular car in this far-from-affluent city.

Two hours later, I finally hear from my contact, B. I am hugely relieved, and almost immediately the city’s shadowy nooks seem sunnier, its sharp edges softer. Within ten minutes, I’m being warmly welcomed by B and his Filipino housekeeper (apparently all houses have one) in his carpet shop just half a mile away. The sectarian conflict in the city is under control now, I’m told, and I feel a little foolish for conjuring spectres out of the undergrowth. How different everything seems when you’re no longer alone and abandoned in the dark!

B is a 27-year-old Australian who moved to Lebanon seven years ago. He enjoys the ‘freedom’ here, he says, which seems to boil down to driving without a licence and not paying his taxes. I ask him about the cars and he tells me it’s due to people’s idolisation of Germany and their superficiality. Plastic surgery is reportedly huge, and often deliberately conspicuous. Everyone wants to flash their cash and status.

In Tripoli, curiously, this showiness goes hand in hand with a strong social conservatism. Most women wear hijabs, and B tells me he wouldn’t want to be seen drinking in public. Another friend later tells me that the city is surprisingly tolerant, despite its image. ‘You sometimes get burkinis and bikinis on the same beach, and nobody minds,’ she says. ‘But all people remember are the jihadists splashed across the papers.’

The next morning, as I prepare for my cycle to Beirut, B warns me that ‘the biggest storm of the year’ is due to hit today. … As I stand drowning under a lashing sheet of rain that soaks me instantly to the core, following yet another puncture 30km down the road, I can’t help feeling that it may have been the wrong decision. For half an hour I wait, helpless and sodden, as the sky turns leaden and swampy and slowly engulfs the entire Mediterranean Sea. Then, just as I’m losing hope of rescue, a car finally stops beside me and two textbook murderers (dirty trousers, rakish facial hair) get out and offer me a ride – an offer I know I should on no account accept.

Minutes later, we’re zooming down the road to Byblos. The men give me a satsuma, which I devour like somebody who hasn’t eaten for ten years (it’s been about ten minutes), and stop every mile or so to check Maud hasn’t fallen out the back (she hasn’t). They then drop me directly outside the restaurant where I’ve arranged to meet a friend; and, with a wave, they’re gone. Once again, human kindness trumps doom-laden distrust, I think relievedly. Is the world really crawling with as many psychopaths as the media would have us believe?

Maud – the name of Rebecca Lowe’s bicycle

Byblos – a city in Lebanon


Source B: The Bazaars of Baghdad by Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird was a famous 19th century traveller who wrote about her experiences. In this extract, she describes the bazaars (or markets) in Baghdad, which was then a city in Persia (now it is the capital of Iraq).

Baghdad’s bazaars, which many people regard as the finest in the East outside of Istanbul, are of enormous extent and very great variety. Many are of brick, with well-built domed roofs, and sides arcaded both above and below, and are wide and airy. Some are of wood, all are covered, and admit light scantily, only from the roof. Those which supply the poorer classes are apt to be ruinous and squalid—”ramshackle,” to say the truth, with an air of decay about them, and their roofs are merely rough timber, roughly thatched with reeds or date tree fronds. Of splendour there is none anywhere, and of cleanliness there are few traces. The old, narrow, and filthy bazaars in which the gold and silversmiths ply their trade are of all the most interesting. The trades have their separate localities, and the buyer who is in search of cotton goods, silk stuffs, carpets, cotton yarn, gold and silver thread, ready-made clothing, weapons, saddlery, rope, fruit, meat, grain, fish, jewellery, muslins, copper pots, etc., has a whole alley of contiguous shops devoted to the sale of the same article to choose from.

At any hour of daylight at this season, progress through the bazaars is slow. They are crowded, and almost entirely with men. It is only the poorer women who market for themselves, and in twos and threes, at certain hours of the day. In a whole afternoon, among thousands of men, I saw only five women, tall, shapeless, badly-made-up bundles, carried mysteriously along, rather by high, loose, canary-yellow leather boots than by feet. The face is covered with a thick black gauze mask, or cloth, and the head and remainder of the form with a dark blue or black sheet, which is clutched by the hand below the nose. The walk is one of tottering decrepitude. All the business transacted in the bazaars is a matter of bargaining, and as Arabs shout at the top of their voices, and buyers and sellers are equally keen, the roar is tremendous.

The Arab women go about the streets unveiled, and with the aba covering their very poor clothing, but it is not clutched closely enough to conceal the extraordinary tattooing which the Bedouin women everywhere regard as ornamental. There are artists in Baghdad who make their living by this mode of decorating the person, and vie with each other in the elaboration of their patterns. I saw several women tattooed with two wreaths of blue flowers on their bosoms linked by a blue chain, palm fronds on the throat, stars on the brow and chin, and bands round the wrists and ankles. These disfigurements, and large gold or silver filigree buttons placed outside one nostril by means of a wire passed through it, worn by married women, are much admired. When these women sell country produce in the markets, they cover their heads with the ordinary chadar.

The streets are narrow, and the walls, which are built of fire-burned bricks, are high. Windows to the streets are common, and the oriel windows, with their warm brown lattices projecting over the roadways at irregular heights, are strikingly picturesque. Not less so are latticework galleries, which are often thrown across the street to connect the two houses of wealthy residents, and the sitting-rooms with oriel windows, which likewise bridge the roadways. Solid doorways with iron-clasped and iron-studded doors give an impression of security, and suggest comfort and to some extent home life, and sprays of orange trees, hanging over walls, and fronds of date palms give an aspect of pleasantness to the courtyards.

The best parts of the city, where the great bazaars, large dwelling-houses, and most of the mosques are, is surrounded by a labyrinth of alleys, fringing off into streets growing meaner till they cease altogether among open spaces, given up to holes, heaps, rubbish, the slaughter of animals, and in some favoured spots to the production of vegetables. Then come the walls, which are of kiln-burned bricks, and have towers intended for guns at intervals. The wastes within the walls have every element of decay and meanness, the wastes without, where the desert sands sweep up to the very foot of the fortifications, have many elements of grandeur.

Istanbul – now the capital of Turkey

Aba – a loose over-garment which covers the whole body except the head, feet and hands

Bedouin – a nomadic tribe

Chadar – a long garment worn by Muslim women which covers the body and obscures part of the face

Bazaar – a market

Oriel window – a type of bay window that juts out from the wall


Here are some exam style questions to accompany the two extracts

Question 1

Read again the first two paragraphs of source A.

Choose four statements below which are TRUE.

  1. The writer thinks that Tripoli is gloomy and depressing
  2. She arrived in Tripoli on a boat
  3. There are guards at the tower blocks
  4. She feels a little scared by the environment
  5. The writer’s journey has been delayed
  6. The writer has been shot at
  7. She has driven a Mercedes around the city
  8. Tripoli is a rich city


Question 2

You need to refer to Source A and Source B for this question.

The writers in both sources describe different things about the cities they visit.

Use details from both sources to write a summary of the different things the writer describes in Source A and the things described by the writer in Source B.


Question 3

You now need to refer only to the final paragraph of Source B.

How does the writer use language to describe this part of the city?

Question 4

For this question, you need to refer to the whole of Source A, together with the whole of Source B.

Compare how the writers convey their different perspectives and feelings about the places they visit.

In your answer you could:

  • Compare their different perspectives and feelings
  • Compare the methods the writers use to convey their different perspectives and feelings
  • Support your response with references to both texts.


Question 5 (a choice)

“Travelling alone to faraway countries is dangerous and should be banned.”

Write an article for in which you argue for or against this statement.


“Travel is the best form of education”.

Write an article explaining your views on this statement.



4 thoughts on “Travel Writing for GCSE English Language Paper 2

  1. Came across this lesson as I was looking around for extracts for my students. Thanks for including. Just wanted to inform you that the first text is set in Lebanon, not Libya as you’ve written in your intro. Can be tricky as there is a Tripoli in both, but riding from Libya to Beirut would be tough.


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