Asia Archive

Back to North Korea

Only 5,000 people a year visit “the hermit kingdom” of North Korea. Among them has been the radio producer Sarah Jane Hall, who first went in 2004, when, she says, it was hard to imagine the political temperature could get any higher. Since then, of course, the leaders of the United States and North Korea have been threatening each other with nuclear weapons. In Archive on 4: Travels in North Korea, which was broadcast on Saturday evening and is now available on the BBC iPlayer, Hall asks: “Is it easier to go to war with a country we don’t understand?” She mingles her own experience of North Korea with those of recent visitors to the country, including tour leaders and their customers, a diplomat, a film-maker and the broadcaster Andy Kershaw. What did they see and do, and what did they learn?

‘A shock trip to North Korea’

Yoojin Grace Wuertz, in the TLS, reviews The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare called North Korea, by JP Floru (Biteback).

Seeking the essence of Pakistan

Isambard Wilkinson was sent by The Daily Telegraph to Pakistan in 2006 to report on “the war on terror”. In his mind, though, Osama Bin Laden and his like were “distractions from the real quarry: the essence, the quiddity of Pakistan, which I hoped to find by encountering its mystics, tribal chiefs and feudal lords”. It’s the latter that he sets out to concentrate on in his debut, Travels in A Dervish Cloak (Eland). Reviewing the book for the writer’s former employers, in the Review section of The Daily Telegraph, Arthur Evelyn says that Wilkinson, “an engaging and enthusiastic guide”, “gives a glimpse of the joy and vitality to be found in this most complicated of countries, but he cannot escape from some of the unpleasant realities”. There are also reviews in The Spectator, The Irish Times, The National (Abu Dhabi) and The Asian Review of Books.

Calcutta book doubly endorsed by Dalrymple

The Epic City, a debut portrait of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury) that I mentioned recently, has been doubly endorsed by the writer and historian William Dalrymple. Having written a blurb for the book (“Beautifully observed and even more beautifully written… marks the arrival of a major new talent”), Dalrymple reviewed it yesterday in The Observer.

The Epic City is also assessed in The Literary Review, by Oliver Balch — though you’ll have to subscribe to read his thoughts. The lead review of that magazine, free online (and written by Peter Moore), is of Joseph Farrell’s Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa (MacLehose Press)the island where a footloose teller of tales at last came to rest.

Ghosts of the tsunami on Radio 4

I’ve mentioned before a piece that Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor of The Times, wrote for the London Review of Books about Japanese people who reported seeing ghosts of the dead years after the tsunami of 2011. He has now made a Radio 4 documentary based on that piece, and it’s due to be broadcast on Friday morning.

Growing up hungry in North Korea

About 5,000 to 6,000 tourists a year visit North Korea, and occasionally a writer sneaks in among them (see Nigel Richardson’s pieces from 2013 for Telegraph Travel and National Geographic Traveller), so we know what it’s like to be a visitor there. In a new book, Yeonmi Park, who fled the country at 13, tells what it was like to grow up there and to endure the famine and economic collapse of the 1990s. In In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (Fig Tree) — serialised in the Telegraph Magazine — she writes:

“Because electricity was rare in our neighbourhood, whenever the lights came on people were so happy they would sing and clap and shout… When you have so little, the smallest things can make you happy — and that is one of the very few features of life in North Korea that I actually miss.”

‘The Emperor Far Away’ is now out in paperback

David Eimer’s excellent book about China’s volatile borderlands, The Emperor Far Away, which I recommended when it came out last year, is now available in paperback. You can read a short extract on Deskbound Traveller.

Dasgupta’s Delhi

Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, is among six books short-listed for the RSL Ondaatje Prize, the winner of which will be announced on Monday (May 18). On a video for his publisher, Canongate, he says Delhi seems “like a prophecy of the world we’re all going to live in in the coming years”.

‘Ghost-story country’ in Vietnam

The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago, but the scars and memories remain. Nigel Richardson, for Telegraph Travel, uncovers them on a road trip though “ghost-story country”.

People ‘more at home in water than on land’

The most poignant moment in the first episode of Hunters of the South Seas (BBC 2 last night), in which Will Millard stayed with a Bajau family in Indonesia, came during the night. In the two-room house on stilts eight feet above the sea, Millard was close enough to ask a little boy, “Lobo, what are you dreaming about?” To which Lobo replied: “I’m dreaming about fishing.”

Lobo, however, has a disability that prevents him from swimming, which puts him at a severe disadvantage in a community of people who are “more at home in water than on land”, and who depend on the god of the sea, Bojango, for all their needs.

The Bajau, who until recently spent their entire lives at sea, are having to make adjustments to a changing world. Bojango has been less bountiful of late, perhaps because outsiders in their powerful boats are scooping up in a quarter of an hour what the locals might take two or three months to catch. The Bajau are also increasingly at the mercy of a predator they don’t encounter in the water: the loan shark.

Last night’s programme was the first in a series of three for which Millard, 31, spent three months learning how Indonesians make a living from the sea. If you missed it, it’s available on iPlayer (as is his “Journey of a Lifetime”, aired on Radio 4 in 2013, on his descent of the Mano and Moro Rivers, which divide Sierra Leone and Liberia).