Asia Archive

2,300 miles to work

The former Soviet republic of Tajikistan is a country chronically short of work, with an economy heavily dependent on money sent back by Tajiks from elsewhere. The choice facing many of its young men is to stay at home without a job or go to Russia without their family.  Each week, thousands of them make a four-day, 2,300-mile train journey from Dushanbe through Central Asia to Moscow.  In a novel approach to telling their stories, a report for The New York Times combines video from the filmmaker Tim Brown with illustrations by George Butler.

China as it was

In The New York Times, Hannah Beech reviews two memoirs of home in a China that has already disappeared, “covered by layers of concrete, glass and fibre-optic cables that have tethered even the most isolated farmer to the modern age. Still, it is the journey through heady, whiplash times that helps us understand where the nation is going. If the 21st century is to be China’s era, it’s important to know how it will get there.”

‘In Siberia’ with Thubron on Radio 4

Colin Thubron will be questioned about In Siberia by James Naughtie and a group of readers in Radio 4’s Bookclub slot next Sunday.  The book, which he published in 1999, has one of the greatest opening paragraphs in modern travel writing:

‘The ice-fields are crossed for ever by a man in chains. In the farther distance, perhaps, a herd of reindeer drifts, or a hunter makes a shadow on the snow. But that is all. Siberia: it fills one twelfth of the land-mass of the whole Earth, yet this is all it leaves for certain in the mind. A bleak beauty, and an indelible fear.”

  Over the next 280 pages, he fills in the blanks.

  The programme will be broadcast at 4pm on Sunday and should be available shortly afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.

Literary friends of the tiger

Joe Shute was in Siberia recently for The Telegraph Magazine to report on conservationists whose work has not only brought the Siberian (or Amur) tiger back from the edge of extinction but helped to increase its numbers. One of those he met was Pavel Fomenko, head of rare species conservation for the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Russia and a man who, Shute says, is “a hero in the Tolstoyan mode”. Fomenko’s very speech has a literary quality about it. “Many people,” he says, “do not understand hunters are the true friends of nature.” One of his colleagues, Alexander Primenko, has a similar gift for phrase-making. He told Shute: “The tigers are always present, even when you don’t see them. To me, the tiger is the owner of the forest and I am his guest.”

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.”