Asia Archive

Everest – mountain and mirror

A year ago this week, 16 sherpas were killed in an avalanche above Everest base camp. Carole Cadwalladr, who travelled to the camp for The Observer, says Everest is a mirror as well as a mountain: “We see in it what we want to see. And our ideas about it fit the ideas we have about the world we live in. Lefties see exploitative labour practices, mountaineers see a corruption of the sport they love, Sherpas see economic opportunity and each year around 300 people see a fixed point against which they can test themselves.”

Travels with my censor

The best way to understand censorship in China? Take a tour with your censor, says Peter Hessler. In The New Yorker, Hessler, author of an excellent trilogy of books about China (River Town, Oracle Bones and Country Driving), reports on what he learned.

Land of the living goddess

For her new book, The Living Goddess, Isabella Tree spent 15 years researching the Nepali tradition of the Kumari – the young girl worshipped as a deity. She talks to Mick Brown in the Telegraph Magazine.

Bombay, by a resident poet

“You’ve been to Mumbai a couple of times,” a colleague said to me a while ago; “what should I read to get a flavour of the place?”

Off the top of my head I recommended Maximum City, Suketu Mehta’s plump and populous non-fiction account, and Rohinton Mistry’s novel of endurance, A Fine Balance, and his short stories about life in an apartment building, Tales from Firozsha Baag. If I were asked again, I would have a few more suggestions, among them the poems of Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Subramaniam lives in Mumbai (Bombay), where she works as a writer, editor and curator. She was short-listed for this year’s TS Eliot Prize for her collection When God Is a Traveller (Bloodaxe Books), and I heard her read from it at the Royal Festival Hall in London last month. Ian McMillan, MC for the evening, noted that her words and stagecraft won her “the first whoop of the night” (actually, it was the only whoop of the night). There were giggles, too, during several of her poems, including one about a garrulous fellow-passenger on a train, “Or Take Mrs Salim Shaikh”.  Among the many snippets of autobiography that Mrs Salim Shaikh dispensed were the lines ‘My heart is pure.’/’I practise no religion,/only homoeopathy.’, which, four days after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, was funny and poignant at the same time.

“I  have mixed feelings about Bombay,” Subramaniam said that evening, “but its trains have often offered me fodder for poems.” Those feelings are forcefully expressed in “The City and I”, which she wrote after the terrorist attacks there in November 2008, and which I’m now featuring on Deskbound Traveller. You can hear her discuss her work in an interview for the BBC World Service programme “The Forum”, recorded when she was in London for the TS Eliot Prize readings. On the video below, she reads more of her poems.

Arundhathi Subramaniam from Neil Astley on Vimeo.

A non-place by the sea

In December 1964, a storm swept through the Indian port of Dhanushkodi, killing nearly 2,000 people, and the state government declared the town unfit for habitation. Fifty years on, Meara Sharma and Henry Peck, for Guernica magazine, meet the residents who refused to move.

Communing with the Nats in Burma

There is a pantheon of spirits in Burma, and at its top are the Thirty-Seven Nats, mytho-historical figures from the country’s ancient past. Will Boast reports for Guernica magazine on an encounter with one of their mediums.

Michaels on Siberia and Gallant on North America

Sean Michaels, a debut novelist, this week won Canada’s biggest award for fiction, the Scotiabank Giller Prize ($100,000 to the winner and $10,000 to each finalist), with Us Conductors. The story is inspired by the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian inventor of the theremin (an instrument played without touch), and follows him from the New York clubs of the 1930s to the gulags of the Soviet Union. In the literary magazine Brick, based in Toronto, Michaels reported on a trip to Magadan, in Russia’s far east, to research the novel.

Brick also has a piece by Russell Banks on scene-setting in the stories of Mavis Gallant, who died in February this year: “… she is a writer of the American North, of the region and culture that overlap the US-Canada border from Maine and the Maritimes all the way west to Seattle and Vancouver. In these stories, darkness comes early and stays late; summer is not a condition, it’s an all-too-brief holiday. Cities are grey, skies are mauve or milky, and there are always wet boots slumped in entryways.”

Travels in China’s borderlands

If you have any interest in China, then you should read The Emperor Far Away, by David Eimer, published last month by Bloomsbury. It’s an account of his travels in the borderlands, in places where the ethnic minorities (55 are officially recognised) chafe against Han Chinese control. On the website of The Telegraph, you can read my interview with the author and Rana Mitter’s review of the book.

Thoreau with vodka in Siberia

ConsolationsjktThe judges of the Dolman Travel Book Award, due to deliver their verdict on September 30, are currently considering the strongest short list there has been for the prize for a few years. Among them is the French writer Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest, in which he chronicles the six months he spent in a cabin in Siberia, like some latterday Thoreau on Smirnoff. “I took along books, cigars and vodka,” he says. “The rest — space, silence and solitude — was already there.” The book is beautifully translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. I’m delighted to be publishing a short extract on Deskbound Traveller, courtesy of Tesson’s British publisher, Penguin.

Speaking of Thoreau, the latest edition of Granta magazine, which takes as its theme “American Wild”, has a “found” poem in celebration of the great man by Andrew Motion. It also has a thought-provoking piece by Adam Nicolson on the return of wolves to New Mexico, seen from the point of view of both  environmentalist and rancher.

Highlights of a week in travel

Of the tens of thousands of words by travel writers I’ve read in the past week, this passage from Peter Hughes was my favourite:

“The thrill of Armenia’s churches comes not so much from their ancient masonry or antiquities but from their energy as fervent power plants, steeped in the certainties and rituals of the faith they have kept for more than 1,000 years. At Geghard monastery, a Unesco World Heritage site, two churches have been cut into rock. A monk billowed in, enveloped in a cloud of incense and irritation. He swung his rattling censer with the urgency of one fumigating the place against a dangerous outbreak of doubt.”

You can read the whole piece, about Hughes’s journey through both Armenia and Georgia, at Telegraph Travel. Another highlight, again from Telegraph Travel: Fionnuala McHugh,  in China, cruising through the Three Gorges region, a “riverine version of nesting dolls”.