Asia Archive

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”.

Ghosts of the tsunami

“Over the course of last summer, Reverend Kaneda exorcised 25 spirits from Rumiko Takahashi. They came and went at the rate of several a week. All of them… were ghosts of the tsunami.” In the London Review of Books, Richard Lloyd Parry tells the moving story of a priest whose life was tranformed by the greatest disaster in Japan since the bombing of Nagasaki.

Welcome to the Sphendone

The final part of Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities will be screened on BBC 4 on Thursday. Its presenter, the historian and biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore, writes in the Financial Times that the most thrilling place he explored in Istanbul was one never opened to the public: the Sphendone, where horses and charioteers were marshalled before racing and dying in front of baying crowds in the Hippodrome. There, he’ll be holding forth for the camera on the ancient punishments of rhinokopia and elinguation.

Thanksgiving in Mongolia

I keep an eye on The New Yorker for anything travel-related, but somehow missed an outstanding article published in November by Ariel Levy, who says: “There is nothing I love more than travelling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it.” I’ve read it now, thanks to my colleague Alastair Sooke, the art critic, who emailed me a link to it. He says, “I read it while flying to Boston on a shoot, and suddenly found, to my embarrassment, that there were tears streaming down my face.'” That’s probably introduction enough. I urge you to read the piece.

Sardine fishing from Gaza

Few fishermen come hardier or more determined than the Palestinians of the Gaza coast. They’re allowed out no further than six miles from shore and, while chasing dwindling shoals, have to contend with being fired on by Israeli gunboats. For The Observer Magazine, Alex Renton and the photographer Gianluca Panella joined them for a night in pursuit of sardines.

Lessons in travel writing from Peter Levi

Some years ago, while editing a monthly books page for Telegraph Travel, I asked some of my favourite writers to choose a favourite travel book. Stanley Stewart, the only writer to have twice won the (now defunct) Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, nominated The Light Garden of the Angel King, by Peter Levi, an account of of a journey through Afghanistan in the early 1970s in search of Hellenic influences; of the remnants of Alexander the Great at the farthest reaches of his empire. One oddity of The Light Garden is that it has one of the earliest appearances in a travel book of Bruce Chatwin —  as Levi’s companion  (“he was wonderfully entertaining and as a liar he outdid the Odyssey”).

More important, for the purposes of Deskbound Traveller, was the lesson Stewart drew from reading Levi:
“[He] reminds me that travel writing need have no boundaries. He moves seamlessly between its different elements, writing about Persian history, an elderly shepherd in the passes of Nuristan, the ruined tomb of Shah Rukh’s mother and a visit to the Kabul zoo as if they are all aspects of the same thing, which of course they are.”

Courtesy of Eland Books, that gatherer-up of the lost and homeless in travel literature, which has just republished The Light Garden, you can read an extract under “New writing” (though in this case maybe it should be “renewed”).

Saigon in 1967, by Mary McCarthy

To celebrate its 50th year, The New York Review of Books is republishing pieces from its formidable archive. Among them is a report from Vietnam by the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) that first appeared in 1967. McCarthy was an opponent of American involvement there, something she makes clear from her first line. It’s a partisan piece, but the first section of it is also a vivid description of Saigon at a particular moment in time: “As we drove into downtown Saigon, through a traffic jam, I had the fresh shock of being in what looked like an American city, a very shoddy West Coast one… Not only military vehicles of every description, but Chevrolets, Chryslers, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagens, Triumphs, and white men everywhere in sport shirts and drip-dry pants. The civilian takeover is even more astonishing than the military. To an American, Saigon today is less exotic than Florence or the Place de la Concorde.”

To the Third Pole with Gavin Francis

granta124travelcoverGavin Francis’s Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins was shortlisted for this year’s Ondaatje Prize, an annual award of £10,000 of which Deskbound Traveller heartily approves: it’s for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that evokes the spirit of a place. As a child, Francis was taken with “the pristine purity” of the polar regions as depicted in an atlas. The Himalayas also appealed, because they were just as blankly white. In the online version of the latest travel edition of Granta magazine, he reports on a motorcycle trip through those mountains – one that nearly proved fatal.