Asia Archive

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.