As it was, Claire and I didn’t get sick. We took Chinese medicine made from the roots of an Arctic shrub for the duration of our journey along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway and at elevations of 4,000 metres and above we felt short of breath but otherwise well. The roads were dirt tracks for long stretches, and where they were being worked on there were long delays and detours and billowing dust. In places they were so narrow that looking out from my window in a claustrophobic miànbāochē I saw nothing but ravines at the bottom of yawning, hundred-metre-long drops, but Tibetan-owned guest houses and restaurants serving Sichuan’s málà cuisine made it easy to forget my aches and apprehensions at the end of each day. We ate lunch with nomads in the hills around Shangri-La and drank beer with migrant workers in Xiangcheng, where the government was putting down a strike. We were disappointed by dirty hotsprings and tourists flocking like vultures to sky burials in Litang, and it wasn’t until we made our way on foot to a monastery near Tagong that we felt like our journey was in some way complete. Its gold roof glinted far in the distance at the foot of a single, snow-capped peak and to reach it we’d passed carefully through an icy river and herds of temperamental yaks. It was in making my way to the monastery that I prepared myself to arrive for a few moments at Shangri-La, which in the words of the Dalai Lama “is not a physical place that we can actually find,” but exists only in our minds.
Old World Wandering is an experiment. It is a literary travelogue reinvented for the internet. Over the past year, we have travelled across Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, looking for connections: connections between past and present, between communities, and – most of all – between places. We believe that travel writing is about journeys, not destinations, about people, not a list of sites, and – at its heart – about the connections that bind us all together.
When In Xanadu was published at the end of the 80s, travel writing tended to highlight the narrator: his adventures were the subject; the people he met were often reduced to objects in the background. I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories centre stage.
Above all, I had to consider whether travel writing was still a form that could adapt to this very changed world. With the book finished, and having read a lot of the more recent travel books produced by younger writers, I have not the slightest doubt that the genre has a great deal of life in it yet. For wonderfully varied ingredients can be added to a travel book: politics, archaeology, history, philosophy, art or magic. It’s possible to cross-fertilise the genre with other literary forms - biography, or anthropological writing - or, perhaps more interesting still, to follow in Chatwin’s footsteps and muddy the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction by crossing the travel book with some of the wilder forms of the novel.
There’s a formula to them: a pro forma acknowledgment of a lack of democracy and freedom followed by exercises in moral equivalence, various contorted attempts to contextualize authoritarianism or atrocities, and scorching attacks on the U.S. foreign policy that precipitated these defensive and desperate actions. Throughout, there is the consistent refrain that economic backwardness should be viewed as cultural authenticity, not to mention an admirable rejection of globalization and American hegemony. The hotel recommendations might be useful, but the guidebooks are clotted with historical revisionism, factual errors, and a toxic combination of Orientalism and pathological self-loathing.
Angkor Wat’s pinecone-tower contours are already etched onto my mind when Iain and I cycle towards them in the crisp dawn air. You can’t avoid images of the temple in Siem Reap, where t-shirts, bags, hats, photographs, paintings, ink drawings and sculptures, all emblazoned with Angkor Wat, are sold virtually everywhere in the ruins’ nearest town. I stop my bicycle, chain it to Iain’s, and try to set the image in my head aside, to see this architectural representation of the Hindu universe through the cosmic lens that its Khmer designers intended. In the distance, the five pinecone towers become Mount Meru’s craggy peaks, silhouetted against the lilac morning sky. The sun is slowly rising over this universe, the primordial ocean is still calm, and a few visitors – mere specks – are moving toward the sacred mountain’s summit. I cross the ocean, represented by a moat, and stand at the bottom of a long causeway where stone naga serpents are stretched out on either side. Passing thenagas, I symbolically leave the realm of men and enter the world of the gods.
Episode 1: Matthieu Aikins
On the eve a move to Kabul, Aikins talks with Evan Ratliff about reporting from war zones:
“There’s no real objective framework for deciding what the value of your life is, versus the value of a story…. Especially when you go to places where people are getting killed for the silliest reasons, and a life is worth so little, you realize you don’t necessarily have to value yourself as this, like, precious commodity that can’t be risked in any way. And that’s just a personal choice, and it’s actually a very selfish one, because obviously, if you have loved ones, you’re affecting them by making that choice. In any case, it’s just a different headspace that you inhabit.”
Show notes and links:
Beirutis go by landmarks of memory or desire: a narcissist may tell you to go down the alley where she got her first kiss. An old-timer will direct you to a movie theatre that closed in 1982. Hypochondriacs deliver directions by pharmacy. The pious use churches and mosques; the profane, cafés and nightclubs. The mercenary types, alas, inhabit a city of banks. All of these different Beiruts, imaginary contradictory maps, all layered on top of each other, make a city as baffling to navigate as your dreams.
And so I learned to negotiate the city through food: the baker, the butcher, the greengrocer. In the Middle Ages, the public bakeries were built next to other essential urban spaces, like churches, gardens and public baths. These days, the bakery is often at the centre of an ecosystem that ideally includes the holy trinity of Beirut street food: the farran, or baker; the lahham, or butcher; and the fawwal, or maker of foul, which is stewed chickpeas and fava beans. The butcher uses bread from the baker, the baker gets meat from the butcher, and the fawwal sends his prep cook to get meat or bread from both of them."
— Bread of Beirut, Annia Ciezadlo
Table tennis has come a long way from its origins, when squiffy Victorian gents – possibly officers serving in India – used cigar box lids to bat champagne corks at each other. “Other nations looked at the dining table and saw an opportunity to have dinner. We looked at the dining table and saw an opportunity to play whiff-whaff,” Johnson told his audience in Beijing.
An alternative history credits Jaques of London, who marketed a game called “gossima” and then “ping pong”. Either way, it rapidly spread through the empire and beyond; by the 1930s it had reached China, where a small Shanghai workshop sprang up catering to “pingpangqiu” enthusiasts.
Two decades later, Mao declared table tennis China’s national sport. Then, in 1959, China won the world championship. Zhou, the then premier, declared the year one of “double happiness”: the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic and its first major sporting victory. The small Shanghai business was formally launched as the Double Happiness brand, now known in English as DHS.
Lou Shihe, the company’s general manager, says: “When Rong Guotuan won the ping pong championships, it changed the Chinese image in the western world. Westerners used to have the impression of China as the ‘sick man of Asia’. China promoted the sport as a political campaign. The government called for the whole nation to learn from ping pong players.”
The Great Helmsman himself took it up – with a Double Happiness racket, says Lou – and even the youngest were encouraged to play. “Set up a battlefield on the rectangular table … With deep unity and friendship we promote the revolutionary work-style!” began one children’s song. “Regard a ping pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialist bat and you have won a point for the motherland,” the top athletes were exhorted.
On the banks of the Mekong in Vientiane, there is a Chinese temple that is empty for most of the day. The city’s children use its concrete parking lot to practice BMX and skateboard tricks, popping Ollies and kickflips in torn jeans and t-shirts with obscure English prints – likeYour Momma Is My Bitch, on a podgy boy of about twelve. The dragons and roosters on the temple’s roof are coated in waterproof enamel, a layer of primary colour that is strikingly new, because Laos’ temples and monasteries are mostly dilapidated, with paint and mould peeling off their sun-bleached walls. Inside the temple, an electric pump pours water into a stone tank and a polished Buddha presides over the empty room. There is a plastic seat for an attendant beside the shrine, but when I visited even he wasn’t there. His pack of cigarettes, with a photograph on it of orchids bobbing on water in a copper bowl, was the only sign of ordinary life.
The city that dreams us all
this just made me fall in love with beijing all over again.
by OCTAVIO PAZ
news today and...
The Ten Commandments of Beijing
1. Thou shalt not praise Shanghai, nor move down to it, for Beijing is a filthy jealous mistress.