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.
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
Peter Jump was withered, hunched and riddled with nervous ticks. When lucid, he claimed to have worked at Abbey Road Studios in its heyday and to have produced the finest records of psychedelic rock. In the same era, he had drunk what he called a 4M cocktail, mixing mescaline, MDMA, methylated spirits and milk in a blender before knocking the whole concoction back, to be found days later, naked and in the grip of a psychosis from which he never completely recovered. Jump muttered to himself in spurts, intoning agreement and disagreement in a garble of difficult-to-hear words. His favourite gesture was the shrug, and he used it in conversations with himself as well as other people, extending his right hand out, with palm open and fingers wide apart, while uttering a nasal “Aaaa”.
I knew something of the old Hippie Trail by the time we arrived in Goa, but only as much as I had read in Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux had encountered the freaks making their way out east – “like small clans of tribesmen setting out for a baraza or new pastures” – on a train from Istanbul to Tehran. He thought “the majority of them, going for the first time, had that look of frozen apprehension that is the mask on the face of an escapee,” and had “no doubt that the teenaged girls who made up the bulk of these loose tribal groups would eventually appear on the notice boards of American consulates in Asia, in blurred snapshots or retouched high-school graduation pictures: missing person and have you seen this girl?” Theroux, propped up on his first-class berth “like a pasha,” consulting Nagel’s Encyclopaedia-Guide, or lying down in the heat, “like a Hindu widow on a pyre, resigned to suttee,” was too much of a prig to characterise the hippies as anything but wastrels and strays, and it seemed a pity that the Hippie Trail had never had a Kerouac to document it, to tell us as he did that “somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”
Peter Chilson recalls arriving out of the desert at Timbuktu, and considers the legendary city’s fate :
Timbuktu’s only hotel at that time was full, so I spent two nights on a mat on the concrete patio of a local bar, a bordello really, and then I fled back the way I’d come. The heat was awful, and as Caillié wrote in his memoirs, there was no way to escape it day or night. I slept little and discarded my mosquito net at night for fear it would block the slightest breeze.I had enough energy to check out Caillié’s living quarters, marked by a bronze plaque. In the end, though, I could not agree with his descriptions of Timbuktu. “Everything,” he wrote, “had a dull appearance.”
I found the city and desert beyond to be one of the most beautiful and haunting landscapes I’ve ever seen. At night, the desert sky was so bright and clear it seemed to rest right on the rooftops. During the day, the city and landscape blended into the blinding pale sky as if Timbuktu itself were floating on a cloud. I loved how the wind continuously rubbed the tops of dunes, blurring them into the horizon and forming ridges that looked as if they’d been pressed by a giant thumb and forefinger. This is part of the reason why I keep going back to the Sahel and the southern Sahara — because the land is so big and so extreme. The other reason, and perhaps it’s not all that surprising, is that the people who live there are so resilient.
Part III: The Memory Vault
The idea of a conscious rock – a rock with an atma, or soul – became a way for me to think about Gokarna’s past and future. It was a kind of memory vault, which emerged every sixty years to assess a disorienting present, and a way of taking a long view of the village and, by extension, India’s progress though time. The Atmalinga was last unearthed when Dr Shastri was a boy, in the late seventies or early eighties. Isolated by its lack of infrastructure, Gokarna was parochial and poor. Sixty years before that, in the 1920s, India was a British colony, experiencing the first stirrings of an independence movement that would mark it as a place apart, a place where a great soul – a Mahatma – was a better leader than a great general. The Atmalinga was unearthed during or just after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, and several times while Gokarna, like most of India, was ruled by Muslim sultans and the great Mughals in Delhi. The period both enriched Indian culture and destroyed a great deal. The Atmalinga played witness to the worst of the destruction. It was dug up within a few years of 1565, when a Muslim army reduced the sophisticated capital of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire to ruins, destroying a political entity with borders that encompassed Gokarna. And so the backwards progression went on, until history was conflated by myth. The Atmalinga was never dug up by the same people and has never emerged into a completely familiar world. Viewed like this, in a series of snapshots taken every sixty years, India looked a dynamic but unpredictable place.
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.