Travel Book Reviews – Asia

By Suroor Alikhan

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The Jadu House—Travels in Anglo-India
by Laura Roychowdhury

The Anglo-Indian community in India is a minority, but an important one, estimated to number 125,000-150,000 people. During the British Raj in India, some of the British men had children with Indian women, and many of these Eurasian children were left behind when the British returned home. These children and their descendants became the Anglo-Indian community, defined as having a British male in their bloodline.

The Jadu House: Travels In Aglo-India

Laura Roychowdhury, a British researcher, travels to West Bengal, India, to research her thesis on the Anglo-Indians. The Jadu House is the story of her trip. The book was published in 2000, so I am assuming she went there in the late 1990s.

The Anglo-Indian community has often been marginalized, looked down upon by many Indians because of their mixed race (something that sounds so ridiculous now). Her landlady, Mrs. Gupta, in Calcutta (the city’s name was changed in 2001 to Kolkata) does not approve of them, nor of Roychowdhury’s marriage to a man from the Ivory Coast. 

This prejudice goes back a long way. Roychowdhury finds a 1920s journal with a Bengali nationalist view of Anglo-Indians, which states that while both Indian and British civilizations had a lot to offer, but “when they were confused in Eurasian families, the worst qualities of both civilizations were brought out”. 

Roychowdhury goes to St. James School in Calcutta, a school set up by the British so that the Eurasian children could learn “the class credentials, inflections of English and discipline they need to equip themselves for careers in the Indian Administrative Service or multinational companies.” Rather than let the children grow up as Indians, the British had, in effect, set them apart—not entirely British but not entirely Indian either. Many of them eventually got jobs in the railways.

To find out more about Anglo-Indians, Roychowdhury travels to the railway colony of Kharagpur. The colony was originally built by the British to house British and Eurasian railway staff to prevent them mingling with the local people, as they tended to do. “The lines between the races that were so important to the railway hierarchy were blurring. The whole illusion that the British were superior in morality and efficiency was threatened.” 

Roychowdhury spends a lot of time in Kharagpur. She is accompanied by Subhrasheel, a young student, who helps her with her research. (She falls in love with him, but more about that later.) She is assigned a guide by the Assistant Additional Divisional Manager of the Kharagpur railways—a Muslim man known as Begum (which means lady in Urdu, a joke referring to his prowess as a sportsman). Begum is married to an Anglo-Indian, and his knowledge of the colony and its residents brings the place to life. 

The Jadu House is full of glimpses into the lives of a community little-known outside India—in fact, even within India. As you can probably tell from this review, the shadow of the Raj permeates a lot of the book, as Roychowdhury tries to understand and untangle the ties between India and Britain. 

This is an important book because the Anglo-Indian story is one that needs to be told. And Roychowdhury obviously feels passionately about them—especially the way they have been treated by both the British and the Indians. From what I gather, her thesis is excellent and seen as a valuable contribution to the scholarship on Anglo-Indians. But her book is another matter, and I have mixed feelings about it.

My reservations about The Jadu House have to do with the account of the love affair between Roychowdhury and Subhrasheel (whom she eventually marries). I found it distracting and given too much space in the book. Her narrative about Anglo-Indians was far more interesting than her pangs of guilt because she was cheating on her husband, and the obsession with her new love. It is exasperating and feels self-indulgent. 

This book is, after all, a personal journey, so I can see why she needed to include her own story. But I wish she had made it into a minor element and focused on what she was in India to research. Because that is an interesting story, and one worth telling.

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Orienting—An Indian in Japan
by Pallavi Aiyar

Orienting is Japan seen from the perspective of an Indian journalist. Pallavi Aiyar moves home (and country) every few years: her husband works for the European Union, and they have lived in nine countries, including China and Indonesia.

Orienting: An Indian in Japan

She finds Japan quite unlike China or Indonesia. “It was rich and quiet, old and punctual, a former colonizer rather than colony, rule-obsessed rather than loop-hole hungry”, and “a desire for simplicity with the tendency to complicate”. Take the language, for example.

For someone who speaks Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesia, the language defeats her. I found the chapter on Japanese fascinating (and could understand why it was so difficult for her). Japanese has two alphabets with 46 letters each: hiranga and katakana. They are identical; katakana’s only purpose is to indicate words of foreign origin. And that was just one of the complications. Even the basic words were complex: the word “one”, for example, differed depending on what it described: one cat, one umbrella, etc.

But Aiyar finds plenty to love about Japan, such as haiku, the Japanese short verse form that captures a moment in time. There are several scattered in the book, which I enjoyed as a lover of haiku. She also loves the quiet of monasteries, and kintsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold lacquer, which highlights imperfections instead of hiding them. She throws herself into life in Japan (as much as you can with two children), going for classes on the tea ceremony and Japanese drumming. 

The book is full of interesting facts. Japan is one of the safest places to be: there is a strong sense of community and responsibility. Children as young as six go to school on their own. If they get lost, all they have to do is go to the nearest kombini (convenience store) to call their parents. There is very little theft. Aiyar recounts an incident about losing her wallet. She reported it to the police, who found that it had been handed in to a nearby police station—untouched, all the money and cards still there. She comes to the conclusion that trust breeds trust—if someone handed in your lost items, you were more likely to do the same yourself.

Japan is a fairly homogenous country that is beginning to open its doors to foreigners by easing the restrictions on visas for blue-collar workers. This is a question of necessity: the population is falling and the country needs workers. Aiyar visits Yogendra Puranik, a Japanese politician who was born in Mumbai, the first Indian-born Japanese politician. Puranik was elected not by the Indian diaspora but by the Japanese. 

This is an extremely enjoyable book—seeing Japan through the eyes of an Asian woman who comes from a fairly different culture (Aiyar has something to say about the difference between India and Japan, and why the two find it so hard to work together). As a journalist, her observations are astute, and she does not gloss over Japan’s problems, such as the high suicide rate among workers, and the pressure to conform. But she also develops a great affection for the country and its people.

At the end, she says, “The book was ultimately probably as much about me as observer, my circumstances and predilections, as it was about Japan.” But I think she does herself an injustice. Although you can never truly know a place completely, living there for four years—with a healthy dose of curiosity and open-mindedness—means that you do go deeper than the surface. This a book that I would recommend.

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The White Mosque—A Silk Road Memoir
by Sofia Samatar

“I’m haunted by a little piece of history, the story of a small, hardy, stubborn group of people who travelled here more than a hundred years ago.”

The White Mosque: A Memoir

In 1880, a group of Mennonites headed east from Russia to Central Asia on what became known as the Great Trek. Being pacifists, they left Russia to avoid conscription and eventually settled in what was then the Khanate of Khiva, situated near the Amu Darya and covering parts of modern-day Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

They settled in a village called Ak Metchet (White Mosque) because of the white church they built there. But their refuge did not last long. In 1935, the Mennonites refused collectivization and were deported to Siberia.

Almost 150 years later, Sofia Samatar—a Mennonite with an American-Swiss mother and Somali father—retraces their route with a group of Mennonites, some of whom are descended from those who made the trek. In The White Mosque, she intertwines witness accounts of the 1880 journey and her own. As someone of mixed race, she also raises questions around identity and belonging.

The tour group sets off from Tashkent on a bus called The Golden Dragon, accompanied by their Uzbek guides. They move between the past and the present, as they read aloud from published accounts of the trek and search for traces left behind in modern Uzbekistan. Samatar reads about a salamander the size of a cow in one of the witness accounts, and wonders if it was an exaggeration. But it does exist: it is the transcaspian desert monitor, a lizard that can grow up to two feet long.

Samatar’s writing is vivid, and she captures the landscape they drive through: “An open landscape, dun and green, basking in the heat. Mounds of yellow clay piled up where they have been cleaning the canal. The houses are gray brick, with roofs of corrugated iron, sometimes painted, so they make quilt-like squares of lavender, orange, maroon. In the shade of a copse, black sheep clump together, richly colored like handfuls of dates. All movement seems slow compared to the rush of the Golden Dragon: the old men in white caps, chatting together on wobbling bicycles piled with clover; the boy pushing a cart of bottled water; the trotting donkeys.”

This is a rich book, full of human stories and memorable moments. There are stories of brutality on the Great Trek as the Mennonites were not always welcome, and were sometimes driven off by soldiers. But they also found kindness and acceptance. Strangers in villages gave the travellers food and shelter; and a soldier untied a captive Mennonite and covered him with his fur coat.

One of the historic figures that fascinates Samatar is Khudaybergen Dianov, the first Uzbek photographer, who was born in Khorezm, Khiva, in 1878 and was taught his craft by a Mennonite, “an improbable meeting of a boy and a wandering German”. Dianov’s photographs constitute the only photographic record of pre-Soviet Central Asia taken by an indigenous photographer. He joined a dissident movement and was arrested and shot by Stalin’s police in 1938.

One of the most touching incidents is when the tour group arrives in village of Kok Ota. They are welcomed by a group of men who take them to the mosque, in the same way that their ancestors were received when they arrived well over a century ago, hungry and tired. The tour group are invited to pray at the mosque, using it as a church. “[W]ould we welcome Muslim refugees to use our churches, as the Mennonite refugees were invited to use the mosque…to sleep there, worship there, marry there, baptize there?” They meet the descendant of the 19th century imam who opened the mosque to the Mennonites on the Great Trek. Samatar reflects that if the imam’s ancestor had not helped the Mennonites—in effect, saving their lives—some of the members of the tour group might not have existed.

Samatar’s vivid writing feels like she is painting pictures with words. She brings the journeys to life, making you feel a part of the Great Trek. Thanks to this book, I learned not only about the Mennonites and their historic voyage, but also about Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan. The White Mosque is informative and beautifully written, making it a joy to read.

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Kindergarten at 60 – A Memoir of Teaching in Thailand
by Dian Seidel

When Dian Siedel, a retired American climate scientist, turned 60, she decided she wanted an adventure. She convinced her husband, Steve, that they should work abroad for six months, so they took a course in teaching English to foreigners and started looking for work.

Kindergarten at 60: A Memoir of Teaching in Thailand

Finding a job would be no easy task, especially given their age. Most English teachers working outside the US are much younger, and they also wanted to work together. The couple finally found jobs in a kindergarten school in Pathum Thani, a town in northern Thailand. They had hoped to teach older students, but this was their only chance to work at the same school.

Kindergarten at 60 is about their half-year in Pathum Thai, living in a country where they could just get by in the language, and in a relatively unfamiliar culture (they had honeymooned in Thailand so the culture shock is slightly less violent than it might have been). Their apartment is provided but the kitchen is quite basic, so they spend many evenings braving wild traffic to cross the road to reach their eateries. 

Theirs is not quite the tropical dream. 

Siedel finds Thailand’s spicy food hard to eat, and is unaccustomed to the sweltering heat. Plus, teaching little children at 60 can be challenging. 

They are sometimes homesick, but determined not to spend their time with other Westerners, or farangs, as foreigners are called in Thailand. Instead, they get to know the other teachers, young women from China, the Philippines and, of course, Thailand. 

By the end of their stay, both have become part of their little community, with enough Thai to get by (not easy, as, like Chinese, it is a tonal language). They also adopt the Thai attitude of mai pan rai (don’t worry).  

The book is an easy read and gives you a sense of what it is like to navigate an unfamiliar culture. I enjoyed her descriptions of the children: Panit, who cannot keep still and is always running off; Chompoo, thoughtful and smart; and Athit, who carries an anger within him. 

It also proves you are never too old to start something new. Though widely traveled, Siedel lived most of her life in Washington, D.C., moving once to Maryland, a few minutes away. She might have visited Thailand before, but going somewhere as a tourist is vastly different from living there.

Chapeau to Dian Siedel, as the French say, “hats off” for taking on this adventure at a time when most people opt for a quiet retirement…

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Review: On a Truck Alone, to McMahon: Nabaneeta Dev Sen
Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha

“I wasn’t trying to discover new places. I wasn’t going to break or create a record. Nor to be useful to anyone. I was going only on an impulse, entirely on my own, just out of the natural curiosity that life brings, the delight of living. Was this not a valid reason?”

This is the account of a trip Nabaneeta Dev Sen took in 1977 through north-eastern India, a trip taken on a sudden impulse.

On a Truck Alone, to McMahon

When Sen travels to Jorhat in Assam to attend a women’s literary conference, it strikes her that she is not so far from Tawang—a town near the McMahon line (the boundary between Tibet and India) and close to the India-China border. There is a Buddhist monastery there has rare Tibetan manuscripts. It’s somewhere she’s never been and wants to go. What’s to stop her? 

A few things, actually. For one, there is no public transport to Tawang. It is close to the Chinese border, so she will need a permit. Besides, as worried friends point out, anything could happen to a woman travelling alone. And anyway, why on earth would a respectable, middle-aged Indian woman want to go somewhere so remote? Why can’t she just go see friends in nearby towns instead?

But Sen is determined to get to Tawang, and nothing can stop her. When the ride with a businessman she happened to meet on a boat doesn’t work out, she’s perfectly happy to hitch a ride on a truck carrying rations. “Women can’t travel on the ration truck”, points out a well-meaning officer. “It’s a very rough journey.” Sen, naturally, completely ignores the advice. 

One of her travelling companions on the truck is young Dr. Lalwani, trying to get back to his practice. The doctor is a gentle, rather nervous man, completely overwhelmed by Sen. When they get to a small town, the government guest house where they were hoping to stay is full. But there is really is nowhere else for them to go, so Sen announces to the watchman that she will sleep in the living room and insists that the young doctor sleep on the dining table rather than in the truck. This seems to make him nervous, so she assures him her intentions are honourable and rigs up a discreet curtain between them.

When she is not knocking over obstacles in her path and getting exasperated with Dr. Lalwani, Sen finds the time to take in the beauty in her surroundings. She goes out at night for a walk near a waterfall. “The air was redolent with the fragrance of wild flowers. … The mountain stream was flowing far below. … Strange insects swarmed on the leaves, emitting a variety of sounds. Even the noise from the hotel had faded—there was just the sound of the waterfall, and the buzzing of insects. It was all so wonderfully serene.”

In the end, she has a memorable trip. The truck drivers and their companions are friendly and impressed by Sen’s determination. She talks to everyone, and once she gets to Tawang, she spends time in a village with a family from the Mompa community and learns about their way of life. Women and men in this community can take other partners, but the children are always officially the first husband’s and get an equal share in his property. The various husbands and wives live together as a family, working the land and raising the children. Contrary to the practice in the rest of India, it is the Mompa groom’s family that pays a dowry: women work harder than men and are the ones sought after.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable travelogue. Sen is a force of nature with a great sense of humour. When Dr. Lalwani, who has been pushed to his limits by Sen (admittedly, it doesn’t take much), calls her a crazy lady, Sen thinks indignantly, “I am not crazy, and definitely not a lady”. She sounds like the kind of woman I would love to travel with.

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The Lost Pianos of Siberia
by Sophy Roberts

“Siberia is a nightmare or a myth full of impenetrable forests and limitless plains, its murderous proportions strung with groaning oil derricks and sagging wires. Siberia is all those things, and more as well.”

It is also, surprisingly enough, a land of pianos. Those banished to Siberia sometimes brought the instruments with them to ease their exile.  

Lost Pianos of Siberia

Sophy Roberts tells the story of this huge, remote region through the pianos scattered throughout it, using them to reveal the region’s history and its people, and the hold that music had over the country. 

The first Roberts heard of these pianos was in Mongolia, when she was listening to a young Mongolian pianist playing a modern Yamaha in a ger, a large tent. Her mentor was unhappy with the piano and whispered to Roberts, “We must find her one of the lost pianos of Siberia!” 

This led to a growing obsession in tracking down the pianos, an instrument that Roberts does not even play. Her quest takes her all over Siberia: sometimes she manages to find old pianos but more often than not, she is unsuccessful. But it is the journey that matters.

“I soon realized what is missing can sometimes tell you more about a country’s history than what remains. I also learned that Siberia is bigger, more alluring and far more complicated than the archetypes might suggest—much bigger, in fact, than all the assumptions I had made when my plans began to germinate, then proliferate, and I found myself caught up in the momentum of travelling a ravishingly surprising place.”

Siberia, spreading east from the Ural Mountains, makes up an eleventh of the entire world’s landmass. Dissidents and criminals were sent there from the 17th century, so it has a long history as a penal colony. But it was also a place that people moved to so they could be out of reach of Tsar and the church or, in later years, the state.

Among the exiles were the Decembrists, a group that rebelled against Tsar Nicholas II. They were caught, some were hanged, and the rest sent to Siberia. One of the exiles was Prince Sergei Volkonsky, once a playmate of the Tsar. His wife Maria abandoned her life in Moscow to accompany him and brought her piano with her. Sergei was eventually moved to a jail in Petrovsky Zavod, where the wives could share the prisoners’ cells. Maria moved in with her piano.

The women who followed their Decembrist husbands or lovers were formidable. In Nerchinsk, the men were not allowed packages, so the women furtively sewed money into their clothes to buy the prisoners extra privileges. The prison commander reportedly said that “he would rather deal with a hundred political exiles than a dozen of their wives”. 

In Khabarovsk, Roberts meets a piano tuner who leads her to 19th-century piano, owned by a local philanthropist who bought it for his daughter for a hundred dollars. In Akademgorodok, she tracks down the piano that once belonged to a French concert pianist, Vera Lotar-Shevchenko, who was arrested with her husband and sent to Siberia.

Each piano has a history and stories to tell. And Roberts makes sure that all of them, whether they survived the years or not, have a chance to shine. Through them, she uncovers the lives of the people who brought them to this land and those she meets along the way. 

This is a fascinating way of discovering a place and a book well worth reading.

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Two Trees Make a Forest—In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts
by Jessica J. Lee

“I saw in Taiwan something of the ways that places draw us in—and sometimes push us away again—and there grew in me an inarticulate longing.”

This is a lyrical book about home, language, the immigrant experience and finding your roots. 

Two Trees Make a Forest

Jessica J. Lee was born in Canada. Her mother moved there from Taiwan with her parents, whom Lee called Gong (Chinese for grandfather) and Po (grandmother). Lee’s relationship with them—especially with her grandfather, whom she was close to—is central to this book. 

After Gong moved back to Taiwan and died there, Lee and her mother went to visit his remains. This was only the second time Lee had been to Taiwan, but something about the island touched a chord in her.  

“It was as if we were finding in the landscape an expression of this place and our lives beyond my grandfather’s death, beyond a past I did not fully understand. I developed a love for these mountains and their forests, a need to return and return again.” 

Lee returns to Taiwan and spends several months there, travelling through the country. She is an environmental historian, and much of her writing about Taiwan focuses on its natural beauty. Along the coast, she goes looking for the elusive black-faced spoonbill. Hiking in the mountains, she wakes in her tent after a storm, finding “[t]orrents of water” howling past. She writes about the effect that climate change is having on the island and how the government is trying to battle it. 

This is also a story about her family and what it means to be an immigrant. Gong’s life is one of the threads running through the book. Lee draws on a letter he wrote to her mother towards the end of his life, by which time he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Twenty pages long, written in Chinese, it was an “autobiography of his life, looping around and repeating his story”. 

Lee’s grandparents both moved to Taiwan from mainland China when they were young. Adjusting to life in Canada wasn’t easy. Gong was a colonel in the Chinese Air Force and thought he could fly for commercial airlines in Canada. But since Taiwan was not recognized as a country, his credentials did not carry over. It would have taken five years for him to get the clearance to fly, by which time he would be over the age limit. So instead he worked as a cleaner in a factory, spending his days mopping floors. 

There is so much to this book. Lee writes about language: “Languages become a home. In English, I find my mind, and in German, my present life in Berlin. But my earliest words were in Mandarin, my mother’s tongue. I know them still.” She scatters words in Mandarin throughout the book, explaining not only their meaning but how the logograms are put together. I found this fascinating. 

I loved this book. I learned a lot about Taiwan: its history, and its flora and fauna. But the heart of Two Trees Make a Forest is the story of Lee’s family. It’s beautifully written, and made me want to go visit the country.

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Review: Winter Pasture – One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders
by Li Juan (Translated from Chinese by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan)

Kazakh herders in China have been practicing their way of life for centuries. With their cattle, camels, sheep, and horses, they move from pasture to pasture, depending on the season.

Li Juan is a 30-year-old writer who lives with her mother in Akehara village near the Altai mountains, which border China, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia.

Winter Pasture: One Woman's Journey with China's Kazakh Herders

To document the herders’ way of life before it disappears, Li arranges to travel with them to the winter pasture. (As it happens, the journey described will probably be the last taken by the herders before they are settled by the government.)

The winter pasture is not a particular place: it is “all the land used by the nomads during the winter, stretching south uninterrupted from the vast rocky desert south of the Ulungur River all the way to the northern desert boundary of the Heavenly Mountains (also known as the Tian Shan Mountains). It is a place of open terrain and strong winds. … The snow mantle is light enough that the sheep can use their hooves to reach the withered grass beneath. At the same time, there is enough snowfall to provide the herders with all the water they and the livestock need to survive.”

She travels with Cuma, his wife, and 20-year-old daughter. Li’s account of the six months she spends with the family is fascinating, especially because the Kazakhs – Muslims and of Turkic descent – are a minority in China, while Li is Han, China’s majority community. But Li becomes part of the family, and they both learn from each other. 

Winter Pasture is a quiet book that falls into the rhythm of the days. The family live in a “burrow”, a room dug into the earth where they can stay warm. They use sheep dung to insulate it and build a platform where they can sleep. Every morning, they are up before dawn to take the livestock to pasture. The women also embroider, mend clothes and provide the home with water by lugging sacksful of snow. And at twilight, once the livestock are back and returned to their enclosures, the family relaxes with food, tea and music. And then another day begins.

Li becomes part of this life. She learns that herding camels is almost as difficult as herding cats: they have minds of their own, and if three decide to escape, they leave in three different directions, so the herder cannot ride after all of them at once.

But the climate is changing, and the pasture, which would normally see heavy snow, has barely enough to provide for the family and the livestock, forcing the women to travel further each time to find it. In some areas, snow has all but disappeared, making life an even greater hardship. 

Li’s descriptions of the family bring them to life. The father, Cuma, is boisterous, hard-working and restless – he dislikes being idle and drives everyone crazy when he has nothing to do. His wife, whom Li calls Sister-in-law, is tough and calm, and the affection between the couple is palpable. The daughter Kama is bright, but she has had to give up school to help her parents since her older sister and brother are away studying. The family cannot afford to send them all to school, both financially and because of the workload. Kama does not complain but sometimes is a little wistful about her missed opportunities.

There are some lovely moments here: Cuma playing with the neighbors’ little girl, for example. “He’d pinch her nose with chopsticks and pretend to pop it into his mouth, chewing it like it was the most delicious thing. When the little one watch him smack his lips, she rubbed her nose nervously, afraid that he had really eaten it.”

This way of life is a mix of the old and new. Soon Cuma and his family will give up nomadic life and settle somewhere along the Ulungur River, and traditions that have lasted centuries will disappear. I am glad the Li was able to witness it first-hand and share their story with us.

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Review: The Girl with Seven Names
by Lee Hyeon-seo (with David Jones)

This is an extraordinary story about a young North Korean woman who crossed the border to China, ended up in South Korea, and then went back to the North Korean-Chinese border to get her mother. 

Lee Hyeon-seo was born in Hyesan, a North Korean town near the Chinese border. Her father was in the military, and the family was comfortably off, partly because her mother traded in Chinese goods from across the border.

The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea

North Korean society functions on songbun, a caste system based on the deeds of the father’s family, depending on which, the family was classed as loyal, wavering or hostile. Fortunately, Lee’s mother had good songbun, which allowed her to trade without attracting too much official attention. Although the trade was not legal, “[i]n North Korea the only laws that truly matter, and for which extreme penalties are imposed if they are broken, touch on loyalty to the Kim dynasty.”

People could not leave North Korea without permission but, curious about the outside world, Lee decided to risk the crossing before her 18th birthday, while she was still a minor and could get away with not being punished too severely.

She slipped away in the evening and went to her uncle and aunt in Shenyang, a nearby Chinese town, but things took an unexpected turn and she could no longer return home.

So Lee spent the next 10 years in China, getting by on a false identity, pretending to be Chinese-Korean. She started to realize how pernicious the North Korean propaganda was and the blatant lies the regime used to subjugate its people. She eventually sought asylum in South Korea and moved there. 

Back in North Korea, things were becoming difficult for Lee’s mother, so she was smuggled out by Lee’s brother – who, like Lee a decade earlier, could no longer return home. A circuitous adventure led them to Laos, where they are arrested and thrown into prison. 

This is my first real glimpse of life for ordinary North Koreans. People believe what they are told because they have no point of comparison: they know nothing of other governments or societies, and they are unaware that they have rights. 

Living in constant fear tends to bring out the worst in people: they learn not to trust anyone – a habit Lee had trouble breaking. In Vientiane, she notices the foreign travellers: “They were inhabitants of that other universe, governed by laws, human rights and welcoming tourist boards. It was oblivious to the one I inhabited, of secret police, assumed IDs and low-life brokers.”

But this is also a book of hope: not just the hope of a new life, but also the unexpected kindness from strangers. 

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Review: Shadow City – A Woman Walks Kabul
by Taran N. Khan

“The stories we tell are often crafted from imperfect memory, drawing on what we remember, forgetting the rest. This is also true of cities, where what we see is only that which is recalled, what is apparent. Sometimes this forgetting is unwittingly inflicted, caused by the convulsions of war or the eroding passing of time. At other times it is deliberate, a conscious strategy of erasure. I sought out what was forgotten in Kabul as a way to map this batin [hidden] city.”

Shadow City : A Woman Walks Kabul

When Taran N. Khan landed in Kabul, the first thing she was told was never to walk. Thankfully, she ignored the advice. She shows us another side of Kabul—the one where people live and love and go about their everyday lives, rather than the version on the news, with bombs and soldiers (these make only peripheral appearances).

Khan, an Indian journalist, made several trips to Kabul between 2006 and 2013. Her connection to the city began long before. Because her family are Pathans who are originally from Afghanistan, her grandfather knew the city well without ever having been there. She is close to him, and his presence permeates the book: he is her guide to the city.

She sets out to map Kabul, focusing in each chapter on a different aspect: bookshops, cemeteries, films, addictions and trauma, and love. She takes us to the shrines and gardens and down its winding streets, giving us a real sense of place.

A second-hand shoe shop owner says to his customers as they walk out with their new purchases, “May you wear them with joy”.  Khan wanders through a “labyrinth of narrow book-lined gullies [lanes]” with boys running up and down ladders, returning “triumphant with a book that I had asked for, or just one they felt I should have”.

She is introduced to an ex-Afghan army veteran, who had served under the communist government, and a former mujahideen commander. The two men, who were once on opposite sides of the war—in fact one of them had tried to assassinate the other and missed by sheer luck—now sit down regularly for a cup of tea together.

She intersperses her accounts with memories of growing up in Aligarh, an Indian town. The relatively conservative upbringing prepared her for Kabul: young women walking on their own in India are subject to the male gaze. This made her not only appreciate walking as a luxury but also to be sensitive to no-go areas. All of this is very familiar, as I also grew up in India.

So is Kabul. I spent four years there in the early 70s as a child (before the wars), and recognize some of the places that Khan describes. But so much has changed. This is a portrait of a city in flux. Neighborhoods that were destroyed are being rebuilt; one of the neighborhoods is full of “poppy palaces”, luxurious mansions built with money made from opium.

Khan writes beautifully and perceptively. Some of her passages are lyrical, as when she writes about the graves: “I found the paths I wandered in these cemeteries were like veins—leading to the many shades of loss that run through Kabul. The city is marked by absence, of which a plot in a cemetery is merely the simplest manifestation.”

This is a book worth reading, an introduction to the heart of a city that we see frequently on the news but know so little about.

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Review: A Year in Japan
by Kate T. Williamson

This is a sumptuous book. Kate T. Williamson spent a year in Japan, mostly in Kyoto, and this book is the result.

Through beautiful illustrations and a minimal amount of text, Williamson introduces us to Japan, its people and culture. When she arrives in Kyoto, she walks past a department store and notices a wall of patterns and colours. Intrigued, she goes in and finds that the squares of cloth displayed are washcloths, used for wiping your hands on in public restrooms. 

A Year in Japan

“The washcloths were my first exposure to the attention to detail that characterizes much of Japan—both visually and socially. I soon came to realize just how much thought lies behind appearances and actions there, and that these details of beauty and nuances of word and deed are both expected and appreciated.”

The book is full of little details of life in Japan: the dancing man on the screen of her mobile phone; the colourful book bags that fill stores during the back-to-school period; and an electric pad meant to keep her warm through the winters. 

Appreciation of nature is important to the Japanese. Families make expeditions to see the cherry blossoms and maple leaves. The old houses have towers that were especially built for viewing the moon. 

Williamson has lunch with a geisha, goes to a performance of Guys and Dolls in Japanese with an all-female cast, and studies shiborizome, “a traditional textile art that uses sewing and indigo-dyeing to create subtle and beautiful patterns”. One of the things that caught my eye was how pottery is repaired: rather than trying to hide the repair, metallic filling is used, then lacquered and painted over, making the join visible. The damaged item of pottery then becomes a new work of art. 

Then, of course, there is the food, and Williamson devotes several pages to it: tsukimi dango, sweets made especially for moon-viewing; shōjin ryōri, the vegetarian cuisine of monks; and wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets that come in different shapes and colours depending on the season. 

Williamson immerses you in the feel and colours of Japan. There is text when it is needed; otherwise, she lets her illustrations speak for themselves. It is worth owning in a print edition — this is the kind of book that will bring sunshine and colour into your life, even on the rainiest day.

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Review: Lands of Lost Borders – A Journey on the Silk Road
by Kate Harris

If things had worked out differently this book might have been about Mars instead of the Silk Road. Kate Harris is a true explorer at heart, always seeking new places and new worlds. She contemplated signing up to go to Mars but realized during the simulation that she would be seeing it through a large suit and gloves and so decided to opt for more earthly places that she could touch.

Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road

She persuades a friend to cycle with her along the old Silk Road, initially through China. Sneaking into Tibet under cover of darkness (they don’t have the requisite papers), an official car pulls up while they are filling their water bottles. Heart sinking, Kate watches as the Chinese official kicks her tyres and tries to lift her bike. Then he walks back to the car and instead of returning with handcuffs, he hands her three crisp cucumbers.

Their second foray is more substantial and longer, from Turkey to Ladakh in northern India. They only take trains if it is unavoidable but manage to brave it through freezing cold and constant rain, searing heat, landslides and Central Asian bureaucracy. Their trip takes them to Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, then to China and Nepal.

The book is filled with the warmth and hospitality of ordinary people, the people who pass them on to friends and families in other villages, the ones who take them in and feed them and let them set up their tent in their gardens, the woman restauranteur in Uzbekistan who offers to wash their hair for them, and the Turkish gas attendant who scrapes out the frozen oatmeal from their mugs. “[I]n these simple gestures it seemed possible to rebuild the world.”

But this is more than a book about the road. Harris is fascinated by the nature of exploration: what drives people, and how it affects the landscape. She also writes about borders and their shifting nature, about cross-national conservation efforts that fly in the fact of political conflict. 

Harris writes beautifully and her passion for discovery and appreciation for beauty runs through the book. You follow the women on their often grueling journey and then, like an oasis, you get prose like this, and the ‘why’ makes sense. “If to be an explorer I must draw a map…let it be this: How the sky shifted and darkened over the plateau that night, and the sun gave a last golden glance through the clouds. How the mountains shone like bits of fallen moon all around me, glowed for a moment and were gone.”

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Review: Walking in Clouds – A Journey to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar
by Kavita Yaga Buggana

Kavita Yaga Buggana and her cousin Pallu planned to go together to Mount Kailash in Tibet since they were 18. But life got in the way, they both married, moved away from India and had children. But they held onto their dream.

They finally make the trip years later, after both families have moved back home and the two women are in their early 40s. Ignoring the worried protests of their husbands, they take off, joined by a third friend.

Walking in Clouds : A Journey to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar

Mt. Kailash is sacred in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, and Bon, a Tibetan religion. According to Hindu belief, Mt. Kailash is where the god Shiva lives with his consort Parvathi. Pilgrims walk the circumference of the holy mountain, a ritual that is supposed to bring good fortune.

They meet up with traveling companions In Nepal: Katy from Hong Kong who lives in Vancouver; Ying, a Chinese woman with a bad leg; Jeff, an irrepressible Australian; Sperello, an Italian astrophysicist; and their guide Chhiring. The entire group is part of this book—the photographs that illustrate it were contributed by them.

Reaching the mountain involves trekking through some fairly high and difficult terrain, and Yaga Buggana, although she has the latest equipment, is not prepared for the intense effort. She finds it a challenge, and the cousins almost call it quits on their first night. But things look better in the morning. 

Yaga Buggana captures the effort of putting one foot in front of the other as well as the beauty of the landscape. Like night in the Salli Khola camp in Nepal: “In these heights, the heavens seem to have drifted down, almost touching the earth. The air is cold. The river hums, invisible over rocks. This is the most brilliant sky I have ever seen in my life. As I gaze at the heavens, I feel I am falling and flying, and I become intensely aware of these wondrous stars illuminating a great infinity.”

She writes about the razing of Tibetan monasteries. “It is deeply unsettling to picture the original temple being razed, monks fleeing with scrolls and images, fire and rubble consuming once-sacred grounds. … the sacred object and its essence are inseparable and they are often repositories of important cultural identities. In the old temple, it was not stone or metal that was targeted, but the Tibetan people’s sense of self, their spirit, culture, hopes, and strengths.”

This is not just a travel book: Yagga Buggana intersperses her experience with history, legends and beliefs. The book gave me a strong sense of what it means to make that journey and of the richness of the region’s cultural history. And I admired the two women who were determined to realize their dream, whatever the odds. 

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Review: Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains – A Journey Across Arunachal Pradesh—India’s Forgotten Frontier
by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

Researching a BBC documentary in India, Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent meets Abhra “Abhra-cadabra” Bhattacharya, “fixeur extradonaire”. His stories of the Seven Sisters—the little-known states in the Indian northeast—fascinate her: tales of unchartered wilderness, shamans, sightings of the yeti and human sacrifice.

So, naturally, Bolingbroke-Kent decides to see it for herself, focusing on the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Because of its proximity to China, she needs a special permit.

Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains: Shortlisted for the 2018 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award

Arunachal Pradesh is hilly, dense with forest. Packing for the journey is difficult; she will face tropical heat, monsoons and bitter cold, and all she has is a small motorcycle and a top box in which to store her things, which had to be made especially for her (“Number One Indian Quality Top Box”).

Bolingbroke-Kent braves Indian traffic and mountain roads. Her travels bring her into contact with various tribes including the Khampa, Idu and Adi. She talks to those who claim to have seen traces of the yeti, the mythical man-beast of the Himalayas, drinks vast quantities of chang (rice, barley or millet beer) and visits Tibetan monasteries and national parks.

She meets interesting people throughout her trip. There is Phupla, “Singpho prince, conservationist and guide” in a shirt and purple silk sarong, who rescues her from intense questioning by state border guards near Miao; Tina Mena, the first Indian woman to conquer Mount Everest (she says it was easy: as an Idu woman, she is used to marching up and down mountains); and Dorje Tenzing, a tall, regal man, who is not only “a restaurateur, lama, politician and artist” but also “an accomplished jungle apothecary”. 

Throughout the book, she intersperses her travels with historical accounts of the British who tried to explore the region with varying degrees of success.

Bolingbroke-Kent’s vivid descriptions bring it all to life. Miao is home to a growing population of refugees and migrants. “In the bazaar, Lisu women squatted behind piles of red chilies, ginger, garlic, coriander and tiny purple aubergines, calloused feet poking out from the hems of brightly woven sarongs; Bangladeshi tailors pedalled at antique Singer sewing machines; Bihari men stood at stalls crammed with tawdry Chinese tat; Tibetans sold momos in shacks strung with prayer flags. With all these people had come their beliefs, stamped on the streets and alleyways in wood and stone.”

It isn’t just the vagaries of Indian bureaucracy and extreme weather that Bolingbroke-Kent is dealing with but the fear of the debilitating panic attacks she suffered the year before travelling to India. The trip was her way of proving to herself she could still do it.

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Review: Wild by Nature – From Siberia to Australia
by Sarah Maquis

I love the way Sarah Maquis begins this book: “Put on your shoes. We’re going walking.”

And walk she does, equipped with a backpack and a cart, through Mongolia, China, the Gobi Desert, Siberia, Laos, Thailand, and southern Australia. The trip took her three years, with topographical maps only—no GPS!

Wild by Nature: From Siberia to Australia, Three Years Alone in the Wilderness on Foot

Maquis starts in Mongolia, providing a fascinating glimpse into a lesser-known country. She experiences some tense moments, especially in her tent at night, when horsemen ride to check out the strange woman travelling by herself. But there are also times when a wandering nomad joins her for a cup of tea or rescues her from being attacked by dogs, or when a woman selling food slips her a second helping of rice and eggs. 

Some of Maquis’s most vivid descriptions are about nature. She weathers a fierce storm, “exposed and vulnerable like the tumbleweed that the wind carries where it will”.  She has some close encounters with wildlife. Woken one night by the howls of wolves around her tent, she is tempted to howl with them but wisely opts to keep silent.

One morning, she hears plaintive cries and crawls out of her tent to investigate. “The spectacle I find is timeless. All around my tent, camels graze on the rare tufts of green. … The baby camels emit never-ending high-pitched plaintive sounds that pierce the air, while the adults move about gracefully, soundlessly, with movements that exude ease.”

She tries crossing the Gobi Desert but it’s too cold. So she flies to China, planning to cross it from the south. Starting in Yunnan province in the southwest of the country, she walks north to Sichuan. She learns numbers in sign language, which help when she is bargaining but not when she is trying to figure out where she is and all the signs are in Mandarin. Maquis walks through the Sichuan mountains, meeting ethnic minorities living in remote areas.  

And on her third try, she crosses the Gobi Desert, trusting camels to guide her to water sources.

This is a book of adventure, and I admire her courage in tackling the obstacles—human and natural—head-on. Floating down the Mekong river in a canoe, she contracts a high fever with no help at hand. She stays on the shore until it breaks. In Laos, she disturbs drug traffickers in the jungle. She manages to persuade them that she is not a threat, and after almost attacking her, they apologize and leave. In Australia, a man in a cowboy hat appears from time to bring her supplies and keep an eye on her. 

Maquis also gives us a glimpse into her philosophy of life: how walking brings her closer to nature, to the essential in life, where there are no comforts and she is sometimes pitched against the elements. She believes in listening to your body and in taking the time out to appreciate the small things in life, contrary to the way most of us are constantly rushing around. This is a lesson to be learned indeed.

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Review: Tigers in Red Weather
by Ruth Padel

This is a travel book with a difference: it is also a call for the conservation of wildlife ⎯ tigers in particular ⎯ and wild spaces. 

Ruth Padel is a single mother living in London. When a five-year affair with a married man breaks up, she is devastated. She initially romanticizes tigers as solitary survivors, something she can identify with. Then a chance trip to Kerala, India, brings her close to the real animal, and her interest in tigers is kindled.

Tigers In Red Weather (Abacus Books)

Padel journeys to all the places where tigers live in the wild: India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan for the Bengal tiger; Russia, South Korea and China for the Amur or Siberian tiger; and Indonesia for the Sumatran tiger. And she goes to the places where the Javanese and Bali tigers ⎯ now extinct ⎯ used to roam.

And everywhere she goes, she finds stories of deforestation, poaching and corrupt officials. Hope is thin on the ground, but is found in the work of dedicated people all over the region, determined to save the tiger and the wilderness.

Tigers are important to the forest ecosystem: if the tiger is healthy, the forest is healthy. It means prey are plentiful, and they in turn have enough to eat, and so on, all the way down to the insects.

“Any loss disrupts links between predators and prey, flowers and pollinators, fruits and dispersers of seeds. All have to be saved together, even leeches, in the wild. Zoos won’t stop the loss cascade. Losing the way they interact means losing the earth.”

She finds Bhutan ⎯ a small country with an incredibly varied ecosystem ⎯ working hard to preserve its wild species. Like on some of the reserves in India, the Bhutanese government tries to involve villagers living near forests in conservation by providing them with alternative livelihoods that would not include clearing forested areas or killing tigers. In Russia, she visits a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) field station near Vladivostok.  

The dark heart of tiger decimation is China, where the demand for tiger parts as medicine has created a multi-million-dollar industry. The Chinese government has been finally coming to grips with the illegal trade but it still has a long way to go. In China, too, people are fighting to keep the tiger and its habitat alive, as Padel finds when she goes to a tiger reserve in Jilin province in eastern China. 

Padel is a poet, and it shows in the ways she writes: in Periyar in the Indian Western Ghats, she takes a boat “in silver mist and saw drowned trees with cormorants on them, and white-breasted kingfishers with dazzling turquoise wings”. She describes sunrise in the Sunderbans, a mangrove forest that stretches from West Bengal to Bangladesh: “Sunrise. Orange eye in blue-veined cloud. A monitor lizard, blush-pink and silver-green, scrutinized water from a branch.”

Interspersed with her description of her journeys are glimpses into the end of her affair and the slow healing that takes place. Normally I would find this diversion irritating, but here, it works.

This book is not an easy read but it is worthwhile. Padel is not particularly athletic ⎯ her daily exercise is walking the dog ⎯ but she gamely slithers down near-vertical forests and walks miles through rough terrain in search of something she cares deeply about. She starts out as a city dweller who is taken with the romantic idea of tigers and ends as a tiger expert and an activist for conservation.  

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Review – Revolutionary Ride: On the Road in Search of the Real Iran
by Lois Pryce    

One evening in Kensington, London, Lois Pryce finds a note left on her motorcycle from a man called Habib: “I have seen your motorbike and I think you have travelled to many countries…. I wish that you would visit Iran so you can see for yourself about my country. WE ARE NOT TERRORISTS!”

This was in 2011, at the height of tensions between the UK and Iran. Intrigued, Lois decides to take Habib up on his offer and visit his city, Shiraz.

Revolutionary Ride: On the Road in Search of the Real Iran

She takes a train from Turkey across the border and rides her bike to Shiraz, going through Tabriz, the Alborz mountains, Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd and Persepolis. Navigating is a challenge—most of the signs are in Persian and her maps are hopelessly outdated (she is determined not to use GPS). But she is there to see the real Iran and takes it in her stride. Dusk often finds her on the road, hoping to find somewhere to stay the night.

Throughout her trip, complete strangers invite her to join them for a meal or invite her to their homes without any awkwardness or formality, like the Baha’i mother and son she meets on the train. She falls in love with the country and finds its people generous, funny and resourceful. What I found interesting was that, although women are treated as second-class citizens and told what they can or cannot do, Iranian women do not behave like victims. They have their own ways of challenging the system.

She meets ordinary Iranians throughout her trip: the family who give her a crash course on Iranian customs; the teenage girl who wants to become a doctor so she can leave the country; Raha, the businesswoman who wants to go into luxury goods; and Nahid, who runs a small hotel in the north, caring for her sick father and her brother, a recovering crystal meth addict.

But hardliners and the dreaded Revolutionary Guard (the moral police) are a reality, and they would not be friendly to a woman travelling alone. Pryce lives with the possibility that she could be imprisoned. She does have a couple of (thankfully) minor run-ins with the Guard but gets away unscathed. On the whole, she feels safe as a woman, more a curiosity than prey.

My favourite moment is at the point Pryce crosses over into Iran. By now, the entire train knows she has a bike and is going to ride across the country. Standing in line for seats on the onward train, she notices an older woman in a chador staring at her. The woman wants to know if Pryce has a “motor”. All of Pryce’s paranoia surfaces: she is convinced that the woman is a hardliner and will report her to the authorities. She tries to avoid answering but the woman is insistent: “Vroom, vroom! You have motor, yes? It is you?” Pryce admits it. A big smile spreads across the woman’s face. She gives Pryce a big kiss and starts jumping up and down, imitating riding a bike like a daredevil, her chador flapping around her. “Very good! Very good!” Her parting words to Pryce are: “Go and wake up your luck.”

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Review – A Short Ride through the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle
by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a feat of engineering constructed during the Viet Nam war to supply manpower and material to the North Vietnamese army. It runs from north to south Viet Nam, slipping into Laos and Cambodia and then back into Viet Nam. In 2012, Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent was sent to reconnoiter the trail for the BBC series, The World’s Most Dangerous Roads. A year later she decided to go back and ride it on her own.

A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle

Her trusty steed is the Pink Panther, a bright pink Honda C90, a small bike—somewhere between a motorcycle and a moped. She picks up the Panther in Hanoi for a journey that will take her through dense forests, muddy roads and tiny villages. These are not places on the tourist map and all the more fascinating for that.

It takes courage for a woman to ride the Trail alone. But, as Bolingbroke-Kent explains, “Company makes us idle, gives us masks to hide behind, allows us to avoid our weaknesses and cushions our fears. By peeling away these protective layers I wanted to see how I would cope, find out what I was really made of, emotionally and physically.” And the Trail does test the limits of her endurance, especially when she insists on pushing through mud to reach her destination and the Panther breaks down, leaving her alone in the Cambodian jungle. She eventually does find help and makes it through.

Bolingbroke-Kent also provides a history of the Viet Nam war and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The book doesn’t just move between the past and present—the borders between the two feel porous, and the past encroaches on, and is still alive in, the present.

Because of the American bombing campaigns to destroy the Trail, the area is full of unexploded ordnances (UXOs). Villagers take the metal from downed planes either to sell or to use in their houses. In Cambodia, there is second-generation post-traumatic stress disorder from the Khmer Rouge days.

This is a very rich account, full of the realities of life in all three countries.

It tells how mining and illegal logging are destroying the environment, how the author often stays in brothels (the only hotels in small villages), how people go out of their way to help.

When she has trouble crossing a river in Laos, a woman moves a group of kids into action, and before long, the Panther is safe and dry on the opposite bank. When she is stranded in a Cambodian jungle, a passerby on a bike picks her up and asks her to join him and his wife for a meal. In Saigon over New Year, a woman at a Buddhist shrine takes Bolingbroke-Kent to meet her family. She meets people who were on opposite sides during the but war but have moved past the enmity to become friends.

This book is funny, sobering and inspiring. And hats off to Bolingbroke-Kent for (almost) never saying “no” to an adventure!

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Review – Porcelain Moon and Pomegranates: A Woman’s Trek through Turkey
by Üstün Bilgen-Reinart

Üstün Bilgen-Reinart is a Turkish woman, who moved to Canada when she was 18 to study and stayed on. But in the late 1990s, she moved back to spend more time with her ageing parents.

Setting out to rediscover her country, Bilgen-Reinart delves into Turkey’s history, starting with ancient times and moving forward, visiting historical sites and linking them to the present by talking to people. Her journeys include Kurdistan, Sanliurfa, the site of a series of honour killings, and brothels.

Porcelain Moon and Pomegranates: A Woman's Trek Through Turkey

Bilgen-Reinart meets many interesting—and diverse—women. Hürü Kara, a “regal-looking elderly matron” living in a village in central Anatolia, recites poetry to her and doesn’t let her leave without a parting gift. Hacer is a young prostitute who invites Bilgen-Reinart to her home and offers her a spare bed so she won’t have to take a taxi late at night. Feride is a Kurd, a refugee because her village was burned down. There are no men left in her family, only young boys. Rahime is at the forefront of the protest against the goldmine near Bergama, which would leach cyanide into the water tables. In Sanliurfa, Sahabat, a mother, worries about keeping her daughter safe.

But one thing has stayed with me. In the Neolithic period, Anatolia—one of the oldest continually inhabited regions in the world—was the centre of the cult of Cybele, the Mother Goddess. Women were revered because they gave birth and the man’s role was unimportant (a far cry from the repressive patriarchal society of the present). There are still shrines to Cybele all over the region. Bilgen-Reinart visits the architectural dig of Çatalhöyük, the settlement of a Neolithic society that practiced equality between the sexes and where difference did not mean inferiority or superiority.

“The settlement had no fortifications and the site had never suffered war. None of the human bones found there show any evidence of a violent death. No weapons that could have been used against human beings have been discovered. A human society where war was unknown!” It is the tragedy of humankind that we have forgotten how to do this, but reassuring that we once did—and maybe one day still can.

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Review – Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth
by Lisa Napoli

Lisa Napoli was working at a radio station in Los Angeles, dissatisfied with her life, when a chance encounter led her to a radio job in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. All she knew about the country was that it had a Gross National Happiness index.

She is picked up at the airport by Ngawang, a bubbly young woman who works at the radio station.

Radio Shangri-la: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth

The harrowing ride from the airport gives Napoli her first glimpse of the country: the spectacular mountains, the royal blue signs in English and Dzongkha (the Bhutanese language), and the beautiful houses with “sloping roofs and ornately carved orange wooden frames around the windows”, many with giant phalluses painted on the sides. “People will be too ashamed to look and to covet what they don’t have,” explains Ngawang.

The radio station, located in a disused kitchen, is called Kuzoo FM (after kuzu zampo, the Dzongkha greeting) and caters to Bhutanese youth, broadcasting a mix of music (mostly Western pop, downloaded illegally) and information programmes. It is run by a group of young volunteers, including Ngawang, Pema (dubbed Oprah by Napoli for her love of being on the air) and Pink, who works as a DJ at night. Its popularity is also due to participation by the audience, who call in with comments or even sing on the airwaves. Napoli’s job was to help make the station more professional.

Bhutan is unlike most other countries: it had been closed to the outside world for many years, and there are still restrictions on the number of tourists allowed in. Napoli was there during a time of major change. Bhutan was starting to open up, with all the risks that exposure to Western culture brings. It had held its first election after transitioning from monarchy to democracy – a change decided by the king rather than the people.

Not only do we glimpse Bhutan through a first-time visitor, but the gaze is reversed when Ngawang visits Napoli in Los Angeles. Things that Napoli takes for granted fascinate Ngawang: a drive-in fast-food joint, the beach (“it’s bigger than it seems on television!”) and Napoli’s tiny apartment with no garden. This perception of each culture by the other gives the book another dimension.

Napoli is good observer and obviously loves the country and the people. I suspect she will have a life-long relationship with the country. After all, there is no word for good-bye in Dzongkha.

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Review – Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation
by Elizabeth Pisani

Indonesia is a complex country. It is made up of 13,466 islands with over 360 ethnic groups and 719 languages. When it gained independence from the Dutch in 1945, the declaration of independence read: “We, the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.”

According to Elizabeth Pisani, “Indonesia has been working that ‘etc.’ ever since.”

Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation

Elizabeth Pisani knows Indonesia well. She was posted there as a journalist with Reuters in 1988 for three years. She returned to the country in 2001 after retraining as an epidemiologist specialising in AIDS. In 2011, she decided to write about the country. She spent a year travelling through Indonesia, trying to see what held this diverse country together. Pisani speaks fluent Indonesian, which opened doors for her. She had one golden rule: always say yes!

Pisani has a reason for this rule: she knows that planning a trip in Indonesia is fairly pointless.

Boats leave 18 hours after they’re supposed to, buses wait until they’re full before departing and tend to make detours to “drop someone at home or pick up a package from Auntie’s”. So the only way to get anywhere is to say yes when someone offers a lift. Even when she’s not sure where exactly they’re going. This sense of adventure permeates the book.

In Sumba, an island in the south, not far from Timor, she meets Mama LakaBobo, an old lady with a face “made crinkly from smiling”. Mama Bobo practically adopts Pisani, telling her about the village and how to behave according to adat. Adat is one of the most important aspects of life in most of the country (not in big cities like Jakarta). It is loosely translated as cultural tradition and is a mix of “body of lore and transmuted wisdom” that rules over birth and death, marriage and divorce, education and conservation.

During her travels, Pisani stays with local people, becoming a part of the life of the community. She looks up acquaintances from her earlier visits to the country, and they welcome her back into their homes, as if she had never really left.

What Pisani realizes at the end of her trip is that the country is held together through the vast networks that people have, which create extremely strong bonds. “The sturdiest of these threads is surely collectivism—village-based in Java, more clannish in much of the rest of the country, formalised nationwide through the giant web of bureaucracy. Almost all Indonesians are bound into at least one important web of mutual obligation, often several.” This, and faith, provides people with a sense of security.

I loved this book—I’d rate it as one the best of the travel books I’ve reviewed in this column.

She brings us as close as we can get to the country and the people without ever going there—and I suspect, even if most of us do go, because she takes us to areas so remote tourists are very unlikely to visit.

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Review – Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea
by Kira Salak

This is unlike any travel book by a woman that I’ve read so far. Kira Salak is an adventurer in the real sense of the word—she lets nothing stop her, whether it’s fear of the unknown (and sometimes the known), the delirium of fever or having to trek through impenetrable jungle. A part of me wanted to shake her for taking such crazy risks while another part was rooting for her to complete her journey.

Four Corners

Salak is driven by her emotional baggage, a need to prove herself to her aloof parents. Their rather unorthodox way of child rearing included not setting boundaries just because she was a girl. This partly explains why she didn’t think twice about taking risks. 

Everyone Salak meets warns her off going to Papua New Guinea on her own, except for the Papuan women at the YWCA in the capital, Port Moresby. They are excited at her plans to go up the rivers into PNG’s deepest jungle and suggest their “wantoks”—people from the same tribe or family, or just good friends—with whom she can stay on the way.

Her trip is as fascinating as it is harrowing. She is abandoned at a remote village by the man she paid to take her up the river. At one point in her trip, the only way to reach her next destination is to hike through miles of forest. A woman from the village she is staying in, Mila, offers to take her. The hike tests Salak to her limits.

“The rain is torrential. In the heavy humidity, I cannot tell the difference between water and sweat. I plow through the knee-deep muck of our trail, my pack is weighing me down, sinking me deeper into the muck.” They go over mountains so steep that Salak had to pull herself up using tree roots. And all the time, Mila seems barely to break a sweat!

Because of the way she travels and her determination, Salak manages to penetrate places tourists don’t see. In the north, she goes to the camp of Free Papua Guerrilla Movement. The guerrillas were fighting for independence from Indonesia for their home, New Guinea, the other half of the island. The stories they tell her are heart-breaking, and depressingly common in today’s world.

Salak brings it all alive. She writes lyrically about the PNG landscape: “We’re travelling up the Wogamush river. … All is lush and vibrant in this country—I’ve never seen a place so rich, so bursting with colour. Not even Tahiti had so many rainbows capriciously streaking the sky… And the green! Such green, everywhere. The darker green of the wild sugarcane lining the shores, and the sultry green of the rainforest beyond.”

I would recommend reading Four Corners. It is a personal book, and along with the vivid account of her travels, it is also a voyage of self-discovery. I have to say that I was very glad to go on this expedition with her while sitting safely on my sofa!

Find out more or buy the book at Amazon 

Review – Honeymoon in Purdah
by Alison Wearing

This book is a mosaic of Iran, made up through portraits of its people. It is perceptive, funny and thoroughly enjoyable. By providing a glimpse into everyday lives, it breaks the stereotypes about the country.

During this trip—a honeymoon for the Canadian couple, Alison Wearing and Ian—Alison often went out by herself, sometimes completely forgetting about her companion. Strange behaviour, you might think, for a honeymooning couple.

Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey

Except that, as she reveals a third of the way through the book, they’re not married, not even a couple. She wanted to visit Iran and since she couldn’t do it as a woman alone, she persuaded her gay roommate and close friend to go with her.

The book was published in 2000, so the trip probably took place in the late 1990s. The war between Iran and Iraq had ended less than a decade ago, and although president Hashemi Rafsanjani was the country more towards business, the hardliners were very much in charge. Alison complied with the strict rules about how women ought to dress and got herself a hejab (scarf to cover her hair), a manteau (a long, shapeless coat) and a chador (the cloth to drape over the hejab and manteau). While she was clearly foreign, her effort to blend in made her more approachable.

Ian and Alison stayed with friends of friends or in cheap hotels (and even once with a mullah!) and what emerges is a pattern of unfailing hospitality. In Shiraz, a man offers them a lift to the poet Hafez’s tomb but must pick up his mother first. The mother decides they should all go to her home for lunch instead. Hafez, after all, had been dead for 600 years and could wait; she was 74 and couldn’t. When Alison complains about the heat to a couple in a post office, they whisk her off to a mountain oasis hours away, leaving Ian a note, “Mr. Canada, We take your wife. We make her cold”. Even the police, who arrested Ian when he photographed a procession, plies them with endless cups of tea and buys them a film to replace the one they had to destroy.

Alison and Ian met people on both sides of the political divide: a young man who regretted not becoming a martyr in the recent war, people who had been imprisoned and tortured by the government, and those like Tip, a young man raised in the US and making money selling opium so he could eventually return. Alison also spent time with foreign women who were happily married to Iranian men and had chosen to stay in the country.

And that is the strength of Honeymoon in Purdah, in which portraits of a cross-section of the Iranian population bring the country to life. Iran is opening up to the world but the book’s portrayal of its resourceful, curious and hospitable people still holds true. 

Find out more or buy the book at Amazon 

Review – A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan
by Farzana Versey

This book about travelling in Pakistan is particularly interesting because the author is an Indian Muslim woman, whose various identities affect the way she perceives and is perceived by Pakistani people. Farzana Versey travelled several times to the country between 2001 and 2007, and A Journey Interrupted is a series of vignettes from her trips. 

A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan

A bit of history is needed to understand the impact Pakistan has on Versey. In 1947 the Indian subcontinent was split into India and Pakistan. Pakistan became a state for Muslims and in history’s greatest migration, some 14 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs moved from one side of the border to the other. The migration was extremely violent, with massacres on both sides and an estimated half a million people killed in a religious genocide.

Many of the scars still run deep, which partly explains the ongoing tensions between the two countries. The years have improved things somewhat but an Indian travelling in Pakistan can still provoke strong reactions.

The book begins with one of Versey’s trips being cut short: she is deported because her visa runs out. She applies for an extension but is told that she is “from the wrong country”. The retired army general she speaks to says: “We gave you an opportunity [as Muslims] in 1947. … Your family should have come then.”

Versey’s family, like mine, chose to stay in India and lived too far south to be directly affected by the partition. As far as we were concerned, India was home. But for some people this remains unimaginable—one woman asks her how it feels to not live in your own country. 

Versey travels alone. Pakistan is in many ways more conservative than India. One of her guides, a man, is embarrassed to be seen with her. When they go out for a walk, he complains she walks too confidently and displays too much curiosity.

But people also open up to her.  She meets writers, musicians, poets, chaiwallahs (tea-sellers) and prostitutes. Versey breaks through stereotypes to reveal a complex nation where the “personal becomes the political”.

She talks to journalists. Contrary to the popular perception of Pakistan, there exists a critical and fairly vocal press, which finds ways around the occasional attempts by the government to silence it. She learns about the gay community from a gay woman, a courageous member of a (still illegal) minority in a country that stigmatises homosexuality. 

Versey gave me an insight into a country that neighbours mine and to which I have never been. It is a highly personal book but because it takes place over several trips, it may come across as a bit disjointed, with writing that is occasionally a tad clunky. But I recommend it for a nuanced portrait of a nation.

This book is too expensive on Amazon, but you can order it from India through Abe Books.

Review – The Kama Sutra Diaries: Intimate Journeys through Modern India
by Sally Howard

This is a travel book with a difference. Sally Howard takes us on a journey through the sexual mores of India, with all the contradictions. The civilization that gave us the Kama Sutra and the Khajuraho carvings has become a conservative society with double standards. But India has always been a country of paradoxes—a place that has space for wildly differing attitudes and peoples.

The Kama Sutra Diaries: Intimate Journeys Through Modern India

Each chapter starts with a quote from the Kama Sutra, which links the past and the present throughout the book. Howard starts with a visit to the Khajuraho temples—built between 950 and 1150—with carvings of seemingly impossible sexual positions. For years, the temples were known just to the locals (the British arrived in the 19th century). Can you imagine Victorian British men stumbling across these erotic carvings in the middle of an Indian forest?

Howard travels through India with Dimple, a 32-year-old BIG (Bad Indian Girl), who walked out on an unhappy arranged marriage and is now a single mother. (A Good Indian Girl, or GIG, is expected to stay in her marriage, no matter how unhappy or abusive.)

This is a book of surprising encounters. In Gujurat, an openly gay maharaja has started a retirement home for gay and transgender people, including hijras (now recognized as a third gender, with rights) or eunuchs. In Shillong in the northeast, Howard and Dimple talk to a man from the Khasi tribe, a strongly matriarchal society in which women make the major decisions. Not surprisingly, the men are feeling marginalized, a feeling which is familiar to a lot of women, and not just in India!

As an Indian who has been out of the country for a long time, I found this book an eye-opener. Some of these things I did know about, but others were a complete surprise. I found the change in attitudes gave me reason for optimism, in spite of the backlash. Women are starting to fight back and stand up for their rights, as is the gay community. There are anti-“Eve-teasing” (a euphemism for sexual harrassment and groping) flash mobs on the Delhi metro. Not to mention the country-wide demonstrations after the horrific rape in Delhi in 2012. It will take a long time for attitudes to undergo a significant shift but the cracks are showing.

Find out more or buy the book at Amazon

Review – Around India in 80 Trains
by Monisha Rajesh

Looking out of her window on a foggy London day, Monisha Rajesh feels she needs a change. So begins her journey to India. Rajesh’s family had moved back to India from Sheffield in the early 1990s for a traumatic two years. She feels that she and India had “parted on bad terms” and decides, 20 years later, to give the country another chance. In a nod to Jules Verne (Around the World in 80 Days), she will take 80 trains. 

Around India in 80 Trains

Being Indian, and having travelled on trains a lot when I lived there, this book is particularly close to my heart. With the horror stories about women travelling alone in India, Rajesh’s solo train experience was the same as mine 30 years ago. Like her, I was in a compartment with five men, and instead of being harrassed, I was looked after. One of the men even insisted on buying me breakfast. (“You must eat.”)

Rajesh’s descriptions of India and Indians also struck a chord. Indians have no problem asking complete strangers personal questions: “with the proficiency of a pickpocket they extract details ranging from your salary and star sign, to your brand of mobile phone and any unusual birthmarks”.  Rajesh makes it all come alive: the man selling coffee and tea on the train calling out his wares, “carfee, carfee, chai-carfeeee”; a red sari among tall grass, “like a single tulip in a field of green”, a fruit seller squatting by his basket, counting out a wad of money. I’ve decided that it’s time I took an Indian train again.

Find out more or buy the book at Amazon

You can also read great book reviews about AfricaAmericasEurope, and the rest of the world.

— Originally published on 09 August 2015

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