Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Book note: A journey around Russia

April 13, 2022

THE BORDER: A JOURNEY AROUND RUSSIA through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage by Erika Fatland (2017) translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson (2020)

Russia is the largest country in the world, and has the largest border.  The circumference of Russia is half again as large as the circumference of the globe itself.

A young Norwegian woman named Erika Fatland circumnavigated Russia, which is no small feat, and wrote this book about it.

She visited every country on Russia’s southern and western borders. She saw the sights in each country, talked to some of the locals and brushed up on the history of its relations with Russia.  

Every one except Norway bore the scars of having been attacked or occupied by Russia at some point in its history, most of them in the 20th century.

The implication is that there is something about Russians that makes them a standing threat to their neighbors, no matter whether they are ruled by Tzars, Communists or Vladimir Putin.

I don’t agree with this framing.  Russia itself has been attacked and invaded many times.  And, like the 18th century conservative Edmund Burke, I know not the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people.  

Even so, I found the book worth reading.  I learned interesting things from it.  I thank my friend Judith Judson for recommending it.

 It is too big to summarize.  I’ll hit some high points.

Fatland’s first stop was North Korea, whose existence is a reminder that totalitarianism is real.  People there have less freedom than an American or Briton in prison, yet they think they are free.  They are poor and backward, yet they think they live in the most advanced nation in the world.  

Or so they said.  But maybe the system of surveillance is so complete that many or most North Koreans inwardly have doubts, but don’t dare to say so.  The result is the same.

Back in the 1950s, many of us liberals feared that totalitarian governments could come to dominate the world and establish a complete system of thought control.  North Korea shows that danger wasn’t altogether imaginary.

I found Fatland’s account of Mongolia was the most interesting section of the book.  Mongolia adopted Tibetan Buddhism in 1586 and their spiritual leaders came from Tibet.  But the prediction is the next Mongolian lama will be incarnated in Mongolia.   Fatland heard a Mongolian throat singer, who’d mastered the art of singing in two tones.  

She interviewed reindeer herders in Tuva, the remotest part of this remote country.  She talked to “ninja miners,” individuals who prospect for gold and other minerals in this mineral-rich country.

Kazakhstan is a prime example of Soviet and Russian imperialism.  Along with the other Central Asian nations, its government is a continuation of the Soviet government and it is under the thumb of Russia.  An uprising a few months ago was quashed with the help of Russian troops.

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The Plain of Snakes: Paul Theroux in Mexico

November 20, 2019

In 2017, the travel writer Paul Theroux, at the age of 76 set out in his car to drive through Mexico, disregarding well-founded warnings of danger. He wrote about his trip in his new book, On the Plain of Snakes: a Mexican Journey.

The Plain of Snakes is an actual place in Mexico, but Theroux wrote that for ordinary Mexican people, most of the country is like a plain of snakes.

There is no safe haven from the murderous criminals that run the drug cartels.  Nor do the corrupt police and military offer an protection.

Yet ordinary Mexicans, he found, are amazingly hospitable and helpful.  He saw a stark contrast between the integrity and courage of individual Mexicans he met, and the corruption and savagery of Mexican society.

The drug cartels demonstrate their power by dumping mutilated corpses in public places.  They kidnap powerful people and hold them for ransom.  They kidnap poor migrants and coerce them into being prostitutes or couriers.

More than 200,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006 when the Mexican government, at the instigation of the United States, declared war on the cartels.

But the killings aren’t just due to the drug wars.  Many were in power struggles between cartels, or attacks on honest journalists, judges and police, or just demonstrations of raw power.

In many parts of Mexico, the narcos are more powerful than the government.  Recently there was confrontation between a cartel and the government, and the government backed down—which may have been justified under the circumstances, but does not bode well.

The Mexican military and police are almost as violent and abusive as the cartels, according to Theroux.  They are often interlocked with the cartels, while the gangs themselves recruit from elite Mexican and Central American military units.

Narco terrorism in Mexico is a more serious concern for the USA than ISIS terrorism in the Middle East, but of course any U.S. military intervention in Mexico would be a disaster..

There is a widespread cult in Mexico of an entity called Santa Muerte (Holy Death), who is cross between a Catholic saint (although her worship has been condemned by the Vatican) and an Indian spirit.  Theroux said she has an estimated 20 million worshipers, including members of the cartels but also many ordinary Mexicans.

The distinctive thing about Santa Muerte is that she supposedly offers unconditional help to those who worship her.  You don’t have to be in a state of grace or repent of your sins, just willing to venerate her.  I can see why this would be appealing to poor and desperate people.

One of the distinctive things about Mexican culture is acceptance and even embrace of the fact of death.  The Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday.  It is in some ways like an exaggerated version of U.S. Hallowe’en, but all skeletons and ghosts, and also a time for picnicking near the graves of loved ones.

With all these things bearing down on them, one might expect Mexicans to be callous and suspicious.  That’s how I would be in their circumstances.

But Theroux’s experience was just the opposite.  Except for his encounters with police, all his interactions with Mexicans were positive. HIs trip depended on the helpfulness of many people.

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Paul Theroux in the Deep South

August 14, 2017

At the age of 74, novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux toured the Deep South in 2012 and 2013.   It was research for his first travel book on his own country.  What he found was “kindness, generosity, a welcome.”

Back home in Cape Cod, he wrote, a stranger would look away if he tried to make eye contact.   In the South, a stranger would be likely to say “hello”.    Strangers, black and white, were quick to offer help and advice, even without his asking for it.

He greatly driving back roads in the South.  He enjoyed Southern cooking and the music in Pentecostal churches.  He made more trips than he originally planned.

But he was shocked by the dire poverty in regions such as the Mississippi Delta, which reminded him of what he saw traveling in Africa.

The difference was that, in Africa, he frequently came across American missionaries, philanthropists and foreign aid workers trying to alleviate poverty.   Poor Southern communities, in his view, are own their own, so far as American corporate executives, politicians and philanthropists are concerned.

I read Theroux’s travel book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads (2015) as a followup to the writings of David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard on the origins of American regional cultures.

Theroux skipped big cities such as Atlanta, which he said are little different from Northern cities, nor what he called the Old Magnolia South, the South of horse farms, historic preservation and gracious living.  He did not interview prominent politicians or anybody whose name I’d heard before.

Instead he concentrated on the small towns and back roads, and talked to people he met in diners, churches and gun shows.

The bulk of the book consists of reports of conversations, with roughly equal numbers of whites and blacks.   In most cases, he did not specify the race of the person he was talking to, and I somethings had to read quite a few paragraphs before I could deduce the race from context—which, significantly, I always could do.

Many Southern white people think Northerners see them caricatures, based on how they’re depicted on television and in the movies.   One man told Theroux he gave up watching television because he is tired of programs that only show a smart black man and a stupid white man.

Theroux thinks a certain type of Southern regional writer is partly responsible for this stereotype.   Writers such as Erskine Caldwell, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and others depicted poor Southern white people as freaks—albinos, hunchbacks, 12-year-old brides, colorful con men and generates.

Not that their tall tales have no merit as stand-alone works of literature, but their approach was a way of not dealing with segregation, chain gangs, sharecroppers and lynchings, Theroux wrote.   Only a few white Southerners wrote about everyday life in the rural South in the kind of way that Anton Chekhov wrote about the frustrations of life in rural Russia.

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Glimpses of Asia: January 8, 2015

January 8, 2015

I got the following links from my expatriate friend Jack, who got them from his friend Marty.

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In Pictures: China’s Frozen City by Richard Angwin for Aljazeera.

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Harbin international ice and snow festival – in pictures in The Guardian.

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The price of life in Singapore, city of rules: ‘It’s a Faustian deal’ by Oliver Millman for The Guardian.

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On the road to Ulan Bator

March 3, 2012

Hat tip to Jason Kottke.