Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Christopher Aslan Alexander; A Carpet Ride to Khiva, Seven Years on the Silk Road

Found in the library by lucky coincidence: 

A Carpet Ride to Khiva is a travelogue of sorts, but it's also much more. Christopher Alexander travels to the historical city of Khiva in Central Asia as a NGO aid worker and ends up spending seven years in Uzbekistan gaining an insight into the people and the country that isn't captured in normal travel literature. Colin Thubron has written on Uzbekistan maybe more eloquently, but also more superficially.

Alexander comes from a multicultural family himself and can maybe therefore appreciate the culture of Uzbeks on a different level than many others that have visited the country. His experiences remind me somewhat of my own early forays into China. The exhiliration of being in Asia, but also of the loneliness sometimes, when you're stuck in a country very alien to what you are used to, trying to blend in with the locals and realizing you will always be a visitor.

”Aslan” comes to Khiva for a short stint of relief work, but stays there setting up a carpet factory with some locals and learning the trade from scratch. The books goes into quite some detail of carpet design and manufacture, but this information is interwoven into the story and an integral and interesting part of it. The book has its share of drama, especially during Alexander's sourcing trips to Afghanistan.

The book beautifully describes life in a country that couldn't be more unfamiliar to most of us. It's not pretentious at all. Although Alexander apparently comes from a Christian background, the book is not judgmental (well, it is so towards the oppressive government, but rightly so), and the author does have a good sense for local customs and people. It's a sad story in a way, because you can't help but feeling sorry for the people living in fear of their government, and also because of the author's experiences in Uzbekistan, leading to his deportation. Like all good stories, one thing is left unsolved:What happens between Aksana and Alexander?

If you plan to buy an Asian carpet or are just interested in the area, do check out the book, it's a good read. Alexander is still living and breathing Central Asia, you can find out more on his webpage

Friday, September 9, 2011

Kai Donner: Among the Samoyed in Siberia


Something before I get to A Carpet Ride to Khiva: I found a first edition from 1915 of Kai Donner's "Siperian Samojedien keskuudessa" in the City Library a few days ago and had it with me on a trip to Central Europe. Kai Donner was a Finnish explorer and anthropologist from a notable academic family. He was also an activist for the independence movement in Finland. Donner's father was the first Finnish professor of Sanskrit, but the best known family member nowadays is Kai's son Jörn Donner, who is a movie maker and has in recent years publicized his fathers research in Finland.

The book covers Donner's expedition to northern Siberia in 1911-1913, where he set out to study the language and culture of the Samoyeds, a small people spread over vast areas in the Siberian tundra. The Samoyed language is a distant relative of Finnish, which explains the interest of linguists and anthropologists in them here. Donner's travels take him to the area between the rivers Ob and Jenisei where he lives with the local people studying the language with several "language masters". He also makes observations of everyday life without prejudice. This sets Donner's book apart from the religious bigotry of Wrede. Donner is a true humanist and can appreciate the culture of different people's without judging them too harshly.

Donner describes the difficult life the Samoyeds live in this unforgiving country, where winter temperatures may plummet to -60 C. He gets to know hordes of mosquitoes and hungry bears in the summer and the perils of travelling in the winter, when he almost loses his limbs to frostbite and is in danger of starving with a whole caravan of reindeer herders lost on the tundra. The Samoyed's fate (and for that matter culture), reminds me a bit of American Indians. Liquor, obtained from Russian traders at extortionate prices, is the downfall of many Samojed.

In addition to his anthropological observations, Donner also tells about the terrible fate of the numerous people exiled to Siberia. He meets Russians and Finns, that for different reasons have been banished to this periphery of the empire.

Reading this book I am once again humbled by the courage of early explorers. Today it would be inconceivable that someone would set out into the Siberian wild, alone with just a sleigh pulled by a couple of reindeers, all in the name of science.

The book in itself is entertaining on two levels. It describes the life of a people little known, but it's also a story of one man's struggle against inhospitable nature. For sure, this is not a book that everybody will enjoy. It's not a literary masterpiece, but if you're into explorer's histories, or interested in anthropology, or just some other kind of nutcase this is very entertaining. I did like it, a lot.

EDIT: I just found out that Donner's book has been translated into English and is available from Amazon. The title of this post was changed to reflect the title of the translation.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid


Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who has written exhaustively about Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida. He has been active in different intergovernmental bodies dealing with the problems of the area and definitely has authority on subjects around South and Central Asia (you can find more on the author's own webpage here).

Rashid's book Descent into Chaos: Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Threat to Global Security is not an easy read. It's packed with information about people, politics, terrorists and more. It tells the story of Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan and Pervez Musharraf the Pakistani leader as well as the United States' failure to secure Afghanistan after the invasion following the September 11th attacks in America. Rashid has a personal connection to many of the leaders described in the book, and is able to shed light into the decisions they make, probably better than anybody else. The book is packed with personal accounts of Afghan warlords, Heads of states, Taliban leaders as well as common people. This is where Rashid shines; he has profound knowledge and decades long experience in the area. He writes at length about developments in the US and Europe as well, but lacks the same depth of knowledge there. His scathing criticisms of the Bush government actions after 9/11 feel a little over the top.

The picture emerging of the power politics in the area is a scary one. Rashid exposes Pakistan's intelligence service's role in supporting the Taliban and al-Qaida, while trying to secure financial aid from the United States and supplying the US with intelligence about the groups. He describes how Taliban and al-Qaida regrouped after fleeing to Pakistan when US air strikes and US backed Northern Alliance offensives against them started. The main question that arises is: What would the situation in Afghanistan be today, had the US and the international community really committed to nation building after the US ousting of the Taliban from power?

I had trouble finishing this book. There is no denying the huge amount of research that went into Rashid's book, but it is heavy reading.The story has so many individuals, it's difficult to keep track of them, even if the author supplies a partial glossary of names. Abbreviations are also abundant, sometimes comically so; ISI, NWFP, NA, FATA, JUI, UN etc. litter the pages and one needs to frequently skip back to find the actual definition for these. I think Rashid could have kept it more concise by contentrating just on the Pakistan-Afghanistan issue alone, leaving American policies and actions in other parts of the world for another volume. Shortly: informative and at times exciting, but too rich in content for the casual reader. Great for someone who needs to get up-to-date with the previous decade's issues in the area. Not so great for the average Joe like me, who picks it up at the airport book stall for reading on the flight. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Links to reviews of Asian books

I've been traveling on business the past two weeks, and have not been able to do much about the blog. Earlier, I promised to post some links to blog reviews about Asian books. Since I did not get any comments here and only a couple by e-mail, I'm just posting the below few links for now:

Sadhus in Katmandu, 1996

Tinylibrary by Sam:
Sam's blog is mostly reviewing fiction, like Shanghai Girls, but there's some non-fiction reviews that may interest you as well. Check out this list. Sam's a charming personality, too.

The Mountain Library is also featured on my sidebar. As you can guess from the title, it focuses on books about mountains and mountaineering. Since the Himalayas is one of my favourite topics in books I read, I just love the reviews they make.

Manoflabook is a popular literary review blog by Zohar. He has reviewed Kissinger's "On China", here. Zohar also has several reviews of books about exploration - always a good thing - and here's a review about a book about Bhutan: Radio Shangri La. Good stuff!

You may want to check out Seeing Red in China to see a reading list on contemporary China and other interesting links + a different view of the country. The author, Tom, has done charity work as a teacher at a rural college among other things, and has a perspective unlike your typical business executive from a WFOE in Suzhou Industrial Park.

That's it for now. I may update the above list at a later date, send links if you have good ones! In the meantime, I still haven't finished Rashid's book. Hope to get something written about Descent into Chaos this week.

EDIT: has a nice description of the Ganden to Samye trek with a good reading list on Tibet (there's a picture from that trek on my "about the blogger" page, if you're interested).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What's going on in the literary blogosphere - share your reviews with an Asian connection

If you have written, or know of a great review or other blog post related to literature dealing with Asia (fiction or non-fiction), then share it in the comments below. I'll compile a list of these in a post in a few days.


Short reading list on China Part 3: Travel

I'm going to make this easy on myself. There's a lot of travel writing on China by celebrated mammoths of the genre, such as Colin Thubron and Paul Theroux, as well as by some little less renowned local writers like Sun Shuyun or Ma Jian , who can give an insider's view of travel in China. The point of this post, however, is to point the reader to books most useful in introducing the country. So without further ado, I present you with;

Travel: Lonely Planet China (Country Travel Guide), several authors

I've owned a few editions of this bible of China travel and they have served me well. Keeping in mind this book is a travel guide, designed to help you get around China, it contains lots of other interesting information, too. The series has a nice history segment and also goes into some depth explaining the current topics of Chinese society. The beef of course is in the introduction of different places, worth (and not) traveling to. All major cities have been allotted a decent amount of pages including information on history, sights, local transport and so on.

There's some excellent photography, an earlier edition had a print picture of the current Dalai Lama (arriving for the first time to China by train from Russia, I was worried the female border guard officer, in her uniform and high heels would see the picture and confiscate the book), that is a good ice-breaker in Tibet.

The segments for different destinations are at least partly written by people who only pass through quickly, without getting the vibe of some cities. Thus Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province and my hometown for a year, for example is trashed pretty severely and, in my view, unfairly.

The book fulfills it's main function of getting you around China in one piece and is also suitable for armchair travel. The only drawback I can see is, that every other backpacker has a copy, and so everyone ends up in the same places. If you're traveling alone and looking for some company, then that's just fine. The most hard-core travelers won't rely on LP anyway.

Check out part 1: Fiction, of the "Short reading list" here
Check out part 2: History, of the "Short reading list" here

Friday, August 12, 2011

Short reading list on China part 2: History

This was a difficult one for me. I realized I had not read a book on China's general history since university (where it was compulsory and therefore not always interesting). I have a lot of history books in my shelf, but they all focus on a smaller part of the big picture. My choice for the list also covers just the 20th century, but covers it well.

History: The Chinese Century: a Photographic History of the last Hundred Years by Jonathan Spence & Ann-Ping Chin from 1996 (Photography editors: Colin Jacobson & Annabel Merullo)

The Chinese Century, written by Ann-Ping Chin, a lecturer on Chinese history at Yale University and Jonathan Spence, one of the authorities on Chinese History, is a Photographic book fit for the coffee table. This doesn't mean that bibliophiles should snub it. The book is extremely well written and gives a concise account on China's history in the 20th century.

The emphasis, however, is on photographs that the editors have been able to dig from various archives. There are some stunning and disturbing early photographs from around the country, covering life in the bustling cities, as well as in the country side. The image content ranges from Japanese atrocities during the war, to Shanghai Belles strolling on the boulevard. The pictures really transport the reader to the past in a way that a textbook couldn't. It's also a crash course into China's recent history that introduces the main characters and episodes of this century of change and upheaval.

Check out part one of the "short reading list" here.

edited Aug 12: publishing year and photography editors added

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Short reading list on China part 1: Fiction

I thought I'd put up three of my favourite books about China in different genres; Fiction, History and Travel. The idea was to compile a list that would be an easy read, represent the country and that I could recommend to people, whose view on the country was mostly based on main stream media. So here goes:

Fiction: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

There's no way to call this contemporary, but I still think Pearl S. Buck's book captures the essence of China better than any other novel, old or new, that I have read.

This Pulitzer Prize winning title from 1931 by the author who was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature tells the story of the Wang-family. Wang Lung and his wife O-Lan, struggling to raise their family, slowly rise from poverty to become wealthy landowners. The author addresses themes in this book that, unfortunately, are still actual in China; infanticide and selling of daughters to other families.

Buck builds her story with such warmth for the country that the occasional harshness of life in the early 20th century, with its famines and turmoil, becomes bearable to the reader.

The family strives toward wealth and security through terrible losses. Their fortunes are tied to their land that Wang Lung refuses to give up. Buck contrasts the Wangs' struggle with the decadent life of the failing house of Hwang.

Pearl S. Buck was a daughter of missionaries. Growing up and spending the first half of her life in China, she was bilingual and gained an understanding of Chinese people and an affection to the country that was, and still is, shared by very few westerners. Her novels do convey this affection and the beautiful prose makes her books a great read.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Party by Richard McGregor


I got a signed copy of the recent (2010) book by Richard McGregor as a present. The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers is a serious piece of work. Mr. McGregor, the former China bureau chief of Financial Times, has written a disturbing portrait of one of the most powerful and secretive forces on the planet today and written it well.

In his position, the author had access to people inside the system few westerners have had the opportunity to meet. I assume being the chief of FT in China opened doors to Mr. McGregor that stay closed to most academics. In any case the author has had the chance to interview some pretty interesting individuals from different sides of Chinese society, including government heavyweights, businessmen and political dissidents. From the pumpkin seed producer drying his hard earned, but moldy cash out in the open for all to see, to city mayors, all explain their position in China today.

McGregor's writing is easy to follow and I especially appreciate the fairness seldom encountered in contemporary western books about the Party, or Chinese society in general. The author pulls no punches when he exposes the corruption and the, to western eyes incomprehensible, system of favours and nepotism prevalent in China, but he also gives credit where credit is due. This book is not about bashing the Chinese system or the Party; it's a book that really digs deep into behind-the-scenes politics, without gloating at the failures of the system. 

I have not come across a book giving such a detailed account of the inner workings of the CPC before. However, McGregor's book is more than that; The Party is not just about the Communists, it paints a vivid picture of Chinese society as a whole. This is not an academic book, but an enjoyable read for anyone who wants to learn more about China.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Something new...

I have changed the layout of the blog somewhat and edited the labels of the posts for easier searching of content based on the genre and geographical area. Also, starting with the next post a rating will be applied to the book reviewed. I was originally not so keen to rate books on a 1-5 scale, since different people appreciate different things. Also, one theme of the blog is how I find the books I read. However, some readers may want to compare my rating to other ratings quickly, so something like this will appear next to the title in the future:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The rating policy is as follows: the more I enjoyed the book, the more stars it will get. In other words, it's purely subjective, don't ask me to rationalize my choices!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Last Barbarians by Michel Peissel

I first heard of Michel Peissel in the early 90s when I was starved for reading in Katmandu and found his book about Mustang in one of the shops in Thamel. It's an entertaining book and will be reviewed here someday, but I have not paid attention to the author since reading that account of his first forays into the Himalayas. By chance I stumbled upon this later literary production of his a while ago. The Last Barbarians, The Discovery of the Source of the Mekong in Tibet was published in 1998, more than 30 years after the Mustang book, and it was great to discover Mr Peissel hasn't lost his boyish, almost naive, straight forward style with age.

As the title suggest this is a book about exploration in Tibet. Peissel and his companions are looking for the source of the Mekong-river that, surprisingly enough, was not yet discovered in 1994, on the high plateau of Tibet.

Peissel's small expedition travels with ATVs and later on horseback in the outback of Qinghai following the upper Mekong towards its source. The author describes the deprivations a middle aged man faces on the inhospitable high plateau plagued with hailstorms, wolves and thin air, at times questioning the sanity of such an endeavour. Peissel is a real expert on the Himalayas, its geography and peoples, with decades of on-site experience and it's a joy reading his description of the natural wonders and encounters with locals. He is also somewhat of a champion for the cause of Tibetan people and his affection to the nation shines through the pages of the book.

On several different occasions in the book Peissel gets a bit philosophic and questions our current boring and passive consumer lifestyle by contrasting it with the freedom and exciting life of the Nomads. One can't help but wonder how much the world loses if these ways of life are lost forever.

Peissel admits he has never really grown up and reading his books one can believe this is not just an empty phrase. This boyishness has certainly been a factor in his colourful career. To me he is one credible adventurer and explorer who has done things most of us only dream of.

Oh, and the Barbarians in the title are not what you probably originally expected.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Red Dust: A Path Through China

Ma Jian is a Beijing intellectual in his thirties. During the campaign against Spiritual Pollution, another communist scheme targeting individuals deemed dangerous to the ruling party, he is implicated as a class enemy and decides to leave his old life as a photographer and painter in Beijing. Ma Jian jumps a train bound for Xinjiang and ends up traveling around China for three years. Red Dust: A Path Through China from 2001 is his story. Ma travels by train, bus and on foot when he is short on cash. He almost perishes in the Ordos, when he loses his way crossing it. His is real hard core traveling, and he does not romanticize it. Fleas bite, shit stinks and rotten food makes him vomit.

The book is a travelogue, but a very special one. First of all, the time frame of the story is one of profound change in China. Ma Jian's story happens between 1983-86 and captures the spirit of economic reforms and their influence on individuals in the early eighties.

Secondly Ma has a unique vantage point to observe life in China. He is Chinese but admits feeling foreign in the out of way villages and cities he visits with his long hair, beard and jeans. His book concentrates mainly on the frontier areas of China; Yunnan, Guizhou, Tibet and Qinghai. Everywhere he goes, he not only meets and writes about the common people, but he also offers the reader a glance into the minds of Chinese intellectuals around the country. For Ma, the travels take on a spiritual dimension. He is trying to figure out who he is and what his goals in life are.

What I especially appreciate in this book is Ma's honesty in writing. He does not pretend to be a nice guy. In fact he comes on as somewhat of a scoundrel, playing the part of a spiritual guru, barber or thief when it helps him to get what he needs. Ma describes his lust for women when traveling alone and his sexual exploits when he finds company. His story is very different from many whitewashed stories of contemporary western travellers.

I like it!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Great Wall: China Against the World 1000 BC - AD 2000

About a year ago I traded a bunch of old comics in a second hand bookstore to some books. One of them was The Great Wall by Julia Lovell from 2006. Despite it's name, it reads more like a general history of China than a book about the wall specifically.

With some 400 pages the book flies through dynasties starting with the Qin. Lovell ties each epoch with wall building and elaborates on the reasons for the numerous building projects, be they purely defensive or tied to internal politics of the time. As a history book, it's decent. Lovell is able to depict the ebb and flow of the nomadic tribes on China's Northern and Western frontiers and their influence on the realm, its peoples and culture. For me, realizing this constant pulse of the Steppe throughout earlier Chinese history was a bit of a revelation, although I have read a lot on the subject. Also, Lovell explains how and why in more recent history different walls became the Great Wall.

It's a popular book and Lovell has not made any original field research, rather relying on existing literary sources. Maybe because of this, the book, at least to me, seems a little arid; there is little personal connection to the places and historical events described. Being a lecturer of Chinese history and literature at Cambridge, I was hoping Lovell would be able to put more of a personal touch to the story.

In the first quarter of the book Lovell makes some arguments that seem to be there just to raise controversy. In my view she is not able to defend these arguments properly and this put me off a bit (it actually took me two tries to actually finish the book). As an example, when discussing the Chinese realm Lovell first states: "There are, in fact, strong grounds for arguing that the Chinese nation was born as recently as 100 years ago", but later goes on about Qin Shihuang: "And once he had reached his goal, China was largely defined, both inside and out." It's semantics of course (Chinese nation does not equal China), but what on earth are these strong grounds for the first argument?

In the end Lovell equates Chinese censorship of the internet as the new Great Wall. To be honest, I would have left this most recent history out of the book. It seems out of place when compared to the history of the real Wall on the preceding pages.

The Great Wall is a decent overview of the history of China with its own twist; the story of the Wall. If you just want to read one book about the subject (history that is, not the wall), there probably are more suitable books out there. For people with a background in Sinology, the book may give some new insights, it did to me.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Judge Dee books by Robert van Gulik

My wife found a Judge Dee book in the library last week that I hadn't read before, wohoo! The Phantom of the Temple by Robert van Gulik (1910-67) is from 1966 (?) originally. I believe it's the last Judge Dee book by van Gulik, sice it was published just before his death. Before I get to the book, let's have a short look at the series and Mr. Gulik first.

I stumbled upon Judge Dee books a few years ago, when I was vacationing at my uncle's place in northern Finland. Being a bit bored, I was rummaging through my cousin's bookshelf and found The Chinese Lake Murders there. I devoured the book in one afternoon and was hooked. I've since read every novel by van Gulik I've been able to lay my hands on.

Mr. van Gulik was an Oriental scholar originally from the Netherlands, who spent a lion's share of his time in Asia, mainly Indonesia and Japan. He even represented the Netherlands as an ambassador in Tokyo. Van Gulik was fluent in Chinese and while in Japan, translated an old Chinese detective story into English. The story was about Di Renjie, a popular historical character of the Tang-era, who lived in the 7th century. Di Renjie (Dee) was a magistrate of the empire and has become a legend in China. After his translation van Gulik tried his hand at constructing his own murder mystery. The result was The Chinese Maze Murders. After that several Judge Dee books followed.

Although set in the Tang era, the books have mixed in historical facts from Ming China as well. Van Gulik adapted his style from the traditional Chinese murder story, to better suit western audiences. The culprits are not revealed until the end of the stories.

The Phantom of the Temple is set in Lan-fang, a small town on the northern frontier in present day Shandong. Judge Dee has settled down as the local magistrate with his family and associates, Sergeant Hoong and Ma Joong, the old highway robber turned official. The books story chronologically follows The Chinese Maze Murders.

In an abandoned Buddhist temple a beheaded corpse is found and the Judge with his helpers sets out to solve this mystery. Soon a missing beauty, a witch and a treasure of gold are mixed into the story as well.

Van Gulik was influenced by Chinese folk stories and his language is staright forward and simple, almost brutal. Like in the earlier Judge Dee stories, women often shed their clothes for Ma Joong. Where van Gulik shines is painting a picture of Chinese society (even though it's a mix of eras). He was extremely well versed in Chinese history and the book contains a great many interesting details about life in a historical Chinese city; The writer highlights the tensions between Han Chinese and "Tartars" in this border town. Tantric Buddhists get their share of xenophobia as well.

This book follows van Gulik's tradition, in that it introduces several central characters and some impersonators, you'll never know which of the characters are real. In the end Judge Dee of course solves the mysteries and the perpetrators are punished (in most books they are executed). As in many of his books, the author adds a postscript, where he explains the workings of classical Chinese society. Also maps of the town as well as drawings (many of them somewhat erotic) of some of the scenes. 

If you have not yet read any of van Gulik's novels, I can only recommend you try one. I promise it won't be your last.

Other books by Robert van Gulik:

The Chinese Bell Murders
The Chinese Gold Murders
The Chinese Lake Murders
The Chinese Nail Murders
The Chinese Maze Murders
The Emperor's Pearl
The Haunted Monastery
The Lacquer Screen
The Red Pavillion
The Willow Pattern
The Monkey and the Tiger

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fascists in Central Asia

This came to my mind when I was writing about Maraini's book: many of the explorers of Central Asia, Tibet especially, had Fascist connections, or were at least accused of such.

Is it just that Fascism was on the rise in Europe at the same time as the amount of travellers to the area grew? Sven Hedin, Giuseppe Tucci, Heinrich Harrer and many others active in the region between the world wars were accused of supporting Fascist ideology.

Whatever the motivation of individuals in Central Asia, it is a fact that some of the masterminds of pre-WWII Nazi ideology had a personal interest in Tibet and financed expeditions to the area in the hopes of finding evidence to support the crackpot racial theories of the day.

Heather Pringle has written a meticulously researched popular book, that also deals with Asian exploration by the Nazis: The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust (2006)

It's an interesting and scary read into history, but also shows what kind of compromises the scientist were willing to make in their morals and integrity to get funding for research and gain acceptance from the elite.

Maraini, Fosco; 1952: Secret Tibet (Orig. Segreto Tibet)

This book pretty much started my interest in older books about Asia, so I wanted to start the whole blog with this post. Since I was just reading Wrede's Siberian trip,  that got to be the first after all.

My copy is a hardcover Finnish translation from 1953; Salaperäinen Tiibet, that I found by accident in my great-aunt's library that my parents had inherited. It amazes me how much interesting literature got translated so early. I can't imagine that the market for such books was huge in Finland.

Fosco Maraini 1912-2004, was an Italian photographer, ethnographer and mountaineer who followed the famous Professor and Tibetologist (and likely a closet-Buddhist) Giuseppe Tucci on two expeditions to the Roof of the World in 1938 and 1948. Secret Tibet is a synthesis of his experiences during these two trips.

Sikkimese princess Pema Chöki by Maraini
It's been some years since I read the book, so I can't delve too deep into the actual content right now. It has some cool photography (Maraini had an eye for female beauty too) from Tibet and gives a glimpse of life in the Himalayan kingdom before the Chinese "liberation".

The book is excellent on many levels. You can read it as a travelogue; Maraini does a good job on describing people in the expedition and who he meets on the way. It succeeds as an ethnographic record as well, describing arts and customs of the Himalayas. The author explains Buddhist concepts in the book to some depth. He has ample chance to gain insight with all the practitioners around and an Italian Buddhist professor as a tutor. Whatever your personal interests are, this book is entertaining.

Shortly:  Excellent and highly readable!

Henrik Wrede: On a River Boat and Tarantass - a Travelogue from Siberia 100 Years Ago

This book was originally published 1918 in Swedish under the name I Sibirien 30 År Sedan, I read the second Finnish edition of 1985 (Jokilaivalla ja tarantassissa - matkakuvaus Siperiasta 100 vuoden takaa), borrowed from the excellent Turku library.

Henrik Wrede was a Baron from Finland who in the 1880's travelled in Siberia, as far as Yakutsk to distribute Bibles as an agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society. At that time Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian empire and Wrede as a Russian subject had access to this hinterland of convicts and native peoples. In his foreword Wrede tells that he originally did not want to write about his experiences in Siberia and only did so 30 years later after being persuaded by a friend. His original concern had been that people mentioned in the story may be hurt but after such a long time they would not be affected by his writing.

As you may have guessed from his occupation, Wrede was a deeply religious man and this is one of the key elements in the book. Wrede's decision to leave home is preceded by a prophetic dream which convinces him of the divine nature of his task. He casts his doubts aside and puts his life into the hands of God, setting off into the unknown and dangerous East. In 1883, 29 years old, he travels to Nizhnyi-Novgorod through Moscow and St. Petersburg. From Novgorod he continues by river boat to Perm on the Volga and Kama rivers. Wrede notes the Fenno-Ugrian peoples populating the Kama region. From Perm the young man continues by train to Ekaterinburg, where he changes to that most Siberian of transport; the tarantass.

A horse cart used to cover vast distances in Russia, the horses of the tarantass were changed at regular intervals and allowed for rapid progress of one's journey - if your kidneys could take it. The cart had no suspension and various early Siberian travel writers curse the vehicle for its lack of comfort. Wrede survives this leg of the journey and finally reaches Irkutsk, his base for the following years.

Wrede sets up his Bible depot and shop in town. He tells the stories behind many of the exiled people making up a big part of the population. Wrede paints a  grim picture of life in Irkutsk in the late 1800s. The city is dangerous and the surrounding wilderness is infested with robbers. The young man survives several attempts on his life, being shot at by natives and almost poisoned by his servant. Wrede braves it all with the help of God.

Even worse are the different government bureaucrats, often exiles themselves in Siberia. Wrede tells of terrible corruption of various police chiefs, governors and other civil servants. He gets to travel widely around Irkutsk, all the way to Mongolia and Yakutsk and makes interesting observations of different peoples.

After 3 years in Siberia, wearing fur and leather he returns back to civilization and his beloved family. Wrede continued in Finland to work with convicts together with his sister.


So, did I like this book and would I recommend it? If you can filter out the religious stuff, the book's not too bad a read. The author is too occupied saving souls to be very interested in worldly life. The book was written 30 years after Wrede's actual Siberian experience, so many things seem to be coloured by memory and are probably exaggerated.

However, Wrede was quite a sharp observer and even though he is convinced of the superiority of his faith, he seems to have genuine compassion and understanding of people of various backgrounds and ethnicity. As a glimpse to the life in Siberia the book serves its purpose, but it does not delve deeply into the lifestyles of Siberian peoples.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A new start...

This blog is about books that I have read that deal with Asia. It will include mostly non-fiction, since that's what I read most. However there will be some content on novels and short stories that I consider good, or at least interesting (Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck for example, if you haven't read it yet, get your hands on it!).

I have another blog; Bibliography of Asia Explorers. I'm reading a book about Chinese history at the moment, which has little to do with explorers. I have something to say about the book and realized that the topic of that blog may be too confining, hence this one with a broader scope. "Bibliography of Asia", a tad on the grand side as blog names go.

I assume only one of these blogs will survive, let's see which one wins. The content will be partly the same.