Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
“Panmunjom is closed right now.” Our guide, David, explained, referring to the farthest point inside the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ that it was possible to visit. One conference room there is built so that it straddles both North and South Korea. One can walk from one end of the room to the other and back, traversing North and South.
“It’s closed because of the tension,” David said. The tension — yes, we’d all read about it in the papers, with North Korea testing nuclear weapons underground and firing missiles over Japan. “In fact, all of the DMZ can be closed at any moment without notice.”
In the past three years I have visited three cities in three very different parts of the world that somehow nonetheless call each other to mind: Dubrovnik, Croatia; Khiva, Uzbekistan; and Pingyao, China. Each is a historic city with medieval walls that fortunately have been preserved. None is a grand imperial capital like Istanbul or Beijing or Rome, with all the attendant wars and conflagrations and changes in political power that inevitably paint over those cities again and again as palimpsests.
Below, then, is a point-by-point comparison of three wondrous places that you should visit when you get a chance.
I always wanted to get to Dunhuang, and not just because half of its name is half of my given name in Chinese. This summer I finally got there.
The Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang are located in the province of Gansu in northwestern China, once an important stop — and a wealthy town — on the Silk Road. For a thousand years starting in the 4th century, prominent local families sponsored artisans to paint and sculpt one cave after another at Mogao in Buddhist themes. Some of the painters and sculptors wound up spending half a lifetime there. So many caves were painted and sculpted that Mogao also came to be known as the place of a “A Thousand Buddha Grottoes.” Even today, 735 remain. Many caves are masterpieces of Buddhist art, and some reminded me of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
“I’m pretty sure this is true,” D said. “Not because I was there. I wasn’t. I heard it from my college buddy. But his father was at the time the military commander in the district. So I’m pretty sure this really happened.”
D was a recent college graduate, a handsome, athletic, and gregarious young man from southern China who studied in the far north and was now working in marketing in Beijing. Between us we conversed in Mandarin, though for someone who never lived abroad he spoke English quite well. Overall I liked him as a person, though we clearly disagreed on some matters of politics. We had met through a mutual friend, and now we were talking over gin and tonic.
I am currently traveling in China. Between sometimes having spotty Internet, sometimes being unable to get past Internet restrictions, and sometimes just not having my laptop, I will be taking a hiatus for a week or two. Stay tuned for new posts in September!
I have a thing for mythical beasts as reflections of the human soul. Chimera, basilisk, huma, garuda. Now, if only I could see one. But a handful of real-life creatures so capture the human imagination that they may as well be mythical. The Komodo dragon must top that list. Even its name — the hard “k” like Kafka, the elemental “o” triply repeated like a chant, the way it contains the holy Sanskrit syllable “om” — evokes something primal in the brain.
Last year I found myself standing on a pebbly beach on the island of Komodo, engaged in a staring contest with the eponymous beast. It was not eight feet away. I looked straight into its cold eyes, hypnotized by its beige, forked, darting tongue. And it was coming toward me.
The Icelandic Volcano that Froze the Mississippi, Starved Egypt, and Helped Along the French Revolution
On June 8, 1783, the Laki or Lakagigar volcanic fissure in Iceland erupted. It wasn’t a giant explosion, but it kept going for the next eight months. In that time the Laki sent into the earth’s atmosphere 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride and 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide.
The visitor to Iceland — as I was recently — commonly tours around Iceland’s many volcanic sights from the Geysir (whence the word “geyser”) to the Blue Lagoon and sees them as charming places. And even the earliest Norsemen to settle in Iceland immediately noticed its volcanic character — “Reykjavik,” meaning “smoky bay,” was so named because the Nordic sailors saw the area covered in geothermal steam. But in the course of history, Iceland’s volcanos often played cataclysmic roles. In 934 A.D., the Eldgja eruption may have led to severe weather conditions in China. In our own time, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 grounded flights in and out of Europe; I distinctly remember my then colleagues in the U.S. for a conference being unable to return to Germany.
This is another belated travel tale.
“Should i go to Chernobyl?” I asked my friend Marina over Gchat. She was born in Ukraine before relocating to much sunnier California. I thought she might know something about it.
“What? No,” she replied. “Unlike the Taliban, radiation can’t be sweet talked.” She was referring to my foray into Afghanistan. It was true, and it was the logic I relied on in not going diving — you can’t negotiate with physics.
I didn’t blog on Thursday because I was back in New York City, where this all began. And I was preoccupied with personal matters (not all of them pleasant), catching up with old friends, and generally contemplating life.
The contemplation continues, so here are only some not altogether coherent thoughts.
T. S. Eliot once wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."