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.
John and Tom’s Excellent Adventure: On John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Travel, and the Meaning of an Education
On April 4, 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson set off on a road trip together.
Both in England from which their America had freshly won its independence, the object of their tour was — as dull as it sounds to me — a series of English gardens. Instead of Lonely Planet or even a Baedeker, their guide book was Jefferson’s copy of Observations on Modern Gardening by one Thomas Whately.
As David McCullough recounts in his excellent John Adams, the road trip had no great historical significance. But it was “the one and the only time” when the famous frenemies, the "North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” would spend “off on their own together.” And, perhaps given my circumstances on the road, I can’t help dwelling on this image of the two Great Men driving around the English countryside, John and Tom, just a couple of dudes, a couple of American tourists.
In the early-15th century, the Chinese government sent the so-called Eunuch Admiral, Zheng He, on a voyage of exploration that reached East Africa and perhaps beyond. A muslim of Mongol-Uzbek extraction, he was often known by his honorific name “Sanbao,” and he may have been the inspiration for Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.
Six hundred years later he is the poster child of contemporary China’s foreign policy. Called “One Belt One Road,” the policy calls for China to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road across Eurasia as well as to build supposedly mutually beneficial relationships with many of the countries that Zheng visited. And the building of relationships mostly involves the construction of factories and bridges and roads and other capital projects for these countries. Zheng left a stele in Sri Lanka commemorating his visit, so now China has built an international airport and a deepwater seaport for Sri Lanka.
I’ve been seeing and marveling at many indications of China’s “OBOR” policy around the world for some time. There was the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, for example. And there were the children in Ethiopia crying “China, China” upon seeing me, which annoyed me until I learned that, with so much Chinese investment in that country, the children thought that all foreign-looking people were Chinese, even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes.
And most recently I have been in Kenya.
Nicholas laughed at my jokes a lot. And he had a way of half-covering his face with his hands when he did so. He had closely cropped hair like that of Obama, whose official portrait was everywhere in Nairobi as stock image for shops offering passport photo service. And when he turned his head to show his profile, I thought the shape of his skull rather resembled Barack’s as well. He had his own travel agency, of which he constituted its entirety.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
We were talking about Masai Mara, the nature reserve in southwestern Kenya that formed the Kenyan portion of the Serengeti, arguably Kenya’s top attraction.
I always pictured the Maldives as a place for honeymooners and the occasional extreme destination weddings. Indeed many of its famous strings of pearls of atolls and isles are taken up with luxury all-inclusive resorts that require a chartered boat or plane to get to, where four-figure prices are not uncommon.
But when I visited recently I found that there’s also space for the backpacker — okay maybe not the starving student in a dorm type of backpacker, but certainly for the budget-conscious. For that matter, there are even budget-conscious honeymooners. I met one such honeymooning couple, Marine and Sebastian from France and Colombia, who scoffed at the boredom they’d experience in a resort, who spent even less than I did.
Here then, are a few tips for those interested in visiting the Maldives on the cheap.
“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.
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."