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.
As a would-be writer, I am often filled with self-loathing. It’s okay; it’s an occupational hazard. But today, a very specific failure weighs on me, the failure so far to keep a promise.
Three years ago, I traveled through Xinjiang, China’s massive northwestern “autonomous region” (of course it’s not actually autonomous) that is the historical homeland of the Uyghur minority, a Muslim Turkic population that prefers to call the area “East Turkestan.”
I traveled there to research the book I was trying to write. While there, in the old center of traditional Uyghur life, Kashgar, a kindly man whom I call “Yusup” in the manuscript asked me to make him a promise. “Tell our story,” he said. “Write about us. Let the outside world know what is happening in Xinjiang.”
And so far, as I have failed as yet to publish the book, I have failed to keep my promise.
Regular readers of this blog, if any exist, should not be surprised by now that sometimes I nerd out about one thing or another.
Last week I was in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and it quickly climbed the chart of my favorite cities in the world. I won’t suggest that it was solely because of what Edinburgh represents in the annals of human achievement, but I won’t say that it didn’t play a role either.
Yesterday, July 1, marked for me three years on the road.
Three years. That’s as long as Jesus spent preaching.
It so happens that I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s strange 1987 masterpiece of travel writing, The Songlines. The book begins and ends with Chatwin’s investigations in Australia into the Aboriginal practice of “the walkabout,” in which one would go walk and sing along paths or “songlines” that totemic ancestors once followed, sometimes for months at a stretch or even years. But halfway in, the book turns ruminative and begins to reflect on the meaning of travel itself and what it says about human nature. “Our nature lies in movement,” Chatwin quotes Pascal’s Pensées, “complete calm is death.”
There was tension in the cold, crisp air. Drama, climax.
The sun shone brightly on the ice all around us. Our latitude then was 81°50’1”N, about as close to the North Pole as we would ever come on this voyage, deep into the loose pack ice that had formed over the sea north of Svalbard. The ice was hunting grounds for polar bears. And right now, a female polar bear was slowly but assuredly approaching a ringed seal resting on his belly.
“But where is it?” Silly me, never very skilled at spotting wildlife at a distance, asked my fellow passengers. Chris, a tall young NHS worker from England, pointed me in the right direction.
On a promontory in Oslofjord, a short ferry ride away from Oslo’s city hall, two parallel edifices encase two famous boats and commemorate their respective creators.
On one side is the Fram, the world’s first polar exploration ship, custom-ordered by Fridtjof Nansen specifically to withstand the pressure of ice that would crush any other ship at the time. On the other is the Kon-Tiki, the balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl built in 1947 according to traditional Native American methods for him to attempt to sail from Peru to Polynesia.
The contrast as well as the parallels between the two men are presumably why the Norwegians have chosen to commemorate them side by side.
John Polidori has been on my mind.
No doubt this is in part because I happen to be back in Romania, the country that originated the vampire myth. As I type this, I’m sitting only a stone’s throw away from the statue of Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” the 15th century prince of Wallachia and real-life Dracula with his fabulous mustache, that stands at the center of Bucharest’s old town.
It probably also has to do with my learning just the other day that someone decided to make a movie about Mary Shelley and how she wrote Frankenstein. Apparently the film is not much good. But Polidori was there, present at the creation, when she first conceived of Frankenstein. Or put another way, she was there, present at the creation, when he first conceived of his parallel invention.
I didn’t plan to go to the Aeolian Islands. Then again, I didn’t plan to go to Sicily either. Then again, I’d more or less stopped making plans.
From Malta, I had made a last minute decision to head to Catania, Sicily’s second city on that island’s east coast. It turned out that Sabrina, a German friend I’d made over two years ago when I was traveling in Turkey, was also visiting Sicily and nearby. We met up, along with her friend Susanne, and went up Mt. Etna.
“Where are you going after this?” I asked.
“Lipari,” Sabrina said, the administrative center of the Aeolian Islands.
Anyone who has watched season one of Netflix’s “The Crown” surely knows that Queen Elizabeth II, back when she was Princess Elizabeth, lived for a while in Malta. At the time, Malta was still a British possession and an important base for the Royal Navy, and Elizabeth accompanied Prince Philip here during his naval service.
But most of us are likely unaware, not before visiting, of the other historical personages connected to this tiny island country.
First up, St. Paul. In 60 A.D., Paul set sail from Crete to Rome to face trial. A storm blew the ship off course. The Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:27—28:5) tells the story:
I wanted to see Mar Mattai, the ancient monastery of St. Matthew. Now I asked my new friend and driver, as well as the hotel manager, as well as the small gaggle of curious Kurds who had by now gathered around me in the hotel lobby, whether it was safe to visit Mar Mattai at this juncture. After all, it lay only a short distance outside of Mosul.
No, the panel concluded, shaking their heads. It was now occupied by Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi, a primarily Shiite group of militias, after the Peshmerga left the area recently following pressure from the U.S. and the Baghdad government.
I went down my list of things I wanted to see for them to vote on. One by one they rejected them as potentially unsafe. Then I got to Saddam Hussein’s palace in the Gara Mountains. “Qasr Saddam,” the manager nodded, using the Arabic word for “castle.” “Yes,” she said, “he can take you. It is near Duhok.”
“Kurdistan is one hundred percent safe,” said my driver, Lawin, as we sped down the smoothly paved road from the airport into Erbil. “The problem is,” he went on, “people see the stuff on TV, and they think that everywhere in Iraq is like that. But it’s not. This is Kurdistan, not Baghdad. Don’t go to Baghdad. Don’t go to Mosul, or Kirkuk. But here in Erbil, in Sulaymaniah, you are one hundred percent safe.”
Lawin was the driver that my hotel had sent to pick me up. It was 3:30 in the morning. Lawin looked to be forty-something. He told me that he had lived in Britain for ten years starting in 2000 and took British citizenship before returning to Iraqi Kurdistan only a few years ago.
And he undoubtedly had a point. Most people don’t know that Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurds instead of Arabs are the majority, is semiautonomous. The Kurds, a people spread among Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, have no country of their own. But they have a distinct culture and language, which is a close sibling of Farsi and unrelated to Arabic. Kurdistan has its own military, the highly effective Peshmerga, which has done much of the heavy-lifting in the war against ISIS, or DAESH, as it’s called around these parts. Indeed, the Kurds have managed to keep the conflagrations of recent years away from their portion of Iraq.
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."