Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

Charles Blackmore: The Worst Desert on Earth

August 3, 2017

I’ve read quite a few accounts of travelling through and around the Taklamakan (the name apparently means you can go in, but you won’t come out) desert, most notably by Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming, who skirted it in the 1930s as they escaped war-torn China, and Sven Hedin, who explored parts of it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems to vie with the notorious ‘Empty Quarter‘ of Saudi Arabia for the title of the most inhospitable and empty area of the planet, and is perhaps the more inaccessible because it lies on the edge of a very sensitive area of the People’s Republic of China: an area inhabited by Uighurs who seek autonomy, and the Lop Nor desert where the Chinese test their nuclear weapons…

So, no-one had attempted to walk through the middle of this desert before, until Charles Blackmore, and army major, got the idea and contrived to set up a joint Anglo-Chinese expedition to do it. It was another of those semi-bonkers ‘because it was there’ ideas that get people doing insane things. Blackmore and his team enjoy considerable advantages as privileged army and ex-Army folk with contacts with moneyed people in the City; nonetheless the setting up and finding sponsorship for the expedition was not that straightforward. It was certainly useful having people with army logistics experience.

The expedition – which took place in the mid-1990s – was successful, and this is Blackmore’s account of it. On the ground, in the worst desert on earth, privilege, money and experience count for almost nothing, and it was a very gruelling exploit, touch and go due to illness, lack of water and friction between the British and Chinese. From what felt – from his account – like a typically old-fashioned British gung-ho approach to preparation and organisation, almost as if it were a spot of Munro-bagging, we move to serious slow trekking through extremely difficult terrain without any real maps: in spite of modern technology, almost nothing is known or recorded about a huge area, the edges of which were explored by men like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin a century previously.

There was a decent map in the book, which enabled me to work with my collection of maps and atlases to follow the journey in more detail. What I never really got a true feel for was the visual aspect of the terrain; description isn’t one of Blackmore’s strongpoints, and he’s much more interested in the interactions between people and the psychological effects of the task and the place on the expedition members (not that these aspects aren’t interesting). Apart from the vastness of the terrain, the endless dunes and the sand, that was about it, apart from the one moment when they came across ruins of a settlement some seventeen hundred years old which had been mentioned by one of the previous explorers: then I got the sense of how the desert heat and dryness can preserve remains for vast lengths of time…

It was worth a read, and clearly was an astonishing achievement, although in the end the book wasn’t quite the account I had been looking forwards to.

On recommendations

July 30, 2017

Do you ever get the feeling you don’t have enough time to read? Surely not…

I found myself reflecting on this because I realised how few of friends’/acquaintances’ suggestions and recommendations of books I should read I actually follow through, and also realised it hadn’t always been like this. So a brief check through my reading journal (which I’ll write about tomorrow) showed that, since the start of last year I’ve read two books recommended by my wife, two recommended by friends (and one of these books I didn’t really enjoy) and one recommended by my mother (we often swap travel writing, which we both enjoy) – out of a total of almost a hundred books read. Any other choices have been books waiting on my shelves, books suggested by others I’ve read, or have been suggested by book reviews in the press.

Back in my school and student days, when I suppose I was beginning to read seriously, friends and colleagues recommended books all the time and I devoured their suggestions; we swapped books all the time and discussed them, often at length; at university we studied them. And one of the inevitable results of that has been the development of ever more refined (picky?) personal tastes and preferences: in my sixties, I know what I like, and I’m far more reluctant to stray out of familiar paths… That initial, enthusiastic swapping, talking and recommending fostered and encouraged the growth of my own likes and dislikes: no logic, rhyme or reason to it, and it’s what got me to where I am today: why else did I reject the study of history at school, and classics at university, and go on to read English and French Literature, later on specialising in twentieth century literature and science fiction?

I suppose this is inevitable, and we could say much the same about musical tastes, choices about travelling, even work: we get to know ourselves, or construct ourselves perhaps, and settle into …ruts.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you’ll know the mix: some fiction, usually European, often translated, some science fiction, detective fiction, a lot of travel writing, some history. There’s a lot that’s missing, and that I see other bloggers who I follow, writing about – women’s writing, poetry, modern British or American fiction for starters. Pressed for an answer as to why I don’t read very much of those kinds of writing, the simple answer is ‘I don’t have the time’; it’s not an answer I’m that happy with, and there’s a stick-in-the-mud there somewhere. The only new genre I’ve taken on board in the last twenty years is travel writing, and that has been a marvellous discovery, thought-provoking and enriching.

My friends don’t recommend boring stuff; quite often a recommendation is a response to my talking about something I’ve read recently or an interest that we share, and yet it’s only occasionally that I’ll actually take up a suggestion. I have so many books I know I’ll never get around to re-reading (which helps with the occasional clear-out), so many books waiting to read, and increasingly there are books I know I would like to read but will never get around to, so I don’t bother buying them…

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

Paul William Roberts: Journey of the Magi

July 4, 2017

41TF4DFJVCL._AC_US218_A recent read that I found very interesting and thought-provoking explored some of the early history of Christianity: Paul William Roberts’ book also does, although from a very different perspective and in a very different way. He sets out on a physical journey, beginning in modern-day Iran, to retrace the journey made by the Magi at the time of Jesus’ birth; they were Zoroastrians, a faith that predates Christianity by at least five centuries and which the author demonstrates to have had major influences on early Christianity as well as Judaism as it exists today, and on Islam too. He contrasts Roman Christianity as basically established by St Paul and dependent on faith, with early, gnostic forms of Christianity based on personal experience of God and the individual search for truth: the early church clearly soon divided and it was the Pauline version that won the day, aided in the fourth century by the power of the Roman Empire itself.

Roberts’ travels through Iran, the places he visits and the various people he encounters, are very interesting and thought-provoking; he moves from Iraq into Syria and then to Jordan and Israel, as you might expect given the nature of his journey, but his accounts grow thinner the further he gets until they become quite cursory: it’s clear that the major interest was Persia and the Zoroastrians, and this part of the journey provides the bulk of the book.

The material he presents can be seen as quite controversial in many places, and he is clearly well-educated in his field and very widely-read. So I did find it pretty inexcusable, whether it was his decision or his editor’s, that there are no notes, and even worse, no bibliography: I did not want to take everything just on his say-so. Add to this a somewhat cavalier tone and attitude to details, irreverence at times, and the rather broad-brush approach generally, and you can see why I was often rather irritated. Certainly, it does not have to be like this – Carrère’s book which I read recently and refer to above, is referenced and supported without any of the apparatus getting in the way of the general reader. At times the book reminded me of various odd-ball texts of the past, like Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, or Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos.

Clearly the book adds further evidence to the picture of the origins of Christianity being very complex indeed, much more than I knew, even though I’ve already read quite a lot: much is still mysterious and unclear, and much has evidently been deliberately obscured or even eradicated in the intervening two millennia… there are links between Zoroastrianism, early Christianity, Manichaeans, the Essenes, and even the Cathars, who came along much later, find their place in the jigsaw. I also found the evidence Roberts presents for the ultimate interconnectedness of all faiths quite comforting somehow.

He travelled and wrote in the mid-1990s, so I found his rapturous descriptions of the glories of Palmyra in Syria very saddening, given what has happened in that benighted land so recently. I think you will have gathered that I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. And I will moan again about any publisher who thinks it’s acceptable to publish travel writing without providing maps…

Charlotte Haldane: Russian Newsreel

June 29, 2017

41UYVH8LojL._AC_US218_Two astonishing cerise Penguins in two weeks! First Japan at the start of the Second World War, and now this one reporting from the Soviet Union a couple of months after the Nazi invasion. And this one really is a wartime special, printed on really low-grade paper and the binding stapled together…

Charlotte Haldane comes across as an amazing woman for the time. Clearly a convinced communist, she had already reported on the Spanish Civil War and the war with the Japanese in China for various Fleet Street newspapers, when she got herself sent to Russia, and seems to have been the only woman reporter there at the time. She sets to in a very business-like fashion, undaunted by her lack of Russian, and the pressing problems of the time surrounding her: she cultivates contacts, organises transport and accommodation, and attaches herself to various parties and delegations from Britain: the Soviets are now our friends and Allies.

She reports on Nazi air-raids on Moscow and other towns, unflappable because she lived through the worst of the Blitz, as she reminds Russians astonished at her phlegmatic approach; she reports on interrogations of captured Nazi officers and aircrew, and she demands – successfully – to take part in a lengthy visit to the front lines, on the grounds that it’s only right for a woman to be included in the press corps.

Haldane reports clearly and in a matter-of-fact way; various details she is clear she will not include because of security reasons, and, although she clearly both witnesses Nazi atrocities and interviews victims, she does not go into gruesome detail. At this point we need to remind ourselves that we are still in the opening weeks of the Great Patriotic War and it’s only at the end of the book that the Germans begin their onslaught on Moscow that leads to the winter debacle of 1941 and the cracks in the German war machine beginning to appear; none of the full horrors that were to emerge later on are known at this point, and although the extermination of the Jews has certainly begun, it’s not known about or spoken of yet…

It’s the approaching attack on Moscow that leads to Haldane and others, and various diplomats being evacuated from Archangelsk on one of the famous Arctic convoys…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course: Haldane is strongest as reporter and much weaker as analyst, and although she supports the idea of Nazi ideology as a pathological infection that has affected an entire generation and will need concentrated efforts to extirpate at the end of the war (no doubt at all that the Allies will be victorious), and is doing her bit for the war effort in bringing information about our new allies to the knowledge of the British public, I had to laugh at the idea of Soviet and Polish soldiers as comrades in arms: she did not know the half of what the newly-released Poles had had to endure for the previous two years at Soviet hands, nor how eager they were to get out of the country… and the graves at Katyn had not yet been discovered. But overall it was a marvellous book by a brave woman, vivid and immediate.

John Morris: Traveller from Tokyo

June 26, 2017

51pZmjS9F+L._AC_US218_I’ve mentioned the cerise Penguin series of travel and adventure writing before in these pages; they date from the 1940s and 1950s and were, I presume, later superseded by the Penguin Travel Library. They presented some amazing accounts of travel and exploration, and I always look out for them when I visit second-hand bookshops. Because they date from the early days of paperbacks, and also because many of them were published under wartime restrictions, on very poor quality paper, they are quite rare, and often quite fragile.

I bought John Morris’ account on a whim, realising I’d never read anything about travel to or in Japan, and it was a real eye-opener. He was employed by the Japanese Foreign Ministry to teach English at one of Tokyo’s university campuses during the period leading up to and immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and because of his unusual employment status was apparently the only Briton who was not interned when war was declared, whereas all other foreigners he knew were. Eventually he was evacuated through diplomatic channels.

He presents us with a picture of many aspects of Japanese life, language, culture and history as he experienced them in the very early 1940s; it’s a detailed, balanced and thoughtful account, which does recognise the growth of Japanese militarism and its increasing effect on all aspects of society: he can see the growing tensions between Japan and the US. And his account of his personal treatment and growing concerns as he becomes more and more isolated after the start of hostilities is fascinating: he is not ill-treated, though he fears for his friends and colleagues, and since he has treated us earlier to an in-depth account of the vagaries of the Japanese legal and justice system (which starts from the premise of guilt until proven innocent) we can understand those concerns. We are relieved when he is able to leave the country.

There is something special in reading, so many years after the events, and when we have the benefits of hindsight, an account with the immediacy that comes across so strongly and clearly in Morris’ book. It was a really good find, well-written, though, surprisingly for a Penguin book of that vintage, riddled with spelling errors…

Sadly unable to find an illustration of the actual cerise Penguin edition.

My travels: W for Walking

June 7, 2017

I’ve never been one for sport or strenuous exercise: I could have won prizes for skiving at school. And I’ve always firmly believed that the only time it’s necessary to run is to catch a train one might be in danger of missing otherwise… But I’ve always loved walking, from exploring footpaths around my Stamford home in my childhood, to walking and tramping around rural Nottinghamshire when at boarding school – as long as a couple of friends and I took exercise, we were pretty much excused team games, which was marvellous. And we fairly ate up the miles.

Later, as a student, I did some walking in the Lake District with friends who were keen fell-walkers, but I’ve never been wild about that part of the country, and have recently realised that it’s because to me – sorry! – it’s rather grey and bare: I prefer walking in woods and forests where suddenly and unexpectedly an amazing view can reveal itself as I turn a corner, or briefly come out into the open… and I loved the footpaths around the River Lune when I lived in Halton, near Lancaster.

I walked the footpaths in the parks of Leeds and later around Ripon when my daughters were small, and I think I’ve helped pass on a love of walking.

Now that I’m retired, I can do a lot more, and lead my feet farther afield, as it were. I have come to enjoy walking on my own, spending time with my thoughts, reflecting and meditating, and looking carefully at my surroundings, pausing to take time over my photography when I see something worth capturing; all of these are things much harder to do when you are in company. I sometimes think I’m a bit anti-social, but I set out with good intentions of joining local walking groups when I retired and, six years later, have still to do so. I’m a fair weather walker, too – can’t be doing with wind and rain, so mostly it’s spring to autumn, and despite living in Yorkshire, I’ve yet to do much exploring of the Dales or the Wolds.

My favourite walking territory at the moment is the Ardennes, in Luxembourg. There’s an astonishing variety of terrain and landscape in a very small area. There are walks along the border with Germany where you often don’t know what country you are in, and there’s a broad swathe of land along the border with Belgium that is being allowed to return to the wild, and it can be quite spooky in the middle of it all, carefully following a map and a trail and wondering where the next way-marker will be, or whether I’m lost. It feels like being lost in a jungle, especially as it’s quite rare to meet another walker, and yet you can be only a couple of miles from a village.

I’ve walked quite a bit in the Somme region of France, exploring the battlefield sites of the Great War: there are some good walking guides, and everywhere now looks so peaceful, beautiful in places, especially along the river marshlands, that it’s almost impossible to believe the carnage that happened here a century ago. That is, until you come across a small pile of rusting shells at the side of a road or path, waiting for the French equivalent of the bomb disposal squad to pick them up and take them away. They’re not in a hurry – there is 700 years’ (yes!) worth of such work to do in some areas. But you do get a clear picture in your mind, as you walk along sunken paths, or look at the gently undulating and open landscape, of the utter insanity of climbing out of a trench and walking slowly towards enemy lines under machine-gun fire: those poor men never had the slightest chance.

Last year I did some wonderful walking the the Aude departement, in Cathar territory: it was incredibly hot, even in September, but the landscapes were beautiful, even in their dryness; they smelt different, the plants and bushes and trees were different. And assuming I remain fit and healthy enough, I have plans to go walking in the Eifel region of Germany, and also in Switzerland.

My travels: W for the Wolf’s Lair

June 6, 2017

Wolfsschanze, or the Wolf’s Lair lies deep in the forests of northeastern Poland; before 1945 it lay in East Prussia, and was Hitler’s Eastern HQ, from which he directed his insane attempt to conquer the Soviet Union, and where he lived from 1942-44. It’s also the place where the unsuccessful assassination attempt of July 1944 took place.

In communist times, it was on the tourist trail after a fashion: you could park your car, and go and wander around the ruins, clamber all over them, risk your neck in collapsing tunnels – once my sisters and I had seen ‘Achtung! Minen!’ (yes, it really said that) painted on a wall, we got out pretty quickly – and generally pose for photos where you liked. It was quite a rambling site, quite open, and there wasn’t a great deal of information around, no clues as to what any particular wrecked chunk of concrete had been used for.

Last year I took myself there again, for a proper look, 45 years after that first visit. It’s a serious tourist attraction now: entrance and parking fee with proper tickets, guides, leaflets and a souvenir shop, and tourist buses from many countries, especially Germany. There’s a bar and restaurant, and a trail around the ruins that you’re expected to stick to. There’s a lot more information, now: you know which bunker was whose, where the assassination attempt took place (a modest memorial to the conspirators who gave their lives marks the spot) and you get a real sense of the vastness of the place. The bunkers have ten metre-thick reinforced concrete roofs – you have to see this to get your mind round the colossal waste of resources involved; apparently the Nazis used an entire trainload of high explosives when they attempted to destroy the complex before the advancing Russians got there. They failed. And the thing I found most strange, the whole area gradually has been taken over by forest and woodland, creepers and vegetation, almost a jungle; the concrete is dripping with damp and mineral stalactites leaching out of the concrete, covered with greenery; visible metal has almost rusted away…

The place is awesome in the sense of huge, and utterly bonkers: such a ridiculous waste of space and materials; by the time it’s a century old, I wonder if anything discernible will be left. Certainly a sort of Ozymandias moment here.

My travels: V for Volubilis

June 6, 2017

When I was a student and a hippy, back in the dim and distant past, a friend and I took a trip one summer to Morocco, where we did the usual hippy things, camping out in the open, living and eating as cheaply as possible, travelling around on rickety Moroccan buses along rather scary-looking winding roads overlooking precipices. We didn’t get that far on our travels, a few days on beaches before setting off for Fez, and eventually we fetched up in Meknes, which had stunningly impressive mediaeval city walls, the like of which I’ve never seen since until my recent visit to Carcassonne; from here we went to a small town called Moulay Idris, and thence to a ruined Roman town in the desert, called Volubilis

I think I did a number of daft things when I was younger, and this was probably one of the daftest. OK, we knew it would be hot – we’d been in the country for a while already, and it was so hot that it was impossible to do much at all in the afternoons – but this was the desert and we’d never been in a desert before, the middle of nowhere, with very little shade or shelter, and after we’d got back to civilisation at the end of the day someone casually remarked that it had been fifty degrees that day… We weren’t really prepared at all and I do not know how we escaped sunstroke, dehydration or grievous sunburn.

Volubilis was an entire town, a town from Roman times, in ruins in the middle of the desert, and largely untouched since those days. Yes, it was sort of on the tourist trail, and I think we may have paid to get ‘in’. I probably still have the ticket somewhere… It was astonishing. Everything was the same sandy colour – the sand, the scant vegetation, the stonework. There was a lot of it – probably on a par with the Roman site at Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, if not larger. And it was hot. I lost count of the number of litres of water I drank that day, and sweated out. But it was a magical day: I got a very brief feel of what a desert actually was, and the ferocity of the conditions, and I have wondered if that experience was one of the things that sparked my lifelong fascination with deserts, which you may have noticed via quite a few of my blog posts… The Roman ruins were fascinating, because they hadn’t been tidied up and prettified the way many ruins are in more affluent countries.

Morocco was a serious culture-shock to this sheltered Western student. I saw people suffering from leprosy in the streets, and many with crippled and deformed limbs; when I mentioned this to someone who’d been in the country rather longer than me, he replied, ‘Well, in Europe if you break a limb you go to hospital and get it fixed. Here, if you’re poor and can’t afford it, you don’t…’ We came across many locals who did their best to part Westerners from their money in a range of devious ways; we also met many friendly and interesting people. The food was fascinating, the hygiene…different. We spent a fair amount of time wandering through the medinas in the towns we visited, fascinated by how different everything was, what was offered for sale, how transactions were carried out, bartering… As we travelled around, I couldn’t get over the huge cacti and other desert plants which grew everywhere, and no doubt these triggered my enjoyment of growing them myself back home, though on a far more modest scale.

I suppose what has stayed with me most from that long-ago trip was the nature of the encounter with somewhere that was, in so many ways, so utterly different from what I had known up till then, and the challenge it represented to how I saw the world…

My travels: Q for Queribus

June 5, 2017

Some readers may have noticed my recent interest in the Cathars; in autumn last year (2016) I took myself on a trip to the Aude department in the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, to visit some of the sites associated with this heretical church that was finally wiped out in the thirteenth century. The local tourist offices have been trying hard, in this rather poor area of the country, both to cash in on the history they have, and to dispel a lot of the myths that have grown up over the years about the Cathars. I found the tourist office personnel very helpful, and able to provide all sorts of extra information and tips as to what to look out for.

Cathars seem to have gathered in small, remote hill-top towns in the area, such as Rennes-le-Chateau, and when driven towards extinction to have fled to castles held by supporters of their faith. But the castles on the trail are not those where the Cathars made their last stands, but later replacements, from the era when the border between France and Spain was in dispute.

The castles themselves are mind-boggling in their inaccessibility, perched high up on rocky outcrops in a way that none of the castles – and I’ve visited a lot of them – in the UK are situated. And yes, I know that we don’t have any Pyrenees here. I found myself wondering how on earth anyone could possibly manage to build a castle in such a place: where did they get the labour (enforced?) from? The stones? And how did they get them all up there? Then, when the castle was there, how on earth did anyone manage to besiege it? Because they were besieged, and captured… Queribus could be defended by a couple of dozen soldiers, and when you climb up to it, you can see how. And you are so high up, you can see to the Mediterranean.

They I went to Peyrepetuse. You drive up and up for ages along narrow winding mountain roads and eventually reach a dusty car park: the road goes no further. You can look across the valley and see Queribus in the distance. Then you look up, from the car park, to the mountains towering up another two or three hundred feet, and it’s as if someone has dropped a stone replica of the Titanic on top of the mountain – that’s the castle, coming to a point like the prow of a cruise liner, hundreds of feet above you… And then you try to get there. Absolutely stunning. There are actually three different castles there, though you can’t really separate them, in their ruined state. Making your way around is fairly random, and precipitous, and it’s bloody windy up there, too.

There are ruined abbeys, mediaeval walled towns, and there is also Carcassonne, which I spent three days exploring. An entire, walled mediaeval town, with a citadel, seriously but carefully restored, and you can walk all the way around it, either on the ramparts, half of which are Roman and half mediaeval, or in the moat. It is huge, and awe-inspiring. All-in-all, I think this has to be one of the most stunning areas of the country I’ve visited.

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