Asia on the page: 6 literary excerpts about Asian locations
THE beauties of Asia are often espoused through photographs and paintings, but the literary world has done much to put it on the traveller’s map too . These six literary excerpts describe in vivid detail the scenes, culture and experience of living, visiting and traveling in Asia. While chosen for their apt descriptions, they should also provide you with more books to add to your travel reading list.
Rudyard Kipling – North India
In Kim the young orphan accompanies a lama on a journey that crosses the Siwaliks near Dehra Dun in northern India, heads out on the narrow hill roads beyond Mussoorie, through the terraces and deodar-forests and towards the high snows. It’s a dramatic region but a tough one for the traveller even by car, but particularly on foot (read about the trek to Dodital here on Travel Wire Asia). Kipling’s description of the region is particularly accurate.
At last they entered a world within a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of a mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains. Here one day’s march carried them no farther, it seemed, than a dreamer’s clogged pace bears him in a nightmare. They skirted a shoulder painfully for hours, and, behold, it was but an outlying boss in an outlying buttress of the main pile! A rounded meadow revealed itself, when they had reached it, for a vast tableland running far into the valley. Three days later, it was a dim fold in the earth to southward.
‘Surely the Gods live here!’ said Kim, beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep and dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. ‘This is no place for men!’
Elizabeth Gilbert – Bali, Indonesia
Eat, Pray, Love put Ubud on the map, along with it’s beautiful rice paddies, Hindu temples and medicine men. Since her 2006 memoir that enjoyed hundreds of weeks on bestsellers’ lists, thousands have retraced her steps to gain something of the spiritual and emotional journey she encountered and insights into Balinese culture.
Ubud is in the center of Bali, located in the mountains, surrounded by terraced rice paddies and innumerable Hindu temples, with rivers that cut fast through deep canyons of jungle and volcanoes visible on the horizon. Ubud has long been considered the cultural hub of the island, the place where traditional Balinese painting, dance, carving, and religious ceremonies thrive. It isn’t near any beaches, so the tourists who come to Ubud are a self-selecting and rather classy crowd; they would prefer to see an ancient temple ceremony than to drink piña coladas in the surf. Regardless of what happens with my medicine man prophecy, this could be a lovely place to live for a while. The town is sort of like a small Pacific version of Santa Fe, only with monkeys walking around and Balinese families in traditional dress all over the place. There are good restaurants and nice little bookstores. I could feasibly spend my whole time here in Ubud doing what nice divorced American women have been doing with their time ever since the invention of the YWCA—signing up for one class after another: batik, drumming, jewelry-making, pottery, traditional Indonesian dance and cooking . . . Right across the road from my hotel there’s even something called “The Meditation Shop”—a small storefront with a sign advertising open meditation sessions every night from 6:00 to 7:00. May peace prevail on earth, reads the sign. I’m all for it.
Greg Mortenson – Pakistan
It’s hard to know if readers of Mortenson’s acclaimed Three Cups of Tea, about building schools in Pakistan, feel that inspired to visit such a challenging and dangerous region, but the descriptions are poetic and inspiring.
In Pakistan’s Karakoram, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s tallest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high-altitude wilderness. Other than snow leopard and ibex, so few living creatures have passed through this barren icescape that the presence of the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, was little more than a rumor to the outside world until the turn of the twentieth century.
Flowing down from K2 toward the populated upper reaches of the Indus Valley, between the four fluted granite spires of the Gasherbrums and the lethal-looking daggers of the Great Trango Towers, the sixty-two-kilometer-long Baltoro Glacier barely disturbs this still cathedral of rock and ice. And even the motion of this frozen river, which drifts at a rate of four inches a day, is almost undetectable.
Andrew Pham – Vietnam
Catfish and Mandala is Andrew Pham’s account of his two-wheeled voyage through Vietnam. The solo bicycle journey also takes him to the land of his birth where he searches for cultural identity, encounters some colourful characters and writes descriptive accounts of everything he sees.
The countryside opens up with an endless patchwork of four- or five-acre farms, the houses hidden among the willowy tees and banana palms. In the lightly wooded areas, herders, rangy men with broad-brimmed hats, dusty clothes, and long bamboo staves, move quietly, watching their cattle grazing. The land is rich, green shooting up everywhere – out of the paddies, along the river, between the cracks in the road.
Michael Palin – Tibet
Palin’s epic travelogue, Himalaya, recounts his journey across the 1800 mile stretch of rock from Afghanistan to China that makes up the Himalayan mountain range. His journey traces the villages, passes, festivals, ancient cities and mighty mountains of the region.
The track bounces over impacted, corrugated earth strewn with small boulders, but the four-wheel drives don’t find it too difficult, and by late afternoon, after winding our way through valleys fed by glacial melt from the slopes of Everest, we turn past the Rongbuk gompa, the highest monastery in the world, and in to the walled courtyard of the guesthouse, administered by the monastery.
It looks, for a moment, like the most wonderful place in the world. The same long, low, Tibetan-style layout as the Snow Leopard in Tingri, but with a hugely more spectacular location. This turns out to be its only redeeming feature. From the filthy, littered courtyard to the soulless concrete rooms with broken windows and the foul, doorless lavatories, Rongbuk Guest House is pretty much a hell hole.
The redeeming feature, however, is not to be underestimated. There is only one mountain to be seen from here and that is Everest. It stands, massive, grand and solitary, only a few miles away across the end of the valley. It is the horizon.
Andrew Stevenson – Nepal
Stevenson’s Annapurna Circuit recounts the months he spends trekking in Nepal, coming to grips with the people, its landscapes and his own journey. The book is like a portrait of the country and rich in description.
Alone, back on the roof terrace of our bhaati, in the late afternoon sun, I reflect on the intense experience of the gompa cellar as shadows cast by the mountains creep up the sunlit valley. The jet stream blows snow over the top of the Annapurnas. The entire northern mountain face is in shadow, but the windblown snow catches the orange sunset on the opposite side, lighting the ridge-line in an eerie glow, as if the summit of the ice-bound mountains i s on fire. The fiery image dies, and curtains of mist swoop as if drawn across a stage. Prayer flags shiver on rooftops, darkness envelops us. Purged, the energy dissipates.