The Hall of a Thousand Columns- book review

The great 14th century Arab explorer Ibn Battutah traveled extensively for three decades across Africa and Asia, including a 10-year stint in India. The Hall of a Thousand Columns focuses on this decade in India, the second book in a trilogy about author Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s quest to follow Ibn Battutah’s footsteps.

Mackintosh-Smith starts by visiting various places in Delhi where Ibn Battutah stayed and worked in the court of the sultan Muhammad Shah, including the hall of a thousand columns, which the book is named after. Most of these places exist as ruins, having long fallen into disuse, and not necessarily preserved in good condition.

The author and his artist friend then venture across northern India following Ibn Battutah as he left the royal court for China as the sultan’s ambassador. Ibn Battutah at first experiences misfortune after being attacked by bandits near modern-day Aligarh, 75 miles southwest of Delhi, forcing him to flee for a short time.

After regrouping with his entourage, Ibn Battutah set out again and traveled across northern India to cities like Gwalior, the temple town of Khajuraho, and the Deccan plateau.

Just as fascinating as Ibn Battutah’s exploits are the real-life characters the author encounters such as yogis, descendants of minor royalty, and Islamic equestrian-academics, all living examples of the diverse, fascinating and perplexing nature of India. It is almost as if modern India (this book was published in 2005) is in some ways still as mysterious and perplexing as during Ibn Battutah’s time.

Ibn Battutah then ventures to the west coast and sailed to Calicut in Kerala. However, after setting out on a junk for China, his ship is sunk by a storm. While the great explorer survived and washed ashore, he wandered along the coast for a year and a half, his Indian career brought to an ignominious end.

As such, the second part of the book sees Mackintosh-Smith travel along the southwestern India’s Malabar Coast region. The author enjoys languid cruises aboard Kerala’s river boats where he takes in the region’s famous “backwaters” scenery and way of life. He also meets the elderly holder of the title of the ruler of Calicut, the Zamorin, living in humble and diminished circumstances but with a sense of dignity.

As a travelogue, I found the writing a bit too dense and technical to be able to get a strong sense of the places visited. Strangely, I still found the book enjoyable, perhaps more due to the author’s jauntiness and enthusiasm as well as the memorable Indians he met.

Yangshuo, China’s karst country hotspot

During my trip a few years ago to China’s “karst country” in Guangxi region, I first visited Xingping before heading to Yangshuo. While Guilin traditionally used to be more well-known, Yangshuo is actually the better hub due to it being nearer to a lot of scenic sites, as well as the fact it is not a big city. However, Yangshuo is much bigger than Xingping and is actually a bustling town filled with hotels and restaurants as well as a built-up central area with new malls. To be clear, Yangshuo is also the name of the county, which Xingping is part of, in addition to the town, which is the county seat and which this blog post is about. Karst peaks loom right on the edges of the town, soaring above buildings to create a striking background.

Of course, you don’t come to Yangshuo for its urban sights, but for the karst scenery around it which you can visit on bicycle. After meeting up with friends the evening that I arrived who had also decided to visit Yangshuo for Christmas, I rented a bicycle the next morning to ride the “Ten Mile Gallery” route south of the town. This is the most popular route though it is also the most heavily trafficked by tourists.

The road took me past farm fields, an arched bridge over a scenic river, limestone hills, and loads of tourists and touts. One of the latter actually rode alongside me on her bicycle asking me to hire her or buy a ticket from her. At first it was amusing as she pedaled next to me, but when I continued to refuse, she became aggravated and asked me one last time in a slightly menacing tone before finally leaving me.

I proceeded on my way to Moon Hill, so named due to the huge round hollow near its top. Getting to the top took about a 20-minute hike up stone steps and the view from the peak was a panorama of the surrounding peaks and fields. However, the weather was quite hazy, just as it was in Xingping, so I didn’t get the best view. What I did get was a nice encounter with two friendly Chinese at the top of the hill. I took a photo for them and on the way down, we chatted. We had all cycled from Yangshuo to Moon Hill so we then cycled together to another scenic spot on the route – an ancient tree. We had lunch before parting ways, though we kept in contact afterwards. This is one aspect of traveling in China I did enjoy, having met and befriended a few people this way. As a whole, Guangxi was a pleasant trip, being one of the most scenic and rural areas in China while the people were in general, other than that tourist tout, quite nice.

Looking back at this trip (end of 2016), it’s hard to think whether I can enjoy a similar trip again in the future given the ongoing pandemic and the tensions with China. Anyways, stay safe everyone.

Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World- book review

In today’s world, specialization is increasingly dominating many fields like academia, science, and sports. But this is not always the best way, as explained in Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World whose author David Epsteinmakes the case for a more well-rounded approach that emphasizes breadth and experimentation.

Epstein starts out by contrasting the childhoods of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Woods was introduced to golf as a baby and by the age of two, could already drive a ball on national television. As he grew up, he continued to excel at golf and as an adult, became one of the sport’s greatest players. Federer had the opposite childhood as he played a range of sports including football, basketball and handball. Later on, he focused on tennis and then went on to win a bunch of majors. While the “Tiger path” might be more well-known and considered conventional, Epstein says that the “Roger path” to sports stardom is actually more prevalent. And this actually applies to other areas of life including arts, tech, and science.

Epstein then goes on to demolish the myth of the head start, highlight the importance of outside experience and utilizing outsiders, and shows how too much grit, with reference to the book of that same name which I read and reviewed last year, can be a problem. In some cases, knowing when to quit and do something else can be very useful.

And expertise, while good, also has its downsides when it comes to solving problems such as with the Challenger shuttle explosion when one of the contractor’s engineers pointing out a problem before the launch was overruled by superiors from both his firm and NASA. There are times we need to drop our familiar tools, both literally and figuratively. Lateral thinking by utilizing fading technology is another way of creating new and useful ideas.

While specialization might be widespread currently, Epstein makes a strong case for why having a breadth of experiences and well-rounded abilities would be better for the world.

Love, Africa- A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival- book review

There is a lot of war, atrocities and tragedy in Love, Africa- A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival, but the most surprising thing to me was the author’s admission of cheating on his wife before they were married. That aside, there is a lot of journalistic, cultural and geopolitical insight in this memoir by reporter Jeffrey Gettleman, which focuses on his ten years covering East Africa as the Time’s bureau chief and his earlier reporting stints in Florida, Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the title stresses, Gettleman has a love for Africa, which started from a college internship in Ethiopia, then bloomed during a gap year when he went back to Africa. From then on, he knew he wanted to work there and journalism just happened to be his ticket. Along the way, he meets his future wife Courtenay at college in Columbia, with whom he engages on a tumultuous courtship that sees a few rocky moments. But before Africa and the Times, he started as a reporter in Florida covering small towns for the St Petersburg Times. While there, he reports on murders, domestic violence, rapes, drownings and car wrecks. “And people say Africa is violent,” Gettleman remarks.

Gettleman then moves to the LA Times, for whom he covers the “Deep South” out of Atlanta. It is there that he gets sent to Afghanistan after the US invades it in 2002 take down al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Gettleman then joins the NY Times, where he initially reports from New Jersey, which as you would expect is not very exciting. Soon, an opening in the NYT’s East Africa bureau materializes, and he applies and gets it.

It seems as if everything Gettleman has done has built up to this opportunity and he enthusiastically takes it. Settling quickly into Nairobi, Kenya, Gettleman reports from all over the region, which comprises over a dozen countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia. He and Courtenay start a family in their nice big house staffed by a nanny, housekeeper, guard and other helpers – Gettleman is self-aware of how privileged and similar his life is compared to other white residents in Kenya.

Things settle into a nice rhythm until the December 2007 presidential election, when suspicions over the incumbent’s victory escalate into unprecedented ethnic-based violence. For the first time in its modern history, Kenya faced a civil conflict which saw killings and lynchings, and forced hundreds of thousands of Kenyans to flee to their tribal or ethnic enclaves.

The madness ends after a few months as international pressure leads to a power-sharing agreement between the two party leaders.
Gettleman makes an astute judgement when he states that Kenya had built a state but not a nation. By this he meant that Kenya had a functioning civil service, courts and an airline, which are necessary institutions, but among its people there was not exactly a unified sense of identification, with ethnic and tribal allegiance being more important.

The cheating I mentioned happens during Gettleman’s stints in Florida, with multiple women, and Iraq, when he carries on months-long relationship with a daring war photographer. I would think Courtenay must be a very loving and forgiving woman, especially as in the book, she discovers his affair with the photographer after coming across his old emails.

Despite the somewhat cliched title, the book goes beyond mere sentimentality and self-absorbedness and is a self-aware and riveting journalist memoir that is entertaining and informative.

Three Tigers, One Mountain- book review

East Asia is one of the world’s most dynamic regions, driven by the trio of China, Japan and South Korea. With significant economic, historic and cultural links, one would think these countries get along quite well. The reality is the complete opposite in that these countries strongly dislike, if not hate, each other. Three Tigers, One Mountain – A Journey Through the Bitter History and Current Conflicts of China, Korea, and Japan explores this confounding issue as author Michael Booth visited all three countries to find out the reasons for their grievances and why these continue to linger in modern times. There are several rivalries at play – Japan-Korea, Japan-China, and to a lesser extent, China-Korea.

There is also the bonus of a fourth nation Taiwan, which as most know is claimed by China as its territory. However, it’s not China-Taiwan tensions which are the main focus, but a one-sided Taiwan-Korea feud which is probably the most trivial and least hateful of the region’s rivalries.

Booth first travels across Japan, where he visits Yokohama’s Chinatown and Koreatown, then talks to far-right nationalists, academics and Korean-Japanese. Booth also visits the Yasakuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead and is controversial due to it holding the remains of 14 Japanese Class-A war criminals, high-ranking military officers who were found guilty of crimes against humanity during World War II. More specifically, it’s that Japanese leaders often visit the shrine which angers China and South Korea.

A major reason for this anger is Japan’s atrocious actions during the 20th century, including World War II, and its seeming inability to fully apologize for these. For South Korea, it stems from a humiliating and tragic colonization under Japan during the early 20th century that lasted until 1945, when Japan was defeated by the US and its allies. Even before that, Japan also tried to invade South Korea in the 17th century, but was driven back.

Booth thinks that the US is at fault for the region’s rivalries since the arrival of US Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet of “Black Ships” in 1853 forced Japan to open up to the West, enabling it to pick up both technology and ideas that led it to replicate European colonization. Japan thus went on to create its own empire in the region, defeating China in war and thus take Taiwan, as well as invading and annexing Korea.

Booth then takes the ferry from Nagasaki to Busan, South Korea’s second-biggest city. From there, he visits the DMZ, Gwangju, Incheon, and of course, Seoul. South Korea of course is still officially at war with its reclusive northern neighbor, but sometimes it acts as if its main threat is Japan. The roots of this go back hundreds of years ago to the late 16th century when Japan invaded Korea twice, causing the deaths of a million Koreans. However, the country also has its own 20th century authoritarian past to deal with, which Booth also looks into, as well as the ensuing economic rise and current global cultural supremacy (K-pop, movies, TV dramas). Interestingly, Booth seems to have provided a more comprehensive look at South Korea rather than just focus on sources of regional tensions as he did with Japan and China. 

The third country is China, where Booth goes to major cities along the country’s eastern half such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Harpin. The latter two are major sites of Japanese atrocities in World War II, with Harpin being where the Japan military’s Unit 731 conducted testing of biological weapons on live Chinese prisoners, while Nanjing is where the Japanese massacred at least hundreds of thousands of Chinese.

Booth, who is British, then changes his mind and thinks that British culpability in starting the 19th century Opium War with Qing China is the main factor for East Asia’s tensions. He also visits Hong Kong, where a local academic shuts down his guilt over the UK’s role in the Opium War, reasoning that China was already declining under the Qing. Not to mention that opium was being consumed elsewhere in the world, including back in the UK.

Finally, Booth goes to Taiwan. Some people might be surprised, but Taiwan harbors a sort of grudge with Korea. Personally, I am not too clear about why this exists, as queries to local friends yielded unclear answers. The people Booth talks to mention Taiwan’s superiority complex towards Korea, owing to the two’s contrasting colonial experience under Japan. Not only was Taiwan colonized earlier by Japan, in 1895, but its experience was much less bloody than Korea, which, unlike Taiwan, has a history as a state for over a thousand years. It is also a one-sided rivalry since the South Koreans don’t really care much about Taiwan.

Despite Booth’s usual forte writing about travel and food, he produces a worthy effort in tackling what is an extremely heavy and complex topic. He has a good grasp of the historical dynamics and conflicts, and lets his interview subjects speak without imposing his own views on them. However, his theory that East Asia’s mutual dislike is the fault of the US, and then the UK (which he later drops), is erroneous and seems like an expression of over-earnest Western guilt.

Booth concludes that domestic politics, as well as domestic propaganda, is a major reason for the continuing animosity between these countries, and that some sort of common understanding of history needs to be arrived at. It’s a fair point though not very realistic. This is a region that has long been mutually suspicious and fought wars with each other, long before the US arrived on the scene. It won’t be surprising if these countries will continue to dislike each other for the near future. 

Erroneous guilt aside, Three Tigers, One Mountain is a fascinating, somber and well-written account of the historical and political tensions and interactions of East Asia.

Germania- book review

For a country that is both Europe’s most prosperous power and arguably the worst villain nation of the 20th century, Germany does not get much mention in the English-language world, especially when compared to say, France or Italy. Germania- A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern attempts to remedy this by showcasing the history and landscape of the country. Author Simon Winder is a self-confessed Germanophile whose affinity for the country began in a childhood holiday to Alsace-Lorraine, followed by dozens of visits as an adult. In Winder’s own words, Germany is a sort of “dead zone” for British visitors, so he attempts to rejuvenate the country’s image in a jaunty retelling of Germany’s history, places and landscapes that is at odds with the country’s predominantly serious image.

Germania is not a conventional history book nor travelogue. It tells the story of Germany from Roman times, with the opening battle scene of the movie Gladiator mentioned, to 1933 in a non-linear way, both in history and travel, as each chapter groups together related themes and topics. It took me a while to get used to this but eventually the book turned out to be a very fascinating read.

What Germania makes clear, amplified by Winder’s lighthearted writing, is that Germany was for most of its history an unwieldy and chaotic collection of kingdoms, states and cities that fiercely clung to their independence. For hundreds of years, these entities, which indeed numbered in the hundreds, were part of the Holy Roman Empire, itself more of a collection of states than a unified entity, where later they’d come to be part of the Hapsburg Empire. Only in the late 19th century would Germany come into being as a unified entity, driven by powerful Prussia which itself had to fight a war with Austria to assert control.

Winder takes readers to obscure towns and villages such as Wolfenbuttel and Anhalt-Zerbst (from where Catherine the Great hailed from), that existed as tiny kingdoms for hundreds of years, as well as more well-known historic cities like Mainz, Bremen, and Cologne. Winder enjoys highlighting the quirky aspects of these towns and cities such as former eccentric rulers, old town halls, and exotic regal collections or “wonder cabinets” of animal specimens and miniature art.

As a result, Germany is full of towns and villages that still retain some character, albeit not as old as some people would think. Culturally speaking, especially in music and art, Germany was a European powerhouse, though this aspect has been overshadowed by its role as the aggressor in the two World Wars of the 20th century.

There is also a lot about France, which, contrary to its popular contemporary reputation as a nation not good at fighting wars, used to terrify the German states until the late 19th century, and Italy, whose art and culture Germans had a strong fascination for. Naturally, Austria, which is a German-speaking country that used to be the most powerful German state as it ruled the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, also plays a role in the book.

While the modern-day convention is that Germany terrified France due to having attacked it during both world wars in the 20th century and having defeated it in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the French actually had their way with the Germans during the preceding centuries. In fact, Winder says one of the main factors pushing German unification in the mid-19th century was for the individual Germanic states and kingdoms to come together to stand up to the French.

Winder also claims that Germany’s formidable warlike reputation is exaggerated since outside of three wars against Denmark, Austria, and France in a seven-year stretch in the late 19th century, Germany has never ever won a war. Of course, one must keep in mind that Germany never existed as an entity until the 19th century.

However, one of the most poignant parts is the leadup to World War I. Though Germany is often portrayed as being the aggressor of the war, Winder says that tensions with Britain led to an arms race and mutual distrust in the preceding decades. As most people know, World War I was sparked by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian, which led to the Austro-Hungarian Empire targeting Serbia, whose ally Russia was compelled to get involved. As France was an ally of Russia and would also intervene, this meant Germany had to step in to help its ally, the Austro-Hungarians, which thus meant that Britain ended up entering the war to aid France.

Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire suffered defeat in World War I, leading to the imposition of huge reparations, as well as the breakup of the latter. This financial burden was worsened by economic woes and inflation in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to the rise of Hitler. The 1930s is where Winder stops the book, lamenting that from that point on, things would not be the same for Germany as the terror of Hitler and Nazism would happen.

Winder’s light-heartedness and occasional facetiousness might not be for everyone, as it wasn’t for me at first, but if you stick with it, chances are you will gain a memorable impression of Germany. In the end, Germany still turns out to be a strange nation, but one with a lot of character, tragedy, and culture.