Prisoners of Geography- book review

We usually think of geography as being about mountains, rivers and seas, but geography is also a major factor in how large or wealthy or powerful countries have become. Prisoners of Geography- Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics uses geography in the form of maps to explain ten large countries and continents including the US, China, Russia, Europe, Africa, and even the Arctic. The author, longtime foreign correspondent Tim Marshall, utilizes his ample experience to write a compelling book that combines geography with history and international affairs.

Starting with Russia, Marshall points out how the world’s largest country both benefits and is constrained by geography including plains to the west, limited access to oceans, and a vast resource-rich eastern region Siberia. The western plains is Russia’s most vulnerable area, being where invading armies from Europe such as the Nazis and Napoleon’s Grand Army have flowed through. As such, that is why it worries a lot about NATO expanding eastwards and specifically about the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the US status as the world’s superpower was aided by perhaps the most favorable geographic conditions such as large coasts facing the Pacific and Atlantic, a large interior, and the world’s longest network of navigable rivers such as the Mississippi. The latter might not be too well-known, but navigable rivers facilitate significant trade as goods can be easily and cheaply moved by ships. Conversely, Marshall points out, the lack of this can hinder countries and continents such as Africa and South America. The latter’s interior also has a lot of mountains such as the Andes range, that prevents easy rail and riverine connectivity. If you’re wondering about the Nile and Amazon, those are both mighty rivers but not conducive to large cargo-carrying ships.

Europe was able to prosper greatly during the Middle Ages because of its large rivers like the Rhine and Danube which facilitated trade and commerce. However, not all European countries benefited from this. For example, Spain’s hilly interior and lack of large rivers meant it couldn’t develop as quickly as its northern neighbor France, which partly explains why Spain didn’t become wealthier than France.

Prisoners of Geography is one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It is a fun read that also makes global affairs a little more understandable and the world a little less complicated.

Hiking Mt Misen on Miyajima

Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan
The sacred Japanese island of Miyajima (Itsukushima), which lies off the coast near Hiroshima, is famous for its “floating” torii gate and shrines. However, Miyajima also has a 535-m-high mountain, Mount Misen, that features small temples, a waterfall, and great views at the top. To me, hiking Mt Misen and taking in the great views at the top was my favorite part of visiting Miyajima, as opposed to seeing the “floating” torii gate.

There are several routes to Mt Misen, however I chose to take the one at the back of Daisho-in Temple, which lies at the foot of the mountain. Note if you don’t want to hike, then you can take a cable car up. Daisho-in Temple is worth a visit before you hike, as it features attractive halls, a cave shrine, and dozens of small stone Buddhas.

Once I got on the trail, it was straightforward. As I continued upwards, I passed a waterfall that flows into a rocky stream. There are vantage points along the way where I was able to look down at the floating torii gate, which will look very tiny. I also saw that much of the island is heavily forested, which isn’t surprising given the island’s population numbers about 2,000 and there isn’t any industry. I also encountered signs urging you to watch out for vipers or “mamushi – deadly poisonous snake.” Good thing I didn’t encounter any. There is also a notable man-made stone stream structure from where water flows out.

Near the top, there are a few diverging paths but just remember to stay on the main trail. There’s a temple hall where you can take a breather. When I reached the summit, I enjoyed really beautiful views of the Inland Sea, the island, and the mainland. I’d say the views of the sea were among the top three I’ve ever seen in my life. The observatory at the summit features benches and washrooms.

It’s possible to hike back down but I decided to take the cable car instead. The Shishiiwa cable car station is a little further away from the summit, about 15-20 minutes, and there are fine views there as well.
Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
“Floating” torii gate from the mountain
Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan
Temple guards and a temple (below) near the top
Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan   Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan Mt Mizen, Miyajima, Japan

The Stolen Bicycle- book review

The Stolen Bicycle is a rare Taiwanese novel that has earned international acclaim, having been nominated for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Written by one of Taiwan’s best modern novelists, Wu Ming-Yi, The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating story seemingly centered on bicycles but which winds through Taiwan under Japanese colonization, World War II battles, disappearing fathers, and even butterfly collecting.

To be honest, when I started The Stolen Bicycle, I found the beginning kind of perplexing. The story didn’t draw me in and the details seemed a bit overwhelming, especially the meticulous descriptions of bicycles by the story’s narrator. I stuck with it and gradually, the story began to feel more captivating. The plot became more complex but also more interesting as it covered disparate topics like antiques, butterfly handicrafts, and zookeeping. By the time it reached World War II, the story reached its stride with military invasions and battles.

The novel really brings Taiwan under Japanese colonization to life, including moments of turbulence such as when Taipei was even bombed by American aircraft during World War II. Certain characters are drafted by the Japanese into their army to fight in distant Malaya (Malaysia) and Burma (Myanmar). The military scenes are especially vivid and haunting, especially in portraying the hardship and terror of battle and retreat in remote jungles.

By this point, I didn’t mind all the details and I was actually impressed. The author did a fine job in being accurate with military history while making the characters and events believable, while conveying a strong sense of drama and danger. Just to give you an example, the story makes use of war elephants, which were actually used by both Japanese and Chinese armies in Southeast Asia to transport military goods. After the war, the KMT brought over a few of these elephants to Taiwan, one of whom became a beloved part of the Taipei Zoo and is also a part of the story.

War aside, there are nice descriptions of oldtime Taipei and Taiwanese society, as well as Japanese colonization, which while brutal to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, is regarded as having been somewhat beneficial. The inclusion of Japanese characters presents a rare Japanese colonial perspective of Taiwan.

Despite the honor of being longlisted, The Stolen Bicycle couldn’t escape political controversy arising from China. The Booker organizers tried to change the author’s nationality from Taiwan to “Taiwan, China” due to Chinese interference but luckily international criticism forced them to backtrack.

The Stolen Bicycle might have been challenging at a few parts, but reading the whole novel was a rewarding experience.

My mistaken China illusion

I wasn’t always such a strong supporter of Taiwan and its status as a country. There was a time when I had this idealistic, naive and silly illusion of a Great China entity, comprising China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a student up until living in Beijing, I harbored this fantasy. It was only a few years ago, while living in Beijing, that I came to my senses. I realized it was unrealistic and foolish to think China could or should rule Taiwan, especially as China’s Communist regime isn’t even good for its own people. I recently wrote about my change of heart in an article for Taiwan’s Ketagalan Online. However, I’ll also go over this briefly here.

Taiwan is a controversial and sensitive issue in the world because its status and freedom is bitterly contested by China, which claims Taiwan belongs to it. That’s why Taiwan is not part of the UN and is only officially recognized as a country by less than 20 countries (China forces countries it has diplomatic relations with to stop recognizing Taiwan as a country). Just in the past 2.5 years, China has stolen 5 of Taiwan’s allies.

Anyways, it’s common knowledge that Taiwan is its own state with its own government, judiciary, laws, schools, and military. Taiwan is a de facto independent nation. Even when I was pro-China, I was aware of this. However, what I was ignorant about was thinking Taiwan should be part of China because it didn’t have its own history or culture. I was very much mistaken. Taiwan also has its own history (which has at times been intertwined with China) and culture (much of which originated from China but which has evolved over time) and traditions. While most Taiwanese have Chinese ancestry, some don’t – the aboriginal people in Taiwan have been here for thousands of years.

As I’ve learned more about Taiwan and traveled to different parts such as the south, it’s apparent that Taiwan has its own history, culture and traditions fostered from almost 400 years of formal settlement. Of course, there is a strong Chinese element from most Taiwanese people’s ancestral origin, but given both Taiwan’s existence as an island and the development of democracy, Taiwan’s people have developed their own identity and the right to be seen as themselves and not little China with democracy and genuine traditions (which some people mistakenly believe).

This week marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year and is a weeklong holiday in Taiwan. So as the Year of the Pig kicks off, here’s to better days and progress for Taiwan, and the world.

Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei’s Dihua Street annual Lunar New Year outdoor market

 

Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- book review

Nestled in the deep northeastern corner of India lies Arunanchal Pradesh, the “land of the dawn-lit mountains,” and one of the least explored parts of the country. Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent went on an epic motorcycle journey into the state where she explored thick jungles and mountains, met and stayed with remote tribes and gained insight and experience into their fading traditions and customs. Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- A Journey across Arunanchal Pradesh – India’s Forgotten Frontier is the result of Bolingbroke-Kent’s intrepid journey.

Arunachal Pradesh is one of India’s “Seven Sisters,” the group of seven northeastern states that border China and Myanmar and are connected to the rest of India by a narrow strip of land, the 20-40 km wide Siliguri Corridor. The entire region is still quite isolated and visited by few people, however Arunachal Pradesh is very remote, with visitors needing to apply for a government permit to enter. Given that the state borders Tibet, it is also a very strategic border region for India, due to its vulnerability to invasion from China, which actually claims the province as its own territory.

Bolingbrooke-Kent set out in a counter-clockwise journey from neighboring Assam, looping into Arunachal Pradesh and riding from east to west. Along the way, she stops at several points, sometimes even venturing for days deep into the interior and far borders of Arunachal Pradesh while leaving behind her motorcycle. She meets tribal elders, shamans and even kings, observing ceremonies and festivals and even mithun (cattle) sacrifices. The tribes include fearsome warriors with a historic reputation as headhunters, nomads, and former Tibetan vassals residing around the old mountain fortress of Tawang. Indeed, Arunachal Pradesh’s history includes past interaction with Tibet when it was an independent entity.

The book also shows serious challenges faced by the tribes. It is clear that modern life is gradually eroding a lot of the tribal traditions, especially as young people are lured by education and jobs in big cities. There is also a fair bit of ethnic tension between tribal people and Indians from outside the state, who have moved into Arunachal Pradesh to settle or work. The tribal people are ethnically and culturally different from most Indians, with some of them having more in common with Myanmar, where their ancestors came from.

Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains is a fascinating, moving, and entertaining account of one of Asia’s most unknown remote regions.

Sri Lanka travel- visiting the hill town of Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
The mountainous interior of Sri Lanka, Hill Country, is full of mountains, picturesque towns, and hillside plantations where the country’s famous tea is grown. Among the largest towns in the Hill Country is Nuwara Eliya, considered the centre of the country’s tea industry. As a former British colonial hill station, Nuwara Eliya was a favorite holiday retreat for British officials, hence its wooden bungalows, a charming post office, and a horse-racing track that is still used today.

The town is a good base for visiting tea plantations and waterfalls in the nearby hills, as well as Horton Plains National Park (several hours away by car), where you can visit World’s End, a cliff edge with a massive drop of 4,000 feet. Nuwara Eliya itself features Single Tree Hill, and a small lake, as well as Pidurutalagala, the country’s tallest mountain.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Hiking up Single Tree Hill, so called for a lone tree at the top (not actually true), provides great views of the town as well as the tea plantations on its slopes. It’s a relatively easy hike because most of it is along a small road which is not too steep. At the top, you can either go back down the way you came or clamber down not-so-clearly-marked trails through residential neighborhoods. Watch out you don’t accidentally trespass onto a tea plantation as I did!

To actually visit a large tea plantation, just go outside Nuwara Eliya to Pedro’s tea factory (3.5 km away). You can get a guided tour of the factory to see how they sort and process the tea, and then walk around the tea plantation outside the factory. Very conveniently, just opposite the road from Pedro’s is a trail that leads to Lover’s Leap waterfall, a 30m-high waterfall on a cliff. I took a tuktuk from town to Pedro’s, then after completing the hike, I took a local bus back to Nuwara Eliya.

How to get to Nuwara Eliya: Take a train to Nanu Oya station, then a tuktuk into town. If you want to be fancy, hire a local car and driver to take you from cities like Kandy or Colombo.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
View from Single Hill Tree
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