Books

Submission- book review

I don’t read too many French or European novels, though I should. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is one such French book and it is a stunning novel that explores the possibility of an Islamist party winning the presidential election in France. It is the first book I’ve ever read from Houellebecq, arguably France’s most famous novelists and probably the most controversial too.

In 2022 France, the protagonist Francoise, a literature lecturer at Paris III-Sorbonne, is living a steady but somewhat empty life. He is respected in his profession as an expert on a 19th-century French writer and has affairs with students. However, he has a pessimistic and misanthropic approach towards life and its conventions such as religion and marriage. As the presidential election looms, an Islamic candidate gains significant support, and after he wins, France finds its educational and social systems altered, and Francoise is forced to consider a major life change.
Suffice it to say, the question of the French core identity is challenged by the outcome of the election. However, the significance of this political possibility was slightly offset by Francoise’s personal struggles to find himself so the effect was not as powerful for me.

While I’m not a Frenchman and I don’t live in a society with a lot of Muslims, I can understand why Submission would court some controversy. Submission does address Islamophobia concerns by presenting a future with an Islamic control at the highest level. For a country like France which is historically Christian but has a large Muslim minority, questions over how much to accommodate Islam is a major issue, such as the banning of niqabs (full face covering worn by some female Muslims) in public.

However, Islam is not the main target but France’s mainstream politicians and academic institutions. The Islamist candidate is actually a reasonable-sounding but driven individual who is not an extremist or radical firebrand. The issue posed by the author is about the decline of mainstream parties, the result of which is that only far-right candidates like Marie Le Pen, who in real life lost the presidential elections this year, and the Islamist candidate can galvanize the public.

The novel is not very long at less than 250 pages but that is enough to produce a blunt and slightly chilling effect. Not just because of the shock and repercussions of an Islamist in power, but the personal change undertaken by Francoise that completely goes against the fundamentals of his character.

Advertisements
Books · China

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds- book review

In the early 20th century, a Swedish-Finnish nobleman by the name of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim undertook a secret mission for the Russian Tsar to spy on China. Starting from Moscow, Mannerheim crossed Russia, traveled through Central Asia and across China to collect information on the country’s reforms and development. 100 years later, in 2006, Canadian writer Eric Enno Tamm decided to undertake the same journey as Mannerheim, going through the Central Asian Stans and into China, from Xinjiang to Beijing.

Even 100 years after the original, Tamm’s voyage is a remarkable journey. Going through Central Asia, the author sheds light on little-known countries like oil-rich quasi-authoritarian Azerbaijan and repressive and secretive states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The murkiness and poverty of the cities in those states is balanced by the beauty of the sparsely-populated, desolate wilderness of mountain passes, desert and plains. In China, Xinjiang is already heavily policed and Sinicized as cities like Kashgar are built up while having their historic neighborhoods ripped apart. Tamm visits famous cities like Xian and not-so-famous ones like Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, and the holy sites of Wutaishan, one of China’s holiest mountains, and Dunhuang, site of one of China’s greatest Buddhist grottoes.

At every stage, Tamm describes fascinating accounts of Mannerheim’s trek, which was especially sensitive as he had to deal with rival European explorers and spies, and the Qin Dynasty authorities. Besides the historical and nature aspect, the book also features a lot of interesting descriptions of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that is present across Western China, such as small Mongolian and Tibetan sub-tribes as well as the local Uyghur majority.

Despite the 100 years separating the journeys of Mannerheim and the writer, there is a striking similarity between how China was going through significant change in the form of economic and industrial development during Mannerheim’s journey under the Qing Dynasty, as it was during Tamm’s journey and to the present. Tamm raises a provocative point about the parallels between the present and in Mannerheim’s time, as the Qing embraced Western industrial technology and economic changes, but not values and ideas, in an attempt to make the country prosper while retaining power, which ultimately proved futile. The Qing Dynasty would fall just a few years after Mannerheim’s journey when a successful revolution broke out in 1911. The recent news of China’s supposed banning of VPN by early 2018 and the death of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo is a reminder that China’s impressive economic rise and might has been accompanied by greater censorship and repression. I’ve never read this specific view linking the last years of the Qing with the present time expressed before, despite the abundance of predictions about the fall or decline of the Chinese Communist Party, and I admit it is partially convincing.

Tamm also notes the tensions in China’s borderlands, especially the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghurs chafe under harsh Chinese rule. Indeed, Xinjiang is China’s most heavily policed region, and there are restrictions on the Uyghur’s practice of their religion and culture. It is obvious that Tamm is not too positive about his observations and experiences during his travel through China.

Tamm also coins a word for China’s pervasive technological censorship – technotarianism. Back then, China had just erected its “Great Firewall” and Google provided a limited version for use in the country, which didn’t prevent it from being banned completely. The censorship has only gotten worse so Tamm’s “technotarianism” is still in place.

Another serious problem Tamm observes is China’s dire environment, especially the heavily polluted air or smog which is as much of a problem in Beijing and much of China now as it was 11 years ago.

Coincidentally, much of Tamm’s journey traces the ancient Silk Road, as he goes through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi to get to Beijing. He also visits Henan and Inner Mongolia. Given that the Belt and Road (also known as One Belt, One Road) is meant to recreate the Silk Road and passes through the countries Tamm traveled to, I was thinking it would be fitting if Tamm could go on another journey through Central Asia and China and write a new book.

Incidentally 2017 is the 100th year of Finland’s independence from Russia. After Finland became independent, Mannerheim became its regent and then a national war hero by defending Finland from the Soviet Union during the 1940s as the Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland.

While the book was published 6 years ago, several of the observations are still very relevant. It is a little sad that not only do issues like the severe pollution and the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet still exist in China, but they are perhaps worse now than when Tamm undertook his journey.

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok revisited


Bangkok is a city I didn’t like much the first time I went there several years ago. But after going there a couple of times again in the last two years, for brief stays while transiting to other places, I confess I’ve had a change of heart. Not only does Bangkok not seem so noisy, ugly and stifling, I think I might even like it a bit.

Once you go beyond the famous attractions like the Royal Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the mega-malls, there are a number of interesting places to check out.
There is the Big Swing, a giant swing over 15 meters high from which people used to swing on it to try to retrieve something from the post during religious ceremonies (it sounds dangerous and indeed it was banned in 1935 due to a number of deaths), and the elaborate Wat Suthat temple next to it.

There are the many English-language bookstores ranging from Asia Books, a local bookstore chain, to Dasa, a multi-level second-hand bookstore, to Kikokuniya, a large Japanese regional bookstore chain. Compare this with Hong Kong where Dymocks and Page One have both shut down in recent years, leaving only local chain Bookazine for English-language books.

Then, there is Jim Thompson House, the former residence of silk magnate Jim Thompson. The small, but spacious and pleasant compound consists of several red houses, built from teak in the traditional style and brought over from other parts of Thailand, and a garden. The houses are attractive and comfortable, though you can only enter them as part of a tour (which is included as part of the entrance fee). Of course, the houses may be traditional but they are probably much bigger and fancier than the ones regular Thais lived in.
Thompson was an American businessman and intelligence operative (he served in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, during World War II) who settled in Bangkok and built up a silk export business, and disappeared in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. His disappearance remains a mystery even now though his silk brand is still thriving.
There are more, but that will be for another post.


Another form of public transport in Bangkok, which I took to get to the Giant Swing.
These boat taxis run on the narrow canals (klangs) and are different from the Chao Phraya river taxis and not as pleasant. The canal is not very hygienic and the boats are completely enfolded in tarpaulin, which are let down when passengers get on and off, as you can see in this photo. Try it for the experience, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it more than once.


Erawan Shrine, a Hindu shrine located at the corner of a busy intersection surrounded by offices and shopping centers. This was the site of a bombing in August 2015 that killed 20 people and injured over 100. I took this photo in 2016.


   

Asia Books is a local English-language bookstore chain that has a wide selection. This outlet is in Siam Paragon.

Bangkok’s colorful traffic

The Giant Swing


Wat Suthat, another of Bangkok’s beautiful temples, located next to the Giant Swing

It has a massive golden Buddha inside and walls and columns covered from floor to ceiling in intriguing black mosaics.

Books

Night of the Golden Butterfly and This is How You Lose Her- book reviews

As the fifth of Tariq Ali’s Islamic Quintet of novels, The Night of the Golden Butterfly is the most contemporary one, taking place in 20th and 21st century Pakistan and England, as well as China. The story starts when a famous but mysterious Pakistani painter Plato asks his childhood friend, novelist Dara, as a special favor, to write about his life for his lover. Hailing from Lahore, Plato and Dara met during the latter’s university years in the 1960s and developed a friendship while ruminating over politics and philosophy. The latter would come to fall in love with a Chinese-Pakistani, Jindie, the sister of their friend and the “Golden Butterfly” of the book’s title, who ends up marrying another of their friends. Jindie harbors a fascinating ancestral origin, being the descendant of a Yunnan Hui sultan who rose up against the Qing emperor in late-19th century China. The sultan’s defeat drives Jindie’s ancestor to flee Yunnan and eventually Pakistan.

Decades after their university years in Pakistan, Dara, Plato and Jindie have all immigrated to the US and England, but still stay in touch with events in an increasingly unstable Pakistan, which has uneasy relations with the Taliban, which part of its military tacitly supported (as most people know now, Osama bin Laden was killed while “hiding out” in a Pakistani military town). The problems in their homeland catch up to Dara and his Pakistani friends in the West in the form of “Naughty,” a former socialite and ex-wife of a corrupt Pakistani military officer, who flees to and gains fame in Europe as a liberal Muslim woman who openly criticizes Islam and was implicated in a murder and sex scandal involving Pakistani army generals. While the story meanders a lot, going from Pakistan to the West and to China, it is an entertaining read that cleverly mocks liberalism, art, religion, especially radical Islam, and Pakistan.

 

This is How You Lose Her is a collection of short stories from Junot Diaz, whose The Wondrous Life of Oscar Diaz is one of the bluntest, raw and profane novels I’ve ever read. As with the novel, the protagonist of these short stories is a Dominican-American guy from a working-class background. As the title suggests, the stories are all, except one, about the opposite sex. In several of them, the protagonist features his family, especially his womanizing older brother. They are a bit raunchy and profane, in keeping with Diaz’s literary style, which is like someone talking. Most of them feature sorrowful or wistful endings, which I suppose is the main point, to portray the joy and fickleness of love and passion.

Books

Everything Belongs To Us- book review

I like to read novels set in Asian countries, such as India, China, Myanmar, and even Malaysia. Now I can add South Korea to that list after having read Everything Belongs to Us, a coming-of-age novel about three young Korean university students in Seoul living under military dictatorship in the late 70s back when the country was still poor. I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, which forms most of my post below, with a few slight changes.

South Korea was not always a prosperous, democratic and cutting-edge country. In the seventies, it was poor and ruled by a harsh authoritarian regime desperate to catch up with the West while cracking down on any form of public dissent. 

Namin, Jisun and Sunam are students at Seoul National University, the best school in the nation. Graduation means an almost guaranteed life of lucrative employment, connections and advancement. For Jisun, the daughter of one of the country’s richest tycoons, this life of privilege is exactly what she hates. But for her friend Namin, the daughter of street-food vendors, it is everything, though not for purely materialistic reasons. In between is Sunam, who desperately wants to climb the school’s social ladder by becoming a member of the Circle, a campus secret society. He soon falls for Namin and starts dating her. But their relationship becomes complicated as their contrasting backgrounds and ambitions clash.

The students’ personal struggles take place amid stark societal problems such as violent factory worker protests, a clandestine Christian activist network trying to agitate for workers, and the sad fate of Namin’s bitter older sister who leaves her factory job to work in a red light district and gets pregnant by an American GI who later leaves her. The latter brings the starkness of poverty to the fore, especially when she then leaves her baby with Namin’s sister. These disparate elements are not explored very deeply but mesh together to form a subdued background. Sometimes, it seems as if too much is going on and some plot elements such as the Circle are introduced then discarded; the narrative might have benefited from a tighter focus on the more central elements.

The settings vary from Namin’s working-class sparse home to Jisun’s ultra-wealthy household, but they are still subject to the same forces that dominate society. Under President Park Chung-hee—the father of the recent female president who was just impeached—South Korea is a rigid, conservative nation that has forsaken personal liberties for economic growth and prohibited dissent. While Namin is constrained by these stifling norms, Jisun actively pushes against them. All this works to create an intriguing story, especially as it is never apparent whether Namin or Jisun will prevail in their respective challenges.

The historical context is notable, not just because it is a particularly precarious time during the country’s economic development, but also because there are very few English-language novels set in South Korea and not about the Korean War. As such, the novel provides a welcome glimpse into a country that is still not that well-known or portrayed in the West except for its electronics brands.

Wuertz’s female protagonists are strong and driven; but the male characters, however, are flimsy and superficial. Sunam has little going for him, other than being a good player of baduk, also known as go. It is unclear why both main female characters are drawn intently to him and at times, this mars the storyline. Other male characters, such as Juno, Sunam’s supposed mentor, and the American missionary, Peter, play a very minor role or act mostly as a foil for Jisun. In fact the latter starts off as a love interest for Jisun, but by the end is reduced to begging her for money for a legal case.

The more memorable male characters are minor ones such as Namin’s brother whose cerebral palsy caused him to be sent to be raised by their grandparents in the countryside, and Sunam’s controlling, tycoon father. The former is a major reason for Namin’s incredible drive for trying to advance herself at school as she has a dream of getting rich and buying a large house that she and her brother can live in.

Nevertheless, Namin and Jisun are compelling characters that deservedly soak up most of the attention. Together, they drive a worthy literary debut in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Europe travel · Travel

London travel- British Museum and Parliament


Two grand British institutions are the British Museum and Parliament at Westminster. The former has been home to artifacts and works of arts since the mid-18th century, the latter has been the site of parliamentary governance since the 13th century.

Whenever I visit major cities, whether it be Cape Town or Hanoi or Xian or Tokyo, history museums are always near the top of my list of places to visit. Obviously in London, the British Museum was a must-visit and it didn’t disappoint. The only thing I regret was not being able to spend more time. There are splendid displays of ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Greek artifacts, as well as sub-Saharan African collection. The huge, central atrium or Great Court features a circular reading room (closed to the public) in the middle, several statues including a giant lion from the 2nd century BC, and a nice, overhead ceiling with an interlacing or tessellated design. The exterior of the museum is a grand but somewhat dowdy gray facade with multiple columns.

Besides the sheer quantity of the collections, it was impressive to be able to view giant pieces such as ancient Egyptian pharaonic statues and tombs and Assyrian lion statues up close. The Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, were in an entire hall. In the African section, there were entire walls of weapons, colorful cloths and the fascinating Benin Bronzes. These were produced by the kingdom of Benin which was situated in Nigeria (the country of Benin is named after this kingdom but was not where it was located).

I managed to see some of the most famous pieces like the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, as well as Benin bronzes, from Nigeria. Incidentally all of these are claimed by their country of origin, which raises the point that many of the items in the museum, such as many Greek and Egyptian artifacts, were taken or bought from other countries, sometimes through surreptitious means. The Louvre in Paris is similar, with many of its famous exhibits hailing from other places.
Meanwhile, the British exhibits were alright, but not particularly memorable other than some Roman-era artifacts. I had hoped there might have been exhibits from the British Empire from the Commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan, but then that is probably unrealistic because it would be like glorifying the empire.

Ideally many of the items should be returned to their countries if they had been illegally bought or taken. On the other hand, there is no certainty that they would be displayed and maintained in such secure and pristine environments in their home countries as those at the British Museum. Also, the best archaeological techniques and knowledge of the day, when these artifacts were obtained, belonged Western explorers and archaeologists, though of course, they honed this from roaming around the world and obtaining other cultures’ artifacts. While a bit self-serving, the availability of these pieces all in one place in the British Museum allows visitors to enjoy and appreciate the history and past civilizations of almost the whole world.

Short of returning all their exhibits, which would be unrealistic, institutions like the British Museum and their governments should provide more funding to countries from where they got the exhibits from, to help them with their local museums, historical research and archaeological efforts and so on.



Lying on the north bank of the Thames River, the British Parliamentary building or Palace Of Westminster houses both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is easily recognized, with its gray Gothic features, multitude of windows and spires and the Big Ben clock atop Elizabeth Tower on its flank, though its tallest point is Victoria Tower at its southwestern corner. Alongside the building is an impressive black statue of Richard I, the Lionheart, atop a horse with sword in the air. There is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who helped defeat royalist forces in the 17th century and then ruled England as Lord Protector. There were armed policemen on the grounds, befitting the site of the nation’s parliament, though unfortunately this didn’t prevent a terrorist from running over dozens and killing several people, including a policeman, there earlier this year.

But Westminster Palace isn’t the only attraction in the area. Around it are several impressive old buildings such as Westminster Abbey, where the coronations of British monarchs have been held since 1066, St Margaret’s church, the Sanctuary, and Methodist Central Hall. Meanwhile, to get a good view of the Westminster Palace from the river, we walked down along the riverbank to a park and then onto Lambeth Bridge. For some reason, there was even a small rally opposite the parliament building on Myanmar’s upcoming election urging people to vote NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi and which ended up winning over 80% of contested seats in that election.



Westminster Abbey

The Sanctuary, located next to Westminster Abbey
  

More British Museum photos
  
The Rosetta Stone, from Egypt
     
Close-up of the Benin Bronzes

Books

From Third World to First- book review

Lee Kuan Yew was one of Asia’s greatest modern leaders and visionaries, having led Singapore from a poor, third-world country to a wealthy, first-world one in a few decades. As Prime Minister from independence in 1965 to 1990 and then Senior Minister from 1990 to 2004, he is closely tied to his country’s rise. So it is no surprise that his autobiography From Third World to First- The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 is basically a story about Singapore. The book lays out how Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore, while managing relations with bigger and threatening neighbours as well as the US, the UK and China. In fact, the latter part takes up most of the book.

Having been one of Britain’s major Asian colonies as a vital port, Singapore had a traumatic beginning as an independent nation, as it was initially part of a federation with Malaysia before being kicked out due to political differences and racial fears. In what now seems surprising, Lee Kuan Yew was so distraught by this that he cried, because tiny Singapore was now alone with no resources and hinterland. But with commendable planning, foresight and effort, Lee and his government made Singapore into a shipping and financial hub, with substantial manufacturing services and eventually, one of the world’s richest nations.

The first chapters are a historical timeline of Lee’s early years, the breakup with Malaysia and his attempt to solidify his domestic rule, including his fight against the local Communists. Internationally, he had to fight diplomatic battles with Malaysia and Indonesia, who had a very hostile stance against Singapore in the 1960s. He maintained relationships with a fading Britain, while building up ties with giants like the US, Japan and eventually China. It is fascinating to read his insights into the US, which had taken over from Britain as a global power, and China, which was moving away from its chaotic and tragic period under Mao Zedong and starting its economic rise under Deng Xiaoping in the eighties.

ASEAN relationships were also vital to Singapore, especially those with neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, which improved immensely after the tense early days of Singapore’s independence. However, he had a very hostile attitude towards Vietnam, due to their Communist regime, but even opposed their invading Cambodia and driving out Pol Pot from power, which I think was a little unreasonable. Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong also feature. With Hong Kong, he had a very interesting insight in that the British rule of Hong Kong, which lasted until 1997, meant Hong Kongers did not need to act cohesively as a community, thus they became “great individualists and daring entrepreneurs.” It is an attitude that still prevails today, though perhaps not the “daring entrepreneurs.” Lee’s view also helps explain why Hong Kongers seem to lack leadership skills in governance as under the British, they were never decision-makers but managers.

Lee was firm in what he did and had a pragmatic and ruthless streak. This also means he is blamed for Singapore’s authoritarianism which was exemplified in media restrictions and heavyhanded libel rules which saw him often successfully sue media outlets and political opponents. But he also genuinely cared for his country as signified by the public housing policy, which allows most Singaporeans to enjoy affordable quality public housing, and diversification of the economy into areas such as high-tech manufacturing and gas processing. There are a few policies that might raise your eyebrows such as a racial ratio quota with housing developments, meaning the proportion of Chinese, Indian and Malay residents had to be kept at a certain level, as well as a dating service for civil servants.

Singaporeans may be getting tired of their country’s one-party rule and rethinking Lee’s legacy, but they should consider themselves lucky to have had a leader like Lee who was pragmatic, intelligent about domestic and international politics, and was upfront about his policies and actions. At the least Singaporeans should be glad that Lee was not like other regional strongmen who either enriched themselves obscenely, like the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, or ruthlessly held on to power, such as Mao, while letting their countries stay poor.

China · Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s miserable anniversary

July 1 was a major milestone for Hong Kong. Twenty years ago, it changed from British to Chinese hands and became the Hong Kong SAR. As a result, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in town over the weekend, the first by him to Hong Kong. In addition, HK’s new leader Carrie Lam was also sworn in, taking over from Leung Chun-ying. But as with many other Hong Kongers, I felt very little joy or pride. I have little love for China and the Communist Party, and I see HK as having had mixed fortunes under China since 1997.

The authorities certainly understood the public mood as celebrations and decorations were muted. While there are a number of events and promotions related to the 20th anniversary of the handover, it seems that much of this has been met by a huge yawn or resignation. Who can blame people? Xi coming to town was met with probably the least enthusiastic response by people anywhere to a national leader visiting them for the first time.

On the contrary, Xi’s visit exemplified why China and its Communist regime are despised and feared. Xi appeared at certain events and his wife visited a few public places, but Xi did not speak to the public. His most notable comment was to warn Hong Kong about crossing a “red line” with challenging Chinese sovereignty and demanding independence. There was no recognition about the problems facing Hong Kong or any offer of political compromise such as opening up Hong Kong’s political system a little more. His speeches were littered with terms like the motherland and national humiliation and the Opium War. Because Chinese leaders are fond of publicly talking about negative actions committed by foreigners on China, whilst conveniently forgetting about Party atrocities like the Great Leap Forward or Tiananmen 1989.

However, as much as I dislike the Communist regime, Hong Kong cannot blame all of its problems on China. There is a lot of arrogance, greed and self-centered attitudes afflicting society, from top to bottom, as well as narrow mindedness. China may be vile at times, but it has also become a useful scapegoat. Local government officials and tycoons bear a lot of responsibility for Hong Kong’s sad state but sometimes it seems that many locals don’t hold them accountable enough.

Hong Kong has a tough job on its hand, with having to handle growing Chinese interference, not to mention threats such as what Xi uttered, while having to tackle its domestic societal and economic problems.

Books · Travel

Tony Wheeler’s Dark Lands- book review

Written by the guy who founded Lonely Planet, this is a travel book but with a big twist. Instead of sun-kissed, idyllic holiday spots and cities, Tony Wheeler travels to 8 of the most wretched countries in the world. Zimbabwe, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Papua New Guinea and Pakistan are there, though more attractive nations like Israel and Palestine (counted as one) and Colombia also make the cut.

Basically, the premise is that each of these countries has serious security, economic, or environmental problems that render them either dangerous or near impossible to travel in. Obviously, things have changed for a few such as Colombia, which is high on a lot of travel lists, but many people wouldn’t really want to go to most of these places. Tiny, isolated Nauru also makes the cut though more for its status as little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that has squandered its financial wealth from its only natural resource guano or bird crap (seriously). Its story is a bit sad, as it was at one time several decades ago wealthy, but slowly wasted its money on expensive real estate in Australia, most of which it has had seized due to being unable to complete the payments.

Pakistan is a country that is often associated with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and for that, it hardly features in popular media for anything else (its cricket team did win the Champions Trophy tournament on Sunday). In reality, Pakistan is a complex nation with interesting history and politics and beautiful scenery, according to Wheeler, who actually spent four years of his childhood there due to his father’s work at an airline. Wheeler and his wife go there to travel to Xinjiang, China overland via the mountainous Karakorum highway, during which security problems and logistical issues often obstruct their journey. They do make it though.

The chapter on Israel and Palestine sees Wheeler visit both states, which is not easy to do. He goes to various religious sites, such as trekking the Nativity Trail which traces the route Joseph and Mary took to Bethlehem, while also highlighting the absurdity and tragedy of the political situation, in which Israelis and Palestinians live next to each other but are completely divided and segregated, which doesn’t bode well for any improvement in the near future. In Palestine, he goes to Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank. While the situation seems bleak sometimes, he expresses hope it cannot continue forever.

Papua New Guinea is a unique country with its hundreds of tribes, some of which still live as they did hundreds of years, and diverse birds and animals. But Wheeler goes there not to admire wildlife, but to visit the lawless island of Bougainville, east of PNG, which fought a decades-long war for independence in the 1990s and where people can kill with impunity over witchcraft or other petty reasons.

Haiti, sadly, is as bleak as one would expect from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As if poverty and political instability weren’t enough, the country was rocked by a terrible earthquake in 2010 which killed over 100,000 and destroyed much of the urban centres. In the DRC, Wheeler visits a volcano and goes on a gorilla expedition in a country which is still racked by violent conflict and poverty.

While the book title may sound fatalistic, the book gives a nice insight into these lesser-known countries combining travel with cultural, political and historical commentary, and the outcome is more fascinating than bleak.

Hong Kong

Urban Hong Kong photo roundup

Urban Hong Kong might be crowded, cramped and noisy but it still makes for interesting sights. It is probably the most built-up urban environment in the world, especially on Hong Kong Island, which is very hilly but apartment towers line the slopes of upper Central, Sheung Wan and Mid-Levels all the way up to just below the Peak. It is an impressive sight but on the other hand, the actual living spaces in a lot of the buildings (not Mid-Levels) are not, such as older towers, especially in Kowloon but even in supposedly trendier neighborhoods like Sheung Wan. It would be nice if the authorities spent more time, effort and funds on renovating existing buildings and neighborhoods, especially historical ones.


Probably Hong Kong’s most well-known mural, located in Central


Kowloon, above and below

Tram with retro advertising

I usually don’t go to these kinds of street markets as they are too crowded for me.

Wetmarket in Central – a non-touristy aspect of an increasingly touristy part of town
“Little Indonesia” – side street in Causeway Bay

Above photo and the following two are from the inner courtyard of Yick Fat Building, a public housing estate in Quarry Bay. A scene from Transformers 4 (the one with scenes in Hong Kong and China) was shot here.

The next four photos are of Central and Sheung Wan.