Tag Archives: travel writing

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

I highly recommend animator Guy Delisle’s graphic memoir Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Deslisle, a French Canadian, had to go to North Korea for two months to supervise the animators his French employer contracted (for their ultra-cheap rates). As you might expect the landscape and city are dreary, dark at night save a lit up portrait of the Supreme Leader. He recounts his dull, ever-present translator and guide. The food is bland and the restaurants dirty. Foreigners are separated from the People. So Delisle’s only companionship is a go-between at work, and other foreigners at the hotel or in the NGO compound, which has parties on the weekend.


It was interesting to read about the approved responses Capt. Sin, Delise’s handler would give to his queries about the country and to learn of the pervasive propaganda. One “high” point was a visit to the Museum of American Oppression, which was two stories of images (three photos and many paintings) of Americans doing atrocious things to the North Koreans. There are paintings of US soldiers forcing motor oil down the throats of children and other forms of torture including the use of the rack, which seem quite dubious even if you acknowledge that yes, unfortunately, and shamefully, sometimes American military has resorted to torture. Capt. Sin was very disappointed that Delise didn’t react as he’d expected to the museum trip.


delisle_guy_pyongyangThere are plenty of anecdote’s of the usual the translator isn’t around when Delisle needs him so rather than wait for hours Delisle goes out on his own through the streets of Pyongyang in search of a gift for his godson. “What’s to buy in the DPRK?” you might ask. Delisle did return empty handed as he couldn’t even find a cheap kitsch. Poor North Korea, indeed. Delisle made me feel like a friend he was sharing his tales of North Korea with. I felt his treatment was fair and thorough. I sure wouldn’t want to stay in Pyongyang a minute past two months. If you do have to go, even for a weekend, Bring food. What they offer seems dreadful.

Based on this book, I’m planning to read his books on Shenzhen and Jerusalem. The later I’ve already ordered from the library.

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Posted by on June 11, 2018 in book review, contemporary, fiction, graphic memoir, postaweek, Travel Writing


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Lost on Planet China

lost china

After reading J. Maarten Troost’s Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation Or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, I’m putting his earlier books at the top of my “to read list.”

When Troost and his wife outgrow their home in California, they consider moving to China. But first Troost feels the need to investigate. Would China be the place to bring up his two boys? Thus he sets off on what must have been months of travel all around the Middle Kingdom.

Soon after arriving in polluted Beijing, it’s clear that Troost isn’t exposing his sons to the PM 2.5 laced smog that passes for air in China. No. He’s a good father.

Yet he’s also a traveler and he wants to see what makes this empire tick. So he travels through China stopping in Tai an, Qingdao, Nanjing, Shanghai, Tibet, Chengdu and many other exotic, perplexing, fascinating, crowded, polluted (and less so in a few, a very few instances) cities. All the while Troost delights with his wit, perception and insight. Here’s a sample of his prose describing a trip to a traditional market;

And then, as if we were lost in some grim Humane Society nightmare, we began to wander past stalls selling frogs, chickens, eels, turtles, cats, scorpions –big and small- – dogs in cages, ducks in bags, and snakes in bowls. There were 2,000 stalls in this market, and this, apparently, was where Noah’s Ark unloaded its cargo. If you were planning a dinner party and looking to tickle your guests’ palate with a delicately prepared Cobra heart, perhaps followed by some bunny soup and sauteéd puppy, the Qingping Market is for you.

Now there is some wit and exaggeration, so if you’re looking for a literary journey with a stodgy, politically correct anthropologist, this book isn’t for you, but I’d rather travel with Troost than a disciple of Margaret Mead.

Troost experiences the full China – the majesty of the Forbidden City, come ons from the prostitutes, the cute pandas, the karaoke on the Yangste River Cruise, the constant haggling, the bandit taxi drivers, the expat pot heads in Yunnan, the cheerful Tibetans, and the hordes who’ll knock down their great grandmother to get to their assigned train seat.

He weaves in history and politics with a light touch that makes it memorable and interesting. You’ll learn a lot about bargaining and patience on the road from Troost.


Posted by on March 14, 2013 in contemporary, memoir, Travel Writing


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The Waiting Land

My friend Adrienne mentioned Dervla Murphy as a great travel writer and I was looking for a good book on Nepal so I ordered her “The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal.”

I love her writing. She calls everything as she sees it, which makes for good travel writing if you ask me. In this book, Murphy travels to Nepal where she works in a Tibetan refugee camp. Her writing is funny, insightful and gutsy. As a traveler, she takes risks I wouldn’t, such as getting in the midst of a Nepali – Tibetan fracas and almost landing in jail. On her trek she fords icy rivers with water up to her neck — on more than one occasion. She sleeps on mud floors because well, Nepalis do and the mattresses probably have bed bugs anyway.

When I read this book, I felt I knew what it would be like to live and work in Nepal. I felt the people she met were like people any of us might really meet.

Here are a few passages to give you an idea of her writing:

My six months among the Tibetans in 1963 had shown me that many refugees do not deserve the haloes with which they have been presented by sentimental fundraisers in Europe or America. But by the time one had been disillusioned by Tibetans one has also been captivated by them; through unpleasant individuals and events may demolish the idealized version there remains an indestructible respect for the courage, humor and good manners that mark most Tibetan communities.

Before leaving India, early in 1964, I had determined to come back to the Tibetans as soon as possible. However, refugee situations can change quickly and by the spring of 1965 conditions in India had improved so much that nothing really useful remained to be done by an untrained volunteer, and I felt that i would be wrong to inflict on the Tibetans yet another aimless “Tibet-worshipper.” But then came an item of news from Nepal concerning recently-formed refugee camp in Pokhara Valley, where 500 Tibetans were living as family units in 120 tents with only one Western volunteer to help them. It was considered that here I would at least not be in the way, even if my limitations prevented me from achieving much, so on 5 April 1965 I flew from Dublin . . . to Nepal.

And so her journey began. The book is written in diary form and contains entry after entry of observations, insight all delivered with wit. Nepal is indeed different from the West. Here’s another random passage:

July 24

Many event which would be regarded as crises a home are witnessed with indifference here.  A few days ago I saw a man attacking his wife outside their house; as his rage increased he tried to pick up a heavy stone for quicker results, but his son, aged about twelve, struggled desperately to restrain him, and eventually the mother and the son were victorious. That afternoon I again went up the street and saw husband and wife sitting in their doorway amicably stripping corn cobs together.

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Posted by on August 25, 2011 in classic, Travel Writing


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Excursions in Identity

I recovered this post from the void of cyberspace.* Since Donald Richie, as I stated, is such a remarkable writer on culture, I thought I’d share it here. I haven’t read this book, but the excerpt has reawaken my interest.

Monday, June 30, 2008
By Donald Richie
Donald Richie is one of my favorite writers on Japan. Every Sunday he writes a book review in the Japan Times. Here’s this week’s

Having faith in traveling

EXCURSIONS IN IDENTITY: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender and Status in Edo Japan, by Laura Nenzi. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008, 267 pp., illustrations IX, $57 (cloth)
During Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1867), Dr. Laura Nenzi tells us, “physical mobility (traveling along horizontal lines) was tightly regulated and social mobility (traveling along vertical lines) . . . was not always a viable option.”

This was because “parameters based on status and gender permeated every facet of one person’s life, and to a certain extent travel was no exception.” Officials meddled with every major move, and actual checkpoint barriers periodically closed the major roads.

However, what became known as recreational travel changed all this, and altered some of these parameters. By the 19th century, travel had already become a part of consumerism and though religious pilgrimages were often the excuse for travel, the new mantra, suggests the author, was “I buy, therefore I am.”

Besides being pious and visiting noted shrines and temples, the new travelers could take advantage of quite a menu, one which in the author’s words rested on the relationship between “faith and fun, prayer and play, sacred and profane.”

As the Edo Period matured (if that is the word) into an age when money mattered more than pedigree, travel generated its own economic power. Thus the pilgrimage, far from being a mere act of faith, became an enterprise that required a monied infrastructure to pay for the advertising, the lodgings, the making and marketing of all those amulets and charms.

Landscape (something to look at and admire rather than something to simply tramp through) was invented, and citizens flocked to gaze at Mount Fuji, not as an object to avoid by going around it, but as a presence that was to be thought beautiful and, eventually, divine.

And when the traveling crowds got too big, they could go see the miniature Fujis that, Disney-like, spotted old Edo. The most famous of these imitations was in Meguro. It was only 12 meters tall but visitors admired the blend of the sacred, the leisurely, and the convenient.

The Japanese discovered many reasons for travel, once travel had become a possibility. Among these one of the most interesting to the modern mind (at least, to this modern mind) is what we would now call sex tourism. Though there were eventually many guides to various venues, there is also one literary monument. This is Jippensha Ikku’s 1814 “Tokaidochu Hizakurige” translated into English as “Shank’s Mare.”

In its picaresque pages the two friends Kita and Yaji make a mock pilgrimage, the real purpose of which is to eat and drink a lot and to enjoy the other sensual pleasures as well. Every pretty girl is noted and the Tokugawa military checkpoint at Hakone is barely acknowledged.

Ikku quotes the old proverb that “shame is thrown aside when one travels,” and Kita and Yaji go out of their way to illustrate this. Their travels are punctuated by their realizing it on a purely physical level and in the form of instant gratification.

And they knew just where to go, since by this time brothels and baths loomed large on travel maps and cruise guides. As Dr. Nenzi informs us: “To the erotic traveler, interaction (and intercourse) with local prostitutes served a purpose similar to what lyrical or historical recollections did for the educated and what the acquisition of material objects did for other wayfarers in the age of commercialism.” And it is true that sex makes a memorable souvenir. Or, as phrased by the author: “Intercourse, like the recovery of historical and lyrical precedent, or like shopping, facilitated the seizure of the unfamiliar.”

Nenzi is an academic and manages to squeeze out most of the juice before presenting the pulp, but, on the other hand, such a dry delivery benefits the text in that, by contrast as it were, it beckons the salacious (this reviewer among them) to re-imagine the pleasurable dimensions of free travel in straight-laced Tokugawa times.

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Posted by on July 8, 2011 in history, non-fiction


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