Travel Writing and China: The Giant Dragon of Henan and More

dragon 2By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Kevin Dolgin, the author upon whose book this column embroiders, is fond of both dragons and statues. So, in a veritable explosion of inspiration, we Googled up “statue + dragon”, and found a story from the Xinjua News Agency. It’s complete with pictures, including one that looks like an aerial photo, but must be an artist’s rendering.

In the middle of China, in Henan Province, there’s a mountain called Shizu, with a long backboney ridge and an expanse of national forest around it. The entrepreneurial Zulong Company set out to build a 13-mile-long dragon along the crest of the mountain, pretty much like the Great Wall, actually, only this structure would have a 100-foot-high dragon head at one end and additional tourist attractions like museums and shops inside its body. The symbolic purpose would be to celebrate the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic.

The article reads:

Some 5.6 million pieces of white marble and gilded bronze are to form the dragon’s scales as a move that is “symbolic of the country’s 56 ethnic groups.” Display rooms offering themes of filial piety and patriotism are to be set up in the dragon’s hollow body. For a fee, people will be able to have their names and messages inscribed on the scales, and companies can advertise on the dragon’s head.

What an audacious concept! The company got as far as constructing half a mile of the body, plus a large portion of the head, when the press and the public got wind of it and started to raise hell. Bitter controversy ensued, with the opposing sides saying the same things opposing parties everywhere always say. One faction claims it’s a waste of money and bad for the environment; the other says tourists will come, and local residents will be employed. The builder says the government promised to support the project. But the government apparently changed its mind. (“One thing to keep in mind in China: never become obsessive about finding the answer to seeming illogical behavior. There’s so much of it that you could go crazy.” – Kevin Dolgin)

Okay, now the plot thickens. From a very official-looking web page simply titled “Tour,” we learn that Shizu Mountain and its surroundings constitute on official beauty spot, with a recreational park for “tourism and sightseeing, holidaying, and patriotism education.” But not, apparently, a giant dragon. What has been done or will be done with the parts of the dragon already built is a mystery. There is, however and incidentally, another dragon project mentioned on the page, this one in Puyang City, called the “Restoration Project of the ruins of the First Dragon in China.” It concerns the construction of a dragon theme park to include a sage’s musum, a sage’s temple, an ancient school, and best of all, a mythical paradise.

But there’s more on the Shizu Dragon elsewhere: a report by Jeffrey Hays called “Facts and Details” says, “The project was halted in 2007 for lack of a permit.” Such a shame, after all that work and expense, and besides, the trees were already cut down.

At “Eat, Run, Read,” Mollie shares her impressions of a book called Lost on Planet China: On Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation by J. Maarten Troost, with some interesting excerpts from Troost, and a yummy noodle recipe thrown in. In “Rumbles on the Rim of China’s Empire,” Edward Wong, who has written extensively on Asia for The New York Times, talks about the Xinjiang autonomous region and its troubles, some of which stem from the immigration of many former Henan residents (who might have been able to stay home, if the 13-mile dragon project had survived bureaucratic entanglements). There’s a marvelous-sounding book called Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China, that includes centuries worth of travel writing by Chinese authors, and can apparently be downloaded online for free.

Kevin has been to China, specifically to Grand Epoch City, which is the subject of one of his most entertaining dispatches in The Third Tower Up From the Road. The titular tower is part of the Great Wall, and what it’s up the road from is Huanghuacheng, in a section of the Wall that was only recently opened for public consumption, and it’s not the part that tourists usually visit. This tale is also dragon-related — not the long slinky fiery type of dragon, but the lady Kevin and his friend had to pay, so they could climb her ladder.

Do you have an example of the mystery and illogic of China? Send it in!

photo courtesy of gwydionwilliams , used under this Creative Commons license

The Other Most Beautiful Place On The Planet


News Editor

A lot of people have called Kashmir the most beautiful place in the world, and nowadays it has other names, too. Here’s a sobering tale. Film director/producer Rahul Dholakia arrives in the capital, Srinagar, with a sizeable production team and a lot of equipment, expecting to spend a month and a half on location shooting his newest work, Lamhaa. Three different varieties of government agencies tell him the country is in turmoil, and martial law could snap its jaws at any moment, with the population at the mercy of a strict curfew and a fire-at-will policy. For crowd control, he’s given some government protection, and hires some security, too.

So, he’s got 60 actors and crew at the vegetable market outside the city, and at first, some of the locals are hospitable. The film company goes to work. Word spreads, and about a thousand local men come out to watch. (In these parts, women don’t gawk at public spectacles, especially if foreigners are involved.) The crowd multiplies tenfold, and the director is taken hostage and brought before the local council, which tells the police, who are supposedly protecting the visitors, to get lost. Here’s part of Dholakia’s later account:

We had survived this almost six-hour ordeal, brushing death and mentally screwed. If this was day one, I dread to imagine how the rest of the shoot was going to be. A line in my film best summarizes our first day – “Welcome to Kashmir, the most dangerous place in the world”.

And that’s all we’re gonna say, except that it has something to do with local political squabbles, and also with international problems such as hating India, where Rahul Dholakia was born. He gained extensive production experience in his home country, then moved to the U.S. to earn a Masters degree from the New York Institute of Technology, and now lives in California, India, and wherever he happens to be making a movie. In India’s 2006 National Film Awards, his Parzania won in two categories.

This “most beautiful place” thing is, of course, strictly a matter of taste. But that doesn’t stop anybody from nominating their favorites. There are people who swear Patagonia is the most beautiful, and they make a good case. Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux both liked it so much they wrote books about it separately and together. Francis Ford Coppola recent filmed part of Tetro there. It’s a region, not a country, being part of two countries, Argentina and Chile. It’s the home of the Andean condor, the biggest bird there is, and has two very noteworthy mountains, Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, and a glacier called Upsala.

In the Argentine portion of Patagonia, we learn from Physorg.com, there’s an area called Bajada del Diablo or Devil’s Slope, which at some time in the past was pockmarked by a rain of meteorites that left at least 100 craters. Some of those little hummers are 50 meters deep and 500 meters across. Bajada del Diablo is in fact the second biggest crater field in the world. The biggest is in Siberia, and it kind of makes you wonder why meteor showers would go out of their way to fall on two such bare, unpopulated places.

Ever notice how many of the very most interesting travel writers are the folks who are primarily in a place for some other reason? Example: Paul Theroux started writing about Africa because he was there with the Peace Corps. Kevin Dolgin travels for business, and writes because he has something to say. One kind of travel narrative is what comes out when you’re somewhere for another reason, and writing en passant, as it were. Another kind results from going somewhere just for the purpose of writing about it. Possibly, writers of science fiction (or speculative fiction, which many of its practitioners prefer to say) should be considered travel writers. If the ability to convey a sense of place is the criterion, maybe it shouldn’t matter if the place is imaginary. What do you think?

photo courtesy of madpai, used under this Creative Commons license

Distilleries and Nature Coexist on the Isle of Islay

lagavulin distBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

It started out with a click on this page: “Islay on Old Ordnance Survey Maps” A fellow named Armin Grewe was poking around in old National Library of Scotland maps, and here he devotes an entry to expounding on their wonders. This is a treasure: a blog about a place, a collection of information and illustrations so thorough, so particular, you could not pay somebody enough to do a project like this if they didn’t love it from the bottom of their heart. IslayBlog has a FAQ, and archives going back to 2006. Up front, there’s an invitation to pick a page at random. In this case, what came up was a photo of a building that is so beautiful, and so beautifully situated, it could make you want to drop everything and move in right now. The chronicler says:

This is a blog about the Isle of Islay, an island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. It is run by Armin Grewe, a regular visitor to the Island. I don’t live on Islay (yet?), but that doesn’t stop me blogging about Islay. I will blog about anything Islay related I can think of: pictures, news, links, whisky, bird watching, wildlife, you name it.

It’s all too easy to imagine becoming addicted to IslayBlog, in the same way that people are said to be addicted to Second Life or other imaginary worlds. Islay (pronounced eye-la) can be my make-believe home any day of the week.

One of the drawings on the map page is of the Laphroaig Distillery property, back when only the core buildings existed, but none of the newer warehouses. This is the kind of detail that whiskey tourists thrive on. The entire island, in fact, is simply teeming with distilleries. Well, there are eight, anyway. Wandering betwixt them, our host Kevin Dolgin meditated upon the long-dead genius who first thought up the notion of distilling ale to get a more concentrated version. “He undoubtedly realized immediately that this was just the stuff to make the Scottish climate bearable,” was Kevin’s conclusion.

Naturally, our intrepid travel writer sampled a whiskey or two. As always, the mission was altruistic. Like George Carlin, who described his job as thinking up goofy stuff to report back to us because we’re too busy to do it ourselves, a travel writer has a responsibility to his or her constituency, a solemn obligation to act as a proxy for us, and to experience things on our behalf, because even if we are travelers ourselves, nobody can ever possibly get to all the places and do all the things. Kevin says it this way: “Of course, all of this was imbibed with the sole purpose of carrying out research for you, my readers.” And we appreciate it.

This is a little bit off-topic, because the Glenmorangie distillery is in Scotland, not Islay, but it’s fascinating all the same. Aron Ritter has issued a report on the unequivocal acceptance of certain types of Glenmorangie whiskey as kosher, which is good news. The really interesting part is the rabbinical debate over whether other Glenmorangie products can also be certified.

In The Times, Peter Stiff and Emily Ford examine the record of the Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-laddie) distillery, which is on Islay, in their series on businesses that reduce, reuse, and recycle. Their account of how the company became “accidentally green” is enlightening.

Of course, there is more to Islay than whiskey. For instance, the island recently hosted the Bowmore Commonwealth Fly Fishing Championships. There are conferences, and festivals, such as the Cantilena Festival which features serious classical music. Antonia Malchik has written a fascinating piece that brings in history, politics, nature, and other subjects of enduring interest. It’s called “Mythic history and a bit of the wild side on Scotland’s Isle of Islay,” and we like it.

photo courtesy of basquiat , used under this Creative Commons license

Great British Butterfly Hunt

black swallowtail

News Editor

“The butterfly only visible at 1500 ft.” Now, there’s a headline to make a person sit up and say, “Huh?” This butterfly can only be seen from a spy satellite? A balloon? A plane? What goes up so high, anyway? But that isn’t what Michael McCarthy means. He means, you have to climb up a mountain to spot this creature. As he tells us in The Independent,

The mountain ringlet is our one true montane or Alpine butterfly, for it is restricted to mountainsides in the Lake District and in the Scottish Highlands…We were fortunate in that we had a series of precise grid references where mountain ringlets had been seen in the past, and we based our search on them.

Mountain ringlets are hard to find, because they pretty much blend in with the foliage, especially if the weather is overcast. No sun, no mountain ringlets. During their climb, McCarthy and his companions saw other kinds of butterflies, and some very nice birds.

Finally, there was one mountain ringlet, and then others. The butterfly’s brown wings are decorated with orange spots, so when the wings are in motion, there’s a blurring effect. McCarthy describes it as “a little whirring ball of black with an orange halo around it.” The team returned with the impression that these particular butterflies are doing pretty well, and are not in danger.

Not surprisingly, it’s all part of a larger mission: The Independent‘s Great British Butterfly Hunt. As a very specialized type of travel writer, McCarthy set out to track all the species of butterfly in Britain, of which there are 58, and clap eyes on each and every one of them, in the space of one summer. He’s been keeping readers posted with regular reports, like this one on the swallowtail, which is one of Britain’s rarest butterflies.

It was a similar butterfly, by strange coincidence, that set Kevin on the travel writing path. In “The Corsican Swallowtail: Corsica, France,” he says:

This was my first attempt at travel writing. It was originally published in Hobart magazine. Ever since writing it, I have kept an eye out for the Corsican Swallowtail whenever I’m in Corsica, but I have yet to see one (I think).

The picture on this page is of a Black Swallowtail. We’d love to see a picture of a Corsican Swallowtail. Any volunteers?

photo courtesy of tlindenbaum , used under this Creative Commons license

Kevin Dolgin’s Useful Foreign Phrases


News Editor

Let us consider one of the components of The Third Tower Up From the Road, a piece called “Useful Phrases.” Like many other travelers and travel writers, Kevin Dolgin believes in learning the words that signify civilized politeness in one’s host country. But there’s more to it than that. Here’s a quotation worth paying close attention to — and the reason will soon become clear.

Bitte is a great word. It can mean many things, depending on the intonation. It can mean “please” or “thank you” or “are you out of your mind?”

Let’s back up a moment, to the title. “Useful Phrases.” Yawn. I mean, at first glance, a person might be excused for thinking this subject is a little too utilitarian to be, you know, entertaining. Acquiring such phrases is a worthy achievement, of course, like when Anglo hospital staff learn how to say Le voy a tomar la presion de la sangre, and other apposite constructions. But no. Kevin Dolgin is talking about something else entirely.

He’s talking about wandering around in a foreign country, telling people that there’s a penguin in your closet, or that your father has ten toes. Well, no wonder they say, “Bitte?

“Useful Phrases” — Ah, that such an infinity of meaning should be contained within such a minimalist title. In addition to “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” the Dolgin Theory of Cross-Cultural Communication recommends mastering one phrase that is totally nonsensical. Or, at least, a definitive all-purpose non sequitur. The resulting dialogue usually makes a charming tale, like what happened when Kevin said “I would like a large chessboard” in Spanish.

The Swedish phrase he recommends is “My hedgehog isn’t stupid,” and of course there’s a story attached to that one. Furthermore, he says the hedgehog line once came in handy when he gave a speech to 350 Swedes.

Now, here’s a strange thing. As a young teen, I read everything Gypsy-related that was in the hometown public library, and learned some Romani words. The only one I seem to have retained is hotchiwitchi, and guess what that means. It means hedgehog. Is that weird, or what? Incidentally, you can’t go wrong spending an afternoon looking at pictures of hedgehogs. The real ones tend to blend in with the natural surroundings unless they’re crossing a lawn or something. Artisans employ the hedgehog likeness to create toys, planters, chairs, cartoon characters, and logos. Chefs make desserts that look like hedgehogs. Here’s an intriguing up-to-the-minute bit of hedgehog news. A website called Hotchiwitchi is devoted to books, DVDS, and various other media, whose mission is to enhance understanding of, and tolerance for, the Gypsy and Traveller cultures. The best part is, they’re for children.

What does it mean to say that a writer has that certain je ne sais quoi? One symptom is, when you read their stuff, it makes you think of things from your own life, stories which you then endeavor to frame in an interesting way. The solid psychological reason for liking someone’s style might be their knack for reminding you that your life, too, has been pretty darn interesting. Which is always therapeutic.

What is this leading up to? There’s a little episode in “Useful Phrases,” and I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it involves a certain type of perfect existential moment. It recalled something from one of my travels: a comment made in a park in Toronto. This park had a pleasant oval-shaped running track, and next to the track was a sculpture of Jean Sibelius, the composer of Finlandia.

So we watched two women running, and I said, “Are they racing?”

And my friend said, “See that statue?”


“That’s the Finnish line.”

Okay, one more. Two friends were debating something about movies, and one of them called me in as an authority. “What was that hunchback’s name?” and I said, “Does Quasimodo ring a bell?” I swear this really happened. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and a peak experience, in the subcategory “Nerd Fun.”

In the beginning was the Word, and “Useful Phrases” is a prime illustration of the Power of Art — that is, if you consider language an art form, which many do. Which leads us to the question of the day:

What is your useful foreign phrase?

photo courtesy of yoppy , used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writers Reveal Useful Phrases

News Editor

International Business Times brings us a very detailed and incredibly useful collection of “Vegetarian Travel Tips for South America.” It’s written by Lauren Quinn, a Californian-American who has dined in nearly 20 other countries, and really, this article should win some kind of award. Here’s a set of guidelines on how to avoid meat, and also fish and dairy, if that’s your wish. Information is shared with a lavish generosity, starting out with how to intelligently make a plan. Quinn says:

Vegetarian ventures into the carnivorous continent of South America are entirely doable…Those who’ve trudged the roads-and ridden the rickety buses-before you may have had to learn the hard way, but you don’t have to… Graciously not compromising your vegetarian values will mean being as explicit as possible. And saying please. With a smile.

Quinn alerts us about which items can’t be found in South America, regardless of whether we consider them dietary staples. She gets down to the nitty-gritty of how to communicate your needs. For instance, simply to request sin carne (no meat) is not enough. Whatever it is that you don’t eat, learn the word for it. (Presumably, this same advice would apply to travelers with food allergies. Don’t guess; find out as precisely as possible how to state your dietary limitations, because it might save your life.)

There is also advice from a vegetarian perspective on how to pick a group tour, and what the difference is between a naturale restaurant and a por quilo restaurant. It’s full of interesting facts, such as the widespread presence in Peru of eateries run by Hare Krishna devotees. It includes a country-by-country breakdown of the best vegetarian possibilities each South American nation has to offer, and a list of specific menu items that were designed for the meat-free diet. And did you know there’s an online resource called Happy Cow that lists restaurants of the vegetarian persuasion all over the world?

For an entirely different set of useful phrases, over at Bryn Mawr Classical Review, John Bulwer alerts us to two travel guides by Philip Matyszak: Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day and Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day. Each contains a little tongue-in-cheek glossary of conversation-starters. We don’t know whether the latter guide includes our favorite Latin phrase, Illegitimi non carborundum, or “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

vegetarian dinnerNow, when it comes to French, for some reason, the phrase that immediately springs to mind is, Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir? (Would you like to go to bed with me tonight?) Because of the LaBelle song, remember? But I wouldn’t expect to find that one in The Third Tower Up From the Road. Indeed, consulting happily-married Kevin Dolgin’s “Useful Phrases” section, we found something very different. Unfortunately, his recommended phrase is not what you’d exactly call all-purpose. But it’s a great one and the story is so personal and unique, we won’t try to convey it here. You’ll just have to read the book. Here’s a hint, though. Our favorite travel writer has an interesting trait. He’ll be romping along, all funny and everything, then he’ll get serious on you, and you wind up with a lump in your throat.

By the way – Do you, dear reader, have a dietary-restricted travel tale to share?

Govinda’s restaurant photo courtesy of Os Rúpias , used under this Creative Commons license; Dinner photo courtesy of avlxyz, used under this Creative Commons license

David Foster Wallace, Travel Writer


News Editor

As multimedia books journalist for The Guardian, Alison Flood writes profusely on all things book-related. In “David Foster Wallace biography snapped up by Viking”, she tells us about, well, the biography of DFW that will be published by — you guessed it — Viking. One reason Flood is good: she knows when to stop being a writer, and quote somebody else. Here, she quotes DT Max, who signed up to write the book:

You have a guy who came to play a larger role in culture than maybe what his sales would indicate…. Most writers’ intellectual lives are very contained, but that’s not true of David. If he went to the laundromat, it posed an interesting moral question, and that’s what I want to capture.

Marco Ursi, editor of MastheadOnline, calls DFW “ridiculously gifted” and reflects on his words about dishonesty in the media, specifically the blending of essay-type prose with promotion. Hmmm.

Just as Eric Johnson is a guitar hero, David Foster Wallace is a narrative non-fiction hero. His take on the porn industry is brilliant. And on the illness of political systems, and the inimical nature of “political correctness,” oh, any number of things. And then there’s Infinite Jest, the mega-novel that has inspired a whole lot of people to join a virtual book club in order to accompany one another in reading this summer.

Was DFW a travel writer? Absolutely. There’s the Caribbean cruise, and the Illinois State Fair, for instance. His method was to research intensely, listen to people on the scene, and maintain plenty of both subjectivity and attitude. In “Consider the Lobster,” he traveled to the Atlantic coast to cover the Maine Lobster Festival. Did you know that lobster used to be considered lower-class food, like chitlins or hog maw, that people only ate if they had no choice? Did you know that Maine used to have a law saying lobster couldn’t be fed to institutionalized people more than once a week, because that would be cruel and unusual? We didn’t either.

Picture this. Gourmet magazine hires a guy to write a piece on the famous lobster fest. He hands in a rant about the erroneous claim that lobsters don’t feel pain, and about the eating of animals in general. They publish it anyway. Could anyone but David Foster Wallace get away with this?

Strangely enough, Kevin Dolgin also wrote about lobsters. There’s an essay called “Odysseus and Grilled Lobster: Bonifacio, Corsica, France” in The Third Tower Up From the Road.

These two guys remind me of each other in some elemental way, and there’s more to it than both writing about lobsters. Reading one of their travel pieces is like going to the event with your best friend, with a controlled substance involved. As David Foster Wallace put it, there’s “a kind of persona or narrative voice that will have qualities that the reader will like and find engaging.” This type of writer processes the thing through the filter of his or her brain, and what comes out, when partaken of by the reader, is even better than being there yourself. You get all the best parts of the experience, without the expense of buying a plane ticket. You gotta love it.

photo courtesy of Wolf Gang , used under this Creative Commons license