Tuesday, February 3, 2009

52 Books: weeks 3 & 4

For week 3 I read one of Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen Mysteries. This time it was Jane and the Genius of the Place, a foray into French intrigue and English fears during the Napoleonic wars. It's really just a cozy mystery, a period drama, all wrapped up in empire waist gowns and flowery Austenesque prose.

Week 4 took me back to China with another scholar from my Asian Studies past. John DeFrances, who passed away in January, wrote the text books I used to learn Chinese, and in fact was Professor Emeritus of Chinese Language at my alma mater, the University of Hawaii. I have no idea if I ever met him, as he certainly didn't teach any of my courses. I worked in the department reading room for a year, but I don't know if he ever wandered in while I was on duty. I discovered this week's book in an obituary about him, and was stunned my local branch library has it.

The book is In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, the story of his 4000 mile journey in 1933 on a camel caravan, his imprisonment by a Mongolian war lord and his journey back to Beijing via raft down the Yellow River. The book wasn't written until 1993, and the first chapter is fittingly entitled "You Can't Do That Anymore", because you couldn't do such a trip today. There aren't camel caravans because trains take care of trade along those same ancient paths. Much of the area had been off limits to foreigners since 1949 because of tensions along the Soviet and Mongolian borders. (I don't know the current geopolitical situation -- do the Chinese and Khasaks get along better?). The western end of the Yellow River has been dammed, too, cutting off that route to the rafts of inflated sheepskin like he used.

It is a great read and an extraordinary story. He details the life of traveling with camels explaining just how sensitive they really are to the elements. They'd let the camels graze in the morning, have a large mid-day meal themselves, then start traveling mid-afternoon -- in the heat of the day -- through the evening. If the temperatures dropped too fast after nightfall the camels would have to be covered so they didn't get chilled. He describes in detail the varying terrain of the Gobi desert and how their guide would find the next well where they'd camp for the night. He describes the ruins of cities which Marco Polo once visited, and the ruins of ancient temples. He also tells the story of the Mongols and their migrations and the stories of Ghengis Khan. He doesn't make a big deal out of this point, but the raft journey down the Yellow River was necessitated by the advance of the Communist Chinese who were finishing their Long March and fighting to take control of the area.

This was the perfect arm-chair travel book, and has inspired me to pick up a biography of Ghengis Khan. But, I'm reading some fun and lighter fare before that, as I'm heading on vacation in a few days.

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