A love letter to the East
TO be in love with a whole continent seems extravagant. But since childhood, Asian cultures – whether still living, like that of Japan’s Kyoto, or lost in jungle ruins like Angkor Wat – fascinated and made me intensely curious. Fatally, there was a world map on the wall of my boyhood classroom, and it obsessed me while I should have been studying maths.
You might have thought I’d be put off travelling for good. My father was a military diplomat in the US and Canada just after the Second World War, but I was sent to boarding school in England, and crossed the Atlantic for holidays on fourengine Stratocruisers that re-fuelled at every airport. I was serially airsick and still equate Shannon and Reykjavik with throwing up.
But I came to believe that home was boring and abroad was exciting. This was the 1940s, and I was coming from a war-dulled England to the neon lights of Times Square and the great lakes and rivers of Canada. Native Americans became an obsession too. Not to mention alligators.
Asia, of course, is a larger and more varied continent than any other. I love its challenge. Europe is comfortable to me, whereas Asia both invites and resists understanding. The first Asian country I encountered was Japan, and I was transfixed by the behaviour of everyday people in Tokyo streets, inhabiting a superficially Westernised city but a culture enigmatic to me.
I’ve travelled in almost every Asian country. But when people ask me my favourite, I find myself answering sadly: Syria. In 1965, I lived with an Arab family on the biblical Street Called Straight in Damascus for a while. It was a halcyon time for me – and perhaps for the city. Its people were intoxicatingly hospitable to this naive and enthusiastic young man. But of course native hospitality is a travel cliche. It can blind you. The important reality is not how a people treat the stranger, but how they treat one another.
Today people may equate Asia with danger. Places once marvellously accessible – Syria, Afghanistan, north Pakistan, Kashmir – are largely off limits. But regions previously half closed off – Russia, China – have opened up even to the independent traveller. So as the blinds come down on one region, they lift on another.
When you grow familiar with a country, you tend to accept its danger. This can be risky. I crossed from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan in 2006, then travelled west across a land split between warlords and leftover Taliban. It was when I reached the edge of a region where the last foreigners – working for Médecins sans Frontières – had been murdered that I realised how danger had crept up on me, and that it was time to stop.
Old travellers moan that everything has been ruined by tourism. There’s an illusion that the world has shrunk, first through global travel, then through the internet. But once you’re off the beaten track, and away from familiar transport, things revert to their old dimensions. Some of my favourite cities have been ruined not by tourism, but by war.
Tourism is also accused of killing off national cuisines. People cite the homogenisation of the international menu or the French tolerance of McDonald’s. But cuisines can also revive: 40 years ago in China the restaurants were wretched, but now they can be superb. They are also beguilingly varied, especially in the south. As recently as 1986 I ate in a “wild game restaurant” which served little but snake, dog, cat and monkey brains. I chose cat. I was unsure what sort of cat this was, but noted its Chinese name. Its meat was dark and rich. Later a British diplomat, who had served in Myanmar, told me I had eaten a binturong – a kind of arboreal civet – and that I shouldn’t regret it. He had adopted one as a pet, and it routinely shat all over him.
There are still countries I’d love to visit. My only venture to sub-Saharan Africa was when I entered a refugee camp in Malawi on research for my novel Night of Fire. I had planned to spend a week here, but this voyeurism disturbed me, and I managed only three days. I could never have understood the detail and feel of the camp – its brutally cramped quarters, its heartbreaking permanence – from reading or the internet. Mentally and emotionally, it was vital to be there.
I still feel ambivalent about travelling. My carbon footprint doesn’t bear thinking of, but I feel that the physical interchange of peoples must be a softening factor in today’s mounting xenophobia, and travel still a kind of understanding. The Iraq war would not, I suspect, have been prosecuted if American politicians had ever spent a holiday among the cafes of Baghdad.
After nearly 60 years of travelling I have an overflowing bank of memory. When much else has faded, I will not forget the underwater universe of the Indonesian coral reefs; or the brave laughter of dissidents in Soviet Russia; or the ancient city of Bagan rising into view across the Irrawaddy river in Myanmar, with the spires of 500 temples above the misted jungle.
The temples of Bagan are one of many reasons to love Asia.