Saturday, November 28, 2009

Belliveau & O'Donnell's "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo": Book Review

The first to follow in his 13th c. footsteps, all 25,000 miles, two New York City explorers combine lovely photos with casual prose as they leave Venice, trek overland into China and back again. Avoiding airplanes, falling into the clutches of Afghan warlords, and enduring Canton's hellish train station, they recount their own share of adventurers.

What they find is how accurate "Marco Millions'" travelogue can be when tracing his route in desolate areas still largely the same as seven hundred years ago. I liked the Karakorum setting, with haunting open landscapes you can see in their photography and their simple scenes among the Mongols. How can you resist any narrative that crosses Taklamakan, the sandy wasteland you can get in but not out of by its name, followed by the Desert of Lop? On the Yunnan-Tibet Old Tea Horse Road, similar enchantment comes with the Naxi people, who now as then cap their teeth with their wealth, in gold. The pair realize that due to assimilation and globalization, the pressure of the Han Chinese majority on ethnic minorities (as they witness with the Uighirs and Tibetans) falls upon such peoples. "These are the last days that Polo's descriptions can be witnessed," they lament. (178)

Transience permeates this book, fittingly and poignantly. A Chinese professor in Xi'an paints a pagoda for years "and it's never the same. Every minute of every day the light changes and I see something different...but more has helped me to realize that I am changing more than my subject. When I am gone it will remain." (177)

A Cochin refuses to let them take pictures of the synagogue in India on Jew Road; the spice trade that made his people ancient merchants there has died out, and the congregation withers. Until earlier last century, those "white Jews" took slaves, converting them as "black Jews"; on Shabbat the latter had to sit on the floor of the shul. Denis Belliveau, who tells the story, cringes inside thinking of the irony of Passover seders there, but as many times, if not all, he keeps silent for his host.

Other places, he and Fran O'Donnell, ex-Marine, speak out. They talk back to their churlish Chinese and Persian handlers, and they navigate more than one police state with aplomb. They have trouble getting through Afghanistan as warned, and also in entering Iran. "We used to pray in our homes and socialize in public," one student dares to tell them. "Now we pray in public and socialize at home." (268) Suspected as CIA spies often, the travellers meet their share of difficulty, just as Marco Polo's party.

"In Xanadu, we found no there was no stately pleasure dome, no lush gardens filled with game, no sumptuous concubines. There was only a windswept plain and the remnants of an outer brick wall that once encompassed the Great Khan's summer palace. Destroyed by the Ming so there would be no memory of the Yuan-- we stood there defying them, daring to remember." (166)

In Sumatra they view the same act done by our primitive ancestors. Hunters circle a felled beast, seeking its spirit's forgiveness. This may be the oldest ritual still alive today, in such remote fastnesses as found by the pair of adventurers. In Sri Lanka, at Adam's Peak, they see its shadow cast over forty miles of a verdant plain.

Among the Khotan dunes amidst a sandy sprawl the size of Germany, Denis comes upon "a shattered tree that had drifted these waves for eons." Halting his camel, he runs his hand over the softened grain of the wood. "Maybe a child climbed this tree thousands of years ago when it was alive," he muses. "Maybe a monk meditated under its leaves when it stood in the courtyard of a Buddhist monastery of perhaps a mad Tibetan marauder was put to death and hung from his limbs." Their host, nicknamed "Grumpy" for his resemblance to a certain dwarf, "barked for his boys to start hacking at the bleached trunk, and I reflected on the tree's final demise. Tonight it would heat my bed and cook my food, completing its journey as it helped me on mine." (125)

It's easy to see how such stories endure on such a trail, and how new ones emerge. Overall, this book leaves, as Marco's did, half the tale out, I suppose. This can lead to slight confusion, as the maps as endpapers fail to show the direct routes taken, and there was in the Persian episode as they narrate some alteration of plans, and why this itinerary is not drawn on the maps appears an oversight that needed correcting. Also, I tended to lose track of how long it took them to get from place to place over two years, and I would have liked a detailed chronology on their map to keep up with their pace as it ebbed and flowed.

However, the photos are splendid and the chatty presentation, with easily read type and shaded font for the excerpts-- rather few, so I suppose Marco Polo did tell his fair share of tall tales to fill out his book-- from the original account give modern armchair travelers a thoughtful way to gain instruction from the trail here. As before, tolerance and hospitality, rudeness and danger, violence and threat fill the pages of another Westerners' journey to the Far East and all points in between. (Posted to Amazon US 10-7-09)

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