Friday, September 30, 2011

The Mekong: photos and a book review

The Mekong River at Phenom Penh
Having traveled for nearly four months means one comes back to a hectic schedule.  I haven’t been as faithful reading blogs or postings as I'd like.  I did recently make another post in my “riding rails” blog (one on Kungur, Russia) and only have two more posts to get me out of Russia!  This is a book review that I wrote a rough draft of in Saigon this summer.  I was beginning to worry that I’d lost the book as I sent it home in a package that I mailed from Saigon (and interestingly, when I got the package, the Post Office stamp said Saigon and not Ho Chi Minh City).  The package arrived yesterday!  Here’s the review and enjoy the photos that I took in late June and early July.

Milton Osborne, The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future (New York: Grove Press, 2000), 295 pages, some black and white photos and 8 pages of color photos inserted, sources and an index.

Saigon seemed the perfect place to finish this book on the Mekong River, as I’ve come into this country on the river from Cambodia.  This is a major work by an Australian who spent a good part of his life working in the countries around the Mekong.  He first came to this region in the late 1950s as a student and in the 60s worked in the Australian Consulate in Phnom Penh.  In this book, the author traces the history of the region back to the “Pre-Angkor” era to the end of the 20th Century.  However, he only gives a general background to the area’s history before the French began their exploration of the region in the early 19th century.  Much of the book centers on the French failed attempts to develop the river into a major waterway into China, allowing them to tap into the riches of the “Middle Kingdom.”  The Mekong rises high the mountains of Southern China, east of Tibet.   In an era of European colonization, the French envied the British position in Hong Kong and hoped to gain some access to China via Indochina.   Although much investment was made into the Mekong as a major waterway, the falls on the river between Laos and Cambodia were too great to be overcome.  In time, the French built a railroad around the falls, but river traffic was slow and unpredictable as the river would rise during the rainy season (and after the snow melt), flooding thousands of miles of land, only to drop so low during the dry season that only shallow draft boats could traverse the upper reaches of the river.   It was noted that in the 19th Century it took more time to travel up the river into Laos on the Mekong than it did to travel from France to Vietnam.

In the 1930s, French rule of Indochina was showing signs of weakening, especially in the Mekong Delta where powerful Vietnamese families (mostly Catholic) controlled large plantations and who treated the rest of their own countrymen as brutally as the French.  This brutality led to the organization of what would become the Vietcong.  In World War Two, after the fall of France, the Vichy French government gave Japan free access to Indochina.  The Japanese left the French in charge, as they had unrestricted movement of troops through the region.  During this time, they built bases and airstrips that allowed them to make their attacks on the British and Dutch colonies to the south.  Near the end of the war, the Japanese decided it would be better for them to dispose the French and allow the native populations to govern themselves.  This set up the conflict that occurred after the war when France tried to reestablish its control of the region.
A boat hauling freight and produce on the Mekong
When the author first visited Vietnam in the late 1950s, he describes how he found the Vietnamese women in their “ao-dai” (a traditional dress  pronounced ow-zai) as “grace itself.”  There are still women that wore such outfits who walked by the bench in the park that I sat on while finishing this book.  Such beauty also forms the background of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American (which I also read while in Vietnam and of which Osborne refers to in his work).   Interestingly, Osborne doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the American aspect of the Vietnam War (he allocates as much space for the French war).  One battle that he does cover extensively is the Ap Pac, which occurred in the Mekong Delta in 1963, in which a much stronger and well equipped South Vietnamese army was routed by the Vietcong.  The battle, according to Osborn, was a sign of what was to come.  During the last half of the book, when he discusses the Mekong Region during the second half of the twentieth century, he includes numerous personal memories such as his friendship with a Cambodian Catholic priest who was killed by the Khmer Rouge and his visit to the “killing fields” in early 1980, a year after the horror had ended.

The book ends with a discussion of the impact a bridge over the Mekong in Vietnam will have on the region (the bridge at Can Tho is now completed and open), the problems of pollution and a discussion of development along the river (many of which had been proposed in the 50s and 60s and shelved due to the war, but are now being reconsidered.

Osborne is a man who obviously loves the region and has done much research.  His book provides the background for why the French were involved in Indochina and the history of the region from the 19th through the late 20th Century.  Because the book is dated, you will need to look elsewhere to discover what has happened in the region over the past two decades as Cambodia and Vietnam have liberalized their economies. Also, if you are more interested in the ancient history of the region, I suggest you look elsewhere such as Michael D. Coe’s Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. 

A ferry crossing of the Mekong

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Thoughts after a round-the-world trip...

New York, September 11, 2011
This is a self-portrait was taken outside the US Tennis Center in New York, at the site of the 1964-65 World’s Fair.  The “Unisphere” was created by United States Steel, out of Stainless Steel and is an appropriate background for a shot at the end of my trip.  My round-the-world trip ended in New York, as our ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty at 5 AM on September 10th.   My sabbatical is over; now it is time to return to work…  

During my travels this summer, the question I was asked most often was “what is your most favorite place.”  Early on it was Mt. Bromo in Indonesia, where I got to stand on the lip of a volcano and look down into the hole from which heavy smoke spewed.  Later, it was Penang, Malaysia, where the food is great and where I got to hike into the jungle and learn about other religions as I explored with a blogger friend.  Then it was Vietnam, with long white beaches and very friendly people.  Later, it was Mongolia, with incredible mountains and more friendly people or Lake Baikal, Russia, which is also beautiful…   Culturally, St. Petersburg, Russia, with the vast art collection at the Hermitage is hard to beat.  And as I neared the end of my journey, Prince Christian Sound in Greenland rose to the top, a place filled with gorgeous fjords, surrounded by rugged mountains and filled with icebergs.   But the truth is this: there wasn’t a place that I disliked.  I could find something good about every place I visited and there were always good people around.  And such an insight shouldn’t be surprising for one who believes that God created the world good and that all humanity is created in God’s image.  In every place I traveled, there was evidence of God’s handiwork.  Any place on this planet in which we find ourselves, we should stand in awe of God’s work and be led to offer a prayer of thanksgiving.  And anyone we meet, anywhere around the world, can open us up to the possibility of seeing God fresh and new.  We just have to be open to such encounters.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Musings at Carolina Beach

I’m back in the USA now…  Visiting my parents before I head home and back to work.  Here, I don' t have regular wifi and have to head to a coffee shop or McDonalds, but I will try to begin to catch up with folks.  I'll still keep posting at my "Riding Rails" blog until I complete my trip posts...  This is my morning musings while walking on the beach at sunrise.

The sun rises behind a shrimp trawler operating parallel to the shore on this humid late summer morning.  The water is still warm as it slashes on my feet.  To the south, half dozen surfers are attempting to catch a wave.  Beyond the breakers, the seas are clam, but the waves are well formed and provide an occasional ride to a skillful surfer, before they crash on shore where the eternal battle between water and earth occur.  The seal always wins; it just takes time and patience.  Up on the beach, beyond the water, gulls cluster waiting for an opportune time for breakfast.  If it doesn’t come soon, I’m sure they’ll set off for the local McDonald’s parking lot and much on old fries.  The pelicans rebuff the thought of fast food and constantly troll, just outside the breakers, looking for their morning nourishment.  No one seems to be catching anything today, but the sea provides and takes away as predictability as the ebb and flow of the tides…

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Travels in Siberia

I'm in St. John's Newfoundland, having sailed from Britain, through the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.  I haven't had internet access since Dublin, nine days ago.  In another week, I'll be back more regularly and catch up with everyone's blog.  I'm still posting my travel stories in my other blog.

Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 529 pages including index, bibliography and notes plus eight pages of black and white photos and a few drawings and maps.

I received this book for Christmas as I was planning for my summer trip. I read the first chapter in the winter, but then decided to put it away and read it as I traveled across Russia. It was the perfect companion. I shipped the book (along with a Trans-Siberian Handbook and some medical test strips) to the hotel where I stayed in Beijing. As the train raced across Mongolia and the steppes of Russia, I’d alternate between looking out the window, talking to traveling companions and reading chapters of Frazier’s book. The author is perhaps best known for his book Great Plains, in which he explores a similar geography that runs through the center of the United States and Canada. His earlier subject made him well suited for this survey of Siberia. His insights helped me more thoroughly understand the country through which I was traveling.

Starting a few years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Frazier began to travel to Russia and on to Siberia. His first trips are brief (such as when he travelled across the Bering Straits from Alaska). In 2001, he made an extensive journey across the vastness of the continent, traveling in a used van with two Russian guides. The story of this trip consumes the bulk of the book. He later returns and does another long trip through the central part of Siberia in March (still winter, but late enough there is more sun and the temperatures are not quite as cold). In describing his travels, he tells of the history and geography of the region while weaving in stories from other travelers to this vast, sparsely settled, part of the world. One such traveler, fellow Ohioan George Kennan helped survey a telegraph line across the region. Ironically, this George Kennan shares a name and is distantly related to a better-known American diplomat who worked with the Soviet Union during the early years of the Cold War. The older Kennan was enthralled with Siberia. His first book was a hit and perhaps because he wrote so favorable on his experiences, he was invited back to write a more detailed book. In his latter travels, he saw the brutality of the Czar’s labor camps and lambasted the treatment of prisoners. This caused him to be barred from Russia but also helped give the term “Siberia” another meaning. No longer was it known only as a vast wasteland; it also became a word known for severe punishment. His descriptions upset people. Supposedly Mark Twain, upon attending a lecture given by Kennan, stood up at the end and said (referring to the revolutionaries who were bombing the Czar and targets), if dynamite is the answer, thank God for dynamite. (57)

Frazier tells the history of Siberia starting with the Mongols who, for centuries, dominated Russia by frequently invading and sacking cities east of the Urals. These invaders were ruthless, often killing all the inhabitants of a city. When Russia was finally able to subdue the Islamic Mongolians (they’d later become Buddhists) with equally ruthless practices, it was a consolation prize for Christendom who’d lost the Ottoman Empire to Muslims conquerors. Frazier notes that 911 (which ironically occurred as he completed his first trans-Siberian trip in a van) wasn’t a new war, but a winkle in an older war that he been ongoing for centuries. (335)

Siberia became Russia’s outlet for those who didn’t fit. When Peter the Great attempted to “Europeanize Russia,” reforms which extended to the church, there were those who resisted the reforms (one which reform was to simply how they positioned their fingers when they “crossed themselves” during prayer). Those who hung on to the old ways were called “Old Believers” and many of them ended up as settlers in Siberia, where today there are still villages who, after the struggles with Communism, are re-emerging. Another group who found themselves in Siberia were the “Decemberists,” a mostly nobility led reform movement that attempted to bring Russia out of a feudalistic economy in the 19th Century. As challenges to the Czar’s control became more common, more people were sent to Siberia. Some were “encouraged” to resettle there (where they could live a somewhat normal life), while others were sent to camps. During the Stalin years, the camps became even more notorious. In Frazier’s winter travels in Siberia, he visits one such camp that was closed in the mid-50s, after Stalin’s death. (426-429) Frazier discusses how Stalin as a “monstrosity” has been “soften to resemble that of an ogre in a fairy tale” (431), and he notes Stalin’s popularity among Russians is rising (432).

Frazier concludes the book talking about Siberia’s potential, which is only recently been understood. Europe receives much of its natural gas from Siberia, giving Russia a certain amount of control over Europe that he never knew during the Cold War (447). Today, according to Frazier, the two most likely groups of Americans one will meet in Siberia are oil workers and meteorologists (469).

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Russian history or geography. The book is detailed yet readable and gives a background to the history of a vast but mostly unknown region of the world.