Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things

Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas, by Gary Geddes
$16.47 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 1402743637
Travel memoirs are a favorite of mine, and this one is a real winner. 
In the fifth century, a Buddhist monk named Huishen is alleged to have travelled from Kabul, Afghanistan to Chiapas, Mexico: a journey of 7,000 miles over a thousand years before Columbus discovered America.
Following the so-called Silk Road, he is said to have crossed China to the Pacific Ocean and then sailed to what is now the American Continent.
Is the story true, or just a legend? Gary Geddes never find out for sure, but what he sets out to do is fascinating in its own way. He follows the route the ancient monk might have taken, and makes a series of observations on the cultures he passes by.
Now I'll be the first to admit that like most Americans, I don't know too much about this part of the world. Geddes paints a fascinating portrait. He visits with 
dozens of scholars, some officials from the UN, and ordinary  folk in the many towns he passes through. There's a lot of suffering and poverty: much of Central Asia is covered with land-mines left over from the Soviet-Afghan War. Thousands have been killed or wounded. Additionally, there's little employment available and almost nothing to buy with what money one does have.
Still the exotic East is positively captivating: he visits with Muslim women who've opened a small, 
desperately needed school for girls. In China he visit peasant farmers raising yaks in the pastures outside the Himalayas. In Mexico, he searches for Chines characters among ancient Mesoamerican ruins. This is diverse as it is breath-taking.
Mr. Geddes has a lot of international connections, allowing him to visit places most of us will never see. Also, he's an acclaimed poet and therefore an outstanding writer who 
manages to capture a land's exotic beauty through his language. 
This is an outstanding and intriguing adventure: the trip of a lifetime. The search for relics of Huishen gives the book a bit of a plot: the common thread that gives cohesion to otherwise dissimilar cultures.
I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, and learned a bit about ancient and modern Asian cultures in the process. Please check this one out.

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