Category Archives: travel

Gen. Grant and the Longest Pontoon

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 411-412:

By June 12, the weather had turned cool and windy. That night, after dark, Grant began to march his army toward the James. Staff officers noticed the tense way Grant relit cigars constantly and reacted with monosyllables. “Yes, yes,” or “Go on—go on.” On this splendid night full of moonlight, the tramp of feet lifted swirling dust that soon obscured the stars. By the next morning, in a logistical masterpiece, the Army of the Potomac had vacated the Cold Harbor trenches. Lee was completely fooled by the exodus and thunderstruck to discover that Grant’s entire army of 115,000 men had vanished in the night. While he had a hunch that Grant would swerve toward the James River, he could not be certain. To confound Lee further, Grant ordered some units to conduct diversionary feints toward Richmond.

Meanwhile, Grant’s main army crossed the Chickahominy River and reached the formidable James River barrier. Grant needed to take his massive army across a waterway two thousand feet wide and eighty-four feet deep. To Julia, he described the operation as “one of the most perilous movements ever executed by a large army” since it involved “crossing two rivers over which the enemy has bridges and railroads whilst we have bridges to improvise.” Ever the optimist, he shook off the settled gloom of Cold Harbor. “I am in excellent health and feel no doubt about holding the enemy in much greater alarm than I ever felt in my life.”

On the morning of June 14, Grant’s engineers began to span the majestic James with a pontoon bridge measuring 2,100 feet in length and 13 feet in width, making it the longest such bridge in military annals. It was anybody’s guess whether such a lengthy bridge, buoyed by 101 floats, could withstand tidal currents or gusts sweeping inland from Chesapeake Bay. Miraculously, the entire bridge was completed shortly after midnight. The next day, his hands joined behind his back, Grant gazed silently from a bluff on the river’s north side as cavalry and artillery trains moved rapidly across the river. “He wore no sword or other outward trapping except his buttons and plain shoulder straps,” one soldier had observed a day earlier. “His pants were tucked inside of a pair of long dusty boots and his whole attire looked dirty & travel stained.”

Grant officiated at one of the war’s most stirring spectacles. On this cloudless day, brilliant sunshine sparkled off the water, gun barrels, and cannon trundling across the bridge. To the crisp beat of marching bands, troops stepped briskly onto ferry boats that plied the river at a dizzying pace. Nearby gunboats kept a watchful eye on any threatening enemy movements. Before the operation was over, an enormous herd of cattle swam across the river. From the capital, Lincoln applauded Grant, telegraphing at 7 a.m. on June 15: “I begin to see it. You will succeed—God bless you all!” By around midnight the next day, the last remnants of Grant’s army had crossed the river. Incredibly, Lee still had no idea Grant’s army had slipped across the James in an operation so stupendous even one Confederate general dubbed it “the most brilliant stroke in all the campaigns of the war.”

On the day the pontoon bridge was laid down, Grant and Rawlins traveled by steamer up the James to Bermuda Hundred to consult with Ben Butler. As a general, Butler hadn’t covered himself with glory, but as a noted Democratic politician, he was too useful for Lincoln to scrap. Grant found Butler covering the Appomattox River with another amphibious bridge to carry his men on a raid into Petersburg, only six miles away. Grant hoped to take Petersburg before Lee was alerted to his whereabouts. On the evening of June 15, Baldy Smith and Winfield Scott Hancock achieved startling success when they overran the outer defensive rim of northeast Petersburg, seizing rifle pits, artillery, and several hundred prisoners. General Beauregard fielded a meager force to defend the town. Had Smith marched straight into the defenseless city, he might have scored a radical breakthrough and altered the war’s course. Grant always believed that with such a move, “Lee would have at once been obliged to abandon Richmond.”

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Lifeboats on the Upper Yangtze

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 118-119:

Two other special purpose boats are worthy of brief mention. The first was the fleet of about fifty post-boats that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries carried the mail between Chungking and I-ch’ang, making faster and more dependable passage than any other type of craft. And finally there were the lifeboats, the so-called “red boats” of the Three Gorges and the upper Long River. Apparently instituted for the first time in the 1850s by a benevolent merchant who lived near New Rapids (Hsin-t’an), they found favor with a number of high officials (Li Hung-chang and Ting Pao-chen among them), who gave money for their maintenance and stationing at other dangerous points. In the 1880s, the service became a suboffice of the I-ch’ang Circuit Intendant. In 1899, according to Worcester, they saved 1,473 lives from 49 wrecked junks, and the next year 1,235 lives from 37 wrecks, including 33 foreigners and 285 Chinese taken off the first foreign steamer to be sunk in the river, the German-owned Suihsing. These figures, incidentally, suggest how many lives were lost each year prior to the introduction of the red boats. In the early 1900s, there were nearly fifty red boats on station, one or more at each danger point, manned by three or four sailors who “only receive about sixpence a day wages, but are rewarded by 1000 cash for every life saved, and by 800 cash for every corpse—irrespective whether it be male or female—so the lifeboat regulations state.” Not even the most jaundiced traveler had anything but praise for the skill, bravery, and honesty of the red-boat crews. It was even possible to hire a red boat to accompany one’s passage through the Three Gorges, a precaution recommended by Cornell Plant, the most knowledgeable foreign sailor of the upper river.

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Fuling: City of Steps

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 27-28:

THERE ARE NO BICYCLES in Fuling. Otherwise it is similar to any other small Chinese city—loud, busy, dirty, crowded; the traffic twisted, the pedestrians jostling each other; shops overstaffed and full of goods, streets covered with propaganda signs; no traffic lights, drivers honking constantly; televisions blaring, people bickering over prices; and along the main streets rows of frightened-looking trees, their leaves gray with coal dust, the same gray dust that covers everything in the city.

There are no bicycles because Fuling is full of steps, and the city is full of steps because it is squeezed close on the mountains that press against the junction of the Wu and Yangtze Rivers. Narrow streets also rise from the riverbanks, switchbacking up the hills, but they are cramped and indirect and too steep for bicycles. Automobile traffic tangles on the sharp corners. And so the long stone staircases are the true boulevards of Fuling, carrying most of its traffic—shoppers descending the stairs, pausing to browse in stores; porters climbing up, shoulders bowed under the weight of crates and bundles.

Virtually every necessary good or service can be found along these stairways and their landings. There are shops and restaurants, cobblers and barbers. One of the lower stairways is lined with Daoist fortune-tellers. Another staircase is home to a group of three dentists who work at a table covered with rusty tools, syringes in mysterious fluids, and pans of cruelly defeated teeth—a sort of crude advertisement. Sometimes a peasant will stop to have his tooth pulled, after haggling over the price, and a crowd will gather to watch. Everything is public. A haircut comes with an audience. The price of any purchase is commented on by the other shoppers who pause as they pass. For medical problems one can sit in the open air and see a traditional Chinese physician, who has a regular stand near the top of one of the stairways. His stand consists of a stool, a box of bottles, and a white sheet with big characters that say:

To Help You Relieve Worries and Solve Problems! Particular Treatments: Corns, Sluggishness, Black Moles, Ear Checks. Surgery—No Pain, No Itching, No Bloodletting, No Effects on Your Job!

Fuling is not an easy city. Old people rest on the staircases, panting. To carry anything up the hills is backbreaking work, and so the city is full of porters. They haul their loads on bamboo poles balanced across their shoulders, the same way freight was carried in the south of China in the 1800s, when the English referred to such laborers as “coolies”—from the Chinese kuli, or “bitter strength.” Here in Fuling, as in all of the eastern Sichuan river towns, the porters are called Bang-Bang Jun—the Stick-Stick Army. They have uniforms (the simple blue clothes of the Chinese peasantry), and the weapons of their trade (bamboo poles and loops of cheap rope), and they tend to gather in packs, in companies, in battalions. To bargain with one stick-stick soldier is to bargain with a regiment. Their jobs are difficult enough without cutthroat competition, and they look out for each other; there is no formal union but the informal bond of hard labor is much closer. During midday, when most people rest, the stick-stick soldiers can be seen along the midtown streets, sitting on their poles, smoking, chatting, playing cards; and in their leisure there is an air not so much of relaxation as of a lull in the battle.

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The Hospitality Girls of Fuling

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 5-6:

For many of the students, especially the freshmen, the college was an exciting place. Campus was just across the Wu River from the main city of Fuling, and few of the students had ever lived near a city that large. The college had movies, competitions, and dances on the weekends. Often there were political rallies and assemblies like the one to welcome the Long Marchers, and the students buzzed with anticipation as they milled around the plaza.

A group of eight women students stood at attention near the gate. They wore white blouses and black skirts, and across their chests were red sashes emblazoned with the name of the college. They were known as Hospitality Girls, and they had been carefully selected from the student body. All of the Hospitality Girls were tall and beautiful, and none of them smiled. They represented the college at official functions, standing in perfect formation, walking gracefully, pouring tea for dignitaries.

That was something else I had heard about Fuling: its women had a reputation for being beautiful. At least that’s what I had been told in my Chinese class in Chengdu. One of my teachers was from Manchuria, a wisp of a woman with high cheekbones who had a gentle, skittish way of speaking. Even in summer she clutched a bottle of tea in both hands as if for warmth. Her name was Teacher Shang, and though she had never been to Fuling she said with conviction that the women there would be beautiful.

“It’s because of the river and the mountains,” she said. “All places with mountains and water have beautiful women.”

And in Chengdu I had met a Fuling native who told me the same thing. “But sometimes the people there have bad tempers,” she warned. “That’s because it’s so hot, and because they have mountains there.” I often heard remarks like this, and they suggested that the Chinese saw their landscapes differently than outsiders did. I looked at the terraced hills and noticed how the people had changed the earth, taming it into dizzying staircases of rice paddies; but the Chinese looked at the people and saw how they had been shaped by the land. During my early days at the college I sometimes thought about this, especially since nearly all of my students had grown up close to the earth, and I wondered how the rugged Sichuan landscape had affected them. And at the same time I wondered what it would do to me in two years.

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Joys of Travel in Tibet

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 132:

From here on, we were in the real Wild West. After Lhatse, there are no more conventional hotels, just shared rooms with dirty, damp beds, concrete floors and no heating. The electricity comes and goes and showers are scarce; in most settlements the only way to wash is with a thermos of hot water. During my time in Ngari, I got to shower just once and grew used to matted hair, a week’s worth of stubble and clothes stained with mud and dust. Smoking furiously in the pit toilets in an effort to disguise their stink became second nature.

Only the food defeated me. China’s cuisines are as diverse as its people and most are superb. Tibet is the exception. Tsampa, thugpa (a noodle soup) and momo (yak-meat dumplings) are the principal national dishes, all accompanied by endless glasses of yak-butter tea. Every morning, Tenzin and the driver Lopa would happily pull out the cloth bags which contained their tsampa, before mixing it with butter tea or water and, sometimes, yak cheese. It was a breakfast I tried just once, and the remorseless meals of momo and thugpa soon began to pall.

I had been spoiled for choice in Lhasa, where there are Nepali places and Tibetan ones that cater to westerners; the finest meal I ate in Tibet was a spicy yak-meat pizza with a yak-cheese base. I was able to vary my diet in Gyantse and Shigatse too, thanks to the restaurants run by migrants from Sichuan. Eating Chinese food induced feelings of guilt, given the way Han culture is encroaching in Tibet, but I blamed Tibetan chefs for their lack of innovation rather than admit my own hypocrisy.

Those meals were a distant memory now. The higher we climbed, the worse the food got. For much of the time, only basic fried rice or thugpa was on offer. Fruit became scarcer and much more expensive. Along with vegetables, it has to be transported down [highway] 219 from Xinjiang, and it is common in Ngari to see Uighurs selling bruised apples from the back of a truck. Even yak meat is hard to find, as the animals are slaughtered only at a certain time of the year and the meat has to last for months.

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Tourism in Singapore

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4689-4718:

As early as the 1960s, Albert Winsemius had seen services like banking and finance as supplementing the port and manufacturing. Tourism too could buttress the economy, offering an experience of the “Instant Orient.” Yet, as he noted, Singapore has no intrinsic attraction to the tourist. It has no scenery, no ancient ruins or buildings of great historic interest, no real sites. In a thoroughly urban environment, wild animals can be found only in the zoo. Winsemius would have found it incredible that ultimately every year Singapore would receive more money from tourists than India does.

The richness of the cuisine certainly draws some visitors as it does to Hong Kong. But Singapore offers even more choice of menu, reflecting its wider cultural mix. Since eating is such a Singaporean delight, both malls and food courts abound to satisfy such pleasure. A rich promiscuity among Indian, Malay, Chinese, and what is simply referred to as “Other” foods, makes ethnically pure cuisines imaginary. Some would judge that the Malay-Chinese Peranakan cuisine draws from the best of each, but much else entices. The late New York Times reporter R. W. Apple, renowned for his journalism, his culinary tastes, and the size of his expense account, traveled widely and reported frequently with gusto about food. In the fall of 2006, he wrote of Singapore, “A Repressed City-State? Not in Its Kitchens.”

Apple found there a new dignity to the term “fusion, that unruly beast.” He speaks fondly of a dinner with “hot seared scallops with prawn ravioli and clam laksa leaf nage, a subtle melody of marine flavors.” Another memorable dish called “Dancing with the Wind,” turned out to be “a steaming soup containing crab, prawns, scallops, mushrooms and (surprise!) red dates in a gentle coconut broth … [served] in a young coconut.” Fried green tea dumplings gloried in the name “Drifting Clouds of the Autumn Sky.”

Ordinary names illustrate the historic roots of Singaporean cosmopolitanism. Sarabat from the Arabic “to drink” became the stall selling drinks. Laksa derives from the Persian laksha, noodle. Satay, related to kebab, comes from the Tamil meaning flesh. The peanut, originating in the New World, so identified with satay, is but a late addition to the sauce. Prawns or bean paste are served with a Peranakan hybrid, roti prata from the Urdu roti and Hindi paratha, bread without yeast.

Rice and noodles remain the basic staples of the Singaporean diet, with chopsticks and hands the chief eating utensils. The hungry can find a wide variety of less poetic dishes than those Apple describes at considerably lower prices in hawker stalls, street foods now carefully inspected and approved by the government. There one can indulge in dumplings of many description as well as a simple meal of “Pig Organ Soup” or fish head curry washed down with “Iron Buddha” tea for less than five dollars.

Beyond the table, the tourist sights tend to be glossy and unseasoned, artificial like Disney, theatrical like Venice but without the patina of charm and character that only age can bring. Nonetheless, many visitors have responded enthusiastically, like those world wide who flock to theme parks, preferring the synthetic to the real thing. “Asia Lite” is the message touted, an experience reassuringly comfortable and safe yet with just a whiff of exoticism.

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Melaka, Asia’s “Gullet”

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 552-76, 592-600:

The fleeing rulers of Temasek found a new home in Melaka, almost exactly as far from today’s Singapore as Albany is from Manhattan (127 miles). The name Melaka proved highly appropriate, deriving as it does from the Arabic meaning “meeting place” or “rendezvous.” Its origins are hazy like those of its predecessors Temasek or Singapura being the stuff of legend, but early in the fifteenth century a Hindu kingdom emerged there, soon to become a Muslim sultanate, the faith brought in by itinerant merchants traveling from the west.

Melaka was not a new kind of settlement but was in the pattern of other Southeast Asian cosmopolitan maritime entrepôts, a place for trading. Here on the straits a tiny fishing community evolved into a hangout for those wanting a center to conduct commerce or to exploit a strategic position to exact fees from passing ships, and, more crudely, we might say a place to fence stolen goods.

Unlike most Southeast Asian trading towns, which placed themselves defensively upriver to discourage maritime marauders, Melaka sat boldly at the mouth of a muddy stream where moored vessels rolled gently in the current or rode offshore in a sheltered spot on an easily navigable approach where ships could find safe anchorage.

The city that arose there depended almost totally on trade even, with the exception of fish, needing to import its basic foods to fill the rice bowl as well as to provide most other sustenance. Its land, hacked out of dense jungle, was ill-suited to growing grain although fruit orchards flourished at hand. Fruit does not travel well, especially in a hot climate. If you wanted to eat it, you had to grow it. Melaka, with its back to untamed jungle, lacked continental hinterland and we have no indication that anyone was interested in clearing and farming land beyond the outskirts of town.

Without an easily accessible hinterland, trade furnished Melaka’s life stream. Although not situated at the straits’ narrowest point, the city could control a navigable passage through which much oceanic traffic passed. It lay on the direct route between the Maluku islands (the Moluccas), the heart of Indonesian spice growing, and Alexandria, the Egyptian feeder port for Venice, the European distributor. Melaka would become the metropolis of the straits for more than a century, a flourishing maritime state presumably never as populous as Venice, but comparable to London at the time. Like other trading cities in the region, it was largely independent of any bigger territorial authority. Saltwater space formed its true sphere, “the axis of the realm.”

At the peak of its power in the fifteenth century, Melaka made itself master of both sides of the straits and the islands within, but its empire was less a matter of territory than situation, its purpose being to protect trade streams and sources of manpower and foodstuffs.

The cast of characters in Melaka at its peak illustrates the multiethnic, multicultural character of maritime life. Giving it color and pulse were Chinese, Javanese, Tagalogs, Persians, Tamils from South India, Gulf Arabs, Gujerati Indians from the far northwest of the subcontinent, and even a few of the great cosmopolitan traders, Armenians and Jews. In short, people from the whole of the Asian maritime littoral and beyond crowded the streets and bazaars of the city, all intent on doing business.

An early European visitor would call the straits, a place of cultural and commercial convergence, Asia’s “gullet,” and, mindful of its wide-ranging significance in the spice trade, declared “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” the center for distributing spices to consumers throughout Europe. If Venice were the “hinge of Europe,” so Melaka might have been described as the hinge of Eurasia.

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