My book tour got started yesterday in Washington, beginning with an interview with T.V. Parasuram, correspondent since 1962 of the Press Trust of India, the Indian version of the Associated Press. He wanted to see me because the Chinese monk whose journey from China to India in the seventh century makes up the narrative thread of my book is about as famous in India as he is in China (and as unknown in the West). “I studied about him in the second or third grade,” Mr. Parasuram told me. We drank tea in the coffee shop of the Omni Shoreham on Calvert Street and talked about the paradoxes of Buddhist philosophy—the concept of the double emptiness and other such matters—while at the table next to us a couple murmured about redecorating their house.
Then I did a 15-minute interview with Bill Thomas, whose program Eye on Books is broadcast to eager book-buyers on 600 radio stations across the country. Next I engaged in what my publisher grandly calls “international coverage” at the Voice of America where Nancy Beardsley conducted a gracious and gentle interview, to be broadcast in the form of gracious, gentle American propaganda across the world. Imagine all those people in Burundi and Bangladesh listening to me talk about the ardor of traveling from China to India and back. The very idea that someone would do that and get paid for it by his publisher must be outlandish to that portion of the VOA audience, for whom survival itself is more arduous than anything I am likely to experience.
In the evening I gave a talk at the Freer Gallery, feeling (or wishing to feel) like Burton or Speke reporting on their explorations before the Royal Geographical Society. I punctured my own pretension by telling my story of crossing the Torugart Pass from China into Kyrgyzstan. This historic pass through the Tian Shan mountains, only reopened about three years ago, is 200 miles north of Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, and 400 miles south of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It’s at about 9,000 feet elevation and surrounded by hills so barren they appear to be shaved. There’s nothing there except for the Chinese border-control post, a strange sort of triumphal arch marking the actual frontier, and then a few miles away is Kyrgyz customs and immigration, where, on the day I was there, Russian soldiers hunted marmots with their AK-47s. I walked into the Chinese post thinking that this must be the most remote and infrequently traveled border-crossing on the globe—and there ahead of me was a group of 15 or so retirees from Florida traveling via the air-conditioned bus of Silk Road Adventure Tours, or something of that sort.
There’s no such thing as remote anymore. The days of heroic travel, of Burton and Speke, Livingstone and Stanley are over.
Still, I told my audience, nobody that I know of has retraced the entire journey of the famous monk from Xian in China to Kanchipuram in India and back. One person in the audience wanted to know how I felt about the Taliban’s destruction of the great Buddhist rock carvings in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, which my monk saw and described in his account of his journey. I replied that I thought it was the metaphorical annihilation of a people, an act of barbarism whose underlying message was that a whole great expression of the human genius did not deserve to exist. But, I added, if you go to the great cave temples in Western China, like the Kizil caves near Turfan, you will see that the eyes of most of the figures in the wall paintings have been gouged out. This vandalism was carried out by the Muslim invaders of the ninth century. There really is nothing new under the sun.
The later evening saw one of the splendid events of my life, a buffet dinner in Georgetown given for me by friends to whom I will be forever grateful. As a New Yorker who rarely comes to Washington, it was extraordinary to see the denizens of this city, political and journalistic, mixing and mingling. I was told that Alan Greenspan was going to be there, and I had a little speech all prepared for that eventuality, something along the lines of my feeling that he would have been too busy saving the global economy to come to a party for me. Well, he wasn’t there. I mention this in an effort to devise a new kind of negative name-dropping, slipping into the conversation someone who was absent, whom you’ve never met and don’t know but who still gives you associational glory. If he hadn’t been too busy saving the global economy, I’m sure Mr. Greenspan would have been there.