SAN DIEGO, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- Everyone has a dream: to sail around the globe, to go cross-country on a motorcycle or to climb every mountain. In 1998, Edward A. Gargan decided to pursue his dream: to travel down the Mekong River from its source in the highlands of Tibet, through China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to the China Sea. He relates his exploits in "The River Tale." (Alfred A. Knopf , 352 pages, $26.95, )
As a journalist for The New York Times, Gargan had lived and worked in China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, but was never able to spend as much time as he wanted in any one place or on any one story. Deadlines and editor's criteria limited his movements and creativity.
As a student Gargan had protested the Vietnam War. Now he wanted to see what the country was like in the aftermath of the war and reunification. He was also interested in the opium trade in the Golden Triangle, in observing how minorities survived oppression and persecution in countries like China and Tibet, and most of all, he was fascinated by the Mekong, meandering through those countries to end its journey in the China Sea.
So in 1998, Gargan loaded his backpack and took off. His is a fascinating journey of a journalist returning to the "scene of his crimes," but without a deadline and free to write without the impediment of "objective reporting." In this narrative, we are treated to a fascinating mixture of history, political analysis and personal experiences.
Gargan's trip gives us an almost surreal image of East and West juxtaposed in the most unexpected ways. Children wearing Chicago Bulls baseball caps in a remote village in Tibet, an Internet cafe in Lijiang, American pop music in a riverine village in Laos and traces of the French occupation in Vietnam.
Gargan starts his trip in the highlands of Tibet, a country that has been occupied by the Chinese since 1959, and whose culture is in constant danger of eradication as the Chinese destroy its monasteries and imprison, or kill, Buddhist monks and nuns. Signs of the Chinese presence are more or less evident depending on the proximity of large towns, but for the isolated yak herders, life goes on much as before.
Despite the devastation visited on Tibet, Gargan leaves with a sense of hope that Tibetan Buddhism will survive. "I knew, as I prepared to turn south, that China itself was changing rapidly, that the repressions of the past were facing new and substantial challenges, that a Chinese civil society that demanded a voice and rights was forming under the nose of the Communist party and there was nothing that could be done to stop it. And I know that those changes will inevitably loosen the noose Chinese communism has thrown around Tibet."
His journey continues through Lijiang in western China, where he meets an ethnomusicologist named Xuan Ke, who has managed to salvage the old traditional music of the Naxi culture. The predominant Han culture of China is eradicating all minority cultures and in Lijiang everything Naxi, including the language, is being replaced by Han mores and customs. Xuan Ke found old musicians who had buried their instruments, rather than have them burned and destroyed by Mao's Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Together they have formed an orchestra, and give concerts performing on ancient instruments such as the sugudu or the pipa.
Throughout his trip, Gargan witnesses signs of minorities surviving Chinese efforts to eradicate their culture, of individuals fighting for freedom of expression, of communities rebuilding in the wake of horrors like the Vietnam War, or the American war as they call it, and Pol Pot's regime of terror in Cambodia. Whether resisting invaders, or surviving local oppression, the picture that emerges from this trip is that of the unquenchable, indomitable human spirit of the people living along the banks of the Mekong.
Next, Gargan headed for the Burmese border, passing a mule train on the way. The mules were loaded with bulging sacks of opium heading for China. One official explained that although China was generally very tough on drugs, the government was apparently not willing to tackle the problem that far from the capital. This was the first opium Gargan would see, but certainly not the last.
In the true spirit of the intrepid traveler, Gargan ate many unfamiliar, and seemingly unpalatable meals. The tea in Tibet, served with yak butter and salt, he politely calls an acquired taste. In the town of Lancang, he was offered bamboo worms or bee larvae. He settled for fatty pork and green beans. "I do not regard myself as excessively squeamish, having eaten scorpions, ants, grasshoppers and all variety of obscure sea life, but I could not quite wrap my palate around those wiggling worms."
But in Laos he found a restaurant that served steak frites and crusty baguette for just $2, and in Angkor he stumbled onto a restaurant run by a Frenchman, and feasted on fresh river fish, wrapped in a leaf, steeped in coconut milk and baked. And in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, he treated himself to a first class meal accompanied by a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin. People in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are more interested in learning English nowadays, instead of French, and American pop culture has invaded even remote corners of Southeast Asia but, thank God, French cuisine, coffee and baguettes still prevail.
Gargan was now in the heart of the Golden Triangle, in Meung Sing, a town in Laos. For Laotian farmers the only way to improve their lives is by growing opium. Even so, the drug is cheap by Western standards, $2 or $3 for an evening's dose, or $100 for a kilo of pure heroin. There he met a group of foreigners: an American, a Dutchman and a Swede, who traveled with him down the river, through "Apocalypse Now" country. Gargan gives a chilling account of the actions of the CIA during the Vietnam War, and especially of freelancing Tony Poe, on whom Francis Ford Coppola based the character of Colonel Kurtz, the role played by Marlon Brando in the epic movie.
Gargan also notes the lack of economic progress of Burma, Laos and Cambodia, and compares them to Thailand. The difference in attitude of the regimes in power, their relationship to the West, and to the United States in particular, their ideologies and politics, their perception of the capitalistic system as dangerous, all contribute to hinder these countries and bind them in poverty
In the hilltop town of Mae Salong in Thailand, near the Chinese border, the old Nationalist Chinese warlord, General Tuan, had run his opium empire. He had justified it by declaring, "Necessity knows no law. That is why we deal with opium. We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium." Does this line of reasoning sounds familiar? It is the same line of reasoning used by bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Laos, by the way, is just behind Afghanistan and Burma in opium production.
In Cambodia, Gargan experiences the consequences of the unbelievable horror of Pol Pot's massacres. As a journalist he'd seen many horrors but nothing prepared him for what he saw at Tuol Sleng, the infamous prison where so many were tortured and killed. Known to the Cambodians as "konlaenh choul min dael chenh," or "the place of going in and never coming out," the former lycée turned extermination center is now a major 'tourist' attraction. "I left Tuol Sleng shaking" he writes, comparing his visit to Auschwitz. "Evil was not banal here."
One of the consequences of Pol Pot's folly is that there are very few old people in Cambodia, they have either been killed, or were unable to survive the hardships. In Stung Treng, Gargan met an aid worker who told him that there are almost no vegetables in the area, and no one who knows how to grow them. Aid workers and non-governmental organizations abound but their work is hampered by bureaucracy and rendered dangerous by bandits.
At the end of his journey, Gargan explores the canals of the delta, seeking traces of the American presence, and happy to see that Vietnam seems to bear few physical or social scars of the long war. One of the consequences of the war are the "bui doi," the dust of life, the children of American servicemen and Vietnamese women. Gargan meets one of them, Hoang, who tells him, " People hate us, they say we are worse than dirt. They say we are Americans. They say we have no rights."
As a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Gargan had protested the war and spent two years in a federal prison for failing to register for the draft. Now, sitting on the bank of the Mekong, memories of those days wash over him. Few young people in America today even remember the Vietnam War, a war fought far away and that ended in defeat. But for the Asian countries involved it is a different story.
"The austere, cloistered paranoia of Laos, the Khmer Rouge holocaust in Cambodia, the stringency of Hanoi's vision of the future, all are incompatible with any reasonable hope for a just and democratic society, for a society that will be part of a larger Asia, and the broader world." Gargan struggles, as he often has over the years, with the competing ideas of those governments and that of "the corrupt, brutal and utterly without popular support" regimes supported by the Americans during the war. His consolations are those glimpses of life returning to normal in Cambodia and Laos, "where solace is found in the oldest of the country's tradition, Buddhism."
From Tibet to Vietnam, Buddhism, in its many forms, still survives despite efforts by the various communist regimes to eradicate it. Young people are being ordained as monks, and the ceremonies and rituals sustain the people. In times of war, and great social upheaval, the spiritual is often the only remaining bulwark against despair and total disintegration. Like a thread, the Mekong and Buddhism, have held all these societies together.
Gargan has managed to link together, as he says, "different phases of my life, my years as an antiwar activist, my graduate school years as an historian, my work as a journalist and my passion for Asia." And he does it very well. We get a real sense of the place, its history, both past and recent, an understanding of how people survive, and always, hope for the future. His professional experience as a journalist stands him in good stead here, as he encapsulates centuries of history in a few paragraphs, provides relevant data, and leavens it all with personal encounters and anecdotes.
Gargan is sometimes guilty of indulging in jarring metaphors: "Smoke seeped from a tent peak, only to be instantly scrubbed away by the wind's stiff brush". Or again, when describing the river, " ... the Lancang, now a complex river of pirouetting whirlpools, white-frothed eddies and rip currents, strange mirror pools and sharp elbows that brush away the mountains' skirts." But overall, his book is eminently readable and he takes us on an unforgettable journey along the banks of the ninth longest river in the world.