Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things

by Gary Geddes
ISBN: 0002001004

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A Review of: Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas
by Nancy Wigston

For thirty-odd years, BC poet, playwright, and author Gary Geddes had been fascinated by the tale of a Buddhist monk named Huishen, who had travelled from his native Afghanistan and, forty years later, ended his journey in China, where his amazing tales of strange new lands was recorded by Liang dynasty historians in the year 499AD. This much is certain. But Geddes wants to know whether it's possible that lands Huishen described could have been what is now the western coast of British Columbia or other parts of the Americas? Could Huishen have preached to the Haida and the Maya during his extraordinary voyage?
Entering the debate about pre-Columbian visits to the Americas by wandering Asians, Geddes-in a miracle of bad timing-sets off in August, 2001, to follow what may have been Huishen's route, from Kabul in Afghanistan to Chiapas in Mexico. Everyone, from his family to his local grocer, tells him not to go, but Geddes, who presents himself as an honest, affable fellow, haunted by this monk and his journey, ignores them. He has joined, in the words of a frank friend, the "lunatic fringe," who more than just propose the possibility of pre-Columbian contact between the Americas and Asia; in the absence of substantive proof, and contrary to current academic "we-did-all-this-ourselves" interpretations of civilisations in the Americas, they passionately want to believe in it.
That there is a religious/spiritual component to his quest is more than hinted at: Geddes tells us that as a child he once imagined becoming a Catholic missionary, later subsuming that desire into art. He reveals that he has been the "keeper of [Huishen's] tale" for a long time, and ruminates that while the biblical "forty days and forty nights in the wilderness" is "an honourable length of time for self-analysis or testing one's mettle," Huishen's forty years sets a higher standard altogether. As a long time critic of western politics (his other journeys have included trips to Chile, Nicaragua, the West Bank and Gaza), arrogance and ethnocentricity, there's little doubt that during this trip-which will test his own mettle and give plenty of time for self-analysis-Geddes will project his own longings onto a mythical monk who returns the favour by appearing with increasing regularity as his muse.
In undertaking this quest, and completing it in segments, Geddes fulfills the necessary requirements of the best travel writers: he is knowledgeable without being a bore, and his foibles and that of the journey itself, provide many moments of clarity, irritation, and most importantly, humour. Further, this is not a trip any of us will likely take any time soon, so Geddes becomes our surrogate on the long and winding road. At the airport in Islamabad, Geddes is greeted with an auspicious sign reading "MR. GALI GUESS", which strikes him as prescient, given the uncertainties of the road ahead. He mentions this misspelling because it makes poetic sense. As a traveller Geddes rarely indulges in the near-universal tendency to laugh at local English; later on, in China, he keeps a copy of the misspelled train menu, which isn't very funny when he presents it to us, but luckily such moments are scarce in his book. Despite his rich artistic background, adventurous streak, and wide experience as a traveller, Geddes is very much an Anglo Canadian. He frets and worries constantly. (Much later in the narrative, his nightmare about negotiating customs in London is a classic in what may be a Canadian genre.) Initially he is so sure he will be denied his visa to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, that when not on the lookout for "omens" (a dead tabby cat in the road, for instance), he spends his waiting time in Pakistan making hectic visits to a variety of aid workers. He hears heartbreaking tales from Afghani refugees living in camps near the border; suffers travellers' diarrhea; humiliates himself in front of a child selling souvenirs in the street; visits a fascinating museum; and goes by bus to the Khyber Pass. Travelling by bus in Pakistan, he observes, "requires no more than a death wish and a handful of rupees." When he is granted the visa to Afghanistan, he must then renew his visa to get back into Pakistan.
As his journey unfolds we get to know our surrogate adventurer rather well. He has done his research, both academic and political. He interviews people both in formal situations and also provides hilarious and often thoughtful thumbnail sketches of his fellow tourists-translators, guides, sailors, revolutionaries-that are almost Chaucerian in their insightfulness. Still, the timing of his trip remains an issue. The Taliban have recently blown up the Bamiyan Buddhas. They have forbidden women to work or attend school, condemned them to wear the confining, tent-like burka and conducted public executions. It seems an odd time to visit this country, and Geddes doesn't clarify matters much. He offers comments like the following: "This sacklike coveringwith its peephole netting resembling a cage was the perfect symbol for Western feministsthat the women inside the burka had been displaced by a symbol," and suggests that drought and lack of infrastructure were the true culprits. Surely it was the Taliban who reduced these women to symbols, not the western women who publicized their plight? However, Geddes saw Kabul-as most of us have not-and it was not as ghoulish as he had imagined-no bodies in the streets, but a lot of rubble and ruin, many war-disabled, but few guns. He bravely brings up the public executions during a soccer game outing to the stadium where several have occurred (but more soccer games than executions, his guides demurs), and then realizes: "The moment was ruined," as if this were a social faux pas. His trip to Kabul wasn't a waste, however. Geddes observes: "I had been immersed in exactly the same kind of ideological straitjacket and brutish politics-not only anti-Buddhist but anti-art-that drove [Huishen] and his brethren into exile."
It's in China that he learns of the September 11th attacks on New York. He mentions a Chinese tourist asking him what he thinks about what has happened, almost casually. By this time Geddes has enjoyed the colour and life in Kashgar and elsewhere, and has become part of an ever-changing Silk Road caravanserai, seen uncovered feminine beauty again, discovered some wonderful Buddhas, frolicked and gotten ill with an ebullient group of western writers, all the while receiving regular nocturnal visits from Huishen who comments on the vagaries of the travelling life ("a monk concealed in every monkey"). Although news of the destruction in New York is dramatically presented, Geddes's reaction, so far from home in the midst of an outing to Tang dynasty ruins, is an anticlimax. He emails home to reassure his family and friends that he's not in danger, and worries about his new friends in Kabul and the inevitable suffering they will endure.
By now Geddes's journey has fully taken shape: he visits ruins, makes friends, and runs into conflict with authority. He is defeated by lack of evidence or buoyed by unexpected discoveries; and all the while creating a parallel narrative to the one in the his mind. He does Huishen the great honour of anchoring him to present reality. For instance, after a splendid explanation of the way 50,000 ancient manuscripts were discovered in 1900, by a caretaker in the caves outside Dunhuang, in China, and were subsequently stolen by thieves or purchased and removed by unscrupulous archaeologists (only a fraction remain in the Beijing Library), Geddes speculates that it was here perhaps that Huishen might have mingled with the monks and nuns who inspired his studies of Chinese language and culture. Access to the now famous "Library Cave" is restricted, but the voice from the "deep cave within the self" offers far less restricted entry. At this point Geddes tells us of the spectacular theory that Huishen was the model for the Mayan plumed serpent god.
No wonder that Geddes's trip will eventually lead to Guatemala and Mexico. But first there are more wanderings in China, with sad goodbyes to the soon-to-be-flooded Yangtze Valley ("The Chinese are like Texans. They do everything in a big way"), and a search for scholars known to be familiar with Huishen. He arrives-on a national holiday-at the gates of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences only to be told that of the scholars he seeks, "One die, one move other place. Nobody know where." Such setbacks are not atypical of a day on the road with this poet-seeker. Still, at the end of this journey that takes him tens of thousands of miles by every possible conveyance (including a container ship on which he spends two weeks), he has seen so much, and conveyed so much, without becoming bitter-or at least not for long-while entertaining us every minute, that we marvel at his tenacity. And by attempting to prove his theory about "Asia's elusive Pimpernel" in the face of most current orthodoxies, he has connected the dots with his own eyes. The "radiant moment of stasis," surrounded by friends, that he achieves in the last scene will ring true to all travellers who've struggled to reach their goals, Huishen among them.

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