Finland Expects

41CH3PO2YYL._SY445_With the happy news that Helsinki is the site of the 2017 World Science Fiction Convention, it’s time for foreign fandom to find out about their new destination. You need the Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and Kindle form from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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One hundred years old in 2017, the modern nation of Finland is also the heir to centuries of history and heritage, as a wilderness at the edge of early Europe, an important component of the Swedish empire, and a Grand Duchy of Tsarist Russia. From prehistoric reindeer herders to the creators of Angry Birds, medieval barons to the rock band Lordi, Finnish history is rich with oddities and excitement, as well as unexpected connections to the outside world – the legendary English bishop who became its first Christian martyr; the Viking queen who hailed from the wastes of Lapland; the bored country doctor who helped inspire The Lord of the Rings; and the many war heroes who held off the Soviet Union against impossible odds.

Jonathan Clements examines Finland’s public artworks and literary giants, its legends, folktales and its most famous figures, building an indispensable portrait of this fascinating nation, sure to add value to any visitor’s experience, be it for business or pleasure. Particular attention is paid to the historical sites likely to feature on any tourist’s itinerary. Special emphasis is also given to the writings and reactions of visitors through the centuries.

A comprehensive and illuminating look at the rich history of this dynamic and little-known region, and an easy-to-use reference source for the tourist, traveller, and baffled science fiction fan.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, the biography of the Finnish president whose former career included a two-year undercover mission in China, posing as a Swedish ethnologist.

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High Road to China

silk road coverThe Silk Road is not a place, but a journey – a route from the edges of the European world to the central plains of China, through high mountains and inhospitable deserts. For thousands of years, its history has been a traveller’s history, of brief encounters in desert towns, snowbound passes and nameless forts. It was the conduit that first brought Buddhism, Christianity and Islam into China, and the site of much of the ‘Great Game’ between Victorian empires. Today, its central section encompasses the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The ancient trade routes cross the sites of several forgotten kingdoms, buried in sand and only now revealing their secrets.

Jonathan Clements takes the reader on a journey through the trackless wastes of the Taklamakan desert, its black whirlwinds and dead lakes, its shimmering mirages, lost cities and mysterious mummies, but also its iconic statues and memorable modern pop songs. He explains the truth behind odd tales of horses that sweat blood, defaced statues and missing frescoes, and Marco Polo’s stories of black gold that seeps from the earth. For travellers looking beyond their armchair, the book includes a gazetteer of important sites and travel tips, from the author himself and earlier travellers’ diaries.

An Armchair Traveller’s History of the Silk Road is available now from Haus Publishing.

Another Manchuria

I have to spend a lot of money on Amazon Japan – sometimes I remember to write down my better discoveries, so that other researchers don’t have to take pot luck with cripplingly expensive postage.

For the last five years or so, I have been eschewing English-language guidebooks and relying on Japanese ones, not only in Japan, but also in parts of China. My favourite are the beautifully comprehensive Rurubu magazine-format tourist guides, that have helped me navigate the wilds of Amakusa and Hokkaido, Shanghai and Taiwan. But sometimes, you need something a little more specialised…

Manchuria Off the Tourist Track, by Keiji Kobayashi is a marvellous idea – a travel guide to Manchuria that highlights the region’s past as a Japanese puppet state. Kobayashi mooches about the modern-day Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin, poking around odd monuments, and old buildings that are leftovers from the days when Manchuria was Japan’s own little exercise in imperialist expansion. This is where Mannerheim led a cavalry charge through the city centre of Mukden, against Japanese gunners, although Kobayashi also has time for the obscurer historical individuals, such as the grave of Verda Majo (1912-1947), the Japanese revolutionary who wrote books in Esperanto arguing for the freedom of China.

Some relics are long gone. The Japanese who remained behind have largely faded into the local population, and three generations of Chinese history have added their own artefacts. Shenyang train station is still there, but the nearby memorial to the fallen of the Russo-Japanese War has now been replaced by one of the ubiquitous statues of Chairman Mao. Kobayashi, ably aided by his photographer Ribun Fukui, chronicles the ghosts of Manchuria’s Japanese past, including the brutalist monuments to Japanese aggression, and carefully preserved sites of Japanese atrocities, some of the skeletons left in piles where they were found.

Manchuria is such a fascinating place, and includes the former capital of the Manchu dynastic founder Nurhachi; the great monumental tower built by General Nogi and Admiral Togo to honour their fallen men; Harbin, a Russian city on Chinese territory. They even dig up the old Man’ei Studios, once the largest film studio in Asia, that cranked out films in Japanese for the local population, now largely forgotten in film archives. Once the “cockpit of Asia”, Manchuria is now far off the tourist trail, but seems like one of the most exciting places for anyone in search of a glimpse of yesterday’s tomorrow. It is a sci-fi future that failed, and all the more interesting for it.