East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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Silk Road Food

Something fast, silly but possibly of interest.
After all, the Silk Road is one of the themes of this blog, and food is one of the most accessible, and often surprising, facets of culture.
So, here goes – a small collection of Silk Road inspired foods, on Pinterest.
Some authentic, some shamelessly counterfeit.


Finding a good bad guy

Ungern-sternberg_rThe gentleman you see portrayed here on th eright is Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg.
And the word “gentleman” is probably not the right one.

Also known as “the Mad Baron”, Ungern-Sternberg is one of the blatant proofs that history can best pulp fiction any day of the week, and without trying.
There is no Bond villain, no dime novel Yellow Peril, no fictional bad guy that can go head-to-head with the Baron in terms of madness and cruelty, and hope to win.

And all this is just fine because, you see, I’m doing the final draft of my novel, and I need to make my bad guy… worse.
The eating-babies-alive sort of worse. Continue reading

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Travel guides

A map indicating trading routes used around th...

A map indicating trading routes used around the 1st century CE centred on the Silk Road. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everything finds its use, sooner or later.
And if one’s a writer, everything finds a writing-related use, sooner or later.
Back when I was planning my after-graduation Silk Road adventure that never happened, I got me a few maps and guidebooks.
These went to form the core of my still-growing collection of books on the subject.

As of now, I’m also sort of a Travel Guide collector – as Blondie used to sing, dreaming is free.

Now, almost fifteen years later, I dug out some of the stuff to document a story I’m writing.
Guidebooks are great for local detail – and one can even find out how things change through time by comparing guidebooks from different decades.

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Silk Road Memories – Trieste

This is an unexpected post.
Yesterday my blog was involved in the promotional tour for the first volume in a new historical fiction trilogy, called L’Ombra dell’Impero, written by Italian noir thriller stalwart Al Custerlina, and set in Trieste.
Now, I visited Trieste only once, but I love that city dearly, and some of thepeople that live there.
So I wrote a sort of rambling piece about Trieste and the East, and adventure, and mystery.
Here it is.

Trieste is to me, who grew up on the other side of Italy, a city that has the flavor of the Mysterious East.
I visited it once, in a particularly important moment of my life – I was there to hold for the first time uncorso university .
At night, I explored the city – including local furnished almost steampunk 19th century style, breweries , and an amazing restaurant with Chinese dragons rolled up around red pillars at the entrance.
In Trieste land and sea lanes cross.
Everything passed through Trieste, merchandise, ideas, men and women – merchants , crusaders , refugees, smugglers.
For centuries, Tireste was the door to the Orient – first as a stage stop on the most western branch of the Silk Road, then as a Mediterranean port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a sort of northern Istanbul , and finally as a door to that Orient that was beyond an iron curtain .
From here, going east , the traveler left the nineteenth century Europe built on orderly timetables and letters of credit, and entered that confused and exotic Oriental universe, which perhaps he already had had a taste of in Italy.
Beyond Trieste, the roads were dusty, trains and stagecoaches became increasingly erratic, men were unreliable, women mysterious and sensual .
As Constantinople, as Samarkand, as Alexandria or Casablanca, Trieste deserves a place in the imagination as a crossroads of mystery and adventure, as a place where ideas, valuables, genetic material and events mingled freely.
It is high time the centrality of Trieste in our history, and in our imagination, is reclaimed.
Not as a vague spectrum, but as a place that casts its long shadow on what we are, on what we think.


Dragon bones

And talking about China and fossils… 50 cents per kg is the price of dinosaur bones used as medicine in central China.

I was researching Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald, a German paleontologist that in the 1930s found a tooth belonging to a Gigantopithecus in an Hong Kong pharmacy, and I collected a few factoids about the practice of consuming “long gu” (“dragon bones”) for medical purposes – which is still is still going strong in China today.


The most common afflictions cured by boiling or grinding into powder the fossil bones are cramps and dizziness, but the list of possible applications is long and varied.

“… “dragon bones” are crushed to a fine powder, boiled, and mixed with other ingredients to make healing concoctions. According to an ancient Chinese medical text (dating back around 2000 years) pulverized fossils have been used to treat conditions ranging from diarrhea to epilepsy to “manic running about.” Some ancient “medical” conditions were mystical ailments. For example, dragon bone “mainly treats heart and abdominal demonic influx, spiritual miasma, and old ghosts.”

In 2007, the BBC revealed that one enterprising bone collector had found, dug out and sold about 8.000 kilos of old bones.
According to online sources, today, more than 100 tons of “dragon bones” are consumed each year in China and Southeast Asia.

All of which is great news not only for my Silk Road book (updates, updates!), but is also excellent fodder for stories.