Saturday, April 28, 2007

Silk Road to Ruin Completes Buzkashi-Deficient Book Collection

A primer into the woefully understood and understudied topic of contemporary Central Asia requires a reading of the following:
  • Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game
  • Lonely Planet Central Asia
  • Colin Thubron's Lost Heart of Asia
Now, Ted Rall's Silk Road to Ruin completes this small library. When I ordered it, I had no idea that it was part travelogue narrative, part graphic novel. My only prior experience with graphic novels was Art Spiegelman's Maus. Rall uses the graphic novel/comic strip format to recount his various treks through Central Asia. A State Department pro-democracy tour to Turkmenistan. A bus journey on the Karakoram Highway. His infamous Stan Trek 2000. Through the rudimentary, two-dimensional illustrations and simple yet realistic dialogue, Rall conveys in a few dozen cells what cannot be covered in entire chapters. The recounts are laugh-out-loud funny, raunchy, insightful, sad, and scary.

The rest of the book contains a fairly thorough assessment of present day Central Asia. Politics; human rights abuses; relations with the U.S., Russia, and China; and the importance of natural gas and oil dominate the narrative. However, snippets of history, cuisine, and sports (see the chapter re the game of buzkashi) are carefully laid out throughout the book.

About half the pages in the book have some sort of illustration, be they photographs, maps, graphic novellas, or four-cell comic strips. Rall's style is akin to Matt Groening's Life in Hell. They make the reading fun and fast. I went through the 300 page book during a work week. I wish I can say the same for Owen Lattimore's The Desert Road to Turkestan and its companion, High Tartary, which I placed on hold midway through to read Silk Road to Ruin.

My only complaints have to do with the editing process. There are a few glaring typographical errors. Errors akin to confusing "there" with "their" are hard to ignore. Though it was not a big deal, it did take a little bit away from the experience. I also had a problem with the layout. The font was small and there was literally no room for margins. I'm sure the publishers could have spared the money and added a few more pieces of paper to the book.

All in all, this book was a great effort in making the topic of Central Asia real and un-academic. Both Central Asia aficionados and neophytes alike will love the book. I can't wait to read Rall's To Afghanistan and Back.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Much Maligned Ferrari 400/400i/412

Ferraristas have always insisted that a true Ferrari must only have two seats. But throughout much of Ferrari's history, 2+2 GTs have been a part of the Maranello firm's line-up. Because of the bias against four-seaters, their resale value and desirability have never held up to their shorter wheelbased cousins.

Of all the maligned 2+2s, the 400/400i/412 series (hereinafter "400s") have been subjected to further insults and sneers because of its controversial three-box design. To many, the 400s are nothing more than glorified Maserati Biturbos or Bitter SCs. But to the rare afficionado of the 400s, the majority's wrath is the minority's gain. Used 400s in daily-driver shape can be had for the price of a new entry level imported luxo-sports sedan.

The original 400 (1976 to '78) and 412 (1985 to '89) are the best examples. Their V12 engines, one a 4.8 liter, the other 4.9 liter, put out 340 horses. The 400i (1979 to '84) was equipped with a suffocating Bosch fuel injector. The 400i was rated at 310 horsepower.

Though they may be a bargain to buy, maintenance is of course going to be enough to bankrupt small Banana Republics (the countries, not the retailers). Nevertheless, it is still a classy and relatively affordable classic GT to drive to the office.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sarkozy, Royal, and the Cooper S

The results from the first round of France's presidential election are in. Sarkozy garnered a surprising (even to his campaign) 31.8% of the vote. Royal the Socialist (talk about your oxymorons) came in second. In honor of the French system of picking winners, I take you in the Wayback Machine to the 1966 Monte Carlo Rallye.

Royal and Sarkozy: Not Disqualified Because They Are Not British

Couldn't Have Said It Better Myself

1964 Winner

1965 Winner

For two years straight ('64 and '65), the Mini Cooper S won the Rallye. In 1966, it won the trifecta, placing first (Makinen), second (Aaltonen), and third (Hopkirk). The red faced French wanted blood.

1966 - 1st place

1966 - 2nd place

1966 - 3rd place

After the race, the judges took hours scrutinizing the winners. Et voila! Apparently, all three cars had headlights and spotlights with single filaments. This was in clear violation of the rules, which required dual filament bulbs. And thus, with these irrelevant violations, the titles were stripped. The fourth place Ford Lotus Cortina was disqualified for the same reason. Coincidentally and consequently, the fifth place Citroen DS became, by default, the 1966 champion.

It is Tamerlane's opinion that this chicken shit move was the last nail in the coffin for France as a respectable nation and as a just society. Its precipitous decline started with the Vichy regime, was followed by the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and ended with the 1966 Monte Carlo travesty. France has never recovered.


P.S. Aaltonen won the 1967 Rallye in...a Mini Cooper S.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

UAZ That?!

The UAZ 452 was introduced in 1966. Its looks are cute to Westerners, but not necessarily to those who lived during the Soviet era, as it was often used by the police. When it's running, it's nimble and will cover any terrain with ease. It broke down often, but was simple to repair. The starter, which was especially prone to break down, has a hand crank.

One can still find the 452 throughout the roadless wilds of Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Mongolia. To see them in action, they acted as great support vehicles in Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman's Long Way Round.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Shooting Brakes Galore!

While researching the previous post on the Lagonda, I came across a one-off Lagonda shooting brake created by Roos Engineering of Switzerland. The shooting brake has always been an odd duck. It's essentially a luxury sedan or sports car that has been converted into a station wagon/estate.

Only two kinds of people commission and own shooting brakes. The first category consists of British country gentlemen who need it for hunting on their vast landholdings. Their donor cars are often Aston Martins. The second category consists of one person, the Sultan of Brunei. Rolls-Royce and Ferrari have made dozens of shooting brakes exclusively for His Highness.

Here are some interesting examples:

Aston Martin Vantage
Aston Martin Virage

The aforementioned Aston Martin Lagonda

Jaguar XJ6

Jaguar XJS

Aston Martin DB5

Bentley Arnage

Porsche 924

Ferrari 456GT


Saturday, April 14, 2007

My God, the Lagonda!

The Aston Martin Lagonda is the car that should have never been. At a time when Aston Martin was on the brink of bankruptcy, the suits decided to design and produce this over-the-top saloon. At $150,000 each, only 631 were made over its dozen year run from '77 to '89.

The Lagonda's over-the-top-ness begins with the obvious-- its styling. Its shape was unlike anything before, or after. At almost 17 1/2 feet in length, it is lower than a Porsche 911. It makes a 3rd generation Quattroporte, its contemporary, look downright tame.

The cockpit is straight out of the twilight zone. In an attempt to be ulta-modern, all of the controls are electronic. The dash looks like a cross between a Star Trek deck and Intellivision console. Looking at it today is like walking through the Smithsonian, stopping by the computer exhibit, and wondering who in their right mind would buy a $5,000 Osborne.

1970s. British. Electronics. Three words that should not go together. As soon as the Lagondas rolled off the assembly line, the electronics died. Aftermarket kits replacing the dash with analog controls came out soon after. Aston Martin, predicting catastrophic failure, omitted an electonic odometer in the dash altogether, opting for a manual odometer hooked up discretely under the bonnet. Talk about planning for disaster.

Fuel economy. For many consecutive years, the Lagonda had the worst gas mileage out of all production cars on Earth. Single-digit mpg was the norm. The 5.3 liter carburated V8, mated with an antediluvian Chrysler 3 speed, was not the apex of automotive engineering.

I've been fortunate to see with my own eyes some very rare Astons, including the DB4 Zagato. But to date, the Lagonda has proven to be quite elusive. I can't wait to see the car that should have never been.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Silk Road Walnut Creek: 4 out of 5 Yelp Reviewers Smoke Crack

4.8 out of 6 of these diners will rave about their respective meals.

4 out of 5 dentists recommend Dentyne gum. Coincidentally, 4 out 5 restaurant reviewers were on crack when they wrote about Silk Road in Walnut Creek.

Rather than a lengthy diatribe, I will list six things, in chronological order, that were wrong with this place. It's not that the food was inedible or the service was surly, it's just that with all the rave reviews and high prices (three times that of a food court meal, but equal in quality) made it a real bummer as a dining experience on a nice Friday evening in the Creek.

Without further ado:

1. For a place that touts exotic lands and maps of China on the wall and menu, feng shui was tossed out the window when they designed the seating arrangement. Awkward and crowded sum it up. Our table for two abutted the bar, right next to jars of olives and manichino cherries.

2. The menu. A place called the Silk Road should have cuisines stretching from Greece or Turkey all the way to China, with everything in between. Instead, it's Greek and Italian (pizzas). WTF?! Calling such a place Silk Road brought great disdain and ire from Tamerlane.

3. Mint tea. Fine, it's a Greek place. My wife will have mint tea. "Mint tea? No, we don't have." He brings out a cheap tea bag of herbal tea instead. Not a good sign.

4. Rather like Chevy's, they bring out an inconsistently cooked piece of folded flatbread (moist on the "left" side, thin and dried out on the "right". Accompanying it is a mysterious dipping sauce of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, scallions, parsley, Parmesan and garlic. The only flavor I got out of it? Wet.

5. We order the appetizer combo for $7.95 consisting of hummus with the consistency of chunky peanut butter, baba ghanoush with more oil than Prince William Sound circa March 1989 and a forgetable parsley and bulgur tabbouleh.

6. Readers of this fine electronic rag know that Tamerlane loves lamb kebabs. He orders the entree ($15.95). The lamb, the only highlight, was tender, fresh, but a little charred. At Antioch Kabob House, you get three times more meat (of the same quality) for half the price. The accompanying whole roasted tomato was raw in the center. The rice was a mix of saffron and white. Rather than flakey and flavorful, it was just wet and limp. The plate was completed with two dull spears of asparagus, one lonely string bean, and slivers of salty (unintentional, I'm sure) carrots.

The quality of the food is decent for a food court. Our meal would be a good value at $10 to15. It ended up being $29 plus tip.

The lesson? Tamerlane will never rely on for restaurant picks again. As long as is online, Colombian coca farmers, Mexican narco-kings, and low level American crack dealers will have plenty of business.