Norm Goldman talked with
author John Shors about Beneath a Marble Sky: A Novel of the Taj Mahal,
now being made into a major motion picture.
If you had to choose give of the most unique romantic destinations in
Asia, which ones would they be? Why?
- Well, I'd probably have
to start with the Taj Mahal. Standing within this structure, knowing
that a man built it for his wife is a unique experience, and an extraordinarily
- For a pair of beach lovers
I'd recommend Krabi, Thailand. This area boasts strikingly beautiful
beaches, and is quite romantic.
- For a couple that loves
outdoors, I'd say the Himalayas of Nepal is worth visiting. These mountains
are incredibly powerful and inspiring.
- For a couple who loves
the city, I'd recommend Hong Kong . It offers wonderful shopping and
dining, and is an exciting blend of old and new.
- Finally, I'd recommend
Saigon, or Ho Chi Min City, as it's known today. Saigon benefits from
a strong French influence, and has tree-lined boulevards, five-star
restaurants, and is an exciting city that is rich in history.
easy or difficult is it to backpack or travel around countries in Asia?
John: It really depends on the country. India is hard. Thailand and Japan
are easy. Typically, the wealthier the country, the easier it is for travelers
to get around. Fortunately, all of these countries have good railway systems,
and I've found that the train is an excellent mode of transportation throughout
Asia. One gets to see a lot of ground this way, and enjoys experiences
that one would never have from the air. Just be sure to pay a little extra
for a first-class seat or sleeping compartment.
I understand you spent four years in Asia and you backpacked across
multiple countries. Could you tell us which countries you visited, and
what impressed you most during your adventures?
John: Yes, I was lucky enough to spend a
good chunk of time in Asia. During the early to mid 90s I traveled
across Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, India, Indonesia, and Hong
These adventures showed me that we truly live in a global society. More
important, spending time with the rich and poor, educated and uneducated
of Asia taught me that none of us are as different as we think. We all
have the same fears, hopes, strengths and weaknesses. Even our religions
aren't as dissimilar as people believe.
You wrote a book about the Taj Mahal. Could you describe to our readers
what impresses you most about this wonder of the world?
John: Well, after experiencing the Taj Mahal, I was motivated to spend
the next five years of my life writing Beneath a Marble Sky. So,
it's fair to say that the mausoleum had a profound impact upon me. If
you'll indulge me for a moment, I'll describe my experience to you as
best as I can.
By luck rather than design, my wife and I arrived at the mausoleum
early and were the first visitors onto the grounds. To be honest,
stepping through the vast sandstone gate was like immersing myself into
a photo. The Taj Mahal glistened in the light of dawn, glowing like a
sculpted ember. The day was still, the only movement from birds wheeling
about the tear-shaped dome.
At first glance, the Taj looked seamless to me, as though it had been
hewn from a single piece of ivory. It was smooth and soaring, and I found
it impossible to believe that human hands crafted it so long ago. In my
many travels, I'd seen nothing like it. It wasn't boastful like so many
celebrated monuments. It didn't seek to intimidate, to define my thoughts
on it. Instead, it seemed to invite creative interpretation. I thought
it looked like the woman it was built to celebrate, abounding with smooth
curves and grace.
I was only vaguely aware then of the remarkable story behind the mausoleum
that the Emperor of India built it for his beloved wife, whom he called
Taj Mahal. She died in childbirth, and as she departed she asked him to
grant her one wish. She asked that he build her something beautiful, and
then each year to visit the site on their anniversary and light a candle.
Possessing only this tidbit of information was more than enough to make
me walk faster, to move toward the spot where they lay beside each other.
To know that a man created this treasure for his wife was inspiring. I
had never experienced the depths of what his sorrow must have been as
she died in his arms, but his passion for her was palpable, and somehow
it was infectious. I felt extremely alive.
As we drew closer to them, ascending the vast white marble platform on
which the main structure rested, I became aware of the millions of semi-precious
stones that adorned the walls. One doesnt see these works of art in the
standard photos of the Taj Mahal. Lapis, jade, quartz, amber, emeralds
and onyx are set into the white marble. Marvellously detailed arrangements
of these polished and shaped stones form garlands of flowers, timeless
and impossibly exquisite.
The Taj Mahal was designed to reflect the different moods of the day,
and as the sun rose, the mausoleum whitened, almost as though the light
were bleaching it. Though we were tempted to stand motionless indefinitely,
we moved toward the centerpiece of the structure, the tomb room. We were
the first visitors inside the octagonally shaped room, accessed by eight
arched doorways. The domed ceiling towered far above us. The room should
have been dark, but the marble surrounding us seemed to glow, as if illuminated
from within. The two vaults in the center of the room were inset with
the most beautiful gatherings of jewelled flowers that I had seen
scarlet tulips and indigo fuchsias.
As the day lengthened, travelers from many corners of the world began
to appear. Few spoke. Most acted, as we did, so in awe of the surroundings
that conversation seemed trivial, almost sacrilegious. Knowing smiles
were exchanged between strangers, as if we all shared a bond that rendered
politics and differences temporarily obsolete.
And how could we not? I don't think anyone could have left that site unmoved
or unchanged. One doesn't visit the Taj Mahal and walk away without feeling
that the world is a better place than one thought.
Norm: How did you go about planning for your trip
John: The great thing about traveling in Asia is that you meet other travelers
who will tell you the best places to go. We never really planned things
that much, other than which country we'd be in. Then, when we'd land in
a country's capital, we'd go to a spot that travelers converged in, and
everyone would tell us about the latest and greatest spot to go enjoy.
If one doesn't have the luxury of time, I'd recommend a book like The
Norm: How useful do you find the Internet when planning
any of your adventures?
John: I think that the Internet definitely has an important role.
It is certainly useful for research and inspiration. However, travelers
have to be flexible when basing a portion of their trip on research conducted
online. After all, a hotel in Bombay might look a bit different online
than it does at 3 a.m. in person. As long as travelers are fine with a
few such surprises, I think the Internet has great potential.
Norm: What is next for John Shors?
John: For the time being, I continue to promote Beneath a Marble
Sky. My novel is being made into a major motion picture, so I'm involved
a lot more with Hollywood than I thought I ever would be. At some point
I'd love to start writing again perhaps in a few months.
Norm: Is there anything else you care to comment
John: If people have any specific questions about Asia, they should feel
free to email me at johnshors.com . If anyone would like more information about my novel, please visit my site (http://www.beneathamarblesky.com/).