Fourth Home

‘Frozen yogurt!’
‘Drinkable tap water!’
‘Paper towels!’
Gretchen and I are like kids on Christmas morning in the arrivals hall of Stockholm airport. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing all the things just mentioned. Discovering them suddenly, unexpectedly, reduces us to squealing infants.
‘Fresh air!’
‘Tall, attractive men!’
‘Wine gums???’
This last discovery makes this Friday in Sweden the best Christmas I’ve ever had. Wine gums, a sort of hard gummy candy native to the UK, are for me what a shot up the arm is for a heroin addict.
We’re back in the western world after a wonderful but exhausting hiatus of about two months. We’re both heading north to Jamtland, a province about halfway up Sweden, where my old friend Philip has just moved, and are planning on some much-needed R&R as we abuse his family’s washing machine, internet connection, and kitchen. Gretchen will then be heading down to Italy to do some traditional Eurotripping and I’ll be off to Kiev, Almaty, and Istanbul.
There’s nothing like being on the road to make you appreciate the little comforts of home. It also serves to broaden your definition of home: when I first lived abroad, in France from 2004-2005, London became the place I’d go to for comfort food and a dose of family time. Gradually, Paris began to feel the same way: I still remember my mother’s shock when, over Christmas dinner in Greenwich that year, I mentioned how excited I was to go home.
Here in Sweden, I’m realizing for the first time how much my desire for home can be satisfied with a few things that I can take for granted in the western world – tap water, etc – and a friendly face from my past. Philip and I lived together in a tiny apartment on the 8th floor of a majestic eighteenth century building underneath the Eiffel Tower during my gap year. He finished college this June as well and moved to his mother’s home town of Ostersund, Sweden. Philip’s been informally adopted into the Morris family for a long time now, so I’m looking forward to getting to know his a little bit better.

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Drink for the thirst to come

The great train journey has ended: Gretchen, Edward, and I arrived in St Petersburg at four the morning on the 25th. The Moscow-St Petersburg line is by various accounts the most trafficked train route in the world, and the Trans-Siberian Lonely Planet (inferior, in my opinion, to the Trans-Siberian Handbook) assured us that extra attention was paid to comfort and cleanliness on the overnight trains. We did not find this to be the case. Perhaps we should have expected when we booked the cheapest seat that we would be sitting in a smelly, dimly-lit and infrequently cleaned car, but we’ve been spoiled by the quality of the trains in Siberia (see ‘Life on the Skids‘).

In St Petersburg I remembered that I am no longer a student but a twenty-three year old on a trip around the world. While I firmly believe you should never stop learning, and though I always say you can and should travel at any age, there are some things that are best done when you’re young. These include: eating richly while your metabolism can still handle it, dancing until eight in the morning while your feet can still handle it, and kindling intense friendships with people who live on opposite corners of the world while you still think, ingenue-ously, that you will actually keep in touch.

And so I spent tragically little time in the Hermitage, the greatest art museum in the world (photo at left). I saw, but didn’t see enough, of St Petersburg’s main sights: the Russia-Disney spires and glittering interiors of the Church of Spilled Blood, named for its location on the sight of Alexander II’s assassination (side note: why did so many people want to kill the man who freed the serfs and initiated the Trans-Siberian railway project? Seems like he had some pretty good ideas); St Isaac’s Cathedral, like London’s St Paul’s dressed up in Soviet green and gold; the sky-piercing tower of St Peter & Paul fortress’s cathedral; the streets and gardens which play second fiddle only to Paris in Splendor & Magnificence’s top 100 list.

I did spend time in Cuba Hostel and, thematically, at the dance clubs Fidel and Achtung Baby. I spent a lot of time – some, I feel obligated to point out, in museums – with Paolo, Guy, and Tim, who I met at my hostel. Tim is two years younger than me, from Amsterdam, and manages to support his travel addiction by working IT for six weeks in between travel stints of six months. In other words, he is further proof of my long-standing hunch that Dutch people are the smartest in the world.

 Guy and Paolo, classmates at Oxford, are at the tail end of a travelfull post-graduate year, both apprehensive and relieved to be starting full-time jobs next week. I’ve met so many people like them, like myself, who choose to spend their meager savings on independent budget travel. Our future careers (and our debts) will wait a little while for us, so why should we rush to greet them? Why not exploit our expired student cards while we still look like we deserve the discount? Why not see the world while we can sleep on a bench and look like harmless youths instead of vagrants? Why not travel while we can crash on a stranger’s couch for free because we don’t have a family in tow? The pennies of a twenty-something take you places that a retiree’s riches never can. And, of course, vice versa. But I’m optimistic and hope I might try both.

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The Moscow-New York Connection

‘I’ve noticed something,’ says my brother as we wait for the subway in one of Moscow’s sumptuously decorated stations (above). We don’t have to wait long, as it runs on roughly 90 second intervals. I look at my brother, who is obviously trying to put a complex thought into words. ‘It’s the women in Moscow,’ he says. ‘They’re all beautiful.’

Unlike my brother, I don’t have to be a gentleman, and so I can say with impunity that the women in Moscow are not beautiful but gorgeous, smoldering, melt-the-resolve-of-a-priest hot. They have the kind of bodies that I latterly thought existed only on the pages of Maxim magazine. How Russian men function I cannot imagine: every straight American male I know would be unable to tear himself away from the continuous beauty pageant that is the street.

‘But there’s something else,’ says my brother, bringing me out of my reverie. ‘They dress themselves so well and do their hair and makeup – they’re undeniably trying to get people to look at them. Then when you catch their eye they give you this look of utter scorn, even disgust. It’s the same with the women in New York, who, by the way, are the only women I’ve seen who might even compare to the women here. It’s incredibly frustrating.’

I try to argue that women make themselves look beautiful for their own sake, because it makes them feel individual, superior perhaps… and then I realize I’m confirming my brother’s point. I’m good at confounding my own arguments, which means my decision not to go to law school is probably a good one.

[For an abrupt change of topic with stretched segue] The women in Moscow aren’t the only beautiful thing in town. The city could never be confused with one of those jewels like Paris or Venice where every facade deserves its own postcard, but it packs a punch of its own. There’s the vast imperial complex of the Kremlin, where even the J.Crew-watermelon-and-green bell towers look macho; the stunning ‘Seven Sisters,’ skyscrapers erected by Stalin, which defy all the negative stereotypes of Soviet architecture; the gold onion domes of the Church of Christ the Savior, gloriously reconstructed in 1997, (more on that in a second); the too-big-to-be-ridiculous statue of Peter the Great: in sum, enough evidence that this is one of the mightiest nations in history to earn respect from even the snobbiest Europhile.

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was torn down by Stalin in 1931 (photo courtesy of wikipedia) to make way for a monument to socialism, to be known as the Palace of the Soviets. After the demolition of the 19th century masterpiece, rather bashful structural engineers informed Stalin that the riverside location would not support the weight of the planned palace, so Stalin had the site turned into a swimming pool instead. This seems to have been a popular way to repurpose those pesky religious buildings: I visited another church that had been reclaimed from swimming pool status a few days later. The tile floors and stadium-style seating centered on the altar were a surreal combination for me, as I spent all of my extracurricular time growing up in either a swimming pool or a church. It seemed like deliberately little effort was spent trying to make the place look like a church again, which made the place almost more holy: wherever two or three are gathered together, right?

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Life on the Skids

Trans-Mongolian veterans we met in Beijing, Ulan Bator, and Irkutsk kept on saying that the three and a half day journey between Irkutsk and Moscow flies by, but you never quite believe that will be the case. Three and a half days in a giant moving bunkbed? Gretchen and I were traveling plaskartny, the lowest class, with sixty bunks packed into an open-plan carriage. We were going for the experience, expecting the kind of broadening discomfort you get from living with absolutely no privacy.

As it turns out, the only source of discomfort was the shortness of the bunks, evidently not engineered for anyone above five foot eight. People talked quietly, played card games, shared meals, and only lit up in the no-man’s-land between carriages, sparing me the fifteen packs of second-hand smoke I had expected to inhale over the trip. The bathroom didn’t smell – though why would it, really, when the sewage drops straight out onto the tracks – and the carriage was cleaned multiple times a day. Though this is the provodnista (train attendant’s) job, at least one or two of the cleanings are usually carried out by the children traveling on the carriage. We learned this when Gretchen was prodded out of her mid-afternoon nap by an excited preteen saying ‘Russian tradition! Russian tradition!’ and pointing down the corridor. It took her a minute to realize the person wearing the teal cleaning uniform and vacuuming the hall was not Ana, our beloved provodnista, but Nikolas, a boy from a few bunks down. Nikolas has one of those unfortunate ‘I skinned a cat and pasted it to my head’ mullets that are for some reason fashionable, so I can understand the confusion. I slept through it but caught a shot of another of the kids, Alex, when he did his duty.

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O Sad Siberian night!

(Originally published in The Greenwich Citizen)

One wonders why the western Russians were so eager to conquer Siberia. The cold is the most obvious deterrent to settling in the area: lows in the winter reach the kind of temperature where you can spill your hot coffee and have it shatter when it reaches the ground in a frozen block. When summer finally comes, the flat landscape fills with pools of melted ice that breed mosquitoes straight out of a Victorian horror story. In the words of Kate Marsden, a British nurse who in 1891 rode across Siberia in search of a reported cure for leprosy:

‘During the summer the mosquitoes are frightful, both in the night and in the day… Even on the ground you will find them, and, as soon as a stranger comes in, it seems as if the insects make a combined assault on him in large battalions; and, of course, sleep is a thing never dreamed of. After a few days the body swells from their bites into a form that can neither be imagined nor described. They attack your eyes and your face, so that you would hardly be recognised by your dearest friend.’

It is easy to see why Siberia remained a scarcely populated haunt of nomadic tribes and plundering warrior bands for so long. It is also easy to see why, when Siberia finally was annexed, European Russians (those from anywhere west of the Ural mountains, including Moscow and St Petersburg) had to be forced to move there. The first colonists were convicts, sent over to harvest Siberia’s vast stores of natural resources of coal, timber, metals, and furs. Serfs, freed in 1861, were encouraged to go east and grow up with the country, but it wasn’t until the Trans-Siberian railway was built at the end of the 19th century that people began to settle there in earnest.

Earlier in the century, exile was lent a touch of glamor when the Decembrists, a group of aristocratic revolutionaries, were sent to Siberia after a failed uprising. They settled in what had previously been a little-known hovel toward the eastern end of the Trakt, the great east-west trade route of northern Asia before the Trans-Siberian. The Martha Stewarts of their day, their exile was not an eastward march in chains like the common criminals. They brought servants, families, and the discerning taste (and deep pockets) of imperial Russia to the hinterland and ambitiously set about constructing what would come to be known as the ‘Paris of Siberia’.

Irkutsk, as the city is known, is the first major city out of Mongolia on the Beijing-Moscow Trans-Mongolian train. It would be silly to expect much of this ‘Paris’: a Siberian town, however romantic, is not going to live up to a city that has been one of the cultural capitals of the western world for over a millennium. After the slash-and-burn architecture of China and the tent cities of Mongolia, though, anything more than a hundred years old was bound to look pretty impressive. The red and white facade of the old theater, lit dimly by the cloudy afternoon light, brought to mind the stately architecture of Eastern Europe. The slate roofs and beige stone of some buildings on Karl Marx St did look exactly like a decrepit version of Paris.

The real beauty of Irkutsk lies in its indigenous wooden architecture. Siberia is poor in all traditional building materials save wood, but what it lacks in limestone it more than compensates for in imagination. Houses are decorated like wedding cakes: intricate trim drips from the roof, arabesques frost the outside of windows. Like Russia itself, the houses have not been kept up and will not last. I walked by a half repainted building on the way to the train station, its thick new coat already bubbling over the unprimed wood. It looks better peeling, I remember thinking. At least until it all comes tumbling down.

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Clever Marketing

They call Irkutsk the ‘Paris of Siberia’. Given Paris : Siberia :: fertile bed of western intellectual history : region associated with forced exile and mass murder, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Wandering down Lenin St on the sort of cloudy afternoon one associates with doomed love affairs, it was easy to see why people draw the comparison.

As I wrote in an article for the Greenwich Citizen, to which I’ll post the link if it ever makes its way online, Irkutsk has a romantic history, but as I don’t really feel like writing about it again I encourage you to get the gist from this page.

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Postpunk Poems

Some say thirty million, others as much as sixty million: the numbers of people killed in Siberia in the twentieth century defy comprehension. You’d think, with all that bloodshed, that the land would seem haunted, disgraced, or even vaguely sinister. Surely so much suffering must leave its mark in eternity.

There is something to the old adages that say time heals all wounds, or life goes on. But what strikes me most about Siberia is that neither of those really apply: what wounds there were were small scratches on the vast canvas of Siberia. Nature, if she ever really noticed them, has now buried them. Looking out on the forever-forest that rolls by the train window, I can’t think of gulags or exiled Decembrists. All I can think is: the world is a big place, and I’ll never know the smallest bit of it.

Just over the Mongolian border into Russia, I notice our compartment has a copy of the monthly magazine ‘Sunny Mongolia Today’. I flip to the culture section and discover a set of poems by Galsanukh B entitled ‘Advice to God: Postpunk Poems.’ From ‘Impressionist Melody of Spring Time in Cow’s Native Land: Impressionism, Neoclassicism, and the grave of Beatniks in Cow’s Native Land’:

Today’s suffering is the same as tomorrow’s suffering.
Yesterday’s suffering is the same as today’s suffering.

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A spot of golf, Ghengis?

(Originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

I hear a gasp from the back seat of the taxi.

‘Is that a…?’ my mother says, her voice full of horror.

‘It can’t be,’ says my brother.

‘Does that really say Chinggis Khaan Country Club?’

We’re driving through Terelj National Park near the Mongolian capital city Ulan Bator. My mother and brother Edward have decided I can’t have all my fun on my own and so have flown over to join me for the Beijing-St Petersburg leg of my journey. Mongolia is our first stop.

In my medieval history classes in college, the Mongols were the Apocolypse That Never Came. In the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan (sometimes spelled Chinggis Khaan) and his Golden Horde stood poised to destroy what we perhaps indulgently call western civilization. The Horde had devastated Russia and Central Asia, gobbling up the rich Silk Road cities one by one. At the Danube, they suddenly turned back, like a careful drunk who knows his limits. Over the next seven centuries, the Mongol empire gradually shrank to its present limits: a country the size of Western Europe with a quarter of the population of London, cradled on three sides in China’s embrace but fiercely, flagrantly proud of its independent culture.

Mongolians share the dark hair and Asiatic features of the Chinese, but the similarities don’t persist much further. Mongolians, simply put, have had it rougher. The vast majority of China’s population lives in the fertile basins of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, where the most serious risk to society is overpopulation bred by an abundance of resources. Mongolia’s geography alternates between high-altitude desert and steppe land, with a few completely uninhabitable mountain ranges thrown in for fun. The distance from any appreciable body of water means there is little water vapor in the air to trap the sun’s rays, so the land scorches in the day and freezes at night. The temperature in winter bottoms out around -40°F and peaks in summer around 100°F.
Over half the population of the country lives within the capital city’s limits. The million or so scattered through the rest of the country are for the most part still nomadic, moving with their herds to make the most of the barely habitable land. Intrigued by the romance of this dying way of life (or perhaps just its novelty), we drove out to Terelj to stay with a nomadic family for a night. We had not imagined, when we headed out into the steppe, that we would be camping next to a country club. The nine holes of the golf course looked alien under the violet mountains and rolling clouds, as did the fence,
designed to keep animals out rather than anything in.

Our tent was perched under a peanut-colored rock face. A giant boulder, like the head of a colossal statue, loomed precariously over our camp, and I joked (a little uneasily) that one small cosmic sneeze is all it would take to return the steppe to uninvaded peace. Then I remembered that Chinggis Khan Country Club is just around the bend and decided it may take a few extra boulders.

Gretchen, who taught with me in China, has stuck with me for this leg of my travels, so my solo journey has now quadrupled. While my mother paints watercolors of the landscape, Gretchen, Edward and I set off for the nearest store on the only mode of transport readily available: horseback. Like true gringos, we have underestimated the amount of water we would consume in a day and half in the steppe. It is my brother’s first time on a horse and he is utterly mystified as to why anyone, especially a man, would think this is a fun way to spend an afternoon. I, on the other hand, can think of few places I’d rather be: the breeze is welcome, the wildlife is incredible, and I have never seen so much sky in my life.

If you can get there in the small windows of semi-temperate heat, Mongolia is a traveler’s dream. It combines the natural beauty of Africa, the exoticism of inner Asia, and the prices of a Chinese supermarket: a night at our guesthouse in Ulan Bator, including internet and breakfast, set us back six dollars, and our excursion to the national park, including transport, meals, horseback riding, and a night’s lodging, cost less than a few Starbucks lattes. Most people visit Ulan Bator as a stop on the Trans-Mongolian rail journey from Moscow to Beijing, but a few are beginning to catch on to Mongolia’s individual appeal. If anything I’ve written appeals to your sense of adventure, I’d advise you to carve out your vacation days before the horde of tourists turn descend and turn this place into yet another comfortable outpost of western civilization.

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City of Dreams

Leaving China is almost as traumatic an experience as arriving there – or at least it is if you are going to Mongolia. We spent what seemed like hours (wait, it was) in a between-country limbo sometime in the middle of the night. The customs officials managed to synchronize their visits to our cabin with my sleep cycle, so every fresh appearance startled me out of a shallow dream. Customs officials do not like groggy people. Actually, I don’t think they like anyone.
We, by the way, still includes Gretchen, a classmate from college and former teammate, who taught in Dongguan with me, and now my mother and brother Edward, who decided to tag along on possibly the most tedious part of my travels. We’ve just done the first leg of six days by train from Beijing to Moscow: a thirty-hour journey from Asia’s hot capital city to one that will never be. Sorry, Mongolia.

Ulan Bator is a city with an identity crisis. It can’t decide if it is newly wealthy or blightedly poor. A lone Dubai-knockoff skyscraper crowns the center of town, either half constructed or half destroyed, I can’t tell which. A tent city sticks to the outskirts of the downtown area, but there are power lines running into some of the tents, and satellite dishes outside: their inhabitants can claim neither permanence nor impermanence.
Thanks to the temperature swings I mentioned in my last post, building here can seem like an exercise in faith. It’s a leap many people don’t seem to bother to take. A little less than half Mongolia’s population of three million (or thereabouts) still lives in tents called gers, moving with their herds and the seasons. Another million crowd into Ulan Bator… where they still live in tents, often. Fun for the whole family: play I Spy with the picture below. See if you can find
1. An army truck provided by the USA – always good to try and curry favor with an Alaska-sized country rich in natural resources between Russia and China
2. A car that has never had its emissions tested (trick, it’s all of them)
3. A ger

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Turmoil or in turmoil?

A new dimension of hilarity was added to my job search when I discovered Reuters-sponsored AlertNet.

A fantastic website, a noble cause, but who decided which euphemisms to use? Choose one under ‘Filter by Emergency’:

Afghan Turmoil
Chad Troubles
Iraq in turmoil
Nepal Peace
Thailand Violence
Western Sahara dispute
Very Intense Tropical Storm Hamish

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The Middle Ages are alive and well

You meet the most interesting people traveling. This, for example, is Benedict.

His name is actually Tobias, but as that’s a very common name in his home country of Germany he prefers to go by Benedict. Benedict was born too late (1986) to be old enough to climb the Berlin wall before it fell, so he feels he has a ‘deficiency’ and must climb any and all available walls, preferably forbidden ones.

Benedict is a journey carpenter, part of a medieval guild of construction workers who upon completing their apprenticeship must travel for three years and one day. They are not allowed within 50 kilometers of their home and cannot pay for lodging: they’re supposed to camp if no one offers them a bed. They are meant to work for their lodging (and food, if offered), honing their skills under whatever master carpenters they find along the way. They wear a distinctive outfit, unchanged since who knows when, of bell-bottom black pants, black peaked hat, corduroy vest, and white shirtsleeves. Benedict’s pants unfortunately rotted in the Chinese heat and his shirt was on the way so he switched to a T-shirt. His traveling gear is not to exceed three bundles that can be strapped to a frame of sticks on his back, a journal for master carpenters to write reviews of his work, and a walking stick.

Most journey carpenters stay in Germany, where their outfits are recognized and hospitality is easy to come by. Because of the aforementioned obsession with walls, however, Benedict decided he had better come to the Great one. He spent five months hitchhiking, training, and working across Eurasia, and arrived in Beijing just in time to catch a minibus to the rather remote Jinshanling section of the wall. The merry minibusers included Gretchen, Jeanne, and myself; a Filipino diplomat currently stationed in Moscow on his way to North Korea; a Brazilian backpacker; a student from Minnesota; and a man and a woman from Barcelona who had never met but were fulfilling the same dream of hiking the wall.

We had plenty of time to bond over the 10km hike from Jinshanling to Simatai, and I learned many fascinating things:
Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, is the capital city with the widest range of annual temperature change, from about -40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 100 in the summer.
The Japanese army infested Taiwan with poisonous snakes when it retreated in 1945. Talk about bitter.
The Russian government doesn’t read any of the policy briefings produced by the Filipino diplomatic service. Forgive me if I’m not surprised.
The nightlife in Sitges, the Provincetown of Catalonia, is supposedly the best in the world, even if you’re not gay.

UPDATE: Journey carpenters are known in Germany as Gesellen, or wayfarers. Apparently they’re undergoing a resurgence thanks to the recession.

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Oh, Modernity (take 2)!

It seems four weeks in southern China have gotten into my blood. Here in Beijing, I’m so excited every time I see a foreigner that I grab Gretchen’s arm and whisper ‘waigoren!‘ (foreigner!), just as the Chinese in waigoren-poor Dongguan used to do. We visit the hip 798 Art District and I hardly know what to order from the western-style restaurants. No lotus? No chicken’s feet? What is this thing called ‘fettucine’?

798 is one of the cleverer trousit traps designed by the Beijing Olympic Committee. It masquerades as an organic art community a la Brooklyn or East London: bleak warehouses repurposed as art galleries, a place for rich kids to produce Warholian Mao portrains and call themselves cutting edge. Unlike so many places in Beijing, there is money here, and lots of waigoren.

We stumbled upon a gallery opening down an alleyway. The first person I noticed was a barefoot Asian girl straddling a tree. A machine was blowing inky bubbles at her as an insect-skinny white man took her picture through a large window.

 I asked one of the artists if he could explain what he was trying to get at and he replied ‘I’m Canadian.’

 I ate some free hors d’oeuvres and made up my own theories – the artist had already taken care of all the free booze.

We end up splitting a cab to Sanlitun, Beijing’s club district, with Matt Hope, a British sculptor with a refreshing lack of pretension. I’m intrigued by anyone who can make a living as an artist, and I peppered him with questions: Why Beijing? (because he has his sculptures built in Chinese factories) Why Chinese factories? (because they’re cheap and willing to do limited-run, even one-off productions) What are the factoires like? (the fieriest stage of the Industrial Revolution: he describes a town outside of Dongguan known as Metal city, not to be confused with Leather city and Plastic city, where laborers turn metal in shells of buildings and the furnaces blast onto the street). I couldn’t help thinking it sounded like hell.

‘No,’ said Matt, ‘it’s just modernisation.’

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Dear, dirty Dongguan

(Originally published in The Greenwich Citizen)

There’s a silver lining to every cloud. My career as a foreign teacher in southern China’s Guangdong province ended early, which means I got to start traveling sooner. Part of the (very generous) compensation package for my job was a ten-day guided tour around Hunan province, Guangdong’s better-looking neighbor to the north. I’m not usually a fan of guided tours: they’re not flexible, they’re not immersive, and they’re not cheap. But it’s hard to say no to something that’s free.

It’s not long before someone on our tour comments that you get what you pay for. By the second day of our trip, we’ve spent eighteen hours on the bus. I think I am the only one in the group who doesn’t mind. I love watching the scenery change, and realizing all the things you miss about a country when you fly over it. Crossing the border from Guangdong into Hunan reminded me of why states have such jagged edges: they follow natural contours in the land, like humans had to before we started dynamiting through hills and stringing suspension bridges across rivers. The Guangdong-Hunan crossing takes us through a range of forest-clad mountains and deep gorges. It is somehow comforting to see that nature has created an area so intimidating that even Chinese industry can’t cultivate it.

Inside Hunan, there’s little to differentiate the highway from the New Jersey Turnpike aside from the roadside advertisements. There aren’t many of them, and those that exist tend to offer industrial goods: mobile phone parts, concrete mix, and in what I can only assume is a blissfully ignorant transliteration, ‘Strong Safe Screws.’ China’s highway system is used almost exclusively for industrial transport. The highway is smooth, fast, and underfunded by the government, which means that the tolls are high – prohibitively high for most Chinese, who rely on trains instead. This will likely change as the booming middle class starts to make enough money to construct that spoiled child of the developed society, the suburb. For the moment, however, we share the road with trucks, tour buses, and the occasional expensive car.

During a rare stretch of bottleneck on the highway, my bus is stuck next to a truck full of hogs. They are piled on top of each other, looking forlorn as prisoners on the way to the guillotine. Which I suppose is more or less appropriate.

The roadside rest stops are all identical. Each has a convenience store, a restaurant with no name, and a bathroom. In the first, the familiar signals for ‘vacant’ and ‘occupied’ were reversed: green meant someone was inside, red meant empty. It reminded me of the years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1956-76) when overzealous members of the Red Guard student movement declared that it didn’t make sense to stop at red lights, since red was the color of the future. From 1966-69, green meant stop and red meant go. The scale of the resultant traffic jams made the Greenwich-New York rush hour commute look like a jaunt on the Autobahn.

Leaving the highway is always an adventure. On the way to a remote village, we spend three hours lurching over potholes and around cows on an uneven dirt road. Hunan is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and I can imagine the green of the hills being overpowering in sunlight. But sunlight eludes us on all but one day of the tour. In a total of five weeks in China, I have seen a blue sky twice.

I leave the tour in Changsha, best known as the city where Mao converted to Communism. City really isn’t the right word. It’s more of a megatropolis: streets wider than Pennsylvania Avenue, buildings taller than New York’s skyscrapers, and everything under construction. The place already looks decrepit, even though most of these buildings can be no more than ten years old. The whole rhythm of life is accelerated here: buildings spring up in days, so it shouldn’t be surprising if they look ready to fall down in a couple of years.

Dilapidated architecture and squat toilets aside, I’m sad to leave China. It’s impossible to spend more than a month in a country and not fall in love with some parts of it. I’ve just made it to Mongolia, and I find myself missing the chili drenched squid I used to buy on the street and the irate looks my students would give me when I asked them to do grammar exercises. There is so much more to say about China, but, in the familiar words of Stephen Colbert, that’s all the time we have for tonight.

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Tall girls in a short country

Foreigners are still a rare, rare sighting in Hunan province. We are treated like safari animals: people point, take pictures, keep their distance or occasionally try to feed us. Bug-eyed stares are a given. The teachers have each come up with coping mechanisms: Mike take pictures of people taking pictures of us, Amanda waves and smiles for the camera, I make faces for them. We’ve developed a points system to keep things interesting:

  • 1 point for catching someone blatantly staring at us
  • 2 points for deliberate head turning or stopping to watch us pass
  • 3 points for pointing
  • 4 points for audible recognition, such as shouting ‘waigoren’ (foreigner) or loudly saying hello
  • 5 points for taking a photo (bonus if the person pretends to focus on something else, then snaps as soon as you enter the frame)
  • 6 points for being a guest star in a home video

And so on. We eventually eliminate the first three tiers as being too frequent to bear counting. Amanda, who is not only a waigoren but is black, is the runaway winner. She is the elusive lionness of our safari.

Being a giraffe of a waigoren – southern Chinese do not often see a woman approaching six feet – is helpful in some cases. People tend to give you more personal space. People snatch up their children before you step on them. (I’ve always had a problem with baby-trampling in the US, they’re just so far out of my normal sight line).

There is one place, however, where people don’t have time to notice if you are a waigoren. It is, apart from the Hong Kong border crossing, the most terrifying place in China for me: the train station.

My first experience at Beijing’s colossal domestic hub Peking West nearly scared me out of the country permanently. Fifty yards from the entrance, I was sucked into a slow-moving flood of people pressing towards the narrow gates of the entrance. As we neared the door, gentle shoves degenerated into kicking and clawing as people struggled to get their luggage onto the metal detector first. When I made it through – all in one piece, to my amazement – the mob abruptly dissipated, leaving me wondering if I had exaggerated its savagery. My friend Jenny, who emerged a minute later, was not so forgiving.

‘I don’t understand how eight millennia of a culture based on respect and self-sacrifice has produced this,’ she spat. ‘I’ve been holding onto my Chinese passport [she moved to the states in 1997] out of some sort of misplaced nostalgia. Forget that. I’m applying for US citizenship as soon as I get back to the states.’

Thankfully the Changsha station was not as ‘renounce-my-citizenship’ violent as Peking West. It probably helped that I was traveling with two other waigoren. Gretchen, descended from the blonde midwestern Amazon gene pool, was good for clearing paths through the horde, and Jeanne, nearly a foot shorter than both of us, burrowed skillfully. We made it onto the train with minimal emotional scarring.

The twenty-one hour train ride passed quickly thanks to a quartet of classical-guitar playing adolescents. Like a Sinic version of the Carter family, they turned the carriage into their tour bus, jamming and practicing well into the evening, pausing long enough to teach me the A and E chords. I’m saving C, D, and G for my upcoming train journeys: one and a half days from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia; twenty four hours to Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’; and three and a half days to Moscow.
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Little Red Book Town

We’ve made it to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. ‘Changsha is where Mao Zedong was born conversion to Communism’ says a sign at the local museum. The religious terminology is fitting: Mao’s brand of Communism is a religion, both the sense of blind irrational devotion and being an opiate of the masses. Would Lenin be disappointed?

We visit Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace, at the end of a long day of driving. We’re late and the site is closed, but once again guanxi work their magic and a pair of dour-looking army men let us in. We’re not allowed to take photos, so I have to paraphrase some of the signage from memory. ‘Here is the fireplace where Mao would gather his family and enlighten them to the struggle of the Chinese workers.’ I picture a rustic Mao, before his middle-aged paunch, lecturing his little brother as he blithely picks his nose. ‘Here is where the Mao family keeps pigs.’ It’s a big pen inside the handsome house. The Mao family was clearly not poor.

The day is spitting rain. Tourists who do not share our guanxi huddle in little groups, staring. The army men stand at attention like the guards in front of Buckingham palace, who stoically allow tourists to give them bunny ears and snap their picture. No one tries to do the same with the Chinese army guards.

Nearby, a monumental statue of Mao is attended by a group of middle-aged Chinese tourists. There is a small red mat in front and people are taking turns prostrating, touching their foreheads to the damp concrete. It’s fascinating to me that Mao has managed to escape all culpability for the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, at least in the popular imagination. His wife and three other Communist party leaders, known as the Gang of Four, were put on trial, and found guilty of more or less everything that went wrong in China between 1956 and 1978. A quartet of villains for a quarter century of ills. If only all history were so easy to reduce.

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A Nation Run by Immortals

‘I think I’m going to die,’ says Tyler, the youngest of my group of travelers. He’s well on his way to being drunk under the table by the Minister of Foreign Trade for Yueyang City.

Tyler and I, along with eight of the other English teachers, are traveling around Hunan province with the Yao family. The Yaos founded Uniwise Bilingual School in Dongguan ten years ago, and have been importing Harvard students to teach at their ‘Summer Cultural Exchange’ for the last five. Part of the very generous compensation package for the job is a tour around a region of China. Hunan is Guangzhou’s better looking neighbor to the north, best known for being the birthplace of Mao Zedong.

The Yao family’s connections run much further than their local community, which means I was wrong in what I said a few weeks ago about guanxi. Here in Hunan, we’ve been treated to meals by uncles, a student’s mother’s college roommate, and now this government official in Yueyang.

Of all the connections, this is the most prestigious. People here speak of lower-level government officials with the kind of reverence that Americans save for the CEOs of major corporations. They have untouchable wealth, cachet, and influence. They function on an entirely different level from the common person. Which is funny, because they’re all Communists.

One of the things that makes government officials superhuman is their ability to drink more alcohol than science believes possible. Throughout our dinner, the minister challenges each of us to race him in chugging a large shot of beer. I do the math: ten English teachers plus three members of the Yao family means he is drinking thirteen times as much as the rest of us. He eventually singles out Tyler for extra challenges. As the only white male in the group, Tyler has been chosen to defend America’s manhood.

24 bottles of beer in, we all start shouting Disney songs at the top of our lungs. The only other place I have sung like this is on the stretching mat at Weld Boathouse, when my teammates on the Radcliffe Crew needed to let off some steam. ‘Let’s get down to business – to defeat the Huns!’ takes on a new dimension when you’re singing with a member of the CCP.

31 bottles of beer in, I challenge the minister to try and take some pressure off Tyler. The over-carbonated lager goes to my head almost immediately. The minister tells me I’m a pretty American girl, and I reply he’s not bad looking himself. Then I realize I might be drunk, and return to my seat.

38 bottles of beer in, we say goodnight. The minister walks off with his arm slung around Mr Yao’s shoulders, looking jolly but hardly tipsy. One of the teachers, destined for Harvard Med School this fall, remarks absentmindedly: ‘I’d like to get ahold of his liver when he dies.’ One of the Yao sisters responds: ‘Government officials never die.’
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Requiem for a Sangria

If you travel frequently, comparisons are inevitable. I took a long bus ride today and read a bit of the journal I kept last summer. I was working in Madrid, which is worlds away from China in every sense except literally. Comparing a typical day there and here in China says a lot about the differences between the two countries:
Sunday, 6 July 2008
  • Randomly met a musician from Cincinnati named Philip and a Quaker named Sue. Both in their forties, I think. Went to Reina Sofia (big modern art museum) with them.
  • Pitcher of sangria split three ways for lunch. Mmm.
  • Went to 2 exhibitions at CaixaForum (free gallery sponsored by Spanish bank). Exhibits on Alphonse Mucha and Charlie Chaplin.
  • Really need more supportive shoes.
  • On to the Prado. Depressed by Goya exhibit.
  • Walked through Retiro park. Hundreds of people come and drum on things in the park on Sundays. Loud.
Sunday, 26 July 2009
  • Informed that the teachers are being taken to Shenzhen for 7 hours of shopping. I am not enthused.
  • Walk around shopping area, think deep thoughts.
  • Take refuge in a Starbucks. Chat with English construction worker named Roy who has blown half a year’s savings to fly over here to see the eclipse. He spent much of the 80s hitchhiking around southeast Asia. Says Cambodia is the most beautiful place in the world.
  • Pass a street musician on the way back to the bus and wish I had time to stay and listen. Chinese violin is infinitely more tolerable than Chinese opera.
The comparison may not be fair: I did not spend all my Sundays in Spain museum-hopping, nor do I intend to spend every Sunday in China shopping. But it is telling that the supervisors in charge of the teaching program have taken us to a mall each of the past three weekends. And these are not like American malls, where you might find movie theaters or restaurants. Every inch of mall real estate is given over to shops. The idea of spending your leisure time looking at modern art or nursing a jug of sangria in the sun would be quite foreign to most Chinese.
Perhaps this difference in how the two cultures spend their leisure time explains why China is taking off and Europe is, in the rather apocalyptic words of my friend Etienne, ‘dead’ (for a not uncompelling counter-argument, see here). There’s something to be said for a robust consumer culture, or so Obama’s economists keep telling us. But I know where I’m happier, at least.
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