Something there is that doesn’t love a mummy

I have been thwarted nearly every time I have tried to see dead bodies this summer. I saw one, towards the beginning, at the Changsha Provincial Museum in China, a mummy of some ancient queen. She was lying there as hundreds of tourists were pushing each other – seriously pushing, elbowing too – to get a glimpse of her. Normally Chinese people give me more personal space than they give each other. I call it the sphere of fear (my personal space). But everyone was looking at the mummy, so they didn’t notice I wasn’t Chinese, and I was bumped around like the rest. Eventually I wormed my way in and looked into the gaping maw of this poor ancient dead woman. It’s morbid, by definition, but absolutely fascinating. I was not looking at a vase or a plate or a piece of jewelry but a person who had used all these things, had thought, lived and breathed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We each define art and history in our own way. Call me twisted – I’ll call you crazy for thinking Mark Rothko is worth a second glance (looking at you, Hilary).

When we got to Beijing, then, it was only obvious that we should go and see Mao, who lies mummified in a tomb in Tiananmen Square. Well, it was only obvious to me. Gretchen and Jeanne had no interest in the pilgrimage and made me feel kind of creepy about wanting to. You’d think I’d have grown out of feeling subject to peer pressure. Nope.

Then we got to Moscow. Lenin’s body lies in Red Square, in a completely anachronistic Soviet block (har har) among the fanciful old imperial buildings. You used to have to wait for hours to be able to see him, but the queues have died down in recent years and it only takes about 45 minutes. Again, the rest of my party wasn’t interested, but I talked about it with an American ex-soldier who I met in my hostel. Somehow our wires crossed and he went without me; I figured I’d go the next day but apparently Mr Lenin does not accept visitors on Mondays.

Here in Kiev there’s an impressive collection of mummies of monks underneath the Kievo-Pecherskya Lavra Monastery. It sounds like dead body Mecca: an underground crypt, still lit by candles, with the remains of these venerated holy men an arm’s reach from the corridor (not that I’d want to touch them, I’m not thatcreepy). I visited the monastery with Olivier, part of the cultural attache of the French embassy, who was giving a tour to a visiting French artist named Guillaume Reynard and his friend Florence.
I’d forgotten how bitchy French women can be. I’m not talking about my host, Laure, who is a total angel: how else could you describe someone who agreed to host me in her apartment for free after one email exchange over Florence is cast of a different mold. We spoke in French, which I learned in high school and improved when I lived in France from 2004-2005. Not far into our visit, she turned to Olivier and said ‘She speaks French like a retarded Parisian’ – then turned and gave me a saccharine smile. ‘Her French, it’s not bad,’ chided Olivier, ‘and she can understand everything so far as I can tell.’ Florence didn’t offer an apology.

Just before the gates to the monastery, Florence declared that she was crevée (exhausted) and so we paused for a café before going in. We toured the grounds of the upper monastery, which was stunning in the decaying afternoon light. Much of the cathedral had been reduced to rubble by either the Nazis or the Soviets, noone’s really sure. It’s been rebuilt in fine form, with only one pocked golden dome (furthest left, above) showing the legacy of the tough twentieth century. It was all well and good, I thought, but where were the mummies?

‘Oh, I’m afraid we don’t have time because we stopped for café,’ said Olivier. ‘It closes in fifteen minutes.’

Some sort of divine providence witnessed my pain at missing yet another opportunity to see dead bodies, and so gave me a second chance. My trip to Kazakhstan did not pan out as planned (more on that soon) so I have another three days to revisit the Lavra and improve my unimpressive body count.

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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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