The Cairo-Istanbul connection

Cairo is so hot right now. Three of my coworkers have taken vacation there in the last month, as has Jennie, one of my fellow-sufferers in Hakan‘s Turkish classes (yes, I fulfilled my New Year’s resolution to resume Turkish classes with my favorite quintolingual chainsmoker). And of course Kate was there in the fall, stealing the hearts of merchants and taking sublime pictures (scroll down for Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan), as she is wont to do.

The review from these highly respected sources runs something like Samuel Johnson’s assessment of Paradise Lost: ‘it is one of those books the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. No one ever wished it longer than it is.’

Cairo is one of the great cities of history, and the pyramids, like PL, deserve a chance to cast their spell on you. But no one I know seems to want to go back to Cairo. It is disorganised, overrun, filthy. In Kate’s words:

‘I felt cramped, claustrophobic, uncomfortable [in the Egyptian Museum]. In fact, this is how most of Cairo made me feel. It drew many similarities to feelings and experiences I had in Damascus. The same dirty grittiness of that comes from thousands of years of inhabitance. The same overwhelming numbers crowding streets and buses. You could feel the oppressiveness of the poverty. You could see the differentiation between wealth and the lack of it. You could taste the pollution; the smog hangs over the city like a hot summer haze.’

I visited Cairo in 1998, when I was gripped by an Egyptomania so severe I taught myself how to read hieroglyphs. My family fondly remembers how I would correct our clueless guide, Hani, when he botched the stories behind my favorite temples and archaeological sites.

For my part, I have blocked this aspect of my childhood – obnoxious smartassery – from my memory. What I do remember, though, is disappearing into the upper reaches of the bazaar with my brother Edward one day and being offered a fistful of marijuana for about $5. Even in my childhood innocence I could tell that was a good deal (we didn’t take it).

Cairo’s bazaar was the thing that bothered my friends the most. The constant heckling, fear of bag snatchers, and wildly inflated prices do not make for a relaxing vacation. Jennie, who returned last week, had plenty of horror stories about the street scene, and shared some during one of Hakan’s smoke breaks.

‘Cairo,’ she concluded, ‘makes Istanbul feel as clean and orderly as Copenhagen.’

Petri, a forty-something Dutch businessman who recently joined our class, shook his head. ‘If you could have seen Istanbul when I first came here in 1988! It made Cairo look – well, not clean and orderly, but – I suppose cosmopolitan. You couldn’t walk a foot in Istanbul with your wallet hanging out of your pocket. You couldn’t see the other side of the street for all the smoke. And the hecklers would loop their fingers through your belt loops until you bought something from them.’

I was surprised to hear this. I know Istanbul has gone through significant changes over the last 20-30 years: take, for example, the fact that the population has gone from 2 million to 20 million. But to my mind the Istanbul of 1988 was a relative backwater, a faded ghost town when compared to its past and future vitality. What, I wondered aloud, changed between then and now to make Istanbul the relatively clean, European city it is today? Was there some mayor who cleaned up the streets, Giuliani-style, locking up the crazies and making the peddlers buy permits?

‘It’s much simpler than that,’ said Hakan. ‘People got richer.’

Could it be that straightforward? True, Istanbul’s population boom corresponded with a massive increase in Turkey’s wealth: inflation-adjusted GDP grew from $90 billion to $270 billion in the ten years between 1988 and 1998, and to $734 billion by 2008, according to the World Bank. The structure of the economy changed as well, with more than 15% of the workforce shifting from blue-collar jobs in agriculture and manufacturing to white-collar service jobs.

Yet the World Bank statistics never take into account the black market, which in Turkey is generally estimated to account for 20-25% of all economic activity. Nor does it seem likely that all of Istanbul’s 18 million new residents have managed to find jobs more lucrative than begging, petty theft, and selling fake sunglasses. But take a walk down any street outside of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s touristy center, and you’ll realize something must have worked. You’re more likely to be heckled in Harvard Square than on Istiklal Cd, Istanbul’s main shopping and nightlife artery.

Reason No. 25601 I’m glad I moved to Istanbul: it doesn’t fit the models I’m used to, and so is constantly intriguing. Reason No. 25602: I have too many pairs of fake Ray-Bans already.

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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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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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