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 couchsurfing.org? 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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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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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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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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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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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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