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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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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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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