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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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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