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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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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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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City of Dreams

Leaving China is almost as traumatic an experience as arriving there – or at least it is if you are going to Mongolia. We spent what seemed like hours (wait, it was) in a between-country limbo sometime in the middle of the night. The customs officials managed to synchronize their visits to our cabin with my sleep cycle, so every fresh appearance startled me out of a shallow dream. Customs officials do not like groggy people. Actually, I don’t think they like anyone.
We, by the way, still includes Gretchen, a classmate from college and former teammate, who taught in Dongguan with me, and now my mother and brother Edward, who decided to tag along on possibly the most tedious part of my travels. We’ve just done the first leg of six days by train from Beijing to Moscow: a thirty-hour journey from Asia’s hot capital city to one that will never be. Sorry, Mongolia.

Ulan Bator is a city with an identity crisis. It can’t decide if it is newly wealthy or blightedly poor. A lone Dubai-knockoff skyscraper crowns the center of town, either half constructed or half destroyed, I can’t tell which. A tent city sticks to the outskirts of the downtown area, but there are power lines running into some of the tents, and satellite dishes outside: their inhabitants can claim neither permanence nor impermanence.
Thanks to the temperature swings I mentioned in my last post, building here can seem like an exercise in faith. It’s a leap many people don’t seem to bother to take. A little less than half Mongolia’s population of three million (or thereabouts) still lives in tents called gers, moving with their herds and the seasons. Another million crowd into Ulan Bator… where they still live in tents, often. Fun for the whole family: play I Spy with the picture below. See if you can find
1. An army truck provided by the USA – always good to try and curry favor with an Alaska-sized country rich in natural resources between Russia and China
2. A car that has never had its emissions tested (trick, it’s all of them)
3. A ger

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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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