Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Religion and Patriotism

Religion and patriotism both stem from the unquestioning faith that something greater than the individual knows better about how that individual should feel about life, morality and humanity. Blind faith is mandatory, the questioning of any of its tenets is heresy and symbols replace substance in word and deed. From the destruction of the intellect that necessarily follows comes so much idiocy, it is difficult to keep track of it all.

A phenomenal example of religion's destruction of the human brain is the outcry in Pakistan and Guantanamo Bay regarding desecration of the Quran. The BBC reported today that a Christian man in Pakistan is being held on charges of insulting Islam for allegedly tearing pages from a Quran and burning them. Since the Pakistani government allows local tribunals to order the rape of women, is utterly impotenent in the so-called war against terror and otherwise is so barbaric and useless to its people, it should come as no surprise that the government must resort to symbols to keep the people occupied with trivia.

It's only a book. A mass of pieces of paper, bound together, imprinted with ink in the form of letters that may or may not make out words that god and his messenger uttered. Paper does not become holy just because of the words that are written on it. Muslims in Pakistan, however, seem to believe that god's honor rests in the well-being of every copy of the Quran that exists on earth and, thus, it is punishable by death to do anything to that book. Even though god created the heavens and the earth, her honor is not in forests, which are being mowed down, not in rivers that are being polluted -- just in papers with ink configured in a particular way. The Pakistani people may be starving, may be prohibited from demonstrating against the government, but their right to go ballistic about symbols provides a fabulous distraction from real issues. If they can't demand rights, they can take the repressed energy and demand death to anyone who offends the Quran. Religion really is the opiate of the masses.

While such a law would be considered absurd in the United States, we are closer than we think to enshrining the rights of symbols -- mere material objects -- in the Constitution. Only a week ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill to amend the constitution to give Congress the power to outlaw the desecration of the American flag. The bill is meant to codify the "patriotism" that Americans feel and the talking heads in the media claim that the bill stands a pretty good chance of passing the Senate given the emotive power of the September 11 attacks that the representatives trivialized to get it passed.

Let me get this straight. The rights of due process, free speech and freedom of religion are equal to and as important as the right of a piece of material to exist, just because that piece of material was strategically dyed with red, blue, and perhaps white. When the Republicans talk about a culture of life, I didn't know that textiles were included.

With the issues of unemployment, war, healthcare and the environment weighing on the minds of the citizenry, it is remarkabe that desecrating the flag is what American politicians are wasting taxpayer dollars debating. This elevation of form over substance is a guaranteed way to become like those the U.S. claims to fight and it is hard to believe that the greatness of America rests in a piece of material. If it does, then we are in big trouble.

Reliance on a symbol only becomes necessary when there isn't much substance behind it. That was how Hitler's party grapped power in Germany. In its infancy, the SS admittedly had no idea how to fix Germany's ailing post-war economy or repair the war-torn infrastructure. They were good at inciting violence and insulting Jews, but they had no clue about economics. Instead of addressing the issues, they stole the swastika from the Hindus and made it a symbol of Aryan purity and pride. Understanding human psychology, the campaign of course was enough to make people forget about how bad things had become and to go along with whatever their patriotic duty mandated. We all know how that story ended.

As the wise George Carlin once said, "Symbols are for symbol-minded people."

"If the flag needs protection at all, it needs protection from members of Congress who value the symbol more than the freedoms that the flag represents."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Pork, Flowers And Jesus

When you are traveling, it is like cramming a year's worth of newness into two weeks, two months, or whatever the case may be. Each day brings new people, food, sights and introspections. You can have newness at home, but getting out into the great beyond promises to change your perspective in ways that your safety zone never can.

In Mongolia, people are very superstitious about compliments, especially those for babies. Nemo's wife Tuya brought their new baby to our ger camp and when I said she was beautiful, I was met with "No, she is ugly." Andrea quickly stepped in to explain that you are not supposed to jinx the newborn with compliments and most people offer insults. The word quickly spread among the group and there we were, standing around the baby, taking turns to see who could come up with the funnier insult. "Your baby is a hideous monster", "She is a hairy beast"....

We missed our train from GuiLin to Hong Kong but managed to make it within minutes to the last sleeper bus that could get us there. If you have ever tried to sleep on a roller coaster, you will only begin to sympathize with the challenge of getting some zzz's that night. That route boasts some of the worst roads in China.

When Russian men give flowers to their loves, they give odd numbers of flowers. I have no idea why, but even numbers of flowers are reserved for funerals.

In the LongJi rice terraces, the village homes are multi-level. The bottom/basement level is for the animals. First floor is for cooking, communal stuff and above that is sleeping quarters. For the bathroom, they essentially cut a hole in the first floor and the animals act as the sewage system. Hiking through the villages one afternoon, we got a bird's eye view of the basement floor with all the, literally, pigs in shit. That image made me appreciate Judaism and Islam's ban on eating pork. Spare me all the hoo ha about modern refrigeration, etc. That's just nasty.

At the end of the Trans-Siberian trip, my fellow passengers told me that, although they had previously not thought very highly of Americans, I had improved their opinions. "Seriously", I laughed, "if I am the goodwill ambassador for America, the country is worse off than I thought." More people of color from the United States should travel. The meaning of America and the experience of America is very different depending on your frame of reference. The monolithic intellectual void between L.A. and N.Y. does not define the rest of us.

Starting off as simple banter about television, a handful of us got into a discussion about sex and violence on television. Krista, from Canada, told us that Sex And The City re-runs play at 7:00 pm on network Canadian television, which contrasts starkly with the show's relegation to cable in the U.S. We discussed censorship in both countries and Krista posited that the Canadian censors are more sensitive to violent images on television than sexual content whereas it is vice versa in America. I agreed that was correct and pondered why that was. The hypothesis I reached is that America is religious and Canada is not. Starting from that premise, and reflecting upon thousands of years of history, one cannot escape the conclusion that religious people are comfortable with violence - they love violence - it is the story of their history. And they hate sex. Sex is bad (except when it's with the altar boys) and everything related to sexuality is bad. Shame, shame!! It is okay to bomb other countries to bits, to starve their people to death, to rob from the poor. We will glorify mafia dons in our movies and murderous drug-dealing pimps in our music. But don't you dare think, even think, of going to a Christian pharmacist for birth control or allowing gays to be married. That might cause the whole moral fabric of America to come apart.

And, while we are on the topic of religion, I went to enough churches in Russia to conclude one thing -- Jesus in Russia (as in many other places) has brown hair, brown eyes AND wooly hair. Wow!!!! Nothing like the Hitler-approved Aryan Germanic Jesus that American Christians worship. Jesus was a semite people! It made me wonder about Christiandom in the U.S. and whether white America would be comfortable submitting to a man with olive skin and dreadlocks. With the notion that God made man in his image, did an Aryan somewhere in history make the bold move of recasting Jesus as an Aryan in order to feel more Godly? To justify his racial superiority? I mean, how much more Godly can you be if you resemble God's only son? Would it affect their faith if they did not wear the skin and eyes of holiness?

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Sense Of Entitlement

What amazes me about Americans is their strong sense of entitlement to EVERYTHING. When they travel to foreign countries, it is the rare Yank who makes an effort to speak the local language. And, the ones who won't make the minimal effort of getting a foreign language dictionary are usually the same assholes who hurl insults at immigrants in America who have not yet mastered English to their liking (as if a language can be learned overnight).

Listen to the language Americans use. "They are taking our jobs." Hmmm... who is "our"? Is it all Americans, is it only the American citizens who would have otherwise wanted the job but for the fact it pays $.10 per hour? Entitlement. I have gotten the comments about how nice it must be to be back in America with all its comforts. That comment in and of itself illustrates the American arrogance that everything here is superior and, thus, things in other places must be inferior, whether it be their people or their products. Seriously, I found all the comforts of home everywhere I went and, if I didn't, it really was not memorable. I ate some of the best food I have ever had in the villages of China and got a fantastic wax and pedicure in Ulaan Bataar. We don't have a monopoly on everything. Except fat people.

Contrary to the stereotype about burly Russian women, aside from the elderly, the only disgustingly obese people I saw in Russia (or anywhere else) were Americans. How did I know they were American you ask? Aside from the shorts that you would never see a Russian wearing that were fighting for air between the thighs and struggling to avoid being sucked into the 10-mile ass crack (you know what visual I am talking about), you can't miss the Americans because they were the loudest ones within a square mile. No one is interested in your stupid stories about the museum. Rob couldn't stop mocking a serious discussion between two Americans he overheard, comparing being a snoozer to being a riser. Hmmm... almost as important as flag burning.

The main difference, however, is the poor people. I am not the most well traveled person I have ever encountered, but I have traveled to a fair number of poorer countries, with very different cultures than ours, and experiences with the poor people there have been quite different. They are usually trying to hustle you and overcharge you for things, but there is still an honor in the negotiation battle. Many are friendly, excited to share their countries with you and show you what they can. They carry themselves with dignity, appreciate what they have and understand the value of a hard day's work.

I went to a graduation yesterday in a poor neighborhood of L.A. and it was a motley collection of some of the most vulgar, tactless, rude and vile human beings I have had to share a section of the earth with for a really long time. Starting on the topic of obesity, where else in the world are the poor people the morbidly obese? Most of the women, including the parents, looked like prostitutes, watching their prostitute-to-be daughters graduate the eighth -- and probably highest -- grade.

Although it was a picture perfect L.A. sunny day and a happy occasion, everyone around me managed to find something to gripe about, including the families who brought too many balloons that obstructed their views, the difficulty in finding a seat, etc. One woman was complaining about $50 that parents had to give for the graduation and that it was wasted, etc. I couldn't help but notice her gaudy, much too long manicured fake nails and just done hair. It was a collection of people who feel powerless in the world and, thus, spent the afternoon feigning power through overpriced cars, tacky jewelry and nasty attitudes. "It's all about me" was the sentiment that carried the day.

And these are the low-skilled workers of America who work at Wal-Mart and the post office, whose ranks are swelling. The future sure is looking bright.

Perhaps if they were really poor, like poor people are in the rest of the world, they would have appreciated seeing their child accomplish the first step in what will hopefully be a long and successful educational journey. Maybe, just maybe, it would have been a day of joy and celebration instead of an opportunity to be rude and insult a fresh group of people.

This may just explain how immigrants come here with $1.50 in their pockets and the shirts on their backs, unable to speak English, and still make it. Americans need to wake up and learn a thing or two before the epidemic laziness and selfish rudeness consigns the country to second place in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Plugged Into The Matrix

I really didn't want to plug back into the matrix, but such is its power. I have already used a cellular phone and driven my car - two things I almost forgot were everyday parts of my life.

My last night in St. Pete's was a ball. Andrea and I met up with two other tour leaders, had a great dinner and hung out at the funniest hole-in-the-wall bar named Dacha. They played oldies almost all night/morning - when was the last time you went somewhere that played Motown to a bunch of drunk white folks? We then took off toward the draw bridges in town, which are raised intermittently starting at 1:40am. It was really cool passing through the square in front of the Hermitage at 2am when it was quiet and tourist free. That's my tip for seeing tourist spots without the annoying crowds.

Discussing my impending return home, I reflected on the luxury of going to a place where I speak the language and where people understand me. One of the guys responded that, although it is nice, it is also comforting to be anonymous. To be in a place where you don't speak the language means that ubiquitous advertisements have no effect upon you, the conversations of people around you are not distracting, etc.

His point was driven home when I arrived at the airport, along with 50 geezers from Wisconsin who just finished a cruise in Russia. They asked the dumbest questions about the check-in process - I swear you would have thought they had never been in an airport before. Yes, they will allow you to check your luggage - no you will not have to rest your suitcase on your lap on the plane. Dead tired, I listened to the most inane bullshit about Russian food, each person's kids, their plans to keep in touch. Two of the women literally didn't stop talking the entire time between arrival and boarding.

It was not a luxury to be around fellow English-speakers. I am sure there is an abundance of morons in Russia and China, as there are everywhere in the world, but it sure was nice to sit in my non-Russian speaking, non-Chinese speaking bubble and have absolutely no clue what they were saying. Ahhh...the simple things in life.

A little bit of television yesterday was enough to deter me from watching much television in the future. Between the ads and the actual content, I think I dropped a few IQ points. In Hong Kong, I briefly watched ABC news and it took me almost three weeks to recover the intelligence I lost after they spent 5 minutes on some nutjob in Atlanta threatening to jump from a crane. Where's the news - let him jump! Whether you believe in evolution or not, Darwin had a point about natural selection. American news is so painfully redundant, trite and superficial - crazy, violent brown people and innocent, damsel in distress white women - same shit, different pile.

Where are the Chinese speakers?

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Sleepless In St. Petersburg

I feel completely aimless today now that the tour is over and the group has dispersed. It's a crash landing to go from waking up and running around with 11 people to having nothing to do. Saying goodbye is always difficult, but this one was really tough. This was an incredible group of people to travel with and I can't imagine having a better mix of personalities for this adventure.

Shopping is always good therapy and the stores here have great stuff so I'm going clothes shopping! :-) I'll stop off for bleenies for old times sake.

The plan is to take a solid nap this afternoon, meet Andrea for dinner and then stay out all night since it doesn't get too dark and I have to be in a cab to the airport by 4:30 a.m. Hopefully I will be able to sleep on the plane that way. I still can't believe this journey is over. It will be when I put together the photo album that I will be able to fully digest how much I have seen and experienced in the last two months.

Friday, June 17, 2005

White Nights

Here in St. Petersburg, we are so far north that it doesn't get dark. Although the sun technically sets around 11:30 and rises at 4:30, you wouldn't know it from the twilight that takes the place of darkness. June 21 is the longest day of the year and we are right around the time where the all-night festivals kick in.

It has been an intense two days. We got off the train from Moscow at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, went straight to the hotel to drop off our bags and went to breakfast. The local bleenie place makes the best bleenies I have had in Russia (bleenies are the Russian version of crepes). Yummmmm. Our local tour guide was waiting for us when we got back from breakfast and took us on a 4-hour walking tour of the city. My feet were still sore from the day before.

St. Petersburg is nothing like Moscow. The architecture is more like what you would see walking down the street in Paris or Vienna. There are canals here and there and it is more artsy. We went into old neighborhoods where artists used to gather during Communist times to listen to the Beatles and other music that was banned. There are statues of authors and poets in parks scattered around town just like Vienna has parks of the great composers. Although this city is really pretty, I prefer Moscow. Moscow has a great energy, is more colorful and, essentially, is uniquely Russian whereas St. Petersburg, on orders from Catherine the Great (who was a German), is modeled after Western European cities.

Our walking tour ended at the Hermitage, one of the great art museums of the world, which was once Catherine the Great's palace. We spent three hours of the afternoon racing through the halls, trying to see as much as possible. 3,000,000 Exhibits fill 400 opulent, ornate rooms, so we aimed low. We got through the impressionists, Picasso, Da Vinci and a bunch of the state rooms. Just like the Louvre, it would take days to see all that the museum holds. Walking through the halls, it is not hard to understand why the Bolsheviks had enough of the excesses of the czars.

This morning we toured another example of the czars' excesses -- the Peterhof Summer Palace where the czars once spent their summers frolicking in the gardens. It wasn't as big as the Hermitage, but it was just as magnificent. Interestingly, though, what we saw as the Summer Palace was a complete recreation/rebuild of the original that was destroyed by the Germans during World War II during the siege of Leningrad. The palace and the meticulously manicured gardens overlook the Gulf of Finland, where the czars once kept their eyes open for the ships of foreign invaders.

You want to know what an uncultured American I really am? I was admiring the fountains that scale the hill behind the palace and first thought to myself, and then said out loud, "this looks a lot like Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas." This is my ultra-low baseline by which I compare the architectural masterpiecers of the world. So sad.

Here in St. Pete's, there are more gypsies and pick-pockets and the gypsies are really aggressive. We ran into a pack of them in Moscow on the subway, but they left after one of the guys on our tour pushed one really hard and told her she better keep moving. They scour the streets here for their prey and the crowded streets provide them plenty of opportunity. Nevsky Prospekt is the main street of town along which we were strolling when I felt someone pulling at the bag on my left arm. I pulled the other way and put my fists up ready to fight and saw a gipsy letting go of my bag of cherries and moving on. My adrenaline hasn't been jolted like that in a while. The guys on our trip kept guard for the rest of us as we made our way to the Hermitage.

On a lighter note, I have been having real issues with zippers the last two days. I tried to close a pocket on my pack last night and ended up zipping up the material of the pocket and breaking the whole thing. No biggie though to lose one outside pocket. The more embarassing mishap, however, was this morning at the Hermitage. Today was finally the day I could wear shorts on my vacation and I pulled out my trusty Diesel knock-offs from Thailand. Everything was fine until we got to the Hermitage and were told to use the restroom before starting the tour or to forever hold your peace. As I was wrapping up business in the ladies' room, I zipped up my shorts and sucked up the material like I did the night before. When I tried to get the material out, my zipper broke and there I was in all my glory, fly down, pink polka dot underwear. I tied my fleece around my waste and I still am not sure if I was successful in concealing my undies from the world. At least the weather didn't cool down too much.

Tonight is the last night of the tour so I bought a decent outfit for our night out. We're heading for traditional Russian food and a show. Parting is such sweet sorrow. I am excited to get home and I am not ready to leave.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Paris and Vienna, Step Aside

Having been weaned on American television and film, I expected the Kremlin to be a drab grey building with a whole bunch of pictures of Lenin, etc. A place where KGB agents hide in shadows waiting for the enemy. Would you believe me if I told you it is a town within a city with stunning architecture, beautiful churches and perfectly manicured gardens?

Kremlin means fort in Russian and many Russian cities have kremlins. The fort in Moscow, however, is the one to see. It is a walled city within the city. Red brick walls with 12 towers surround 70 acres of grounds that abut the Moscow River. There are several churches with the trademark Russian gold crowns, gardens, palaces and the state armory that houses the carriages, crowns, jewels and gowns of the great czars. We spent three hours there this morning wandering through the grounds, taking loads of photos. The plan was to start at Lenin's tomb, but the line way too long and slow (by the way - what's with the Communists pickling their leaders for posterity? You can see pickled Mao in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Lenin in Moscow).

Now that Tony Blair has moved on to France and the Russian national holiday is over, Red Square is back open and we wandered through taking more pictures of St. Basil's and the State History Museum. To top off the afternoon, we took a ride on the Moscow Metro. Many of the stations are works of art, with chandeliers, sculptures and mosaics. The Brown Line is a ring around the city, so Rob and I got on and off at almost each stop on the line, taking pictures along the way. The coolest part of it for me is that I can read Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet) well enough to be able to navigate the Metro lines and read the signs for all the stations. Not bad for 10 days.

Yesterday, we went to GUM, which is an acronym for the State Deparment Store. The name is deceptive seeing as it is not a department store. It is a mall of 1,200 of the most high-end stores from around the world. It used to be a place where Soviets handed out rations of bread and clothes and now you can buy Prada and a Rolex if capitalism has agreed with you.

Last night, Rob, Andrea and I went to Propaganda, a trendy restaurant/night club. There were the three of us looking like dressed up backpackers surrounded by hot, Gucci-wearing Russian beauties. I can't believe I got passed the bouncers with how wrecked I looked. The place was so cool. The food was good, great vibe and, as luck would have it, it was hip hop night. The DJ's were just as good as any I have heard at home and they played real hip hop -- not the vulgar nonsense that gets marketed to white kids in the U.S. The sounds of Talib Kweli, KRS One, Dilated Peoples, Mos Def, etc. had everyone moving. The DJ's told me that it's really tough to get hip hop on vinyl in Russia, so they order a lot online. They were so cute! There were the guys in cornrows, some wearing the matching sweat suits with Pumas, doo rags, etc. I had a blast! We didn't get back to the hotel until almost 2am and awoke at 6:30 because the cheap curtains in the hotel didn't block out the sun.

We were just thrilled to have good weather.

Today's crystal blue skies provided an idyllic backdrop to the greatness of this city. I used to think that Paris and Vienna were the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, but Moscow has left them both in the dust. No picture I can possibly take will do this place justice.

Off to St. Petersburg on the midnight train.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Moscow Mania

Get comfortable, because I am in Moscow, completely overstimulated and about to ramble ad nauseum.

We just arrived a few hours ago and I am already blown away with this city. It is so beautiful that I am feeling a bit emotional (and I am not even PMS'd). Our hotel is right in the middle on town, directly across the street from the Moscow River, the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral. It is surreal. Red Square is closed today, but we're hoping for better luck today.

Last I wrote, we were in Irkutsk and about to board the famed Trans-Siberian for three days. Day 1 on the train, which was a half day, wasn't too bad. We had our champagne and caviar party and managed to cram 12 of us into one berth. Quite an impressive feat if you have any idea how small those berths are. Andrea told us in advance that our lives would be all the better if we made nice with the provenistas, who are essentially the stewardesses of the train, so we shared caviar with them and brought them chocolate, liquor, etc. They were nice to us.

Day 2 was the first full day and was spent reading and playing Scrabble. The highlight of the day was my dazzling 72-point move in Scrabble - P-E-R-S-O-N-A-L - 50 point bonus for using all 7 letters. I would have done a little tap dance if there was room. I was so excited, I took a picture of the board for all of you to admire. :-) Rob, however, remains the undisputed Scrabble champion of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The Coming Of The Third Reich was the better part of Day 3. I took a break to see the quickly passing obelisk that is erected at km 1777, which marks the arbitrary line between European and Asiatic Russia. Fascinating book. It is the first of 3 volumes and details the circumstances that allowed a monster like Hitler to control a nation.

There was another tour group on the train with us, the average age of whom was 69.5. They were crabby old Brits and Aussies who seemed to think that the whole world revolved around them. One of them indignantly declared that she intended to contact the Russian consulate upon her return to Melbourne to complain about the cold treatment from the Provenistas. Shortly after, I was having a great conversation with their tour leader and suggested that, perhaps, he explain to his passengers that the British Empire was defeated in 1945 and that the rest of the world does not consist of colonial subjects whose sole purpose is to kiss their asses. If they tried speaking a word or 2 in Russian instead of talking down to the Provenistas, maybe they would get a warmer reception. He seemed to take my comment with good humor although Andrea later told me that he was the worst offender. Oops. :-)

Our itinerary changed a bit, so we stopped for a night in Suzdal at the end of our three days. Suzdal is seriously the cutest, most charming town you can dream of. In the 12th century, it had a population of 10,000 and now the population is 12,000. Except for the two stop lights and Lenin Road being paved, it probably doesn't look much different than it did 800 years ago. It's a town of churches and meadows that is right out of a fairy tale.

A three hour bus ride took us through Vladimir -- which was once a big city and now is much like Philadelphia (a city that you can tell was once important, but is now an industrial shithole) on the way to Moscow. We're taking a tour of the Kremlin tomorrow. Even though the weather is a bit gloomy, the beauty of this city is striking. This place is a must see!

Oh yeah, I am almost literate in Russian.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Can't Take Me Anywhere

Trey always teases me that I put the ass in class and, here in Russia, I am living up to my lowly uncivilized American standard. :-) I really should not be allowed to learn foreign languages.

I can say hello, thank you, what's your name, etc. in Russian. The basics. BORING! Andrea's favorite phrase, however, is "closnaya popka", which means "nice bum" (translated into Yankee English, it means nice ass). So, as Rob and I strolled down Karl Marx Street, which is the center of town, I would say hey baby, nice ass. He would giggle and say thank you in Russian and I would say you are welcome. You could see the amusement on the Russian faces as we babble away in a language they can't understand and out of nowhere comes absurd Russian. Yes, this is how I amuse myself these days.

Back to being civilized. The indigenous people here in Siberia are the Buriyat. They look a lot like Mongolians, so you can easily distinguish them from the Caucasian Russians. Siberia become part of Russia when the tsar started sending the prisoners here. People who were running from the law also escaped here because the idea was that if you could survive the trek over the Ural Mountain Range, you were free. It's kind of the Australia of Russia.

Not sure if I will be able to e-mail from Moscow. Because of a change in train schedules, we ended up with an extra day in Mongolia and one less day in Moscow. In a day and a half, we will be on a mad dash to see Red Square, the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, etc. It's going to be intense.

Off to the supermarket to stock up for the three day ride. If we're lucky, we may even get a shower on the train. No more baths of wet wipes! One can only hope or dare to dream of such luxury.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

No More Squatting

The train to Siberia was luxurious compared to the ones in China. And, don't get me wrong, the ones in China were fine. It's just that the Russian trains have toilets, unlike the squat holes that are common in all places in China and to which I owe considerable gratitude for my ever-stronger quads. And, to illustrate just how low my standards have gone, I was so thrilled to find that the bathrooms on the Russian trains have toilet paper AND paper towels -- this is my new standard of luxury. No more carrying around a roll everywhere I go and using my jacket as a towel after washing my hands.

I feel so civilized now, which by the way is the running joke between Rob and I. It is his duty as an Englishman to instruct me, the lowly American, on how to be civilized. Raising the pinkie finger while drinking tea and, boy, have I been drinking plenty of tea. Our group has morning and afternoon tea. See - I am already becoming more civilized.

The days of the week are falling into black holes. I have no idea what day or date it is. Tuesday (I think it was Tuesday) was our full day of training to Siberia. It's actually not very far from Mongolia to Irkutsk in Siberia, but the border crossing takes FORever!!! We sat on the train for the better part of the day (playing Scrabble) but going nowhere. The provenistas were kind enough to let us off the train for a couple hours though, which was a God-send considering the toilets were locked for the better part of the day.

Nowshki is the border town in Russia. It's not entirely clear whether it has much purpose independent of the railway, but it was charming. The park is the gateway into what appeared to be the center of town -- I only assume this because it was the part with paved roads. Log cabins with tin roofs line the roads and make you wonder how it is possible to sleep when the rain crashes down. We found the local version of a restaurant, a non-descript shed with a woman serving local specialties through a window. For 25 Rubles each ($1=28R), we had a meatball with mashed potatoes and it was surprisingly tasty! Before heading back to the train, we wandered through the local market, which had a few stalls of knock-offs from China and some fruits that have seen better days. In two hours, we took in all Nowshki had to offer. Back on the train.

We arrived in Irkutsk at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday morning and were ushered off to our homestays an hour away. Listvyanka, with a population of 2,500, is on the west bank of Lake Baikal -- the deepest lake in the world (it holds more water than all of the Great Lakes combined) and the 6th largest in the world. The weather stayed nice long enough to get some cool photos, but the rain (which has followed me since day one of this trip) reared its ugly head by evening. No worries though, since it gave me an excuse to stay in and work on my Russian. I can say the basic phrases and can read about half the alphabet. My lofty goal is to be able to read it all by the time I leave. Olga and Nastasia made us a great dinner and I retired to my book.

Today started with a trip to the open-air museum of wooden architecture. It is amazing to me how well constructed the log cabins are and how well they actually keep people here warm in the winter. Especially since winters here get down to -40. Brrrrrr. We are in southern Siberia, which apparently is the nice, green lush part of Siberia that is quite pleasant in summer. Our marveling about the beauty of Siberia and how it is nothing like we imagined is usually met with the response that the prisons are in the northeast of the region. Andrea calls northern Siberia perma-frost to make the point.

We'll be in Irkutsk all day today in a hotel that has the bounciest mattress yet - the Chinese and Mongolian mattresses were hard as a rock. The train to Moscow leaves tomorrow afternoon. It takes three days and we cross five time zones. Crazy!!!! We are going to have a civilized party of champagne and caviar for the first night to ease ourselves into the cabin fever.

Monday, June 06, 2005

On To Siberia

I'm not ready to leave Mongolia quite yet, but I suppose I don't have much of a choice. Train leaves in a few hours. 35 Hours to Siberia.

Spent the morning wandering through an active monastery. It was so cool. The young monks were doing readings and we caught the end of a chanting ceremony with the older monks. When communism was the dominant force in Mongolia, many of the Buddhist monasteries and temples were destroyed. The one that we visited today is one of the few that survived. Most of the other monasteries and temples were built in the last few years. Buddhism isn't as strong here as it was before communism, but it's making its way back into the fold. Christianity and Islam two other favorites here.

My afternoon was for me. I went to the beauty salon for a wax and pedicure. The woman who owns the salon used to be a model. She was stunning - most definitely super model material. After she got married, she and her husband moved to the U.S. for 3 years so he could attend law school at George Washington University in D.C., which explains how her English was so good. She went to beauty school in Baltimore and they returned to Ulan Bataar, where she opened the first full-service beauty salon and her husband practices business law.

She is like other Mongolians who are really working on developing their country. We met another local guide last night who studied business at some private college in Spokane, WA and returned to do his part in modernizing Mongolia. He said it was a tough adjustment when he first returned, but he felt like he could do more good here. He is an environmental consultant with a mining company and does tours on the side to make some extra cash. It is so fascinating to see the birth of a country from scratch after years of colonization and domination by Russia and China.

I'm definitely coming back here. I want to see what it looks like in the coming years.

On a completely separate topic, I have read some interesting books. China Inc. by Ted Fishman is a wealth of facts about China's rise to superpower status. It is a really easy read. The Trouble With Islam Today by Irshad Manji is poorly written, but the points she makes about the pathetic state of affairs in the Islamic community and need for reform are on point and way overdue. The Good Women Of China by XinRan is a really moving collection of stories of women' experiences during the Cultural Revolution.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Rest Is Gravy

I would do this entire trip again just to head back to the ger camp. It has been the best two days of my two-month adventure.

Gers are the tents that Mongolian nomads set up in the countryside as their homes. They are circular and are easily assembled and dismantled. There are ger camps that are set up specifically for tourists in the Terelij National Park that are probably more luxurious than the average. And they were cool. We heated it with a fire in a wood-burning stove-looking thing.

Nemo, our local guide, and Mia, our driver, picked us up from the hotel on Friday morning. (Nemo is trained as a urologist but, because of the economy here, he makes more money as a tour guide than as a doctor. He is really smart, his English is really good and he held his own playing Scrabble with us). It was an hour and a half drive to our camp, with plenty of beautiful scenic stops along the way. We arrived just in time for lunch and were introduced to the great food from the camp cook. Andrea (the leader), Rob (the other 32-year-old) and I shared a ger since we are the ones most prone to staying up late.

After lunch, we went on a 3-hour horseback ride through the park. I thought it would be desert but, to the contrary, it was mountains and forest and it was breathtaking. I started the ride on a horse I named Speedy. Unfortunately, however, as soon as we started a good run, I discovered that my stirrups were a bit too short and I couldn't keep my balance. Leaning forward and defying gravity, I was clinging to the horse's mane while trying to pull the rope toward me to get it to stop. Never have I been so close to falling off a horse and, to my great relief, Speedy stopped just in time to save me from guaranteed embarassment and an uncertain fate. :-)

At our break, I thought Namjul, our horse guy, would adjust the stirrups and let me keep bonding with Speedy. My guess is that he was concerned about my horse riding capabilities or thought I was scared, because he made me switch horses. I was bummed, because I wanted to run Speedy through the valleys. As it was, the second half of my ride was on Farty, the name of which speaks for itself. I don't know what the hell that horse ate, but I felt sorry for those who were downwind. Farty didn't like to go fast, probably from all the gastrointestinal activity, but it was well enough since it gave me the opportunity to take in the dreamy surroundings.

We got back to the camp, ate dinner and I soon found out that one of the permanent buildings in the camp has a snooker table. Although I have played pool for years, I have never played snooker. That didn't stop me from talking all kinds of mess to Nemo and Mia though and they taught me how to play. There went the rest of the evening and late into the night. It got pretty intense, but we had SO much fun!!

On Saturday morning, we awoke to a herd of cows grazing in our camp. We ate breaskfast and three of us went on a morning horseback ride. Instead of Speedy and Farty, I got Turtle. I am not sure if he was old or lazy, but he couldn't be bothered. If he was a person, he would have hit snooze on the alarm clock and decided not to go to work that day. Namjul managed to coax a few gallops out of Turtle, but it was futile. Another slow trot through untouched forest, which is nothing to be upset about.

The group went on an afternoon hike to a local monastery. It was a nice way to spend a couple hours and a hilarious way to get to know some of the group. One of the 50-something couples from Australia, Anjie and Tony, are such a pleasure to travel with. They have more energy than everyone, they can throw back beers with the best of them and they have the sharpest, funniest whit. Even though the monastery was at the base of a valley with a pretty steep hill separating us from our camp, they decided to race each other back to camp. What took Rob and I about a half hour moving quickly, took each of them 20 minutes. They have great spirits. We stayed up playing Scrabble, Snooker and drinking tea and vodka (not mixed).

This is a great group. The bummer so far is that my roommate, a retiree from Australia, got sick yesterday and had to be taken to the city at 11:00 last night. Not sure what happened at the hospital, but it looks like she has to fly back to Sydney. I am so bummed for her. Rob and I are now rooming together, which is probably for the best anyways, since we are the loudmouths who stay out late. Since the sun doesn't set here until almost 10:30 p.m., it's hard to motivate to call it quits before 1 or 2am. For the record, he's gay, so no raised eyebrows! :-)

So, we're back in Ulan Bataar. Rob and I are e-mailing and then off to the State Department Store to see if there are any interesting souveneirs to buy. We're here until 6:00 tomorrow when we catch our train to Siberia. The ger camp was so cool though, that everything from here is a bonus.

The e-mail here is painfully slow. I am convinced that the entire country is operating on one server. But, I can read my blog. Yay!

P.S. About NBA Basketball, when Nemo introduced himself and I told him that I am from the US, he told me that is a huge basketball fan, his favorite team is the Sacramento Kings and that Miami and Detroit are tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Even in the land of nomads, the land of blue skies, Kobe and Shaq have fans and detractors.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Land Of Blue Skies

Around 8:30 Wednesday night, our train approached the platform where Chinese immigration officials awaited us. A young man in an official-looking green suit and a pleasant smile boarded the train and went from berth to berth checking passports. The four of us sharing a berth handed over our passports and he stamped them, finalizing our departure from China.

From there, the train went to the boagie shed. The train tracks in China are different from the Soviet-standard ones that run through Mongolia so the undercarriage of the train had to be replaced. The train was disassembled car by car. A jack was attached to the side of each car that would continue to Mongolia and raised the car six feet in the air (with all of us passengers still inside). Once we had a new undercarriage, kind of like having clean underwear, we were off to the Mongolian border where stern-looking Mongolian border patrol agents would make us wait another few hours to get moving again. The train did not depart until almost 2:00 a.m., which wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't closed the toilets at 8:30 (the toilets are always closed when the train is stopped - our leader warned us to stop drinking fluids at 6:00).

I awoke this morning around 9:30 to bright blue skies and a view of vast plains and rolling hills in the distance. Mongolia is known as the land of blue skies, which is a welcome change from the smoggy rainy haze that blankets China. Everyone on the train sat staring out the windows at the landscape that was only interrupted by random wild horses and occasional settlements.

We arrived in Ulan Bataar, the capital, around 2:30. UB is not a very pretty town. Indeed, if it wasn't so blue and beautiful outside, it would be almost depressing. It is a town of 700,000 people (which is 25% of Mongolia's population). I don't feel comfortable in a place where we are warned to heavily guard our possessions from the busy hands of the pick-pockets.

The architecture is a hodge podge of mud hut and Soviet communist style. It appears from all the cranes, similar to those that hang above the air in every Chinese city we visited, that Mongolia is attempting to develop. It is a country in transition. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was very much a client state and heavily dependent on Soviet aid. They now have nothing and must redefine themselves economically and culturally. From what I hear, Mongolia has cozied up to the U.S., even sending troops to Iraq, which may explain why I didn't need a visa to enter the country.

The Mongolians look like a mix of ethnicities -- some look Chinese, others like Ughurs and Kazhaks. The alphabet of the language looks like Russian and those who speak English do so with an odd Russian accent. The language sounds nothing like Chinese.

We leave tomorrow to a Ger camp in the Terelij National Park where we will stay for two nights. Horseback riding, desert hiking and relaxation will be pastimes there.