Friday, September 29, 2006

From Bad To Not So

I was musing so hard that I almost missed the bus stop for the Old Town.

The Book had touted Brasov as The New Prague. At best this was an old, totally down at the heels, mini-mini Prague. Besides a big old Teutonic gothic church, a big old town center, and an 'arbat' stroll with mostly dreadful stores and two bit cafes, that was about it. Actually, just about any semi-preserved town in Germany looks a lot more impressive. And as for setting, it could have been anywhere in West Virginia.

Okay, I'll make the best of it. The Book also said that a ten minute walk up the hill would bring me to a delightful little penzione. I started up the steep cobblestone alleyway.

About fifteen minutes into it, I looked on the map and determined that I wasn't yet halfway. However, there was another penzione right there, so I checked it out. $30 for a kind of tacky room, but, hey, it was kind of a nice view and I was already there, so I checked in.

Now, though, I had to head out to Romania's biggest tourist attraction, the castle at Bran. Cab to the bus station, then get on the bus for an hour's ride out there.

For some reason I was expecting a scenic, winding mountain road. Uh uh. Flat farm and industrial wasteland. When we finally got to the town below the castle, I looked up and realized that Disneyland had better castles than this. Definitely everywhere in Western Europe did.

Nonetheless I paid my $5 and walked on up. It turned out to be a rather spartan summer retreat for Queen Marie in the 1920s. Looking out from the 'ramparts' the hills were kind of okay, but nothing special. Romantic Transylvania? I couldn't even imagine Count Chocula living here.

Dejected, I took the bus back to town, wandered around the arbat for awhile, climbed the hill again, and, exhausted, fell asleep.

Thirteen hours later I was contentedly lying in bed, thinking that maybe on my next trip that's what I would spend all my time doing. Now the previous afternoon a nice lady at a travel agency had printed out the timetable for the trains to Sigisoara, my next destination, and I had briefly noted that they went out about every hour. So at 9:38 I lazily pulled the paper out to look at it.

Yes, they did go about every hour up until 10:01. Then the next one was at 2:40, getting me there as the sun was going down. As Steve Irwin used to say, Crikey!

At 10:43 I decided to try for it anyway. I packed up, left the penzione, and carefully went quickly downhill on cobblestones. About a third of the way down, looking very incongruous in the alley, was a taxi! I climbed in, told him to step on it, and at 10:50 off we went.

He tried gallantly, but many traffic lights later, at 11:00, we were at the last major one, and the sign said it would turn green in 70 seconds. I paid him, got out, and then, through heavy traffic, made a mad 250 yard dash over to the station. When I got there, the 10:01 had already been taken off the board, but undaunted I ran through the underground passageway. Off at the end I saw some people emerging, so I ran up those stairs and saw a train. I asked 'Sigisoara'?, they said yes, I got on, and 20 seconds later the train took off.

Huffing and puffing in my seat, I realized that maybe I really am getting too old for this.

Anyhow, rural scenery unfolded, and after a good night's sleep, my opinion of Romania had softened. So had the landscape, showing gently rolling green farmy hills and an infrastructure that wasn't as dreadful as I had concluded yesterday. Contrary to my expectations, there were no soaring mountains here, and virtually every country in Western Europe has more impressive ones, but once you accepted that, it was actually quite rural and pleasant.

It was also true that save for the bus incident (thieving gypsies!) the Romanians were pretty friendly and helpful. And with the Romanian language being a Romance one it was pretty easy to figure things out.

We got to Sigisoara and I could immediately see that the tourist literature was finally proving true. A relatively small place, it was quiet and tranquill, and the Old Town on a small hill in its center was suitably old, cobblestoned and pretty. Not much was going on around here, especially because it wasn't the tourist season, and that suited me just fine.

So I spent the day just sitting around, walking around, making a short hike across the town and up the opposite hill, and back to just sitting around again.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Welcome To Romania

The train pulled in at 7 am, an hour and a half late, and I had been awake since 2:30. Bucharest was grey and lightly raining. As I walked outside for 100 meters there was not exactly a whiff of freedom, but everything certainly felt looser.

I had agonized all the previous afternoon about whether to go ahead and rent a car for Romania. The downside was that the weather forecast was for really overcast, and that kind of put a damper on the idea of a beautiful drive through the countryside. And there were other niggly problems, too, such as driving around confusing cities without a navigator, etc. Finally I had blown off the idea.

Now it was time to buy a Saturday ticket for Sofia and an immediate one for Brasov, about 170 km north. When I got to my first class seat I noticed that it wasn't a hell of a lot better than the second class. Oh well.

We sent rolling through Romania, which I could immediately tell had a lot more decrepit industry and housing than anywhere in the former Soviet Union had. And the EU was letting them in next year???

We got to Brasov, most of which is a dreary nothing city of 400,000, and as I walked out of the train station I decided that my passport would be safer in my pants pocket than in my daypack.

One minute later, as I got on the bus for the 'old city' and was fumbling around trying to use their ticket machine, for the first time in my life somebody tried to pick my pocket.

I shouted and pushed the guy, then quickly sat down to check my pants. My passport was gone! I shouted again and started to go after the guy when his partner pointed to my passport lying on the floor on the opposite wall. Perhaps my jostling had made them drop it. More likely, fearing trouble, they had thrown it.

So for the next couple of minutes I sat there thinking about how weird it was that I had just put my passport in my pocket, and that maybe it was all a cosmic happenstance so that I could now write a really interesting blog that no one would ever read.

One thing was for sure: This wouldn't remotely have happened on the rest of my trip. So much for looseness. Maybe those Commies had a point.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On To Moldova

The train pulled into Odessa at 5 am. Once again I found the left luggage place, and once again I set out on a short tour, this time walking the mile and a half from the station to downtown.

Now Odessa (if you're not counting the one in Texas)is one of those places that seem steeped in something or other. You know, a sultry, steamy port of hulking freighters and footloose sailors, a place where everyone is always looking for a shady deal and is trying to avoid the midnight stab in the back. Jews in long black beards changing money, and poverty stricken peasant women willing to rent you a baby and carriage that you can push down the Potemkin Steps.

Once again, blah.

Outside of a grandiose nineteenth century opera house, there wasn't anything of any architectural note here. The Potemkin Steps were some of the least interesting steps I've ever seen, and instead of even a Soviet era port at their bottom, there was just a semi-modern loading building.

No, it was just another boring Soviet city with a bunch of boring Soviet people walking around. After a few hours of this I headed out for the bus station.

Trains don't go to Moldova anymore, because the rest of the world is boycotting Transdniester. Boycotting what? Yes, there's a breakaway region of Moldova that is its own little country. It's called Soviet, and even Stalinist, but it's basically a bastion of goons and stooges. And it was another weird country for me to visit.

The buses still ran, and when I got to the bus station there was one running in about five minutes. I hopped aboard.

We passed about 50 miles of Ukrainian farmland and then reached the border at about 11:30. It took a while to get out of the Ukraine because there was a really old peasant couple who didn't realize that they needed passports. Once they were properly thrown off by the authorities, we continued.

I already knew that I was going to be shaken down for some money by the Transdniester border guards. The only question was for how much. First a guy took me into a secret office where he asked me how much money I had. I said $600. Then he asked me to count it. It came to $650. Now he started a long harangue on the 'big pvoblem' I had. I smirked and got agitated and all, and just about when I thought he was going to get me for something, he gave up, laughed, and shook my hand.

Now to 'immigration'. They gave me this bs about not having a visa (for a country that doesn't exist). I was getting tired of this by now, so I just cut them short and said, 'how much?' I talked them down to $25 and got back on the bus.

About an hour and a half later (including a fifteen minute stop in their woebegone 'capital' Tiraspol) we were now at their other border trying to get out. They didn't hassle me, but some other guy had 'document' problems, so we all had to wait another 40 minutes for him to sort that out. Finally, we got to enter the real Moldova.

Well, Moldova is certainly bucolic: all willows and meadows and gently rolling hills.
Not only that, but for the first time in my journey the signs were all in my native alphabet. (They speak Romanian here, which soundsa like-a Italiano.)

And then we got into its capital city of Chesinau. By now I had been up since 4:30 am and had been in an unventilated bus for six hours. The travails of my journey by now were wearing down my body, and I was looking forward to the nice hotel and friendly staff that the Lonely Planet said were waiting for me right at the central bus station.

Except that the bus dropped us off at the Northern bus station. Okay, find a minibus to the central one. Accomplished. Now realize that you don't have the 3 lei (21 cents) to pay the driver since there haven't been any places to exhange money yet. A nice Russian guy behind me paid.

When we got to central, I finally got my bearings and found the hotel. Except that the building hadn't been a hotel for years, and now housed a raucus flea market. Damn those imcompetent Lonely Planet people!

So now I'm wandering around Chisinau vainly looking for any kind of hotel. An hour later I finally found the Hotel Turist, another Soviet era establishment. The nice lady there told me, this time quite convincingly, that she had no rooms. She was so nice that in fact she called another hotel, who told her that they did have rooms. So off I went on another fifteen minute luggage pull.

When I got there the not so nice lady said that not only didn't she have any rooms (even though she was checking someone in) but that no one had ever called her. Back I went to the Turist, by now dreadfully wasted, hoping to guilt trip that other nice lady.

It worked. Magically a room appeared. And for only $20. Up the elevator I went to my new room, which was actually quite cute in a socialist kind of way, even with the Soviet era mattress. And it even had a bathroom! I sat in a hot tub for 45 minutes.

Then it was downstairs and across the street to an open air restaurant, where I totally stuffed myself (with the best food of the trip so far) for $7.50. And that's including the Russian non-alcoholic beer. At least I was back in cheapoland again.

To make things even better, around the corner was an internet place at 50 cents an hour.

I went back to the Turist about 9 and was about to enter the elevator when a young man in a suit who had been standing around the desk followed me in. 'U von guz?' he said with a weird smile. I shrugged and showed him my room key to let him know I was a paying guest. 'U von guz?' he repeated. About the fourth time I understood: 'You want girls?' I laughed and told him not tonight.

Five minutes later when I was lying there I wondered briefly how we were supposed to have gotten it on on such a tiny, uncomfortable bed. Then I fell asleep.

Eleven hours later I got up and headed to the train station to buy a ticket for the 5 pm train to Romania. Yay, they had one. Then it was back to the Turist area to just hang around for the day.

This made ten former Republics that I've been to. And if there was any realization to be had in 2006 as I was finally going to be leaving the former Soviet Union, it was that there was far, far less abject poverty than I had been expecting. Maybe I've been spoiled by Africa. But even Transdniester had been slightly less decrepit than most of Georgia and Armenia had been a couple of years ago.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Crimea Peninsula (I Cried A Peninsula Over You)

So I was walking down the main street of Kiev, and all of a sudden... Was that Indian food? I followed my nose over to the left and upstairs to the second floor, where I chowed down on all my favorites. At $20 it was more than I usually spend on Indian food, but less than the Sbarro's in Moscow.

Then I found myself an internet place (not that easy to do) and typed away for just under an hour, finally stopping at around 7:40. Let's see, the train to the Crimea leaves at 8:20... Holy crap! That leaves no time for error!

Rushing to the Metro station, running down the 300 steps, making sure I got on the right train headed in the right direction, finding a vacant seat, so far so good.

At 10 cents a ride, the Kiev subway is dirt cheap. It's also a lot dirtier, slower, and more crowded than Moscow's. A minute before my stop I realized that with the incredible crush of humanity in the car, I might not make it out. Drawing upon all that I had long ago learned in India, however, I used my superior heft to advantage, and successfully staggered out onto the platform.

Up the stairs. Over to the train station. Up the stairs and across to the other side for my left luggage. Back to a kiosk for some bread and water for the train. Down to the train platform. And...

My travel angel was there. I was right at the right carriage, and I had eight minutes to spare.

Once on the train I found that the first class beds weren't that much nicer than the kupe ones. But it's a lot easier to be considerate to others when there is only one of them. It was a restful night.

The next morning I was up long before any of the Russians were, and I sat alone in the restaurant car, nursing a small coffee, and discovering that endless flat fields of brown Ukrainian dirt didn't make for great pictures.

We pulled into Simferapol (not to be confused with Sevastopol) right after 11 am. By noon I had gone through the left luggage procedure and was ready to board the world's longest trolley ride (60 miles!) to Yalta.

I was kind of expecting a quaint wooden contraption of the Toonerville variety, chugging along on little steel tracks and going clang-clang-clang. It turned out to be an old bus with a cable catcher on top. The novelty had worn off before the ride had started.

I was also expecting fantastic craggy mountains and a gut wrenching narrow mountain road. Hardly. The bus went ever so slowly and for the first hour or so there were just small wooded hills.

When we finally reached the summit and started downwards, the scenery did start looking mountainous, and when we hit the coast it had taken on the aspect of one of the better Turkish mountain/seaside vistas. The real mind twisting aspect was that this was actually part of Russia.

(Politically the Crimea is now Ukrainian. But both the locals and tourists are overwhelmingly Russian.)

But it didn't end until 3 hours later at the Yalta main bus terminal. Which was a mile away from downtown. Fortunately it was downhill, so I walked it, noting that I was finally in a place that was a little down at the heels.

When I got to the center of town at the bottom of the hill I turned left and tried to follow the xeroxed map for another half mile to the left, passing both a small patch of truly decrepit merchanting and another film crew, this time working on a gritty Russian police drama. I was searching for a hotel that the LP said was quaint and $20 a night and had an English speaking staff that could help me plot the rest of my Crimean vacation.

I did find it, but it was lifeless, $46 a night, and the one girl there spoke not a word of angliski. Why do I keep believing these guys? Okay, now to trudge back to the center, where, given that Yalta was 100% tourist town, should yield at least one or two hotels.

After a fruitless hour of searching I was starting to wonder why I had gone 1000 miles out of my way for this. Then I finally came across the appropriately named Hotel Krum, a Soviet era establishment right smack dab in the center. The nice lady at the reception desk told me that they absolutely had no rooms. But knowing how this worked, I just stood there looking dejected for a few minutes until she allowed that, yes, if it's just for one night, she could help me out.

While she was writing me up for the $11 room, I decided that I actually wanted the $26 one that included a toilet. Tough, I was already written up for the $11 room.

I climbed the four flights of stairs, walked down the long corridor, and opened the door. Inside was a small bed, a small sink, and a small color tv, which actually worked. Lying down for a few minutes, I now prepared for my shower, which was available from 5 to 10 pm up some more stairs and down the hall.

Okay, here's my shampoo, and the soap is... Oh no, they didn't provide any and my bar was back in Simferapol at the left luggage. Barefoot by now, I went downstairs and asked the nice lady for some. She said I could walk a block down the street and buy some. I showed her my bare feet. She relented, went into the back, and brought be a tiny bar.

Okay. Back upstairs I got everything together, and... Oh no, they had a postage stamp sized towel, and mine was back in Simferapol. Ever resourceful, I took along the giant bedspread.

Thankfully, they had plenty of hot water, and later, as night was falling, refreshed, I went out to hit the main drag, which is a 'beachfront' promenade. Except that there's no beachfront, just a tiny unused port with a couple of small rusting freights over there. Never to mind, even though it was Sunday evening and the end of September it was still packed with Russian tourists.

And what did they have to divert themselves? Mostly eat at snack kiosks and restaurants. And walk up and down the quarter mile of promenade. Tonight, however, there was a large stage set up, as this was either the start or the finish of the Yalta Auto Rally. I walked past some paid girls dressed up as biker trash and gyrating next to a car with a giant bottle of energy drink on its top.

I cruised the area as the night began. At the end of the area, under bright lights, were set up elaborate 'sitting rooms' where tourists dressed in fancy 18th century gowns to have their pictures taken. For the guys there were biker duds and mock Harleys with giant Confederate flags.

Past this, with their own little klieg lights, there were a couple of guys dressed up as ersatz American Indians playing new agey stuff on wooden flutes. Expecting it to be ridiculous, I actually found their music quite beautiful. The Russians were a tight crowd, though, and although they were all appreciative and clapping, I didn't see anyone putting money in the cup.

In the soft night air, though, I was startting to fell sympathetic to the Russian yahoos. After all, they were all from some Nowhere Zemlya town in the boondocks, and if this is how they had a good time, who was I to criticize? So they all stood there with their videocams and digital cameras taking shots of the musicians that they were getting for free. And I decided to head on back to the Krum.

The next morning I awoke to a glorious morning and a glorious view from my hotel window. I went downstairs and around the corner to where the mashutras were waiting to take me to Alupka and the main tourist attractions of the Crimea.

As we headed out of town, I could see that this little part of coastline really was special. It was 'Black Sea mountainous' which is kind of like 'Mediterranean', only much more humid and much more heavily forested. The minibus passed the famous 'Swallows Nest' which looks like an enchanted castle on postcards, but is acually only about 20 feet square and surrounded by souvenir stands.

A couple of kilometers later, I was deposited at the foot of the cable car ride. But after standing for 20 minutes in a long line that hadn't moved, and noticing that the clouds were rolling in, I decided to give up on that idea. Instead I took a leisurely kilometer long walk to wear Alupka's main palace is.

Once there I noted that it was closed on Monday, so I flagged the next returning minibus #32 for the ride back to Yalta. My tolerance of the night before notwithstanding, even though the Crimean was rather pretty, the plain fact was that it was filled with Russian tourists, and after about 10 days of nonstop Russia it was starting to wear thin.

I had something to eat, picked up my small overnight bag at the hotel, and took the minibus up the hill to the bus station. It was now after 1, and my train to Odessa left at 5, which should have given my lots of time.

But the mashrutka to Simferapol only left when full, and after waiting for a half hour I realized that I'd better hop on the dreadful trolley, which by now would have just gotten there in time. Fortunately, while searching for one a guy came up and said that he only had one vacant seat for his mashrutka to Simferapol. I jumped in.

Finally a hair-raising ride! Even stopping for 15 minutes to pick up his girlfriend, this guy went the 60 miles or so in an hour twenty. And that was with a lot of traffic and a two and a half lane road.

Back in Simferapol with two hours to kill, I saw a couple of East Indians. Aha, they'll speak English! They did, and directed across the street to an internet place, where I successfully killed those two hours. Then it was over to the station and on to Moldova.

Kiev In Six Hours

And with time to spare...

I bounded out of the Metro stop onto a Kiev street, and was met by a live polka band and a Saturday farmer's market. Turning right, I immediately noticed that, for the capital of one of the flattest countries on Earth, Kiev was pretty hilly.

A few minutes along I started realizing that Kiev was sort of a Russian version of Philadelphia: pleasant enough on a nice day, but certainly lacking in the zing! department.

Within about a half mile I came upon Kiev's signature tourist destination, St Sophia's church, named after the colossus in Constantinople. From the outside it really failed to measure up, looking dinkier than any number of the Moscow churches I had been seeing.

On the inside it looked a little better, what with its ancient faded wall to ceiling paintings. And I suppose that if you were only going to be seeing one eleventh century Russian Orthodox church, you wouldn't be disappointed, but...

So I headed back out and down the half mile to the much bigger and newer St Michael's monastery, but didn't go in. Instead I walked around to its side and looked from the hilltop over the riverbank trees and the river itself. Pleasant enough on a festive Saturday afternoon.

I then walked down the steep cobblestoned ulitsa that is Kiev's 'Arbat'. The 'craftsman's stalls', however, were card tables at best. Indeed, for product and presentation, you'd find better stuff at the flea market in Dumbass, Tennessee. Pretty disappointing.

When I got to the bottom of the hill, that was about it for Downtown Tourism Kiev. I went into a coffee shop (only $3 a cup here), and then found another Metro station. Getting out a couple of stops later, I hopped on a matrushka (minibus) and took it a mile to THE Kiev attraction--The Heart And Soul Of The Ukraine, in fact--the Caves Monastery.

I'm sorry to report that the Ukraine doesn't seem to have much heart or soul. Once inside the grounds there were ATMs off to the side and absolutely no sense of devotion among the tourist crowd. Indeed, there was one girl dressed up like a Russian whore, complete with 5 inch heels and 6 inch miniskirt. It is a nice location overlooking the trees and the river, but the buildings are all 18th century or later.

So I walked all the way down the cobblestoned hill, hoping against hope that the Caves would be worth the long walk back up. They didn't fail to disappoint. First off, they are not caves but cellar like archways 2 and a half feet wide and six feet high. Next they are so hot that I would have fallen over had it not been for the packed line of 'pilgrims' holding me up. And then the main sight is a few little glass topped coffins with shrouded bodies inside.

I am not easily given to claustrophobia, but I almost didn't make it back out. And then it was that long walk back uphill.

I got back to the subway and got out again a few stops later, this time emerging onto Kiev's main square. It was kind of impressive in a Thirties kind of way: On one side the giant Stalinesque Hotel Ukraine, and then arrayed around it in a semi-circle a bunch of huge Bund type buildings.

The main drag was closed to traffic on the weekend, and there were thousands of pedestrian Kievians taking advantage of Saturday evening to the fullest. Although not nearly as much wealth was on display as in Moscow, but no one seemed to have anything to complain about.

And neither really did I. There's nothing BAD about Kiev, but then again just because we want a world capital to have tourist sights worth seeing doesn't make it so.

In other words: If you thought that the Ukraine was just polkas and pierogies, well, then, you just about nailed it.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

I Deign To Quatrain: The Night Train To Ukraine

So it was back to Red Square for one more time.

And it still had about as much magic as anything can have on the replay. The square itself was now open to people, and so I walked across the cobblestones for awhile. Then it was back around the front and over to the far side of the Kremlin wall so as to buy the ticket and enter the Kremlin grounds themselves.

Which are a pretty big area, probably at least 30 acres or so. Besides being a giant museum of Russia's past, it also houses the main government offices, and back in Soviet times you could see the Breshnev-faced bureaucrats driving in and out.

That oily, kind of stupid/smug look in the face is long gone, though. And now the grounds felt kind of like a college campus, especially since the weather had gone back to perfect fall. I headed over to the main area open to tourists, the group of four 'cathedrals'.

They are really only church sized, although Russian orthodox through and through. Two of them were under repair, which left one that housed some really interesting old church stuff, and the Coronation Cathedral, where the tsars were crowned.

I went inside that one and, along with the requisite fabulous medieval paintings from floor to ceiling, there was a five piece choir that totally blew me away with their a capella renditions of old Russian church hymns. After they were finished and I was agonizing over which of their CDs to buy, I asked them what the story was on all the 17th century and older stone sarcophigi lying around. The guy said that, among other people, here were buried all the Romanovs before Peter the Great. In fact, right next to me was the Tsarevich Alexis, who had died in 1670, aged 16.

Whoa. For reasons that are too complicated and weird to go into right now, I now had the rather unique experience of standing in an ancient church and staring at my own grave.

Whoa. I walked back into the afternoon light. Which once again was an exquisitie 19th century sort of sky. I snapped away with my camera and wandered around the parklike area in a semi-daze.

Then it was back around to Red Square and one last long dawdle in front of St Basil's. Time was growing short.

Back to Beloruskaya and some dinner. Back to retrieve my belongings. Back on the subway (much faster than a taxi) to Kievskaya train station.

Once again, having bought a ticket at the last minute, I had a top bunk. We took off at about 8:30 and all of us did our best to get to sleep right away. At 12:30, however, we all got woken up for Russian immigration.

Since I wasn't the usual Russian traveler, they had to spend so much time with me that I thoroughly woke up. Several hours later I finally fell asleep again, just in time for Ukrainian immigration to wake me up at 5:30. No more sleep until 9 when we pulled into Kiev.

I got down from my bunk just as we were crossing the river. With trees and churches standing out, Kiev looked impressive indeed.

But once I de-trained I was in a terrible strange land. No English signs at all. No left luggage anywhere. And, although the book said that Window 41 handled foreigners, when I finally found the ticket windows, they only went up to 36.

I found one that said 'Administration' (in Ukrainian) and hopefully asked the lady, 'English?' But we were back in the Soviet Union, because she just curtly said 'nyet' and then totally ignored me. I knew the game, too, however, so I just kept standing there at her window. After 3 or 4 minutes she mumbled some things and made some gestures behind her and up.

Was that where I was supposed to go? I went back out to the main station, noticed that the escalator was broken, and looked at all the steps I would have to climb with my heavy, heavy bags and my weak, weak knees. I made a mental note to bring a porter along with me on my next trip, and started up and out.

Amazingly enough, way on the other side of the station was a window 41 with a nice kind of English speaking lady. AND the left lugagge! Things were looking up.

To show you how cheap I am, when I found out that the kupe only cost $20 for a 15 hour trip, I almost went for it. Especially since the two-bed was 4 times as much for some reason. But then I remembered the heavy schedule I had prepared for my poor, aching, old body. I also remembered those Lady Clairol commercials, and I thought, 'Dang it! I DESERVE First Class.'

So I few minutes later, with a couple of 1st class tickets, some brushed teeth, a clean shirt, and no more extra baggage (and without the humiliation of self analysis, either), I set out to enjoy Kiev.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Dostoevsky Writes A Travel Blog

Oh, what a bright and glorious day it was! The birds were flitting from tree to tree and the green buds were bursting with new life. God was revealing Himself in all his beauty.

But how could I enjoy it, living in this vile darkness? No, of course I could not. For I am the most degraded and debauched of all humans, one who is afraid that perhaps he is not even worthy of salvation. For I have this terrible secret, this terrible confession that I must share with you. I just must share it or I will never again be able to look at myself in the mirror, let alone enjoy a beautiful day.

First, however, I have to tell you why it is a secret. And why it is terrible. And not only that but why it is a confession. And why it is a terrible confession. And then I have to tell you why I should tell you. And to do this I will have to relate to you everything that has ever happened to me.

For if it is true that we are angels of God, it is also true that we are disgusting demons. Disgusting demon/angels who love to travel...

(Skip 186 pages)

...Once when I was a young boy in Allentown my servant served me a bowl of cold Maypo for breakfast, and I slapped him hard across the face. Oh, young boys can be so cruel! But that was not the reason I slapped him...for bringing me cold hot cereal. No, what was really happening was that I was insanely jealous that Mary Jane Schmoyer might be receiving the attentions of Jimmy Crawford. And so I took it out on my poor servant, my fellow man!

But he just stood there, silent and stolid. For that is what the Pennsylvania Dutch are, are they not? Silent and stolid. And if they drink too much beer and eat too many pretzels, who can blame them? For they live hard lives, and their sports teams never make the playoffs. And if they should make the playoffs, they never win the championship.

I tell you, though, that the Pennsylvania Dutch--strong, patient, silent and stolid--will be the saviours of the world. The star will rise in the East! Or maybe Easton. Which, after all, is right next to Bethlehem...

(Skip 291 pages)

...Oh, how we New Mexicans love to whip our housecats. Yes, I have seen it many times. The poor little brutes, struggling in their tiny harnesses to pull a load that is far too great for them. They pull and pull, and we whip. And whip and whip and whip. And we are laughing.

Our New Mexico women too, they love to whip their housecats. In the mornings they are all polite and demure, and making Navajo Frybread and sopapillas. And then when the night comes they are dressed in their black leather skirts and their stiletto heels, and they are whipping their cats.

It is all too evil and depraved. How can I go on?...

(Skip 327 pages)

...And now I must come to my confession. For if I do not confess my soul will remain in the blackness to which I have put it. Unless I confess, I cannot hope to ever hope again.

And here is my great sin: Many, many days ago, when we were on the airplane and Sumi was in the bathroom, I stole the pat of butter from her meal tray. And who can blame me? For the rolls they serve are so stale and tasteless!

So I took it, with no thought of compassion and no twinge of conscience. I buttered my roll with extra butter, and I greedily ate it. And the funny thing is, never had food tasted so good. It was as if I was luxuriating in the bestiality of it all.

But, wait. My story of sin is not complete. For when Sumi returned and looked for her pat of butter, I told her that some Asian businessman had taken it, and that, since all Asian businessmen look alike, there would never be a chance of justice for her.

And Sumi, poor innocent child!, she trusted me and believed it. Oh, how could I be so craven? But I didn't care. The butter was coating my esophagus, and I was proud of myself in my devilish way. I had gotten away with a great crime!

But now it weighs heavily on my heart. I feel that even the flitting birds know my dark secret. Whenever I see a trusting young girl or an Asian businessman I want to cry out: Please forgive me! For I have wronged them all...

(Skip 86 pages)

...So in the end God's mercy will save us all, and we shall wonder at the glory and the graciousness of a compassion that is more compassionate than glory or grace. Love shall fill us all, and we will all take responsibility for everyone and not either forget not even the least of God's creatures.

And, oh, by the way, did I mention that today I also saw the world's second longest steel truss cantilever railway bridge?

Settling In

By the time I had added some salad and potatoes and water to my piece of Sicilian deep dish pizza, the bill came to $20. Yes, but what price could be put upon the cachet of sitting amidst the old world elegance of the GUM while eating with my plastic Sbarro's knife and fork?

As you might have picked up on by now, I was mightily impressed with present day Moscow. Combined with today's most wonderful weather, it seemed like the cleanest and most wonderful city in the world. Even all the new construction was refined and non-over the top: Somebody on the zoning board was making sure that everything fit in with Moscow's classical look.

Yes, I was well aware that the rest of Russia hasn't caught up. But to use this to deny what I saw around me would be like saying that Santa Monica or Sausalito weren't all that because California also contains Fresno.

And it wasn't just a tiny elite who were enjoying all this newfound prosperity. The rulers of Russia, after all, had figured the Chinese lesson: When given a choice between 'political freedom' and cash, people will take the cash every time. And, as in China, people on the street certainly seemed as 'free' as anyone in Fresno. Nor did I get the sense that anyone gave a flying crap about 'democracy' or other such slogans.

Unlike China, however, Russia doesn't need to go to the trouble to manufacture and ship all those outdoor swing sets. All they have to do is pump oil. And the most delicious irony is that now that we've finally achieved the coveted status of paper tiger, we seem to be the only ones in the world who don't know that they have the oil and we don't. As Nelson on the Simpsons would say, "Ha, ha!"

To continue my political line: If you want to be paranoid (which I don't), forget about Iran and worry about Russia. They already have more nukes than they can even find, and they might not know or care much about Western Ideals, but they are only too aware of what it feels like to have been taken advantage of when you're down.

Anyhow, now that I had contributed my expert insight and finished my meal, I exited the GUM, took one long last gawk at St. Basil's, then wandered eastward through some Moscow side streets. The afternoon light was like out of some pale painting and I kept snapping pictures trying to capture it.

When I finally ended up at a Metro station, I went back to the only internet cafe that appeared to be in Moscow and spent two hours filing my report. Then, as if to remind me that perfect days do not last, the computer lost all of my self-important musings of the last two days. Which meant, after I finished exploding, that I had to sit down and laboriously re-compose everything again.

Back to Marina's and bed.

Thursday morning arose colder and cloudier. My first task was to go with Alex to the train station to buy my ticket for Kiev. As we were waiting in line for about a half hour I realized that they don't take Visa and I probably didn't have enough cash on hand. I crossed my fingers.

I usually wouldn't call my regular life charmed. But when I'm on the road I seem to have a travel angel around. I had 1510 rubles on me and the ticket came to 1500.

Now, however, I had to find an ATM so that I could pay 15 year old Alex 300 for his help. Nobody does anything for nothin in the new Russia. But once the ATM spit out the 4 1000 ruble notes we had a new problem, since nobody in the new Russia changes bills for nothin, neither. So I had to go order breakfast. But still the waitress wouldn't change the 1000 until the food arrived and I had paid for it.

Okay. Back to the Moscow subway, which is probably the best in the world. There is a new train every 90 seconds, and everything connects with everywhere. Of course, I'm assuming that you can also read Cyrillic and you don't mind being 300 feet underground. But my three previous Russian weeks were all coming back to me, and, less than 48 hours into it, I was becoming a Muscovite.

I even started looking the part: heavy, drooping eyelids, a sardonic look, and lost in my own world. In fact, other Russians were mistaking me for one of them, and were trying to stop me to ask for directions. I gave them a slight shrug and ignored them.

Since today was grey and interesting, I decided to get a little culture and go to the Tretyakov, one of Moscow's two major art museums. Getting off at the nearest Metro stop, I was of course lost, and no one knew where it was. Nor had anyone thought to have put up informational signs for this major attraction. I finally found it, however, paid my $10 and walked in.

Not to pummel the LP or anything, but I found the Tretyakov less than spectacular. There was too much Sulikov for my taste and not enough Repin. Or too much Repin and not enough Sulikov, I can't remember which. Anyhow, there's a good reason that you haven't heard of those guys. (Actually, there are a couple of great late-19th century Russian painters, but for some reason they didn't have them this time.)

I left the Tretyakov, remembering that I had gone there in 1992. I also remembered that I had gone to the Bolshoi, the Circus, the Zoo, you name it. So I probably didn't need any more Russian culture this time.

I walked north back towards the Kremlin, this time turning left when I got to the Moscow River. Once again I was reminded that golden moments are only, well, moments. Now the city was like Western Europe in that it was chill, overcast, damp, and filled with smoggy traffic.

I headed towards the new Assumption Cathedral, one of the most humungous churches in the world. It was built to replace a giant swimming pool, which was built to replace a slightly less humungous church that Stalin had torn down in his atheistic zeal. Who's laughing now, comrade?

Walking inside, I found it to be not quite as Donald-Trump-Builds-A-Church as I had been led to believe. Still, the wall to ceiling paintings that covered the interior (which is what Russian churches do) were much closer to Twentieth Century Sunday School than Fourteenth Century Devotional. And I had been hoping for some pews so that I could both pray and rest my feet, but, it being a Russian church, I was out of luck.

Back out on the street I wandered north for about a mile until I got to the Arbat, Moscow's famous pedestrian/souvenir stall street. I stepped into one of the city's many Starbucks clones and bought a $4 cup of coffee. Mighty fine brew.

Legs rested and fully caffeinated, I took a relaxing stroll up and down the mostly refurbished nineteenth century Arbat cobblestones and buildings. I was feeling pleasant again, and the weather was co-operating, with some blue back in the sky and exquisite pale blue afternoon atmosphere.

It was now around 4 and there was some tourist day left, so I hopped back on the Metro and went outwards around six long stops. I wanted to check out what outer Moscow was like.

A also wanted to check out the VVnH, which I knew from before was a giant permanent 'World's Fair'kind of exhibition park that the Soviet Union had built back in the Seventies so as to display the glories of Socialism. After all, Communism should at least have some nostalgia value.

The first view wasn't encouraging. The 300 foot tall soaring aluminum monument to the Soviet space program had graffiti scrawled all along its bottom, and the grass was overgrown all around it.

Across the street the exhibition park was in slightly better shape, with the monumental arches and ornate exhibit halls standing forlornly and offset by tacky advertising and amusement parks. Still, it was a pretty popular place, and crowds were milling.

I noticed a 300 foot tall ferris wheel about a half mile away and started towards it. What better reminder of the Soviet Union, when just about every town had a ferris wheel, and where that was about it for entertainment in just about every town?

Soviet pricing was no longer in effect, however. $6 for one rotation! Even the ferris wheel on the Champs Elysee hadn't cost near that. And as I arose to the top, the view of somewhat highrise Moscow stretching out forever in every direction, while interesting, didn't in any way compare with Paris, either.

Moscow was one very expensive city, right up there with London, and almost to Tokyo. I remembered the Soviet Union and its three cent ferris wheel rides with fond nostalgia.

Then back into the center city, back to the internet, back to Marina's and back to bed.

I awoke on Friday with a new and final Russian task to accomplish. Since I was now staying in Moscow for a third day, I also now had to register my visa, which would have been routine if I had been staying at a hotel, but for which I now had to pay Marina $40, so that she could go to an agent, who would...

Anyhow, Marina had to have a xerox of my Russian visa to be able to do this, so she came with me to Beloruskaya station to do that. Now, however, I learned that other side of Russians, not giving out info. They don't ask for it, either. For some reason Marina, who lived three minutes away from this gigantic commercial conglomeration, and who made her living doing these things, didn't have a clue as to where to find a xerox machine in this area. Nor would she stop and ask anyone. I finally found a place to have breakfast, while she took the subway three stops to where she knew there was a xerox machine, xeroxed the visa, then came all the way back to give my passport to me so that if, on the off chance a Russian cop stopped me this afternoon, I wouldn't be screwed.

That taken care of, I headed back to the internet, since my next few days were to be hectic, and I really needed to get myself caught up. Even if I'm the only one reading this.

It's sort of like an existential statement of existential meaninglessness.

So now it's down to Red Square for a final long afternoon of old Kremlin church gawking, St Basil's gawking, etc. Then tonight it's me and my bags over to Kiev station and the soon to be seen wonders of the Ukraine.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Moscow 2006: The Re-Mix, Part Dva

(I'm not going to lose another one. And I don't care if you have to break your train of thought.)

In the daylight Moscow's transformation was complete. And what made it even better was that today was gloriously warm and sunny. I stepped out of the Metro and found myself right outside of Red Square.

Man, have they snazzed this place up! Red Square had been totally impressive both in 1992 and even when I was there in 1982 and the Commies really ran the place. Unlike Tianamien Square, it just has a unity and an architectual pizzazz that's hard to top, what with the Kremlin, St Basil's, etc. But back then, among other things, it was surrounded by a traffic clogged 10 lane madness. Now all that was gone and had been replaced with a massive and park-like pedestrian area. With fine new construction going on all around the area, a sunny day, and happy walkers all around, the ambience was delicious.

I walked into Red Square, and was once again awed by the Kremlin, St. Basil's, etc. The main square was closed off for some reason, but I lolled around the perimeter, along the front of the gigantic GUM department store.

Built before the Commies and evoking Faberge and fin de siecle elegance, it had just started to change from a horribly dull commie retail space in 1992. Now it is fancier than any Galleria in the world. And remember, all those Gallerias are trying to copy the fountains and crenellated archways of the original GUM.

I walked back into Red Square, and noticed people walking into Lenin's Tomb across the way. I had never gone there in my previous visits, what with the long lines and all. But now... Then I also noticed that the Kremlin itself wouldn't be open tomorrow. All of a sudden I was out of lolling mode.

Quickly all the way around to the entrance. The tomb was free, but everyone had to check their cameras for 30 roubles. Back to the entrance and the walk across the plaza to the tomb. Guards made sure that everyone was properly somber.

You know how great cathedrals make even agnostics feel reverent? Well, I don't care what your belief system is, there is something SO indelibly and ineffably creepy about seeing Marxist Materialism epitomized in Lenin's waxy corpse. I was glad to get back out into the sunlight.

Now, however, the walkway took you along the Kremlin's wall, where all kinds of Communists I had never heard of were buried. Finally, we passed the cenotaphs (look it up) of, among others, Andropov, Breshnev, and Stalin. Then it was back to Red Square. And a half mile walk all around to go get your damn camera!

I walked around another quarter mile to the Kremlin ticket office. Once there, I found out that all the cathedrals inside had been closed for a week, and would only reopen on Friday.

I had been trying to decide whether to leave the city on Thursday or Friday. That settled it.

It was still a glorious, warm, sunny day. And as luck would have on this side of the Kremlin there was a glorious, warm, sunny park. I sat down on a bench and spaced out for a while.

Then I got up and proceeded to circumnavigate the Kremlin's walls, walking along the Moscow River, and ending up back at the south end of Red Square and St. Basil's. I gawked and gawked.

Then I zipped over to the Red Square's Sbarro's for some food.

Moscow 2006: The Re-Mix

We got into Yaroslavsky Station right on schedule at 2:30. I got all my baggage together and headed out for the big city.

My 'homestay' hostess, Marina, was supposed to have sent her 15 year old son Alex to meet me. This was so special, since I'd never been greeted before with someone holding a 'Folz' sign. But

No one was there. Well, I wasn't all that surprised, having dealt with Russia before. Still, I walked ever so slowly towards the exit, waiting for someone to come up and say: Excuse, please...

Nope. Oh well, I'd find her place by myself. I exited the station and found myself in a large plaza all of a sudden surrounded by Moscow. The weirdness of it all came back in a rush. Okay, where was the Metro sign? Come on, it's got to be here somewhere.

About 200 yards away I found it. Then inside, buy a ticket, maneuver my stuff down the long, long escalator, and take the train a couple of stops over to Beloruskaya. So far, so good.

Out on the street again and ask for Butirsky Val. Over there. Now to walk up it until I find the long building with the number 28 on it. Here it is. Except now things start to fall apart.

I actually had been given two addresses, and, having been in Moscow before, I assumed that Marina's actual apartment was on some side street right near to 28 Butirsky Val. So just stop to ask somebody...

The problem with that idea was that, as opposed to just about anywhere else in the world, where an obvious tourist, especially a befuddled one, is immediately helped by any and all who drop what they're doing to go over and be helpful, that's not how the Russkies operate. Nope, mostly they all act surly AND ignore you. And even the few that do help do so kind of surreptitiously, as if they don't want anyone else to see their kindness. So far it seemed like the same old Moscow.

What's more, nobody seemed to have a clue as to what sidestreet they were on. What's more, even when I finally got someone to call Marina's phone number, she didn't answer.

It looked like I might have to go to Plan B, which involved schlepping back to the Metro and going out around ten kilometers to where the Hotel Ismaylovo with its 8000 beds could sell me a cheap room for $100 a night. But I had one last idea, which was to go back to 28 Butirsky Val.

There, around the back at Entrance 2 and Floor 3, there was an apartment 39. Trouble was, nobody was home. I sat down in the stairwell and decided to give it another 15 minutes.

And I was just getting up to trudge on out to the Ismaylovo when Alex showed up. He had some story about his mother telling him to wait at Wagon 1 instead of my Wagon 11, but I suspect that, being a 15 year old boy, he had spaced it out and was now making stuff up. Whatever. At least I now had my room.

Actually, it turned out that I had an entire small apartment to myself, all for $40 a night. I pulled my stuff in and prepared to fall down on my new bed.

Except that Alex needed to get me to pay up so that he could go eat for the first time in 24 hours. So I trotted out with him back to the street, sans daypack, and back towards the Metro stop, where there was an ATM.

ATM found and rent paid, I now decided that I had better well eat while I was at a commercial area. Then I realized: No daypack! I felt so liberated. I found some food, and then, feeling lucky, I decided to take the subway one stop over to where Alex had vaguely indicated there was an internet cafe.

Intuitively making all the right turns, I actually found it. Not only that, but when I was finished I actually found my way back to Beloruskaya and then to 28 Butirsky Val. I celebrated by taking a shower and going to bed.

The next morning, refreshed, I set out to discover the new Moscow. For it had been evident in my quick rambles of the night before that this city was far different from what I had seen in 1992. Back then there had been just the faint stirrings of commerce: Russia's first McDonald's, mostly long, long streets of dreadful and dreary, mostly closed Soviet 'stores' occasional workers'cafeterias. I remember taking a whole day trying to track down the one store in the city that was supposed to have a voltage converter for sale, and then when I finally found it it was no longer there.

In particular, I remember vividly that across the street from Red Square you had to walk through a block long gauntlet of desperately poor old people desperately trying to sell every last possession--even if it was one old shoe--in order to survive.

The only real commerce consisted of little kiosks clustered around Metro stations, all selling not much more than cigarettes, Pepsis, and, when they were in stock, potato chips. Kind of what's still available at the Siberian train platforms.

The kiosks are still there, but now their product lines have greatly expanded, with everything from shwarma to Captain Potato. Much more importantly, the entire city has exploded with every kind of store and restaurant and club that you would find in any prosperous Western European city. And the Western European comparison should be stressed: unlike the early Nineties, the sleazy hoodlum/mafia vibe is completely gone.

Trans-Siberia, Part Dva

(Instead of having another epileptic fit when the computer loses my entire previous post, I had the brilliant idea of starting a new one.

And to get you up to speed, a rouble is worth four cents. And I forgot to pack my Russian-English dictionary.)

Anyway, it was Sunday afternoon and I was looking out the window. Now many of you may well think that spending 100 hours cooped up all by myself surrounded by a bunch of Mongolians would start to be boring. But I continued to be alert and fascinated. Of course, I tend to be alert and fascinated when I drive across North Dakota, so your results may vary. But, anyway, how often does one get to be in Siberia?

Around sunset we pulled into Novosibirsk, that other fabled Siberian metropolis. We were once more in a Soviet city, though not nearly as dilapidated as the small towns we were passing or as the cities had been back in 1992. Once more no food available at the station. I went back to my compartment, rustled around in my knapsack for some stale bread and cheese, and gnawed away for a while. Then I went to bed.

I awoke around 3 am absolutely shivering. I rustled around in the darkness and found some more layers to put on, but even then if it weren't for an extra blanket that was somehow lying around I would have flirted with hypothermia.

When we arrived in Tyumen around 8 am it was cold and windy and overcast on the platform, and a few snowflakes fluttered down. Even the Mongolians were freezing. When the train started up again we were all huddled under our blankets. My Deep Pondering Insight for Monday was: If the rest of my trip is this cold and miserable, I probably won't be having much fun.

We passed through the Ural Mountains, which were entirely and perfectly flat. Surprisingly, given the temperature outside, the leaves had just barely started to turn, and the fields were still green. At 2 pm we got to Ekaterinburg, the city where Tsar Nicholas and family were killed, and now our compartment only held three.

As the evening started to descend, Raya mentioned that all the Mongolians on the train were talking about how a guy in the compartment next to us had ripped off some Chinese travelers in the next car for $3000. So that I didn't have to worry about my throat getting slit tonight, she said that Mongolians only hated the Chinese.

Also ominously, this Mongolian lady who had been mysteriously hanging around a couple of days before showed up with a lady friend, who now wanted to claim the now available bed. If I had thought to bring a gun along, I would have slept with it under my pillow.

As it was, I really layered up in preparation for another freezing night. Which meant of course that the weather changed again and I woke up feeling like an attic on a hot summer night.

Unlayered, I awoke on Tuesday as the train was approaching Nizhni Novgorod, actually Russia's third largest city. It has a reputation as being really on the grow, and, although I saw nothing remotely resembling Shanghai, I could tell that now that we were entering Europe things were getting spiffier and somewhat more prosperous. And as if to confirm that impression, as we pulled into the station there was a McDonald's logo shining in the dawn just a half a block away.

By now I was plotting to rush out on the platform, through the underpass, out of the station, across the street, and back with a pierogie or two. Unfortunately, this was only a ten minute stop. I pulled out the last of my ramen.

As we started in again, the scenery was becoming more, well, lush. The forests had considerable undergrowth. There were small flower gardens and occasional apple trees. I imagined Tolstoy and Chekhov playing badminton just over there.

Now we were getting near Moscow, and the excitement, if that's what you could call it, was becoming palpable. At the end of it all, the 100 hour train ride had turned out to fly right past. I hadn't even had time to write a novel.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Trans-Sexual, I Mean Trans-Siberian, Experience

Lest the title of the last post lead you astray, that one small herd of yaks that I saw were the only ones. Mostly it was sheep, horses, and cows.

Also, something should be said about the changeable weather. I week ago in Mongolia it had been 35 and windy and snowing. Now you only need a t-shirt when you go to bed, except 10 minutes later when you need a sweatshirt. Then in the morning it reverses itself, and then back again, and so on.

And a final comment about Mongolian solidarity. The country is indeed very poor, but one really gets the feeling that you can always stop off at a ger and they'll take care of you. There's no begging and everything seems secure. After all, GNP isn't everything; a hundred years ago the US per capita income was probably a tenth of what it is today, yet everyone was pretty happy...

Anyhow, it was our last morning in Mongolia. First, we headed a couple of blocks over to the country's biggest monastery. As I mentioned, Mongolia's Buddhism was learned from the Tibetans, but one gets the feeling that they never took it nearly as seriously as their teachers. On the other hand, it DID do a lot to lessen their bloodthirsty barbarian image.

Then it was a quick trot over to the large and strange State Department Store. I had hoped for some souvenir shopping, but none was to be had. A quick lunch at the California Restaurant: one more greek salad and cheese potatoes. And then a cab to the train station, Sumi helped lug my luggage onto Wagon 11, and she was off and soon so was I.

But first I waited for my 3 cabinmates to arrive. After all, that German couple had tried for tickets this morning and had been told they were all sold out. But 1:50 came and went, the train started rolling, and I was still all alone. Maybe twirling those prayer wheels yesterday had worked? I doubted it. Still, I took what I could get while I could get it.

A half hour later my prodivitsa (a sort of stewardess/janitoress who does all the stewarding and janitoring) came by with my inflight snack of a bottle of water and some Mongolian potato puffs. But then I was alone.

Mongolia started rolling away past my window again. Again it looked like eastern Wyoming. Or maybe central Nevada. Or maybe eastern New Mexico. Hell, it looked like anywhere in the arid American West: flat to rolling to low hills, sometimes a little greener, but usually brown, brown, brown. I thought that it might look a lot nicer after the rainy season, but then I realized that that was now.

At seven pm we pulled into MongoliĆ”'s third largest city (population 70,000) and all bedlam broke loose. A number of giant suitcases and a young Mongolizn lady with her two year old daughter ended up in my compartment. I thought that she would be my new traveling companion, but when the train lurched forward she freaked, grabbed the child, and tried to get off the train. Which was difficult considering the Mongolian horde that was in the corridor.

I know that she succeeded in getting off, because I saw her on the platform weeping and waving with all the other Mongolian relatives. In her stead was her young husband, who it turned out was a student going back for another year to study in Ekaterinburg, Russia. He somehow pushed and jammed all of his stuff under seats and into holes.

We got to the border around 8:30, and the Mongolian formalities proceeded apace. And now we would wait...

Having never been erudite enough to have read a Russian novel, I had decided to bring along The Brothers Karamazov. I pulled it out and started reading: It was a dark and stormy soul.

After a couple of hours we headed out from Mongolia and towards the Russian border. I was half afraid that the Russians would find something wrong with my visa, pull me off the train, and take me to some secret prison where I would be brutally tortured. Then I remembered that that sort of thing only happens in America.

Actually, Russian entry was pretty straightforward, although it was kind of weird to once more be having Caucasians in authority. Then, it now being Russia, we waited some more. I did find out that once again the LP was wrong, and there was not a sign of any money changer anywhere. If it weren't for the kindness of some Russian mafia/backpackers (I wasn't quite sure which) who changed a fifty for me, I would have been totally screwed. As it was, I was stuck with a now worthless 10,000 togreg note, a fitting symmetrical irony to my Mongolian adventure.

Right on schedule at 10:02, however, we started up. Of course, that was 3:02 am my time, but from now on the train and me would surreally be on Moscow time.

I was eager to get to sleep, because I was eager to wake up early the next morning. For I knew that we would be passing by one of those exotic end of the world places that I had always wanted to see: The Deepest Lake In Thw World: Lake Baikal. Oh Boy!

Around 9 am I awoke to a rain splattered window and some dull grey water stretching out not all that far to meet a dull grey sky. Oh No! It looked like some lame lake in Canada, only without a craggy Canadian Shieldscape to ennoble it.

What a bringdown. About an hour or so later, as we continued to hug the nothing shoreline, the clouds started to lift a little, and I noticed that there were indeed hills surrounding it, although even there they were more like rounded Appalachian hills rather than magnificent peaks. As we rounded the southern edge the clouds lifted a little more, and I grumpily conceded that if they ever had a nice day it would probably be pretty neat.

But still no Lake Superior.

Anyhow, that's how it goes with longheld fantasies and the vagaries of weather. I could have stayed there for a week and been all rained in. Or it might have been a bright and sunny day...

A couple of hours later we passed our first Russian settlement. If I hadn't known better, the hundreds of tiny little shacks separated only by enough space for a tiny garden would have been more depressing than South African 'townshops'. But I did know better: These were the funky 'summber houses'of city dwellers.

And then the fabled Irkutsk appeared. I was kind of hoping that there would be a big pile of plastic triangular Risk pieces in the middle of town, but no such luck. Indeed, I knew from previous experience that outside of Moscow and St Petersburg, every Russian city was going to be intensely uninteresting. (I picture a young Soviet architect rushing into the office one morning: I've got it! We'll build a big rectangular concrete builiding! Just like all the others!')

Here my final two cabin-mates appeared: A young Mongolian IT worker with a job in Moscow and a 21 year old Syrian boy she was shepherding who spoke not a word of Russian or English.

And once the train started going again, I decided to finally walk its length. I found out that there were 18 spalny (2 berth) places, and 360 kupe (4 berth) ones. I also found out that, outside of a few westerners in spalny, there was me, a small sprinkling of Russians, and a whole, whole lot of Mongolians on this train.

Why they were here became apparent at the next stop. For each one of them had brought along suitcases full of cheap Chinese clothing, which they now brought out on the platform and hung out of the train windows, complete with mannikins. And waiting for them were middle-aged dilapidated Siberian women, who had all congregated for the Mongolian flea market. And there would be two or three twenty minute stops per day when the whole absurd scene would be repeated.

Meanwhile, I sat in my compartment reflecting on my relative good fortune in sharing my compartment with some of the few students on board, instead of all the, all right, grubby Mongolians who spent their whole lives taking this train to Moscow, unloading all their bad Chinese jeans and plastic purses, and then going back to UB for more.

I settled in and watched Siberia's fields and forests pass by in their version of fall foliage. This no longer looked like Wyoming, but rather like midlevel Canada, complete with birches and spruces, except here the trees were somewhat taller. The weather kept getting progressively clearer.

Maureen had expected that once I had all this time to myself on the train I would be overflowing with Profound Ideas. Here's what I was thinking: Russia might be undeniably wacky (for I had been here before), but for my purposes it still seemed somehow saner than the land of my birth. After all, like in the rest of the Not Over Developed World, these people all still have their dreams. We seem to be stuck with only nightmares any more.

I mean, if in 1944 you had shown the Nazis or the Communists a glimpse of the future, wherein CNN, the self-proclaimed 'World's Most Trusted News Source', was selling advertising for 'natural male enhancement' pills, they would have said: Even WE never thought that Liberal Democracy could get so depraved!

Yes, I know that I'm degraded, too: note the lame humor of today's blog post title. But nonetheless I still like to sit on Mongolian trains in Siberia, watching the scenery roll by, and not watching CNN and not having to deal with topics like gay marriage and torturing Arabs and natural male enhancement.

Since we had all missed out the night before at the border, we were all eager to get to sleep as the sun went down. And as the sun came up it was a beautiful blue sky fall day. The passing terrain still looked like Canada With Taller Trees, sometimese flat, sometimes rolling. I felt bad comparing everywhere with home--after all, China looks distinctly different, India looks distinctly different... But Canada with taller trees was what it was.

Okay, the towns weren't quite the same. Mostly they were pathetic agglomerations of bedraggled wooden structures. I kept fantasizing that a battalion of Up With People! kids armed with three tons of housepaint would do wonders for the atmospherics.

Talking with Raya, my new Mongolian girl friend, I found out that her parents were yak herders back at Terelj National Park. Stopping at each platform, I found that all the travel guides were wrong again: there were no nice ladies selling pierogies anywhere (maybe they all knew about the Mongolian train). There was one empty dining car on the train with one grumpy Russian waiter in it. The corridors reeked of ramen and Mongolian strange meat stew. My hunger was getting more desperate.

And as I walked around a train platform in the afternoon, my Profound Idea was that this would be a good day to watch a meaningless NFL game on tv.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Yaks A Plenty

Gana's Guesthouse hosts an eclectic lot. The largest contingent this morning at breakfast were middle aged Finn couples who really looked their age. Then there was the young East German hippie couple who had brought along their two year old girl. You get the picture.

The East Germans and a couple of Poles and us arranged, for fifteen dollars each, to rent a car and driver for the day. Off we went through the eastern suburbs of Ulan Batur and on out towards outer Mongolia. The driver was taking us on the scenic route to the Terenj National Park, and within about 45 minutes we came upon our first major scene: a herd of domesticated yaks.

So we stopped and started walking towards them, snapping pictures as the shambled away. Then the driver drove us up a grassy incline where nomads stood by a ger waiting to sell us a drink of fermented mare's milk. After that a quick stop at a Mongolian version of a Tibetan roadside pile-of-rocks-with-flags-on-top (Mongolians learned their Buddhism from the Tibetans).

Then a stop for a quick meal of Mongolian deepfried flatbread. And finally, after many hours of slow driving, at 3:20 we were at the 'National Park'. Trees, almost entirely spruces, had started out being few and far between, but by now we had gotten high enough so that they were common. The hills had finally gotten respectable, there were even outcroppings of rock, and it was fall foliage season in Mongolia, and the spruces (!) were turning yellow.

It was all rather pretty, but it still looked like some of the lower mountains in Wyoming. I guess living in the western United States spoils one grandeur-wise. On the other hand, it WAS Mongolia.

We only had an hour to hike, so we walked up a hill to (you guessed it) a Buddhist temple, where we both spun all the available prayer wheels. (I definitely need a better incarnation next time.) Then it was down the hill, into the minivan, and back to UB, this time on a bad version of asphalt.

And tomorrow at 13:50 I board the train for Moscow.

Now you might be wondering why I went to all this trouble to get to Mongolia, and then I'm leaving after 48 hours. Yes, it seems weird to me, too, but there are two good reasons for this.

The first has to do with train schedules. If I don't go on Friday then I can't go until next Tuesday. Of course, there's always the daily midnight train to Irkutsk, but that is excruciatingly slow, and then I'd have to negotiate a Moscow ticket from there.

The second and more important reason is that, outside of Terenj National Park there's not much to see in Mongolia unless you take a ten or more day expedition, which gets really costly both time and moneywise. What's more, after just 24 hours in UB, we've already walked just about everywhere one can, and it's not like they have an amazing skyline of postmodern skyscrapers.

Indeed, although there are many relatively unimaginative buildings being built and there is somewhat of a commercial buzz around UB, most of Mongolia is still dirt poor. The amazing thing, though, is that the Mongolians don't act poor. They seem relatively content with their lot, and, outside of a few grubby taxi drivers, they are genuinely friendly and un-scam oriented towards foreigners.

So if I had to stay here for several more days, I'm sure that I would find them pleasant. But although Sumi's going to, I'm not. I'm off for the insanity that is Russia.

And since they don't have Wifi on the Trans-Siberian, you won't hear from me again until Tuesday. I know that it's going to be hard, but hang in there.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Mister Magoo Goes To Mongolia

Tuesday morning we were up and early and off to the Beijing train station, where they were just starting to board the Mongolia Special. Since I'd been saving so much on accommodation, I had decided to go whole hog and get the 'deluxe' 2 person sleeper, complete with easy chair and private bath. When we reached our compartment, however, it was a little disappointing. The decor looked like out of the 1950's and the private bath consisted of a small washbasin. Oh well, at least we had our own small private space.

The train got under way, we slowly got to the edge of Beijing, and then started climbing through the hills that surround the north of the city, passing the Great Wall one more time on our way to barbarianland. The small mountains didn't last too long, and pretty soon we were traversing a flat sandy brown plain that was growing some sandy brown green vegetation. And it was pretty much that unscenic way for the rest of the day, only getting sandy browner. The housing also degenerated into sandy brown concrete block hovels, kind of like in Africa.

And I know how much you like to hear about other people's medical problems, but since the day before I had become more and more allergic to China. Sixteen benadryl had been popped in six hours to little or no effect. Needless to say, I was totally miserable, and just hoping that whatever pollen it was that was doing it didn't live in Mongolia, too.

So the sun went down and the train kept a rollin'. All night long. Except that at around eight thirty it pulled into the Chinese side of the Mongolia border. We got our passports stamped, and then everyone on the train got off and waited for over two hours while they took said train into a shed where they lifted each car and replaced it on top of wheels that fit Mongolian/Russian tracks.

Now whenever I'm being international I always carry my passport, extra money, and important papers in a daypack I can hold tight to me so that we don't get separated. Very little crime in the rest of the world is violent, and I figure that, given Asian standards I'm a pretty big, tough dude, no one's going to mess with me.

Anyhow, around eleven the train pulls back up and they motion for us all to get on. Sumi and I are engrossed in a conversation, and as we saunter all the way over to the track and find our car, I notice that we're about the last people to get on. We make our way to our cabin and I notice that there doesn't seem to be as much junk on my bed as usual. Let's see, there's the one daypack. The other daypack is right here on my... Oh, friggin crap, where the hell is it?

By now there are guards on the platform posted at every car's entrance. I yell 'passport' and jump off the train past them. A mad 150 yard dash later, in the station hall, and bounding up the stairs to... Oh no, it's not there! My mind says, 'you senile fool, maybe you had taken it off already at the cabin and that's why it wasn't on your shoulder'.

Another 150 yard dash back to the train. The guards don't want to let me back on, but finally I get past them. Back to the cabin and nothing there. Okay, back to the station hall. Now they really don't want me to get off. I frantically yell 'passport' again and start the 'feets don't fail me now' bit. My mind is just starting to wrap itself around the reality that Sumi is about to take off with all our baggage, and I'm about to be stuck on the Chinese Mongolia border with no money and the nearest ATM about 500 miles away when...

I see these two Red Army ladies sauntering towards me with my daypack. Bless their Communist Chinese hearts! I take it and bound back towards the train and back to my compartment where I quickly lie down just in case there was a heart attack coming on. Then, once my breath returns, I bang my head against the wall seven times so as to punish myself.

Well, it turned out that my heart was just fine. And it turned out that my passport had been in my pants pocket all along. And it turned out that the train didn't take off for another half hour. Still, in a less honest country I might have never seen my other important papers and around $900 in cold hard cash ever again.

It took until 1 am to finish with Mongolian customs, and then everyone on the train finally got a chance to sleep.

I woke up around 8 am surrounded by the flatness of the Gobi desert. In case you're interested, it looks pretty much like eastern Wyoming, even down to the open pit coal mines. And as the day progressed all that changed was that small hills started to emerge. Yes, there were gers (Mongolian yurts) along the way, but I kept missing the really great picture.

Around two thirty we got to Ulan Batur. For some reason I thought that the mountains around it would be semi-majestic and pine covered. Uh-uh. They were just medium sized hills and they were as bleak and brown as the grubbier parts of Nevada.

The outskirts of UB were also kind of grubby, reminding me of a ramshackle Native Canadian town in the far north. As we pulled into the train station my mind, however, was still kind of expecting to see brightly costumed, friendly yak herders.

No such luck there, either. UB isn't as creepy as old Soviet towns, but neither is it all that uptown. It seemed more prosperous than a lot of third world countries I've been, although I don't know for the life of me how anyone can earn much of a living in a much poorer version of eastern Wyoming.

We walked a couple of blocks over to the international ticket office, where I needed to buy a ticket for Moscow. The bad news was that there weren't any spaces on the two person compartment cars. The good news was that a four person space cost less than $100 for a four day trip. Also, I can try to upgradw once I'm on the train.

Next we had to find a place to stay. The LP highly recommended Gana's Guesthouse, so we stopped the first cab and gave him the name and address. Not a flicker of recognition. Okay, how about another cab. And another. It became clear that most all Mongolian cab drivers neither know where anything is nor comprehend even the most basic English.

So we tried our second option, the UB Guesthouse. This time the driver said he knew exactly where it was. But when he took us to the giant Soviet era UB Hotel, we knew that he didn't. Next we got the English speaking doorman there to give him directions. A few minutes later he had found it and I gave him 1000 Togreg (about a dollar). Except that a guy standing there said after he drove off, 'Why did you give him 10,000 Togreg?'

By now I was feeling totally Magoo-ish. I walked upstairs to the UB guesthouse and found it to be kind of a backpacker dump. And a totally full backpacker dump at that. Never to mind, when we went downstairs the same guy pointed to a pink building a couple of blocks away, and said 'Dream Hotel. Very nice. $20 a night.'

So, lugging our luggage, we walked over there. Except the Dream Hotel didn't have any rooms. Okay, next door was the New Dream Hotel. And they had a room for $35 a night. All nice and clean, except when I went up to check it out there was only one bed.

Being a friendly Mongolian, however, the lady at reception started calling every other hotel she could think of. Finally after about twenty minutes she came up with one that had a room available: Gana's Guesthouse. Which at this point was a fifteen minute walk away. And towards which, given our luck with cabs so far, we started to walk.

Gana was waiting for us when we arrived and showed us to our simple but clean room. Sumi took a shower to try and wash the dusty grumpiness out of her, and then we walked a few blocks to the California Restaurant where we overate with every American restaurant baked cheese dish that had been unavailable to us in China.

Walking around UB trying to find an ATM and then on the way back, we were both struck, as we had been in China, with the normality of it all and the comparative lack of grinding poverty that one sees in Latin America or Africa. China we could understand, given how many mass produced consumer goods they are selling to everywhere, including Latin America and Africa. But how in the world is Mongolia doing it?

Right now I don't really care, though. I just want to go to sleep.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Goodness Gracious Great Walls of China

I saw one of Beijing's numerous fender benders today. And you would expect the two drivers to pull out their insurance cards. Instead, everybody started kung fu fighting. Them cats were fast as lightning. It was a little bit frightening. But it was done with expert timing.

No, wait a minute. That was just a dream, just a dream. Not that I got much dreaming done last night, given the mosquitos in the room and my horrible hay fever. I had forgotten to mention that the other reason I gave up on my China tour twenty years ago was that China in September makes me sneeze. This time I brought along a giant bottle of antihistamines, but once it started in about 24 hours ago I have been popping them like crazy to little effect.

And we had to get up at six because today was our expedition to the Great Wall. Now one of the benefits of living in a hostel environment is that you can sign up for non-obvious tourist tours. And taking a 10k hike along an obscure section of the wall seemed like a great idea. After all, the book said that it was an easy four hours, and even though I am the world's slowest walker I figured that I'd have six or seven hours to do it easy.

Except that it took us 5 hours to cover the 75 mile distance, which meant there were only four hours available before pickup at the other end. But how hard could it be? Then I looked up at the ridge it was snaking along.

Oh well. Start walking. So I got up the long incline to the ridge and turned left along the Wall. About an hour or so into, however, I started realizing that I wasn't as young as I used to be. And it was 90 degrees and humid and sunny. And I had a blister developing. And my knees grimaced with pain on every step down. And there were many steps down and many, many, many more up.

Sunstroke, if not a heart attack, seemed like a real possibility. And although there would be a certain ironic symmetry in me keeling over which trying to climb the Great Wall of China, I suspected that Maureen wouldn't take too kindly to me undergoing a needless demise.

Simultneously Sumi started getting nervous about dealing with a dead father in the middle of nowhere. We decided I should chicken out, be a coward, give up. I turned around.

Now even though you're in the middle of nowhere, that doesn't stop any number of Chinese hawkers from walking along with you, patiently and usually forlornly hoping that at some point you'll take pity on them and buy some of their trinkets. In this case I had a young local guy steering me to the cable car for the easy ride down.

I got in and descended in calm serenity over a yawning chasm, noticing that off to the right the Chinese guy was running down the hill on a precipitous path. When I got to the bottom he was there waiting, since he knew that my bus was long gone over to the end of the hike. I entered into negotiations with him, and soon I was riding in a little six foot long truckbed welded on to the back of his motorcycle.

It was actually a pretty neat open air trip through the hilly rural countryside.

And, guess what?, I had beaten all of my fellow hikers to our destination. When Sumi finally showed up two minutes before the bus left, she said it was the most strenuous hike she had ever taken, and that I would have definitely killed myself had if I had tried it. I like to think that if the temperature had just been twenty degrees cooler...

Anyway, you're probably wondering if the Wall is all that. Well, pretty much. It certainly took a lot of hard work, although I've read that it really wasn't very useful as a barbarian deterrent. Maybe the Chinese just felt safe behind their fence.

So then it was back to Beijing for our final night in China. For tomorrow bright and early we're on the train to Mongolia. So here are some final China comments:

Even though the language and writing are hopelessly impossible to figue out, it's actually a pretty easy country to get yourself around in. And, strangely enough, it might well be the least in your face country in Asia.

And speaking of hostel environments, the building we're in has a nice lobby and hostel and double rooms in the three or floors above it. Behind the lobby, though, there's a totally middle class Chinese restaurant. And then in the basement...

When I first saw the attractive young ladies walking up the stairs in fancy silk dresses, I thought there might be some sort of amateur fashion show going on. Then a couple of shit-faced drunk Chinese men staggered upstairs and fell flat on the concrete floor. And then when I went down there, there wasn't even a bar, just many darkened cubicles. And a Chinese bouncer ran up and said, 'You go away now!'

It's an honest to god whorehouse down there.

Which seems like an ironically symmetrical note to end my current China tour on.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Beijing #3

48 hours in a strange city and it starts to feel like home: Navigating the subway's a snap. Landmarks start being familiar. Even the nasal singsong speech begins to sound normal.

The city is different from my first impressions. It stretches on out forever, with medium and highrises, all at least newish, neither too plain nor too fancy, neither invigorating nor depressing. Amazing how far a country can get selling the world cheap clothing and outdoor swing sets.

Foreigners are a tiny minority, but there are still far more than I would have imagined. Surprisingly, especially given the sorts of places where I usually end up, the largest subgroup seems to be American.

Speaking of which, it's when you get outside of the US of A that you realize what a pathetic paranoid delusion our fixation on 'terrorism' is. After all, I recall a statistician pointing out that, even factoring in 9/11, one has a greater risk of being killed by an asteroid. The rest of the world's people seem to have figured that out; baffling that we can't.

Then there's our fixation on 'democracy' and 'freedom', especially ironic considering that these days we have one of the most dysfunctional governments in the world. There's no way you could guess walking down the street that present day China is 'communist', and I don't see any of the people here looking any more oppressed or any less individualistic than anyone back home.

Well, enough about politics. One of the great things about hitting the foreign road is that you don't have to see the American news, or any of the other news, either, and somehow you're still able to function...

Today we decided to spend Sunday in the park. Specifically, we headed out to the Summer Palace, which these days is a large city park with an even larger manmade lake about 8 miles from downtown. You're told to avoid the weekends and the large crowds, but we thought it would be more enjoyable to enjoy it all with the natives.

So we walked around through even more pagoda roofed pavilions, took boats across the lake, sat on park benches, and ate snacks.

Then we turned around and found our way back. A stop at the market to stock up on food for the next couple of days, and then upstairs to an early bed.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Beijing - Longer

Since I am now an expert on China, some comments are on order.

I spent several weeks in the south of the country in 1986, and I wasn't exactly struck by the welcoming warmth of the people. Moreover, when I was literally dying of altitude sickness in Lhasa, not a single Han Chinese person there could give a tenth of a flying fig about my collapse in the lobby of the best hotel in town. Needless to say, I assumed that this was all a function of a long dysfunctional Chinese culture.

So I blew off the rest of China and headed for Taiwan. Where the people were some of the outright friendliest people I have ever seen. So I revised my hypothesis and concluded that my problems on the mainland were the result of forty years of Communism.

I am pleased to report that this hypothesis appears correct. Although no one stops you on the street to shake your hand, there do seem to be a fair sprinkling of smiles and acknowledgements. I have heard that life in the boondocks is much more xenophobic, and it was clear to us when we were sitting around someplace and a tour bus disgorged a load of country bumpkins that those folk live a much, much poorer life. But the more China prospers, the happier the people seem to get. Go figure.

China is also a very safe place to be in. There is no paranoia when standing at the ATM. The cab drivers are all scrupulously honest. Nobody is going to beat you up or rape you.

On the other hand, if you don't speak or read Chinese, you're kind of out of luck, because they certainly don't speak or read English. And there's no way you can phonetically give them directions or anything, because a word like 'hamingmen' to them sounds nothing like any conceivable way you could try to pronounce it. The country is nice enough to have street and subway signs in Roman lettering, and if you go into McDonald's you can usually find someone who understands 'coffee', but in most instances you're on your own.

Still in all, I'm finding it easy to get around. At least it's not like Arabic countries, where even the numbers aren't arabic numerals.

And a first note on usage: For all its leap into the 21st century, it's really hard to find any internet cafes in China. I actually found it easier to do so in Guinea-Bissau and the Congo, both places without even a pretense of an electrical grid. Not only that, but when you do find them, the connections aren't that good.

Anyhow, back to the travelogue:

Friday night we both slept for about 12 hours, and we didn't get started for the Forbidden City until after 11. By now we had learned our Beijing scale walking lesson and we were taking cabs and the subway everywhere.

My first disappointment was that, once you walk all the long, tiring way up Tienamien Square, there's a giant street of traffic between it and the FC. Not only that, but the giant poster of Mao really wasn't all that giant.

Then you walk a ways, pay your money, and keep walking. As you enter, right up ahead is the giant Gate of Harmonious Under Construction. Past that is the Hall of Supreme Under Construction. And off to the side is the Giant Pavilion of Under Construction.

When you get past all that, you are presented with more cobblestoned courtyards and one story building after one story building which are all the same: Russet red walls, yellowish-orange pagoda type roofs, green and blue geometrical designs in between. Inside each building were either the uncomfortable chairs and divans that they all sat in, or some museumish exhibit. And I know that if it weren't for museums then tourists would have nothing to do, but if I see one more drawing instrument of Liu Shi Tsu, court official of Emperor Xanchi (1644-1875)....

Sumi wanted to stop at the Starbucks inside the Forbidden City, so while we sat and shared a Cafe Americano, I reflected on what an incredibly status-based civilization China had been for several thousand years. I concluded that our hunger for status is either some deep-rooted human need or else some kind of game that we have made up so as to keep us all from having to deal with the deeper questions of existence.

And both Sumi and I independently decided that it would have probably been better all around for them to keep this all Forbidden. At least then our imaginations of the unknown would have made it all exciting.

So it was back to the modern Beijing, over to the ancient Drum Tower, and a quick walk through the much-hyped hudongs, or traditional alleyways of everyday living, that are supposed to be charming but that struck both of us as nothing more than substandard housing. Then sampling street food, some of it good, some of it bad, and all of it greasy and salty. Finally, a hunt for an internet.

And here's a second usage note: Please forgive any spelling errors or switching of tenses, etc. This is all being done extremely on the fly!

Beijing - Short Version

When we got out of the Beijing train station at 7:30 am it was no longer balmy. In fact, it was pretty damn windy and cold. We hurriedly pulled stuff out of our backpacks to try to cover ourselves.

Then we walked up and over the pedestrian overpass to the Beijing Subway. It had been immediately apparent from my casing of the city that my first choice for hotel wasn't going to cut it, so we had quickly come up with a Plan B: a newish hostel that also had double rooms. And the subway would take us there.

We got to the right station and climbed back up to street level. Shanghai had been western oriented and a Hong Kong on the make. Beijing immediately reminded me of Moscow: inhumanly wide boulevards, inhumanly wide sidewalks, and block long buildings, all of which are intended to make you feel stupid and insignificant. The sky had sort of a pastel Moscow color to it, too.

We found the hostel behind one such building, and they had a double. It was nice, too, and only $20 a night. We moved ourselves in and celebrated with a short nap.

At around 11:30 we headed off for Tianamien Square, about a half hour walk away.

It being the largest public square in the world, I was expecting to be impressed. And it's certainly big (and would be even bigger if they hadn't plopped a Mao Mauseleum in the middle of it). But--and this is especially weird inasmuch as the Chinese are so into fung shue and harmony and all that crap--Sumi and I both found the space curiously unrefreshing. Sure, there was a gate of Heavenly Peace and the Great Hall of the People and all that other jazz, and you sure have to walk a lot to get to the other side of it, but there was just no pop.

No fizz.

Now we were hungry again (funny how that's a recurring theme when you travel) and started walking, walking, walking, trying to find the great vegetarian restaurant that the LP said was south of there. As opposed to Shanghai, the area we were walking through was rundown and shabby, and hardly an advertisement for the New China. When we finally found the address, the restaurant and every other business within a hundred yards was long demolished. So we hailed a cab and laboriously pointed on maps until he figured out how to take us to the other great vegetarian restaurant.

Which was boarded up when we got there. Now really, really hungry, we were happy to find a Pizza Haven (a less than mediocre apparently Australian pizza chain), and became sated and rested. And once we started to walk around again we noticed that this area of town was much newer and brighter and not even close to Moscowish. We were back in a consumer world that we could relate to.

Then it was off to the manmade hill with a temple on top that is just north of the Forbidden city, and a climb up 170 steps. When we got to the top we were rewarded with a great view of the Forbidden City and the whole rest of Beijing. We were also immediately ordered to go down because they were closing the hill for the evening or construction or something.

Next some wandering around and around and around, then around some more. Finally, it was back on the subway and back to our private room. And our first private sleep of the journey so far.

Laughing Buddha Jumping Off Pagoda

The problem with Shanghai is that, once you've gone, omigosh look at all those amazing buildings, there's not a heckuva lot to do. Not only that, but it's quaint poverty or incredible somethingorother that makes for great touristing, not pleasant and moderate middle class values. And by the time we got to the French Concession and found not delightful art deco buildings but rather shabby neighborhoods, we realized that we had now done Shanghai.

So bright and early the next morning we were off for the one hour train to Sozhou. Sozhou, you say? Gesundheit. Actually, Sozhou is one of the classic Chinese cities, famed for its silk, its location on the Grand Canal, and its many fine and old gardens. It's also a city of 6 million, so I really wasn't expecting much.

But I did want to get a glimpse of the 'real' China, the country outside of Shanghai and Beijing. Not to mention the sights along the way. A cab (they're all honest, by the way) took us to the crowded but still manageable station, we got on a new, air-conditioned train car in an orderly way, and watched the flat, rather orderly countryside roll by. By 9:45 we were in Sozhou and had deposited our bags at the left luggage office.

A small crowd of tour/huckster guys surrounded us, although--like the rest of China so far--they were nowhere near as annoying as such people can be. One guy in particular kept following us for over a block, promising to show us the entire city's sights for 80 yuan/two people, all day, and in an airconditioned minivan. Since I wasn't giving him anything up front, we finally decided to go along for his ride, just to see what the scam was.

First he took us to the tallest pagoda south of the Yangtze and west of the Pecos. He produced two 25 yuan entrance tickets (does he steal them???), Sumi and I entered the site, and we climbed up all seven stories.

The view down was very steep, and all around us to the horizons stretched an endless Sozhou. What to do but to climb back down. Where the guy (and his brother) were waiting to take us to the 'silk museum'.

What transpired was that you got an interesting three minute tour of silk production, after which you were deposited in a giant showroom of silk stuff for sale. I knew that these sort of places are always on tourist tours, and the driver always gets a commission from the store, but I also knew that our guy wasn't going to get very much off of the 50 yuan pair of silk slippers I bought.

So we're back in the minivan and he starts taking us to a 'boat tour' for 150 yuan. I tell him, no, we want to see the gardens. So he gives up on the boat and takes us over to the 'Number 1 Gardens'. Which turns out to be a recently created facsimile of the many, many real gardens that we could have gone to. As he drops us off, he asks for a 50 yuan 'deposit' for his full day tour, and I assume that that's the last I'm going to see of him. Which at this point kind of suits me just fine.

We're there anyway, so we paid the entrance fee and started walking around with all the tour groups, most of whom were Chinese. Sumi said, 'Great. Chinese gardens. Tranquility and peace. Okay, I get it. What else they got?' When we got to the end there was a little antique boat that we squooshed into and which then punted us back across the pond.

Out in the parking lot, our ride was indeed long gone. We walked about 50 yards to a main road and hailed a cab back into town, right up to the Sicily Pub, probably the only place in Sozhou that serves western food. Two plates of pasta and some ice cream later, we were ready for some more gardens.

This time we took a bicycle rickshaw, which Sumi didn't want to do at first because we were exploiting the poor guy. But he really, really wanted to be exploited, and he begged and begged, so finally she relented. Still and all it was kind of pathetic as all 95 pounds of him huffed and puffed us the mile and a half to the Garden of the Administrator of the Nets.

Down an alleyway and into the garden, which at less than one acre is the smallest in Suzhou. But it just reeked of perfect harmony. (By the way, in case you don't know, Chinese gardens don't deal with pedestrian things like flowers, just mostly rocks and trees and water.) And what made it really special was that a Chinese film crew was filming a guy and gal in classic old timey Chinese garb, so that as long as our mind's eye had a very small and precise frame we could transport ourselves back to a more perfectly harmonious era.

By then it was around 4:30 in the afternoon, and we had a couple of hours to kill before the evening train. Our Lonely Planet guide said that there was an internet cafe in town, so we went looking for it. Unfortunately, like many things that the Lonely Planet guide says are there, it wasn't. So we ended up at the downtown Starbuck's, very slowly consuming our cheesecake and frappucino.

Again, I have to say that I'm impressed with how the Communists are running the show. I'm well aware that off in the rural countryside there is still a whole lot of poverty, but it's still difficult to deny just how entrenched and wide the middle class seems to be. Not that they're yet near the level of France or Canada, but, again, considering where they were a few short years ago, it's incredible how many can now afford to waste their money at Starbuck's.

By seven we were ready to go back to the train station, and by 7:40 we were on the train. All that had been available was 'hard sleeper', and I was expecting the hard sleeper of old: three tiers of thin slabs to lie on, noisy, smelly peasants all around you, and loud martial music blaring through loudspeakers. Instead there was a new air-conditioned car, calm cabinmates, and soft Chinese pop muzacked in. We had gotten the last tickets available, so we were up top, but once we climbed up and up and squeezed in, it was kind of comfortable. The moving train immediately rocked us to sleep.