Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Great Wall

On my second to last day in China, I reserved a spot on a guided tour of a section of the Great Wall, which is a couple hours north of Beijing by bus. At this point on the trip, it was a real pleasure to leave the logistics to someone else and simply take in the sights. And, with the exception of the guide, everyone on this trip was European or American, so the trip was a sociable experience.

I chose one of the longer tours, which involved walking a few miles along the Wall itself. In retrospect, this was an excellent idea, but it did make for a few nervous moments in the morning as I waited for the staff in the adjoining restaurant to finish making me a sandwich. I just made the bus (a preview of another close call two days later, when I was literally the last person to check in to my flight home). In any case, the walk was hot and very hilly, as the Wall snakes along atop of a mountain ridge. Luckily, I had enough to eat, and had I been hungry, many guard towers had their own vendor selling a range of candies and sodas.

The fascinating thing to me about the wall isn't so much its incredible length but the fact that it was built so high up. As you can see from these photos, the views, though limited by the humidity of the day and general smogginess, are remarkable. The scale of the construction effort drives home two realities about China that endured through most of its dynastic history. First, the Chinese were really scared about incursions from the north. The steppe-dwellers were difficult to defeat as long as they remained on their horses. It's hard to imagine how the Mongols, resourceful and unrelenting as they were, could have scaled these heights with their horses, but a string of emperors and their advisors thought the risk justified all the effort and expense. Second, eastern China never lacked for labor, even 2500-2000 years ago. Apparently, much of the building was carried out by prisoners.

Walking along the Wall was challenging work because the slope of the wall mirrored the underlying steepness of the mountain. Every variety of leg muscle got a good workout, as we covered a full range of ascending and descending angles. The last picture in this series shows the most challenging section, which caused several in our group to gulp pretty hard. Climbing some of these sections with chain mail could not have been fun.

The Chinese have entirely restored some parts of the Wall, while other sections, especially the guard towers, are slowly crumbling. I suspect that the pace of rebuilding is picking up but hope that they don't restore the Wall entirely. Tourists are now allowed to wander around more or less as they choose. At the tower where my group peeled off to return to our bus, I met a pair of young Frenchmen, who continued on along the Wall on their own.

A number of people have asked me about air pollution in Beijing. I must admit that while the smog was bad, especially as we drove out through Beijing, it was not nearly as severe as the worst reports (in Hanjin in early November, most recently, for example). The problem gets worse in the winter when people begin to burn coal for heat.

Now for some more ruminating, as I'm in the midst of several weeks covering East Asia with my sophomores. There's not much question that the Chinese state is authoritative and, when threatened, brutal. In China, the ends justify the means. Just look at the rates of execution, for example: China leads the rest of the world by leaps and bounds. But I encourage western readers to consume our own media reports about China (and, for that matter, Russia) with skepticism. Regarding air pollution, for example, journalists conveniently forget the terrible side effects of American industrialization or existing issues with smog. In Austin, I remember how on certain hot summer days, the populace was warned simply not to go outside because the air quality was so bad. Or, take the current brouhaha over China's efforts expand its territory and influence in East Asia. I don't advocate that the US or China's neighbors acquiesce to its bullying. Yet I am astonished that so many journalists can report on these events without mentioning the Monroe Doctrine; in many respects, America's rise is the model that guides China's leaders.

This will be my last blog entry about the Trans-Siberian trip. I am sad to cease posting about it though, admittedly, the pace of entries has slowed dramatically since school picked up. As fall gives way to winter, these summer travels seem more distant. Happily, another summer vacation beckons.

I also want to point out that I marked my hundredth entry on Gulliver's Nest during this journey. The frequency of my writing has varied during the seven years since the site's founding, generally picking up during summers, for obvious reasons. The middle of last decade saw countless blogs launched, and in the years since, many have become more professional, while others faded as the novelty of online writing wore off. I hope I can continue to navigate an intermediate course because this blog is as much about recording the feelings and discoveries associated with travel for myself as it is to entertain readers. Anyway, thank you to those of you who continue to faithfully read my observations.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Soviet Architecture and American Echoes

Downtown Yekaterinburg

If Siberia’s wooden houses possess a bucolic charm, its mid-to-late twentieth century architecture lies at the other end of the humanistic spectrum. Dull apartment blocks made of brick or concrete blanket many younger cities in Siberia, particularly Novosibirsk (though these pictures suggest that my eye was most intrigued while in Yekaterinburg).

An odd, interesting geometry up close.
Many Americans associate this type of building with Stalin, but it was actually adopted during the Krushchev era. Stalin preferred a more conservative, classical style of architecture, often on a massive scale. To my eyes, the austere structures that became so ubiquitous in the Second World denote a more sober phase of Communism. After World War Two, Russian planners accepted that worldwide socialist revolution was not just around the corner and began to pursue a shrewder architectural strategy, avoiding the grand and terrible projects of the Stalinist period. Concrete, due to its low cost and malleability, played an important role in the effort to build quick and cheap (as it did in the West). While party director in Moscow, Nikita Krushchev presided over a meeting of planners at which efficiency in architecture was declared paramount. The resulting prefabricated structures, usually five stories tall but sometimes as many as twelve, became known as krushychovka.

Typical krushychovka in Yekaterinburg
Krushychovka are much maligned for their utilitarian appearance, and perhaps justly so. While there are variations in the buildings I observed, they certainly do share a repellent uniformity and absence of color. On the other hand, interiors appeared cosy and well kept, at least from the outside. Many krushychovka have built-in porches, some of which inhabitants turn into greenhouses. Others are used simply as storage.

The exterior to my hotel room, a converted flat, in Novosibirsk

A more modern krushychovka.
Anticipating Communism’s future triumph, architects designed the krushychovka to last twenty-five years. Whoops. Nevertheless, while the style of these buildings might have fit with St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe or the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, they have outlived their counterparts in the west by decades, largely remaining functional today. They were designed for the urban proletariat, which, if it did not love the structures, respected and maintained them.

Outskirts of Prague 
Modernism. Not pretty, but it works in this setting.
I remember taking the metro out to Jižní Město, a neighborhood at last stop of Prague’s C Line, in May 2006, where I observed panelák, the Czech version of krushychovka. How surprised I was to see laundry hanging neatly from balconies and the closely cropped grass out in front. Czechs rejected Communism, but they don't mind cheap, abundant housing atop dependable public transportation.

Downtown Novosibirsk

In the sixties and seventies, Soviet architects applied concrete on a grander scale to public buildings, many of which are truly elephantine. While there is no stylistic parallel for the krushychovka in the United States, Brutalism looks much the same in the First and Second Worlds. Its massive, hulking creations first captured my attention during the college campus tours I took as a teenager. Huge swathes of the American architectural profession succumbed to the influence of Bauhaus and Le Corbusier during the fifties and early sixties. Modernism remade American architecture just in time to allow Brutalism, a virulent strain within the wider movement, to sweep campuses as universities expanded to serve the baby boomers. The individualism inherent in the American private housing market limited Brutalism’s reach, but the movement’s characteristic concrete monoliths are the key feature in institutional and government structures from the period, as they are in the former USSR.

A building on Ul Lenina in Yekaterinburg.
Why did the west embrace a style that is widely reviled by the contemporary public? (In The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler refers to modernism as "a crisis of the human habitat".) Brutalism does have a sleek, futuristic beauty that is today just barely discernible, despite decades of abuse and accumulating grime. Despite Vietnam, public confidence in the expertise of elites was not yet shattered during the era when these behemoths were erected, and Americans still aspired to sophistication, which they found, for a time, in modernism. In their simple humility, they seem to have lacked any regard for their own traditions. Ironically, it took the destruction wrought by urban renewal for modernist projects to wake Americans up to their considerable architectural inheritance.

The Yale Arts and Architecture Building.
Barbican Towers in London, part of a large public housing project.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Wooden Houses of Irkutsk

Irkutsk was nicknamed "the Paris of Siberia" in the nineteenth century. Today, its charm is rather faded, but beneath its slightly seedy surface lies a wealth of beautiful architecture, both commercial and residential, from its heyday. In particular, I was taken with the many wooden houses that dotted the older parts of the city. I had noticed a few earlier on in the trip, particularly in some older sections of Yekaterinburg, but in Irkutsk they were thickly scattered.

Novosibirsk is unquestionably the first city of Siberia nowadays, and Irkutsk, while a major destination for backpackers because it is the easiest place from which to access Lake Baikal, has not experienced the kind of growth that would obliterate this layer of culture. A few of these houses (not pictured here) belonged to Decembrist exiles and were turned into museums by the Soviets, but most remain private. As you can see, a fair number are falling apart.

The skill that went into carving the trim on these houses must have been tremendous. Few are painted extensively, which allows the beautiful brown of the wood to stand out, and some owners use small accents of color on shutters or trim to emphasize the intricacy of the detail. A few streets were full of these houses, often with flowers in the windowsills testifying to the attentiveness of the inhabitants. But in many cases, especially when standing alone on a commercial street, the structures were falling apart, leaning crazily into the ground, or missing windows and bits of roof.

I had a full day in Irkutsk on both sides of my excursion to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, so there was plenty of time to take these houses in and photograph them. Many fascinating types of architecture exist in Russia, and I hope I can discuss more of them in future posts. These old houses, however, seemed to be the old souls of pre-Soviet times, battered yet enduring, welcoming yet forlorn.

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Evening in Yekaterinburg

The entrance.
In Yekaterinburg, I ate one night at a restaurant called Dacha (pronounced Dahsha). The name refers to the country homes that are so popular with Russians. They range from very modest wooden cabins, clustered along streets that are really exurban rather than rural in character, to exclusive estates. Dachas have significant meaning within Russian culture, representing simplicity and tradition. In many ways, they are similar to American summer homes, but they are much more common, and, given the relative uniformity of the Russian landscape, their setting is comfortably familiar.

Due to my own family’s tradition of getting away to the north woods, not to mention my fondness for Domku, a similarly themed restaurant near my apartment in DC, Dacha appealed to me immediately when I read about it in The Lonely Planet. I saved it for my last night in Yekaterinburg, a splurge before embarking once more on the train. On the afternoon before the meal, I walked past the restaurant, which occupied the first floor of a modern office building. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but the neighborhood was promising, being well away from the most commercialized part of the center city. Dacha is just south of Ul Lenina, a boulevard traversed by trams and bisected by a leafy walkway that leads from the City Hall to a square at the western edge of downtown. Many of the buildings, two-story ornate brick affairs, are survivors from the nineteenth century, and even the big old Soviet apartment buildings have homey touches around the windows that soften their austere facades. The neighborhood might as well have been somewhere in Central Europe, but here I was on the cusp of Asia.

When I arrived at Dacha to eat, I was quickly taken by the décor, which is wooden, simple, and mismatched. A smattering of rustic objects from the mid-twentieth century lay around the various rooms, no doubt designed to evoke nostalgia among older Russians. The lighting was pleasantly low, too. My waiter, a young, eager chap, placed flags at every occupied table according to the nationality of the occupants, an odd if friendly gesture that some of the other diners, all Europeans, snickered at.

The menu had all sorts of options (beefsteaks for the trio of Italians to my right), but I chose whatever seemed most authentic to the setting, and my selections, I was pleased to observe, met with approval from the waiter. I began with a glass of prosecco, accompanied by bruschetta, topped with goat cheese and raspberries – a special for the evening. It was a simple combination of flavors but one I had not encountered before, fresh and substantial enough to take the edge off my appetite. Like the following courses, it was served on a sliver of slate.

Next, I had what turned out to be the main course, though the menu referred to the dish as a salad. Half-sour cucumbers and pickled mushrooms joined warm fingerling potatoes, garnished with salt, pepper, butter, mayonnaise (on the mushrooms) and liberal amounts of dill. Some might find the dish bland; I delighted in the understated flavors and the contrast in the earthy, crunchy, and slick textures. And, to the side, I had a bacon and onion pierozkhi, which was small but also tasty.

Next came a cold summer soup. The liquid itself was only water, filled with cucumber, onion, chives, ham, and a couple other ingredients I have forgotten. In addition to the bowl, the slate came with three small vessels containing sour cream, mayonnaise, and ginger paste. As the diner mixes these ingredients into the soup, he can achieve the desired proportions. The overall effect was cool, crunchy, and rich.

For dessert, my server tried to convince me to try some Russian cake, but I was very full after the last of the soup, so I chose mint sorbet in a strawberry sauce, along with a pot of tea. I could barely finish but savored the sweet flavors while lingering over my journal. Some of the other diners were worth observation, particularly a Russian family in an adjacent room. One of them, a thirtyish woman, was clearly English – the first native speaker I’d encountered since leaving Moscow five days before. She was minding two young children, while the father and what I took to be an older daughter sat and chatted as they waited for their food. As I watched, I realized that the older daughter was in fact the man’s wife – it’s not unusual to for Russian couples to be separated by a decade or two – and the husband, a plump white-haired fellow, was clearly rich. The Englishwoman must have been an aupair, hired for her facility in English.

Eventually, I left and instead of heading straight back to the hotel, wandered down to the west end of Ul Lenina, enjoying the fading light (it was getting on towards 10, at this point). A pink tram trundled past at one point. As the city lights came on, they lit up some of the most prominent buildings, deepening the blue of the walls. In this light, the stature of Lenin, across from the city hall, seemed a familiar, friendly landmark. 

City hall.

Across the street.

Walkway in the middle of Ul Lenina.

I never figured out what this building is.

An old pharmacy.

The central post office. It had an internet cafe and thus was the scene of my first blog post from the road.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Moscow Metro

One of the original stations from 1935.
The Moscow Metro is justly famous, one of the great systems of the world and among Stalin’s more enduring contributions to Russian society. While it serves as a formidable system of functional infrastructure, its purpose is multifacted. Stalin wanted a tangible example of development that he could show off to the proletariat, who had endured the strain of the first Five Year Plan, meanwhile proving that the Soviets could outdo the West. British engineers were actually responsible for much of the original design. Many were arrested and deported on trumped-up charges of spying.

Crowded at rush hour.
Don't slip.
The first thing I noticed upon entering is just how deep the system is. Thousands of Muscovites took refuge in the stations during Nazi air raids (as Londoners had in the Tube a couple of years before), and parts of the government relocated into the depths, as well. The escalators do descend steeply. Some of the later lines were built even deeper in case of nuclear attack.

All stations are drawn according to relative location, interestingly - no external geography included whatsoever.
The network is more than three hundred kilometers long. Eleven lines crisscross the city, unified by a circle line that allows riders to avoid going all the way downtown before changing. Currently, the system is in the midst of a vast project to extend its length by nearly 50%. The rolling stock itself appeared old and sturdy, sometimes lacking air-conditioning. I’m sure that newer lines have more up-to-date cars. A single ride costs 30 Rubles, or a little less than a dollar, and generally, cars were crowded, despite the picture below.

The stations are noticeably clean. Clearly, the system remains a substantial source of civic pride, although the automobile seems to be the vehicle of choice for Russians with money. Rather than build all the stations according to static criteria, as, for example, the DC metro does, many lines have a distinctive architectural aesthetic. One can tell more or less when a line was built by its design. 
Note the marble pillars.
Hexagons! Just like the DC metro.
The lighting in this station is remarkable.
I believe this decor is intended to celebrate scientific achievement.

The original stations accord to an ornate, classical style that Stalin preferred, while those built in the sixties and seventies have a much more modern look to them. In most cases, the tracks run through the station in their own corridors on either side of the station, separated from a long central hallway by a wall with archways. This gives the stations considerable elegance. The eye is purposely drawn upward to ornate chandeliers and elaborate artwork that lines the central hall.

As one would expect, much of the art celebrates Soviet themes. However, the medium varies from fresco to mosaic to bas-relief to stained glass. The chandeliers, in particular, are magnificent and must have been especially impressive in the days when electricity was relatively rare.

A soaring interior.
Unfortunately, my camera had a hard time with the lighting conditions underground (I turned my flash off to avoid attracting attention). However, I hope that these pictures convey the utilitarian splendor of the stations.

Russian women love posing for photos. Apparently they start young.

Odd, elaborate entrance.