Friday, August 30, 2013

Beijing at Night

Bright young things.
Three full days in Beijing allowed me time to wander. I found the city to be particularly beautiful at night, when it is lit up by old iron lampposts and dusky Chinese lanterns. You don't notice the air pollution at night, and the hutongs - old Chinese streets - are quite safe, at least in the bourgeois neighborhood around my hostel. Wandering allowed me think through the events of the day while encountering new sights at a reduced pace. One evening, I wandered over to Ghost Street, a large thoroughfare that is wall-to-wall restaurants for about a quarter of a mile. The name apparently refers to a sort of bamboo bowl that sounds like the word for ghost in Chinese. Most customers are Chinese, and the folks in the picture above are sitting around chewing sunflower seeds, the shells of which were thick on the ground.

Here, fishy fishy!
Ghost Street is a well-known destination, and the restaurants compete with each other by creating ever more striking displays of light. The effect is sometimes tacky but always draws attention. 

One of countless little cafes.
I stayed just off of Nanluoguxiang Hutong, an old street that was built during the Yuan Dynasty (think Kublai Khan). Nanluoguxiang serves as the "trunk" street for a substantial residential neighborhood and has been transformed into a pedestrian mall, complete with scores of small stores selling hip knickknacks. As you can see in the picture above, a great many food purveyors located here, as well. Nanluoguxiang is consquently one of the most popular destinations in Beijing for the young and well-to-do.

Peking International Youth Hostel
Here is the entrance to my hostel, on a smaller hutong off of Nanluoguxiang. The owner loves plants. I don't know if I have stayed at a hostel that is better run or situated.

Nearly a quarter of the population in Beijing lives in hutongs, but these streets are dwindling, succumbing to western-style development. For centuries, people lived cheek-by-jowl in one story dwellings, complete with a courtyard, developing a complex web of relationships in their tightly-packed neighborhood. The hutongs wind around a lot, and I would often come upon people eating dinner or  playing dominoes at the edge of the street, which essentially served as a front porch. This pattern of relaxation played a social function, too, as news and gossip clearly passed quickly from group to group. The pattern of life bore some resemblance to tenement housing in American cities a century ago.

It seems to be acceptable for people in Beijing to dispose of paper trash by burning it. At night, I frequently came across men and women squatting over small fires in the street of their own making. 

Skewered meat ready to sizzle.
Street food on Nanluoguxiang Hutong.

Canal near Nanluoguxiang
On my last night, I went walking along some hutongs west of my hostel, intending to dine on a busy street I had scouted out the previous evening.

Grandma's Creative Cooking.
Instead, I ended up poking my head into the doorway in the picture above, which had a sign outside advertising that it was a restaurant. The ambiance created by the Chinese lanterns and the sense that I would be eating in someone's house was too intriguing to pass up. Indeed, the house turned out to be owned by a couple whose main business is a tea company. I dined on duck-fried rice and received a long lecture (translated by another young customer who, with his girlfriend, were the only other patrons that night) on the origins of their company, which aims its products at higher-end consumers in China and Europe.  The husband seemed to be something of an art collector and had also made all the artwork for their packaging and ads. 

Not a bad last dinner in China.
This was my second duck-based meal of the day. On both occasions, the accompanying broth was delicious. Note also the beaker of cold white tea. At the end of the meal, my hosts pressed a couple of small packets into my hand. Clearly, they are as much interested in creating an aesthetic as in making money.

On the way back to my hostel.

Of the places I visited during these travels, I am most eager to return to China. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Fifth Leg: Ulan Bataar to Beijing

It was easy to find my train at the Ulan Bataar station - much less traffic out here than in Russia - and was first arrive in my compartment, but a troop of six Finns soon arrived, filling the adjacent cabin and two bunks in my own. These two promptly went off to hang out with their friends, leaving me with the compartment to myself. This was pleasant for a while, affording me some time to catch up with the Rostovs and Bolkonskies, but a little tangible company is nice on these long stretches of railroad. Indeed, we only made a couple more stops before the border. During the morning, the train wound through a low mountain range, which sometimes was high and thus wet enough to support trees. The rains must have been steady this year, as the grass was flourishing, and I could always see horses, often in large herds. At road crossings, Mongolians waited in their SUVs for the train to pass. Apparently, they prefer these vehicles to pickup trucks. Towards the end of this stretch, we passed by a wind farm, its turbines towering up in the hills above the train. Mongolia must be an ideal landscape for this technology, though I wonder if they keep the energy or sell it to China (the next day, I saw more turbines in northern China).

After a few hours and a stop or two in the most deserted, dusty stations of the entire trip, the landscape became drier and quite flat. From time to time, I roused myself from my bunk to gaze out the window. The attendants - no longer provodnitsa since we had left Russia, and now entirely male - didn't care at all about open windows, except when the wind whipped up the dust. I spent a good deal of the afternoon resting my elbows on the sill, poking my head out the window. Animals were rarer in the Gobi, but horses still did appear, and so did the Bactrian Camel, distinctive from afar because of its double humped back. In many ways, the landscape, as well as the type of land use, was reminiscent of West Texas, where I did some of the research for my Master's Thesis. Tumbleweed, which we identify with the American west, is actually a group of invasive species native to Russia. As I mulled this over, a Greek couple, apparently on their honeymoon (second-class and its four-bed cabins was an odd choice), amused themselves by taking photos of each other's heads sticking out of the windows. This was great fun until the husband's glasses dropped off. I also passed time by going to the dining car with an English neighbor. This spot served about a tenth of the dishes offered in its menu, but it was decorated extensively with wood carvings, and it served as a watering hole for the more social passengers, especially those who needed to wet a whistle.

My companion, a recent college graduate from Sheffield named Lucy, was planning to trek around east Asia until December. Whew. I love to travel, but such a long stretch without a home base or constant companions sounded exhausting. Perhaps it was simply because I'd ridden the train for so long at this point, but I think it's important to limit my trips so that they don't lose their excitement. Indeed, when I compare my attitude toward new places now to ten years ago (a diligent supply of travel journals helps with this exercise), I discern that my experience is less exciting than it once was. Partly, this is a result of age, growing recognition of the universality of human experience, and the reality that tourism and commercialism are ubiquitous across the globe. I have fewer moments of anxiety when traveling, and I still do love the sense of unknown, obviously, but freshness of the adventure has waned.

We arrived at the Chinese border around eight. Leaving Mongolia was easy, but the People's Republic kept us waiting while its officials examined our passports. However, this crossing took half the time that it did to move from Russia into Mongolia, and it was not without its moments of humor. As the train pulled into the first Chinese station, where the large buildings and bright lights appeared to be designed to impress tourists, the loudspeakers began to play a stirring military march. The customs folks stood at attention in a line, but then when the train was stopped, they all spread out to board the separate cars. Everyone inside the train was sleepy, but laughter broke out up and down the corridor at this greeting. 

The Finns, Joni and Sana (I'm pretty sure I've misspelled their names) had returned to the compartment for customs, and they turned out to be an interesting couple. Their group had traveled all the way from Finland by rail, playing a card game that kept group spirits high. In fact, Joni told me that I was the first person they had spoken to at length on the entire trip. His father, though a Finn, had grown up in Tucson, so his English was excellent, and Sana's, though more heavily accented, wasn't bad either. Later on, in Beijing, these characters stayed at another hostel just a few hundred yards up Nanluoguxiang Hutong from me, so we kept running into each other, including during a hike along the Great Wall. 

From the next cabin came strains of a guitar lament - Joni explained that his pals were lamenting their inability to get off the train to buy a beer. I eventually dozed off, but I do believe that the Chinese eventually let people off the train, to much rejoicing. 

I didn't sleep very well and became conscious of a minor upset in my intestines, which put me in a sour frame of mind in the morning. However, the landscape had gotten interesting again after we exited the Gobi. Trees had reappeared, and mountains, too. We rode through some long terraced valleys, full of ripe corn. For a stretch of about twenty kilometers, the Great Wall was visible to the north, rising and falling with the mountain ridges. At points, it seemed to vanish entirely, probably due to erosion over the centuries. We also passed by an old earthen-walled village, a remnant of more turbulent, feudal times.

At the border, we had been provided with vouchers for breakfast and lunch in the dining car. I skipped breakfast, having some of my own and being suspicious of a Chinese train breakfast, anyway, but I did investigate lunch. Predictably, the dining car was swamped, but the kitchen was equipped to do takeout. I took my pork, dumpling, and rice, back to my compartment. While I was waiting, I saw the biggest power plant I've ever observed out the window. Seven cooling towers, of the type that you see around nuclear plants in the US, surrounded a central cluster of conventional smokestacks.

There's not much more to tell of this last leg. Around 2:15, we arrived in Beijing. The suburbs looked modern and bland, their size and the number of construction sites hinting at the density of population and pace of development. I put on my pack and descended onto the platform, when one of the Finns brightly suggested that I should have a picture taken by the train. So we posed by the sign on the carriage that displayed the names of the three capital cities I had passed through (can't resist: it was a Finnish finish), and then melted away into the vast crowds of pushy locals. That was it! I was very happy to arrive in Beijing, as I needed a good sleep and some solid grub. In fact, the city was absolutely fascinating, and I have a lot to say about it. But that will have to wait for another post, as this travelogue has primarily concerned the train journey itself. What a long way! I am still amazed when I look at the route on a map. Train travel is curious mixture of relaxation, anticipation, boredom, and, somewhat more infrequently, exhilaration. I think the best travel writing dwells on the mundane and comic as much as the thrills, and I have tried my best to emphasize this balance in these accounts. In the coming weeks, when I can get away from schoolwork, I will post a few more entries on aspects of the places I visited that I found particularly engrossing.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Fourth Leg: Irkutsk to Ulan Bataar

Time to embark. 
The train for Ulan Bataar left Irkutsk at 10 PM. I walked over to the station, crossing the large Angara river on my way, to catch the evening light. Dusk continues on until 10:30 or so at this time of year in these latitudes, which made for some lovely walks at dusk, though it also made getting to sleep harder. When I got onto the train, I knew immediately that this ride would be different from the first three. First of all, Michiel, the affable Dutchman who I'd spent some time with on Olkhon Island, was in my compartment; secondly, the entire carriage was full of backpackers. In fact, there was only one Russian passenger in any of the 36 beds. Thus, a good deal of banter extended up and down the corridor, though neither night turned into the rolling party that I thought might start up. My other cabin mate, a Bavarian transplant named Simone, said that her compatriots took their holidays far too seriously to go to bed late (though I later met another German, fresh from military service, who professed to like Shanghai because "Dey make beeg pahty!"

In any case, I slept well the first night, as we happened to be riding in a more modern and comfortable car, with soft, regular bunks. Around midnight, we could see the southern tip of Baikal out the window. At first, I was sorry that the sun had gone down, but the glow from the moon gave the water a beautiful luminescence. This was really fun train travel - fine sights viewed in comfort and good company. We passed Ulan-Ude sometime in the night - no need to worry about new passengers coming into our full cabin - and when I awoke, around 9:30, we were slowly passing through a much more steppe-like region, clearly close to the Mongolian border. There were still trees, but they were separated by large expanses of grass. The train began to stop briefly but frequently at a number of small, poor towns, where none of the residents appeared to be ethnically Russian. For much of the way, our tracks followed the valley of the Selenga River, which drains much of northern Mongolia. Birds were flocking on its banks.

Naushki Station.
Longer than that apartment block in Novosibirsk!
Around one, we reached the border. Here, the train pulled up (we had lost about half our carriages in the night, probably at Ulan-Ude), and Russian customs officials came on board, first for a cursory glance, then to actually collect our passports. Passengers then disembarked, having been informed by the providnitsa (one of whom was actually male) to return in three hours for further questioning. Michiel, Simone, and I took the opportunity to explore the town of Naushki, which diverted us for about thirty seconds, and grab a little food for a picnic lunch in a filthy park outside the station. Simone had a bag of cucumbers with a deliciously subtle, sour taste, while Michiel had some sweet apricot bread. I doled out some little sweets from a company called Alenka. Its logo is a girl with a headscarf, staring straight out at you with big blue eyes and rosy cheeks. She is supposed to look classically Russian and cute, but her eyes are so wide that the overall effect is rather eerie. Stray dogs hung around us, hoping for a taste of our bread, and we eventually acquiesced, mostly out of boredom.

Very persistent.

Cabin mates.
After lunch, we still had lots of time to burn. All the foreigners sat around on the station platform, chatting, reading, staring into space. Several enormous freight trains, loaded entirely with timber, both raw and finished, passed by. Our carriage, now totally alone, sat in front of us, a little international orphan. Eventually it gained two new Mongolian engines, old blue and yellow workhorses that had been decorated on one side with a couple of ponies tossing their manes. The coupling precipitated a lot of photo-snapping, which also led to some spontaneous silly shots next to the customs signs. It was very hot out. Some folks retired into the carriage itself. Customs came back to hand out our passports and make a cursory investigation into our baggage. Then we still sat. I began making a chess set from paper ripped out of the back of my journal.
Attaching the new engine.

Just over the border in Mongolia.

In the early evening, we finally crossed over into Mongolia. One of my first sights of the new country was a distant yurt sitting by the river, surrounded by several grazing horses. However, the Mongolian border town, Sukhbataar, was uninspiring. Its customs officials gave us a hard look as they passed through and provided us with a new set of paperwork to complete. One tough old lady inquired why I didn't have a visa - when I replied (Americans don't need a visa for Mongolia), she nodded in assent and moved on. Was this a test? We watched people outside on the platform, which Michiel compared to a theatrical stage. The players included street vendors, money changers, idle kids, the police, and various smaller roles of people rushing too and from their trains. When the chess set was done, Karim, the one Russian passenger, beat me in about ten moves. The internationals in my carriage went out to get a snack after we were finally released, but the chips I hurriedly bought were some sort of pineapple steak flavor, which I was not yet hungry enough to eat.

Fruit of my labor.
Dehydrated noodles are popular on the Trans-Siberian. Michiel was a fan.
We finally got going not long after it was dark. The carriage quieted down quickly, as everyone anticipated the dawn arrival. Indeed, at 5:30, the Germans promptly queued for the bathroom. The landscape was now entirely steppe - green, endless grass undulating across rolling hills. Concrete paddocks announced the Ulan Bataar suburbs. 

Sunset while waiting for Mongolian customs.
When you're in Mongolia, the thing to do is to get out into the countryside to camp and explore the country's nomadic roots. This was my original plan, but because trains run only once a week from Ulan Bataar to Beijing and the schedule changed after I had gotten all the other tickets, I only had twenty-four hours before catching the next choo-choo. Perhaps I will return and gain a better sense of the country's vast, restless hinterland that I've heard about from several friends who speak passionately of it. 

Mongolia is a strange land.

Very strange, indeed.

In any event, my day was occupied with finding my hostel (no, Lonely Planet, Zaya Backpacker is not in a 12 story, orange building - it is 8 stories tall and yellow and next to a tall glass skyscraper that you strangely did not mention as a landmark), seeing a Buddhist monastery, the National History Museum, and Sukhbataar Square. Michiel came along for these adventures, which made for a pleasant time. We did some shopping in the cashmere stores, and I had a very amusing time at the State Department Store (motto: "where every need is satisfied), but my general impression of the place was similar to that of most cities in less developed countries. One interesting note was that English-speaking Mongolians talk with an American accent, which was a surprise after several weeks of the English-accented variety among foreigners. My hostel manager was thoroughly American in his demeanor, slouching and wearing a ballcap low over his eyes. My sense is that Mongolians see the United States as a lever to ward off excessive Chinese and Russian influence, which of course they have suffered from considerably (and vice versa, but you have to farther back for that!). 
Pigeons come to pay their respects to the Buddha.

What was it with the Communists and their squares?
Mongolian youth.
I got up at 5:40 the next morning and walked a mile or two to the station to catch my 7 o'clock train to Beijing. All this constant movement and sleeping in different beds was beginning to take its toll, as I felt very exhausted after I had gotten board. That's where I'll leave things for now. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Third Leg: Novosibirsk to Irkutsk/Lake Baikal

Novosibirsk station, on a lovely night. 
Inside the station.

I arrived in Irkutsk very early on the morning of the twelfth. The journey from Novosibirsk was relatively easy; I now know what to expect from the train and my fellow passengers, and I also found it easier to sleep, as the train's motion has become soothing rather than distracting. In general, I've had difficulty falling asleep on this trip due to the excitement and stresses of traveling but also because it stays light out until 10. Also, since you don't do anything on the train all day except read, eat, chat, 
and doze, you're not very tired when bedtime finally rolls around.

Maxim, a friendly cabin-mate.
My little nook.
There were fewer passengers getting on and off during this more remote stretch, and I shared my cabin with only one other guy, a young Russian named Pavel. Two people rather than four makes for a more relaxing ride. For much of the day and a half, I dug into War and Peace, livening things up by taking pictures of the taiga through the window. The reflection kept sabotaging my shots. While returning from the bathroom sometime in the afternoon, I unexpectedly came upon an open window and began to snap shots of the birch forest. Then, I felt provodnitsa's tap on my shoulder, like a matron correcting a schoolboy who has stepped out of line. She briskly closed the window and scuttled off without a word. Another silent battle took place over the curtain arrangement on the window outside my compartment. When my door was open, I would pull the drapes back as far as possible to maximize my view. But when the door closed for one reason or another, the curtains always were rearranged neatly in the old pattern! In general, the provodnitsas have been very kind, making sure that I know when my station is coming up or letting me know when it's time to get back on at a long stop. In the middle of the afternoon, you hear a tap on the door, and in she comes with a vaccuum to clean the little rug in between the bunks. These women work hard and probably don't get much thanks for their trouble.

Savannah-like taiga.

Lots of wildflowers in bloom.

Around 10 o'clock on the second evening, Pavel, who had been absent from the compartment for several hours, returned with new friends from the restaurant car. This jolly crew, consisting of three well-primed, loquacious Russians in their twenties, could not restrain themselves from coming in to meet the Americanski. They were very curious and friendly, and they spoke just enough English to make for an animated exchange. Some beer and Johnnie Walker helped move things along. Apparently, this crew was headed to Irkutsk as well, where they would represent their company in a bowling tournament. Three hours later, they were convinced to depart. I did enjoy their visit, however, and the chance it offered to get beyond the reserve that I've encountered in many Russians.

Nighttime stop.
Best friends.

Pavel was up early the next morning, as well, blasting what I think he thought was a cheerful salvo of techno from his cell phone. An unhappy newcomer to the cabin groaned from the top bunk to no avail. I got off in Irkutsk around 7:30 and navigated the tram to my hostel, Baikaler, where I opened the door to find several young Frenchmen in sleeping bags sprawled across the living room floor. Evidently, it had been a memorable Saturday night. I decided to let the place wake up a bit and left to wander around the deserted town and get some much-needed breakfast. 

Hallo Comrade!
Baikaler ended up being a lot of fun. I hadn't had a real conversation for a week, but Irkutsk is firmly on the backpacker circuit, so I've been surrounded by a shifting mix of western Europeans in the days since. I've only run into two other native English speakers since leaving Moscow, but English is the lingua franca for travelers, conveniently enough. French has also come in handy on a couple occasions. The first day, I roamed around Irkutsk with a Portuguese psychologist, Sรณnia, who is also doing the Trans-Siberian. We checked out a musuem dedicated to the Decembrists, ate at a restaurant called Mamoschka's, dedicated to Russian kitsch, and took in the big Angara River. The highlight, however, was sitting under the Lenin statue in a park, drinking beer and spitting sunflower seeds (the hostel is on Lenin and Karl Marx Streets). Finding that I had one more day than expected before departing for Ulan Bataar, I signed up for a trip out to Olkhon Island, which lies about halfway up the western side of Lake Baikal. My companion for this venture, Damiano, was an Italian fellow in his mid-thirties, very amiable and droll. He works for a movie distribution company in Rome and apparently meets all sorts of stars, yet remains very down-to-earth.

One of many old wooden houses in Irkutsk. More on them in separate post to come.
We headed out in a packed marschrutky the next morning around 9. The ride involved a lot of zipping around slow trucks and bumping over washed out roads, but we made it to the ferry in time and eventually arrived at U Olgi, our bucolic hostel, around 2 or 3. Khukir, the town where we were staying, is a very strange place, a sort of hybrid tourist destination for international backpackers and affluent Russians. It's developed very quickly in the last decade or two, in large part because of a huge wooden hostel complex run by a former Russian table tennis champion. This compound is complete with several cafeterias and facilities for organizing tours, and it has a somewhat cultish feel because of the hippie-ish, global seeker atmosphere...e.g. lots of young earnest yoga types prancing around in bright tights. It is the social center of the island and provided a convenient way to organize a visit to the northern, less developed regions. 

Relieved to no longer be on the move.
Despite the chaotic, sprawling nature of the town, the lake was only a short walk away, and indeed, I went for a couple of dips. It's an enormous body of water, very blue, and quite clear. The temperature on the eastern side of the island, open to the main part of the lake, was comparable to a New Hamsphire lake in early June. Our tour took us to some remarkable promontories, well-trodden but still spectacular, rising several hundred feet above the water. In the back of our van, gripping each other as we bounced along the extremely rutted roads, sat two Italian couples. As we rode through pine forest, we would hear murmurs of "Bello, bello...Bellisimo!...Fantastico." At one point, the road was so bad the driver asked the men to get out, while the women (ladies, I should write) could stay in. Interestingly, the German woman disembarked, but the Italian females remained. Here was Russian and European gender culture in a nutshell.

A rocky point.
Our driver, an ethnic Buriyat, wore a hat that said, in English, "Native Pride", His ancestors occupied the region around the lake before ethnic Russians turned up a few centuries ago. Unfortunately, he spoke no English, so a Russian woman sitting up front translated all his points about flora and island culture into English. For lunch, he made us a fish soup over an open fire. I was a bit dismayed to see a fish head peering up at me from within my bowl, but the dish was actually very tasty...or at least, as we would say in the huts, hot and salty. As the meal was dispatched, everybody got quite chatty. The Italians rolled cigarettes while the English-speakers chatted about the ubiquity of techno in Russia and other such engrossing topics. 

The night's activities included more international chatter over dinner, this time with a more Teutonic flavor, and a subsequent search for an elusive bonfire on the beach. We did come across a number of Russians camping out, some of whom were blasting - what else? - techno from a car stereo as they sat outside their tents. Loud music and a campfire seem to be the two essentials in Russian camping (glamping?).

All fruits.
All melons.
Nuts and dried fruit.
In the morning, it was time to return to Irkutsk. Tonight, I embark on the train to Ulan Bataar, which despite being relatively close in mileage, will take two nights to reach. Apparently the stop at the Russian-Mongolian border takes several hours, with the police coming through the train to look at passports, etc. This morning, I went the city's central market, where a remarkable bounty of summer Siberian produce was changing hands. I bought tomatos, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, blueberries, and pine nuts for the journey. One can purchase pine nuts already shelled or the entire cone, which, like a squirrel, one picks apart to get at the nuts. 

Sadly, Damiano flew back to Moscow this morning. Along with Michiel, a Dutch fellow who came along on our tour of Olkhon Island, we went out for Mongolian last night (all three of us passed on horse meat but got a meaty dish called The Nine Warriors of Chengis Khan) and then hit an Irish pub to for some vodka. I actually had only drunk vodka once before this on the trip, in Moscow, and that was of a Danish variety. Clearly, I needed to sample the real thing, and I can affirm that this has now been satisfactorily accomplished. 

Damiano gets down to business.
It's been a lot of fun hanging out with other backpackers this week. These fleeting connections, forged in absorbing, unfamiliar situations, leave significant impressions, as I can attest from previous trips. The experience of traveling alone is really important to me, but I will miss these folks as we all move off in our own directions. Apparently, the Trans-Mongolian has quite a few backpackers on it - many more than the railroad that continues across Siberia to Vladivostok - so I'm sure that the next few days will bring some new interesting characters across my path. For the time being, I feel that I am in-between chapters of this journey. It's wonderful to have taken in so many sights and to have met some fascinating people, but I am also wistful because the experience is so fleeting.