Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eye candy

I'm madly in love with Pennsylvania. It's 300 miles of mountains, steady and true and inexhaustibly surprising, from the Delaware river to the Ohio border. Not even Colorado can claim that. Around every bend in the highway a hillside that could have been sculpted, mutely expressive as the hand on Michelangelo's David. Beyond every hill a gleaming valley, barns and silos and cattle nestled in like a cat curled up in the warmest corner of the house. Even from the interstate the scenery is breathtaking; from a two-lane the views are so pretty my stomach knots up sometimes, the way it does when I surprise a deer, or watch live opera. The two-lanes themselves are stunning, skinny black ribbons plunging down hillsides and zipping around creeks, trees combing each other's tops across them. And always there's the indescribable thrill of encountering an Amish buggy, emissaries from a world we wish we hadn't forgotten. Last year around this time, as a light slush had just finished falling, I saw one "parked" at a hardware store, the horse jacketed and steaming, bookended by cars.

When I taught ESL (now "ESOL" or "ELL" if you want to get fussy) the perpetual struggle was to get students talking, to which end I worked on a list of questions which would force anyone to take a side and defend it with some emotion and elaboration: "Are you a cat person or a dog person?" or "Do you prefer coffee or tea?"

A good one would be "How do you feel about driving across Pennsylvania?"

There are those who hate it as much as I love it, but I've yet to encounter anyone who felt lukewarm. (The "haters" worry me, much like those who claim to have no ear for classical music, or the woman I once dated who told me she didn't like peaches. I didn't think such things were negotiable.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

aesthetic projection

I've got myself started on music now, and I may not be able to stop.

Being a fan of classical music is a lonely business, at least in my generation. I rarely admit to my enthusiasm, almost as if it's alcoholism, or some deviant sexual behavior, because when I do own up people usually react as if I've just admitted to alcoholism, or some deviant sexual behavior. You can see the physical revulsion even if they don't actually say, "Oh, I see. You're one of those people."

The most popular alternative is "Really?! You listen to classical music? Good for you!"

It's not oatmeal; I don't do it for the vitamins.

I've spent most of my life reminding myself that many, if not most, people don't like classical music, but I've never quite become convinced.

I was bantering with a friend once about the minutiae of Bill Evans vs. Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday vs. Ella Fitzgerald, Miles vs. Coltrane, etc., and he waxed so cartoonishly enthusiastic, I was forced to say, "You know, Geoff, there are people who don't like jazz," to which he replied, eyes twinkling,

"I've heard that, but I don't believe it."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Record" review

My buddy over at Banjo52 is always offering movie and CD reviews, so I thought I'd take a page from that book by divulging that I recently surrendered my Ebay virginity in order to buy the Glenn Gould Complete Original Jacket Collection (read about it here:, an 80 CD audio orgy to the late Canadian pianist (out of print for about a year now, hence the need for Ebay).

I started off listening to the Mozart sonatas, b/c many critics consider those recordings to be Gould at his worst--Gould himself missed no opportunity to express his disdain for Mozart--and I've been struggling to play them myself.

Sure, there are some moments where I'd like to slap Gould upside the head, or just chuckle in disbelief at the ludicrous tempos and almost willfully quirky phrasing and articulation. But there are many more moments where I sit enraptured and stunned--at his incredibly subtle touch and virtuosic technique, yes, but more so at the ways in which he turns these brilliant but played-to-death pieces into brand-new wonders. At first you think he's playing them all "wrong," but after a few minutes you begin to wonder if everyone else is playing them "wrong." For there are scores of other interpretations out there (Richter being the best I've heard, even though he also disliked Mozart), but after hearing Gould's all the rest sort of blur--not that they're not good, and distinct in their own ways, but that his version is SOOOO different, all the rest start to seem the same by comparison. Every other pianist has his own planet, but Gould comes from a whole different galaxy.

There's no middle ground on Gould. I thought I'd found one, in loving his Bach and steering clear of nearly all his other recordings, but now I realize I'm in for the duration, head over heels, up the creek of musical enthrallment without a paddle.

Don't take my word for it; grab a recording of the Goldberg Variations (he made two, one in 1955, one in 1981, both superlative). I dare you to hear Bach the same way again. The 1981 recording almost singlehandedly fired my interest in classical music.

You won't be the first to be "converted" to Bach, or classical music entirely. In A Romance on Three Legs, Katie Hafner's fascinating biography of Gould through his pet Steinway (no talking pianos, just a focus on the instrument), there's a story of a truck driver (habitually hostile to classical music) who happened upon Gould's Goldberg on the radio; before he had a chance to change stations, he had to make a turn, and by the time he had his hands free, he no longer wanted to switch.

In this strange, media-saturated world in which we live, that's about as positive a review as you can get.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Accidental Artwork

On my morning walk recently, on a day shoplifted from August, I was traversing a grassy field with some boulders in its middle, half reveling in the dew making a mess of my shoes and half anxious over having just polished them. Getting closer to the rocks, I found two Starbucks cups perched there, leaning against each other, their lids kissing.

Picking one up with the intention of carrying it and its mate to the nearest trash can, I noticed that it was half full. For some reason this caused me to stop, laugh, and take a step back.

Here was a "found poem" as good as any I could remember. If only most modern art had half as much whimsy.

I wanted to take a picture, but I didn't have a camera. I wanted to use my cell phone--this is exactly why they put cameras on phones--but I didn't have that either.

Then I remembered what the guide in Kenya with the smile bigger than his waist had said: "Sometimes it is best to take a picture with your mind. That way, you can have it with you whenever you wish."

And so I did.

And off I went to the workaday world--the chattering computers, the brooding coffee-maker, the cool white walls and putty file cabinets, the conditioned air--where so many things are so stultifyingly predictable, the little incongruities so often overlooked or banished.

And I carried with me that picture as a reminder that if even Starbucks cups, even litter, can kindle laughter and exhilaration, there may be no need to shuffle off this modern coil after all.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Wild Suburbs

Walking around my "hood" yesterday afternoon, I spotted a deer among some tall grass and brush in a sort of gully at the edge of a big vacant lot. Creeping closer, I found him to be a spike buck.

No big deal to see deer in the suburbs these days, but I thought I'd see how close I could get without spooking him--no mean feat in broad daylight, on a wide-open hillside, with big crunchy leaves everywhere and a squirrel right next to me. As I got to within maybe ten yards, a much older buck (four points) revealed himself nearby. Continued creeping brought what appeared to be a fawn into view.

As I crept closer still, Senior Buck paced back and forth between the concealed "fawn" and exposed Junior Buck, stopping periodically to stare and stare at me head on, his nose quivering with alertness. When I got to within twenty feet, he began stamping his left forefoot periodically in an apparent show of defiance. Junior kept moving toward Senior, who kept turning to scold him back away. I assumed this was a coordinated defense to protect the "fawn," using Junior as a decoy.

Eventually I reached that invisible point beyond which no deer will tolerate humans, and the "fawn" rose from the brush to reveal that it was in fact a doe. She and Senior and Junior (each about ten feet from the other) all faced me as Senior stamped and nodded, making what looked for all the world like the prelude to a charge. Uncertain what the rules of engagement are when bucks feel their doe is threatened, I began to back off. I had to get back almost to the thirty yard point before the trio seemed significantly calmer.

As I continued to back away, Junior came out of the brush and strolled, in the open, past Senior and Senora. I assumed this was still part of an elaborate decoy maneuver. When he got close to Senora, Senior rushed out of the brush and faced him aggressively. When Junior held his ground, Senior made a false charge, at which point Junior dashed off into another clump of brush.

Suddenly it seemed that the unusual anxiety and agression hadn't been about me, but Junior. Senior was clearly guarding Senora against an interloper, or possibly driving off his own son.

On the way home I hiked down and back up a dry creek bed thick with deadfall and undergrowth, descending between two McMansions and coming up onto a major road. Down in there it could have been the Olympic Peninsula for all it resembled the suburbs.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Welcome to the USA, @%#$*!

I wanted to write about first impressions of the US after a summer abroad, which inevitably becomes a commentary on airports, which continue to fascinate me: their utopian yearnings muddied by the haste and frustration if not despair intrinsic to people herded around like rats through an overlit, candy-strewn maze. But I've done this so many times now, the shock of American shores has dulled to a few puzzlements and chuckles: the prevalence of guns; the vast expanses of space; the abundance yet non-clarity of signs; the weariness and brusqueness of workers; the speed and rigidity of procedures (Customs, Immigration); the bathroom with one handicapped stall and one regular, clogged.

But I'm compelled to write about a different airport experience I had a few days later, picking up two Chinese students. Naturally, they had a lot of luggage, piled onto one cart apiece. I led them to the elevator, but before they could maneuver their carts in, a young white girl and a young black guy (not together, no luggage) rushed in, leaving room only for me and one of the Chinese students (a girl). Looking understandably nervous, the other student (boy) tried to squirm his way into the elevator, at which point everyone in the elevator except me began to grumble and get physically antsy. After what couldn't have been more than 20 seconds, the American girl called out, "Dude, just fuckin' wait!"

I wasn't sure the Chinese boy had heard, much less understood, but I couldn't help saying, "Watch your language, would you?" to which she replied, seething, "Mind your own business!"

At that point I let it drop, because I didn't know where to begin if I were to continue. My mind was ablaze with images of the Russians who'd negotiated my way onto the train against an angry conductor; the Chinese girl who'd all but insisted on carrying my bag for me after a chance meeting on the street; the Chinese family that took me all around Dunhuang; the Kazakh guy who'd bought me a beer and smoothed my way across the border; the other Kazakhs who'd given me an unsolicited lift; the Uzbeks in various markets who'd given me free samples of apricots and walnuts and cheese; the Kyrgyz nomads who'd waited until 10 or 11 pm for their own dinner to make sure we foreigners ate at leisure; the British steward who'd held a woman's baby, and heated milk and special meals for her; the passengers who'd invited me to jump the queue after I'd had to sit on the floor of the waiting area; and on and on and on. I really have to struggle to remember a time people in other countries didn't go out of their way for me. And here I was back home, and far from helping the foreigners--minors at that--my fellow Americans, citizens of "the greatest nation on earth," couldn't even be civil.

I guess I'm old-fashioned. I don't even take the elevator unless I'm collapsing with luggage. Heck, I don't even take the escalator unless I'm in a hurry: remember that thing called exercise? But if I do, I always let others on first, even if they don't seem to be in a hurry, or have a lot to carry, or look lost or scared or young or old or foreign.

In a way the worst of it wasn't how the Chinese students might have felt; it was the physical revulsion with which the American girl regarded the Chinese guy for daring to infringe on "her" space, and how put-upon the guy looked, as if living in the richest country in the world is some terrible, terrible burden. So I can't help asking where we've gone wrong: how can we be so prosperous and yet so miserable?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cracking the Kremlin

For the second time I've failed to get under the skin of Moscow. There's certainly nothing Soviet about it--remove the Kremlin, the odd Stalinist skyscraper, and a few onion-domed churches, and you have Paris, or maybe Milan. The crowds and pace almost suggest New York, but the layout is completely different: this is essentially a four-storey city, with nary a right angle in sight, so that despite the mad throngs of cars at every major intersection, it's a scavenger-hunt of shady corners, leafy boulevards, meandering alleyways.

Cars are big; big, shiny ones: at times you could almost feel you're in Oakland county for all the SUVs and BMWs. You have to look pretty hard to find a Lada.

The women, of course, are beautiful (as are the men, I suppose, though there's a shortage of them, so they don't try very hard to preen), and they obviously put a lot of work into their appearances. I saw a woman on the metro who must have been 6'5" if she was an inch: this is a bit extreme, but tall is the norm. You can probably tell a lot about a place just by looking at people's shoes, but perhaps only a woman can appreciate the full nuances. Even I can see that shoes are chosen for almost any reason other than practicality: spike heels are common, and bandaged feet are almost as common. A woman in front of me on the metro escalator lost her shoe and almost caused a human domino catastrophe. I'd stand out for my sneakers if anyone slowed down enough to look.

Beer is everywhere, and so are beggars--but it's the respectable-looking businessmen, just as much as the grungy teenagers, who sit on the sidewalk at 9:15 am sipping Baltika. Yet pricey, self-consciously atmospheric bars and beer gardens are ubiquitous.

The food is excellent, but almost prohibitively expensive. I dropped just over $20 on a cappuccino and pastry the morning I arrived at one of the trendier cafes. This morning I "economized" at a more plain-jane place and got away with a similar breakfast for around $10. Local beer and foods are somewhat cheaper, but for the most part "imported" vs. "domestic" has become a meaningless distinction, and there's an almost goofy thirst for anything foreign. It really teases the imagination to think what things were like in the bad old days, a mere twenty or so years ago, when McDonald's was as fancy and exotic as it got.

The weather has been, by my standards, glorious: yesterday was "tea weather," but today was sunny and clear and cool--I was almost cold in a single layer. (This may not sound shocking to most, but the last time I was in Moscow, it was so hot I'd sweat through my shirt just negotiating the metro.)

I've spent my time mostly in museums (Pushkin, American and European annex, Private Collections, Gorky House, Tolstoy House), and of course I don't speak Russian, so perhaps it's my own fault, but I still feel I'm missing something important and fundamental about this city. On the one hand, where does all the money come from to keep men in custom-tailored suits and women in magazine-cover-worthy outfits? On the other hand, where are all the "real people" who can't begin to afford $10 cups of coffee, or even $0.75 metro rides? How can museum guards act like they're doing you a big favor to take your money, and metro attendants look right through you (Cold War), even as young women gab on cell phones oblivious to their surroundings and young men plaster unauthorized ads on the metro escalators (Careless Capitalism)?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More on Aralsk


With surprising ease, I contracted a driver and English-speaking guide to take me to see the Sea. The guide did speak good English, and he answered all my questions, but he volunteered almost nothing. The driver, a gaunt Arabic-looking dude in an embroidered skull-cap with skin lesions and a chronic hacking cough, who drove barefoot, basically treated me like cargo. (The entire Aral Sea region, hundreds of square miles in three countries, is a case-study in environmental health damage: rates of cancer, respiratory disease, reproductive problems, and other ailments soar.) At the end, when they dropped me at the train station, barely a farewell or word of thanks was passed, and neither made the slightest effort to help me into the station with my obviously difficult burden of luggage. To some extent this is just how things are done in the former USSR; to some extent perhaps the locals are too desperate to care; to some extent they just don't know what to do with tourists.

Nonetheless, I'm glad I went, though it's almost disappointing after all the infamous pictures. The ship cemetery has been decimated (eight hulks to four) by locals cutting up the remains for scrap metal--you can hardly blame them for exploiting such a tragic situation, but it's sad to lose what is essentially a monument to the absurdity of environmental manipulation. The former seabed, as far as we got (45 km from town) could almost be described as verdant, far from the desiccated salt pan I was expecting--this exists, but it's farther out. And the new fishing harbor proves that there is indeed water not all that far from town, albeit shallow and muddy and brackish. The "good" news is that if you didn't know where you were, you'd never guess all the destruction that's gone on. I traipsed around merrily taking pictures of the ship hulks for at least fifteen minutes before I noticed that the strange crunching sound underfoot was not brush but seashells.

I would like to have seen the dike, and the cliff where the former sea got deep, and the salt flats that have replaced it. Oh well: at least I saw something, in what was, logistically speaking, one of the wildest travel stunts I've ever pulled. The whole excursion, about 18 hours from arrival to departure on train, cost $200-400 (hotel, driver and guide, food, extra train ticket and conductor's "tip"), enough to survive for nearly a week in most places I go. How odd that one should pay such a high premium to visit what Sergei, the eagle-trainer in Almaty, described as "a kind of hell." I think this bespeaks a paradox of travel in general: the most popular spots are over-priced, but so, often, are the least popular, because they don't even have the infrastructure to support what few tourists they might receive.

Aralsk is in many ways the most bizarre, fascinating place I've visited on this entire trip, and I urge readers to get "google-y" on it. (Notice, when you do, how out of date many of the pictures are, depicting huge intact ships run aground in sand. There are only pieces of ships left now, and the ground is heavily vegetated.) For me getting there was the fulfillment of an almost lifelong quest, dating back to when I first heard of it in the late '80s in Al Gore's book (not the recent, famous one, An Inconvenient Truth; the old, forgotten one, Earth in the Balance, which I suspect I'm the only person ever to have read) and thought, Surely it isn't possible to destroy a sea! It seemed so far away and exotic, I all but dismissed it. But around the same time I read The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, in which he argues that the fundamental environmental crisis is not scientific or political or economic, but philosophical: humans simply can't fathom that things like the sky and the oceans are finite, and can be--and have been--significantly altered by their own activities. There are many who would pillory McKibben, and Gore, and any serious concern for the environment, but when you drive for an hour through the desert that used to be a seabed, their case seems pretty ironclad.

Visiting Aralsk also gained a particular significance for me because earlier in the trip I'd swum in the Amu-Darya, one of the two rivers diverted to drain the Aral Sea, and seen bales of cotton for sale on the street in Fergana, and eaten fish from smaller lakes that used to come from the Aral.

Saved by beer again!


This is a complicated story, and one that you may need to be a traveler to appreciate, so bear with me...

I've already said that the beauty of Russian/former-USSR trains is the stops, where women young and old descend to sell everything a weary traveler might want, from bliny to beer. The ugliness is Customs, which, due to the vicissitudes of Stalinist borders, we had to go through four times (count 'em!) on this train (Aralsk, Kazakhstan to Moscow, Russia). I'd carefully stockpiled some Kazakh tenge from Almaty to cover food and drinks en route, but, since I hadn't been to Russia yet, I had nothing in the way of roubles. As the last border stop drew on and on, I began to worry about my ability to feed myself, as we were forbidden to leave the train, and would soon be out of Kazakhstan. Finally, after the Customs officers had removed ceiling panels and unpacked bags and brought in dogs, and the Immigration folks had had their way with our passports, we were allowed, after nearly two hours, ten minutes of freedom on the platform.

Gleefully, I descended, pouncing on the first food--dumplings--I could find, hesitant to pay in Kazakh tenge now that we were in Russia, but the saleslady accepted my Kazakh note and gave change in roubles. I moved on to another seller with another note to purchase beer. Again, a successful transaction with change in roubles. Once more I tried for mineral water: success and Russian change once more. If I could just buy one more thing, I thought, I could get rid of all my Kazakh money and have enough roubles to last me till Moscow. So I went to yet another vendor and bought another beer. She was a bit put off by my large Kazakh bill, but she agreed, and, under the supervision of several young Kazakh men, issued me the "correct" change in roubles.

I never did see the moneychanger I'd been hoping for, but who cares? I now had more delectable dumplings than I could eat, more beer and mineral water than I could drink, and more roubles than I could spend, all without ever so much as touching an ATM card or trading currencies.

I had one Kazakh and one Russian beer, by the way: neither was great. But the dumplings were a gourmet experience--so fresh and hot they melted together in the plastic bag the lady dispensed them in. Just beef and onion and dough, but magic occurs with the labor of assembly.

Note on photo-verisimilitude: I'd tried the fish earlier--I felt I had to, since little old ladies push it on you at nearly every stop. In a nutshell: I'm glad I had beer to wash it down.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Whole lot of nothing (Aralsk)


Incredibly, they have Internet here--about the only thing they do have. The guy in the Internet cafe couldn't believe I was American; prob. he'd never seen one before. The guy who sold me my train ticket said it's the first one he'd ever issued. Suffice it to say this is not a hot spot. Rather, it's one of those places you go to for everything it lacks: most importantly, what used to be the world's largest lake(?), depending on how you count lakes, seas, continental rifts, area vs. volume, salt vs. fresh, etc. Now, thanks to Kruschev's ingenious scheme to make Kazakhstan a cotton superpower by diverting the Amu-Darya and Su-Darya, two gigantic rivers that drain the Pamirs (cousins of the Himalayas), it's one of the world's largest salt flats--laced with all sorts of toxic chemicals distilled out of the water and the secret Soviet weapons lab, and fertilizer for all that cotton.

So what's it like? I haven't been to where the photo was taken yet, so I'll describe the town itself: broken beer bottles pave the streets, camels roam like stray dogs, once-decorative wooden houses threaten collapse and newer ones are cobbled together from scrap metal, ill-clad children wander seemingly unsupervised. The air quality is a lot better than I expected, but then, there's been no wind yet. I'm finessing dinner because I can't really find anywhere to eat. (That's partly because a wedding has taken over the largest, perhaps only, restaurant.)

Keep your fingers crossed that I get out of here tomorrow. Since you're not allowed to buy a train ticket out of Aralsk in advance for some reason, and demand is way high, I've bought two separate tickets: one to get here, from Tashkent, that I just used; a second, from Almaty (Kaz) to Moscow that I intend to use a portion of (Aralsk to Moscow). I've had to contract someone in Almaty to pay the conductor there not to give away my berth between Almaty and here. Oh, the wonders of the post-Soviet world! I haven't heard that the scheme failed, so I'm cautiously optimistic. Aralsk is an interesting place to visit, but I'd hate to get stuck here.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Standing on the last leg


The 'stan tour officially ended this morning, so I'm on my own again. By my count (and geographically), that means the trip is 2/3 over, even though five out of six weeks are done. The three "legs" are as follows:
  1. Beijing to Almaty (Kazakhstan)--2 weeks, independent (train)
  2. Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) to Tashkent (Uzbekistan) via Kashgar (China), Fergana Valley, Tajikistan, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva--3 weeks, with 7 Brits and Aussies, Brit/Aussie guide, drivers, support staff (zill, horse, minibus, taxi, jeep)
  3. Tashkent to Moscow (via Aralsk)--1 week, independent (train)
I'm off to the station as soon as I finish this, via the stunning Soviet-built metro. (Yes, the Soviets did a few things well, and subways are a shining example.) Wish me well as I resort to all kinds of finagling to ensure I get in and out of Aralsk (former Aral Sea port in Kazakhstan) on time--more on the machinations later.

More maps!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Big Picture


There have been a lot of requests for maps. I understand. I love maps; I paper my walls with them. Unfortunately, the actual map of where I've been for the last three weeks, from the tour company, is in a "corrupt or unrecognizable file format," so I'm having to cobble together some substitutes from our good friends at Google Image Search. There are some things the computer is surprisingly bad at, and maps are one.

A bit hard to read above, I know, but I like the way it spotlights the very area I've been concentrating on. The funny thing about my trip, as I was just discussing with the tour leader, is that I spent just over a week crossing all of China (Beijing to Urumqi, on to Almaty, Kazakhstan), a distance of more than 3000 miles; I'm now about to spend just under a week covering Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Moscow, a roughly similar distance; yet I've spent three solid weeks circling from Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) to Kashgar (China) to Fergana (Tajikistan) to Kiva (Uzbekistan) and finally here (Tashkent, Uzbekistan). A lot of points of interest in between, obviously, but overall an almost ludicrously short distance compared to what I did on my own.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Now with 75% more pictures! (Bukhara, Uzbekistan)

Lust and Gluttony in Exalted Spaces


Gastronomic detour: I've tried not to let this blog slip into a food extravaganza, but I can't resist this one posting about melons, which are everywhere here, and come in several varieties unavailable in the West. Hami, China is famous for its melons, but they exist in stellar form all along the Silk Road. There's a kind of albino cantaloupe that is impossibly sweet and lush, made all the moreso by the inhospitable desert. Today I stumbled on to a melon contest, where local farmers elbowed each other out of the way to be photographed with their prize fruits. The watermelons are actually smaller, more spherical here, but the "sweet melons" (everything other than watermelon is lumped together, even though at least four varieties exist, from green to orange), distend into enormous footballs.

Back to the main story: Capitalism has not been kind to Bukhara: old madrassas, mosques, and all other monuments are stuffed to the gills with souvenir shops. That's the bad news. The good: it's still enchanting--in fact, most of the souvenir shops themselves are pretty enchanting. More good: unlike Samarkand, where the dazzling Registan sits marooned in a sea of modern urbanity, the old town of Bukhara is preserved almost wholesale. It's a good place to wander, even in the oppressive heat.

Tonight we had dinner (including beer) in an old madrassa watching leggy Russian models give a fashion show. Taliban, eat your hearts out: here they understand the idea of Islam in moderation. Statue of Mulla Nasrudin in central park and ancient poetry manuscripts in museum also remind you that there's another side to Muslim culture, too often subverted or forgotten.

You could be forgiven for mistaking Bukhara for Granada or Codoba, say. Uzbekistan in general is much more "civilized" than the other 'stans--paved roads, A/C, English spoken, expenses higher (despite a chronic cash shortage, and the biggest note being about $0.60, so that every purchase resembles a drug trade). Things are much more "settled" than in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; the Russians have almost all left, and things have reverted to a version of the centuries-old farming and cottage industry culture, unlike the nomadism of the other countries (where the Soviet influence was in some ways quite welcome as a means of gaining infrastructure and expertise).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Back in the saddle


So much has happened since my last post,...

All Internet and international calls were blocked in Kashgar (China), the whole Xingjiang province, in fact, as a reaction to the July 5 troubles in Urumqi. So even though the hotel had wireless access, I couldn't post anything. In Kyrgyzstan we were off in the hills with the nomads. Let's start there:

We rode from the Tash Rabat caravanserai (yurt camp) up to a 3825-meter pass, in picture-perfect weather (oodles of sun but brisk)--it was like being inside an old Western, but in Technicolor. Managed a couple canters and one (semi-involuntary) full gallop--thrilling, but all I could think about was how to stay on; how nice it would be to ride well enough that I could think about other things, like the scenery rushing by, or the basic incredulity of moving at such a speed, being astride a living creature that can go so much faster than your own legs, nearly as fast as a car or train. I've never been, and never will be, a lover of horses as some are, but there are times, in the right landscape, under the right conditions, that it's an undeniably, and peerlessly, grand way to travel.

That was several days ago already; I'll fill in the gaps as time allows. For now let me just mention how different Uzbekistan is: a proud, ancient culture strongly influenced, but in no way overwhelmed, by the Soviets (as opposed to the mainly nomadic peoples of Kyrgyzstan). Massive mountains have yielded to a vast, verdant valley that might be mistaken for Provence, or Ohio. Bales of cotton for sale on the street corner. Little factories where ladies fish through boiling vats of silk cocoons. Flatbread decoratively punched like pressed tin ceilings. Hand-painted pottery in dizzyingly precise abstractions of blue, green, and off-white. Cold water, spiced lamb, clear soup...these are the highlights so far.

A free year's subscription to anyone who can name the violinist pictured in the last post. (Since I don't have a digital camera, all photos on this blog are "borrowed.")

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Beer for the ears

After "dining" last night on an assemblage of salads and sausage from the local bazaar, I stopped in at the German restaurant near the hotel for a pint or two. (It can be a struggle, in this climate, to drink beer fast enough to benefit from its coldness yet slow enough not to get tipsy or bloated, but these are the crosses we travelers must bear...)

In deference to drizzle, I sat inside, surrounded by that intoxicating smell of braised smoked pork, a quartet of Americans, a local couple with a baby, a lot of empty picnic tables, and...a little old man at an upright piano accompanying a tall, weary-looking blonde on a violin. The piano needed a tuning, and she, with music, seemed to be struggling at times to follow him, without, but it was wonderful: old, slightly schmaltzy stuff redolent of absinthe and cigarette-holders and long moustaches that leaned at moments towards Chopin, moments Gershwin--the kind of music that reminds you of the importance of acoustic instruments. Due to his individual skill and the general note-heavy nature of the piano, he played circles around her in a sense. But even with her slightly hesitant playing, the violin had that magical sound that made one note of hers carry more emotional weight than a dozen of his. You can have your synthesizers and mp3s and amplifiers: only trees and cat guts and horsehair, things that were once alive, can make that sound to raise the hairs on the back of your neck and make the breath catch in your throat.

No one but me seemed to pay them any mind. I clapped somewhat timidly after the second number, which the violinist acknowledged with an almost embarrassed nod. I applauded a few more times, and wished I knew enough Russian to go up and tell them what I'll try to say here:

Few things make me feel more blessed than stumbling onto good live music, as I've done typically once or twice per trip. Most musicians are so woefully underappreciated, I almost feel I've been sent, unbeknownst, on a mission to be the audience they deserve--or they've been sent to give me more pleasure than I deserve. Watermelon in the desert, a good cup of coffee on a cold morning, setting down your bags at the end of many transfers...none of these comforts is sweeter than live music.

Convenience at customs and solace through music--all in one day, and all thanks to beer.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cheapest beer ever

I crossed into Kyrgyzstan today--five hours in a minivan from Almaty to Bishkek, including stops on both sides of the border. Almaty was a hard place to leave: so comfortable, relaxed, spacious, leafy, and "luxurious" (if you count cold beer, real coffee, hearty Russian-style food, cool-ish weather, and walkability as "luxuries") after the thrilling, almost overwhelming frenzy of China.

We stopped at a cafe and gas station a couple hours into the bus ride; as I stood debating whether or not to squander the Kazakh money I'm saving for my return on a beer, a tall young guy insisted I sit down and have one on him. We chatted, and I marveled at the hospitality of Kazakhs--only yesterday I'd gotten a lift from a pair of college guys back into Almaty from the eagle farm up the mountain. "How nice to get a free beer," I thought.

But this turned out to be even more than a free beer, b/c the Kazakh border guard was very unhappy with the various stamps I had or hadn't secured, and was in no mood to let me through until who should come to my aid but Anvar, the guy who'd bought me the beer. This story seems to have various morals, all of them upending what we were told as children:
  1. talking to strangers is not only safe but imperative
  2. beer is not only nutritious, but excellent insurance
  3. fastidious paperwork will only get you so far
  4. pleasantries and good humor go a long way (maybe we did learn that as children, but who would have thought how far it goes with border guards?)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rolling, rolling, rolling...

People always ask what it's like on a sleeper train in China or the 'stans, so here are some notes from my recent 32-hour odyssey.

I forgot the best part about Russian--or in this case, Kazakh--trains: the small horde of babushkas that descends on the train as it arrives in rural stations, laden with chilled drinks (fizzy water frozen half solid, warm beer, cold pop); armloads of smoked fish; savory doughnuts flecked with meat and onions or sweet ones unfilled; bags of tiny apples; Mason jars of wild strawberries, raspberries, sour cherries; little meat patties; etc. My only mistake was in not changing more than $5 at the last stop, though it bought me a beer there, a liter of frozen water and a generous pint of cherries here, with some leftover. The approach in China is totally different: you never leave the train, and what's for sale at stops differs little--may in fact be worse--than what's available on board. On Chinese trains everyone survives on pot noodles, green tea, or the prepackaged meals (cooked in dining car), fruit, and snacks sent around on trolleys. On Russian trains, at least this one, there's no dining car or trolley that I can see, and everyone gets off at every stop and grazes.

The dining car food (from trolleys) on Chinese trains is much like bad Chinese restaurant food in the US: greasy rice, soy sauce-drenched chicken, limp broccoli or green beans, a fried egg, a slice of processed ham, maybe a cucumber salad. Not bad for a train, but pretty feeble for the country with possibly the world's greatest food. My goal, which I've now achieved, has become never to eat rice in China--not that I don't like it, but b/c the noodles, dumplings, buns, and other sources of starch are so much more interesting, and rice is so easily avoided, esp. in the north and west. Even in the south, the Chinese do okay by rice, but nothing like the Iranians or Indians, say, who use jasmine or basmati or other inherently aromatic varieties, brought to their full glory with careful cooking (each grain distinct) and elegant mingling with hints of spice, nuts, veg. Already in Urumqi the transformation is evident as "polo," rice pilaf, becomes a dish unto itself, whereas elsewhere in China rice is more of a condiment or filler.

Despite admonitions from the LP, Man in Seat 61, etc., that it's very popular, booked out weeks in advance, the "Silk Road" train I'm on (Urumqi to Almaty) is in fact only six cars long, and a good half the kupes are empty or partially full--mine only has me and one Kazakh guy in a berth built for four. Even full, it would be quite a luxury compared to Chinese hard sleeper. It's interesting, though, that Chinese trains are more spartan but newer (squat toilets but twice as many, and clean; sinks outisde bathrooms; sparkling enameled steel hardware, iridescent panel night lights) while Kazakh trains (much like Russian but not perhaps as wide) are more ornate but older and shabbier (seated toilets but very dirty and half as many; fake wood paneling everywhere; old-school military-grade lights, towel racks, etc.)

Stopped for over an hour on Chinese side for very thorough Customs (made me turn on computer, and guy opened various windows; seemed acutely interested in books; made me unpack bag down to opening deoderant in toilet kit); 20-minute lope through no-man's-land, when toilet was finally open; over an hour on Kazakh side for much more casual Customs. Then, an hour later, we stopped for 2-3 hours (and disembarked) while they changed bogeys (Russian/former USSR tracks are wider than most others).

It occurs to me that trains only really become interesting after about sixteen hours, when the journey becomes more than just a long overnight. As time stretches into the afternoon of the second day, you start to forget your origin, or destination, or time, and slip into a very relaxed kind of suspended animation. Another way of putting it would be that 12-16 hours is what separates those who love trains from those who put up with them; luxury vs. necessity. It's impossible to be in a hurry on a train (either a good or bad thing, depending on your disposition, I suppose); most sleepers are set up to go much slower than they theoretically could (who wants to arrive at 3:30 am?). On the Urumqi-Almaty train, a good six hours was "wasted" with borders and bogeys, to say nothing of fifteen-minute stops every three hours or so, and a very leisurely pace when it was moving. That's what windows are for.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Degrees of awkwardness

"You're going to travel across China by yourself?!" people often ask with incredulity.
"You must speak Chinese, right?"
"You don't have a guide, or anything?"
"How will you manage?!"

No one ever asks such questions about Russia, or even the 'stans.

But here's the thing, which I already suspected and can now say with authority: China's easier.
How can that be?
  1. Most Chinese don't expect foreigners to speak Chinese.
  2. Very few Chinese people can speak English, but those who do are usually dying to practice it on you.
  3. Culturally, the Chinese are a highly demonstrative people: they shout, they gesticulate, they pantomime, they make Jim Carrey-worthy facial contortions.
  4. Most people simply refuse to accept the language barrier: a missed communication is seen as a lost sale (even when no money's involved).
  5. Many signs are bilingual (though radically fewer outside Beijing)
In Russian-speaking countries, on the other hand,
  1. Many people don't understand or believe that anyone could fail to speak their language. (It doesn't help that I look passably Russian.)
  2. More people speak English than in China, but those who don't are less inclined to struggle.
  3. Because Russian is somewhat related to English, however distantly, there's an expectation that foreigners should be able to manage it somehow.
  4. There are virtually no bilingual signs (in fact very few signs at all). This problem is compounded by the fact that, in Kazakhstan and other former USSR "satellites," most streets have two or three different names representing various stages of independence and/or language (Russia is the lingua franca, but Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Uighur, and others are all native tongues of the area.) Transliterating Cyrillic is a lot easier than Mandarin characters once you've practiced it, but to the uninitiated it can actually be harder, because critical differences can be so subtle, compared to the fairly obvious differences in Chinese names, which rarely comprise more than two characters each.
Things can easily seem more comfortable in Kazakhstan, because it's so European in architecture, urban planning, leafiness, wealth, ethnicity, preponderance of cars, food, etc., etc.--nearly every way except language. In Almaty, at least, there's a definite Darwinian mentality--if you can't handle our system, get lost.

China, on the other hand, wants so badly to be respected and loved by foreigners: from the central government to the man on the street, you can just feel that they're trying so hard to please.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pay no attention to the man with the automatic weapon

A lot of people have expressed concern for my safety in visiting Urumqi. How to put this delicately? There are certain things quasi-totalitarian regimes do "well," and quelling disorder is one of them. It's very unsettling to imagine everything a tourist doesn't see--the paddy wagons, broken fingers and black eyes, swollen prisons, body bags. But what one does see is a city effectively being dared not to keep the peace. Police, SWAT teams, and soldiers are everywhere (all of them Han, rather than Uighur, of course). All but the most essential areas of the train station are cordoned off. Leftover police tape surrounds large areas of the Muslim quarter that were presumably trouble-spots before, but have resumed at least the appearance of normality now.

Every traveler knows never to stare at, much less photograph, a soldier. The unsettling thing in Urumqi for me is that the soldiers, like everyone else, all gawk at me. I assume they just want to study my strange appearance, because the general attitude of police and other authorities is clearly "leave the foreigners alone." They let me bypass X-rays at train stations with my film and camera with hardly a glance, and I get the feeling I could bring nearly anything through without half the attention a native would get.

All that being said, there is something particularly creepy to me about a camo transport truck full of Chinese soldiers spinning straight through town. This is, after all, the world's biggest standing army (by far), and these guys do have access to nuclear weapons and all manner of other highly advanced war toys. Yet there's that hunger and insouciance in them one doesn't see in American or European soldiers, suggesting that, on the one hand, they're just kids in soldier suits, but on the other hand, they know war as a personal fight for home and food and safety, not a video game or abstract geopolitical gambit.

You do the math

Urumqi is the farthest point on earth from any ocean; Lanzhou is the halfway point across China; Almaty is the beginning of the 'stans. The question remains, have I come halfway across the world's biggest continent yet? If anyone can say for sure, do tell, but I'm guessing yes, even though it's still a looooooooong way to Moscow.

Some more stats:
  • a week-and-a-half down; four-plus to go
  • two out of six visas used (but both to be re-used)
  • Kazakhstan is the first "new" country I'll be visiting, and one of only two I'm visiting completely independently
  • Kazakhstan is the first of four 'stans I'll be visiting, of six in existence (can you name them? spell them?)
  • Despite a lot of green tea and ramen noodles consumed, four major sleeper trains ridden, countless unpackings and re-packings completed, I'm still in "phase one" of the trip, until I join the Central Asia tour on Saturday ("phase two"), and leave it on the slow train to Moscow three weeks later ("phase three")

What it's like to be a celebrity

Everyone still wants to take my picture. Some attempt to do so without asking. Clearly I'm something to behold for the Chinese, but they're also simply trigger-happy, like the stereotype of Japanese tourists (or the reality of digital camera-wielding Westerners). The family I was with today took about half a dozen pictures of themselves and me standing before every sign, entrance gate, entrance feature, and so on.

Young Muslim guy in Lanzhou night market was positively giddy at the strangeness of my appearance, pulling at the hairs on my hands and laughing almost beyond control, finally showing, by way of explanation, the lack of hair on his own hands. He also measured my fingers against his own, using his fingers as calipers, marveling, I guess, at the longness of mine. He videotaped me on his cell phone as I ate--I wasn't pleased at his failure to ask first, but his glee was hard to argue with.

This is prob. as good a time as any to explain my screen-name: literally "barbarian" in Spanish, it's what everyone in China seems to be thinking--if not saying--when they look at me. Caucasians are rare; people over six feet are rarer; redheads border on the mythological; and men with long hair and beards might as well be extraterrestrial creatures. Among Argentines, "barbaro" functions as an exclamation akin to "awesome," "boss," "sweet," "cool." May this blog inspire such surprise and wonder.

Capitalism by any other name


Beijing seems much more polluted, and just as hot, as before. The metro has been thoroughly updated--turnstiles and ticket-machines reign where humans once did, to the point that it's quite hard to get on a train without exact change. In the tunnels, as the trains pass, they've somehow installed video advertisements that flash and flicker behind bars or something. Near Xiahe there are ads painted over the mouths of highway tunnels. On the trains conductors pass through selling glasses, socks, and other things no one really needs, or would bother looking at if not a captive audience. Beijing can hardly build shopping malls or billboards fast enough. The locals take to shopping like a novel sport. The notion that this is still a "communist" country is beyond laughable.

Nationwide Blog-out


After lugging my li'l computer around for a week untouched, I finally busted it out at Charlie Jong's Dune Guesthouse in Dunhuang, to find, to my astonishment, that everything worked: plug adapter, charger, computer, even free wi-fi. Sometimes progress is almost too good.

All set to get busy with this blog, I quickly discovered that is blocked in the PRC. (So's Facebook, if anyone's counting.)

So I made some notes offline and bided my time until I'd be out of China and back on the Internet, finally able to get this blog off the ground. Welcome to this morning, as I sit at a very European-seeming cafe in Almaty drinking in the gloriously cool, rainy weather with my nose and the too-long-abandoned coffee (and strawbery-poppy tart) with my mouth. I love green tea, but after a solid ten days of the stuff--and serious sleep deprivation on the 32-hour train here--I was very ready for a shot of burned beans and milk (dairy products being another all-but-unheard-of entity in China).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Background Reading


Much of what I know about train-ing it across the "Silk Road" came from here, one of the best travel websites--or freebies of any kind--there is:

For a description of Chinese trains in general, and "hard sleeper" in particular, click here:

You can also get a sense of how much cozier Russian trains are, especially in 2nd class, aka "soft sleeper," to which I succumb on voyages much longer than 24 hours:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Getting ready to flee the hemisphere


In less than 48 hours I'll be airborne to Beijing. What amazing times we live in that one can so casually climb into a winged aluminum capsule and zip across the Pacific, bane of sailors for centuries.

After years of travelling alone, I'll be joined on this voyage across Eurasia by Gabriela, my shiny black mini-laptop. It's in her honor that this blog is born.