October 23, 2006



In Shanghai, after a somewhat Kafkaesque flight from Lhasa via Xi'an.

Shanghai is busy and bustling and neon and huge. The forest of skyscrapers I saw being sown ten years ago in Pudong has since grown into their towering, glittering adolescence, and the rivers of bicycles have dried into mere streams, replaced by mopeds and cars. The Bund is still cool. Expats are everywhere and practically everyone under thirty seems to speak a little English. Nanjing Road is a pedestrian mall thronging with stores and crowds, and if you're a Westerner, also full of hawkers offering knockoff watches and bags, and "students" eager for you to visit their "art galleries," and if you're a Western man past dusk, pimps and hookers galore.

I haven't seen a single Internet cafe; there's been a government crackdown (can't remember if the pretext is "fire safety" or "they are depraving our young!") but the place I'm staying has a couple free terminals.

Tomorrow I ride the world's fastest, coolest train (magnetic levitation! 430 km/h aka 260 mph!) to Pudong International Airport, from whence I shall fly to L.A. and K., hurrah. I am meant to depart at 12:45PM and arrive at 12:23PM on the same day. Look for me in the noon sky.

Books read:
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment (re-read; incandescent genius)
  • Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina (while I accept this is a great novel, I found every character except Anna herself odious and repellent, and by the end she too was starting to grate)
  • Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman, Long Way Round (quick fun read; our routes hardly intersected; my friend Wendy makes a brief and amusing appearance)
  • Qiu Xiaolong Death of a Red Heroine (fascinating murder mystery set in 1990 Shanghai)
  • Jack Weatherford Genghis Khan and the Invention of the Modern World (great stuff, especially if read in Mongolia)
  • Barry Hughart Bridge of Birds (re-read; if there's a better book to read on a train into China, I can't imagine what)
  • Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore (fascinating if often dry)
  • Stephen King Wolves of the Calla (like most of the Dark Tower books, hate the main plot, love the substories)
  • Heinrich Herrer Seven Years in Tibet (the incredible story shines through the pedestrian writing)
  • Richard Stark née Donald Westlake Lemons Never Lie (purchased, believe it or not, from the airside information desk in Lhasa Airport; they also had Pohl's Gateway which I pondered but I've read it and it's great but I decided to leave it for the next English-language reader low on material. Oh, yeah, and the Stark is really short and really cool.)
  • Books for tomorrow's flight: JK Rowling Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Rudyard Kipling Captains Courageous, Ian Rankin Fleshmarket Close.

Hours spent on trains:
  • 168 (a whole week!)

Runs: 4
  • The Summer Gardens, St. Petersburg
  • trail along the Irtysh River, Omsk
  • beach northwest of Khuzhir, Olkhon Island
  • two laps around Tiananmen Square, Beijing
  • Wanted to run in Ulaan Baatar but smog and lack of good route defeated me; worked out twice at the local allegedly-five-star hotel instead. Kinda wanted to run in Lhasa but am insufficiently crazy. Would run along the Bund if I was staying here longer.

Cigarettes smoked:
  • 5
  • but adjusting for air quality in Moscow, UB, Beijing, Lhasa, and Shanghai, probably more like 722

Finally, I want you to know that in pondering the many experiences of and lessons learned from this trip, I have come to a daring and illuminating conclusion:

Asia: quite big.

Th-th-th-th-that's all folks. See y'all back in civilization. Well, in California, anyways.

October 21, 2006

seventy hours in tibet

potala-guardian dalai-lama-view lhasa-monks barkhor-square flag-potala mountains-windows

Of course Tibet was never the idyllic Shangri-La of myth. Fourteen hundred years ago, its armies conquered half of China. Seven hundred years ago, when Tibetan Buddhism was the state religion of Kublai Khan, the monks were bitterly resented by the Chinese, who were forced to food, shelter and convey them at their own expense, and who were executed if they so much as raised a hand against a man in a saffron robe. And if you'd come here before the Chinese invasion seeking a land of spiritual bliss and meditative detachment from the material world, you'd have been barking a long way up the wrong mountain.

In 1943, German mountaineers Heinrich Herrer and Peter Aufschnaiter escaped from a British POW camp in India and made an amazing journey across the Himalaya and into Tibet, where they stayed for seven years. Herrer describes a charming, friendly, welcoming country - but also one ruled by a corrupt theocracy that wasn't above using howitzers on rogue monasteries, and that viewed all kinds of progress and innovation as an attack on the absolute power of the monks. I'm certainly not trying to justify the Chinese invasion, and by all accounts the current Dalai Lama is an amazing human being - but if you were imagining pre-invasion Tibet as a land of peaceful enlightenment, guess again. (And frankly I found the Nepalis of six years ago a hell of a lot nicer than today's Tibetans; then again, to quote Matthew Hogan, oppressed people suck.)

Modern Lhasa is only about half-Tibetan; the other half is a fairly modern (and fairly boring) Chinese city. In the streets you pass roughly equal numbers of Han Chinese and Tibetan faces (they're pretty easy to distinguish) - large numbers of them wearing breathing masks against the city's acrid smog - and many of the Tibetans are poor peasants in the big city to make a pilgrimage to the Jokhang Temple (tomorrow's destination) and the massive Potala Palace that looms above the heart of the city, surrounded by parks and plazas.

The palace is gargantuan, with literally thousands of rooms. Hundreds of birds swarm above, and the views of Lhasa beneath and the mountains beyond are stunning. The chapels inside are feasts for the eyes; Tibetan Buddhism is all about relentless detail work and repetition, and in most of its rooms literally every square inch of every wall and ceiling is occupied by painted patterns, etchings, engravings, mandalas, thangkas, lacquered wood carvings, drapes, scarves, prayer flags, paintings of Buddhas or Wrathful Protectors, cubbyholes full of bronze Buddhas of Longevity or sacred books (about the size of bread loaves, loose-leaf but wrapped in leather and linen), all of it intricate and colourful. The central features are usually giant Buddha sculptures, or huge three-dimensional mandalas or stupas, or, in several cases, the tombs of Dalai Lamas, all made of metal, sometimes solid gold or silver. The tomb of the 5th Dalai Lama - considered one of the two all-time greats, along with the 13th - is some twenty feet tall incorporates almost four tonnes of gold.

The thousands who filed through the Potala Palace today were about thirty percent tourists and seventy percent Tibetan pilgrims, mostly dressed in rough nomad clothing, chanting ceaselessly, wielding handheld prayer wheels or prayer beads, bags full of yak butter1 and handfuls of money which they left at the many offering-sites. Occasionally we passed monks who worked there, keeping a stern eye on the treasures, or vacuuming the Buddhas, or just sitting and chatting over tea as if there was no herd of tourists and pilgrims filing past them. Despite the pilgrims and monks the palace felt more like a museum than an active place of worship - of course, the Dalai Lama hasn't lived here for a good fifty years.

1Most rooms in the Palace boast large metal lantern-vats full of yak butter in which eight or ten candle wicks burn; the pilgrims help replenish the butter.

The streets around the Jokhang are a lot more lively. Seething crowds of pilgrims make the circuit around the temple - some on foot, some prostrating themselves all the way - passing walls of stalls selling all sorts of religious paraphernelia when they're not selling trinkets to tourists. (Including the TIBET baseball cap I picked up for 30 yuan. The weather is cool - Lhasa's further south than Cairo but also two miles up - but the sun at this altitude gets nasty in a hurry.) The local Moslems in their white caps hang out at the nearby mosques, cycle-taxis carry tourists to and fro, incense burns, and generally the whole area is a combination of Major Religious Site and Pedestrian Shopping Mall, but in a good way.

There are plenty of tourists in Lhasa, but few stay all that long; it's a pit stop between Land Rover expeditions out to the Himalaya hinterland. It'd be cool to jump on a Jeep and head up to Everest Base Camp, or west to mega-sacred Mount Kailash, or best of all take the five-day ride across the mountains to Kathmandu - but not me, not this time, this is just a dip of the toe. Instead tomorrow I fly to Shanghai, and in just a few short days I will time-travel once more across the Pacific.

October 20, 2006

top of the world, ma

New business model: I shall hire myself out as Official Expedition Recorder to extremely wealthy travellers embarking on challenging expeditions. I mean, hey, I'm young, I'm fit, I've been around the block, I'm an accomplished writer, I'm a sometimes-useful techie, I take the odd good picture - who else you gonna hire? All I need is a Rolodex of centamillionaires with a yen for adventure travel and an eye on posterity. And if you could all just get right on getting me that, that'd be great, thanks.

shining-bridge train-bend shining-peak yaks-grasses

So, yeah, I'm in Tibet.

I'm going to described the train ride in rather excruciating detail, as there's not a whole lot of info available online for would-be passengers. But first of all, here are the pictures.

Riding High on the Rails

Preparations are pretty straightforward. I arrived in Beijing and headed straight to BTG Travel (recommended by Lonely Planet, right next to the Gloria Plaza Hotel) in the I-thought-forlorn hope of scoring both Tibet permit and ticket inside of a few days. Couldn't have been easier. The permit required 72 hours to arrange (and cost a whopping 900 yuan, more than $100 US); the train ticket was 1216 yuan for upper-berth soft sleeper; the flight from Lhasa to Shanghai was 2580 yuan; and BTG themselves charged me a mere 100.

Three days later, I turned up at BTG and got my tickets and two A4 sheets of paper covered with official stamps certifying that I was an Official Tour Group that was Officially Permitted to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region. (At least so they told me. I don't read Chinese.) The letter of the law1 still states that only tour groups can go to Tibet, but in the last few years said law's interpretation has been relaxed to include tour groups such as mine (# of members:1. # of guides: 0) and in fact if you fly into Tibet you will probably never actually see the permit.

1"decree" is probably more accurate.

I understand this permit process would have been much, much trickier if I had applied for a Tibet permit at the same time I applied for a China visa, rather than after I was in-country, or if I was in-country as a journalist or diplomat rather than a tourist.

A train to Lhasa leaves Beijing every night at 9:30 PM. (Trains to Lhasa also depart daily from Guangzhou and, soon, Shanghai and Chongqing as well; their cumulative passenger capacity will be 3000 people per day.) I arrived early at the Blade Runnerish hive that is Beijing West Railway station, stocked up on supplies (AA batteries were surprising difficult to dig up), and at the appointed hour, filed with hundreds of other people through the Ticket Inspection checkpoint.

The ticket-takers barely glanced at my permit, then directed me to someone else, who directed me to someone else, who gave me a Chinese form and managed to translate its necessary fields into English. Down to a clean, spacious, modern platform and onto a clean, spacious, modern train.

What the Chinese call "soft sleeper" is their equivalent of "first class." Each soft-sleeper car has eight four-berth compartments, plush and comfortable, although the upper bunks are a bit tricky to get into if you're typical Chinese size. These bunks even had a TV at the foot of every bed (four Chinese channels, you had to plug your own headphones in. They showed House of Flying Daggers at the very end of the journey, which was a welcome diversion.) First class even includes complimentary slippers. Oh, yes. And a nasal oxygen cannula.

Contrary to wild rumour, the trains to Lhasa are not pressurized. (I heard loose talk of a "tourist train" next year that will be, but I'm skeptical.) Contrary to my previous post, they do not reach an apogee of 4700 metres. In fact the journey tops out at 5070 metres - more than five kilometres above sea level. There are nozzles labelled OXYGEN, in Tibetan, Chinese and English, next to every berth in soft and hard sleeper, and beneath every seat in soft seat and the dining room. Some of them hissed apparently without provocation once we hit the Tibetan Plateau, upping the O2 content of their compartments; most had to have a cannula plugged into them before they fired up. Or so I surmise - I'm pretty good with altitude and, like most of the Japanese, never used mine. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We rolled out of Beijing at exacty 21:30, right on time, moving so smoothly at first that I didn't realize we were under way for at least a minute, and soon accelerating to speeds of over 150 km/h. Each compartment has scrolling LCD displays at either end that informs you (in Chinese and English) of the train number, departure station, terminal station, next station, speed, outside temperature, date and time, along with a couple phone numbers (labelled only in Chinese), along with the frequent exhortation "Have a good trip!" We didn't stay at 150kph the whole trip, though; across the Tibetan Plateau, we averaged more like 90 (still pretty impressive.)

There are two toilets at the end of every car except the dining car - one Chinese (ie squat) and one Western, for soft sleepers; two Chinese, for all others. The soft sleeper has three sinks with soap outside the toilets, along with an automated samovar dispersing boiled water. Of the 15 cars in my train, one was a dining car; two were soft-sleeper (capacity 32); four were soft-seat (nice but still uncomfortable for a journey of this length, if you ask me - capacity 98); and the remaining eight were hard-sleeper (compartments with triple-stacked bunks, perfectly serviceable, capacity 60, except one that had a disabled toilet and was capacity 54.) Hard-sleeper was 836 yuan, if I recall correctly. I would have been perfectly content with it, but figured, go in style. I would have been less perfectly content with soft seat.

The dining car served food that ranged from edible to pretty-good for very reasonable prices: circa 20 yuan for a meal, 5 for a Coke, 10 for a Budweiser, which alas was the only beer they served even though China's Qingdao is far better. (It's about 8 yuan to the dollar.) Their menu was only in Chinese, but pointing-at-random served me reasonably well, and pointing-at-what-looks-good even better. The staff were typically brusque, and kicked passengers out for a few hours each day so they could have the car to themselves. There were also a couple of food carts that rolled up and down the length of the train every so often.

From Beijing, the train was about half-full. There were three Westerners; me and an Austrian-Slovakian couple who had been working in China for several months. When we reached Xining some 24 hours after departing Beijing - more people flooded on, including a large Japanese tour group that took over almost my entire car, and another eight Westerners. The soft-seat cars were mercifully empty enough that many people were able to sprawl out over three chairs, and a whole hard-seat car was deserted - strangely, no one seemed to take advantage of this.

The train was well-windowed, and though the windows grew streaked over the course of the journey, the (usually spectacular) views were rarely if ever obscured. All the corridors are on the same side of the train, and each car has a half-dozen fold-down seats that let you sit by a window and watch the world go by (there's just enough room for someone else to squeeze by.) (I think I may be setting some personal best for the number of parentheses in a post here.) At the junction areas between cars windows open to either side. A few windows in each car theoretically folded down a little, but seemed locked, so at first I thought that I'd only be able to take pictures through the windows. However, it turns out that the windows in the bathrooms do fold open a little - in fact, just enough to permit the egress of a Canon PowerShot A620 and a pair of hands. Good thing I never got that SLR.

OK, now onto the journey itself.

By the time I woke up and drank my Nescafe we were almost in Xi'an. We stopped there only briefly and weren't allowed off the train (far as I could tell, of the half-dozen stops the train makes en route to Lhasa, you can get out only at two of them; Xining, midway, and Naqu, 4.5 hours before Lhasa.) Westwards through furrowed green highlands, steep river gorges, and loads of tunnels, making a couple of stops whose names escape me, before we reached the mighty Yellow River and followed its wide flow for some time. We arrived in Xining at about 9PM, if memory served, after an unusually scenic but otherwise typical train ride across China.

Day two was anything but typical. At first, as we climbed gradually through the [side note: grr. I wanted to look up the name of the mountains to the north of the Tibetan Plateau, but the Great Firewall of China blocks that Wikipedia page. I am exceedingly proud to report that also seems to block my pro site's blog page, probably due to my 1997 China entry. Ah, there we go.] Kunlun mountains, there was absolutely nothing around the train but stark, ragged rock, not even lichen, it was like riding a train across the moon except for the snow-dusted mountains visible in the distance.

There was also a road. There would be for most of the journey; the train was mostly built alongside the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway. Cargo trucks, a few passenger cars, and a bizarre convoy of more than 50 empty military trucks passed us as we continued through the Kunlun and emerged into the Tibetan Plateau, which although higher, is more bountiful than the mountains. Though not much. Only lichens and a few hardly grasses can survive this high. Amazingly, that's enough to support human habitation; Tibetan nomads wander with their herds of sheep and yaks throughout the entire plateau - usually by motorcycle, with modern tents, though I saw a few on horse and foot, and some yak-hair tents.

The terrain doesn't vary much - vast fields of furrowed hills of permafrost, barren but for clumps of brown grass and dark lichen, sometimes with a few snow-capped mountains in the distance - but it's beautiful, in the way a desert is beautiful. I was happy to spend hours sitting and staring out the window. (Mind you I also read two books on the train.) Mostly the train rides on a huge raised embankment walled by green metal fences (though the fence isn't yet complete, and workers constructing it were visible in some places.)

At about 1PM we reached our maximum altitude, the 5072-metre-high Tanggula Pass. There was no announcement, and no real sign in the landscape, but I felt it coming. Even with the extra oxygen they pipe in, the altitude was hitting everyone on the train. I'm pretty good with heights, and I felt dizzy, headachey, full of malaise. I forced myself to get up and walk through the train. Everywhere people were slumped on their bunks or their seats, staring dully and miserably out at nothing. Many were breathing through their cannulae, and one of the staff was administering medicine to an old Chinese woman. It felt a little like we were all fleeing some disastrous battle, or like the entire train had been poisoned. A couple hours later we were back down to 4600 metres (according my Japanese compartmentmate's altimeter) and life had returned; people were drinking beer and cracking jokes in the dining car (until the staff kicked them out.)

There were occasional towns en route, if you can call them that; a few low barracks huddled slovenly on the steppe, maybe with a PetroChina gas station. There were enormous numbers of rivers and watercourses, mostly very wide and shallow. In some places water snaked through a few creases in those beds; in others, it was frozen solid. Birds flew past, black kites, and I saw some kind of crane next to the huge lake we hit at about 3:20. At about 5:20 we reached the first outcrops of the Himalaya proper; an hour later, we hit the outer ring of the towns that the surround Lhasa, and the traffic on the road beside us began to grow livelier. The sun set at 7:30, and then there was nothing to do but wait and watch House of Flying Daggers before we rode into Lhasa.

The train station is a good 10K away from Lhasa proper; fortunately - depending on your point of view - I was greeted by my Official Driver, who took my permit, drove me to Lhasa (for free, or at least for included-in-the-permit), waited to see me check into my hotel, and then drove away. Presumably to make it easier to keep tabs. I don't expect to see him again - getting out of Tibet is straightforward - and that suits me just fine, I was a little creeped out about the whole government-minder thing.

Pictures, again, available here.

As for Lhasa, more tomorrow, I'm beat. (Although the altitude isn't affecting me as much as I'd feared; one nice side effect of taking the train, it helps you acclimatize.)

October 15, 2006

an especially tricky people

What a difference a decade makes.

On the train from Ulaan Baatar, after we finally escaped the vast, blasted gravel-and-sand plain of the Gobi Desert, after bogies were changed and passports were stamped and we finally entered the Middle Kingdom - in my case, for the first time since March 1997 - we rolled to a 10-minute halt at some nameless station in Inner Mongolia, and I laced my boots up and wandered out onto the platform to stretch my legs -

- and I stopped dead. Because I knew that smell, I remembered it in my bones, in my deep cortex, smell is the sense most strongly linked to memory. The platform smelled like China.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. And maybe it was just jasmine and cheap cigarettes. But for just a second I froze in my steps, remembering.

You'll forgive me if I wax nostalgic a moment. (Heck, it's not like you have a choice.) The very first time I went seriously travelling, nine and a half years ago, I backpacked solo across China for a month. In 1997 that was a pretty major feat. There was no Internet. Nobody, but nobody, spoke English; I spent a week without speaking a word of my mother tongue. Instead I had to get by with exceedingly broken Mandarin Chinese I'd picked up from a single book and language tape I read/listened to in the couple of months before I left San Francisco.

In retrospect I don't really know why I decided to go solo through China in '97. I wanted to see the Three Gorges before the dam went up, and I did, but I could have waited a few years yet. God knows it wasn't the easiest of destinations; quite the opposite; it was diving in at the deep end. I guess that was part of its appeal. Maybe most of its appeal.

I remember very well my first night there back then, lying in the back of a bumpy sleeper bus travelling between Guangzhou and Yangshuo, in the company of two Europeans I'd met just hours before, stopping at an inn halfway and looking around at the dark landscape and having a piercing revelation of just how far I'd come, just how far away I was from anyone or anything I knew, just how alien a place I had brought myself to without hardly knowing why.

I got by, even after I left Yangshuo and went way off the backpacker trail. (Why? See above.) I communicated, navigated, coped, bought tickets, took trains, found hotels. During that week I spoke no English I was the only white guy on a boat that took three days to coast down the Yangtze from Chongqing to Wuhan, through the Three Gorges. To this day I can count to ten and order beer in Chinese.

Not that I've needed either skill since arriving here this time. The language wars are over, and we won: English is now more widely spoken in Beijing than in Moscow. The city's once-shambling main streets are now wide boulevards lined by trees, fountains, flower gardens, massive government edifices, colossal shopping malls, five-star hotels. Wangfujing Dajie is like Fifth Avenue as a pedestrian walkway. There are McDonald's, Starbucken, Sizzlers, Pizza Hut, Haagen-Dazs, etc. etc., everywhere. One thing about a totalitarian state, it sure makes for speedy urban renewal.

It is kind of fascinating watching development in action. Ten years ago China was First World only in very isolated pockets and islands; now it's whole strips and zones, and not just downtown; gargantuan fields of brand-new apartment buildings (and, to the government's credit, stands of newly planted pine trees) were visible as the train rolled into Beijing. Poke a little further, one block behind, and you'll still find narrow alleys, ancient courtyards, jerry-rigged wires hanging low over the roads, crowds of bicycle rickshaws and street vendors, teeming throbbing masses haggling for cheaper dumplings; but these hutongs are being destroyed as I speak - literally - just around the corner from where I type, the demolition crews work 24 hours a day.

Sometimes Beijing smells like China. Mostly it smells like a smokestack. The pollution, construction/destruction dust, and windblown Gobi sand add up to an incredible, constant, clinging, oozing smog. Today I went for a run around Tiananmen Square, and barely got 25 minutes before my breath got ragged. Maybe I'm out of shape. Maybe not. Tonight we walked back along the square, and could barely see through the dust and smog to the other side, and it's big enough that it's served by three separate subway stations, but it's not that big. My friend in the British Embassy says he's heard claims that breathing in Beijing is like smoking 70 cigarettes a day.

It's very pleasant, modern Beijing, very easy, very nice to visit, still very colourful, lots of stuff to do, I recommend it - the smog won't affect (most of) you if you're only here a week or two. China has gotten rich and is getting richer, and that's good for China, and it's not like it's being culturally colonized by the West, its own culture is much too strong and vibrant for that, soon it'll start throwing its own snowballs back into the global cultural mix like Japan does. But it's no longer even remotely alien, and that's what China was for me ten years ago when for whatever reason I needed alien, and I miss that.

There are other alien places still. But one day, maybe one day not too far from now, there won't be any left at all, and that will be a shame.

October 11, 2006

in the footsteps of chinggis khan

mongol-couple little-gobi knock-carefully genghis-empire nomad-ger khutai-park

Ulaan Baatar: a godforsaken outpost that time forgot in the middle of Mongolia's squalid, all-but-abandoned wasteland, right?

Guess again. This is a thriving, humming hub of commerce, teeming with German breweries, Korean restaurants, French bakeries, Irish pubs, Hollywood movie theatres, American missionaries, billboards advertising mining equipment and Western cosmetics, horn-honking traffic jams of Hyundais and Mercedes and Land Cruisers, plentiful cheap Internet cafes (600 tögrög/US$.60/hr), new construction everywhere you look, and the Mongols themselves slouching about in laid-back Western-cool brand-name black and denim, tattoos and coloured hair - there's even a goth scene. There's money sloshing all over the place in today's UB. Looks a bit like an overheated bubble economy to me, but what do I know?

the lost boys of ulaan baatar

It's not a pretty city. In fact it's an impressively ugly one. Most of the buildings are still Stalinist blocks. The streets and sidewalks are battered and cracked. The smokestacks of two massive power plants vomit smoke into the air around the clock, and the city is set in a bowl of mountains; the air is thick with smog. Street urchins and beggars are few but remarkably aggressive - they'll grab you, or follow you for blocks, and one (twentysomething) one followed right behind me one night, trying to match my pace while opening the zippers of my daypack. (He failed, and hence did not score the $1 sunglasses I keep in its outer pocket.)

Their aggression is understandable. You see, an amazing network of hot-water pipes bigger than most tree trunks extends from those power plants all through the city, running aboveground at first, along overpasses where they meet roads or rail tracks, and plunging underground when they reach downtown. There are many uncovered manholes, beneath which you can see these water pipes not ten feet below. It's in these passages, in this Dickensian underground labyrinth, that UB's street people live when winter comes and the outside temperatures plunge to -40C. Some are adult alcoholics. Most are orphan children and teenagers, loosely organized into street gangs that emerge by day to scavenge and thieve. Once there were hundreds, but now, apparently, their number is diminishing, as the newfound wealth above trickles slowly into the underworld. But I doubt these lost boys will disappear for a good few years yet, if ever.

the middle of nowhere, the center of the world

Driving out of UB feels like time travel. Ten minutes west of the city's edge, deep in the Mongolian steppe, it's hard to believe that such a thing as a city ever existed. A single road parts an endless sea of rolling hills of golden, treeless grass. Rippled layers of hills and highlands jut from the horizon on all sides, some barren, some snow-capped. Occasional jagged granite spines protrude from the earth like the half-buried remains of some long-vanished race of monsters.

The road continues past, and sometimes through, herds of horses, camels, yaks, sheep, goats, cows. Sometimes the livestock is watched by men or children on horseback. Birds fly low over the road: magpies, crows, kites, buzzards, sometimes vultures. Tiny white discs are visible out on the distant steppe, or the slopes of some hills: gers, aka (in Central Asia) yurts - crosshatched panels of wood lashed into a circle, then topped by a shallow conical roof, all covered by a thick felt covering - home to nomad families who move with their herds from pasture to pasture over summer, and to hillsides to shelter from the bitter winter winds. Less than an hour's drive from the capital, Mongolia's main east-west highway is heavily potholed - for one lengthy stretch it's so bad that all drivers take parallel dirt tracks instead, leaving the tarmac to the animals. There is hardly any traffic. A few vans carrying passengers; articulated trucks, many laden with hay; motorcycles with three or four passengers; and a very few private cars.

The occasional "towns" are single strips of battered, shabby buildings on either side of the road: shops, cafes, gas stations, tire repair. They feel a lot like the Old West, especially since horses are still the primary means of transport for many. But look closely and you'll see that many of these gers have solar panels, wind turbines, and satellite dishes. Mongol's nomads move increasingly by pickup and motorcycle rather than on horseback. They make a pretty good living, if they're good at raising and selling their livestock - after all, they pay no rent.

We overnighted at a tourist camp (a bunch of gers, a bar/restaurant, an ablution block1) beside "the little Gobi," an 80-km-long strip of sand dunes beside the ominously named Strangling Mountains, and went for a long hike. (We won't be going to the Gobi proper except when we take the train through, due to time/cost/end-of-season constraints. Next time.) The next day we went to the Zanabazar Monastery next to the town of Karakorum.

Mongolia is primarily Tibetan Buddhist (of the Yellow Hat sect, same as the Dalai Lama.) The Soviets, as part of their brutal repression of all Mongolian religion and nationalism during their de facto Cold War occupation of the country, razed all but three monasteries and killed some 30,000 monks. The Zanabazar Monastery has since been rebuilt, but its famous 108 stupas surround a mostly empty plain; still, the rebuilt buildings and the surviving paintings and sculptures within are quite striking. Most were hidden for decades by devout families who in doing so risked their livelihoods if not their lives. After the monastery, en route to our second tourist camp, we passed through the small, windswept, desolate near-slums of a town named Karakorum. Its population is maybe 10,000. Locals lead goats down its main streets, and cart wood to the city on foot, in rickety wheelbarrows. Alone in the middle of the vast steppe, a six-hour drive west of Ulaan Baatar, with nothing to signify it but the rebuilt monastery, Karakorum feels very much like the middle of some postapocalyptic nowhere.

But once upon a time, believe it or not, this was the very centre of the world.

You've heard of Genghis Khan, of course. (Actually, "Chinggis," but mistranslated by some Persian.) Leader of the savage Mongol hordes that raged across the world, their vast numbers overwhelming every army that they faced, looting and pillaging, destroying and despoiling civilization wherever they found it, right?

You might not have heard of Genghis Khan as the Great (albeit often brutal) Civilizer - the man who grew up from being an illiterate slave to forge the world's largest empire and make it a shining bastion of meritocracy, religious freedom, sexual near-equality, free trade, and high technology; the man whose dynasty lasted for generations; the man who always offered peace before he made war, whose forces besieged countless fortified cities occupied by professional armies who generally outnumbered the Mongols two or three to one, and generally conquered the cities in a matter of days, not with numbers but with overwhelming superiority in strategy, tactics, and technology. It's a heck of a tale.

Karakorum was for thirty years, seven centuries ago, the capital of that empire, a city that dripped with silk and caviar and Damascus steel, where a huge tree made of gold and silver poured wine and fermented mare's milk from its branches for the guests of the Khan. It was still a long way to come - so long that the Khan rewarded merchants who brought trading caravans there by giving them asking price plus a bonus for all their wares - but it was the capital of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, one that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Pacific to the Indian to the Arctic.

Not sure whether it was also the source of the name for the Karakoram Range and hence the Karakoram Highway - very high on my Places-To-Go list - but that's my suspicion.

Nowadays, almost nothing remains. The lone and unlevel steppe stretches far away.

1though the pipes were frozen - did I mention that it dropped below freezing every night, and we've been snowed on several times here? - and we had to use the "happy house" instead.

home, home on the range, where the yak and the camel herds play

Other stuff: On the way back from Karakorum, we saw some wild horses, re-introduced from European zoos after they went extinct in Mongolia. The national park they were in was lovely. The horses weren't that exciting, but it's an interesting project, and seems to be going well. (The local wolf population is doing quite well off it too; apparently every year they eat half the new foals.) We didn't see any of the plentiful marmots in the area, which is perhaps just as well, as many/most carry bubonic plague.

We also stopped by a nomadic ger to say hi. They were chosen at random by our guide and driver and didn't know any of us from Adam, but apparently nomads welcome visitors at basically any hour. After a quick snack of fried Cheeto-like dough and fermented mare's milk (kinda like yoghurt mixed with millet beer) we exchange pleasantries and wandered off again, taking one of the men to the nearest town.

I don't usually like forced meet-the-locals encounters, but at least this one wasn't preplanned, and while there wasn't much to do but sit around awkwardly, their ger was kind of interesting. None of their herds were visible; the only animals around were their riding horses (not to be confused with their meat/milk horses) hitched to a temporary wooden fence. The first ger had electricity powered by a car battery recharged by a solar panel; the second had a satellite dish too.

Various saddles, tack, plastic jerrycans, debris, etc., were scattered around the gers, but the inside of the one we visited was extremely clean and very cozy. The walls were lined by lacquered orange furniture - beds, sofas, cabinets - all painted with various Tibetan-mandala patterns. To the right There was an iron stove in the middle, from which a pipe periscoped up through the roof. Next to the stove there sat a sheep stomach filled with intestines, and other hunks of meat were hung drying from the ceiling above the stove. Posters hung on the walls, and on the cabinets there were family pictures, a picture of the Dalai Lama, a Buddha sculpture, etc. There were a couple of toddlers, too. (Most nomads have relatives in permanent cities, and send their school-age children to live with them during the school year.) All in all, very comfortable. The lack of running water's a bit of a drag, but if they could solve that problem, I could totally set up shop in a ger.

On Friday the 13th, if our tickets ever arrive (long story), we will take the train through the Gobi to Beijing. Haven't been there since March 1997. I bet it's different now.

October 02, 2006

places you only know from Risk

olkhon-trees olkhon-settler nikita-gate swallowed-architecture

I write to you from Irkutsk, Siberia. Yes, it's more than just a territory on the RISK board. (Though incidentally it's considerably further south than in the game. The Trans-Siberian, like the Trans-Canadian, stays fairly close to the country's southern border all along its route.) It's famous for ... er ... not a whole lot, other than being the place of exile for many of the Decemberists aristocrat-revolutionaries, back in the day.

Krasnoyarsk is quite a cool city by Siberian standards, not least for its convenient location a mere 7km north of the Stolby Nature Reserve, a trip to which answered in part: why is the life expectancy of Russian men so low? (60 years - extremely low for a country so wealthy - compared to 74 years for Russian woman.) It's not just the rampant alcoholism, the vodka-drinking for breakfast, the continuing classification of beer as a soft drink. It has a lot to do with the fact that, so far as I can tell, Russian men disproportionately tend to be psychotic adrenalin junkies.

"Someone fall off and die here," Kostya said, and he paused to think a moment, "every week? No, no. Every two week." He waved a negligent hand at Pillar No. 1, the first colossal pile of karst granite thrusting its way 80 metres into the sky from the taiga forest below. Around us, schoolchildren on day trips shouted excitedly, climbing all over the smaller rocks, and a few beginning expeditions up the pillar. "You see those marks?" Kostya pointed at two parallel sets of vertical striations. "Last year, a boy fall off, he grab with his fingernails." He shook his head sadly.

There are about ten such huge heaps of granite protruding from Stolby - Pillars 1-2-3, Grandmother, Grandfather, Crocodile, Monkey, Wild Rocks, etc. - many of them used by the Krasnoyarsk alpine club, among Russia's finest thanks to a rather ruthless process of elimination. A sizable memorial near the entrance to the reserve pays tribute to the many local alpinists who have fallen to their deaths and in doing so presumably improved the club's average skill level. A few years ago, to celebrate their sixty-year anniversary, a few of them climbed Pillar No. 2, the highest and hardest, to celebrate. No big deal, right? Except this time this group brought a cow along.

The cow successfully summitted. No word on whether it went back down the hard way or the easy way, or if the latter, whether it has its own space in the memorial.

A hundred years ago, the local Bolsheviks huddled and conspired in Stolby's caves, plotting and waiting for their revolution still a decade away. And even today, loners and outcasts live in the nature reserves, even through the vicious Siberian winter, in hidden houses and caves, hunting to survive. Kostya - friendly, well-educated, thirtysomething - spent three weeks living in Stolby himself, some fifteen years ago, living off cat soup and pine-needle tea.

It's easy to see how you could live undetected if you want to. At ground level, the colossal pillars of the taiga's birch and pine trees seem to stretch all the way up to heaven; this forest that carpets the land all the way up to the circumpolar treeline near the Arctic Sea is vast, cool, mysterious. The air is damp, cold - we were snowed on, as we scrambled tothe top of one of the rock formations - and rich with life. The undergrowth is sparse enough to permit walking in any direction, but thick enough to obscure vision after only a hundred feet.

For a moment I thought I saw, from the corner of my eye, a strange, ornately carved, little wooden house standing on four tall bonelike stilts; but when I turned to look, it was gone. Just my mind playing tricks on me.

Every so often, when travelling, you run into a genuine oasis: remote and laid-back, cheap and comfortable, set amid stunning natural beauty, a haven for cool fellow-travellers from around the world, a genuinely magical spot somehow not yet overrun by tour buses, gap-year teenagers, crowds of hawkers or rows of souvenir stalls.

Oases I have found, over the years: Yangshuo (China). Tetebatu (Indonesia). Kokrobite (Ghana). The Vumba (Zimbabwe). Nepal (all of it). The Daintree (Australia). Dahab (Egypt). Caye Caulker (Belize). Hampi (India). Nungwi (Zanzibar). I wasn't expecting to add to that hallowed list while in Russia - but I am pleased to today append the name Olkhon Island.


It's a four-hour drive from Irkutsk to the ferry, along a wide black highway divided by a dotted line largely ignored by the teeming Russian traffic. Past smokestacks belching filth into the sky (Irkutsk, like most Russian cities, is smelled before it's seen), airfields above which light aircraft perform unlikely acrobatics, roadside produce markets, farmland, Siberian cowboys herding cattle through the rolling hills, and then back into wilderness: rippling hills of treeless, grass-covered steppe alternating with dense carpets of taiga forest, a kaleidoscopic palette of soft yellow and green. We stop at a Yukos gas station, then at a busy cafe. Half of its customers are Slavic, tall and fine-featured, descendants of settlers and exiles; half are the local Buryat, short and stocky, their Asiatic features a reminder that we're a long, long way from Europe.

Eventually there are no more trees, just sand-coloured grass that looks from a distance like raw desert. Lake Baikal's appearance is so sudden it seems like a mirage. Banana-shaped, sixty kilometres across, Baikal is smaller than any of North America's Great Lakes, but so deep - an incredible 1637 metres - that it contains more water than all of them put together, a full fifth of the planet's unfrozen fresh water. (For comparison, Superior bottoms out at 405 metres.) Baikal's water is deep blue, crystal pure, sharply cold even in summer. It is surrounded on all sides by high, folded mountains. A single promontory of these mountains extends into the lake, and is cut off from the mainland by a narrow channel. A ferry takes us efficiently across this channel, to the stark, barren, wildly beautiful steppe hills of Olkhon Island.

It isn't all steppe; half the island's soil is too salty to support anything but grass, and the other is occupied by a great forest of green and golden pine. Colossal jagged rocks and headlands jut into the lake. On both sides, but particularly the east, huge cliffs fall almost vertically into the water; the island's highest point, 1230 metres above lake level, is almost immediately next to the deepest trench in the lake, almost three vertical kilometres below. The island's shape mimics that of the lake that surrounds it, a banana 72 km by 14.

Between the shining mountains, the glittering lake, the windswept grassy hills, and the green and golden forests, all at epic scale, Olkhon is shockingly gorgeous. Well into this century it was inhabited only by Buryats, nomadic and Buddhist, who herded their cattle north and south depending on the season. Their offering-places and prayer poles wrapped with colourful fabrics still dot the landscape; they believed Olkhon to be one of the world's central power places. Particularly its northern tip, a jagged rock called "Khoboy", or "the Tooth," which incidentally is exactly where my watch stopped the day before yesterday.

The Slavs were sent here by Stalin, who established a gulag on the northwestern edge of the island, and exiled trainloads of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians here. Those who survived the nightmarish journey then had to face Olkhon's brutal winters (though at least their summers were pretty.) Nothing is left of that gulag but ruins; the island's one real village, Khuzhir, occupied by some 1200 of its 1500 inhabitants, is further south, halfway up the coast from the ferry, inland from a harbour guarded by colossal rocks.

Khuzhir is a town of wooden fences, wooden houses, rutted, uneven dirt streets covered with dung. Cows outnumber motorized vehicles by about three to one. Its tiny industrial port area is half-collapsed, all but defunct. At first, it looks like one of the most uninviting towns unimaginable. But look a little closer, and you'll see that some of these houses are shops; some are hostels; one even provides satellite Internet access (though it wasn't available when I tried it) and a surprising number of Western tourists are wandering around. Wander around a bit, and eventually - very soon, actually, given the size of Khuzhir - you'll find the main reason for this: Nikita's Homestead.

I don't want to portray Olkhon as an undiscovered paradise. Both Western and Russian tourists come here by the boatload, particularly in high summer, when you sometimes have to wait in line overnight on the mainland side to catch the ferry. There are guesthouses and B&Bs not just in Khuzhir but in tiny (15-building) hamlets that dot the coast. In summer, up to 20 jeeps a day drive tourists around to see the island's sights. But it's fair to say that much of this is down to one man, a former Russian table-tennis champion named Nikita, who fell in love with Olkhon, built his house here, and has expanded it into a cozy, comfortable, welcoming guesthouse complex with room for maybe twenty. For room and full board at Nikita's Homestead you pay 600 rubles a day, or some US$25.

Of course it's not ultraluxury. There's power, but there is no running water; you have to make do with a banya sauna-bath and bucket toilets. If you want a beer, it's delivered in a litre jar from some local brewmeister; if you want to rent a mountain bike, you may be sent down the street to another local entrepeneur; and if you want something not found in the small local minimarkets, well, there's a minibus to Irkutsk every morning. But such desires are rare to unheard of, when you can chill, wander, tramp along the pebbly beaches and through pine forests, hop on the daily Russian Jeep tours to the wilds of the island's north, take a boat out into the lake, watch the incredible sunsets, or explore the lakes and highlands of the rugged interior. Maybe in summer the crowds will find you - but I doubt it. It's very easy to find peace, on Olkhon Island. I hope it never changes.