Friday, September 03, 2004

The Art of Burning Out and Finding Salvation in Barcelona, Spain

The Art of Burning Out and Finding Salvation in Barcelona, Spain
September 3rd, 2004

I was in Belgrade, Serbia last week and it was there that I finally realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was totally burnt out on backpack travel. As a result I decided to head to Barcelona, Spain to stay put for awhile. And so that is where I am now - in Barcelona - resting. I just moved into a room in an apartment that I am sharing with students from Italy and Argentina. I will return to the U.S. sometime in November - and don't worry, I have already put in for my absentee ballot for the election on November 2nd.

In the mean time I will be in my cocoon preparing for my return to the U.S. by working again on my first book (and mailing it out to publishing companies) and working on some music stuff that Ive been meaning to put down on paper, and teaching a student or two on drum rudiments and proper hand and foot drum-kit techniques.

Until next Time,

P.S. As for the Salvation part of arriving in Barcelona. Well, yes . . . I have found it (salvation). To elaborate on that I will not. Some treasures are meant to be sacred and quiet . . . like an enchanted temple hidden deep within a jungle fortress :)

Friday, August 13, 2004

Quick Note from Bratislava, Slovakia

August 22nd, 2004
Quick Note from Bratislava, Slovakia
I have a lot to catch up on in regards to this journal. I have been to Hamburg and Berlin, Germany as well as to Warsaw and Krakow in Poland. I am now in Bratislava, Slovakia. I have been taking a sort of break from the internet but soon I will return with stories and tales from this leg of the journey. As to where I am going, here is my itinerary:

Vienna, Austria
Budapest, Hungary
Belgrade, Yugoslavia
Transylvania and Bucharest, Romania
Sofia, Bulgaria
Skopje, Macedonia
Tirana, Albania
Sarajevo, Bosnia
Zagreb, Croatia
Ljubljana, Slovenia
Vaduz, Liechtenstein
Lyon and Marseille, France
Tunis, Tunisia
and finally Barcelona, Spain.

It will be in Spain that this journey will end. And it will be in Barcelona where I will find home again.

With Love,

August 14th, 2004
Readings from The Travels of Dom e Niko: Essays, Thoughts, and Other Tales

Author's Note: Here is my first short story, as promised, for this site. I began writing it on a cloudy day in my hotel in Shanghai. The work is fiction; but the events, conversations, and ideas in the story do have a place in reality. I hope you enjoy it. I welcome any feedback:

The Astor House of Old Shanghai
He laid the rolled silk scroll on his bed, and took a step back. The wood floor creaked. He looked down at his old beaten shoes and thought again about why he liked the Chinese painting. It was the utter loneliness. Yes, that is it.

+ + + +
It was his first time in Shanghai. It was cloudy when he arrived. Dismal and sad; his first two impressions of the city once called, the Whore of the Orient. After checking into the Astor House, and dropping his things in his lavish 5th floor room, he decided to take walk. He walked north along the Bund until Nanking street. He turned right as soon as he passed the Peace Hotel. Walking east he thought, West is home. Where I belong. It had been 4 years since he had seen his family and childhood friends.

"Excuse me, sir," a college girl began with a sweet Chinese accent, "but, we have a gallery on the 8th floor. Would you like to come and see it?"

His first tout in Shanghai. He had traveled throughout southeast Asia and had grown bitterly numb to the elaborate stories and lies he had heard day after day from touts in Hanoi, Hue, Saigon, Phenom Phenh, and countless other cities and towns. But, she was a woman: young; not forceful; unaware of her seductive powers. So much does she have to learn, he thought remembering his long-ago college days.

"It's just this way. Where are you from?"

'Where are you from?' How many times had he heard that question in the past four months? "I'm originally from Chicago."

The girl gave a quizical look.

"- In the United States."

She pleasantly nodded her head with a smile. "Where in the United States is it?"

"Well -"

"Is it near Detroit?" she interrupted.

"No! God, no. What an aweful place. No, Chicago is on the west coast of a large lake called Michigan."

The girl smiled. It was then that he noticed her pearl earrings. He immediately thought of the women he had known in Valparaiso, Chile. He could tell though that she still had very little idea where Chicago was located.

"What kind of gallery?" he asked, changing the subject.

"We have Chinese calligraphy - Do you know calligraphy?"

He nodded yes.

"And we have traditional Chinese paintings - and modern too."

He loved art. He had many friends who were artists. He did his best to encourage them. But that was now months ago. It actually feels like years ago.

"Yes, let's go," he quickly said.

She gave a wide grin and escorted him into a century-old building. She pointed to the elevator expecting him to go in first but he didn't. He waited kindly for her to go. Pleased with his small display of chivalry she walked into the elevator. He followed.

The gallery was simply a room that was neither large nor small. Scroll paintings were hanging on all the walls. Oil canvas paintings were sitting on the floor against two of the walls. There was a table in the center of the room that was convered with smaller paintings; beneath the table were stacked green boxes that he assumed were used to pack the scrolls when they were bought and rolled.

"Are you an artist?" he asked.

"Yes, I am - Well, I only do calligraphy."

"Oh, do you have some of your calligraphies here?"

"Yes, just over here."

She led him to the opposite side of a wall partition in the room. He then saw several calligraphy paintings hanging.

"Can you read any of them?" she asked.

"No, only bit and pieces. Like that kanji - I mean character. That means school, no?" he said quietly.

"To study. That's the meaning."

"School - to study. I was almost right."

"Yes, perhaps." She walked to one of her paintings and explained, "This means plum and this is tea. These two characters give a peaceful sense. This calligraphy is meant to relax. Rest the mind. Do you know what this means?" she asked pointing to a large single calligraphy that he had never seen before.

"No, I don't know what it means," he said enjoying her sweet voice and small movements.

"It means love."

"Oh," he said a bit shocked. He then thought of the Japanese character for 'great liking' which was far different in appearance than the Chinese character for love. He took a good look and said, "That means heart and that means friend."

"Yes," she said impressed that he could identify the individual characters that made up the entire character for love.

"- But, I don't know that kanji - I mean character."

"That means house or home."

He wanted to impress her by drawing the Japanese character for 'great liking' and to explain that it was composed of the Japanese characters for woman and child. He rehearsed in his mind, There is no greater, and more pure a form of love than that between a mother and her child. But he said and did nothing.

"Where did you learn to read characters?" she asked with a peachy voice.

"In Japan."

"In Japan?"

"I used to live there."


"Yes, and while I was there I learned a few Japanese characters."

"Chinese," she said sharply. "The Japanese stole this from us."

He had nothing to say in reply.

"Over here we have more paintings. These are more traditional," she pointed to four paintings framed on silk scrolls hanging on the wall. "Each one represents one of the four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. In China we often liken the seasons to our lives. Spring is for the child; summer is youth and strength - vitality; and fall for settling down, having a family; and winter, for rest in the old age."


"Yes, and here we have another four seasons, but this is more modern. The colors are more vibrant in these paintings."

"Yes, I like these very much." He took a long moment to admire the summer painting that was composed of a vibrant green color. "How much is this one?"

"The summer one? Well, it is part of a set. I can't sell you only one. For all four it is 1,500 wong."
"Oh," he said disappointed.

He then looked to a series of paintings of warriors armed with pulled bows riding on horses. "I like these. Particularly this one."

"This is by a more famous painter. They are Mongolian riders hunting."

"How much is this one?"

"300 wong."

"Oh," he said, "that isn't so bad."

"You should buy it. It's meaning is success."

He instantly thought of his father and decided that he would buy it. But before he would declare his decision he wanted to continue looking for he wanted to spend more time with the girl. Then he saw it. It was a painting that was far different to his eyes from all the others. He took a closer look and saw that the painting was of an enormous cloudy sky hovering above the tiniest tree at the edge of a straight and bare cliff. It was a sad painting. Full of loneliness. And because of that he loved it. "This is a tree?" he asked with the tone of a statement.

"No, it is of a famous Chinese poet. That crashing down above him is a waterfall - from the Yangtze river. He is walking along the edge of a sandy floor. Those tiny curved lines are birds. The poet wrote about the insignificence of himself in all the vast space of the universe. That is why he is so small and insignificant in the painting."

He was drawn to it. The story behind the painting was tragic. But, he loved it; this painting of vast nothingness. He took a few steps away from the painting to admire it some more. He then noticed that half of it was in shadow. "Can you move it? I want to see it in the light."

"Yes, she said as she quickly grabbed a pole to lift the painting and place it on a wall with more light.

He looked at the painting now in the light. The light bleached the painting. He could see that the paintings effect on him was due to it hanging in a dark place.

"Yes, I like it. I like it very much. But, it looks better in shadow, not in the light."

Although he had made up his mind to buy the painting, along with the other for his father, he wasn't prepared to leave the young girl. He quickly fished for questions to ask her and spoke:

"Are you from Shanghai?"
". . . Inner Mongolia . . ."
"When did you leave?"
". . . three years ago . . ."
"Which do you like better, Shanghai or Bejing?"
". . . Shanghai . . ."
"Do you have brothers and sisters?"
". . . one younger sister . . ."
"Which kind of paintings - or style - do you prefer?"
". . . impressionism . . ."

When he had finally left he had bought a total of three paintings. The third was for his sister and her husband. It was a traditional Chinese landscape paiting with vibrant splashes of pink for the leaves of the cherry trees. Although it should have, the painting did not remind him of Japan in the spring.

As he waited for the elevator with the girl, and took the elevator to the first floor with her, he felt the urge to ask her out for a drink when she finished work at the gallery. But, ultimately he decided against it. He knew that in the immediate end everything that attracted him to her - her sweet voice, small movements, and smile - would loose their luster and appeal, and that he would find every reason why he didn't like, or perhaps, couldn't stand her.
+ + + +
And there was the painting on his bed. He was hesitating to undo the brown ribbon knot that held the tightly rolled scroll together. He took a step toward the bed, the floorboards creaked again, and bent forward to finally untie the knot. He then held the top end of the scroll and unrolled it carefully over his bed.

There it was. The painting. And he stared at it. The darkly lit room began to fade. There was only the painting.
+ + + +
"Sir, would you like to come in and see some paper-cuttings?"
"No, no thank you," he said in the bazar of the old Chinese quarter of Shanghai.
She approached him. He was standing on the side of the street. "Where are you from?"
"From Canada," he lied. "Toronto."
"Oh, yes. I know it. We´ve had many customers from there. Would you like to come in?"
"No, no. I've already bought a few paintings today."
"But, these are traditional Chinese paper-cuttings. Very cheap. For your girlfriend - Do you have a girlfriend?"
"No," he blushed.
"You should get a Shanghai girl. They are very nice. Very good for you."
He didn't reply. What does she mean I should get. Are they for sale too? he thought with a sarcastic grin.
"Why are you smiling?"
"No, nothing."
"Please, come in. Just looking. You don't have to buy anything."
"Look, I'm wasting your time. I'm not going to buy anything."
"Are you waiting for a taxi?" she asked finally noticing that he was standing in the street.
"No, I want to take a picture of this street."
"Oh, go ahead. I wait."
He looked behind to make sure no cars were approaching and then stepped quickly toward the center of the street. He turned on his digital camera, framed the street in a way he found pleasing and took a picture. The picture he had taken appeared on the small monitor of the camera. He looked at the image and, satisfied with it, turned the camera off and walked back onto the sidewalk.
"Now you can come in." She took his hand and pulled gently. He like being touched by her. He looked at her and decided to go into her shop.
"These are all handmade and uniqe. No two are alike."
He looked at the many framed paper-cut pieces. There were animals, images of Mao, as well as cute Chinese children in traditional dress. He could see the price tags on the pieces and agreed that the paintings were indeed cheap.
"Do you like this one?"
"Which one?"
"This one. I thought you were looking at this one?"
"Oh, no."
"Do you know its meaning?"
"No, I don't." Obviously he thought.
"It's my favorite one. It was made by my mother. Most of these are hers. This is her shop."
"Oh," he was now intrigued.
"It is called, 'Love is like a Bird'."
He looked at the paper-cutting and tried to understand how that meaning could be derived from it. All he saw was a young woman with flowers all around her and a white dove flying above her head.
"Do you like it?"

"Yes," he lied again.

"My mother says love is always on our minds. We may try to distract ourselves to not think about it. But, in the end the thoughts of love keep coming back to us. Like a bird that we free but soon returns."

"Oh," he said. He liked the story behind the cut-out. He liked it more than the cut-out itself.

"Do you want to buy it?"

She then ruined the moment for him. He found his slight attraction to her disappear in an instant. He realized that he was just another sale, and decided that the story she told him was probably false.

"No. I told you that I wasn't going to buy anything." He began to walk to the door.

"We have many more. You don't need to buy anything for your girlfriend?" she rushed to say.

"I already told you," he began disappointed that she had already forgotten what he had already explained, "I don't have a girlfriend."

"I know. I didn't mean that. Your friends," she said eagerly.

"No," and he left.

As he walked away he thought about the story and agreed that love is always on our minds.

+ + + +
The painting stared back at him. He looked and found a strong understanding with the old poet in the painting. He knew what it felt like to be completely alone, and to be reminded of it by the vast spaces found in nature: like when standing in a desert, or when watching the sun set into an unending ocean from a cliff.

He thought of the mountain he had climbed in Gyeongju, in Korea. At its summit he sat in peace and enjoyed the winds as they caressesed his forearms and shaved scalp. Upon that summit, he felt all the distance between him and his family: vast oceans and continents. So far was he from those he loved. He thought for a moment of the life he had left behind in Japan and the short and failed relationships he had had there.

He wondered if he would ever marry and how difficult it would be for him to settle into giving up his long-time affair with solitude.

He looked at the vast waterfall falling over the poet in the painting. And then he thought of her. Yes, her; still there, lingering in his mind. She was far from him; perhaps months away. He didn't know her. Not, at all. And his mind was too old and worn to fantasize and dream. It was then that he knew, that for the rest of his journey he would be condemned to think about her. She would haunt him. Yes, she would haunt him until the end.

And so he stared at the poet in the painting, standing all alone, in room 502, in the Astor House of old Shanghai.

This Work of Words was composed by Domenico Italo Composto-Hart
Copyright Protection 2004

August, Friday the 13th, 2004 - Berlin, Germany
The Travels of Dom e NiKo: Essay, Thoughts, and Other Tales

My state of mind is changing during this leg of my journey. Asia still lingers in my mind. But, I am now here in the "West"; traveling through the lands of my ancestors.

There is a lot that is going through my head now. Thoughts of the past, the present, and the future. Thoughts of life and death. Of love, and solitude.

These feelings need an outlet. And so from this point forth, until I return to my home in the land beyond the Gates of Hercules, I will begin sharing with you stories that I have been writing during this journey.

These stories share a common theme: solitude, loneliness. And within these stories you will find elements of magic and hope.

I hope you will enjoy them as much as I have enjoyed writing them. I will post my first short story within the next day or two :)

Sincerely yours, in Mind and Spirit,

Monday, August 09, 2004

Copenhagen, Denmark - August 5th to 7th, 2004

An inviting tattoo shop, Copenhagen.

Copenhagen, Denmark - August 5th to 7th, 2004
A Small Gallery of Photo´s
Well, after 5 months of typing about my travels you can now see them. I am now in the home of my uncle Joachim in Hamburg, Germany. Here I have found a warm and pleasant place to rest and prepare for the next couple of months of travel ahead. Most importantly though I have given my backpack a good scrubbing and cleaning.

Below I have posted an assortment of photo´s that I took in Copenhagen, Denmark. Instead of describing thís city to you I will simply allow your eyes to wander. And so enjoy :)

Domenico "Itachan" Composto by Hello

Storkespringvandet, or Stork Fountain, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

Relaxing on grass because they ain´t got a beach along Inderhaven river, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

The Tivoli amusement park in the center of Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

Diving into Inderhaven river, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

Everyone about to watch a movie in the square that sits before city hall, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

The canal veering around the man-made island of Slotsholmen, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

At the top of a spiraling tower, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

Looking at the Royal Reception Chambers, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

You are now entering Christiania, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

One of the many walls that have been painted in Christiania, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

Jazz Bar in Christiania, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

The Statue of Bishop Absalon, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

The Square before Radhus (City Hall), Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

The Royal Theatre, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

Nyhavn Canal, Copenhagen; it was dug 300 years ago. Posted by Hello

Church and Citadel, Copenhagen. Posted by Hello

The Little Mermaid Posted by Hello

Monday, July 26, 2004

Oslo, Norway - August 3rd to the 4th
Land of Vikings, and the Unaffordable Subway Sandwich
I arrived at about 6:15 in the morning in Oslo. My neck, and body in general, were aching from having to sleep on a stiff bus seat. After getting off the bus and slapping my massive backpack on I walked to Albertine Hostel, which was about a 7 minute walk from the bus and train station. I discovered at the hostel that I could not check in until 3 in the afternoon, and so I had a tremendous amount of time to kill. I threw my bag into the baggage room of the hostel, washed up, and then left in search of breakfast.

To tell the truth I was very tired and simply in need of a place to stay with no need to explore another city. Yes, I was burnt out, and really looking forward to arriving to Hamburg, Germany where I could to stay with my uncle Joachim and his family to recoup, relax, and prepare for further travels.

And so in that state of mind I walked into the center of Oslo content to see that it was in fact a very small city, just slightly bigger in appearance from Helsinki. From the Oslo Domkirke church I walked west until I found a cafe that was open at the ungodly hour of 7:30 in the morning. I went in and just wanted to sit. I bought a sandwich and a carton of milk and did sat down. As I ate I looked at the Norwegian girls who were working behind the counter and saw that they in a way looked like a Norwegian pop-singer I had worked with back in Japan. After finishing my sandwich I read my book.

Later I decided that I still had a tremendous amount of time to kill before I could check into my hostel and take a much needed shower. And so I decided to explore Oslo a bit more. I exited the cafe and walked west toward the Det Kongelige Slott which is the residence of the king of Norway. The palace sits on top of a hill that looks down upon the city of Oslo. There is a beautiful park all around the palace, and so after taking a bit of a stroll around the palace I continued that stroll into the park. The far western side of the park has a few man-made ponds where ducks can play and bath in. It reminded me very much of Boston Garden which is on the western side of the Boston Commons. In fact I found Oslo reminding me of Boston in many ways. Their subway system is called the T, just like in Boston. And the architecture of most of the buildings in Oslo, especially west of the royal palace, reminded me very much of the architecture in London and in Boston.

Gradually I made my way to the bay where I found a fortress called Akershus Festning. The fortress itself is not too impressive from the inside. It makes for a nice walk and gives a scenic view of Oslo and the bay but really nothing more. Within the fortress there are two museums. I decided to check out the Norwegian Resistance Museum which chronicles the resistance movement against the occupation of the Nazi´s during the Second World War. I was disappointed with the museum. The dioramas looked to have been made by high school students and I found that overall the museum wasnt very informative. I learned more from overhearing an American talk to his friends about the stories he had heard from his Norwegian father about his involvement with the resistance movement than from the museum itself.

From the fortress I walked past the Radhus, the city hall building, which stands right in front of the pier where you can catch a boat to one of the many islands in and around Oslo.

And so I walked and walked waiting until I could check into my hostel. And when 3 o´clock arrived I returned to the hostel, checked in, took a shower, and fell asleep. I didnt wake until the hostel fire alarm went off at 3 or 4 in the morning (I had slept for 12 hours straight). When I woke up to the alarm I found that there was a German traveler in my dorm room. Together we exited the hostel and waited with everyone else for the police and fire department to arrive. The fire alarm was a false one and we all returned to our rooms. Soon after arriving in my dorm room three Italian young men arrived; we all chatted a bit about Oslo. And then I went back to sleep.

The next day I made it a priority to visit the Nasjonalgalleriet which is the National Gallery. There I wanted to see the famous Munch painting called The Scream. The gallery had a find display of impressionist paintings for the late 19th and early 20th century. Some were quite colorful and somewhat vibrant. Also within the gallery I found one of Vincent Van Gogh´s self portraits, I was very pleased.

From there I returned to the pier and took a 7 minute boat journez to Bygdoy peninsula. The peninsula is full of wonderful homes, trees, parks, and several museums. I went to the Vikingskipshuset, a Viking ship museum.

The Vikingskipshuset Notes:
The museum has three original 9th century Viking ships: the Oseberg, Gokstad, and Tune. They were found in burial mounds in the Oslo Fjord area and excavated between the years 1867 and 1904.

Archaeologists found a woman and her slave girl buried in the Oseberg ship, while in the other two ships they found men.

During the Viking Age (800 to 1050 AD) it was customary to bury the dead in boats. "The dead were buried in a burial chamber in the stern of the ship. Bodies were buried with a supply of food, drink, horses, dogs, and useful and decorative objects.

"When the ships were excavated it was discoverd that they were robbed of their precious items. Regardless an array of fantastic finds were found. Clothes and objects made of wood were found preserved. This was in part due to the fact that the ships were buried in blue clay and covered with stones, clay, and turf."

The Vikings came from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark and they traded furs, bird down, walrus ivory to their European counterparts as well as iron that was produced in Norwegian mountain hamlets.

Vikings usually took to the seas to trade and settle new lands.

Vikings, as merchants, sold goods in towns and marketplaces and established trading colonies in Ireland and Russia and settled Iceland and Greenland, and were the first Europeans to reach North America. They sailed the coasts of Europe into the Mediterranean the rivers of Russia into the Black and Caspian Sea.

"During the Viking Age Norway consisted of smaller chiefdoms, later it was unified under a single king."

Viking Class Structure:
"The ships found in the museum were for the upper class. Yeoman farmers formed the backbone of society, and they were free men who held the right to bear arms. Slaves were the lowest class; they were the property of owners, held no legal rights, and were usually foreigners who had been taken prisoner on a raid.

"Norsemen plundered churches, monastaries, and towns."

Viking Ship Building, and Long Sea Journeys:
"Viking shipwrights did not use plans or drawings; all measurements were taken by eye . . . Sails were made of woollen cloth."

"The crew of a viking ship had to row and bail, operate sails, rigging and steer the ship. Conditions on the ship were not pleasant for there was no shelter from the cold and rains. There is no evidence that food was ever cooked on board and so while at sea it is believed that they ate dried foods and drank water. They often sailed in coastal waters during the day and then parked their ship upon a beach to sleep on land by night.

"With the single square sail of the ship they could sail with and against the wind . . . and could hit speeds of 12 knots (24 km/hr).

"The Vikings did not use maps or compasses. Thez used coastal waters and man-made landmarks to navigate . . . and in foreign lands they found new signs and landmarks . . . and in the open sea they navigated to wave patterns and the prevailing winds. Logic told them that the mid-day sun shown in the south and that sea birds were a sign for land."

The Norwegian Subway Sandwich:
Scandanavia has a reputation for being very expensive for those who come in for a visit. This is very much true and I found Norway to be the most expensive city in Scandanavia. The best example I can give you is the cost of a foot-long Subway sandwich. I spent over $10 U.S. for a single sandwich, and it did not come with a drink or cookie. As a result I found myself hesitant to buy anything in Norway.

I would like to return to Scandanavia and spend a month of two camping, hiking, and bicycling through the mountains of Norway and the virgin forests of northern Finland. If and when I do that will all depend on my ability to afford such a luxury.


Stockholm, Sweden - July 30th to August 2nd
The Open Mindedness of the Swedes
It is said that the Swedes are the most open minded people on the face of the planet. And after spending a few days here I would have to agree. There is a sharp change in the make up of the population of Stockholm compared to Helsinki. In Helsinki the people are predomintately caucasian, typically blond and blue eyed. They are beautiful people, the Finnish.

Then in Stockholm you see a cosmopolitan mix of Swedes, Indians, Iraqi´s, Africans, Muslim Africans, people from North Africa, the Middle East, China, etc.

The best example I can give you is that when exploring the Royal Palace in Stockholm, which is the biggest Royal Palace in the world, I realized that one of the Royal Guards was Chinese! Yes, I nearly twisted my head right off when I took a double-take look to see this Chinese guard dressed in an immaculately clean blue uniform. And yet for the Swedes it would mean nothing to see such an oddity; to see a Chinese young man guarding the Royal Palace, for that is Sweden. Sweden is a country where inter-racial marriages are common; 20% of the population of Sweden is either foreign born or have one parent that is non-Swedish. And as a result the population of Sweden is heavily mixed. You may stroll the streets of Gamla Stan (the Old Town) and see a group of girls (composed of a Chinese girl, an Indian girl, a Thai girl, and a Swedish girl) all speaking Swedish. And no Swede would see these girls as anything but Swedish. Thus in a sense Stockholm is a wonderful utopian city to live in for those who have escaped from countries suffering from wars and other civil disasters.

The immigration policy in Sweden is quiet open. And thus there are now about 500,000 foreign nationals living in Sweden; Sweden has a population of 9 million. Also of note: "15% of Greater Stockholm´s 1.8 million people are immigrants." But there is a degree of segragation in the city of Stockholm. Travel to the outher fringes of the city and you will see ghetto neighborhoods composed strictly of a specific ethnic group.

But nonetheless speak to any Swedish teenagers and they will tell you that they are in school studying and having fun with fellow Swedes from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds; and they pay little attention to these ehtnic differences for in the end they are all Swedes.

In Helsinki, as I have mentioned before, and well, Finland in general, the population is predominatly homogenous. And so it can be argued that there are those in Finland who are a bit racist. I saw one young man in Helsinki proudly wearing a shirt that exclaimed, "Thank God I was born White."

But, I dont want to stereotypes the Finnish. On my boat trip, more like cruise trip, to Stockholm I met a young Finnish man. His name was Lauri, and he was 19 years old. He had just begun his trip through Europe. He was extremely excited and eager to see and learn all he could about the countries that he would visit in his native Europe. And he exuded this excitement by jumping on any opportunity to speak and practice the many languages he was studying and knew. In the time that I spent with him, for we spent a few hours together walking the streets of Stockholm, I heard him speak Spanish, Italian, Swedish, of course English, and his native Finnish. At just the age of 19 he could speak 5 languages. I was and still am incredibly impressed with this young man. Not only that he studied history and was able to explain to me in incredibly detail the history of Finland and Sweden and their political relationships with Russia and Germany. How fantastic is it that in countries such as Finland there are young men and women who can communicate in so many languages.

Yesterday, in Stockholm, I met a Middle Eastern man in Sweden. He spoke perfect Swedish. He was working from behind his hotdog stand. When he asked me where I was from after I bought some food and a drink he kept saying, "Welcome, Welcome - U.S.A. - Welcome to Sweden." I asked him where he was from, and when I learned that he was from Iraq I was surprised to hear that he was happy to see me, an American. He said that he was happy that the U.S. got rid of Saddam. I told him that I did not like Bush. He did not care. He liked Bush. He explained that his parents and extended family still live in Baghdad. When I was about to leave we shook hands and he said again, "Welcome, welcome, to Sweden."

I felt good after that. As an American traveling the globe I am constantly met with the resentment that people, from other nations, have against the U.S. But I feel good as well when I meet young men and women from other nations who are happy to see that I am traveling and to find that I am not the "typical" American; I do not fit their stereo-type. And as a result they reply, "I am happy to meet an American like you, there is hope for your country."

But, getting back to Stockholm. The other thing that you will find is that the citizens of Stockholm support their homosexual community. The flag poles infront of the Royal Palace´s eastern entrance has several Rainbow Flags (the Pride Flag I believe it is called) waving in the winds. I believe these flags were there in support of the massive Pride Parade held yesterday in Stockholm. And throughout the city you will see many restaurants and cafe´s that cater specifically to gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Thus again this is all another example of the "open-minded"the Swedes really are.

Stockholm: The City of Peace
The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded here in Stockholm. Its banquet is held in Stadshuset, the Town Hall; a beautiful building that has a tall tower which reveals a fantastic view of Stockholm from its summit. There is a peaceful garden along its southern side that faces the river.

It can be easily argued that Stockholm is one of the most beautiful national capitals in the world. And "the low birth and mortality rates makes Sweden among the oldest population" in the world. And with the "open-mindedness" of the people coupled with his scenic beauty and 100,000 lakes one can also argue that Sweden is the closest thing to a utopia that one may find. Of course it is not totally perfect but the Swedes are striving for perfection.

The Swedish Tradition of Travel
On this trip I have met an incredible number of Swedish travelers. Whether I was in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, China, or Mongolia I kept running into Swedes backpacking. As I said before the population of Sweden is only 9 million. It is remarkable to me that for such a small population there is such a large number of Swedes exploring the globe.

But, I guess it shouldnt be too much of a surprise. Swedish adventurers had traveled well into Russia, Arabia, and Byzantium. And it is speculated that Swedish vikings perhaps were the first to travel as far as North America; thus be the first Europeans to discover the continent.

Vasamuseet (I hope I spelled that correctly) is a spectacular museum. The entire museum is dedicated to a 17th century ship. The ship was built under King Vasa for a war he was waging in Poland. It was a religious war on the surface (Lutheran Sweden vs. Catholic Poland) but in reality it was a war aimed to secure sea ports in the Baltic.

The Baltic Sea is one of the least salty seas in the world. As a result a certain worm that eats away wood does not exist in its waters. And as a result of that any and all wooden sea vessels that have sunk in its waters remain in perfect condition.

Sometime in the 1960s a man searched for the Vasa vessel that had sunk 300 years before in the bay that surrounds Stockholm. He found it and work was under way, supported by the King, to bring the vessel to the surface. It took several years to raise the ship. When it was raised all sorts of treasures were found: clothing and shoes of sailors trapped within the ship were found, one of the sails was still intact, eating instruments such as spoons and forks and plates and pitchers were discovered, tool boxes filled with carpenter tools were found, coins, cannons, and so forth were found on and in the ship. The ship stands at the center of the musuem in perfect condition. It is simply unbelievable to see this ship that is nearly 300 plus years old right before your eyes.

Catching Up with Old Friends
I took a bus on the 1st of August to Uppsala to meet up with three Swedish friends I had met in Vietnam. Uppsala is only an hour north of Stockholm by bus. Uppsala is the 4th largest city in Sweden; but for me it was like a quiet little college town. Uppsala is also one of the oldest cities in Sweden. In Gamla (Old) Uppsala, which is 4 km north of the center of town, there are pre-Viking grave mounds that are quiet large - they reminded me of the burial mounds I saw for the royalty of the longest running dynasty in the world in South Korea - but there are also 300 smaller mounds all around the area. There is also a church there which is the oldest in Scandanavia; I believe the church was first established in the 12th century by an archbishop.

The town of Uppsala is a college town. It has the oldest university in Scandanavia and the largest cathedral in Scandanavia. Within the Uppsala Cathedral is buried the first King of Sweden, King Vasa.

I explored Uppsala with Frederick, Malin, Marcus and his girlfriend. I first met Frederick and Malin in Saigon, Vietnam and I met Marcus in Hanoi with Frederick. It was fantastic to see the three of them again and to hear what they have been up to and what they will be doing in the months ahead. Malin will be going to England to pursue her studies in film and television and Frederick will begin his studies at the University in Uppsala. Marcus is back working for Carlsberg. I really hold them in the highest light. They are fantastic friends and I look forward to seeing them again some day in the future ;)


30 Years of RUSH - A Tribute to the Tao of Peart
July 29th, 2004

I was surprised to find out that RUSH is back. If you recall my journal entry in regards to my climb of Tai Shan Mountain in China then you will recall my words in regard to Neil Peart; my adolescent drum and philosophy hero.

I was in a book store in Helsinki when I found a recent issue of a Bass Guitar magazine with Geddy Lee (the singer/bassist of RUSH) on the cover. I picked it up and opend the magazine up to his interview and was surprised to see that RUSH had a new album; a cover album of 60´s rock tunes that they grew up to.

And as a result the next time I popped into an internet cafe I checked their website at and found that they would be touring Europe and North America to celebrate their 30 years of playing music.

Not too many people know about RUSH. They have a very strong underground following. Once a RUSH fan always a RUSH fan. Im a bit watered down as a RUSH fan though compared to my adolescent years. But I do find myself listening to them from time to time just to keep in touch, you could say.

Neil Peart was - and in a way still is - one of my hero´s. As I said before in my China journal Neil inspired me to be not just a drummer but to be a writer and a traveler. Thus here I am traveling and writing; and always thinking of music, and super eager to jump behind my beautiful drum set.

Neil is also a fine example of a man who continues to live his life when his world comes crumbling down. When I was a freshman in college RUSH released their Test for Echo album. I honestly didnt care too much for the album; this was a sign that I was growing to love other styles of music. They toured and then news hit the internet digital waves that Neil´s only daughter (and only child) was killed in a car accident. RUSH fans the world over were deeply saddened. Then a year after his daughter´s death his wife fell to cancer. Neil had lost his entire family in less than two years. RUSH fans felt that of all the people in the world Neil was the one least deserving of these two tragedies. And time passed. And in that time no one knew where Neil was. He had left; riding his motorcylce cross country from Canada to the U.S. to Mexico and Central America. RUSH fans did not know if the band would continue to make music. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson (the two other members of RUSH) were left waiting for any word from Neil, and for his return.

While Neil rode from place to place trying to deal, escape, and deal with the pain of having lost two of his most precious loved ones he - later confessing - felt that he never wanted to return to his drum throne. He was done with music.

Im sure he felt guilty for being a father and a husband who was rarely home. As a musician he was always on the rode touring or in the studio recording or traveling from country to country solo on his bike (his hobby). Such is the life of a musician. And then, suddenly he found that his family was gone. Was this God damning him for always living away from his family? No, Neil would not have such nonesense. He was always one to own up to his circumstances and situations without pointing a finger or blaming and outside other. His greatest lesson to his drum followers was to live life with intention, never to live it as a victim.

And so I am happy to see Neil back where he belongs; because one cannot escape what one is. He is one of the most influential and respected progressive rock drummers of the world. His place his behind his drums, backing up his old friends Geddy and Alex in their 30 year old band, RUSH.

And so, if any of you find the trails and tragedies of the world coming down on you. Look to Neil´s example. He lost both his daughter and his wife (his entire family); and he is still here, playing better than before, inspiring another generation of up-and-coming drummers not only through the way he plays but in the way he has and continues to approach his life. No matter what ever may happen you can rest assured that Neil will still be banging on his drums and living his life to the fullest.

With all my respects to Neil,
A man who would probably hate to see that a kid like me sees him as a hero (he is a self-less kind of guy that doesnt want that type of recognition),

Helsinki, Finland: Utopia? - July 27th to 29th
The ferry (more like a cruise ship) to Helsinki from Tallinn, Estonia is about 3 hours and a bit. I went into and out of sleep up on deck with the cool winds blowing over me and the sight of a seagull hovering in pace with the ferry not too far away.

The first thing you are too see as you near Helsinki by sea are a few rocky islands with minty green grasses and tall standing trees. Then you begin to approach the city; and you notice an island hear and there. One island has a series of white cylinder structures serving some kind of industrial - or some other - purpose.

They bay I entered into is called Etelasatama; and as I was to discover, it seemed always full of gigantic cruise ships.

My hostel was about a block or two away from port. It is called Euro Hostel ( and it is simply the best hostel I have ever stayed in. This hostel is a reflection of Finland. It is a work of pure integrity. It is extremely clean, well-kept, and organized. There is a restaurant within it where a healthy buffet style breakfast is served. The restaurant has a staff that is dressed like 4 star restaurant waiters. The personnel at the reception desk are happy and eager to help its customers out. There is a laundry with machines that actually clean and dry (as opposed to other machines Ive used on my trip that do all but that). There is a sauna and clean dorm style showers and toilets. The rooms are plain, but they too are clean and have lockable closets. The hallways look like the corridors of a military run ship.

One of several things to stike me about Helsinki was that it is an exceptionally clean city. There is no garbage anywhere except for where it belongs, the garbage bin or can. But yet there are barely any garbage bins to be found. How does this city stay so clean? The people here are well-educated, quiet, and pleasant Europeans. They rarely speak loudly and they all speak perfect English. Perhaps their grammer is better than that of most Americans.

As a city the closest place that it reminds me of is Boston. It is a very small version of Boston. You can walk around the whole of the city in about 2.5 hours. There are green trolleys (just like Boston´s Green Line) running to and fro throughout the city. There is also a subway. And there are plenty of taxi´s. There is no shortage of public transportation in this city. And it seems that every tiny little corner and street is covered by these public buses, trolleys, and subways. In fact one could argue that there is a simply oversupply of public transporation in Helsinki. For a city so small one can simply walk instead of take a trolley. There is no need for all these public transport vehicles. Well, it looks like in Helsinki taxes go to exactly where they should.

Helsinki was voted as the least corrupted city in the world. And thus it can be argued that in some political sense it simply is a utopia. It is a perfect city. Beautiful buildings of nearly a century in age line all streets. The streets are cobbled stone, and a few sidewalks are tiled with large and flat granite stones. When it rains there are perfect grooves within the sidewalk for the rain waters to follow into the street.

And as you walk to do your window shopping from the streets that run perpendicular from Pohjoiseplanadi and Etelaesplanadi street (between these two streets is a perfectly trimmed park that reminds me so much of Boston) you will hear classical music being played by the hands of young men and women. The sounds classical pieces played from violins, cellos, marimbas (yes, marimbas), and acoustic guitars fill the air. You can sit at one of the many, many cafe´s sipping your exotic coffee and listen to the sounds of music fill the air.

All shops, movie theaters, museums, streets, markets, are perfectly well kept. They rival the Japanese in their cleanliness. And if you walk north west from Kaivopaiste Park (a beautiful, clean park south of the city) you will find a residential area that can only remind one of Beacon Hill in Boston.

Senate Square - Senaatintori - is where you will find the largest gathering of uncorrupt politicians.

Even the speakers on the streets of Helsinki that play the natural chirpings of birds give the illusion that you are in some kind of urban paradise where homelessness is difficult to find and all people dress to please the eyes of passer-bys.

One thing that I found interesting was a trolley/bar train. As you travel to work or home you can sip on your favorite brew; what a fantastic European idea!

The only nuisance that you may find in Helsinki, as in Tallinn or in Moscow, is a drunk man and that is it.

I think it funny that Finland - the least corrupted country in the world stands just north of Russia, as if looking down on it.

My room-mate in my hostel is an American from California. He now lives in St. Petersburg but was in Helsinki for a visa-run. His wife is Russian and they met in college in the U.S.

He was very informative. He explained that Russia is extremely corrupt. Getting a visa was an example of that. Ask anyone who has traveled to Russia and they will tell you what a hassle it is to get a visa into Russia. The easist way to get a visa is through a Russian travel agency. Most of these agencies are run by ex-Russian police officers who have the inside track into getting a visa easily. And so they profit from that. When will the needless bureacracy into getting a Russian visa without the use of a travel agent disappear? Not any time soon. As long as these ex-cops pull in their money from their travel agencies supplying visa-support services there will always be the long, tiring hassle of getting a visa through the Russian consulates on one´s own.

Several of the world´s top ten richest men live in Russia or are Russian. How can this be? Well, when communism fell those men who had the inside track into getting once government owned industries to privatize them became - nearly over night - ultra, ultra rich. These "new rich" Russians are in one way or another tied to one of the many russian mob groups. Together they influence and buy off politicians to secure deals between the government and international corporations that have been flooding into Russia ever since Communism fell.

As a result of all of this the gap between rich and poor in Russia is growing. Most of the new poor are nearly retired to retired elderly people who possess obselete labor skills and are simply being left behind to pour their sorrows into the many gambling slot machines that are now to be found in all Russian cities (its nice to see someone making a profit from the addictions of the poor). And coupled with this gambling is also alcoholism as a temporary relieft from depression. In Moscow you will see old women trying to sell small knick-knacks.

And, as my room-mate explained, there is a surge of elderly women involved in the "pyramid get-rich schemes" collecting points with the fever of obessesion.

But, there is hope. President Putin is well-loved by the Russians. And deservedly so. He is young and encouraging of the future youth, he attends graduations and lectures the educated young on how important they are to the future of Russia. Putin is surrounded by corruption. He wants reform but they are many rich and lazy civil-servants who do not want change. He has to be careful in not making to many enemies. And so he must strike a balance between reform and not.

Notes about Helsinki: I didnt go to this bar but here in Helsinki there is the Arctic Icebar where it is kept at below 5 degrees in summer and winter. The interior decor of the bar is made entirely in ice!

The Sauna. Yes, I did go into a Finnish sauna. Twice I did. And completely naked was I. Although the sauna is to be found in nearly all first world countries it should be recognized that the custom came from Finland. Here in Finland nearly every family that has a summer cottage home has a sauna built into it. And for those in apartment buildings there is usually at least one public sauna in it.

Also of note is NOKIA. Nokia is a Finnish company. I did not know that. And did you know that Nokia also makes computers.

That is all for now. Tonight I take a 16 hour cruise ship to Stockholm, Sweden.


Tallinn, Estonia - July 25th and 26th - "Vraakimine on hobe, vaikas on kald"
That bit of Estonian that Ive written there translates to "Conversation is Silver, Silence is Gold." And that is an appropriate quote to describe the city of Tallinn. Tallinn has a population of 398,430 but it more feels like 30,000 to me. The Old Town of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It boasts 14th and 15th medieval architecture and orthodox (and not) churches. The streets of the Old Town are nearly all cobbled stone. It is all surrounded by a defensive wall that spans a 2.5 km length; which is nothing compared to the massive defensive walls that I saw in Xi an and Nanjing, China.

You can pretty much cover all of the Old Town in an afternoon. Ive been here for two days and that is way too much time for a guy like me to spend in a quiet town like this.

I like the Old Town. It is cute and quiet. It is relaxing and full of boutique shops, restaurants, and cafe´s with wooden decks full of chairs and tables for tourists to sit, relax, talk, and people watch. There are girls every few blocks selling, "Estonia`s best post cards!" and beyond them not too many other locals to see. It is said that Estonians like their neighbor to be no closer than a kilometer away. And I believe it. The city of Tallinn is nearly a ghost town. If it wasnt for the tourists that parade the streets near Raekoja Plats (the famed plaza where stands the only surviving Gothic town hall which was built in 1371) then Tallinn would really be a ghost town. Most Estonians flock to their summer cottages in July and August to get away from the traffic of tourists and their noise.

Walk south of Toompea (a sort of hill where you will find Toompea Castle which is traditionally Estonia`s seat of power) for about 10 minutes and you will feel like you are walking through a secluded northern suburb of Chicago.

Tallinn is cute and charming and has more of a feel of Scandanavia than the other Baltic countires. If that is what you´re into then check this place out. It is extremely safe and, as I keep mentioning, quiet.

And after two days I think Ive had enough of the "quiet". Tomorrow morning I leave for Helsinki, Finland via 3 hour boat ride across the Bay of Finland.

The population of Estonia breaks down into the following: 68% Estonian, 26% Russian, and about 3% Ukrainian and Belarussian. When Estonia joined the E.U. a few months ago a large percentage of the Russian Estonians were left stateless. Estonian law requires anyone seeking Estonian citizenship to take an exam that tests their level of the Estonian language. Those who fail the exam cannot gain citizenship. As a result these Russian Estonian never claimed Estonian citizenship; since they saw themselves as Russians and not as Estonians. They simply choose to not speak Estonian and stay within their Russian communities and schools.

But, now that Estonia is apart of the E.U. these Russian Estonians have no official citizenship, no passport. They have been left behind. What will become of them? The younger generation will have to learn the Estonian language - but that may prove difficult since they are strongly patriotic Russians with little desire to do so.

Also of Note:
One of many pieces of romance that I found in Tallinn on Sunday (25th of July) was that there were several women wallking around town with their spouses with a single rose in their hand.


Saturday, July 24, 2004

Ze Train (4 days on the Trans-Siberian Rail from Irkutsk to Moscow)
The legendary Trans-Siberian rail - the longest running rail in the world - was the metallic carriage that carried me away from the East and back into the West. 

I shared my compartment with two guys who were around my age.  There was Monty from New York who was leader of his Sun Downers travel group.  And there was Ben from Australia who was being trained to become a group leader for Sun Downers by Monty.  Sun Downers is a travel company based in Australia that takes groups on exotic journeys throughout the Old World. 

It was a pleasure to spend my 4 days on a train with Monty and Ben and the people in their group.  As guys do we told stupid jokes and talked about stupid movies that we had seen.  Then there were our moments of glory and defeat in round after round of card playing. 

In one card playing case two very young Russian girls (perhaps 10 and 8) asked to play cards with us.  But we ended up playing card games that only they only knew.  As time progressed more and more people from the Sun Downers group came into our compartment aiding us in trying to understand the rules of the card game.  Trick was though that once we figured out the rules the girls would change to another card game and so we had to start from square one again in figuring out how to play. 

I then took the reigns after getting frustrated by grabbing all the cards and telling the girls that they had to play one of our Western card games.  Of course they had no idea what they hell I said since they didnt speak English and we sure as hell didnt speak Russian.  And so we ended up playing poker.  A competitive spirit between me and the youngest Russian girl grew and grew.  Every time I beat her I would rub it in her face with a mean adolescent laugh.  She would respond by beating my arm with her fist.  At one point she turned to me, ran her index fingure across her throat, and said, "Caput!"  The guys and I all laughed hysterically.  Of all the words she said we definitely understood that one.  Yup, she wanted me dead.

The train journey is a vacation.  All you obligated to do is sleep, eat, sleep, read a book, sleep, talk, play cards, eat, talk, and then sleep.  It was pleasant to simply relax in the train and to sleep to its rocking motions.  But by the fourth day I was more than happy to arrive in Moscow and stretch a bit and finally take a shower.

Moscow - July 21st to the 24th
I was picked up from the train station and driven to the Izaimolov Hotel (spelling?).  The hotel was built to accomodate the Olympic athletes that came to Moscow for the Olympics in 1980 (I believe that was the year).  In any case the U.S. boycotted that event.  Just near the hotel is the largest urban park in the world.  There are a lot of "in to the world" accomplishments in Moscow.  For example the Cathedral of the Christ the Savior was newly built on what was once the world's largest swimming pool.  Near Red Square there is the Hotel Rossiya which was once the world's largest hotel before the Las Vegas MGM took that title.

After arriving at my hotel and checking in I decided to take it easy and relax.  I showered and then proceeded down to the lobby to find a place for dinner and to check my email.  After that I retired to my room and went to bed early.

On the 22nd I got out of bed at around 6:30.  I had an early breakfast and then went to the Metro station to take the famous Moscow subway.

The Moscow Subway
The Moscow Subway is fantastic.  If I had a month in Moscow I would dedicated a couple of days to just surfing through its many rails and stations (there are about 120 stations).  The first station dates back to 1935 and were "dug so deep to also act as bomb shelters.  Many of the stations are considered art and design classics." 

It is a bit intimidating to navigate the subway since all the signs are entirely in Russian but that aside it is an artistic adventure.  Each station is wonderfully decorated in old classical styles of architecture.  Some stations are lined with bronze statues of Russian men and women holding different kinds of firearms.  The train itself is old which gives it its art-deco charm.  As you travel on the train the lights flicker off and on from time to time. 

The frequency of trains is more than convenient.  The train comes every one to two minutes.  Thus it is more frequent that the Tokyo subway.  Some of the escalators are old but incredibly fast; I nearly got dizzy as a result.  A photographer could spend half a life time taking photo's within the Moscow metro.  And in my opinion would be a fantastic setting for a movie.

One thing that was nice to see on the trains was that everyone was reading.  I had finally escaped the comic book and cell phone culture that occupies everyone's time and eyes on the trains in China, Korea, and Japan.  Russians read, and they read a lot.  And at all the stations you will find kiosks selling Russian books for those who forgot their book for the train ride to or from work.

Lenin - #3 of the Collect all three Dead and Frozen Communist Leaders Happy Meal Set
In the late morning of the 22nd I saw the body of Lenin within his Mausoleum in Red Square.  And thus I had completed my tour of the Three Dead Communist Leaders (Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, Mao Zedong in Beijing, and Lenin in Moscow). 

Compared with Mao and Ho Chi Minh not too many, in fact barely any, Russian locals go to see the corpse of Lenin.  Most of the people in line to see him are tourists.  And the line is small compared to the massive line before Ho Chi Minh's and Mao's mausoleum.

I waited in line for about 45 minutes but it didnt matter because I was busy conversing with a group of Mexicans and two Swiss girls.  Strangely enough I found a tremendous number of latino tourists in Moscow.  Nearly every other moment I head spanish in Red Square.  The Mexican group was very lively, as expected.

After seeing Lenin I spent the day with the two Swiss girls I had met in line.  They were on their way to Beijing via the Trans-Mongolian rail and so I answered all their questions about the trip and about Beijing.

The three of us explored Red Square which is beautiful and lived up to everything I had imagined it to be.  At the southern end of the Red Square is where sits the decorative St. Basil's Cathedral.  It is nearly 500 years old and houses a many, many small rooms and chambers dedicated to the rites and practices of Russian Orthodox priests.  It was my second time in a Russian Church for earlier in the morning I had attended mass at the Cathedral of the Christ Savior.  The practices of this Orthodox form of Christianity is unlike any other I have witnessed.  At the Cathedral of the Christ Savior middle aged women were the majority of those attending.  They all had their heads covered with a shawl  and constantly made the sign of the cross from forehead to chest to their right shoulder to their left shoulder and bowed and bowed and bowed.  In some cases I saw a couple of women get onto their knees and bow their heads so that it touched the ground.  Interesting, I thought, I wonder if that tradition of bowing your head so that it touched the ground came from any Oriental tradition? 

There are no seats to sit on.  Everyone must stand and witness the priest sing and go through the rites.  He would disappear from time to time behind a wooden wall decorated with darkly painted icons of Mary and a baby Jesus that had the features more of a man than of a child.

One thing that I noticed within St. Basil's Cathedral and within the Cathedrals within the Kremlin was that the interior set up of them is not condusive for followers to partake in.  There simply is no space for anyone more than the priest himself and a few other people.

St. Basil's is a labybrinth of small chambers and rooms located between spiraling stairways and walls.  You can feel its 5 centuries of age everywhere.  The red bricks that compose the floor are heavily worn down as are the walls. 

After St. Basil's we walked through th GUM which is the beautiful State Department Store that lines the eastern side of the Red Square.  It is very elegant, clean, posh, and huge.  There are over 1,000 shops, cafe's, and restaurants within it.  From there we had lunch in Alexandrovsky Garden which is located along the western wall of The Kremlin.  The garden is very pleasant and full of Muscovites relaxing and eating on its well kept grasses. 

From there we walked south the see the paintings within the Tretyakov Gallery.  I enjoyed it.  It had been a long time since I had seen any example of Western art.  Behind me now are the calligraphy paintings of Asia.

Later in the day I found the largest internet cafe in Eastern Europe and sat down to type and catch up on this journal.  By the time I got out of there it was night and I walked around Red Square taking more photo's of it.

July 23rd - The Kremlin
The Kremlin is exactly what the Russian word implies, it is a fortress.  The Kremlin is the center of the Russian political universe.  It is within its walls that Stalin lived and terrorized, it is within its walls were President Putin makes his home,  it is within its walls that you will find the Russian Orthodox Churches that served as the headquarters of the Russian Church from 1320 A.D. 

It was a rush to walk within the walls of the Kremlin.  So long had I heard of it.  So long had cold war spies from the West tried to breach its walls.  There are five Russian Orthodox chruches within the Kremlin.  There is a well kept garden and the Senate building, the Supreme Soviet building, and the Armoury which is where the President of the Russian Federation makes his home.  Along the southern wall of the Arsenal building I saw 800 canons which were taken from the Napolean army when they retreated from Russia.  I also saw the world's biggest bell which ways at about 202 tons, was cast in the 1730's, and was never rung.  A massive piece from had cracked off it.  Why, I do not know.

Open Bottles of Beer all ova za place:
One thing of important note in Russia are the number of people - both men and women - that walk the streets of Moscow, relax on the thin beaches of Irkutsk in Siberia, and read in the Moscow subway with an open bottle of beer in their hand.  Russia is Beer Culture Paradise.  But I dont drink so it doesnt really matter.  In any case there is alcohol to be seen in all directions whether people slurping it or kiosks selling a million and one different varietes of it.  If you like beer and like to drink it openly in public then Russia is the place for your next vacation holiday. 

Afterthoughts on Moscow:
I love Moscow.  I wish I had more time to spend and explore here.  Initially I was afraid to come.  I had heard stories of the Russian mob and police harrassing tourists and so forth.  But that is simply not the case.  Moscow is an wonderful European city.  It is large and cosmopolitan sporting gourmet cafe's and restaurants along with exotic cars and designer clothing shops.  The Moscovites are a proud and pleasant people.  And they have a long and trying history to be proud about.  They are warm - this is contrary to the stereotype I have heard of Russian people being cold - and usually very to the point saying nothing more than what needs to be said. 

I know that I will return to Moscow and it I ever could afford to do so I would like to buy a small flat in the heart of Moscow.


From Buuviet Ger Camp to Ulan Bator - July 13th
I got out of bed and looked out from the wooden door of my ger tent too see a mistical morning fog receding away between the valley of the rocky mountains that surrounded my camp.  I did not want to leave.  I had a bit of difficulty walking comfortably from my ger to the cabin washroom that was about 30 meters away.  My inner thighs were soar and my butt was in pain. 
In the afternoon of the 12th I went horse back riding upon one of the famed Mongolian horses.  I did have a guide but he kept at a distance away allowing me to have a more private riding experience.  The last time I had gone horse back riding was perhaps back in high school.  I found though that I had not forgotten how to steer my horse.  The one thing I did not have control over was the pace of our speed.  I had never ridden a horse in a dead run.  Ive gone from walks to trots on a horse but never a dead run.  My horse loved to eat and without my permission would bow his head to graze on the grasses.  I would allow him to do so for only a second before wanking on my stirrup to bring his head back up.  We trotted toward the mountains but then suddently my horse took off.  Away we ran in a dead run.  It was exhilerating.  There is nothing more exciting than to ride a horse in a dead run and feel the age old tradition of true horse back riding.  I wanted to see a site called Mekhii Had but as I watched the storm clouds approaching from over the nothern mountains I realized that perhaps it wasnt a good idea.  My horse kept running and I sang to his rhythm.  Then it began to rain.  I looked back for my guide but could not find him.  My horse then began to eat.  I pulled his head up, he walked a few steps and then ate again.  The horse and I were at odds.  The horse could care less of the fact that I wanted to find the guide.  All he wanted to do was eat in the rain.  So I gave in.  He had defeated me.  And so there I was unable to do much but sit on my grazing horse in the hard cold rain.  About 7 minutes later my guide found me, rode up beside me, and took my stirrup.  He lead my horse to a nearby ger camp.  We got off our horses and tied the stirrups to a wooden fence that kept a few horses within it.  We then went to the door of one of the gers and knocked.  We were soon let in and thus I had the chance to see the interior of a Mongolian families home.  Within the ger were two Swedes that had also got caught in the rain.  Three Mongolian men were busy watching their black and white TV; the Nadaam wrestling matches were on.  There were several Mongolian women as well.  Two were perhaps in their teens, the other was in her early 30's.  The Swedes and I were served a variety of traditional Mongolian dairy foods.  In plate in particular was very sweet.  I tried a bit of all that was offered while washing it down with fermented mare's milk. 

The door of a ger is always pointed to the south.  This has always been the way.  Even if you read the Travels of Marco Polo he will describe to you that the ger doors point south.  And thus for 700 years and more the ger door has always pointed south.  Within the ger you will find beds on wood frames.  The women typically sleep on the bed that is aligned along the eastern curving wall of the ger.  There is always a stove in the center of the ger.  The stove faces east and so it is expected of Mongolian women to wake and cook for the stove is the first thing they will be before when they get out of bed.  The men sleep on the western side of the ger.  And to the northeast of the ger is where the ger shrine is located.

The ger is quiet warm.  It is completely covered with felt.  Add wood to your stove in the night and your ger will become incredibly warm.  In the summer the felt that touches the ground is lifted up so that air can flow freely from the opening above the stove down into the ger and out from the felt floor opening formerly mentioned.

Well after having a pleasant breakfast on the 13th I got everything ready for my return to Ulan Bator.  I was picked up just past 11.

On the south side of the longest bridge in Mongolia in Ulan Bator there are a series of apartment concrete complexes.  They are all uniform.  I believe the Russian had something to do with their design and construction.  It was within one of these apartment complexes that I stayed for two nights.  To save a bit of money I stayed in a homestay.  The apartment was well kept by a single Mongolian woman who was perhaps in her late 60's.  She spoke Mongolian and Russian and just a tiny bit of English; just enough to show me where the washroom and toilet were.  She was very nice and the feeling within her home reminded me very much of my grandmother's home in Chile.

That afternoon I went out to explore the city.  On my way north I ran into Clive who was an English student who was on my train from Beijing to Ulan Bator.  We decided to get some lunch and then we headed south to check out the Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan.  It was within this complex that the last king, Damba Hutagt VIII, of Mongolia lived in.  The complex houses several Tibetan temples (Mongolia as well as Inner Mongolia in China and of course Tibet all subscribe to Tibetan Buddhism).  And so this was the first time for me to see Tibetan temples and art.  The grounds of the complex are not well kept in the least.  Wild grass is to be seen everywhere.  In some cases it seems that a wild tree and a bush or two are overtaking a few of the courtyard gate entrances. 

The Palace itself is a two story sort of colonial stylized building.  Within are objects and furniture that had belong to the king such as his toys as a child and his bed and clothing.

Sukhbaatar Square
From there Clive and I walked to Sukhbaatar Square.  It reminded me a bit of Tiananmen Square in Beijing but on a much smaller scale.  At the center of the square stands a statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar on a horse.  He is a revolutionary hero of Mongolia and the first leader to strive for Mongolian Independence.  Sadly though his statue is in my opinion and incredibly poor work of extremely low quality. 

At the northern end of the square is Sukhbaatar's Maousoleum.  No one is permitted within it though.

After that Clive and I strived to find Millie's which is a famous cafe in U.B. among travelers and expatriots.  We used our Lonely Planet guide map to find it but never achieved doing so for it had moved. 

For dinner Clive and I went into a restaurant/bar called The Jazz Club or something to that effect.  I had a mutton dish and a dark Mongolian beer.

July 14th in U.B. (Ulan Bator)
I suffered from a bad case of diarehea.  It was the mutton that I had had for dinner that made me sick.  This was the second time I got sick on this trip.  The first time was in Myanmar.  I took some medicine that I got in Bangkok and made out to an internet cafe in town.  I couldnt really focus though on catching up with my digital journal since I spent most of my effort trying to hold down my stomach.

At 1 o'clock I went to Sukhbaatar Square to meet up with a friend I had met in Tokyo.  Her name is Stina and she is originally from Estonia.  She is a professional vocalist and she lived in Japan working as a singer and as a model.  She actually worked in a few movies as well; she was a stand-in in the movie Lost in Translation and if you get the DVD and watch the making-of segments you will actually see her sitting next to Billy Murry in one of the restaurant scenes.

In Japan she met her husband who is Mongolian.  And thus there she was now living in U.B. 

I actually met her backstage at one of my shows.  She used to work with my friend Toshi who is a music producer in Tokyo.  Toshi introduced us.  At that time she was just a week away from moving to Mongolia and I was just a month or two from beginning my trip.  I told her that I would be stopping by in Mongolia.  And thus there we were in Sukhbaatar Square.

She took me to one of her favorite restaurants in U.B. which she confessed did not have great service but did have great food.  I was impressed with the restaurant.  It was very well decorated within and had a lot of expatriots as regular customers.

I had some more mutton dishes (probably not a good idea with the poor state of my stomach) and a Mongolian tea which was more like a soup.  The tea had bits of mutton within it. 

The food was all very good.  But if you are a vegetarian you probabaly will starve in Mongolia.  Nearly all of their dishes have dairy or meat in it.

After a long lunch of catching up and learning a bit about our pasts and why we were in Japan we rode (she had a car) to Zaisan Memorial; a World War II memorial.

The memorial is visible from most locations within central U.B.  It stands on a hill and at its summit I had a beautiful view of all of U.B.  U.B. is bordered by bright green grass and small mountains.  In some places the slopes of the mountains look ideal to play golf.  Since U.B. is surrounded by mountains it traps the pollution that is emmitted from factories and cars.  And so at certain times of the year there is a terrible haze that hangs over the city.

After that Stina and I drove to the U.B. Guest House to pick up another friend I had meet on the train from Beijing.  Her name was Roni and she was Israeli although she had a Russian background and had lived in Kazakhstan.  The three of us headed to the Drama Theater to see a show displaying traditional Mongolian costumes, dances, acrobatics, music, and throat singing.  One of the costumes that I saw was the clear inspiration of one of Princess Amidala's head dresses and make-up in the film Star Wars: Episode I.  Certain dances gave the impression and feeling of horse riding.  The throat singing was the most remarkable.  I was complete amazed that the human body could produce such sounds.

After the show we all headed for drinks at a nearby restaurant/bar.  I had chocolate milk.  Stina's husband later joined us. 

We talked a bit about the homeless kids in U.B.  You will see throughout the streets of U.B. homeless Mongolian boys.  Many of them chose to live a homeless lifestyle upon the streets of U.B. and within its sewers as a better alternative to the domestic violence they had experienced.  Alcoholism is a major problem in Mongolia.  It often results in drunk fathers beating their sons, daughters, and wives. 

The homeless kids are harmless.  They may approach you for some pocket change or to collect your empty plastic bottle which they will redeem at a recycling center for some money.

One thing of note that did happen to me and Clive was that we were both physically attacked by a drunk Mongolian man who demanded money.  It immediately caused a sudden violent urge in all of us but a Mongolian boy held the man off.  I believe the boy was the son of the drunk man.

July 15th in U.B.
On the 15th of July Roni and I met up with a two Israeli travelers who had traveled throughout India, Southeast Asia, and China.  The told us about the travelers they had met in U.B. that had been assaulted after dark.  In one case a traveler was beaten up by 5 Mongolian men and completely stripped of all his clothing except for his underwears.

On this day I went to Gandantegchinlen Khiid which is the largest and considered to be the most important Tibetan monastary in Mongolia.  Somehow the temple survived the religious purges of the 1930's which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Mongolian Tibetan monks and the destruction of nearly every religious temple.  There are about 150 monks living in the monastary.  They were all dressed in Tibetan monk robes.

Before approaching the monastary I went around one of several prayer stations where you walk around a pillar spinning bronze cylinders that have prayers inscribed on them.  The idea is that the prayer comes to life when in motion and ascends up to Heaven.  I prayed for continued safe travels and thanked the gods and God for all the wonderful blessings that I had experienced in all the Asian countries I had traveled to.

That night I went to the train station to take my Trans-Mongolian train into Russian Siberia.

Of Note: I should mention that 70% of the population of U.B. (or is it Mongolia) is under the age of 30.  Mongolia has a very low life expectancy rate.

Into Russian Siberia by Train
I shared my compartment with two English college students and a man with striking native American features (I believe he was a Mongol of Siberia).  Our carriage was devoid of air conditioning and a fan.  As we traveled north the vegetation changed from strikingly green to desert like. 

From 6 in the morning on the 16th until perhaps 10:30 or so our train sat on the Mongolian/Russian border.   Since we were not moving no air was coming in.  But it didnt matter.  The air was warm and dreadful.  In this heat did we sit waiting unable to use the washroom; the train attendants always shut the bathrooms before, during, and after arriving at a station.  The reason for that is that they dont want human waste cluttering up the tracks at the station. 

At 9:00 on the dot the Mongolian immigration officers came to my compartment and asked for our passports.  About two hours after that the train departed and headed past the border into Russian Siberia.  Again on the Russian side we had to wait in the train.  This time for about 4 hours for all the Russian immigration officers board the train and to check all the passengers' passports and baggage.  Once we had all cleared customs we were allowed to get off the train and wash up, change money, and eat some food.

I went to change my U.S. dollars for Russian rubles.  This process took about 20 minutes.  Several backpackers from my train had to wait in this line for this simple currency exchange procedure that took so much longer than necessary.

Once I got my rubles I went into a store that looked like a food store from 80 years ago - the shop owner used an abacus - and bought some drinks and some food.

The native American man who was in my compartment got off at the Russian border.  And so for the rest of the journey it was just the British college guys and I.  All day we rode the train until finally we arrived in Ulan Ude which was where the Brit's got off.  I walked around the station for a bit and then we were off for Irkusk.  Although on a map the distance between Ulan Ude and Irkusk seems short for some reason it took about 8 hours to get there.  Since I had the compartment all to myself I stretched out and enjoyed the scenery.  Then it was dark and I went to bed.  During the night I felt rain hit my face but I paid very little attention to that.

Irkustk - After the Storm of the Century (July17th) 
I arrived at the Irkutsk train station early in the morning.  I was met with a friendly Russian college student who worked for Baikal Complex which is a travel agency associated with White Nights - the travel agency that arranged all of my Mongolian and Russian journey.  He led me to a car and we then drove to Hotel Angara where I was able to change some more money.

He explained to me that a freak storm had attacked Irkustk the night before and that as a result 4 people were killed.  The strong winds of the storm destroyed countless trees by up-rooting them and ripping off their branches.  As a result as we drove through the city I saw streets covered with tree debris.

Irkutsk is a college town.  In Siberia it is the most popular destination for college students to live and study in.  As a result it has a very young population.

From Irkutsk we drove for about an hour south-east to Listvyanka which is a tiny little Russian town right on Lake Baikal.  Again I was to stay in a hometay there. 

The family I stayed with were incredibly kind and friendly with me.  The family consisted of a strongly built linebacker of a father, a large loving mother, and a skinny and aloof son.  I stayed in their son's room.  In his room I stared at his Russian map that was dated from perhaps two decades ago.  It revealed the Russian territories having control over all of Eastern Europe and into a few Stan nations in Central Asia.  How things have changed. 

I had a pleasant breakfast with the father who spoke the best English in the family.  He was so kind.  He explained that he had lived in Mongolia for two years during is Soviet military service.  He explained how he and his friends would go fishing the rivers of Mongolia and how the Mongolians were perplexed to see them do it.  He was wearing a heavily faded New York Giants T-shirt.  When I asked him if he liked American football he gave a quizical look.  He had no idea that the shirt he was wearing and had worn for countless years was of a U.S. football team.

For most of the day I walked up along the shores of Lake Baikal. 

Lake Baikal in good old Siberia 
Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world.  Two tectonic plates are separting within the lake and so it hundreds of millions of years the two plates will continue to divide until it will become the fifth world's ocean.  Currently it is 1,637 meters deep.  Its width runs from 27 to 80 km. and in length it is 636 km.  It as 23,000 cubic km of water.  It possesses 20% of the world's fresh water.  3,500 species of plants and animals are to be found in and around the lake of which 2,600 are endemic (or only to be found here and nowhere else in the world). 

The smell of the lake as well as seeing all the smoothly shaped stones that lined the shores of the lake reminded me very much of Chicago and good old Lake Michigan.  The waters of the lake are incredibly clear and it is said that you can actually see 30 meters below.

At one end of a thin strip of beach along the lake I sat and watched locals drink and sun tan and bath.  The waters of Lake Baikal are amazingly cold.  One can not bare to swim within it for more than a few minutes.  I did see a few people scuba diving in their wet suits though. 

One thing that I was truck by now that the people I were seeing were no longer Asian but European was that the older Russian were huge.  The older men were large and well-muscled and the older women were large and big-breasted.  As for the younger men and women they were all thin and attractive.  The women though all had what I called "scary eyes".  Their eyes were a light almost grey blue.  They (the eyes) looked like they belonged to a wild cat.

As I sat on the beach a completely drunk Russian man approached me and asked where I was from.  I told him from the U.S.  He welcomed me with a thick Russian accent, "Welcome.  Drink Russian beer."  He poured me a cup and together we drank.  He chugged though on his bottle. 

Later on he went swimming to relieve himself of the fact that he could barely stand.

It was a very relaxing day on the lake.  I took a boat ride and sat with an American woman who was perhaps in her 60's.  She had lived for most of her life in different countries teaching English.  She had even lived in Afghanistan for 11 years!  She said she was there "before, during, and after" Russian occupation.  She was a bit too opinionated for my tastes though.  She talked and talked about the amazing places she had been to in Siberia and how sad it was that I chose not to see them.

As I walked back to my homestay I was caught in the rain. 

For dinner I had a fantastic Russian feast.  What I loved most was how the pastries were displayed on a little silver platter.

July 18th in Irkutsk
I was picked up at around 11 and driven in a van to the train station.  I the van was a couple from Holland and another from the U.S.  At the train station we all dropped off our bags and with the American couple I took a taxi into town.

I spent the next few hours with this American couple.  They were lovely.  They were approaching the age of retirement and had been married for over 40 years or so.  In their years together they had traveled to or sailed to over 100 countries.  You name a nation and they probably had been there.  The husband was very energetic and talkative.  He would always watch over his wife.  I could see that he cared for her deeply. 

The made my day grand.  It is so wonderful to see a married couple still in love and off to new adventures.  I can go on and on about them.  They are from Indiana.

As for Irkutsk I liked it.  It is a small town but lined with wonderful buildings and wooden homes that are 80 years old or more.

Irkutsk is home to the descendents of elite or scholarly Russian exiles that served their time in Russian prisons and camps and when freed developed Irkutsk into a University town.