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.


Friday, July 23, 2004

The Trans-Mongolian Rail - July 10th (The trip from Beijing to Ulan Bator, Mongolia)

There is nothing more peaceful for a traveler to find himself on an overnight train to his next location.  On a train you do not feel guilty to spend more hours than needed sleeping, or reading, or staring out your window.  You are responsible to do absolutely nothing but relax and wait until you arrive to your next destination.

I left my hostel very early in the morning.  If I remember correctly my train departed before 8 in the morning.  I shared a taxi with an Australian from my hostel who was also taking the Mongolian rail.

We arrived at the train station to discover a mob of people gathered before it.  Even at the ungodly early morning hours there are thousands of people gathered before the Beijing rail way station.

I shared my comparment with a German couple (they were perhaps in their 50's or 60's) and a young Mongolian man who would have rathered flown to Ulan Bator than take a train to it.

Nightfall came around 8 in the pm and although we had traveled by train for nearly 12 hours we had yet to arrive at the border. 

The landscape that I saw at that time was completely flat and barren.  It represented exactly what I imagined the Gobi portion of Mongolia to be like. 

Outside that window of mine there was only land and sky.  There is nothing made by man out there (excpet for the telephone pole that runs alongside the train tracks).  There are no animals or birds to be seen as well.

Never had I seen so much open and untouched space before in all my life. 

The land and sky is endless and timeless.  I have entered into God's country. 

July 11th - Into the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and beyond . . . Notes and Thoughts:
I woke up at 5:30 and looked out from my lofted bed and saw dessert.  We must be traveling through the Gobi desert, I thought.  I soon after went back to sleep.

At around 7:30 I woke up again and sat up to eat some crackers and tuna from a can.  I then jumped down from my bed and looked out and saw the desert terrain but this time there were more patched of grass.

As the train continued I saw Mongolian gers (a traditional tent made of felt) literally in the middle of nowhere and herds of sheep or cows or horses in the far distance.  At times I would see a rabbit dart away from the train.

By afternoon the terrain became more hilly and green; at times the landscape looked like sights I had seen in Ireland.

Out there beyond my windown was only the vast expanse of land and sky.

Once the train neared Ulan Bator the number of flowers and trees began to increase.  As a result of this diversity of vegetation I could understand why Ulan Bator was located where it was.

I was met at the station by Altai and her driver.  They worked for Tsolmon Travel which is in some way associated with White Nights - the travel agency I planned the Mongolian and Russian portion of my trip with.  She was very nice and informative.  Ske kept apologizing for the train I had to take a day later than originally planned.  I insisted that she not worry about it.

After changing some money at a currency exchange that had a guard dressed plainly with a gun tucked into his pants we drove to the National Stadium to see a bit of the wrestling events taking place on the first day of the famed Nadaam Festival.  Luckily we got into the stadium for free.

The Nadaam Festival celebrates the three manly sports of Mongolia.  They are wrestling, horse riding, and archery.  This celebration dates back thousands of years but the Nadaam Festival is tied to the Independence Day of Mongolia (I believe 1921 - although Mongolia really was under the strong influence of Russia from that time until the late 1980's to early 1990's).  In the time of Chingis Khan and the centuries before the armies of the differing warlords of Monglia would engage in the competition of the three manly sports either before or after a battle.

While in the stadium observing the wrestling events one thing that I noticed about the Mongolian crowds was that both men and women were extremely pushy.  They would literally stick out there hand and arm and shove people out of their way.

I also saw a drunk man pissing out in the open before everyone just outside the stadium. 

It was apparent that if China has a very strong tobacco culture Mongolia sure as hell had a very strong alcohol culture.  Open bottles of alcohol were everywhere.  And stumbling drunk old men could be seen nearly every 10 meters.

After exiting the stadium Altai and I hopped back into her companies car and headed for Terelj National Park.  While we drove east of Ulan Bator we could see storm clouds from the north approaching.  Soon enough the rains hit us but only lasted for about 20 minutes.  On the way to the National Park we stopped to pick up some fermented mare's milk at a traditional ger home.  The mother within the home was preparing dinner.  I saw her dunk an entire skinned goat's head into a vat of broth.  As for the mare's milk it was fizzy - just like the todi drink I had had in Myanmar.  It was very thin and light too.  And it smells like vinegar sour dough.

The ger camp I was to spend two night in was located between rocky hills and small mountains.  I was totally surrounded by the gardens of Heaven.  It was so pleasantly quiet.  In the distance though I could hear cows moan and men laughing within their ger homes.

Every step I took upon the grasses there I saw a vast number of grasshoppers jump away from me.  And although I rarely sawy birds fly into the sky I always heard their chirpings.

The land in Mongolia is totally untouched by man.  It is virgin land.  Pure and lovely.  This is truly God's country. 

July 12th - More Mongolian Notes and Thoughts from my Journal Book . . .
 . . . The women in Mongolia are beautiful.  Some are voluptious while others are thin.  Here is an example of a physical difference between different Asian groups.  Japanese and Chinese women are not voluptious whereas Mongolian women and Southeast Asian women are voluptious . . . 

Mountains . . .
At the summit of a mountain east of my camp I have found a terrain of boulders, skinny trees, grass, and flowers.  Touches of yellow pollen mark the knees of my pants.

On my ascent I saw a score of grasshoppers jumping out of my path.  They were all uniquely camoflaged.  Some were as green as the grass they hid in.  Others were pink and black making them nearly indistinguishable from the decaying rocks covered in moss. 

The only sounds that I hear are the flies and horse flies.  Yes, even in the most remote of locations of the world there are flies.  The horse flies are incredibly big - bigger than the size of my thumb nail.
All around me I am surrounded by the glorious makings of nature.  There are no leavings or marks of man.  No foot prints or discarded rubbish.  There are only butterflies and the constant creaking of critters within the grass.
I am totally alone - and at long last!  There is no internet, no T.V., no jabber of human tongues.  No commercials, no stores, no buildings, or streets.
I am far from all the makings of man.  This is paradise for me, for anyone.  I am truly blessed.  Sitting here I can only think of those I have seen on my travels who I have left behind.  Many are suffering, depressed, and lost.  Many are striving for food, money, the western consumer idals that invade their homes and lives through the constant TV images that parade things that they really do not need.
These flies continue to swarm around me.  Looking at them as they explore my ankle or goot I can see that they mean no harm.  They are curious.  They have probabaly never seen anything as unusual as me.  They hop onto the pages of this book curious to explore what this magnificent white that I call a book page is.
Sitting hear I know that everything back in the "West" means very little.  Prestigious offices, designer suits, cars, and the all the all that one wants is in the end  . . . rubbish. 
All the answers that one seeks in one's life can be found here in the untouched lands of Mongolia. 
God protects this place - it is a last holy frontier.


Beijing, China - July 1-9

What a relief it was to arrive in Beijing after two weeks of town and city hoping within central China.  I was more than happy to see foreigners as well.  Especially to be surrounded by them within my hostel.  For the two weeks that I traveled from place to place within central China I for the most part was the only foreinger.  Rarely did I ever see another traveler from exotic Western lands. 

Beijing is not China.  It does not represent in any shape way or form the type of people or ways of life that I came across in most places in China.  Beijing is unique.  It is a cosmopolitan city that is massive in size.  And it is growing.

I befriended a guy named Rob from New York City at my hostel.  It was his fourth time to Beijing and this time he was there to stay.  We spent the first morning we met in a Chinese restaurant that had a bit of an Islamic flavour for breakfast.  We talked mostly about politics and our strong, I mean strong, dislike of Bush and everything he had done in the past four years.  Rob explained that he had seriously considered seeking refugee status so that he could gain Canadian citizenship.

Through Rob I discovered how much Beijing had changed in four years and how much it was going to continue to change.  When he first arrived about 4 to 5 years ago there was no car traffic in the city.  There were thousands of people riding bikes in all directions.  Today you hardly see people riding bikes.  But there are cars.  400,000 of them blocking up streets creating massive traffic jams.  The car market is hot in Beijing.  There is a strong middle class that is growing and a lot of new rich entrepreneurs cruising the streets in exotic cars such as the Hummer.  As a result U.S., European, Japanese, and South Korean car manufacturers are anxious to keep breaking into the Chinese market to sell more and more of their carbon dioxide pumping machines.  With the lack of regard that the Chinese have for the environment you can bet that in two decades time China will be the number one producer of Green House gases - putting the U.S. in second place.  That is something we can all look forward to.  No one cares (Western producers and Chinese consumers) about how the products that they produce or buy effects the environments of the future.  Everyone now and in the years to come will be too busy buying and selling to make their millions in China.  Then there will come the day when we all realize that China, a nation with over a billion people, has consumed too much and as a result is producing more waste than the third world nations that get dumped on with this waste can handle.

Rob went on in his talks expressing his disbelief of how many new buildings had popped up in the year and a half that he was away from China.  It is truly apparent that international companies are setting up shop in China.  The market is growing and every international corporate conglomerate wants a piece of the Chinese Yuan pie.

Beijing women are becoming more and more fashionable.  On the the streets around Stanlitun (the street to party within bars and dance clubs) I saw Chinese woman dressed in designer clothing and sun glasses.  They were all strutting their stuff catching the eyes of all men.  But, although you may find yourself wondering if you are looking at a Tokyo girl or a Chinese girl there is definitely one thing that will set them apart.  The fine and undying Chinese art of spitting.  There is nothing more disturbing to see and hear than a Chinese Beijing woman dressed all sexy and cool to then cough and hack up a bucket load of phlem to spit on the ground.  Yucky yuck.

July 2nd I spent relaxing with Rob and his partner in crime GQ.  GQ is Canadian and also very fashionable in dress and style.  Rob and GQ are pretty much opposites in the Rob could care less about his appearance whereas GQ can only think about it at all hours of the day.  Rob and GQ met each other about three years ago at the International Youth Hostel.  They were in a dorm room together and eventually decided to get their own double room to share.

As the three of us sat outside Starbucks sipping our elaborately named coffee's and people watching I listened to all the misadventures that Rob and GQ had on their expeditions into Stanlitun to seek and devour Chinese women.

As for the men in Beijing.  Well, compared to the women I would have to say that they really dont spend that much time and effort on their appearance - which is cool.  Instead the spend most of their time spitting and smoking.  Cigarettes aboud everywhere in China.  You cannot find a single street corner that is devoid of a kiosk dedicated to the sole sale of cigarrettes.  And the cigarrettes sold at these kiosks are not just any type of cigarette.  No, no, no.  They are what I like to call gourmet cigarette's.  They come in beautiful red boxes with gold borders.  They make a great gift for any Chinese friend.  Yes, the smokers culture is very alive and well in China.  That is an irony since cigarettes dont cause people to be alive and well for too long.

Nearly every evening during my stay in Beijing I spent in the lounge TV area of my hostel.  I passed up time and time again going out on the drink with some of the friends I had made in the hostel.  What attracted me to my nights in the lounge were the pirated movies that were being played.  It had been some time since I had watched a movie and so I was catching up.  I saw a badly taped pirated DVD of Spider Man II (3.5 stars - definitely enjoyed the comedy bits in the flick), Michael Moore's Farenheit 911 (3.5 stars - great stuff for the average American who doesnt have the time to pick up a Chomsky book), The Human Stain (1 star - wasnt in the mood to see a movie like this), The Italian Job (3.5 stars - fantastic heist movie), The Last Samurai (2.5 stars - cool movie but after living in Japan and having felt like I recognized the story line from The Last of the Mohicans and Dances with Wolves I didnt really like this movie all too much, plus Im sick of Tom Cruise) and Along Came Polly (3 stars - I loved what I saw of this movie but the pirated version of this was all scratched up so it kept skipping).

July 3rd - The Great Freakin Wall
I decided to take the tour offered at the hostel to the Great Wall.  I met a wonderful group of people in the minivan.  It took about three hours to get to the wall and so we all had plenty of time to talk.  There was an American teacher in the van who was traveling with his two kids.  He was a wonderful father.  I could see that he loved taking his kids to all parts of the world on adventures and schemes. 

The most popular part of the wall to see from Beijing is Badaling.  Dont go there.  From what I heard it looks more like a Disneyland Epcot version of the Great Wall than anything else.  In any case the sections of the wall that you will see here are not original.  So what is the point of seeing something that's fake?

The section of the wall my group went to was Simatai.  The 19 km of wall at Simatai is crumbling.  In some parts it looks like a total ruin - barely recognizable as a wall - well Im exageratting there. 

The minivan dropped us all off in a remote farming village.  Locals walked up to us google-eyed wondering from what planet we had dropped in from.  Again, Im exagerating.  The locals here are poor and simple but they have definitely seen their share of foreigners.  They quietly tried to sell their Great Wall T-shirts and hats to us.

From the village we trecked up the heavy vegetation of the surrounding hills.  We hiked up until we made view of the Great Wall.  It was magnificent.  Up we went until we were able to enter into the wall from an opening within it.  From there we hiked east I believe.  I kept a speedy pace.  About a half hour into my pace I realized that I had completely left my group behind.  And that was nice.  I traveled the length of the wall in solitude.  Yes, I had the Great Wall all to myself.  The wall is simply composed of walls and towers.  I would walk for a bit and then stretch my legs up to ascend into the next tower.  The steps were incredibly steep.  Then from the tower I would look out its slit windows and then descend its steps to walk along the wall again.   Part of the wall were in total ruin.  And that was wonderful to see.  It was along these parts that I could see and feel for myself the tremendous age of the wall.  The wall is about 2,000 years old.

There is no denying how impressive the wall is.  One can only imagine the hundreds of thousands of men and women that slaved and died to build the wall to keep the Mongols of the north at bay.  It seems though that this is a common theme in China.  Labor is plentiful and cheap in China.  With a massive army of cheap labor a dynasty or tyranny can make amazing and stupid structures like a long wall or huge masoleum for an Emperor.  And this is still the case today.  China will grow in this century to become a powerhouse economy.  Western companies are rushing to build their factories in China because the number of poor ignorant labor is vast in China.  It is common knowledge in all part of Asia, from Korea, to Japan, to Mongolia, to Siberia, that Chinese laborers are cheap, cheap, cheap.

After sweating and hiking and trying to out-pace a tout or two along the wall - they were trying to sell me frozen bottles of water and postcards - I rested near a wire bridge.  I drank my drink and waited for my group to arrive.

When the rest of the group arrived I began speaking with a Canadian couple of latin background who were nearly done with their 13 month trip around the world.  They were a wonderful couple.  It is always a pleasure to see love in all its forms ;)

In the evening a few of the guys and I from the Great Wall group went out for dinner to treat ourselves to some Chinese beer and Peking duck.  It was a festive evening of manly jokes and the occasional burp. 

July 5th - The Forbidden City's Starbucks
I went to the Forbidden City in the morning with Scott from the U.S. and another friend from the hostel who was from Scotland.  He left early so that we could see Mao in his Mausoleum but when we arrived at the southern end of Tiananmen Square we eventually discovered that the mausoleum was closed (its closed on Mondays).  We then proceeded north through the Square in search of the Memorial dedicated to the Tiananmen Massacre that took place about 14 years ago.  We looked and looked and to our surprise we realized that there is no memorial - Im joking I hope you realize about us seriously looking for this memorial.  Yes, as far as the Chinese Communist government is concerned the Tiananmen Massacre pretty much didnt happen. 

The Sqaure is massive.  It is impressive.  At night you will see families and kids walking or running about throughout the square.  Some kids are playing soccer whereas others are playing badminton. 

Mao's Mausoleum is incredibly large.  Of the three mausoleums dedicated to dead and frozen Communist leaders (Ho Chi Ming, Mai, Lenin) Mao's is the largest.  To the north of the mausoleum is the Momument to the People's Hero's and north of that is the southern gate that leads to the Forbidden City.  It is on this gate where hangs the large portrait of Mao. 

The Forbidden City is just that, a city.  Walking in and exploring the grounds you feel like you really are within a city.  The city covers 78 acres.  Its construction began in 1421 - the same year a massive fleet of Chinese ships set sail to navigate the world.  They beat Columbus to the New World - but of course western history books forget to mention that.  Supposedly there are 9,999 rooms in the city.  One could spend a lifetime exploring all the chambers and buildings and rooms of the Forbidden City.  It is simply to large to cover in a day.  What is not so pleasing to see visually though is the lack of trees in the vast public areas of the Forbidden City.  The city seems to be totally devoid of anything plant life.  Not even a single blade of grass can be found.  There are several throne chambers and temples that we saw.  All of these structures were accompanied by a large sign that detailed the history of it in English and Chinese.  All these signs were "Brought to you by American Express."  Amazing how American capitalism has found its way into the Forbidden city.

And speaking of that can you believe that there is a Starbucks in the Forbidden City!  Im not joking.  This is another fine and very digusting example of how nothing is sacred in China.  Yet, again it seems the Chinese are more than willing to sell their cultural soul for a lousy buck.  Scott took a few photo's of me within the Forbidden City giving the middle finger to Starbucks.

The three of us though did find and walk into a few enclosed structures within the Forbidden City that did have beautiful trees and gardens.  So, there is plant life in the Forbidden City but it is kept away and in secret from the massive public spaces of the massive complex. 

After exiting the Forbidden City from its northern gate there is the Jingshan Park.  A climb up its Scenic Mountain reveals a wonderful view of the Forbidden City and of Beijing itself.  The hill is actually artificial.  It is made up of all the scooped out earth that made the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City.  At the top of the hill sits a Buddhist temple.

From there guys and I decided to give into one of three bicycle rickshaw drivers that begged us to employ their services.  After a bit of time bargaining for a price the three of us squeezed into the back seat of the bicycle rickshaw.  To be totally honest it must have looked totally pathetic to anyone who saw us to see three healthy young men sitting nearly on top of each other in the back of a frail bicycle rickshaw being peddled by an nearly dead elderly man.  Not, proud of that.  No, no, no.

July 6th - Mao's Dead Body (Number 2 of the Collect all 3 Dead Communist Leader Happy Meal Set)
Scott and I as well as our friend from Scotland whose name Im sorry to say I forgot got up early again to make our way to Mao's Mausoleum.  We took a bus to a nearby subway location and then took the subway.  The subway in Beijing is quiet good and cheap but it is not extensive and so you will inevitably end up taking a cab or a bus to get to one of its nearly remote subway stops.

When we got to the southern end of Mao's Mausoleum we were immediately struck with the incredble line formed out front of it.  We approached it seeking the end of the line so that we could get in line.  We searched and searched following the line to the point that we began to run because it was simply taking to long to find the end of the line.  Finally, after about running for 5 minutes or so we found the end of the line and qued up.  We waited in line for about an hour and 15 minutes.  It is simply amazing to know that everyday (except Mondays) tens of thousands of people line up to see Mao's dead body. 

As for seeing Mao's dead body.  It went by pretty quick and to be honest I wasnt impressed.  Or I should say not as impressed as I was with Ho Chi Minh's dead body.  Ho Chi Minh's body rests within a dark chamber that is solemn and quiet.  4 guards are to the four points of his glass casket.  With Mao the room his body is in has a bit more light.  His body is not guarded by 4 guards like Ho Chi Minh's and you can only walk to one side of him.  With Ho Chi Minh you can walk to three sides of his casket.  Mao's body is blanketed with a Red flag with the Russian hammer and sickle on it. 

July 7th - Refer to my Culture Shock Blues in the Middle Kingdom Journal Entry
I wanted to go out and see the Summer Palace today.  But before doing so I wanted to withdraw some Chinese RMB from Citibank and change it into U.S. dollars.  That was impossible to do.  I can go on and on about how pissed off I was about this bureacratic banking bullsh*t in China but I will not because I pretty much cover it in my Culture Shock Blues journal entry.  As a result of this I spent the entire day running all over Beijing trying to find a way to change my Chinese RMB to U.S. dollars.  At the end of the day I ended up extremely pissed off, and unable to change my money.  I didnt get to go to the Summer Palace as a result.

July 8th - The Money Changing Drama continues
I spent the morning and early afternoon going to a few other banks trying to buy U.S. dollars.  Time and time again I heard that I could not do so without a specific form which I did not have.  As a last result I took a bus to the airport.  There again I found that I could not legally change my Chinese RMB for U.S. dollars. 

And so I was left with going to extreme measures.  I became an illegal money changer within the black market.  I solicited new arrivals in the airport outside the money exchange tellers and sold my Chinese RMb for U.S. dollars at an unbeatable rate (I lost money as a result).  Luckily I didnt get arrested.

I needed U.S. dollars for my Trans-Mongolian rail trip.  I couldnt buy Mongolian togroots or Russian rubles in China and so I needed plenty of U.S. dollars to last me into Mongolia and Russia.

After illegally changing all my Chinese RMB at the airport I had time to make a run for the famed Temple of Heaven. 

The Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is located far south of Tiananmen Square.  It is located in a huge park and it was here that the Chinese emperor conducted some of the most important rites and ceremonies.  These religious practices established his link to the Heavens and to the gods.

I spent my time here simply relaxing.  I walked from one temple to the other watching families and travelers pose for photo's.  I eventually found a pleasant spot within a stone door frame and watched a Chinese woman go through the subtle movements of Chi-gung; a Chinese practice of cultivating Chi (the life force) from the heavens and the earth into your body for healing purposes.

July 9th - the Last of the Full Days in Beijing
Today was stock up on train provisions day and so forth.  I bought what dried foods I needed for my trip into Mongolia, and ran a few other errands.  I also reserved some time to go to the internet and catch up on the journal but Hotmail was complete down at the time that I went.  And so my trip to the internet cafe was totally in vain :(


Thursday, July 22, 2004

Tai Shan and Me - June 29th

High on the sacred mountain
Up the seven thousand stairs
In the golden light of autumn
There was magic in the air.

Clouds surrounded the summit
The wind blew strong and cold
Among the silent temples
And the writings carved in gold
Somewhere in my instincts
The primitive took hold.

I stood at the top of the mountain
And China sang to me
In the peaceful haze of harvest time
A song of eternity.

If you raise your hands to heaven
You will live a hundred years
I stood there like a mystic
Lost in the atmosphere.

The clouds were suddenly parted
For a moment I could see
The patterns of the landscape
Reaching for the eastern sea.
I looked upon a presence
Spanning forty centuries.

I thought of time and distance
The hardships of history
I heard the hope and the hunger
When China sang to me.

These words were written my Neil Peart of the progressive rock group RUSH.  When I was in high school and learning the craft of drums RUSH for me was the best musical ensemble in the world.  I highly idolized Neil Peart as not only a skilled drummer but a master of the craft of words.  From him began my desire to write and so here I am writing and writing with a finished book beneath my belt.

Neil's lyrics became an anthem for many of my beliefs and philosophies.  Through him I sought to travel, read, and write.  Through him I realized that I did not want to just be a drummer.  I wanted to be a philosopher, poet, traveler, and source of inspiration for others.

It was from the song Tai Shan and its lyrics that my wonder for the East began.  As the years passed in high school the more attracted did grow toward Zen Buddhism, Chinese philosphy, and the martial arts of the East - particularly the art of sword and the way of the samurai.

It had been a long desire of mine to climb up Tai Shan mountain in homage of Neil Peart who had made the ascent in the 1980's.  And so on the morning of the 29th I awoke to finally fulfill this sort of adolescent dream.

I began my ascent at 6:11 in the morning and arrived at the summit at 8:30.  I expected the ascent to take me about four hours but I did it in just over two hours.  I relaxed at the summit for about an hour.  I found the summit to be heavily touristy.  I avoided all the sites and sounds of the tourists and the shops and temples that catered to them by retreating to a quiet mountain top that was far and away from everyone.  There at this spot did I look over the surrounding clouds and cloudy sky.  It was pleasantly cool.  I sweated like a dog on the ascent.  I sat in quiet and - you could say - meditated.  And then I prayed.  I prayed to the spirit grandfathers Papa Leo and Italo as well as a few other family members of mine who rest in the heavens above.  I thanked God for the blessing and adventures that I had had in my life in Japan.  And in a way I said goodbye to my life in the East.  Climbing Tai Shan for me represented the milestone end of my nearly 4 years of exile in the East.  It was now time for me to return to where I truly belong . . . the West.

Tai Shan - A History Lesson
Tai Shan is the holiest of the five Taoist mountains in China.  An ascent to the top is considered to be a spiritual journey by the Chinese.  It is a pilgrimage.  Tai Shan is 5,000 feet high and is composed of 6,660 steps; these stone stepes were all painstakingly placed by hand.  An ascent of the mountain is required of all devote Taoists.  And it is said that those who reach its summitt will live for a hundred years. 

From the base of the mountain I came across an army of elderly men and women who made it their daily morning exercise routine to climb perhaps a 10th of the steps of the mountain.  I was very impressed with their devotion to the maintenance of their physical health.

Along my journey I came across Chinese teenagers, families, and couples.  It was very odd for me to see Chinese men and women dressed conservatively in their dress pants and shoes and shirts and  dressed.  They were not exactly wearing the most appropriate clothes for ascending a mountain.  Everyone was sweating and panting.  Men rolled up their dress pants to their knees and hiked up their dress shirts to rest around their plump Buddha bellies.

I guess it is more important for the Chinese to look good and dress respectfully when climbing Tai Shan ;)


June 30th - ze Train to Beijing
I had a terribly amount of time to kill today.  My train for Beijing was not to depart until 10:30.  I spent the day trying to find an internet cafe but with no luck.  And so I walked and walked and walked around town finding more grey and depressed buildings and a market in an old completely unlit abandoned industrial warehouse.  It would have been perfect to have seen a movie today but no I did not find a suitable movie theater.  Pirated DVD's seemed to have killed the movie goer culture here. 

In the late evening I returned to my hotel and read my book.  When it was time I grabbed a taxi and made off for the train station.  Along the drive I saw an internet cafe!  The cafe was just of from a corner I had passed repeatedly.  I damned myself for not walking down that street.  I could have gotten a lot of digital journal writing done.

July 1st - Arrival in Beijing
I arrived in the early morning in Beijing.  It was cloudy and cool outside.  From the train station I walked to a major hotel that supposedly had a hostel within it.  I approached the hotel and discovered that the hostel had moved.  Yet, again my guide book had failed me.  As soon as I left the hotel and made out in the direction of the hostel I was approached by an old Chinese bicycle rickshaw man.  I told him the name of the hostel and he said that he knew where it was.  I hopped into the rickshaw and away we went.  We eventually stopped at a guest house but they were full.  From there the rickshaw driver peddled to another guest house.  It was too pricey for me.  I repeatedly asked the rickshaw driver to take me to the hostel I had mentioned earlier.  From then on we began to argue - basically he said that the had taken me to the hostel I wanted to go to and I didnt believe him.  I then jumped into a taxi and as we drove north I saw a sign the hostel that I wanted to go to and realized that it was down the street that the rickshaw driver had taken me.  He was right . . . and I was wrong.

Well, interestingly enough the taxi driver and I drove around Beijing for an hour trying to find a cheap hostel.  We finally ended up at the International Youth Hostel just behind the five star Great Dragon Hotel.  I took my bag and ran into the hostel to see if they had room.  They said they didnt know.  I decided that I would just wait until the figured out if they did or not.  I then ran back out to pay the taxi driver and saw that he was gone.  I asked the guard to the hotel where the taxi had gone and he explained that the taxi had left. 

Strange, I got a free ride in a taxi for an hour in Beijing!  I guess the gods wanted to help me out a bit.  I felt bad though.  Of all the hellish taxi drivers I had experienced in China this one in particular was the nicest.  He kept running out and back into his taxi asking various people on the street about where a certain hostel was and so forth.  He deserved his pay and a handsome tip.  But he left before I ever had the chance to pay him.

Well, tomorrow I will sit down and write about Beijing.  I was there for about 9 days.  And so I have a bit to tell.

Until then . . . good night ;)

The Longmen Caves, China - June 25th
It took me just over an hour by bus to reach the Longmen Caves from Luoyang.  The caves are all located along both sides of the Yi River.  There are literally hundreds of caves, most man-made, that are filled with carved statues of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas.  The caves were created over a 600 year period.  The first of the caves were carved in 493 A.D.

It took me about two hours to see all of the caves; although it felt much longer than that since the afternoon sun wore me done completely.  The most impressive cave is the Ancestor Worshipping Cave.  The central Buddha statue is about 55 feet tall and it is flanked by boddhisattvas and guardians on both of its sides.  The Cave of the Ten Thousand Buddhas literally did have ten thousand little Buddhas carved into the cave walls.  Each Buddha was about the size of my thumb or so.

There were countless other caves.  Most were high up the mountain slopes but accessible by staircases.  What is sad to see is that most of the caves have been severly damaged.  Many of the Buddhas are headless.  Antique collectors severed these heads while other anti-Buddha individuals (Communists) slashed the faces of others.  It is simply sad too see that these wonderful works of religious devotion have suffered from varying forms of sacrilege over the centuries. 

In total there are about 1,400 caves, 2,800 inscriptions, and about 100,000 statues.

Dengfeng and the Shaolin Tourist - June 26th
I was more than happy to finally leave Luoyang.  Luoyang culturally did not have much to offer me.  Again, Luoyang was another example of a city in China devoid of Chinese culture, history, and tradition.  As you have read and will read about my experiences through out China I found myself continually disappointed with each town that I found.  Each town was bland and devoid of any sense of creative expressive urge.  Restaurants were uniform and terribly boring in interior decor.  People seemed to dress the same as well; Beijing and Shanghai are exceptions - of course.  The other thing that continually bothered me was that there are so many freakin barbershops and hair salons in every town I visited but yet everyone's hair style was the same.  You would think that with the vast number of small businesses dedicated to hair maitenance that there would be a certain degree of variety in hair colorings and styles.  But, no everyone settled for the same average hair style.

That all aside I left my hotel in Luoyang and headed for the bus station that was literally across the street.  There I got my bus ticket for Dengfeng.  One thing of note about travel via bus in China is that there are sleeper buses for long distance journeys.  These buses are filled with beds and bunk beds were travelers spend their journey laying down as opposed to sitting up in a chair.  It was the first time in my life to see such a curious looking form of bus transport. 

In any case I bought my ticket and with a bit of guidance from a bus station employee found my bus. 

The journey was about 3 hours.  I was the only foreigner on the bus and as expected in China I drew quiet a few stares and Im sure I was the topic of a few speculative conversations in the bus.  Since I was headed to Dengfeng (a town made popular due to its close location to the famed Kung-Fu Shaolin Temples) Im sure a few Chinese in my bus thought that I was going to try to get into one of the many, many Kung Fu academies around Dengfeng to train and see if I had what it took to become a Kung Fu master.  Well, that was not why I was going to Dengfeng.  I was going to simply pay my respects to a Zen tradition that I had once been apart of.

For nine months after my graduation from Boston University I lived at the Shim Gwang Sa which is a Korean Zen Temple near Boston.  You can check their website at  I lived as a Zen Buddhist monk in this temple studying and pursuing the Art of Zen Sword or Mind Sword.  This unique Buddhist tradition of combining meditative compassionate arts with the martial arts began in the Shaolin Temple in the 6th century A.D. 

My Zen Master at the Shim Gwang Sa was taught by Dae Sung Sa Nim (spelling?) who is an internationally and highly regarded Zen Master in South Korea.  Dae Sung Sa Nim is a Zen Master who is descended in a direct line of teaching that stretches all the way back to Bodhidharma - the Indian sage responsible for founding Zen Buddhism in East Asia.

The bus dropped me off just outside the small town of Dengfeng.  I grabbed a taxi and pointed out a guest house in my guide book.  He called out is overpriced charge for the short journey and I agreed.  When we arrived at the guest house I saw that it had been totally abandoned about a year ago; this would be a constant theme for me for the rest of my journey, to find that most of the guest houses in my Lonely Planet China Guide Book had already gone out of business or simply disappeared.  My taxi driver then took me to a very "posh" hotel called the Shaolin Hotel.  I got out of my hotel and checked in paying about $35 or so for one night.  This hotel is extremely expensive by Chinese standards and was a budget buster for me but I had very little choice in this tiny town.

While I was checking into my hotel at the front desk a bus arrived unloadind an army troop of large overweight American Kung Fu martial artists.  It was a sight to see and Im sure extremely amusing for the Chinese in the lobby of the hotel who saw them.  It was obviously apparent to all that these Americans seemed to place more emphasis on size and muscle in the pursuit of their martial art than in speed and dexterity.  Hands down I would place my money on a small skinny Chinese martial artist beating the living crap out of a large, bulky American martial artists. 

I laughed at these Americans who sounded like they were from Jersey and took the elevator up to my "posh" hotel room.

After checking out the view of one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China outside my hotel window I returned to the lobby and arranged for a taxi.  What I got was a mini-van piloted by a Chinese woman.  The agreed upon price for the journey to the Shaolin Temple was 20 RMB.  As we drove she kept pointing to pictures of sights around Dengfeng.  I eventually gave into a picture of a temple - supposedly the first nunnery in China.  We pulled in and I bought my ticket and went into the unimpressive nunnery.  I walked up from one small temple to the next finding within them depressed looking Buddhist nuns who were all busy picking and digging into their noses or looking at their gooie fingers at their slimey finds.  Yum.  As I tried to find anything of sincere interest within the nunnery I overheard British kids in the distance complaining, "Another temple.  When the bloddy hell will we see Shaoilin?"  It was then that I decided to leave the nunnery and go to Shaoling immediately.

My female taxi driver took me to Shaolin and charged me an extra 20 RMB for the nunnery excursion.  I paid and got out to buy my ticket into the Shaolin temple.  After I bought my ticket I saw the same female taxi driver waiving at me to get into her mini-van.  It seemed that she wanted to drive me past the gates to the various locations that surround the Shaolin temple.  I, I dont know why, decided to hop back into her van.  We drove past the gates and soon parked the car.  She then led me to an auditorium to see a live performance of Kung-Fu kids doing unbelievable martial feats.  The annoying thing was though that as soon as I pulled out my 50 RMB bill to pay for my ticket which cost about 20 RMB she took it out of my hand and led me from one ticket personnel to another.  She kept jabbering in Chinese with each ticket personnel.  I finally realized that she was trying to negotiate with the ticket personnel to screw me out of my 50 RMB.  I then snatched my money away from her and walked away.  She followed but realized that I was pissed off and that she should probably stay away.

That experience sort of ruined my experience at Shaolin.  That coupled with the fact that I was terribly dissapointed to find that the sacred grounds of the Shaolin temple was little more than a heavily touristy Disneyland.  Again I felt like nothing in China was sacred.  It seems the Chinese are simply overly eager to sell their own cultural souls for a lousy buck.  In all directions around the temple of Shaolin and the other temple near it there are souvenir stalls and Chinese Kung Fu students giving demonstrations.  I wonder what the old abbots of Shaolin would think.  They would surely be shocked to find that the long kept secrets of the martial skills and techniques that had been passed for generation after generation was all for show to paying tourists.  How sad.  Really, how pathetically sad.  As a result I do not recommend to anyone to see Shaolin at all.   Skip that on your trip to China.  Go rent a stupid Kung Fu movie instead. 

Well, to get away from all of this I decided to take a detour and venture up a high mountain to see and pay my respects to Bodhidharma.  Legend has it that when Bodhidharma arrived at Shaolin from India he was rejected from the temple.  As a result he climbed up a nearby mountain and settled into a tiny cave to pray for 9 years.  As a result the monks of Shaolin were so impressed with Bodhidharma that they invited him into their temple.  From then on Bodhidharma taught the monks of Shaolin a series of physical exercises to go along with their long meditative sittings.  From here developed the art of Kung Fu.

The climb up to Bodhidharma's cave was exhausting but pleasant.  As I ascended I would rest, buy a bottle of cold water from a local, and look back at the wonderful mountain scenery.  It took me about an hour to ascend the mountain and to reach the cave.  I was very content to sit within Bodhidharma's cave and pay my respects to him.  Within the cave there was a boy who was guardian of it.  We spoke in broken English and written Chinese - I had the chance to show off the Japanese characters that I had learned in Japan that were the same as Chinese characters.

From there I descended and near the base of the mountain I met up with a few Chinese boys who were all students of Kung Fu.  Together we walked to the Forest of Dagobas which is a sort of cemetery of dagobas that are each dedicated to a specific Shaolin monk.  Within this cemetery the boys and I stood in various Kung Fu poses for tourists who took pictures of us.  I know the Chinese tourists in particular got a kick out of me - a foreigner - posing in funny Kung Fu martial moves with these Chinese Kung Fu students.

And that was the end of that.

What was amazing to see on the taxi ride back to Dengfeng were the thousands and thousands (literally thousands) of Chinese Kung Fu students (all boys and young men) outside in the courtyards of their respective Kung Fu academies training together their kata's (that's Japanese for a series of martial movements) and weaponry. 

Literally, these academies have armies of children training hard in the age-old martial arts of Shaolin.

Zhengzhou - another freakin Chinese town - June 27th
After breakfast I went for a walk around Dengfeng in the hopes of finding CITS.  CITS is a national travel agency in China.  They are quiet good to use.  But, I could not find them in town.  Again, my travel guide book failed me ;(

I checked out of my hotel and then took a taxi to the travel agency and bought a bus ticket easily to Zhengzhou.  The bus was nice and clean - luckily on this bus no one was spitting on the floor.  The ride took about 3 hours.

After arriving in Zhengzhou I went to the train station lugging my massive back pack and inquired into a train ticket to Jinan.  I found that there was no hard sleeper tickets and that the only tickets available were for a hard seat.  I passed and went to look for a guest house.  Using my guide book I tried to find a hotel that was supposed to be infront of the train station but never found it.  Instead I ended up in one of the scariest hotels I have ever been in.  It was on the third floor of a delapitated building where the hallway ceiling was falling apart and the carpet wet and moldy.  My hotel room was dingy and the bathroom lit by a flickering light bulb.  There was a TV in my room but it didnt work and there was no air conditioner - that could be dangerous with some of the extremely hot days that I had experienced in China.  After going out and exploring Zhengzhou I decided that I really had no desire to stay in the city.  It simply was another city with millions of people with no cultural sights of significance.  Again I found myself wondering, China, a land of over 5,000 years of history, but yet where the hell is all this history?

And so I returned to the train station and bought a ticket for Jinan.  Yes, it was a hard seat ticket.  That meant that I had to sit up right in a hard seat in a crowded train for about 7 hours during the night.  I was not looking forward to the train trip but I was not looking forward to spending the night in the scary hotel room either and so I prepared myself for my train journey.

The train departed around 9 I believe.  The hard seat carriage was packed with people.  I, luckily, had a seat.  I sat watching all the families and individuals who were standing in the aisle.  They were going to have to stand throughout the night for hours and hours before arriving to their destination.  Before getting on the train I was a bit worried.  I had read that day in my guide book about the robberies that took place on night trains in the hard seat carriages.  Supposedly various Chinese gangs take over these carriages and force passengers to pay up money or get hurt.  But, after an hour from leaving from Zhengzhou I knew I was in good company.  I spent most of the journey speaking to two Chinese men who were sitting before me.  They were very kind and I knew that if anything was to happen to me that they would help me. 

One of these men decided to read my palm.  He took it and said the following:

Yes . . . work is good . . . work is good.  You will do very well in  your career.  Yes . . . yes . . . your health.  Take care your health.  Eat more vegetable than meat.  Dont eat meat.  Only a little.  Yes . . . you have pain in your knees and your lower back.  Take care.  Yes . . . your health.  Take care of your health.  You need to sleep more.  You sleep little.   Sleep 8 hours.  9 hours.  Yes . . . you get angry.  A lot of anger comes out of you . . . perhaps once a month this anger comes out.

I agreed with most of what he said.  But, I was surprised to hear about my anger.  I didnt think that was true.  But, funny enough an example of this anger of mine was to reveal itself the next morning.

June 28th - Arriving in Tai-An as opposed to Jinan
The two Chinese men explained that it was better for me to get off the train at Tai-An than at Jinan if I wanted to climb Taishan mountain.  This advice saved me an hour of discomfort on the train.  I arrived in Tai-An very early in the morning. 

As soon as I exited the train station I was met with a young taxi driver.  Perhaps my age or so.  I pointed out the guest house I wanted to go to when I got into his taxi.  He kept shaking his head and explaining that the guest house was closed.  I pointed to my eye trying to convey the desire that I wanted to see if the guest house was really closed with my very own eyes.  I didnt trust him.  In fact I - after three weeks in China - didnt trust a damn person.  He drove me to a clearly abandoned building and said that that was the guest house I wanted to go to.  Something unexplainable then erupted within me.  I suddenly found myself yelling and cursing at the taxi driver.  I could not remember when the last time I had vented so much anger at anyone.  The taxi driver was scared.  He then pleaded that he was not lying.  I then calmed down and looked carefully at the Chinese characters on the building and realized that indeed it was the guest house I wanted to go and that indeed it was closed.  Yet, again my guide book failed me.  The taxi driver then did his best to find me a cheap hotel.  We went to one hotel and I rejected it because I didnt want to pay that much.  We went to a second and he negotiated a lower price for me with the lady at the reception desk.  He then asked for his fare which was actually low and left.  After checking into my room and realizing that I got a bargain for such a spacious and nice room I felt horrible for screaming at the taxi driver.  He was a nice kid and actually helped me out considerably.

After going to sleep and waking up before noon I went in search of a bank to change my Japanese Yen for Chinese RMB.  After that I went in search of a restaurant.  I tried to find the one's recommended in my guide book but no luck.  I finally gave up and simply walked into a random Chinese restaurant.  I couldnt read anything on the menu and so I walked with the waitress to other people's tables and pointed to what other people were eating.  The Chinese staf and customers found this amusing.  I received massive plates of food about 20 minutes later.  I couldnt make a dent into these piles of tofu and God knows what else.  I ate as much as I could and still found a massive pile of slop on my plates.  I had two Coke's as well and paid the bill.  The bill was very, very cheap.

From the restaurant I tried to find an internet cafe recommended in my guide book.  Again I found that it had disappeared.  Yes, my guide book failed me.  From there I went to a large temple/fortress located somewhat in the center of town.  Im afraid that I forgot the name of the temple.  Since I was going to climb Tai Shan mountain the next day it was important for me to stop at this temple and seek blessings for my ascent.  From the temple I could barely see Tai Shan.  It was a cloudy day.  But rehardless I enjoyed the pleasant gardens and twisted and very ancient cider trees within the temple.

Domenico Composto