Russia and Mongolia, 2008
Thursday-Friday June 26-27.
The long airplane trip is not too bad despite the narrowest seats ever on the first flight to Zurich. Swiss Air, no less! Good life is going down the drain. Nicholas Ashford and Kathleen Rest, amazingly, are on the same plane to Zurich, on their way to Athens. We share coffee and conversation at the Zurich airport.
The airport in Moscow is tired looking. The line to passport control is a mob scene. People cut in front of us, again and again, until I get angry and protest, in Russian, to yet another man who tries to sneak by me. I basically block his way. He tells me a long story about their group that has been detoured, something about a visa, totally unperturbed by my protest, smiling. But he stops pushing ahead, for a while anyway, because eventually I see him way in front of us. It is an amazing feeling to speak Russian in a regular setting. And how appropriate that my first conversation is a fight for my place in line.
The passport clerk is rude, asks questions without waiting for answers, impatiently makes me complete my landing card, behaves according to the script of a Russian bureaucrat. We figure out how to get a train into the city, get money from the ATM machine. Half of the seats in the train face in one direction, and half faces the other direction. That is practical for a shuttle like this one. The train takes us through a landscape of birch trees, projects, warehouses, open land, and one nuclear power station. People are regular. We try to remember the first impression of the new land: definitely the birch trees. Bieriozkas.
At the strain station we follow the river of people to the Metro station. This is kind of travel is not for timid people: we need to figure things out on the spot. I like being able to read and understand the signs. A long line to buy metro tickets is slow and inefficient. We do not know the rules or the price, or what to ask for. By the time we get to the window I have found out the price of the tickets and that one price fits all rides. I ask for 4 tickets and receive two magnetic cards. A babushka lady at the turnstile shows us through. First me, then Philip, on the same card. Got it! It is like New York City subway passes: the money put into the card just melts with each passing.
Somehow, we figure out the train to take. The train is incredibly fast and rather comfortable. We need to change trains. This is really quite a challenge, after a long overnight trip. The famed Moscow Metro must have been really a marvel when it was first open in 1935 (built mostly by slave labor during the height of Stalin’s purges). Despite the tiredness I can see the elegance of this station, one of many we shall visit in the coming hours and days. On the train to our destination I realize how far from the center out hotel is. When we finally get out from the the station, my worst fears just get worse: we are in the middle of nowhere, staring at desolate land, metal fences, and a highway in the distance. This is the worst of an outskirt of a city: a prefect place for auto body shops and junk yards. A solitary taxi cab is parked at a curb. We take it. The man quotes the price, we bargain it down, mostly out of principle, since we do not understand the value of a ruble. The taxi driver has an incredibly worn, gaunt, unhealthy, tragic looking face. Once the taxi turns the corner the views markedly improve and we drive for a few short minutes through a residential neighborhood under tall trees. The taxi driver with a tragic face takes our money without a thank you, without an eye contact, without an expression. I sigh with a relief at the entry to the hotel. While far from opulent, it is clean, comfortable looking and professional. Definitely a soviet era affair. Anastasia at the front desk is lovely, efficient, professional, and fluent in English.
Finally, we are in the room. Almost 4 hours have passed since the plane landed and about 36 hours since we left home in Boston. We are far away from home. We have a very tasty light meal in the hotel restaurant and promptly collapse in bed.
Saturday, June 28.
The day is cool and partly cloudy. A perfect day for sight seeing. Our destination is of course Kremlin. I do not know what to expect.
We are getting increasingly familiar with the metro. The names of the stations are generally invisible from the train, and thus we each cope individually: Philip counts the stops while I listen to the announcement from the loudspeaker, which come to us with great clarity in a comforting-sounding male and female voices. I like these announcements, which also remind us to gather our belongings and to have a nice day. The Russian language sounds like music to me. So beautiful.
Close to Kremlin streams of people are approaching from several directions, all converging into a couple of box offices. Steady streams. These are ordinary Russians: old, young, military, civilians, priests in their long black robes, all kinds of people. We line up in a fast moving queue but I am not sure what we should be buying, as there are several versions of the trip and several prices. No explanations. I ask the young woman in line but she simple ignores me. We follow Philip’s intuition with regard to the type of a ticket, which turns out to be correct.
Kremlin turns out to be magic. We stroll among these beautiful churches, trying to figure out the history of this place and the history of Moscow as a capital (not so clear). I try to imagine this place during the soviet era but fail. The people around us are mostly Russians. We encounter some foreign tourists but not too many, and fewer yet from the West. In one of the churches we discover the most beautiful wood carving of taking Christ down from the cross. The carving, maybe 2 feet by three feet in size is radically different from all the icons that surround us: it is emotional, intense, and tells a a very human story. The carving reminds me of the triptych by Vit Stvosh in the St. Mary’s church in Krakow. We stand doe some time in front of it, mesmerized. I did not know that the religious art of the Russian Orthodox Church was capable of such telling such emotional story of human pain and suffering. Surreptitiously, Philip photographs the carving, despite the big signs forbidding it.
Red Square is huge, like Tiananmen square. It looks like all the pictures of it we have seen over the years, but of course one needs to be here to experience its size. Unfortunately, the Lenin’s Mausoleum is closed today. We have so little time in Moscow that I am nut sure that I will be able to go inside it, if it ever opens. We also visit the landmark St Basil Cathedral, with its onion-shaped colorful domes. It is not as remarkable in close up as from a distance. I even feel that it is a bit of a fraud: the red brick exterior walls are really plaster that has been painted as red bricks.
The most amazing structure at Red Square is GUM: the famous Golovniy Univarsalniy Magazin (Main Department Store). I read about it way back as a child, perhaps in a school reader or in a newspaper. So here it is, this beautiful turn of the century structure in the style of Parisian or Milan trading halls with its intricate filigree metal work, glass domed roof, marble staircases and floors, and gentle filtered light. But it is many times larger than these other buildings; three stories high with three parallel corridors the length of Red Square. This was the palace of consumer goods built, like the metro, to celebrate the working classes and to portent a glorious future of the new world. It is hard to imagine how this place was filled, and with what, during the soviet era, with its chronic shortages of consumer goods. But today its message I clear; it is all very high end boutiques for the ultra rich. All the usual designer names are here, and it all looks rather boring. We stroll for a while, observe people at the small cafés that dot the GUM’s interior, do not even bother with window shopping.
Outsize GUM, we look for a lunch place. Japanese cuisine is popular in Moscow these days, but this is not of interest to us. We finally settle for a darkish and cozy Russian restaurant with food quite good, and service rather bad. By now it is late afternoon, and our hotel is too far for contemplating a short rest before dinner so we stroll toward the nearby bridge. We sit on the stone wall for quite some time, contemplating the view of Kremlin and the city, and watching many couple pass by. Many girls look anorexic and self-consciously made up for their dates.
I am tired. This has been a long walking day, the first one after this long trip from Boston. We decide to Kitai Gorod to find dinner, a nearby neighborhood recommended in the Guidebook. The neighborhood is the first one we see in Moscow that has signs of real life; people live here. We land for dinner in an overpriced overstuffed Hungarian Restaurant where even potatoes next to your piece of meat is ala carte. The place is filled with people. Many of them are young, and we wander who they are, having the income to pay these prices. Again, I spot these anorexic girls in tight, revealing clothes. Are they for hire? Are they bounty hunters? Are they just regular Russian girls? We have no clue.
By the time the Metro brings us back to our distant suburb I am only dreaming of the bed. By mistake we take the wrong exit form the station and find ourselves completely lost in this wasteland of highways, and abandoned lots. There is no taxi even to hail. After several false starts Philip figures out that we are somehow on the wrong side of the highway overpass. It takes some more walking, in now middle rain, to get us back toward our neighborhood, and to figure out what we have done wrong. Exhausted, we get into the room at 9 PM. I thought we would sleep instantly but another surprise awaits us. We happen to turn on the TV on a BBC show about the art history, following Italian art of the 13-15 centuries. The contrast between that and the iconic art we have seen today in Kremlin, serves only to highlight the profound differences between the two. Century after century – and today at Kremlin we covered the 12th to about 16th, there has been very little evolution in Russian art. Similar techniques, the same images of saints, Christ and Mary, the same flat planes, stillness and great discreetness about human emotions. The wood carving, our great discovery of today, seems like a treasure.
Sunday, June 29th.
I wake up after a long deep sleep still tired, with sore feet. Yesterday was too much for the first day in Moscow. But we knew that Moscow would be difficult. Tonight we shall take a train to St. Petersburg, which means that we need to check out of the hotel and take the luggage with us for our second day of sightseeing Moscow. While we are waiting to check out, and for Philip to return from another hotel around the corner where he is checking internet, I watch people in the lobby. There is a Dutch couple who gets picked up by a private driver in a private car. Not us, of course, we pride ourselves in our self sufficiency and ability to get around on our own. Tired or not, I sit on a bench outside the hotel, taking in the cool quiet morning. Things are not so bad. We decide to walk to the metro to get some fresh air. The walk is pleasant and short, through the already familiar streets and back alleys, though by the time we get to the station the luggage begins to feel very heavy.
We take the familiar Metro on a well-planned itinerary toward the Petrovskaya Stancya, from which our train is supposed to depart tonight from Oktriabskaya Train Terminal, and where we plan to store the luggage for a day. All the station names are female. It is because the word station (stantsya) is female. The effect is that it feels soft and comforting to me. Even the station named after Mendeleyev (Mendeleyevaskaya) is female. And each station is a piece of architectural art, with its thematic wall carvings, statues, decorations, and chandeliers. The Chandeliers at Mendeleyevaska are all in the shape of stick-and-ball molecular structures. They do not make sense chemically – no tetrahedron and the valences are all wrong – but we are among the few to notice, no doubt. People in the system are all Russians. We see few black or Asian faces. Just Russians: silent, concentrated, often tired looking, people with plenty on their minds and a need for more vacation time. The depth of this metro system is mindboggling. I calculate the number of floors downward from the number of panels on the side of the moving banister of the escalator, which are numbered. At the Oktiabrska station I count 70 such panels. If we assume that 4 diagonal panels (each being about 3-4 steps in length) correspond to one floor in an high-rise building, then the depth at this station is about 17 stories of a building. This must have been part of their self defense system. Another thing about this metro are the distances one needs to transfer among different lines. It all looks innocent at first but at some point, after two changes I realized that I must have walked half a kilometer underground.
Our trip starts well, with us enjoying the familiar and the sense of control, except that our Dutch travel agent who sent us the tickets has given us the wrong information, and we land at the wrong Metro stop. After some deliberations with two friendly girls we go back to the Metro for another round of connections, this time to the stop Komsomolskaya. This Metro is incredibly efficient, but the distances on the ground and underground are such that by the time we emerge from the Metro at the right place we have been traveling for 1.5 hour. This city is not a place to live easily.
We finally get of at Komsomolska. Outside the station, on the street, it is a huge open space with three different railroad stations. But ours is not visible from the Metro exit, and there are no signs otherwise. So we wonder for a bit, pulling our luggage behind, and melt into the dense crowd of vulgar faces, young men with nothing to do and nowhere to go, homeless people, purveyors of cheap food and cheap stuff. Dregs of the society. I hate this crowd and wonder what the hell I am doing here. Where are normal looking people? Tourists? Business people? As though I intuitively knew this morning that I would need protection from feeling homeless and in the wrong company I put on my whitest crisp white shirt and black cotton pants. This formal attire seems to protect me.
We eventually find the station, figure out where to store the luggage, and become unburdened. It is 2 PM, we are sitting on a short stone wall, contemplate, eat a hotdog. The we take the metro toward Pushkin Museum, which sits in a huge public open space next to a beautiful monastery, but is also away from a real life of a city. It all feels very formal and requires long stretches of walking. Philip goes to the museum but I cannot bear any activity that requires standing up straight or paying attention. I stay outside on a bench, under a tree, with a book. When after while it starts raining I move inside to the spacious lobby and find a comfortable chair. This hour or so with my book is the best blessed moment after two days of this exhausting city.
Philip comes back from the museum elated but exhausted and we walk into the first good looking restaurant we find. It is Georgian food and a friendly waiter. The place is dark, pub-like, quite. A singe Japanese tourist next to us is just finishing up her meal, other people just have drinks and deserts. This is a nice slow break for us in this long day without a home, until our train to St.Petersburg. Singers in the dining room upstairs are singing sentimental song about Tbilisi, which I remember from my youth, Czechs are fighting the Turks in a soccer match on TV screen, we enjoy the Georgian bread and beer.
When it is time to leave we discover that it is raining outside, and we left the umbrella with the luggage. That was really stupid. We walk in a park of sorts, have a cup of tea in a little booth, but it is clear that this rain is not going to stop, and we have hours to kill before it is time to get on the train. We have raincoats but my hair is getting soppy. The silk scarf I wrap around my head is no help. We continue walking the street, following the initial plan of taking a boat tour on Moskwa River. Philip has a general idea where the boats stop, and how to get there, so we keep walking. At some point we pass a mother with a small boy at a bus stop, both having umbrellas. I am greatly tempted to offer the boy to buy an umbrella from him. What stops me is the feel that they will quote me some very high price, and that I will have to take back my rather strange offer. Instead, we embark the same bus they do, and get a head start toward the river.
After that, this is really a homeless situation. We walk along the river, stopping under bridges and overpasses to get a respite from the relentless rain, not sure at all where to find the boat mooring and if at this hour of the Sunday evening the boat is even in circulation. And then, suddenly, in a distance we spot a landing place! Actually two landing places next to each other, and two boats approach are approaching it. We run, wet, hopeful, crazy, homeless. Amazingly, the ticket booth is open, and both boats have moored and are waiting for us. We buy two tickets from a woman with the biggest wart I have ever seen on the tip of her nose, and get on the boat. It is one of these low tourist boats I saw in Amsterdam, with indoor and outdoor decks, comfortable benches along the walls, and all glass around. We must really look peculiar: an elderly foreign couple with soaked hair, short of breath, elated to be here. All eyes are on us. I do not care: we have three quarters of an hour ahead of us, without rain, comfortable, warm, with a view of Moscow. We move upstairs to an open deck under a canvas roof. Resting on plastic chairs, with feet up on the railing, we are laughing uncontrollably just thinking of ourselves as homeless people. A small group of young people sits next to us, and otherwise the deck is empty. A young woman watches is with curiosity, probably trying to imagine who we are and why we are here. We exchange smiles.
The views are spectacular. Philip takes pictures. The rain continues when we disembark, and this time we head for the Metro to take us to the train station. Just as we approach the station (another 20 minute walk in this enormous city) we discover a modest looking café. Inside it turns out to be a hip modern place filled with people and good atmosphere. Fancy pizza, fancy mixed drinks, very professional staff. No anorexic girls here. We slowly sip fine coffee and tea at the bar and enjoy the warmth and atmosphere of this place.
We killed enough time. We can now go to the trains station. Another Metro ride, and we lend in a large waiting room, full of people, quite. The loudspeaker talks incessantly. I like listening to it and understanding. I also compulsively read signs. Any signs, on any walls. Half an hour before our train we retrieve the luggage and find the platform. I see in another train the berths of the 2nd class all set up for sleeping. White linen looks inviting but who will share our compartment. We count the cars. Ours is number 8. A uniform serious young woman checks our tickets. It turns out that we have first class after all! Just two beds and a nice snack are waiting for us. This is so wonderful, elegant, comfortable. Life looks good again, and after this long, hard, eventful day we really appreciate it. I call Parents, very excited, and only then realize how nervous we were about this train business. The polite attendant takes our order for breakfast, and we go to sleep. It is close midnight.
The gentle rocking of the train. So peaceful. We made the right choice.
Monday, July 30
The trip is too short. Breakfast is served at 6 AM and at 6:30 we arrive. A short negotiation with a taxi driver, to get ripped off a little instead of a lot, and a short ride through the city. I can already see the glimpses of a beautiful city. But our minds are on the accommodations, which we arranged through the web in a private guesthouse. What is it is all bogus? The taxi driver drops us off in front of an ornate metal gate with a code system, just a few steps from the Winter Palace. Our code number works and the gate opens. So far so good. But when we try to open the door to the staircase, it fails. We slightly panic and go out of the courtyard to consult with an all knowing babushka standing at the corner. She assures us that this is the right place, and that there is a guesthouse in there. After a few tries it turns out that we used a wrong code, and we get it.
A pleasant woman shows us into a nice apartment that has been converted into a guest house with four rooms. Ours is spacious with very high ceilings, looking into the quiet courtyard. Everything is meticulously renovated, including the small kitchen where we have breakfast. We have coffee, shower, change clothes and go out. Have breakfast in a place keenly resembling Starbucks. I quickly realize that I am too sleepy to do anything, and so I return to the room to take a nap. Philip is too eager to see the city, and moves on.
At noon we set out together to explore the city. St. Petersburg is stately, elegant, and open. The height of buildings, the occasional roofs of a certain style and the bridges across Neva remind us of Paris, the pastel classical buildings remind us of Copenhagen, and the canals and small bridges remind us of Venice. But it is all different; it is St. Petersburg, sitting like a proud peacock, and unmistakably a capital of an empire.
Nevsky Prospect is a bustling promenade. Lots of people and traffic. We take a boat trip, which is a must for every tourist. The boat takes us on Neva and on the canals, but we later discover that the woman running the show lied to us about the route, that we are not going to the Summer Palace. The observation goes into the storage of “next time…”. Never mind. From the boat the city looks breathtaking. The weather is cool and sunny. Some people on the boat are foreigners, but notably most are Russians. A solitary man finishes a glass of beer and falls asleep. We pass by the Aurora, the military ship that fired the first guns of the October Revolution, or at least that is what I was taught in school, which most likely is a lie.
After lunch – the Italian Subway chain with a Russian twist – we set out to figure out the mystery of the ballet ticket we ordered via internet, and which had not be delivered to out guesthouse as promised. We find the street and realize that the number we are looking for is at the very opposite end of it. Since there are no taxis around we turn it into a sightseeing walk. In this area, between Nevsky and the river, there are not canals. This street here is incredibly long and looks a school project in drawing perspective. Endless facades of a similar architectural style, straight, without much to break the perfect perspective. It must be 2 miles long! As we continue down, toward the river, the side streets are similarly straight and carbon copies of our street. It occurs to me that these streets were designed as promenades for horse drawn carriages, not neighborhoods. This is what gives St. Petersburg its formality and elegance, at least in this part of the city. Furthermore, there are few trees anywhere and shade is hard to find. Perhaps this is because the city was built from scratch in the 17th century rather than evolving over the centuries. Perhaps we have just discovered the first European city from 17-18th century that was built more for riding than for walking!
We keep marching on, despite the rising heat. The closer we are to the river the more worn the buildings look. The renovations of the city have not gotten here yet, though several buildings are shrouded. When we finally find the address of the office that sold us the ticket it turns out to be something else that what we are looking for. A soldier guarding the front door tells us that this Michailowska Academy. By now we are convinced that we have been had, and basically give up on the ballet performance and the money we paid for it.
Nothing else is left to us but to explore the city further. It is magnificent and huge. The beautiful promenades are deceptive when you have to walk. You just do not realize how long they are until you have walked for an hour. In Michaylowski Park we rest under a tree with an ice-cream cone. The park looks like Lazienki in Warsaw but much much smaller. The small, perfectly symmetrical palace built by Peter the Great as a summer residence is apparently the first brick building in St Petersburg. Its small size, like a large four bedroom colonial in Newton, is notable.
I would like to stay here and read a book but Philip wants to explore, so we move on. The park next door, adjacent to the Museum of Russian Art, is very crowded. At its other edge is the famous Church on the Savior of Spilled Blood which, with its colors, onion-like turrets, size and detail would put to shame the Cathedral on Red Square. We do not go in but continue wandering the streets. Suddenly, we discover a sign for Central Tourist Bureau. It is 4:45 and the office I open until 5. We enter to offer a complaint about the bogus ticket transaction, and very quickly find ourselves in an inner office in the hands of a very beautiful girl. Since Philip takes charge, they assume that we do not speak Russian. The girl speaks English. I am disappointed that I cannot use my Russian but she is already in charge and I decide to sit back and surreptitiously eavesdrop on her phone calls to various people, in Russian. This is something only I can do, and I enjoy it. Over the next maybe half an hour we watch this girl conduct her business with a mix of competence, assertiveness and seductiveness that form an irresistible spectacle. She knows her powers, that is clear. The final outcome is that she asserts the tickets have been delivered at the guesthouse.
As we slowly make our way back toward the guesthouse the streets fill up with people even more than before. Everybody must be is out on this lovely high summer evening! We have dinner in a tented pavilion. Very pleasant. I watch people: A single man downs several vodka schnapps but does not look drunk; A pretty girl with an older men; A group of British academics making a noisy conversation as people at conferences often do. Pairs of girlfriends, boyfriends, all combinations. It is nice to be here.
We return to the room to a surprise: the theater tickets have been delivered. The whole thing worked out surprisingly well after all. We cannot resist another walk to see Hermitage at night. So we are out again, in the dying light of a very long day. Crowd of young people on the streets. May young couples, girls in impossibly high heeled shoes and pretty skirts hold bouquets of flowers from their beaus. I feel at home here. Pretty dresses everywhere that I would like to own. Shapely girls, handsome boys. No obese people. No elderly people. So much energy in this city. A ballerina with flowers in her arms flags down a taxi behind Winter Palace. She may be a famous performer, who knows.
Back in bed I cannot fall asleep for some time. I watch the light in the crack between curtains. This is a white night in St. Petersburg.
Tuesday, July 1
Breakfast is good. I exchange some small talk with the owner, a woman in her 50s, sophisticated, well bred, hard working. An Australian couple of our age or perhaps older shares the breakfast time with us. There are only two small tables, so the third couple of guests come in only after the Australians leave. They are French and have offensive crude manners. Speak down to the owner, grate on my nerves.
Philip let me linger this morning and goes out to lines up for tickets to Hermitage. Around 10 o’clock he picks me up and we rush back to his reserved place in line. The long line grows by the minute in front of a metal gate of the Winter Palace. We are standing in the round plaza of the Palace that is as big as Red Square. This is where Tsar Nicholas’ Cossacks opened fire in 1905 at the unarmed peasants petitioning their Father Tsar. It turns out that our line is for Russians, and foreigners should go quie up elsewhere. Well, we are not going to let this choice spot at the head of the line go to waste, so we take a chance. The ticket office opens at 10:30. The man of the Russian couple who held the line for us speaks good English. He looks like Sakacharov, the dissident. His wife is very pretty, voluptuous, round faced Russian. We chat about Russian history, about the Revolution and what happened with Kerenesky. At some point the conversation breaks up along the usual lines: I exchange personal stories with to woman – about our second marriages, children, professions, feelings – while Philip probes with the man his vies on Putin and Obama.
The ticket office is in another building across a large inner court of the Winter Palace so when they open the metal gate a mob forms instantly and people race to get to the box office. Forget the line: it is how fast you can cross the courtyard. The two lines that form in front of the two windows are a complete chaos, with many people brazenly cutting in front, or trying to. And most couples like us stand in two lines when. It takes half an hour to buy tickets, even though we were about #20 in line. Nobody objects that we are not Russians but of course we pay the price for foreigners. It is a funny thing with these price. There is a regular price (which we pay) and there is a discount with “proper documentation” but it does not say what that documentation is. If you have to ask you obviously do not qualify.
We take coffee in the café at the ground floor and climb the magnificent marble stairs that bring to mind ice, whipped cream, and princely magic. There are plenty of people here but I do not feel crowded. These magnificent rooms of Winter Palace are truly the center of an empire. Each one is somehow different. The place is as rich as Versailles but more elegant and stately. And in better taste. The art collection is comparable to other great museums of the world, but perhaps bigger. We are not swept off our feet, perhaps because we have seen so much already around the world, but hours go by and we do not get tired. Rembrandt’s Sacrifice of Abraham and Prodigal Son are our great discoveries. Tourists crowd in front of the former but ignore the latter. It is easy to see why: this it he marvel of audio tours. I find no Vermeers. Groups with guides in a rush pass us by. I spot the French couple from our guesthouse.
We make it to a remote forgotten corner of Hermitage with a display of some burial site in Caucasus. Fascinating. And the place is completely empty.
Our great discovery of Hermitage is its modest top floor. Room after room are filled with early Picassos. I have never seen so many of his early paintings assembled in one place, even when years ago I went to a special exhibit in the National Gallery in Washington. These paintings are so perfect, so obviously the work of a genius. We can see the exact turning point in Picassos’ art, between 1908 and1910, when he turned to complete abstraction. To see that happen gives me goose bumps. I feel like I have entered Picasso’s mind and his way of seeing the world. My cheeks are burning, my hart beats too hard. After Picasso, it is rooms filled with Matisse, Cézanne and other impressionist who interest me less. We stumble upon two van Goghs I never knew existed. Perhaps a hundred paintings we see, all coming from just two collectors: S.I. Shchukin and M.A.Morozov. We try to imagine the story behind these two collections, these wealthy Russians making their ways through cafes and studios of Paris during the first two decades of the twentieth century, buying up the future. Later, through Google, I learn something about Schchukin. He was a very successful and eventually rich merchant, with a great family tragedy. His first purchase was in 1897, a Monet. In the course of 6 years between 1905 and 1911 one of the four children drowned, the young beautiful wife suddenly died, both brothers commit suicides. Szchukin become an obsessive collector during that period. By 1914 his collection included 258 works. The Revolution eventually forced him out of the country in 1918 and Lenin appropriates the entire collection and his palace for the Pushkin Museum in Moscow (84) and for Hermitage (149).
In each room in Hermitage there is a woman (mostly) or a man sitting in a chair and half paying attention to the visitors. They look to me like pensioners or volunteers, but certainly not like museum workers in the US, who are basically uniformed security guards. I test my hypothesis by asking one lady who Shchukin was. She immediately becomes animated and starts telling me some complicated story which I cannot quite follow, but which she obviously delights in. I ask another woman about the mysterious Lydia Delectorskaya who gave the portrait of herself by Matisse to Hermitage in 1976. She tells me that she was Matisse’s secretary (probably a mistress), a Russian expatriate living in Paris. So I think that I was right; these Hermitage workers are connoisseurs with much to tell us. I wish I could spend a long time here, talking with them in their language. But of course hardly anybody notices them. Many tourist groups go by, people do not look much at paintings, just follow their leaders. A New Yorker-sounding guide rushes by us mumbling: “we have not time, let’s go, let’s go.” Most visitors to the Hermitage never make it to these attic rooms. I am bursting with feelings at this discovery.
At 3 PM we emerge from Hermitage, and my head is spinning. We have lunch in a small Turkish outdoor café and spend the rest of the afternoon resting in the room. In the evening we walk to the theater to see Giselle. This is a very classical ballet, with all the amazing Russian dancing technique on display. Even Philip, the devotee of modern ballet, likes it. The audience is all Russians, rather old, looks like the real St. Petersburgians. This must be the “original” St. Petersburg culture that our landlady described this morning, not the rif raf the has flooded the city during the recent years. The walk home in the cool balmy evening, a short Stop at a café for a snack. I am always hungry on this trip; it seems that my emotions are consuming a lot of energy. We fall asleep after midnight, while it is still light outside.
Wednesday, July 2
The first really slow morning. Writing in the hotel, catching up. Conversation with our land lady about the good old days of cultured S.P. The newcomers, the rif raf, the people with bad pronunciation and rough manner, the Ukrainians, Tagikis, etc. She does not like the change in demographics and culture, the loss of the ‘old world’. It is such a familiar story. We heard it when we visited Krakow.
We must check out and remain homeless, again, until the departure of our train to Moscow tonight. Not an easy existence, but the lovely weather makes it all well. Our destination for this morning is the old Synagogue. We walk, again, too far. We ask for directions to the Lermontovskaya street, but people do not know. Finally, an middle age lady with a definite look of a local notices our confusion and offers help. My Russian is a blessing. She explains, and at the end of the conversation even takes out three postcards to mail. We take a mini bus #1, silently endure the curious stares of the passengers, pass by the great Mariinsky Theater that is playing tonight Brothers Karamazow (I would definitely go if I was alone), get off as she suggested, and indeed the synagogue is right here. Stately, large, 200 hundred years old, recently renovated. We visit the empty building, examine photographs of G.W. and Barbara Bush visiting with the chief rabbi, the work of US Jewish Lobby no doubt. Stupid Bush does not wear a yarmulke on the picture with the rabbi.
We have lunch at the Kosher restaurant. The carp is tasty but far too greasy. The waiter is a boy as blond and blue eyed with alabaster skin as they come at the Ukrainian steppes. He is sweet with his rudimentary English and his yarmulke, and I wonder what the history this family has to tell us.
The return walk toward the Museum of Russian Art at the Michalowski Palace takes us through different neighborhoods than yesterday: the streets are narrower streets, canals wind, it is a little more cozy. We pass Yossipow’s palce and I suddenly remember that this is where Rasputin was murdered. He would not die, bullet after bullet, and was finally thrown into the canal in front of the palace. The very same canal along which we are walking! Philip, these days deeply into the Crime and Punishment, mentions that Raskolnikow in his anxiety strolled by Yossipow palace. Saint Petersburg is coming to life for us.
When we get to the Museum of Russian Art we realize that we have already walked too much today. We should have started the day with the museum. So we start with refreshments in the small cafeteria. My experience at the ticket office is an unexpected pleasure. As usual, they have two ticket prices. The lady behind the window charges for my ticker the Russian price because I speak the language. This is so nice. The ticket says “student rate” on it and I wonder what the people at the entry point will say. And of course, they give me a stern questioning look to which I resolutely reply, in Russian, with all my grammatical errors, that this was the ticket lady’s decision, based on my knowledge of the language. The woman shrugs her shoulders with a look of “they lost their mind down there” and let us in.
The next two hours take us on a historical tour of Russian painting. There are no foreign tourists in the museum. It is fascinating to see how Impressionism has passed them by almost completely, Russian art preferring the romanticism and pastoral realism. We eagerly enter the Repin rooms, looking for his penetrating portraits of contemporary famous people. They are all there, along with the amazing monumental Volga Barge People. We have seen some of these paintings at the exhibit in Groningen a few years back, and it is good to return to them. But it also becomes more apparent that Ilya Repin’s great success with Russian elites became his artistic death. He never progressed to another idea, another way of looking at the world or his subjects, became stagnant, rich and (literally) fat. The last paining, the enormous gathering of some important legislative body, is meticulous and dead, like a bad photograph of several dozen cookie cutter men.
After Ripin we move through rooms and rooms of more realism and out attention begins to dissipate. Until, that is, we discover the 1901-1920 period. This is an amazing wave of modern creativity: Goncharova, Malovichim, Kandinsky, many other names I do not recognize. A big leapfrog from pre-impressionism to modernity. We contemplate a mesmerizing portrait of poetess Anna Achmatova (I have to ask Tata what was her fate). Great art that seems to have sprung out of the Russian soil right before the revolution, created magnificent bloom, and disappeared once the revolution took hold. What happened to all these artists? Kandinsky, we know, went West, but others? I know so little about it. Today we made a great discovery. If we ever come back to S.P. this is where we are heading: to this museum.
We exit the museum in early evening and head straight for the park next door. Her we stay for the next hour, on the grass, under a tree, reading books, absorbing what he have experienced. Plenty of people stroll around, more beautiful and self conscious girls in pretty dresses and high heel shoes. As much as I like these girls I also feel like telling them to relax a little, not to work so hard on attracting the gaze of men, not to be so dependent on them for validation. Oh, the old story…
We slowly make our way onto the Nevski Boulevard, our last time here, have slow dinner, get back to the guesthouse where the taxi is already waiting to take us to the train station. The first class accommodations feel good, with caviar and vodka. I sleep well, Philip less so, but not enough hours of it altogether.
Thursday, July 3
Today is our last experience with homelessness. And probably the hardest, because we did not get enough sleep on the train. The morning of our arrival in Moscow is hot. The same maddening crowd round the station. We check in the luggage and have coffee and pastries in a place called Mac Café. It is an upscale branch of Mc Donalds, which abuts our café. We take of these free English language daily papers Moskwa Metro, which is actually of rather good quality. We read about post-election demonstrations in Mongolia, with several casualties. Something about martial law and a curfew. This may turn into a big problem for us. Op Ed articles are very critical of Russian politics, Putin, greed, corruption, cynicism.
Now it is close to 9 AM, so we can go to the travel agency KPM to pick up tickets for Trans-Siberian train. We get there at 9:20 AM and nobody is at work. The security guard lets us in. After same time the receptionist shows up. Unsmiling, insolent, she finds the tickets in a small metal safety box, and hands them to us without asking for an ID or any other documentation, or for a signature. The tickets seem to be all in order, and we are greatly relieved. This was one of the great unknown on this trip: tickets waiting for us in some unknown office.
It is only a short walk to Trietyakowski Museum from here. It is a handsome building, but we are saturated with museum. This is the last one on this trip, we promise ourselves, and what else can we do today to kill so much time in this huge, self-preoccupied Moscow? In the short line for tickets people speak to me in English. What betrays my foreignness? My gold earrings? I do not know.
We start with Repin again. The second visit with some of familiar paintings is gratifying but in the end we get bored. On one of the rooms there is this paining that covers the entire huge wall of a tall room, by some Robel. It is pretty ghastly stuff. We sit down on a bench to look at it, and Philip falls asleep. I just keep him company for about half an hour, daydreaming, and exchanging conspiratorial smiles with an attendant lady, watching a teenage girl nap briefly on another bench.
We next go downstairs to see icons, looking for Andrey Rublev. The exhibit starts with in the 12th century and end at 17th, even 8th century. What amazes us is that the style changed so little over such a long stretch of history. There seems to be little growth, little experimentation. And as far a we know, based on the St. Petersburg museum, came the 19th century and all this realism, romanticism, pastoralism. Something is missing in this story, we know too little….
We find a few icons of Andre Rublev (early 15 century). They are quite beautiful but I would not notice them if we did not watch that remarkable movie right before this trip.
After the museum we head for Gorky Park. The idea is to spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing. But it is farther than we thought, and so again we are walking and walking. Philip is refreshed but my legs have become lead. And the weather looks ominous. It starts raining as soon as we enter the park. There is an outdoor café under enormous read umbrellas, and this is where we find shelter. Under another umbrella a bunch of very dressed up teenagers are celebrating something, perhaps the end of the school year or high school graduation. We watch them, kill time, watch the seductive girls and clueless boys in their elaborate courting ritual. This park is not much of anything. It looks very old fashioned, as though time has stood still since the soviet era. Like the movie Gorky Park. We play checkers.
When the rain stops we walk some more, looking for a supermarket to buy some provisions for the train. In Moscow you can find flower shops and pharmacies on every corner, but not grocery stores. Some that we pass are boarded up. People shop in little grocery kiosks with very limited selection of items, crowded and with no self service option. I do not understand how a family supplies itself with food. And another thing about Moscow: these statues of Lenin. We have seen several of them, one truly gigantic. I did not expect Lenin’s presence in today’s Moscow to be so prominent.
It is evening now, and we are with our luggage at Yaroslawsky Vokzal (though there is no sign anywhere with its name. We just know from asking people). In an hour our trans-Siberian train will take off. This is getting exciting. There are no seats at this outdoor peron, so the crowd is gathering in small clusters of people with their bags, and with their expectations. I try to guess who the people are and where they are going. Who goes all the way to Mongolia. It is a mix of westerners and natives. With the exception of an older man with an adult son we are the oldest people in this crowd.
The loudspeaker announces the train and the crowd begins to move. The train looks old and well worn, not what we expected. I am a bit nervous about the second class. But once we get it all looks bearable. Not elegant but comfortable. The benches are covered with plastic, not the deep red velvet I envisioned; the window curtains are made of the most outrageous synthetic material; the walls of the compartment are some kind of particle board or plastic. But the sitting/sleeping benches are wide and inviting, the blankets look soft, the carpet is clean, and the upper bunk is high enough to allow us to sit comfortably. Most compartments have 4 passengers. Next to us are four young Swedes with enormous bags of food and jugs of water. I wonder if we should have done the same. The last compartment reeks of body odor all the way to the corridor. I peer into it: 4 young men. This place feels like a summer camp. Larissa Alekseyeva is the car attendant. She is large and stern, and there is not doubt that she will do what it takes to keep order among the seven compartments. She brings us sheets and towels. The Swedes tell us that they brought alcohol for the attendant to induce her to charge their phones. I wonder which guide book or tourist agency gives that advice. I begin to calm down, truly enjoying the prospect of actually having a home for the next five nights and four days. We spent two days in Moscow and one day in S.P. basically homeless, with the luggage in storage, and having no other place to rest our bones than museums, restaurants, park benches, and cafes. This feels like home. We are on our way! Totally amazing: four days and five nights ahead of us, among all these people.
Shortly after we pull out of the station Philip gets involved in a conversation with an American expatriate. I am resting on a bench, not eager to get involved, but listening. The man lives in Kirov, about 10 hour ride form Moscow. In his late 30th, a year ago he left the corporate world in Southern California and started his own business in Russia. He just went native. And like all converts, he speaks of his new home and its culture with evangelical passion. He reject the western stereotypes about Russians and their attitude toward democracy but as I see it he has already created his own stereotypes. I wonder how his life will go from here. Most likely, his wife will leave him and go back with their three year old daughter, and he will marry a local girl.
We settle down to our first night on the trains.
Friday, July 4
I wake up several times during the night, listen to what sounds like engine change at some long stop. The bed is hard, requires getting used to. At 5:30 I walk the silent corridor to the bathroom; it is so strange to be on this train.
Morning on a train is lake a morning at a campsite: people walk up and down the corridor with towels and toiletries, hair uncombed, clothes baggy. My face in the bathroom mirror looks rumpled. The bathroom has a faint smell of urine but it is otherwise clean. It offers cold water, a bar of soap, a few hook on the wall, a couple of feet to turn around. On the way to the dining car for breakfast we pass the single first class car. It is no different from our car, except for two beds per compartment.
The dining car is as simple as the rest of the train, but it makes en effort to create an atmosphere: bright red curtains in the windows, artificial flowers in cheap vases, a red carpet. It is empty but for one couple. She is Australian, he is French, a decade or so our juniors. They met two years ago while traveling in Peru, and now he is emigrating to Australia with her. Like me, he always planned to take this trains across Siberia. People’s stories. Breakfast consists of greasy scrambled eggs and not so fresh bread, and instant coffee.
I wash up in the bathroom, just the essential parts of the body, exercise in the compartment, stare out of the window at villages like those I remember from childhood, at birch tree groves. No signs of agriculture or pastures.
At 10:30 we stop briefly in Kazan. The schedule of the entire trip is posted on the wall in front of our compartment. Although we travel through 5 time zones the schedule is posted in Moscow time. It makes it easier for us to understand the duration of travel between stops but it also adds to the sense of timelessness and suspension. Time is, indeed, both a physical reality and a human invention, and I am deeply aware of it now.
At 2 PM we stop for 20 minutes in Balesino. The platform is a patch of dirt. The train to Vladivostok stands on the next platform. It is a sunny warm day. A small kiosk sells juices, ice-cream, beer, other foodstuffs. Women in babushka-style kerchiefs sell vegetable salads in plastic containers, cooked pierogy, fresh apples, tomatoes, cucumbers. We buy things for lunch.
The day winds gently along. Many people sleep a lot. I also nap, several times during the day. So unusual for me. The four young Swedes next to us do not even come out at the stations. They spend most of the day behind closed doors. We find it weird. Our doors are always open, probably more so than any other compartments except the Australia-bound couple on the other side of us. Otherwise I feel claustrophobic. But keeping the door open also allows us to see what is going on and to welcome interaction with people. Besides, the air conditioning in the compartment is to strong and we need the warmth from the corridor.
As the train winds trough the land the sun moves from one side of the compartment to the other.
Right before we fall asleep we hear something like a big fight or a drunken outbreak in the Swedish compartment. It quiets down after a while.
Saturday, July 4
Today I slept deeper and more restfully than yesterday. My sinuses hurt and Philip coughs from excessive air-conditioning. We passed the Ural during the night. I am sorry to have missed it. There is a mystery to the name Urals: this great divide between Europe and Asia. While we were sleeping the men sharing the compartment with Dominic and Elaine next door left around midnight. In the early morning hours his son, a boy on his way to join the army left as well. In their place two other men moved in with. These are hard working men, course, friendly, with faces so deeply grooved that one cannot see the bottom of these skin canyons. One of them coughs all the time, sounding sick. Maybe it is a lifetime of smoking and drinking, maybe it is TB, but does not sound good. And their body odors are unbearable. I can see how unhappy our neighbors are. Ellen is literally fading before our very eyes. At this moment, the extra money we paid for the entire compartment looks like a great investment.
We breakfast in the compartment on rolls, caviar and salami (both leftovers from the St. Petersburg train). I take my time exercising my body and face while Philip read T.S. Eliot’s poetry around. Then that sponge bath, and it is already mid morning. This train stays on schedule to the minute. Today we enter the third time zone since Moscow. We keep our wristwatches constant and keep adjusting the time on the little alarm clock on the table. We will try to go to bed early tonight to shift our body clocks. Otherwise, the 5 hour time difference in Mongolia will be hard on us.
The landscape changes, but never dramatically. Sometimes it is forests, sometimes open pastures, sometimes groves of birch trees or shrubs. From flat to hilly, and always green. We have not seen any signs of agriculture beyond vegetable gardens next to cottages. None! We also hardly see any people or animals. Today we saw a small deer and maybe a total of a dozen people out there in the fields. No herds, no chickens, no horses. Just this enormous green landmass.
I have almost finished another book: Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Beautifully written, but I am unhappy with how he abandons one plot and a set of heroes in midstream and moves to another, without any explanation. I am having an argument with the author. People on the train are much less talkative than I expected. We run into the asocial Swedes in the dining car, but do not talk. We also run into the two Dutch couples, who do not show any interest in engaging with us, even though we greet them in Dutch. This is so typical of people traveling in foursomes: they turn inwardly, do not engage with other people. As to the other people in our car: I barely recognize people further out from our compartment. The tree Mongolian girls talk in their own language, other people change as the trip continues.
Around noon we have a short stop at Omsk. The sun is very bright, and I realize how hungry I have become for fresh air and sunshine. We buy in a little kiosk on the platform food supplies: water, bread, sausage, tomatoes, cucumber and a banana. Back to the train. Larissa Alekseyeva, the car attendant, goes around with the daily cleaning routine: vacuums the floors, washes the glass of the internal doors, collects our plastic bags of garbage, and cleans the bathrooms. She is stern, unfriendly and efficient. Ours is the last car of the train, so we do not get the through traffic. It is quiet.
We have lunch in the dining car, with Dominic and Elaine. These are adventurers. They have met while each separately traveling through Columbia. The man is visibly very much in love. She is harder to read. We talk about Australia, about history. These conversations on trips rarely become personal. Everybody is aware of the flightiness of the contact, no need to know a lot about each other. I asked Elaine this morning what her job is, and she explained that it is project management for government contracts in the human services sector. But she did not ask about my work. I am glad for it, as I am not in the mood to talk about my work. Or to think about it. They also told us that they each have one adult child, but did not ask about our children. I feel that people should tell as much as they want, and should ask as much as they want. I let the intimacy flow with its own energy.
The food in the dining car is mediocre. There are four main courses on the menu. We have already tried three of them: beef Stroganoff, steak, and chicken cutlet. Always comes with pasta, ketchup and a Russian-style coleslaw. It all tastes about the same.
The event of the day is a 25 minute stop in Barabinsk. Everybody pours out of the train. We watch the engine being changed as they regularly do about twice a day. Our male attendant, who takes turns with Larissa Alekseyeva, explains that each engine runs a course of certain length, then turns around. Just like horses in the old days. So far, the train runs on electricity, which is a surprise. I expected this train to be diesel-powered. People are mingling at the train platform. I am beginning to recognize faces of the travelers. At this longer stop there are plenty of food products offered by local women. The most unusual item is smoked fish: big pieces of half fish, golden, smelling enticingly. One of the Russians in the compartment adjoining ours buys it. This will be the end of poor Elaine. I assume that he is getting off fairly soon. Philip gets an ice-cream cone and we buy a plastic container of sweet smelling fresh strawberries. We do not need anything else.
This is now almost 5 PM of our second day on the train. We are close to half way there. Looking on the map I see that we are east of Almaty in Kazakhstan and Urumchi in China. We have come far toward East. Amazingly, I never really feel bored. I feel content. It is really nice to contemplate another two days on this train.
Sunday, July 5
Today we set the alarm for 6 AM. The morning on the train stretches into many hours because people function in different time zones. Some, like us, keep making incremental adjustments while others, like the Swedes and the Americans youths further toward the end of the car seem to stay in the same time zone. It is good for spreading the demand for the bathrooms.
Another morning of usual routines and another poem by T.S. Eliot, which take us to 9 AM. We stop for 10 minutes in Krasnoyarsk. The name is very familiar, something having to do with Rodzice’s war-time stories. I must ask Tata about it. A groups of Mongolian girls get on. They are taller than I would expect Mongolians to look.
Today, time has really come to a stop. In the afternoon, after lunch-dinner (1:30/6:30) of a piece of broiled chicken bought at the station, tomatoes and cucumbers, followed with a soup for me and blintzes for Philip at the dining car, I sleep long and deep. Children’s voices in the corridor wake me up. The sunlight streams in from the West but otherwise I have no sense of place or time. We stop for 10 minutes; people stand quietly around on the platform, groggy or contemplative. The only jumpy people are two children from Belgium, perhaps 7 and 10, brother and sister, with their father looking on. This family is going on a two-week horse trip in Mongolia, then on to Bejing for the Olympics.
The landscape is changing, for the first time, to hills and distant mountains on the horizon. One thing is a constant: the white birch trees, the birch trees from Russian literature and songs. My thoughts wander lazily to various topics but never stay anywhere too long.
We join Elaine and Dominic at the dining car for a bottle of wine. Most seats are taken; three Russians at another table are singing in very soft voices, almost in whispers. The waitress is always the same. I never got her name, but she is so sweet, inviting and handsome. A man, somehow connected to her, always occupies the first table, working on cross-words puzzles or reading what appears to be the same old paper. He opens bottles of beer and wine for her. A husband?
Monday, July 6
At night we passed Irkutsk. We rise early to a brilliant morning. My body resists this early hour but I am all excited about approaching the Bajkal region. It has a big symbolic meaning to me. Bajkal means deep Siberia. I still remember the Biology class project I did in high-school on Warsaw about Lake Bajkal. It is a mile deep and has more water in it than all Great Lakes combined. It holds one third of all unfrozen fresh water on Earth.
The train stops at Sludayanka. Hardly any of the passengers come out. People are sleeping. Local women sell smoked fish from the lake. Large baskets filled to the brim with these wonderfully smelling fish. I wish we could buy them, but of course the smell in the compartment would be irreversibly fouled. Some Mongolian passengers buy the fish. A man emerges from the train carrying a nice linen suit and a pair of male shoes for sale. The local women examine it carefully but nobody make an offer.
One older woman sells hot boiled potatoes in a plastic bag. This looks like dire poverty. The male train attendant explains to me that this region has very high unemployment.
Soon after we pass Sludyanka lake Bajkal appears. For maybe two hours or so the train tracks run right along the shore. Except for a couple of campers with a small tent, we never see any people or signs of development; just deep, deep forest. Kahmar-Daba mountain range rises up on the right, with vanishing snow patches on the distant peaks. We pass other mountain ranges: Tsagan-Daban, Ulan Burgutsy, Ikatskiy. Every few minutes a mountain stream runs from these mountain under the tracks into the lake. This immense reservoir of water is gold.
We breakfast on bread, cheese, yogurt and tomatoes and cucumbers. I wash my hair with the waterless shampoo we bought back home in a camping store. This stuff really works. I share it with Elaine, whose hair really needs to improvement. By about 11 we leave the lake behind. Most of the passenger sin our car missed the entire show.
In Ulan Ude we stop for half an hour and watch the train engine get switched from electric to diesel. Everybody pours out of the train on this sunny warm day. As always at this longer stations a mechanic walks along the train with a huge wrench and checks the underbelly of the train. He bangs, tightens, pokes. We take a short stroll toward a street visible behind the train station building. Buildings in the distance look like a standard soviet issue. This could be Lhasa.
A Mongolian looking girl emerges from the train, holding hands with a tall and very blond boy. Her family is all lined up here, meeting the boy for the first time. The boy gets introduced, warmly greeted, and promptly forgotten as the family converges around the girl. He walks somewhat awkwardly along the father while the girl and the mother immerse in each other’s presence. What is this boy going to do here in this remote place?
Our car is full of smells at this afternoon time of the day. I can recognize beef broth, smoked fish, broiled chicken. The Mongolian girls at the end of the corridor always carry their instant Raman noodle dishes.
Tuesday, July 7
We wake up to the landscape of steppes, gers (Mognolian for yurts), animal herds and a big blue sky. Everybody is up and ready. We discover the occupants of the first two compartments of our car: an English speaking group of young people. It is weird that we do not recognize them: were they there all along or have they embarked half way through? People’s behavior on this train will forever remain a topic of contemplation for me. I really do not quite understand our mutual relationships and what drives or does not drive us to make contacts.
A representative of Ibex expeditions waits for us. We say quick and warm good byes to Elaine and Dominic and exchange addresses. Two Australian girls come to our guide of help as they have been waiting for an hour and half to be picked up by the same tour group to go into the country. Our guide gives them a ride. We briefly chat: they have been traveling through Russia for three weeks, going by train from city to city. Kazan was their special discovery. Philip and I comment later that among our friends we seem to be such adventurous people but when we travel we meet people far more adventurous.
The Tuushin Hotel where we stay is located at the very center of the city, right next to the large square that is almost as big as Tiananmen Square and Red Square. It is boarded by the House of Parliament, Opera house and some other formal structures. The hotel is a sort of high end university hotel: very comfortable, spacious, bright but certainly not aspiring to elegance. The carpeting is tired looking and the caulking around the bathtub is moldy. But our room is large, high-ceilinged, bright, and has all the amenities we need to feel good, including soft armchairs, a bathtub and access to BBC (not CNN, unfortunately).
After a large breakfast and a most delicious shower we get organized and go to town. The first stop is a cash machine. After that we search for a shoe repair place to fix my flip flops. Following the front desk clerk’s directions we walk on a busy commercial street with small shops. We walk into a miniature shop containing an unspecified merchandise – brick a brack, really — and ask the tall man of about 50 for a shoe repair. We do not really ask but rather show him the problem with the shoes. The man says two words: repair and shoes. He then puts on a hat, leads us out of the shop, locks the door and says: follow me. Within a block, in a small alley, there is a shoe repair shop. We would have never found it ourselves. He then smiles and disappears. The repairman is not there but another man motions us to sit and wait. We go next door for a drink and shortly return. The repairman looks at my problem shoes and without a word starts fixing them. It takes him about 20 minutes to get the job done, during which the shop fills with customers, all patiently waiting on the benches along the walls until he finishes our job. Nobody gets fidgety, nobody gives us a look for taking up their time. We pay the man 1000 ($1) and gratefully go on our way.
My stomach is giving my troubles, which, I am sure, is the result of the scrambled eggs I had for breakfast: they were drenched in fat. No more fried foods for me in Mongolia. We stop briefly at an Internet café. This is my first contact with e-mail since we left the US. It is quick, just to check for problems back home. There aren’t any that cannot wait for my return. I want to write notes to Steven, David and Heniek but the place is stuffy and I feel worse and worse, so we get out into the fresh air.
Ulan Baator in this area is more or less what I expected but nicer. Buildings without distinction or a particular style, about 4-5 stories high, soviet architecture not unlike that in Lhasa. But it is also bright and not as dingy as some post-soviet or third world cities can be. Several skyscrapers of daring architecture are under construction.
The sidewalks are a disaster: a combination of concrete and tiles, they are spotty, full of holes, have large stretches of missing pavement. We can tell where they have been dug up over the years for utilities work and patched up hastily, over and over again. Some holes are canyons. We keep our noses to the ground to avoid twisted ankles and tripping. Crossing the streets is another matter. The cars keep moving, regardless of the color of traffic lights. After several attempts at understanding the rules of the game I conclude that green light means that the drivers are prepared to stop for pedestrians if necessary. A traffic cop stands on a little podium in the middle of a very large intersection near our hotel. We take a moment to observe him: he is not directing the traffic. So why is he there? We cannot tell. I think that he is there to bear witness when an accident happens and to help clear the intersection afterwards. We cross the streets by just following the other pedestrians, always placing ourselves in the middle of the pack.
The traffic is heavy and loud but it is moving. Half of the cars have steering wheels on the left side and half on the right side. Philip notices that those with wheels on the right side drive in the right lane. Half of the vehicles are SUVs in Ulan Baatar. Initially we think that thy simply appeal to the horsemen of Mongolia, but over the next few days we will discover that this is the only means for traversing most of the country side. In fact, SUV were really invented for Mongolia. In contrast to the US, it is the men who drive SUVs.
The streets are crowded today, mostly with young people. People are taller than I expected. Mongolians seem distinctly different from, for example, the Thai and Vietnamese I have met over the years: taller, with eyes narrower and more slated, cheekbones more pronounced. So many pretty girls! People are animated, talkative, mover briskly. Not a sign of the four day military emergency and a curfew that was lifted just this morning or last night!
We visit a tantric Buddhist temple nearby. It is a small island in the hustle and bustle of the city; several small structures and a tiny garden within white concrete walls. Quite lovely. Inside, I recognize the temples of Tibet, but there are also differences. For one thing, there are no incents burning of any kind. And secondly, the main temple building has the most incredibly violent ceiling paintings. These are depictions of people with their genitals cut of, eyes gauged out, livers, hearts and kidneys torn out, and so on. The explanatory materials tell us that the paintings refer to the threat of the next world for men and women lacking in virtue, but there must be more to it. I have never seen such violent scenes in any of the Buddhist temples in Tibet, Nepal and Thailand.
We stop at the Temple shop for arts and crafts. It is filled with items I like to contemplate but do not want to own. For awhile we consider a spectacular fox trimmed hat for me of a very special Mongolian design. The price is $35. We decide not to buy anything at that price on the first morning in Mongolia. We can return here on our last day. Philip buys a very nice Mongolian old fashioned decorative hat for $6 for his collection of hats.
Lunch in an elegant restaurant on the way costs us about $20. I order noodle soup, hoping for something very light. But the broth is all lamb-flavored, and it is filled with a lot of pieces of very fatty lamb meat. Philip’s lamb dish is very tasty but also fatty. This is the preview of Mongolian food. I can get used to the smell and taste of lamb but this will be a constant vigilant battle against animal fat.
After lunch Philip suggests that we take a stroll on one of the main streets of the city where, further down from where we are, there should be good shopping. We hop on an incoming bus. This is what traveling with Philip is all about. I would not get on a bus in a strange city before I would understand its route and the rules of paying the fare. He just gets on with a confidence that it is going in the right direction, and that all will be fine. And it is. We sit down and pay the old lady who comes up to us. Once on the street again we confront the famous State Department Store. It is like other department stores. We run into groups of Japanese tourists, a couple of French women, some American sounding women. In fact, there are no men in this store as far as we can tell. We head straight for the Cashmere department, a must for a Mongolian trip. They have, in fact, racks and racks of women cashmere sweaters, skirts, dresses, shawls in a rainbow of colors. But not a single item arouses that feeling in me that I must own this item. They are just not interesting. We find, on the other hand, a beautiful cardigan sweater for Philip and a sweater for Steven.
The department store is really a bore, and it is a relief to get out. We sip tea and coke at “Amsterdam” café. Its young hip staff speak some English, and it smells of pine wood from the brand new looking tables and chairs that look golden in the bright afternoon light. The cafe has a lovely terrace high above the street level, just enough to reduce the noise and allow a good view. Some of the customers are Westerners, but our eyes fix on a group of four very pretty girls next to us of maybe 16. They are so charged up, so self consciously seeking attention, and so lovely. One of them, a real beauty, has a Cleopatra haircut, very stylish clothes, and mouth that will break many hearts. After a while two or three boys join them, and the atmosphere gets even more charged up. When they eventually leave, we both feel that incredible beauty of youth and the power of the American culture that makes these youths so similar in their behavior, at least on the surface, to US teenagers.
And so the day goes by. A stop in a very large souvenir store, a bazaar full of junky stuff, an art gallery of Mongolian calligraphy paintings. This is very different from Japanese calligraphy, with letter becoming pictures. I find several beautiful object, very expensive, and all framed. Nothing for us.
Reading street signs is very confusing. Mongolia adopted Russian alphabet in the mid 1940s (and with it accomplished during a short time 100% literacy). I read these signs aloud but of course the sounds I make are those of Mongolian language. Later on we would learn that Mongolia is shifting back to its original script. That is really amazing that a language would change an alphabet twice in half a century. What make is more complicated is that the Modernity has arrive in Mongolia in English, and in fact the first required foreign language in school is English, starting in the 4th grade (followed by Russian). So there are really three different alphabets finding a way to peacefully coexist in this very young city.
Dinner in the hotel is OK. I try one of their local dishes, some kind of dumplings, in search for a meatless food. The dumplings turn out to be filled with the same fatty lamb form earlier meal, and are really uneatable for me. We are in high sprits, and the vodka they serve us in large quantities buoys us. A huge thunderstorm outside, which makes us feel cozy. The time we spent under the red umbrellas in Gorky part is a distant memory
Wednesday, July 9
On this rainy morning we head for the Gun Dun monastery. Buddhism is very strongly established on Mongolia. It diffused from Tibet starting around 13th century and at present about 80% of the population is Buddhist (6% Muslim). Mongolia is distinct in that, as its ethnically-related neighbors – Uzbekis, Kazakis, Uigurs, and other central Asians are all Moslem.
We start our visit in the large gathering hall. As soon as I enter the memories of Tibet flood me. The monks are sitting at their familiar rows, finishing the morning meal of rice, and getting ready for a prayer session. They have the same easy and playful manner, the same relaxed smiles. We find a seat on a visitors; bench against the wall, next to mostly Mongolian visitors. To the right of me, next to the front door, a distinguished and authoritative lama in a gold-trimmed robe occupies a large throne. Men and women come up to him for brief exchanges, press alms into his hand.
I immerse myself in the music of the chant, meditate, float. I hardly notice people passing by us, squeezing in the narrow isle. An hour passes. We leave the prayer hall and go next door to a round ger. It turns out to be a prayer place for a sisterhood of monks and lay women. They pray in the street language (we later find out) and keep the prayer going by taking turns all day. During our short visit one leader left and was replaced with another one. We are the only visitors her. The rain is hitting hard the roof of the ger, and time stand still for a while.
A taxi takes us back to the hotel where we meet our tourist group and the Ibex expedition guide. Short introductions, lunch, sizing one another up. Two women from Chicago traveling together, a woman from Seattle traveling alone, just returning from a convention of Buddhist women somewhere outside Ulan Bataar, one woman from California/Mexico, traveling alone. They all look a bit older then us. Our guide Zoloo is pleasant but very soft spoken and heavy accented, lacking in charisma or playfulness. It very quickly becomes clear that while she is eager to answer any questions, she does not offer much explanation about anything, from our itinerary to the places we pass or history we touch upon. I learn from her over lunch that: she studied Japanese in college and speaks Russian, the movie Mongol was mostly staffed with Japanese and Chinese actors in the leading roles, who do not look like Mongolian because their faces are flatter around the mouth, and that all the Westerners mispronounce the name Ghengis Khan, which should be Chenkis Kahn. Their language has many “ch” sounds to my ear, and has the music of an old fashioned typewriter in the hands of a skilled typist: clack, clack, clack. Crispy.
The first big event of this afternoon is the Museum of Mongolian history. This was a great empire in the 13th and 14th century. It vanished as fast as it appears, but not before bridging, as the Mongolian perspective has it, West and East. We never really figure out whether the present day Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajikis, Turkmen and Uigurs are descendants of Mongols or Turks. Neither the exhibition nor our guide make it clear. Mongolia’s geography gave it a precarious position of facing two hungry empires: Russia and China. During the 1920s, trying to forestall a Chinese invasions, Mongols invited Russians to help. And the rest, as we say, is history. Soviet domination, politically, culturally and economically, lasted until the end of the 1980s. Among the most painful chapters in that history is the massive destruction of monasteries and monks (of course, if Mongolia was dominated by China, their fate would not have been any better, possibly worse, like that of Tibet). But when I try to look at it through the Soviet eyes, the picture becomes more nuanced. When Soviets came to Mongolia about 30% of all male population were monks. In the soviet eyes, these were leaches on the rest of the society, preventing development and population growth; incompatible with the soviet model of work and productivity. So they sent the monks to work, killed some along the way do doubt, and stole the gold from the monasteries. What the Soviet started then in the 20s turned into big Stalinist purges during the 304s and 40s, what about 5 % of Mongolian population died.
But at the same time, it was the Soviets who created the health care system, the lower and higher educational systems, medical schools, roads and infrastructure. The complete absence of illiteracy is their legacy. So the Mongolian and Tibetan histories bear striking similarities. And yet, in our relatively superficial exploration of attitudes we did not find the kind of animosity towards the Soviet Union as we found in Tibet toward Chinese. The best indication is that they still teach Russian in schools, almost 20 years after the collapse of USSR.
The visit to the museum brings to life Ghengis Khan as a great statesman and politician, not a warrior as we imagined. It was his son and grandson that became the great conquerors of the East and the West. And Zoloo projects such a great pride in that history as though it was only a couple of centuries in the making.
After the museum we climb the steep mountain in the middle of the city proper, the home of a monument for Mongolian-Russian friendship. The monument has a shape of a small round citadel about two stories high, with a horizontal opening all around at the eye level to allow for access to the spectacular panoramic views of the city. The upper level of the inner wall is an elaborate mosaic telling a story of the friendship of the two nations through decades. A man made mound of small stones and Buddhist flags has been created next to the monument by people, and left alone by the authorities.
Dinner in the hotel with our new acquaintances is a little stiff. We are not sure if we like traveling with the group, or any group. This is a new experience.
Thursday, July 10
We are beginning to warm up to the group. The advantage is that people tell stories. And these are really quite nice people. Nobody is particularly loud or dominating, nobody tells stupid jokes. Just people who have traveled a lot and want to see places. The group has grown: two girls from Australia whom we met at the train station on the first day in Ulan Bataar, two Norwegian women in their 30s, one of whom now lives in Australia; a young German man who lives and works in Beijing, building fast speed trains, and another young Australian woman in her 20s or 30s who looks Indian, has a Polish boyfriend, and has spent some real time in Poland. We are now more balanced age-wise but women strongly dominate the group.
Today the travel agency has combined us with another group. Tomorrow we shall also be together, but we will revert to the smaller configuration for the Gobi desert trip. The first part of the day is the pre-festival archery competition. The bus takes us to a place out of the city, maybe half an hour drive. On the way, the guide for the other group, who is much more articulate than our own guide, gives us explanations about the buildings we pass. No great revelations about Ulan Baatar: it is the same non-descript vibrant city we saw yesterday. The outskirts are highly industrial: power plants, several kinds of manufacturing. There are some makeshift human habitats here, but not really slums. In fact, even when we entered the city by train we did not see any slums, but we did see a lot of gers in the outskirts. That is something for a city that has still a lot of development ahead of it.
The archery competition is a very relaxed affair. We mingle with the crowd of bystanders, walk among the contenders as well as observers. This morning it is the youth competition: children and teenagers looking between the ages of perhaps 9 and 17. Just as many girls as boys. All are dressed in Mongolian traditional clothes: boots, long kimono robes tied at the waste with many yards of sash or, for men of distinction, with wide leader belts decorated with silver. And these hats! Mongolians really love their hats. There are several types that I can identify, based on the spike in the center and the flaps on the side and back. And many different colors. It looks really splendid. The sun is strong and bright but we need light sweaters. There are many Westerners mingling around, it is a show of the latest trends in photographic equipment, from the smallest the really large telephoto equipments. I am glad that Philip records all that, so that I can watch people. I recognize some people from the breakfast at our hotel, especially the 5-person group of Jews: parents about our age, a son, a daughter and a son-in-law. I can bet that the man is a professor somewhere, and that they probably live in Newton. I will never find out for sure. Minda would figure it all out if she were here. They pay no attention to other people, are completely self absorbed, like all such groups. The man barely pays attention to the action going on: he looks nerdy and all brains, and no people skills.
I pick up a bow from a heap of them to get a feel for its weight and tightness. A little girl indignantly takes it away from me and delicately puts it back to its place. After the warm-up period the competition starts. These kids look very graceful with their bows and arrows. Their aim is a stack of what looks like three or four rows of stacked up black cans aluminum arranged on the ground, with those in the very center painted red, about 20 meters from the archer. The cans scatter when an arrow hits the construction. I assume that hitting the red cans earns high scores. When a child get a hit a man dressed in distinct Mongolian outfit, different from most outfits, gives a long chant that reminds me of the chants of Native Americans. And so it goes, kids sending arrows and the man chants. After a while I am humming the chant with him.
What strikes me is that the children do not display any emotions about their wins and loses. Regardless of the outcome, their faces just show a relaxed concentration. It would be very different with American kids and their parents.
Nobody pays any particular attention to us Westerners. They have their own fish to fry here. The whole event looks from a distance like chaos. The names are not read along, competitors do not wait in line or in a specific area for their turn, the observers mingle instead of sitting on the steps constructed for that purpose. And yet, everybody knows what to do and when, and everything flows perfectly smoothly.
Around noon we file back onto the bus and head for lunch and a pretty nice restaurant, which is right next door to the temple we visited on the first day in UB. It appears that group touring involves long stretches of time of getting on and off the bus, and having meals in restaurants. They feed us beef kabobs. We eat so much meat on this trip! I want to leave half of my portion on the plate but not knowing when and what kind of a meal I will have again, I eat almost all of it. I chat with Tino, the German fellow about his work in China, about the modern China in general. It is a very interesting conversation. While we wait for the main course Philip disappears briefly to buy the fox fur hat in the temple’s gift shop, which we saw on the first day. The hat is splendid and will be, I know, totally out of place back in Massachusetts. I remember a man wearing a hat like that in the plain from China 9 years ago. He was returning from Mongolia. And I also remember admiring the hat. Now, I have one too.
Our afternoon event is a horse racing event. The bus takes us about 60 km out of the city. After the first 15 minutes or so the pavement ends, and the bus shakes over the dirt road. Now is see the explanation for all these SUVs in UB. We see them not only on the road but also cris-crossing the vast stretches of land in all directions.
The horse show is really splendid. They enact for us a key battle of Chinggis Khan. It is a great theater. The horsemen are the very same ones who played in the movie Mongol. It starts with the “enemy” giving Khan gifts of friendship, then suddenly a messenger arrives with some news that lead to the declaration of war. The Khan then performs elaborate ritual, praying to the big sky and doing all kinds of other ritualistic things. Then the battle ensues that resembles just what we have recently seen in the movie Mongol. It is a splendid Hollywood spectacle with 500 men on horses. Their faces are wonderful in these warrior costumes. Zoloo sits next to me and from time to time offers explanations. I am struck by the seriousness with which she takes in this show that she must have seen dozens and dozens of times. This is important stuff for her. While the show goes on the clouds overhead are getting darker and the wind is howling. We sit in a stadium-type of arrangement, with a tarpon roofing over out heads. The wind is so strong that the tarpon feels like it will rip any minute. At some point, its starts raining. But the show goes on enacted by sopping wet warriors. The battle ends with elaborate peace ritual. After the horse how we get to see some wrestling. The young men in the mud are really giving us our money’s worth.
On the way back to UB many people nap, including me. My sandals are slowly drying. Another restaurant and another large piece of meat. The conversation around the table ebbs and flows. People are tired. We make plans for tomorrow. We get back to the hotel round 8 PM and are glad to stay in.
Friday, July 11
Today is the opening of the Naadam festival, one of two major national celebrations in Mongolia. It has no religious or religious basis. The purpose of Naadam is to take three days to enjoy being alive and being Mongolian. Horse races, wrestling and archery are the main mass entertainment events.
The opening ceremony takes place at a stadium. Today and tomorrow, while we are in UB, our group joins with another group, and we move around in a large coach. We get there at least an hour before the beginning of the festivities, along with all the other westerners that must be at this moment visiting Ulan Baatar. Which is not that much: maybe a thousand people. About half of us are older people: we have the time, money and curiosity. This is a full display of sensible, functional and unattractive outdoor clothes, shoes, and bags. Their owners are not so attractive either. I wonder if Mongolians form an opinion about the Westerners as rather homely race.
While we wait to the sound of Mongolian-style Muzak the stadium slowly fills up with the natives. Not much is happening until about 11. Four floats are set up with children gymnasts on them, and orchestra assembles, three beauties in long gowns stand around, accompanied by the men in fedora hats, camera crews are setting up the equipment. A red carpet appears near the main podium. Our section is right next to the VIP section, which means that we are protected from the fierce sun by overhanging roof. Across the stadium from us is a section filled with elderly men in traditional Mongolian clothes. Maybe these are tribal leaders.
And now it all begins. A military band in red uniforms reminiscent of some 19th century European regiment files in, followed by other groups who soon take their places in the stadium, and by the some kind of royal guard on white horses. The president, dressed in traditional clothes, gives a speech, and then we watch a series of shows: cavalry, gymnastics, fashion. The cavalry looks resplendent in their traditional Chengis Khan uniforms on the yellowish horses with yellow tails.
Back on the bus, box lunch (food is a constant companion on this tour), and off toe see horse races outside the city. The traffic in UB is very heavy during the festival, and we get a little sluggish sitting on the bus for one and half hour. When we finally get of at a large open field, my first sensation is an intoxicating smell. Something of a mix between mint, juniper, and basil. We are surrounded by a huge open space carpeted in this green aromatic grass. This Mongolian steppe is just as I imagine it would look: an endless golf course of gently rolling green meadow. But I never considered that it would smell like this. Imagine this aroma extending out in all directions of hundreds of miles! Upon closer inspection it turns out to be three different kinds of grasses. I collect bunches of them and press between pages of my notebook. This will be my contraband when we pass through customs in Boston.
Our group walks leisurely through the field toward some distant destination, which turns out to be the finish line for the races. Hundreds of people, mostly families, are here. They are strolling, riding horses, some are flying kites. This is day of leisure under the big Mongolian sky and wind. In a distance I see cars and SUVs criss-crossing the field.
This horse race is only for children in the age bracket of about 4 to 8. It is 30 km long. Parallel to the path of the horses they built three-bench high spectators stand, and string a think rope in front of it to contain crowds. Solders stand on attention at regular intervals, holding the rope, facing us. We take seats on the lowest bench and wait. The crows is getting thicker, the benches are full now, and people sit on the ground in front of the stand, three or four deep, up to the human fence of the solders. After a while the crowd gets tense and we understand it as the approach of the horses. Everybody is looking to the left over the horizon. And then, it happens. The winner emerges, far in front of the others, but this horse without a rider! (We later learn that the trainer received the prize). Now, many other competitors pass us, all small boys riding bare back, amazingly fast on these wild horses. Several other riderless horses reach the finish line. Everybody is standing, yelling, clapping, and so do we. This is really fun. We must have witnessed a hundred horses.
After the race if over we just hang around. The celebration at this field, probably one of hundreds of such fields around the country, will continue late into the evening, with artistic performances and other athletic events. But we do not stay that long. Once we assemble around the bus it turns out that two group members are missing. It takes an hour to find the irritating Italian woman and her husband, but in the course of standing here and sharing this unwelcome delay our group gets closer. We joke, exchange gossip stories about the Italians, cover each other as people pee in the nearby ditch. We are bonding, and I am beginning to appreciate the positive side of traveling with a group.
The ride back is again a slow trek through city traffic. By now we are really tired of sitting on the bus. We eagerly await getting through dinner and becoming free to walk, exercise, get away from the group routine. It therefore comes as a surprise to find that our dinner is really a banquet in one of the city hotels. The reception areas fills up with several groups of westerns tourists, and what follows is an opulent and much too rich dinner and performance. At first I am very disappointed with the prospect of a long evening but as time goes by I really enjoy the performance: a kind of chamber ensemble with the Mongolian versions of string instruments, singers who sound like Chinese opera, amazing contortionists, other folklore dancers. This performance brings Mongolia closer to me. Some of the music pieces are a curious mix of modern and traditional sounds: traditional hounding sounds and modern harmony. Here it is, this rich and thriving culture, largely overlooked by the rest of the world.
We leave the banquet before coffee is served and slowly walk to our hotel through streets filled with young people.
Saturday, July 12
It takes about one and half hour to get to Terej National Park, our destination for the day. We are again a small group of eleven, traveling in a mini bus. Without a warning, a new guide shows up. Her name is Khishigjargal, in short Khishi. She is plump and lively, and full of stories. And her English is very good. We all welcome the change.
The park is lovely but not unique. We have seen such places numerous times in different parts of the US. Arizona/ Nevada? New Mexico? I cannot recall. Or maybe Tibet? Sharp rock formations, steep green fields and large valleys, distant green mountains, all open and verdant. We are here, and there it not a lot to say about it. We climb a set of very steep stairs to a monastery but do not follow the others inside. Just being here is enough. The vent of the day is horse riding.
Getting on the horses and settling in is easy because of their small size. But after that the scene is straight from Marx Brothers. One horse pees, another defecates, one starts eating, another one goes its own way and does not respond to commands. My horse is pronounced to be ornery and a boy is assigned to lead it on my behalf. We walk, mostly, not ride. Philip and a couple of other people ride ahead and even try a little galloping. But I never get a chance to try anything challenging. The boy, maybe 12, never lets go of the reins. Never mind. I feel great. Mongolia, here I come, under this big sky! This is just how I imagined. I softly sing a few camping and marching songs from my youth. The youth, without looking at me, joins by way of whistling. He occasionally turns around to check thee horse. His face is completely impassive, composed, alert.
When we return he and the other men climb the horses and start going away. In the last moment the boy suddenly turns around, raises his arm, and gives me a quick smile before turning away. His smile is one of my special memories.
We are not ready to leave the park but tonight we need to fly to Danlanzadgad. On the way back to Ulan Baatar the traffic slows down to a snail pace. We all welcome the thought of leaving the crowded city.
The light is four hours late. By the time we arrive in Dalanzadgad and get to our camp it is 1 AM. This was a very long day.
Sunday, July 13
The camp is first class. About 30 large gers, dining hall in the pagoda style, hot showers. Inside walls of each ger are finished with silky looking fabric, each of different color, and the woodwork is colorfully painted with flower motif, very similar to what we saw in Tibet. Our ger is yellow. It has three single beds, a low table in the center, three small stools and three small chests. The floor is covered with linoleum with the parket floor pattern. We share our ger with Tino, the young German. He is a good roommate: goes to bed early, falls asleep instantly, does not snore, gets up before us, noiselessly.
Although we have a sleep deficit, I get up early and refreshed. It is no dough the excitement of being in Gobi Desert. The breakfast is sumptuous, as all the meals on this trip. This tourist company is really going out of its way to feed us well. This is not Mongolian cuisine. It seems that the word has gone around in Mongolia that western tourists like fresh vegetables and salads because they serve them to us in abundance, even in this desert, and even such produce as olives and peppers, which I doubt grow in Mongolia. There is a lot of Russian influence in their dishes, and I feel good.
After breakfast we take a ride to the National Park….This part of Gobi Desert is all gravel, rocks, dried out earth and even some dry shrubs and low greases. There is enough vegetation here to support large herds of sheep at this time of the year. Occasionally we pass small clusters of two-three gers.
Our small group travels in two Russian-made four wheel drive vans. They are quite new, we are told, but look like relics from the 50s. They are wide and high and incredibly sturdy. And very Spartan inside: we sit on two benches that would look just right at an old fashioned bus station rather than in the car. The benches are attached to the floor with a few screws each. Except that all but one screw from the front bench is missing, and we have to adjust its location from time to time. We have settled into a stable human configuration of the same six people in each van. In ours the Guide sits in the passenger seat up front, then the two beautiful Australian girls, Tanya and Shrima, and then Tino, me and Philip. Tino is a quiet man but does not hold back when I ask him questions, even personal. At some point I get curious about women in his life in China, and he tells me an interesting story of one of his (I gather many) relationships where the woman wanted to move in with him, and bring her child along, until he discovered that the child was her second one, illegally born and unregistered, and that he was being set up to become legally responsible for the child. On another occasion he tells me about the Mongolian woman in UB who seeks his advice about being a condo. There is much going on behind Tino’s quiet exterior. He also tells me things about China’s economy and his job of building high speed trains there. All in all, ours is a nice friendly team.
The terrain on which we drive is extremely bumpy. What passes for highways hear are dirt roads, with hardly any signs. They intersect, wind, and have all other attributes of a highway system, except that this system is known only to our driver. And he is definitely a madman. In his cool red cashmere pullover, the man drive takes us on a no less than a rollercoaster ride. It is amusing and exhausting at the same time. Philip does not like it; Tino and I smile at each other surreptitiously at some particularly impressive antics of the driver. This is not a country for sightseeing in a rented car.
During the hike in the National Park we come across a long distance runner, then another one, and again another one. I ask one of the runners what this is all about and learn that they are racing 320 kilometers in Mongolia. For no particular reason other than running a long distance in Mongolia. People are really out of their minds.
The landscape of the park reminds me of Utah. We come across an iceberg and are reminded that Gobi is the coldest desert in the world. It is cool here. We put on sweat shirts. And then, of course, is this wind. Mongolian wind is the mother of all winds, reigning here under this big sky, forever.
In the afternoon we take off for another camp. It takes us about four hours to cover the 200 km distance. It is hard on our bodies: the air is dry, our lips are parched. The landscape changes from open space to mountains, then again to flatlands. We stop at a ger of a nomad family. A woman, a 13 year old girl and a somewhat older boy greet us. We sit around sipping sweet milky tea while the guide translates the conversation. The girl with a 15 year old face and a 10 year old body speaks a few well rehearsed and well pronounced sentences in English, to everybody’s delight and her mother’s pride. I cannot imagine how this small family is able to take care of the very large herd of animals that we see far off. The woman tells us about their move a few times a year to follow the grass and the weather, we give them small gifts. Outside I notice a photovoltaic panel, which the boy adjust to follow the sun.
We get to the next camp around 7 Pm, but our day is not over yet. This is where the famous sand dunes are. After a quick dinner we take a short ride toward the dunes. The sun is rapidly going down and the dunes change their colors and their long shadows with every passing minute. It is an unforgettable sight. When we get out of the van a pack of camels is awaiting us. Twelve camels for twelve people. The camel which I mount is very handsome. Not all are. Some of the camels have their humps fall sideways like wilted flowers. It is a very comical sight. Tania and I are laughing very hard at her pathetic droopy humps. On the other hand, my camel is very stubborn. Instead of just following the pack it either runs ahead or stops altogether to eat grass. The man assigns his little five year old boy in plastic flip flops to hold the rein of my camel and lead her. The boy then takes the reins of another unruly camel. This is really a very funny scene. Here we are, older and serious people on top of this very tall camels being led by a five year old boy in flip flops. We really are dilettantes. I wonder if these local people laugh at us at the end of the day. They should. But no matter, I really like this camel riding.
We go quite far into the dunes, then turn around and go back. During the short break in between, when we dismount the camels, I hug the little boy. He is very huggable. The wind is howling. The sun is rapidly setting behind the dunes. We return to the camp in the darkness. These have been very long two days.
I suddenly think of Henieks’ friend Lynn. Lynn is engaged in life entirely as a spectator, both through work and in his private life. Philip and I are the polar opposites: we have this drive to engage from within, as a participant.
Monday, July 14
We wake up to a perfectly blue sky. The sky of Chengis Khan. The morning is free. Many people are just washing up, organizing their things, sleeping late. We have become quite accustomed to the gers and this open space. Philip and I take a walk in the desert.
It starts innocent enough but after some hiking we realize that this desert is huge, hot, and we are very bad in assessing distances. The camp now looks very far away, and we have not even brought any water. Actually, it is somewhat scary! To our rescue comes unexpectedly one of the vans that drove in the area and must have spotted us from a distance. They stop, I recognize Tino and some other familiar faces inside. Their first question is: do you have water. The second question is: do you want a ride. We decline the ride and take the water, and start walking back. The van disappears in the distance. Just as we think that we are alone suddenly, out of seeming nowhere, two men on camels appear next to us. Each leads another camel in tow. The men’s faces are completely covered in some white cloth that looks like bandages. Their eyes hide behind sun glasses. They motion us to get on the two free camels, but we are really shaken by their presence. They look menacing, dangerous, like some kind of Janajaweed milicia from Darfur. At that moment we both realize our own vulnerability: two specks of human flesh walking in a big open desert, out of sight of anybody. How easily one can perish here. We of course decline the invitation to get a ride from them and watch the men exchange some words with one anther, laugh in a way that sounds to use threatening, and depart. We get back to the camp drenched in sweat and a bit wiser. Just then I notice that my toes are sunburned. I do not remember ever having my toes sunburned.
In the afternoon we drive to the third camp. Another three hours of these dirt roads and our mad driver. These Russian vans area amazing workhorses. The landscape does not change much: some hills and valleys here and there, and the big horizon. It is a hot day. At some point we spot a gazelle running alongside the van. Our driver forgets the road, such as it is, and enters into a race with this graceful animal. This is both maddening and exhilarating! For a minute or two we keep up with the gazelle but then we fall behind. We all hold our breaths watching it melt into the horizon.
Our third camp is the fanciest of them all. Actually too fancy for my taste. The palatial brand new tiled shower and bathroom facility with plenty of hot water seems inappropriate for this desert. The water has to be trucked to this place. The camp is very new, still does not even have a fence, and I wonder if this is the direction in which tourism in Mongolia is going to please the Westerners: luxury, no expense spared, environmentally unsustainable.
The three of us check into our ger, the furnishings of which seem straight from IKEA. Our routine is now easy. Tino does his things, we do ours, and it feels comfortable. I take a short nap as my intestines are giving me some trouble, possibly from dehydration or just general wear and tear.
During the dinner have rain pounds on the roof of the dining hall but it clears up quickly and we are able to drive to the nearby site of the famous 1925 expedition that for the first time found well preserved dinosaur fossils. The expedition was lead by the NYC Museum of Natural History. They shipped all the fossils back to New York via Beijing, without so much as giving a second thought to their ownership. They are still there. This place is a sort of miniature Badlands, carved deeply into the dry red earth. The silence is only interrupted by the Wind. This is beautiful.
Local people are selling things: mineral rocks, jewelry, brick a brack. I jokingly say to the Guide that I want a dinosaur egg. Sure enough, the local woman brings a carefully wrapped package and produces inside what looks like the real thing. We do not know if it is, but take a chance for $40. Later, when we learn that another member of our group also purchased a dinosaur egg I begin to have grave doubts about its originality. Later, back in the US, we see clearly that it is a fake. But such as the effect of the moment when you are far away form home, out of context: you make many stupid purchasing decisions. Anyway, it looks real..
Tonight is the last one at Gobi Desert. This harsh landscape has become so familiar to us. There is a sense of sadness about leaving it, even though this has not been an easy trek. The night is cool an breezy and we sit for a long time outside, I chat with Khishi, our guide, about the hard life in Mongolia. She lost her both parents two years ago in a car crash and feels lost, along with her two sisters. She also tells me about the runaway inflation: the price of bread has doubled in the last year. It seems that development always follows the same sad trajectory. First the natural wealth is found, in the case of Mongolian being their huge untapped deposits of gold, silver and other rare metals. The government signs contracts with multinational companies – on better or worse terms – and the wealth begins to flow into the country. Enough wealth to create a small elite of rich people (and possibly to corrupt some politicians). The next thing is the rise in real estate prices and general inflation. And before any of this wealth (even in the absence of corruption) even comes close to reaching the regular working people, the life just gets harder.
After Khishi leaves, Philip joins me. We deeply inhale the scent of this amazing and wonderful land. Mongolia and its people seem very real to me tonight.
Tuesday, July 15
Today we return to UB. In the morning we visit a small oasis. We hike at a leisurely pace among the shrubs and trees, none of which taller than me. Not many plants can adapt to the cold Mongolian winter, hot summer and lack of water. We count six different types of plants, some of which are flowering. There are birds and insects at this oasis. We contemplate.
After that, it is just driving and driving to the Gurran Saikhan Ariport, which looks more like a small modern bus station than an airport.
Back in Ulan Bataar we take a few shopping stops and share a farewell dinner at Mongolian Barbecue. A vodka toast, again tipping the driver and the guide, and it is time to say goodbye to the group. I will remember this group fondly, even he annoying Buddhist woman from Seattle, Diane, who did not succeed in making any friends among us.
Wednesday, July 16
Our trip to Moscow is flawless, including the train from the Sheremetyevo Airport and the metro connection to the hotel. The train station at the airport is so new that the workers are still painting the walls. Being back in Moscow brings us back among the unsmiling hurried people. The contrast with the gentle Mongolians could not be starker.
We have a free afternoon ahead of us and a jetlag of four hours. It is 30 degrees here. Having no better ideas we take a little stroll in the seemingly dull residential neighborhood. What a surprise awaits us around the corner! We discover a huge shopping center-bazaar combination. So this is where the Muscovites buy food, clothes, and everything else they need. The place goes on and on, sprawling around some transportation hub for buses. We walk for quite some time but the end of it eludes us.
Today we picnic in the room on bread, cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, hard boiled eggs, kefir and cherries. I am tired of restaurant menus.
Thursday, July 17
We sleep for almost 10 hours. And now it is time to retrace our steps. This is a very long trip. First the taxi to the metro (and the driver who unsuccessfully attampts to charge us four times more than it is worth); then the long metro ride to the train station; train to the airport, then a long wait to check in. On the metro I actually time the frequency of the trains. Exactly one minute between a trains’ departure and the arrival of the next one! At the Mendeleyevska station I once again admire the chandeliers, for the last time. A man helps me carry my suitcase, which is the first time in Moscow that anyone give me a helping hand.
We are going home.