Mongolia 2008

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.

Tibet 2005

Nepal and Tibet July 2005

Monday, July 4.

About 24 hours have passed from the time we left Voorschoten until we landed in Kathmandu airport. Considering its duration and our couch class, the trip was not too bad. After the London connection we took sleeping pills. It worked like a charm with me, especially that I also found three empty seats together and was able to lie down. I got four hours of sleep, and so did Philip, in his sitting position. The sleeping pill was so effective that we both had a difficult time during the 2-3 hour layover in Abu Dhabi.

Our eyes were closing and heads were heavy. I went to sleep almost immediately after taking off, and napped on and off most of this 4 hour trip. Philip lost track of his black sweater, no doubt due to this grogginess.

Arrival in a third world country always greets me with a specific odor. It is pungent, intense, humid, and earthy. It bespeaks of dense living, inadequate sanitation, and ripe fruit. It is no different this time. The sense of familiarity puts me at ease.

The hotel van awaits us and, after paying the man who coordinates our rendezvous with the van, which could have been easily accomplished without his intervention, we arrive in the International Guest House within maybe 20 minutes. At the large gate security men greet us. The hotel is a splendidly composed building: large, open, shady and tranquil, with an enclosed garden and various places to sit and relax. Intricately carved dark wood frames doors and windows and entry ways, and runs along wall spaces. I recognize the same handiwork and materials as the piece hanging on the wall of Bill Fisher’s office. This must be a Nepali specialty.

The manager offers us the “deluxe” room, which is indeed spacious and comfortable, with a clean bathroom and a bathtub. This room, with full breakfast, costs us $20 per day! Air conditioning would make it perfect.

We have a light meal at the hotel (very tasty Indian food) and despite tiredness we take a walk in the neighborhood. From what we can see on the unlit street we are in a poor neighborhood. The road surface is terrible, with more dirt than pavement, and there are no sidewalks. It has been raining earlier (this is a monsoon season) and our feet quickly become muddy.

We fall asleep as soon as our heads touch the pillows.

Tuesday, July 5.

Today we walk through the city. Philip is searching for memories from 1985, the last time he was in Kathmandu, while I mentally compare Kathmandu with Bangkok. The noise and traffic are horrendous but not unexpected. All modes of mobility coexist in the same space: pedestrians, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars. The motorcycles are noisy and polluting. I do not see any trucks, and wonder how merchandise gets delivered to stores. Perhaps at night? From time to time we pass carriers of heavy loads on their backs, supported by wide cloth bands around their foreheads. These are poor-looking men and women with tremendously heavy packs, usually much larger then themselves (and probably heavier as well). Nobody gives them a second look, and they themselves are forced to look only down, so that the weight of their burdens gets distributed over their backs and shoulders. Drivers are madmen but somehow we do not see any collisions.

Women are lovely in this city. All dressed in colorful saris, with endless variety of colors and patterns, shapely, straight backed, and well groomed. Older women are a bit fleshy around the waist, but otherwise all women have fine figures and graceful movements. They are mostly my size, which makes me instantly comfortable here. I remember our visit to Portugal, where I was similarly made instantly comfortable by the size of the population. The same quality of small size does not make the men of Katmandu more attractive: to our western eyes, and especially after spending time with Dutch giants, they seem a bit too short and too skinny, just like the men I met in Thailand and India. In general, people on the streets look crispy and well groomed, which is notable because of the heat and dust of their surroundings.

We spend a long time on a guided tour of Durbar Square. This area belongs to hustlers, street vendors and hawkers who collectively harass us at every step, especially because it seems that we are one of the very few tourists around. A few holy men loiter around, dressed in perfect costumes of hermits or monks dedicated to the ascetic life of prayer. They offer a beatific smile and a pose for a picture. A young man (also loitering around), with whom I strike a casual conversation, tells me that these are “commercial holy men”, making a living by posing for pictures with tourists. I find the term “commercial holy men” very funny.

This is not a tourist season here. September to November is, because the air is clear then, the Himalayas can be seen from a distance, and the monsoons season is over. Additional factors diminishing tourisms include the massacre of the Nepal royal family a few years ago, the recent dissolution of the parliament by the monarch, and the continuing ambushes and disruptions caused by few in numbers but very active Maoists. The daily newspapers report every day some incidences, though these seem to be mild, without mortality. Our travel agent Lok, clearly a monarchist, decisively believes that the international press exaggerates the political unrest in Nepal, thus wounding the tourist industry.

We hire a guide to show us around the square, partly because of his polite insistence and partly to protect ourselves from the harassment of others. Described in guidebooks as a place of splendor, Durbar square is in reality shabby though interesting. Our guide (one of many hustlers living off tourists) gives us a fine tour of the many temples assembled at the square and its proximity. I learn something about the Hindu customs and beliefs. We even get a short glimpse through a window of Kumari, a very pretty girl of maybe 8 who is believed to carry in her the spirit of Goddess Shiva. This girl serves that function from age four, when she is ‘discovered’ and identified through a series of tests, until her first menstruation around the age of 14. When term ‘term’ of reincarnation is over the girl goes back to regular life, including getting married, and the search for the next temporary reincarnation begins anew.

Philip gets involved in negotiations over the price of a small travel chest set, nicely carved of wood. The man’s starting price is outrageous, and Philip soon dismisses him. But it is easier said than done. Foe a long time the man follows us, proposing ever decreasing prices. His “rock bottom” price is about one tenth of the original, which only undermines his initial credibility, and so we do not want to deal with him at all. Eventually, he disappears. But not the chess set. Later, as we return to the Durbar square area there is another merchant offering an identical looking chess set. Notably, he starts the negotiations form the level left off by the first merchant, and this time we buy, at what seems to us an acceptable price. What we find out through this transaction that we are closely watched and that the local street grapevine is quite effective in creating all the incentives for us to part with the money. Amusing.

After the tour of Durbar square we walk through the commercial center around what Philip remembers from 20 years ago as ‘diagonal’ street. We also begin to survey the shopping scene. The prices are low but as usual I have no feeling for what is a fair price for goods. For me it always presents a dilemma. On the one hand I hate the idea of being overcharged but on the other hand I want to give these unprosperous people some opportunity to make a living during these lean time of depressed tourism. We walk a lot today, in the heat, dust and noise of the city. There is a festival of some sort on the edge of “Queen’s Pond”, and we watch the performers and the spontaneous dancing by some members of the large crowd.

In the late afternoon we visit the Buddhist Swayambunath (Monkey) Temple on the top of an incredibly high and steep hill. All of a sudden it is quiet. But not serene. In fact, this is a very busy place, populated by a wide variety of people: monks, visibly impoverished and filthy groups of women with children, temple workers, pilgrims, urban visitors, and a sprinkling of western tourists. Except for the latter, everybody seems to be on some mission. Some perform ritual ceremonies, others walk somewhere, looking purposefully, and some clean the metal components of the structure and decoration of the temple. The prayer wheels are turning and we hear bells. Monks are sitting on the front steps of various buildings and chat. Dangerous looking shaggy dogs hang around. And of course, there are these monkeys everywhere. Trained to expect food from the visitors, they are not friendly but rather have the air of entitlement. The large male we encounter attacks anyone who comes too close to him.

In the center of the compound, in a large hall open to the outside, a large feast is taking place. Around fifty people sit cross-legged in a large circle, with plates in front of them. Several men and women go around refilling their plates with rice, peas, something looking like curry, and hard boiled eggs. People are eating heartily. Despite an explanation given to us in very rudimentary English by a temple employee, we do not understand what is going on. But it is fun to watch these goings on.

Dinner at the hotel.

Wednesday, July 6.

Our plan for today is to visit two major temples: a Hindu Temple of Pasupathinath and a Buddhist Temple of Bodnath.

It is a hot day. I regret not having brought lighter clothes. I packed for Tibet, not for Kathmandu. My only skirt is the heavy black silk, and far too warm for this weather. We get to the Pasupathinath Temple by taxi. Philip negotiates the fares, being the tougher of the two of us in the business of bargaining. The Temple is a very large compound of maybe 20 buildings situated on two banks of a river. There must be a drought here because the river is very low. Although this is a monsoon season, the steps leading to the water on both banks are exposed all the way to the lowest step. In some places the water covers only half of the width of the waterbed. The water is brown and soupy.

The most remarkable event for us is witnessing a ritual burning of the dead. It takes place on one of the seven tall concrete platforms protruding into the river. Originally, there were four platforms, each for one the four casts, but additional platforms were added since the government banned the cast system. When we arrive two funeral pyres are already burning on the neighboring platforms to the one where the funeral preparations are taking place. The smoke is thick and stinging. Many people hold cloths to their mouths and noses. We observe the process from the beginning to end. Philip films the ritual, which takes about half an hour and culminates with setting the pyre ablaze. The fire then takes another hour or so to consume the body. A crowd of onlookers stands a few meters away from the pyre, watching intently. I spot one other tourist.

The striking thing about this ritual is the extent to which the family handles the body. They rub it with some materials, lift its head to put a pillow underneath, the key mourner (very likely the daughter of the old dead woman) strokes the long gray hair of the deceased. It all seems so intimate. Later, the guide we hire (difficult to get away from those) shows us the rest of the story of dying. One of the neighboring buildings houses a hospice. Several times a day someone dies there. In an ‘ideal’ situation, a doctor is able to identify the exact moment of approaching death. Two minutes before that moment, a person is stripped of their clothing, wrapped in a yellow sheet, and put on a sloping cement platform the size of a narrow bed, one end of which is submerged in the river. The feet of the dying person are placed under the water for purification. As soon as the death is pronounced, the body is tied to two bamboo poles and carried the short distance of perhaps a hundred meters to one of the seven pyre platforms. During the couple of hours of our visit at the temple we witnessed six deaths in various stages of burial, from the placement on the dying on the platform for washing feet, to scattering the ashes from the funeral pyre into the river, which marks the beginning of the reincarnation in the Hindu cycle.

We wander around the temple compound, looking at families who mark the first anniversary of their relatives’ deaths with a sort of picnic feast, strolling through a nursing home for poor and indigent, which Mother Teresa has established, noting the abundance of phallic symbol in the numerous statutes, the multitude of monkeys, and the general disorder and disregard for cleanliness that surrounds us.

Outside the temple compound the heat blazes. My portable thermometer shows around 37 degrees. As there are no apparent places to lunch, we stop at one of the local eateries of the most basic type. Without taking any risks with our health we order a piece of their bread, which is a pretzel-shaped piece of fried dough with a faintly sweet flavor and pleasant texture, two mangos and three of those miniature bananas that are sold everywhere. This is a mango season in Nepal. This royal fruit is sold on every street corner. We pay 20 Rps for two splendid large specimen, and I am sure that we overpaid, but have no idea by how much. Later I happen to read in the newspaper Himalayan that the average retail price of mangoes is 20-25 Rps per kilo. That means that the two mangoes should have cost about one-third of what we paid for them. Never mind, this is a perfect lunch.

Now come part two of the daily itinerary: we walk toward the famous Buddhist Temple Podnath. According to the guide book and the map it should be a 20 minute walk. It turns into an hour long death march in a terrible heat and dust. Very few people are out at this hottest time of the day. We pass both miserable shacks and fine villas. Since the villas all look new, or are under construction, we conclude that we must be in a newly emerging popular suburb for the well heeled Kathmandu dwellers.

One of the problems of sightseeing temples is that there are no public toilets anywhere. I wonder what the locals do about it but I cannot go all day on a single bladder. At some point I approach a woman standing in the doorway of a modest dwelling and ask for a toilet. Apparently, either the word toilet is well understood or my looks give me away, but she immediately leads me to the toilet in the apartment. I thank her but do not offer money, which would be, I believe, crude.

Entering the Temple compound we find ourselves in a very different world from the street outside and from the Hindu temple. It is immaculately clean; no animals run around, no beggars, no picnics, and no mess. On the other hand, the commerce thrives here. One side of a sort of promenade that encircles the round, white domed temple is completely filled with shops and occasional cafes. One look at the merchandise tells us that the shopkeepers are catering to former hippies and various seekers of spirituality through meditation, vegetarianism, and so on. The first thing I do is purchase an crinkled Indian cotton skirt to replace the black silk oven I have been wearing until now. I change right there in the shop. The light as air new skirt with silver thread makes me feel wonderful, not only because of the comfort it brings but also because it transports us back into the sixties. Philip is amused that I went native and hippie.

We drink tea in a lively little New Orleans café and chat with the owner who is a Nepali and a world nomad. Traveled everywhere, has seen everything, and I wonder how he makes a living. Certainly not through this café! He also tells us about the original New Orleans Café which is located in the Thamel section of Kathmandu, very close to our hotel. He promises a fine music and good food.

The Temple is really not accessible to me emotionally, spiritually or aesthetically. What I enjoy at this place is the serenity.

We dine at the Café New Orleans. It is a splendid place. Partly indoors and partly outdoors, decorated with plants, wood, interesting photographs and artifacts, and quite removed from its Kathmandu surroundings. This café is the product of the hippie culture that thrived in Kathmandu between the 60s and 80s. Most patrons are westerners and the Nepali waiters (all fluent in English) are as serene and friendly as a hippie commune. The food is very good but the best thing about this place is live music. There is a drummer and a flutist who play the most romantic music that I cannot place but hear in it Indian, blues, and (according to the waiter) also Nepali sounds. Later, a fabulous guitarist joins them, to be followed by a base electric guitarist who is no other but our host from the other café this afternoon. He offers us a pair of drinks on the house. We stay in New Orleans Café a long time.

A perfect day.

Thursday, July 7

Today we take a trip to Dulikhal, a small city situated in the far southeast corner of the Kathmandu valley. A bicycle rickshaw takes us to the main bus station. The system is as follows: as soon as we arrive at the station (which is a dusty outdoor parking yard) a young man appears from nowhere, calling out the name of some town, which we at first do not get immediately but which turns out to be Dulikhal. Recognizing that we are a bit lost, he asks us directly where we are going. Hearing the name, the young man quickly ushers us to one of the buses, which happens to be leaving the station. It is so easy! The trip on the shaky bus takes a little more than 1.5 hours. We see the usual sights of disordered human dwellings, commerce and light industry that surround all the large cities that I have visited over the years. After more than an hour drive we finally enter the country side, marked by rice paddies. Rice plants have a very bright green color, the shade we see in Massachusetts for about one week in May. It is very refreshing.

So we are here, in Dulikhal. As I look around I am immediately reminded of the Cuban city of Remedios. Not because of its looks, which are quite different, but because of its atmosphere of stillness and absence of rush. Hardly any cars are visible anywhere, and children play freely on the streets. The games they play take us back to our earliest youth. Women are doing domestic chores, such as washing, beating rungs, preparing meals, and sitting in groups talking. Nothing much seems to be happening here.

Looking at the bright red brick buildings, with the characteristics dark wood carved window frames and doors, I become aware of the abundance of these red bricks, both here and in Kathmandu. Also the abundance of pottery made of the same material. It is very nice. Obviously has something to do with the type of earth in this region.

I do not want to get too sentimental about this place, and I note the poverty, the primitive metal and woodworking shops, which probably make minimum living standards for the workers. Who knows if there is a health clinic or a dentist within the residents’ reach. On the other hand, the atmosphere of the absence of rush and complete freedom for the children is palpable. Two high school students in the usual immaculate uniforms approach us to chat. Their English is quite good and, like all the Nepale with whom we have spoken during the past three days, remarkably unaccented. We talk about their education and ambitions, and give them solicited advice on how to apply to American universities. A third young man, their friend, joins us briefly, and announces that he got a fine scholarship to a university in India. After he moves on, our companions tell us that their friend comes from an extremely poor family of goat farmer and that throughout the school years he got up at 4 AM, milked the cows, delivered the milk to town for sale, and then went home to get ready for school. Of course, the story makes everybody feel good.

The walk through this town tires me out because of the immense heat. So when we arrive at the small Hindu Temple in the woods I feel a great relief. I wash my feet under the stream of water and sit down to relax and contemplate. Alas, no contemplation for me either here or anywhere else in Nepal. No sooner do we start walking or sit down somewhere, young men (it is always young men) approach us to chat. There is no escape because they are really so polite and friendly that it is impossible to turn them away. Within minutes, my conversation with one such young man of about 20 turns into a group affair as other young men join. He tells me about the temple and the holy man who lives in it (Philip is engaged with the holy man as we speak), and about his older bother who is a guide for trekkers. He tells me of an English couple named Pieter and Harriet who come every year to his near by village to teach English to local children, and about his training to become a porter for trekkers.

Time goes by quickly in this magic place in the woods. We meet an Englishman who lives nearby and writes an autobiography, and briefly chat with this strange and solitary man. After giving some money to the Baba (the holy man) we walk back to the bus. Finding the right bus is a repeat of this morning procedure. The trip takes almost two hours, and we arrive in Kathmandu very tired. After a short refreshment in the hotel, we have dinner at New Orleans café. I am very tired at the end of the day, vowing to take a day of rest tomorrow.

Friday, July 8

After the torrential rains at night the air is much cleaner and the day cooler than yesterday. Today I rest: read, write, take a two hour walk through the touristy and pulsating Thamel, window-shop. I am in a mango heaven: after finally figuring out how to shop for it I feed all day on this marvelous fruit. Philip takes a half a day trip to Patan, the old center and the location of the old royal palace. He comes back energized but also tired. At night we take a slow stroll through Thamel and have a drink on a roof terrace of some café. For me the magic of Thamel is already fading: I have seen all the shops and merchandise, and the crowd has become tiresome. Additionally, this is Friday night, apparently a big night for dancing and loud music of the local youth. The sounds coming out of the numerous clubs and discos are suddenly a burden. We are ready to move on.

Saturday, July 9

After an early start, our trip to Lhasa is uneventful. The security measures are the highest I have ever experienced. We go through several security checks both on the Nepali and Chinese sides, they check manually more than once if we carry weapons, and the Chinese even put us through an X-ray-like machine, which turns out to be checking our body temperature, in case we harbor some mysterious fevers.

Choedak, our Tibetan travel agents, waits for us at the airport, accompanied by his brother in law. We drive along Bramaputra river to the city, which is located almost 100 Km from the airport. It feels hot, and I worry that once again that we underestimated the warm weather at this time of the year.

We are immediately struck by the sharp light of the sun. It is brighter than I experienced anywhere else that I remember. It is difficult to be without sun glasses here. As we enter the city, I note that people on the streets wear hats and carry umbrellas.

Mandala Hotel, where we stay for the modest amount of $20 per night (local rates; for tourists the rates are somewhat higher), is located at the very heart of Lhasa, on the perimeter of Bankhor Plaza, which the guidebooks consider to be the city’s focal point. Right across the street from us is Jokhang Temple, which according to Alexandra David-Neel as well as the contemporary guidebooks is the most holy of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. The hotel is not so great but the location more than compensates for the dysfunctional appliances and plumbing, and not-too-clean carpets.

Stands of merchandise surround the temple compound like a circular ribbon. Side-to-side, an uninterrupted colorful bazaar. Looking out of our third story window we see an endless river of humanity moving on this circular promenade. People move clockwise, as is the Buddhist custom. These are local religious people, pilgrims, traders, monks, tourists (a minority) and others. Some are holding religious objects in their hands. Women wear mostly traditional Tibetan dresses: long dark skirts with patterned rectangular aprons (the latter for married women), long sleeved blouses and wrap-around vests ala Dianne von Furstenberg. All are very slender and straight. So are the men.

Some people sit on the steps of the temple, in groups, looking like pilgrims from far away places. I can tell Chinese people from Tibetan, the latter having sharper cheek bones and narrower, more slanted eyes (like other Central Asians I have seen before, such as Uigrus, Uzbeks and Kazaks). Some have quite dark skins.

We feel the effects of the high altitude of Lhasa (3650 m). Getting up the two flights of stairs to our room requires a lot of effort. But the worst is yet to come. For now, we eat something in the hotel restaurant and take a stroll through the city in search of an ATM machine. Not seeing one, we ask a rickshaw driver to take us to one (after my little pantomime to explain what we are looking for, clearly successfully). The city we see is just another smallish contemporary Chinese city: wide promenades, well paved and clean, non-descript apartment blocks, three to four stories high, well stocked shop windows. We see many electric bicycles and scooters, in addition to the usual cars, buses and regular two-wheelers. The main streets have separate lanes for bicycles and rickshaws. The polluting technologies of the type I have seen in Beijing six years ago have either never made it here or got cleaned up. The air is relatively pure.

As we have been warned in advance, the Lhasa from the pre-1960 photographs is irretrievably gone, except for the small area behind the Jokhang Temple. But I must say that I have no regrets. After the noise, dust, chaos, pollution and traffic of Katmandu, I appreciate some order, cleanliness and purer air. Never mind the history and tradition, at least in this case. I can breathe here, and am not exhausted by street noise.

We walk back to the hotel. The walk turns out to be longer than our bodies can handle. By the time we come to the hotel I have a headache. The headache quickly escalates to a full blown altitude sickness: my head is pounding, I am short of breath, feel nauseated, my intestines feel unstable, the tips of my fingers and toes tingle, and I can barely muster enough energy to move my hands. It is an awful feeling. Philip seems to be spared. Hour after hour I rest on the bed in a semi-sitting position, listening to the street noises. At some point, a heavy sleep overtakes me.

Sunday, July 10

Amazing: I wake up feeling fine! Tired perhaps and with tingling fingertips but the headache and nausea are gone. I am so grateful to my body for its resiliency. Philip, on the other hand, is not so well. I breakfast alone, hoping that sleep will work miracles with him as it did with me. It helps. After a couple of hours Philip is well enough to join me on the roof terrace of the hotel (which is splendid) and to have breakfast.

Slowly, gingerly, not trusting our bodies, we head for the Jokhang Temple across the street. This place cannot be easily described. It has to be seen and felt. We are carried on the wave of people through the courtyards and chapels of the Temple, surrounded by innumerable statues and paintings of Buddha, other deities, lamas of long ago. Gold, jeweled colored paint and intricate wood carving saturate our visual senses. The smoke from butter-fueled lamps and scents saturate our sense of smell. But more than anything, this place is about people. Pious, devoted, deeply religious people. They prostrate themselves on the floor, gently touch the deities with their fingers and foreheads, they pour melted butter into the lamp reservoirs, they put money into every crevice. Hardly anybody pays attention to us or other tourists. The yellow dressed monks resolutely direct this human traffic and keep order. The monks look fresh, well fed, healthy, and in high spirits. Theirs seems to be a good life.

Today is an especially important day for some religious reason, so the place is very crowded. A group of pilgrims celebrates together by dancing and singing. I notice that one woman, a tiny middle aged figure with a powerful voice, usually intones, then others follow. These people show so much joy. It is contagious. How lucky we are to be able to witness it all!

The temple closes at 1:30. Outside it is hot. We stroll long enough to find an umbrella stand. I purchase a pale blue dainty looking umbrella in the local style to protect me from this fierce sun.

For lunch we stop at a modest local establishment, which obviously has not seen westerners. There is a general merriment and consternation as we cannot communicate. After some hand waiving and with the help of Philip’s little dictionary I end up with a dish of rice, potatoes, very rich broth and some pieces of boiled yak meat. This must be the most basic dish because other people eat it too. Although not a culinary piece of art, it is tasty. I eat only some of it, concerned about all the fat and the unknown quality of the meat. Philip tastes from my plate but otherwise does not feel well enough to eat. We both have cups of their sweet and milk-flavored tea.

It is around 3 o’clock by the time we get back to the hotel. We are exhausted. I take a short nap and spend some time at the computer, while Philip sleeps for a long time.

Monday, July 11

Today we visit Sera Monastery. It is a campus of sorts, consisting of small colleges, each with its own courtyard, chapel, and living quarters. This monastery dates to the 15th century and apparently its monks had a history of political engagement, to the point of plotting an overthrow of the central government.

The most memorable experience from this visit is our witnessing of a midday prayer. The entire community of monks gathers in the large Assembly Hall. The monks sit cross legged on long benches, which run parallel to each other in perhaps 20 or 30 rows. Soft pads cover the benches. Large tanghkas hang over our heads. The back wall has the usual statues, big and small, and every piece of wall space is covered with paintings. Along one of the side walls there are wooden benches and small tables for visitors. Lay people sit there, helping themselves to what looks like steamed rice cakes and butter tea from large thermos bottles. I have no courage to touch that food.

Between the smell of the burning butter in innumerable lamps, scents, and low lights, the atmosphere is unworldly and somewhat subdued. Suddenly, without visible signs that something is about to begin, the chanting begins. Low pitched, rhythmic, Buddhist chanting. After a few minutes a strikingly deep and powerful voice of an old toothless lama assumes the leading role of the chant. Sitting on an elevated platform, he is magnificent. Other monks follow, but not in unison. Some are chanting their own things, following the heavy books on their laps, others seem to be in their own world. Most daven in the process, Jewish style. This combination of an immersion in one’s own prayer, the connection to the Book, the davening, and the general laxness about collective discipline while taking seriously one’s own, are deeply reminiscent of a Jewish ritual on high holidays. Perhaps this explains the warm affinity I feel to this crew of devout and yet unruly men. I sit on one of benches reserved for monks (after my neighbor gestures that it is OK), close my eyes, and let myself be transported to the land of daydreaming.

It takes us around two hours to stroll through the numerous courts and chapels of the monastery. We basically weave through the daily life of the monks. This monastery seems neglected: garbage carelessly strewn whichever way, weeds growing everywhere, walls crumbling here and there. I wonder if this is part of the philosophy of life among these men or something else.

It is afternoon and we are hungry. No decent-looking places to eat nearby, so we take a chance with a dirty looking outdoor cafeteria. As soon as we order one serving of momo (Chinese ravioli) I get misgivings about eating it. In the end I eat only two of them. I will later discover that I should not have eaten any. By evening my intestines are in bad shape.

In the afternoon I go back to the hotel while Philip lines up to buy tickets for tomorrow for the Potala palace. Later, we shop for a new suitcase (find a very nice one for a modest price) and take a closer look at the neighborhood. The street connecting Barkhor Plaza with Lhasa’s main thruway seems to be the favorite hangout of western tourists. Over time it will become probably the equivalent of Freak Street in Kathmandu. The restaurants have English language menus, and one in which we have dinner has only western patrons. There are several trekking shops, a bicycle rental shop, and an internet café. And, of course, the tiresome beggars.

Tuesday, July 12

Today we visit the famous Potala Palace.

Climbing the Potala is a challenge. We go slowly, take breaks, hide from the sun as much as we can. Potala is enormous and unwieldy. I am not surprised that the more recent Dalai Lamas preferred to live in Norbulingka rather than here. It is a labyrinth in three dimensions: width, height and length. Endless rooms, halls and passages are filled to capacity with paintings, ancient manuscripts, statutes and tanghkas. Although the design of the building allows for a lot of light to enter into some rooms, even those feel dark. And the accumulation of centuries of burning butter makes the atmosphere oppressive. In addition, there are no personal accouterments of any of the Dalai Lamas who lived here. Nothing. Potala must be seen, but only once.

We come across Western tourists, but the majority of the visitors are Chinese tourists. In one of the rooms on the top level a middle agenda Chinese woman communicates to me in gestures that she has a headache, no doubt from the altitude. I indicate that I understand her predicament. In fact, after a large group of tourists leaves the room I lie down on one of the cushioned benches and take a brief but very refreshing nap. All my life I wished to be able to nap during the day. In Lhasa I finally got my wish fulfilled.

Later in the afternoon, after napping in the hotel (again), we shop: a new backpack, an umbrella to replace the first one, which got lost, and a fleece jacket for Philip. Commerce thrives here, prices are low. Earlier in the day, on the way to the Potala Palace we came across a dealership selling electric scooters. Philip tries out one cool-looking model, which sells for an absurdly low price of less than $400. I am reminded of Khrushchev’s threat to the West long ago that they, the Soviets, will burry us. Well, it will be the Chinese who will burry us. How can anyone compete with these prices? And we see it everywhere: in my new suitcase, in Philip’s new fleece jacket, in my new backpack. No contest.

At night I wake up a few times and listen to a distant singing of the pilgrims. The same cadences every time: not happy, not sad, rhythmic, longing. In the nighttime silence the distant singing is otherworldly.

Wednesday, July 13

Today we visit the other of the two famous monasteries in Lhasa: Drepung. It is a longer cab ride than to other destinations we have visited. While we drive along the wide open main artery through Lhasa, with its separate lanes for bicycles and rickshaws, well regulated traffic and little pollution, I appreciate the benefits of modernity. It is true that most of Lhasa has no “character” or “charm” we attribute to old cities with history and organic growth. But when I look at the old photographs of Lhasa I see unpaved filthy streets, shacks, and to beauty. Perhaps character, but no beauty. Thinking about what Lhasa would be like today if it was left along to grow organically and true to its “character”, I envision the worst of Kathmandu: narrow, unpaved alleys, dirt, noise, dust, and air pollution. So if I had to choose one of these two cities to live in permanently, and if there was no third alternative, I would cast my vote for the faceless modernity of Lhasa over the character and charm of Kathmandu. I know that I sound outright subversive to many western travelers, and Philip gave me a look accordingly, but I stand my ground.

Drepung is a contemporary of Sera, established in the early 15th century. It is wedged into a side of a mountain with a spectacular view of the valley below. Right away, we like it much more than Sera. Its campus is more compact and its layout is more cohesively tied to two main assembly halls, each on a different level. As a result, I feel very close to the mountaintop which supports the monastery. Even the air seems purer here. In comparison, Sera now seems like a hodgepodge of small campuses without a center of gravity or some aesthetic vision. Another difference between the two is that Drepung is immaculately clean and well maintained. It even has trash baskets. We pass a perfectly symmetrically built huge woodpile that will probably provide heat for more than one winter. The surfaces of buildings are freshly painted and the walkways and stairways are in good shape. So much for my associating squalor of Sera with the monks’ philosophy of life. It seems that it is all about good management and good housekeeping.

As in Sera, we blend easily into the life of the monks. Nobody seems in the least disturbed by our comings and goings, and we have another splendid opportunity to be here during the midday chanting in the main Assembly Hall. A similar event as two days ago at Sera Monastery. This time, however, we focus on the monks. They are a lively bunch, talking to each other below the singing of the group chant, swapping liturgical materials, scanning the scene around them. They are also quite young, from prepubescent boys to mid twenties. Within the reigning atmosphere of solemnity and serenity I also feel a high energy of youth and curiosity.

A monk asks Philip for 20 yuans for the privilege of taking photographs.

I envision that in a decade or so, when tourism increases in these parts, they will put restrictions on how many people can enter these monasteries and where they can go within them. The Tashilumpo Temple in Shigatse, which we shall discover towards the end of the Tibetan trek, has in fact already instituted such restrictions. We are lucky to be here ahead of this curve.

We take a regular bus back. There is no choice because at this distant location and few western tourists in attendance, no taxis come to Drepung. The bus system is very efficient in Lhasa (we took a city bus before). The vehicles are about half the size of American and European buses, run frequently, and stop on demand. A small elderly man sitting across an isle from me has a face of a thousand wrinkles, a large silver earring and a colorful scarf. He has a boy of two or three with him. Such an enormous affection flows between the two! At some point they exchange a long kiss on the mouth. The monk sitting next to the man looks at the boy with engagement, offers him a stick of chewing gum, and pretty soon takes him on his lap. I notice the affection for children everywhere here. The other day, as we took lunch in the local Tibetan eatery, two men with little sons were there. The tenderness with which these men treated their children was phenomenal. I also see it in the streets, as mothers talk to or hold their children. So far, I have not encountered an impatient or raised voice.

We have lunch at the opulent Lhasa Hotel (formerly Holiday Inn), just to check it out, but my intestines are in trouble and I do not enjoy it too much.

This is our last night in Lhasa before the trip to Numtso Lake. We shall depart at 8 AM with a guide named Na Wang. Our sweet Tibetian travel agent Choedak visits us in the hotel in the evening and introduces Nawang the driver, who does not speak English. I would prefer going with Choedak but we have no choice. Anyway, time will show how it goes. Philip has to negotiate a delicate piece of unfinished business with Choedak, namely our return to Katmandu. Since the Tibetans cannot cross the border to Nepal, they have to leave us there at the border. The “no-mans-land” alone is 8 Km, followed by several hours of driving back to the city. We discovered a few days ago that Choedak made no arrangements for getting us to Kathmandu. They we planning to drop us off at the border, with the luggage, and say goodbye. We, of course, insist that the price of the trip included their getting us back to Kathmandu. Philip negotiates the situation tactfully an expertly. I observe Choedack’s reactions, trying to figure out what he thinks and how he deals with conflict. His voice is always soft and soothing, I would even say seductive in its serenity, and he gives a little giggle when things get difficult. We shall see what the results of Philip’s negotiations will be.

We take our last night’s dinner on the roof terrace, this fabulous though terribly neglected place in the Mandala Hotel. It is a mild night, the light in the surrounding mountains changes with every passing minute, and the sounds from the street below are by now so very familiar. We are ready to move up north.

Thursday, July 14

Driving in Land Cruiser to Numtso Lake. The roads are good. For a stretch of time we drive along a railroad under construction. At some point we pass a convoy of military trucks delivering petroleum to Lhasa. There must be a hundred of them. All in all it looks like Tibet is being economically connected to the rest of China, at least in its infrastructure and energy.

We are surrounded by barren mountains, the only reminder of the altitude because otherwise these mountains have mild shapes. The valley is green. Herds of yaks and sheep abound. By early evening we arrive at our camp on the edge of the lake. Spacious tents in which we shall spend the night are richly and colorfully decorated, inside and out. The beds are comfortable and clean, though all is Spartan. A little man sitting by the toilets collects money every time we use it. As far as I can tell, he never leaves his post.

We take a walk along the large lake, which is quite picturesque, with mountains all around. It is a slow go. After rising around 1100 meters in a span of a few hours we feel tired. Too tired to explore the intriguing caves on the side of the mountains. Local people are playing in the water, others pass us on horseback. Long Buddhist prayer ribbons stream down the side of the nearest mountain.

We look for a place to deposit the “eye”, which Nadia and Jan from Voorschoten gave us. It is a small flat volcanic rock with a white eye painted on it. The rock came from either Sicily or Namibia (we cannot agree which), and is part of a project of a friend of Nadia and Jan. We come across a large boulder which in one place does not quite touch the ground, creating a mini cave, perhaps 3 inches high. We put enough gravel and stones inside this little cave to provide a back wall for our rock to lean on while still being close enough to the opening. This is a perfect location. The “eye” is in a vertical position, surveying the spectacular view of the lake and the mountains.

We also collect a nice pinkish rock to bring back. This rock will acquire its own eye and will be deposited at some other distant land.

The dinner is served in one of the tents. I cannot eat, partly because the food looks uninviting and partly because my intestines are still unstable. Philip also barely eats. We mostly rely on the bread, bananas and apple jam which we brought from Lhasa. We go to bed early, feeling utterly exhausted. This altitude business is taking its toll. Having adventures is tough.

I sleep like a rock. After several hours Philip’s tossing and turning wakes me up. He is quite sick from the altitude change. His heart palpitates, his face feels hot. I am really worried this time that he might need serious medical attention. We resort to the emergency drug supplies I brought from the US: two medications for acute altitude sickness and for pulmonary edema, and antibiotic for possible food poisoning. I sit with Philip until he seems to be breathing more regularly and fall again into a drug-like sleep. A western wind howls outside, shaking the tent’s wall on my side of the bed. The night is quite cold.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Amazing: Philip wakes up feeling fine. We will not have to return to Lhasa after all. I am grateful to Western pharmaceuticals.

Today we drive quite a lot. Reting Monastery is our destination. The roads are rocky and meant for yaks rather than motorized vehicles. The suspension of our Japanese SUV is mediocre.

The landscape is mild. The shape of the mountains is not much different from yesterday but the colors are: they are green. We pass swift mountain rivers, flocks of sheep and yaks. It is reminiscent of some other landscapes of have seen in my life. Perhaps Pieniny Mountains in Poland and its Dunajec River? I am not sure.

After about five hours of driving we arrive at this modest monastery perched on a side of a mountain. In the past this was a large thriving community of several thousand monks but was almost completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, then left for dead. Dead it is not, but life in it seems very lethargic. About 60 monks live here. All that is left of the physical infrastructure is the main assembly hall/chapel, some half demolished low buildings (I assume these to be the living quarters of the monks) and a central area for human habitation around a small courtyard. This latter consists of a one story building containing a kitchen and the eating hall, and another one containing small guest rooms. Numerous dogs liter around. At some point I see one dog sleeping in front of each of the guestrooms. They are all scraggy, docile and malnourished.

Our room is as spare as one could expect: a cement cell with two beds and a wooden chest. Nothing else. It is neither clean nor dirty. The view is beautiful, all the way down the mountain to the village and river below. The toilet facilities, located right outside the main courtyard, are revolting: two boards with a hole in between, with barely any enclosure. The small mountain of feces below it is not even entirely enclosed. The stench is ever present several meters away.

Nawang shows us around the monastery compound and its vicinity, talking about its glorious past. He wants to take us to the meditation cell high up on the mountainside but we cannot face the climb. Apparently the reincarnation of the previous lama – a boy of ten or so — lives somewhere within the walls of the monastery, but is hardly to be seen by the outsiders. We witness the work on the reconstruction of the main Assembly Hall. The methods are so primitive as to amaze: a man is cutting and polishing by hand a single stud of wood!

This is really a lovely spot. We are about 700 meters lower than yesterday, and I feel very much alive. Probably better than any time since we have arrived in Tibet. I finally feel acclimated. Philip still has a way to go, after the last night’s episode. The evergreen trees which surround the monastery have a specific very nice aroma. Branches of it dry in small heaps, to be used for incense. Far behind the monastery we find a small sacrificial place of worship: a large flat rock littered with yak horns and skull bones. Some of these have writings on them. Apparently, the peasants sacrifice two yaks each year to “speed up” their reincarnation, donate the meat to the monastery, and place the heads in these special places. This explanation further confirms my earlier observation that the peasants and nomads of Tibet, while officially Buddhists, are in their heart of hearts pagans. How else can we explain killing of animals for religious purposes within the Buddhist context that holds all life sacred?

We take a walk down the hill to the village on the riverbank. Some people, some structures, nothing of note.

At dinner time we join our guide and the driver, and several monks, in the dining hall. This place also serves as a local inn. This time we see a young couple with a small child enjoying a beer. They came on a motorcycle from the village below.

There is no food here. No meat, to vegetable, no eggs. The guide and the driver are having tsampa with yak butter tea. I finally taste the famous tea, and find it as bad as expected. Nauseatingly rich and very salty. The tsampa is equally uninviting. Nawang works it within his palm into a ball of dough-like substance, puts it in a bowl, covers it with butter tea. The driver has a different approach: he works it within the bowl into small clumps, then pours butter tea on it. I do not remember how and when they actually consume their food. I must have turned away from that finale.

One of the monks who seems to be in charge of guests prepares for me fried rice. It is truly disgusting. Some sort of soupy substance, most likely half of it butter. Philip is slowly munching on the bread from Lhasa, which is fine in his case, as his stomach is not in the best of shapes. But I have recovered from my digestive problems and am hungry. Fortunately, Nawang notices on one of the back shelves a few packages of instant noodles. That saves me from having another day of dry-bread-with-apple-jam diet. I must say that this is one of the best instant noodle soups I have ever eaten.

There is a sense of stillness here. The monks go about their tasks slowly, unhurriedly, seemingly without a purpose. One of the young monks, a teenager, listens to a tape of hard rock music on a tape player. Over and over again he plays the same music. Another young monk plays with an old phone, which does not seem to work. He goes through the same motions for hours. As the evening progresses, more people come to the hall and the conversation flows in the background. Philip and I play chess. Some people watch but mostly we are left alone. This is just an evening at the monastery. Philip gives generously to an old beggar.

In the end, we have a mixed feeling about the poverty of this place. Why don’t they do something that will earn them money or produce more food?

Saturday, July 16

Today we drive a lot. We take breakfast in a tiny establishment in a village along the way. I watch the pretty and graceful woman roll the dough and make noodles. The noodle soup is delicious.

We drive a long distance on the primitive roads along mountain rivers. The same landscape as before, bespeaks of the vastness of this country. At some point we pass a group of pilgrims heading for Lhasa or some other holy temple: men and women carrying large loads. These people walk for months, sometimes as many as five, sleeping in caves, under rocks, wherever they can get shelter. They beg when they run out of food and money. A scene straight from Alexandra David-Neel’s book.

Occasionally we pass small villages, stupas, men on horses, women working the fields. Silence, except for the sound of the river.

Around noon we arrive at Melok where Philip’s friend Janecke, through her foundation in the Netherlands, has established a vocational school. The story of this project is quite interesting. Our Lhasa guide Choedak, who comes from this area, is the brain and engine behind it. He uses his contacts with westerners to advance a small personal agenda for local development. He comes up with ideas that capture the visitors’ imagination, like supporting the school system, and spots individuals who both seek personal inspiration through helping these people and who have enough initiative and know-how to actually get it done.

The young teacher greets us warmly. We sip tea and talk about the school. They teach three types of skills: carpentry, decorative folkloristic painting, and sawing. The students arrive at age 18 for a three year program. The aim is to produce for the local market in furniture (mostly for institutional use), school uniforms, decorative materials for temples and public buildings, and so on. The school is in its first year of existence, with 14 residential students, a cook, and one teacher. The long term plan is to have the best two-three graduating students become future teachers as the student population grows, and to become self sustaining (or at least partially so) through the sale of the products.

The hosts show us some finished products. I find them quite simple and of low quality. Perhaps this is exactly the right match for the local market, which is of course rather impoverished, but still I cannot escape the feeling that these people have low aspirations for themselves. Perhaps I am being patronizing, and perhaps this is all one can expect from the first year students. But on the other hand, I had this level of skill in sawing already in elementary school, and certainly did not require years of study to develop it.

We discuss the idea of teaching these students computer skills but nobody has much to say about that. I am sure that the Dutch foundations would have no trouble getting donations of 2-3 year old computers from businesses and offices, and electricity is available here. But then, what will these young people do with their computer skills?

In the end, I am rather confused about the goods and bads of this kind of international aid, as well as its long-term sustainability. Let us face it, we are not qualified to form an opinion about the appropriateness of what happens here. We just do not know enough. Perhaps Choedak knows best.

After the vocational school we take a short drive to an elementary school nearby, which is also supported by the Dutch Foundation. In this case, this is a supplementary funding, to increase the number of teachers from one to two (for 60 children) as well as to increase their qualifications. Since this is Saturday the place is deserted, and we are shown around by the school care taker. It is a dark and starkly Spartan place. Again, I cannot answer the recurrent question of why poverty must be so bleak looking. I can envision the students from the vocational school, and teachers, devoting a week to painting the walls of the classrooms, fixing the broken furniture and window panes, cleaning the yard, planting some flowers. I suppose I do not understand poverty, but still, I remember Mama telling me that the single room in which she grew up with her seven siblings and widowed mother was always spotlessly clean. There must be different types of poverty, and the one we observe today seems to have some sense of resignation in it.

The most interesting item in the elementary is a student-run greenhouse. It is clearly productive and successful. And inexpensive, since sunlight and water are plentiful here. So, again, the question arises why the monks in the Reting monastery or the local farmers do not build themselves greenhouses. I have no answer.

After having a modest lunch back at the vocational school we take the road towards Tedrum, famous for its natural hot springs. We arrive at the guesthouse, built around the springs, in the early evening. The sight of the village situated in the deep gorge and on the hillsides around it is spectacular. The guesthouse is located at the very bottom of the gorge, and we walk the last short stretch because the driver does not want to take the car down, in fear that it will never make it back up.

The closer we get to the guest house and the village the less spectacular the sight is. Close up the guest house is neglected and dirty. It is built in a motel style, with each room having a separate entrance directly from the outside. There must be 20-30 rooms in total in this two two-story building. In the center of the motel compound there are three sheltered pools and changing areas for bathers: one of men, one of women, and one mixed, only for feet soaking. These waters are believed to be especially good for joint diseases and for overall well-being.

The room we get is rather awful. It is not clean and the beds are not even as good as in the monastery of the previous day. In place of a light switch two naked wires stick out of the wall. We turn the light on by hooking the ends of wires together. A quick look at the toilet facilities throws me in a momentary despair: not only do I find the usual plain holes in the floor but in addition used sanitary napkins are strewn all over the place. Philip explains to me that only a few decades ago the sanitary standards in Paris public facilities were no better, and that the sanitary hygiene is a very recent concept in the Western civilization. Recent or not, I want them.

I make a mental note that I would like to read the history of toilet facilities. I seem to remember that someone actually wrote a book on this subject. Must check at

There is little for us to do but to take a bath. I put all my clothes in a wooden cubicle by the pool and slowly descend the slippery moldy stone steps. The pool is wonderful. The temperature is perfect, hot but not too much so, in places bubbling up from the bottom, running swiftly. The perfection and, according to Nawang constancy, of the temperature puzzles us both. Since the water in the pool is a mix of a fast moving cold mountain stream and the hot emanations from underground, somewhere right under our feet, the temperature should change according to how large the water intake is from the stream. That would make it dependent on the season, snow falls in the mountains, and so on. So how is the temperature so just right and constant?

Women and teenage girls surround me, many of whom wash their very long and luxurious hair. I am immersed up to my neck. Gorgeous! There are no foreign tourists here tonight, just the Tibetans. Two girls from Lhasa engage me in a conversation, proud of their rudimentary knowledge of English. I tell them a bit about me, which they instantly translate for their mother and other women in the pool. After every translated sentence there is a short discussion among the women. It is really wonderful to be part of this female gathering. The women are particularly impressed with my young looks for my age (what do they know! I also am not good at guessing their age) and the advanced age of my parents. They clearly approve of my having two grown sons, and visibly sympathize with me when told that neither is married. I am having fun, naked, refreshed, in a company of women and small talk. On my way out the girls interpreters ask me not to forget them. How can I forget them?

The dinner we get at the dining hall upstairs is uneatable. We pick on the rice, taste the gristly yak meat and green peppers, sip the so-called tea, which is in reality just hot salty water, and amuse ourselves with a game of chess. To dispel the feeling of disappointment over our non-existing amenities we take another bath before going to bed. This time I encounter young Buddhist nuns in the water. Their hair is short, cropped close to skin and all about them –the faces and the bodies – is soft and round.

Sunday, July 17

It rains all night long, and continues, with breaks, in the morning. We start the day with another rejuvenating bath, then climb the hills surrounding the guesthouse. Nawang takes us to a nunnery, then shows us the village, finally stopping at a tent of what he believes to be nomads abut turns out to be nuns.

Given the weather and the lack of material comforts of this place we decide to return to Lhasa today rather then spend another day here.

The drive is relaxing. The landscape is similar to what we have seen all along but increasingly luscious. We stop for lunch in a small pleasant Chinese restaurant. This is the best meal we have had during the entire journey. Our guide does not allow us to pay our way. Clearly this is his way of compensating for the culinary deprivations we have experienced during this trip.

Back in Lhasa around 6 PM we check into our new hotel which Philip had discovered and booked a few days earlier. The poor quality of Mandala Hotel wore us down after several days, despite its perfect location, and before leaving Lhasa we want to luxuriate a bit before the next trip into the country. Dhood Gu Hotel is splendid. I cannot get enough of the bathroom and other amenities. Our room is painted from top to bottom in the local colorful frescos, including the furniture. The ownership of this place is Nepali, and so is the cook and most of the staff. We enjoy a slow dinner with excellent service.

The king size bed is splendid.

Monday, July 18

We spend an entire day in Lhasa without sightseeing. Window shopping, strolling, writing the travel journal, organizing pictures. We buy some gifts for friends and neighbors. After having a terrible dream last night I am all shaken up emotionally, and walk around in a dream.

We check our e-mail at the neighborhood internet café. Philip gets the last free computer while I wait. A man in front of me is clearly an academic. He is working on a manuscript (on line!). I read over his shoulder something about indigenous knowledge, which identifies the man as an anthropologist. Why doesn’t just take a vacation from his work? Another man takes long breaks between single sentences in his long personal letter to a woman. I sneak peaks behind their backs.

At 2 Pm Nawang meets us in the hotel lobby, and we all go to the electric bicycle-and-scooter dealership we discovered several days ago. Through Nawang’s translation we learn about the government incentives for electric vehicle, their economics, and about the market for these vehicles.

It is a slow day. In the evening we share a dinner with the Sherman family from Newton, whom we met last night in the Hotel restaurant. The father David teaches accounting at Northeastern, the mother Linda is an attorney with the prestigious Hale and Dorr firm in Boston, and the lovely daughter Caroline is a student at Columbia, and currently on a study period of Chinese language in Beijing. I especially like David, who is a mentch. Linda is more reserved and tougher. The conversation is easy. We cover all sorts of subjects, from politics to professional matters, to my history of emigration, to American Jewish experience, to our interpretation of Tibet. This is really a very nice evening. We plan to meet in Newton.

Monday, July 19

In the morning we shop at the local bazaar. With Philip’s genus for bargaining we acquire a beautiful tanghka and his coveted copper horn. This is all I want to bring from Tibet, not counting some small items here and there.

We then go to Norbulinga, the summer palace of the last Dalai Lama. It is a lovely place, in a pleasant park. Full of light and color and the signs of life, such as old radios and modern plumbing from the 40s. No wonder the Dali Lama avoided the Potala as much as possible in favor of Norbulinga.

At lunch on a familiar terrace of a nearby place I identify the professor of anthropology from the internet Café. He has two companions – a gregarious woman and a quiet man – and a pronounced British accent.

In the afternoon Philip takes a tour of the Tibet Museum while I write in the hotel.

We have dinner on a terrace of the restaurant Dunya, the upscale local hangout for Western tourists. Once we get over our reservations about tourist hotspots we truly enjoy the splendid meal and the atmosphere. Chat with barman about tourism and learn about the visible increase in the number of Chinese tourists. Nawang later confirms it, and bitterly comments on the competition the Tibetians feel from Chinese tour guides.

We are ready to say goodbye to Lhasa. Our business here is finished.

Tuesday, July 20

Our destination today is Gyantse (or Yangtse). The drive takes us across a high mountain pass of Khamba La (4,800 m) with a spectacular view of Lake Yamdrok. This is the second highest lake in Tibet, and one among three holy lakes. Holy means that Tibetians do not fish in it but the Chinese do. The road descends until we reach Nagarze, a small frontier town that reminds me of old western movies sets. The main street is about all there is, and its both ends can be seen simultaneously as they come up to the mountains’ edge. We have a light lunch in a restaurant that clearly caters to all the tours between Lhasa and Shigatse. Some of the faces at the neighboring tables imprint themselves in my memory: a Dutch family with two small boys looking malnourished, and a group of four Chinese girls who photograph each other.

The drive continues, again uphill until we reach the mountain pass of Karo La (5010 m). For the first time we see the types of mountains I would expect at the feet of the Hymalayas: sharp, imposing, with glaciers covering their sides. We both respond to the altitude by becoming a little light headed. The road continues down again, and we enter a sort of a desert. The landscape reminds me of Arizona, but higher. Except for occasional oases of agriculture, clearly achieved through irrigation, there are few signs of life here.

As we take various stops along the way we encounter busloads of Chinese tourists, among them I recognize the group of four girls with photographic equipment from the lunch stop. We wonder aloud what will happen when Chinese middle class discovers Italy, Greece, Paris. This will be the end of these places as we know them.

We arrive in Gyantse in the afternoon. Today is a an annual country fair here. We have already missed the morning horse races but the giant bazaar is in full swing. Thousands of people do what is usual at bazaars: eat at the numerous cafes, picnic, examine the merchandise, gawk, gamble at simple game stands, loiter. We join in this pleasant do-nothing afternoon, watching the incredibly colorful scene. At some point we meet our guide and driver having a beer at one of the refreshment stands. We join them for a while. Over the days we have become more open with Nawang, revealing pieces of each other personal lives. Nawang comes from the Tingre area which will reach in a couple of days. He grew up in a small village in one of these desolate mountain passes, with a view of the Himalayas. Expected to follow the local custom of sharing a wife with three brothers he rebelled and immigrated to India for several years, where he learned English. Finding the climate unbearable he than moved with relatives in Nepal, and eventually returned home, married, settled in Lhasa. In today’s China he is politically he is tainted and unable to get a permit to work with foreign tourists. His work with us is actually illegal.

We move on for a walk through the city. This is the first Tibetian city we visit. Until now we were either in villages or in Lhasa, which is a somewhat artificial creation of the Chinese egalitarian efficiency in architecture. The buildings are generally two-story high and decorated with the familiar colorful painted fringes. The shabbiness of all the infrastructure, the low quality workmanship and material, and dirt and rubbish are striking. The cement of entry steps crumbles, even in relatively new-looking buildings, the electrical wiring is a jungle, everything is essentially disintegrating and fraying. We follow a line of sidewalk tiling designed for blind people (with the special ribbing). This trail in no time leads us to a large pit of mud and water: part of some road repair or disrepair. Imagine a blind person seeking safety in this sidewalk!

Dinner at the hotel. Very informal. The four Chinese girls show up with all their photographic equipment. We say hello, chat. The Dutch family with two boys shows up as well. Philip chats with them. They have been traveling for 3 months already with these two boys: 3 and 5 years old. The father is an obnoxious disciplinarian, clueless about motivating children, and the mother lets him run the show. We feel sorry for the boys, engulfed by the tense family dynamic, forced into small hotel rooms, bad Tibetian food and confining restaurant behavior. No place to run, to be free, to escape the parents, to interact with other children. No wonder they look sickly. The parents plan to continue this trip for another five months. We are horrified by their selfishness. Anyway, impossible to believe that they will last that long. What drives these people anyway to this lifestyle?

After dinner we take a walk around town. The main street is lively. Groups of peasants who came to the city for the fair sit around in small groups and clearly enjoy the evening. Some break out in songs and laughter. Teenage girls walk up and peer into our faces with curiosity and absent any sense of privacy. Women relieve themselves in full view of passersby, under their long skirts.

Somewhere around 9 o’clock we realize that something is going on in this city. It looks like a parade in the making. A group of peasants in identical colorful costumes gathers in a formation on the street, clearly ready to march and to dance. A few military cars appear, a sure sign of some upcoming social gathering. We walk towards the rotary which marks the town center and realize that similar formations of dancers, wearing different colors, gather along the other three streets that converge at this point. Within the next hour or so, these formations swell in size and numbers: in all there must be more than half a dozen color-coded groups of dancers, accompanied by musicians, ready to move and restlessly containing their exuberance. From time to time they spontaneously start dancing and singing to the sweet sound of a flute. The crowd of onlookers gathers, including all the Western and Chinese tourists currently visiting the city. This is really exciting. We meet our guide and the driver, who explain to us that this is one day a year when a great outdoor festival of folk dancing takes place. How lucky we are to be here!

Finally, after a long wait and restless swelling of the street crowds the groups of dancers move towards the rotary, and from there towards the large open public space. A very large fire is burning, green lights illuminate the castle high on the hill above us, the streets are brightly illuminated. We cannot see what is really going on in the center of the park because the crowds are too large and there is no elevated stage for the dancers. But it does not matter. We have already seen them dancing, and it is more interesting to watch the crowds. Just as we slowly turn towards our hotel a fireworks display lights the sky. It is quite an evening in the sleepy city of Gyantse.

Thursday, July 22

We wake up to a beautiful bright morning. We spend it sightseeing Pelkor Chode Monastery and Dzong, the castle. After all the other previous monasteries we are not sure whether we can expect anything beyond more of the same: statutes, thangkas, pilgrims, the scents. And yet, we do. The monastery has the most picturesque location we have seen so far. It was built in 1418 by the feudal lord who reigned over the Gyantse valley to serve all the main orders of Tibetan Buddhism. It looks down on the city below from the side of the mountain and is surrounded by a fortification running along the mountain ridge: a sort of mini version of the Chinese Wall. Since the Red Brigades of the cultural revolution did not get around to destroying some of the most important chapels, we can admire the ancient art. On some of the rooms ancient manuscripts – direct translations form Sanskrit — pile up high on the shelves going up from about the waist level to the ceilings. We touch these six century old manuscripts, peek inside them, and nobody bothers us. Some particularly devoted visitors walk on their hands and knees under these manuscripts, to experience their holiness.

The famous multilayer Kumbum Stupa is really a masterpiece. Our guide points out to three different architectural styles of the stupa and the 108 different rooms it contains. Nowang leaves us alone after a while so that we can climb up to the top of the stupa, where we sit on the edge of one of the terraces and contemplate this place. From where we are we can watch the most devoted pilgrims who slowly make their way around the many corridors of the temple compound by prostrating themselves every third step.

After visiting the Pelkor Chode Monastery we go to the castle. The partly destroyed castle is perched on the top of the mountain neighboring that bearing the monastery, but much taller. It really dominates the city below. This 15th century structure is surprisingly unsupervised. In some rooms we can freely touch the tangkas painted on the walls almost 600 years ago. We slowly climb this fortress hill, at our “Tibetan” speed, meaning frequent stops to catch our breath, until we reach the top. The view from the top is really spectacular. From here, we can see the logic of Gyantse. Some neighborhoods are clearly Tibetan, with the characteristic enclosed family compounds and narrow alleys, while others display wide streets and the socialist wide street architecture, which we saw last night during our walk. One of the Tibetan neighborhoods is rather neglected: it is monochromatic and looks like it will soon blow away in the wind. Another Tibetan neighborhood is more prosperous: the houses are trimmed with colorful designs and the one story structures are neat.

We lunch in Gyantse, and then drive towards Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. It takes less than two hours. After checking into the hotel and getting some rest (great hotel, great bathroom), we go out on the town. Shigatse is similar to Lhasa but smaller. Its most interesting object is the famous Tashilhumpo monastery, originally founded in mid 15th century by the First Dali Lama, and since the 17th century the seat of the powerful Panchi Lamas. The title of the first Panchi Lama was bestowed by the Great Fifth Dali Lama on his tutor in the middle of 17th century (the same great Dali Lama who consolidated the political and religious power in Tibet, and built Potala Palace in Lhasa). Since then, the Panchi Lamas have been the essential pillar of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the state, and at times competitors of Dali Lamas.

This modern history of the Monastery mirrors the struggle of the Chinese dominated Tibet. The life of the 10th Panchi Lama, who died about 20 years ago, reflects that struggle: from a collaborator, to a martyr, to a broken man seeking to serve his people.

We take a walk around the monastery, which is a walled city in itself. As we climb up and down the hill we pass endless prayer wheels, beggars, pilgrims. No tourists. A young Tibetan woman joins us in silence and we are a group of three for a while.

Friday, July 23

We spend the morning at the Monastery Tashilumpo. A word goes out among the guides that guide licenses are being checked, so Nawang does not dare to go with us. This is fine: we do not wish to hear lengthy explanations of details. We only want to take in the sights and the atmosphere of this famous monastery. Being at monasteries and chapels is becoming a familiar ritual for us.

It is very crowded with western and Chinese tourist, and the usual faithful. More crowded that other monasteries have visited (a preview of Tibet of the future). This monastery is not only beautiful but also rich. Right before ending the visit we sit down on a small wall in a courtyard for a short rest. After a few minutes we become aware that young monks are gathering all around us, perhaps before entering the Assembly Hall for a midday prayer (momentarily the monastery will close for midday to tourists). They all seem to be in their teens and early twenties. They are horsing around like any other group of youths, talk, let out steam. Philip films while I marvel at this moment of finding ourselves in the midst of the monastery life.

Around noon we start toward Latse, expecting about a four hour drive. It turns out to be about five hours on one of the worst roads one can imagine. We are thrown around the back seat while our Japanese SUV bravely struggles forward, across streams, potholes, nonexistent roads. An American made car would have disintegrated here long ago. The landscape changes only a little. Hour after hour (day after day) the barren mountains, occasionally covered with thin grass, remind us of the vastness of this land. Hard to put our imaginations around it. The only thing that changes is the strip of land along the river that our road follows. Sometimes it is completely barren, sometimes it is covered with meager vegetation or these lovely yellow and blue flowers, occasionally the land is cultivated.

We have a picnic lunch together with our guide and driver on freshly bought bread this morning, peanut butter (a parting gift from the Shermans from Newton), apple jelly, apples. After lunch Philip and I take a short walk on the hill. Within minutes two children from the nearby village join us. The groups quickly grows to eight. Mercifully, these children are not asking for money but are simply curious. They show us how to suck on the tart fruit of the nearby bushes, we count in English with them, we take digital pictures and delight them by show the results. The children are quick, lively, and very dirty. Their ability to repeat English words without accent is uncanny. Oh, if they only had teachers. In these remote regions it is very difficult to provide adequate primary education. The Chinese solution is to have regional residential schools but many peasants reject the idea of sending children under 8 for five days a week to a dormitory life, probably poorly supervise. So the tension continues.

One girl, perhaps ten years old, attaches herself to my side. After a while she allows me to hold her hand from time to time. Another, smaller, boy, with intelligent eyes and quick manner, is also staying close to me but shrinks from any physical contact. So we keep walking, up and down, left and right, and eventually get back to the car. The entire children delegation wave to us, yelling goodbye in English.

By the time we arrive in Latse after 5 PM we are quite tired from this drive. We check into a simple, clean guesthouse, owned and run by a Tibetan family. There is no running water but otherwise it is comfortable. It is a two-story motel-like square structure with a courtyard in the center and a social and eating area on the ground level under the second story balcony connecting the rooms. I spot a small carper factory occupying two rooms on the ground level. Tibetan girls work there while singing.

We take a walk through this dusty and seemingly decaying town. We examine the usual peeling, crumbling, fraying, cracking in every solid material. Clouds of choking dust rise up with every car passing. People go about their business, unruffled.

In the evening, everybody gathers in the social area on the ground level: the guests, the owners, the guides, even a local English speaking busy body boy who is blind and loves to tell his story. After dinner we play a chess game, then take another walk to check out the local disco.

Saturday, July 24

I have been eyeing the rugs produced here, watching the workers next door shake them out and roll. Colorful, some rather interesting designs. Before taking off I visit the little workroom. Two young women are working here, their fingers moving with a speed of light on the simple machines. If we were not in a hurry to start the journey I would very much like to sit down for a while and watch their technique. As is, I cannot satisfy my burning curiosity regarding how they actually achieve a complicated pattern. On the way out my eye catches a small colorful rug hanging on the side. Instantly I know that I want it. It is not just the colors, which are crazy and unusual. It is also the lack of symmetry that draws me in. Although the central ring is perfectly symmetrical in shape and pattern, most other patterns are not. The left side is different from the right side, and nothing quite repeats itself.

And so, the protracted negotiations begin, with Philip and the motel owner in charge. Everybody else watches intently, in the usual manner treating it as a form of entertainment. Philip does very well, I can see it from the smile on Nawang’s face and the general air of satisfaction: this was a show worth watching. I am happy to own the little rug.

On the way out the owner says goodbye with effusiveness which I attribute to his new respect for Philip-the-bargain-driver. My mother would love it here.

The roads are terrible. Most of the way the road is under construction. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of men and women (the latter often wearing the traditional Tibetan clothes) work here, and although we encounter heavy machinery, most of the work is done manually. In the meantime, we drive through a torturous obstacle course of thick mud, holes, water pools, mountain streams, rocks. We are shaken, thrown, vibrated. The landscape changes: at times it is sedate and familiar. Other times the mountains get sharp and imposing. But most of all this land is as desolate and barren as I have ever seen for such long stretches. We go through the high pass (5200 meters) which gives us, finally, a distant view of the Himalayas.

We take lunch on the banks of the river, again a picnic of peanut butter and bread, under the balmy sky. After four hours of driving we reach New Tingre, fuel the car, and go on for another two hours. Philip buys a fossil from a local boy with an imprint of a shell. The drama on the horizon increases. We are approaching the great mountains.

Arrive in Tingri in mid afternoon. Philip does not feel so good, a combination of a difficult drive and the high altitude of the mountain pass we crossed earlier. I am well and energized by the proximity of the grand finale. The motel where we stay is set apart from the village, right before the entry to it, with an unobstructed view of the Himalayas and of Mt. Everst. Clouds interfere with the view. The motel is comfortable and sports a great modern shower room with hot water. I enjoy a long leisurely shower.

Surprise! The British group of anthropologists from Lhasa, the professor and his two companions, is here as well. I thought that I was the only one remembering their faces but I discover that the professor also recognizes mine. I am not the only people watcher around! Philip reads and enjoys a peaceful moment in the sun while I chat with them. The quiet man in their trio, a German working in the UK, is a highly regarded “Tibetologist” with some high level position connected with the National Museum or something like that. The woman, an Austrian working with the professor, is also a Tibetologist, and the professor turns out to be indeed the professor of anthropology at Cambridge. He turns out to be a friendly fellow, full of humor, and at least in this context (or in this place which is devoid of context) does not put on any academic airs. We chat, then scatter in our own directions.

We take a walk through the village. We get too much attention from the village children, who beg: an obvious sign that this is a popular tourist spot to the Base Camp and to the border. For a short time the clouds open and we recognize his royal highness Mt. Everest. We have waited so long for this sight that there is no mistaking the familiar ridge of the Northern side. This is exciting.

Like all the other guesthouses (or motels, if you will) we have visited on this trip, this one has a large public room for eating and hanging around. This is where we have our dinner. Philip is still not well and we eat very cautiously. We strike a conversation with two English girls who will tomorrow start a three day trek to the Base Camp (Mt. Everest, of course). We are a bit wistful: perhaps we should have included such a trek in our itinerary. Oh, well, there is always another way to organize a trip.

By about 9 o’clock the dining room fills up: western tourists, local guides and drivers, perhaps relatives of the staff (this is a government owned guest house). We all sit on the soft cushions of the benches running against the three walls of the room, covered with the familiar Tibetan rugs, with low painted tables in front of us. The atmosphere is lively, plenty of beer and tea gets consumed, conversation flows, it is warm and cozy. It is windy and cold outside. The British group of from Cambridge join us for a conversation and beer. The woman Hildegard is very talkative, the German-born Tibetologist is silent. It turns out that Hildegard knows Bill Fisher professionally. The senior professor, with a dry sense of humor is outgoing and funny. Philip talks with him and the graduate student. I chat with the woman, get tips on how to spend our list leg of the trip.

Around 10 the Brits withdraw to their rooms, and everybody else is beginning to move as well. Just we are ready to follow, the professor runs back into the dining room announcing excitedly that Mt. Everest is partially visible. Everybody runs out: tourists, locals, guides, the staff. We strain to see what he sees, which is not much, but it is very exciting anyway. A group of random travelers bound by the same mission.

Philip and I have a low point, argue, who knows why. But his not feeling so great has something to do with it, for certain.

Saturday, July 24

Tibet left its most spectacular show for the last day. The drama emerges slowly.

The day starts rather inconspicuously. We sleep late. No rush today, we have only about four hours of driving, and do not want to get to the border crossing too early. It rained heavily last night, like most recent nights, heavy milky sky hangs over the distant mountains. No sign of Mt.Everest or any other peak. We move slowly this morning, hoping that the fog and clouds lift. By 10 AM or so it becomes clear that it will not happen any time soon, so we take off.

Right after we leave the town, we discover the hotel where we should have stayed last night. It is as quiet as our hotel, with the same great view but it has other amenities. It is built on top of natural water springs and offers pools for bathing, with the same perfect temperature as in Tedrum. It is also surrounded by an open plateau, which is so inviting for walking. I can envision a full day in this place, walking, reading, bathing, reflecting. Oh, well, next time.

Outside the village we encounter the ruins of mid-19th century houses that wre destroyed by marauding Nepali who invaded this land all the way to Latsie. Two story high, color-wise indistinguishable from the background, they look like tall and narrow adobe monuments to a different culture and days. We never get a satisfactory explanation from Nawang why the building style has changed so much since there.

After a short drive we arrive at an open area with a good view of the Himalayas and Mt. Everest, one highlighted in our guide books. The mountains are still not very visible from here but since we have plenty of time today we decide to hike here for a while, waiting for the clouds to lift. The guide and driver go to a nearby teahouse while we explore the hillside village. In no time three children, aging from about three to six, join us. There is no escaping children’s company in this country. They start with the usual “Hello’s” and “Money” but stop quickly when we ignore that. From now on, it is a simple curiosity that brings them to us. We walk up, take pictures, take in the open space. At some point I sit down on a small stone wall and take out pieces of chocolate from my back pack, break up a piece for myself and share small pieces with the children. They like it. At this point, they are no longer beggars but instead they are sharing a bit of time, and a hike, with me. The relationship has palpably changed. The little girl shows off her earrings (I show her mine) and with sign language tells me that her mother is pregnant, and that the younger sister, the three year old in the group, will have her ears pierced after the new child is born. Or at least that is what I understand her telling me.

We are back in the car, driving towards the Lalung La Pass (La means pass, and Lalung means double, as this is really two passes in close succession). We relentlessly climb up, reaching the pass at 5050 m. And this is it! The full splendor of the Himalayas, very close, and with ad 360 degree panorama. Never mind the previous viewing points, and never mind the Mount Everest. Seeing these mountains right here takes my breath away. They stand so motionless, so permanent, and, yes, so threatening. Surprisingly, they bring to my mind an ocean in a storm. One is motionless and the other is all movement, but both are permanent and threatening. Clouds move around these mountain, the wind howls, rocks and water run down, we come and go, but these mountains are here for ever. And more than ever before, the vastness of this barren land makes its presence felt. This is what we wanted to come close to on this trip.

We walk around the area, attach the white shawls we got from the hotel in Lhasa to the prayer pole erected here. They join hundreds or perhaps thousand such shawls and prayer flags marking this desolate mountain pass.

It is hard to leave this place, but leave we must. From here on it is almost all the way down. Over the next 50 or so kilometers the road winds down to about 3700 meters. Slowly, vegetation appears around us as well as agriculture, with the familiar yellow oil seed plants and barley fields. Part two of today’s spectacle begins.

We stop in a tiny village for lunch, which consists of the Tibetan noodle soup. The difference between the Chinese and Tibetan noodle soup is only in the shape of the noodles. The former are irregularly shaped flat things while the latter are in the shape of spaghetti. This trip really tests my love of noodles and other pasta products. I have not tired of them yet, which surprises even me. I have not found the limit of my noodle eating.

Finally, we arrive at the famous Milarepa Monastery with the Milarepa’s Cave. This is a place where Milarepa, the most revered holy man and poet, meditated and reached the state of enlightenment. We are the only visitors. The cave is small and cozy, with the usual decorations. The monastery is also small and recently rebuilt, after the Cultural Revolutions’ destruction. Only five monks live here. As all the other monasteries we visited, this one is built on a mountainside. This is a bucolic place, with a few villages in the valley below, rich and well tended fields and a mountain river. We give money to an old beggar and to a boy with severely disfigured face. Our guide also gives them money. I did not see him give money before. But this is the area where he grew up, so I guess he feels a sense of belonging to these people.

Now we enter the final stretch of the trip: the one-and-half hour drive to the border. The road continues down. Over the next 50 or so kilometers we will reach down to about 2000 meter altitude. The guidebooks note the beauty of this stretch of the road, the famous Friendship Highway which was built in the 1960s to connect China with Nepal, but they do not prepare us for the breathtaking beauty that emerges around us. The road is a zig-zag cut into the mountain side of a deep gorge. We follow a swift mountain river at the bottom. As the altitude declines, the vegetation becomes richer. At some point we stop the car and climb the mountainside, towards a waterfall and low clouds. After two weeks of largely barren land we are taken aback by the greenery and flowers. With my rather ignorant and inexperienced eye I can distinguish about a dozen and half different types of flowers. And it is so green here. We have not seen greenness for so long, I suddenly realize.

As the drive continues, the landscape becomes increasingly dramatic. The vegetation changes from shrubs to trees, threes change from evergreens to leafy, more flowering trees and bushes emerge. The gorge becomes deeper. We estimate it to be more than a kilometer high and close to vertical. I have never seen anything quite like it. And so much water here. It comes down the two almost vertical walls in abundance. Sometimes as sheets of water on cliffs, sometimes as streams, sometimes as waterfalls. Often it crosses the narrow road on which we travel. At times I get dizzy looking down the vertical slope of the gorge. The traffic is very light on this road but several times we do pass trucks and other SUVs, and I just close my eyes and hold Philip’s hand. This is really dizzying. I would never venture here in the winter or at night.

The road feels like a narrow piece of fabric that has not been finished: it frays, unravels, diminishes in width. The ravine side of the road frays by loosing its surface while the wall side of the road diminishes by the constant deposits of earth, silt, mud and falling rocks. We see several signs of recent land and rock slides. At some point we pass a hotel that has been built for travelers stuck here because of landslides. There was one only two weeks ago. On the plane to Lhasa we met a large groups of tourists who had lost several days of their tour by unsuccessfully trying to get to Lhasa on land.

This is a dangerous place. Nawang tells us a story of Dutch tourists who several years ago tried to run on foot across the most dangerous stretches of the road, ahead and in-between falling rocks, only to give up and return to Kathmandu. We rename it from Friendship to Suicide Highway. The vegetation continues to change. Now it is all leafy trees, some quite tall.

By early evening we arrive in Zhangmu. This border city is thrown together with corrugated iron for roofs, crumbling concrete for walls and mud for street surfaces, but it is also the most picturesque site from a distance. It is literally a set of terraces cut into the vertical wall of the gorge and connected by a single zig-zagging road. The sound of falling water is ever-present. At each end of the city huge trucks, mostly with Nepali signs, are parked on the road in an endless queue. This city is essentially one huge truck stop that provides all the necessary services to the drivers: eating and sleeping establishments, brothels and places for trading. It is sleazy and dirty, it pulsates and smells. Philip talks about “Chinese dirt” and “Tibetan dirt”, with the first one being more malignant and revolting. Although we cannot quite define it with greater precision, I intuitively agree with him.

We locate very few signs of Tibet here; this is definitely a Chinese town. Kids in the internet café as thoroughly modern. Not a sign of Tibetan dress.

Our hotel is a rather low class establishment, though populated by a respectable clientele of mostly young tourists, and mostly Chinese. We make a note to complain to the travel agent in Lhasa about his choice of a hotel, but we do not want the trouble of protesting now and looking for another accommodation. After all, it is only one night. As I reluctantly use the rudimentary toilet I note the breathtaking view of the gorge from the toilet’s window and the sound of waterfalls. If there was an index of incongruity, calculated as a ratio of the quality of a facility to a quality of the view, this hotel would win the world prize.

We take a walk, have a lousy and overprized meal at the hotel, visit an internet café, and spend a fitful night, trying to sleep through the street noise. We should have asked for a room facing the gorge, not the street. We would be sleeping to the sound of waterfalls.

Monday, July 25

Today we cross the border to Nepal. It is a complicated and rather nerve wrecking experience. First we drive a few hundred meters to the Chinese checkout point. With the Land Cruiser parked along the street, we walk with our luggage, and our two guys, to the passport checking place. A line of western and Chinese tourists moves smoothly, the passport official is cordial and efficient. Once again, we meet the four Chinese tourist girls from Gyantse who exuberantly greet us. Next, we walk over to the customs officials, who shown no interest at all in the content of our luggage. So far, so good.

At this point, a Nepali guide should show up and take charge of us, but none is present. So our Tibetian guide and driver go back to get the SUV, load the luggage and us on board, and we drive the 8 Km no-man’s-land to the famous Friendship Bridge connecting the two countries. The Tibetans are not allowed to cross the bridge, and so it is time to say goodbye here. We tip them and exit the vehicle. Within seconds, a crowd of would-be porters gathers around is, mostly to grab our luggage and carry it across the bridge. It is a pushy and unfriendly crowd that makes me immensely uncomfortable. Since we were instructed in advance not to allow anybody get hold of our luggage I am rather hostile and defensive. But suddenly, our Tibetan guys identify in this suffocating crowd “our” Nepali guide. We shake hands with the young man, say the last goodbye to Nawang and the driver (we never learned his name!), and run after the guide and some boy helper who are fast disappearing with the luggage. We practically run across the Friendship Bridge, not quite knowing what the next step is. Just following the luggage.

On the other side the crowd is dense, I do not quite know why. We go through the passport check in a small one story buildings, and fill out one more time applications for Nepali visas, with pictures attached. This time we do not have to pay the $60 fee, which is a nice surprise, created, I believe, by the word of the savvy Nepali guide. We follow the guide some more along the road crowded with people and vehicles, until he stops and announces that we must wait 1.5 hours for the guide from Kathmandu to pick us up. I sit in a nearby restaurant over a cup of tea and write on the computer, while Philip talks and plays with the hordes of small boys who hang around this chaotic, busy place.

Just about the time that my computer battery runs out the agents (a guide and a driver) from Kathmandu show up with a large sign with our names on it. What a relief! Their vehicle is a van of sorts, old-fashioned, high, narrow, with suspiciously worn tires. As they deposit our luggage in the back compartment we see that they carry a large load of heavy rocks, presumably to serve as hand brakes for the wheels. It is on top of these rocks that our delicate suitcases land. The entire operation does not inspire confidence or a sense of security. But the men are friendly.

This is how our last stretch of the 900 Km trek from Lhasa to Kathmandu begins. It is essentially a continuation of the road and drive of yesterday. For the next several hours we follow the same river. The gorge starts out very deep, but after perhaps two hours becomes less dramatic. We go down, down, down. At some points the road is terrible, with land slides and fraying edges. In contrast to yesterday, the traffic is heavy. At times we pass grossly overloaded local busses, which by some miracle make it up the hill and through the rocks and mud, without getting stuck. We pass trucks and people. At some point we watch a group of people –the passengers and other drivers – help a truck get over a mud hole and fallen rocks. It feels like playing chicken on this road is a form of competitive sport among these drivers.

Kilometer after kilometer, we enter a tropical climate. By the time we stop for lunch of good Nepali dal bat we are in a hot humid country, with only an impossible memory of the Himalayas of yesterday. The change makes us mentally dizzy.

This drive allows me to see Nepal and to place Kathmandu in some visual context. Northern Nepal is all mountains and valleys, deep forests and rice patties. It is luscious and picturesque. Really, very beautiful. If I were to return to Nepal I would spend no more than a couple of days in Katmandu, and go trekking in the country side. I think that it would be a marvelous thing to do.

And so we continue, hour after hour (about five in toto) on this road. Several times we climb up the ridges of mountains and descent into valleys. A couple of times we pass through road blocks and various military checkpoints. The presence of solders in camouflage uniforms and brandishing AK 4 rifles stand as a reminder of the political instability in Nepal. We also see a lot of red earth, undoubtedly the source of the distinctive brick and pottery we noted during our first encounter with Katmandu and its valley. The last hour of the trip, within the Katmandu valley, is the hardest because we are tired and hot and because the lushness and greenness gives way to dust, noise and heavy traffic.

At around four o’clock we finally arrive at the familiar International Guest House. We get a very nice room in the new wing. What a pleasure to get out of the van and unpack in our comfortable and well appointed room!

Downstairs in the dining area the maitre d’ recognizes us and greets us warmly. So does the security guard. This is how the rich live, I note, being recognized by hotel and restaurant staff who make it their business to know their patrons’ tastes and needs.

After a suitable time of bathing, showering and rest, we take a walk through Thamel. Again, we have the experience of being recognized, this time by the shopkeepers and the waiter at Café New Orleans. We have a splendid dinner, overeat without apologies, and enjoy a balmy evening in Katmandu, with all its rich and pungent smells, spicy food, good cooks, and endless merchandise for sell.

Tuesday, July 26

This is a day of shopping, relaxing and enjoying Kathmandu. I am again struck by the infinite colors and patterns of the saris and the pant sets women wear, the grace of women’s movements, and the crispiness of men, who mostly look as though they put on freshly ironed shirts only a moment ago. After China, the dirt of Katmandu looks differently; more like a misalignment between the rate of growth and population density on the one hand, and the availability of city services and money to invest on the other hand. In China, it seemed that dirt was more related to people’s personal habits and tolerance for decay. We see the neglected infrastructure through a different lens: here, it is the lack of money while there it was the ever present shoddy work and low quality materials.

It is hot (37 degrees by noon). We move slowly. We take in the city, bargain with merchants. At noon we return to the hotel for a rest. I write, Philip reads. The hotel garden, walled in with the red bricks and filled with old dark Nepali woodwork, feels more splendid and tranquil than ever. It feels like home in this overheated city.

In the afternoon we go to Patan, the old city of Kathmandu, which relates to Katmandu as Cambridge relates to Boston. It is a splendid place, built around the old Royal Palace and its gardens. It has several graceful temples, some of them Buddhist, and well stocked art shops. Patan is much quieter than Kathmandu and has an air of provincial self contained town. We no longer have interest in shopping, so we focus on the architecture, the old woodwork, some of it going to the 12th century, and the local atmosphere. Late in the afternoon we sit down for an early dinner/late lunch at Café Patan. At this odd hour the place is largely empty. The Maitre’d suggests a table on the roof terrace. As we continue climbing successive levels, it turns out that the restaurant has 5 stories, four of which are progressively smaller terraces, with the top one having a single table. This is where we have our meal. We sit at the level of tree tops and many rooftops. The view of the city and the surrounding mountains is arresting. At this hour Katmandu receives its daily rain. We can see the distant sheets of water, over the city and further, over the mountains, but it does not rain on us. Only a cool breeze touches us. This represents the entire trip, and is just right for the last evening: nothing ever goes wrong, all is well.

Back in the hotel we pack and take showers, and then go out for one last walk through Thamel and for a drink at Café New Orleans. Tomorrow we will be out at 6:30 AM.

Wednesday, July 27

The parting gift from Nepal: as the plane rises and cuts through the clouds we get the most spectacular view of the Himalayas and Annapurna mountains, reaching up way above the clouds. The best postcard picture, just for us.