October 31, 2008

Disappearing Act Into the Mongolian Outback

As I sit here in my hostel bedroom wearing the sheepskin boots I have just been given for my two week journey into the magical lands of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, traveling South to the Gobi desert and then into Central Mongolia, I am a bit concerned about the immense warmth radiating from my feet. Why are these boots so warm? Is it because the weather will actually be that cold? I think the answer is yes. Whose bright idea was it to come to Mongolia in the wintertime anyway?
This will be the first time on my trip I will truly be off the grid; no phone, no internet, no electricity. Just a jeep, some camels, some horses, a driver, a guide, local nomadic host families living in yurts, two French, Two Canadians, a Dutch, and Me, the American with the big, warm feet and the red nose. If I don't get inspired to conquer China and parts of Russia while out on the plains, then I will be posting the details of this journey in about three weeks....
(wish me luck!)

October 28, 2008

Lake Baikal / Olkhon Island, Russia

Leaving Irkutsk, after a day and night of light precipitation and bitter temperatures, in a semi-snow-woman condition for the Island of Olkhon, I was not aware of the journey that lay before me. You can make it to the banks of Lake Baikal from the city in about an hour on roads that cut through the flat and bare landscape of the region, but getting to this island is a bumpy six-hour trek in a minimally heated mini-bus that includes a ferry ride which can add an extra hour or so depending on the queue and the weather. The passing scenery had put me in a hypnotic state of motion but even with the rough terrain of the roads, I managed to doze in and out of an afternoon travel slumber that had me almost falling over, in periodic spastic jerks, onto the shoulder of my Buryat neighbor.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, having only read things that called Lake Baikal the “Gem of Siberia”, but when we arrived at the ferry landing and I took in a sip of the crisp, windy air and saw the sun shimmering off the surface of the brilliant blue sapphire water as velvety, honey-soaked mountains framed the view, I immediately got butterflies in my stomach, like an adolescent developing her first crush, and I could hear the ghost of John Wayne riding up beside me on his horse, looking me in the eye and saying, “M’am, this right here is God’s country.”
Olkhon Island is like Mother Nature with her Saturday night party dress on the bedroom floor. She is exposed, seductive, passionate and unpredictable. She will either bend under the touch or claw back with nails. She will inspire poets and warriors alike. It is legend that Genghis Khan is buried here and the spirits, which the island Shamans call to from trance, seem to soar in the sky like determined arrows from a bow. The myriad of patterned clouds hang so low that it feels like you could attach a hose to a vacuum and suck them down like dust in the corners of the ceiling. The earth here stares at you fervently and every second is spent with a heightened awareness of being.
“How did I get here?” I wondered, “Where am I?” For a second in time I seemed to lose all sense of gravity and, even though the distance and time difference from my family and friends was enormous, I felt calm and safe. It was as if, suddenly, I could zoom out from the microscopic dot that was Me and, from an omniscient perspective, see the sequence of events that led to this moment, as if through a 1970’s plastic Viewfinder from my youth, and everything was as it should be. The service on my cell phone had switched to the local carrier and it announced its’ name on the display window, “Far East”; appropriately named. I really was in the Far East in what seemed like an unintended, but welcomed, exile into the spectacular fields of the Siberian steppes and on the shoreline of the deepest and largest fresh water lake in the world.
The mini-bus dropped me off at Nakita’s Homestead, one of the oldest guesthouses on the island, and from the second story of the pagoda-like terrace, I could survey the village with it’ wide, irregular and uneven dirt roads, old wooden shacks blowing smoke from their chimney with Soviet-style factory cars parked in front, cows and dogs roaming free and the indigenous Buryat people, cousins in ancestry to the Mongols, walking the streets in gloves, hats and heavy winter jackets lined with fur. Sergei, the local priest of the islands only church, a Greek Orthodox Church, told me that the past few years have seen a huge increase in tourism during the summer months; with 30,000 visitors in a four month time frame compared to the island’s 2,000 inhabitants. But not many people come in the winter and I was happy to find that I had the place, wrapped in peace and quiet, almost entirely to myself.
Which ended quickly when I met Crazy Italian Daniel. After spending the first two nights and days in complete and meditative solitude, falling into deep sleeps in my warm cabin room and enjoying the beauty of my surroundings with five hour walks on the beach, through the forests and into the steppes without seeing a single living human, Daniel and I struck up a conversation while waiting for lunch to be served in the communal canteen. He is an older, successful business man from Florence with a free spirit and an artistic heart and when he came to the island five years ago on holiday, he impulsively bought a piece of property overlooking the lake on which stood, and still does stand, a dilapidated, unlivable house. He comes every year for about fifteen days and stays at a guesthouse while he thinks of what to do with this property; Restaurant? Rooms for rent? Shops? When we met, his latest impulsive purchase was a Soviet-style truck, and after finding an easy and fun rhythm to our discussions, we took this truck on daily excursions to tour the landscape and to visit some of the neighboring villages, which are no more than five or six houses on a dirt road and maybe a little market for dried goods. We became the non-violent Bonnie and Clyde of Olkhon, blazing through the open fields, perhaps scaring a few sheep or cows into moving aside, while giddily bumping up and down in our seats as the water and mountains stretched out before us like a famous museum painting. Daniel seemed to embody the spirit of director Roberto Benigni when he spontaneously stood on the back of his theater chair, joy emanating from his entire being, as he was announced the Oscar winner for the movie
Life is Beautiful, as we shuttled along, Daniel would turn to me every so often with an enthusiastic grin, his finger pointed in the air and shout over the loud hum of the motor, “And the Adventures Goes On!” And the adventures did go on; that night, with a bottle of wine and some Vodka, a collection of the staff, some locals and a few straggler tourists, we made a party, complete with live accordion and piano music accompanied by sing-alongs and great conversation and we all drank and danced by the wood burning stove until well past midnight.
My departure was the next day, but I was having such a wonderful time that I decided to stay a few days longer than planned because at $27 a night with breakfast, lunch and dinner included, a cozy cabin with a cookin’ space heater and an outhouse for the toilet, I thought to myself, “Life really
is beautiful.”

October 27, 2008

Irkutsk, Russia

When I arrived at the train station in Irkutsk at a very early 6:00 a.m and walked outside, where I could see my breath exiting my mouth in big white plumes resembling a factory chimney but could not feel any bite to the air around me, I started to think that Russians are just lying about the notoriously cold temperatures found here during the winter. I thought they had me fooled, walking around in their big jackets and fur hats as a guise, but, oddly, as the clock started climbing in hours toward 10:00 a.m, the thermometer started dropping fast until the sky turned a deep shade of grey and started covering this small Siberian city on the banks of the Angara River with a windy snow; now the air was biting right through my clothing and my skin, straight to my bones, and I decided then and there that Russians really were telling the truth when they said it gets cold.
I had come to Irkutsk mainly as a launching city for my trip to Lake Baikal, and so, without the pressing feeling of many sights to see and with consideration for the weather outside, I spent most of my time becoming close friends with the heater in my dorm room at the hostel. I managed a short trip outside to take the token picture of some of the traditional old-style Siberian wooden houses that line the streets close to the river and when that was complete five minutes later, I ran to the glove store and purchased a wooly pair for my nonfunctioning, red hands and then ran back to the hostel with frozen weather tears in my eyes. The most I saw of this city was the next day, on my walk to the bus station for Lake Baikal, where under a few rays of sun, being outside became bearable for this Mediterranean-blooded traveler.

Trans-Siberian Railway, Ekaterinburg to Irkutsk, Russia

After Ekiterinburg, it was time to board the train again, this time for a three-night, two-day journey to Irkutsk. I was hopeful to continue my lucky streak of friendly and entertaining cabin mates such as I had with Valery and Valentina. These experiences were so pleasant that I started thinking if I ever needed a hug or some cheering up that I would just book a train ride in Russia, but as soon as I saw that the placement number on my ticket put me on the top bunk, I began to worry that my comfort on this leg of the trip was going to be a little bit compromised. I always request a lower bunk because of the extra space, cooler temperatures, prime scenery-gazing opportunities and easy access in and out of the cabin that it affords, but these places must have already been filled when I booked my ticket, and so I reluctantly did an ungraceful acrobatic jump up to my 2ft x 5 ft riding zone, almost throwing out my back again after carefully healing it for three weeks.
My roommates were a nice, deaf couple occupying the lower bunks and since I neither knew sign language or how to write in Russian, I prepared myself for a solitary journey into Siberia. After boarding late and going straight to bed, I started the next day with my usual routine of taking these down moments to organize photographs, listen to music and write on my computer. I was happily rolling along when, in what seemed like a simultaneous catastrophic moment, my computer battery died and, for the first time on my trip, when I went to re-charge, I found out it was not compatible with the train’s electricity and then… Gold-Tooth came stumbling into the cabin. Since all my electronics run off the same voltage, it was only a matter of time before my entrance into Siberia would feel strangely isolating as slowly all my comforts and creative vices lost their power; music, pictures, writing. Luckily I always have a book handy and, given the electronic meltdown, I would make more progress in its’ completion than usual. I also took a second to size up my new top-bunk cabin mate and knew immediately that this man was going to nail my patience into the frozen tundra like a metal spike.
Gold-Tooth was an extremely drunk Russian man who looked as though he was approaching sixty, but in reality was probably only forty and who, appropriately named, had used up all Russia’s gold resources to have every single one of his front teeth capped so that if the sun was shining down on his smile, you were immediately blinded. If you stuck a post it note with every physical offense this man displayed, there would not be a single piece of his underneath showing through; he grunted, he moaned, he snorted, he unleashed his fetorous alcohol breath into communal air, he disregarded personal space, he smelled, he farted, he burped, he snored, he stumbled, he heaved, he stared and….yes, he was my top-bunk neighbor! A mere elbow’s length of space separating us that not even the cotton shield of my bed sheet could mask the pungent odors or muffle the orchestra of criminal sounds. I was stranded in Siberia. I had no one in which I could commiserate and all the sources of drowning out the gurbles, burbles and grunts were void of power; I started to envy the silence my deaf cabin mates, unfortunately, had no choice but to be a part of. I wondered to myself if the KGB would become suspicious if this man just happened to “fall” off the train because he was so “drunk.”
This forced me to spend a lot of time outside of the cabin, in the corridor, where I turned my attention to studying the passing scenery through dirt stained windows with great focus. I had started to question my fascination with the Trans-Siberian Railway on my journey from Moscow to Ekaterinburg; it seemed I had romanticized a landscape that, at times, gave the same unvaried effect of driving through days worth of cornfields in Kansas. But as the train pressed further East, I felt as though we were rolling through a vast piece of landscape art; the Birch trees resembled delicate fallen twigs which were painted white and stuck upright in the wheat colored ground whose patterns can change from a linear cluster to a circular cluster with the blink of an eye. Sometimes there is a stretch of land that is void of anything but the color of it’s surface, and sometimes on that lonely plain there will stand one tree, away from the pack, as if it knew it had a life destined for complete solitude. There are trees that have fallen over on their side and seem to crawl across the earth like white centipedes and villages of small wooden shacks appear and then disappear, in what seems like the middle of nowhere, and I wondered how people survive here in the harsh of winter. Then I am reminded of some things I have learned along the way, like the people who were sent here to the gulags who not only survived the seasons with improper clothing and inadequate food, but did so with creativity and imagination, constructing books of poetry from the bark of these very trees before me and devised chessboards and figurines from hardened bread. It was the story of these people that gave me the strength to go back to my assigned cabin, where Gold-Tooth lay passed out, drooling stale alcohol on his pillow, and with my own creativity and imagination in bloom, I drugged myself with two Tylenol PM and soon found, that in making good use of all available resources, it was possible to survive just about anything.

Ekaterinburg, Russia

I chose to visit Ekaterinburg (ye-cat-er-in-burg) based on an online description of it being an industrial city that hosts the sights of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his families’ untimely end; nothing like a murder mystery mixed with some great factory photo opportunities to peak my interest. I had been following the trail of the Tsar, visiting his final resting place at the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg, and it was time to complete this grim tale in Ekaterinburg by visiting the house, which is now a church appropriately titled the Church of Spilled Blood, where the entire family was murdered by revolutionaries intent on bringing down the monarchy and the place in the forest, where in 1979, almost all their remains were discovered.
I was staying at the hostel of Anatoly and his access to a car made my one-day journey there well spent. We headed out the next day to visit the Church of Spilled Blood and then out of the city, through forests of the elegant, white-stained Birch trees found in this region of Ural to Ganina Yama, which is an abandoned mine shaft and the site where they found the royal remains of the Romanovs to which they erected a collection of intimate log cabin churches and a board of personal family photographs as a shrine to the family. Even though the premise of the place where we were was, well… a bit gruesome, the beauty of the surrounding nature and the calm that bristled through the trees was palpable; maybe it was the ghostly spirit of Nicholas that I felt swirling through the brisk air telling the visitors that he was in peace, thanks for stopping by. Each log cabin church has it’s own distinct alter design, some shimmering in gold while others display the lapis stone common in Russia, and they all create a beautiful contrast against the simple, candlelit wood interiors common to all. Unfortunately there were no pictures allowed and I put my illegally-wandering-to-my-camera hand to good use by lighting candles of peace and goodwill for my family and friends instead.
I expressed my interest in industrial factories and Anatoly was kind enough to take me on a tour to see some of the many production plants that are housed in this city. In fact, Ekaterinburg has been labeled the “Detroit of Ural” and driving through the streets I would definitely agree with this association. All through Russia’s vast landscape there are many factories producing all kinds of things and the tall, striped, smoking chimneys dot the horizon in great frequency. This city has a very 1950’s working-man’s feel, where groups of young men walk on dusty streets to and from their jobs with lunch boxes in hand while women push baby carriages balanced with grocery bags and school boys skip rocks by the river’s edge next to abandoned factory sites. But big industry does not usually breed creativity, and while this city was a creative outpost, becoming a meeting place for exiled writer’s, academics, and intellectual’s under the Stalin regime, the architecture was like walking through a child’s Lego creation; all the buildings, with the exception of a few new commercial developments, were huge block-like structures with windows cut out. The original wooden homes which are still in existence all throughout the countryside of Ural and it’s neighbor region to the East, Siberia, have mostly been knocked down to make way for these static mega-dwellings, save for a few on the outskirts of town. This short stop-off from the train gave me a good glimpse of life in Russia outside of the major and well-known hubs of charming St. Petersburg and glitzy Moscow and made me see just how varied this country really is.

Trans-Siberian Railway, Moscow to Ekaterinburg, Russia

My next adventure in Russia was spent fulfilling a long held dream of riding on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is a train line that starts in Moscow, ends in Beijing and connects local Russian cities and towns along the way in an Eastward direction through Ural and Siberia even heading Southbound toward Mongolia or through Manchuria if you choose. Booking these tickets without a travel agent, who will charge a hefty mark-up, is near impossible outside of Russia, but since it was off-season, I decided to try my luck and wait until I got to St. Petersburg to start organizing this leg of my journey. I kicked some beer money to one of the young kids working at the hostel who assisted me and half a day later, after some internet research and a minor excursion to the train station, I had four separate commission-free-local-priced tickets getting me through the remaining territory of Russia, with three scenic pit-stops along the way, and across the border into Mongolia.
In Moscow, I had paid special attention to equip myself with some very essential provisions for the two-day ride through the Ural region to Ekaterinburg; cheese and crackers, a bottle of water and, of course, two tasty bottles of Chilean red wine. I knew I ran the risk of being labeled a cabin snob for stocking the bar-in-my-bag with wine rather than the local staples of Vodka or Whisky, but others people’s opinions have never bothered me, and I figured, alcohol is alcohol: perhaps I would even get the chance of challenging a hearty Russian man to partake in drinking some fermented grapes in public.
As it turned out, there was no opportunity for this as my sole cabin roommate was a sprightly woman named Valentina, who offered up the biggest smile when I walked in and immediately started conducting energetic conversations with me in Russian. It’s true at that point I only had “hello”, “Thank You” and the handy, universally-understood “Super” in the repertoire, and that Valentina, somewhere in her 58 years, had picked up “I Love You” and “Happy Birthday to You” in English, but the difference of spoken and non-understood language only becomes a barrier if the people involved are not connecting, in which case you could speak in the same exact tongue and still not understand a damn thing the other person is saying. This was not the case with Valentina and I as we started an immediate bond that surpassed vocabulary.
Rolling through the region, watching as a continuous line of tall trees mixed with an occasional break of open landscape filled the window, Valentina and I involved ourselves in the most admirable game of charades while exchanging family photographs and elaborate drawings on my sketch notepad; within two hours we had developed a pretty decent snapshot of each other’s lives. Honestly, this activity was so much fun that I entertained going on a full spoken-word strike, using only crazy made-up hand movements as my primary mode of communication. Photographs and drawings weren’t the only items on display. In her excitement over the love-fest taking place in cabin IV, Valentina decided to show me, one by one, and with great fanfare, all the tchotchkes she had carefully stowed in her bag; a battery-operated-machine-gun-toting-floor-crawling-army-figure, a sparkly-plastic-magnetic-dolphin-shaped-bottle-opener, a fiberglass-molded-stiletto-shoe-cell-phone-holder, and quite endearingly, laminated placemats with a collage of photographs from her daughters wedding. When the local women, who board the trains to sell bag loads of these tchotchkes to passengers, would enter our cabin, Valentina would caress the items thoughtfully, picking them up, examining them closely, and then putting them down with great care, even purchasing a few coloring books in my presence. She then decided to teach me how to twirl a glass, without spilling any liquid, like a professional belly dancer, and this took up a good hour that afterwards had us both rolling around in laughter on our small cabin beds.
After all this activity we had both worked up quite an appetite, and even though she had been hazing me with an entire watermelon for the past four hours, we dug into our train-provided beefsteaks with vigor (mmm mmm good). I decided to see if it was time to share some wine and when I presented the bottle to Valentina with an inquisitive look on my face, she started to jump up and down in her seat repeating the word “Super” again and again; “Da, Da. Super, Super, Super.” I correctly took that to mean yes, or rather “Da” in Russian. Valentina was no drinking novice and she started right in with hefty sips that even I found to be at an accelerated speed, but when she would finish a nice sized gulp and look at me with a huge grin and a red wine moustache, I felt as though I was watching my newborn take it’s first steps.
We had created a harmonious energy and Valentina’s lighthearted spirit and warm smile reminded me of my Mother, so I gave her the title of Siberian Surrogate Mama- Tchotchke Queen of Ural, and even though she probably didn’t quite understand all of her new name, she understood enough and quickly started calling me the word for daughter in Russian. After a lovely evening, a good night’s sleep and another highly entertaining wine-soaked-glass-twirling-beefsteak-lunch, my destination had arrived and it was time to rip myself from the womb of cabin IV and say goodbye to my new Siberian Surrogate. On the platform outside we embraced each other, exchanged “I Love You” in English a few hundred times and made hand-signaled promises of letters no one would be able to read and telephone calls no one would understand, but as Valentina got back on the train and I stood watching as her waving hand slowly disappeared down the track, I knew the exchange of words and letters didn’t matter because we had already shared the most important thing – an open heart.

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