Thursday, August 1, 2013

Beijing to Ulan Bator, Mongolia (29 hours)

Scarred by the  Hanoi experience, and tired and frustrated with Beijing, I have a panic attack the night before my early morning departure from Beijing when I realize that I’ve failed to ask my guide to give me my ticket. He’s scheduled to pick me up in the morning and deposit me on the train, of course, but I can’t shake off the worry. Then I remember that Adam is the Chinese Rain Man, and I calm down a little. The half of a valium and beer help, too.

There station is monumental and impressive.  Built “with the help of the former Soviet Union,” it’s all high ceilings, marble, muscular communist fixtures. It also has the same leather seats the Soviets must have installed decades ago, and now they are cracked and stained. Naturally, Rain Man and I are early, but soon enough groups and pairs of western travelers appear. One woman and asks if she can follow me since she thinks I know what I’m doing. I tell her that I don’t, but Adam does, and when it’s time to board, Adam remembers, finds her, and gets her and her husband on the correct carriage. Later, I will buy them both a beer so I can break a US $20 bill and will talk too much.
Mongolian boy and Schulz practice whistling

I get lucky with the housing lottery on this train, having paid for it with the mice and the staring, (spitting and yelling), half-dressed Chinese men on the other one. My roommates are Australians: she an anthropologist and he a writer of novels, and learner of languages. The bonus is that they lived in Ulan Bator for a year while she did field work for her PhD, researching lay priests of Tibetan Buddhism. Our carriage seems to be mostly local travelers, but up ahead on the way to the dining car (which, by the time I get there, has degenerated into a messy, smoky club car -- just my style),  where they keep the rich western travelers. The two-berth compartments are wildly upholstered and cozy. They look exactly like the color photos the Trans-Siberian advertises, and absolutely nothing like ours.

Ours is fine, however, and because Saskia speaks a little Mongolian we get to make friends with some of our fellow travelers, including a hyper-active 8-yr old boy, who, once invited into our orbit, will not leave. Most of the annoyance is forgiven, however, when he engages the whole lot of us, including the old, rich white people in 1st class, at one of the two protracted and uncomfortable border crossings in a game of “knock over the plastic milk bottle in the middle of the room with the wobbly sparkly ball while throwing from a lazy sitting position.”

Outside the window, the world is changing. The red brick buildings and cultivated fields of settled people give way to more open space, herds of horses, sheep, cows, and goats. The sharp limestone and granite hills of inner Mongolia soften and wear down. Before too long white ger, the traditional – and current – home of Mongolian nomads begin to pop up. These are round tent-like structures, made of felt and now plastic sheeting, with gently domed tops with openings for chimneys. They can be dismantled and relocated as seasons change and the need for pasture demands. 

Mongolian people love their ger so much that they’ve imported them to the city, simply packing themselves up and setting up house on a piece of land and building a fence around it. City planning and infrastructure in teeming Ulan Bator, where half of Mongolia’s 2 million people live, has not quite caught up to this trend, and many of the ger “suburbs” are little more than slums with no running water or sanitation facilities, breeding grounds for alcoholism, violence, and infectious disease. Outside the city, however, the ger are as elegantly suited to their environment as anything you could imagine.
Something outside the window, somewhere.
The nomadic herder settlements thin out as we approach the Gobi, and when I wake up (too) early in the morning, I’m treated to a sunrise over a landscape I’ve only imagined and read about: desert, going on forever, roadless, muted, unforgiving. I am giddy about seeing my first Bactrian camels, first one, then a pair, then small herds sitting or standing, waiting for something to happen or someone to spit on.

After the Gobi, the land turns to steppe. I don't have photographs of the camels, or sunrise in the desert, or the graceful ger camps set in the gentle green hills with animals grazing around them, or the the solitary Mongolian horse and rider racing up a ridge where some sheep have strayed, looking like his ancestors have looked for centuries.It all goes by too quickly to capture any of it on camera, and it's one of the challenges (and gifts) of this kind of travel to learn to relinquish the acquisitive instincts to possess images and fix experiences into metonyms and artifacts. Since I may be a little like Don Draper in only liking the beginnings of things, looking at the unknown world out the window is a pleasurable exercise in writing first lines of stories and poems I'll never have to do the hard work of finishing. 

"Two children wrestle down by the stream, a boy and a girl. Like all Mongolians, they love to wrestle, and she is not yet at the point where someone will tell her she'll have to give it up because she's a girl. Today something changes in their game when she finds herself kneeling over him and bends down to kiss him as if commanded by the wind." 

"He liked to sit at the back of the garden alone and look upon all their possessions: the rows of vegetables, rusted satellite dish, the old house his parents built where he was born and where he and his wife raised their children before they all moved away and she died. He wonders if they've wandered from the old, straight path or whether the same people who build the big building that blocks his morning sunlight have hidden it from them."

Coming up: Ulan Bator to Irkutsk

Monday, July 29, 2013

Trains, Part One: Hanoi to Beijing

Hanoi-Beijing (42 hours)
This is the one that no one thought I should take. All my Vietnamese friends kept telling me that I should take the plane, and I met no one in Vietnam, including the grungy, cheapskate backpacker crowd who had taken or planned to take this train. It was a little difficult to buy, costs a little more than a flight, and takes 42 hours, all of which probably should have dissuaded me from the notion, but it didn’t.

I like to think that I am only afraid of a few things, but then I start listing them, and there are more than I few. I have fewer persistent anxieties than many people I know, but the ones that haunt me are fierce. Fears include unleashed dogs, fish touching me underwater, caves and other small enclosed spaces, and very sheer heights. My worst anxiety is about being late, and the second worst is about being lost, alone, and confused. Just about every single bad dream I have is about disastrous travel logistics, in which both of those anxieties are fused. There are often fish, dogs, and heights added for drama in these nightmares. I’m so obsessed with getting to airports and train stations on time that I’ve taken to calling myself a chronopath. So, it was inauspicious that this leg of the journey began with the hotel staff in Sapa forgetting to buy me a ticket for Sunday night to Lao Cai so I could get to the train departing Hanoi on Tuesday night. The Monday night train would be just fine, because only I would worry about having only about 13 hours to make my connection. Thirteen hours was only sufficient by about 8 minutes, as it turned out.

Hanoi has four train stations, and the train to Beijing leaves from one I’d never been to. I spent all day afternoon in the day lounge in my hotel in Hanoi, the last few of hours of which obsessively asking the helpful staff if they knew which station I needed to get to. Many phone calls, internet searches, and examinations of my inscrutable ticket later, and the woman said she was 100% certain that she knew which one, and when we needed to leave. I would have left earlier, of course, but I trusted them. The nice young man who was going to get me on the train and in the right compartment and I set off in a cab in the height of Hanoi rush hour at 5:15 for my 6:30 train. Thirty minutes later we arrive at a tiny station in a remote neighborhood all the way across the river, and I knew immediately we were in the wrong place. We have to wait a few agonizing minutes for another cab to materialize and then have 40 minutes to make it all the way back to where we started and to another station. Sitting in the back seat praying that we’re going to the right station this time, I watch the driver navigate the Hanoi traffic with such speed and daring that I almost forget to panic. We only barely hit one motorcycle along the way, and I actually said out loud, “whatever happens, just don’t stop.” After we screech to a halt in front of the huge and unmistakably correct station, my guy from the hotel hustles so fast that I can barely keep up with him. He throws some money on the desk of the surly lady who collects the fee for porters, guides, and, presumably family and friends, who want to see someone off on the train. We fling ourselves into the carriage, get pointed to one of the compartments, and in it, to my great relief and delight, is a smiling middle-aged western man. I have to call him Sam, for South African Man, because even though we spent about 24 hours together, we never exchanged names.

He’s on his way to Gui Lin for some sort of Tai Chi thing, after spending a few months in Na Trang. We are, as it turns out, the only western travelers on the train, and, even weirder, the only people in this carriage, which, until we reach the Chinese border, is the only car on the train. The two of us are being personally escorted to China.
Somewhere in southern China

At the border crossing at Dong Dan, we are met by another personal escort, a smiling woman in uniform who takes us to a holding area where we sit for several hours. We do not have our passports because we’ve surrendered them to another uniformed person on the train. An hour or so later, we are walked to the main station, where we meet a platoon of people inspecting, discussing, and finally, stamping our passports. They’re perplexed that Sam’s passport says he’s African, and yet he’s white. They think we’re married to each other. Who knows? It’s midnight something, and children wave at us from outside the window and run around and try to snap candid photos with one or both of us. Finally, another uniformed person escorts us to the Chinese train, where we are initially placed in a nice, clean compartment in what again appears to be a car for only us. Shortly, however, we’re moved to the next car and a compartment that also seems to be celebrating its first communion, except that it has been peed on. Oh, well, at least it doesn’t have mice like the Vietnamese carriage we were in from Hanoi to Dong Dan.

We eat the gross instant pots of noodles we’ve managed to buy and try to get settled. Every now and then, someone stops by to stare or to berate us for something. Sam has a few words of Chinese, which only seems to encourage them. For a long time, a Chinese man stood in the doorway and urgently explained something to Sam. I was grateful that my middle-aged woman cloak of invisibility left me out of the discussion.

We lock the door and settle in for the night, but in the morning the hallway is full of Chinese men – including the train staff – in various stages of undress just warming up for a full day of spitting, yelling, and shoving. The hoiking is audible throughout the carriage. At Gui Lin, Sam gets off, handing me a handful of yuan because I have no Chinese currency, and that’s the only way I can buy water, beer, or more gross noodles. I’ve begun to panic a bit about whether the guide will be there at the station to meet me in Beijing because the arrival times listed vary by about 90 minutes. This anxiety is assuaged by observing Sam’s experience: he’s told he’s arriving at 12, 1, or 4. He actually arrives at his destination at about 2:15.

After Gui Lin, I am alone as the only western traveler on the train, and I am in a now quite crowded carriage filled with Chinese people. I try to leave my door open for air and neighborliness, but it proves to be impossible because people stand in the doorway and stare. Sometimes they even step in and start gesturing. I conclude that they’re distressed that I have so much space to myself while whole families are jammed into other compartments, with children sharing bunks with each other or with adults. I do not feel guilty. But I do have to shut myself up into my little lacey, pee-smelling cell for the next 24 hours or so.

I watch southern China go past outside the window. The more I look, the less I understand about the place. Parts of it are beautiful and haunting, some with limestone karsts rising out of green fields in scenery that’s indistinguishable from Vietnam. But the buildings are all different. Chinese houses are mostly brick, low, graceful affairs with walled or fenced buildings. Villages of these, with figures working fields with buffalo, go on for miles. But suddenly you begin to see those red brick buildings in states of disrepair or demolition, and hulking, unforgivably ugly apartment blocks begin to appear. The older ones are terrible looking, and even on the uppermost floors, everyone has caged themselves in with wire or bars on their patios. Later I try to understand the purpose of these, asking a guide if the wire is for keeping people or things in or out. He says it’s to prevent burglars from getting in, which I find completely unbelievable, because I can’t imagine that a thief with the skills to scale a building would bother to rob those awful-looking places.

The crumbling old buildings are bad, but the new ones are even worse. Monstrously scaled, their refusal to acknowledge the landscape or the traditions of the people around them is like the taunts of a hulking schoolyard bully. They dare you to defend the idea of beauty, of the dignity and solace of grace and art. I wonder who will live there, who will have to accept the dehumanizing and de-civilizing effects of living in such a geometry of contempt. Around these arrogant towers, the remains of one-storey red-brick homes crumble and kowtow.

Watching the ratio of ugly towers, smokestacks, and garbage dumps to farms, brick homes, and rice fields increase as we approach Beijing makes me sad and even more anxious. The hot Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can with an actual pop-top that the snack cart lady sold me out of a pillow case helps a little, but not much. I have a premonition that I won’t like Beijing, but I have 5 nights to spend there anyway. My more immediate concern, however, is whether the guide will meet me at the station, so when we pull into Beijing and I can see a man with a sign with my name on it, I am enormously relieved. He is running in the opposite direction, and I chase him down against the tide of shoving, spitting, and yelling Chinese people.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Walking Tour of Sapa, Part Two

The walk from the cafĂ© involves two more flights of steep, chipped stairs, some scary dogs, and, surprisingly often, rain, fog, and darkness. The photos here are from a daytime trip we all took with the children, so you’ll have to imagine the rain, fog, and darkness.

Although it isn’t uphill both ways, the way to school is seriously uphill one of the ways, and, at 8:45 when class is over, dark on the downhill.

On this day, we went a slightly different way than usual because we were coming from the park where again Bruce and Ann bought all the children ice-cream. Ann had one or two leftover after some of us declined, and she sought out other children to give them to. Before long she went back and bought another big bag of cones and gave them to all the children in the park. For at least one little pants-less boy, it was his first taste of ice-cream. We also gave a cone to our 70-year old Hmong friend who had followed me to the lake earlier in the day.

After ice cream, our whole group started up the first flight of stairs to school.

Then the second ...

And finally, the last hill. Here is the classroom building with children’s laundry drying outside.

The children spend a lot of time washing their clothes in a tub by hand with cold water, and Bruce and Ann wanted to buy them a washing machine so that they could spend more time studying and playing, and less time on chores, but others vetoed the plan because they feared the girls would not be able to readjust to hand-washing once they returned to their villages.

The Wife Shoppers

(I wrote this weeks ago, but I wanted to wait until I left Vietnam to post it. For all kinds of good reasons, there are no photos.)

These two are new: An Indian (Singaporean? Malaysian?) man and a chirpy Vietnamese woman. She looks nice in her high purple heels, which I can’t imagine wearing in Sapa’s chipped filthy streets, and her short chambray dress with a shirttail hem that reveals even more thigh as she moves in the strong breeze on the terrace. She’s perfectly made-up and her bobbed hair has a slightly auburn tint. They order coffee drinks and take many pictures of each other drinking them. I hear her in her good school English explaining something about the American South. They do not know each other very well.

After the photos and the lectures on American history, she moves over to the other side of the table to share his bench and begins rubbing his furry earlobes between her thumb and forefinger and mussing his shoe-black hair.

They join creepy guy, my next door neighbor, who’s been here a couple of days, formally sharing meals with a youngish French-speaking Vietnamese woman with a small child. We sit on the terrace at the same time and pass each other frequently, but only once has he returned the “hello” I’ve proffered. I am fine with pretending each other doesn’t exist, but then I have to hear him all the time through our thin shared bathroom wall, hacking up his Gitanes, or whatever else he’s doing in there. His girlfriend/prospect isn’t allowed up here in his room, so at least I don’t have to hear that. After the first time I saw them at their candlelit dinner in the hotel, I saw him on the front porch of the hotel hunched over his netbook, and I imagined he was going in to refine his search, looking for a prettier, Francophone, educated woman who would marry his old ass, but one without a cumbersome child.

I know this is none of my business, but it really creeps me out: the aversion to western women with all their inconvenient notions of autonomy and equality, and the naked racism of the desire for the Indochine body, with its suggestions of social submissiveness and sexual expertise. I understand the Vietnamese women’s point of view, too, unfortunately. The marriage prospects for educated women here are dim, and whatever social reforms have been enacted, not to mention the communist pledges of gender equity, have failed to reach the level of the family. Women do all the work, inside and outside the home, and many just don’t want to sign up for a life like that. They want to marry a westerner with money and get the heck out of here, where they imagine they’ll have a much better life, with limitless consumer goods and financial security. Leaving behind their families doesn’t even particularly trouble them. As my friend in Hanoi, who is married to a New Zealand man with whom she has never lived, says, “it doesn’t matter, I am the girl, the extra child, I am not important.”