TGTEOJ: The Trans-Siberian Railroad (Mongolia)

We began our journey on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railroad with a crazy Finnish lady in our compartment. Perhaps she was not actually crazy, but she was certainly odd, and not just because she was in her late thirties, had just finished an art program in Thailand, and was planning to move to Estonia - despite the fact that she kept telling us how much she disliked Estonian people. It was difficult to get her to stop talking about anything, really.

I have dreamed of riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad ever since I learned of its existence, which is some time back that I cannot remember. For me, it captures a unique aspect of the romantic idea of travel and the world, on the flip side of learning a language, settling down in one foreign place for a (relatively) extended period of time - which is what I’ve been doing so far - and instead just riding through, the world passing outside the window. It is the stuff of Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie, of some era before my own, when the world was still a big place and there was real mystery, adventure and exploration.

And there I was, finally on it - like the Great Wall, somewhere I never thought I would be, even a couple years ago. In fact, coming from Beijing, we were starting along the Trans-Mongolian route, which would take us up through Mongolia on the first leg, instead of coming from the far end of the line at Vladivostok. The first leg was 32 hours, from Beijing across the border to the Mongolian capital at Ulaanbaatar. Beijing ended surprisingly quickly for such a sprawling metropolis and we were soon passing through deep, misty canyons and river valleys on our way out through northwestern China. As we approached Inner Mongolia (which is actually still China), the land flattened out into the rolling prairie steppe that would characterize much of the journey. Vivid cotton clouds floated like heaping piles of whipped cream on the horizon, atop a vast emptiness of grass and low, rolling hills.

We crossed the border at some inconvenient hour of night. It was a rather complicated process, not just for the passports, but for the train itself, which had to have its bogeys changed in order to run on the Mongolian tracks (which ran on the broader Soviet guage, which was intended to impede foreign troop movements if the country were to be invaded). While most of the passengers got off to restock at whatever convenience stalls might be open in the middle of the night, Valerie and I stayed in the now empty train and watched From Russia With Love.

I awoke the next morning to find us drifting through a calm, flat sea of dry grasslands - empty as far as the eye could see, serene and peaceful under a blue sky and a few clouds floating casually along. Part of me wished I were on foot, instead, with a tent and sleeping bag and I could just walk into the nothingness, to find the horizon, and enjoy the openness and fresh air and the stars at night. But prior experiences at the margin of survival situations have taught me the necessity of water and, despite my best efforts, my general lack of preparedness and training for such scenarios. Need to watch more Man vs. Wild. Also, it’s much too hot for walking in the sun right now. But I like the idea.

Squat, jerry-rigged telephone poles along the tracks. A barbed wire fence (to keep out all of the 0 people around for miles in all directions?). A few dessicated carcasses here and there along it - mostly cows, I think. Not a road in sight, just an old dusty track alongside the wires. We saw camels.

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar late in the afternoon and I was already impressed with the demeanor of the people, which was totally unlike that of the tourist hawks that would descend ravenously upon travellers before they could get so much as a toe on the ground. Instead, I was approached by only two very polite people, one at a time, who both ran guesthouses in town. They told me the price of their accommodations and showed me the directions on the back of their card, and then left me alone. I was so grateful for this (and entirely lacking in alternative arrangements) that I decided to follow one of them.

He was an older Mongolian gentleman by the name of Gan - a retired Mongolian military officer, very friendly, and garrulous, perhaps to a fault, but overflowing with hospitality, as I would find in the next few days, very eager to help with everything, no matter what, or at least to make sure you know that he could help (which is not quite the same thing). In any case, he was the most friendly host we’d had since Saigon. His family was equally hospitable and likewise spoke English. He would refer to his wife as his accountant and his daughter as his assistant. He seemed to be quite intelligent - he said he wanted to be a doctor when he was in high school, but instead he was selected by the government for a special program in Moscow to study Soviet history, where he became fluent in Russian (“I can sneeze in Russian!” he announced on several occasions), and then served in the Mongolian secret police for 20 years. He reminded people of this on a regular basis. “Hello my friend!” was his favorite expression, and he used it like punctuation or for emphasis at the end of all his remarks. “Is true story!” was also common.

Our second night there, he put on a big, traditional Mongolian barbecue, whereby stones were cooked in a wood stove until glowing red-hot and then put into a giant metal jug with a latching top like a pressure cooker. In the jug was a considerable portion of a lamb, a full bottle of vodka, carrots, and potatoes. This was shaken around and left to cook for some time before serving.

There was a bit of ceremony to the serving as well - first we were instructed to pick up the hot rocks and toss them back and forth between our hands. Supposedly, it is good for your health. Then, we had to drink a small bowl of the salty broth and only then could we dig into the meat.

While we stood around waiting for the barbecue, he came around to take a picture with me. He said that he would keep it and remember me forever, and that if ever I should come back to Mongolia and needed something, he would help me, or if he were no longer alive, his children would help me. He seemed very sincere, but I also rarely saw him without a beer in his hand. He went on several times about how much he loves America and Americans, and how they bring Democracy. I found myself saying things like “Yeah, America’s pretty good..” I mean, what do you say to that? It’s such a complicated issue and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the whole “spreading democracy” idea, or at least the way it has been implemented in the past. In any case, I wasn’t about to start cheering and chanting U-S-A, U-S-A at the top of my lungs, so, as I do in most situations that could potentially provoke a very long, complicated discussion, I politely deferred. I liked that he would refer to me by name - it felt more personal than all the large-scale hostels we had been staying at.

At the end of dinner, he brought out a musician, in full traditional costume, to play some traditional music for us on a traditional Mongolian instrument. It was very traditional. The instrument is called a horse fiddle - it looks like a boxy violin with two thick strings made of horse hair and it is played from the lap with a bow like the Chinese erhu. The music sounded lovely, the musician sitting on a stool in front of the door to the common room, back-lit in the dark of the night.

We happened to arrive in Mongolia for their largest festival of the year - a four-day event called Nadaam. There were horse races, wrestling matches, and archery contests as part of the celebration, which was attended by one and all, including shop owners, which meant that, for the three days we spent there, just about every single building in the city was closed. This made it somewhat difficult to acquire food, on occasion.

On the last day of the races, we found ourselves on a jostling city bus, headed out for the race grounds, 30 km outside the city. We left an hour and a half to cover this distance, before the race started, thinking that would be ample time. Trouble began when our bus cut down the dusty, dirt roads on the outskirts of town instead of taking the solitary, two-lane highway west. From there, it headed inexplicably up into the hills, where there was no road, but a fishnet of dirt tracks going up, over, and around little hills like a dirt-bike track. It was a bumpy ride, to say the least, and we were standing for all of it. At one point, the back bumper was knocked off. With each impasse or malfunction, the bus driver would get off to examine the problem and half the passengers would follow him off, to watch. This did not improve the already flagging punctuality of our trip. There were many traffic jams as swarms of other cars zigged and zagged through the hilly dirt tracks and broke down or bottomed out on the rough terrain. I never figured out why so many cars were taking that route - most of the time, I could see the paved highway not a kilometer away.

By the time we finally made it to the racing grounds, shaken and wobbly, it was 2:00pm and the races were long over. We saw the horses and riders as they wandered around between yurts, socializing or having short races of their own, so it wasn’t completely in vain. We also joined a large family group in a game of circle volleyball.

The next day, we set out on a hike from the small town south of Ulaanbaatar named Zunmod. We walked through the small country town with its hideous, mostly abandoned, Soviet buildings and out across a huge field toward the empty hills beyond. We entered the national park boundary and stopped at the ruins of an old monastery at the base of the mountain that we would be climbing, north toward the capital. I was going to take a picture of the trail directions before we left the guesthouse, but someone had kidnapped the Mongolia guidebook, so I only had my memory to go on. This was our first bit of badluck. With these, we headed straight up the mountainside, toward UB. This was our first mistake.

I quickly became aware of the lack of trail, although the terrain was forgiving enough to keep us walking forward. It was a nice pine forest with mostly even, clear ground underneath. Eventually, we came across the main trail and even ran into several groups of Mongolians on their way down, seemingly perplexed by our ascent so late in the evening.

We made it up to the peak around 7:30, just as it began to rain. I found us what looked to be a nice overhang along one of the tall rock formations, sheltered from the wind and rain. With the damp wood, it took nearly an hour to get a fire started; the wind picked up and darkness fell. I didn’t realize how cold I was until after I finally got the fire started - I was shivering and my teeth were chattering. We warmed cans of corn and baked beans by the fire, to eat with the tin of fish we had also brought.

I woke up to rain in the middle of the night; it turned out the overhang only gave protection against rain in one direction.The rain dripped down onto my face and sleeping bag throughout a miserable night’s sleep.

We broke camp the next morning in a cold fog, past the eerie blue cloth flags strung up around the holy site at the top of the peak. We could not see more than a few meters in any direction and could not find the path, but decided to keep going, because I knew UB was due north. Terrible, terrible mistake. A heavy rain set into the cold wind as we picked our way over awful, boulder-y terrain, searching for the trail that I had seen on the map. The rain belted down as we waded through waist-high bush and mud, climbing over wet, slippery rocks. Eventually, the rain petered out, but the going was no less terrible. The boulders ganged up with moss and tree roots to create deep, invisible potholes everywhere, even further obscured by the dense vegetation.

This went on for many hours, with no sign of any trail, making dismal progress toward UB, according to my GPS. I was frustrated, but still in fairly good spirits. I sang Disney songs. Valerie was in not such good spirits. She did not sing. I couldn’t blame her.

She cheered up a bit as we came in sight of the city and were a short distance from a road. But then we hit the barbed wire. This was the only thing that I could remember from the Lonely Planet trail description - the barbed wire marks the edge of the president’s compound. Do not cross, it said.

Feelings of Khao Sok began to bubble up and Valerie’s morale plummeted. I began to worry about our food and water supplies, which were already negligible. A short distance in either direction seemed to take us straight back up the way we had come. Creeping anxiety.

Eventually, at Valerie’s behest, we deliberately crossed the barbed wire, deciding to take our chances with the guards over the prospect of a grueling, indefinite climb back up through the merciless wilderness.

Following a game trail down, we came upon a sleeping guard and his machine gun. I made sure that we called to him from a good distance away, so as not to startle him. He spoke no English, but asked for our passports and radioed an escort to take us to the commanding officer. Everyone was fairly good-natured about our trespassing. They took our passports, looked through the pictures on our cameras and made a phone-call to our guesthouse before finally letting us go. Last Action Hero was playing on the TV in the office, dubbed in Mongolian. From the compound, it was a long, blistered, worn-out walk back to UB proper and our guesthouse. We had walked, scrambled, hopped, tripped and stumbled over 10 hours that day and got back just an hour before we needed to be on the Russia-bound train.

TGTEOJ: Whispers of an Empire (China)

And so it was that we made our way into China. The border crossing went surprisingly smoothly; for all the trouble it was to get the visa, and from what I had read from accounts on line, I was expecting some long, difficult ordeal, but it turned out to be no more difficult than any international border, perhaps even less so because there were not so many people.

Through Nanning, we caught a short 7-hour train east to Guilin and then a bus down to Yangshuo, in Guangzhou province. Even on the bus ride in from Vietnam, the countryside was spectacular. We drove in early afternoon, but it looked as evening for the heavy grey clouds that smothered the sky, dropping a hazy mist down upon the rolling hills below. They were a lush green and looked as he beautiful child of order and chaos, homogeneous and neatly planted rows of corn and soy stretched haphazardly over the earth, running like water between narrow karst peaks. And the peaks - they were just as from a painting, solemn stone giants, clothed in scrubby jungle, towering precipitously over the otherwise calm terrain, herds of them, silent and unmoving, disappearing peacefully into the misty countryside. Southern China was one of the most scenic places I’ve ever been.

While no stranger to the stampede of tourism, Yangshuo was still wonderfully charming as well, wedged up against the Li river amongst an otherworldly landscape of verdant karst peaks and lush, green fields that recalled scenes of an older, picturesque ideal, or of an ink scroll painting. The mist that swirled about through the peaks only added to the mystique. The city itself had preserved the facade of traditional architecture and boasted several bustling, cobblestone pedestrian streets, which ran down from the river. I got a lot of Chinese practice here, talking with a local waitress on the bus into town, and then negotiating our room with the owner of the hotel that the waitress had recommended. There was some good food in Yangshuo, notably a wonderful dumpling shop and the local specialty, beer fish.

The highlight of Yangshuo was our cycling trip out to Yueliangshan - Moonlight mountain, giant a crescent-shaped natural arch worn out under a nearby peak. It had been raining on and off since we arrived and we just happened to set out on our bikes during an on. And then it became really on, the rain dumping down in buckets that made it hard to see the road ahead, as well as to either side, my peripheral vision eclipsed by the poncho that was keeping me (mostly) dry.

Probably owing to the rain, we were the only ones climbing Yueliangshan when we got there; we had the whole mountain and its 1-2 hour stepped climb to ourselves. At the top, the view spread out over a wide valley to the numerous shadowy karst peaks in the distance, encompassing a small nearby town. A short path further up took us through to the other side of the arch, looking down into steep narrow valleys split amongst the spectacular karst formations, everything in a deep, lush green and shrouded in an ephemeral mist that gave it an other-wordly feel - swirling, serpentine, creating a kaleidoscope of white and patchwork fragments of an idyllic country landscape tucked amongst the valleys, and everything blanketed in a dark jade green, the hues of the fields like veins in the rock. And silence, but for the occasional bird song. One got the impression of nearly being able to hear the clouds of mist moving.

It was in Yangshuo that we began a habit of catching the World Cup games as often as we could, which was not always possible given the time difference, but we kept up with it until the championship game, which I tried really hard to watch from our hostel bed in Mongolia at 2:30 in the morning, but ended up sleeping through almost its entirety.

Some twelve hours west, after an overnight stop in Kunming, our train trundled into Dali, a short right from the old walled city. We were planning on stopping here en route to some places further north in Yunnan province, but the charm of the city, a very comfortable room, and an adorable puppy kept us there for much longer and the constant rain deterred us from the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge that I had been so excited for.

But Dali was another delightful rest from the long days of travel. We slept late into the mornings, in our fluffy bed, and then frittered away the day wandering around the quaint streets and alleys, with splendid traditional architecture, unique to this part of China. It was small city, more of a town within the city walls, and we got to know the handful of streets quite well. We ventured out twice, once on foot to some pagodas, and then a second time on bicycle a short distance into the countryside, down to the lake, and through a curious ghost-town of an abandoned shopping complex done in impeccable architecture and with carefully landscaped gardens in between - hundreds of shops of all kinds, restaurants, and hotels, with racks, shelves, counters - even tables and chairs - but all empty and dust-covered. The remnants of commercial real estate speculation during a local economic boom.

The puppy’s name was Buding (pudding) and he was an appropriate shade of white with cream-colored spots. He belonged to the family-run guest-house at which we were staying - which was apparently renowned in its own right, for being involved in the film industry and hosting many (mostly Chinese) actors when they would film in the region (including the cast of Jurrasic Park, some of which was shot here). But that was not as entertaining as Buding, who was still at teething age and was constantly tugging at our pant cuffs. Valerie was traveling with a small strand of climbing rope and we derived hours of enjoyment playing with the dog.

We had also made friends with some of the local expats and a visiting French family, who we went to dinner with several times. In all, Dali was a wonderful, quiet little place and I would have been just as happy whiling away several weeks there - but, as always, we had to move on.

Breaking up our two 20+ hour train rides with a day in Chengdu, we arrived travel-weary to the gargantuan train station in Xi’an. I had to buy our onward tickets in advance, which took me into the 35-counter ticket hall - all of the counters open, and the line for none of the counters shorter than two-dozen people. This is China.

Xi’an was a big city. I find it hard to say much about it other than that. It is significant for the hundreds of historical sites clustered around it, as a former capital of the Chinese empire, but it did not retain much of the old grandeur that even Beijing has managed to preserve in the Forbidden City and the hutongs. Rather, it was fragmented, and different parts of the city had a very different feel - from the aging area around the train station to the glamorous main shopping street and the intersecting boulevards to the bustling old Muslim quarter (that was the place I liked best).

We met up with our friends from Taiwan, Pascal and Andy, who happened to be travelling through China as well, and together went out to see the museum and excavations of a historical precursor to the terra cotta warriors, which we also went to see on a different day. They were not quite as I had pictured them - perhaps from too many misrepresentations in cinema - but instead still half buried and covered by large stadium-like buildings, split around the several pits. Many of the sculptures were still broken and fragmented in what is an incomplete excavation, delayed in part to help preserve the relics. Still, the intricately detailed statues, standing majestically in battle formation hundreds of years after their interment, were an inspiring scene.

Our last night in Xi’an my malaria medication may have had some disagreements with the liter of yogurt I drank immediately afterward, forgetting that dairy and doxycycline are not friends. In a matter of about 10 minutes, I went from slightly uncomfortable to miserable and on the verge of passing out or throwing up. My dedication to studying Chinese during this trip (I committed 1-2 hours a day to study and memorized (sort of) 20 characters a day everyday from our arrival in Bangkok until Mongolia, when I realized that I have absolutely no chance of passing the Hopkins-Nanjing proficiency exam this year and decided to put off the studying until the fall) was such that, even in these throes of misery, I dragged out my Chinese character dictionary and tried to work through the pain studying characters on my bed in the hostel room, while everyone else watched the World Cup game at the bar outside.

From Xi’an, we continued north to Beijing, our final major stop in China. I was quite surprised by Beijing as well, which was in fact not engulfed in the smothering cloud of toxic gas that I had expected based on reputation and third-hand accounts, mainly from all the paranoid Taiwanese people. While I don’t think I would want to live there, it was actually a pretty nice city, as really really ridiculously huge cities go. I had worked it up to something of a Gomorrah in my head, so perhaps I’m more impressed just because I set the bar so low. That said, people have been decidedly less friendly since we left the southern provinces, and the heavy Beijing ‘er’s had become really thick in many people’s speech.

We found some good food (meat skewers are very popular here), met up with Pascal and Andy again, and made a good week of exploring the city and seeing the sights. Although it is one of the primary attractions of Beijing, I was actually not super stunned by the Forbidden City. For one, it wasn’t actually all that forbidden (unless you consider the cost of admission a deterrent), in fact it was quite the opposite, thronged as it was with hordes and hordes of eager Chinese tourists (which, by sheer volume, are practically the only kind of tourists one finds in China).

In preparation for the pre-term course in which I had decided to enroll a week earlier, I had my dad ship some calculus and economics preparatory instructional videos to me in Beijing, poste restante. These were a required precursor to the pre-term course, and thus one of my tasks in Beijing was to acquire a portable DVD player on which to watch them (and watch them, I did, on trains, buses, and in hotel rooms periodically for the next month). I found an electronics market on the northern side of the city - in fact, the largest electronics market I could imagine existing anywhere ever. Four huge buildings, of which the first four or five floors of each were packed wall to wall as far as the eye could see with every kind of electronic gadget conceivable. Among the myriad hodge-podge and unorganized stalls, it was quite a challenge to find anything specific one was looking for. I did eventually manage to track down a DVD player and then haggled between three different stalls to get what I think was the lowest price that I think they could realistically be sold for.

Afterward, I retreated to the outskirts of the mayhem to mull over my purchase. I had, at one point, considered just buying a netbook instead, since I was going to need one eventually anyway, my computer having more or less broken a few weeks before I left Taiwan. In the end, I thought better of that purchase, after fending off the droves of rabid salesmen that snapped English at me like bear traps as I tried my best to skirt their stalls. It was one of these upstanding salesmen that I encountered getting a drink at the snack bar on his break. He was actually a few years younger than me, halfway through college, and he recognized me from earlier. We had a long conversation in Chinese, which he said was the longest he had ever spoken to a foreigner. And I must have made some impression because he confided in me that the whole place, at least as far as computers go, is a scam and I did well not to buy one. He explained some of the tricks that they use to sell customers - especially the foreign ones, although few ever find their way in here - shoddy products at vastly inflated prices, sometimes swapping out products in name-brand boxes for cheap, off-brand alternatives. He said he didn’t like doing it, but it was his job and it was paying for his tuition; he was studying to be an artist.

In fact, for me, the highlight of our trip to Beijing was not in the city itself, but several hours outside, at the legendary Great Wall. Based on some rather sketchy indications from the internet and even more vague verbal directions from the front desk of our mosquito-infested hostel (I killed 13 mosquitoes in one trip to the bathroom), we caught a bus to Miyun, whereat we were fooled by some huckster, with the implicit cooperation of the driver, to get off at a the wrong stop. The friend that had convinced us to get off - whaddya know - just happened to have a car and wanted to play taxi for us. He even offered to drive us all the way to the wall for a price that would have amounted to about a month’s salary for the average worker in Beijing. I respectfully declined, but we were nevertheless now stranded on the roadside in unfamiliar territory in the baking sun with no hope of catching further public transportation. I put on my good-natured negotiating voice and managed to get our mischievous friend to drive us to a Changcheng-bound minibus for a few dollars.

Our minibus was something of an oddity, even among the already suspect vans that drive the long tourist distances around other parts of the country. The whole back row of seats - upon which we happened to be sitting - were only halfway connected to the floor of the car, such that any time the driver stopped or accelerated, half of the seat would buck up off the ground. Of course, since the seat was not even supposed to be there, there were no seat belts to speak of. Further seating had been invented by placing some wooden stools between the front row of seats and the driver. Good thing my mom could not see me now.

Finally, we were dumped on a dusty hot roadside just before a police checkpoint in the haphazard collection of buildings that is Gubeikou. The driver pointed at the Great Wall, climbing up a peak across the road. It was all well and good that we could see the wall, and my heart started fluttering a bit the way it did when I got my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, like I’m seeing something truly magnificent. However, the wall was headed west and we wanted to go east.

It looked like there was a bit of wall out in the dry scrubby hills to the east, but I couldn’t see any clear path to get there. So we just started walking. I asked just about everyone we passed, “How do you get to the Great Wall?” (In Chinese of course, which bore little resemblance to the heavy country accent with which they spoke, nearly unintelligible to me.) This question caused much confusion in the people I asked, some of whom I don’t think even realized that they live near the Great Wall, judging by the puzzlement of their responses. When I kept pressing, I would invariably get some directions but all of them contradicted one another, and I suspect they were given just to get me to go away. I was sent in just about every cardinal direction. One person even asked, “Which Great Wall?” THE Great Wall! How many Great Walls could there be around here? Most people told me to drive to the tourist section some miles away and I could tell that despite these difficulties, this would be my kind of adventure. If nobody knows about it, it’s got to be pretty awesome, right? Even the police at the checkpoint - a group of kids in over-sized uniforms with hats that seemed to big for them - couldn’t tell me where the Great Wall entrance was.

After some frustrated wandering about, we were approached by one of the numerous roving minivan drivers (all of whom are greedy liars) who said that he could take us to the Gubeikou section of the wall (everyone else wanted to take us straight to Jinshanling) - he said he had just taken a group of students with backpacks there earlier that day. I reluctantly agreed because he was the first person not to look at me as if I were a polka-dotted space elephant asking for directions to the next galaxy.

He dropped us off on the side of the road just a few minutes up and told us to walk up. We were at the bottom of a very steep hill covered in vegetation. I thought there must be a path somewhere that he intended us to take. Some exploration proved this not to be the case.

I had all of our supplies in my backpack, including 12 liters of water, and decided to take the more vegetated route up the slope, while Valerie went around the corner to take the slightly steeper, clearer route. I also had long pants and that made a big difference, but that made the climb no less treacherous - thick brush, up a loose, sandy slope wiith my cumbersome pack pulling me backward all the while. I lost my balance many times, sliding down on my hands and knees or flopping over awkwardly on my side like a retarded turtle. I probably would have made quite a spectacle going up that slope, if anyone could have seen me. I literally had to pull myself up by dry, wispy twigs and clumps of thorn bushes that would soon become the primary denizen of the trail.

At the top, I hit a wall - and not THE wall mind you, but still too high for me to hoist my bag over. In one direction, a huge pile of dry brambles. The sun was boring down through my parched mouth into my dusty lungs. I was clinging to a non-existent notch of soil at the top of a nightmare scrub jungle, thinking thisw might be Khao Sok all over again, wishing I had not gotten myself (or Valerie) into this mess. But back down was not an option. Fortunately, there was just enough space in the opposite direction along the base of the wall for me to squeeze between the trees until I reached a dip in the wall that allowed me up and around.

A hundred thorn bushes later, I met up with an equally bedraggled, bleeding Valerie and we set off together up the ghost of a path through the spike bushes in the direction of the Great Wall, of which we could now see pieces in the distance. We passed through what I think must have been one of the most ancient, time-worn sections of the wall - little more than a linear mound of earth, with the traces of clay bricks forming a small arch under which we took a rest.

Moving on, we passed through some private corn fields until we finally reached a point that was finally and discernibly part of the Great Wall! Hearing about this place as a child, and seeing representations of it in books, I never thought that I would actually be here one day.

The real thing was better than any picture or telling or “authentic refurbishment” - magnificent in its crumbling glory, worn with the passage of time like a large, stately matron, unconcerned by her wrinkles or the silver of her hair - not made-up or butchered and rebuilt. It was the immortal thread of history imbued with all the stories and personality that had placed its stones, and later lifted and scattered them away, wore them into the welcoming trail upon which we were now walking.

It stretched along the crest of the hills, green and rolling with their hidden thorns, looking out to the mountains beyond. Not straight, but snaking, dotted with the remains of guard towers. And all empty, as far as I could see.

The heat was brutal, doubled by the weight of my bag and the incline of the trail. We walked through the afternoon and into the evening, settling finally in one of the more intact towers for the night. After a meager dinner of trail snacks, we went to sleep in the slience of the night, broken only by the squeaking of the bats.

The next morning did not start particularly well - we were up before dawn to see a sunrise that never came, and not 10 minutes along, we were forced off the wall by the end of the path at a section claimed by the military. Down we went, into thick brush and even forest, with no breakfast, little water, and running into spider webs every other bush. Down, down, and miserably down, away from the wall, until it finally passed out of sight. It was almost two whole hours before we began climbing again, to a fork in the road.

We broke for breakfast, enjoying the clouds that had cancelled our sunrise. And it was then that I became suspicious of the two paths, and the one that called to us with three giant blue arrows unlike the subtle, solitary arrows that had guided us thus far. I walked a bit down both of the trails and found that the initially unmarked one eventually resumed with the blue arrows while the other did not. I would later learn that some farmer had covered up the correct signage in order to channel hikers to his farm, where he could sell them over-priced water and change to show them the way back to the real trail. Very sneaky.

We followed the correct path on for another 45 minutes or so before we were finally able to re-assume our journey atop the wall. We took a nap in one of the towers before continuing on to Jinshanling and the restored, tourist section of the wall. We paid our 50 yuan admission to a friendly woman in one of the towers who had been manning her post atop the wall every day from 8am to 5pm for 9 years.

The restored section, I am told, looks more like how the wall was ‘supposed’ to look; how it originally looked. But I was not as impressed. It looked to the rest of the Great Wall as a robot to a human - cold, sterile, artificial. I did not like it as much, nor did I like that it baked itself into an oven in the sun. All the same, it was an impressive sight, snaking further up into the hills, stark and angular grey against the surrounding green flora.

The sun began to start on its way down and we set back out toward the Simatai section to find shelter for the night. I made friendly with the only vendor we met along the way and got us a good price on some wonderfully refreshing frozen waters.

We watched a beautiful sunset over the mountains in the distance from our vantage point in the tower atop our hill. And it was 4th of July, but no fireworks or barbecue or family, or watermelon or pie - but I had the Great Wall, and that was worth it. On the other hand, I was in China, which is not a very American place, so to try to make up for it, I wrote Happy 4th of July messages in the sand and we listened to all the patriotic songs on my ipod. This time, our tower had no roof, so we were treated to a starry sky over us as we went to sleep.

TGTEOJ: Vietnam and Vietnot

We entered Vietnam by river ferry down the Mekong from Phnom Penh. The inexpensive ferry ride actually turned out to be one of the highlights of all southern Vietnam. A 3-hour bus ride took us from our hostel on the lake south to the ferry terminal, which in our case, was just a muddy slope down to the river in some guy’s backyard. (We weren’t travelling so much with the first-class tour groups...). This was actually my birthday proper. It was several hours’ going down the wide, muddy waters of the Mekong. Fishing trawlers, tourist ferries, and industrial rigs passed in all directions, but in no more of a hurry than us.

We switched boats at the border and soon cut down off the Mekong toward Chau Doc and the most spectacular part of the journey. The water kept the same muddy jungle brown, but the banks constricted down to just a few times the width of our little boat. The system of rivers and canals like a lazy country road, empty, calm and peaceful except for the drone of our motor; a real-life Jungle River Cruise. Gone were the fishing boats and the tourist vessels, replaced by scrapped canoes hanging to the bare bones of makeshift piers. Amongst the trees were stilted wood and palm-thatch houses, many belonging perhaps to the farmers that worked the large rice paddies that we could just see over the levies on either side, between breaks in the forest. They wore traditional clothes and the woven, conical straw hats that have become iconic for Vietnam and southern China, plowing with the many water buffalo that congregated along the river bank, some lounging alongside in the mud, others up to their necks or deeper in with just their flaring nostrils and large wet snouts above the water, staying cool. As we passed, children would run along the tops of the banks, shouting and waving. “Hello! Hello!” and these were different children and different hellos than the grimy barefoot ones that crowded beneath the windows of our bus in Cambodia, begging for money. They had smiles and an innocence that made me less ashamed for humanity.

From Chau Doc, we made the mistake of pushing on to Can Tho, which was a total dump of a giant city on the Mekong delta. Part of the mistake was in the transportation, for which we were unwittingly charged 4x the listed price, and wedged into the back seat of a rickety old van that rode with the sliding door open for people to jump in and out, the driver’s assistant hanging out into traffic, smoking into the car, and yelling at people every so often. Our van stopped once to load some suspicious looking parcels wrapped in trash bags and masking tape. They dismantled the panels on the roof and slid them into the ventilation; I imagine these were things they did not want police to find. As we bounced along the severely potholed road, more and more people were added, until we were shoulder to shoulder in a loud, bumpy, smoky metal box, weaving into oncoming traffic at unsettling speeds in the dark, horns blaring at almost continuous cadence. And then it started to rain.

But somehow we survived that trip - I think I’m one step closer to subscribing to some faith as a result - and Can Tho, which was worthwhile only for its proximity to the floating markets that sparsely peppered the Mekong delta. We negotiated a short tour to one of the nearby ones, which still required some three hours to reach. It was indeed a floating market, and I can’t say it wasn’t a good one because never before have I been to a floating market.

Nonetheless, it was an interesting experience. Several dozen long, narrow canoe-like skiffs clustered together along a bend in the river. Each boat sold a different fruit or vegetable, sometimes several, and a few had a bit of everything. Those that had specialties tied a sample of whatever it was they were selling to the top of a long pole like a mast up from their boat. And so looking across the flotilla of boats, one could see what looked like a loose forest of twiggish masts bedecked in pineapples, squashes, melons, carrots, radishes, jack fruit, and all other manner of produce. Some boats also served as butchers and bakers. There was even a cafe boat that came around with coffee.

That afternoon, we took a bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I had heard people contrast HCMC/Saigon and Hanoi, saying in almost equal numbers that one was far better than the other. For my part, I cast my vote for Saigon - it seemed a bit greener, more sophisticated, and yet less concerned. As best I can tell, that is particular to my experience though, as it is more the seat of business than Hanoi, the capital. And my experience of it was limited to a wonderful guesthouse run by a mothering Vietnamese woman, the few surrounding streets, and the Vietnam War museum.

The museum had some startling exhibits regarding American activities in the war, and photographs and documents relating to international media coverage and propaganda. However, it managed to refrain from assuming too accusative a tone, and was a rather friendly, informative museum (despite the pickled Agent-Orange fetus), at least compared to the emotionally exhausting sites around Phnom Penh.

One particular encounter that sticks out in my memory occurred at one of the tourist markets. I was casually browsing for a Father’s Day gift for my dad. I inquired over a small jade dragon statuette, which turned out to be cheap plastic and the girl wanted something like thirty dollars for it. Upon realizing it was plastic, and the impracticality of shipping it home, I refused to bargain with her. She was visibly incensed and demanded why I had asked the price if I didn’t want to buy it. Curiosity was not a satisfying answer for her. As I walked off, she yelled after me, “Maybe I kill you!” which carried a little extra weight because there were also several swords on display at her stall. I quickened my step, despite the improbability of a public stabbing-by-katana in the crowded indoor market. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to buy her trinkets then.

From Saigon, we took a sleeper bus up to Dalat, which was described as an alpine heaven, called by some the Paris of Vietnam, complete with miniature Eiffel Tower on one of the two hills between which the town was nestled around a beautiful lake. Our guidebook, which I eventually came to hold in contempt after going through all the places myself, said it was the perfect place to get away from the bustle of the rest of the large cities and enjoy some fresh mountain air.

Well, the man-made lake was completely drained when we got there, for some 4-year construction project they were planning. A gravel road cut through the middle to alleviate some of the ridiculously heavy traffic that swarmed around the perimeter of the lake and squeezed through the little streets of the rest of the town. Contrary to our book’s opinion, the town seemed to be more chaotic and city like than even Saigon - street crossings were a game of roulette and like everywhere else in the country, when one wished to cross the road, the only thing to do was step out and start walking slowly across, letting the cars and scooters swerve around. This struck me as yet another invitation to faith. The odds on this table just happened to be a bit riskier because of the steep hills and blind corners.

It was in fact, not that bad a town, and it did have an interesting night market, it was just that we had come expecting something of a respite, which was far from what we got. In an attempt to get out, Valerie and I rented bicycles for a day and headed out for a national park, which turned out to be much to far, so we turned up to some random grassy knoll a few hours out and took lunch on the grass looking out over the dry summer farmland while an old man prodded a small herd of cattle around the perimeter. For that hour, Dalat was nice. But then it was back alongside the dusty, smoggy, potholed road back to town.

We left earlier than planned and gave Nha Trang a chance, despite the book’s description of it as a party town. And I’m glad we did because it turned out to be not only my favorite place in Vietnam, but one of my favorite places on our whole trip. Yes, it could very easily be a party town at night, along the main drag whereupon sat all of the bars. But it had also the mellow vibe of a beach town - aside from the nomadic sunglasses vendors that roamed the beach, there seemed to be less hassle, fewer people trying to sell things or rip you off. It was really relaxing - the nice break from everything that Dalat had promised.

We had a very nice top-floor corner hotel room with large windows, high ceilings, a fridge and even some English movie channels (I’m not ashamed to admit that we stayed in one night and watched Kung Fu Panda). We didn’t go to any Vietnamese food there (partially because we couldn’t find any), but we had some of the best non-Vietnamese food between Taiwan and Europe. The highlight was this one Indian restaurant, which was actually a branch of the chain we had eaten at and enjoyed in Saigon, which served a Kashmiri pilau that we bought three out of the four days we spent in Nha Trang. We also went twice to a fish & chips restaurant run by a congenial Scott. While not cod (instead a local variant), it was also the best fish and chips I’ve ever had; it came with a heaping plate of free salad for starters, with an addictive dill dressing that we insisted on keeping at the table for the chips.

The long, hot days were spent exclusively under a thatch umbrella at the beach, which for the majority of the day was completely empty, the scorching sun chasing out all but the most foolhardy of beach-goers, which meant we were left in peace, to read, burn, and swim, as we pleased. The beach was long, white-sand and amazingly clean for this part of the world - even compared to Santa Barbara - I imagine it must have been a concerted effort by the restaurants and resorts.

In the evening, as the heat of the day subsided, locals and visitors alike would slowly shift toward the beach, which by 6:00 was shoulder-to-shoulder, as crowded then as it was empty during the day. The majority of the tourists in Nha Trang, and actually from here until Russia, were domestic tourists. Also, just after dawn, as we discovered our last morning in town, the beach was packed with morning visitors, who left as the sun rose.

I was reluctant to leave Nha Trang, so nice a time we were having, but I had to get up to Hanoi to get my China visa, so we moved on - via overnight bus with a one-day stop in Hue, which probably deserved more than that. But there are a lot of sacrifices when one tries to cover so much distance in such a short amount of time. So it goes.

We passed up the OK Hotel in Hanoi to stay instead at the Friendly Hotel, which, as it’s name implied, was actually quite friendly. We got a good discount on the top-floor room, which had about zero water pressure and blew a fuse every couple hours, forcing me to go to the switchbox one floor down on a regular basis.

I tried to apply for my China visa the day I arrived, but was blocked by a very gruff guard, who told me that they don’t process visas for foreigners in Hanoi and I would have to go to Saigon to get my visa. Saigon?? I just came from there! It was, like... 50something hours in the opposite direction! The guard was not sympathetic. Hanoi is the capital city, and just a few hours from the Chinese border. Why on earth would they only handle visa processing in Saigon - not the capital and ridiculously further away from China.

With no other options, I arranged with the hotel manager, who, like all of the hotel staff in the city, doubled as a travel agent, to have my passport mailed down to Saigon and processed there. I was told it would take just over a week. And so we settled into Hanoi for a few days, went to some of the sites, including the Hanoi Hilton - former prison under both the French occupation and then the Viet Cong. There was a lot of propaganda going on there, (but less guilt because this time the perpetrators were the French and not the Americans), but the highlight of the display was, after describing the horrible conditions in which Vietnamese were imprisoned, they showed a video of the American prisoners, playing games, decorating a Christmas tree, and watching movies. They presented it like a resort hotel and described how all of the prisoners were treated with more care and respect than even Vietnamese citizens. I would question the veracity of their account, but after seeing what Agent Orange did to their country, I can’t really go clamouring about improprieties. I saw John McCain’s flight suit.

After a few days, we booked a Ha Long Bay tour, which is a nearby UNESCO World Heritage site along the coast. Somehow, we got a price less than half of what everyone else I talked to paid. It turned out we were on some sort of under-market stand-by tour, which had us passed off from boat to boat and handler to handler, again without even the semblance of a ticket (ours had been retained by one of our first handlers - I had the sense to at least take a picture of it before they took it). It worked out fine in the end, but required, again, faith and patience - which one of our fellow tour member did not have in quite enough supply. An Estonian girl whose name I can’t remember threw an absolute fit when they moved us off the second boat, onto a dock, promising that another boat would come for us shortly. I could understand her distress, but at the same time, I’ve become rather accustomed to the very informal, unwritten, sort of chaotically organized system of SE Asia: Things generally tend to work out, just not the way you expect, so it’s not worth planning. Just relax and hope for the best.

Ha Long Bay is a large collection of karst peaks jutting sharply out of the ocean along the coast near Hanoi. Along with about a dozen other kids our age, we sailed around on a large junk, upon which we each had bedrooms and shared a communal dining area. From the top deck, there were spectacular views of the myriad jungle-covered peaks jutting precipitously out of the water. In the evening, on our first night on the boat, the weather was clear and the water warm enough that we could jump off the deck of the anchored boat and swim around in the water, beautiful scenery stretching out on all sides with the sun setting in the sky.

The second part of the excursion was on Cat Ba island, the highlight of which was the hike up to the central peak, in the national park. I guess the peak wasn’t high enough though, because at the peak, someone had built a huge, 50-60 foot observation tower, seemingly out of nothing but erector sets. It was not the most stable-looking of constructions, and you could see through the weathered wooden boards, down to the ground far below. But it was also worth looking out, at the innumerable green mountains stretching out into the distance.

Back in Hanoi, with another day to burn until our bus into China, we rented a DVD player and spent an entire day watching movies. 7 of them. In one day. It was awesome.

My visa came back smoothly and on time, which was something of a surprise. But it was good for only a single-entry instead of the double I had applied for. There was no way to change it, so we simply had to cut Hong Kong off the itinerary. I was rather disappointed at this, but I’ll go back some other time, and with however many other things we were doing on this trip, it would have been spoiled to be too upset over the loss of one.

TGTEOJ: Dreams and Nightmares in Cambodia

The border crossing into Cambodia was an ordeal of its own. We were dumped off the bus in a large dusty lot that looked like a dilapidated fair ground. Before our feet had even touched the ground, we were surrounded by men telling us they would take us across the border. After much confusion, some consultation with other travellers and the guide book, I realized that we did not have much other choice than to attach ourselves to one of these outfits, shady as they were.

We were all tagged with little yellow stickers and then herded through the dusty linoleum stalls through all the red tape at the border. From the impoverished shanties on the Thai side, we passed through a narrow strip of extravagant casino resorts, set up for the wealthy elite, and then back into the crumbling poverty on the other side in Cambodia.

Along the way, we were shuffled between three different men and four different vehicles. The first man had taken our tickets and then passed us off to his “friend,” leaving us with only the stickers as proof we were supposed to be wherever it was that we were. And then my sticker fell off. What a ridiculous system, I thought. But I was already passing familiar with the general... let’s say, informality, of business practices in SE Asia... but this was only the beginning.

In any case, we made it into Cambodia, to Siam Reap and were... let’s say, encouraged... to stay at the Green Banana hostel at which we were deposited by our bus driver. It was actually a really nice place and we got a huge room with private bath for a song.

The next morning, at the pre-rooster hour of 4:30 a.m., we met Tony, our guide and driver downstairs and piled into the back of his tuk tuk. In the first glow of a grey dawn, we paid our admission to the Angkor Wat temple complex, en route to the primary attraction, Angkor Wat proper. Still before sunrise, we were far from the first to arrive. In fact, there were hundreds of people already crowded along the strip of grass in front of the temple. Apparently, sunrise over Angkor Wat has acquired something of a reputation.

While the reputation may be otherwise deserved, it was not today, when sunrise manifested as a minor shift in the shade of grey blanketing the sky and casting a gloomy post/pre-rain aura over the complex. Some enterprising individuals had designed to serve American breakfast and coffee at little tables set out in front of the temple. They walked around to everyone with menus filled with ridiculous prices.

In fact, everyone there who wasn’t a tourist was selling something; everyone in the country, for that matter. Most of our time and conversations through Cambodia and Vietnam were punctuated at regular intervals with declining some trinket, service, or form of transportation, sometimes repeatedly. Eventually, it became a reflex and the annoyance of it, for the most part, passed into the background.

Likewise, as we gave up on the sunrise and entered Angkor Wat, I realized the place was well worth more than just the sunrise snapshot. It was a place truly unlike any I had been before - the ancient jungle temple, Khmer architecture, stone monolith rising out of the creeping jungle. Epic spiritual and historical sagas carved along the walls. We spent a few hours wandering around and then went back out to Tony and our tuk-tuk to get to one of the other temples.

The next temple was a bit less touristy, less developed, and more spread out. Valerie and I walked outside the perimeter wall to a solitary, crumbling tower out in the jungle, slowly being rent apart by tree roots.

We made the last-minute decision to pay a little extra to visit another temple a bit further out at Ta Phrom. This ended up being the most spectacular of all three of the temples we visited that day; unlike the prior two, which were only surrounded by jungle, Ta Phrom had, over the centuries, become inextricably intertwined with the jungle. Massive, python-like tree roots twisted between all parts of the expansive, winding temple complex, hanging down from ledges, pushing up stones, cascading down collapsed walls. It was a maze of corridors and small clustered rooms, seemingly undisturbed by the meddling forces of tourist development.

At moments, Valerie and I would be sitting completely alone in a ruined courtyard, the canopy of trees breaking high above and the thrumming sound of mid-day bugs the only sound. It looked exactly as I pictured King Louie’s kingdom in The Jungle Book; I could just imagine Bagheera slinking down from one of the low-hanging branches, or Mowgli peaking around a corner. (The Jungle Book was about India, but this seemed like a pretty close fit to me.) It felt like the highest of adventures, straight out of a Rudyard Kipling novel, or what the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland was modeled on - wild and exotic, with that little hint of danger that makes it all the more thrilling.

After Siam Reap, we continued south-east to the capital in Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh was not a very convenient city, which is not really an appropriate thing to complain about after the turmoil of its recent history, but it did necessitate a tuk-tuk for us to get anywhere. We picked a guesthouse on the “lake” (which I maintain is just a large pond) and took a bungalow on the piers above the water. Looking down through the floorboards, you could see the water shimmering gently below. There was a large veranda out the common area, still on piers just above the water. It made for a very relaxing place to take food, a drink, and watch the sunset over the “lake.” It was here that I spent my 25th birthday the following day. Valerie, under the pretense of posting some mail, snuck out and found not just a bottle of wine (which is already something of a rarity in this part of the world), but a cake shop to write my name on a birthday cake. There was even a candle.

While in Phnom Penh, we visited Tuol Sleng, the public school turned torture and interrogation facility under the Khmer Rouge. A sobering documentary followed by a self-guided tour through the preserved chambers and torture facilities brought to brutal clarity the stories of the thousands of civilians that were interned here, and unfortunately too often, died here. In my past history classes, I do not recall having heard a single word of the massacres of the Khmer Rouge, for all the lessons on the Holocaust. I think there was - and has been, as evidenced by current history texts - a pervasive indifference, or perhaps deliberate ignorance, on the part of the West.

I learned a lot about the Khmer Rouge through an autobiographical account my friend Aaron loaned me in Japan, titled “Stay Alive, My Son.” (I would highly recommend it to anyone.) And it was with that story in mind that I processed all of the historical plaques and exhibits relating to this period of Cambodian history, which still seems to weigh heavily on the country.

We visited also the notorious killing fields, where civilians - men, women, and children - were taken out and slaughtered in large groups, at the edge of the large pits in which they were then buried. There was a tree against which babies and small children were smashed by the soldiers. It was a terrifying testimony to the dark side of humanity, and one by which I was not inclined to linger.

TGTEOJ: Passing Through (Thailand)

Oddly, I have flown into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi (don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either) airport more times than any other airport outside of America. It has become a sort of airport-away-from-home for me, familiar for its cavernous, vaulted glass and steel ceilings and, mostly, for the stifling humidity. But for once, this was not the beginning of a trip to Thailand - rather, it was just a quick stop-over because direct flights to Cambodia were twice as expensive.

This was at the time of the red-shirt riots sweeping the city, but the airport is over an hour outside the city and thus was never in real danger. We caught a shuttle out to the same nice hotel we had stayed at our last time passing through.

Early the next morning, we went back to the airport bus terminal to catch the long-distance bus to the Cambodian border. And just like that, we were on our way out of Thailand, without having set more than a couple feet on the soil, taking with us only the dampness in our shirts from the growing heat and humidity.

The Great Trans-Eurasian Overland Journey: Intro

Chapter 4.5

As it is blindingly obvious this early-September evening, I am no longer writing this blog in the present tense of mid-May. So, I’m dispensing with that conceit right now. To be honest, I was too busy having a good time to keep a running blog of it as I went and an internet connection was much harder to find than the beach, or a museum, or an interesting street. But what I write now is not a total invention; I did manage to scrape together the time to keep a paper journal as I went and thus this is a polished mosaic of the notes I took and my (admittedly incomplete) recollection of the people, places, sights, and smells of what has been the most ambitious adventure of my life. Three months - 90 days - is too long a span of time to recount every day individually, so I will focus on the events that stand out and try to give an overall impression of each city or country in general.

The original game-plan was:

5/17 - Flight to Bangkok
5/18 - Bus to Siem Reap (Cambodia)
5/19 - Angkor Wat
5/20 - Bus to Phnom Penh
5/21-22 - Phnom Penh
5/23 - Bus to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon (Vietnam)
5/24-25 - Ho Chi Minh
5/26-27 - Dalat
5/27 - Train to Hue
5/27-28 - Hue
5/29 - Train to Hanoi
5/30-6/4 - Hanoi, Halong Bay, and surroundings while I wait for China visa
6/5 - Bus to Luang Prabang (Laos)
6/6-6/13 - Stuff around Luang Prabang in northern Laos (?)
6/14 - Bus back to Hanoi (Vietnam), Train to Hong Kong (China)
6/15-6/16 - Hong Kong
6/17-6/25 - Yunnan province, Guilin, Tiger leaping gorge, etc.
6/26-30ish - Xi'an and surrounding sites
7/1-2 - Shanghai, Nanjing
7/3-6 - Beijing
7/7-8 - Great Wall
7/10 - Trans-Mongolian Railroad to Ulanbataar (Mongolia)
7/11-14 - Ulanbataar and surroundings
7/14-16 - Trans-Siberian Railroad to Irkutsk (Russia)
7/16-19 - Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
7/19-7/22 - TSRR to Moscow
7/22-26 - Moscow
7/27-8/14 - Train travel through Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria
8/15-18 - Visiting friends in Bern (Switzerland)
8/19-8/29 - Tour du Mont Blanc (10-day circuit hike in Alps through Switzerland, France and Italy)
8/30 - Train to Bologna (Italy) to look for housing
8/30-9/6 - Bologna (looking for housing)
9/7 - Train to Nice, boat to Corsica (France, island)
9/8-24 - GR20 cross-island hike through Corsica
9/25 - Back to Bologna
9/29 - First day of orientation at Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna campus!

What actually happened was:

5/17 - Flight to Bangkok
5/18 - Bus to Siem Reap (Cambodia)
5/19 - Angkor Wat
5/20 - Bus to Phnom Penh
5/21 - Phnom Penh
5/22 - River ferry to Can Tho
5/23-25 - Ho Chi Minh
5/26-27 - Dalat
5/28-31 - Nha Trang
6/1 - Hue
6/2-7 - Hanoi (waiting for visa)
6/8-10 Halong Bay
6/11 - Nanning
6/12-15 - Yangshuo, southern China
6/16-17 - Kunming
6/18-23 - Dali
6/24 - Chengdu (This is where I decided to cut a month off the trip in order to attend pre-term in Bologna)
6/25-30 - Xi'an and surrounding sites
7/1-2 - Beijing
7/3-5 - Great Wall
7/6-9 - Beijing
7/10 - Trans-Mongolian Railroad to Ulanbataar (Mongolia)
7/11-14 - Ulanbataar and surroundings
7/14-16 - Trans-Siberian Railroad to Irkutsk (Russia)
7/16-19 - Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
7/19-7/22 - TSRR to Moscow
7/22-26 - Moscow
7/27 - Riga (Latvia)
7/28-29 - Prague
7/30-8/3 - Visiting friends in Bern (Switzerland)
8/4 - Train to Livorno via Pisa en route to Corsica
8/5 - Ferry to Corsica
8/6-16 - Hiking in Corsica
8/16 - Ferry back to Livorno, train back to BOLOGNA

Except for the truncation of the last month, we did not deviate all that much from the original plan. Somewhere in southern Vietnam, we realized that our pace of travel was unsustainable, and so the difficult decision was made to nix Laos. Visa troubles in Hanoi prevented us from visiting Hong Kong, and the ardor of travel across such great distances in China restrained us to visiting only Xi’an between Yunnan and Beijing. Tickets to Shanghai were sold out from all destination for weeks in advance because of the World’s Fair, which we heard from multiple sources was not at all worth the trouble (4-5 hour lines just to visit a single country’s tent). Economy of motion and a severely abbreviated schedule forced us to whiz through central Europe, giving all but Riga and Prague a miss. I was perhaps most disappointed at the loss of the Tour du Mont Blanc, which has been high on my wishlist since I first visited France six years ago. But in return, I was thankful - more so at the end of three months than at the initial prospect - to permanently unpack my bag a month earlier and to find a kitchen and a bed to call my own.

The decision to attend pre-term was an important negotiation between my desire for endless adventures and to not take things too seriously and the serious need for me to take things seriously for this, the most important (and expensive) investment in my future that I have made thus far. In retrospect, it would have been irresponsible of me to have chosen otherwise.

And now here I am in Italy - but we’ll get to that soon (hopefully). First, I present you with the (currently under construction) intermediate chapter of my life: The Great Trans-Eurasian Overland Adventure!

Taiwan: A Conclusion

The realization that we would not be relinquishing our apartment had something of a silver lining to it, for all of the last-minute packing, preparations, planning, and shipping that muddled the next two days would have been infinitely more difficult from the hostel room we were planning to move to for our last few days in Taiwan.

Our flight out was not, in fact, until the 17th, but I was determined to make good on my promise to return to finish our circumnavigational cycling trip. Initially, the plan was to leave immediately after our last Chinese class on Tuesday afternoon to Taidong, where we had left off in February. But as always, I was overly optimistic about the amount of time it would take to get our affairs in order, and a recent bout of rain washing up the coast of the island served only to encourage a change in plans to leave later from Hualien instead and spend more time in Taroko gorge, which would have been the highlight of the eastern coast anyway, if not of the whole island.

Wednesday was a flurry of cardboard, packing tape, and loose odds and ends. Boxes came down from our apartment in greater numbers than I would really like to admit and it required two taxi rides to the post office for us to ship all of our belongings. I'm a strong proponent of traveling light and just not owning so much stuff in general, but I seem to be faltering in that regard as I get older, and I had the compelling excuse that anything we did not take with us we would just have to buy again - at certainly more than double the price - when we got to Italy. But there may still have been some excesses on both our parts.

I had previously arranged with our friends at the bicycle shop in Bali to pick up properly equipped bicycles at their branch in Hualien. Megan met us at the train station Thursday morning and together we boarded the train headed northwest, around the mountains and along the coast.

With little difficulty, we picked up the bikes, packed up, and set off. The road out of Hualien began peacefully along the coast, in passable weather, before tilting slightly inland to allow a long stretch of cemetery to enjoy the waterfront. It was just about then that the rain began. I had been expecting it and had my poncho already at the top of my bag. Dancing under a grove of trees, the rain dripping down through the leaves, to keep away the ravenous mosquitoes swarming around my bare legs, I changed into sandals to keep my only pair of shoes from turning into heavy sponges.

What began as a drizzle turned into a heavy downpour and it felt at times as though we were riding through a shallow sea, stretching down the endless grey highway in the shroud of rain, dimming even the green forests on either side. Trucks would pass by, spraying waves of road water onto us as they passed. Three billowing ponchos pushing through the afternoon deluge.

We stopped for a break at a chicken restaurant along the roadside. There were a few other bikers already taking shelter there, and aside from the mosquitoes, which were little deterred by the three mosquito coils that I had hoarded around our table, it was quite pleasant. We sat for at least an hour at the tables underneath the porch awning, talking and watching the rain pour down in buckets over the road.

We tried to wait for a break in the rain, but all we got was a short decrease in intensity, which in the end was only a successful attempt to lure us out so the sky could dump on us more. It rained more and we pushed on, toward this vague idea of a place that I had for us to camp. I was less enthusiastic about this idea in the rain, as a darker shade of grey crept into the early evening clouds. We tried asking some people at a 7-11 about this place, which was actually a school, but there was some vocabulary difficulty and, despite living in such a small area, they seemed absurdly ill-informed as to the layout of their town.

We were told there were no schools around, except in the next town up. Eventually, we teased out the location of a police office down another road a few minutes back. On the way to this police station, we passed right by - what do you know - a school. Some of the staff happened to be leaving just as we pedaled up, soggy and bedraggled. We convinced them to let us pitch our tent in this wonderfully appropriate covered stage area next door, where we sprawled out on the clean marble floor, safe from the rain, and had a bento dinner before retiring to sleep.


The next morning, we set off for Taroko. I was woken up early by the gang of middle-aged women practicing a choreographed dance on the adjacent basketball court. "Nobody nobody but you!" Their dance moves, which were appropriate to the song, were likewise inappropriate for a group of older women in front of an elementary school at 6:00 in the morning. We had good weather and a still relaxing incline up to the park entrance. We stopped at a police station for water before heading up into the gorge, which quickly assumed a much more taxing slope.

The girls needed stops along the way. Our first detour was to a sort of temple at the base of a cliff, over a waterfall into a wide dry basin carved out once by the river. It was an hour climb up to the top, where a simple pagoda looked down over the temple and across to the other wall of the gorge. The stairs inside led up to the terrace encompassing the bell. I rang it.

Down the other side and back to our bikes, we continued up the ever-increasing incline toward Tianshang, the main town. The road passed, which had begun just above the river, was now carved straight into the rock, passing in and out of long tunnels and overhangs, dropping from the rail at the edge of the road immediately down to the rushing river below. Once in Tianshang, we got some food and visited the empty information office to inquire about the trails. The staff were very friendly and it was easy to speak Chinese with them.

We spent the night back down the gorge a few minutes, at a small campground. The next morning, the sun rose through a cloudy sky over the gorge. I got up before Megan and Valerie and walked down to a small turn-off and pagoda, from which a narrow suspension bridge hung high above the river to the opposite side. I walked out to the middle and took breakfast there.

Taroko gorge deserves its reputation as one of the most inspiring attractions in Taiwan, if not its comparison to the Grand Canyon (often from Taiwanese people who have never been to the Grand Canyon, but are eager to draw comparisons with America). I visited the latter when I was in middle school, via helicopter to the bottom. They are, in fact, nothing alike, except insofar as they are both large canyons carved out by a river.

While the Grand Canyon wins its acclaim on size, depth, and captivating, sculpted, rocky vistas, Taroko gorge is awash in shades of green. Trees and other vegetation cling precipitously to all but the most vertiginous of faces, creating the impression of a sinking forest. Even the rock, when it shows, seems to be an organic extension of the forest. There was no rim, but a variated skyline of small peaks and cols, as if someone had split a mountain range down the middle like a hot-dog bun and poured this river inside. It was the most spectacular place I visited in all of Taiwan.

The girls finally woke up and we rode down out of the canyon, enjoying the descent that had been so tedious the day before. We made it out of the gorge in just over and hour or two, compared to the four or so that it took us to get in. Jared had arranged to meet up with us for some river-tracing early that afternoon, at a small town at the mouth of a narrow valley just south of Taroko.

We happened to be the first (and only for several hours) visitors to a local cultural festival the town was putting on. We were greeted by tall, toothless guy and his rather comedic sidekick. I was suspicious at first, as people inviting you to things or providing information generally have ulterior motives, but it turned out that these were just friendly locals who wanted us to enjoy their festival. They had a rather sad-looking karaoke stage set up at the entrance, which for most of the time was resigned to playing pop music on the large stereo speakers. Up the street, at the school, they had set up various hunting traps for display and took us around to demonstrate how each of them worked. There were several ingenious contraptions for catching birds, fish, rabbits, and all manner of animal. They said that one of them was an elephant trap. Or they might have been saying hippo - something was lost in translation, but whatever large animal it was certainly did not exist anywhere in or around Taiwan.

Finally (yeah, there wasn't actually much there), they took us to the archery course, where I got to try firing one of the aboriginal bows. It was actually a lot harder than they made it look. Nock the arrow, point it at the target, pull back and let go. How hard could that possible be? I managed to hit the target a couple times, but I had made the novice mistake of locking out my arm against the bow, allowing the string to flick back against my bicep when I fired. The entire inside of my right arm was a nasty shade of purple for the next few days.

Jared showed up - he had rented a bike back in Hualien earlier than morning and cycled up to meet us for river tracing. This activity, at least for him, was somewhat - entirely - precluded by the giant gash he had somehow managed to inflict on his foot, rendering it, like the Wicked Witch of the East, incompatible with water. Fortunately, for all but one section of the river, there was a bank along which he could walk. I gave him a piggyback ride over that one part. He is about a foot taller than me. It was funny.

Although the weather remained dour for most of the day, it was warm enough to enjoy swimming in the deeper parts of the river, climbing over rocks, jumping off some of the low cliffs, and general traipsing about.

As evening set in, we returned to our bikes and headed for the coast, where we had decided there would be somewhere to camp. Reality met us halfway and we pitched our tents on the pebble beach along the coast north of Hualien, awkwardly just beneath a coastguard watchtower. Jared and Megan biked back to get us dinner from the chicken place and Valerie and I set up camp. It began to rain just as they returned, so I threw my rain tarp over the bicycles and we all squished together underneath for dinner.

The next morning, we cycled the rest of the way back to Hualien and caught the train home, arriving Sunday evening. Monday morning, four hours before our flight out of the country, I picked up my passports from the Fulbright office, where our friend Elaine had received it on my behalf (because I couldn't have it delivered to my apartment). I had the paperwork for my visa all ready and, on our way out of the apartment to the bus station, I anxiously stopped at the post office to mail it to D.C. for the Italian visa processing.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, our ridiculously heavy packs stowed beneath our feet, I got my final look at Taipei main station and the city that had been a bittersweet home for the last nine months. Sitting in the plane, I did not feel the kind of conflicted longing and melancholy excitement that I had felt leaving Japan, Italy, or France. I made some friends here, but many of them were moving on just as I was. Taipei, it seemed, was a kind of crossroads for most of the foreigners there - an in-between place more than a second home or a permanent destination. As such, it did not offer the kind of warm welcome that I've found in the other places I've been. It never acquired the familiar face of a good friend, but maintained for the whole year that stony, anonymous, and shifting mien of one of the millions of strangers passing along the crowded streets. Perhaps it was just the casual indifference of Chinese culture, or a result of my own ambivalent attitude toward the place and how it defined this part of my life. I had lived some good adventures, laughed some deep laughs, struggled with my share of frustrations, and in the process learned a few lessons and acquired many good stories, but whatever it was, I was, for once, decidedly more excited to be moving on than I was sad to be leaving.

-=End of Chapter 4=-

Open letter to Mike from Hong Kong

To be honest, you were a little weird when I first met you. Your handshake was like a dead fish - limp and clammy. But that's okay; some people are just not good hand-shakers. And when you introduced yourself with shifty sideways glances and shuffling feet, I thought only that you were one of the many socially inept lanky white guys that come to teach English for lack of prospects in America, to be a rockstar amongst the Chinese and Japanese girls who melt at your awesome foreign-ness (because that's all you have going for you). But I didn't hold that against you, because you were interested in taking our apartment. Like the rest, you seemed nice enough. And if you were going to save us from breaking our lease, I was more than willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

I made small talk as we walked up the six flights of stairs to the apartment and teased out some of the mundane details of your existence, the highlight of which were the five years you had just spent teaching English under the table in Hong Kong. "Wow, that's really cool!" I feigned, "My dad's from Hong Kong." "OK," you said. And this was to be characteristic of our interaction over the next ten or fifteen minutes, during which I tried my best to highlight the nice things about our apartment, without mentioning that you were essentially our last chance for finding a replacement tenant.

I put all that aside when you said that you would take it. You wanted to meet the landlord and we arranged a time on Monday for you to come by. I shook your slightly slimy fish again and flashed a smile as you left.

But I should have known you would let me down. Your slouching gait spoke not only of too many hours in front of a computer game, but of your moral posture. What I could not have known was that when you decided not to rent our apartment, you would decide also not to inform us of the fact. In fact, when we were waiting in our apartment with the landlord for an hour, and calling you, sending you emails and text messages, you would turn off your phone and ignore our messages. As I stood at the top of our stairs, sweaty and panting for having essentially sprinted from the bus back from my whole ordeal with my passport and FedEx in the morning in order not to be late for our appointment, it occurred to me that this is completely in keeping with your pasty white skin, your fishy handshake, and your general lack of purpose in life.

So this letter is to you, Mike, you spineless frog.

Like a 10-pound hammer to the side of the head

I was skipping happily along toward our departure from Taiwan and the trip of a lifetime when suddenly I hit not a pothole, but a gaping abyss of a crater in the road. I woke up to an email in my inbox Saturday morning providing the long-awaited details regarding my enrollment for fall semester at SAIS. It was all the usual good but not immediately relevant news about student resources, peripheral paperwork, academic calendars and the like, all the way down until a seemingly innocuous item 11: Italian visa. By the way, you need to send us your passport and visa application in the next two weeks. It took a moment for this to set in. Two weeks. TWO WEEKS!? What kind of notice is that? And it's Saturday! Almost worse than the dire immediacy of the situation was my total powerlessness to do anything about it until Monday.

Panic slowly crept through my veins like ice water, setting my heart thrumming and my mind racing. I had two options: Send my passport to Johns Hopkins for visa processing, or submit the application myself. The obvious first choice, given the fact that I was currently overseas and in immediate and continuous need of my passport for the next four months, was to submit the application myself. The first problem I encountered with this was that I would not be able to obtain all of the necessary paperwork for my application for at least another week, which would not leave me enough time to apply through the Italian embassy in Taipei. Plan B: apply at another embassy. Research into this solution eventually revealed that I am only eligible to apply for a visa through the Italian embassy nearest my permanent or legal residence (Gotta love Italian bureaucracy). That ruled out all hope of applying at an embassy in another country during my trip. The only option would be to fly back to San Francisco to get my visa. Not much of an option because the cost of the ticket would render me financially incapable of following through on the rest of my travels, for which I had already expended a lot of time, effort, and frustration in procuring visas, maps, guidebooks, etc.

So that line of options reached a dead-end. Door 2: Send my passport to Johns Hopkins. At first glance, this was equally impossible, but with a few desperate hours of research, I discovered that it is possible to apply for a second passport in cases like this. The only question was whether there would be enough time. My first move would be to inquire at AIT, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan. Runner up was to apply via an expensive private service operated out of San Francisco.

Either way, it required that I assemble a second-passport application and all corresponding documentation. Consequently there were actually plenty of things for me to do between when I received the email and Monday. I spent most of Sunday bicycling around Yonghe trying to obtain suitable passport photos, make photocopies of documents, and print out applications. Obtaining passport photos was a bit of a debacle in itself - I ended up having to go to two different photographers, both on the other side of the city because Yonghe is a silly, inconvenient place and Sunday, even in non-Catho-centric countries, is an inconvenient day to try to get things done, because, even though there's no God here, everybody still wants some days off and Sunday just happens to be the day that everyone decided on, thanks to the ubiquity of Christian perceptions of time. Bah humbug, I say! So everything was operating at odd hours; odd to the normal business day, and even odd to one another. One of the photographers was only open in the morning and again in the evening; the other only in the afternoon. And one photographer was absolutely convinced that he knew the correct format for American passport photos. Long story short, he did not and I had to go to another photographer to get the correct ones because he had already closed by the time I realized the error. I made no less than four trips across town and back that day.

Monday morning arrived and I had almost everything lined up. I was placing a lot of faith in AIT's ability to get me the second passport; they had provided me additional passport extension pages on just a day's notice when I ran out of space and needed to pages for the Russian visa. I got up early in order to be at the door when they opened, wisely leaving the rest of the day open to sift through the mountain of merda I would be in if they couldn't help me. Valerie went with me because she would likewise eventually be in need of additional passport pages. I politely explained my situation to the desk attendant, who gave me radiant feelings of ultimately false hope by assuring me that I could apply for a second passport there. That hope was crushed when it came out that I needed it in much less than the three weeks that she outlined. Not only that, but when I was referred to a case officer, given the specific and urgent nature of my situation, I learned that almost none of the second passport applications processed at AIT are approved by Washington. Great.

My stomach dropped through the floor. I walked out as in a daze, reeling in shock and despair. Valerie had to attend to other business and I found myself on the side of a busy street in a now alien and unwelcoming city on the other side of the world from home, alone with no one to turn to for assistance or even advice. I felt like I was lost back in the terrifying, claustrophobic night of the Thai jungle, surrounded by cars and daylight instead of vines and darkness, but still feeling the same vice-grip somersaults in my stomach crushing the breath out of me.

I walked a few desperate blocks and then steeled myself to the situation. I could not sit down and cry; there was no pause button, no helicopter to come and ferry me out of this moment of my life. I had to act. There was simply nothing else to do. And I drew from that necessity the strength to handle everything that needed to be handled, confidently, precisely and with the determination of someone who can see clearly the path to what he wants, thorny though it may be.

I had to get home in order to make a Skype call to the Travel Visa Pro office in San Francisco to confirm my emergency application for the second-passport service. The plan was to overnight FedEx my passport and application to their agency, pay a ridiculous sum of money for 24-hour processing, and then have them overnight the passport back to me to arrive, hopefully, the day before my flight out of the country. In explaining my situation, it is pertinent to mention that this was all happening exactly one week before my residence visa would expire and I would have to be out of the country. For reasons entirely beyond me, sending my passport to another continent and back is faster and more reliable than doing it at the embassy right here. That goes to show that Italy (and Russia and China, which have both presented visa nightmares) does not have a monopoly on tangled bureaucracy. I was understandably skeptical of the whole procedure, especially because of the riskiness of such a tight time frame. Were my passport not to arrive back to me on the day I planned, I would have to cancel my flight out on the day of departure and book a new flight for two days later, thus overstaying my visa and incurring fines and possible restrictions on subsequent return to the country. So, I was swinging for the fences with all the eggs in one basket and many other clichés.

I got home, called the passport agency, paid for the service online, and ran out to print the final documents. Not sure when the last FedEx shipment would go out for the day - and my passport HAD to go out that day - I couldn't trust public transportation; the shipping office was on the opposite side of Taipei, in Neihu. So just before noon, I was running through the streets of Yonghe, frantically trying to find one of the taxis that seem to over-run the place when you don't need them. I got a taxi to stop, but he said that he could not go to Neihu because it was too far and he didn't know his way around. Fortunately, I had the foresight to bring a map. I showed him how to get there on the map, but he still refused and asked me to get out of the car. Confused, I resumed my search for a taxi. The next one agreed to take me to Neihu even though he made just as clear that he did not know his way around either. Doesn't matter. I HAVE to get there.

And so, as I am frantically filling out my paperwork in the back of the taxi, weaving through lunch-hour traffic across the city, I also have to be following my route on the map because my incompetent taxi driver can't (or won't) read it himself. And of course he doesn't speak English, so I have to give him all the directions in Chinese (we had a lesson on this!). We finally get to Neihu and the driver practically throws his hands in the air; I miraculously manage to navigate us to the gritty industrial street corner on which the shipping office was located. A pretty penny lighter, I scrambled out of the taxi and into the office, filled out all the shipping paperwork, inserted my passport and application documents, and sent everything on its way with a silent, non-denominational prayer.

My part of the ordeal was over; now it was a waiting game, but I could not yet relax because I was supposed to meet the landlord and the new tenant back in Yonghe in less than an hour...

Part 3: Insult to Injury

Four-Eyes For Less

I decided to look into getting a new pair of glasses before leaving Taiwan, as I have heard from several people that they are much less expensive here. But I was skeptical because getting glasses in America, without insurance, costs a buhgillion dollars. “Significantly less” than a buhgillion dollars is still going to be lots of money I don’t have, so I put it off. And I put it off. And then May hit and with only two weeks left until departure, I finally had to do all the things that I had been putting off, or hold my peace. With all the looming costs of shipping, I certainly didn’t need another expense, but I thought I would take a look – just to see – and because it is on my way home from the MRT. I inquired about getting glasses as if it were some pivotal endeavor; they just looked at me and said, “OK,” with all the nonchalance of people who deal with this on an hourly basis and were of course not the least bit surprised or impressed that I had come here, to a glasses shop, to buy glasses. The insignificance of the situation fell upon me and I felt sheepish.

They guided me downstairs, to their exam room, and I told them that I had not brought any money with me today. They gave me a quizzical look. “OK.” Eye exams in Taiwan are free. I did not know that, but was titilated at the discovery. Turns out my subscription has not changed but a little since the last time I got glasses/lenses, which was nearly ten years ago now.

They printed out my measurements on the spot and I was free to pick out glasses. This was all moving way too fast for me. What about the follow-up consultation? The insurance paperwork? The shuffling around between rooms and the all the various associated fees? Sitting around and waiting to be seen for an appointment even? None of it. It felt like receiving keys to the estate after just the appetizer on a first date.

I told them that I would come back that evening to look at lenses. I was about to leaving without having asked the pivotal question: “Oh, by the way, how much are your cheapest frames?” “1,000” Yeah, that figures, I thought to myself… but wait, that’s in Taiwan dollars, so $30 US. Right? I asked again, and listended very carefully to be sure. Yes, 30 US dollars for a pair of glasses. Including frames. I nearly fell out of my seat.

The whole experience was a little less of a flat golf-course than I made out, but not for any fault of the system. The difficulties were linguistic, because I had to do all of this in Chinese, including the eye exam and all of the associated questions and responses. I had not at all prepared myself for the communicative high-jump, but I managed to make it over rather respectably, I thought. Perhaps I clipped the bar with my hip, but after just nine months of instruction, to be able to get that high… I was not ashamed of myself. It also reminded me of the eye exam I had to take as part of the government-mandated health screening, in Japanese. I also, for reasons I cannot remember, took an eye exam in Italy. That makes eye exams in four languages, in four countries; a rather unorthodox measurement of linguistic achievements.

The next day, I had in my hand a receipt for a super-fancy pair of new glasses (which I’m still not sure are entirely suited to my personality right now, but are hopefully something to grow into) to be picked up on Monday (less than three-day turn around on exam, perscription, lenses, and frames - another shock). On passing inquiry into contact lenses, I found I could get a 3-month supply over the counter for all of $20 US. I went back four or five times in the week before we left, always reminding myself how ridiculously inexpensive that is and how wise it would be to buy as many as I can here.

And thus concludes my treastise on eyewear… Moving on, and more quickly, because I’m still at an internet café and cannot ramble at such length and expect to cover any ground.

Part 2: Crisis