Sunday, February 27, 2005


Grassy, snowy desert-steppe, tan and white, is rolling by the window. The train passed the border from China into Mongolia, changing wheels and stamping passports, around midnight, eight hours ago. We are rolling northwest, towards Ulaanbaatar. Five years I have been away from Mongolia. I have done and seen many things; I have loved and been loved; friends have died. Horses and gers, smoke puffing from their chimney-pipes, pock the expansive land. Sky is a clear, pale blue. I have returned.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

China, Beijing

On the way to the Chinese embassy in Perth to apply for my visa, Brett affected a spot-on, intimidating High Mandarin accent: "What is your business in the People's Republic of China?" Then he affected a spot-on, bouncing Midwestern American accent: "Freedom! I'm here to bring American freedom to the Chinese!"

When I got into China and exchanged dollars for Chinese yuan, I noticed immediately that the old Mongolian script is one of five languages printed on the back of every Chinese bill.

I trained into the country from Hanoi and trained north through the vastness of China to Beijing.

A week in Beijing. American expatriates, European tourists, and friendly Chinese.

Olympics in 2008.

Hung out with Alexis, a French photographer, in Beijing. She had come to China to get photos of the Chinese New Year celebrations for a magazine in France. Unfortunately, she had not gotten a single photo of a dragon dance, because she had not found a single dragon dance. This was problematic for her because the French magazine wanted photos of dragon dances, because all of the people in France know that all of the people in China celebrate the New Year with dragon dances, even if all of the people in China do not know this.

Went with Alexis and some Chinese fashion models to an uber-trendy nightclub one night. The models started playing drinking games. I fell asleep.

Many say that Beijing and Shanghai and Xian and a dozen other Chinese cities are changing daily. Half of all the construction cranes in the world are in China.

"When China wakes, she will shake the world."
--Napoleon Bonaparte

My high point in Beijing was hanging out with a dude named Tulgaa in the Mongolian embassy. He speaks Russian but no English. He was on his way to Hong Kong to buy watches to take back to Ulaanbaatar and sell in his shop. I rode with him to the train station to catch his train. We got in a cab with a Mongolian driver. I asked the driver if he spoke Russian, and Tulgaa told me that he was Chinese. I was confused. Then he told me that the driver was from the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. This was the first Mongolian I had ever met who was from China, even though there are more citizens of China who are ethnic Mongolians than there are citizens of the country of Mongolia. So the driver had never studied Russian, but spoke fluent Mandarin. Then I realized that he, along with the three million other ethnic Mongolians in China, must read and write Mongolian in the old Mongolian alphabet, not the Russian Cyrillic. I had never thought of this before, not even when I had seen the old alphabet on the Chinese money.

Tulgaa chatted with the driver in Mongolian on the way. After we got out of the cab at the train station, Tulgaa said to me, "He's a Chinese Mongolian. He's just like all the other Chinese." Tulgaa speaks not a word of any Chinese language. Hanging out in the train station, speaking Russian amongst the convulsing hordes of countless Chinese, we made plans to meet up again in UB after we both got back there in the next week.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Vietnam, Hanoi

"Each day of travelling gains you plenty of wisdom."
--Vietnamese proverb

* * *

My absolute last impression of Australia was bathroom graffiti in the international airport in Perth:

"U.S. Out of North America NOW!"

* * *

My first encounter with Indonesia was in the city of Denpasar on the island of Bali, and Indonesia all-too-comfortably met my prejudiced image of a modern Islamic society--gloriously clean, polite, calm, secure.

In Jakarta, the capital, I figured there was one scooter or motorcycle for every four-wheeled car on the streets. And every rider was wearing a helmet. A billboard advertising an art exhibition featured only one large image: stylized eyes peering out from a full-face moto helmet.

In Jakarta, I nearly married into a strict Muslim family.

Patrice told me that two religions do not make for a happy marriage, so one of us would have to convert. Super easy, thought I. Unlike her parents, Patrice is a "skip the fasting, go to the feast" kind of Muslim, and converting to agnostic indifference doesn't require an examination nor a ceremony. However, I quickly learned, her parents would not accept her not being a Muslim. Therefore, one of us would have to convert.

In the airport at Jakarta, awaiting the plane to Ho Chi Minh, I saw MTV Asia. Broadcast throughout Asia with most of its content in English, it has the largest audience of any MTV incarnation and one of the largest audiences of any television channel in the world. The last time I had seen MTV Asia was in Ulaanbaatar.

* * *

In Ho Chi Minh City, I figured there were 25 scooters for every four-wheeled car. And nobody was wearing a helmet.

The hostel was full, but the girls told me they had room at one of their other hostels. So the smallest one led me outside and fired up a scooter and told me to get on the back. Okay. So I suspended my moto-safety fanaticism and climbed aboard. Suddenly I was part of the world-infamous Vietnamese scooter traffic.

"If you are afraid, do not do it. If you do it, do not be afraid."
--Mongolian proverb

At the other hostel, the girls told me that they were full, but they would get me a room at the hotel across the street. So the tallest one led me outside to cross the street, which is even more dangerous than riding through the street. Standing on the curb, she held out her hand to me and waited. So, like a small child, I put my hand in hers. Then we literally waded into the traffic. As we finally got to the other curb, she let go of my hand. I raised a foot to place on the curb, saw the scooter in the corner of my eye, stepped back, attempted to yelp a warning, followed the scooter with my eyes as it passed me, and watched it hit the girl. She fell down, stood back up, the scooter sailed off, and then she waved impatiently at me. I stepped up on the curb and we went inside the hotel.

French and Germans overflowing out of the hostels.

Two days on the Reunification Train up to Hanoi. Hanoi seems so familiar: cold weather and Soviet-style disrepair.

There is a Hilton Hotel in Hanoi.

* * *

The Mongol empire extended beyond China and down the coast of Southeast Asia, which is known in our time as Vietnam. It even extended into the islands off Southeast Asia, including the island of Java, on which is located Jakarta.

Saturday, February 5, 2005

Australia, Western Australia, Perth

When I first arrived in Australia in Sydney, I mentioned to Ros, the Aussie woman I had met in Costa Rica, that I had never seen so many Australians all in one place before.

"Funny that," she replied.

She also said, "shark-feeding time," when she jumped into the Pacific for a swim.

I stayed in Sydney for a week.

* * *

For three days from the window of the Indian Pacific Train while crossing the breadth of Australia, I had seen a lot of flat empty sun-burned nothing, punctuated by a total of eight kangaroos. Two days after arriving in Western Australia on the other side of the Outback, I was standing on a dune overlooking a stretch of desert with a Spanish-Italian couple, a girl from Switzerland, and Brett, my old Aussie mate from Perth. In the distance, just beyond the desert, we could see the sun shining on the Indian Ocean.

Brett commented, "When the first Europeans were sailing around Australia and they saw desert like this from the ships, it's easy to see how they thought the whole country was like this."

We each gazed round at the sand and rocks and sun. I looked at the Europeans and then over to Brett.

"It is," I said.

* * *

When I first met Brett in Ohio five years ago, it was his first time off his island, and he was just another naive Aussie. Now I arrive in Western Australia and find him having just returned from several months in Spain and Portugal, speaking Spanish better than I do.

To study Spanish in Perth, Brett has found Enrico and Angela, one of whom is Spanish living in Italy and the other Italian who has lived in Spain. They are in Australia for six months to improve their already-fluent English. The effect so far has been the peppering of their English with expressions like "No worries" and "Good on you" and "Bugger me."

Enrico and Angela are living in a boarding house filled mostly with students from Japan. They are very excited about this. "It is the first time we get to know Asian people!" They continue: "We think they do not like being touched. They never say it, they are so polite, but when you touch them, they get very tense and say, 'O-oh! O-oh!'"

Their friend Eva, the Swiss girl, is in Perth for a year to study English. She is staying with her uncle, who had emigrated to Australia from Switzerland 15 years ago, gotten married, gotten divorced, and is now living with his partner, waiting for Australia to change its laws so they can get married.

The five of us drove into the countryside north of Perth to camp for several days and fish and look at big rocks.

* * *

Sitting in the shade of a rock ledge in a state park, Brett was telling us about the water hole we were going to hike to and swim in later that afternoon.

"It’s a real nice place, in the gorge and all that. Real beautiful. Oh, yeah, and there are some crocs in this swimming hole, but they’re just little ones; nothing to worry about."

"What?" came the wide-eyed, collective Euro-reply.

"Well, yeah, but they’re just little ones--only a couple metres or so. They won’t bite you or anything. Well, they might nibble your leg a bit, but--"

Then he turned on me. "Oy! What did you start laughing for? I would've had them! I would've had them!"

* * *

Brett and I were walking out of a canyon in the direct 40-degree-Celsius sun.

Brett said, "The heat is so relaxing, you know. You just feel calm. Not like when it's cold and you shiver and all that."

I said, "You have to come to Mongolia, Brett, and ride around on a horse in 20-below weather."

"Yeah... uh... roight... uh, that doesn't sound like fun, Rad."

"Bah! Lets you know you're alive," I said, and thumped my chest twice with my fist. "Here, you know, here, in this overheated lethargy, you could just as well be dead. You wouldn't even notice."

"Yeah, yeah, roight, that's true, yeah."