Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Day 27: An Eye-Opening Incident in Beijing

The Chinese understand rail and how trains can move people – a lot of people – quickly and efficiently. We arrived in Beijing at a grand old rail station with some 30 trains appearing on the constantly-changing departure board, all scheduled to depart at varying times in just the next 120 minutes.

First order of business: a visit to Tiananmen Square which, days later in Shanghai, was described to me by a local Chinese as “the political epicenter of China”.

At one end of this vast area is the mausoleum for Mao Zedong – he is always referred to as “Chairman Mao” in China, never simply as “Mao” – and this is the line of people waiting to enter that building. I have no idea how many were standing there, but our guide estimated it would be a two-hour wait from this point … and, he emphasized, this was a slow day with less-than-normal crowds.

I should add here that each of us had been given a small radio receiver with an ear piece. Our guide carried a small transmitter and could describe what we were seeing in a normal voice that we could easily hear through this device.

It was at this point, as our group had briefly stopped to reassemble, that I asked our guide where exactly in the square was this famous photograph taken showing the one man standing in front of a tank during the 1989 protest demonstrations.

A stricken look came over the guide’s face. Finally, after staring off into space for several seconds – the guide said, with lengthy pauses between every word, “ Well … you see … China … is … a very … special … place.” There followed a very awkward silence for several seconds, then the guide nodded carefully in the direction of a man standing 30-40 feet away from our group and holding something up to his ear.

Finally, when the man turned and started walking away, I snapped this photo of him. Our guide – obviously still very uncomfortable – muttered the words “secret police” under his or her breath. Clearly, the concern was that this man had been eavesdropping on what was being said to our group. (I am obviously making an effort to obscure the identity of our guide and would like to add here for the record that at no time did our guide say one derogatory word about the Chinese government.)

Gee .. I wonder why!

And that said, I will now acknowledge that there are video cameras mounted in and around most public areas in U.S cities – Times Square in New York, for example – as well as most other major cities around the world. Nevertheless, I could not escape the uncomfortable feeling -- on this particular day, in this particular location and following this incident -- that these cameras were primarily there for reasons other than public safety.

Setting all that aside, however, Tiananmen Square is a must-see for anyone visiting Beijing. It is impressive for it’s size alone, with the national museum on one side, a massive building where the government meets on the other and Mao’s mausoleum dominating the far end. There are the usual and expected heroic monuments to the workers and, of course, always the huge crowds.

Next: A visit to the not-very Forbidden City.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Day 25-26: Through the Gobi Desert to China

So far, Mongolia has been the biggest surprise of this journey, perhaps even the highlight. And without question, the most exhilarating experience in Mongolia occurred when we attended a performance by the Mongolian National Orchestra.

There were a few western instruments in the back rows, but almost all of the musicians were performing on traditional stringed instruments and what we would call “woodwinds”. There were also several instruments very much like the cimbalom featured in Hungarian music. In particular, there was a solo performed on an instrument fashioned from a long, curved cattle horn which produced a lovely sound much like a clarinet. The orchestra performed very traditional Mongolian music and other pieces in a style more familiar to the western ear. Either way, it was an unexpected and almost breathtaking experience.

When I awoke early the next morning, the train had stopped for refueling and watering at a way station in the middle of the Gobi desert. (Technically, that’s a redundancy since “gobi” translates as “desert” in the Mongolian language.) There was time to get off and slog around out there … tough going in the soft sand that varied anywhere from one to 8-10 inches deep.

But it was easy going for camels. A Mongolian entrepreneur showed up by the train and, before we departed, was offering camel rides to a few of the passengers. Later, after resuming our run toward the Chinese border, I was able to get photos as we passed several small herds of camels.

Way back several weeks ago, when my train from Berlin to Moscow crossed into Russia, the trucks (or “bogies” as they are called in Europe) had to be changed to accommodate the wider Russian gauge. Here, just inside China, the passengers were switched instead. We were transferred, bag and baggage from our private Russian train (on the right) to a Chinese train that would take us on the overnight run to Beijing.

I am unable to resist adding here that each sleeping car on the Chinese train was staffed by two young female attendants, who were just as sweet and cute and nice as they could possibly be, notwithstanding the fact that their entire English vocabulary apparently consisted of “Good morning!” and “Good night”. Any other attempt at conversation produce and enthusiastic and, I have no doubt, quite genuine, “Welcome to China!”

Next: B is for Beijing … and for BIG!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Day 22-24: Across Mongolia.

Notes and impressions from my recent rail journey -- from London to Germany, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia on to China -- now continues. Sorry for the interruption.
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Mongolia has been another great surprise. Ulan Bator is a modern city, with apartment buildings, parks, cultural activities, and – at least as far as we could tell – universally friendly people. Of course, this comes from the perspective of someone from Hawaii where all outdoor advertising is banned, but I was struck, by the constant visual assault of signs and billboards that really give the city a tawdry look. How bad is it?

Well, the main entrance of our hotel in Ulan Bator is just behind that big tour bus. I'd say a billboard that big on the front of the hotel is just a bit over the top, wouldn’t you?

Our last day in Mongolia, we were driven to a National Park for a fascinating look at the lives of Mongolian nomads. They live in yurts – just one round room with fabric stretched over a wood frame – but pack everything up and move three or four time a year to provide more or better grazing for their cattle, horses, camels and sometimes sheep and goats as well.

Once inside the park, we stopped for a look at a herd of yaks ambling across a valley below us on their way to a small river. Great big shaggy beasts.

Just a couple of hours later, we had the unusual experience of being invited into the home of a Mongolian family where we were each given a small bowl of their beverage of choice: fermented mare’s milk. According to Timor, our guide, it would be unthinkable to decline and protocol required at least a small sip. I did my bit for international relations and was prepared for the worst, but it was not as bad as I expected. Think warm skim milk with a bite.

And here’s how a mare is milked: To start the flow, her foal is brought up to nuzzle, then is pulled back and a second person does the actual milking … but it takes three to tango: the foal and two Mongolians.

There was also an archery demonstration, with two men firing arrows at a bright red target not more that a foot square and probably 200 feet away. I didn’t keep count, but they scored hits at least 3 times out of five arrows.

The next morning, we continued on our train to the Mongolian-Chinese border, then transferred to a Chinese train for the overnight ride to Beijing. Next time: A very interesting incident in Tiananmen Square.

Friday, August 19, 2011

CENSORED in China!


Many of you may have read of the recent dispute between Google and the Chinese government. I'm not 100 percent clear on the details, but it had to do with the Chinese government not wanting their people to have unfettered access to information via the Google search engine.

It never occurred to me that I would ever be affected by that dispute, but I use the Google format for my blog and it turns out that I am unable to access their blogger web site from here in Beijing. I presume the same will be true when I get to Shanghai. (This post has been accomplished by means of an email to my daughter.)

Unless things change -- I've tried again this morning without success -- it looks like I will be unable to do any more posting until I get back to Maui on the 24th. In the meantime, let's take a moment to count our blessings.

Jim Loomis

Monday, August 15, 2011

Day 19-21: A Few Impressions of Siberia

We have seen only a small part of Siberia, a narrow slice running west to east from Kazan through Nowosibirsk and Irkutsk to Mongolia. In the process, our train has covered just under 6,000 kilometers.

My first and most overpowering impression seems to be universally shared with the rest of the group: Siberia is nothing like we expected. It’s big, of course, and the cities we have visited are separated by vast stretches of forests briefly interrupted by tiny villages whizzing by every hour or so.

But those cities, most of which we have never heard of before, are modern metropolises in every way, many of them with well over a million inhabitants. There are metro systems, six- and eight-lane boulevards, flashy hotels, apartment and townhouse complexes, and shopping centers teeming with customers, most chatting on cell phones or busily texting as they go. And it’s all going on literally in the middle of Siberia. Who knew?? Here’s a quick example from just two days ago.

This is the Opera-Ballet Theater in Ulan Ude, a city of some 400,000 people which lies less than 300 miles from the Mongolian border. (Everyone who has ever heard of Ulan Ude raise your hands.) The building was recently re-opened after several years of extensive renovation. It’s a magnificent structure located just off the main square and we were all invited to a special performance featuring local singers and dancers – some clearly Caucasian, others Asian and Mongolian – performing works by Puccini, Tsaichovsky, Bizet and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Again: Who knew??

That said, not everything is coming up roses here. Most ordinary people have to work very hard and are just getting by. The effects from the collapse of Communism are sill being felt: factories that employed thousands of people producing helicopters or cars or dishwashers upon direction from Moscow have struggled and often closed down when left to sink or swim in this scary new world of free enterprise.

There are plush, spacious apartment buildings – this one is in the city of Krasnoyarsk – but they are far beyond the means of average working people. Who lives there? Government officials, managers of what factories are still operating, and business entrepreneurs, universally described here by our local English-speaking tour guides as “merchants”.

Ordinary people, especially those who live in the countryside, have quite a different existence. Small houses, most with outhouses, family garden plots, dirt roads and most living a great distance from any city of any real size. This one is bigger and better than most.

And, of course, our diverse group hasn't even scratched the surface. Several of us have agreed: All we can do is look, listen, take photos of what seems unusual or interesting to us, and come home with stories of this vast, surprising, multi-cultural, multi-faceted place. Because we now know that Siberia is nothing like what most people imagine. And it certainly isn't the end of the world. In fact, it could well be at least a part of the beginning of a whole new one.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Day 13-18: Train from Moscow to Irkutsk in Siberia.

Apologies going in. It’s been a week since the last post and I have just spent an hour downloading over 200 photos into the laptop (after weeding out an embarrassing number of dark, blurred, badly-framed, totally uninteresting or otherwise unworthy shots). It’s 10:30 p.m. here in Irkutsk and the relentless people running this train have us out of here at 9:00 tomorrow morning. This will be rushed.

Tonight I’m going to focus pretty much on the train. It is operated by the Lernidee company of Germany which has provided the multi-lingual tour guides, and the on-board crew which, including car attendants and dining car staff, is all Russian. English is limited to a handful of words, but nevertheless it’s all working.

It’s a big train. There is a baggage car, a couple of crew cars, and what seems to be a supply car for bottled water, linens, towels, dining car supplies, etc. There are no less than three “restaurant cars” and that leaves 14 sleeping cars for a contingent of passengers that are divided into three groups: English Speaking, Spanish Speaking and German Speaking.

My cabin, which I occupy in solitary splendor, is reasonably spacious. The seats turn into beds at night, which means they are quite narrow. It was a minor problem the first night; none at all since. There is a knob cleverly concealed in the fancy trim above the window that controls what they call “the radio”. It's a public address system which, on the precise dot of 7:00 every morning, pours out rousing Russian songs. (Is there another kind?) I have ratcheted the knob full left and can barely hear it now. But it lifted me right off the bed that first morning.

The meals are … well … OK. There are several courses, most of which can be readily identified, but often include booby traps. Yesterday’s lunch began with a cabbage and beet salad – in a kind of slaw presentation – but which also contained small pieces of herring. I do not care for most fish, especially “fishy” fish, and herring is now all alone in undisputed possession of first place on my Most-Disliked-Fish list. The main entrĂ©es vary, but are usually pork, chicken or fish.

Both at lunch and dinner, we can count on cabbage in at least two different forms … that is, first in a salad and then showing up again minutes later in a soup. There are potatoes, of course, usually boiled, and probably carrots, also in the salad and repeating in the soup. The chefs do a pretty good job of varying the soup base, however: it’ll be beef today, chicken tomorrow and something else (but neither beef nor chicken) the next day. Oh … and someone back there has a very heavy hand with the dill … on everything but desert.


All that said, and allowing for me having a bit of fun with this, the meals are certainly nutritious, well prepared and, while perhaps not to the typical American taste, are perfectly fine. Further, they are dished up by a very professional, very efficient and ever-smiling pair of Russian servers, especially a delightful young woman named, of course, Svetlana.

We are off again tomorrow, and it will be another several days before I again have internet access. I will do my best.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Day 12 – Moscow By Night

This will be my last post for at least a few days. We will be checking out of this hotel early in the morning for a day that will include a tour of the city, the highlight of which will be a visit to the Kremlin. Toward the end of the afternoon, we’ll be delivered to our special train and begin the rail journey through Siberia and Mongolia to Beijing.

However, because it’s unclear at the moment when I will next have access to the internet, it’s therefore equally unclear how soon my next post will appear here. I’ll do my best, of course.

In the meantime, our tour group met for the first time over dinner this evening. It’s billed as an English-speaking tour, and that’s true enough, but so far I have met Danes, Germans, Swedes, an Australian woman, and I spent dinner tonight chatting with a very interesting Norwegian couple. The wife was an exchange student for a year at a college in Pennsylvania which explains her near-flawless American-English.

After dinner – there was free champagne, by the way – we all piled into a bus and were driven to one of the amazing metro stops. Moscow is famous for its metro stations, each of which is spotlessly clean and of a different, elaborate and quite extraordinary design.
After a two-stop ride, we came up from about 150 feet below ground and, turning a corner, stepped out onto Red Square.

And there it all was: St. Basil’s cathedral, the massive Kremlin wall and, immediately in front of it, Lenin’s tomb. Maybe it’s my age or my interest in history or that I grew up during the Cold War, but I confess that I stood there and gawked for several minutes. And I said, quite out loud, “It’s really me … and I’m actually standing in Red Square.” It was, as we say in Hawaii, a “chicken skin” moment.

OK … more to come as soon as I can manage it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Memorial: The Siege of Leningrad

It has been just one day since I left the extraordinary city of St. Petersburg and, at the moment, I feel as though I’m on information overload. Much of what I saw and heard has blurred.

What will never blur, however, is the memory of my visit to the memorial built to honor the people of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was called in those days, who lived and died during the German siege of their city in World War Two.

(Wrong time of day for good photographs, but please click to enlarge and they will improve.)

In the end, more than a million people died from the shelling and bombing and, I'm sorry to say, from slow, agonizing and unrelenting starvation. I was shocked to learn that St. Petersburg has the sad distinction of being home to the largest mass grave in Europe, in which are the remains of 500,000 men, women and children.

Translation: YOUR HEROIC DEEDS LENINGRAD

The siege lasted 900 days, through hot summers and winters of paralyzing cold and the suffering, with no end in sight, is beyond our capacity to understand. But the people of this magnificent city refused to submit, and that spirit is captured in this memorial. It is impossible not to be deeply moved.




OK, OK … An Apology to Russian Railways

In a post three days ago, I estimated that the Sapsan, the Russian “high-speed” train I took from Moscow to St. Petersburg, had a top speed of only 80-90 mph. On my return trip to Moscow today on the same train, I was able to see the digital message board at the front of the car from my seat. There were two or three stretches where our speed was shown hovering at or just under 200 kilometers per hour, or 124 mph. More than I thought, but still well below the 300 kpm (187 mph) that both the Eurostar and the Thalys trains routinely sustain. Most of the time today, the posted speed was 140 kph (89 mph). But never mind … how do I say mea culpa in Russian?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Day 11 – The Gardens of Peter the Great

It’s worth learning about Peter the Great. Time and available space does not permit much about him here, except to say that he was clearly an extraordinary figure … and not just in the 18th century.

Today my guide, Natalya, took me to the Grand Palace at Peterhof, located about 30 miles outside of St. Petersburg. It’s called the “Russian Versailles” and no wonder. Plans made and construction begun under Peter, but he died in 1725 and the palace was completed by his daughter, Elizabeth, in the 1740s.

Big, eh? (Best to click on these photos to enlarge them.)Sorry, it was backlit at the time and nothing I could do about that, but get the idea? Actually, you don’t, because there is more to this magnificent building to the right of where I was standing, and behind me …

… and this was over there to the left. How’s that for a Big Wow! It certainly helps to explain the popularity of this place and on a quite beautiful summer day, there were certainly crowds coming to tour the palace. Serious crowds!

A nightmare, you say? For these folks, perhaps, but not for me. I was in the care of Natalya German-Tsarkova, who discretely flashed her guide’s license, murmured into the ear of watchful docents, and led me around the mobs and under the ropes and into the palace.

For this post, however, I will skip over descriptions and photos of this palace, except to say it is opulent, magnificent and there are treasures to behold in room after room. But the beautiful day drew us to the palace gardens and, again, the size and scope is almost more than can be absorbed. But today, we're going to see the gardens!

This is the canal constructed so guests to the palace could sail right up to the grand buildings from the ocean (in the distance), there to be escorted into the royal presence.

These gardens cover an area of four hectares – almost 10 acres – and include more than 100 fountains surrounded by paths, formal gardens, wooded areas, statuary and, today, musicians performing classical music on vibraphones and marimbas. Sound strange? No, it was perfect!

And, finally, here’s a view looking back at one of the buildings – not the main palace – from a small portion of the park at the very beginning of the grand canal that features the main and most impressive fountain. How’s this for a visiting guest’s first impression!

Bottom line: St. Petersburg is a must-see experience. And, when you come, connect with Natalya. It will make all the difference.

Next … back to Moscow and then the private train all the way to Beijing. Wow!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Day 10 – Saint Petersburg and The Hermitage

It’s late as I sit down to write this, and I’m at the end of a long but quite extraordinary day … my first touring Saint Petersburg. Much of what I saw was simply too big for the camera.

My extraordinary guide, Natasha German-Tsarkova, met me this morning in the courtyard of the charming Hotel Helvetia. And I am ashamed to say that much of what I was told earlier today by has by now become jumbled … what with all the Alexanders and Nicholases and Peters and Catherines, some of whom are 1sts and 2nds and ever 3rds. So with that as an apology, here are a few of the photos from today’s excursion.

St. Isaac’s cathedral took forty years to build and was completed in 1858. The inside is massive and can accommodate 9,000 worshipers.

Saint Petersburg is actually built on several islands and is crisscrossed with canals and rivers that open onto the Baltic Sea.

We spent several hours in the Hermitage, created by Catherine the Great and one of the largest and certainly among the best-known museums in the world. You move from one room to a larger and more magnificent room to another room even larger and even more magnificent. And they are all simply too big for the camera.

Then you enter a smaller room, come across this and discover it’s the work of Michelangelo. Just over there is a DaVinci. Prefer some impressionists? OK, here’s a room with more than a dozen paintings by Matisse. Move to the next room and there you’ll see walls filled with the work or Gaugin. Next it’s Monet or Picasso.

Tomorrow I have another day of touring with our expert guide Natasha. And it won’t be enough. One could spend months in this city and it would still not be enough

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Day 9 – The High-Speed Sapsan ... Isn’t.

Russia’s Sapsan trains linking Moscow and St. Petersburg sure look like high-speed trains – sleek and streamlined inside and out like the French TGV and the Eurostar, but the trip this morning to St. Petersburg was pretty ordinary, with – just my best guess – speeds topping out at 80 or perhaps 90 mph … and most of the time a lot less than that. Certainly, nothing even close to the 187 mph at which the other European high-speed trains run. But, as has been the case on every train I’ve taken so far, this one appeared to be full and the station was bustling with hundreds of people coming and going.
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Now, to finish up on the overnight ride from Berlin to Moscow, here are a few photos, the first of the main train station in Berlin. Click on photo to enlarge.

They’re not all visible in this shot, but there are ten tracks on this lower level, with both commuter and inter-city trains coming and going on one or more tracks every few minutes. At street level and on the middle level, there are lounges where train tickets can be purchased, information windows, shops and more than a dozen restaurants.

In addition to more commuter and inter-city traffic, long-distance trains come and go on six more tracks on the top level and, in fact, that’s my train to Moscow arriving on Track 11. There were six cars in this consist and another eight were added in Brest.

Immediately after being cleared at the Russian border, our train was run into a huge building where each rail car is raised by four powerful jacks so the wheel assemblies (we call them trucks; the term bogies is used in Europe) can be replaced by those that fit the wider Russian gauge. The entire process took less than an hour for all six cars. It was a very interesting process, even at 4:30 in the morning.

This is Train 443’s restaurant car where I was offered my “no-money” meal (see previous post). For whatever reason, all the windows in the Russian trains are draped and re-draped. I really don’t get that. Isn’t the idea to enjoy the passing scenery?
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At any rate, I am now in St. Petersburg and will be here for some serious sightseeing for the next two days. Then it’s back to Moscow to connect with the private train that will take me all the way to Beijing.

Day 7 and 8 - Berlin to Moscow with You and Me

A late arrival into Moscow and my choice is either to download photos for this entry or to make it text only and get some dinner before turning in. So … photos must wait.

My sleeping car accommodations on Russian Railway train 443 were really quite nice. I rode in solitary splendor in a spacious room with an equally spacious bath, complete with shower.

The car attendant – a 30ish Russian man – was decked out in a snappy uniform when I boarded in Berlin, complete with military-style billed cap. He spoke no English, however, and that led to some confusion when I tried to find out his name. Somewhere in that process I pointed to me, saying “Jim … me”, then to him, saying “you?” with the unspoken question mark. Unfortunately, I never could figure out his name and he spent most of the trip smiling in my direction and saying “Hallo, Me!”

At 3:55 this morning there was an insistent knock at the door and it was You announcing “Passport Control.” The Bello-Russians had come aboard and were checking papers and transit visas. That took 45 minutes, then the train started rolling again and I drifted off ... only to be awakened less than five minutes later with another “Passport Control!”

This time the Russians, and the process was repeated. My passport went off down the corridor with a huge Russian official and, moments later, a uniformed woman with long blond hair surrounding a grim face appeared in my doorway.

She, too, spoke no English and appeared impatient and frustrated when I smiled and shook my head in response to her questions. Finally she stepped past me, opened the door to the lavatory and peered into the shower stall. Finding no one hiding there, she turned and we actually had a bit of a conversation:

“Alcohol?”

“Nyet.”

“Tourismo?”

“Da.”

With that she nodded, stepped out into the corridor and slammed the door. Welcome to Russia!

This noon, I went to the dining car for lunch and, when I sat down, was presented with two menus by the attendant. He held up the first menu, a simple laminated sheet, and said, “No money.” Then he held up the second menu, a much fatter one, and said quite emphatically, “Money!” Ah-ha! I get it: As a sleeping car passenger, some of my meals are included in the fare!

I pointed to the No-Money menu. He said, “OK” and jabbed his finger at the first item in large, but incomprehensible Cyrillic characters. “Beef,” he said. Then, jabbing his finger at the next item, announced “potato!”

Perfect! I held up my hand and said, “Yes, good. Beef and potato … and beer!” He beamed, no doubt from relief, and said, “OKBeefpotatobeer! Da!”, and bustled of into the tiny kitchen at the front of the car.

Five minutes later he was back with my lunch, which was actually rather good and included some sliced tomatoes and cucumbers on the side.

Except the beef was actually pork. But what the hell … it’s tourismo and it’s Russia, and I’m a happy camper.