Change of plan

I got voted off the Gobi.

Yesterday around noon one of the people on the Gobi trip called to say that, “Sorry!” there wasn’t enough room for me on the Gobi trip. The max number for a tour is 6, and the guide wanted to treat the kid as a person (fair enough). So the rest of the group (who are all staying at a different guest house than me) had a meeting and decided I was out. Fuckers.

That means I spent the day yesterday scrambling to find another trip to join. So today I’m going on a 6-day/5-night trip to the nearby Terelj National Park with Ger-to-Ger. Unlike other local tour operators, G2G says, it gives travelers an authentic experience (no English-speaking guide or “western” food), focuses on sustainable tourism, and gives 85% of the so-called “community fee” directly to the families.

So I and two others will take a local bus to the park (no private jeep), where we’ll meet a guy who will bring us by ox cart to the ger (called a yurt in other cultures; it’s a felt nomad’s home) of a nomad family who will let us camp in their yard. The next day we move to another family’s ger, etc. for 6 days.

The trip I’m going on is called “Nomadic Challenges” or something. It’s going to be like an episode of the Amazing Race – we’ll compete with each other in dung-collecting, water-hauling, etc. The only difference is that there’s no $1 million prize for the winner.

We’ll also learn how to do some other basic things in a nomad’s life: milk a cow, saddle a horse, sew traditional clothes. We’ll travel mostly by horse (Mongolian saddles are wooden, so that should be fun) though there’s one day of trekking as well.

Anyway, that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few days. I’ll still get to the Gobi – I’ve got a few people looking to hook me up with a group when I return to UB – but it’ll just be a bit later.

OK…time to saddle up…

I’m already in a better mood…

Greetings from Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. HooRAY. Arrived early yesterday afternoon from Beijing, and I already feel the difference. China and I were just not on the same wavelength. We’ll see what happens when I go back in a month or so.

One piece of exciting news is that I’ve published another story – this one about last year’s trek in Burma/Myanmar. It’s in an online travel mag called The Expeditioner. It’s not the NYT (and doesn’t pay as well), but I think it’s more my style. Plus Matt Sabile, the man behind the website, edited very lightly – this story is in my own voice, whereas the NYT piece was in NYTspeak.

And speaking of exciting treks, I’ve been on one and will leave for another tomorrow. On Sunday I visited the Great Wall, hiking the 8 km section from Jinshanling (about a 3-hour drive from Beijing) to Simatai instead of the Disney-fied section at Badaling. The way was very steep and mostly unrenovated – I sweated bucketloads. At every watch tower (the only place to rest in the shade) extremely annoying women shoved bottles of “ice watah!” in our faces and generally harassed us to buy stuff…no matter how many times we said “no, no thank you, please go away, please get out of my face” etc. Other women would hike along with you, telling you about “short cuts” and, at the steepest bits when you had to concentrate on where your foot would go, they’d step directly in your path and offer their hand, to “help.”

But despite this nonsense, the hike was beautiful.

Tomorrow I leave for a 14-day trip to the Gobi Desert and central Mongolia. The tour is organized via the Golden Gobi guest house here in UB. I’ll be with 5 other adults: two French dudes, a Swedish woman, and a French couple, plus their 10-year-old son.

I’m pretty sure there’s no WiFi in the Gobi, so you won’t hear from me again until at least August 12 (though I’ll probably post again before I leave).

OK, I need to go make some preparations for the trip.

The shortest longest eclipse

I haven’t really posted much about China. Yeah, I know. Between the Great Firewall, slooooowwww connection in Shanghai, and a lack of a computer, it’s been painful even to check email.

There’s much to say, but I shant say it now. Because I know what you’re wondering: How was the eclipse? So I’ll postpone more general China posts and tell ya.

This eclipse was unlike the other two I’ve seen. Of course, the other two (Hungary in ’99 and Ghana in ’06) were also different from each other. As I told a TV reporter from a local Wuhan news network (!), eclipses are like children (I suppose): You love them all equally, but as individuals.

In the days leading up to July 22, the SEML (solar eclipse mailing list) was manic with worries about a storm (’tis the season) and extraordinarily detailed weather reports from Jay Anderson, the eclipse-chasers’ Al Roker (sans annoying cheeriness and yoyo weight loss).

As it turns out, people’s fears were justified: Shanghai got rained out. As you read before (in my NYT article), I was joining Rick Brown, a native NYer who runs eclipse tours on the side. He had arranged a private viewing area at the Wuhan Bioengineering University. (A big huge THANK YOU to Rick for inviting me to join them. Fun times!)

Though we didn’t get rained out, we did get cloud cover that seemed to thicken right at totality. In other words, we saw the early stages (where the moon slowly moves across the sun) fine, because the sun’s rays were strong enough to pierce the thin clouds. But when the eclipse went total, we couldn’t see my favorite part: the firey black hole in the sky.

However, about a minute before totality ended, the clouds thinned and – gasps, cheers and roar of the crowd – we saw it. I grinned like an idiot and stared. Al Drew, a decorated officer and ex-Special Ops in the US Air Force, ex-test pilot, and current NASA astronaut who flew STS-118 and spent 13 days in space (including 10 on the International Space Station), was flabbergasted. “There it is!” he chirped, like a wide-eyed child who’s meeting a real live astronaut. “That’s it! Is that it?” (He was much more eloquent when interviewed later by the swarms of local media, which was thrilled to have a real live astronaut (and a black man to boot!) in their midst.)

So yes, even if you’ve been in space, and spent your down time on the flight deck of the space shuttle, with all the lights turned off, watching the stars and the earth – even then, a total solar eclipse blows your mind.

I was disappointed, of course. But we still saw all the key moments: the odd underwater light, a 360-degree sunset, the edge of the moon’s shadow hurtling towards us as totality neared its end, the diamond ring, and then the truly remarkable speed at which late dusk returns to mid-day as the moon moves away from the sun.

I do not regret traveling all this way to see it. Neither did Al, who flew from Moscow (actually Star City, where we met via Esther) via Beijing on a 36-hour turnaround for the occasion. It’s funny – any “New York Times writer” fame I might had had with Rick’s crowd was quite easily trumped by “real live NASA astronaut!” So while Al patiently dealt the the swarm of tour-groupees and local media I got to take in the whole scene.

Of course, spending 36 hours with Al was fascinating in its own right. We drank Tsingtao by the Yangtze, discussed everything from US foreign policy to farting in a space suit, and ate a lovely meal at a table for 10 in a local restaurant that was roughly the size of hangar.

So yes, I’d say that the eclipse was a success.
Now I’m back in Beijing and leaving for Mongolia early Monday morning, having cut short this leg of my China time. I’m still getting too frustrated here to have a good time on my own. I’m hoping that a month of cheering up in Mongolia will provide me with a good reset with China. I’ll try again when it’s cooler and when I haven’t been ripped off as I cross the border. Reset my Chinese karma, if you will.

I’m back, baby!

This is my first post written on my brand new Asus Eee 1005HA. I couldn’t bear life without a netbook anymore, so I just took the subway to Beijing’s “e-mall,” found the Asus booth, and said “I one one of those.” Definitely the easiest sale of my sales guy’s career.

Yes yes yes I have much else to write about. The eclipse, for instance. And…why am I in Beijing instead of Xian, as promised? You’ll just have to wait for me to type it all out on my new little thing. (So far it’s good enough – not quite my Mini, but still.)

As for the ill-fated Mini, a giant shout-out to Esther, Owen Kemp and some dude called Aleksey at HP Moscow for trying their best to get me my much-desired HP. In the end, I was thwarted *by* Russia (rather than *in* Russia) – or at least by the customs office. Special mention goes to Al Drew, of whom you shall hear more later. Al, who was coming out to see the eclipse with me, had volunteered to be my computer mule. He quite patiently and cheerfully awaited a computer-handoff that never occurred.

OK, I’m off to 1. configure the shit out of this computer and 2. write a more interesting post.

Hot and sleepy in Shanghai

This is my second attempt at a post from Shanghai. I hope this one doesn’t get eaten by the Great Firewell as well…

Imagine a spoof on a high-tech sci-fi movie. Above you tower outrageous, flamboyant steel-concrete-and-glass high-rises, all marked by an absurdist flourish – a pincer-like peak, an incongruous swoop of concrete halfway up, a bulbous pincushion balanced at the top. Below you crawl narrow alleyways of the old city, laundry flapping in the breeze, the chiming of bike bells you hear only after the rider has practically knocked you over to get by, delicious scents wafting out of tiny storefronts. That’s Shanghai.

Also, it’s 37 degrees (around 100). *Everything* is concrete, so walking the streets is like walking in a pizza oven. The humidity is around 85 percent…so really, it’s like walking around a Bikram yoga studio. And there are no benches to sit and rest *anywhere*, except in the subway. So guess where people sit and hang out? Oh – and green spaces? Nope – paved over. Even the famous Yuyuang (sp?) Garden is paved. So yeah. It’s hot.

The good news is that yesterday I ran into a French couple I had met in Beijing (not the French daughter-father team, another set of Frenchies). We and a few others from the hostel went to a fantastic show. There Be Powers, a Brooklyn-based self-described “ghost punk” band, was headlining. But the band that had invited them over to China, a local band called Carsick Cars, was the highlight. People kept comparing them to Sonic Youth, and it’s not an onfair comparison. They’re playing in a Chinese rock music festival (?!) in New York this October or November (can’t remember for sure). I don’t know about the other bands, but Carsick Cars is definitely worth it. Rock and roll!

OK. There’s a line forming behind me for access to the free machines. I’m gunna run. BTW the plan is to take a train to Wuhan, leaving here tomorrow night arriving on Tuesday. I spend one night in Wuhan, up early for Eclipse Day (yay!) on Wednesday, and then (I hope) take a train to Xi’an. After that, it’s back to Beijing to catch a train to Mongolia, hopefully arriving there before August begins.

OK, I’m about to hit the “publish” button. Wish me luck….

I need a computer!

I’m sitting here at the Internet-connected computers at my hostel – the Qianmen Hostel in Beijing. I’m by the door out to the noisy, hot street. The air conditioner next to me is leaking, so one of the staff is mopping around me. Behind me, other guests are coming and going through the door, sometimes bumping me with their backpacks as they pass.

This is no way to write anything interesting and/or thoughtful!

So I’ll stick to banalities for the moment.

Despite the leaking air conditioner, this place is really lovely – an old wooden building with rooms set around a cool inner courtyard. The staff is friendly and cheerful. They serve a huge, cheap breakfast with good coffee. Good stuff.

While here I met a gaggle of Brits – 5 just-graduated women and one early-30’s man – who invited me out with them last night. We went to a lake district north of the Forbidden City, where a huge number of loungey bars have opened up. The setting was nice, the bars were basically interchangeable, and the “we’ll just go out for a drink or two” turned into a sleepy 3 am cab ride back to the hostel. Good times.

Today I leave for Shanghai but overnight bus. If my miming and the bus-ticket vendor’s broken English have the same meaning, then it’s a sleeper bus – meaning I’ll have a bed (short and narrow, but still a bed). If not, it’ll be 15 hours being crammed into an Asian-sized seat, with Asian leg room. But heck, the ticket was cheap – 266 yuan (about $47) vs the 655 yuan it would have cost for the train.

Ugh, this is boring, right? Yeah. I’m going to end this torture now, and hope that my HP Moscow/NASA connection comes through in a few days.

Ha HA. Welcome to China (version II)

Greetings! Surprised, some of you? Well, DrC, my dear and clever friend, sent me his proxy info to help me (as he put it) get around the “Great Firewall of China.”

To catch everyone up, a few days ago I sent this note to a few friends and family:

So, I’m spamming all 33 of you because, as readers of my blog and/or followers of my Facebook, I thought you’d be interested to know that yes, I’m in #&$*(%ing China, and no, neither Facebook (expected) nor my blog (unexpected) are available. So expect silence for a few weeks.

In case you’re wondering, I am not amused with China so far. I have gotten ripped off every 3 hours or so, on average, since I arrived on Saturday afternoon. The first thing that happened: my bus left me at the border. It just took off without waiting for me, leaving me in the middle of laughing cabbies – they were all in on the scam – to insist that I pay 100 yuan (about $18) for a 5-minute cab ride into the actual town. And that’s just the beginning. Ooh, what a story – from Saturday morning at 7 am until Monday very-early at 3 am I’ve been fighting with Chinese bullshit, scam artists, shoddy transportation, and jerks. Grumble.

Happily, I finally made it to Beijing (last night at 3 am) and am staying at a lovely hostel within spitting distance of Tianamen Square. Also, the French daughter/father travelers I met in Vladivostok are here until tomorrow night, so we went out for cheap and delicious Peking Duck this evening. But really, that’s the only pleasant thing I have to say so far.

Anyway, I don’t want to complain too much. But I wanted to let you know that I am safe, but I won’t be posting for a while.

The rough plan is to stay here until Thursday, then to Shanghai (Ollie plz put me in touch with your cousin!) for the weekend, and then to Wuhan on Monday for the eclipse on Tuesday the 22nd. Then up to Xian, I think, then I go to Mongolia soon after (still hazy on details). I will try again to post, from a different internet cafe – maybe one that can get around the filtering (though I doubt it).

OK I’m off to sleep, in a bed, for the whole night, for the first time since Friday. Yay!

Things have, in fact, turned around since that first frustrated missive from here. I haven’t gotten ripped off since (!), and a few things have gone well: I visited the Forbidden City and the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which were both very interesting (if hot and crowded, to paraphrase Tom Friedman). I’ve gotten used to China – the culture shock coming over a land border from Russia, I think, was greater than it would have been had I come from the US on a plane.

Most cheeringly, thanks to Esther I might get a replacement for my hopelessly broken HP laptop (it would have cost more to fix than I paid for it). Esther, being Esther, is arranging with (ahem) the managing director of HP in Russia to find me one and send it to China with one of her NASA astronaut friends, who I met in Star City in May and who’s coming to see the eclipse with me next week. As Coline, the French woman I befriended in Vladivostok, said, “It’s nice to have connections.” Indeed!

OK, I’m going to wander Tienanmen Square for late-afternoon light. More later (yay).

[Thanks DrC, and Esther, and the rest of you who sent me words of encouragement after my China email. I have the greatest friends in the world! ]

Last day in Russia

I only just realized that today is my last day in Russia. I had been avoiding thinking about it, because I was expecting the worst RE my Chinese visa. But here it is – a bit over 11 weeks after I flew into St. Petersburg and was overwhelmed with its beauty and history, I’m about 10,000 km east, on another ocean, in another lovely historical Russian city – though one less enchanting.

I just stopped at the little shop downstairs to buy a couple of final Russian beers. I’m proud to say that the whole exchange, though extremely basic, took place in full-sentence Russian. (“Two Sibirskaya Korona Klassica, please” “Klassic?” “Yes” “Two?” “Yes” “58 roubles, please” “Here ya go” “Um…” “Oh! Didn’t I give you two roubles?” ” “Ay! Here you go.” “Thank you, goodbye.” “Goodbye”)

My neurotic feelings about neurotic Russia have not changed. I’m very sad to leave – and already plotting my return – despite the disappointing (and needless) failures I’ve had in many of my attempts here.

This country has *so* much potential. It’s overwhelming. Forget oil & gas – this country possesses abundant and beautiful nature-al resources. Enough to keep eco-tourists, adventurers, culture addicts, and most anyone occupied (and spending money) for a long, long time. But Russia is squandering this natural resource.

And then there are the people. They are deeply cynical about politics. They are frustrated by bureaucracy that is so all-pervasive that they can’t even see most of it. They must choose which rules to follow and which to ignore, because it’s impossible to follow all the rules and still live a life. They are not cheerful, but they know a thousand jokes.

The Russian people that I’ve met are deeply thoughtful and engaged with the world around them. Some are very ill-informed and/or susceptible to conspiracy theories – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if the CIA was really behind 9-11, or if the Fed deliberately caused the current global economic crisis. But still, they are much more curious and “informed” than the typical American.

What they lack is optimism, a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s a noticeable characteristic of Americans. It’s the reason I think the US can climb out of the econ-crisis faster than most other countries. It’s the reason we Americans are willing to take risks – as entrepreneurs, as investors, as home-buyers. It’s the reason, I think, that I was able to divest myself of my New York life and hit the road, with only a small amount of trepidation. I believe that “Things are going to be OK.”

Optimism can change your life. It can change your country. It’s necessary for democracy. It’s what’s behind civic action and civil disobedience. It’s what got Barack Obama elected, and it’s in this speech he gave at a Russian civil society conference while he was in town.

If Russians, somehow, find some optimism….watch out. It could be the next China!

Meh, now I’m babbling, so I’ll stop. This is what you get when I can’t edit because my poor little HP is broke!

I’m going to pack. Then, if I can get back on the computer, I’ll write another post about Vladivostok, where the bus drivers all look like ex-Marines, smoke like chimneys, and have Barbie stickers on their speedometers. (I’m not kidding.)

Half a glass of wine

Half a glass of wine. That is what my clumsy hand spilled into the keyboard of my beloved HP Mini yesterday evening. As I leapt from my chair for a towel to sop up the mess, my little computer made a sad little mewling sound, and died.

All my attempts to revive it have failed. As you might imagine, I’m in the initial stages of mourning – shock and denial. So I’ll get my visa, go to China tomorrow, and then see if the warranty covers wine-spilling. Will I have to send it to some Official HP Repair place in the US? Can it even be saved?

Alas, alas!

For Henry

This morning (yesterday evening, your time!) I was chatting on IM with my friend Henry. The gist of the conversation was, “Where are you? What have you been doing? When the hell are you going to post again, you no-account layabout?”

The short answer is: I’m still in Vladivostok, waiting for my Chinese visa, which should be ready tomorrow morning. That means if all gos as planned, I’ll leave for China Saturday morning and arrive in Beijing Sunday evening local time.

[The trainspotting types among you might be wondering why it takes 36 hours to get to Beijing. “There’s a direct train, isn’t there?” you must be wondering. In theory, there is. Only it takes a gobsmacking 40 hours just to get to Harbin, the transport hub of northeast China. I could get halfway through Siberia in that time! The reason for the time delay is shrouded in mystery. Evidently on this route the Russian and Chinese officials each take about 8 hours to do their border thing (that’s 16 hours on a train, without a toilet). Plus the wheels of the train must be switched out (or something?) because Chinese tracks are a different size. So what should take about 20 hours, takes 40. No one can explain why trains on the Trans-Manchurian line, which enters China further west, don’t suffer the same delays. Either no one knows or they don’t feel like telling me. Personally, I blame the North Koreans.

Instead, I will take a ridiculously complicated bus/train route and save myself about a day: I’ll go northwest from Vladivostok to Ussuriysk by bus – 2 hours. Then west from Ussuriysk (RUS)/Suifenhe (CN), the Chinese border town, by another bus (3ish hours, depending on the border process). Then I have to hang around Suifenhe for about 5 hours waiting for the overnight train to Harbin (8 hours). Finally, if I make the tight connection, I can take a fast day train from Harbin/Beijing (8 hours), arriving around 5:30 pm Sunday. Crazy!]

So, what of Vladivostok? My initial good feeling about the place is still there. It’s a pleasant, surprisingly green city on gentle slopes that jut at odd angles into various bays of the Pacific. The city center is especially nice, featuring pre-revolution architecture, some of which has been restored.

But the weather! I can barely see anything, the fog is so thick. I only know I’m by the ocean thanks to the unmistakable scent of salt water and sight of statues splattered with seagull shit. It’s damp and cool. Sometimes the fog becomes rain, ending any attempt at wandering. Then suddenly the fog lifts, and for a few hours I can scurry around in the bright sunshine, taking photos and climbing to viewpoints. And then, just as suddenly, the fog sweeps in and all is grey once again.

Since I’ve been here I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Eugene, the just-graduated Russian student I met on the train from Ulan-Ude. His mother grew up here and he spent his first 10 or so years here. When his mother lost her job the family – parents and two boys – was forced to live in a one-room flat. After a few months of that, they decided to move to Tomsk, where they had family, though the father didn’t want to go. Now Eugene, his brother and his mom are here putting the papers together so they can sell their old one-room flat.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about Eugene. He’s remarkably focused, for a 22-year-old. At the moment he works for Gazprom, the Russian oil & gas company, doing some sort of logistical project management. But he wants to work for a foreign company, because they have a clear career path laid out. At Gazprom, I guess, your promotions are left to the mercy of the moods and popularity of your direct boss. But Eugene is going places, and wants to see exactly where his job will take him, and how long it will take to get there.

I was shocked when I met his mother, who looks Buriyat (ethnically similar to Mongol). He must, I thought, take after his father 100% – this very tall, very blue-eyed, very white Russian betrays no Asian blood. In fact, his mom is only half-Buriyat: her father was Buriyat and her mother, believe it or not, was Jewish. So this little Asian woman is a Russian Jew, and only recently told her sons that they, too, are Jewish. It’s as outlandish as some Irish guy from the Bronx named, say, Patrick Canavan, being Jewish. Oh wait…

For his part, Eugene seems proud and excited and curious about his Jewish heritage, and is planning a visit to Israel. He wants to get his Israeli passport.  I could be wrong – I’m neither Jewish nor Russian – but I have a feeling he hasn’t quite grasped the discrimination that I fear is coming his way. I hope I’m wrong.

So I came all the way to Vladivostok expecting Russian sailors, concrete ugliness, and lots of Chinese & Korean immigrants (and illegals). Instead I found American sailors, European architecture and Russian Jews. That’s Russia!

OK, I must run out and get some fresh air and groceries. I promise to post again today, at least once. I’ve had various things running around in my foggy head, only some of which are at all interesting. I’ll try to pick only the interesting bits to write about.