Ulan Ude, God-bothering capital of Siberia

On inspection the 001 ‘Rossiya’ train (originating in Vladivostok and ending up in Moscow) is not the 5-star luxury model I anticipated (that turns out to be the 003), but on closer inspection this is even better: First my convivial companion, Natasha, a GT whiz, organizes both our shared breakfast and a substantial conversational duel.

I’m sorry Natasha gets off at the first stop; she’s sorry she can’t persuade me to get off too.

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Second we have the best kind of Prodnitsa, an energizer bunny who spends her time vacuuming, polishing and keeping the bathroom in tip-top condition along with deploying spectacular air freshener.

Maybe the train isn’t 5-star, but the Prodnitsa is.

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Third, the kitchen shows up, not with the usual greasy pastries, but with ice-cream.

Vanilla or pistachio, the texture is a bit suspect but looking out the window while eating ice cream can’t be beat.

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Finally once Natasha gets off I have the compartment to myself for a whole 24 hours.

A room of my own

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The snow has melted and the dense taiga clears out

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The snuggling villages strung out beside the train track might be beginning to wake up for the spring.

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At the start occasional cars are still cruising the ice-roads

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But by the end of the day the 2020 ice roads are becoming a thing of the past.

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The Old Believers

Here to meet me at the train station is Darima, my guide for the day (can’t believe I don’t get a photo of her) and yet another Alexey, this one infinitely less dour, who will drive us to Tarbagatai, an Old Believer outpost south of town, closer to the Mongolian border.

The Old Believer sect split with the Russian Orthodox in the 1600s after some dispute (as I understand it) about whether it is more appropriate to cross oneself with 2 fingers extended (RO) or 3 (OB). Not surprisingly this catastrophic schism resulted in significant persecution and the OB had to flee for their lives, this particular branch ending up in Siberia. Not surprisingly also they are still carrying the grudge (as told to me by Darima, a Buryat [the indigenous majority here] Buddhist who has no skin in this particular game). 

First stop though a monument marking an ancient Xiongnu town (3BCE). Recall from last year how the continual Xiongnu harassment of the Han Chinese led to construction of the (ineffectual) Great Wall. This evidence of the northernmost extent of the Xiongnu empire is totally unexpected, and very satisfying.

As usual all the artifacts associated with the site have long been removed. More unusually they are in St. Petersburg rather than London or Berlin. 

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A quick climb. We don’t go to the actual summit because it’s a holy mountain for Shamanists and in any case we are women. Darima tells me how, during the Great Patriotic War (WWII to you) Stalin called on Shamans and famous Tibetan Buddhist Lamas from the Ulan Ude area to make spells so the winter of 1941 would be cold; in fact it was the coldest winter of the century and the Germans were prevented from taking Moscow. As a result Stalin forbore to persecute those religions here. “Do you believe that?” I ask. Darima comes from a long line of Buryat Buddhist Lamas “Yes of course” she says firmly.

Shamanist ribbons barely visible in the trees.

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From the other side,  the vast Selenga river with Ulan Ude barely visible at the far bend.

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Once in Tarbagatai first stop is the museum run by the local priest – an ‘unofficial’ archeologist who brings the mammoth and other prehistoric bones he finds here rather than to the official state repository in Yakutsk.

Contraband prehistoric bones, much to everyone’s disapproval.  

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More ancient OB artifacts

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It seems like every clearout is dumped in the museum

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The ancient handwritten texts are slowly succumbing to the inappropriate cold and damp.

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Off to the church, no interior photos please.

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Sasha, the priest’s son, is caretaker of the museum and the church.

Darima: Sasha is very interested in coronavirus

(Darima herself has a PhD in philology and is both highly educated and very well read. We have had several thorough conversations on the politics of pandemics already).

I swing into didactic mode: Quick overview of viruses. Explanation of mutations and natural selection. Infectivity, contagion, and the death rate. All perfectly calibrated for a religious fanatic who probably doesn’t believe in evolution. Rather a tour de force I tell myself smugly.

Sasha: What a load of nonsense. Everybody knows pork fat and garlic cures everything.

Me: Can we at least get soap and water into the mix?

Sasha rolls his eyes.

Sasha

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Time for lunch. When Dusia’s husband died she proposed making lunch for tourists as a way of bringing in income. At first her neighbors objected strongly. Now they all want in on the action. It is the only way to visit the village. Dusia’s homestead is entirely self-sufficient, and she manages it all herself; her daughters only come to help for the hay season.

The hayloft at the homestead.

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Make no mistake this is a nasty-ass dog.

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The banya.

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Dusia is a really delightful, naturally hospitable person and a good time and lunch is had by Darima and Alexey and especially by me.

Lunch is all home-raised and home-made. Even the potatoes drenched in home-made butter are the most perfect version of potatoes and butter.

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Dusia is famous for her baking. Ethereal carrot piroshkis at the front then rice pudding and lingonberry tart at the back. The rice is not home-raised but a traditional treat for guests. Not shown, the less-than ethereal home-made vodka.

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After a couple of glasses Dusia and her friend are ready for some after lunch entertainment.

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Then, back to Ulan Ude to the Maryusa ‘Boutique’ Hotel.

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The nosy ladies of the hotel are also Buryat (the Buryat language sounds like a hyperventilating bee) but don’t speak any English or, it seems, Russian. This does not stop them hauling themselves up the stairs and parking themselves outside my room whenever they hear me speaking English inside, such as Skyping with Jim. Occasionally they will create a lame pretext so they can check I am alone.

In the end they confess to being worried about me since I am clearly way too eccentric to be on my own.

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My second religious experience is at the Orthodox cathedral. I am drawn inside by  wonderful polyphonic singing. Despite the sparse attendance the liturgy is quite energetic: First, the two babushkas front and right provide the polyphony punctuated with monotonic recitations. Second, the illuminated doors up front occasionally open and a priest momentarily joins in. Third, this is the cue for more of an audience to emerge from nooks and crannies like the shop, and prostrate themselves; they disappear back once the priest goes back inside. Finally one of the front-and-right babushkas comes down the central aisle and bashes me nastily with her walking stick evidently because I have crossed my legs.

The stolen photo is not ideal.

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The rest of Ulan Ude is small and quite delightful in the spring thaw.

Delicate fretwork in the old part of town.

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Lenin’s head (to celebrate his centenary in 1970) occupies pride of place.

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According to Darima, Ulan Ude Russians are direct descendants of gulag survivors, both political prisoners and actual criminals. This results in a population with the killer combo of being both unusually smart and not inclined to pay attention to the Moscow government.

The old KGB headquarters where gulag ‘interviews’ took place.

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Round the back, an actual gulag monument.

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Some made it, but most didn’t. Many, I suspect, are still not accounted for

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A satisfying lunch at the best dumpling place in town.

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$2. Tea included

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In the afternoon my third religious experience requires taking two mashrutkas (minibuses) into the hinterland. The Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist temple was allowed to open in 1945 by a grateful Stalin (see above) and is the home of the leader of all Russian lamas.

Mashrutka life, these two likely lads had been having a good time long before they got on board.

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The hinterland steppe on the way to the temple.

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The temples are done out to be pretty traditional despite being relatively new.

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Stolen inside pictures. Not shown, the ‘naturally’ mummified body of the original lama, who was buried without being mummified, but then found to be remarkably preserved when he was dug up for some reason.

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The inevitable stupa, well used.

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On the way back I chat a bit with the lady on the right who is visiting the temple with her mom. The second mashrutka is packed and we don’t talk further, but all get off together at the last stop. The younger lady presses a gift into my hand  “For friendship and peace” she says as she leaves. When I open it in my room she has given me a Tibetan prayer flag and a 1000 ruble note. I am shocked. She is a teacher and I doubt she earns more than 7000 rubles a month. I have no idea of her name, and no-one can offer an explanation for this incredible gesture,

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The last tourist in Russia

The half-empty train to Novosibirsk. “Well who are you?” asks Anton, throwing his bag onto the place opposite mine. “I think you must be the last tourist in Russia”. And so my last train ride in Russia upends yet another stereotype. Because the entirely unprepossessing Anton, despite a couple of alarming tattoos and questionable taste in train T shirts, turns out to (a) speak perfect colloquial English (b) be extremely thoughtful and very well read and most importantly (c) be a foodie and insistent to share his excellently curated meals. And so we spend the next day and a half in fascinating conversation that covers all the interesting Russian topics – the economy (the sanctions have protected Russia from a global recession – yes I heard it here first);  Putin (two thumbs down); anti-American propaganda (is it true Americans are so fat they have to travel around in golf carts); and  at one point, a sotto voce discussion on state surveillance that prompts him to bury his phone in his duffle.

I insist on a smile for the photo. “You don’t understand” he says, “Russians are angry people who are deeply suspicious of each other”. And he grins. 

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When I get off he carries my bags onto the platform, gives me a hug and makes me promise that when I come to Siberia again I will look him up and stay with his mom and dad.

 

 

How much taiga is too much taiga?

Alex informs me that these two trucks have spent the night side by side on the ice road. Which seems like a potentially colossal error of judgement.

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How much taiga is too much taiga?

I’m about to find out. Tomorrow my return to southern Siberia on the local train that goes no faster than the Needham Line, will take a full 36 hours. Then getting somewhere I might actually want to be will be another 18.

Meanwhile Alex has exerted revenge for my relentless efforts to engage him in conversation by secretly arranging personal tours of the Permafrost and the Mammoth Research Institutes. ‘Go talk to some professors’ he smirks, no doubt realizing that with professor visitors being a rare commodity in Yakutsk each tour will take at least 3 hours.

The venerable Soviet Era Permafrost Research Institute. Could they be engaging in cutting edge research after all? They hide it very well.

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It must have been quite something back in the day but the day is now nearly 100 years ago .

The venerable pre-Soviet father of Permafrost Research himself. Except for the Permafrost itself, things haven’t changed much.

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What’s going on

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Marginally interesting: Ice crystals down at the lowest level have incorporated various effluent from our breath (apparently). Not sure what this has to do with Permafrost however.

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The newly Doctor Svetlana who has been deputized to show me around squirms lest I think it is the full extent of their current research efforts. Which of course she can’t show me. Or talk about.

Dr. S. smiles wanly as I force her to describe the antiquated equipment on display.

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It turns out there are many important things I didn’t know about Permafrost: a) It’s everywhere except for Australia. b) In most places it’s confined to the mountains (hence it is found in Africa) c) It begins about a meter below the ground (which is why vegetation can grow on it in the summer). d) The thickest layer is about 150 meters thick (I think).

Permafrost in Siberia. The two darkest blue colors mark where it is actually permanent; the thickest the dark blue in the middle. The problem is in the light blue areas, where it comes and goes. They are most sensitive to the environment.

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My rapt interest in Permafrost eventually does the trick and a thread I am actually interested in emerges (I was tipped off to this by the NYM journalist on the flight from the UK, Alex of course was clueless):

Dr. S: Permafrost melting when tree cover disappears, no more insulation from sun. (In fact it is a vicious cycle: because the permafrost begins about a meter below the surface, when its temperature rises there is more standing surface water that smothers more tree roots).

Me: How do trees disappear?

Dr. S: By fire or cutting.

Me: Can the permafrost recover?

Dr. S: Yes if trees are replaced.

Me: Who cuts the trees? (This is the $75,000 question).

Dr. S: Shrug. Now we pass law saying no more clear cutting of taiga.

Me: Well who owns the land the trees are on?

Dr. S: Government Land

Me: Do people obey this law?

Dr. S: Yes.

Then, she gives me her private email in case I want to follow up.

At the Mammoth Research Institute, a lot of bones. Thousands are washed or dug up every year and most of them make their way here.

Bones up the wazoo at the Mammoth Research Institute (they have closed for ‘renovation’ in self defense).

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Some mammoths have been reassembled

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And organs! And poop! And baby mammoths! they have it all.

Mammoth stomach containing mammoth lunch, I skip a photo of fossilized what comes out the other end (of which there’s plenty)

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Delightfully chatty museum director Professor Fedorov is more than happy to describe everything about every bone. He is disappointed I don’t buy a fridge magnet.

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In the way of science, it turns out we have mutual acquaintances. That, and my rapt interest in mammoth bones elicits a movie showing a nearly intact mammoth corpse being unearthed. I can barely watch. The rapturous multinational research group swarm all over it, hauling out chunks of intact flesh, and then the motherlode! actual mammoth blood! It is like a satanic ritual in which none of them are wearing even gloves. They are extracting the DNA so they can combine it with elephant DNA to clone an intact living breathing mammoth. Director is politely scathing. ‘It will be just a hybrid’ he says sadly, fondling his favorite mammoth tooth and explaining just what defining characteristics to watch for when the hapless creature does eventually emerge.

Eventually we run out of bone and mammoth anecdotes and I seize the opportunity:

Me: At the Permafrost Institute they told me that permafrost melts when tree cover is lost.

F: True

Me: I have also heard that the Chinese are clear cutting the taiga.

F: Also true. They have special automated machines that can cut very fast in secret.

Me: Isn’t that illegal?

F: Yes.

Me: Who owns the land?

F: Its government land

Me: So how does that work?

F: Well you know that two and two make four.

He gives me his personal email too.

Postscript: I later learn that plans are afoot, not just for nouveau mammoths, but also for bisons and all sort of prehistorical mammals which will repopulate the taiga and protect against global warming. Watch this space. I guess.

To Skovorodino!

The Yakutsk train is a prize among rail travel aficionados (a group I modestly embrace). Only operative since last November it has taken 100 years to build, and was only finished to placate escalating Yakutia rumbles about independence (and who wouldn’t harbor dreams with all that gold, diamonds and uranium, certainly Alex does).

Unfortunately the long gestation period has not avoided certain design flaws, chief among which was the choice to follow the right side of the Lena river (whereas Yakutsk itself is solidly on the left). As a result the line actually ends in Nizhny Bestyak, population 3500 (100 times less than Yakutsk) and is accessible only when the river flows in summer or when it is fully frozen in winter. During the several  sloppy months intervening before and after the hard freeze it is not accessible at all.

Add to this global warming (which, to be fair, was maybe not forseeable) and now we are in a situation in which the official ice roads must be maintained to ensure that the ice depth doesn’t drop below 60cm, while their ancient counterparts, well, aren’t. Not surprisingly few residents of Yakutsk have heretofore embraced the train as a way of escaping to the outside world.

My Uber driver rushing me to the station for an exhorbitant $15 has opted for a questionable short cut. It seems ominous that even at ‘rush hour’ we are the only ones here.

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Few takers at the spanking new station that is not only not in Yakutsk at all, but is most often inaccessible.

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Third class only, but satisfying new train smell, and more than half empty.

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The exception that proves the rule. Jocho has bought himself a rucksack and is off to seek his fortune in Vladivostok, the first time ever he has left town.

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Many new stations along the way, but since there are no villages, no one gets on or off.

Conspicuous absence of footsteps around the station. The cellphone tower too is fake – no signal for 24 hours.

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Finally after 24 hours, the big city – Tynda, population 30,000. Since we have a 5 hour wait I take myself off on the #6 bus to find the bright lights

Me: Excuse me, where is the center?

Babushka: What center?

Me: Town center

Babushka: What town?

She is being unfair. There is a town center, here it is.

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Back at the station 2 hours later, I amble round to where our train is, or rather was 2 hours ago. I hoof it round to Information ‘I’ve lost my train’ my GT tells them cheerily. Alarmingly no ‘This happens all the time’ response is forthcoming. Finally a long-suffering denizen hauls on their polar gear and accompanies me out to the nether regions where my carriage hides in forlorn splendor. Happily, once it is hooked back up to a means to move it along to our next destination, we have acquired the unimaginable luxury of a restaurant.

Masha had the same soul-shattering experience so we take ourselves off to the bar to recover with several beers and caviar.

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The barmaid is happy for the company and contributes a bar of chocolate to our celebration.

Our friendly barmaid. We are the only customers thereby upending several stereotypes about Russians, and trains.

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Changing trains at Skovorodino in the middle of the night with a 4 hour layover, is causing some anxiety thanks to all the unwelcome information obtainable through the Internet. The 18 stalwart citizens who have offered opinions average a 3 star rating (initially quite promising given the Russian glass-half-empty world view, but closer inspection indicates the positive reviews are simply grateful the station exists at all). Elsewhere Skovorodino is ‘freezing cold’ ‘infested with cockroaches’ and ‘the toilets are terrible’. Even the Lonely Planet (train travel subforum) has told me explicitly ‘No-one will be getting off at Skovorodino’. This is all canard and the event is a nothingburger.  My carriage disembarks en masse and since we are stopping for 20 minutes dear Masha gets off too to ensure I can identify the blazingly illuminated front door. Inside, a mere $5 investment gets me a sparkling room with toilet so I can not only avoid both cold and cockroaches but also have a nice nap, since all three people on night duty pledge to come and wake me up in time, and some come more than once

No trash talk about Skovorodino station! The resting rooms are well worth the $5 investment

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Sadly no-one is willing to brave the cold to ensure I actually make my connection, which worryingly will only stop for 2 minutes. Naturally, opinions differ as to whether carriage 2 will be to the left or right, a decision that must made with dispatch when a train could be 50 carriages long. Salvation! the couple already on the platform reassure me they too need carriage 2. They do not, however, elicit confidence. First they are dressed in party clothes and not much else, second they have neither luggage nor the requisite week’s supply of food, finally they can’t manage to get down the platform to where they are sure carriage 2 will stop without each falling over at least once. I need not worry. They are here (from where though?) merely to greet a similarly inebriated friend, himself in transit to points west, and yes traveling in carriage 2. “Privet Russki!”* they holler at each other at 2:30 in the morning while I struggle up the steps. Once aboard the prodnitsa enfolds me in a full embrace, and when I’m all settled in brings me a nice cup of tea, with two lumps of sugar. I will need to lie in tomorrow morning.

*Hi there Russian!

The Road of Bones

Yesterday we traveled from Yakutsk to Khandyga (yellow) today we will travel into the northeast Yakutia mountains (green). Alex promises the roads will be even worse.

Yakut map

The gold in the northeast Yakutia mountains (also replete with diamonds and uranium) was well known by the Tsars, but they reckoned no-one would voluntarily endure the extreme deprivations needed to mine it – seasonal fluctuations between – 60° and +40°C with vicious mosquitoes in the summer. And so it more or less sat. Post-Soviet revolution, circumstances were different. Breakneck industrialization needed urgent financing. Eventually a solution emerged: A captive work force, sentenced by law to hard labor. As each wave succumbed to cold or disease, ever more spurious charges kept the pipeline rolling. And so the purges. And so the gulags, where we are headed today.

Few of the villages we passed yesterday, strung out every 50 km, appear on any maps. Today we will see only one village Treply Kyuch. It isn’t on the map either (even though its cafe gets a 4 star rating on Trip Advisor, for no reason I can discern).

All the villages look like Treply Kyuch, snuggled into the snow, barely visible from what passes for roads. Conspicuous absence of bustle.

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We are not just passing through though, because Treply Klyuch is the home of the Gulag Museum. Up until 2019 the Gulag Museum was housed in the village kindergarten, it has since been moved to its own more spacious accommodation in the cultural center.

The gulag museum has in fact received many rapturous reviews

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Since I thought I would also be visiting 5 year olds, I have brought along a book for them as a gift. I present it to the museum director, to her great confusion.

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Alex insists everyone sentenced to the gulags were bona-fide criminals, even when presented with pictures like this. ‘Moscow family’ the Director tells us.

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This unlucky young lady was sentenced for stealing 5kg of potatoes during the famine. It is not clear whether Alex regards this as evidence of a true crime.

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I am currently reading a book by an American true believer whose family emigrated to the USSR in the 1930s. He was thrown into the gulags around here for 12 years on a trumped up political charge, or more accurately no charge at all (he was exonerated, as were many others in the 1950s)*. He claims many fewer than 1 in 100 survived to tell the story, others put it at more like 1 in 1000. They fashioned padded mittens from American flour sacks to stave off the intense winter cold as they worked the gold mines.

The mitten in question, right here.

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“Did your family suffer during the purges?” I ask Alex. “No” he says “My father big communist leader, big fan of Stalin”.

The Director insists we see the second room, which is devoted to Soviet glories and war heroes. Alex cheers right up.

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The route of choice to the gulags from the west was by train to Vladivostok, on the east coast, then from Vladivostok to Magadan by boat via the East Japanese Sea. Magadan to  the mines in Kolyma required a road. The prisoners dug it and then paved it with clay, gravel and their bones.

The road we take out of Khandyga is a spur off the Kolyma Road, en route to the most dreaded Ust Nera mines where harsh physical deprivations (-60° in nearby Oymyakon, the coldest town in the world, is normal) needed equivalently harsh discipline to keep things rolling. It is another Road of Bones.

Vast and the empty it is hard to conceive of building this road.

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Earlier

Me: Are there bears here Alex?

A: Here no. In the mountains. Many people killed by bears every year. But now they are sleeping.

Later, in the mountains.

Me: Is this where bears kill people Alex?

A: Yes only when they sleeping at the wheel.

Don’t sleep at the wheel

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There are many gulags beside this road to the mines. Many are still unexplored. These nearest ones are our only possible destinations, given the distance.

Alex: Go along this path to the gulag. It is about 2km. I will meet you back here in one hour.

The path to the gulag

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A bridge to the mines, built by the miners.

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We turn towards home. Suddenly in the distance, unbelievably, people on the road! Alex is agitated “Erweks” he groans “This will be problem”. I later learn that Erweks (another area indigenous minority) only take to the road when they are drunk, and weaving from side to side.

But no! It is not drunken Erweks, it is 4 Japanese from Kyoto who have had the brilliant idea to cycle 750 km along this road in March (to be fair it is impassable in the summer because of mud, bears and mosquitoes).

They seem grateful if somewhat confused by my gift of vile cabbage dumplings from the Treply Kyuch cafe. It is currently -37°C.

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Back out of the mountains: Sunset over the taiga

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*Dear America: The true odyssey of an American youth who miraculously survived the concentration camps of the Soviet Gulag. By Thomas Sgovio.

A self-published first person account, free on Amazon so its not a literary masterpiece but nonetheless both chilling and very poignant. 4 stars.

 

 

Well Z’drasty* Yakutia

*Hello

Checkered demographics on flight 5671 Novosibirsk to Yakutsk: A few pale ‘n pasty Russians, the rest stoic Sakahs, the Turkic indigenous majority in Yakutia, and the continually belligerent Tajik and Kyrgiz (miners I suppose) To a man (there are few women) they have spent the weekend partying hard in Novosibirsk. About half have brought the party back to the airport while the rest are already regretting the whole adventure. The exasperated flight attendants who have seen it all before strongly encourage us to stock up with paper bags. In the event the flight is subdued, if not entirely sober. The buckwheat at dinner sops up any circulating alcohol, while stern PSAs continually remind us it is against the law to replenish it with any we might have sneaked on board. In the absence of in-flight entertainment (except the interminable queue for the toilet) and with the lights firmly doused, the only recourse for my fellow passengers is sleep. We set off at 11:00pm and are supposed to arrive at 6:00 but the time changes so often (three times, including, apparently once backwards) it is impossible to keep track.

Party time at Novosibirsk airport. There is no Guinness, only vodka

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I do not sleep (I will regret it later). The sight is staggering. Ten minutes outside of Novosibirsk the lights end and for a full 3 hours under the bright night sky the marshy taiga of southern Yakutia shows no evidence at all of human habitation. Only at the central plains do clusters of lights appear, maybe once every 15 minutes, tracing the rivers. There is only one road and it’s not here, so communication is by water – in the summer by boat and in the winter on ice roads (more about ice roads later). Only a million people dispersed over an area 5 times the size of Europe. Fully a third of them huddled in Yakutsk where it is barely dawn and fortunately -37°C (below -45°C the frozen mist presently hugging the ground and making us gasp as we inhale, becomes pervasive and the plane would have difficulty landing). Eventually the key to the terminal is located, and I barely avoid my first acute hypothermic emergency. My fellow pickled passengers aren’t even bothering with gloves.

Two four hour flights get us to the heart of Yakutia

Map of Yakutia

Alex, my driver, is half Sakah and half Russian. We can tell he is not fully Sakah because, in his own words, he is pale, tall and fat, and also not pigeon-toed. On inspection he is quite correct, the Sakah are small, dark and stocky and invariably pigeon-toed. Alex is also a shamanist. He is evasive about what that spiritual practice entails but it may include being surly around babushkas. We set off immediately because today we must cover 400km east into the taiga, crossing three rivers on ice roads to reach our overnight stop in Khandyga, and tomorrow a further 400km north on a road that doesn’t seem to appear on any map (there are actually no road maps of Yakutia) to reach the nearest gulags. I trust we will manage to arrive back for the train out of Yakutsk, which goes only once a week, on Thursday morning. Still, because the roads that are not ice are built on permafrost, they cannot be paved, and I am happy to trade Alex’s skills as a driver for his defects in the small talk department; in the end he will get an upgrade to merely shy.

Alex, smiling excitedly. 

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Alex tells me the ribbons indicate trees that are important to Shamanists. He won’t tell me for what.

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Dawn over the ice roads across the River Lena from Yakutsk to where we are going first. The river banks are almost out of sight, but that is going to be OK because this is the  official road: water is constantly poured on it to make sure the ice stays 50cm thick, which doesn’t seem too thick to me.

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Where we are going first is Cafe Nal. Its main claim to fame is a ‘hot toilet’. Not having to pee in temperatures approaching -40° is a major preoccupation.

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Sakahs eat the same food at breakfast, lunch and dinner, which means they only have to cook once a day or even less. Alcohol is never available.

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No trip would be complete without a stop at an ethnographic museum. Since it is closed for the winter the security guard, Andrej, is deputized to deconstruct every tool on display for my benefit. He is very happy to oblige.

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Andrej waits impatiently to explain how ancient Sakah tepees are made from pliant Siberian larch (I assume).

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Unexpectedly, mud houses. The frozen walls provide insulation, like an igloo. This idea went out of fashion rather quickly except for the Shaman whose house this was.

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But we still see houses like these everywhere

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As well as churches like these

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The insides would be more charming if they weren’t at -40° (hypothermic emergency number two)

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Next, Alex is excited to show me the work of a local sculptor whose medium, rather originally, is frozen horse shit.

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The horses in question live outside winter and summer. They eat the grass through the snow and also bury their noses in the snow to sleep, like the one at the front.

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After 400km including 3 more ice roads we arrive at Khandgye. The whole village’s heat comes from a coal power plant and is circulated round the streets in colossal pipes.

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Our ‘apart hotel’

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My part also doubles as a sauna

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But we eat dinner and breakfast (shown) at the best restaurant in town.

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After 8 hours we are half way there.

 

2020: A quick look at Russia

But before we start, a 10 day (or was it 12) spin around Tunisia with Jim and the crew from Iran a couple of years ago. A most convivial crowd of old friends and new. We have a blast and manage to leave exactly a day before the actual blast caused by a couple of folks blowing themselves up outside the US embassy.

Poor Tunisia! the only functioning democracy in North Africa has managed to elect itself a repressive government with corruption that has bled the country dry. Those who can have fled, leaving behind an overwhelming aura of opportunities not developed or taken and a population barely able to control their frustration. Hence, no doubt, our suicide-vest friends aided and abetted by Isis who are camped out in the mountains on the border with Algeria.

But all is not lost! Tunisia can’t compete with Morocco in neither the glamour of its decor nor the sophistication of its cuisine but does win the following categories:

World class Roman ruins, open for clambering, at every turn.

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On the right, not tourists but the Serbian Tourist office, shooting a promotional film with Serbian gladiators and slaves, in Serbian of course.

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With world class mosaics on every wall:

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Luckily we only camp one night in the unnervingly cold Sahara desert (our mod cons seen gratifyingly in the rear)

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No mod cons here

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We visit all the Star Wars sites, of which I’m led to believe this is one

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For some Star Wars cosplay, of course.

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Then a quick sayonara at the usual place in Heathrow Airport

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And I’m On the Road Again!

There is no snow in Moscow

And what’s more there evidently hasn’t been in living memory. On the Metro, where most folks are cradling huge bouquets of tulips, my T.J. Maxx polar outfit generates some serious side-eye, but nonetheless the usual relay team of anonymous nice young men (NYM) ensure I don’t have to carry anything up any of the stairs from the airport to the Metro exit, where the usual despicable babushkas greet my return with barely concealed derision.

Fortunately last year’s effusive review has apparently earned me an upgrade into a huger room than I could reasonably expect for the price, with not one but two free bottles of water and more importantly enough bars of soap to accompany me and my reviled polar gear to Siberia (more on this later). I take myself off to the cafeteria up the road and enjoy a robust dinner once I’ve remembered the somewhat confusing order of operations (take a ticket, make an order, pay, eat).

The cafeteria in question. Apparently Soviet style dining is having a comeback. Certainly it is packed out at all hours of the day and night.

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I had hoped this might be mushroom soup (it seems to be squash) but clearly my (now) 230 word vocabulary has some serious flaws. Still for $7 it would be churlish to complain. Sadly no beer.

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Moscow is a strolling city, but this morning, despite the 42° temperature, Muscovites, who would be out in force if it was 10° colder, are nowhere to be seen. Despite (or maybe because of) the lack of official interest in coronavirus at the airport (the guy supposed to be monitoring the heat camera was having a sandwich instead) citizens have evidently taken things into their own hands*. Certainly I detect no tourists.

This is usually take-a-number selfie central, today I have it to myself.

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Hardly anyone is ploughing through the seriously melting ice at the skating rink in Gorky Park thereby making the extensive security, presumably to prevent us getting a free peek, somewhat superfluous.

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No takers, only the wannabe Van Goghs themselves, outside the Tretyakov Gallery

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And the bulbs frantically elbowing their way into the sunlight have fewer admirers than they deserve at this time of year.

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Even the Kremlin seems to be self-quarantining

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And the faithful, who are usually lined up 10 deep for a fervent slobber are evidently praying at home.

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Still the ultra-contemporary Garage museum doesn’t disappoint, despite its usual complement of alarmingly obscure exhibits you can always count on lunch.

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Six hours and 35,000 steps later I am deeply regretting my ambition, particularly because tomorrow entails an 8 hour flight (OK two 4 hour flights) to the coldest place on earth, where hopefully my appearance will seem more appropriate. Inexplicably, even though we set off at 1pm we don’t arrive until 5am the next day. And then immediately into the Taiga! Stay tuned in the unlikely event there’s (a) internet and (b) my phone doesn’t freeze.

*Reassuringly I later find that tout Moscow is hoovering up the bargains at Uniqlo.

 

 

Xian – where it ends, and where it began

This will be the final stop in my Silk Roads project!

But first let me digress a little about trains.

My Chinese overnight train trips have been somewhat pragmatic: Inevitably they have begun at bedtime and ended before breakfast and so have been all about getting to sleep and I’ve missed the subtle etiquette around sharing food and conversation so absorbing during longer journeys on Russian trains. It turns out sleep quality critically depends on successfully decoding each train’s label: We can ignore D trains – they might be supersonic 21st century bullets, but they don’t travel overnight and are only good for naps. T trains are overnighters and must be absolutely fabulous –  their tickets are invariably snapped up within seconds of going on sale; I never manage to see the inside of one.

Z trains are 20th century workhorses, but the 4 number version can on occasion be rather sophisticated.

The K9669 – lilac brocade, antimacassars, lace curtains and wide enough to sleep on my back – who could ask for more?

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_5946On the other hand 3 number Z trains have rock-hard seats and pillows evidently filled with actual rock dust.

The K553 en route through the Gobi desert – no fancy upholstery. Stuffing my jacket into my own pillowcase significantly increases the likelihood of a good night’s sleep, even when squashed on my side.

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I am currently on a G train which, it is now evident, is the lowest rung on the totem pole. Sleep is going to depend, not only on whether I can stay on my side all night, but also on how effectively I can convince myself that the bedding has been laundered in the recent past. On the plus side, the rest of the G train clientele evidently considers the 4 berth ‘soft sleeper’ an unimaginable extravagance, and I have not only the compartment, but the whole carriage to myself. As a consequence the attendant will be able to sleep through the night and is so happy he he has kept the sitting toilet open as my reward. Nonetheless I wimpily swap the next ‘G’ leg for a daytime D that will cover the distance in 1/4 the time and hence doesn’t need to provide linens, grimy or otherwise.

X’ian – where it began and ends

For three centuries after AD 618 Xian (then called Chang’an) was the greatest city in the world with two million inhabitants encircled by twenty two miles of ramparts. On its eastern side canals provided trade connections all the way to the South China Sea and the Western Gate marked both the end and the beginning of the Silk Roads.

The remaining ramparts, only 9 miles in circumference, encircle the previous inner city of Chang’an. More perfect for a leisurely bike ride if it wasn’t 90 degrees with proportionate humidity.

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The Western Gate

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That’s more like it – the outside of the ramparts are fringed with a quite lovely, and more to the point shady, municipal park.

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The park has something for everyone, especially this useful bed of pebbles for clockwise circling and exercising the feet.

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Historians claim the Silk Roads were established in the 2nd century BC but traffic started long before any written accounts. Chinese silk from 1500BC has turned up in tombs in Afghanistan, in the hair of a 1000BC Egyptian mummy and in a 600BC German grave. The caravans – sometimes a thousand camels strong – also took iron and bronze, lacquer work and ceramics, and brought glass, gold and silver, Indian spices and gems, wool and linen, slaves and at one time the startling invention of chairs from the west. But the same caravans never completed the whole route. The goods were interchanged in an endless complicated relay race, growing even costlier the farther they were from their source.

The Western Market, had two hundred guilds of merchants from almost every people between Arabia and Japan – Persians, Turks and Central Asians – Sogdians especially –  Indians, Bactrians, Jews, Syrians. The moneylenders were Uighurs. Today the Western Market is predominantly Hui Muslim.

The current western market maybe more prosaic, but equally popular

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For a place so far from the sea, grilled squid is unexpectedly popular

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Another lilac pillbox lady and dumplingista friends

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Lost in translation again

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In the second century BCE Xian became the chosen capital of Qin Shihuangdi, a near mythical tyrant who became the first emperor of a unified China. Qin conquered the fragmented feudal princedoms and knit them into a centralized bureaucracy with a cultural unity that has persisted since. So Xian and the Silk Roads flourished. But all did not stay well on the Western Front. As Colin puts it:

‘By the time of his death Qin Shihuangdi became a haunted idolater, searching in vain for the elixir of life. For seventy miles around his capital 270 palaces had been decorated in the native styles of the regions he had conquered, and furnished with their food and concubines. Now these palaces were linked with covered passageways down which the ageing emperor, terrified of assassination moved neurotically, continually, never sleeping in the same bed twice…Yet he died a thousand miles from his capital….for weeks he was carried back to Xian from the coast. Eventually the corpse became so putrid that a wagon of rotting fish was summoned to accompany the closed litter to hide its stench’.

For two millenia grass grew over his neglected mausoleum. Then in 1974 peasants sinking a well broke into a vault were life-sized terracotta warriors stood mysteriously to arms. Soon they uncovered a whole buried army, mustered to guard the paranoid emperor through eternity.

Each of the soldiers in the terracotta army look endearingly different – a charioteer

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Even a section for the pets

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Quite surprisingly most of it hasn’t been excavated yet, and it doesn’t look like there’s any rush.

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The stability following unification allowed the Silk Roads to flourish then in 618 Xian became the capital of the Tang dynasty. But it all collapsed precipitously as the Tangs turned their faces back towards the east.

The massive Tang Dynasty palace is also unexcavated, real people barely seen on top, for scale.

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Some more things I learned about China in Xian

Chinese girls like to dress up

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Where possible they persuade their boyfriends to join in

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When its wedding time everyone gets into the swing

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Even when it’s 90 degrees

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I buy a ticket for an opera about the cultural revolution. The actual performance is a chorale of classical songs

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The ushers are very assiduous. They are equipped with red lasers which they use to illuminate antisocial behavior (examples, shuffling feet, turning round, taking a photo of the performers)

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But unexpectedly afterwards, the cultural area of Xian is illuminated too.

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A short detour towards Tibet, or: Buddha Inc.

The plan is a quick overnight in Lanzhou and an early start tomorrow to Linxia and eventually Xiahe, site of the largest Tibetan monastery in China. It starts, as these things so often do, not well. Neither the taxi driver nor his extended family are able to locate my hotel and even Maps.me gives up the ghost. Eventually I am abandoned in downtown Lanzhou, for mine millenial host of the ‘Orange Hotel’ to collect me, grumbling.  Strangely the hotel appears to be located on the 20th floor of one of those buildings whose crumbling concrete is clearly living on borrowed time. Even more strangely it appears to be an apartment belonging to someone’s grandma (not in residence).

Cast: Mine millenial host; Me. Fortunately MMH speaks English, of a sort.

Me: What’s THIS?

MMH: It’s the room you booked.

Me: No it really isn’t, it doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the site (besides a very well appointed room Trip.com also promised a bath, which I have been fantasizing about for the last 4 hours on the ‘farmer’s train’). Why is it called Orange Hotel?

MMH: This is not exactly a hotel, it’s a homestay. That picture is my room (clearly elsewhere). If it is unavailable we assign you another one (huh? has the scam revealed itself?).

ME: Trip.com said nothing at all about any of that.

MMH: (Eyes start to swivel, we’ve been here before). That’s a problem with their website.

I launch into full excoriating mom mode. He sees his Trip Advisor future flash before his eyes.

MMH: OK how about I take you to the bus station tomorrow to make up for it.

(The bus station is miles away and will be even more of a pain to find, so as the ads say – priceless).

Me: (But I am relentless and bitter because of the bath) – OK, at 8am.

On inspection the building is actually full of students. I find a great dinner, sleep well and am awakened in plenty of time at 7am when all the students (on the 20th floor at least) start simultaneously having sex. At 8am sharp here is MMH in his knock-off aviators and the same white Honda CRV the security forces in Xinjiang drive (a complete coincidence I’m sure). Quick as a flash I’m on the bus and a mere 2 hours later in Linxia (the Trip Advisor review has already been posted).

I am being rather unfair, some attempt has been made to spruce up the unfortunate accommodation; this is it.

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Linxia

I’m interested in majority Muslim Linxia AKA ‘China’s Mecca’. Home to Hui rather than Uighurs and their attendant mosques (more than 80) and sundry Sufi mausoleums it is far more overtly religious than any of the Xinjiang towns. Funnily enough though, no police seem to be required, and co-existence appears relatively seamless, superficially at least (foreigners are only allowed to stay in the Chinese quarter, at one specific hotel). In fact it is a totally unexpected pleasure – a soft spring day with the blossoms exploding and the mostly veiled women out in force, socializing gravely, apart from their menfolk.

Mosques galore

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Stately Sufi mausoleums

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The Sufi in question

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The blossom is out

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Along with everyone, but no-one wants their picture taken.

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A stolen picture, the men are across the street

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Another unexplained back-story in the park

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Store front dentistry

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Illegal furs, the leopard is hidden away (no photos please)

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Can’t resist the colors

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But Linxia is also being co-opted into the great Silk Road tourist machine, as is evident from a tarted up market area complete with bronze camels. Since Linxia has nothing at all to do with the Silk Road the whole effort is being roundly ignored.

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It doesn’t take long to figure out the lack of consensus re: the length of the bus ride from Linxia to Xiahe.  It turns out the conductor’s job is mainly to drum up customers (Initially I’m sympathetic since we set off with only three passengers).  Which means first we stop for breakfast just round the corner and acquire about a dozen more, then, whenever a pedestrian is spotted beside the road, we slow down to walking pace so the conductor can lean out of the door and pitch them the idea of a nice trip. Their success rate is maybe 1 in 4 but to their credit we do finally make full house, about 20 minutes from Xiahe, a mere 4 hours later.

Has another sucker fallen for an impromptu trip? And what’s with the lilac pillbox – clearly a sect, lots of people sport them – but which one?

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Xiahe

Xiahe is at 10,000 feet so I’m not sure whether the feeling that I’m going to pass out is due to the altitude or my horrible cold. The nice Tibetan host of my hotel immediately starts an intensive lemon and honey regime and seconds the other guests, a couple of pleasant Indian guys from Bombay, as my babysitters for the English language tour of the Labrang monastery.

Home to more than 1000 Tibetan and Mongolian monks from the ‘Yellow Hat’ sect Labrang is staggeringly huge and a humming business machine.  There are hundreds of temples and visiting monks get a whole village full of Buddhist necessity shops (saffron colored everything from washing bowls to dish detergent). Disappointingly, no photos of the highly ornate interiors and Buddhas. Disappointingly too, our Buddhist monk guide spends most of our time rearranging his robes to more fetchingly display his upper arms and prodding my new Indian friends about the latest Bollywood movies (that we are told he watches avidly on his smartphone) than giving us any useful or accurate information, so we leave not much wiser than we arrive. We do notice several pictures of the Panchen Lama at different ages, presumably to reassure the faithful he is still alive. ‘He comes to visit often’ our guide lies to us smoothly, who knows why (the poor kid has been disappeared for years).

Labrang monastery was built in the 1700s, it is the largest outside Tibet.

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Many inaccessible courtyards

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And once more, no indoor photos

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I can’t remember what this is called but people process along it clockwise, spinning the cylinders.

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In fact walking clockwise round buildings while surreptitiously chanting seems to be a big thing in general.

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Walking clockwise, but presumably not at this moment praying,

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We are told the monks are practicing for a big philosophical debate. The guide is not prepared to tell us about what.

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After we ditch our unlikable guide the printing ‘press’ is much more forthcoming; thousands upon thousands of sutras.

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the likely lads of the press are sloping off but shape up when I appear. One holds the paper over the sutra the other rubs on the ink.

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Then they toss it to him who stacks it up. They have thousands to get through today.

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The benevolent printing master, the only monk who lets me take his picture.

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Eat your heart out Syracuse and Iowa, these are yak butter sculptures for this year’s competition (they smell vile).

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It is disconcerting to be around such pervasive and intense displays of religion. Everyone is muttering under their breath and even the maids in the hotel are Oming as they clean the rooms, much to my confusion.

The perfectly lovely (and sparkling clean) Tibetan Family Hotel

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After I beg for ‘Anything as long as it’s not Chinese’ Madame rustles me up a fine yak curry.

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It occurs to me that not all my problems are due to the fact that I don’t speak Chinese (although it certainly doesn’t help – current vocabulary – ‘Hello’ ‘thank you’ ‘sorry’ and ‘noodles’ [I don’t think ‘bye-bye’ should count]) but that no-body else round here does either. I must be back at Lanzhou station by 8:30 to catch my overnight train onward to X’ian. Mine nice Tibetan host, who speaks perfect English, but who, as we will see evidently doesn’t read Chinese, pooh-poohs the idea of the noon bus (the fast express that will hoof it along the highway all the way back to Lanzhou in a mere 31/2 hours). ‘You’ll be at the train station far too early’ he says ‘And what will you do there? Wait here comfortably with your lemon and honey and catch the 2:30’.

Mine host. A great number in lemon and honey, not so much in travel advice.

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At 2:00 I’m at the bus station asking for the Lanzhou express and by 2:15 they’ve found someone who can give me the news – ‘tomorrow’ – apparently the 2:30 is not an express and horrors! only goes to Linxia. Still, buses onward to Lanzhou are frequent and in theory I can still make the train. Everybody rallies round but only in Tibetan and Hui,  thereby precluding GT, and I can only deduce the bus driver’s assurance we can arrive in Linxia by 4.  This seems highly unlikely, as our subsequent progress confirms (impromptu trips to Linxia are less popular so we go even more slowly). In fact it is now 4:45 and here we are still about 15km outside Linxia at a complete stop again and I am seriously failing at being Buddhist about it all as the rest of the passengers earnestly recommend (I think).  But wait! the millenial who now bounds aboard seizes my backpack and me, disgorges my roly bag from the bowels and hustles us all across 6 lanes of traffic. There, inexplicably, facing the other direction is another stationary bus – the Linxia-Lanzhou express. The conductor (bless him suddenly) has somehow intercepted it. Our new conductor has got himself another customer and I arrive at the station handily by 7:30. The train however is delayed until 11:00.