Irkutsk Siberia, bitcoin capital of the world

An Irkutsk joke:

“I’ve heard you have bears and wolves walking the streets in Irkutsk”

“Don’t be ridiculous, we don’t have streets in Irkutsk”

N1jVC8KgSDKVhcC+yjbOcw_thumb_444f

Babur, the  mascot of Irkutsk, combines the worst elements of bears and wolves.

Under leaden skies, more snow, and a damp, biting wind Irkutsk definitely isn’t a contender. Not only are the sidewalks not at all free of snow or ice, but underneath they seem to be made of polished granite. Plus, the frozen grey slush seems to mask unsurfaced roads.  I rebuff the usual phalanx of aggressive taxi drivers hogging the front of the station in favor of a 40 minute ride on the ancient tram at 5mph (25 cents). Not for nothing has Irkutsk been described as a ‘boom or bust’ gold town. This particular bust cycle must have been really protracted.

The Matreshka hotel, evidently built during some earlier, fleeting boom, aspires to the ‘Neo-Soviet’ pre-IKEA style of charmless interior décor. But we must look beyond décor to cleanliness (5 stars) millennials-at-the-desk (A+ particularly after one hauls my roly bag up three flights of stairs) and breakfast (over and above – a la carte homemade yogurt supplementing a lavish buffet). A piping hot shower (note for later, a real bath tub) and a change of clothes and I am willing to give Irkutsk a second chance.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4526

The Neo-Soviet pre-IKEA dining room at the Matreshka.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4523

Note to self: there is little point reserving a ‘queen sized bed’ for extra room if it is actually two twins shoved together, with a twin duvet.

At 2pm and courtesy of Katarina, that NYL from Moscow, I am handed off to her friend in Irkutsk. Over the next couple of days Anastasia (Masters in International Relations, Human Rights Watch alumna, social entrepreneur) will walk me off my feet in the service of upending these so facile stereotypes. Can all Russians actually be sweethearts? I’m certainly batting 100% up to now.

p3roeIuTQqeGWgyLxAs3CA_thumb_447b

Anastasia is an Irkutsk and Baikal booster

In the first place, we are not in fact in a bust cycle. Indeedy not, thanks to, of all things, Bitcoin. It turns out that various international shady characters have ridden into town and taken advantage of fantastically low electricity prices to install massive numbers of Bitcoin servers in rented apartments, making unlikely Irkutsk the Bitcoin capital of the world.

In the second place, despite its resolute location in Asia, Irkutsk is more appropriately known as the Paris (rather than the Dodge City) of Siberia (more plausible when the snow stops sufficiently for the elegant pre-revolution architecture over this side of the river to reveal itself in the gloaming).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_443f

Irkutsk can strut its stuff once the snow stops

LvVaLzJTTgSSAHeyXOUGpA_thumb_4442Even the Stalinist buildings aren’t bad. Unknown Warrior duty is no fun at -25°C.

In the third place, the Matreshka hotel is not simply a clean if unfortunately decorated $40 find on Booking.com, but an exceptionally dangerous place tourists, especially of my age, should avoid. It all seems related in some way to its proximity to the market and the bus-stop outside, which evidently is frequented solely by pick-pockets (if this is the case they are expertly disguised as babushkas). When I ask the millenial-at-the-desk whether I can safely make the 6 minute walk to the restaurant up the street for dinner she is not amused. “It may look dangerous but it isn’t” she says. ”In any case there’s a police car parked outside”. She’s right and it will be there tomorrow too, still empty. I cunningly disguise myself as a pickpocket babushka and make it there and back uneventfully.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_446b

The notorious Hotel Matreshka. Taken from in front of the police car.

I’ve just finished washing my malodorous train clothes in the bathtub and am settling in with the New Yorker when I get an anxious text from Anastasia wondering whether I need an armed escort.

Another upended stereotype: I’ve yet to see a Russian drink; when I ordered beer with my dinner the waitress had to run to the grocery store across the road. Everyone else was drinking herbal tea.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_446a

The fish is listed as ‘Omul’ – a Lake Baikal specialty. However Omul is protected, so this is in fact another kind (Peyul) that looks and tastes completely different. It is the same price whether listed as Omul or Peyul. Thanks to Anastasia for the insider info, but who knows what all that’s about.

Day 2, Baikal

Everything has changed. The clouds have blown out, the skies are bright blue and here in the Paris of Siberia the sun is sparkling on the sidewalks. Even the roads are now clearly asphalted. It will be a perfect day for the 12 hour trip Anastasia has organized to lake Baikal. First order of business – getting there – is itself a challenge involving a complex sequence of marshrutkas (mini-van buses): Neither where they stop nor when they go is obvious, even to a native Russian speaker who lives in town.

First off, the grandly titled ‘ethnographic museum’ which truth be told is the main reason I am in Irkutsk at all. Various ancient Siberian taiga villages and stockades relocated to a different taiga in service of a hydroelectric dam, and, as hoped, just like Old Sturbridge Village, although the live re-enactments at OSV are better (here the roles of the peasants are played by disconcertingly looming papier maché models). I insist on spending hours inspecting everything, but Anastasia is able to tell me all about it, hence a good time is had by all.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_446e

Absolute bliss: Old Sturbridge Village in Siberia

QAaZzVEvSGa3GFQakldJ5Q_thumb_44cc

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_44cd

Probably not many live re-enactment volunteers given the houses mostly aren’t heated.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_44a3

Ancient hunting blind: a nice cozy place to hole up while waiting for the bears and wolves.

Apparently if we ran out of water tomorrow Lake Baikal could keep the entire planet supplied for the next 40 years. It is not surprising then that it has a 2000km shoreline (of which I hope to see only a fraction, Anastasia is very energetic). Tomorrow she plans to ski across to the other side. It will take 6 hours, much out of sight of either bank, all sounding and looking like a really poor idea.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_447c

Shamanist prayer flags on the shore of Baikal. Ostensibly from the Buyan indigenous people, but more likely from cross-country skiers.

Fortunately today it is only -20°C so we can take a long (long) walk on the ice and then circle back to buy smoked fish at the village market and take it into one of the cafés to eat. The notion of bringing one’s own food to a café is somewhat counter-intuitive, and Anastasia warns me we will need to buy something, which turns out to be a couple of pitas to wrap the fish in. But we even drink our own thermos of tea, while the family beside us tucks into their own full 3 course meal.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4479

One of these is actual Omul, the fishermen themselves are less inhibited about the prohibition.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_448d

Pita and actual Omul for lunch.

At about 4pm, having taken each other’s measure, we can finally start on politics. I am interested why Putin enjoys between 80% (Anastasia’s figure) and 90% (Katarina’s) support. He has made internal improvements (like shutting down the paper mill that was polluting Lake Baikal), but not enough and he is getting tired. People are restless but afraid of chaos when he steps down. Navalny, his only viable opponent, is a consummate politician who espouses eliminating hush-money subsidies to states (like Chechnya); this may restore equity (the money is funneled into the pockets of corrupt politicians, and even the Chechens themselves are fed up) but is a risky path. International politics are not on the radar screen, even for this International Relations expert. She is interested in whether there is a link between Trump and Putin. I offer that more than half the USA is praying for one, and that it surely involves kompromat based on shady financing of his business deals. But Putin is surely too clever to have his fingerprints on anything. She thinks his acceptance of the most recent sanctions show he’s hanging his inner circle out to dry. As he reaches the end of his career he is seeking to establish his legacy. and he wants it acknowledged that it is he who saved Russia. They need to realize the price he has paid for greasing their wheels.

P_20180302_170920_BF

The local history museum, a bridge too far.

At 6pm I decline the final museum and insist on declaring victory. Although I rarely actually feel cold, being out in it all day is exhausting. At the hotel I am so tired I settle for a bar of chocolate and a bottle of water for dinner; I can’t even make it into the corridor to get hot water for tea.

Into the belly of the beast from the east

This year’s long post about trains.

Weighed down with 5 days-worth of food I never eat at home (cups-of-soup, pot noodles, instant coffee) I am bright and early for the 13:50 Moscow to Chitra train #70, making about 100 stops over the 5 day trip to Irkutsk in far eastern Siberia. Of the many trains on the Transsiberian route, foreigners prefer the more lavish #3 and #4, but I expect the older Chitra to be more solid, plus it arrives in Irkutsk at the more godly hour of 10:00 am on Friday, rather than the middle of the night.

%WDIeOGSSGq+H3diG1Xz3A_thumb_43b9

It is not quite clear why Lonely Planet advises getting to the station 2 hours in advance in order to identify the train.

Chw%GWBsQTimj2Ygh3EQww_thumb_440c

A mere smattering of those 100 stops. The engine is changed every night.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_43d1

Train 70 Moscow to Chita

I easily identify carriage 8 (it is between 9 and 7, unlike the UK trains) and then my compartment midway between the samovar and the toilets (bunk #13).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_439c

Chill Lonely Planet, this isn’t rocket science.

But wait! In contrast to the undertaking by Russian Railways that ladies will be put together, bunks 11, 12 and 14 are already occupied by gents, at least one of whom has evidently never seen the inside of a shower he trusts.  I am outraged and corner the prodenitsa (aide for our carriage) who is assiduously mopping the toilet floor. “It was my understanding” google translate begins in a passive aggressive tour de force “that were it possible for ladies to be together in a compartment, it would be so. And it does in fact appear to be possible”. Indeed it does. The carriage is not full and other ladies are in compartments alone. The prodenitsa observes me narrowly. She has seen it all before. She hopes that these statements are not an attempt to impugn the honor of these fine Russian gentlemen. Regrettably, at this point no changes can be made, so she also hopes that nonetheless a comfortable and satisfying journey can be achieved to (her eyes narrow even more) Irkutsk. She is not swayed by my final desperate plea that they are smelly.

At this point a choice must be made. The trip from Moscow to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia will take 3 full days and two half days on either end (4 nights). I have been waiting for it for literally 50 years. There won’t be a do-over (even if I repeat it there will never be another first time).  So I need to get over it and get on with it.

Dimitry, Pyotor and even potentially Vasily-the-unshowered turn out to be sweethearts, just as the prodenitsa has optimistically advertised.

D is a millennial whose single passion is helicopters. Fortunately he is training to be a helicopter pilot. By the end of day 1 he has shown me every single picture on his computer, all of which are of helicopters, plus some videos of him as a pilot. The linguistic effort exhausts him and he sleeps in until 10 on day 2. Fortunately also, his phone is dead, so he has to spend the trip studying for his exams rather than watching videos.

P is a quintessential dad whose kids are set to surpass his wildest dreams (one is an architect and the other at Moscow University). He works for Gazprom but not in the Moscow office (this is significant to the other 2 who nod sagely). I presume that if he was an oligarch he would fly to Irkutsk, which takes about 3 hours. (Update: we later learn he makes this same trip from Kalliningrad on the Baltic to Siberia once a year to visit his mother. Once he disembarks at Irkutsk he has a further 6 hour train trip north followed by a 3 hour bus ride into the taiga. All in all the round trip will take a month. He does it by train because he is afraid to fly).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_43b4

Dmitry fueling up for another bout of helicopter splaining. Pyotor taking advantage of the minute and a half of cell phone service available for the next 100 miles.

V – the – unshowered (and also it will turn out, the snorer) is more of an enigma. He has the bunk above mine and therefore during the day should share mine as a seat. But V doesn’t like to sit next to me or look me in the eye and so he alternates between squeezing in with the other 2 on the opposite side (which subtly exasperates them) or standing in the corridor. At dinner (pot noodles for me, pasta for P, and for D two competing 3 course meals from his divorced parents) D and V get into an intense discussion later described to me as about ‘political history’ during which D is too well-mannered to roll his eyes. After dinner V ascends to his bunk and falls asleep at 8pm. (Update: V has warmed up this morning and unbidden scurries through the carriage to identify the cleanest toilet for me. They are both clean. The prodenitsa’s obsession with mopping and dusting far outweigh her intransigence with seat assignments).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_43a2

Vasily  prefers to stand in the corridor rather than sit next to me.

Within a few hours the three of us (P, D and me) have settled on an effective way to get the most out of our combined 300 word vocabulary (there is usually no cell service or internet en route so GT is sidelined). I ask a question and then rephrase it a couple of times. They confer among themselves for a consensus answer which P delivers (D has more words but often gets hold of the wrong end of the stick). If it is a question they are particularly interested in (about 1 in 5) someone will bring out a napkin for a more thorough written response. We adopt a calming rhythm of ignoring each other until meal times and settle in for a nice discussion (and D’s pictures) in the evening. By the end of day 1 we have covered the cost of health care, universities and income tax and admired D’s college transcripts. I am hopeful we will move onto politics tonight since they have shown surreptitious interest in my book on Stalin. After the first night all the compartments are filled up, but few seem as convivial as ours. Moreover, in contrast to the hysterical admonitions of Lonely Planet, we leave our electronics lying around and not only do we not lock ourselves in at night, we leave the compartment door ajar, which is just as well since it is hotter than hell and everyone is in T shirts or pajamas.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_43a3

Bunk #13 all set up for the night. The pillowcase from home is my best hack: I can stuff my parka inside thereby defending myself from the Russian Railways ‘pillow’.

The built up environs of Moscow drop off after about 3 hours and now, nearly 24 hours later, all we see through the dense gusting snow are isolated villages burrowing into the drifts. The village houses are mostly well kept but only some have smoke coming from their chimneys. Between them the larch forest is still interspersed with fields and from time to time we see ski tracks and even occasionally, resolute skiers. About every hour there is a small, quiet town. It is bliss.

During day 2 we pass over the Urals (rather disappointing as mountains – they achieved their full potential several millennia ago). They too are dotted with cozy villages nestled into the snow. Notably fewer of them are inhabited.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_43ca

Not how I’d imagined the Urals (before it really started snowing).

On day 3 we cross the wasteland that is the desolate marsh of Western Siberia. Within the bog many trees are stunted and dead, like a first world war battle site and it appears fully devoid of humans or their habitation: There are no roads and we pass only two villages all day, only a few railroad workers’ cottages, glimpsed through the blizzard, huddle dispiritedly alongside the train tracks.

H6yIPhBkR%yRZ1UIlueYhw_thumb_43fa

A rare sign of life in Western Siberia.

When I tell D & P this intense snowstorm is being called ‘the beast from the east’  V, from his top bunk, observes that it is in fact ‘the beast from the west’. My rush to impute nationalist motives is corrected by D, ever the didact, who points out the actual direction of the wind.

The blizzard outside may be raging but carriage 8 has settled into a bustling rhythm that demands careful attention. First of all is the matter of time. Carriage 8 like all Russian trains en route adheres to Moscow time, which is a full 5 hours different from where we will end up in the east, promoting an existentialist dilemma where at any given moment the clock at the end of the carriage bears no relationship to either our phones or laptops (further complicated by the fact that cell phone service can only optimistically be called intermittent and we have had internet only once in 3 days) or, more significantly, our biological clocks. Not only do we sleep in until ungodly hours but the little elf who runs the restaurant can deliver meals he calls ‘dinner’ at times no sane person would want to eat. (We each get one free meal. D and V, who are getting off midway in Omsk had their ‘dinner’ at what they thought was 3pm on day 2. P, the Transsiberian expert, who is  getting off with me at Irkutsk has decreed we will have ours on day 4 when the arrival of ‘dinner’ may coincide with our biological breakfast, or something).

ddxC39+BQP+tsoQGu6dxVQ_thumb_43d7

Only the blazing sunlight provides a clue that in fact it might not be 4:49 in the morning. The heat in the carriage has been turned down for the night.

We stop about three times a day for long enough to buy food from the babushkas who man dank kiosks or more disconcertingly flash their merchandise from where it is pinned inside their coats. Hard boiled eggs are 25 cents, train-proof bread that never tastes good or but never goes bad 50 cents, and questionable salami a dollar.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4412

If we want to eat tomorrow we must brave the kiosks tonight.

.On one occasion I buy some smoked fish. Inside, enveloped in fetid heat, it starts to smell after only 10 minutes. They implore me to eat it quickly, but even so P is forced to spray the compartment with pungent deodorant in self-defense.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_440d

Making no friends with this evening’s menu choice.

The carriage is looked after by two prodenistas. It should be pointed out that their job is to look after Russian Railways hardware, not its passengers. To this end Nadzheda toils all morning (Moscow time), which means she turns up randomly by day and night, poking her vacuum between our feet and insisting we lean this way and that so she can polish behind our backs and clean the windows When we stop she scurries outside to chip the ice from the undercarriage. It has not escaped our notice that Nadzheda pays most loving attention to the bathroom nearest her little compartment, which is always sparkling clean and well supplied with toilet paper. Tamara works at night (Moscow time) when our opportunities to despoil Railway property are minimized, so she can concentrate on her specialties of paperwork and Sudoku. Three hours after carriage 8 has been cleaned to within an inch of its life a man with a clip board comes round to inquire after our satisfaction. Since the surveys must be accompanied by a Russian ID (supplied reluctantly by D and P) he is not interested in my opinion. Remarkably, their comments will be published on the Russian Railways website, as I discovered once accidentally. V on the top bunk keeps resolutely mum.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_43ac

All hands on deck, or rather under the deck.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_440b

Carriage 8 before Nadzheda has vaccumed the corridor and straightened the runner.

According to Lonely Planet, Transsiberian trains #3 & #4 will provide a non-stop party experience, but in carriage 8 on the 1950’s Chitra express the subtle etiquette is much more decorous. Lower bunks get the window seat near the table, but when the others indicate an intention to eat by rustling in their food bags it is considered polite to shift out of the way and leave the compartment. It is not polite to comment on food, unless invited (exception – smoked fish as mentioned, and my pot noodles which invited discreet scorn but then an avalanche of invitations to salami and cheese). Cookies are left on the table for communal use and should be pressed on others whenever eye contact is made. Tea is drunk 8 times a day.

65a4lLJCRNONGA5WHw%1iA_thumb_43c2

Russian railways help out with the tea drinking requirement by providing mugs.

1z5yxgCFTdGxMTVWx8%l1Q_thumb_4400

And a samovar

D & V depart at Omsk on day 3 (V thaws completely and kisses my hand). Unfortunately this unexpected outpouring of emotion causes him to forget his passport unleashing a tsunami of bureacracy in the service of dropping it off at the next station (Ob, population 10, six hours away). V & D are replaced by a deaf woman and at midnight (actual time) a sulky millennial who is welded to his iphone. We accommodate and the conversations begin again.

I am reluctant to disembark. After all there are still three more days before Chita, not to mention Vladivostok.

And the gold medal goes to …..

Three days later and Moscow leads the pack of cities to aspire to live in: It is a walking city. The pavements are flat and free of snow, ice and litter. (Those that are not are being assiduously attacked – on a Sunday – by many unusually goal oriented teams of workers). They are so wide, bike lanes, dogs and kids are all kept effectively distant. Pedestrians wait for the green light and in return drivers do not pretend to accelerate as soon as one steps into the street. All major highways have regular underground passages which are clean and well lit. People use them, and above, the traffic flows smoothly.

Public transport is everywhere: on each of the 10 or so Metro lines trains run every minute, so need never be packed. Trams are sleek and buses (the domain of babushkas) are spruce. Neighborhoods are chock a block with enticing apartments of every persuasion from fin-de-siècle to brutalist concrete, all cozily supplied with grocery stores, bakeries etc. The grocery stores and bakeries look just like home, and there is a coffee shop on nearly every corner.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_43b6

A random view from my hotel window at rush hour on Monday morning

On my four hour amble I  pass more than 30 theaters or concert halls all bustling with matinee audiences (the many churches are bustling too, clearly where babushkas go when they get off the bus).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_42b5

A church on every corner. Another stereotype bites the dust.

Best of all the people are largely above and beyond friendly, although any attempt at random street smiling is met with frank alarm. (However, the combination of my TJ Maxx parka [fake fur hood] and LL Bean windproof pants clearly signals me as a homeless person, so I am always soundly rebuffed by the more extravagant fur coats swirling around in the cold [the TJ Maxx fur coats are less discriminating]). But it is millennials who are the best bet for directions and a chat; they have been very well brought up and can be relied on to be both accurate and charming. The irony has been wrung out of them somewhere.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_43a1

Outside the Tchaikovsky concert hall. People were actually swinging when I went to take the picture.

Saturday evening saw ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District’ at the Helikon theatre, the Shostakovitch opera which, thanks to this production, seems unlikely to shed its controversial reputation any time soon. From the Charles Renee Mackintosh-style metal chairs swathed in plastic the substantial chorus had to continually lug around the rather too small stage, to the startlingly realistic simulated sex initiated during every orchestral interlude, the director clearly had a lot on his/her mind. Moscow was having none of it. The first bout of SS saw a frantic scurrying to the door (on inspection a surprisingly young demographic) and by the time the chairs were hauled into their final iteration as a lake the audience was well and truly depleted. Fortunately management had was prepared – slipping conservatory students into vacant seats rather like at the Oscars.

Unfortunately the students were a limited commodity. At the curtain what was left of the audience resolutely kept to its seats and the director noticeably didn’t take a bow. After, the conservatory students demanded my evaluation. Google translate settled us on tyazhelaya ruka (heavy handed). But the orchestra and cast had been superb.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_433e

Before or after the performance? I don’t remember

Not to worry, what I have always imagined as the bona fide Soviet persona is alive and well in my hotel restaurant. The hotel itself is fabulous. It is steps from a central Metro and new enough to be wonderfully appointed but not too new that the architecture is silly. Best of all it is only $60 a night. Worn out from my walk I decide to give its highly recommended restaurant a try for dinner.

Cast of characters: Me; A waitress. Setting, the empty restaurant.

Me: Can I have the rosti please? And would it be possible to have it with an egg?

AW: Why?

Me: Well when I make rosti at home I usually have it with eggs.

AW: How many eggs? 2? 3?

Me: One would be fine.

AW You’ll have to pay extra (takes a few steps away then back). The rosti comes with mushrooms AND a salad, you don’t need an egg.

Me: Never mind then

AW: Do you want some bread?

Me: Maybe just a little

AW: You don’t need bread either.

Me: OK….

Me: I think I’ll have a glass of white wine. Is this Russian wine good?

AW: You should drink French wine.

Me: No I think I’d like to try the Russian wine actually.

AW: The French wine is better.

(The Russian wine turns out to be fine)….

AW: Dessert?

Me: Yes can I have the apple crumble? but can I have vanilla ice cream instead of the sorbet? I don’t like raspberry sorbet.

AW: That won’t be possible.

Me: OK then I won’t have it. I’ll have an éclair instead.

AW: With vanilla ice-cream?

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4429UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4431VrSWps4VRMW%1PEauMMIdg_thumb_4428B+uZ+MDvTbW45xQJF3YPjQ_thumb_4421

The annoying Tretyakov gallery where all the Russians who emulate other artists show their work. For a 5 point bonus identify who is being copied here (answers may be used more than once).

nkGpcZ8PTnqaF0IOmhH0dw_thumb_443a.jpg

By the shores of Gitchee Gumee?

bakCtnw9T3SMtiSNd3rVbA_thumb_4425

This one however was fab. Look at the light coming from behind the trees.

Disclaimer: I actually went to the wrong museum. There is a whole other Tretyakov with Contemporary art, which is what I was really after. Curse you Google maps!

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4417

But the museum of Decorative Art was a winner. Lenin with your cake anyone?

 

Ja budu borscht!*

*I’ll have the borscht!

The Moscow city government, anticipating the soccer World Cup, is providing me welcome help in deploying my 120 word Russian vocabulary. Beyond sporadic transliterations of essential signs, they are also encouraging businesses to be more English aware. It is a work in progress: While the SIM card shop is fully fluent “How nice to see a babushka smiling, ours are so grumpy”, the ticket booth at the local metro stop which cheerily announces ‘We speak English!’ seems to rely on a random loiterer rather than an actual employee to provide the service.

Down on the platforms the signs for which train goes where have not yet been attended to, so each word must be attacked syllable by painful syllable, while dodging the crowds. Luckily trains come literally every minute, so mistakes made are easily undone. And what trains! Or more accurately, what stations! Determined to distract the proletariat from their daily grind some inspired comrade (it may even have been Stalin himself) decreed every station be festooned in decorative excess. So Komsomolskaya is frothy French Baroque, Kievskaya is patriotic mosaics dripping with gilt and Pobedy Park  an art deco extravaganza. I spend a satisfying afternoon checking out the top 20 for the cost of a single ticket ($1) after the sun went in and the temperature dropped down below -20° again.

IMG_2931

Komsomolskaya

IMG_2967Kievskaya

IMG_2973

Park Pobedy

IMG_2938

Eyes on the Prize.

Yesterday morning’s blue skies had tout Moscow outside to celebrate (February prior clocked only 6 minutes of sunshine, 2 fewer than January), while all of military Russia – enormous commandos in arctic camouflage and no gloves and dumpy Cossacks in furry boots and big moustaches converged on Red Square to celebrate ‘Defense of the Fatherland’. Strangely and to my acute disappointment no-one, not even Katrina my nice young lady (NYL) guide for the ‘hidden Moscow’ walking tour had any idea (or interest in) where the military parade would be. It turned out to be a private party down at the tomb of the unknown soldier, however Putin was on hand to address a meager political rally. Evidently the attendees had been bussed in and they sloped off for ice-cream at the earliest opportunity (all the liquor stores had been closed).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4314

Putin is not managing to rally the faithful on this occasion.

Hidden Moscow was mostly electric substations designed to resemble libraries and concert theatres (another Stalinist brainwave) and culminated with an apartment building that had been moved several hundred meters to widen the road, thereby preventing insurrections being plotted in the erstwhile narrow lanes. It must be noted that the apartment building in question was more than 5 stories high and appeared to be built of solid stone. The move was accomplished clandestinely at night with the residents in bed and the utilities (including gas) still on. Apparently they woke up oblivious, having been purposely given the wrong date for the adventure.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4312

The apartment building in question. Don’t ask me how.

My afternoon ‘Communist Moscow’ walking tour also touted moving massive buildings (in this case City Hall) as one of the highlights of the soviet era in, but the true highlight of the tour itself had to be the NYL (Marina) presenting the line for McDonald’s at its opening in the 80s (at 30,000 at least 28,000 more than Putin pulled earlier) as evidence for how Russians have been tricked by the West (can’t disagree with that). Low points (of both the Soviets and the tour) being the Lubyanka prison – examined only from a distance; what sounded suspiciously like the beginning of Stalin’s rehabilitation “He won the war”, an uncomfortably robust defense of Putin “By keeping our borders safe he allows us to concentrate on our internal problems” and an all-to-familiar perspective on the US elections “Trump is better for us than Clinton would have been” – all rather eyebrow-raising from a history graduate student. She was so enthusiastic it seemed churlish to bring up Crimea, Ukraine and fake news. I was not at all surprised to be  directed to a faux Soviet style café afterwards, nor that the café was packed.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_42d4Apparently City Hall was moved 30 meters in 30 seconds (or was it 300 meters). In any case more haste less speed made a big crack in the top floor (since papered over).

c238P9NBTPOtCyGlhaujJA_thumb_42c5

Marina and her ‘trainee’ Sergey, who provided the raised eyebrow accompaniment to Marina’s more surprising analyses of Russian history. Note the worker thinking on the job. As Sergey pointed out, he wouldn’t have lasted long in the Stalinist era.

:Users:karinameiri:Pictures:Photos Library.photoslibrary:resources:proxies:derivatives:42:00:42c3:UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_42c3.jpgThe borscht nevertheless was delicious.

IMG_2889However I had the gulag museum to myself.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_432b

No lines today. Lenin, like Ho Chi Min last year, is being refurbished.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4322

2018: The Golden Road to Samarkand

This trip has been in my mind for more than 50 years. Fittingly then, it officially begins within a few miles of the freezing bedroom in which it was conceived by a restless teen obsessed with the doughty Victorian explorers and febrile poets, yet completely oblivious to the astonishing purpleness of their writing. Fittingly too, it is borne witness by my dear friend Pam, a partner in those teenage dreams, who herself has led a well-traveled life, but who, as a geographer, objects strongly to the notion that the Silk Road begins on a wind-swept beach in Northern England.

‘Away, for we are ready to a man!
Our camels sniff the evening and are glad.
Lead on, O Master of the Caravan,
Lead on the Merchant-Princes of Baghdad.

Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand’.

IMG_2734

Too many Banyan trees

March 24th 2017

I’m glad Phnom Penh has come at the end of my trip. I feel uneasy here and I’m not sure why. It is not a walking city even though the sidewalks are no more broken down than in Yangon, which was, and the traffic is no worse than in Hanoi, which could be, and I feel conspicuous even though no-one shows the slightest interest in me or my belongings. Indeed, my hotel guys have told me sternly that the curfew for walking back from dinner is 9pm. No, no danger they hasten to reassure me, it’s just (they look at each other helplessly) too quiet.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1bb5

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1ba8Fortunately, tuk tuks outnumber pedestrians by about 20:1 and one has already committed himself to preventing me from going anywhere on foot. Our first stop is PS21, the high school the Khmer Rouge appropriated as a torture facility.  The audio guide narrator invites me to find a seat in the shade. “I am one of only 7 survivors of this prison” he tells me. Then I learn that after the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they did in the whole second world war, Phnom Penh was overwhelmed by refugees. In 1975, the UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1c77Khmer Rouge threw everyone out and Phnom Penh became a ghost town. Many of the quarter of the population they murdered (chiefly ‘elites’ who were usually identified simply on the basis of bad eyesight) passed through PS21 en route to the more than 700 killing fields located throughout Cambodia.

“You are sitting under a banyan tree” my audio guide concludes. “It was planted here after PS21 was liberated. The Khmer people believe the shade of the banyan tree provides peace for restless souls”.  Going back, I notice how many young banyan trees are in the neighborhood around my hotel.

2kCtsuHQRPGmqUn+WMNVqQ_thumb_315d

gp9cX%ZcQWi4rR1Ml9T6jQ_thumb_30d1In pre- K. R. French Colonial days, Kep the nearest beach to Phnom Penh, was replete with iconic art deco villas. My quest to photograph them is several years too late. Only the mango trees and bougainvillea remain to drape over the iconic art deco garden walls. ‘Why no rubble?’ I ask my new trusty tuk tuk driver. ‘People from Phnom Penh want sell land for building’ he tells me. I have learned this is a euphemism for the Khmer Rouge who now pull all the economic strings. ‘No-one buying?’ I inquire and he smiles sardonically. In truth, it’s no surprise that restoring Kep to its former glory as the ‘St Tropez of South East Asia’ is overwhelming,

JIDR%PkLSOCi2bDPFJl7nA_thumb_1c8eBeyond the scattering of French-expat run guest houses (like the oddly named Raingsey Bungalows where I’m staying) the poverty is grinding. The cows, which are the bellwether of economic health, are mere sacks of skin and bone with barely any energy to stagger from one rubbish pile to the next; they are clearly not being fed in the dry season. Kep beach is in the South-East Asia ‘B’ league and there’s precisely 2 things to see (we are on the way to one of them: the Kampot pepper plantations). aJJiHIq6T5Ow1IJnCN+jiA_thumb_1c29

 

But he is stopping unexpectedly to point up into the hills.  “Khmer Rouge lived up there” he tells me. “And this is where they killed my father” he points to the other side of the road. “I was eight”. I struggle for an appropriate follow-up, and finally settle on asking who looked after him. “No-one. Sometimes neighbor gave food. Sometimes no food”. I ask him if he went to school and he looks at me like I’m insane. The lost generation.

E1zUOsDrSW68xGCyZOerlw_thumb_30cc

When I rejoin the conversation he’s in the middle of explaining his grand plan to be a tuk tuk tour guide. “First thing, I need lap-top for website” he shoots me a glance “Other lady, English like you, she gave me money for lap top”. “Then why you still need one?” I inquire. “Couldn’t buy” he says sadly “Daughter got sick and had to take to Phnom Penh hospital”. I decide to channel the Swiss anthropologist I met at the last hotel who spent the evening venting about the shortcomings of the abundance of NGOs that endorse repeatedly giving a man a fish. “Actually” I say “Lap top is not the first thing, first thing you need a plan – what your tour will be, why it will be special” he has heard this before. I relent a bit “If you think about it, I can help you put it into a website”. He has heard this too. “Problem is” he confesses “I can speak English OK, read and write, not so OK”. “So if I sent you an email” I ask “Can you read?” “Probably not” he says resignedly.

WJevcWLcR4C0SqoME65ZGw_thumb_1c90Next morning it is the turn of the young man who serves breakfast (since there are only 4 guests there is little more for him to do). “We won’t be here next year when you come back” he announces (Its not clear why he refers to himself in the plural, but I let it go). “Why not?” I inquire blandly “Will get new job as general manager of diamond mine” he tells me. I try to arrange my features to downplay any skepticism. “Great!” I say “Better than hotel” (the high season lasts only from November through February and the rainy (low) season with no guests at all for six months). “We just need computer experience” he tells me “So first thing, lap top for practice. We can read and write English. Fluent”. The tuk tuk guy must have tipped him off. A lap top will cost him $300 in dollars, probably more than he earns a month in the off season and he’s already told me he owes money to the bank for something else. Meanwhile, at least two thirds of the cars in Cambodia are huge SUVs that have been imported with 300% tax. Needless to say they have Phnom Penh plates.

Well folks, time to sign off. It seems like 20 dispatches are a good round number and tomorrow I start the trek back to West Roxbury. Looking forward to seeing you all soon for a South East Asian food party.

March 30th 2017

Onto Cambodia

March 18th 2017

The environs of Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat, UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1a2blook like nothing more than Iowa with palm trees. It is coming to the end of the dry season and the winter rice has been harvested but thankfully they have not yet begun to burn the fields. The overall sense is of ochre in the air until an unexpected downpour scrubs the dust from the trees and reveals a burst of fluorescent green.

Siem Reap, where all three pillars of South East Asian tourism are forced into uneasy proximity. Endless hordes of Chinese tour groups are disgorged from their buses then rapidly quarantined in the startlingly vast (and presumably opulent?) hotels that line the ugly road from the airport. They only appear after 11, when the heat is becoming its UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_31a9most blistering, and so we run into them only by accident. The backpackers have found nirvana in Pub Street and are taking its mantra ‘encouraging irresponsible drinking since 1998’ extremely seriously. They don’t seem to be here to go sightseeing, so we only meet them at night. The bourgeoisie are installed in discretely well-appointed hostelries like our ‘Pavilion D’Orient’ – a JqQ258yaRMGcuKOnn1tBDQ_thumb_31aftropical oasis with a huge infinity pool and plentiful cocktails – and are focused on avoiding eye contact under any circumstance. There are many, many more Americans, looking spruce in white and determined that every interaction with the hotel staff will be a significant cultural exchange. The Brits are suffering loudly from the heat, while the French would like it to be recognized that they were here first. The Japanese mutter to each other inscrutably and remarkably the German/Dutch axis manages to fade into the woodwork.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3291In any case, the full seventy-seven wonder-of-the-world-square-miles of the Angkor Wat archeological park deserves more than our usual lackadaisical approach to sightseeing, so we buckle down and make a plan that will be appropriate for the 3-day entrance ticket (the 7-day ticket must surely come with a PhD). On day one we will reconnoiter of the lay of the land by bike, on day two we will inspect the minor temples and only on day three will we get up close and personal to Angkor Wat itself. (Lest this be interpreted as slow going even for Schwobs, please know that the hotter than hell index is currently approaching a 15 on the Spinal Tap scale, and as we will find out in due course, we can only healthily be outside before 11 and after 4.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3270In the event, we are almost thwarted even before we get started: Two sequential delays in our flight connections the night before left us ravenously chowing down on delicious ham baguettes, while willfully ignoring the well-known maxim that the location with the least incentive to ensure its mayonnaise is up to snuff is the departure lounge café at any airport. Fortunately, almost the best thing about AW is the super hygienic toilets within dashing distance of each of the temples, no matter how remotely they are located and so we avert an ugly outcome.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3257Even so we barely make it round the ‘Grand Circuit’ even with the help of reasonably functional mountain bikes, 4 cans of fizzy sugared beverage and many liters of water. Afterwards we collapse, me in the pool Jim in a darkened room (shades of Italy) and we can barely stagger to happy hour that night. (As an aside our miscalculation of the effects of the weather has not been helped by the forecasts of lowering clouds and rain furnished by all the major news organizations, or by the population who are still dressed in winter clothes (hoodies have substituted for puffer jackets and natty flannel pajamas have surfaced as a style item).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_32a2Day 2, and our helpful hotel has insisted that we need a ‘sunrise over Angkor Wat’ experience even though it necessitates a seriously ungodly start at 4:45am. Mr. Karona our trusty (if sleep deprived) tuk-tuk driver indicates his deep desire for us to have a good time so we are moved to share our concerns that we will be elbow to elbow with a million other tourists whose hotels have had the same idea. Mr. K. takes the matter in hand, heads off in precisely the opposite direction to everyone else and finally deposits us at the UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_329ebottom of what seems to be the only significant hill in the area. He points out the way up and settles down for a nap. We finally reach the ruined temple at the top in the pitch dark, and completely alone (fortunately, Jim didn’t forget his cell phone) and right on cue dawn breaks over the plain and Angkor Wat in the distance. The sun does rises in its own good time but not surprisingly we are not at the correct angle to UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1a9dreproduce the iconic ‘sunrise over Angkor Wat’ picture beloved by Google Images, so we refer you to that source. Jim feels he has earned the breakfast picnic the hotel has also thoughtfully provided, but I still need to be prepared for a dash, so I donate mine to Mr. K. (by now much refreshed) and he eats it happily as we set off to explore the fantastic Temple of Ta Prom, of Lara Croft fame.

ubebKFiASvWS+GajSq45cA_thumb_1aea

Day 3 of the Angkor Wat marathon also does not disappoint. Thanks to due diligence the day before at the Museum we feel very confident with the Hindu deities, but we are completely thrown by how much the outside of AW resembles an English Stately home – Chatsworth or Blenheim maybe. All that’s missing is a fountain of some description at the front. We start with the outside galleries with their massive bas-relief narratives of UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3225famous battles between deities as well as the among the ancient Khmer and their foes. Within about 5 minutes and despite having more than one erudite guide book we can’t remember the difference between the bird deity and the goose deity, who has 4 arms, 8 arms or 20 arms and whether the monkeys are good or bad. Still it is all fantastically executed and we find that if we discretely glom onto various tour guides we eventually get it straight. E3forc4gQ8+0oweWG8tNQg_thumb_3262It takes so long that when we finally emerge into the unwelcome sunshine the Chinese have appeared and are energetically photographing each other in every available nook and cranny. Fortunately, it is a religious holiday so we do not have to fight them to climb up the central towers which are blocked by marching grannies with bouquets of lotus blossoms (remember them?). Instead we clamber to the top of a side tower seriously lacking in selfie opportunities, so when we get to the top we have it to ourselves.

Jim departs for Bangkok and I set off for the last stage of the trip

UWc1Jr93R3KiXe1mSIICDQ_thumb_1b8e

Laos: Indochine rampant!

March 15th 2017

Luang Prabang! Let’s hear it for the redoubtable French who, happening on a dinky little fishing village at the confluence of three rivers (the Mekong being one, the other two being unpronounceable) re-imagined it a glorious monument to Indochine architecture, or at least a perfectly lovely little riverside town with stunning photo-ops on every corner.VxfUWI+NR4uSOmd064tsGA_thumb_3367 Let’s also hear it for the Lao who, when the French were ‘encouraged’ to leave in the 1950s didn’t immediately sashay into town with dire paint and garish fairy lights, but evidently tiptoed away, quietly locking the doors, allowing the dust to settle on the gramophone in the bar, the bougainvillea to drape itself with increasing exuberance everywhere and the bromeliads to colonize every possible vertical surface.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_195c Let’s finally hear it for our regional fairy godmother UNESCO, who came bustling into town forcing the dust to be dusted, the drains to be fixed, the internet to be available and the gramophones to be wound up so we can all enjoy the party. Here we are then, at the wonderful Maison Dalabua, where the rooms are fetchingly distributed among UNESCO-monitored lily ponds, chock a block with all the tropical horticulture a heart could desire (plus orchids), a gourmet restaurant within spitting distance and a swimming pool right off our terrace, and all for $40 a night. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1a56For unlike the Vietnamese who confront the same opportunity by charging $2 for dinner, but then need to feed 100 to make ends meet, the canny Lao charge $20 and thus only need to feed 10, plus the rancid backpackers are frozen out (they are bitter and try to retaliate by spreading the canard that Luang Prabang has become a theme park; to which we say Pshaw! there’s a reason we vacation in the Marais and not the Banlieu). So not only does everyone smell better and are better fed, but we are all happy and the Lao can slope off early to finish converting their bamboo huts into French colonial facsimiles, which is what everyone was doing during our bike ride around the countryside yesterday.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_19a2Yesterday has made it clear that venturing much further afield will not be feasible by road (only one road is paved and the rest are so pitted and stony it took us 2 hours to cycle 5 kilometers on our horrible hotel bikes), so we have engaged the cheery Mr. Phet. Mr. Phet does not require a French colonial bungalow because together with his wife and son, he lives on the boat we have hired for the day. Fortunately for us UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_32e5they are both away (she to teach high school, Phet Jr. to advance his primary education) and so he and his home are at our disposal. Our goal is the Buddha caves a convenient 2-hour trip up the Mekong (only 1 hour on return since we don’t have to fight the current). En route Mr. Phet not only introduces us to some of the le vrai Lao in the riverside villages but also delivers a sardonic primer on Laotian politics over his right shoulder (we inadvertently opened the floodgates by inquiring who could afford to build the staggeringly vast riverside palaises on the Luang Prabang outskirts). Not only are we treated to a discourse on the entire spectrum of government graft, but we learn that the omnipresent ticket collectors enjoy patronage positions uncannily like those on the Mass. Pike. Plus ça change.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_32d8Mr. Phet also tells us that he was a Buddhist monk for 4 years, and finally I get the chance to put my observations of monks in all 4 SE Asian countries into context: I have identified 2 distinct flavors – the professionals look stern, even austere. Unless they are shopping for ‘Buddhist monk gift sets’ (to be found in all the major Thai malls and providing all sorts of laundry and personal hygiene products done out in a fetching shade of saffron) they never laugh. Professional Buddhist monks often seem to be praying (In Burma they are always praying, but there again so is everyone else, particularly the flag-men on the railway, which was especially disconcerting at the viaduct and going down the mountain). In contrast, the 2nd flavor – teenage/milenials – are most likely to be checking iXPickgJQ3uAcxIq5Mg6Ww_thumb_1989Facebook on their cell phones; the thought of prayer has clearly never entered their minds. Mr. Phet tells us that parents who either can’t afford to pay for education or prefer to invest their resources elsewhere can rid themselves of their obnoxious teenage dude offspring for a few years by putting them in the monastery (opportunities for mean girl daughters also exist but they are less abundant). It occurs to me that we might be in a different place now if Mrs. Trump (mère) had had the opportunity to shave her son’s head dress him up in a silly orange sheet and have him get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go and beg for his food in his bare feet. As SE Asia seems to prove, four years of that every day is entirely sufficient to rout out any dude-like tendencies in any male, alpha or otherwise.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1983

Hoi An does seaside right!

March 10th 2017

What a marvelous way to wind down this epic trip to Vietnam with a full five days in Hoi An. Sure its heaving with tourists, but so few are American (although regrettably they do tend to punch above their weight like the guy in the restaurant tonight loudly interrogating the waitress about how she makes the ice. Of course, she says ‘I buy it from the store’ so he’s none the wiser whether the old lady in the kitchen preparing the iced tea is also slicing up the chickens, which is what he really needs to know). The rest (the usual suspects of French, Germans and some spectacularly unlovely Brits) hardly count.

X8sD7mT3TKau6K0esRnmRw_thumb_1904Anyway, what’s not to like? At one end of the road, we have the charming old port, replete with street upon street of achingly beautiful ochre-washed and bougainvillea draped Chinese and Japanese merchant houses (still doing a roaring trade but sternly monitored by UNESCO to make sure the outsides, at least, stay firmly rooted in the 18th century). When dusk starts UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3419to fall the thousands of silk lanterns strung between them and wafting gently to and fro in the welcome breeze are delicately illuminated, it’s not surprising Hoi An is called (or should be at least) city of a million selfies. In fact, it seems to specialize in festivity, not only the UNESCO area is adorned gaily, but as the distance increases the lanterns are replaced by hammer and sickle bunting. And Woman’s Day is huge: all the little girls sporting pink balloons, their millenial sisters sporting pink roses, cocktails half price at the restaurants (lady only) and the food stalls in the market repurposed as a karaoke bar (also lady only and packed to the gills).

%6Nwn6pMS9WSuXH%Z0Pn8w_thumb_33a3UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1803
At the other end of the road, a mere 4km bike ride away, we have the deliciously warm ocean and silver sand beach of An Bang, organized efficiently as only the Vietnamese can with ample loungers, bamboo umbrellas and even cheaper ($2) cocktails. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1952Located conveniently in between them the ‘Golden Bell Homestay’, yet another $20 find, has provided me with a huge room, balcony and bathtub and Snickers in the minibar at half the price of home (the wine unfortunately is twice the price but its Vietnamese so there’s no temptation to try it).

To top it all off Hoi An is street food central for Vietnam (to be fair everywhere else I’ve been, with the sole exception of Ninh Bin, has made the same claim, BuXCbKVCQn+ez2t2bRPApQ_thumb_3464but with much less justification IMHO). So, as soon as the lanterns light up out pop a veritable grandma’s army with their carts, red plastic stools and the wherewithal to rustle up their specialité de maison in a flash. Each cart offers only one dish, so depending on how assiduous one wants to be about selecting who to patronize, a full dinner can entail a significant trek from first course to last. Unlike their sons and daughters who staff the actual restaurants and who always ask me in tones of disapproval mingled with pity ‘You came alone?’ grandmas entirely support my solo wanderings and are always insisting I sit in the seat of honor next to the stove so they can slap extra stuff on my plate.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_33fdDespite all evidence to the contrary It is winter in Hoi An. I find this out when I ask the driver Golden Bell has helpfully sent to pick me up from the train station, why most of the motorcyclists are wearing one, and often two, puffer jackets. ‘But it’s not cold’ I argue (in fact it’s about 90° and we have the air conditioner on). ‘But it was this morning’ he says, ‘very cold’. I look it up later; the minimum temperature was 70°C. This cognitive dissonance is particularly disconcerting on An Bang beach where the old ladies who set up the loungers under the bamboo umbrellas, bring round fresh coconuts, pineapples and mangoes and serve lunch and cocktails are bundled up not only in several hoodies and flannel pajama trousers but also thick scarves and for some unknown reason, face masks. Other An Bang old ladies not employed in the hospitality business are also at the beach, similarly attired gazing with horror at the skimpily clad 20 somethings willing not only to expose themselves to the elements but also throw themselves willy-nilly into the ocean. It is clear they find this behavior both totally inexplicable and highly amusing. Remarkably enough the only local men around are the old guy on crutches who sells the English language Vietnamese paper for the exorbitant price of a 3-course meal ($2) and another with what looks like cerebral palsy who brings the same packet of peanuts around every couple of hours. There are no obnoxious young dudes (in fact I have literally yet to see one in the whole of Vietnam), which the 20 somethings appreciate deeply. I spend a restorative 3 days at the beach and emerge ready for the next chapter in Laos and Cambodia with Jim. I am trying to discourage him from bringing his winter jacket, but who knows, he might fit right in.

AkgITLDrSXm8mU4JW+L1Ww_thumb_33b8It seems highly appropriate to sign off from Vietnam with yet another postal anecdote. Fortunately, the 5-word rule is not in operation and I can repeat the conversation verbatim. Characters: Me; Ching the nice young lady who runs the Golden Bell and DD a doughty denizen of Vietnam Mail.

Ch: Going out? Want bike?

Me: Yes please, I’m going to the post office.

Ch: Why?

Me: Because I bought some souvenirs and I thought I’d mail them home rather than carry them around.

Ch: But why going to post office?

Me: Because I bought some souvenirs and I thought I’d mail them home rather than carry them around.

Ch: No but why going…

Me: Because I bought…..

Ch: No, no, no, no need going (she picks up the phone and makes a rapid-fire phone call then tells me: ‘Sit there, 5 minutes’).

In seven minutes a little tuk tuk motorbike arrives, driven by the DD. He is carrying a cardboard box and a big shoulder bag that contains: 2 rolls of packing tape (one spare), a roll of official Vietnam Mail Tape, a big pair of scissors and a scale. Within 5 minutes he has: weighed my things, packed them expertly in the box, cut the box down to a better size, taped it up, used the second roll of tape when the first one ran out, finished off with official VM tape, filled in the customs forms, told me how to fill in my part of the customs forms, stamped everything, given me a receipt for web tracking, charged me the same price I would have paid if I’d schlepped it all the way to the post office, and left with my package. I am flabbergasted. And if that isn’t enough, apparently, my package from Myanmar mail arrived in Boston last week.

The West is over folks.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_18f7

A bend in the Perfume River

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_184aMarch 3rd 2017

The Perfume River splits Hue, that city of ghosts, in two. On the north bank slumbers the vast and crumbling citadel, once home to the whole slew of Nguyen dynasty emperors who labored mightily to reimagine and then reconstruct Vietnam as a society that could have a toehold in the 19th century, but then completely lost the plot barely 100 years later. On the south bank sits their many and varied tombs, and not far away from the well-worn route tourists beat between them, thousands and thousands of other anonymous graves nestled into the forests that line the river banks, a jungle tribute to ‘Midnight in the Garden’.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_182bVietnam, like Turkey, has a complicated relationship with its pre-revolution history. Certainly, when I show up at the citadel rising from the mist at the hardly bright and early hour of 11, there are a smattering of Western tourists and no Vietnamese except for the bouncy elderly gentleman who interrupts as I convene with Lonely Planet.  ‘I’m from Finland’ he announces turning the inevitable conversational opening gambit on its head ‘don’t you believe me?’ he proffers his passport as proof. I allow that I am a bit surprised, but unusually he wants to talk history not origins. ‘I have to say those old emperors did a pretty good job, not like the current crowd who’ve turned a blind eye to the Chinese occupation of the north again’. Barely have I wrapped my head around all this tantalizing new information than he has bounced onward. But he’s right about the emperors: Later I find a gaggle of village folk and their animated guide processing down the cloister that lays out the imperial accomplishments in order. They nod approvingly to learn how the first handful (they only reigned for about 20 years each, who knows why) knocked Vietnam into shape with provinces, ministries, a civil service, standardized education and everything else a naturally industrious people needs to chug along efficiently. They have not yet got to the end whereUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_188a the surprisingly candid blurb labels the last emperor who squandered it all as a hedonist with a weak character. After 4 hours peeling the citadel apart like a set of Matryoshka dolls, onto the promising display of shot-up fighter planes front and center in the history museum courtyard. As for the museum itself, its padlock is rusty and it may have never, ever been open. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3456

Meanwhile the population of Hue reconciles themselves to their history-free existence with ice-cream on the far bank of the Perfume River.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_18aeThere comes a point in every bike ride at which a crisis of confidence necessitates asking directions. This is particularly true for those undertaken without maps. Although the Emperors’ tombs (my goal for today) LQz+3zWhSQSd9SxYUuuRYQ_thumb_18baare well visited, tourists go with guides, so the English map of Hue resolutely ends at the city limits, with only an unhelpful arrow indicating ‘to the tombs’ disappearing into the bottom margin. Sadly, at the same time the old man I rouse from his hammock doze is pointing me in the right direction (‘15 kilometer’ he says firmly and he’s spot on, unlike Burma where ‘15 kilometer’ can mean anything, but always more than 25) I am both realizing that besides gears the bike is also lacking functional brakes (Travelfish, a more practical guide to SE Asia than LP has already warned me that ‘there are no decent bikes in Hue’ so this is no great surprise) as well as recollecting that LP has described the tombs as having a spectacular setting in a forest in the mountains. The upshot is that by the time I arrive it is noon and 35°C and I am so dehydrated that the prospect of tackling the ride in reverse seems insurmountable.

 

But wait, shouldn’t I be able to minimize the pain if I can descend to the river and follow the one lane roads that sureUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_344cly hug it? More helpful directions later I am on the right track and descending gradually through the forest when I spot a path off to the left marked by the official Vietnamese sign for ‘Point of Interest’. It is closed by a chain, so I must walk to the top where a vast bend in the Perfume River opens out below me  – and also the five or six bunkers with their gun slits perfectly positioned in each direction. They are noticeably undamaged. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_17ccThere is no-one at all around yet the echoes of the past are palpable. Unusually I feel the need to leave in a hurry. As I continue on my way I am overtaken from time to time by older men who dismount from their motorbikes ahead of me. As I in turn pass them I see they are paying respects to their ancestors (or siblings) lying in the thousands of tombs that crowd out the forest on either side of the road for miles and miles.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3449