July 1, 2005 – News from Hong Kong
Well, we made it. The 24 hours of time it took to fly really beat us, and by the time we got to hour tiny hotel room, we were so tired so we just went to bed. We're up and about now, and at the moment are having ice teas on the top of Victoria Peak with great views of the city of Hong Kong. We went through Hong Kong park, and visited their huge gardens and bird houses, which were really, really nice. It was like being in the jungle.
It sucked last night because it was raining, and it was a bit hard finding the Wang Fat Hotel in the Causeway Bay area.
We'll get another good night sleep tonight, and we'll be fine dealing with the 12 hour time difference. Its so humid now, but the city is very clean and organized.
If I can find a better internet cafe later, I'll download some videos and pictures for you to look at. All is well, the place is very safe. We plan on staying in Hong Kong until July 5th, and then move on into mainland China.
We will talk very soon,
John & Cindy
July 1, 2005 – Hong Kong
The first day of our trip consisted of 26 hours of traveling - flights from Boston to Toronto to Vancouver, and then on to Hong Kong. And then an hour bus ride into the city's heart to find our hotel in a tropical rain - The Wang Fat Hotel - a tiny, damp, dump.
Our second day was really mixed in with our first day, and all we did was sleep the night through. So today - our third - is our first day that we are up and about and exploring. Hong Kong is a massive, massive city - like New York City, just flipped upside down and populated with Asians and enormous neon advertisements.
We saw a parade celebrating the 1997 turnover of Hong Kong from British rule into the hands of the Chinese, then we road the subway from the Causeway Bay area to an area called Admiralty. We went through the Hong Kong park's gardens and excellent bird houses, then took a tram ride to the top of Victoria Peak for excellent views of Hong Kong and Kowloon and mountains in the distance.
Its extremely humid here, and pouring rain at the moment. Well, for now, back to my peanut and orange slices for lunch.
I'll attach some videos and pictures later for you all to see.
Over and out,
July 2, 2005 - Hong Kong
If it weren't for our musty, dark, depressing room at the Wang Fat Hotel, our stay in Hong Kong would be perfect. The room could not be less inviting or accomodating. It truly sucks.
Anyways, the humidity is low today, and the skies are sunny and clear. We took the famous Star Ferry from Hong Kong across the harbor to Kowloon, which offers excellent views of Hong Kong's skyline and all the boats in the harbor.
Earlier in the morning we could see many people exercising in the city's parks, doing all kinds stretches and slow movements - some old ladies and men even had swords.
We visited the Hong Kong Museum of Art too.
A few vendors bothered us, trying to get us to look at their collections of junk - and of course they were not Chinese - they were Arabs. Capitalism has gone insane here, and for the most part the local population is not needy and overly persuasive in the selling tactics. It figures - just like in Cairo and Istanbul - that the only people to actually grab you by the arm and try to cheat you and force you to buy junk are Arabs. Just a little something I noticed.
Anyways, I'm out of here.
July 3, 2005 – Day 5: Hong Kong (Lamma Island)
Each morning I've been getting up slightly earlier than Cindy for one reason - to trick Cindy into thinking that the Wang Fat Hotel is not as bad as it truly is. How? By turning the lights on quickly, and collecting the several large insects that are busy exploring the moist floor. This morning I picked up an interesting speciman - a shiny blue/green creature not unlike an ant, but instead of three segments it had four, and was about five times larger than a standard carpenter ant. With toilet paper I picked it up, and was startled when it started vibrating like a cellphone on silent ring. I tossed it into the toilet, and was disgusted for about an hour afterwards. This is why we must leave the Wang Fat Hotel as soon as possible.
We tried to get a ferry ride to Macau, but since it was too expensive to do so, we randomly took another ferry ride to a small island south of Hong Kong called Lamma Island - and we were pleasantly surprised. So surprised that we decided to book another room and avoid Wang Fat at all costs - even though we are already paying for it.
Lamma Island is very small - with no cars allowed. It is amazing that it is only 40 minutes from the city. It has nothing but beaches, and is the complete opposite of Hong Kong's insane bustle. If you can imagine a small isolated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean - that is what Lamma Island is. Low paced. Sunny. A place that can bring you out of any depression - including one so deep as inflicted by the Wang Fat Hotel. It is very beautiful and peaceful here, with palm trees waving in the breeze.
Anyways, we are very happy here, and unfortunately will be going back to Hong Kong tomorrow evening so we can pick up our train tickets to mainland China for July 6th.
All is well. Be good.
John & Cindy
July 4, 2005 – Day 6: Lamma Island - Hong Kong
Apparently, the pictures that I sent out recently did not come through for several of you. I don't have time now, but I will send the same ones again, along with some new ones.
Having no change of clothes, no soap, no shampoo, no deoderant or toothpaste, has created a little discomfort for us. As I said, we did not plan on spending a night in Lamma Island, but decided to do so since it is so nice here. But as a price, all of our stuff was still in the dreaded Wang Fat's.
We woke up early this morning and took an hour hike along Lamma's isolated, mountainous, jungle-like coast. All kinds of weird birds and bugs buzzed around us and made sounds that I never heard in the woods back in Boston. There are butterflies everywhere - everywhere. It was so humid, more than I have ever felt before. Both of us were completely soaked with sweat - and having no soap or deoderant - we tried our best to stay away from each other.
During World War 2 the Japanese were dug in here as defense forces to protect occupied Hong Kong, so in certain areas you could see where they had been in trenches over 60 years ago.
In the village of Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island we roamed around, had lunch, and took the ferry back to Hong Kong. Lots of dogs on Lamma too - unlike in Mainland China, eating cats and dogs is illegal. Its interesting how on Lamma you feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere, in some primitive village, but within 30 minutes you can be surrounded by 10 million people and buildings a quarter mile high.
Anyways, we feel great because we're clean. See ya.
John & Cindy
July 5, 2005 – Day 7: Hong Kong & Kowloon
Today is our last full day in Hong Kong - thankfully. We're becoming tired of this city, and look forward to taking our train to Guilin, China tomorrow. We planned on going to the Space Museum in Kowloon, but since it was closed we ended up going to the Science Museum.
Kowloon is just north of Hong Kong Island, and to get there you can either take the subway or the Star Ferry - we chose the ferry - better views. Nathan Road is the main street in Kowloon, and surprisingly there were many Muslims there for Bangladesh and Indonesia, and a few Arabs. They are everywhere trying to sell leather jackets - what a great idea in 95 degree weather with 90% humidity.
The Museum, as was the library, is packed with young students - packed. You can tell why China and Asia is a growing power in the world - because they value education. Go to the Boston Public Library and you'll see relatively few teenagers.
Well, we're going to go explore the museum, and stay out of the heat.
No diarhea yet, unfortunately. No food poisoning yet. So all is well. And there were no bugs at Wang Fat's this morning.
Starbucks. McDonald's. They bring your food and drinks to you there, and take away your trash trays.
Cindy bought a clay figure from a old Chinese man who was around 120 years old. At first I thought he had some type of skin disorder on his bald head, or maybe part of his brain was hanging out, but it was just where he kept the moist clay that he was using for his sculptures.
July 5, 2005 – No spitting/laying down
Everywhere we've been in Hong Kong and the surrounding areas there are signs that say "No Spitting". From what I've read, the Chinese have a nasty habit of spitting - and this is the government's way of reforming the society. China's capital, Beijing, is looking to host the 2008 Olympics, and they want to modernize and impress the world - and having 1.3 billion people spitting all over the place would not flatter too many people.
Also, you apparently can not lay down in public - so it seems. We were resting on a park bench, and Cindy put her feet up on the bench and put her head in my lap, and instantly a police officer came over and politely motioned for us to sit up straight. We thought that he meant for us not to put our feet on the bench, so she put her feet onto the ground but kept her head on my leg. Within a few minutes the same cop came over with less patience than before and motioned for us to sit up straight. Its not all that important if you can't lay down on a bench, but the small things like this hint at the larger freedoms that the people here must not enjoy as we do in America.
Off to Wang Fat's.
Cindy & John
July 9, 2005 – Guilin, China
Its been a few days since I last wrote to you, but thats only because it was difficult to find decent internet service here in Guilin. Chinese internet service, from what we've seen, is utter garbage.
Anyways, a few days ago we hopped on a 2-hour train from Hong Kong across the Chinese border to Guangzhou - the third largest city in China - and that's huge. The train was wonderful, modern, and very clean. We were so happy with the train, but that joy was shattered when we arrived in Guangzhou station.
At home people talk about how China is growing, that China is becoming a strong rival to the United States - "China this", and "China that", but if Guangzhou station represents China, then its nothing more than a giant, 3rd world nation full of peasants and beggars. I've been to Egypt and Uzbekistan, and Guangzhou was no different. People were herded like cattle from place to place. Police officers were not helpful - if anything, they were "anti-helpful", if there is such a word. The station was dark, filled with crying babies and cigarette smoke, and as soon as any gate opened, people rushed to it as if the place was in flames. Like I said - 3rd world. So if it offers any comfort to people that fear China as an economic rival to the United States, in my opinion, fear not - its going to take a heck of a lot to bring this place into the 21st century, no matter what you hear on the 5 o'clock news on ABC.
The overnight, 13 hour train from Guangzhou to Guilin, was rather nice, though. Cindy and I had the top bunks in a 6 bed "doorless" room, and we were also happy to be next to two young British girls. We ate in the dining car with them, and had a reasonably comfortable journey.
We arrived in Guilin in the early morning, and the countryside looked like what I imagine Vietnam looking like - dark green rice paddies being farmed by old men and women wearing those big straw hats, oxen wading in muddy water, and huge, sharp, green mountainson the horizon.
Our hotel was great - even if it was not compared to the disgrace of Wang Fat's. Guilin is a small city, easily walkable from end to end. And in every direction you look, mountains that are just like camel humps are on the horizon. The mountains look fake, like out of some cartoon. Some of them look like short cigars, or like I said, camel humps. Really weird and nice to look at. There are bicycles and motorcyles everywhere. Hong Kong was a World Class city, Guilin is what you all imagine China being like.
The day after tomorrow we leave for Xi'an by train (28 hours), and then to Beijing.
Over and Out,
John & Cindy
July 10, 2005 – Guilin, China
Its funny how its only been twelve days since I've been home. Twelve days in Cubeworld is nothing more than an instant, barely enough time to complete and download an EMOR report, but twelve days in China seems to be a good amount of time. When I think about how in a month we'll be in Finland, it seems like an enternity away - enough time to watch new species evolve and succumb to extinction, but back home a month would be nothing.
Anyways, I may have been wrong with my view of China yesterday. Guangzhou's dreadful train station may have given me a very morbid introduction to Mainland China. China is by no means as comfortable or as organized as the United States, but it is by no means a 3rd world nation. Its developing the the right direction.
The people here in Guilin live decent lives. They go out wearing fancy clothes. They eat in clean, attractive restaurants. The teenagers where Nike sneakers and have IPODS and tiny cell phones. They basically have everything we have, but perhaps with a little more struggle - at least here in this city. But I imagine things in Xi'am and Beijing will be similar.
There are many differences though, too. There is no organization on the roads, mopeds and motorcyles weave in and out of rushing traffic. Pedestrians are risking their lives when they cross a street - no car will ever give way. They smoke vigorously in "no smoking" areas. There are children beggars, who nag and nag and nag you to buy plastic roses from them. Tourists are preyed on and cheated. They spit on the ground constantly - even the women sometimes - after gagging and making grotesque sounds.
If I had to sum up in one word what the people are China are like, it would be "inconsiderate". For example, we went to a theater show last night, and all during the show the people - Chinese people - were constantly talking, very, very loudly. They rarely clapped at the end of a performence. And most left during the show, talking and spitting on the way out. The only people who clapped and stayed the entire length were the white tourists from America and Europe, who most likely paid double what their Chinese counterparts paid. Its not a consious inconsideration, I don't think. Because they are good people - they help when you ask and they always offer a smile. Its just that it seems to me that they are completely oblivious to the idea of considering the feelings and comforts of others - whether it be on the road or in the theater. Maybe its because they have such an enormous population - that little things that we appreciate are trivial - or maybe its from living under decades of communism - maybe both. You can figure it out.
Anyways, Cindy and I are in Guilin for one more night, then thankfully tomorrow morning we're leaving here. By ferry in the morning we are going down the Li River to the small, lazy town of Yangshuo for three days, then off for a very long train ride (neither one of us are looking forward to listening to 28 hours of spitting) to Xi'an, and then off to Beijing later next week.
All is well.
John & Cindy
July 11, 2005 – Experiences in China
Well, my friends, it looks like I'm not going to be able to share any photos or videos with you until I leave China. The internet service here is ridiculously slow, and I will not go into how many hours I have wasted in front of one of these computers watching the "attaching file" bar go on and on forever without making any progress whatsoever. I may try again in Beijing, in the hopes that the capital city will offer a more modern internet service, but if not, it probably won't be until we reach Russia that you will see any pictures of my trip.
Anyways, we're in Yangshuo now, but a few interesting things have happened in the past few days.
During dinner a few nights ago in Guilin, we were given far too much food - huge bowls of rice and vegetables and a potota-like substance. Four people could not finish it. I hated wasting all the food - even though it cost us less than $8 - so I offered a few of the untouched plates to a table of Chinese men next to us. The accepted my offer with nods and smiles, and suddenly, I was bombarded with "hello" after "hello", and was shoved shot glass after shot glass of a clear, vodka-like liquor. There were only four men at the table, but within seconds men had come out of the restaurant with cameras, and a few that were walking by stopped to say "hello", and do a shot with me. I did about four shots within three minutes, all the while flashes from cameras were going off on all sides of me. I felt like some kind of celebrity. It was an unexpected, yet great experience. I have no idea why my offering of a bowl of rice and tasteless potatos excited these men so much.
And earlier today, when we first arrived by river boat in Yangshuo, several groups of five or six grammer-school aged kids stopped us in the cobbled streets with small notebooks in hand. "Please, Sir, may I have name? My name is Ping." We took the notebooks from their hands and scribbled our names and where we were from. Names like Mike, and Adam, and Theresa filled the book, all from places like America, New Zealand, and Australia. "America. Very good place. My dream to go." I'm not sure why they wanted our first names, but most of them took pictures of us afterwards. "Do you like NBA? I love this, NBA." One said. "Spiderman is a very good man." Said another. This went on several times, on and off throughout the day.
In our news we hear so much bad publicity about our great nation, America - about how much this nation or that nation hates or dislikes us, but when it really comes down to it, I think the world loves us. Here, in the former Communistic state of Red China, you can see American flags in restaurants, our music blaring from radios, teenagers - and adults - wearing New York Yankees' hats and shirts. I find it very flattering. When you say that you are from America, a big smile and "Ah, America, very good. I dream to go. I like America." is the answer. They dislike us only because they love us - maybe in the way some kids grow up wanting a chance to embarass their beloved older brother. Make any sense?
Over and out
John & Cindy
July 11, 2005 – Yangshuo, China
Early this morning we took a four-hour ferry ride south from Guilin, down the Li River to the tiny town of Yangshuo. This particular area in China is said to be the most scenic, unique, and beautiful landscape in the nation, with people from both within China and all over the world coming to see.
And it was amazing. The Li River winds down slowly between huge mountains that are in the shapes of camel humps and the most exaggerated of domes - in most areas it is a complete vertical cliff straight down to the water, and only at the very top of the peaks does it suddenly round off into perfect oval tops. Its so odd to see. And these peaks are everywhere across the horizon. Every so often there may be a break in the mountains where they may be a delta, and in these areas we saw herds of water buffalo neck deep in water, and fishermen on the shore fishing from floating little huts - the stereotypical image of Vietnam. Some of the more gutsy fishermen rode out on their bamboo rafts (just 4 or 5 large bamboo shafts tied together with rope) towards our large ferry boat, and actually tied on to it as we continued moving to sell all kinds of crafts and carved stones. "Hello! Hello! Hello!" They repeated, barefoot, from below as they held up different items. One even climbed the side of our boat to hand over some wooden art piece to a woman on board. It was an interesting experience.
We arrived in the small, sleepy town of Yangshou in the early afternoon, and got a relatively decent room for about $7. We'll be here for two nights. There was a duck behind the counter at the hotel that sat on a pillow quacking. After we napped, and hour later he was in a pot boiling away. Poor fellow.
John & Cindy
July 12, 2005 – Yangshuo, China
This morning, after having disgusting onion-flavored orange juice and "pancakes" that were nothing more than paper-thin tortillas, we went for a four-hour bicycle ride through the countryside.
I have not been on a bike for at least two years, so it felt awkward at first - and having to deal with Chinese roads did not make things easier. Yangshuo is a very small town - nothing compared to Hong Kong or even Guilin - but riding a bicycle through its streets is no easy task. We were led by a young girl as buses and trucks with their engines showing whizzed by blowing their horns - most of the fan belts seemed loose and I thought that it was only a matter of time until one flew off and knocked me off my bike. Mopeds and other bikes were weaving in and out between us. And all the while dogs with long, worn-out nipples ran beside us. I actually ran into a small moped's front wheel while I was pointing out to Cindy a motorcycle that had been cut in half and welded to a pick-up truck's bed.
After about 15 minutes of this we left Yangshuo behind and entered the rural countryside. The mountains surrounded us. We pulled down a gravel/dirt road, and entered small farming villages that probably looked the same 500 years ago. Some of the roofs were made of straw, and some didn't even have doors. As we went by on our bikes, bouncing off boulders and dodging the occasional 140 year old man carrying baskets of fruit, you could see large familes inside all sitting on the ground in the darkness doing apparently nothing. And the smell of urine and excremate is always in your nose - human and animal.
A lot of the older people stopped us and gestered for us to take pictures of them - for a price of course. An ancient men holding a stick over his shoulder with a cage on the end containing a live chicken, held up two fingers, meaning he wanted 2 yuan for a picture (about 20 cents). I help up one finger, and he said "No. No. No." - and held up two fingers again. I started to put my camera away, and he said "Ok. Ok. Ok.", and held up one finger. So I took a picture. Bargaining is all part of the expereince here. If the price is 50 yuan, you offer 25, they'll probably say no, but walk away and they'll say "Ok. Ok. Ok."
There were lots of children waiting under the shades of trees, all alone. Our guide said that they are waiting for their mother to return from the fields. Some of the little ones were naked. I took a picture of them, and in return all they wanted were they empty water bottles we had with us.
Lots of water buffalo being led around by old men, and lots, and lots, and lots of rice paddies. These people work hard, and are dirt poor - dirt poor. All day in the scorching sun, carrying heavy weight, barefoot. Its a hard life. The idea of poverty back home is a completely different defination of what it is here. Poverty back home would be luxury here. I can not imagine anywhere in the United States of America where people are even remotely near the level of poverty the people who work the rice fields in China are. And there is no chance of opportunity for these people here either - that's their life as it has always been, and how it will always be. And to think that China is not considered a poor country globally - I can not even begin to imagine what life for a peasant in Sudan or Congo is like - utter poverty. Although its always hard for someone to do - no one in the United States truly has anything to complain about when put into perspective to how most people in the world live.
It was a hot day, both Cindy and I were completely soaked with sweat. And strange enough, our guide, Sophie, did not drop one bead of sweat. I was honestly drenched, and had drank at least 2 liters of water. Sophie didn't have one drop to drink. I don't understand. When you see Westerners walking around their shirts are always soaked here, and beads of sweat dot their forehead - but the locals are dry and comfortable as can be.
At one point the trail came to a river, and we had to hire a bamboo boatsmen to take us and our bikes across.
Anyways, we're leaving Yangshuo tomorrow afternoon and are taking a bus back to Guilin. We have to take a 5:30PM train to Xi'an - a 28 hour ride. We have a bed compartment, so we'll be fine. I probably won't be able to write again until sometime Friday.
John & Cindy
July 15, 2005 – Day 16 & 17: Train to Xi'an & Xi'an
Day 16: Train to Xi'an
28 hours by train from Guilin in the south to Xi'an in north-central China. 28 hours. 28 long, long, oh so very long, boring hours. 28 hours was enough to make us begin doubting why we were traveling, and that perhaps a nice air-conditioned cube in Boston was not so bad afterall.
Between Guilin and Xi'an lies over 1,000 miles of track with three things to look at - rice paddies (an unGodly amount of rice paddies), rice paddies, and rice paddies. No change in the landscape. No wilderness - every inch of this land has been tampered with by humans. Just rice paddies. And with over 1.3 billion people in China, its so odd to see at the most, maybe three or four farmers at any given time on the horizon, knee deep in water, tending to his rice - sometimes no farmers at all for hundreds of miles. China seems empty out of the cities.
I will admit, once or twice I did see what appeared to be areas completely desolate and scarred by what appeared to be mines, but from the train's whizzing window those views lasted only a second or two, and then back to the rice paddies. Rice paddies. Rice paddies.
And on board the train it was no ball, rest assured. A few hours, ok. Ten, all right. 15, I can take it, but not 28. The Chinese love to slam doors all through the night. They like to spit on the floor, and blow their cigarette smoke in your face. When they eat they are louder when they are talking. And the train's bathroom - I wouldn't send my worst enemy in their (actually, I would) - the smell of urine and feces was so rancid and potent, it was unbearable.
The dining car gave us some refuge, but the instant you finish eating your expensive fried rice, you are quickly ushered out - even if its completely empty and all the tables are open. That's one thing I dislike about the Chinese people - they're obedience to rules, and their utter acceptance of rules (accept smoking rules, of course). Why must we leave the dining car the instant we are done eating, when no one is waiting for our table? Why? Give me one good reason? Why do you lock the bathroom doors at night? Where shall we go, on the floor, on our sheets, in the open mouth of the man snoring below me? Why are the divinely bright lights left on throughout the night, making it impossible to sleep? Why? Why do you need my pillow now, four hours before we reach our destination? And this is what I dislike - the Chinese accept these discomforts without confronting authority? They just take it. I think this is not a flattering trait of them, and is the exact opposite of the American mindset - in general, we like reason with our rules, and we do not blindly obey the rules like ants. Well, God d#mn it, a little American ingenuity never hurt anyone - so I took it to myself to unscrew the light fixture and detach the bulbs inside - there, now we can sleep. This makes sense. Period. I like logic.
Well, miraculously, we finally arrived - on time, in Xi'an, 28 hours after leaving Guilin. And immediately we were surprised by how modern Xi'an was. Almost as modern as Hong Kong - and our hotel was very nice. Its so difficult to describe China - both 3rd world and relatively modern. So, we're back where we want to be - enjoying our travels.
Day 17: Xi'an
Xi'an is the ancient capital of China. In ancient times, it rivaled Rome and Athens. And like them, it was a walled city. The 600 year old wall that was built around Xi'an still stands intact, and everything you want to see is within these walls. We rented bikes and rode on top of the wall, around the 8.5 mile perimeter. There are excellent views of the city from on top, and it is so impressive with its length and width. Hundreds of peope were on the wall with us, but very rarely did we see any of them. It just went on and on and one - just like the Great Wall - just surrounded by an urban landscape.
We also visited the Muslim Quarter, as it is called here. China has 250 million Muslims, and Xi'an has quite a few. This area was not so modern, and was very dirty and poor - not unlike Cairo - accept inside of robes and scarves were not Arabs, but Chinese. Some of the meat being sold in the street was so rotted the stench made me gag, and they sold little birds and giant grasshoppers live in tiny cages. Weird. We visited the Grand Mosque, and just roamed around visiting little shops, talking down prices from 50 yuan to 5 yuan. "50 yuan, very perfect price." No, 5 yuan. "Haha. No, good Sir, 45." So you walk out, and of course "Ok. Ok. 5 yuan". Even with the 5 yuan he's probably robbing you blind.
Well, tomorrow we go to see the famous Terra-Cotta warriors, and we'll be here for two more nights before taking a 12 hour train to Beijing.
Over and out
John & Cindy
July 16, 2005 – Day 18: Xi’an
I'm not a big fan of organized tours - especially ones that last all day and require you to get up early in the morning. But unfortunately, we went on an organized tour this morning - hopefully our last for the duration of our trip.
The main reason we paid for this tour was to visit the famous "8th Wonder of the World" Terra-Cotta soldiers, which are about 20 miles east of downtown Xi'an. But before seeing them, we had to be dragged to two other tourist destinations - the Banpo Neolithic Village, and the tomb of Qin (the man who commanded the Terra-Cotta soldiers be built).
The Banpo people lived over 6,000 years ago, and their village is well preserved and can be seen - just not today, of course, due to construction. So all we got to see was a bunch of old, worthless pots and bone tools. Crap. And Qin's tomb apparently was nothing more than a long stair case you climbed - a long staircase in the 100 degree, scorching Sun - to only get to the top and see nothing and buy $2 popcicles and warm water from peasants/thieves.
But the Terra-Cotta soldiers themselves was certainly something to see - its just the heat that is killing us. Back in 1976 some peasant farmers were digging a well, and caused the ground to collapse into a huge chasm. They found themselves surrounded by over 7,000, life-sized, extremely detailed stone statues of 12th century Chinese warriors, along with their horses, carriages, and weapons. They are all lined up in long rows, thousands of them. Each one is unique with a different face. It was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Anyways, we're wasting our last day in Xi'an before heading to Beijing tomorrow evening. The homeless in Xi'an are awfully miserable. There are many, many homeless children - mostly toddlers on the streets. Covered black with dirt, barefoot, wearing rags, they swarm after white faces since they assume money can be easily extacted from them. We had one bow-legged boy follow us for one hundred yards, gestering at his mouth that he was hungry, until some Chinese man yelled at him. There are whole familes of them - all covered in black soot. Most of the women breast feed as they lay across the middle of busy sidewalks. And also, whether due to malnourishment or maybe genetic defects caused by working in polluted factories, there are many people - mostly children - on the streets with all kinds of awfully disfigured bodies. Legs that are seemingly welded together. Toes meshed together. One boy, maybe 10 years old, had only one leg, which seemed as if his foot had grown up and combined into his shin - a long, skinny tube (apparently his big toe) grew out of this warped nub with a long, yellow nail attached to it. Truly shocking. I doubt very much that the Chinese government offers any social services for them - and that is why China is a third world country that is not the mystical, wise place full of ancient sages with long white beards people imagine it to be - because it is growing fast, becoming wealthy, has enormous potential to treat its people well - yet it has no concern for homeless children who have no legs and toes growing out of their shins.
July 18, 2005 - Day 19: Xi'an
We just puttered around Xi'an, wasting time until our 6PM train left for Beijing. We bought a few trinkets in the Muslim Quarter, and ate at one of the enormous, grossly overcrowded Kentucky Fried Chickens in the city. McDonald's and KFC are nothing less than amusement parks to Chinese people - they flock to them like pilgrims would to some sacred religious site.
The homeless children and cripples were out in great numbers today, maybe because the heat was not as high as yesterday.
One particular boy, maybe 8 years old, stood out among the rest. He was completely covered in soot, his face was as black as tar, and his clothes could not have been more tattered. Having only one leg that was twisted and seemingly bent permanently around his back with only two disfigured, horrifying "toes" protruding from the nub, he rolled about on a small piece of wood that had four wobbling, screeching wheels on it. As we walked by, he quickly skated out to us saying "hello", over and over again. We waved him off, and continued on our way. Then I looked behind and watched him skate back to his spot near the stairs next to a crowded, expensive restaurant where Chinese men in suits and women in beautiful dresses walked by him as if he was invisible, and a got a sickening sensation in my stomach. I bought two red popcicles and walked back to him. He saw me from about a hundred yards away and smiled, and skated over to me as fast as he could - somehow knowing they were for him. I handed him one, and the other to a filthy, little girl with him. "Thank you. Thank you." He said bowing his head, tearing the wrapper off the popcicle. I watched him skate away with the red popcicle in his hand, and my heart broke. I imagined that he was abandoned at birth, his mother seeing him as a monster. He's never known love, and can probably count on one hand the amount of times a human being has been kind to him. What an awful, insensitive place, I thought.
China may be modernizing. It may be growing wealthier - the standard of living here is increasing, but that is not going to teach these people how to care for each other, or to have respect for individuals the way we do in America. In China, one person is worthless. America has always been a place of generosity - a place where all can feel welcome and feel as if they matter. America did not learn these traits by being the most powerful, wealthy nation on Earth. It is those traits that made us the most powerful, wealthy nation on Earth. Its only been in the past 60 years that we have been in this position of power and wealth - and yet before that people still flocked to our shores. China has absolutely no immigration - we have more than we will ever need. And that is the difference that makes us a great nation, and China nothing more than a peasant nation of has-been communists trying to be something that it never will.
America is a wonderful, special place whose citizens rarely appreciate it enough. Call me arrogant, but we alone have led the world in a direction in which the world should be thankful of - but obviously rarely is. Tell me, if America is not the nation that can save the world from its seemingly natural, default position of savagery and despair, what nation is? I imagine a shiny, golden Bentley driving down a poor, dirty street with pot-holes all over it, and out of every yard comes a haggard dog chasing after the bumper, nipping and growling. If we go slow enough maybe we can lead them to a better neighborhood, but if we go too slow we'll get nipped in the rear end and get our paint chipped off. But strange enough, in time, that Bentley will show itself again - as shiny and attractive as ever. If you disagree - start applying for a visa to Sudan.
July 19, 2005 - Day 20: Beijing
Cindy and I both agree - we're ready to move on. We've had our fill of China. Mongolia is next on our agenda.
The train to Beijing was far better than all the others - especially since we got to speak plenty of English with a woman from Australia. But besides that, the usual poor manners of the Chinese was at times too much to bear. Spitting. Hacking. Gagging. Choking. Coughing. Picking noses. Picking teeth. Picking rear ends. Unbelievable body odor. Being shoved when there is ample room.
I fully understand and accept the fact that we has human beings are animals, but I do (now) take pride in the fact that our culture - that of the West - makes a fairly successful attempt in hiding our animal nature. The Chinese celebrate the fact that they are animals. Some of you may say "Geez, John, why did you go there if all you're going to do is insult the people and the country?" Well, to appreciate my world. I'm fine, completely, with disliking a certain type of people - and if there ever was a disgusting, insensitive group - it is the Chinese. Of course we have met some who are nice, who are polite, but for the most part there has always been some type of scam involved with any friendly gesture. I'm not going to pretend as if I enjoy this dramatically different culture - I don't. And there is no way that it is comparable to ours - there is a reason why Chinatowns in America are a haven for trash and filth and prostitution and drug dealing and sewage leaks. Take a walk down Essex Street in Boston, multiply what you see by 1,000, and that may be a percent or two of the distasteful nature of city life in China.
Well, I'm writing so much because I'm waiting for my pictures do download. Forgive me. Beijing is massive, and overwhelming, and crushes any sense of humanity you may have had before arriving. The will be hosting the 2008 Olypics - maybe by then there will be some reason to return.
Hopefully, I'm a pessimissic jerk.
Over & Out
John & Cindy
July 20, 2005 – Day 22: Beijing, China
Here's a little more morbid reading for you. If you have already read my first "Day 22" email, you obviously remember the young girl with the rotted feet. So here's something to think about.
If that same girl had been born in America, she would be having a nice old time - buying her first jewelry, thinking about boys, going to the Mall to meet her friends, dressing up and going to the local school's dance. She'd be enjoying the childhood that most of us have already enjoyed.
But instead, she was born in China, abandoned by her own mother to the streets (about 3 million female babies are left on the streets in China each year due to government restrictions on population control - some 250,000 are also kidnapped and sold on the black market each year as prostitues and sex slaves). And now, her feet are slowly rotting. In a matter of weeks the infection will spread further up her legs, and eventually, she will die a very terrible, sickening death. Gangrene is a very dangerous thing. I'm not a doctor, but I give her a month to live. And when she finally dies her body will be covered in a greenish-black layer of rotted flesh, probably up to her lower back. After a few hours, or maybe a whole afternoon of roasting in the hot Sun, someone out of the thousands who have already passed will eventually notice her, and summon the police. An hour or so later, two or three topless, srawny Chinese men, with cigarettes in their mouths, will toss her body clumsily into the back of a truck, without thought or pity. They'll spit and hack and laugh as they do it. Then she'll be taken to one of Beijing's many crematories and burned with the bodies of several other disgfigured, never-been loved children. Later, another scrawny, topless Chinese man, with cigarette in mouth, will spray the ashes out of the oven with a powerful hose. He'll spit and hack and maybe throw his cigarette butt into the pooling water. Then the ashes of the 13 year old girl will flow into attached chambers, and into Beijing's sewage system.
This is all true.
How does China sound? Does the greatness of the Great Wall matter?
How does America sound?
July 21, 2005 – Beijing, China
We have HBO in our room, so for the past two days we've taken our merry time in getting out to the City. There's nothing more comforting than watching American movies in the comfort of an air conditioned hotel room, while its 100 degrees outside, and limbless children are begging at every corner.
Beijing will soon be a thing of "our" past. It has not been a postive time, yet it has not been a negative one either. It simply has been an experience in which I have no regrets about. This is just as much a part of the world, just as deserving of being visited as the wonderful cafes of Quebec or the pubs of Ireland are. If anything - what one sees in Beijing may be the norm of how the majority of the human race lives. The way we live is the exception, the strange "glitch".
Beijing is just so big and overwhelming - it sprawls forever. Everything for the most part looks the same, and it is so smoggy. In all honesty, you can see no further than a quarter mile into the distance, after than it is just a thick, gray haze.
You may think I've been concentrating too much time on describing the homeless children, and the negative things I've seen so far in China - but how can one not? If you ask a person who has been to China "How was it?", or something like that, and they answer with something like "Oh, it was wonderful. It was so fabulous", they are either one of two things - or both - naive and blind to the realities around them, or wealthy and only traveled by mini-bus from their lavish hotel to all the historical sites of China - never once stepping foot on a real Chinese street. Any one who says that their visit was to China was "wonderful" is a fool and deserves a slap in the face. Like I've said, I have no regrets in coming here, but China is not a wonderful place. The Great Wall. The Terra-Cotta Soldiers. Tianamen Square. These historical things are not what I will remember about China. In regards to the "great and deep" history China has, a British man I met, who worked for the travel book Frommer's, said to me "I don't care about all that historical cr#p. What do they have to show for it - besides dirt and a failed economy?" Exactly.
The worst was yesterday. While we were walking down a busy, crowded street, I saw a girl of about 13 years old laying down on a wooden board with wheels on the bottom of it. She was belly-down, and had a filthy pink blanket over her, and held a bright, little purple umbrella above her head to block out the scorching Sun. Next to her, was a busy bus stop where old fashioned buses from the Communist days pumped thick black smoke down onto her. Why was she laying down here? Why - because her feet were so rotted and swollen with gangrene that it would have been impossible for her to stand. In all honesty, when I first saw her I thought that it was two large yams or baked potatoes protruding from underneath her blanket - but no, it was her feet! Her feet were so rotted, and swollen from the heat that the skin had cracked open, revealing deep gashes of putrid, yellow flesh inside. It was terrible. And it even got worse - sticking out of the rotted stump that was once the delicate foot of a young girl, were the five, perfectly clean, gray bones of her her toes. You could clearly see the knuckles of the joints. It was unbelievably horrifying - and all this before a rushing Chinese crowd - 200 yards from seat of the Chinese government! This is what I will remember, not the Great Wall. And anyone who has seen China for what it truly is will not say "Oh, it was fabulous."
So, onto more pleasant subjects. We entered Tianamen Square - a huge expanse of concrete. And at the end is a super-giant portrait of Mao - the man who single-handedly almost destroyed China - the man who ordered churches and temples and all places of worship bulldozed, priests and holymen executed, the man who imprisoned and murdered millions of ordinary Chinese, the man who started the "Cultual Revolution". When you ask someone about the Cultural Revolution here, they always say something like "It was terrible. We are trying to forget it". So why worship this man? Ignorance? I have no idea, but its hard to think highly of a people who have not torn down all remnents of Mao. Do you see portraits of Hitler in Berlin, proudly displayed on the largest of buildings? No - and with good reason.
I'm writing more for myself - for future reference, but keep reading if you want. Maybe you'll find some of the things I say interesting. Hong Kong. Seoul, South Korea. Tokyo, Japan. These three cities are the most prosperous, most wonderful cities in Asia - perhaps in the world, and they have one thing in common - either they were ruled or greatly influenced by the West - namedly Great Britain and America (not Spain - they can take credit for the wonderful societies that one may find in Columbia or Guatamala, not France - their proud gems are Haiti and the Congo and Angola, and certainly not Germany - who never built a nation, only attempted to destroy one).
Hong Kong was governed by the British for 100 years, and has just recently been turned over to the Chinese - I hope Hong Kong is not turned into a new Guangzhou, but it is already starting to feel the oppressive heat of their communist "friends".
Seoul - 30,000 Americans died to stop the Chinese from implementing a communist government there, and if you compare South Korea to North Korea it is obvious to see which nation is superior.
And Tokyo - after over 250,000 American died in World War 2 (half of which died fighting the Japanese of Tokyo), laying ruin to Japan - we did something no one ever did before in warfare. Instead of leaving the nation in ruins, instead of claiming their land as our own, we offered billions of dollars in aid, we gave them an effective government, and today it is one of the great nations of the world.
So Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo - success stories due the efforts of Western foreigners. Beijing. Shanghai. Guangzhou. Xi'an. Pyongpang. These are cities that have always been under total influence of their own populations - and what can be said of them? They have rotting children on their streets, that's what.
This is a great trip, because it allows you to see what real impact our nations's people - and the people of our friends - have had on the world. How thin is the tissue paper that separates the savage from the civilized?
I'm on a roll here. I should quit while I'm ahead. I'm soaked with sweat here, and Cindy is ready to go.
Last night, for less than a dollar we hired one of those motorcyles with the small bench on the back to bring us back to our hotel - took about 15 minutes. We'll do that now too. I hope we don't get rammed and crushed by a 1930s concrete truck. Its amazing that we have not seen any car accidents or pedestrians hit by cars here. Really.
See ya later,
John & Cindy
July 22, 2005 – Beijing, China
Well, I've been commanded by Cindy to try to "pep" up my emails a bit and make them a little more pleasant for you all back home. I guess I've depressed a few.
Yes - there have been many interesting, pleasant, beautiful things that we have seen while visiting China. The mountains. The countryside. And just the very different way of life here is something worth experiencing. But its difficult to appreciate these things fully when at the same time there are many miserable things surrounding you. At times, it is like looking at a beautiful painting or eating the most delicious meal of your life, while right next to you there is a waterfall of sewerage roaring past. Yes, the meal tastes wonderful, the painting is unbelievably creative, but what about this waterfall of sh#t flowing past, can we maybe pull a curtain in front of it? Its difficult, for us at least.
I learned that "wang-ba" means "internet cafe" in Mandarin, but just recently I've learned that "wung-ba" means "turtle". So all this time while I've assumed I've been asking for an internet cafe, I've actually been repeating to people on the street over and over again "Turtle? Turtle? Turtle?" No wonder I got so many grins and confused faces.
After enjoying a little HBO in the morning, we found our way on the Beijing Zoo on a bus that stalled twice, and seemed as if it has no suspension whatsoever.
I'm not the biggest of zoo fans - I always leave little depressed after seeing beautiful tigers and birds in pitiful concrete cells, but the zoo here in Beijing was all right. Tigers. Monkeys. And of course, the famous Chinese panda. The pandas were living in a relatively decent environment, but the other animals did not seem to be in the best of health.
I have to bring up the feeling I get about how insensitive the Chinese are again - sorry - but they do really seem to be. In all the animal cells - at least the ones that did not have solid glass separating the animals from the guests - trash was thrown about - paper bags, coke cans, plastic wrappers, popcicle wrappers. And I mean lots of trash. Why? I saw several adults simply toss an armful of trash right into the monkey pen, and then watched a young monkey start to eat the plastic bag. And a lot of times the adults would grab sticks and jab at the animals in the cage, jab hard, and laugh. I saw this once being done by an older woman, so I casually stepped on her toe - really hard - and she shrieked and stopped. I acted like it was a mistake.
Strangely, the most crowded site was that of the American raccoon. The Chinese loved seeing these creatures. We have them in our trash barrels back home.
Well, we had Pizza Hut for dinner, and now we're heading back to the room.
But one more thing - I'm starting to enjoy having conversations with regular Chinese on the streets. They know no English. I know no Chinese. So we talk away. "Bla bla bla bla" He goes in Chinese. And I say in return, "Yeah, I know, when I met your brother in Idaho, we picked potatos all day." He goes. "bla bla bla, ping ping ping", and I go, "Geez, are you sure that your son was taken away by a dragon? I thought they only came out at night." He points, "ping pong penny ging". And I say, "Well, if you insist, but I'd really appreciate if you don't comment on the size of my penis again." Its kind of fun.
Over and Out,
John & Cindy
July 23, 2005 – Day 25: Beijing, China
We forced ourselves out of bed early yesterday morning so we could get to Tianamen Square and take a look at Mao's preserved, dead body - apparently communists have an odd habit of keeping their dead leaders on display for the public (see Lenin in Moscow for furthur information).
Mao is only open for viewing between 8 and 11AM, and the lines are ridiculously long, so we we got there as early as possible - but at least we got to have pancakes at McDonald's beforehand (we've been dying for pancakes). It was cool outside at first, and it was the first time that I had not sweated in over 3 weeks, but by 9AM I was soaked yet again.
Tianamen Square is said to be the largest public meeting place on Earth, and whether this is true or not, I'm not sure - but it is certainly enormous. Its so big, so very big and spacious, and in reality is nothing more than a giant memorial for Chairman Mao.
The lines stretched around and mazed up and down the entire length and width of the Square. Areas were roped off, and guarded by meglaphone toting teenagers who yelled constantly through their meglaphones. Most Chinese hopped the ropes and cut whenever possible, so we followed their lead and cut most of the line.
Fake, plastic flowers were sold for people who wanted to pay their respects to Mao - but that's nothing but a scam for the State to collect money. The flowers could not be brought inside the tomb, and had to be left outside, where they were resold back to the public. And no bags aloud inside - dead Mao is very against leather purses and backpacks. I still find it so ludicrous that Mao, and Lenin in Moscow, are still "worshipped" for a system they created that has been proven time and time again to be an utter failure. Mao's government prohibited religion - the communist State was supposed to take care of everything and everyone - but now, its funny how people, millions of people march to see Mao in 2005 as if he was Christ. Mao made illegal what he has now become - a God. The people here don't know their own history, I think, because the massacre in Tianamen Square back in 1989 (over 200 people were killed by the Chinese Army for demanding democracy) has been almost erased. The anniversary just passed recently, and not a word. Gone. No words about it. China is not a free country in any way - despite all its progress economically. Something big will happen here soon - and perhaps bloody.
So we saw the waxy looking stiff Mao with his red blanket, complete with the old "Sickly & Hammer" Soviet emblem, and were escorted out within a minute or so. And them we rushed back to our room to sleep and hide away from Beijing for the rest of the day. We needed a day "off".
Beijing - A Place to Hide From
Let me explain this city for you, and maybe you'll come to understand why we spent all day in our hotel room watching HBO. Its not that we want to be in our room - its that we don't want to be in Beijing anymore.
Beijing is the 2nd largest city in China - yet it still has 15 million people in the city proper, and 40 million people within a 100 mile radius (New York City has half that within its city limit). So basically, you're packing in all the people from California and New York State into an area the size of Rhode Island. There is no doubting it - it is packed with human beings. And a crowd is one thing, but a riot is another - Cindy and I are not big fans of riots.
With all these people comes the cars and mopeds and motorbikes and trucks they drive. And that amounts to a lot of pollution. After being out for an hour or two, I can scratch my neck (after showeing in the morning), and my fingernails will be completely black afterwards. The sky has not been blue at all - only gray. In the afternoon you can look directly at the Sun and it will not hurt your eyes because of the thick haze - the Sun can clearly be seen without blinking or turning away as a dim, orange/red orb. That's pollution, my friends.
Beijing is growing at a rapid rate, and insane rate. As my construction friend, Scott Rossi has told me, and what I have read myself - 70% of the world's cranes are in China - the majority of those in Beijing. Old neighborhoods are being demolished so big high rise can be put in their place to impress the world at the 2008 Olympics - and with all that demolition there are blocks and blocks of nothing but rubble. And lots of dust too.
To get from our hotel - and from any place to another - you must walked through these streets. It is emmense. We are considered to be downtown, yet the nearest subway is a 25 minute walk. We have walked and walked and walked - and nothing changes. So we stay in the hotel only because we have no desire to walk for an hour to get to a place that is no different from where our hotel is. And the heat is so strong.
Now add in the fact that the smell of urine, human excrement, and animal meat roasting in the Sun is never a few paces away, it makes for a place that one wants to leave after a day or two. And then of course you have a disfigured, homeless child every 50 feet or so - and that takes away any good I can take from this giant city.
China has been interesting, a great experience, as has Beijing - but if you only have a week to spend in this massive country, go elsewhere, to the countryside. Guilin and Yangshuo are highly advised. Beijing is a monster. I thought Moscow was a monster, which it was, but I find myself looking forward to it - how strange to be looking forward to Moscow's serenity and peace.
John & Cindy
July 25, 2005 – Beijing, China
Well, today was our last full day in China. We'll be leaving first thing tomorrow morning on a 30-hour train bound for Mongolia's captial - Ulaan Bataar. Its hard to believe that it will be a month since we first arrived in this country - but now, looking back, we do appreciate the complex and odd place that China is. Its a difficult place to swallow - and probably as culturally different from home as it can get.
We've met up with our tour group and have met the good people that we'll be traveling with - three Australians (our guide and an older couple), a couple from Northern Ireland, and two English guys. Its a good mixture.
Today was a great day - we visited the Great Wall of China. It was much further away from the urban monster that is Beijing than a thought it was - just over three hours by a bus that seemed to have a jet engine pushing us through the streets at close to the speed of light.
China is a place of surprises. Just as I was so surprised by the utter poverty I've seen here, I was equally surprised by how modern the multi-laned highways are that spur out of Beijing's center, and in fact, connect most of China's major cities - in the east, at least. Such a strange place - but with all the negative response I've given you, a lot of credit must be given to China - it is no easy task in attempting to bring 1.3 billion people who have been living as if its the 17th century into the 21st century in less than a generation's time. Credit due in that department.
Now for this wall they call "great". I never realized just how high in the mountains it is - at least this one small section. It runs along a relatively high mountain ridge, up and down, up and down. On the peaks are fortifications that were used by Chinese Army sentries in ancient times to keep a watch out to the North in fear of Mongol invaders, and then up and down the slopes are long, long, steep, steep stairs that are at times no wider than ten feet. If you take any one section alone, there is nothing great about it. Just a long staircase - but when you look off to the horizon and you can see the wall snaking its way up and down and through the green/brown mountains it is truly a great thing to see - and to think that it runs almost 3,000 miles deep into the heart of China's far West is when you truly start to get an idea of the effort that went into making this thing. No machines or cranes - just millions upon millions of cinder block sized bricks lugged into the mountains by human beings. Amazing.
As always we were rushed by Chinese selling little trinkets and postcards and other worthless junk. All of us said "no" over and over again. We said "boo-yow, shi shi" (I don't want anything, thank you), over and over again, but they continued with their harassment.
After a while, about a half dozen of them followed us along our walk along the Wall. It is so steep at times that you actually have to use your hands, and with the intense heat (101 degrees F), we were all soaked with sweat. The parasitic merchents following us didn't drop a bead of sweat. After a while the merchents stopped asking us to buy things, and starting to smile and say "friend, friend" to us, and started to fan us with their giant paper fans - even while we huffed and puffed up the seemingly endless stairs. We said "no" over and over again, but they continued. So what the heck, fan me then like I'm some kind of royalty - your loss and waste of time. I knew that it was a scam to get us to eventually buy something - and they were no going to win.
Three hours later at the end of our walk, the merchents' bags came out - no surprise, and they tried to sell even more aggressively. When the realized that I was not going to buy a thing, the smiles that I knew were fakes vanished, and they became bitter, walking ahead of me as I walked down the wall, seeming to curse at me in Chinese and snarl at me. "Lee proleena pey ta." They said showing their teeth, pointing at me. "Harna pee katna." They growled. These angry shouts went on for about 30 minutes. I just smiled and shrugged and said "boo yow, shi shi" - but only because I had just met my tour group and didn't want to show my true colors just yet. What I wanted to say to these deceptive snakes was this, in Chinese "We said "no" to you from the very begining, over and over again. We didn't ask you to walk all the way with us, fanning us the whole time and smiling and trying to act kind. You're snakes, and should be treated as such. Its not our fault that you just walked 6 miles in the scorching heat, up and down this giant staircase, fanning my grossly sweaty back, all day for nothing. Go back to your chicken-coop, sh#t hole of a home, and think about that. And next time you see a bunch of white faces maybe you'll think twice about trying to decieve them. Don't snarl and curse at me you rat." But I just smiled. This has nothing to do with a difference of culture or poverty - they were all well dressed and well fed - most had children in a university. I don't respect or feel pity for people who lie and cheat and decieve people for a living. And there are a lot of them here in China.
Anyways, all is well. Here's some stuff I've learned.
"Bei" means "north", and "jing" means "capital" - so Beijing means "North Capital". Nanjing (Nanking) is known as "South Capital", with "nan" meaning "south".
Nanking was made infamous after World War 2. During the War Japanese soldiers conquered the city without mercy and killed most of the men, and raped and murdered 70% of the city's 800,000 women. In the worst atrocity, soldiers broke into an orphanage and killed several hundred infants and children, impaling them and placing them on the posts of a 200 meter bridge in the city center. Morbid, but its a piece of history most don't realize - the Japanese were equally as brutal to the Chinese as the Nazi's were to the Jews. And to this day, most Chinese will frown and make a nasty face when Japan is mentioned.
Well, I'm not sure when we'll be able to write again. I'm not familiar with Mongolia's internet service.
John & Cindy
July 30, 2005 – Day 32: Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia
It felt so good to watch the urban monstrosity of Beijing gradually fade away into small towns and later rice paddies. Finally - blue skies and green fields again. As we further went north by train, the farms gave way to the amazingly flat steppes of Inner Mongolia, and then later to the beginings of the Gobi Desert.
Along the way we saw a few groups of two-humped, shaggy camels, and the occasional man on horseback waving from a distance. And besides that - nothing. The Chinese province of Inner Mongolia is amazingly empty of anything human - besides the tracks that we were running on.
We reached the Mongolian/Chinese border during the late hours of night, and the small town of Erlian on the border was such a lonely place. I had never seen such a dark, uninhabited place in my life, and out of no where comes this small garrison-like town. We pulled into the tiny town, and Chinese soldiers saluted the train as it came to a halt. After the customs non-sense (ripping apart the ceiling and floors) in search for smuggled items, we were on our way to Mongolia.
When I woke up in the morning I knew I would like Mongolia a lot - far more than China. Perfectly clear, blue skies. Green steppes as far as the eye could see. Men on horseback and cowboy hats running in the distance at almost the same speed as the train. Wild camels. It was a beautiful, spacious, clean place. Once I saw Mongolia, China seemed as if it was some kind of sickly disease growing on the face of the Earth - spreading rapidly and ruining everything it came in contact with. But Mongolia seemed so pure.
The great majority of Mongolians live in tents, which they call "gers". And in the vastness of the steppes you can see them every so often, like little white specks, two or three here, two or three there, in the middle of a sea of grass, hours between each other. It must be a great feeling to wake in the morning and open the flap of your ger and look out on to the steppes on Mongolia - just blue skies and green grass, and clean, crisp mountain-like air.
We pulled into Ulaan Bataar - the capital - and it was like pulling into a gold town in Arizona in the middle of the 19th century - gers were just as plentyful as shack-like houses. Fences and corrals filled with horses were everywhere. And the smell of burning wood is strong in the cool air.
We spent a night in Ulann Bataar before moving out to the countryside, and I must say it is a very pleasant city. Its somewhat poor, and a bit run down, but they are free and democratic, the weather was like late September, and they take care of what they have and everyone is relaxed and friendly. Its two, giant communist neighbors - Russia and China - never succeeded in crushing them down completely. And now Mongolia is between the two, prospering while they rot. It was not what I expected. Pine and incense and burning wood are the smells of Mongolia - not urine and feces like in China.
We spent the following two nights in a place called Terelj, about an hour out of the city. And it was great. I pictured all of Mongolia as being a giant grassland, but this place was mountainous. From the rolling, green/purplish hills sprouted giant rock pinnacles. We climbed to the top of one, and as far as the eye could see was a wide expanse of untouched wildneress. If you looked closely, you could see a few gers here and there (we spent two nights in one), and the occasional herd of wild camels or horses. Few trees, but the clearest skies. Eagles were everywhere darting around, and the largest grasshoppers I've ever seen.
We have a great group of Brits and Australians that we are traveling with. Such good laughs they are.
In an hour we move off towards Siberia. We'll be there in 40 hours. Oh boy, a short ride.
Mongolia is a wonderful place.
Before I tell you about the last few days, let me share one interesting fact about Mongolia's capital - Ulaan Bataar. There are no public telephones - anywhere in the entire nation - so instead, old men with cowboy hats sit on small stools at busy street corners with satilite phones on their laps. If you need to make a call, he dials for you, and you pay the price. Its funny seeing them. And all of them wear surgical masks as a precaution to catching diseases. Weird.
Anyways, Siberia is truly wildneress. Its an empty place - nothing but pine trees and mountains. I couldn't sleep while we were on the train, so I just hung my head out the open window. The air was clean and cold, and for over five hours we did not pass one single light. Nothing but the darnkess and the shadowed outlines of pine trees. For five hours. It fills you with a sense of loneliness and fear - me at least - imagining how for hundreds of miles the only human beings are the ones in the train. You could walk 500 miles to the north, and 400 to the south and not come across one road or trace of humanity. Around turns you could look ahead and see the engine's headlights cutting into the darkness. The train ride through Siberia is an experience.
We arrived in the city of Irkutsk (a good sized city), and immediately went out to the small village of Lystyvanka on the shore of Lake Baikal - the world's deepest lake at over one mile deep. The water is never above 52 degrees F, and supposedly, if you swim in it you will live 25 years longer. I got a slight cold, I know that - it was cold. We'll see if we live longer.
Well, we're in Russia, Siberia to be precise, but the culture and life here is somewhat like Europe, so we feel comfortable. No more Asia for me. Technically, we are still in Asia, but its European people.
Irkutsk is a pleasant city. Lots of parks. Tree lines streets. And the Siberian day is cool.
August 3, 2005 - Day 37: Irkutsk, Russia (Siberia)
THE "CAPS LOCK" BUTTON IS JAMMED, SO GET USED TO MY CAPITAL LETTERS.
EVERYONE IN THIS CITY LOOKS AS IF THEY ARE READY TO GO TO THE CLUB FOR A LONG NIGHT OF BEING COOL. EVERYONE IS SO DRESSED UP. RUSSIANS ARE VERY FLASHY, AND THE WOMEN THINK THAT THEY ARE ALL MODELS BY THE WAY THEY PRANCE AROUND THE STREETS IN THEIR HIGH HEELS AND SHORT SKIRTS. EVERYONE IS ALWAYS DRINKING TOO. EVERYONE WALKS AROUND WITH A BIG BEER IN THEIR HAND AS THEY WALK DOWN THE SIDEWALK. BEING DRESSED IN JEANS AND T-SHIRTS, WE LOOK LIKE BUMS. EITHER WAY, EVEN THOUGH IRKUTSK IS IN THE MIDDLE OF ASIA, WE FEEL AS IF WE'RE IN EUROPE. WE LIKE IT HERE.
THE STREETS ARE CLEAN AND LINED WITH TREES. ITS QUIET. THE WEATHER IS CONSTANTLY LIKE "INDIAN SUMMER". ITS NICE. I ACTUALLY HAVEN'T SWEATED SINCE I'VE BEEN HERE.
WE LEAVE IN AN HOUR OR SO FOR OUR 76 HOUR TRAIN RIDE TO MOSCOW - NONSTOP. BUT ITS ALL RIGHT. WE'RE UP IN FIRST CLASS, HAVE OUR OWN ROOM TO OURSELVES - COMPLETE WITH TV AND A DVD PLAYER. THE OTHER PEOPLE IN OUR GROUP HAVE BEEN GIVING US A HARD TIME ABOUT HOW THEY'RE STUCK IN THE BACK WITH ALL THE RUSSIANS AND DRUNKEN COLLEGE KIDS. OH WELL. HAHA.
THE PEOPLE WERE ARE TRAVELING WITH ARE GREAT. PETER AND GAVIN - FROM ENGLAND - CALL EACH OTHER "BIRD" AS A NICKNAME (IN ENGLAND, "BIRD" IS SLANG FOR GIRL, AND SINCE NEITHER ONE OF THEM ARE SUCCESSFUL IN THAT DEPARTMENT, THE NAME GOES WELL WITH THEM).
"HEY BIRD, BE A GOOD LAD AND FETCH ME MY PINT"
"ALL RIGHT, BIRD, BUT YOU'LL HAVE TO LEND ME A QUID FOR THE NEXT ONE."
BRIAN (NORTH IRELAND) AND I HAVE ACTUALLY BECOME "HONORARY BIRDS" NOW. HE'S IRISH BIRD, AND I'M AMERICAN BIRD.
IT MAY BE IRRITATING TO OTHERS ON THAT TRAIN TO HEAR FOUR MEN CONSTANTLY CALLING EACH OTHER BIRD, BUT IT ENTERTAINS US AND PASSES THE TIME.
"BIRD, IS THAT YOU?"
"NO, ITS BIRD. BIRD IS IN THE NEXT CARRIAGE."
"OH, ALL RIGHT THEN. COME ON IN, BIRD, BEFORE BIRD SEES US. CLOSE THE DOOR, BIRD." AND THE BRITISH ACCENTS MAKE IT ALL THE MORE FUNNY.
SINCE LEAVING BEIJING THERE HAVE BEEN MANY OTHER TOURISTS THAT ARE FOLLOWING THE SAME EXACT ROUTE, SO WE SEE THEM ON THE TRAINS. UNFORTUNATELY, THERE IS A GROUP OF IRISH GUYS WHO ARE NEVER SOBER. I TALKED TO ONE OF THEM ONCE WHEN HE WAS SOBER, AND HIS ACCENT WAS SO STRONG THAT I DID NOT UNDERSTAND A WORD. FORGET ABOUT WHEN THEY'RE DRUNK - ITS IMPOSSIBLE. THEY CONSTANTLY WEAR THESE RIDICULOUS WINTER RUSSIAN HATS THAT ARE SO BIG AND FURRY. ONE HAS ANTLERS ON HIS, THE OTHER HAS THE HEAD OF A MOUNTAIN CAT. ONE PASSED OUT IN HIS BED, AND HE STILL HAD HIS HAT ON. ITS ENTERTAINING FOR THE MOST PART.
WELL, NEXT TIME I WRITE WE'LL BE IN EUROPE, IN MOSCOW. SO THATS SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO.
JOHN & CINDY
August 4, 2005 – Siberia
WE STAYED IN WHAT IS CALLED A "HOMESTAY" WHILE WE WERE IN THE TINY VILLAGE OF LYSTYVANKA, ON THE SHORE OF LAKE BAIKAL. BASICALLY, A REGULAR RUSSIAN FAMILY TAKES YOU INTO THEIR HOME AND YOU STAY IN THEIR SPARE BEDROOM. THEY MAKE BREAKFAST AND DINNER FOR YOU, AND ITS REALLY NICE.
FROM THE OUTSIDE THE BUILDING WAS NOTHING MORE THAN AN UGLY, 1960'S STYLE COMMUNIST BUILDING, BUT ON THE INSIDE IT WAS VERY COZY. IT WAS BARE, AND A BIT SHABBY, BUT THAT MADE IT ALL THE MORE COMFORTABLE. IT WAS A HOME WHERE PEOPLE LIVED THEIR LIVES IN THE MIDDLE OF SIBERIA. THE WALLPAPER WAS TATTERED AND WRINKLED. THE FLOOR CREAKED. EVERYTHING WAS OLD AND IN NEED OF REPAIR. BUT THE PEOPLE PUT A LOT OF EFFORT INTO MAKING WHAT LITTLE THEY HAD COZY AND WARM. I ENJOYED IT - AND THE FOOD WAS GREAT.
ANYWAYS, FOR THE MOST PART, RUSSIANS ARE NOT VERY FRIENDLY. YOU CAN SAY "HELLO" TO THEM, AND THEY WILL MAKE HARD EYE CONTACT AND CONTINUE WALKING. ONCE I GOT A NOD, BUT THAT WAS IT. I'M NOT SURE IF THEY ARE COLD AT HEART, BUT THEY SEEM TO BE. BUT AT LEAST THEY YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS IN CROSSWALKS - UNLIKE IN CHINA WHERE THEY AIM AT YOU AND ACCELERATE.
"WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE GULAGS?" I ASKED OUR GUIDE.
"I TINK IT VAS A GOOD TING. VA PEOPLE MUST BE KEPT IN LINE. WE RUSSIANS NEED THIS."
"WHAT ABOUT CHECHNYA?"
"I DON'T TINK. MY FRIEND NOW HAS CANCER FROM A SECRET WEAPON. IT IS VEDY PERSONAL."
"WHAT IS THAT BUILDING OVER THERE?"
"THAT TIS A JAPANESE THEATER. IT HAS NO HISTORIACAL VALUE WHATSOEVER. WE MUST MOVE ON."
THEY ARE VERY BLUNT PEOPLE TOO. BUT I LIKE IT. WHY WASTE WORDS
"THE TOUR IS OVER. NO QUESTIONS? YOU GO THEN."
August 8, 2005 – Moscow, Russia
Once again I find myself in the massive capital of the former Soviet Union. The only difference is that last summer it took me ten hours to get here by plane from New York City, and this time it took me seventy-six hours to get here by train from Siberia. And there's far more than a sixty-six hour difference between the two.
Seventy-six hours on a train through Siberia - however luxurious your cabin may be (our's had a small plasma TV) - is an experience that is worthwhile in every way, but is not advisable to be repeated. You can only stare dumbly out your window for so long - watching the endless forests of birch and pine go by - before you lose all interest. You find things to do to pass the time. I read two books - big books. I played a load of chess with my fellow travelers. Cindy got mad at me for filling our cabin with sulfurous gases. I ate package after package of freeze dried noodles. Its not so bad, but you start to go into some kind of trance. Flying anywhere you truly lose the idea of just how big the world we live on is - but watching every tree and blade of grass go by, you quickly come to the conclusion that the world is huge. To me, after crossing Siberia, its amazing that human beings have mapped and surveyed its entire surface.
When the trains makes its few stops, your ears ring because they are so used to the constant rhythm of the track - and people start to flutter around like chickens in a coop poking their swollen heads out the windows. Between Irkutsk and Moscow we made about 18 stops - and that is few and far between when you realize that the distance is over 5,000 miles and encompasses five time zones. Its an event when the train stops at a station. Everyone gets out for about fifteen minutes and runs around in their sandals and flip-flops. You buy drinks and food from the old ladies running vending carts. Potato and cabbage cakes were my favorite. And back aboard for a few more hundred miles.
With the lack of showers came an abudance of body odors. The Russians do not seem to wear deoderant. The women smell worse than the men. You could see the most beautiful of Russian girls coming down the aisle towards you (and most are truly beautiful), and when she passes you'd swear on the Bible that she was carrying a cat litter box that had not been emptied in a month - the stench was unbelievably potent. Cindy and I both wore the same clothes - every article - for the duration of the trip, so I imagine that we did not spell so pretty either - but at least flies did not drop dead in our midst. And its not just a train thing - even here in Moscow they stink like little ammonia factories.
People would be surprised by Siberia. You imagine endless wilderness - but in reality it is not exactly so. Anything east of Irkutsk is wildnerness - all the way to the Pacific. But once you get about a day west of Irkutsk there are several large cities with populations over a million - and this is Siberia. Of course there is plenty of forests, but there are the cities of Novobirisk, and Yetkinenburg, and others, that are massive. Think of Siberia to Russia more like the way the Rocky Mountain States and Mid-West are to the United States - they once were wildnerness, and in many ways still are, but they have their fair share of population and industrial centers today.
And there are thousands of rivers that run north into the Arctic across Siberia - they are huge, and you cross them all on mile-long steel bridges.
We pulled into Moscow exactly on time - to the minutes. That's amazing to me, after such a vast distance. And since then I've been trying to get rid of a cough, and we mostly just been wandering around.
Tomorrow we have a midnight train to catch to St.Petersburg. It'll take eight hours, and after that off to Finland.
August 9, 2005 – Moscow, Russia
This is my second time in this city, and it is still surprising how nice of a city Moscow is. Its massive and with its 9 million people is the largest city in all of Europe - but it still has a lot of pleasant scenery and a lot to do. I originally imagined a big, gray, ugly communist city, but its not at all. There are still remnants of that ugly past, but for the most part its very European. Lots of outdoor cafes lining every street. The people are very colorful with their clothing. And a lot of effort is put into the city's gardens - there are flowers everywhere. Mixed in with all the massive, heavy-looking buildings of Russian power like the Kremlin, are beautiful churches with colorful domes and other buildings that have statues and pastel stones decorating them. Its nice, but it would take months to explore the whole place.
But here's something that caught my attention that has changed since last time - security. You may or not know of Chechnya, but Russia has many deathly problems with that Islamic area in the Caucaus Mountains. The Chechnyans may be the most brutal people on Earth. Last year about 40 heavily armed Chechnyan militants stormed a school and kept over 500 young children and teaches hostage, and in the end over 300 children were killed - many beheaded and dismembered. And a year before that Chechnyan rebels stormed a Moscow theater - the Russian military responded by injecting a supposedly harmless gas in the ventilation, in the hopes of putting everyone safely asleep, but instead about 200 were killed - all the rebels were shot point blank in the head by Russian special forces, one by one in the aftermath as they laid unconscious on the floor. And then about 10 months ago there was a Chechnyan suicide bombing on a Moscow subway - 20 killed. And of course 10 months ago two Russian passenger airline jets were hijacked and crashed by Chechnyan rebels - all 200 or so onboard, dead. The Chechynans were the first who fancied beheading Russian doctors and soldiers and nurses and peace workers on video, and then mailing them to the families. They are not very nice people, to say the least. And this is just to list a few of the many events that have taken place concerning Chechnya and Russia during the past decade. So security has changed - McDonalds and every store has metal detectors in the entrances, and police will stop anyone with darker skin to check their papers and bags - in fear of a Chechnyan (or Arab now) attack. So with all the pleasant things of life, around the world I imagine - there is almost always a hidden, dark, very dangerous reality that lurks waiting for its opportnity to wreak havoc.
I think there may be two types of people who visit different places in the world for enjoyment - tourists and travelers. A tourist, I think, only sees and digests the good that a place offers, and is either blind to the bad, or never had an opportunity to see it. A tourist gers all the nice brochures with glossy pictures and sees photos of exotic children smiling and waving. A traveler skips the tourist agenda. A traveler sees both the good and the bad - it sees a place for what it is with no white curtains. I'd like to think of myself as a traveler during this trip, and I think that is why we had so many negative things to say of China. Or maybe I'm just a sadist who needs a slap in the face.
I'm no fan of Arabs or Muslims when I look at the world and see who is doing what to who. Call me a racist, but I think I'm a realist. But I'm happy to see that the Russians have no fear in offending one particular group in the hopes of looking nice and politically correct. Security and safety comes first to them - before any other naive ideas of "peace on Earth" and the tossing of flower petals begins. If you fit the stereotype here as a Russian enemy, you will be stopped and cornered, and not released until it is 100% certain you pose no threat. If we as Americans can learn anything from the Russians - that may be the one and only thing. If we had been as the Russians are today in August 2001, it would be a different world and I think there would be 3,000 American familes that would be a whole lot happier than they are today.
Anyways, we're off to St.Petersburg tonight on an express train. I look forward to it. And on a brighter note - we'll be in Finland in less than a week - Finland was rated the "least corrupt" nation on Earth, and its capital Helsinki is the 3rd safest city on the planet. Nice.
Cindy & John
August 14, 2005 - Day 47 - Helsinki, Finland
Even though we technically crossed into continental Europe over a week ago on the Trans-Siberian railway in Russia, it didnt feel like the true Europe until we arrived in Helsinki.
St.Petersburg, Russia was a great city. It was far more livable than Moscow. Moscow was all about seeing the big symbols of Russian and old Soviet power. Ooh and Ah in Red Square. But St.Petersburg was a very livable city. Much more European, calm, and peaceful. Very comfortable. Every street had a lattice-work of cables and wires completely covering above for the electric trams that ran around the city everywhere. And it was nice to see the Sun not go below the horizon until after 10PM, since we are so far north.
But once we arrived in Helsinki we realized just how rundown and broken everthing is in Russia. Finland is the gateway to the West, and immediately everything became so clean and ordered. No more wasting time with Russian passport control, and other beurocratic non-sense.
Helsinki is wonderful. I cant explain it, but St.Petersburg - even though it is Europe - has a feeling of control and oppression. But Helsinki is very calm and the feeling of safety is obvious. Cobbled streets along small hills. There are no sights to really see here, just a simple stroll the the small harbor city is the best thing to do. The temperature is great, and cafes line the streets with crowds until midnight. Very, very nice. Tomorrow we leave by ferry to Estonia, the city of Tallin. We would have liked to travel around Finland a bit more, but wed have to backtrack and it is very expensive here. Estonia is very cheap, and bascially unexplored by tourists. Besides, Helsinki has been packed with people because of some huge sporting event here.
Well, see you soon.
John and Cindy
August 15, 2005 – Tallin, Estonia
To save two Euro each, we decided not to take the bus and instead got up at 6AM and walked - with our 50 pound bags - two miles all the way to Helsinki's harbor to catch a ferry south across the Baltic Sea to Tallin, Estonia.
Calling it a ferry is not accurate, it was actually a huge cruise shape with restaurants and casinos and live entertainment. I was expecting something like the Staten Island ferry, but it was very big and impressive - what a deal for only 13 Euro.
Three hours and about 70 miles later we pulled into Tallin. The place is known for its ''Old Town'' - the oldest preserved medieval town in all of Europe, dating from the early 11th century. It was awesome. Tiny little walkways weaving in and out and between pastel colored buildings, with pubs and cafes all hidden in every little corner. No cars, just people walking about on stone cobbled paths. If you picture the way London may have looked in the days of Robin Hood, you'd have a good idea of how Tallin looks. The best thing to do in Tallin's Old Town is to sit in one of the many spacious squares and have a beer, and just look about at all the tiny churches sprouting up here and there from the sea of bright orange rooftops. There was a live German band playing nearby while we sat, and it was nice to hear the music echo through the tiny streets.
When you get a chance to go to Europe - skip Paris and Spain and Amsterdam and many of the other well known spots. Before two years ago I never even heard of Tallin, and it is a great place. Prices are very low too.
We're staying about 3 miles from the Old Town, and at first glance it is not necessarily unattractive, but it is not an attractive area either. Estonia once belonged to the Soviet Union, and like anything the Russians touched they destroyed and took away any soul and heart a place had. Moscow was soulless, and you can imagine that no too long ago the suburbs of Tallin were soulless too - with endless rows of ugly, concrete apartment blocks. But after having 60,000 of its citizens murdered by the Russians since 1945, the Estonians are happy to be free and have erased all that the Russians put here except for the buildings in the suburbs. The Russian alphabet is not here at all, but was before 1991. Good riddance.
Communism does not work - but for some reason lots of morons around the world - and in the United States - can't get the soul killing idea out of their minds. Fools. Where ever communism was the people suffered, but once the Russians and Chinese pulled out - as here in Estonia, in Finland, in Mongolia, in Poland, the people prospered. Its seems to me the secret to success is to kick the Russians and Chinese out. I spoke to a Chinese woman the other day in Helsinki who was organizing a protest against the Chinese communist government and how oppressive it is and how brutally it crushes any internal threat. She said how so many tourists go to China and leave with so many good things to say, completely blind to the reality of the nation. I said ''I have a lot of bad things to say.'' And she said, ''Good. I am happy. You traveled alone, yes, with no guide?''
Anyways, we'll be here for one more day and night, then we'll probably take a short bus ride to a small Estonia town on the coast called Parnu. All is well.
Cindy & John
August 16, 2005 – Tallin, Estonia
The weather here is so nice. It feels great to wear jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, and have a beer or hot coffee outside in one of Tallin's cobbled squares.
Last night we wandered aimlessly through mazes of little alleys, until we discovered a overlooking park that had excellent views of Tallin. There are few places, I think, in the world where nature and humanity can be put together and form a beautiful scene. All to often man's input ruins what would have been something a beauty, but last night, overlooking Tallin with the Sun going down, the high clouds glowing orange, the deep blue Baltic Sea, and the orange rooves and steeples of the Old Town, it was truly something to see.
Today is our last day here, and tomorrow morning we head off to Parnu on the Estonia coast. People here have told us that it is a must see in this tiny counrty, so we're going to see for ourselves.
August 18, 2005 – Day 51: Parnu, Estonia
It was supposed to only be a two-hour bus ride from Tallin to Parnu, but since our bus got an oil leak and broke down it ended up taking almost four. No worries though - we at least broke down in the countryside where the air was clean and the scenery was nice.
Parnu is a very small town. It has an inviting little center with shops and cafes, but Parnu is mostly known for its beaches on the Baltic Sea. Supposedly, its Estonia´s biggest beach resort, but it seemed quiet and empty to me.
The name ``Baltic`` would make you think that the water is freezing, but it was actually warmer than the Atlantic back home in Revere or Maine. It was kind of a ``moment`` for me, since 50 days before I was swimming in the Pacific Ocean in Hong Kong, and now, after crossing 9,000 or so miles across the Earth`s biggest landmass by land, I reached the opposite side and swam in the opposite ocean. I felt as if I had achieved something - other than quitting my job and blowing seven grand in record time.
Anyways, I can not get over how little and slowly Europeans eat. Its pathetic. What little they do eat they can barely finish - after stuggling for an hour with it using their dainty hands and gentle strokes of knives and forks. I hate it. Eat, God d#mn it! Eat! Stop being p#ssies and eat! And the men - who all look gay - are even worse. I watched four men barely eat half of a modest plate of fries and burgers the other day. I could not believe that they left such large amounts of unfinished food on their plates! Men do not do this - men eat, eat until there is nothing left but a few sesame seeds. I would finish all their dinners - all four of them - in a quarter of the time and still have room for a gallon of ice cream. And they are so particular with how they hold their forks and knives, how slowly and perfectly they cut their food. Put that d#mn knife away and toss that tiny olive in your mouth! I imagine that it would take a good dozen European men a day to finish a large cheese pizza from Papa Gino`s - any American man with any sense of pride would do the same job in under 20 minutes and be starving within hours. Eat!
After watching these people eat its no wonder they could not liberate themselves from the Soviets and the Germans without Americans and Brits coming in after a good meal of beef and potatos? And how could we ever expect men who can not finish a plate of cucumbers, without walking away in defeat, to help out the United States in fighting terrorism? It all makes sense now.
August 19, 2005 - Day 52: Joesuu, Estonia
Sorry about the red text, but for whatever reason its the only color that works on this computer.
The Moon and stars on the Baltic Sea are brighter - and bigger - than I have ever seen them, and sitting on the beach at night with a hooded sweatshirt on has been one of the highlights of this whole trip.
We caught an afternoon bus from Parnu to a small village, named Joesuu, about 20 miles north.
Soomae National Park is here, and there is nothing here but a few farms and barns, and all the rest is pristine wilderness. Soomae translates into - land of bogs - in Estonian, and that is what this place is. No mountains, just an endless collection of bogs and swamps connected by small rivers and streams with a special type of conifer tree that can grow in the water without drowning. Dont let the word bog trick you - it is very nice, and we plan on going canoeing in the morning.
Tomorrow is Estonia´s National Holiday - its independence day. Back in 1991 the Soviet Union retreated and collapsed, and Estonia became a free state. Its funny how the Russians once were the top dogs here, but now they are discriminated against and are in a way second class citizens. Any homeless person or other unfortunate person here will be a Russian, and in a way I guess they deserve to be cr#pped on now after murdering and putting Estonians in a complete state of misery for decades on end.
We will stay here for two nights, then head to Riga, in Lativa on Sunday.
August 21, 2005 - Day 54: Riga, Latvia
Scott Rossi is getting tired of reading my updates, so he says, and as a result I am encouraged to write more and more of them, with even more detail than before - but since I have a migraine at the moment I'll keep this one brief.
We took a bus from Joesuu to Parnu, and then another across the Latvian border into Riga, the capital.
Immediately you could see that this place is having more of a difficult time than Estonia is with getting rid of the Soviet influence - things are more run down and broken looking, and the people as a whole look quite miserable (anyone over 40 at least). Body odor is more prevalent here too - compliments of the large Russian population. Our hostel is located in a very run down area that makes us feel like we are in Siberia again - pot holes the size of lunar craters, graffitti, beer cans, and all the scum that comes with Soviet influence.
But on the good side, a 15 minute tram ride is all it takes to get into Riga's beautiful, medieval center. Cobbled streets. Huge, beautiful church steeples, and cafes everywhere with little candles on each table. A nice place.
Anyways, I am going to bed. Some Russian with awful BO is waiting for the computer, and my nose is burning as if I was breathing mustard gas.
August 23, 2005 – Hostel Revenge
If anyone wants to keep a postive image of me, John Salemme, I think it would be best if you did not read the rest of this email. Because if you don't know me well, you probably won't like me any longer.
Staying in a hostel is for the most part - an unpleasant, uncomfortable experience. Its very much like staying in a college dormitory. And if you already did that a half decade ago or more, it is not so attractive anymore. But the very low cost accomodation just barely makes it worth it.
But not the Amber Hostel in Riga. The Amber Hostel as so far been the worst accomodation we've had this trip - it just barely beats Wang Fat's in Hong Kong. But at least we could sleep in Wang Fat's!
To start, the Amber Hostel was located in a neighborhood that looked as if it was indiscriminately carpet bombed - and it probably may have by the Germans 60 years ago, and due to lack of money, has never been built up again. Who knows, right?
All the doors in the Amber Hostel were about two millimeters too big for the doorways, and that resulted in the constant slamming of the doors - throughout the night. Cindy and I - being considerate human beings - would do our best to slowly close our door, nudge it slowly, so not to slam it. But it seemed like every other guest was not so kind. And since the building was completely constructed with concrete - everything - echos were abundant. All sounds waves bounced around, and had no soft materials to be absorbed into. Any sound, especially an obnoxiously slamming door, was enough to make you jump out of bed as if an artillary shell went off outside your door.
And then, through all hours of the night until sunrise, drunk young men were constantly coming and going, singing loudly in French and Spanish and German. Some ran down the halls hitting doors with their fists, to purposely disturb people.
It was quite miserable. I took one night of it. And after being angry all day about our inconsiderate neighbors, I decided that I would not take a second night.
The second night the same things continued - slamming doors. Obnoxious drunk Frenchmen and Spaniards. Germans marching down the hall slamming their fists into doors - my door.
But I would have my revenge. I imagined the movie, The Terminator. I imagined kicking in all the doors, and indiscriminately slaying all inside without mercy with all assortments of rifles and arms. But lets not get too out of control, John. Lets be realistic.
I got out of bed and giggled and evil giggle.
"Where are you going?" Cindy asked.
I laughed like a villain. "The good old days." I said, and walked into the hallway. I stood in the hallway, and made notice of who was doing what and where their room was. Ah - that guy likes to slam doors on purpose, very hard. He thinks its funny. Its 4AM, and that one is singing loudly, he thinks its funny to disturb people in their sleep. And that one, I know he's the one who banged on my door a few moments ago.
So off to the bathroom I went. To do what? To sh#t on a tissue, of course. For what? To smear and wipe on the door handles of all those who have ruined my sleep for the past two nights. #5. #10. #7 across for ours. And of course the French in rooms # 8 and 9. And back to bed I went with a smile on my face
All right, my foreign, inconsiderate, arrogant neighbors - do as you please. And with every slam of a door I heard, for every time I heard one of those b#stards coming and going from their room, singing, slamming doors, hitting their fists against the doors of their neighbors, I smiled and giggled myself to sleep. If I'm going to suffer, you are as well, but worse. Go to bed now, rub your eyes, pick your teeth. Go on. Now you learn.
August 23, 2005 – Sigulda, Latvia
As I explained before, after being in Estonia and especially Finland, Riga came off as being a bit of a dump. If any of you are curious about going to Russia - but don't want to go through all the visa formalities - Latvia's capital might give you a hint of what it is like. Cindy and I are both calling Latvia "mini-Russia", for outside the well preserved Old Town, the city seems to celebrate all that forced the Soviet Union to collapse.
Most people have very haggard faces, and almost every man over 40 has booze on his breath. The trams were broken, run-down, and in need of maintenance - as were all the streets and buildings. There were quite a few begging children - but in comparison with those in China they looked like healthy angels. And as I said before, the body odor was atrocious - not since Siberia have a smelled such stench. And the outlying areas are full of high rise housing projects that make the ones in The Bronx look like Beverly Hills - some had even collapsed, or so it looked. And there were several groups of apparently homeless men sitting behind abandoned buildings (where our hostel was located) in front of huge fires, drinking their lives away.
But let me not be so negative, I know - I have difficulty with emphasizing the bad that I see. Riga's Old Town was very impressive, with many of its churches dating from the early 1200s. It felt great to wander down tiny cobbled alleyways and suddenly stumble into a tiny teahouse that overlooked quaint squares and little gardens. And there were always flowers everywhere - the Latvians love them. I counted as I walked, and it seemed like more than half of the people passing by had bouquets in their hands.
Here's some facts for you - in Latvia, Latvians are minorities in their own cities - Russians make up most of the populations in the cities. And given the history of this place, Latvians are not very trusting of Russians. I said "thank you" in Russian to the ticket lady on a tram the other day, and I got a look of hate. "They took our homes. Our names. Our dignity. Our lives." A phrase I read on a memorial explaining the millions of Latvians that were murdered and deported to Siberia during the past century by the Russians.
We took, this morning, a short train to the small hilly town of Sigulda, east of Riga. I expected that it would be like Riga - run down. But I was pleasantly surprised. It was not at all. It was clean, immaculate, and very comfortable. And the reason it this - Sigulda is made up of almost all Latvians - no Russians to be found. And how can one not come to the conclusion that Russians are in some way lacking if almost every single Russian city and town that I have seen since crossing the Mongolian border 9,000 miles ago was for the most part - a run down dump? They do a good job of hiding the reality of their nation in Moscow and St.Petersburg, but if you look out the window once you get to the outskirts you will see cityscapes that are not imaginable in America. So I must say that Latvians are a good people, only with the bad luck of being so close to Russia and its aggressive history.
Anyways, we're pretty happy here. Small hills. Lots of meadows. And there are several beautiful castles that line the nearby river here.
John & Cindy
August 24, 2005 – Sigulda, Latvia
Our hotel - The Santa - overlooks a small pond surrounded by farms. It is very quiet and peaceful, but is a bit further from the center of town that we'd like. It takes a good half hour to walk to anything. But we have no agenda and more than enough time to waste, so why not?
Today we took a cable car across the Gauja River gorge, and on the opposite side we hiked about small paths where the remains and ruins of medieval castles were hidden in the forest. We also explored some "caves" that were really nothing more than hollows in the side of rock cliffs.
Earlier in the day we met a British teacher who was traveling around the Baltics alone, and he tagged along with us and later insisted on buying us dinner - pizza. As with the British that we traveled with across Siberia, he teased us about the usage of the English language in America.
Jokingly slamming his fist down on the table, he said sternly "This is our language! Our words! You've ruined all the hard work we've done over the centuries cultivating the English language."
"How so?" I asked.
"What the h#ll is a bloody trash barrel? We call them bins, trash bins, as you should. A barrel is something found on a navy vessel that fires two and three ton projectiles at enemy positions." And rolled his eyes and drank his beer. "Trainers! Not sneakers! Petrol! Not gas! Gas is something I will have come bloody morning."
"Do you have sidewalks, where pedestrians can walk alongside a road?"
"A sidewalk, what the bloody h#ll is that - some kind of Yankee dance? We have paths. Paths I say." He shook his head back and forth in frustration. "You take away our bloody colonies, and then you destroy our language. You wear slacks, or trousers - not bloody pants! Pants are what women wear when they are trying to get shagged. If you go around London saying that you have a pair of pants on you'll get your bloody head bashed in."
"Anything else?" I asked.
"A bloody lot there is. Fanny packs. Sidewalks. Pants. Gas stations. Spring jackets. Sneakers. Trash barrels and trashmen. I can't believe my bloody ears."
I'm going to bed,
John & Cindy
August 26, 2005 – Salemme’s Mind
I think I have to explain myself. People who know me understand the way I think, and people who don't know me so well may think that I am being a bit billigerent, overly critical, or maybe even bigoted with my travel "updates".
For starters, my mind is unfortunately never at rest. Nothing is ever simple to me - for bad or worse. Everything is complicated and full of some hidden detail. For example, I can't simply sit and have a tea in front of a garden and do nothing but admire the flowers and the cool breeze. I will admire the simple beauty of it like anyone, but at the same time my mind will be wondering how this species or that species evolved to what it is today and why. What led to this. What led to that. I will look at beautiful churches and not just see it for what it is, but will imagine how many people built it, is it made of steel or brick, and on and on. And the same goes for every aspect of what I've seen on this trip.
Before going to any place, I read up on it. Its history. Economics. Bla. Bla. Bla. So when I see anything, I start to pick it apart and try to understand why it is the way it is. Children begging? I won't just take it from the surface as an unfortunate situation, but will think about it until I come to the conclusion of why there are children begging. There is a factual reason for everything. Just talking about getting ice cream and drinking tea is not interesting to me (that's really all we do all day) - the details are.
Latvia, as every other country we have been to so far, has been interesting and good in their own ways. Other than getting away from the office, I took this trip to explore the world and see it for what it is - but that doesn't mean that a negative thought or idea won't come about. I'd find it hard to believe that any person from a Western nation could go to many of the places Cindy and I have been to over the past two months and not say in the back of their minds from time to time, "My God, what an awful situation."
Latvia is a great country - but only for about a decade. It has seen far more misery and death and atrocities in the past century than it has seen peace and stability - as has Estonia and Mongolia and China. To come to these places and not think about what happened here, would miss the point entirely of traveling here. It would be like going to beautiful Poland, going on and on about how wonderful of a place it is, but not mention the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps. I mean, just 3 miles from where I stand now, 100,000 people were murdered by Nazis - and every old woman and man I see walking about with their tired, worn faces lived through it - and I can't help but to wonder what horrors their old eyes have seen. Europe has a lot of history, much of it bloody. And if a city has seen 80 years of misery and oppression, and 10 of peace, what has more weight?
For the most part, this place, Latvia, is just like home. Cindy and I go for tea and coffee. Sit in cafes. Watch young teenagers wearing New York Yankees hats and Eminem T-shirts walk by. Its not that all different - and really not that interesting. The only things that stand out that are different from home are the negative things, things from the eras past, so you have to mention them. I came to see the world, and that includes many bad things, unfortunately. There's a gap - those of the new Eastern Europe of capitalsim and freedom, and those of the old - misery and oppression. And you can clearly see the difference when you watch old men wandering about the streets, with a look of confusion on their faces, and then teenagers who look more American than Americans fly by talking on a cell phone.
And a lot of the what I say is pure sarcasm - but it may be difficult to see it in writings. Its not like I'm sitting at a computer, full of rage, going on and on screaming about the Russians and Chinese and how Europeans eat. Most of it is done in humor, with some truth, of course.
So, I appreciate everything I have seen more than most would - and what I have seen certainly makes me appreciate my home more than I did three months ago. I didn't come here to be comfortable like I am back in Boston - but if you keep your eyes open wide enough you'll certainly see many things that you can be critical of - and should be critical of.
Anyways, enough with this overly long explanation. I think I'm starting to embarass myself.
While we took the train back from Sigulda today, in the forests I could see old men and women carrying baskets, poking around here and there. I figured they were picking berries or something. Then some got on the train and sat across from us, with baskets full of wild mushrooms. They were bringing them into town to sell in the markets. And I started to laugh out loud at myself, about how I was worried that some may see me as a sadist or a bigot of some sort, and how all my opinions and thoughts will someday be nothing more than a basket of mushrooms.
In about an hour we catch a bus to Vilnius - Lithuania's capital. It'll take about four hours to get there. Its raining now, and I'm in an internet cafe full of young kids playing American video games, wearing American clothes. Its weird.
John & Peter
August 28, 2005 – Day 61: Vilnius, Lithuania
I'm in a particularly angry mood right now. In fact, I have not been this f#cking angry in a long time. So, given the topic of my past few emails, this one will fit right in perfectly.
I just handed over my camera's memory card to a woman working in an internet cafe here in Vilnius, and not only did she fail to put its contents onto a CD, but she also destroyed the memory card along with its 189 pictures. "Format Error". So, no pictures from Lithuania or the last half of our trip to Latvia. There is nothing on this trip - other than my life and Cindy's - that I have protected more than my pictures and camera - so what has happened just now is something that could almost bring me to murder if there were no consequences.
I explained it to her.
"I am vedy sorry. I did nothing."
"F#ck you you didn't. I give you the card with 189 pictures, you give it back with none. F#ck you, and I'm not paying a cent for the next two hours of service."
"I did all normal. Nothing is wrong."
Bullsh#t. She knew she destroyed it, because when she gave it back to me and said nothing and quickly scurried away and tried to hide behind a computer in the back of the cafe. Liar.
The manager is coming in an hour to try to remedy the situation, but all is lost. These half-a#s bast#rds can barely comprehend the idea of hygene, never mind computer technology. Maybe if I'm lucky one of these skinny, chic, anti-American Russians will try to be a hero and make an attempt to get me out of here. I hope so, because I'm in the mood to smash something, and one of their faces will do just fine.
So what did we do today? We went to the Lithuanian Museum of Genocide - a very pleasant experience, if I say so myself. On exhibit were all the kind and beautiful things we human beings have done to each other in the past 150 years. Jews. Armenians. Cambodians. Lithuanians. Arabs. Tens of millions of innocent lives brought to a miserable death, but not before years and months of living in utter pain and suffering. Beheadings. Boiling in acid. Disembowelment. Sawing infants in half. You name it. We've done it.
So here's my take on the World - not that it has ever changed, nor will it: There are two kinds of sorry souls on this planet. Both are equally pitiful. One believes the world is a place of light and peace, with only the occasional shadow of darkness and evil casted upon it. The other believes that the world is a place of darkness and evil, with the occasional dim beam of light and peace shining on it. It is obvious that I am one of the latter. And it is irrelevent that I, as is with everyone I know, have lived a wonderful life, a good life - never knowing true misery. I am but one of six billion people. My life is the exception to the norm. My one life is just a tiny beam of dim light shining on the dark Earth. The World is in pain. It suffers greatly day in and day out - and I barely know a miniscule fraction of the truth. Perhaps it is a weakness that I can not take my life as it is and completely enjoy and cherish it without thinking about the reality of everything around me. Perhaps those who suffer would be angry at me for not appreciating completely the life that I have. But does it really matter?
There was a place for guests in the Genocide Museum to sign and put their comments down. One said a short, but truthful statement "Oh, how I pity the human race. God help us."
Well, at least I feel a tad bit better now about my destroyed 189 pictures.
Goodnight, and God Bless America - the place where the Darkness is held at bay the most.
John & Cindy
August 30, 2005 – Day 63, Warsaw, Poland
Since we left Hong Kong we have not seen a city with such a modern skyline as Warsaw. It was totally unexpected. It is busy, dotted with dozens of skyscrapers, and no less a modern, capitalist city than Boston. But it also had an Old Town that was just as nice as Tallin's. But unlike Tallin, Warsaw was virtually completely destroyed during War World Two, and now, it has been rebuilt in all its splendor. At many street corners they have photographs of the area as it looked in 1945 so you can compare the difference, and it is amazing. When people talk of the destruction in Bagdhad, it is nothing compared to how Warsaw looked after the Russians and Germans fought here.
Warsaw is also the place where many of the worst atrocities committed by Germans against the Jews took place [Schindler's List and The Pianist took place here], and it is easy to imagine columns of German soldiers and tanks rolling down the wide streets.
But here is the most interesting thing that happened to us today. While we were having tea in the Old Town, in one of the many peaceful cafes, a dozen or so police cars and unmarked black BMWs pulled up. And into the cafe came several secret service looking men with ear pieces. A few minutes later, a bunch of guys in suits came in and sat down. Apparently, the Armenian President was amongst them. Crazy, huh. So we had tea with the Armenian President today.
Tomorrow we leave for Krakow, and Auchwitz.
Cindy and John
August 31, 2005 – Day 64: Krakow, Poland
I forgot to mention something else we did while in Warsaw the other day.
I was curious why there were so many men wandering about the street outside of our hostel with horribly hairy backs and shoulders - and then it occurred to me that the Greek Embassy was directly across the street. And then I realized that there were dozens of other Embassies nearby - the French, Russian, and many, many others, including the American.
We tried to go into the American Embassy in China and Lithuania, but couldn't because it was "off hours", but in Warsaw we gained access.
In China and Lithuania there was very little security, maybe because the hosting countries are not involved in America's fight against terrorism. But Poland is a big ally of ours, and has thousands of troops in Iraq. So as a result the security was high. Since China, we have not seen any security with more than pistols, but at the American Embassy in Warsaw most had assault rifles, and patrolled along the high, concrete wall. And all the auto gates had huge barriers with ditches, and spiked pavements, probably a defense against potential suicide bombers in cars. Lots of guns, to say the least.
But inside it was normal inside. Just pictures of different States on the walls "Idaho - a good place to start", and such - and lines, and lines, and lines of Poles waiting to get visas to come and live in the United States. A nice compliment.
Well, now we're in Krakow, the supposedly gem city of Poland. And it is nice. It has a very nice Old Town, and its a great place to sit outside and have a drink.
The train ride from Warsaw to Krakow was about three hours, and I could not help but to think of the millions of Jews and other "sub-humans" - according to Hitler - that more than likely were transported in cattle cars on the very same rail that we were on. It was eerie. And I imagined if the same hills and villas I was looking at were some of the last things millions of Jews saw before being brought to Auchwitz a few hours later, to be gassed, or worked until there were no longer useful, and then gassed.
Poland has had an awful past - and only in the past decade have they been in control of themselves - with good reason to be so proud. First the Nazis - with all the brutality and murder that they brought, and then the Soviets, with all the oppression and cruelty they had in store. Not until now have I understood Eastern Europe so much. The end of the War to most people was the end of misery, but for Poland, it was just a continuation. The only thing that changed in 1945 was that their evil master had changed faces. The Russians were not shy to begin where the Germans ended.
September 1, 2005 – Day 65: Oswiecim, Poland (Auschwitz)
Auschwitz is the German name. And in some way, I feel that in using that Nazi-given name I further insult and degrade the estimated 2 million human beings who suffered and were murdered there with unimaginable brutality.
I am not sure whether I believe in Heaven and Hell, but I do know, that if there is a Hell on this Earth - the tiny town of Oswiecim felt its evil fire.
The World said "Never again!" - yet it has many times, in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, and is happening at this very moment in Sudan. Yet what do we do? Nothing.
My feeble, insignificant words can not explain the place - nor can anyone's. So I won't say any more.
September 5, 2005 – Day 69: Zakopane, Poland
We ended up staying in Krakow for four nights instead of the original three because we had trouble finding a hotel room in our next destination of Zakopane, but we eventually got there by bus. But we had no regrets, since Krakow was such a nice place to be.
Zakopane is a small Polish town on the Slovakian border about two hours from Krakow, way in the south of the country in the Tatras Mountains. And unlike the mountains of New England, the mountains here are mostly very jagged, and exceed heights of 7,500 feet.
We rented an entire apartment at a mountain chalet for less than fifty bucks per night, and it is amazing. Its outside of Zakopane, and has amazing views of the mountains. It has a hot tub, a balcony that has perfect views of Mt.Giewont (1,899 meters, or about 6,000 feet) - which we plan to climb tomorrow morning - and is nothing more than a perfect place to recuperate from the miserable past few weeks that we've stayed in slummy hostels. And at night - the stars are incredible.
The computer here is a bit slow, so I could only attach one picture. Its of the view from our room. Hope it gives you an idea of how nice it is here.
Anyways, tomorrow, we hope to get up to the tallest peak that you see in the picture, which is Mt.Giewont, and the next day (Wednesday) we have bus tickets into Slovakia, which is only about an hour away - to the border at least.
See you for now,
Jindy (instead of putting one of our names first, its least prejudice to combine them into one - besides, after being with each other 24 hours each day for the past 69 days, I think we have become one person - and Jindy is that person)
September 8, 2005 – Day 72 - Levoca, Slovakia
September 6th was a special day for me. Nine years ago to the date, my young life was almost taken from me for nothing more than young, male bravado - so to be hiking through some of the most amazing alpine landscapes I have ever seen in my life, to reach the 1894 meter peak of Giewont in the Tatras Mountains of southern Poland, to touch the large white crucifix at its top, and to look across the horizon and see nothing but jagged peaks, was a truly glorious moment for me. If things had been ever so slightly different, I would instead be under the ground in a dark, cold box. So of all the days, on September 6th, I try not to take anything for granted - as we all so often do.
Zakopane, Poland is a place of devout Catholics. On almost every shop and home is the picture of the late Pope John. You can barely go anywhere without seeing his face. They love him, and I think he especially loved Poland, his home country. We watched a funeral procession go by, and it was in a way a very beautiful scene. In the front, two older men walked with large crosses in their arms - one cross with Christ on it, the other draped with a purple ribbon. Behind them were two young boys with bouquets of flowers that seemed to be bigger than them. Then came along a horse drawn wagon where the coffin was, covered in flowers. And then, behind all this walked slowly about a hundred or so people, in complete silence. It was one of the highlights of Poland.
From Zakopane we took a bus across the amazingly mountainous border, into Slovakia. On the Polish side were deep, dark forests of pine, on the Slovak sign were the scarred remains of a forest, blame to the lumber companies.
Now we are in a tiny, walled, medieval town named Levoca. It is very interesting, and in fact the most exotic place, to us, since leaving Russia. And the most interesting place of all is the large amount of Roma people - gypsies - who live here permanently. In most other places, I have only seen them begging in the streets. But here they are completely mixed into the society of Slovaks. They are mysterious to me, because it is not completely clear where exactly they came from. Some claim that millenias ago they came from Turkey. They do resemble the Kurdish people. Its a nice place.
Off to Kosice tomorrow.
See ya for now,
September 9, 2005 – My Nightmare
It was very late at night. The sky was smothered by black clouds. No light from the Moon or stars shone through. And when I walked along the tracks through the main gate of Auschwitz, all I could hear was the sound of my footsteps along the old, rusted steel rail. As I walked further into the camp, the rows and rows of long wooden barracks pushing off to the horizon to my left and right, I began to hear a very subtle humming sound. I continued to walk further into the camp, along the tracks, in the direction of the sound. It appeared to be resonating from the far side of the camp, at the exact opposite end of the gate - where the remains of the gas chambers and crematories were. The closer I walked to the end, the louder the humming became until the sound seemed to turn into more of a high-pitched roar. My heart beated, and I was vaguely aware that I was dreaming, but the fear in my mind was very real. I walked closer and paused, staring off into the inky darkness. What appeared to be a cyclone, or a tornado, spun rapidly from the pit that once was the Nazi gas chamber. The roaring sound continued, growing more and more high-pitched until it almost sounded like the squeal of countless pigs, belching angrily, so many that individual screams could not be heard. Wind gushed from it. The gray, spinning cyclone thinned as it gained altitude above its base, and continued on and on until it reached the smothering blankets of clouds far above. The clouds dimly glowed red where the cyclone joined them, and every so often the muffled flash of blue lightning glowed from deep inside the cloud cover. And at that moment I realized that the cyclone was made up of thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps two million individual segments that swirled violently around, screaming ragefully in the most wretched of voices. Each one was shaped like a tattered piece of black cloth, thicker at the front end. As they spun around, they climbed the cyclone, and continued on apparently all the way above to where they met the dark clouds high above. The sound was deafening. One of the segments broke off and darted towards me with great speed, and for an instant I saw the pale white, translucent face of an emaciated woman, her mouth wide open, her face wrenched in hate and fear and anger, a scream of utter despair flew forwards at me. I screamed and ducked, and the thing darted off and rejoined the cyclone up. And at that moment I saw something, a figure dressed in a hooded black robe, a large, husky figure, peering at me from behind the rubble of the nearby crematory. I saw it, and it saw me. I could only see the outline of it, and for one flash of an instant two red eyes glowed hatefully at me, and no sooner than I saw them, did the cloaked figure angrily pull its robe around its body and face, and storm out of sight behind the rubble. I woke up in bed with a scream, my back covered in sweat.
Now I realize - as much as any human who has never known true horror can - the awful magnitude of the satanic crime that was committed at that place.
September 12, 2005 – Day 76: Budapest, Hungary
Budapest is actually two cities. Buda, on the western shore of the Danube River is home to most of the area's governmental buildings, museums, and historical sights, while Pest , on the eastern shore of the river, is where the "life" of the place is, as I was told by a few locals. It is packed with bars and restaurants and cafes and everything that makes a European city great.
We are staying in Pest under the best of circumstances. We're paying less than 50 bucks per night for a whole apartment, with a full kitchen, full bathroom, bedroom and living room, and a second bedroom located in a loft high above the living room. It is so nice. And if things couldn't get better, they have, because we are located in the heart of Pest , in the most central pedestrian area. 5 Star Hotels are everywhere around, and how we lucked out with this place I don't know. When you walk out our front door, you are there, right in the city. Its unbelievable. We don't have to go anywhere to see the city, because we are in it.
Things are a bit expensive here, but if you go off from the tourist mobs you can find relatively cheap food and drinks.
Lots of Americans too, terrible people they are. Haha. So loud, and always getting in the way and asking stupid questions. "Sally, why don't you come over here with my fanny pack, I need my wallet." The middle aged American tourists are like mobs, as they are led from place to place by a guide holding a sign high up in the sky with their tour number on it. Oh, how awful. And the men seemed to be so defeated. Defeated by life, and most apparently, by their wives. They walk around with slunched shoulders, and mope from place to place in their khaki shorts and tucked in blue polo shirts, pale skin loosely attached to their faces, while their wives say, "Charles, get over here. We paid a lot of money for this, and you are to stay here with me and listen." or "Now get it right this time. I want chocolate, not vanilla. And when you come out wait here. I'm going into this shoe store, and I expect you here when I return." If I block out the fact that I know English, the voices of all their nagging wives sounds not very unlike a horde of chickens in a coop. Nothing from syllable to syllable sounds different, just a constant, nagging, high pitched clucking sound. Buuuuuk. Buk. Buk Buuuuuk. Buk. Buk. Buuuuuk.
"The KGB, still watching you." is a common phrase here on billboards, making fun of the county's ugly past with Soviet Communism.
Supposedly, the Russian mafia is very big here, especially in our neighborhood. They own all the clubs and bars and fancy restaurants and many brothels and strip clubs. But its safe, so long as you're not a lonely, single man traveling alone. You see a lot of suckers getting led into different clubs by men with Russian accents. Groups of American and British men seemed to be the most idiotic when it comes to this. You go inside, talk to a pretty Russian blonde, 20 minutes later you're 500 bucks poorer. Thank God for Cindy. If I was here two years ago I'd probably wind up dead in some brothel's restroom with busted eyes and severed fingers, with nothing in my wallet but lint and broken dreams.
Well, we have two more nights here. Then our destination is unknown. We'll let you know. We have about 30 choices. Slovenia . Zagreb . Vienna . Sarajevo . Venice . Ukraine . On and on it goes.
John and Cindy
September 12, 2005 – TV Commercial
We have seen the same commerical a few times, in several countries. It starts off with something like the following, in English, oddly....
"You too can live the American Dream. You too, can live, work, and study in America. America is issuing 50,000 lottery green cards this year, perhaps you will be one of the lucky few. Call now, or go online at www.gotoamerica.com."
And all the while are blazing pictures of the American flag blowing strongly in the wind. The Statue of Liberty standing proud. Girls in tiny, red, white, and blue bikinis running on a beach. Happy foreign men holding footballs in their hands dancing on the beach, or in clubs with beautiful blondes in their arms.
September 16, 2005 – Day 80: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina
Originally we were going to go from Budapest to Osijek in Croatia, and then go on from there to Sarajevo to break up the long train ride, but since we could not find any hotels with available rooms in Osijek, we mistakenly decided to just go straight through to Sarajevo non-stop - and it was miserable. It was a twelve hour train ride with no sleeper compartments, and to make matters worse we had to share our stall with three yappy British girls with big, ugly bunions on their feet. Exhausted and in bitter moods, we arrived in Sarajevo yesterday, just before sunrise.
I read that Bosnian people are some of the friendliest people in Europe, and when we arrived we realized that they are. As soon as we were off the train people virtually ran up to us when they saw our confused faces, and insisted on helping us. They made telephone calls for us. Found us taxis. It was all sincere, and a bit overwhelming. One woman after sending us in the right direction towards our guesthouse, embraced and kissed us over and over again.
And statistically, Bosnia is actually the safest country in Europe, so put aside all your thoughts about the brutal war that took place here a decade ago. But make no mistake - a war did take place here, and apparently it was brutal. Most buildings are covered in bullet holes. Some have been patched over, so many have white plaster spots all over them. Some buildings are even more heavily damaged, and even have people living in them with some sections of the building livable, and others hollowed out by shells. The hostel we almost stayed at actually has an artillary shell crater in the side of its pink wall about five feet across. You can also see where shells landed in the streets and where the shrapnel flew in all directions. The longer we stay here, the more and more we notice bullet holes and shell craters. Now it seems to me that very few buildings have no bullet holes. We saw an old lady setting up flowers on her porch yesterday, but her porch was not actually a porch, but a ten foot wide shell crater in the side of her building. But life goes on, so it seems here.
The only real danger here is mines. The city is fine to walk anywhere in, but you would be a complete fool to walk off the pavement outside of Sarajevo. Our travel book listed mines in the ''annoyance'' section - a hardly find losing a leg or being blown into a hundred pieces a mere annoyance. I have not seen them yet, but apparently its normal to see cattle and other farm animals dead, blown to pieces in fields, too stupid to read the ''Danger - Mines'' signs.
So, for Sarajevo. I have not yet been in a more comfortable place this trip. It is in a beautiful, mountainous setting. The people are unbelievably friendly and polite. It is quiet yet very busy. And I actually feel a bit ashamed for thinking that this place would be a dangerous place to visit. The people and place deserve a better reputation than they have. In fact, it could be the only place I could ever visiting again in Europe. Sarajevo is in a valley, and along the mountain sides are dense collections of little houses with orange rooves. It is like a miniture Istanbul. It is clean and orderly. And is not even run down, in fact, most other places we have been to have had the appearance of being more run down and poor. For a place that has suffered so much so few years ago, it is amazing just how normal it is. East Boston is actually more run down, more dangerous, and far less attractive than this place.
It is the only place in the world, supposedly, where you can find a church, synogouge, and mosque all within 100 yards of each other. And at noon, it is awesome. All at the same time the city's church bells ring and the city's mosques give the Islamic call to prayer. They seem to be competing with each other, but there are more mosques for sure, but the church bells give a good fight. At several sovenier shops they sell T-shirts that say ''I am Muslim, but please, do not panic.''
The Serbs were the aggressors in the war. Once there was a place known as Yugoslavia, run by Serbs. In 1991 the country fell apart, and Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia declared independence from Serbia. The Serbs, angry at loosing their empire, tried to bring those three nations back under their reign, but failed. At first it was about territory, but it soon became a brutal war of ethnicity that was only rivaled by Hitler's. Serbs began killing Bosnian Muslims for no other reason that they were Muslim. Out for revenge, Bosnians starting killing Serbs just as brutally. And finally, the world stepped in a few years late after about 50,000 deaths. Thats about the gist of it. Many mass graves of woman and children are still being unearthed, and I hear that it you did go hiking and had the luck of not stepping on a mine, it would not be a surprise to find a human skull laying about in the woods. If you have any interest in learning a bit, see the movie ''Savior'', starring Dennis Quaid - it shows the realistic brutality of the awful things that happened here. Watch it.
We are staying in the Old Turkish quarter that is lined with mazes of cobbled streets and coffee shops and broze shops. Very nice. We saw lots of American flags displayed here too in shops - we were the ones that did actually push out the Serbs. I pointed one out to a Muslim shop owner, and he said in good English ''Of course I have American flag.''
So all is well. Its great here. Wonderful. I will actually regret leaving Bosnia for all its coziness and human warmth.
John & Cindz
September 17, 2005 – Sarajevo
It is exotic enough here to be interesting, but familiar enough to be comfortable. There is nothing more enjoyable here than to have a thimble sized ''cup'' of strong, Turkish coffee, while the city's hundred or so mosques and dozens of churchs erupt with their bells and chants.
You see some women wearing mini-skirts and jeans, while other wear muslim robes and head scarves, all sitting at the same table laughing and chatting with each other. This place has actually given me hope for the human race. Of Sarajevo's thousand year history, only three of those years were filled with ethnic tension. So when I think of Iraq, why can it not happen there? Jews, Christians, Muslims, devout and not, all living in peace together, inter-marrying and peacefully coexisting.
Sarajevo is one of the few cities in the world where the Christian West meets the Muslim East. And it combines to make a very invigorating place.
September 18, 2005 – Bosnian Hospitality
As I already said, the hospitality of people here is unbelievable. We are staying in a small, private guesthouse on top of one of the many hills that overlooks Sarajevo from the south. Its run by a retired mathematics professor and his wife and son. When we arrived, they hugged and kissed our cheeks, and set us up in one of several rooms they have - very cozy. But there is one problem - they have a dog that never ceases its barking, especially at night. So, as a result we have not had too much sleep. At first we were going to ask for our money back and go elsewhere, but thought that it would reflect poorly on our character, so instead told them as nicely as possible about the dog, Hans. Without hesitation, they immediately vacated and converted the professor's den into a bedroom for us on the top floor. Its odd being treated so nicely.
Another topic - snipers. The hill that are guesthouse is located on is mostly inhabited by Serbs, while the valley and city below is filled with Muslims (Serbs were generally wealthier and could afford the more expensive housing). During the War, Serbian snipers casually picked Muslims off from their porches and rooftops from sometimes a mile away. Women. Men. Children. It didn't matter. The snipers also liked to kill people one day, and then the following day pick people off during the funeral of the person they killed the day before. A messy business. The street that was most readily hit by snipers was dubbed ''Sniper Alley''. Its odd how people during the War here went about their day rather normally. People would walk calmly, shopping, holding hands, and then when they came to Sniper Alley they would make a frantic run for the opposite street corner, and then go about their day like it was normal. Cindy and I have been on Sniper Alley every day, and its odd what it once was.
I admit, I was happy when saw a prayer rug in the old professor's living room. That means that he is a Muslim - not a Serb sniper - and not a murderer. But more than likely he was involved in a lot of hairy situations living amongst Serbs up on the hill. You never know, because many innocent Serbs were murdered by Muslims here. I did a lot of thinking when I talked to him the other night, wondering what he may have done during the war a decade ago.
Hans - the dog - had his mother killed by Serbs. Shot and thrown through the family window for fun.
September 19, 2005 – Day 83: Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina
There have only been three times during the past 83 days that the word ''amazing'' has come to my stubborn lips. The first time was in southern China when I first saw the famous ''camel-hump'' limestone mountains from a ferry boat on the Li River. The second time was when I went hiking in the jagged Tatras Mountains of southern Poland. And the third was yesterday, during a three-hour bus ride from Sarajevo to Mostar, in Bosnia.
The terrain was so steep that the bus had to continuously go in and out of tunnels along a road, and on its right flank was nothing but an abyss. And every time the bus came out from one of the dozens of tunnels the most amazing landscapes I have ever seen in my short life revealed itself to me. Jagged peaks of black and white stone jutted up at almost vertical grades. Thick, white streams of clouds swirled around the peaks and through the deep valleys slowly like snakes. And at the very bottom of all this was a fast moving torrent of emerald-green water. A few points had small clusters of deep green pine trees along the shore, but for the most part there was nothing but sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high. It truly looked like something out of ''Lord of the Rings''. It was amazing.
Every so often we would see a small oranged roofed farm house, or what was left of one, completely blown to pieces by artillary - and that just added to the odd mystique of this place.
The fame given to Mostar is its Old Turkish bridge that spans a steep, fast moving river. It was destroyed during the war, but has now been rebuilt. It is a small arch bridge, right out of a fairy tale.
In Mostar the scars of war were far more obvious than in Sarajevo. Bullet holes everywhere, and most buildings - some nothing more than a pile of rubble - had at least one or two gaping black shell craters in their sides.
My visit to Bosnia, besides amazing me with its beautiful scenery and ultra-warm people, has done one thing to me - it has shown me the hypocrisy and ignorance of the Western World. And I am ashamed to have shared in this mass hypocrisy and ignorance.
The UN (whose sole purpose is to provide security and safety for the world) stood by for four long years watching the Serbian, fascist military murder 200,000 Bosnians. In the end, it took NATO only five days to force the Serbians out of Bosnia. Nice, but a bit late, if you ask me. Sarajevo suffered the longest siege in human history - right under the eyes of UN troops. Sarajevo was declared a UN ''safe-zone'' - yet for four years more than 1.2 million shells fell on the city, leaving over 11,000 people dead, 1,600 of them under six years old. In my opinion, anyone who gives the UN any credibility is nothing more than an ignorant fool. If the action - or inaction - of the UN in Bosnia does not persuade you, look into what they have done and are doing in Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Somalia - nothing.
We had a really cynical tour guide the other day in Sarajevo. But that is good. To be cynical, in my opinion, is to be honest. To be politically correct is to distort the truth to spare offending those who deserve offense. And I would rather live the remainder of my life in offense than be fed lies.
The tour guide went on like this, as he casually smoked a cigarette, ''When I was explaining how Serbian snipers were shooting innocent Bosnians from this very cemetery, a stupid British girl - perhaps as stupid as some of you - asked me 'how could they disrespect the dead here?', and I said, 'the dead? Serbian fascist b#stards do not respect the living, how could you dare say something so stupid'. Many people believe that the war here was by a bunch of crazy fanatics, killing for no other reason than for ethnics. Muslim. Serb. Orthodox. But I will tell you, that is a lie to simplify the war. How could it be about religion and ethnics? Look at Sarajevo below you, it is the only place in the world other than Jerusalem, that the world's four largest religions have places of worship less than 100 meters apart. Serbs fought with Bosnians here. Orthodox fought with Muslims here. Against who? Against Serbian fascism, that is what. The Serbian-communists wanted to rebuild a Serbian empirem just as Hitler wanted to build a German empire. So for for years Sarajevo suffered, while the UN and the world watched, and did nothing. The UN is a worthless instituation. And what were you doing in June of 1995? On that date in northern Bosnia Serbian paramilitary guerillas killed about 50 children in an orphanage. And then, to put the icing of the cake as you say, they took 24 infants from the baby room, took them outside, tossed them into a pit, threw petrol on them, and burned them - alive. And remember, that same town was declared a UN safe-zone.'' And on and on he went.
At first I was offended, but them I did realize that he spoke the hard truth - not politically correct lies. If I was offended, good, I should be.
Bosnia is a wonderful country, and I think the world - especially the powers in Europe and America - should hold their heads in shame for what they ''did not'' do in Bosnia. How can we truly go on and on about our woes - New Orleans, September 11th, the London bombings - and expect people to care and listen to our sob stories, when we have allowed such crimes to take place without lifting a finger, when we could have so easily, so easily, so simply have stopped them from ever happening. Remember - in the end it only took five days for NATO to put an end to a four year long murder spree. Why did NATO not act in the very begining?
September 22, 2005 – Day 86: Dubrovnik, Croatia
I would have liked to stay in Bosnia for a few more days because of the country's warmth, but time and money (mostly money) is running out, so we had to move on.
Although Mostar, Bosnia is less than four hours away from the Croatian coast by bus, it might as well be on another planet. Its a completely different world - the people, the landscape. The very green, temperate region of Bosnia gives way to dry hills, and then suddenly the bright blue Adriatic Sea comes into view. The word ''amazing'' almost came to my lips, but not quite.
If I did not know better, I could have thought that I was on the Italian coast. Grapes. Olives. Its just what you would expect of the Mediterranean. The mountains run steeply run to the rocky shore, and all along are the small sea houses of the Croatian people.
Dubrovnik's Old City is an ancient Venetian city, and walking around inside its ancient walls, it looked just like Venice. Tight alleys went this way and that, and everywhere there was a small cafe or bar to discover. It has definately been one of the highlights.
We are staying about one mile from the Old City on the top of a hill with excellent views of the mountains and sea. Today, like yesterday, and like tomorrow, we swam in the warm sea. It is almost October, yet the people here go about lives as if they are permanently on vacation at some sea resort. Excellent.
Oh, about Sarajevo - I never explained. The picture of the Latin Bridge is where the Duke of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire was killed by a Serbian assassin in 1914. As a result, WW1 began. And without Germany's defeat in WW1, the environment would never have been able to ''produce'' Hitler. So, no assassination of the Duke in Sarajevo 1914. No WW1. No WW2. No Cold War with the Soviet Union and the United States. No Soviet collapse. Quite a differnet world. And all because the Duke's driver took a wrong turn in Sarajevo, and just so happened to come across the assassin who's plans had already been destroyed, but upon seeing his target rejoiced and shot away. And so here we are. It felt eerie standing on the spot that decided the world's fate.
Well, off to Italy on Sunday by ferry.
September 23, 2005 – Day 87: Dubrovnik, Croatia
For us, 87 days of traveling is quite a bit. We are getting tired and worn out. So at times, our patience with everything is low - Cindy's is especially low with me and all my foolish quirks. I am a very irritable person to begin with, and now, I have become a 62 year old man who complains at the easiest opportunity.
If you were to ask me for advice on taking a long trip, I would only say one thing to you - bring wipes. What kind of wipes, you ask? A#s wipes, and lots of them. Trust me, with all the miserable trains and buses, lugging heavy packs around in the hot sun of China, a good wipe is all that a man can ask for at the end of the day.
And so, with my patience running low, the absence of wipes is not the absense of wipes - it is an unbearable atrocity. Imagine me, with my pale, unshaven face, finally sitting down on the pot after 30 hours on a sleepless, hot, smelly, BO ridden train in Mongolia, and when the deed is done and there are no wipes - not one to be found.
''Cindy, where are the wipes?'' I yell frantically from the meter by meter squat toilet bathroom, my voice a muffled echo.
''If there's none in the blue bag, we're out.'' Cindy answers from the other room.
''How the h#ll is a man supposed to look in the mirror with dignity, if he can't at least have one God d#mn wipe?''
''That's it. I can't live like this. We got everything we don't need - pens, brushes, hairspray, cans of peas and bottles of honey, but not the one d#mn thing that we do need - a nice, clean, moist wipe.''
''This is how you get hemoroids the size of genetically enhanced strawberries. You know that? Jes#us Christ. This d#mn squat toilet. I'm p#ssing all over my feet in here! Savages! Villains! D#mn this place!''
''We'll just have to get some in the morning.''
''A bit late, now that I got my pants to my ankles. Of all the things for us to forget - wipes! I can't even keep my balance in this fly infested hole.
So if you know what's best - get a nice, wholesale box of aloe wipes. You won't regret it.
September 24, 2005 – Toilets & Showers
Sure, its important to talk about all the places and people we have come across while traveling, but if you really want to know what its like traveling for so long, you have to understand the difference between the toilets and showers we use back in America and those that are used in other parts of the world – its a significant part of the experience.
Forget about the shiny, white porcelain throne you sit down on every night after having a nice meal - and forget about how much you enjoy taking a hot shower each and every morning. The only times Cindy and I have enjoyed those luxuries since leaving home is when we nearly handed over our wallets to the front desk of the dump we were staying at.
For starters, let me explain to you what a Chinese ''squat toilet'' is. What it is is this – a hole in the ground surrounded by generous amounts of urine and excrement. Instead of flushing what you sometimes get into the hole, there is, if you're lucky, a little bucket of putrid water to splash around and wash out the area around the hole. Most times it takes extreme effort to keep your rear-end balanced over the pit because of all the slippery
''residue'' left behind by other people who ventured before you. And if you have the bad luck to use a squat toilet on a fast moving Chinese train - God help you. Because if you don't like getting the urine and excrement of other people on your pants and hands, you may as well just go in your pants like a newborn baby. You'll at least smell better and be cleaner.
How a squat toilet can ever be said to be superior to a ''western'' toilet, I know not. But know this - on the Russian train that went from China into Mongolia, there were both squat and western toilets to accomodate the variety of travelers onboard. And on all the lids of the western toilets, were the mucky footprints - both of shoes and barefoot - of people (certainly Chinese) who did not how to use it, and simply perched up on the lid like a cat to go. To them, a western toilet was difficult to use.
Russian toilets, although they look like ours, function very differently - simply, inadequately. Every one we had, when flushed, flushed with such rage that most times whatever was put in the bowl, came splashing out completely, when flushed. So as a result, urine and excrement coat the floors of most Russian bathrooms - unless you're staying in some 1st class hotel. And usually it only takes a minute or so for things that you did not put into the toilet, to come floating up. And what a surprise it is when I, sitting on the toilet, flushed. I was almost pushed against the wall and knocked unconsious.
And now for showers - forget hostels. I showered at the Amber Hostel in Riga, and I felt like I was showering in a prison. There must have been twenty of us in there - and oddly, the European men seem to choose the stalls that did not have curtains, ''see through'' as they were anyways. They loved to frolick and giggle and throw bubbles all over each other. Not my game.
I have not had a real shower in two months. All of them do not have a proper nozzle attached above. You have to hold the nozzle in one hand over your head, and lather yourself with the other. Its frustrating. How hard is it to put a little bracket above to hold the nozzle? Once, I completely wrapped the nozzle hose around myself, and for an instant could not move. Then the nozzle snapped off, and the hot water increased at just the right time so that the hose, flipping around madly like a dying snake, spayed boiling water all over the place. I had to jump out of the tub for cover.
One more thing - the lack of shower curtains. Most places do not have them. So as a result, the floor, everything, your clothes, the sandpaper toilet paper, are completely soaked. How can a lack of shower curtain be superior to having one?
Anyways, we are leaving for Italy by ferry tomorrow night. Should be in Bari, Italy, by early Monday morning.
John & Cindy
September 28, 2005 – Rome, Italy
I think you can all imagine what Rome is like - its a big, expensive, somewhat chaotic city. The food is excellent. Canollis and coffee and pizza stands - so good they are. I've enjoyed looking at the Coleseum and other Roman ruins, and look forward to seeing the Vatican tomorrow, but this place has not been my favorite place, for sure. Its just too big and full of tourists.
Getting here, on the other hand, was something worth remembering. Or maybe forgetting actually. It was a miserable experience. And within the realms of normal living, it was one of the worst nights of my life.
The ferry from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Bari, Italy, was nothing more than a refuge ship. The ship was so packed with people - each paying about $50 each - that the few stools (yes, stools, bar stools) and plastic chairs available were quickly taken. As soon as the gates to the ship opened up, people stormed on to it as if it was the people were escaping a war zone (most probably knew of the inadequate accomodations). China, for the love of God, provides better for its people. So with no seats left, and no room left on the dirty floor to lay down on, Cindy and I had no choice but to spend the 9-hour night, curled up under a towel, on the exterior deck of the ship. Its still quite warm in this area, but not warm enough to sleep outside with a beach towel. To say the least - it sucked, and by the time I got to Italy's shore, wearing two pairs of jeans and three t-shirts and a sweatshirt, I was in no mood for anything. It makes for a good story, but at the time I was no a happy camper. For all those who know me - imagine how badly I ranted and raved. Haha.
The idea of spending the night on the deck of a ship during a summer night sounds romantic and majestic, but the reality was awful. But on a better note, I saw two fantastic shooting stars, and for the first time in my life saw the Sun rise. And it was not just the night ending and light begining to fan through the clouds, it was the actual Sun rising. I could first see the very top of its pink orb barely above the horizon, and rather quickly, it could be seen rising higher and higher. It was so pink. And eventually it got to a height of about three times its diameter above the horizon, and then instantly its pink orb and light sparked into bright white light. It was awesome, and maybe it was even worth spending the night on the deck in misery.
John & Cindy
October 6, 2005 – Day 100: Zurich, Switzerland
Its been over a week since I last wrote last, and that is because of the ridiculously high costs in Western Europe. We can barely get by for less than 70 bucks a day here - each. In all honesty, I won't be coming to this part of the world again. If you want a real traveling experience - go to eastern Europe or some place on another continent. The prices we are paying simply do not justify the costs.
Since leaving Rome, we went to Venice for a few days, then on to Innsbruck (Austria) for two days, and we just arrived in Zurich this morning after spending a day in Liechtenstein - a tiny country barely five miles across between Switzerland and Austria.
First - Venice. If the cost of going there did not border on being rape, it would have been a decent time. Also, if the place we had stayed at had a toilet that worked (we had to pour water from a bucket to flush it) it would have been a decent time. If the place we stayed at continued to have power after using more than one light - it would have been a decent time. And if the power had not gone out while climbing then seven-foot ladder that led to the dumpy room - it would have been a decent time. Further, if I had not fallen down that ladder in the dark after the lights went out, dislocated my shoulder, busted up my face and hand, Venice would have been a decent time. And then the thief that rented us the room tried to act as if it was no problem. And to top all that off, the Venicians preyed and extorted money from us and every other tourist at every possible opportunity. Venice is a unique place - its scenery - but after leaving, I felt as if I had been raped and robbed, and overall, I give it a big thumbs down.
Italy as a whole, in my opinion, is not a place that I felt good about after being there. I felt as if tourists were not seen as guests, but as money machines that are there to be taken advantage of for nothing more than the money in their pockets. A tourist is the biggest compliment a place can get - but in Italy they are taken granted for, and abused, in my opinion. Since leaving China, I have not encountered theives and conmen and liars with more skill. A big disappoint.
Now for Innsbruck. Wonderful. Its a beautiful, small city surrounded by enourmous snowcapped mountains, with a rushing river going through its center. The people were great, were sincere, and did not extort from tourists - as happened to the south in Italy.
Liechtenstein is only five miles wide and barely eight across. We really only went there to say that we had - one more country checked off the list to go to. But it is really nice. Snowcapped mountains. Very orderly. Friendly people. Its so strange that it is an actual nation, completely sovereign, with only 30,000 people as citizens - good citizens (a lady let me use her bicycle to run errands on - a complete stranger).
Zurich, like in Austrian, is almost perfect as far as its streets and buildings go. Ultra-modern and clean. Its is almost eccentric, to have such a city that appears to have no flaw. But ask about the taxes, and you'll understand why - high as can be.
Well, the trip will soon be coming to a close. I figure we have about two or three weeks left - at the most. Off to Paris tomorrow night for a few days, then to Normandy, and then to Britain. The mission is almost complete. Sometimes, I can not believe that we have crossed the largest land mass on Earth by land. Such a distance. Hong Kong seems like a dream. Off for now.
Cindy and John
PS I think you can always judge a place by how many book stores there are. The more the better a society is - the more educated and aware of their surroundings they are. A place that doesn't value books is going nowhere. Zurich is full of them - and that is probably one of the reasons why Switzerland is one of the better nations to live in in the world.
October 11, 2005 - Day 105 Bayeux, France (Normandy)
Technically, the MISSION was completed successfully today. That MISSION, was to cross the worlds largest land mass, Eurasia, using nothing but surface transportation (buses, trains, and ferries). And that is what we have done. We have gone from Hong Kong on the Pacific Ocean to the Normandy Coast in France on the Atlantic Ocean, without ever leaving the surface. Its been a long, interesting, and at times frustrating journey. MISSION complete.
To me, everything else has been secondary. The places. The people. Paris. Rome. Sarajevo. Moscow. Xian. Tallin. Mongolia. And on and on the names go. All that does not matter so much. So far we have gone to 18 nations, and countless cities and towns. We will go to Britain to fly home, but that is irrelevent, since the MISSION has been completed. We have traveled some 15 thousand miles by surface. In the end, we will have made one complete circuit around the Globe. But all that mattered to me was to meet the challenge in crossing the Eurasian continent by surface, everything else was nothing more than a side effect, a pleasant side effect, usually. Like they say, the destination is not what counts, the getting there does.
So, from my stand point, the trip is over. We have less than two weeks left to travel until we arrive back in Boston and get plugged back into the system. And it is a system. Even way out in Mongolia I could feel its pull, sucking me back towards it. Like a ball thrown up into the air, however high, eventually, it will fall back to the ground. It is a mathematical certainty. Unless you are Henry Thoreau, living in a cabin in the woods, you have to be part of the system.
Enough with that madness. I think I am mad, you know? Ask Cindy, and she will tell you. She will say that John is mad. I have had so many thoughts that I have considered revelations late at night while traveling on overnight trains and laying in uncomfortable, bug ridden beds. I think they are revelations, yet they are probably nothing more than quirky ideas of idiocy. I hope you have enjoyed them. I have.
But, when a visitor enters a lunatic asylum, it is the visitor that appears mad from the perspective of the lunatics. So who is really mad? I imagined myself the other day, floating above the Earth in a spacesuit. I looked down on the Earth, knowing that all the problems the human race has ever encountered are on that little white and blue sphere. And I thought, anyone who would want to live down there must be mad. Anyone who wants to live on that place must be crazy. It is impossible for it to be any other way. The world is mad. And anyone that the world thinks is mad, is actually sane. You figure it out.
Today, we went to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. It is a very moving place. And if you call yourself an American, yet do not feel a sense of patriotic emotion rising in your soul as you walk down isle after ilse of white, marble crosses, while the National Anthem is played, you really are not an American. Maybe you are French, but you are not American, for sure. There are 9300 men buried there, all who died in Normandy during the Second World War. Watch Private Ryan if you have not heard of Omaha Beach. Like Auschwitz, my feeble words can not describe the place. So I will stop.
There is a lot of negative talk abroad about America today. All of Europe seems to dislike us. The French especially. But I noticed something today. There was a chart that listed all the American cemeteries in Europe. Tens of thousands of men killed and buried throughout the continent. In France, there are 12 of these cemeteries. 12 of them! Each one filled with thousands. One, had over 15 thousand. Belgium has many. So does Italy and the Netherlands. And I repeat, all of them are full of thousands of men, American men. Not one of them had less than 2 thousand graves. All from the First and Second World Wars. So next time you hear someone from Europe putting the United States down, especially if they are French, ask them one question. The question you must ask them is this - How many cemeteries are there in the United States that are filled to the brim with European soldiers who died fighting for American freedom? Not one. Point made.
October 14, 2005 – Nottingham, England
Nottingham is about half-way between London and Scotland. We're staying here with the two English guys we met while traveling on the Trans-Siberian railway. Good guys. For the most part, we are just moping around here, doing laundry and having coffee. But I guess Robin Hood spent some time here. Probably see his statue later.
It felt great to not have to listen to any other language than English. I was so tired of not knowing what was going on. English. English. English. So nice.
''It was nice speaking English with you.'' I said to our taxi driver.
''And to you as well, kind Sir. That'll be five quid.''
October 17, 2005 – London, England
This will certainly be the last email I send out concerning my travels. The trip - my escape to Hong Kong - is over. After this, a lot of you will probably never hear from me again, so long as I walk the face of the tiny Earth. And with that news, I bet a lot of you have just breathed of great sigh of relief. And with good cause, I admit. No more of my ranting politics. No more of my cynical humor. No more of my emotionally unstable outbursts. If I were anyone else but myself, I wouldn't want to listen to me either.
But do yourself a favor, suck this rubbish up while you can, because this is it. Trust me, as tired as some of you have gotten with me over the past 111 days, believe it when I say it, I am twice as tired of myself - maybe even three times as tired of myself - as you are. At least you can simply delete my email from your inbox and not listen to me, but I have to walk away from this computer, carrying for all eternity the festering, steaming brain that rests in my thick skull. Where ever I go, there it is. Feel pity for me.
What's London like? London is London. Its as simple as that. Its not Paris or Beijing. Its London. There.
Its difficult to explain what this journey has been like. In fact, I think it is impossible to truly describe how it was to you in words. Sure, I can tell you what Beijing or Mongolia or Italy was like, so far as I experienced it, but that does not capture this kind of trip. It would for a ten day vacation, but not for a four month long foolish exploit, which this has been.
But here is one word - detachment. Four months to some is not long, but for us, it is very long. We feel completely detached from the society we were part of - and are strangely still part of - during the end of June. We are coming home not because we are necessarily homesick, which we aren't. We are coming home because the idea of moving along further to some other nameless place is uninteresting. The distaste we had for home and its social forces are still alive and well, but now, the distaste we feel for traveling has simply become stronger than the original distaste that forced us to leave. We are choosing the lesser of two evils, in our opinion.
Dark? Cynical? Sure, but what else could you expect from me.
I once thought that it was simply boring to sit in an office and stare at a computer all day, and listen to the bumbling conversations of my co-workers. Now it seems utterly appalling. I know that it is life. You have to be in the system to exist and live. I know. But that fact does not make it any less appalling.
I would love to sell my home, take the equity, and buy a tiny wooden cabin way up in the north woods of New Hampshire or Maine, and stay there forever - so long as Cindy would come along - which she wouldnt (I have already asked). I wouldn't work, because I wouldn't have any bills. Who needs electricity for a 5 Watt light bulb when you have 70 tetra tons of hydrogen fusion roaring above you? And what I would do is this - I would sit on my steps and look out into the forest. I would watch the leaves fall, the grass grow, and the chipmonks carry nuts around. I would study them all day, and at night I would stare at the stars with my mouth gaped wide in awe. And then I would write epic stories of these things. Long stories, in pencil on yellow paper.
But that is not going to happen.
I was worried before leaving on this trip that Cindy and I would get on each other's nerves. We'd fight, I thought. We'd learn to dislike each other. There have been some frustrating times - due mostly to me, the reasons clearly spelled out to you in black and white over the past 111 days. But for the most part, it was been excellent. Simply excellent. Now the worry is this. We both share it. For 111 days now, we have not been more than an arm's length apart. Day and night. And soon, we will be. I will have to work. So will Cindy. And no longer will we be next to each other - literally. How will it be? To be honest, its not so frightening, its just one word - heartbreaking.
And that is why I am so sour about getting plugged back into the ''system'' again. What kind of world have we humans created for ourselves in which two people who love each other can not see and embrace each other whenever they wish? I think if there is anything to be sour about, its that. You should be sour too. And if you don't understand what I am talking about, its only because your are too deeply plugged into the system, and unaware of how bad you have it. Pity you.
Well, this is it. Everyone - most everyone - told me I was a fool to go on this trip. That it was impossible. It was irresponsible at my age. I would regret it. And I actually thought they were right, and almost didn't take this risk. And now, in the end, it was so simple to do. It was in fact, easy. Simple as pie.
So if there is a lesson I can give you (which there probably isn't) - let it be this. Do as you wish. Live your life exactly as you want to. And ignore anyone - slap them in the face if needs be - who tries to get in your way. Take advantage of what so few people in this world have - you have what they desire.