Moscow!! The seat of tsars, the nexus of the Soviet Empire, the still beating heart of a new paradoxical Russia. What wonders awaited in this enigmatic capital? I spilled out of the train station into the evening air, and looked up. Above me was a bright shining neon sign: MOCKVA. Through the back gate, I had snuck into the continent of Europe.
It is so odd to stand here. The city that was the sworn enemy of the West for a good part of the last century, the backdrop for Clancy spy novels, home of Russian-accented Bond villains, and the occasional Xenia Onatopp. Who can forget the old news footage of Stalin looking proudly over a goose-stepping Red Army escorting sickle-adorned ICBMs? Weapons that would be targeted at New York City, Washington DC, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The reality: Stalin
But the wall had crumbled. In that heady time, Russia had experienced a brief glasnost of hope, their own version of the Arab Spring. Yet, just as it is unfolding in the Middle East now, the country had fallen back to autocracy. Why had Germany become a flourishing democracy yet Russia embraced a new-age strongman? Were the people not yet ready? Was it the lack of alternative institutions? Was it the collapse of the economy? Maybe it was all of these thing that led a man like Putin back to power.
Was this was a vision of things to come for places like Egypt?
Red World: The extent of the Soviet world at its height in 1980, with orange countries targeted by the USSR for "socialism"
Face it: we miss our Xenia Onatopps
Most tourists I had met on my travels seemed to parachute into Moscow's Red Square, snap some pics,
and then head straight back to the airport. And then in the hostel or in the
bar they tell me they think Moscow is just an average city, nothing special.
Russians are rude. It doesn't feel safe.
I'm not the greatest traveler in the world. But I have to been to quite a few international cities. And in my humble opinion, Moscow is kickass.
It took me a few days after I'd left to puzzle out my feelings. As one wanders through a garden of decapitated Stalin busts, or walks up and lays their hands on the peeling paint of the knock-off Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, or gazes up at the glittering gold domes of the Kremlin, one cannot help but feel a complicated, powerful emotion. Part of it is the simple thrill of being here, of strolling free through the land of a former blood enemy. One of my first memories as a very young child was my Dad telling me in absolute seriousness, as Reagan's image flickered on an old wooden TV, that we could all die any day. This was due to the fact that our house was located less than 12 miles from one of the largest military installations in the Midwest: Wright Patterson Air Force Base. It was a simple fact that when nuclear war rained down upon the Earth (and in those days it seemed quite possible), there would be an enormous wall of fire obliterating everything I had ever known. Who needs ghost stories as a child when you thought you might wake up to a mushroom cloud outside your door?
Da Comrade! Beard worthy of good Russian soldier!
But it is more than just that. Part of it is the voyeuristic schadenfreude of walking among the crumbling remains of Empire. When I climbed through the glorious over-grown temples of Angkor Wat or Tikal, I could not help but feel a certain thrill that at one point in time, this very place had been one of Earth's great Centers of Power. In in every sense of that word, Moscow for the better part of a century was the Rome of a red world.
Symbolism nyet?: Russian children atop the fallen dictator
Like Rome, the USSR had collapsed. But unlike Angkor Wat or Tikal or Rome, it had all happened within my own lifetime! The ruins were fresher than the paint on an '85 Mustang.
Finally, and this cannot be emphasized enough, what has emerged from the Communist ashes is as fascinating as any other place on the planet. Moscow is a city pulsing with energy, brimming with thumping clubs and flower-filled parks and beautiful ballerinas and mind-bending churches and astoundingly good street musicians.
In part I of this multi-part series on Why Travel?, we
explored the idea of what it means to Travel, and hinted at its mysterious ability to be a wonderful transformative experience. And also poked some fun at how one’s
perspective changes (for better or worse) as one travels for longer and longer periods.
In future posts, I will muse on why traveling is very akin to a religious experience and even can give tantalizing glimpses of the meaning of life itself.
But before we get into themes of unification, I need to address something that instead tears our world apart. Today in part II, we discuss what some call "evil": the
nature of human conflict. We see the global effects nonstop in the news, in the
form of battling religious ideologies, bickering political parties, racial tension,
up to the penultimate cause of mass human suffering: war.
Chechnya, 1996. This happened only 17 years ago, when I was in college.
But it also consumes our personal lives on very small scales. When I surf in the waves, I have witnessed at certain breaks
the sight of someone on a stand-up paddle board sending regular surfers into a
blinding rage. One time I saw a stand-up paddler, who has every right to access the
public resource of the ocean as much as any surfer, get tackled off his board
and beaten in the water for simply belonging to the wrong group. He had done
nothing wrong. He had not even attempted to catch a wave. He had simply paddled out to
the line-up. But it didn't matter: some of the other surfers instantly
classified him as an “other”, an enemy. And that was all it took for him to get
pummeled and nearly drowned.
There is a popular SUP hat that says: "Blame Laird"
My favorite example of this powerful human tendency
to form strong bonds within a group, while simultaneously developing anger
towards those outside the group, is the recent South Park episode, Goths vs Emos. The two clubs hate each other with a passion, with no recognition that to
an external observer they look and behave identically. It is only
members of these nearly identical sub-groups that can tell the slight
differences, and it is these “small differences” that are the cause of
enormous passion and conflict. I will come back to the idea of the small difference, which is an important one. (It was a root cause of the genocide in Rwanda.)
But first, I want to step back and re-introduce a powerful idea
from the book Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson (brought to
my attention by my brother’s fascinating all-things-science blog, Praxtime). The idea is this: all groups, surfers, goths, races, religions, nations, and even the Kardashians, can be
thought of as “tribes.” We have a genetic urge to join Tribes, which provide a sense of belonging and identity to individuals. But more importantly, in the ancient world being a member of a tribe provided shelter and protection from the harsh environment, predators, and the most dangerous thing out there: other tribes. The idea of group selection mandates that evolution favored the tribes that could better organize, defend, and conquer other tribes. Yes, that's right, we have been genetically selected to be good at killing one another. One could even argue this makes us inherently evil. This behavior has been well documented in Jane Goodall's famous studies of one of our closet living relatives, the chimpanzee (we share 99% of the same DNA), where warring groups commit mass murder of other tribes.
Kiteboarding: clearly the next step in our evolution is flight!
When one steps back and looks at human history, one can easily view it as an never-ending sequence of conflict. What is the Old Testament if not a documentary of one tribe killing and conquering many other tribes (only to get destroyed by yet another tribe)? War was how the Roman Empire was founded, Islam spread throughout the Middle East, and how the United States itself was created.
Is it such a surprise, then, that even in this modern era we have living victims of the Holocaust, never-ending conflict in Israel/Palestine, and the threat of nuclear war itself still hanging over the world? We were programmed to fight, to compete as tribes, and to hate the "other." The other can be obvious: a different skin color, another religion. But it can also be so subtle as to be nearly non-existant! In the Rwandan genocide, the conflict is generally described as a massacre by Hutus of Tutsis. But research has shown that in fact the "Hutus" and "Tutsis" were both of the same tribal lineage. There was absolutely no way to distinguish between them except for subtle changes in dress and behavior. People will find differences, a reason to hate the "other", even when none objectively exist.
And I cannot help but think of my own life. The idea of the "other" being bad comes about from one thing: ignorance. Ignorance that is reinforced, distorted, and made stronger by other people within your own group. Harmless things such as how I identify with my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes and think other teams stink. How when I finally moved to California and met other transplants, we all patted ourselves on the back and looked down on all those left behind in "fly-over" country. And more harmful things, such as how Americans joke about the spineless French, or the humorless Germans, or the greedy Chinese. And of course, they love to call us "stupid Americans."
So we return full circle to the root of the problem: the infallible belief that your tribe is somehow superior to the others.
What, then, is the solution? One can read books on other cultures, or be forced to mingle with "others" during college (which is one of the reasons it is such a powerful tool for opening the mind). But there is nothing quite so shocking and revelatory as being swallowed within another culture. Seeing them in person eat, work, play with their children, sing songs, dance, cry, laugh. Seeing them as not the "other", but as fellow human beings.
The famously pure clean air of Beijing
My first impression of the Chinese was not a good one. I had flown through Beijing, where the air was so dirty the control tower was barely visible through the smoke. The airport security was rude, yelling at me and others in line. I was pushed around by mobs trying to buy tickets or board trains. An old lady even hulked up a loogie and nearly hit my shoe with it when she spat. I was constantly harassed for pictures and called a "hairy monkey" for my long hair and beard. Chinese even sounds harsh, with the sharp tones built into the language itself. And so it was, after my first week in China, that I found myself in a bar in the town of Lijiang, wondering how much longer I could take of these people. And that was when I found myself next to a table of drunken Chinese businessman. They had buckets of Buds, which were outrageously expensive (they were an import), mounds of delicious food, and were clearly out to raise hell. When they saw a foreigner, a laowai in their bar, what did they do?
They waved their arms at me, escorting me to sit down with them. Buds were placed in front of me, plates of of food, and soon we were introducing ourselves with pointing fingers and broken attempts at Chinglish. They showed me how to pound blocks of wood to show applause for the dancers on stage, taught me some songs, and even managed to convince a group of girls to sit down with us. One of the older men, with a big grin, clearly indicated that I should try to flirt more and get some kind of ... action. Somehow, they managed to get me up on stage to see if an American could out-chug a Chinese man. (I couldn't, much to the delight of the crowd.) By the end of the night, we were arm-in-arm, walking down the street to their hotel, singing and slapping each other on the backs. They hadn't let me pay a single kaui for the entire night.
One night in Lijiang. Somehow I ended up on stage in a beer-chugging contest
That next morning, the Chinese faces looked different to me. Instead of rude, impassive faces, I saw worried, hard-working people, stuck under an autocratic regime, uncertain about their future. And when another old lady spat out a big loogie, I smiled. What's so wrong about that anyway? Health-wise, it's better than swallowing. Maybe we were one the ones doing it wrong!
Seeing the "other" first-hand, the visual imprint of African girls in Tanzania joyfully dancing, the sounds of the bells of flowing Balinese dancers, the begging dirty desperate urchins of Delhi or Manila's slums, the Japanese college kids in Manga-style clothes partying, the sublime interior of the mystical Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the wonderful flavors of fresh Falafal off the streets of Aqaba, watching protesters face death to find democracy in Tahrir Square in Egypt .... these experiences shatter the barriers we erect in our minds of tribe. Of the other. Of the smugness that somehow my group, my religion, my nation is better than yours.
Go go Izakaya!! One Dumb Bum partying with the Anime crowd in Shinjuku
I firmly believe that if everyone in the world was given the opportunity to travel the world for a year there would be no more war. How could there be? How could a dictator rouse masses to chant "Death to America!" when everyone in the crowd had a chance to milk a cow in Ohio and learn the Texas 2-step? How could a white supremacist want to kill black people after spending a week lounging on a beach in Belize with Rastafarians smoking ganja and learning how to "go slow"? And I truly believe that even Palestinians and Israelis would be able to find common ground if, like brothers who fought their entire lives as children, they were able to spend some time apart, see the world, mature, and come home with a fresh set of eyes.
There are other reasons travel is an "inherent good." When it comes to realizing that we all live on Spaceship Earth, and that we are destroying it during this very generation, nothing is more shocking and convincing that seeing it with your own eyes. I have watched climate change at work in the melting glaciers of Nepal and Kilimanjaro, and the dying acidifying reefs of Indonesia. I have seen the last of the wild Orangutans in Northern Sumatra, as they battle to survive a forest being burned for palm oil plantations. I have seen Chinese smog so thick that is is unbreathable. How can one deny climate change when they are a 1st-hand witness? How can one not be motivated to action when one walks across the mighty Khumbu Glacier, fed by Mount Everest itself, and finds it reduced to a melted pile of boulders?
The Rongbuk Glacier, fed from Everest, 88 years apart
Thinking of yourself as part of a tribe is not necessarily a bad thing. Just as humans are group-selected to hurt the "other", we are also programmed to help the "in-group." We are capable of incredible generosity, of service, and even self-sacrifice to our close friends and family. Thus, although we are programmed to be evil and fight "the other," we are also programmed to be good to those within our group! The trick then, is this: you must expand your notion of "tribe" to all of humanity. The only way to do this is to open the blinds in your mind that you are not even aware of; to see the other nations, peoples, and races as they see themselves. To walk with them, eat with them, laugh with them, dance with them. That is when you achieve the realization, in a deep, visceral way that cannot be obtained from a book or movie, that we are all in the one tribe of human beings.
It is this transformation, this awakening, that long-term travel can make possible.
An odd thing happened to many astronauts who returned from space. When they looked back and gazed upon the Earth, suspended in the blackness of the void, they encountered a view that forever altered their idea of humanity. It was coined the "Overview Effect."
The Overview Effect: if you haven't seen this short film, you must watch it.
It is this idea of unity, of being one with all other people, of being one with all living things, that is the very definition of an enlightened being. And this is the subject of my next post.
The elephant in my brain is, well, let's just call him different.
I want to take a short break from telling travel stories to discuss the elephant in the room. Or perhaps it is just an elephant in my brain. One that has been tromping around in there, nagging at me for years since that time I took my first ever virginal 6-week stint abroad right after college.
It's a simple question: Why Travel?
Why spend the money I could have used to buy a nice house, a nice retirement, a better car, the American Dream itself, and instead throw it away to bumble around the world with a wannabe hippy head-band?
There are many simple, vague, cliched answers:
1) Travel educates you about other people and cultures
2) It educates other peoples about your culture (for better or worse)
3) It makes you "grow" as a person, aka "To find yourself"
5) It's freakin' fun and exciting dude. Duh!
All these answers are true. But each of these simple explanations gently tug at something big. And when you pull on these strings, the curtain falls away and reveals a door to a deep nameless "thing", a light that shines in the eyes of all my fellow backpackers. We all feel it, we somehow "know" it. And yet, it is only now, after years of reflection, that I am starting to grasp the tip of what that "thing" actually is.
To answer "Why Travel?" in a fulfilling, meaningful way, I will break up this essay into several posts. Each will ask a question, and then attempt an answer that builds upon the last. First,
1) What is meant by "traveling"? A solid definition gives us context. Next,
2) What are the root causes that separate cultures, cause men to kill one another, and even commit genocide? Tackling this fundamental issue leads to clearer insights about why travel is an inherent "good" in the world. Then,
3) What does it mean to be a "spiritual" person in this modern world where science has already displaced God as the reason we are all here?
4) Finally, what is our purpose in life, and what questions will we be forced to ask ourselves as we die? Yes, I will attempt to weave Death itself into my answer. Hopefully this silliness doesn't result in a wormhole which rips apart this blog, or the Earth itself.
Right then. Let's see if I can sum up: I am about to attempt to explain the human condition, the nature of good and evil, and the meaning of life and death itself. Shouldn't take too long!! Let's get started.
What is the Definition of "Traveling"?
In previous posts, I have poked fun at the various "levels" of backpackers, which I modeled after the Tae Kwon Do belt color system. You can read the full post here. But to quickly summarize, here they are:
White Belt: "Well burn my britches and pinch my cow-tits, doesn't anyone here speak English?!" "Hey how come you don't take dollars you weird Mexican-speaking Euro?" "FML France has a McDonalds? Thank big baby Jesus I was about to starve."
Yellow Belt: "I can't believe I'm actually in front of the Sydney Opera House. Let's take 300 different poses of me jumping and doing handstands for my Facebook profile pic!" "Woohoo, I just did a bungy jump in New Zealand! I am such an adrenalin junkie and world traveler, and guess what, did you know Aussies don't actually drink Fosters? I can't wait to write a 500 word Facebook post about that."
Green Belt: "Isn't Lonely Planet so totally awesome?! We just met and it turns out we are going to all the exact same places at the exact same times!" "Woah, you're also going to the Full Moon Party? It's going to be like totally sweet, all 10,000 of my new Aussie BFFs from Ko Phi Phi will be there too!"
Blue Belt: "Fuck the Full Moon Party. It's so fucking Lame. All you first-time Southeast Asian backpackers on holiday for 2 months are noobs. You have no idea the stuff I went through in Mumbai. Can't you see all my Indian baggy hemp pants and beads and how much cooler and wiser I've become in my entire year away traveling? Um by the way bro, can I get a lift to the Full Moon Party, I need to sell some beads to help me keep traveling. So, like..... nama-fucking-ste. And stuff."
Red Belt: "Hmmm, this Travel Group on Facebook says that in order to better monetize my blogosphere and tweet-verse, I need to increase ad revenue through differentiating my travel brand." "Hello, Outside Magazine, yes I was wondering if you would be interested in helping become a sponsor in my charity campaign to install solar panels in villages in Northern Sumatra while saving the Orangutans. In exchange I'll provide excellent content and high-resolution photos for a feature. What's that? <sigh>. Fine, I am OK with sleeping at the Smiling Bedbugs Hostel. Sorry? >^< Sure, bunk beds it is. <sob>"
Black Belt: "Hi, my name is Anthony Bourdain. I get paid bags of gold bricks to travel wherever the hell I want, to do whatever I damn well please. They could film me eating cockroaches while taking a dump on the camera lens and I would still get paid my bonus. Hmmm, actually, that's a great idea for my next episode!"
Anthony, I love you. I hate you though. No seriously, I really love you.
All jokes aside, the point of this post is that a 1-week vacation to Hawaii, which can be a great break from work, is not the kind of travel I am talking about. The myth of the "American Dream" leads people to believe that this sort of vacation is some kind of pinnacle of life. But of course, the problem with the 1-week vacation is that it takes a few days to even get over the jetlag and start to unwind. You may be lucky to get a day or two in this relaxed state, where your life suddenly stops ticking by on a wristwatch. Maybe, just maybe, your mind drifts back to your college years, your big plans about how you were going to change the world. Or, more likely, they don't because you are happily tucking into your 6th Rum-Runner and are about to pee in the pool. Either way, just like that, you have to start thinking about going home, the bills, the boss, the kids, the errands. The clock begins ticking again. Your window of Zen slams shut just as it was about to open.
As you will see in the next few posts, true Travel as I have defined above is over a long enough time period for that clock in your brain to slow down, become quiet, and, if you are lucky, for it to rest. And that is when surprising, amazing, and wonderful things become possible. (click here for Why Travel, Part 2: The Nature of Human Conflict)
Some of my loyal readers (all 3 of you!) know that I occasionally drop Pamela Anderson boob references into my writing. Now, I didn't intend to have this as a running inside joke. It came about organically because whenever I met Asian men of a certain age (over 35), as soon as they learned I was from LA they would ask me about Pamela Anderson. If I had ever met her. Did she still live in the sacred land of Malibu, jiggling as she ran down the beach? I cannot over-exaggerate the number of times this has happened. The reach of Baywatch at it's prime in the 90's was mind-boggling: it was syndicated in over 72 countries including Mongolia! Believe it or not, for a brief time it was the number 1 TV show in the entire world. Even after I left Asia, I would get asked about Pamela in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.
To be completely honest, I don't even think Pamela Anderson is all that attractive. Her current Jupiter-sized boobs are ridiculously over-sized bags of air that match what is between her ears. But she is fun to write about because she is such a cartoonish figure, a real-life Jessica Rabbit. So, please don't be offended by this, or anything else I write. And if you are offended, keep reading because something else I write will hopefully offend you even more on the next post.
I was adrift on a spaceship, hurtling through space and time, detached from planet Earth. Outside the window the earth whirled by. A field, a town, a church. Then an almost identical field, town, and church, as if I was in caught in one of the those old Road Runner cartoons where the background is on repeat.
Today was Day 6 on the Trans-Siberian. I was in Russia, but I was not IN it. Instead, my body was encased in this bubble train, neither here nor there, passing through but not touching, smelling, hearing, or tasting. At times I felt like I was on the Starship Enterprise and we were at warp.
The stars slide by effortlessly, you see them pass, wondering what is going on in each of them... are there families there, living out their lives? What are they doing, this day you fly by? What would it be like to stop and visit, to eat with them, to hear their stories? 7 time zones, thousands of miles, millions of people living on the land I crossed on this journey, and I had met less than a handful.
But as Jack Johnson said, these tracks don't bend somehow, and I got no time to get where I don't have to be...
Russian train stations are like nowhere else I have ever been. Freshly painted in Wizard of Oz pastels and white trim, they cheerfully welcome you to each new city.
Candy-cane stations of pastels and cream
I could not wait for the great moment when we crossed the Ural mountains and entered into a new continent: Europe! I watched the kilometer markers, set by our distance from Moscow, drop one-by-by until according to my guidebook we would break through the invisible barrier. 3-..... 2-..... 1-..... I trained my camera on the window, ready for a spectacle. And then..... a tiny little obelisk whizzed past, gone in a second. Whaaaat?! Was that it?! I looked at my camera, the stupid thing was blurred from the motion.
Huh. Welp, I guess I was now in Europe. So much for the mighty Urals, which turned out to be mounds of dirt. Calling them "hills" would be generous.
You have to look pretty close but it does indeed say <=Asia, Europa => in Cyrillic.
Maybe I had secretly expected balloons to fall from the ceiling. At the very least, someone to look up and say to me, "Right-O Mate! After 6 months in the Orient, you are back in the good old Western Hemisphere!! Congratulations, ya made it you old dog! Welcome Home, here's your free Hot Dog and a real sit-down toilet. Enjoy!"
The Homicidal Sleeping Companion
Instead, I looked across my cabin at a single old man, staring back at me with a little crazy in his eye. And then, he did something quite bizarre. Grinning, he pulled a velvet bag out from under his seat. He said something questioning in Russian, waiting expectantly. I had absolutely no clue what he meant. So, I just nodded and said, "Da."
This was apparently the correct answer, and he began telling me a long story, all in Russian. Now, this is not the first time traveling where an old man or woman next to me on a train begins telling me their life story as I nod knowingly, not understanding a single word coming out of their mouth. But for me this is fun, because in my mind I get to make up whatever story I want. Here's the translation I came up with as he prattled on in Russian:
<Russian-accent> "You look like good boy. My name Boris. I come from long line of reindeer herder. My son not want to herd reindeer. This make me very upset. You know this feeling?"
Me, nodding knowingly: "Da, da da."
He perked up at this acknowledgement. "So I decide I go into Army. There I meet beautiful wife Olga. She has 3rd nipple, do not tell anyone zis!" He chuckled and waited. I laughed and squinted back: "Da, da" again nodding.
He paused and leaned in, lending dramatic effect to this next part. "But, circus come to Boris' town, and Olga, she run off with knife juggler!! Can you believe zis??!" He raised his eyebrows and waved his hands. I gave my best pitying look.
"So, I am on this train today to take my revenge! Ha!" The crazy look had returned to his eye. I didn't know what to say. He opened the velvet bag, and out came a huge knife with a hilt made of antler. My jaw dropped. This was way, way too weird. My fun little translation game had suddenly, scarily, come true. He jabbed the knife in the air a few times, then slowly slid it across his neck, as if slitting a throat. "Good knife for killing thief who stole my sweet chubby Olga!" I didn't have do much fake translating on that last one.
I nodded again slowly. "Da."
This seemed to please him, and he handed the knife to me. The antler could have indeed been of reindeer. I gently held it, noticing the swirling patterns engraved in the antler, the sharpness of the serrated blade. And realized that this unhinged old man with a huge antler knife, who had just mimed slitting a throat, was my cabin buddy for the night. I had a few precious pills of Xanax that I used for sleeping on long flights and surviving horrible long bus rides. And took two.
Soon we neared one of the great highlights of any Trans-Siberian, the crossing of the mighty Volga River! The Volga is steeped in lore for Russians; it is to Russia what the Mississippi is to America or the Nile to Africa. You may be surprised that it is not the Danube, but instead the massive Volga spanning 2300 miles that is the longest river in all of Europe. It was upon the corridor of the Volga that wars were waged, the Golden Khanate of the Mongols established, and the Russian empire built. Russian affectionately call it Mother Volga, and men supposedly tip their caps as they cross in salute.
To get a sense of the scale, note the tiny boat. It is actually a fairly large cargo ship.
At the actual crossing, everyone swarmed the windows to witness the moment, and I joined them. It is not everyday you cross one of the great rivers of the world.
A glorious old Soviet steamer! Note the Red Star on the front, straight out of a Bond film
You do NOT mess with the Russian train stewardess. They will break your neck with a single high-heeled kick
Home sweet home for an entire week
Today was my final day. As we neared Moscow, the train began to fill with more and more people. Soon we entered suburbs, then satellite cities, and finally we entered the outer edges of Moscow itself. My crazy companion with the knife was now only a memory. So too was the shy mother with her cute little children, the drunken gun-toting soldiers, my bored babuskha waitress with the overly made-up face and enormous wobbly wig, the rude stewardess who came to (affectionately I hope) call me мальчик, or boy. Too soon, the train was elbow-to-nose with "busy-bodies," commuters, yapping on their phones and bumping into each other. The very people I had purposely left behind for so long. Did any of them know I had traveled here all the way from Beijing, on this very train?! Did any of them know the overwhelming emotion I felt at reaching this point? The man in a suit next to me looked up from his phone, examined my ripped clothes and beard, and shook his head.
Gone were the days spent in meditation as the movie played through the windows, plunking on the guitar, writing in my journal, falling asleep to the soothing clickety-clack of the old cars, snuggled in bed as an entire continent rolled through my dreams. The sun dipped, night fell, the train slowed. Then, it stopped for the final time. Outside was a huge neon sign: "Москва".
Just like that, my great Trans-Siberian journey was at an end.
Lonely Planet's guidebook loudly proclaims "Once hailed as the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars, the Trans-Siberian Railway remains one of life's great travel experiences", and especially how a "Trans-Siberian trip is never dull, not least because of the chance you'll have to interact with your fellow passengers over many days." I pondered this as I sat in my cabin, more bored than a dog in an airplane carry-on cage. My cabin was shared with a mother and her two children. She spoke no English, and my few attempts at saying Привет ("Preevyet") had been met with silence and averted eyes. This was the 5th day out of Irkutsk, the 2nd since leaving Tomsk. I had already wandered to the empty posh dining car for breakfast, and lunch, and dinner, and done it all over again hoping against hope I would meet someone. Anyone.
Tricky devils to capture from the train
I picked up my guitar, and after a few chords the baby started crying. Great Nemo. You made the baby cry. That's how crap you are on guitar. Outside the taiga tunnel had long since given way to cleared land, farms, cities, all whizzing by a little too fast to appreciate. Once in a while a glorious Russian gold-topped church would appear, but by the time I fumbled my camera out it was gone. This would happen again and again. Like watching a pot, the churches never came when I stood ready to pounce. Yet the second I dropped my camera one would whiz by. Curses, you churches, how you taunt me! Night fell, I ate dinner alone in the dining car again, examining with great interest the enormous powdered white wig on my babushka waitress. (Babushka, a Russian term of affection, literally means baby red-assed baboon. You will hear people call each other red-assed baboon all the time in Russia. Oh .... wait. I see here it actually means "grandmother." Sorry my mistake.) My babuskha handed me the check, her great wig wobbling back and forth as she walked away.
I flip-flopped my way back to the cabin with the now sleeping family. I sighed. Where were the drunken vodka-fueled Russians I had been promised?! I raged silently to my Lonely Planet guidebook. I mean, at least give me some fellow backpackers who spoke English. Anything but this mind-numbing solitude.
It was so bad I had taken to counting freckles on my arm. I was up to 3,000,000,000,000,023 when I heard a commotion outside our cabin. Then a slam. What was this?! I opened our compartment door and peeked out to see a Russian soldier slunk to the floor, cap askew, at the far end of the car. He looked at me, then shouted something in Russian and motioned for me to come to him.
I quickly backed into the cabin, slid the door shut and locked it. In a moment, more shouting, then I heard the unmistakable sound of many boots tromping towards me. Someone banged on our door. The mother popped up and looked at me, startled. We both held our breath. Then, incredibly, my locked door clicked and then slid open.
Three young soldiers piled into the car, reeking of vodka, AK-47's slung over their backs. They were high-school aged at best. The first nearly fell over and then grabbed the upper sleeper bunk to steady himself. Holy crap, I thought, these kids were completely shattered. The one I had seen on the floor, cap still askew atop his cropped blonde hair, pointed at me and began shouting again. The 2nd soldier tried to calm him, then unmistakably I heard the first soldier say: "Passport!" which turns out is pronounced the same in almost every language in the world.
The mother slid further beneath her covers. Oh great, thanks for ditching me, cabin-buddy.
I hesitated. "Passport!!!!!" he commanded. I fumbled into the hidden bag I slept with around my waist, and then handed it over to the drunk Russian soldiers, realizing that here in the middle of Russia, in the middle of the night, these soldiers could do whatever the hell they wanted with an American. To top it all off, they were completely, totally, smashed out of their heads. I thought about my happy place, in Pamela Anderson's cushiony fake bosom. (The young Baywatch Pamela, c'mon, I'm not a sicko!) Pamela, in your boobs I pray.
Upon seeing my passport, they grew silent. My accuser widened his eyes and I am pretty sure I saw a hint of a smile. Then they left the cabin and began talking again in slurred Russian. The mother had by now completely vanished under her sheets. In the many years I have traveled, through border towns and shanties and back alleys, among snake-charmers and pick-pocketing street urchins and Japanese Yakuza, I can count on one hand the times I truly feared for my safety.
Tonight was one.
Suddenly the men burst back into the cabin, grabbed me the arms, and pulled me up. "Hey!! Hey, what are you doing?!" One of the men said a word that sounded like, "Obethiyana!" and they all laughed. They marched me down the hall and into their compartment, sat me down, and two of the soldiers plopped down one either side. My accuser faced me on the other bed.
They all looked at me, stone-faced. I was scared shitless. He set a half-empty bottle of Kulov vodka on the table. Then he poured 4 enormous shots into paper cups. Finally, in English, he looked at me and yelled, "Drink!"
"Drink! Drink!" yelled the other two soldiers like trained monkeys. They looked visibly angry. Now, Kulov vodka is perhaps the worst vodka in the entire world. It smells of paint thinner from 20 feet away, and could probably be used to melt uranium. I picked up the cup, then attempted to smile and belted out "Nazdrovya!" and choked down 3 huge swallows of Kulov gasoline. According to Lonely Planet, that Bible of Travel (which ye shall never take it's name in vain), this word is supposed to mean Cheers.
You're kidding. Kulov the Terrible has made it's way to Mexico?!
At this they all looked at each other in astonishment. Then, they all burst out laughing uncontrollably. The soldier to my right fell onto the floor and began slapping it. This went on for a few moments. I didn't know what to make of it. Luckily I had made it a practice to keep my phrasebook in my back pocket and pulled it out, frantically searching for the right word.
The soldier across from me, wiping a tear from his eye, said, "Nazdrovya, no good. Za Vas, good!" They refilled my glass with another enormous shot. I raised it, and they followed suit. "Za Vas!" I proclaimed. "Za Vas, Amerikan!" they all shouted, and downed their paint thinner in a single gulp. I choked it down, tears streaming down my face as the acid burned into my stomach and it curled into a fetal position. I was already feeling drunk. At this they began cheering and one slapped me on the back. "Barun Amerikan!"
And it dawned on me: they had just wanted to screw with me to get a laugh. They had been as bored as I had been, stationed here on this never-ending train to nowhere. The light bulb clicked in my brain, and I showed them the section in my phrase book on how to pick up chicks in English.
They took turns practicing as I taught them gems such as "Vat nice boobies you has" and "Nice pants look great, especially on floor next to кровать (bed)!!" After each they would begin laughing again and slapping me on the back and pouring more sulferic vodka acid down our gullets. Then one of them began singing a song, and the others joined and tried to teach me. Like all Russian songs, it sounded both proud and sad at the same time. After the song, I felt sorry for these kids, serving out their time on a train far away from their families instead of going to university.
And at the end of the night, the blonde kid took perhaps the greatest picture I have even had on my camera in my life. It is of me, pretending to be scared with a shot of Kulov, while the grinning soldiers on either side of me point their AK-47's at my head. I treasured that photo more than any other I have ever taken. To me it symbolized everything scary, surprising, and wonderful about traveling alone around the world. Little did I know that this one-in-a-trillion picture would be stolen with my laptop in Croatia in a few weeks, lost forever.
The next morning I woke to someone chainsawing my brain in half. Actually, it turned out there was no chainsaw. It was just the remnants of the Kulov pounding its way out, trying to escape my liver.
Trans-Siberian railway, you know what, you're all right. All the lonely boredom was worth it--last night was the craziest night I'd had on my entire year away. Spasiba! Now someone pass me the Advil.
Tima the bear doesn't always drink beer. But when he does, he prefers Baltika.
This now famous viral video features Tima the Bear trained by Pavel Vyatkin. The trans-Siberian main line unfortunately does not pass through Pavel's hometown in Samara, Russia, which is further south. I would have enjoyed stopping off to meet the most interesting bear in the world.
I got up from the sticky floor, covered in dirt and beer stains. I had just attempted to break-dance, quite poorly. The man on the congo was beating the drum, the circle around me was cheering and clapping to the beat and laughing their heads off. How on earth could I top spinning slowly on my back and then falling down? And then, I remembered the greatest move I had ever performed: the worm. Things were about to get weird. But... let's start from the beginning...
Golden sunset in Tomsk
I had finished my day touring through Tomsk, and asked the cute Russian working where the best place to go out would be. She mentioned a pub on the main drag, which sounded fine to me. I found my way there, walked down the stair-case to find a band railing out a fairly good version of Russian-accented Brown Sugar. A bare-chested man was banging on a big congo drum to the beat in the middle of the room, people were dancing everywhere. Wow! This was a great scene! I worked my way to the bar, pulled out my guidebook and ordered a beer. The kid working the bar looked surprised and in fairly good English said: "where are you from?"
"I'm from California."
"Woah, dooood! California that's so cool man!" Hearing someone try to pronounce dude like a stoner with a Russian accent was definitely a new auditory experience. He excitedly grabbed his female bartender, pointed at me. California was mentioned a few times. She pulled me a big frosty dark beer and put it down.
"How much is it?" I asked.
The man replied "Free dooood! California so cool dude. Do you surf?" And just like that I had my new tour guide for the night. He introduced me to some of his friends, they to their friends, and without quite realizing how it happened I found myself attempting to break-dance and do the worm in front of an entire bar of Russian college kids all clapping me on. Thankfully, just before my spleen popped out of my ear, another man came onto the floor who actually knew how to break-dance.
I got up and went back to the bar, where I kept getting free drink after free drink. A crowd had formed to listen as the bartender translated the story about that one time I partied with LL Cool J in the Hollywood Hills and got pelted with panties because I was standing too close to him. They may or may not have known who LL Cool J was, but apparently it didn't matter. I had become a rock star in the heart of Russia! (Well, either that or the worst break-dancer they had ever seen.)
"Nemo, we are going to the disco. You want to come? Drinks, hot girls, you will like!" He wiggled his eyebrows up and down at that last comment. We bumbled upstairs, he got on a motorcycle and it was clear that I was supposed to get on the back.
A minute later, a gang of drunk Russians were flying through the streets in car and on motorcycle. And I was flying along with them, no helmet, no worries, no idea where the hell we were going. And I put my head back and started laughing like a crazy man. This night had turned into a movie.
At the disco the gang pulled up and walked up the the gate. There was a long line around the block. The bartender turned motorcycle chauffeur walked up to the bouncer, pointed at me, and said something that included California and surfer. The bouncer looked me over, narrowed his eyes, then finally nodded. We skipped the line and went straight in. My tour guide looked over at me and confided, "Nice dooood? Haha!"
The inside of the club was somewhat amazing for a small college town. There were 3 rooms, each packed with different music. I was introduced to a table where there were 4 girls dressed in skin-tight, cleavage-busting outfits and 3" heels, which I was starting to realize was a standard nightclub uniform in Russia.
None spoke a word of English. So of course I pulled out my trusty Lonely Planet phrasebook and went to the "Social" section. I pointed to the phrase that said "You have a beautiful smile." They laughed at my horrible Russian pronunciation, then grabbed my book and started looking through it. Now, I have read this section and it includes pick-up lines, and even a section on sex. For instance, there is an English-Russian translation for "Too hard", "Slow down", and even "Do you have a condom?" They found this page, started reading, and began giggling out-of-control. One of them asked me in broken English, "Do you vant dance?"
I looked at my friend, who again wiggled his eyebrows up and down, then turned back to the girl.
Tomsk: deep in the warm cushiony bosom of Mother Russia
I hadn't slept all night, I was exhausted, I was exhilarated. How on earth could I possibly sleep? It was early in the morning, and I had my head out of the window of a Russian train, hair flapping, beard tugging. The tracks wound like a slithering snake through a thick green conifer forest. Golden morning light streamed through the pine-scented trees, I watched in glee as the long sunbeams and shadows danced across the train. The air was clean and brisk, I gulped it in. We were headed to a small town off the main line in the middle of Russia, where there was little chance of running into another American. Like Bilbo Baggins, I was on my way to an adventure!
Russian train stations are always painted in pretty shades of pastel. Clearly the work of a female Tsarina
I jumped a taxi to my hostel and planned my attack. Tomsk is known as a pretty college town, and I was greatly looking forward to a great night out with the students. After all, it was summer break and a beautiful Saturday. Would the streets be alive with frat-style campus parties? Would it be anything like, say, Ann Arbor Michigan with Adidas track-suits instead of khaki shorts?
But the first order of business, as it always is and always should be, was to grab my camera and tromp about the town to get a feel for the place. Like Irkutsk, Tomsk is full of pretty wooden mini-mansions that are remnants of the wealth of the White Russian flight to Siberia. In Tomsk as perhaps nowhere else in Russia, the art of "wooden lace" is taken to the extreme.
Wood-lace is not as comfortable to wear as regular lace
Believe it or not, wooden houses do not necessarily stand up very well to blizzards, termites, rain, snow, and the generally insane weather of Siberia. So unfortunately, as I walked through town and admired the houses, I couldn't help but notice how many of them were literally rotting apart. There were broken windows, sunken cross-beams, sagging foundations. And it was a shame, really. These were once gorgeous, artistic, colorful works of architecture full of history. Fortunately, a small handful of the very nicest and most famous houses were still maintained by the city for tourists.
The awesome Dragon House!
Once again my expectations of gray Soviet architecture were shattered. Not only were the pretty wooden houses set on leafy streets, but the broad main boulevards were lined with flower-filled parks, fountains, and classic university buildings. The main buildings were bright pastels and cream topped with art nouveau or art deco. It was all almost whimsical. I could not help but wonder if the feminine touch was a legacy of Tsarina Caterina.
The city was beautiful.
Now of course, there are still the obligatory Lenin statues, which seem to survive here and there. All the Stalin's have been yanked down, they are pretty hard to find. Which is not surprising given his murderous gulag campaigns. I couldn't help but wonder if the hulking stern gray Lenin statue in the very center of town was a way for Moscow to thumb it's nose at this town descended from White Russians.
Peacock House is the prettiest, but sorry. Nothing beats Dragons
The pretty Russian girl working the check-in at my hostel recommended I end my day tour by strolling the big park at the south of the city. And within moments of arriving, I knew it was my favorite place. The park is huge, with winding paths disappearing into tall dark groves. Within moments I was away from the noise of the city, leafy trees towering overhead, walking down a trail still covered in spiderwebs. No one had come this way today it seemed. And then, the trees parted and I beheld an incredible view across the river valley below. The sun was low, a few boats were floating in the river, silhouetted birds glided on thermals.
Tomsk was a place I could have lived.
Love me some Russian churches. Gotta love dat Bling!
I wandered back to the center of the park to the sound of Russian electronic music blasting from an enormous lifted limousine. A gaggle of young Russian girls in unmatched bridal dresses and a few boys in tuxedos spilled out and wandered up to the giant World War II memorial statue that dominated the square. But they couldn't take pictures yet, because another wedding party was already in line waiting for a 3rd wedding party that was actually taking pictures. The whole scene was hilarious, watching these women in perfect hair and make-up and 4" heels standing awkwardly in a park, drunk and yelling at each other over the bass beats.
A quite moving memorial of a mother sending her son off to fight the Germans. Not shown: 4 wedding parties waiting to take pictures with memorial in background
I had learned in Irkutsk that Russians don't just take wedding pictures in one location. The entire party drives around town along with the other dozens of weddings going on that day to the 5 or 6 designated wedding picture sites. Of course, within the well-stocked limousines the party goes on all day. As I walked the streets festooned limousines honked and lights flashed and girls standing up in sunroofs waved and screamed while swigging bottles of champagne. All in all, I think the Russians have the wedding thing dialed pretty good! Who needs to wait for the reception when you can turn the day's picture taking into a pub-crawl?! Or perhaps they were just ecstatic that the hour-long orthodox wedding ceremony was over.
Everyone is in on the party, smiling and waving back at the limousines as they drive through. The atmosphere of celebration infects the whole town and I found myself smiling and laughing most of the day along with everyone else.
So when I left the park and found one of the waiting groomsmen suddenly walk over to a trash can and puke, I suppose it wasn't much of a surprise.
This is Russia.
There are so many weddings that the churches are booked. This was a parking lot wedding outside my hostel
Red America: Land of guns, Jesus, and the nicest people you will ever meet
One of the greatest mistakes Europeans make when the visit the United States is that they will fly into New York City, travel a bit around the East Coast, and then hop a plane to San Francisco and travel a bit around the West Coast. Now there is nothing wrong with this: the East and West coasts have the beaches, the natural wonders, the cosmopolitan cities. But there are really two Americas: the Red and the Blue. And the Red part of America, that immense stretch of land smirked at by the coastal city dwellers as "fly-over" country, is oddly perhaps the most fun of all to visit. Any time I meet a European who has been to America, I ask them if they drove cross-country. The ones who did invariably light up and spill a tale of road-tripping in a jalopnik van in the middle of Nowhere, America, somewhat shocked at the friendliness of every single person they meet, perhaps stopping at a farmhouse in Nebraska staring at a ball of yarn 30-feet high, learning how to country line-dance and partying with girls who are in awe of someone with a foreign accent from the exotic land of "Dublin." With that in mind, I knew that I could not travel straight to Moscow without stopping off somewhere. So I chose Tomsk, a city that is a little off of the main line, known for it's young college atmosphere, parks, and wood-lace houses. There I found myself, in the middle of the night, with backpack and Mongolian guitar in hand, stepping off the Trans-Siberian railway into an empty dark station. I had bought a ticket in Irkutsk for the side-trip to Tomsk, and suddenly realized that my "lay-over" was actually about 8 hours. I examined the station: no people, no restaurant, no food cart. I walked back outside, and realized that the station was swallowed by the Siberian taiga in all directions. I was literally in the middle of Nowhere, Russia. Congratulations, I had done it. Um, now what? I made a pillow with my backpack against a staircase, and attempted to sleep. Suddenly I felt a crack on head. I popped up, bleary-eyed, in shock. It was still dark in the station. In front of me was a man in a green security or police uniform, waving a baton at me and shouting. He motioned for me to leave the station immediately. And then it hit me: I had long hair, a beard, torn clothing, a backpack and guitar, and probably smelled like platypus poop. The policeman thought he had discovered a homeless bum attempting to find shelter. Which I suppose he had, to his credit.
I fumbled with my passport, then showed him my onward ticket to Tomsk. He suddenly stopped shouting and waving. And then, with raised eyebrow, continued to motion for me to leave. Apparently sleeping in a station was not approved by the Russian authorities. I simply put my hands up, looked around, and gave a helpless expression. He sighed, and then pointed at his watch and then the ticket. I had another 3 hours to wait. I settled back down to sleep, and the security man left mumbling under his breath: "Stupid Imperialist homeless bum." In the morning, I awoke to a crowd of people around me. They were in line for a ticket, but my sleeping body was in the exact place where the line should form. So instead, they had quietly formed a big bend in the line to let me sleep. I couldn't believe the politeness at this act. When I stood up, they all gave me the Eastern Europe stone mask: that blank, slightly pissed-off stare that is meant to show that you should not talk or look back. Without a beat, I exclaimed loudly in English: "Don't worry everyone, I am Capitalist American and want to discover beautiful Mother Russia!" A young woman laughed. Then she translated to Russian for the rest of the crowd. And soon everyone was shaking their heads and laughing. One man helped me pick up my backpack, another grabbed my guitar, and a woman asked for my ticket to help me find my train. She looked it over and said, "Томск! благой!" "Good!" And with that, I suddenly had a crowd of friendly Russians attempting to help the capitalist pig to his destination.
Here is some ridiculousness: the trans-siberian railway spans 5,700 miles and 7 time zones. For comparison, New York to San Francisco is only a paltry 2900 miles. Taking the express straight from Vladivostok to Moscow without any stops takes ... 7 straight days. Of course, any sane person would never do the entire route without stopping. Most people these days take the Trans-Manchurian: Moscow-to-Beijing, passing through Mongolia. You depart and arrive in glorious imperial cities, with a few days in Ulaanbaatar pretending to be a Mongol cowboy.
Traveling from the east you pass through the endless taiga tunnel, days upon days without a change in the view. It is like a spell, both mesmerizing and claustrophobic. I can see why Paul Theroux in the Great Railway Bazaar finally lost it a bit here, lonely, and tired of traveling after 4 months on the road.
An all-time classic of travel writing, plus it's all on my favorite mode of transport!
The dining car on the Mongolian train is a riot. Mongolians are drinking beer and chain-smoking cigarettes at all hours of the day. The food is cheap and good enough. At night I found myself getting my shot glass filled by a neighbor's bottle, singing slurred songs in Mongolian and watching people drink until they tumbled out of their seats. I was a temporary member of the Mongolian Sigma-Chi Frat House.
The Russian dining car is so quiet that I when I first stumbled upon I wasn't sure it was even open. Instead of sticky beer floors and the smell of tasty strange noodles cooking in the air, there was only empty table after table. Each was anointed with a spotless red tablecloth, artfully folded napkins, ceramic salt and sugar cups, and even a little vase with a plastic flower. To top it off, there was real silverware laid out. I couldn't remember the last time I saw a fork, knife, and spoon on tablecloth. It all looked odd and neat and sterile and, well, sadly boring. And at that moment, I couldn't help but feel a little pang of nostalgia for chopsticks and spicy noisy Asian restaurants with their bizarre "who the hell knows what I'm about to eat or what animal it could be from" plates.
The Russian Dining car: spotless, overpriced, and sadly empty.
I sat down and a well-dressed man apparated from behind a cubbyhole with a red vest holding a menu. You can pretty much tell how far from the tourist trail you've strayed by how well the English translations are rendered, if there are even any. And this menu had pretty good English. There would be no more hilarious Chinglish or Monglish on the Trans-Siberian railway. After a quick scan I found something wonderful printed on the page. кофе 'экспресс' -Espresso.
Not too much time later, I was sitting down to a hot meal of soup, meat, bread, pickles, and of course, espresso. The food might not have been the best, but it had been so long since I'd had western food I nearly gobbled up my fingers as I stuffed it in. And the fresh espresso, with cold liquid cream.... wow. Delicious. There were some things that I was NOT going to miss about Asia. But why were things so empty? The answer soon came with the bill. My simple meal had cost over 600 rubles. About $20 US. A fortune in Asia. On the Mongol train, dinner cost $3-4 and a can of lukewarm beer was less than a buck. No wonder the Russians stayed in their cars and didn't mingle.
I thought back on Paul Theroux's writing, how the dining car on Europe's trains were generally full of well-heeled customers traveling to exotic locales. But that time had passed: the well-heeled were flying overhead in comfortable 747's. Yet this expensive dining car remained, frozen in time, waiting for a man in a 3-piece suit and pipe to sit down with his paper. It was a theme I would see later again in again in Eastern Europe: past glories of Soviet Russia, proudly displayed, slowly decaying.
I finished my meal in silence, alone. It would be a long train ride.