Distant pangs

A few thoughts on Open Lands, by Mark Taplin

In 1992 the United States and Russia agreed to let their citizens travel without restrictions within each others’ countries, quite a development given that the Soviet Union only ceased to exist in December 1991 and there was still plenty of Cold War hangover on both sides.

Cool

Mr Taplin, a cultural attache at the US embassy in Moscow in the 1980s, took the opportunity to go to some places that were previously forbidden and to write about what he found. Part travelogue, part economic study of a country in crisis, and part ethnographic investigation of a diversity of ex-Soviet characters, this book is the result.

It is great on people. The impoverished vulcanologist of Kamchatka and his fish-soup making wife, the tin-pot secessionists of Kabardino-Balkaria, the over-organising tour guide in Tuva, all could be characters from the modern equivalent of a 19th century Russian novel. Perhaps an undiscovered Gogol, with that blend of stoicism and fatalism in the face of the plainly unacceptable or surreal that is both Russia’s iconic national personality trait and the demand that it makes of all visitors.

It is also a great blend of history and modernity. Mr Taplin takes the opportunity to review the history of places that he visits, and illustrate then with personal stories of the people across whom he comes. And he combines this with stories from his own road as he tries to make sense of what the history means for the present day.

Thinking big

It is also great on dreaming. To his credit, and perhaps demonstrating the book’s appeal to those who like to venture from the trail, Mr Taplin makes attempts to follow long forgotten paths in an effort to bring meaning to what could otherwise be seen as a depressing tour of some low priority provincial Russian regions.

Most entertainingly, but also ludicrously, he hatches in Moscow (seven time zones away) a plan to follow the trail blazed by George Kennan, the explorer not the diplomat, who visited Kamchatka in 1865 and (p 245):

ascended the Abacha River in a whaleboat; climbed over the mountain range behind the capital on horseback; rafted down the Kamchatka River to Klyuchi, a village at the foot of Kamchatka’s highest volcanoes; trudged over the high ridges of the Middle Range; struggled up the trackless west coast of the peninsula  and then wintered among the nomadic Koryaks, who carried Kennan and his companions across the frozen tundra in dogsleds, sheltering them in sooty teepees.

If this all seems a bit dramatic in the light of modern cruise shipping to Kamchatka, these sorts of impossible itineraries do rather seem to have been de rigueur for real explorers back in the day. I recently read Turkestan Solo, in which Ella Maillart, a Geneva-born hardcore explorer, describes amongst other things her crossing of the Kyzylkum Desert in western Uzbekistan by camel in winter on an expedition she put together on the hop and on a shoestring in the 1930s. They bred them tough back then, apparently.

The net result for Mr Taplin is less glamourous. He ends up on a horrifying truck ride with a coterie of serving military folks with a sideline in smuggling, some charmless days in the truly charmless Klyuchi including being, in a marvelous Sovietic twist, a near neighbour to Stalin’s granddaughter, and an effective exile back to Moscow courtesy of local officials for whom the end of the Cold War still seems to be news. For extra colour we have the mysterious figure of Leonid, whose overweening blandishments and toady assistance mark him out immediately to readers of spy novels as a sympathiser with the authorities and someone definitely not to be trusted.

Lessons

There are many possible morals to the story. The boringness of the previously forbidden places particularly struck me, hardening my prejudices against the abuse that eventually emerges from powerful systems that are not transparent or open to external challenge. Why they would bother to make these places closed to foreigners, or for that matter to Russians, is a question best left to the historians. I recall a story of Eric Newby’s about being forbidden for security reasons to take photos of bridges on his Big Red Train
Ride, despite the fact that all details including photographs of the bridges were published in a book that was freely available in the West and that he even carried with him. I remember holding my camera with particular caution around unimportant railyards on the train, suggesting that this secretiveness was still part of the atmosphere in the early 2000s.

Even when Mr Taplin does go somewhere that seems intrinsically interesting, dreariness is his constant companion. The book has a set of reviewers with whom I make particularly poor company. No less an authority than the Economist describes the book as identifying in particular the “soul destroying ugliness” that communism foisted on its subdued populace. Every traveller to Russia will recall some incident like that that befell Mr Taplin in the cafes of Vladivostok, and all budding Kremlinologists will recognise the political machinations of that far-eastern town as typical of the madness that descends when “democracy” is grafted on to autocracy and has not yet had time to grow firm roots.

Despite the bleakness of the future in prospect for Russia’s farflung provinces, there is
something positive in this account also. Laughing and crying are never far apart in Russia, and it seems as if Mr Taplin is partly trying to find out why it is that he is sufficiently interested to even bother to visit these outposts of fading empire.

Perhaps he is captured by the same romantic travelling spirit that defines all problems as challenges, all grotty bedding-down places as experiences, all inedible chow as an opportunity to discover a new cuisine, and all uncomfortable journeys as chances to see the world a new way. It is the dream that some cleaner, more magical dream is just around the next bend, that a visitor can peel back the facade of crumbling infrastructure and ruined lives and reveal the delight and cleanliness of an upcoming civilisation rampant. It is probably also a reminder of how pampered one quickly becomes in the feedback-form-filling west.

Which is just as well. Because without this superimposed meaning, the unremitting poverty, decay and despair could make it rather hard to cope with a journey like this one: the underlying thought of all travellers being “at least I don’t have to stay”.

Last line

Overall Open Lands is an excellent addition to my library, such as it is, an interesting record of how it was in the mid 1990s as the support systems that sustained economic life in previously-important parts of Russia broke down, and excellent vanity travelling for places that I may not reach for some years. So thanks to the Wellington man who commented on a previous post pointing me in its direction.

In particular, I have always been interested in the border between Russia and Mongolia in Tuva, a line on the map where two forgotten places meet. It was reported as being impassable in the early 1990s when I was near there (although there was no risk that I would actually go in any case), but now I have heard that some folks on the Mongol Rally pass through, which is clearly the sign that mass tourism is just around the corner.

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Around the Russian world

A sort of book review of The Trans-Siberian Railway, a Traveller’s Anthology, edited by Deborah Manley

This book is a delight. Published in 1988, it is a collection of edited excerpts from accounts of the great train journey across Russia, drawn together into a sampler. Many of the stories are old (some from before the train opened in 1903 when it took months to get across the world’s largest country, and many in ten years after its opening), many newish (mostly around the time of the Second World War), and a few more recent accounts,
especially from the 70s.

The book gathers together the material thematically first (the idea for the train and the dream, the train itself, preparations required, its role in war, some of the people involved), and then works broadly chronologically, with comments collated by region as we follow the train from Moscow in the West to Vladivostok in the East, plus a little at the end on the East to West trip and the time in China.

The book includes many excerpts from books that are hard to find or obsolete, including that stalwart of all 20th century European travellers, the Baedeker, – a close-typed swarm of advice and information of variable reliability about the train, the country, the people and the amenities. And it is no stranger to direct, negative reviews. The hotels of Siberia are “almost invariably dear and indifferent”, says the edition of 1914. “A disturbing feature is the inevitable concern of ‘sing-song’ in the dining room, which usually lasts far into the
night.”

A touch of local knowledge

Which causes me to digress for a moment to talk about guidebooks.

The question of the acceptability of guidebooks has been around as long as they have been in print, I suspect. As EM Forster has Mr Emerson say in Room with a View (well, at least in the movie):

We residents [of Florence] sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little. Handed about like parcels from Venice to Florence to Rome, unconscious of anything outside Baedeker, anxious to get done and go on elsewhere. I abhor Baedeker. I’d fling every copy in the Arno. Towns, rivers, palaces, all mixed up in an inextricable whirl.

The world has come rather far from Baedeker with modern guide books. Endless coverage of even trivial destinations, clear layout, quality photographs, regular updating, internet add-ons, and, most important, their positive tone. In the Lonely Planet world, even the most squalid hellhole has a charming cafe, a rustic hotel, or an ancient ritual of interest to the visitor, written up by a likely-impecunious backpacker after his/her half day in the city en route to more attractive parts.

I recall a description from the Lonely Planet for Russia of Nogliki, a town in the middle of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, describing it in sufficiently fond terms as to suggest it worthy of a pause if one was passing through (a rather unlikely journey, to be fair, since the delights of Northern Sakhalin were not notable), and boasting of it playing host to the world’s slowest railway.

This was, of course, an earlier edition. The editors have now realised the error of their ways in painting up the rustic, railway charms of Nogliki. And just as well, since I can report from personal experience that Nogliki is (or at least was, at the time that description was current) in fact a charmless locale with nothing to detain the visitor at all, except the public transport timetable that was created by a malignant gnome to ensure all visitors are forced to hang around the dead-end train station far longer than any sane free-thinker ever would. The world’s slowest railway had slowed sufficiently further that its trains could no longer be perceived to be moving at all.

Which is all by way of saying that something has been lost along the way, I think, in the move from Baedeker to Lonely Planet, in the change from the excitement and uncertainty of not knowing whether the guidebook is reliable to a powerful reliance on “the lonely” as the Bible of travel information. Oh how often have I met travellers who cursed the very name of Lonely Planet for the fact that a hotel it mentioned was closed, noisy or more expensive than promised.

The idea that a mere book could remove the uncertainty of travelling seems unusually naive and even arrogant, as if all the delights and horrors of any place could be parcelled up, summarised and contained within a few thousand words and a map or two, and that the whole would condescend to remain the same until next time the travel book updater happened to pass through.

Of course, this is not what modern travel guides say, introduced, as they are, with warnings about the fundamental unrealiability of the information contained therein. Reliable enough to be useful, but not so reliable that it could be our fault if something goes wrong. Besides which, things being different from the description on the tin is precisely the point of travelling.

But it does seem to me the underlying philosphy of modern travel guides tends to be empowering and positive. Every country has some charm and delight, and travelling is something sensible, informed, worldly types – normal people like you – do every day.

The underlying philosophy of Baedeker seems rather different. You get the impression the editors consider themselves doing an unpleasant public service. Travel is a nasty, dirty business but, if you persist against our reasoning, you had best be prepared, and so we offer you the following information, including direct advice on how to maintain your personal security. Travellers must always be on guard against thieves, and avoid carrying large sums of money.

It is desirable to carry a revolver in Manchuria and in trips away from the railway.

You can also see this trend in the accounts in the book. Those travelling at the start of the railway are unusually committed – travelling for work, or exploring, or both. As we get later on in to the century, leisure travellers emerge and travel writers whose market is the adventurous but not foolhardy. By the time you have Bob Geldof on a package tour on the train (his account is from 1978), you know that it is basically mainstream.

End of digression about guide-books.

The power of the brand

There is much fabulous material in here showing the development and change of attitudes towards Russia including this gem, from John Bell’s “Travels from St Petersburg in Russia to Diverse Parts of Asia” near the turn of the century (when optimism about Russia’s potential seems to have reached its apex amongst Western industrialists).

For my part, I think that, had a person his liberty and a few friends, there are few places were he could spend his life more agreeably than in some parts of Siberia.

The global brand of the trans-Siberian is also obvious from even very early accounts. As Ms Manley has it:

Perhaps no other journey on earth has captured people’s imagination as powerfully as … the Trans-Siberian
Railway.

Authors consistently report that the reaction of their friends on hearing that they were taking this train trip was envy and excitement. This was 100 years ago, but I can report a similar reaction in modern times from my own train travels. There is something powerful about this train that makes it more appealing and attractive without any significant effort by its owners at advertising, except perhaps a few accounts of its astounding comforts at the time when it first began. Perhaps it is the appeal of exotic Russia herself: a long train ride across Canada is exactly that – a long train ride. A long train ride across Russia is something more mysterious, interesting, risky. You could get lost in all those trees. The limits of authority and civilisation seem to ebb away far more quickly in Sibera than they do in Alberta or Sasketchewan.

The thrill of the train ride also demonstrates to me that often the meaning attached to experiences can be divorced from the experience itself, i.e., the story we tell ourselves about an experience is what matters, and that story is not necessarily correlated with the facts. From my experience, it would be quite possible to write up the trans-Siberian as a very long ride on a non-too-comfy seat, the endless days punctuated with short
visits to dreary towns filled with people who look like they haven’t moved far from the days of the serfs. But in practice, everyone I ever met on the trans-Siberian (and most of the authors in this book) treated the train ride like an adventure, and every surly carriage attendant, depressing town, or unexplained halt in the wilderness was just another stitch of excitement in the cloak of mystery and unpredictability in which they wrapped their travels on the train, or in Russia in general.

I recently read Tiziano Terzani’s brilliant “A Fortune Teller Told Me” (you can read my sort-of book review here). He too was taken by the dream of the train, and influenced by early accounts of its magnificence:

To me, the term ‘Trans-Siberian’ has always suggested something demode and romantic.

But when he finds the reality rather different, he ascribes the variance to grubby economic development, rather than sullying the dream of the train.

Such is the strange destiny of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Built as a line of defence against China … it has now
become the supply line which enables the poor Russians … to dress in trashy Chinese clothes. Instead of the
duchesses and spies and generals and adventurers of half Europe, today the Trans-Siberian carries the
descendants of Genghis Khan along the path of ancient Mongolian conquests. But they too have come down
in the world, travelling not as conquerors but as peddlers.

As Ms Manley’s book demonstrates, the global brand has attracted many famous people to take the trip and record their thoughts for posterity. It is a shame that there is not more in the book from Russians who have built, maintained or travelled on this railroad. But Ms Manley’s book does include contributions from a large number of Western luminaries including Walter Duranty (a famous New York Times journalist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize), Peter Fleming (whose “News from Tatary” remains a travel adventure classic), George Kennan (explorer and war correspondent), Fitzroy Maclean (all-round over-achiever – British), Laurens van der Post (ditto – South African), Eric Newby (genius British travel writer) and Paul Theroux (ditto – American).

All of these accounts are worth a read. Paul Theroux, in particular, was interesting for his lack of enthusiasm. He was clearly in an especially bad mood on these train travels. Even the romance of the journey could not compensate for being late getting home for Christmas after a long absence, and overwhelmed by the short-day gloom, the dankness and the dirt with which he found himself surrounded.

Speaking of the reputation of Siberia reminds me of one of my university Russian lecturers, John Godliffe, RIP, who edited a book of excerpts from Russian literature that mention New Zealand. Most famously, there is a character in a Chekhov story, I think it was, who is heard to say, “It’s barbarity. It’s New Zealand!”, suggesting that perhaps the Siberians might have had a rather darker view of the attractions of these fortunate isles than Europeans had of travels in Siberia.

Get going

A map of the train’s course shows how southerly the route actually is. Obviously because no one much lives anywhere else in Russia (although presumably where people live is also influenced by the course of the train). The huge distances and lack of navigable roads to me shows the relevance of Lenin’s famous comment in reference to his then just started Bolshevik Revolution “if the trains stop, that will be the end”. Without the railroad, there is no unified Russia, but even then there are many, many places the railroad does not go.

I note that Russia recently opened the final segment of a road that goes all the way across the country, and the then President tweeted about the completion of the trainline from Tynda to Yakutsk. Siberia is a ways out of town, but Yakutsk is seriously in the boondocks. There is also talk of a train from Yakutsk to the Russian Pacific coast by 2030, and a tunnel underneath the Bering Straits, meaning a continuous rail journey would be possible from London to North America via Russia. Fun times. And cause for a whole new collection of trans-Chukotkan travel stories, I suspect.

Russia, Mongolia, China

Hey all,

In the six or seven weeks since I last wrote I have managed to squeeze in another train jaunt across Russia (8/10 – still enjoying the struggle), some time camping out of the back of a jeep in Mongolia (6/10 – great scenery, hard to get around, unappealing (not to say horrible) food), and some time avoiding the main sights in a few famous places in south-west China (7/10 – a breath of fresh air, just don’t stay too long).

This is a long email. The key points for those of you who thrive on such things are:

* I have travelled around about another 12,000kms (although I am the first to admit my knowledge of geography and addition are not all they could be), 5,000 or so in the flagship ‘Rossiya’ train across Siberia, many thousands being assaulted by unpleasant Chinese squawkings from the loudspeakers in trains around the Middle Kingdom, and 1,500 more risking serious head injuries on what pass for roads in Mongolia.

* I came not so close to the locals, distanced by language, by travelling with other foreigners, and by choice. So I had more tourism in my tourism than usual.

* But still I had time to study transportation (all sorts), isolation (ditto – and I thought NZ was far away), and frustration (banks, visas, and officialdom more generally) up close and personal. And still fit in the usual bunch of inspiration (thank you), perspiration (from sweltering Siberia, past Mongolian plains to Chinese furnaces), mastication (Mongolia bad, China good), introspection (why am I doing this?) and self-deception (this really is fun) that are the standard diet of all travellers.

So yes, I have done a bunch of cool stuff since leaving Central Asia. And a bunch of stuff that was not so cool at the time but seems to be ageing well. In vaguely a chronological order:

* I spent days in trains, buses, taxis and roadside restaurants, and by some minor miracle, arrived in time to meet my significant other off a plane in Moscow’s ugly airport (heavy, close, brown, noisy).

* I kicked around St Petersburg (still my favourite Russian town) with said other for a few days, studying the amazing sights, the terrible weather, the outstanding (Georgian) food, and the joys of Russian bureaucracy. I saw the depths of my self-deception (travelling in Russia is easy, isn’t it?), realised I missed more from home than I thought, and appreciated laughing for real.

* I raced across Siberia with some sophisticated Russians, and met in Irkutsk (still not my favourite Russian town) two excellent Englishmen (one, white-rabbit-like, rather late for a date in China), a Mongolian visa official who was not inclined to issue me a visa, and lots of other foreigners who were going my way.

* In Ulaan Baatar I discovered everything that is named after Jinghis (Genghis) Khan but missed most of the real sights, met some Mongolian rockstars (who were less inclined to make my acquaintance than I theirs), drank up a storm on cheap Russian champage, and discovered the value of having good people around.

* I learned where the middle of nowhere is (and a bunch of other things besides) in a week in the Gobi Desert. Mongolia travel tip: bring spices – boiled fatty goat can be flavourless when served on its own. Alternatively, flee to the Bhuddas of northern China and feast on seafood for hardly any money at all.

* I saw firsthand the effects of SARS in eliminating tourists and not locals in Beijing (despite what the scuttlebutt might have had one believe), wondered at the Giant Pandas apparent efforts to eliminate itself (too lethargic for sex? how peculiar), and learned where to go and where not to on the streets of Chengdu (those barbers don’t just cut hair).

* I wasted away days of my life hanging out in China’s south-western Yunnan province, and expended a great deal of energy in avoiding key tourist sights. I went native and biked about in Kunming (and spiced up two-hour breakfasts with quality conversation), watched DVDs, free internet and agressive waiters in Dali, and felt superior to the mere tourists in the Disneyland that is Lijiang.

* And when I finally wanted to leave China, fate threw a few more spanners in the works, just to remind me of that old adage that if you think things are going well, you clearly have no idea what is actually going on.

Just in case I have not slowed my biorhythms quite enough, I now find myself avoiding the sights and enjoying the coffee in Laos. I am going with the tourist flow towards the south and then heading down to Singapore for the middle of September.

Just a few weeks left now of my journey. Perhaps time will become more precious now that there is less of it. Or perhaps I will become more and more keen for my next set of adventures in New Zealand (ETA early October). I will let you know.

Hoping you are flourishing,
h

The trouble with visas

Oh yay! Another reason to not like Irkutsk.So I rock up to the Mongolian consulate. I don’t expect it to be open (the sign says it is not on Wednesdays). But it is. In I go (for the record, they open the door for anyone who buzzes without checking who it is – in fact I opened the door for a few people when there was no one else around to do it).

The usual conversation. Tourist visa. One month. No invitation. But this is impossible, says the Consul. Why would that be? It is Nadaam starting on Friday. I know. That is exactly why I want to go. But you will not be able to find a hotel. There will not be any tickets on the train. You will have a horrible time. But that is not your problem, Consul, I can deal with all that if you just give me a visa. No, no, no. Come back on the 20th of July.

Hmmm. Unhelpful. I stand there for a while longer. Considering my options. He tells me to go away. I am not inclined to do so. He won’t even give me a form. I go and sit outside his door. More comfortable chair. Wait. Perhaps he will get sick of me and give me the visa anyway.

Then a travel agent and a tour guide arrive. Consul calls me in on their discussion. Hope? He tells the tour guide that perhaps I can join their group (only in a technical sense, there will be no need for me to actually travel with them), and they can send over an invitation that afternoon. Then I can have a visa.

The woman (travel agent, as it turns out) assures me that she will bring an invitation that afternoon or the next morning. So I get the form, fill it in and pay the money. And go away content, although slightly wondering what kind of travel agent can rustle up an invitation in no time, and not wanting to hang around the consulate in case Consul changes his mind.

On the way out I meet a couple of English lads on their way to Mongolia as well. Same situation. No invitation. Want to go tomorrow. Same response. No dice. Impossible. Nadaam.

Consul wants to talk to them again at 2:30pm. We have lunch, hit the internet, but one things leads to another and I don’t see them again. Until the next day. About which more below.

I head back to the consulate around 5. Travel agent has rung to say that the invitation will not be coming today. Tomorrow morning. Okay. Consul is upset that I have filled in the form and paid the money and things. Why is this my fault? They asked me to. But he throws away the form, gives me back the photo, and repays me the money. Things are not so hopeful.

Next day I come back. I talk to travel agent at last. She confirms my fears. She can not get an invitation to me unless I have an itinerary. And that would require me to specify some dates and places I wanted to go in Mongolia, then they would buy train tickets and blah blah blah. Not an option.

Consul still refuses to give me a visa. No invitation? It will all be impossible. No hotels. No train tickets. Nothing.

Okay. So this is not going to work. How else can I get an invitation? The internet is the answer. So I set off down the street.

I get fifty metres away and someone comes out on the street and starts shouting at me to come back. Someone from the Consulate. I go back, a little mystified. Consul tells me to wait a little.

Enter the English boys again. Returning heroes, perhaps. They gleefully tell me that Consul promised yesterday afternoon that if they get a hotel reservation they can have a visa. A hotel reservation was five minutes work (see internet comment above), so they have come back to pick up their visas this morning.

So this is why Consul wanted me to wait. He is not completely unhelpful. Ten minutes later I am back with an invitation. He scrutinises it carefully. Are there defects? Perhaps, since it is entirely inconsistent with his oft-stated belief that reservations will be impossible to secure around Nadaam, he is going through some inner turmoil.

But eventually he agrees, and twenty minutes later I am the proud owner of a visa for Mongolia. Only 14 days though. Consul could not give me 30 days. But I can easily extend it in Ulaan Baatar (which, if it is easy, begs the question of why he does not give a 30 day visa to start with, but hey).

We rock down to the train station. To Ulaan Baatar? Today? No problem. Plenty of spare seats. Aarrgh. Another more hours of my life have been wasted in Irkutsk at the whim of some irritating official.

Just so you know, there is no requirement to have an invitation to get a tourist visa for less than a month to Mongolia. But the Consul in Irkutsk has a different view. Even in the face of documentary proof. A very stubborn man.

An angel from another world

It is easy to ignore things when you don’t see them every day. In fact, I think, given a lack of alternative sources of information, I could convince myself of anything at all.

Remember that movie ‘The Game’ (if you have not seen it, I recommend it for sure)? At the beginning Michael Douglas (super-powerful guy) has his secretary reading out invitations to social engagements, all of which he rejects. She queries why she has to always review the invites when he always rejects them all and he says something along the lines of ‘you can not reject society if you do not know about it’.

Same point. Different angle. If you don’t know what alternatives there are, then what you have seems good. Same effect if (as in my case) you have been so far away from them for so long as to have put them far from the front of your mind. Or, perhaps, if it is in your best interests to forget about the comforts of home because it makes the discomforts of away more palatable.

In this case, of course, I have convinced myself that travelling in Russia is not very difficult and that I actually enjoy being here.

Travelling with Natalie a little and talking to other people I have met over here has destroyed that belief. I still like being here, perhaps for the challenge, perhaps for the remoteness, perhaps for reasons that are still unclear. But I can no longer maintain that it is easy.

Nat has impressed me with her ability to tolerate discomfort and to find enjoyment in the brief islands of interest that float unpredictably in the sea of tedium and difficulty that sometimes characterises travelling.

That is a long sentence.

In my experience, being able to endure and to laugh in the face of bad things is key to enjoying travelling. And maybe even more so in Central Asia and Russia, where tourism is still nascent and service is a misnomer for what happens in many shops, train stations and hotels.

But I digress.

Because even if I manage to successfully convince myself that standing in a queue for an hour for a train ticket is okay or normal or enjoyable (and it really is in some way), there is still some part of me that knows it is not. The switched off bit. The silent part.

I think this is where gut feel comes from. Not so much rationality, since you can argue your way to anything, but a more instinctive emotional response. The part of you that tells you when something is right or wrong, good or bad, just because it is. The conscience, perhaps. If we were in medieval times, we would search through the body for the organ that was responsible for these thoughts. The writer of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ would have called it the means for assessing ‘quality’.

So meeting up with Natalie, and having to explain how things work, and stand in queues and pay foreigner prices (six times higher), and eat icky food and deal with bad weather has reminded me how great where I come from is. And made me realise how I kind of put my gut feel to one side when I travel around.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. It would be impossible to travel around here if I had expectations that everything would be as convenient, comfortable and clean as New Zealand. But there is clearly a line between what is acceptable and what is not. And I don’t want to lose my gut feel. I always want to remember the invitations, so then I can choose to reject them.

Natalie was also an angel for reasons other than that she reminded me of my real world. The places I have gone and the way I travel makes things difficult. It is always interesting, and often challenging, but there is not a lot of laughing going on. Laughs are mostly the kind of ‘I can not believe this is actually happening’ kind of laugh than the genuine, comic, laugh out loud type of type of thing that makes you happy to be alive.

But hanging out with Natalie has reminded me about that kind of laughing. And what good friends are like. And what it might be like to travel somewhere easy with someone fun. But, of course, that would be a different holiday.

Welcome to Irkutsk

The usual welcoming comittee was here. The homeless (friendly, articulate, not even drunk), the prostitute (cheap, her room is a car, definitely drunk), and the taxi drivers (laughing, unconcerned, wondering where you are going, twirling their keys, hopefully not drunk).Every city is great at dawn. This is similar to my theory that people are at their most beautiful and real when they just wake up. Wandering around Irkutsk just after the sun gave me a new perspective on a place I had always thought was dusty, nasty and dirty.

Of course it is dusty and dirty, once the cars and buses and trucks get up. And my pleasant, if semi-somnolent (my body is still confused), reflections were somewhat marred by the aftermath of the street fight I came across lying on the side of the road. But even so Irkutsk was looking particularly nice this morning.

What is the time

This train crosses seven time zones on its journey from Moscow to Vladivostok. A third of the planet. And a bargain at twice the price (don’t tell them I said that).It runs on Moscow time. So, sensibly, do all the timetables. But, of course, the locals are on local time everywhere we go.

And my body wants to be on local time as well. But just now (five hours before Moscow time) it is very confused. I woke up at 4am today after sleeping seven hours in most of our night. Then I went back to sleep just after dawn and didn’t rouse myself until 4 in the afternoon.
Still, I guess it means I will be prepared for that 3:30am arrival. Every cloud.