4th July 2013
A fast rambling update on Russia…while I wait…it’s 5.30am…Just arrived in a town called Irkutsk, western Siberia (beside lake Baikal) after a 75 hour (5,000km) train journey from Moscow. Sitting here in this station till the hostel opens. Train journey was great but after 3 nights and 4 days you start to feel confined. Hung out with quite a few European backpackers on the journey, shared 4 bed compartment with local Russians. An elderly Russian woman must have felt sorry for me and assertively helped set up my bed and get food, and became my babushka for the journey. Ate borsch (cabbage beetroot soup) most days on the journey, rice for breakfast and nuts / green tea for lunch. Slept so much on the train..I think because I must have walked 10 miles a day in Moscow before. Overall train journey a good experience but the landscape gets monotonous and 75 hours… and I kept bumping into this old Russian drunk guy with rotten teeth who wouldn’t shut up talking to me and took me two days to get out of my politeness and yell Nyet!! at him.
So here I am in the wild countryside of Siberia at Lake Baikal. I plan to stay on an island on the lake called Olkhon – get back to nature – a huge contrast to Moscow.
Moscow was fantastic! I guess I had no expectations, that’s why I think I loved it so much. And I’m still smitten by the women. They are so elegant. Self-possessed walking and glances. And this isn’t just me saying it, my female backpacker friends were commenting the same. I prolonged the eye contact and they sustain that straight-faced continual glance until you walk right by each other. Thrill. I wish I spoke Russian…:-)
Being a very cultural historical city, it seems Russians take their art more seriously. Went to Moscow Art Theatre and saw a Vladimir Nabokov play in Russian. This is where Chekhov and Stanislavsky premiered their plays. I also visited their homes which are now museums. Stanislavsky’s was great cos they left it exactly as it is, intact since the day he died (1938). Literally – his spectacles and notes still on his bed table. Chekhov’s Moscow home was more poignant for me though cos I was alone in the room he wrote in and I just stood there for a long time..channeling..
I’m getting all romantic in this email. Russia is romantic. … Those glances…One of the best city parks in the world is Gorky park, Moscow. Everything about it – activities, bean bags, landscape, people. Talking to Muscovite students there who want to practice English over tea (not vodka). They’re rebelling and don’t drink at all, explaining this is why the country is in such a state.
It feels like a lost city I discovered. And everything is written in the Russian alphabet with no English. The metro stations are beautiful, vast and all marble, busy – trying to decode where to go staring at sparse map signs for 10 minutes. Got lost a few times. Language..Even getting water in shops… I say ‘No gas’? They say “da nyet no gas” and I still eventually end up with fizzy water in humid 35 degree heat. Moscow is expensive. So we do end up getting fast food few times and buying grocery food.
It’s interesting what we learn from news of Russia: vodka drinking corrupt nation with ex-KGB renegades, oligarchs and Russian mafia. But seriously, I felt safe (and besotted) walking around Moscow. Another thing- Russians do not smile. And I love it! Seriously. There’s something sincere and matter-of-fact about not smiling. I don’t think they’re sad, I just think they can’t be bothered in trying to be cheerful for effect…what makes the women elegant..
Anyway… It still feels like a train now..everything still swaying for me…
Naadam Festival in Mongolia next week..
21st July 2013
I’m back in Ulaan Baatar. It’s 5am. Sporadic sleeping patterns for some reason, temporary insomnia. I’m in a hostel dorm with 11 other backpackers here. It’s actually someone’s apartment on 3rd floor converted into a dorm. 6 bunk beds brought in and we have a fire place, kitchen and lovely living room carpet. And they just put up a ‘Hostel’ neon sign outside and backpackers will come. £5 a night. Oh they will come.
I spent the last week on a ger camp in Mongolia teaching English! Completely spontaneous and random.
Arrived in Mongolia around 10 days ago after trans-siberian train across Russia. The postcard image of Mongolia (wide open grasslands, hundreds of galloping horses, nomadic ger camps) is so true! The whole of Mongolian country is this! (except Gobi dessert which I still have I to visit). All hilly grasslands with no fences or ditches with wild horses and livestock. Then….oh my lord….you arrive in the capital city Ulaan Baatar and it’s a slap in the face… this city’s infrastructure is on the brink, the centre is ok but the outskirts and dusty bumpy roads as you arrive…it reminds me of Beijing 12 years ago…and the traffic jams. The drivers don’t obey traffic lights, so you sprint across the wide pedestrian crossings, always making eye contact with oncoming drivers while running, your awareness is so active that in a strange way it may safer than home….cos at home you get docile and routine-like with traffic lights… but in UB you can’t… or you’re dead.
Anyway, rewind: I was an English language teacher for a week. I arrived in Ulaan Baatar last week, the day before Naadam festival, excited, met up with fellow backpackers from Russia, but… Naadam being the biggest festival of the year: everything was sold out, I mean everything, even all accommodation, so I was homeless. In the last hostel searching for a bed, I saw on the noticeboard: ‘Volunteer to teach English and get free accommodation and food on a ger camp’. Screw the festival, I’m gonna teach English! Christine, a Swiss backpacker I met in Moscow and Guillaume, a French backpacker I met on the trans-siberian train, thought a great idea and joined me. We called and were told we’d be collected at 4pm that day….. 4pm… Well, I can officially now say that being late in Mongolia had beaten all other country records… our driver arrived….11pm. 7 hours later. One of the things you really learn when backpacking is Patience. And waiting 7 hours for him actually turned out great cos we met and chatted to many interesting travellers sitting outside the hostel during evening telling stories, watching locals play basketball in the small square across. I think I’ve met the most adventurous backpackers in this country: a Spanish couple cycling from Spain all the way to China via Iran and now want to cycle to Tibet, then they want to come back to Mongolia and buy 3 horses and make their way back to Spain with the horses instead of bikes. Here’s their blog: plantyourself.wordpress.com. Also American man late 60′s who can’t tolerate retirement (which he said is golf and watching sports games on tv), decided to teach English in India and travel Asia for 5 years.
I’m digressing from my English teacher abroad experience!!!
(lack of sleep, verbal diarrhoea).
So we got picked up 11pm, drive a few hours to country and meet the English ger camp boss at 1am and he was absolutely pissed drunk. OK it’s Naadam festival across the whole country so we forgive him. But overall he was so disorganised and unprofessional, I kept saying ‘Patience Trevor… Patience’. He put the 3 of us in a small dirty cabin smelling of urine with one bed and it’s fucking freezing. So the 3 if us zip up in our sleeping bags and and fall asleep instantly (or fainted from shock). Next morning we wake up cuddling each other like John Candy and Steve Martin in Planes Trains and Automobiles (why are you holding my hand? … where’s your other hand?).
But that first morning when I stepped out of the cabin…. ahhhh….we were in the beautiful Mongolian countryside surrounded by Ger camps and horses and sheep and goats and cows and barking dogs and wild woods and abundant insect noises!! NATURE at last! It was beautiful!
We requested we need to be transferred to a bigger clean cabin with 3 beds and no smell. So we switched cabins with the boss, he knew we would have left otherwise.
The deal with this English volunteer work: it was an English summer camp teaching mostly teenagers and a few adults. An Australian teacher fell out with the boss, packed his bags and left. So the boss desperately needed native English speakers and asked backpackers to volunteer for a week at a time. I thought a great way to integrate with Mongolia. He asked us to tell the students that we were ‘teachers’, not tourists. And Guillaume pretended he was from Canada. The boss said don’t worry about ‘teaching’ just converse with the students and make it up as you go. They split the students into 3 groups for Christine, Guillaume and myself. I got the advanced class….naturally, as I’m an actor Darling The boss and other local teachers disappeared for the mornings, probably stayed in bed and we spent 3 to 4 hours every morning teaching for a week… it was exhausting! I never knew 3 to 4 hours of teaching could be so tiring.
I’ve never done teaching in my life. So I improvised …. the moment, the second, I started to teach, teachers who’ve inspired me in the past came to my mind…like Ragnar!: first thing Ragnar said in first acting lesson to class was: “I don’t know what to do……”. I said exactly the same to the students and they gave me the blank wtf expression that I probably gave Ragnar (i.e. ‘did I just pay for a teacher to come and tell me he doesn’t know what to do!???’). But immediately an idea popped in my head! I had no wi-fi but I had a book on 18th century literature at the bottom of my backpack with Goethe and Keats poetry (I’m serious, don’t ask why… a miracle). Travelling across Asia I forget to get mosquito repellent (borrowed) or sleeping bag (borrowed from drunk boss) or precautionary medication for travel sickness (just pray) but I have my Keats and Goethe poetry in Mongolia. Hallelujah!
So after 20 minutes of trying to pronounce my 12 students names I plunged right into Goethe’s poem ‘Little Rose Red, Little Rose On The Heath’. The students knew how to write and read very well but were not confident in speaking or pronunciation…. so another of my past teachers came to mind…Patsy Rodenburg!… and I did her basic voice exercises with them. The Right To Speak. Take your time. Relish the language. Love the sound of the language, onomatopoeia, don’t intellectualise, sense it, don’t look at your dictionaries. I still don’t know if this was a hit or miss… I took a risk…
It was difficult for them to pronounce V in a word. I got them doing the ooovvvv vvvooooo avvvvvv vvaaaaa eevvvvv veeeee.
And gave them the best command of the English language – I gave them more poetry!! Keats! Yes!!!
Some of you can imagine me getting real passionate in the class to deadpan students… Christine recorded some of it, I’m yet to see it. Maybe there’s a film script in this: ‘Mongolian Poets Society’ staring Ryan Gosling in his oscar winning role playing me.
I hope they got something from it. Better than “The man jumped over the dog”, “The cat sat on the green car”. They hated grammar and there was an unanimous vote from them to keep us as long as we wanted to stay. Over the week I got more confident and really wanted to get their imagination going. Tried to get stream-of-consciousness stories going: where everyone adds a sentence to a story we make up on the spot. They were shy so I got them to randomly point at a sentence in one of their books, read that sentence and we’ll incorporate that into the story. We had great quirky bizarre stories so was very funny.
They wanted to hear accents and idioms… I did my best.. they laughed… at the accents… or me?.
Also we did some folk rock songs… Simon and Garfunkel’s “feeling groooVVVVVeeeee..” But singing lesson was not that successful, probably cos they were imitating my singing. They had beautiful traditional Mongolian songs which they sung every night in a goodnight circle. I really felt humbled to be part of that circle.
Students kept calling me “Teacher”. I reiterated: “Call me Trevor!!” Student: “Teacher!” Me: “Trevor!”(few minutes later)Student: “Teacher!” Me: “It’s Trevor!!!!…” (pause) Same student: “Tre-Wer!” (longer pause) Me: “OK let’s do V pronunciation exercise again”.
Classes were 90 minute sessions, break and another 90 minutes. This is long and exhausting. And most are teenagers on a summer camp (little sleep), I could see their concentration waning after 30 minutes – I’d ask them “do you understand what I’m writing on the board?”. No reaction. “If anyone doesn’t understand put you hand up?” Blank reaction. Then one day I said , “ok new subject, I’m gonna talk about..” and wrote on the board : “Trevor’s sex life…” and they started tittering, Oh! this re-ignited their concentration! Another day I wrote ‘Fuck’ to see if they knew. Of course they did.
Nobody in the world knows of my sex life except 12 Mongolian students…. weird…
Kidding. I didn’t tell them.
But I did mention some personal stories (try to connect it to the poetry). I told them the first time I fell in love (didn’t even get a kiss..), the first time my heart was “smashed to smithereens” (Oh! being so poetic with hyperbole here as actors do) And we all know teenagers love ‘love stories’, they’re not cynical about love… ..yet…
Afternoons were walks in the woods or up the hills. And the stars! 2 clear cloudless nights during the week. Beautiful. But cold.
The food on the ger camp for the week was rice semolina, soup, meat, bread, soup, soup, meat, meat, rice semolina, stale bread (put it in the soup/semolina and forget it’s stale) soup, soup, staler bread, soup and some meat. We had a natural spring outside, pure water. The drunk boss wanted to show-off his traditional Mongolian cultural food habits and one night brought in 2 sheep heads after 3 hours of boiling them and asked us to help dissect and take every morsel of meat off the heads including eye balls, tongue and brain (the delicacy). I tried. I couldn’t. All I could do was watch him and a few students devourer like vultures. This meat was probably in the soup the next day. When you’re in the middle of nowhere and hungry you just eat. Another night: we had to try horse milk. God!! so pungent, so bitter, disgusting. And we had natural yogurt most nights before bedtime! A ger across the field produced it. Chirstine had honey which made the combination delicious.
I will miss the students. They were great. I don’t know if I could be a teacher forever though. There was a university chemistry teacher there, practicing her English. Had lovely conversations with her, her daughter studied in Cardiff, maybe we can meet again in UB before we leave.
So… getting back to UB… we didn’t want to wait another 7 hours (and this time the bosses car was being fixed…) so we basically prepared to hitch hike back, expecting to sit on the back of a truck and breathe all that dust but ended up in a H3 hummer SUV (one of the students dad who works for Rio Tinto mining in the Gobi dessert happened to visit and we jumped on board). He drove us back to UB, overpassing every vehicle, breaking speed limit, like we were on an emergency diplomatic mission. I saw what we see in most countries: increasing contrast between wealth and poverty.
Now I’m back as a tourist and will go see some temples and monasteries.
As Blaise Pascal said: “Sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to write a short one”
Same apologies from me.
Tre-Wer, aka “Teacher”
15th August 2013
The last update, before I return to Europe.
In Abu Dhabi airport now, feeling reflective, nostalgic, introspective …
..like a Tarkovsky movie..
OK, pause Tarkovsky. Let’s switch to a Danny Boyle Trainspotting style. I wanna compare China 2001 to China 2013:
I arrived Beijing June 2001 when it was a dirty, polluted, gigantic sprawl with everyone shouting, spiting, smoking, jumping queues everywhere, trying to sell me everything with 800% markup, trying to sell me un-sealed bottles of water, no city subway train, thousands, millions of cyclists, everyone ignoring traffic lights, massive construction already underway across whole city for 2008 Olympics. Once I got off the shabby airport bus I stubbornly wanted to walk with backpack from Tiananmen square to hostel. After 20 minutes I realised 2 blocks is 1 km, so I hailed a taxi, he can’t speak or read English, I can’t speak or read Mandarin, so I become co-pilot in the front seat using on-the-spot made-up sign language with guidebook. We got lost, how the fuck are we gonna find this hostel in middle of 20 million people. Then miracle, we see hostel sign, both are elated, he was worried for me. Hostel was across a wide river, which stank, worse stench ever, unbearable, had to put hand to nose and run back and forth the bridge every day during the week I was in Beijing. Hostel full of adventurous sociable backpackers (no smartphones then). Within an hour arriving there, on ultra spontaneous mode (best thing about backpacking) met Scottish girl Catherine and Chinese-American girl Mona and we decide to hike and sleep on the Great Wall for a few days with no guides, illegal to do this. An amazing memorable experience – middle of nowhere, absolutely no people, some local farmers wave at us from fields, slept on the wall towers at night, cold, sore back cos floor was so hard, my backpack fell off the wall crawling down steep section, took few hours to find it in the bushes and shrubs below. Back in Beijing, saw a few more historical sites and ate Peking duck. Mona teaches me how to bring all prices down by 90% with vendors, I’m too nice and can only bring prices down 70%, I became assertive and aggressive not letting anyone jump the queues I’m in. After Beijing I traveled on my own to middle of China for few weeks, saw no westerners, overnight trains, 2nd class with lots of green tea, lots of mosquitos, then when everyone sleeps, lots of mice eating leftover food. One day visit to Xian to see Terracotta warriors, then after.. I don’t know and never will know where I went cos all signs were in Mandarin characters and NO hotels in small towns, so I resort again to my invented sign language: mimic sleeping with hands: I get to stay with a family, mimic eating: I get rice and some chicken feet or eggs, couldn’t find toilet, didn’t want to mimic, drew a picture, they brought me a chair… eh…realized there were no toilets cos they squat over a hole in the ground…, so had to mimic peeing. Small towns in middle of China had little or no street lights and all dwellings look the same, got lost one night, walked into the wrong house, family eating dinner all turn and look at me…White Man: “Oops Sorry!, wrong house!” Whole journey everyone stared at me, kids saying “Hello!, Hello!” all day! Got to Shaolin where thousands of kids practice kung fu and wanna be Jackie Chan. Met and hung out with Chinese-Canadian guy called Lee there, first westerner in a week. I naively spur of the moment sign up for kung fu lessons (imagining I’ll be a black belt after a week), had my own teacher, first days lesson only stretching, send day lesson only stretching, 3rd day I literally cannot get out of bed, so stiff, all lessons canceled. Lee takes care of me for rest of the week. After Shaolin, visited beautiful crustal clear lakes Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan but thousands of Chinese tourists everywhere who are so loud that peaceful nature is not peaceful. Kept on travelling south. Met and travelled with English girl Rebecca (she taught English in China for few years) and 2 Israeli guys, we all go camping meeting Chinese families camping also, they think I’m the dad, Rebecca’s my wife and 2 Israeli’s are our sons, we rolled with it but being the patriarch I get offered bowls of Baijiu (40–60% alcohol tastes very liquorish) to drink. Disrespectful if I don’t finish the drinks being the father and husband, all macho now, I get absolutely shitfaced and slept so warmly, snuggly with smile on my face in tent while others shivered that night. Saw lots of pandas at Chengdu. Remember getting ferry down Yangtze River, beautiful three gorges, we took 3rd class on the ferry with cockroaches galore, listening to rats squabbling in the walls, I eat rice and egg and tomato nearly every day, sometimes chicken with feet, once dog meat. Got into a crazy stupid argument with Rebecca, the whole restaurant of 50+ loud Chinese tourists went completely silent during our outburst, very few women can get me to loose my temper like that… and she did. We made up later that evening, perfunctory hug, said goodbye next day and never saw or heard from each other again. Visited beautiful Guilin. Arrived by train to Hong Kong and there’s a typhoon. So I stop travelling, go into reflective mode and sit in HK library and read for a few days,.. and…. jump to Beijing July 2013 –insane heatwave, hottest July on record. Nobody spits, nobody is loud, they’ve turned some streets into Disneyland-esque streets, thousands of cyclists have gone but they have excellent cycle paths, very safe, I cycle from 6am to 8am and then can’t any more cos the heat is too much. Western stores and cafés, international restaurants, young people all westernized, everyone with smartphones and tablets, consumerism aplenty, girls are now sophisticated and pretty and dress like Japanese girls, all have dainty umbrellas to block the blaring sunshine, there’s now 17 subway lines with 230 stations (as opposed to 2 lines I never found in 2001). Subway is ultra modern, 2 yuan per ride (20 cent), all subway stations have security scans like airports and seamless, no delays, they project tv adds onto tunnel wall while train travels, phone signals everywhere, mind the gap sign and the gap is only 5 mm?, designer stores everywhere, my favorite rice and egg/tomato dish gone, no chicken feet, no stench from rivers, maybe they got rid of the river, lots of pedestrian streets looking like Portobello rd. And after arriving in Beijing this time, like Hong Kong last time, I didn’t want to travel anymore. Took a break to just observe. Also no point in trying to re-create amazing challenging experience in 2001.
OK now switch back to a Tarkovsky / Wong Kar Wai film style:
I said goodbye trans-siberian travellers in Beijing and took the 300km/hour bullet train to Shanghai, pretty excited, first time to visit Shanghai. Growing up in a village of 200 people in a country of 4 million people arriving in a city of 24 million people in a country of 1.4 billion people: Bring! It! On! My adrenaline kicking. No guidebook, no plans, and first night – again I wanna get lost. I followed the throngs, the hoards of Chinese tourists from People’s Square down Nanjing road, wondering where are they all heading to, walking among thousands. In Chekhov’s The Seagull, Treplev asks Dorn where his favorite place was to visit. Dorn says Genoa describing: “there’s such a splendid crowd in its streets. When you leave the hotel in the evening, and throw yourself into the heart of that throng, and move with it without aim or object, swept along, hither and thither, their life seems to be yours, their soul flows into you, and you begin to believe at last in a great world spirit.” I think for me this is the closest to what Chekhov talked about. I had to listen to music on my mp3 player while walking among everyone, in anticipation… and you know when the right song hits the right moment, … I had Riceboy Sleep’s Stokkseyri playing and the moment the song crescendos (piano fades and the string synthesiser intensifies), I saw where we were going. We arrived to the river, the promenade and right across from us….the stunning, spectacular, extraordinary Shanghai skyline at night. Build from scratch in 25 years and makes all other city skylines look mediocre. To see this in at night among crowds, with this music… I was drunk…
Youtube this song to get my sense… Riceboy Sleep’s Stokkseyri.
I cycled some early mornings and evenings in Beijing to slowly, leisurely discover new China….One very early morning in Beijing I came to Temple Of Heaven park and saw hundreds of grannies and granddads doing Tai Chi, playing badminton, singing folk songs, and dancing, slow dancing, waltzing… so many elderly couples waltzing in a park at 7 in the morning.
I discovered the same at Fuxing park in Shanghai.
And the elderly who were too frail to dance, sat in wheelchairs observing with smiles and wisdom and nostalgia …
This really moved me. Every morning they did this, not once a week but every morning. Imagine…. The day you die you tell St Peter at the Pearly Gates: “I had a beautiful waltz a few hours ago with my neighbor”.
And here am I complaining about the heatwave on my bike and these elderly people are so active! The Chinese resilient spirit.
The romance… imagine that dance with the one you’ve always had slight attraction to for the last 50 years….
Reminds me of Van Morrison’s song Sweet Thing:
“And you shall take me strongly in your arms again
And I would not remember that I ever felt the pain
We shall walk and talk, in gardens all misty wet with rain
And I will never, never, never grow so old again”
This journey to the east concludes… for the time being.
Take me home.