Friday, November 22, 2002

Readers may remember my recent visit (See Archives) to the official reopening of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, where I was privileged to see Bill Clinton whiz by in a limousine.

The newly restored and refurbished Brandenburg Gate

Now it appears that a major ruckus has broke out in front of the Brandenburg Gate. And, no, I am not talking about the latest Michael Jackson episode in which he dangled his baby off the balcony of the Adlon Hotel, located on the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

Adlon Hotel, largely destroyed during the war but now completely rebuilt and back up
to snuff as Berlin’s toniest hostelry (at least it was before Michael Jackson’s visit).

Instead I am referring to the fate of bratwurst vendor Curt Boesenberg who was just recently evicted from his spot in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where he sold bratwurst from a cart for years. Apparently he is considered too déclassé for the environs of the new, refurbished Gate. “They say my bratwurst stand isn’t appropriate for the square’s historical surroundings. That’s ridiculous. Sausages have a long tradition in Berlin,” he told the International Herald-Tribune. There were some heated public protests in the square in support of Boesenberg but to no avail. The authorities have decided that Boesenberg and his bratwurst have to go. I agree with the protestors on this one. It’s a helluva world when a guy can’t get a beer and a bratwurst in front of the Brandenburg Gate! This is especially galling because one of the corners of the Brandenburg square, right across the street from the Adlon Hotel, is now occupied by a Starbucks. So it “Bratwurst – Nien, Lattes – Ja” for the hallowed precincts of the Brandenburg Gate. Is this what the Greatest Generation fought for?

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Well, my European wanderjahr is over and I fInally made back to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia.

November is not a popular month to visit Mongolia. The once-weekly Mongolian Airlines Airbus 310-300 from Berlin to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, (with a stop in Moscow) was less than half full with only four people in the business section. I had bought my ticket from the checkout counter at the airport two hours before the scheduled departure. In summertime, the three weekly flights from Berlin to Ulaan Baatar are often booked weeks in advance. But I had checked the weather in Ulaan Baatar before leaving, and it was –5º F., a tempature which tends to discourage casual tourism. The Mongolian Airlines web site has a special page touted “Mongolia in Winter (with various attractions listed), but this is a concept which has not yet quite caught on.

The big news in Mongolia, according to the two English-language newspapers handed out on the plane, was the recent (November 4 – 8) visit of the Dalai Lama. Had I known he was going to be in Mongolia at this time I would have came a week earlier and caught his visit. Actually, just three week before, I had been in Graz, Austria, where the Dalai Lama had given a Kalachakra Initiation and thus had an opportunity to see and hear him many times. Even in Graz there was a rumor that the Dalai Lama would be in Mongolia sometime in November, but no one knew exactly when. After leaving Graz I had checked the Dalai Lama’s schedule on his website several times and there had been no mention of any trip to Mongolia. Hoping to find reports of the Graz Kalachakra Initiation I had also googled the news with the words “Dalai Lama” and not seen any articles about the Mongolia trip until he was actually in Mongolia. Now I read in the Nov. 6 Mongol Messenger that officials at Gandan Monastery in Ulaan Baatar had held a news conference on October 30 announcing that the Dalai Lama was coming but did not reveal any of his travel plans.

There was a reason for the aura of secrecy around this visit by Dalai Lama. He had originally planned to come to Mongolia during the first week of September, before his trip to Graz, but this trip had been cancelled at the last moment. I myself had been in Mongolia at the time.

Problems had arisen. First the Russian government had refused to issue the Dalai Lama a visa either to visit the Buddhist regions of Russia, including Kalmykia in the west, along the Volga River, and Buryatia, just to the north of Mongolia itself, or to simply pass through Russia on his way to Ulaan Baatar. There was wide-spread speculation in the press that the Russian government had caved into pressure from the Chinese government, which did not want see the Dalai Lama, whom it of course views as a dangerous “splittist”, promoting his views on Tibetan independence just beyond its northern border. The Russian Ambassador to Mongolia, Oleg Derkvosky, didn’t help matters by comparing the Dalai Lama to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.” The situation is similar if A. Maskhadov was invited to Mongolia,” Derkovsky explained during a news conference in response to questons about why the Russian government had denied the Dalai Lama a visa.

Then the Dalai Lama had attempted to come to Mongolia through Seoul, Korea, which maintains airlinks with Ulaan Baatar. This plan was thwarted when Asiana Airlines refused to fly him from Delhi, India, to Seoul. “We had respectfully asked the Dalai Lama to take a route that doesn't stop in Seoul for his and other passengers' safety,'' said Kim Haeng-seok, an Asiana spokesman.” Asked to elaborate on the security concerns he said: ``Some people like the Dalai Lama. Some people don't.”

`We cannot understand the airline's refusal to allow an internationally recognized religious leader to make a transit flight, commented a spokesman for the Dalai Lama Visit Preparation Committee, a Buddhist group in Seoul who had invited the Dalai Lama to Korea, commented. ”We are curious how much pressure there was from China.” This sentiment was echoed the Korea Times. “The government should give higher priority to Korea‘s sovereignty than stronger trade with China,” fumed an editorial. Right up until two days before his expected arrival monks at Gandan Monastery told me he was still coming, by means uncertain, but at the last moment it was finally acknowledged that the trip had been cancelled. Later in September he was also banned from visiting South Africa for the Earth Summit meeting, again because of alleged Chinese pressure.

Now the Mongolians monks were understandably being cagy. At the October 30 press conference the deputy head of Gandan monastery, Yo. Amgalan, had declared “I think that there is no need to talk about the routes of a famous person. We have no problems about visas now. Thanks to huge efforts and many requests , he [the Dalai Lama} is able to visit Mongolia.”

This announcement did not make international news however, and few outside of Mongolia knew the Dalai Lama was on this way there. The first widely broadcast news report about the visit came on the day he flew from Japan to Mongolia: “China denounced the Dalai Lama's visit to neighbouring Mongolia on Monday, hours before the Tibetan spiritual leader was due to fly into the predominantly Buddhist country to meet followers. ‘The Dalai Lama is not simply a religious figure, but is a political exile who has engaged in activities to split the motherland,‘ the Chinese Foreign Ministry told Reuters in a faxed response to questions. ‘The Chinese side is resolutely opposed to him going to any country in whatever capacity to engage in political activities aimed at splitting China or damaging its ethnic unity,’ it said.”

When he finally arrived in Ulaan Baatar on the evening of November 4 the Dalai Lama was met by various Mongolian Buddhist leaders and the Indian Charge d’Affaire in Ulaan Baatar, Amur Sanathu. Mongolian government representatives were conspiciously absent. Over 200 policemen guarded at the airport and the twelve-mile route from the airport into the city was lined with more police. Thus began the Dalai Lama’s sixth visit to Mongolia. He had been here before in 1979, 1982, 1987, 1991, and most recently in 1995, when he gave a Kalachakra Initiation like the one he had just given in Graz, Austria.

On Tuesday he visited the Gandan Monastery and the Janraiseg Temple—home of a immense 27 meter-high copper statue of Janraisig (commonly transliterated as Chenresig in Tibetan, also known as Avaloshitevara in Sanscrit)—a Buddhisattva of whom the Dalai Lama is considered to be a reincarnation, and he spoke to the large crowd who had assembled for over half an hour. Later he gave an address on television and presented a teaching at the UB Palace, Ulaan Baatar’s largest concert venue.

About 90% of Mongolia’s 2.4 million people consider themselves at least nominally Buddhist, despite that fact that religion was violently proscribed during seven decades of communist rule, with over 700 monasteries destroyed and thousands of monks killed or imprisoned. Now thousands of people turned out to hear the Dalai Lama. Typical was B. Badamdorj, a sixty-five year-old retired army man, who told the Mongol Messenger, “It is right that the Buddhist head pays a visit to Mongolia . . . He is seen as a unique person in Mongolia . . . My mother is 92 years old and I will take my mother to the speech by his Holiness the Dalai Lama.” Even those who had fully embraced communism were attracted to the Dalai Lama. As sixty-year-old G. Tuya told the Messenger, “I am not a strong believer. I have worked in a kindergarten for many years. As a member of the MPRP [Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party], I was brought up with the ideology of communism . . . My son told me yesterday about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia. When I saw in TV how many people will go to the monasteries, I wanted to go but my feet are not well and I am afraid of the crowds.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese government was not at all happy that the Dalai Lama had managed to circumvent their determined attempts to keep him out of Mongolia. On Tuesday, November 5, all rail communications between Mongolia and China were suddenly stopped. Chinese railroad officials cited “technical reasons” for the stoppage, but financial news services soon reported that the traffic halt was “widely believed to be the result of opposition by the Chinese authorities to the current visit of the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama, to Mongolia.” Hundreds of passengers were stranded at the border station of Erenhot and all freight trains halted. Most significantly, this included shipments of copper concentrates which make up 50% of Mongolia’s exports. Forseeing a copper shortage if the embargo continued traders at the London Metal Exchange quickly bid up copper prices to a sixteen-week high of $1607 a ton. While the Dalai Lama’s visit was of limited interest to non-Buddhists outside of Mongolia the resulting spike in copper prices was featured on the business pages of newspapers all over the world (“Dalai Lama’s Trip Tied to Copper Rise,” trumpeted a headline in the Toronto Star). After two days, however, their pique apparently having run its course, Chinese authorities finally backed down and allowed rail traffic to continue. The Dalai Lama left on November 8, apparently not having met with any Mongolian government official of significance. This much the Chinese opposition accomplished.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Berlin - Rain, sleet, and brief snow flurries all day. Took the underground out to Spandau, one of Berlin's farflung suburbs. This is supposedly the oldest part of the city: the oldest house in Berlin is the so-called Gothic House at 32 Breite Strasse. Then ducked out of the cold into the Nicolai Church, which is rather plain red brick on the outside but has a surprisingly airy and light domed interior. Nice quiet place to sit for a while. Then on the underground to the whole to the whole other end of the city, getting off at Alexanderplatz in the old East Berlin. Even after 12 years of unification there is quite a difference. The underground station is gray and dowdy and the square itself is surrounded by big grim monolithic Soviet-style buildings. Just at dusk a cold rain was still falling and a sharp east wind whipping across the square. Gloomy in the extreme. I quickly left and took the underground back to Wittenburgplatz. Spend the evening inside - tired of walking the streets in the rain.

Friday, November 08, 2002

Finally got back to Berlin (Germany, that is). Checking out the city. Found what may well be the biggest internet cafe in the world - over 350 computers on two floors. You don't even have to talk to anyone. You just buy time from a machine which gives you a ticket with a password on it. Of course this place is open 24 hours a day. And there's even a Dunkin' Donuts outlet!!! It's right on Ku' Damm, the main drag, near the Zoo Station.

Yesterday went to the great Museum of Indian Art in the suburb of Dalhem, to the southwest of Berlin, just a short hop by the underground metro. Saw the famous paintings removed around the turn of the century from Khocho and Bezeklik in the Turpan Depression of Xinjiang in western China, which I visited last year. See photo of Three Donors mural from Bezeklik, now in the Dahlem Museum in Berlin

The day before went to the Pergamon Museum, surely one of the world's most awesome. Entire walls and buildings were removed from various sites in the Mid-East and reconstructed here. Of course, this kind of thing cannot be done anymore, which is probably for the best. Will have more details, with photos, soon.

Then to the Egyptian Museum. Here of course is the world famous statute of Neretiti, as drop-dead gorgeous now as she was 3000 years ago. What a babe! For photo see Nefertiti!

Bought a special three-day tourist pass good for unlimited use on all the public transportation in the city, so I have travelled from one end of this vast city to the other. What a difference from Vienna, where almost everything of importance to visitors is within the so-called Ring, which can very easily covered on foot. From one side to the other is only a 20 to 30 minute walk. Berlin is spread all over Hell and back. In fact, there really doesn't seem to be a city of Berlin, only different neighborhoods each of which seems like its own little city.

Tuesday, November 5, 2002
Finally got out of Vienna. After a night in the cosy little Pension Anna I walked up Mariahilferstrasse at six in the morning toward the Ostbahnhof (West Train Station) just as the what is apparently Vienna’s first snow of the years began filter down out of the black skies. Caught the 8:16 to Nuremburg. I sat in the last car of the train, which is a car with regular seats two abreast on each side of the aisle and not a compartment car, with six seats to a compartment. I have quickly learned that the misanthropes tend to congregate in this car, so there would be little chance of anyone striking up any pointless conversations: indeed, most people fell asleep the moment they sat down. One of the dangers of traveling in foreign countries is the assumption on the part of some people that you are interested in meeting new aquaintances or having interesting little chats about your experiences in their wonderful country. I just want to quietly by myself and gaze out the window, the passing countryside providing a convenient backdrop for my daydreams. And what a backdrop today. I am still a bit surprised by how rural Austria is. Not fifteen minutes out of the Vienna train station we are in some heavily forested mountains not unlike the fabled Alleghenies of western Pennsylania.m The upper slopes of these mountains are already coated like an apfelstrudel with a dusting of powdered-sugar-like snow. Then out into rolling farm land dotted with hills topped by grim castles, stern monasteries, and onion-domed churches. The streams we cross are flooded from yesterday’s rains and the edges of the fields are covered with standing water. As if it hasn’t been wet enough in central Europe this summer now they are getting still more now. At St. Polten we met up with the Danube River, now anything but blue swollen as it is with gray, muddy water. Now the entire landscape is covered with damp snow . . . Wild goose that I am I should be heading south, toward the Mediiterrean, or at least the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, but no, I am bound for the Teutonic austerities of Berlin.

At !0:10 we pull into Linz, famous mainly as the town where Adolf Hitler grew up. He had big plans for this place, hoping to turn into into a model city of the Third Reich. He also hoped to return here after he retired from public life. The Soviet Army advancing on Berlin obviously had something else in mind for him. Now Linz is an industrial hub with huge smokestacks spewing smoke into the already gray skies.

Crossed the border into Germany at Passau. Of course there really is no border any more. No passport checks or anything. The whole time I was on Austria I never had any kind of Austrian visa or even entry stamp in my passport. In fact I was never once asked to produce my passport, or any other kind of ID while in Austria. In the Bosch Pension I never even filled out a registration form. I just told the lady my name.

For awhile we follow the Danube, which is over its banks here, and then cut across a vast plain broken only by thin church steeples rising out of the small agricultural villages. Big piles of potatoes everywhere: they are going to rot as wet as it is. Water standing in the fields. Despite the flatness of this area there are numerous electricty producing windmills. Now if people in western PA. would only get off their duffs and built some of these. . .

Then through Regensburg (12:30 pm) which all the books say has a spectacular old medieval city at its center, despite the particularly bleak train station, which is all I saw. Then back into the hills and dales, dotted with tidy villages of houses with orange-tiled roofs.

Then Nuremburg, with its grimy, industrialized suburbs but spiffy new railroad station with a host of restaurants (including MacDonalds), bakeries, well stocked bookshops (papers from all over Europe, Turkey and the Mid-East: only USA Today from the States, internet cafes (the latter packed with people). Unfortunately I was only there for an hour before catching another train for Berlin (at 2:33) so I was not able to check out the city . . . Then Bamberg (3:06 pm) and on to Lichtenfels. All the creeks and rivers in this area are flooded too and still a lot of standing water in the fields. And poor Mongolia is dying from a drought! See photo of Nuremburg Train Station.

Rolled into the Zoo Station in Berlin at 7:50 in the evening.. As usual this train station is jammed; there’s a host of restaurants, stores, and perennial hangers-about. Outside it’s cold, windy, a few flurries in the air.
Headed for my regular hotel near Wittenbergplatz . . .

Monday, November 04, 2002

Saturday, November 02, 2002

A rainy, rainy day in Vienna. Now it looks like I am stuck here over the weekend waiting for some important news from Mongolia. I am starting to feel like a character from the movie The Third Man, doomed forever to wander the damp, gray streets of Vienna. On a brighter note I found a great bookstore called Shakespeare and Co in a small alley off Hohler Markt. Had an brief conversation with the proprietess about Claudio Magris's great book Danube and then bought a copy of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which is of course the classic book about Vienna. I accidently picked up the second volume, which is about 5 inches thick, and which is actually an edited collection of outtakes on The Man Without Qualities put together after Musil's death. The woman who runs the store said she may be the only person who has read this.

Friday, November 01, 2002

Still in Vienna - I have to get a addition to my passport because mine was completely full. The American Embassy here is of course an fortress surrounded by a veritable Maginot Line. Fortunately there is a consulate downtown in the Ramada Hotel across from the Statpark where you can get passport matters taken care of . . . So I am in Vienna for a few day. I am not a very fussy eater but I cannot say I am all that thrilled with Austrian food. I have had a couple of truly appalling meals here. I thought after all my travels my stomach was immune to the onslaughts of strange cuisines but I am still reeling from the effects on one particularly horrific meal. If I see one one plate of weinersnitzel and french fries I swear I am going to hurl. I have taken to eating in Italian and Turkish places. Speaking of food, I can't help but wonder why there is an almost universal disparagement of Mongolian food. I like good honest Mongolian food. I could use a big plate of buutz right now . . .

Anyhow, last night was Halloween. There was a noisy anti-war-in -Iraq rally in Stephanplatz - from 1000 to 1500 people taking part. This of course is just the tip of the iceberg. If the USA does invade Iraq there will probably be big anti-USA protests all over Europe. It will not be pleasant to be a US citizen in many places. Just saying you are a US citizen is pretty much of a conversation-stopper in many places already . . . and it is going to get worse.

Got up early this morning and climbed the over 300 steps up 220 feet into the 484 foot-high main steeple of St. Stephen's cathedral (see photo below). Quite a climb. The steeply winding stone staircase is just wide enough for two slender people to squeeze by going in opposite directions. That this slender spire has survived two bombardments by the Turks (in 1529 and 1683), Napoleon (1805 and1809), bombing raids by British and American planes during World War II and Soviet artillery is clearly a miracle. See the View from halfway up the St. Stephan's north steeple

Then to the Museum of the Order of Teutonic Knights. More on this later , but for the moment see Here.