Friday, December 17, 2004

Just heard from Sevgi in Istanbul. A few months ago she went to Syria for a vacation. She says she is spending the Holidays in Libya. As a Turkish citizen she can visit these places where American citizens are more or less persona non grata.

Sevgi (right) in front of Mount Kailash in western Tibet, one of the world’s great pilgrimage sites

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Life of Zanabazar continued:

The spring after Zanabazar’s birth Gegen Setsen Khan came to visit Gomdorj and his wife and new son. As he was dandling the little boy on his knee of vision of three acaryas—holy men from India—appeared in front of him. The tiny boy reached out his arms to these beings and started babbling as if trying to talk to them. The Gegen Setsen Khan, who could just barely manage to hold the animated little dandling on his knee, was utterly amazed by these events. Convinced that the little boy would someday became a great lama, Gegen Setsen Khan decided to give him his own honorary title—Gegen, (usually translated as “Supreme Holiness”—and henceforth go only by the name Setsen Khan.

Setsen Khan returned to his home in the valley of the Kherlen but could not get the boy out of his mind. He soon dispatched an “expert on portents” to examine the child further. This individual returned with the verdict that “‘the newborn son of Tüsheet Khan is in truth a darling child: the oblong quality of the corners of his eyes and the unusual regularity in the texture of the pupil and the white of his eyes attest to the fact that he is able to contemplate all the ten lands of the earth; as for his body, there are combined in it all the signs of the Buddha, and that is why one may consider beyond any doubt that he is a real Buddha.”

The boy began speaking at the age of three. According to legend his first words were the Buddhist invocation Ala-la-ma duy-sun-san-jiy-di choy-ji-kor-lo-bardu-la-na-med. Soon he was reading and reciting prayers for most of the day, without any instruction or coaxing. When he wasn’t praying or making offers he spent his time building small replicas of temples, fashioning small statues of Buddhas, and drawing portraits of great lamas. Although by tradition the son of a khan was supposed to be surrounded by playmates from other noble families the little boy chose to ignore them completely and instead focused all his energies to his devotional practices. Before the end of his third year, in early 1638, his father, by then convinced that the boy was destined for a religious life, arranged for a lama named Jambaling to give the him his first monastic vows. With these came a new monastic name, Jnanavajra.

It did not take long for stories of Gombodorj Khan’s remarkable little boy to spread throughout Khalkh Mongolia. Setsen’s Khan’s prophecy, allegedly made before the boy was born; the signs and portents surrounding his birth; the findings of soothsayer Setsen Khan had sent to examine the boy; the boy’s amazing utterances and extraordinary behavior; his taking of his first monastic vows at the age of three, all would have been commented on and elaborated upon at great length in a country where people thought nothing of traveling hundreds of miles by horse simply to visit acquaintances and hear some interesting tidbit of news. By the time he was four years old not only the Buddhist hierarchy of Mongolia but even the ruling khans and princes realized that he was destined to play a unique role in the history of their country. Thus in 1639 a great convocation was held to enthrone him as head of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism in all of Khalkh Mongolia and establish for him his own monastery.

From the four aimags of Khalkh Mongolia the khans and their entourages converged on the territory of the Zanabazar’s father the Tüsheet Khan Gombodorj. They all met about forty-eight miles north of Yesön Zuil, at a small lake surrounded on three sides by hills covered with the sand dunes of the so-called Mongol Els—a belt of dunes up to five miles wide and trending north-south for over fifty miles. On the fourth side loomed, like a backdrop of the huge natural amphitheater, the 5477 foot-high massif of Ikh Mongol Uul. This spot, thought to be very near the geographic center of ancient Khalkh Mongolia, and just eighteen miles northeast of the geographical center of the current country of Mongolia, was known as the khüis—“navel”—of the Mongol realm. It eventually became known as Shireet Tsagaan Nuur (White Throne Lake).

The now-dry lake bed of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, with Mongol Els sand dunes in the distance

Another view of the lake bed

Details of the composition of the convocation at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur are lacking but since all representatives of all four khanates and their no-doubt sizable entourages were present it is possible that several thousand people were in attendance. Before this assembled throng Zanabazar was officially given the title of Gegen which has been informally bestowed upon him by Setsen Khan shortly after his birth. He also received ordination into the first monastic degree, known as Rabjun, from the presiding lama, a Sakya monk named Bürilegüü. Then he was given another title, Sumati-Sakya-Dodza—“one who holds the Sakya banner of the great mind”—and, according to traditional account, a new name, Lobsang Dambi Jantsen (”religious flag of good omen”). Since it had been decided to make him the superior of his own monastery, Zanabazar was taught the Khamboin-jinan, or “the superior’s instructions and ordination”. At some point he also received a Malakala initiation.

Knoll with Zanabazar’s Ovoo just visible on the top

On a high grass-covered knoll between the shore of the lake and base of Ikh Mongol Uul a ger, the traditional felt tent of the nomads, had been erected. Because the ger was draped outside with yellow cloth it became known as the Shar Bösiyn Ord, or “Yellow Sash Palace”. Lama Bürilegüü carried the little boy up the hill and placed on a throne in the ger, thus signifying that the boy was now the head of the Buddhist faith in Mongolia. The ger itself was sanctified as the first temple of what eventually became Zanabazar’s own monastery. The assembled Mongols then appeared before Zanabazar, offering obeisance and making offerings. He received several dozen gers from each of the Mongol khans, the basis of what became his shabinar, or personal estate. Then began the games, feasts, and celebrations.

Shireet Tsagaan Nuur is located 148 miles west-southwest of Ulaan Baatar in what is now Övörkhangai Aimag. I first visited here in 1997, as described in my book Travels in Northern Mongolia. At that time it appeared to be visited by only a few die-hard Mongolian pilgrims. No one I talked to back in Ulaan Baatar could tell me its exact location, and even local people along the main highway from Ulaan Baatar to Kharkhorin, which passes ten miles north of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, could give only the sketchiest directions. Even though we got more detailed instructions from herdsmen in the valley of the Jargalant River, just to the south of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, we found the extremely faint jeep track which led across the sand dunes of the Mongol Els to the old lake depression only by accident.

I returned to Shireet Tsagaan Nuur in the summer of 2002. Since my first visit a tourist map of the area had been published which showed the location of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur and other local landmarks. Also, jeep track appeared to be much more heavily used than before and was not at all hard to find. A local herdsman said that now many Mongolians come here on outings and in the last couple of years even a few foreign tourist groups have started to show up.

Zanabazar’s original ger temple was supposedly located on a high hill overlooking the old lake bed— the lake which existed here in Zanabazar’s day has almost completely dried up—of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, with Ikh Mongol Uul looming up just behind.. The site is surrounding on the other three sides by sand-dune covered hills. The site of the ger temple—the Shar Bösiyn Ord (the Yellow Sash Palace)—is marked by a ten-foot high white stupa. It was here that the four-year old boy was named as the first of Mongolia’s eight Bogd Gegens.

Ovoo marking the spot where Zanabazar’s yellow ger was located

This ger temple was the original core of Zanabazar’s traveling monastery, which eventually became known as Örgöö, meaning “palace” or “camp of an important person.” Örgöö would continually change places and transform itself many times until it finally settled at the confluence of the Tuul and Selbi rivers, in the large basin surrounded by the four holy mountains of Chingeltei Uul, Bayanzurkh Uul, Songino Uul , and Bogd Khan Uul, and became the foundation of the city of Ulaan Baatar. Thus Shireet Tsagaan Nuur is recognized as the original site of what is now Mongolia’s capital.

Back of monument, dedicated to the 360th anniversary of the founding of Ulaan Baatar

Since my first visit here mayor’s office of the city of Ulaan Baatar had erected an eight-foot high stone slab at the base of the hill, at the edge of the old lake, commemorating the 360th anniversary of the founding here of what has become Ulaan Baatar. On the front, facing the stupa is a carved Mongolian inscription in Cyrillic alphabet with the date the monument was dedicated—October 29, 1999—and on the back is a much longer inscription in Old Mongolian vertical script.

Front of Monument to the founding of what is now the city of Ulaan Baatar

Above this inscription is the famous Soyombo symbol, which was invented by Zanabazar, and which is now also found on the Mongolian flag, on Mongolian paper money, and many, many other places. Thus the city of Ulaan Baatar has given its imprimatur to Shireet Tsagaan Nuur as the original location of its founding.

The famous Soyombo Symbol

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Since I have been back in Ulaan Baatar I have continued working on the guide to locales connected with Zanabazar, the first Bogd Gegen of Mongolia. Here is the excerpt about Tovkhon Monastery:

In 1648, about the time he had founded what is now Shankh Monastery on the Shariyn Gol, Zanabazar had noticed a unusual armchair-shaped peak among the ridges west of the Orkhon River, at a place called Shireet Ulaan Uul, and concluded that it was an auspicious spot.

Mountains west of the Orkhon River

Upon his return from his first trip to Tibet in 1561 he had a small stone-walled mediation hut built here. In 1653 he visited Erdene Zuu, founded by his great-grandfather, and appeared before a convocation of Khalkh nobility. While there he prevailed upon his followers to build a temple and retreat at Shireet Ulaan Uul for his own personal use. Later it also became a workshop where many of his most famous artworks were created. After his death it became known as Tövkhon Monastery, the name by which it is known today.

The small temples were heavily damaged by the communists during the upheavals of the late 1930s. Restoration work began in the early 1990s, and on October 27, 1993, the temple complex was officially reopened. During the summer of 1997 extensive ceremonies were performed here, and new statue of the deity Gombo Makhgal was placed in one of the refurbished temples and consecrated. Several monks now live at the complex full time.

The “Easy Chair,” which the red temple of Tovkhon just visible on the seat

The peak on which Tövkhon is located resembles and easy chair with arm rests on either side. In the seat of the chair, several hundred feet above the base of the peak, are several small temples. A stone staircase, wide enough to accommodate horses, leads from the base of the peak to the temples. According to legend, only Zanabazar was allowed to ride right up to the temples. Others had to dismount at the base of the peak and walk up.

Near the top of the staircase, to the right of the temples, are two wells about fifteen feet from each other. One has fresh water in it, while the other has slightly brackish water. No one has been able to explain why one is brackish and the other not, or for that matter, how there can be wells at all here in the solid rock very close to the summit of a mountain, where ordinarily there would not be any underground water courses. This, according to monks in residence, is just one of the many oddities of this place.

In the main temple, on a shelf above a statue of the deity Bogd Kham Chorsum, rests a small statue of Zanabazar. Below the statue is a large chunk of rock in which can be seen an impression that, with a little bit of imagination, resembles a human hand. This, according to legend, is the hand print of Zanabazar himself. From the temples one trail to the right leads to two meditation caves. In the one which was favored by Zanabazar. is a small altar where he supposedly sat and meditated.

One of the meditation caves

Altar in Zanabazar’s Cave

Near the caves is “Zanabazar’s Throne,” a stone seat where, according to monks in residence, Zanabazar would sit each morning at dawn.

Zanabazar’s Throne

On a sloping shelf of stone below the caves, pressed into the native rock, are the imprints of several feet. Local monks say one is the bare foot of Zanabazar as a small boy, while another is of his foot as a grown man, shod in Mongolian-style boots. There is also an imprint of what is said to be his horse’s hoof. Yet another footprint is said to be that of one Zanabazar’s main disciples, Luvsannorovsharav, who went on to found the Mandal Bag Monastery in Bayankhongor Aimag.

Footprint of Zanabazar as a grown man

To the right of the temples a path leads upward to the summit of the peak. One branch of the path leads to the so-called Mother’s Womb, a narrow passageway which pilgrims crawl through to be symbolically reborn, cleansed of their sins.

Pilgrim emerging from the Mother’s Womb

Nearby, a underground passageway leads to the other side of the peak. This was a secret escape route from Tövkhon which local monks claim Zanabazar used to flee from the forces of his arch-enemy Galdan Boshigt during the war between the Khalkh and Zungarian Mongols in 1689. An extension of the path continues to the summit, where a sizable flat area has been created with the help of stone retaining walls. According to tradition, women are not allowed on this summit, although with the advent in recent years of many foreign pilgrims and tourists this prohibition is now sometimes ignored, much to the displeasure of local monks.

Summit of the Peak above Tovkhon

Ovoo on the summit

View from near the summit

At the bottom of the peak, near the current parking lot, is “Zanabazar’s Hitching Post,” which Zanabazar allegedly made by tying together the tops of two nearby saplings, which then growth together in the form of an upside U.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

December 7 was, as most of you probably know, the anniversary of the death of Tsongkhapa (or Zonkhov, as he is known in Mongolian), the founder of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. In the afternoon I walked up to Gandan Monastery and was surprised to find what I think was the biggest crowd I have ever seen there, even bigger than Saga Dawa, last June, which I described here. There were thousands of people and a huge crush to get into the Janraisig Temple, which holds an immense 85 foot high statue of Janraisig. There was even a huge monk at the door trying to direct the flow of traffic, with hundreds of people pushing and shoving in the way only Mongolians are capable of. At the foot of the statute people had lit thousands and thousands of offering lamps. It made quite a sight, although unfortunately photos cannot be taken with the temple.

Janraisig Temple at Gandan

Also popped to into the Kalachakra Temple to take another look at the Kings of Shambhala. Also the famous Kalachakra Thangkas are still there, not been having been returned to Shankh.

Ms S (right)

Ms S, who I just saw in New York, was kind enough to send me this photo of herself looking especially alluring, along side a wrestler at Kharhorin, site of the ancient Mongol capital of Kharkhorum.

Monday, December 06, 2004

It seems like the Manhole People of UIaan Baatar are still alive it not entirely well. According to the December 2 UB Post there are now 10,000 homeless people in Ulaan Baatar, many of them living the utility corridors which run underneath the city. Access to these warrens are by some 248 manholes, some but not all of which are been locked to keep people out. Supposedly 70 percent of the manhole people are women. A spokesman for the Manholers told the UB Post that “there are many respected people living underground who are honored painters, singers, engineers, and state-prize winning teachers. There are people who have not been able to adjust to changes in society.” Many collect bottles and other recyclables from the trash in order to survive. Others have special arrangements with bars and restaurants to go through their garbage. The first generation manholers, those who have been living underground since the fall of communism in 1990, concentrate on thievery, often robbing other manholers or making them pay protection money. Now the manholers are organizing and plan to petition the government for land on which to built their own above-ground town.

A few winters ago I wrote this about the manholers: “At the far side of the bridge [across the Tuul River] I am jolted back into the present. From a manhole by the side of the road three men are emerging. Each is dressed in filthy deels (traditional robes worn by both Mongolian men and women) whose original color is now indistinguishable. Their hands and faces are likewise black with grime. Each has a small grubby burlap bag containing his possessions. These are the so-called “tunnel people” who inhabit the labyrinth of utility ducts beneath the entire city. Most are people who have somehow fallen through the cracks of the new society which has evolved after the fall of communism, or are victims of the disastrous zeds, severe winter storms which have killed millions of head of livestock in the countryside over the past several years, leaving many herders destitute. It was estimated at one time that there are up to two thousand of these tunnel people, including many children, although now most have reportedly been flushed out by the authorities. They are most numerous in winter, when it is impossible to lead a homeless life on the surface. Most survive by begging and thievery. I once talked to a translator who had a client whose passport had been stolen. In a runabout way the translator heard that there was a man in the tunnels who acting as a kind of clearing house for stolen passports and credit cards. A street urchin agreed to take the translator to met this man. Visitors to the tunnels had to pay an entrance fee of a bottle of vodka or a carton of cigarettes or face dire consequences. The translator was led to this man’s liar deep in the catacombs beneath the city and finally managed to buy back the passport for one hundred dollars. The three men, having climbed out of the manhole, turn their attention to me as I walk by. There is nothing threatening in their demeanor. They simply stare at me with the surprisingly calm eyes of those who no longer harbor any hopes or illusions about anything.”

On other news fronts it appears that a child prodigy has appeared in one the city’s big black markets. This six year old boy named Galkuu can calculate any number up to one million, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing all in his head. Many merchants in the market claim he can fire out sums faster than they can do them on a calculator. His family was originally from the province of Dundgov and moved to Ulaan Baatar in 1998. Neither have been able to find work and they rely on the small fees merchants pay their little boy for being a two-legged, mobile calculator. The boy never even attended kindergarten but taught himself math. He loves his new job so much that he gets up early every morning and runs to the market. He has become such a celebrity that even the President of Mongolia, Bagabandi, has asked to meet him.
Saturday morning dawned clear and all looked well for Ulaan Baatar. The plane left right on time at 12:15 pm and arrived in Ulaan Baatar two hours and two minutes later, temperature a relatively balmy 16 degrees F.

Winging into Ulaan Baatar

Lots of snow on the mountains around town but none in the city itself.

Ulaan Baatar, formerly Urga, Ikh Khuree, etc., capital of Mongolia

The cab drivers at the airport are getting ever more audacious. The first one I talked to wanted $20 for the ride into town. I ended up paying 5000 togrogs ($4.50). Checked into my old haunt near the Chinese Embassy, the Zaluudchud Hotel, since I gave up my apartment when I left Ulaan Baatar back in September. Once in my room at about 3:30 pm I thought I would just lie down on the bed for a few moments and rest. I woke up at 3:00 am the next morning. I guess the change in 12 time zones finally caught up with me. I did not really feel it in Beijing. Sunrise at 8:26. Headed down to the Ulaan Baatar Hotel in a fierce snowstorm to get some money from the ATM and an eye-opener at Millie’s Espresso. Very few foreigners in evidence. Spend the afternoon looking for cheaper quarters . . .

Sunday, December 05, 2004

My plane which left from New York on Wednesday was supposed to arrive in Beijing Thursday evening, but with the delay it did not arrive till one o’clock Friday morning. That means I spent the entire day of Thursday on the plane. When I woke up in my hotel room Friday morning it took me at least 60 seconds to figure out exactly where I was, and another minute to so to figure out what time it was. I had not reset my watch and there was no clock in the room. I changed the time zone on my handy Mac laptop however and discovered that it was seven in the morning, although it was still pitch dark. By eight it was still very dark but I finally realized that this was because of the extremely smoggy air, which reeked of coal fumes. A bit late I joined the masses of people who were pouring out of the subway exits and plowing up Beijing’s main drag in the light rain. At the famous Friendship Store I stocked up on tea: two kinds of Oolong, one Green, and one Puer. This venerable institution has undergone all kinds of changes in the last few years in an attempt to keep up with all the competition from the new malls opening everywhere. Last time I was here I was shocked to discover the book store had been moved to a different part of the store and was in a state of complete disarray. Now the big souvenir shop which long dominated the first floor is gone, replace by an upscale jewelry store. The book store, in its new location, has been thankfully reorganized and seems to have a bigger selection than before. From the Friendship Store I went around the corner to the Mongolian Airlines office where I was pleased to discover that there was room on the flight to Ulaan Baatar the very next day. Although I am now restocked with tea I will not have to return to the Vale of Bruedersthal.

Then I called my friend Ms. R, who I have mentioned here before. She works at one of the embassies in the Sanlitun Embassy district. She said her embassy was very busy but she would have time to go out for lunch. So I took a cab to Sanlitun and met her and we then proceeded to an Egyptian restaurant, one of two in the embassy district which serves halel food, the other being a Palestinian-run place. She said that in the late afternoon she had to go to the airport to met some diplomats coming in from South America but would be free later on in the evening, so at nine o’clock we met again and retired to a nearby coffee house. This establishment was full of people playing card, chess, various other games, and reading the big assortment of magazines on hand. They had a wide array of coffee advertised, including Blue Mountain Jamaican, Sumatran, etc, but what we had was barely drinkable. It’s strange how Chinese just cannot get the coffee thing down. If you want half-decent coffee in Beijing you have to go to one of the forty-one Starbucks outlets. No matter, we talked for three hours over one cup each.

Ms R (right) and friend

Ms. R, who is a Uighur from Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China, regaled me with tales of her recent trip to Turkey where she took in all the sights of Istanbul. Uighurs speak a version of Turkish and she could make herself understood in Turkey with no problem. She has also been to Mexico (she also speaks fluent Spanish, in addition to of course Chinese and English). She would like to come the US but now it is very hard for single woman from China (although a Uighur she is a Chinese citizen) to get US visa, and she is a Moslem, which probably does not help. Uighurs, by the way, are the second largest ethnic group on the world without their own country, the largest being the Kurds. Xinjiang, previously known as East Turkestan, or Uighurstan, is extremely rich in oil, which makes it much coveted by the Chinese. Ms. R says that many Uighurs believe that Xinjiang, because of its oil, is next on the USA hit list, after Iran and possibly North Korea. I had to tell her this was highly unlikely because it would entail a full-scale war with China. She pointed out, however, that US troops are already in Afghanistan, which borders on Xinjiang. Like many outside the US (and indeed inside the US) she was stunned by the fact that Bush had won the election. She had been led to believe by the media that Bush was extremely unpopular in the US, so how could he win the election, she wondered? Having just come from the Vale of Bruederthal, a staunch Republican enclave, I myself could well understand how Bush won the election, but I had a hard time explaining it to Ms. R.

In the cab from the coffee shop Ms. R immediately got in a fracas with the cab driver, who she claimed was not taking the shortest route. After setting him straight, she said that about a month ago she and a friend of hers had gone from Santilun to the airport to met some visitors from South America, a trip which normally costs seventy to seventy-five yuan. On the way back in another cab the driver took a roundabout way and despite Ms. R’s protestations charged them 120 yuan. They immediately called the customer complaint number prominently posted in every Beijing cab and raised a ruckus. It turned out that not only did the cab driver get fined 3000 yuan (some $375) and have his cab license suspended for six months, but he also had to call Ms R and made a personal apology. And if the apology was deemed not sincere enough or worded wrong Ms R could file yet another complaint. I asked if she did not think this was a bit draconian for what amounted to a tiff over eight or nine dollars, especially if the man had a family to support, but she said no, people simply should not do dishonest things, like trying to cheat taxi customers. All this is all part of a general campaign to improve taxi service in Beijing leading up to, believe it or not, the 2008 Olympics. Reportedly cab drivers are also required to take classes in rudimentary English and courteous behavior. And the Olympics are still four years away!

Friday, December 03, 2004

When I left Beijing in the first week of September I bought a quarter of a kilo of green tea and a quarter of a kilo of oolong tea. After nearly eleven weeks of semi-occultation in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania I am finally out of tea. So I have to go back to Beijing. The quickest and cheapest way, I soon discovered, was a non-stop flight from New York to Beijing on Air China. So I packed up my caravanserai and bid farewell to the hallowed hills of Bruedersthal.

The hills of Bruedersthal. My caravanserai is near the high ridge line to the right.

Road leading to my caravanserai

Main tent at my caravanserai where I dwelt in semi-occultation for eleven weeks

While in the Bruedersthal area I did make a short side trip to Morgantown, West Virginia, home of West Virginia University. Here I met with the lovely and charming Ms. Jen, who teaches at the WVU while working on her doctorate.

Intellectual Powerhouse Ms. Jen (left) along with Big Al and Little Al #1

On November 29 I took the bus from Somerset to New York. As usual I took a seat in the very back, which was pretty much unoccupied. At the last moment two vans arrived and 12 prisoners who had just been released from the two nearby prisons clamored onto the bus and sat in all the seats right around me. So surrounded by ex-cons, most still in their prison uniforms, since apparently they had nothing else to wear, I proceeded to New York, arriving at eleven o’clock that night. I checked into the Hotel Pennsylvania right across the street from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station at 33rd Street and Second Avenue. I had stayed here several times before while catching trains at Penn Station and went back simply out of habit and because it is near the Greyhound Bus Station. In truth this place Is a real dump, although still immensely popular with tourists who pack the lobby at all hours of the day and night.

Next morning I took a cab up to the Air China office on 52nd Street and picked up my tickets. Coming back got caught in an immense traffic jam due to the Christmas Tree festivities at Rockefeller Center. In the afternoon I called my friend Ms. S., who I had last seen back in August in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, boarding a train for Irkutsk, Siberia. She was free in the evening so we agreed to met. I walked down to Union Square in the evening, spent an hour in the Barnes and Noble Book Store and then met Ms. S at her apartment complex just off Union Square.

Ms. S.

We proceeded to a nearby Thai restaurant and caught up on what we had been doing for the last four months. From Ulaan Baatar she had gone to Ulaan Ude in Buryatia, then to Irkutsk in Siberia and Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal, all places I myself had been, so we had a lot of notes to compare. Then she went to the city of Krasnoyarsk, on to the autonomous republic of Tuva, from there to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, then Kashgar and other towns in Xinjiang in western China, then to Chengdu, China, somewhere along the line making a side trip to Burma, then ended up in Shanghai, from where she flew back to New York, arriving a week or two ago. I may have missed a few places but in any event it was a real wanderjahr. In a week she is going to Turkey to film a documentary on the whirling dervishes of Konya and visit her family (she is a Turkish citizen but lives in the US). Eventually we retired next door to the Cedars Bar for postprandial imbibements and more discussions of an assortment of pressing matters. Hopefully we will see each other again in Mongolia, if not sooner.

The next morning it was pouring down rain and a huge crowd was assembled outside the hotel trying to catch cabs. I caught the bus to JKF. My flight was supposed to leave at 3 pm but the plane was delayed out of Beijing and did not take off from New York until 9:30 in the evening. Thus began the thirteen and a half hour, 11,900 kilometer flight to Beijing. Luckily I got an emergency row seat and was able to stretch out or this would have been real torture. We arrived in Beijing at the insalubrious hour of midnight, long after the airport buses had quit for the day, so I had to take a cab my favorite hotel near the China World Trade Center. I had left New York on Wednesday, but it was already Friday by the time I was finally ensconced in my hotel room. Actually the trip was not nearly as grueling as I had anticipated. If I had a roundtrip ticket I could just buy some tea this morning and catch the afternoon flight back to New York. With the backwards time change I could be back in the Vale of Bruedersthal by Saturday evening.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

From Beijing I flew to Shanghai and got a non-stop flight to San Francisco, where I popped on a non-stop flight to Pittsburgh. From Pittsburgh I took a bus to Somerset, Pennsylvania, where I rented a car and proceeded to Shanksville, a small village of perhaps a thousand people which prior to September 11, 2001 was known for absolutely nothing except perhaps its uniformly mediocre basketball teams. All that changed on 9/11, 2001, when Flight 93 and was hijacked and crashed into the countryside just a couple of miles from Shanksville. I was intent on visiting the site on September 11, the third anniversary of the terrorist attack and the crash here.

The whole way from Shanksville to the crash site I passed a nearly steady stream of big bikes, many in the hog category. Apparently the whole terrorist thing and the threat to the homeland has resonated deeply with the “don’t tread on me” biker crowd, who have turned the area into a veritable pilgrimage site. At the entrance to the site itself was an even greater collection of hogs:

The crash site is located in open fields which had previously been strip mined and then backfilled. Reportedly the National Park Service has plans to build a permanent monument here, but in the meantime there are several temporary monuments created by people who have shown up at the site.

Memorial created by visitors to the site

Five thousand people a week visit the site normally and there were perhaps a thousand present when I showed up at about two in the afternoon on September 11. Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendall and former PA governor and current Director of Home Land Security Tom Ridge were supposed to arrive for a ceremony at four, at which time bigger crowds were expected. As it turned out, only Ed Rendall actually showed up.

Monument to the passengers on Flight 93, who brought the plane down before it could reach its real target.

While I was there a flag was unfurled by a group of visitors, each of whom then said where they were from and why they had come here today. There were people from all over Pennsylvania, plus West Virginia, Minnesota, New York, Georgia, and undoubtedly numerous other states. One woman from Minnesota said she had gone to the World Trade Center Site on the first anniversary of 9/11 in 2002, the Pentagon on the second anniversary in 2003, and now had gone here for the third anniversary.

Unfurling the Flag

Friday, September 10, 2004

From Ulaan Baatar I blew into Beijing. I called my friend Rahila, who I had met several years earlier in Urumqi, in Xinjiang Province of Western China and who now works at an embassy in Beijing, and made arrangements to meet for dinner. She suggested a Uighur restaurant near the San Li Tun embassy district in northeast Beijing. Uighurs are a minority group within China, but there are more than 10 million of them in Xinjiang province. Rahila herself is a Uighur. They speak a form of Turkish (my friend Sevgi, from Istanbul, who has traveled in Xinjiang, said she had no trouble understanding the people there) and many, like Rahila, also speak Chinese. The restaurant, just across the street from the future site of the new American embassy in Beijing (construction has just started), is very nice with tables of thick varnished planks and Uighur carpets on the walls. The waitresses are Chinese, but they wear Uighurs costumes of altas silk blouses and embroidered caps. Rahila says that although the place is owned by Uighurs, young Uighur women do not like to work as waitresses. The food has been adapted to Chinese tastes; the lagmen, a favorite Uighur noodle dish, is highly spiced with red peppers, an addition not usually found in Xinjiang itself. Also the vegetable dish we ordered was very highly seasoned, too much for Rahila's tastes. We also had shish kabobs and noodle soup. Rahila ordered the soup for herself and got a huge serving bowl with enough soup for six or eight people, a common occurrence in Beijing. Rahila is a Moslem and never drinks alcohol, so we had sweet Chinese yogurt with our meal – it’s drinkable, just a little thicker than regular milk, and goes great with the hot food – and milk tea after dinner while we watched the floor show. This consisted of Uighur musicians on guitars and other spring instruments and a variety of dancers, including some eye-popping Uighur belly dancers. Of course anyone with a belly can belly dance but not everyone can belly dance with a stack of six tea saucers balanced on their heads, like some of the Uighur dancers.


Thursday, September 09, 2004

In an earlier post from Wurzburg, Germany, I noted that Chinese are rapidly becoming the world’s most ubiquitous tourists. This can only increase with further relaxation of travel restrictions on Chinese tourists traveling abroad starting September 1. Chinese are now the fourth most numerous tourists in France, and French officials are predicting that within two years they will be number one. And they like to spend money, an average of 247 Euros a day, second only to the Japanese and ahead of skinflint Americans and British. French hotels are starting to add Chinese Language TV stations and Chinese breakfasts in addition to the time honored Continental offerings.
From Berlin (Germany) I winged eastward to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, via Moscow. In Mongolia my first stop was the new Buddhist temple being constructed at Terelj, about 30 miles north of the capital. Since I was there last the 108 stone steps leading to the terrace of the temple have been completed.

Looking down over the 108 town steps leading to the new temple near Terelj

Saturday, September 04, 2004

From Lithuania I nipped into Berlin, Germany, I had hoped to catch the Sunday flight to Ulaan Baatar, but it was full and I had to wait for the Tuesday flight. This gave me a very long weekend in Berlin. I bought a three day pass for Berlin’s huge network of city trains and subways and wandered around the city’s various far-flung neighborhoods. I started each morning, however, at Potsdamerplatz, in what was old East Berlin but which is fast becoming the new center of the city. Great coffee shops, which open at six on the morning, and good internet cafes.

Of course just east of Potsdamerplatz is the Kulturforum, a collection of various museums and concert halls. I mosied into the Gemaldegalerie, a musuem packed with Old Masters paintings. I especially wanted to see the paintings by Botticelli. These have been reproduced to often its hard to believe you are actually looking at the originals, especially since the paint is so crisp and clear they look like they were painted just yesterday instead of five hundred years ago.

One of Botticelli's famous ladies

Of course, several works by Caravaggio are also found here:

A Caravaggio Boy Toy

Walking from Potsdamerplatz to the Brandenburg Gate I went by the site of the old Furhrerbunker, the underground shelter where Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Supposedly his body was doused with gasoline and burned here, although of course that remains a highly contentious subject. Now a memorial to Jews who died in the Holocaust is being built on the site of the old Furhrerbunker, a development which would surely make Hitler spin in his grave, if only he had a grave in which to spin.

Jewish Memorial on the site of the Furhrerbunker

Just past the Brandenburg Gate (whose official reopening I, along with Bill Clinton - we stayed in different hotels - had attended two years ago) is the Reichstag. A holiday atmosphere now prevails at this historic venue, with many people picnicing on the huge lawn just in front of the building. Lots of Japanese. They too got caught up in the events that transpired here back in the 1930s . . .

The Reichstag, once again the home of the German Parliament, just as it was in Hitler's day.

Then back down Unter den Linden, past the Adlon Hotel, now infamous as the hotel from which Michael Jackson dangled one of his danglings.

Adlon Hotel with its now infamous balconies, sans dangling

Monday, August 30, 2004

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Wow! Mongolia now has its own Google Site.
While I was in occultation I got an email from Sevgi, my friend in Istanbul, announcing that back in early June she had successfully completed the 30-mile long Khora (circumambulation) around Mt. Kailash in western Tibet. Sevgi, Ms. Dao from France, and I had been in a group which had gone to Mt. Kailash back on 2002, but Sevgi was unable to actually do the Khora at that time, so she went back and tried again. The 30-mile walk around Mt. Kailash is not easy, including as it does a traverse over 18,500 foot Drolma (Tara) Pass, but Sevgi was able to complete it. She also sent a photo of the Potala in Lhasa.

Sevgi’s Photo of the Potala

This got me thinking about the trip I did to Tibet last December, again with Ms. Dao. This was my fifth time in Tibet. We visited a plethora of places including Samye, the first monastery ever built in Tibet.

The inner courtyard at Samye

Ms. Dao (lower right) and the Leshan Buddha (upper center) in Sichuan Province, China

Ms. Dao
OK all you people who apparently have nothing better to do than barrage me with a torrent of email asking why I have not blogged for over a month now. As I have explained many, many times in the past, I usually spent the month of August in strict occultation. Since the month is drawing to a close I have decided to start posting again. So, to catch up a bit . . .

For photos of my July trip to the Baltic Region see Lithuania.

For photos of New Delhi, India, which I visited last Spring, see the Tomb of Humayun and the Qutb Minar and Quwwat-al-Islam Mosque.

One view of Humayun’s Tomb

Also see Onon Hot Springs, a great hot springs complex on the upper Onon River in north-central Mongolia which was often visited by Zanabazar, First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia, and which I have visited twice now. The hot spring are accessible, at least in summer, only by a three-day horse ride.

The main reason I have come out of occultation, however, is to inform everyone that on the 30th of August there will be a Blue Moon, which, as the saying goes, occurs only once in a blue moon, although actually there are an average of 41 a century. Still, don’t miss it!

Doomsday Alert #392: You know the end is near when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been sighted playing Polo in Texas.

Friday, July 16, 2004

From Detmold I caught the express into Berlin. Fortunately I bought a first class ticket (the first class seats have desks and sockets to plug in your laptop; unfortunately however no Wi-Fi), which turned out to be a good idea since the second class apartments were packed to the scuppers. Arrived in Berlin’s Zoo Station at 11:30 in the morning and bought a ticket on the 12:31 ICE (Inter-City Express) to Warsaw. Having zipped around Germany and Austria on their excellent train networks I naively assumed the service would be the same to Warsaw. Instead of one the ultra-modern bullet nosed high speed engines used by ICE trains within Germany, however, an old, battered snub-nosed diesel pulling some twenty grimy-sided Soviet-area passenger cars rolled into the station at the appointed time. This was the express to Warsaw.

An hour or so later, at Frankfurt on the Oder (not to be confused with Frankfurt on the Main, the hallowed home of the Frankfurter) we crossed the Oder River and entered Poland. Border police came through and gave my passport a cursory glance but asked no questions. Poland just officially entered the European Union a month or two ago and technically there should not even be any passport checks (as they are none between western European countries) but apparently Poland is easing its way slowly into the Union The snack vendors on the train don’t yet accept Euros either and I had no Polish money.

So I sat back for the six hour snack-less, coffee-less ride to Warsaw. One immediate difference is that the train system still has the old-fashioned rails with their familiar clackety-clack sound every five seconds or so. The German and Austrian systems have the new seamless, silent rails. And the train was slower. Instead of whipping along at a hundred miles an hour as the ICE trains do in Germany we were lucky to be doing fifty. The terrain changed too. Instead of the rich black-soil farmlands of Germany, east of the Oder we quickly entered a belt of pine forests interspersed with increasingly smaller and smaller sandy fields of wheat, potatoes, and cabbages. The farms seemed less prosperous as we proceeded onward and the train stations and villages more ramshackle. The narrow country roads were badly paved, more and more of the vehicles were decrepit clunkers, and there were even some horse-drawn wagons.

The Warsaw train station, dating from the communist era, is a huge cavernous, quasi-bomb shelter reeking of decades of cigarette smoke and fried food and lined with dingy hole-in-the-wall shops. Quickly clearing this dungeon-like atmosphere, I was a bit disconcerted not find outside the row of cheap hotels usually found near train stations. At first glance I didn’t see any hotels at all. Rounding a corner a block away I finally came upon the glitzy plate-glass façade of a brand-new Radison hotel complete with a door man in a uniform apparently discarded by the last king of Ruraltania. This didn’t look promising but I entered the immense marble-floored lobby anyhow. The desk clerk, speaking perfect English, informed me that the rooms here were 69 euros a night. That’s 83 dollars, which was way beyond my daily budget. As I turned to leave however, I noticed on the counter a sign saying, “Free Unlimited High-Speed Broadband Internet.” Do all the rooms have free internet? I asked. No, only the rooms in the “Business Class Executive Level.” And these rooms were 99 Euros a night. The clerk added, “But since it is a week-end we can give you an executive suite for the price of a regular room.” What the heck, I thought, my niece in the USA charges 80 dollars a night for a bed and breakfast room in an obscure village frequented only by adulterous couples thinking no one will ever see them there and rabid deer and turkey hunters. So I sprang for the room on the executive level, which turned out to be the 38th and 39th floors of the hotel. To get access to these floors you had to use your room card in the elevator, a move designed to keep the hoi-polloi corralled on the lower floors. My room featured an immense bed with foot-thick down comforters and a bathroom the size of my last hotel room in Berlin. The view of Warsaw from out the huge plate glass window, even here on the 39th floor, was, however, uninspiring, unless you get off on construction sites bristling with building cranes. Much of Warsaw, it seems, is being rebuilt. But the broadband ripped, almost as fast as an M1 line. I spend three or four hours on the internet, uploading stuff to my website and blog, sending out a raft of email with huge attachments I normally would not have bothered with, downloading an eclectic assortment of ebooks, and even doing my federal and state income tax returns (only a few of months late), all of which would have taken twenty or more hours of internet time in Mongolia.

I finally mosied back down to earth level about midnight, thinking to stretch my legs. A sign in the lobby pointed to an establishment named “Champions.“ This turned out to be a near-perfect replica of an American sports bar, complete with both waiters and waitresses in basketball shorts and jerseys. There also seemed to be a number real live Americans present, all swilling huge liter glasses of beer and shouting at each over the sound of the 18 large screen TVs suspended from the ceiling, each showing a different sporting event from somewhere in the world. For a moment I thought they might have been flown in by the restaurant management to provide an authentic atmosphere, but on second thought this seemed unlikely. I didn’t even bother to sit down but instead beat a quick retreat back to my room.

Back in the train station at 6:30 the next morning I bought a ticket for the 7:21 to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Unwisely I bought a second class ticket. The first class carriages, which in Poland are only a couple of dollars more, were empty, I quickly discovered, but the second class compartments were jammed. I finally squeezed onto a bench seat with four other people, a couple of whom seemed to be suffering from agonizing hangovers. Another one was peeling fresh cloves of garlilc and popping them into his mouth like cashews. Then the ticket puncher came along and after checking my ticket unleashed a flurry of Polish, the gist of which I gathered was that I was in the wrong car. The right car was somewhere towards to the front of the train. So I moved up four or five cars. Then another ticket puncher proceeding from the front of the train checked my ticket and in yet another blizzard of Polish intimated that I was still in the wrong car and that I should move back in the train three or four cars. After every stop the ticket punchers went through the train again and each time, with ever-creasing annoyance, motioned at me to move either backward or forward. I simply could not fathom what was going on or in what car I was supposed to be (there are nothing on my ticket), and although I made it clear I did not speak Polish neither the conductors nor any of the passengers made to slightest effort to show me the correct car. This went on for four or five hours, until the town of Suwaki.

Here everyone cleared out of my compartment, leaving me alone. For some reason we had a scheduled stop here of about half an hour and after twenty minutes or so an old woman with a shopping bag full of onions and carrots came into the compartment, plopped herself down right beside me, and began rattling off a non-stop stream of Polish. Now Polish people insist that Polish, while a Slavic language like Russian, is completely different from Russian, but when listened to people speak Polish I always hear a smattering of what sounds to me like Russian words. So I started speaking to the old woman in Russian and she seemed to understand what I was trying to say. Soon we had a rudimentary conservation going and I managed to convey that I was going to Vilnius. She motioned to see my printed- out train itinerary, and after giving it a quick glance bolted out of her seat and grabbing me by the arm pulled me out of the compartment, firing off a cannonade of Polish while motioning me to move to the car just ahead. So I moved up one more car and took a place in a near empty compartment, still without the slightest idea what was going on. Thirty seconds later the train left the station.

Soon afterward Lithuanian border police came through checking documents. They had hand-held scanners which automatically read passports like mine with data strips on them. On some computer somewhere the fact that I had just entered Lithuania was duly registered. Lithuania, like Poland, has now officially joined the European Union (both are also recently added members of NATO) but apparently they still like to keep track of who is coming and going.

The first stop within Lithuania was at Szestokal, where I had to switch trains. Stepping off onto the platform I was disconcerted to discover that the train which had some twenty cars upon leaving Warsaw now had only two. Apparently they had been dropping off cars at stops the whole way from Warsaw. I suddenly realized what everyone was trying to tell me. Only two of the cars actually went the whole way to the Lithuanian border. If the old woman in Suwaki had not gotten me into the right car I would have been at some point left behind in one of the dropped off cars. The old woman, I decided, must have been an emanation of White Tara, the Protectress of Travelers, who always appears at the crucial moment to help pilgrims on their way.

The small country train station was modern, newly painted, with sparklingly clean restrooms, snazzy card operated pay phones, and comfortable benches on the platforms. In short, it looked completely different from the numerous small town train stations we had just passed through in Poland. The train from here to Vilnius proved to have only three cars, but unlike on the dowdy Polish train the cars were brand-spanking new, immaculately clean, and had digital signboards and an automated voice announcing all the stops. Leaving the station we soon passed by a newly paved modern four lane highway buzzing with late model cars and big shiny semis. The houses also seemed in better repair and tidier. Even the people who got on the train at the next couple stops seemed better dressed than their counterparts in Poland. As a first time visitor to both countries I have no explanation for all this, but the overall difference was really startling.

Finally at 7:20, eleven hours after leaving Warsaw (taking into account a one hour time zone change) we pulled into the Vilnius train station. Just outside was a newly built MacDonalds with a big line at the drive up window. I took the street to the Old Town and along the way found a nice little hotel – the young woman at the desk spoke perfect English - for twenty Euros a night, cheap in what I had been warned was a tourist-oriented city full of hundred dollar a night hotels oriented toward the white shoe crowd. The room proved to be half the size of the bathroom of my room in Warsaw, but it was antiseptically clean and neatly equipped with hardwood bed, desk, and chair. I slept the sleep of the just.

Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, population 600,000, is located at the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers.

Vilnius, with the new part of town north of the Neris River

The big attraction in Vilnius, however, is the Old Town, south of the Neris River, which contains, according to one source, “perhaps the most impressive concentration of Baroque architecture in Northern Europe.”

The Old Town, from the tower of the Upper Castle

The Old Town is anchored on the north by Katedros Aikste, the main square. In the middle of the square is the Vilnius Cathedral, which admittedly looks more like a Greek Temple than a Christian Church.

The Cathedral with Belfrey to the right. On the roof are statues of, from left to right, St. Stanislaus, St Helena (with the cross) and St. Casimir, the patron saint of Lithuania.

The original church on this site was built on the site of a shrine to Perkanus, who as you students of Baltic Paganism know is the Pagan God Of Thunder. In the 13th century the legendary Lithuanian potentate Mindaugus, who converted to Christianity (at least nominally), built a small brick church on the site. Mindaugus was later murdered by Lithuanian nobles who preferred to remain faithful to their Pagan gods and resented their leader’s espousal of Christianity. Mindaugus’s original church fell into disrepair until 1387, after Vilnius had been captured by the Teutonic Knights and Lithuania was officially converted to Catholicism. Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila then built a new church on the site. This was added to over next four hundred years, with the cathedral taking its present form in the late 18th century. Supposedly deep in the catacombs under the present Cathedral remains of both the original shrine to the Pagan god Perkanus and Mindaugus’s original brick church can still be seen, but currently this area is not open to the public.

During the Communist area the cathedral was turned into a museum. It was reconsecrated in 1989, in the last days of the Soviet Union (of which Lithuania was then a part) and is now a functioning church. The interior of the church has been meticulously restored and is in splendid condition. The main attraction is the Chapel of St. Casimir, a Baroque extravaganza of black and salmon marble and silver plate which contains the casket of St. Casimir himself, the Patron Saint of Lithuania.

South of the main square are the St. Anne’s Church (left) and the Bernadine Church. St. Anne’s, Lithuania’s most spectacular Gothic church, so impressed Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent two weeks in Vilnius during his 1812 bed and breakfast tour of eastern Europe, that he wanted to take it back to Paris with him, “in the palm of my hand,” as he megalomaniacally put it.

Details of St. Anne’s Church

Interior of St. Anne’s

Now there’s a Qualifier! Mermaid along the Vilnia River

Lithuanian ladies guarding Vilnius’s main street

Although we are all aware of the Crusades in the Mid-East from the storming of Jerusalem in 1099 and the eviction of the Moslems, who had held the city since 638 ad, to the Fall of Acre in 1291 (especially now that George “Hulagu” Bush has embarked on a new Millennial Crusade), we sometimes forget about the so-called Northern Crusades launched into Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia by the Teutonic Knights and other militant orders of monks in an effort to convert to Christianity the local peoples, who at the time, as noted above, worshipped Pagan gods like Perkunas,. In 1382 Vilnius was captured by the Teutonic Knights on just such a crusade. Most of the senior officers of the Teutonic Knights at that time were from the Wurzburg-Bad Mergentheim area, which as you have probably guessed by now is the real why I went there first, as interesting as the Wine Festival and the grave of Walther von der Vogelweide might have been.

Armor worn at the time of the Teutonic Knights’ Crusade into Lithuania

While we are experiencing the latest Crusade at this moment, with constant updates from Fox News, it is of course easy to dismiss the First Crusades as ancient history. Oddly enough, however, just last week the International Herald Tribune had a photo of the Pope at the Vatican meeting with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I in what was billed as an effort to improve relations between the Roman and Orthodox churches. The Pope expressed his “disgust and pain“ (his words) for the sacking of Constantinople by Catholic Christian Crusaders exactly 800 years before in 1204. (Hey, it’s never too late to say you’re sorry.) Constantinople was at that time Christian of course, but Orthodox Christian, and the Catholic Crusaders on the way to the Holy Lands did not hesitate to loot the city in what was basically a sideshow to the Holy War against the Moslems in the Mid-East. With no apparent irony the International Herald Tribune, in another front page story, showed a confident George “Hulagu” Bush strolling along the Bosporus in Istanbul - formerly known as Constantinople - while in town for a meeting of NATO to discuss the latest Crusade. Yet another story in the same edition of the International Herald Tribune, entitled “A Thorn for German Schools: Islam,” relates that in most of Germany religion classes are part of the regular school curriculum; in Berlin however, parents can decide on whether their children take religion classes, usually taught by teachers from various religion groups, in the past almost exclusively Christian. Muslims just recently won the right to hold religion classes in public schools after a twenty year court battle. Classes in Islam in Berlin are taught by members of the Islamic Federation, which some school officials claim espouses a fundamentalist, perhaps extremist, form of Islam. A textbook currently used in Islamic classes in Berlin, much to the consternation of school officials, states that “the Muslim people’s existence has been threatened by Jews and Christians since the Crusades, and it is the first duty of every Muslim to prepare to fight against these enemies.” Obviously the Crusades and what motivated them are not ancient history, they are the stuff of front page news.