Wednesday, January 26, 2005

After Emei Shan I returned to Chengdu and then on December 27 winged on to Tibet. From the airport we drove straight to Samye Monastery and stayed there for three days. Lots of pilgrims there from all over Tibet.

One of the stupas at Samye

Also visited the nearby retreat center of Samye Chimpu. This is where the founder of Buddhist in Tibet, Padmasambhava, lived for awhile. Now over 300 people from all over Tibet are doing retreats here, most of them women.

Main Temple at Chimpu, built over the entrance to Padmasambhava’s retreat cave

Pilgrims at Chimpu
The next day I took a bus to Emei Shan, about three hours from Chengdu. Spent the rest of the day visiting the temples a the base of the mountain.

Temple at the base of Emei Shan

Statue of Kuan Yin in one of the temples at the base of the mountain

After a night at the Teddy Bear Hotel (its actual name) I took a bus to Wannian Temple and began the ascent of the mountain from there.

Wannian Temple

From there it was a long slog up about 6000 vertical feet to Shishiangchi Monastery, where I spent the night. Of course at this time of the year I was the only guest.

Shishiangchi Monastery, looking down on the cloud bank

Next day I continued on up to the summit.

One of the ridges of Emei Shan

Stayed Christmas Eve in a guesthouse on the 10.077 foot summit and got up early Christmas morning for the view. Unfortunately there was a complete whiteout and no view. About a dozen Chinese were also on the summit. One offered me a cigarette and I was about to reflexively refuse, but then I thought, “This may be the only Christmas gift I get this year,” so I took it and had a smoke with the Chinese people on the top of Emei Shan. Took the cable bus and bus back down to the base of the mountain and was back in Chengdu by that evening.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

On to Chengdu the next morning, December 20. The plane was jammed and like all domestic Air China flights there was simply not enough leg room for me. I finally got a bulkhead seat after a lot of fuss. I have been in Chengdu probably fifteen or twenty days in the late five years (always in December and January) and the weather has always been exactly the same: just above freezing, very foggy, with a a light on-and-off misting rain. I have never seen a clear day here. Checked into the infamous Traffic Hotel near the bus station. The clerks behind the check in counter are wearing thick down jackets (there’s no heat in the hotel). The same young ladies are in the lobby trying to sell trips to Tibet as last time I was here last December. To the restaurant for a plate of spicy bean curd, a Sichuan specialty. Same waitresses as last time. They remember me.

Then I popped over the Wenshu Monastery for lunch at its famous vegetarian restaurant.

Wenshu Monastery

Had what was the hottest meal I have ever had in my life. It was a kind of soup which seemed to consist entirely of chili peppers. Sichuan food is famously hot but this was way over the top. The way the waiter stood in the corner and keep smirking at me I had to wonder whether he and the cook weren’t playing some kind of practical joke me.

Statue at Wenshu Monastery

Then to the Sichuan Opera for the afternoon. This was held in a low key little theatre holding only two or three hundred on a side street near the train station. For the matinee the theatre was only about half full, almost all retirees whiling awhile an afternoon. All the tea you could drink, served by a woman who came around with a big thermos, was included in the price of the ticket. The oldsters sat around chatting, drinking tea, and eating sunflower seeds, only bothering to watch the opera for the highlights. The opera went on for over three hours, the exact plot being impossible to follow. I just sat back and let the whole thing flow over me. I noticed a lot of people going backstage so I thought I would try too. No one said anything to me. In fact, the actors seems to expect people to come back and take photos . . . Actresses in the opera:

The opera's Good Queen

The Evil Hussy in the opera
Flew down to Beijing Saturday morning, December 18. Called my friend Ms R, who had a day off from work, and proceeded to the huge computer store complex near the campus of the national university. This place is eight floors of full of dozens, maybe hundreds of shops selling all sorts of computers, digital cameras, and other electronic gear. On a Saturday afternoon the place was jammed with thousands of people. Very aggressive sales clerks trying to steer you into their shops. Ms. R. wanted to look at laptops (she does not have one) and wanted my advice; she like Toshibas best. Also looked at lots of Sonys, NECs, HPs, IBMs, etc. Prices I would say are higher than in the States, although much of the computer stuff is made in China or Taiwan. The mysteries of “free trade.” I was also looking for Mac stuff. There was no official Apple Store, but a few shops were selling outdated eBooks, iMacs, and iPods. None of the latest models.

Around dark, on a very cold, windy evening (the wind was from the north, straight out of Mongolia), we headed for a small Uighur restaurant near the Institute for National Minorities. Ms R will not eat in Chinese restaurants because they serve pork. Here we were met by Ms Rayhuna, an instructor and researcher at the Institute. She is in her late 20s and like Ms R unmarried. Over a huge five course dinner of Uighur specialties (laghman, two other kind of noodles, kebabs, a vegetable dish, yogurt, naan, and five or six pots of tea (neither of the women drink alcohol) we had a far ranging discussion about the Turkish language, historical origins of the Uighurs, George Bush (Ms Rayhuna was convinced the election had been fixed, since it was common knowledge everyone hated Bush), the mysteries of dating in Beijing (lack of eligible man), why none of us were married, and much, much else. It was certainly a pleasure talking to such a vivacious young woman as Ms. Rayhuna. She and Ms. R are from the same city in Xinjiang, and both a long way from home. This huge dinner for three was $6.29 total. Then back to my hotel for a much needed rest (I had slept only two hours the night before). Unlike Ms R, Ms Rayhuna does not like to have her photo taken, hence no photo of Ms Rayhuna.

Ms R

The next morning Ms R (she lives right nearby) and I spent a couple of hours copying music from CDs onto my iPod. She has a big collection of Arabic, Turkish, Uighur, and oddly enough salsa music (she works at the embassy of a Hispanic country). Then down to the big shopping street of Wangfujing. Here there is an official Mac Store, but as usual they were sold out of most stuff. They had recently gotten several dozen iMacs but had sold them all immediately. This is always the case here; everything they get is gone within days. Also, here the iMacs are on average about $400 more than in the States, although again, they are actually made in Taiwan. They did have plenty of iPods, and were selling them like steamed buns. Probably a dozen or more Chinese were standing around looking at them. All over Beijing, I had noticed while driving around the last two days, are big billboards advertising iPods. Tried to stop at the Starbucks in the Mall where the Apple store is but of course every seat was taken on a Sunday afternoon. I wanted to go to the big food court in the basement of the mall but Ms R would not eat there because they serve pork. She said she would seat with me while I ate, but I passed on that. So to the Foreign Languages Bookstore, where we looked at dictionaries and novels. I had hoped to pick up some history books for Ms Rayhuna, but there was nothing interesting.

In the evening we headed back to the huge shopping center near the San Li Tun embassy district. Here I bought more tea and check out tailors (I am down to my last pair of pants, which I had made in Nepal three years ago (it is impossible to buy my size in Asia) Then to dinner at the Thousand and One Arabian Nights Restaurant across the street from the really glitzy Pacific Plaza shopping center.

Ms R at the Thousand and One Nights

This place, ran Ms. R thinks by Palestinians, was full of Mid-Eastern men at tables moaning with food and drink. This place of course does not serve pork. I had not eaten breakfast or lunch and it was now nine o’clock at night so I waded into some excellent humus, vegetable salad, grilled mutton, and naan. Ms R oddly enough had spaghetti. Yogurt and several pots of black tea for desert. The men at several of the tables were smoking huge hookas (water pipes) but I passed on that.

Then there was the floor show: Uighur belly dancers from Xinjiang. Ms R says that Uighur women have pretty much taken over the belly dancing profession in Beijing in all the Arabic and Mid-Eastern restaurants and nightclubs. Like laghman, it is a Uighur specialty.

Uighur Belly Dancer. Notice the Merry Christmas sign – in an Palestinian-run Arab restaurant in Beijing!

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.

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