Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I must say, this seems capricious and arbitrary

This space, at least after its first few years, has never really been about what it is that I do. The last two months were different, but in general, I try not to write about the daily events of my life. This is ironic because the name of this blog is from Dean Jones' pronunciation, "[as] far as I can tell, your entire enterprise is little more than a solitary man with a messy apartment, which may or may not contain a chicken". Those of you with literature backgrounds will be able to conclude that the chicken, which Kramer endeavours to catch with his intern's help and I endeavour to catch with your help, is a symbol for the longing and loneliness in my life. Those of you with experience on the Internet's many message boards will recognize that it's really just a bad attempt at being funny that somehow managed to last six years.

I didn't like to write write about my daily life until I discovered Woofer, a more loquacious, mendacious and salubrious form of Twitter, which requires a minimum of 1400 characters per post. Here is the first update, in alarmingly large font.

Monday, September 28, 2009

In for a penny, out for a pound

Among the more blatant price grabs in this city are the £7.50 kim chi jjigae, the £3-per-hour Internet access at this hostel, and the £16 express train to Gatwick airport. The less blatant one is seen at the countless money changing outfits here. At the St. Pancras train station, my 100-euro note was worth £79. Two hundred metres outside the station, they gave me £85, and if I'd walked another 30 minutes, I would've gotten about £90. I wanted to ask the nice woman at the train station if she was aware that walking another 2 minutes was worth £6, but of course she knew that, just as anyone who knows that kim chi jjigae goes for about £2 in Korea probably has it for next to nothing at home.

The most amusing price grab I saw was outside Hyde Park, the place that convinced me today of London's enduring, neverending ability to offer something interesting to do, even if the food does suck. There was a stall selling old books and foreign currency. There was the Bible in Latin, a 1995 travel guide for something called Northeast Asia, and a four-volume guide to learning Russian. Since I'm already hauling far too many books in my bag, and I bought Kafka's The Trial and Herodotus' Histories the other day for £2 apiece, I passed on starting to learn Russian.

I went for the currency instead. I saw bills from Saddam's Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Japanese Burma, Mobutu's Zaire, and even the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most were genuine curiosities that I think are worth a pound or two, though any numatists reading this are free to correct me. What was certainly a ripoff was the collection of Chinese 1-yuan bills dated 1999 with large portraits of Mao on them, on sale for £1 each. Having a handful of these somewhere, I laughed. Granted, it was a Sunday, but if you waited until tomorrow, one pound would buy about 12-15 of those 1-yuan notes at a bank. Five pounds will buy a crisp red 100 with a nice portrait of Mao. Come to think of it, just about all Chinese currency has Mao's portrait (I've heard it has to do with preventing counterfeiting, and the fact that Mao's is the best-known face in the country).

I can't condescend too far because I spent my pound on 10 North Korean won. It's a crisp reddish-orange note with a picture of a cartoonish revolutionary in overalls, dated 1998. I'm not too sure about its origins, though I know that for a long time North Korea maintained separate currencies for foreigners and its own citizens. For those familiar with South Korea, 10 North Korean won are not as insignificant as 10 South Korean won. This is perhaps the only area in which the North makes more sense than the South.

The actual value of this note is purely an academic question. Travelers to North Korea, with maybe the exception of Chinese merchants, will either pre-pay for everything or deal only in Euros. Even for North Koreans, currency isn't terribly useful, and the official exchange rate differs wildly from the black market exchange rate. I think in reality, 10 North Korean won are probably worth the same as 10 South Korean won, which is to say about a penny. In South Korea, 10 won pieces are tiny coins that you only come across when dealing with infinitesimal amounts like the surcharge for a grocery bag or the precision of exchange rates at a bank.

Anyway, I walked into and across the massive Hyde Park to Speaker's Corner, where I had thought about delivering a prepared speech. It wasn't anything like I'd expected. I imagined a quiet corner with maybe a handful of people sitting on benches. Instead, there were a half-dozen religious fanatics and one calm, elderly member of the Socialist Party surrounded by crowds ranging from 10 to 200 people. The advantage rested with whoever could scream loudest or argue coarsest. I admitted defeat and after reading in the sun, went off to watch Kerry Collins throw something like 13 straight incompletions in a 24-17 defeat to the Jets. And that's how this trip ends.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

This is the last day of my trip and I am very glad, since I'm sick of traveling. The irony is that after traveling over 11,000 km by land and another 5,000 by air, I have an 8-hour flight back home. Going from Seoul to London mostly overland, as I've been explaining it, was one of those things that I never really thought would happen. When it did, at least when the interesting parts happened, the parts when you see East Asia become Central Asia, and when Central Asia becomes Europe, it was both surreal and a reminder why nobody ever goes to Kyrgyzstan.

It all has the risk of blending into one, which is why I'm glad I toured through China first, especially the less-frequented parts in Sichuan, Qinghai and Xinjiang provinces. Whenever I dismiss a European city as just another collection of reconstructed classical buildings assembled in a city centre reserved for tourists, I can contrast it with places like Yushu, China, where I paid $12 a night for a clean hotel room with two beds and a TV, and a communal bathroom that was a hole in the ground.

What I really wanted to do in this trip, apart from avoiding a long flight home, was to do what I wanted to do ever since I was 12 and I figured out that you could drive from Norway to Vietnam. I thought you would see people change gradually, and also land and living conditions change gradually, which I did, except for the horrendous blip in Central Asia. As a result, standards of living started out really well in Seoul, took a dive in Shanghai, and then flat-lined in China before dying an unceremonious death in Kyrgyzstan.

They recovered in Turkey and they've been on the upswing ever since. People and their languages started off East Asian, then became Tibetan, then Turkic (Uighur, then Kyrgyz) before becoming Slavic, Central European and then West European. I passed through a wide swath of the Islamic world, from Xinjiang province in western China, through Kyrgyzstan, where they shake hands with the right hand, offer vodka with the left, and then Turkey, where they shake hands with the right and rip you off on a doner with the same one.

I did a lot of things on this trip, but the sightseeing doesn't compare to the conversations and to a lesser extent, the runs I had. I met lots of Chinese people on trains, and I got to see the vast gaps in living standards for Chinese people. I bought a $60 train ticket to go from Shanghai to Chengdu, which I found out aboard the train was two weeks salary. I had 50-cent buffet meals at forgotten truck stops and I met university students who represented the friendly if uninformed future of their country.

I met lots of people I'll never forget: Fabio the Italian who studies in Japan, Abdullah the tour guide in Xinjiang who speaks perfect Japanese but no English, the American from Clemson who is traveling with his middle school student, the Swiss guy I traveled across Kyrgyzstan in a taxi and with whom I narrowly averted grim death in Bishkek. I met an Indian doing internships in Istanbul and then Paris, and I met my 83-year-old great-uncle, veteran of the Second World War in Burma, who has lived in London for 48 years.

Finally, it is unlikely that I will meet anyone more interesting today than the elderly Cornelius I met at The Euston Flyer. Cornelius appears to be a veteran of the Crimean War, roughly five feet tall with a handlebar mustache as white as snow and a handful of teeth to complete the outfit. He arrested me with his story of a legless friend named John, who could have won £15,000 if he had heeded Cornelius' advice on horse-racing, but obstinately refused because he does not gamble. Then they swore at each other and the rest I didn't understand because although we both speak English, Cornelius and I don't nearly speak the same language.

Anyway, the running on this trip was also interesting. Most people would say that last Sunday's long run past the Arc of Triumph, down the Champs-Elysees, past the Eiffel Tower and along the Seine was the best of the trip, but I'd differ. I'd probably say it was my last run at altitude, 20 gasp-inducing minutes in the surprising cold and beauty of Yushu, situated at 12,000 feet. There was also the first run of this trip, through the frightening back streets of Shanghai, on torn up streets that resembled an urban theatre of war. I ran in many a People's Park in China, as well as past farms in Kyrgyzstan (and Belgium), along the sunny waterfront in Istanbul and the cold, dark waterfront of Budapest. I also ran all over London, past every major tourist site and along the Embankment, which is a fancy British way for saying waterfront.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life"

I'm not tired of London, but I remember seeing this on a change purse when I was a kid. For some reason, I remembered it and even the speaker, Samuel Johnson, though I have no idea who he is. I heard a lot about London, where I have a lot of family, family that I'm not seeing for the most part this week. It's a city that affected me a great deal even before I came here, living in Pakistan and Canada. Of course, those days are long since gone, and my Belgian relatives weren't all that impressed with the city. As impressed as I am, I often find myself thinking, "they have this in Tokyo as well".

London has a lot of history, and the Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the state rooms of Buckingham Palace are head and shoulders above comparable sights I've seen elsewhere. Buckingham Palace in particular compares to Versailles in the way a furnished house compares to an empty one. At the same time, the Tower of London is a bizarre mishmash between a medieval science centre and an amusement park. If those are the real crown jewels and the real imperial crown on display at the Tower, with low-speed moving sidewalks to prevent crowding, then this country is run by buffoons.

At any rate, walking around the streets, the city seems oddly quiet and the food really sucks. If you came here, like me, seeking the London of Elizabethan and the early-modern periods, you'll be reasonably satisfied, with statues of Oliver Cromwell, the mausoleum of Queen Elizabeth I, and a place to mark the executions of Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey. If you came seeking a city as interesting as Paris, New York or Tokyo, you'll find a surprisingly sterile city centre.

One example is the Tokyo neighbourhood of Shibuya, well-known for the bizarre mishmash of ideas and fashion that makes up Japanese youth culture. Outside the subway station of the same name, you will find what Wikitravel calls the world's busiest pedestrian crossing. I have no idea what it's true, but I know that people cross in five directions over a very large area, coming and going like the tides at the ocean. Overlooking one of the many corners of the crossing is a Starbucks on the second or third storey. You can't have coffee to watch people because it's typically too busy to sit down there.

In London, Starbucks close at either 7 or 8 o'clock and virtually every other coffee shop and many smaller restaurants are the same. Of course, London has lots in its favour. It has a large cosmpolitan population from all over the world, and it has a great combination of both high and low culture. There are people that seem so stuffy that their monacles are liable to fall out any moment, and people so dirty that you seem liable to contract venereal disease by being in their presence. Of course, after traveling halfway around the world to get here, everything that London combines into one neat city, you've already seen elsewhere.

Eschatology extended

I usually travel alone and, given my tendency to spend two hours at random reading newspapers from wherever I am, perhaps it's for the best. London is good at newspapers as it is at generating humourous place names. I read the Guardian tonight and a few of Marina Hyde's zingers were worth the price.

"When earth's population has been driven into its catacombs by the great idiot wars, and the urine distilleries that provide our only source of drinking water are controlled by an army of psychopathic mercenaries," we will realize that it began in 1999, when we appointed Geri Halliwell a UN ambassador. Torontonians may perhaps date it to the day our mayor begged Halliwell to stay in the Spice Girls, unless Halliwell was already a UN ambassador when this happened.

Writing about her visit to Nepal, Halliwell said that "My presence apparently gave the confidence for that new prime minister to speak out about violence against women because there was a western presence there." Writes Hyde: "A what, sorry? A "western presence"? Time was a western presence meant Madeleine Albright, or at least the US ambassador. Now it's the soi-disant author of Ugenia Lavender and the Burning Pants."

As an added bonus, Hyde refers to Eat, Pray, Love as a "travel memoir of airport-novel spirituality, wherein the author comes to impressively certain answers to questions that have defeated minds from Thomas Aquinas to René Descartes, much in the manner of most people who have had "done" India."

There's something remarkable about how every bookstore from Tokyo to Brussels has the same dozen or so books in its English-language section. You can be assured of finding a Khaled Hosseini novel, a book by Barack Obama and Elizabeth Gilbert's answer to the meaning of life. For those seeking the meaning of life, I strongly suggest the Nicomachean Ethics. It is not, unfortunately, available at Narita airport for 375 yen in the way of Gilbert's treatise on the topic. Nevertheless, by reading Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, you can learn nine virtues of character (including wit), as well as five virtues of intellect.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Of Cockfosters, Paddington, Piccadilly Circus, Elephant & Castle, et al

Tourist buffoonery aside, London is also a repository for some of the most amazing place names to be found anywhere. I've been been compiling a list of place names that are either amusing or simply fun to say. The longstanding leader on this list was Naka Okachimachi, a subway station in Tokyo, coming up just ahead of Naka Meguno. Seoul's not bad, with Myeongdong, Dongdaemun (DOAng-day-moon), and Byeongjeom. There's a city in Korea called Gangneung, and the Han River in Korean is called the Han Gang, which sounds like a pack of roving Chinese coming at you with disposable splintered chopsticks.

On the amusing side of things, we have Pudong in Shanghai, which refers to the east (dong) side of the Huangpu river. This area is the future of China, with buildings over 400 metres and countless companies located there. This is possibly the richest area of the entire country, and the name is not one but two bad words in English.

Istanbul's Bosphorus, the narrow waterway between Europe and Asia, sounds like something out of the periodic table. Munich's Hauptbahnhof isn't bad, and it's impossible to leave out einfahrt, which refers not to a single instance of flatulation, but an entrance. Vienna has the Schatzkammer, another Hauptbahnhof (main train station), and a Kunsthistoriches. Paris gave me Marcadet-Poissoiniers, patisserie, alimentation generale (convenience store), abattoir and emportation (imported dishes made to go).

London, however, is a goldmine. Announcements on the subway declare, without a giggle, that "this is a Piccadilly line service for Cockfosters" or that "this is a Bakerloo line train for Elephant & Castle". Oxford Circus, meaning the roundabout on Oxford Street, evokes a large bright-coloured tent on the campus of the world's most prestigious university. There's also Barking and Dagenham, Tottenham, Hammersmith, and the train station St. Pancras, which I've called St. Pancreas one times too many.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nadir Of Western Civilization To Be Reached This Friday At 3:32 P.M.

Nadir Of Western Civilization To Be Reached This Friday At 3:32 P.M.

According to the panel, the final event will occur at 3:32 p.m., when a tourist, believing the impressive structure to be a giant mall, will enter Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, and, not finding what he is looking for, ask where "the damn Radio Shack is supposed to be."

I've seen a few similar cases of tourists indicating the approaching nadir of Western society. There is a preoccupation that tourists have with being photographed in front of landmarks, which is understandable, particularly when the landmark in question is scenic. Doing this starts to make less and less sense when you enter, say, the Louvre and have yourself photographed in a suggestive pose next to the death mask of an obscure Egyptian pharaoh.

I think that there are people who travel purely for the purpose of having their picture taken with anything of even remote historic or cultural significance. That's why they traverse places like the Louvre at high speeds doing nothing but taking pictures of everything. When they take pictures they put themselves in the picture because it's all they know and when they put themselves in the picture they either grin like idiots if male or look like porn stars if female, because it's all they know.

Today I saw someone posing for a picture at Westminster Abbey, which is bad enough since pictures are forbidden there, but what made it absurd was what they were posing next to. It was either the grave or a memorial of some obscure historical figure that looked interesting. Do you really need to smile when you pose next to the grave of a stranger that died 250 years ago? On a side note, it seems that just about anyone who was gainfully employed in the period from 1725 to 1775 is enshrined somewhere in Westminster Abbey. You can scarcely take a step there without stepping on a tile denoting the birth and death of some insignificant human being who somehow contrived to be buried in the same place as kings and queens and Clement Attlee.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spit spot, Albert Hall, meat and two veg, Big Ben, Dave Clark Five, Spam and eggs, a baby's arm holding an apple, pip pip, cheerio

Today is one of those days that makes traveling so very strange, especially in Europe. I woke up in Belgium at 4:40 in the morning, watched my aunt eat aloo paratha with a knife and fork, and then took an early morning train to Brussels and then another to London. Entering the UK required a few passport checks, unusual in that I haven't showed anyone my passport since I entered Hungary. Despite the reasonably tight securitry, the ability of border guards to make idle small talk with me cemented America's status as the undisputed asshole of the international community, at least of the eighteen countries I have entered. I even got away with a lie on the border card since I didn't actually know where my hostel was, I just put down an address somewhere on Euston Road (I don't think it exists).

Once I got here, I realized how much time I've spent in non-English-speaking countries (far too long). I paused outside a bookstore for a few moments to make sure it had books in English and I made a mental note of all the significant buildings I saw so that I would have landmarks to tell a taxi driver in case I got lost. A search of my bag would have revealed small stashes of wrapped napkins and sugar packets, habits of hoarding I picked up in China.

I heard nothing but bad things about London from my relatives in Belgium, which was surprising, and so far it's so good. Parliament is a lot like the Parliament in Ottawa, with absurd, insignificant details governing the entire building and its processes. The difference is that the Parliament here is bigger and better, and we just imported (or inherited, depending on your point of view) the absurdities and quirks. That members of the House of Commons sit facing each other, for example, in both Canada and the UK reflects the fact that the Commons met in a chapel for a lengthy period of time, which was not equipped for the purpose.

It's very tempting to walk around this city crossing out a mental list of the British Monopoly board. So far, I'm already at 5. What's perhaps stranger is assessing the merits of each place based on its value. So, I expected Euston Road to be somewhat dirty because of it's worth only 100 pounds, compared with 240 for Trafalgar Square, which trumps Whitehall at 140, though Whitehall is nicer than both.

Speaking of value, everyone told me how expensive London would be, and I tended to acquiesce, but without concern. The fact that the pound is worth more than the Euro is a good indication of how expensive it is, not to mention that it's almost double the American and Canadian dollars, as well as the Japanese yen, my old benchmark for absurdly expensive. A hundred Canadian dollars will buy 52 pounds at an Obama-inspired Bureau de Change on the streets here, which means that my 7-pound lunch was really something like 18,000 Korean won, enough for four simple meals there. All things considered, then, it's amazing that you find an 80-pence cup of tea at the cafe in Parliament of all places.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Home, zweet homeven

Belgium is the weirdest partest of this trip: I know someone here. Well, sort of. I'm staying with my dad's cousin here, who I haven't met before, and who my dad hasn't met since 1974, or possibly 1978, memories are spotty. I'm staying about 100 kilometres from Brussels in the town of Verviers. Belgium itself is as I pictured it, multilingual, clean and beautiful. My uncle not only speaks fluent French, but he can lay claim to having lived in the Zaire of Mbutu. He's a learned, worldly man who takes in each of my half-baked anecdotes with thoughtful consideration, and then remarks, "this is true".

So here you have it, a few days and Eid-ul-Fitr with virtual strangers who are also family. It's a big world, big enough that if you travel for a while, eventually you'll bump into somebody who's part of your large Pakistani family.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In the long run, we're all dead

One of the few pieces of French culture with which I have even a vague familiarity is Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. No Exit stands up on its own merits, but it has perhaps more merit here. I was near the end of a long run today when I decided to take a brief tour around, up and down the steep hills of Sacre Coeur church and its funiculaire. I didn't want to go down the seedy main boulevard, so I decided to go by another way through the side streets.

I went down a one-way street, which high school English should have taught me was foreshadowing. Then, I saw a park; but as I entered, something like a macaque started shrieking at me. The guard was telling me not to run because I was in the vast Montmartre cemetery. Not running in a cemetery is intuitive to most people except anyone from Toronto, where one of the best and most popular running spots is a cemetery.

So I decided I'd just cut through the cemetery. Every time I approached the street, there was a 10-foot wall. Other apparent exits led nowhere, and still other staircases seemed promising but really just led to a caretaking shack. The cemetery inters some remotely famous people you're guaranteed to have never heard of. Still, it's old enough that many of the deceased were born before the Revolution.

You can think all this trying to walk through the cemetery because there is no exit. I probably walked a mile or so around the cemetery before I gave up and went out the way I came, but by this time, it had gotten beyond absurd.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Le fighting dixhuitieme

Paris is divided into districts called arrondisements. They have them as well in Seoul and Tokyo, cities of comparable size, but in a victory for Asian languages, they're called gu in Korean and ku in Japanese. On the other hand, they have long names that reflect position relative to the river in Seoul, but here they're numbers. The first one is i the centre of the city, and they extend outwards in a lovely spiral (the Eiffel tower is in the seventh), until you get out here to the 18th arrondisement, or as the locals call it, the Fighting Eighteenth.

The Eightenth is located close to the highest point in Paris, and is located way up in the hills. To get out of the nearest subway station requires climbing a tight spiral of 92 steps, and successive streets are either steep sets of stairs or steep streets unto themselves. Getting out is going downhill and getting in is going uphill. The Fighting Eighteenth is a great place to stay. Line twelve of Paris' fourteen subway lines takes you elsewehere in the city, and the area itself is a nice mix of quiet bakeries, cafes and no tourists.

Given the number of arrondisements, the odds of bumping into someone in Paris are probably very small. I never did it in Seoul, which is of comparable size, but I did it in Istanbul and I've done it twice in two days here. In Istanbul it doesn't really count because even though there are 16 million people there, and a comparable number of octogenarian tourists with pants up to their nipples, most of the latter never stray far from the tourist quarter. That's how I saw the same elderly couple at dinner on consecutive nights: the restaurants were on the same side street near the Blue Mosque.

In Paris, it's a little stranger. I saw some well-dressed Japanese girls at the Arch of Triumph and wondered if they were tourists because of how ridiculously well-dressed they were by the combined standards of Japan and France. Six hours later, I noticed that they were standing right behind me in line to go up the towers at Notre Dame.

Yesterday, I bumped into the Bavarian beefcake who sleeps in the bunk under me near the Louvre. The beefcake in question is a nice enough fellow who I call a beefcake only for alliterative purposes and because, even though I've talked to him at length for three days, I don't know his name. He's the same age as me and extraordinarily well-travelled, but his voice and appearance make him look like a high school student.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Paris, Paris, it's a hell of a town

The first impression I had of Paris was of a swarm of impeccably-dressed, impeccably-annoyed commuters at Paris Est train station, along with the smell of bread. This was nice because my first impression of New York was of New Jersey, people from New Jersey and the Port Authority bus terminal. None of them fill you with a desire to remain in New York, but Paris made a much better start.

Paris reminds me a lot of New York. The subway tunnels are well-tagged, the stations are ancient and have the smell of history, or maybe that's just what tiles smell like after a century or so. Paris has a reputation for rudeness and so does New York. Paris has very nice but expensive restaurants and so does New York. Paris is remarkably cosmopolitan, with a unique composition of immigrants, and so does New York. Paris is full of tourists and so is New York. Paris has a baseball team full of assholes and so does New York.

The famous tourist attractions in Paris are remarkably cheap. You can visit the Arch of Triumph, second only to Pyongyang's in the category of triumphal arches, for free, though Pyongyang doesn't charge to get to the top. You can get to the top of the Eiffel Tower, a threatening looking piece of metal that looks far more remarkable in person, for about 13 euros. You can get inside the Notre Dame Cathedral for free, and up to the top for a panoramic view of Paris, for 10 euros. Victor Hugo's descriptions of the cathedral, its towers and the contrast between the dark, narrow way up and the endless view at the top are free, written on plaques. The Louvre, my next stop, is similarly-priced. Second and third-rate attractions elsewhere in Europe charge more, sometimes even double.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It's unusual for a train trip to Paris to begin at the Munich airport, but it's also unusual to spend two nights at airport bars on an overland trip, and here we are. When I booked this ticket, I didn't bother to distinguish between Munich's train stations. Sitting far away in Seoul, I had the vague sense that many European and Asian cities have many train stations. A difference in Munich between Hauptbahnhof and Flughafen makes no difference, really, except that it does. I have a ticket that goes from Munich - Flughafen to Paris Est.

The comedy is this. The departure time is 1:22 and the arrival time is 9:50. I figured out that Flughafen was the name of the airport this morning, and thought I'd arrive here early in the evening and spend a few hours relaxing at the airport. When I got here and it was just an airport, not an airport next to a train station, I got an uncomfortable feeling that there was no train for Paris leaving from the Munich airport. In about twenty absurd minutes, I unraveled the horrendous mess in which I find myself.

I left central Munich for the airport at about 9:20, paying 9 euros to travel here outside the city. I've killed one of the three hours I will wait here. At 1:22, I will take a train right back to the centre of Munich. It will arrive a little after 2 am. There, I will wait for an hour. At 3 am, I will get on a train headed for Mannheim. So, in conclusion, I could have saved six hours, nine euros and the overpriced cup of airport coffee that I am sure to buy, by staying in central Munich and forgoing the first leg of this journey. But I didn't, and now I have to lounge in this airport while looking suspicious as always.

Parenthetically, my appearance coupled with the bizzare means of traveling I employ, in turn employs security agents and the like around the world. In two days, I've spent a grand total of less than ten minutes inside the vast lobby of Munich's central Hauptbahnhof station. Both times I've entered, I've seen all-too-obvious plainclothes police officers (hint: they're the guys that look too smart to be dressed like lost tourists) making a beeline for a passport check.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Munchin' in München

Yesterday was probably the most complete day of this trip, or at least in a tie for first-place with my last day in China, when I went to Karakul Lake and back, and spent the rest of the day chatting and eating kebabs in Kashgar until 2 am. Like that day in Kashgar, it was actually a fair bit better than I planned it.

First, I had a cup of bitter coffee in complete silence. Then I ran a 10k tempo from central Vienna out to the Schonbrunn summer palace, which has massive gardens whose rolling hills are perfect (and very popular for running). Europe is very cold after a year in Korea, and I barely had any sweat to show for it.

After that, I rode the Railjet from Vienna to Munich. The Railjet is well-named, a high-speed train that whizzes through picturesque countryside at 200 km/h. That's expected after paying 78 euros for a one-way ticket (it's a 4-hour ride), but the leg room and comfort was very nice. Alternating napping and reading a book by Tim Harford (The Logic of Life) made it nicer than nice.

In Munich, the hostel (Euro Youth Hostel) where I'm staying is less than two blocks from the main train station, and you can walk to the Glyptothek museum of Greek and Roman sculptures. Admission into the stately building constructed in 1830 is only a euro, and a guidebook explaining each sculpture, better than a clumsy audio device, is another euro. I spent about two hours with the book and the sculptures, writing down Greek inscriptions and scurrying out only when the museum closed.

The next part doesn't really count as something I should put in the experiences-while-traveling column, but it should because of the people I met. I went to the Marriott to watch football at their sports bar, which has the same name as the leathery, luxurious place that used to exist at Bay and Dundas in Toronto, until it closed, presumably from giving away too much popcorn. I sat next to two pilots who flew corporate jets, having just flown from Las Vegas by way of Vancouver and Iceland. We discussed the not-so-fine points of flying an airplane while watching Adrian Peterson run all over the Browns.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Das smokybackroom

There is almost no place in the world where I will tolerate cigarette smoke, much less pay to be there, but the Cafe Hawelka close to the towering St. Stephens Cathedral is an exception. Built in 1939, the patio looks much like any other nice European cafe, but its inside that you get the real experience. Withered old men, stately matrons and ambitious young men in crisp shirts all sit at old tables positioned perilously close together and order coffee off of a non-existent menu. This is a place where you need to know your coffee and, according to my travel guide, simply ordering coffee will offend the waiter. They have cake, only one kind as I was told when I asked for a menu, but it's very good.

What I like most about the Cafe Hawelka, its history and rustic furniture aside, is that it is far-removed from the coffee shops of North America, where coffee is presented in myriad forms, but never as a dark, bitter drink to be enjoyed in calm, or against the backdrop of pleasant German conversation. Instead, you have floral colours, fruity drinks, a cheerful atmosphere and adult contemporary music. At the Cafe Hawelka, the waiters are polite, but brusque, and without any pretensions. As a bonus, the smoke and sub-standard lighting inside obscures your vision of any tourists who might wander in off a heavily touristed pedestrian street nearby.

I very strongly regret not having spent more time in Vienna. Two days were just enough time to catch my breath from the train ride, eat meals, visit the museum displaying the crown jewels of the Habsburg dynasty, visit their summer palace, the St. Stephens Cathedral, and spend a couple of hours at a cafe. This left a long list of museums, art galleries, and even the state opera, worth visiting if only just to get inside the building.

At the social experiment site-cum-hostel, I met a Chinese and a Dutch girl who study in the United Kingdom. In the case of the Dutch girl, she had lived her entire life outside of the Netherlands (largely in developing countries), but remained a Dutch citizen. Meeting someone who had similarly complicated and varying answers to the question "where are you from?", not to mention shameful struggles with their native language, was very entertaining.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Vienna School of Hosteling

Vienna is an intellectual city, so that may explain what you find at the corner of Berggasse and Kaiserstrasse. On the third floor of a low-rise apartment building, you will find a spacious apartment that serves as a hostel. Inside the hostel, aside from a brief period in the morning, you will find no staff, but as many as 20 guests. A series of rules, messages and notices, as well as a somewhat complicated (and abrupt!) arrangement allows the hostel to function despite the absence of any staff. Guests arriving outside of "office hours" as they are called, much like the weekly hour my professors devoted to meeting with students, are greeted with their keys hanging outside the front door.

At the heart of this grand social experiment is likely the following scenario. The door bell may ring, repeatedly. On the inside of the front door is a notice reminding guests, for their own safety, not to open the front door. After repeated efforts, someone will finally open the front door, to find travellers looking for keys that have disappeared. Their only recourse is to walk to some nearby tavern and give their name, in which case a set of keys will be produced. When this happened, I wondered if the entire enterprise was not simply funded by the psychology department of a nearby university.

The marvelous reality is that the hostel works as a highly self-sufficient, tightly-packed unit of 20 strangers from a variety of different countries and backgrounds, representing 4-5 different continents in any given room. There is surely a lesson in here, but I can´t think of what it is right now.

The rest of Vienna is similarly intellectual, dominated by elaborate architecture depicting various myths, towering museums, libraries and art galleries. The streets seem oddly quiet even during a weekday afternoon, suggesting a permanent holiday, but perhaps that sort of calm, coupled with an orderliness where cars stop at red lights, is why it is consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities in Europe. Between the Vienna of long-ago European history, with the Habsburgs and the various treaties concluded here, and the internationally dimunitive Austria of today is a significant gap, but coming to Vienna to see its palaces and museums helps to erase it.

Also, the coffee is quiet good, even though there are still many Starbucks here. Coming to Vienna to go to Starbucks is backwards, rather like dining from the toilet of a fine restaurant. That matter goes beyond the time I have, much like the other people I meet who are born in one country, grow up in another, and reside in still another.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

War, famine and Budapestilence

As I ran along the River Danube (as its known by mortals), I thought that, having left Korea exactly one month ago, I had travelled the full extent of the Mongol Empire, going from Korea to the Danube. This would have been a bizarre exercise in and of itself, because only Genghis Khan and unite the disparate locations of Korea, Mongolia and Hungary. At any rate, running along the Danube in Budapest is worth it more for the historical trivia.

Here's another oddity: I ran last night over the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube, crossing from Pest into Buda. In itself, it's not remarkable, but I thought that the name Budapest being derived from Buda and Pest was a ridiculous joke, like on January 1, 1993, when my oldest brother casually informed me that Czechoslovakia was now two countries, Czech and Slovakia.

Seriously, just run or walk over the Chain Bridge at day or night. At night it's more spectacular because of the lights and because the dark obscures anything that isn't remarkable. You see the Buda Castle high above the river bank, as well as St. Matthias Church, a host of other old buildings. On the east side of the river, you can see the Hungarian Parliament, a frightening building that looks like it was built there solely for harsh winter days, or if the winter here is not that harsh, then only for Halloween.

Hungary embraces its Communist past quite well. It took the old headquarters of the state security apparatus and turned it into a relentlessly jarring museum called the House of Terror. Pictures of victims dominate the lobby along with a massive tank, but pictures of tormentors, as they are called, also find place, along with a low-speed elevator ride with a television screen describing how executions took place. Compared with the Korean War Memorial in Seoul, which was roughly contemporaneous, the quality and quantity of footage is far superior. How hard would it be to find a few dozen survivors of the Korean War and translate their experiences? Instead there is a cheesy re-enactment of the war to which people bring babies. At any rate, old Communist statues were collected and assembled somewhere in a park south of Budapest.

I should also say something about the last two hostels where I stayed and their owners. In Istanbul, I stayed at a grungy hippie commune where the owner was a dreadlocked Turk that I thought for a long time was Jamaican. It wasn't until we had coffee on the makeshift balcony of the hostel, with the entry through the window, that I found out that he was actually Turkish. At this hostel, which is large, spotless, clean and cheerful, like a European villa, the owner is a sunglasses-wearing DJ-lookalike who wears soccer jerseys and warmup gear. He is friendly and constantly networking. When I asked if I could make some coffee in the kitchen, he exclaimed "yes! Do it man! Do it!" Sometimes the best pictures are the pictures you take of people. I will not leave without a picture of this man.
As fantastic as Istanbul was, now I am in Budapest, Hungary. Travelling to Budapest by train from Istanbul is a two-part process, with a change of trains in Bucharest. The Istanbul-Bucharest train, named the Bosphor Express, leaves nightly (at least Monday nights) at 10. There were maybe 20-30 passengers on the platform in the small, ornate international train station. In the car I got on, with room for 90 passengers, there were 5 passengers, and two of them were conductors. I got an entire compartment to myself and dealt entirely with the car's conductor, who called me "mister" and looked like the captain from Law and Order SVU. He was a Russian or Romanian who spoke English except that he always said "da", never "yes".

We rolled on through vast, endless countryside into Bulgaria at 5 am. I woke up at around noon to find us stopped at a crumbling but once-beautiful train station. I asked the conductor where we were. He gave me the name of a city that starts with G. "Is that in Bulgaria?" "Da." I had only bananas and cookies to eat, but there was no one at the small shop on the platform, only a stray dog shivering in the cold rain. Eventually, the owner showed up, but he would only take Bulgarian money, until I produced some Euros, which earned a very enthusiastic "DA!" (Note: it is entirely possible that the Russian language consists of more than this word and "nyiet anglisky"). He ended up selling me bacon chips, which I fed to a pack of sad, obedient stray dogs, one of them limp.

Eventually, after having seen only the conductor, border guards and a couple of people on train platforms in Bulgaria, I arrived in Bucharest, Romania, a 19-hour trip. The 15-hour ride from Bucharest to Budapest was notable only for the remarkable similarity of the cities' names. If you have any doubts as to the completely placid nature of this trip, consider that I read about 200 pages of Rousseau's Confessions over the 36 hours.

Budapest is not a place I put at the top of my list in the year I spent day-dreaming about this trip, but I am very happy to be here. It has excellent architecture, ranging from the beautifully to hauntingly classical, as well as a neat and efficient feel to the whole place. The nearest subway station is the Oktogon, for the clever shape of the intersection at which it is found.

Reflecting on Istanbul, it's a bit like Japan, a place so well-appointed and fascinating to visit, that you don't even realize it until you leave. The combination of history, architecture and scenery are fantastic enough, but even walking around at night on a bridge, past an impromptu night market of furs, Lacoste shirts and various kinds of fish, past the crowds of men still fishing at 10 pm, no longer in a tourist zone, you get the comforting sense that you could have wandered this city for days and not run out of things to do.

Okay, not so well-appointed: floods have killed 29 people in Istanbul.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Ahmet, Akhmad, Ahmad!

I just came from the Sultanahmet Mosque, so named for Sultan Ahmed I, who ordered its construction during his rule from 1603 to 1617. I would love it even if it was not one of the most spectacular buildings in the world, with six towering minarets, about a dozen domes and a spectacular interior, just for the name. The interior gives it its more common name of the Blue Mosque. The crush of tourists (there are enough of them to constitute a sight unto themselves) belies the fact that the mosque itself is almost entirely empty, as the infidels stand in the visitors section, with the Muslims among them able to go and pray in the red-carpeted interior.

Across the street is the Aya Sofia, also known as the Hagia Sofia, a spectacular example of Byzantine architecture, and one of the few places of worship on earth where a depiction of Jesus and Mary appears alongside the names of Allah and Muhammad written in Arabic calligraphy the size of a house. This, too, is packed by tourists of all types, who pay $20 just to enter. As spectacular a building as this is, maybe it is not worth $20 to walk around for two, three hours at most. Of course, it beats spending that money on four doners. I was struck upon entering the Sofia Hagia because I was informed that it was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. I know Justinian best, as countless professors informed me, for closing Plato's Academy in the year 529. I had never realized that he was famous for anything else.

The Sultanahmet district of Istanbul houses the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, the Grand Bazaar, Sultanahmet Square, the Topkapi Palace and countless touristic restaurants, bars and so on. In two days, the only time I have left this small area has been to go back to my hostel, and I'm not done yet. Sadly, it sometimes seems that about 70% of the population here is made up of tourists. They come from chiefly Germany, Britain, Italy and Japan, though I was nearly run over today by a bus of Korean tourists.

They come in hordes, hordes itself being a Turkish word, waving flags for identification like the camps of disparate armies which developed a common language for hordes that is today called Urdu. I'm not sure just what the Japanese come to see, perhaps their own flag inverted, but the spectre of elderly British and Italian tourists traversing central Istanbul gives off the impression of some form of Oriental adventure travel. This is really as far as you can get from the comforts of Europe. Each Euro buys more than 2 Turkish Liras and the country borders both Iran and Iraq. This truly is a frontier of some kind for them, though it tends to come across as a place so well-traveled that no matter what your story or your plans, someone else has done it before.
Seven thousand kilometres of travel in China finished just in time. Chaos has broken out in Xinjiang province again. I was in Urumqi about ten days ago, where groups of soldiers were everywhere: at intersections, restaurants, bank machines and even at isolated points in the park where I ran. There were probably a dozen soldiers just in the park.

Helicopters were seen overhead in the morning in Urumqi, the regional capital, one day after tens of thousands of Han, the dominant ethnic group in China, took to the streets to demand that the government prevent alleged hypodermic needle stabbings by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who are largely Muslim, according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency.

After three weeks and a few books about life in China, I'm stunned that this level of political expression is possible in China, and in Xinjiang of all places, where caravan trucks full of soldiers drive by with regularity. The Internet is blocked, international phone calls are block and foreign journalists are banned. The story is datelined from Beijing and quotes extensively from official Chinese media. Making the story bizarre is this intense information blackout.

What traveling in Xinjiang shows you isn't much compared to actually being from there, but you'll notice that Han Chinese are better off than Uighurs. Han Chinese run the place and Uighurs work for them. Uighurs have to learn what is to them a foreign language, and adapt to an influx of newcomers. They cloister in their own part of town for the most part, called the Uighur quarter in both Urumqi and Kashgar, and traveling from one to the other is like visiting a new city. You seldom see the two groups intermingling.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The byzantine Byzantine

I like to make quick judgments. I resolved after 3 hours that Bishkek is the worst city I've ever been to, and resolved after 10 hours in Istanbul that it's one of the two or three best cities I've ever been to. I made that quick judgment sitting in the Sultanahmet square by the eponymous mosque, watching some kind of free concert of Turkish music, oriental and Byzantine to the nines, but also tied in with Ramadan and some form of religious expression. It's sad to travel across much of the Muslim world during Ramadan, taking in the wonderful iftar culture and wake up to azans from a dozen mosques at the same time, and yet not be able to participate because I chose this time of year to travel.

Since I haven't really done much here so far but admire the beauty from afar, I'd like to list all the books I've read on this trip.

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman
Getting Rich First: A Modern Social History, by Duncan Hewitt
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Travels of Marco Polo, actually by some other guy whose name I forget

Currently, I am labouring through Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (Andrew Fisher, are you reading this?). It's alternatingly creepy and illuminating, and overall it's dull to read a 600-page book that's the biography of a philosohper, a man who is famous for thoughts more than actions. It's a bit like reading a 600-page book about the thoughts of a man who doesn't have any, such as Joe the Plumber or most athletes or actors.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

In Soviet Kyrgyzstan, car drive you; in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, asshole in car drives you

I'm in Istanbul now, but let's finish talking about the bizarre nightmare that was Kyrgyzstan. After arriving at 3 in the morning and sleeping on the bus, I negotiated a $3 cab ride to $1.50, and then followed the Japanese to a sad-looking museum that was entirely in Kyrgyz and Russian. We rested on the floor, and then had a few meals for less than a dollar.

Kyrgyzstan was not quite the post-Soviet wasteland I imagined. Many restaurants and cafes had a vaguely mediterranean feel. The Osh bazaar had many stands of fruit, different kinds of rice and large pastries.

After the funereal museum, I found myself on top of a mountain surrounded by thousands of Kyrgyz youth dressed impeccably in black and white for some reason. "It's an hour's walk back," I said to the guy whose name I think is Takehiro (I bumped into the same Japanese everywhere on the Silk Road). He walked for a bit and then asked for directions. We crossed the road and he gestured. We were back at the hotel.

The next morning, the real bizarre side of Kyrgyzstan began. I took a shared taxi to Bishkek. A taxi split four ways would cost about $12-25, but it cost me $30. The taxi left three hours late and the driver drove with a death wish, negotiating mountain passes at well over 100 km/h on sub-standard roads. At one point, we went from 140 to 0 on account of a herd of cows blocking the road. That, along with blue-green lakes at the foot of towering snowy mountains, completely sums up the country.

I arrived in Bishkek at 9 pm last night. There were no street lights. The driver left us at the wrong address. The Swiss guy I was traveling with went into what we thought was a hostel and emerged with two guys, one of whom spoke English and some Korean (he lived there for two years, one month in Suwon). They took us to the hostel, where the owner had left a note saying he'd be back in an hour. We waited in the decrepit, dark building, illuminated once only by a chubby blonde walking around in her underwear.

We took a taxi to a different hostel, which the driver circled a dozen times before finding, thanks largely to police officers who drew a map in the sand with a stick. We got in the door just as a drunken oaf with blood on his face approached us, but I left right after to go to the airport, just as one of my former Japanese companions arrived (I stayed two days with her).

Spending the night at the Bishkek airport with a Frenchman was a good idea. Nobody else would have appreciated the absurdity of a deserted airport, and one in Kyrgyzstan of all places. I had a few $4 cups of coffee and sat around watching the airport come to life. By 3:22 am, the time I finished writing, it was business as usual in Bishkek.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

There really is a Kyrgyzstan

So this is Kyrgyzstan, and what have you done? Another trip to China, and a new one to Europe just begun. So this is Kyrgyzstan, and I didn't blog for a week because there is no Internet access (and has not been) in all of Xinjiang province for almost two months now. I composed an angry polemic about this on the Urumqi-Kashgar train, but I'll leave that behind, since it's of little consequence.

Kashgar was one of those places I always imagined existed, a place that is the nexus of the world, where China, Pakistan, Turkey and all-and-sundry meet. It was a place where I bought Kyrgyz som at the bank from a Uighur who sat waiting on the couches (the teller directed me there) insisted on speaking to me in Urdu, even though I spoke better Chinese than his Urdu, and we both spoke good English. It was a place where I traveled to spectacular Karakul Lake at 12,000 feet on the Karakoram Highway connecting China and Pakistan, and heard, in order, songs in Korean, English and Hindi. It was a place where I spoke a mixture of Chinese and Urdu to buy kebabs from people who spoke neither.

In so many ways, Kashgar (the K and the g are those guttoral sounds that make Arabic so great) was like going back to Pakistan. I stayed at the wonderful Old City Hostel amidst ancient brown buildings, narrow alleys and a lively street scene that picked up at night, seemingly never to stop. There were mosques, camels, donkey carts, open gutters on the side of the street and so many things that I haven't seen in so long. There was, of course, the highway to Pakistan, and many people pointed at me and asked "Pakistan?" I usually said no, since it's never in your interest to be Pakistani, ever, except when bargaining.

The courtyard at the Kashgar Old City Hostel was a fantastically social place, where I met Italians, Frenchmen, an Indian and others. There was a group of five people on my first day, none of whom lived in their country of origin: a French woman living in Singapore, a French man living in Switzerland, an Italian living in Japan, a Chinese guy living in America and a Canadian living in Korea. Since then, I've met nothing but Japanese. I went to Karakul Lake, a spectacular lake surrounded by snowy 7,000-metre mountains, with two Japanese people and a Uighur who spoke fluent Japanese but almost no English (we communicated in Chinese and assorted Arabic words).

I will always, always remember Kashgar. It was a place where so many things were possible (except contacting the outside world). So many countries were together, and talk of travel to Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tibet or any other remote, dangerous destination was routine. The people were intelligent, worldly and always, guaranteed to be interesting. A new arrival comes in with a bike and a watermelon, which he feeds to everyone, and announces his intention to take it to Europe via Pakistan and Iran. A man casually talks of a month in the south of Punjab (I never went!). Others study Pashto and share their pictures from Madagascar.

But this is Kyrgyzstan. The trip to Kyrgyzstan was bizarre to say the least. The bus was scheduled to leave at 8 am Xinjiang time (all of China is officially on Beijing time, two hours ahead). It left an hour late, rumbled down to a gas station, where it was loaded up with...produce. For an hour. Then we drove 90 minutes, had lunch, drove another two hours to the border. At the Chinese side, I showed my passport to enter a building. Then a man checked my passport. Then he asked for my camera. I took it out, but I was told to wait. While I waited, two people checked my passport, reading it through like a magazine. Then a man went through all 444 pictures on the camera with an eye for pictures from Xinjiang. Then they checked my passport again.

I went to a booth where they checked my passport, then had my bag put through a scanner. Then I waited for everyone else. While I waited, they checked my passport again. We went to another booth where they checked my passport. There was a final crossing, marking the no-man's land between countries, where they checked everybody's name against the list provided. Then we entered Kyrgyzstan. The immigration office was a pale blue shed with no sign, where my details were entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. In another unmarked room, ununiformed man recorded my details and informed me that while it was okay for the Japanese I was with to laugh at his questions, laughing was for the Jews and kafirs.

For dinner, we had jujubes, naan and a chicken's head provided to us by the bus driver. I ate the naan and jujubes. The bus arrived via a dirt road into Osh, Kyrgyzstan at 3 am. We slept on the bus until 6 and then arrived into town. Kyrgyzstan is cleaner than much of China and developed (at times, at times crumbling), but my four days here will cost less than my visa ($80 US).