Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Istanbul is huge. It has about 25 million people (!) and the various districts are like cities unto themselves. Some feel like paris, some Beirut and some NYC with everythting in between. It is a huely litereary society with tons of newspapers, celebrity authors, and book shops on every corner. The night life is also HUGE.
My first forray into Istanbul after dark was less than succesful. Toby, a british bookie I befreinded (dave? maybe?), and I headed off around midnight and on the well intentioned but misguided advise of a cab driver ended up in a shady pseudo red light district populated mostly by eastern europeans. I had also, apparently, underestimated how blasted Toby really was but got the picture when he proceeded to vomit outside of the cab. I had honestly only had like two beers at this point and was a bit taken aback. Also nothing spells easy money to a Russian night club owner than a cab full of tourists one of whome is already vomiting. Anyway, I ordered a few over priced beers, and we all discussed where to go from here. A large Russian bouncer came over, concerened with our lack of spending and asked what we were looking for. Toby fell into a discussion with him which I couldn't hear. I assumed he was asking where a dance club was or something. Obviously the bouncer's english wasn't so good because he brought over a napkin and pen for Mo to write his requests on. I wasn't really paying attention. Toby was writng on the napkin but also nodding off. When the napkin got passed back to the bouncer. In the candle light I read:
Uh oh. This was certainly not the turn I wanted the evening to take, especially not in the shadiest club in Istanbul. I thought Toby had been joking and was rectafying the situation when he snatched the napkin back from the bouncer. Instead I watched him draw helpful illustrations on his napkin. One of a pot leaf and one of breasts. It was at this point that the bookie and I took more charge, leading Toby out of the club and baack to our waiting beds.
The next night was a much greater success. I made freinds with a chraming Australian couple and with the man who worked the front desk of the hostel, we hit the town. We started at a lovely open air rooftop beer garden terrace and after a few hours made our way to a club famous for its Balkan dance music. It was above another larger techno club and we walked up six flights of stairs to a small but packed club. There were windows 360 degrees around the space and were dancing literally pressed up against them with seeminly nothing sperating us from the Istanbul skyline and the Bosphorus below. That place was amazing and I danced for maybe three hours until I was literaly too exhausted to stand.
The days were also not without adventure. One of my jobs was to write up my general impression of the vibes of the hotels I visited from the lobbies. I visited the huge Swiss Hotel and wrote in my notes "The lobby is packed with people, although they are oddly aloof and seem very nervous". Only later did I notice the large banners,
"WELCOME TO THE NOCTURNAL VOIDING DISORDER CONVENTION ISTANBUL 2009"
I made it a habit of arriving at the nicer hotels in flip flops and stretched out t-shirts, smelling like a hostel. It wasn't a concious decision but it was all I had and I figured if they discriminated against me (none of them did at all) I could write them up as having bad service. Got em. Anyway, one of the major perks of this gig was using the bathrooms of all the five star hotels. I was especially thrilled to try out the Ritz bathroom and had been holding it all day in preperation. I had noticed that many Turkish toilets had this weird nozzle thing projecting from the toiled bowl. I now noticed the ritz toilet also had one and that the toilet itself was attatched to a kind of nob on the wall by a gleaming silver hose. After my bussiness was done I stood eyeing this nob for a while and ultimatly couldn't resist so I gave it a good solid turn. Immediatly a powerful jet of water shot from the hose soaking the entire stall and leaving me utterly drenched from the knees down. I had to conduct my hotel tour squeaking my way loudly across the marble floors, and pushing the Ritz's famaous service to the limit when I left puddles and soggy foot prints across their presidential suite.
Anyway, those are all of the adventures I care to retell in a public forum. I'm in Damascus now and it is abslutly nuts. Completely insane. I'll write more later. Probably from Paris.
Its been a minute since I've written anything so here goes. Lets go back about two weeks. I'm in Almaty, the major city in Kazakstan, considering where to go. The plan was to take the train from Almaty to Aktau on the Caspian Sea then a ferry to Baku in Azerbaijan. From Baku to Georgia by train and then also by train fro Tiblisi Georgia to Istanbul Turkey. Anyway that was the plan so I went online to check out logisitics and a few things came up. First, the train from Almaty to Aktau takes 67 hours. This sucks, I love trains but it would push the whole schedule in my head up like three days. Second, apparently since the Georgian war the ferry across the Caspian is unreliable as hell. Often your forced to wait in Aktau for between 15 and 30 days waitng for a space to open up all the while dispensing bribes with abandon. Multiple travelers recomended "sleeping on the docks with Kazak truckers to ensure a spot". This would be ok I guess if Aktau were bangin. The only thing my lonely planet had to say about Aktau, other than you can cath the ferry from there, is that violent muggings against foreigners have been on the rise in recent years. So, basicaly 15-30 days sleeping with truckers on the docks of a city famous for its violent muggings. I was still fairly undetered until the third bit of news, the ferry is supposed to take eight hours but more commonly takes between 30-36 hours. In order to secure a room at all once onboard you must bribe the captain. Here's the kicker: the entire ship is served by one toilet which everyone recomends not using. This same ferry sunk in 2006 killing everyone onboard. Also, my good freind Owen has been haunted by premonitions I was going to meet with disaster on the caspian and for about five months now has been warning me not to go. All this aside I would be remiss if I didnt tell you the big reason. I miss my girlfriend. The thought of putting another thirty days between us was,well, absolutly unthinkable.
So, fuck it. The whole point of this trip was to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted so I decided to check airfares to Baku then continue by train from there. Well, as it turns out all airfare to Baku connects through istanbul, where I'm heading anyway. So, I decided to fuck Azerbaijan and Georgia (there are thousands of years of precedent for this) and just fly to Istanbul. On the same web page I saw that flights from Damascus were cheaper and at an hour and a half much shorter than the 28 hour bus trip so, what the hell, I booked that too.
At this point I was on a roll and giddy with acomplishment. God knows backpacking across Europe when single is fun. Also traveling through europe with your loved one would be amazing. But, I could see my european leg of the trip all too clearly. Getting drunk enough in the mornings to make bad financial decisions involving large meals, napping the day away trying to block out the sounds of Manau Chao from fellow-hostel dwellers and spending the time I wasn't hungover in bed or using my mother's credit card at restaurants I had seen on "No Reservations" at the internet cafe cursing the sorry state of African internet access. So, I booked a flight from Damascus to Paris, and then obviously one from Paris to Togo. Arriving November third cutting my trip by a mere 20 days and cleanly cutting off the eurpean leg.
So, say what you want but I am straight up thrilled.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Two hours later he arrived. He was about five foot five, bald and snaggle toothed. He carried a brief case and wore a suit made of something between crushed velvet and corduroy and a wide striped shirt like an escaped convict in a silent movie. Something about him put me on guard. Upon first seeing him the voice in my head said "This man will hurt me"... so I invited him in.
First he went to the bathroom and after a few minutes emerged wearing a bright pink nurse's shirt with "medical services" in navy over the pocket, grey jogging shorts and black business socks that came to just bellow the knee. He then put the comforter from my bed on the floor and began unpacking his brief case. I saw it was full of all of these weird plastic devices with screws and suction cups that I had never seen before and can't really describe. Luckily he only took out some oil and a little plastic knobby thingy. He then pointed at me, pointed at the blanket on the floor and said "sleep".
I did and so began the most painful massage I have ever had. He was STRONG and it hurt so much I had trouble breathing. Once when he was breaking the bones in my foot I actually sat up and gasped:
Me: Yes... a little. Can you do it a little softer?
Man: Pain. Yes, pain massage. Now.... Sleep!
By the mid point my body was literally recoiling under his touch and I kept inadvertently trying to squirm away from him. He must have noticed but only said "after massage relax" and didn't let up. In my head it occurred to me that maybe he was some kind of genius and that if I could only bear the pain perhaps he would fix all of my back and neck problems. His final move was to grab my limbs then throw himself on top of me popping my joints, neck and back.
When I rolled over and saw him again, putting on his watch and packing up his bag, something had changed. He didn't look creepy anymore. He looked sweet. A smiling, shy little guy. He kept trying to ask me in broken english if the massage was good, if I was ok and telling me to drink lots of water. He looked almost apologetic as if he knew it had hurt. I found him completely endearing and sympathetic. Here was this forty year old guy, in rugged-ass Kyrgyzstan, who had dedicated his life to medical massage.
Anyway, he just left. He said in two hours I would feel amazing. Right now I feel exhausted. I'm supposed to check out the night life here for my article but I'm so tired and everyone keeps warning me it is dangerous here at night. Maybe just one or two discos...
After I crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan the soldiers literally forced me into another car. Before we left I saw the driver paying off the guards and then began calling all of his friends on the cell phone. Again, the only word I understood was "americansky". I called my girlfriend and told her I thought he was gonna leave me someplace and escape with the money. It was one in the morning and Kyrgyzstan was desolate. Girlfriend was understandably concerned when we pulled up to a little house and the driver gestured for me to get out of the car and off of the phone.
It turns out I shouldn't have judged him so harshly. Inside the house he had me sit down on the floor around a table cloth and a sleepy woman brought me bread and candies and even cut open an amazing watermelon. He passed me the usual tea cup of vodka but this time said "Niet Vodka!" and wrote out 1oo proof ++ on the table cloth with his finger. It burned more than anything I have ever had to drink in my life. When I left they gave me a large bag of apples as a gift.
Feeling much more relaxed and incredibly happy I stood in the cool alpine air under a huge sky of stars and waited for the guy to put his things in the car then three of his friends, two men and a super cute little kid, arrived and we were off.
Although long, uncomfortable and exhausting the drive was amazing. At night the Kirghiz steppe was empty and stretched forever under the moonlight. The wind howled. Kyrgyzstan has the largest population of wolves in the world and boy does it seem appropriate. This is wolf country for sure. I napped on and off and watched the sun rise over towering snow capped mountains. We crossed two mountain ranges, even taller than the ones in Tajikistan, and once came down from the clouds to find a vast sparkling bright blue alpine lake. We passed yurts with nomads on horse back herding sheep or selling home made yogurt and honey on the roadside. It was breathtaking.
Also breathtaking was when we were coming up the mountain on an icey switch back when the driver started a race with the car next to us. They would gun it up the mountain around blind hair pin turns consistently swerving out of the way just in time to avoid downhill bearing semi trucks with horns blaring.
Eventually after a series of wild and vivid dreams and listening to 2pacs greatest hits twice we arrived. I dont even remember showering or getting into bed but I awoke clean and rested.
Monday, October 12, 2009
A few final notes on Uzbekistan:
In the country side here they burn something that smells just like Reses Peanut Butter cups. If they were made out of real home roasted peanuts and dark chocolate. I have no Idea what it is.
The water is not potable so everyone drinks bottled water. Nothing new there but in Uzbekistan all the water is sparkling! It's heavenly.
Lonely Planet always claims every place has the most hospitable people in the world. They're always saying that strangers will offer you tea or dinner and take you to there homes. Anyway when I'm traveling and my guide book says that I'm like "Where the hell are these people? I'm fucking thirsty!" Well it turns out theyre in Uzbekistan.
Child labour is a big problem in Uzbekistan. Children are conscripted every year from school to work the cotton harvest. Uzbeks all deny this but it is well known and the fields are full of little kids stooped under cotton bails (I saw them everywhere). Not only that but children as young as like nine do all kinds of jobs. Also there seems to be a high rate of that Benjamin Button genetic disease probably because of all the soviet biological weapon testing here (seriously). So you never know whether the little guy in the tiny bow tie bringing you your menu is an exploited eleven year old or a wizened man child.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
It was around this time that two things happened that would change the character of my stay. First, at lunch at the Plov center (plov is rice with mutton, veggies and fruit and is the national dish of the Uzbeks) I was introduced to horse sausage which was unspeakably amazing, and second I was invited out to dinner by a group of Indians staying at the hotel.
The Indians were two middle aged women who came from big engineering families in South India whose families had “been doing business together for hundreds of years”. With them was their family doctor, a spine and brain surgeon in Tashkent for a conference who also happens to be a professional golfer. Now, let me say that they were incredibly warm and nice to me and invited me out every night. This woman, though, was out of control. She constantly feared for her safety and was convinced everyone was trying to mug or poison her. She would clap and snap at waiters telling them she didn’t like Uzbek food. Upon entering a cab she would pound on the driver’s seat and say “Can you please turn on some music” then if it was Uzbek music “We don’t like this kind of music please change it”. She would criticize the driving of every driver and accuse everyone of trying to cheat us. If she ordered bottled water she would insist the bottle be brought to her for careful inspection first. She didn’t like Uzbekistan saying it was too dangerous (it is not), dirty (not) and the traffic too unwieldy (not at all). I can understand if this was her first time out of Wisconsin but she was from India and the driving (as well as the safety, and water) I’m sure paled in comparison to her own home city. She was a writer composing a book on driving the coast of India for Penguin but was given to saying things like “I can’t write about Muslim countries. They’re soulless.” She would comment constantly on woman having to wear Burkhas although I did not see a single, not one, covered face in all of Uzbekistan. Her friend on the other hand was kind of endearing. She was a successful painter and had a great off beat wackiness. Although a bit clueless, she leaned in once to tell me that Muslim countries were famous for their pork dishes, we had great fun together. She won me over when she confided that she had spent the day looking for Russian porno for her friends at home in India. “We can’t get stuff like that in India and I like to see the sleazy side of places”, then she regaled me with tales of finding sex shops everywhere from Istanbul to Mykonos. Her favorite game was to play “Are they a prostitute?” at random passing Russian girls. One night we all went out to check out the night life of Tashkent and her and I stayed out hours past when her companions went home to check out the late night club scene. The club scene was bumpin and packed until we left well past three in the morning filled with the hippest youngsters I’ve seen on this whole trip.
Anyway, they invited me out to a strip club the next night and I would have gone if it weren’t for the horse sausage. You see, that afternoon I went back to the Plov center and ordered a shit load of horse meat. The cook warned me not to eat too much but I figured I was misunderstanding him. Fast-forward two hours and I am laid up with the worst stomach ache of this trip.
After Tashkent I boarded the overnight train (spent hours eating cured cow stomach and drinking tea with strange but sweet men in tracksuits) to Orgench and from their took a 40 minute taxi to the famous old silk road town and slave market of Khiva. The cab driver was a nice man with a mouthful of gold teeth. He was a bit of an eccentric who pulled over to the side of the road to pee while leaving the car moving down the shoulder with me inside then ran to catch up to us. He had been chatty but at a gas station we got in little squabble about money based on a miscommunication and after we got gas he drove on in silence. Then he started rummaging in the glove box and eventually pulled out a huge knife. Uh Oh. Luckily after the knife he pulled out a walnut sliced it open with the knife and offered me half. Then we were back to being fast friends. One of his most endearing qualities was his Malcom X air freshener. I noticed another car had the same air freshener and I asked him about it. He started mumbling in Russian, looked embarassed, then ripped it off the mirrior tore it to peices and threw it out the window. I suppose that whole thing will have to remain a mystery. Anyway...
Khiva’s amazing. The whole town was completely restored by the soviets in the 70’s and 80’s. It has more tourists than I’ve seen anywhere else but who cares its fuckin sick. At night, two little girls asked me to take their picture. Then the father came out with a baby for his picture. Then the little girls dragged me back to their house to meet their grandmother and mother where I was served melon, and meat pies and bread. Eventually they offered tea and when I accepted they all cackled maniacally and proceeded to pour a long spout of vodka from the tea pot into my tea cup. I thought I was being polite and only ate what I was offered but the mother kept asking why I was so hungry and the grandmother kept gesturing that I was getting fat. Finally the father gathered my food into a napkin and hurried me out the door saying the police were coming. I’m pretty sure he was lying and I’m not sure what I did to offend them but I doubt I’ll ever bump into them again so I’m not tripping.
Anyway this is rambling tomorrow an eleven hour car ride to Bukhara
Kiss Kiss Hug Hug
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I had a list of potential clubs in my pocket but upon meeting us the guide led us directly to what looked like a high rise electronics mall. It was past ten and the lights were off but he led us on climbing thru the moist, pitch black concrete stairwell without hesitation. At about the fifth floor a faint red light began to illuminate posters in Arabic script along the hallway with pictures of the nude and armless Venus De Milo. Finally we reached a door flanked by two small mustached men who insisted on an entry fee of about two dollars. This price was exorbitant for the area so we agreed that before we paid I was allowed to go in alone and report to my companions whether it was worth it or not. What I saw was one of the most amazing scenes of my entire life and on my advice we all eagerly paid up without complaint and were each given tickets printed in bold “CLUB WEENUS”.
Now, I want to make sure that my tone in describing this club does not come off as condescending or tongue in cheek in anyway. I honestly loved this place. It is the only night club I have ever been to which made me want to be a better person. Imagine a night club that actually restored my faith in humanity (a little).
The space was large, about the size of a good sized high school gym. Along one wall was the bar and on the opposite wall was a stage with a live band and a dj. In the center was a large dance floor with a glass floor made of light up squares. All around the floor were small tables with chairs and the occasional booth. The club was unbearably Smokey. For the most part the sexes remained completely segregated. Men sat in large mustached groups pounding redbulls and offering each other cigarettes, while groups of women often wearing matching outfits giggled and eyed each other over their redbulls (in kashgar they sell something called red camel, how sick is that?). To me the music all sounded the same. Catchy loud Arabic sounding techno pop with a live singer and guitarist over a pulsing beat. The people at the club could discern a difference I could not. Some songs were couples songs in which couples of two women or the occasional boyfriend/ girlfriend husband/wife duo would hold each other tight and spin together somehow perfectly in time to the driving techno beat. The other songs were what I’ll call freestyle songs and they were thrilling. During the freestyle songs it was every man for himself and everyone would crowd onto the dance floor spinning, bobbing their heads, clapping and bowing to each other. It was an entire different school of dancing from what I’m used to. The most popular move was spinning clockwise with one arm behind your back and the other hand raised as if you were saying “stop”. Then the arms switched and they spun counterclockwise then a quick clap and a polite bow. Picture the dance scene from Elizabeth but sped up and to a pounding jungle dance beat. Although in this dance the sexes drifted among each other they were very careful not to make contact and most interaction happened between members of the same sex. The innocence of this place was astounding and oddly moving. Everyone bowed to each other. Upon accidently brushing against one another the man would apologize blushing and the woman would giggle hiding her face behind her hand. Everyone seemed so young (the average age was probably about 19) awkward and happy. My guide was in his element. He watched me drink my beer and would sometimes giddily say, as if he couldn’t control himself while gesturing behind him to some girl who looked just like everyone else, “Look! I don’t think she has a boyfriend! Look!” He kept telling me to dance and after a beer or three I took him up on it. I was extremely self conscious of doing something inappropriate and was trying hard not to even make eye contact with any women when I started to spin with my arms out and palms open following my guide’s lead. I had not even made one full rotation when I accidently gave the woman dancing behind me a full palmed hearty spank on the ass. The dance improved from there but I was too embarrassed to dance more songs. Also the innocence of the place was making me feel oddly guilty and I couldn’t relax.
That’s when I suggested to the guide that since he had shown us a Uigher dance club he should let us take him to a Chinese dance club. This was a mistake.
The first club we went to was called baby face and was your typical Chinese disco. Loud electro pop, strobe lights, and instead of a dance floor lots of tables and stools where Chinese people got bottle service and played dice drinking games. People danced at their seats and in between their tables and every once and a while a scantily clad Chinese girl would gather up the courage to go all out nasty on the DJ booth. I ordered bevies and started dancing at my table getting more and more raucous. The guide took the first few minutes to shake his head open mouthed at the girls on stage and then began to copy my dance moves just as I had followed his lead at the Uigher club. For those of you who know me my dance style is not the easiest for a devout Muslim (or anyone with any self respect for that matter) to emulate. Without the vigorous air humping, hip movement, tongue wagging and gratuitous display of nipples the guide was left shuffling back and forth, throwing up indecipherable gang signs and every once and a while snapping. Watching the weakest parts of my style played back to me in real time had a decidedly detrimental effect on my dancing and after a few drinks we decided to find a new place.
The second place, whose name I have forgotten, was a lot like the first but more crowded and with an actual dance floor surrounded by nooks with couches and small tables. We hit the dance floor and were quickly enveloped in the crown dancing with abandon. I was having a blast until I looked up and saw the guide looking at me with wide mouthed disgust. “What are you doing?!” He yelled. “I thought you had a girl friend! Charley your drunk! You’re making a mistake!” Now let me take a moment to explain that I was doing nothing even slightly inappropriate. Yes I was dancing with strange women, strange men too, but I was in the midst of a throbbing dancing crowd and was certainly not doing anything out of line. Had my girlfriend (or even my mother for that matter) been their watching I would not have done anything differently. I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. That I was just dancing. That at this very moment my girlfriend was at a dance party of her own and that I was sure she was behaving just as I was (how do you say “She is not trippin’” in Chinese?). None of this seemed to affect him at all. The people I had been dancing with told me the club was about to close but they were all going to go and get something to eat at a night market down the street (I love China sometimes). My friend/ guide’s expression turned from bewildered disgust into straight up repulsion when I got my new friends numbers to meet up with them later. Instead of trying to explain in Chinese my view of gender and how I was allowed to hang out with other women, how these were just friends etc. etc. I decided just to lie and told him that I was getting the numbers for my friend who really liked them and wanted to go with them. At this point the guide took us aside and told us it wasn’t safe to be out this late, that when Chinese people were drunk they became very violent and we were in extreme danger. Now, my friend Philip had developed quite a crush on one of the women we met at the club and at this moment she was pulling him by his sleeve out the door. He certainly wasn’t about to go back to the Hotel. And I had spent years getting drunk with Chinese people and that although I could do without the new companionship, I had overheard one of our new friends talking about the spicy shrimp they were about to eat and so I was committed heart and soul to the night market. Finally the poor exhausted guide relented but for our safety insisted on accompanying us.
The night market was amazing. I made hundreds of friends. Old Chinese men kept buying me beer and I ended up in a drinking contest with a bunch of police officers. The spicy shrimps were the best I have ever tasted. I must have eaten about four hundred of them. That said, my mood was dampened by the guide who certainly would have fallen asleep at the table if he had not been so nervous. Finally I turned to him and insisted he go home saying I would stay here until 10am in the morning. He agreed grudgingly only if I composed a written statement saying our behavior was our own responsibility and we all signed it. He explained that he was worried we would get in trouble and because he was a Uigher the Government would blame and arrest him. So on the back on a napkin I composed,
“Sakeem is a good man, a great guide and a Patriot. He warned us not to go out but we, in our ignorance, ignored his good counsel. Our behavior and its consequences are ours alone.”
We all signed and looking finally satisfied he headed for bed. It turned out that the night market closed about two minutes after he left so we followed behind him.
I slept wonderfully but in the morning I decided it was time to head somewhere new, perhaps Kazakhstan. I loved Kashgar and everyone I met was amazing but after my days there I couldn’t shake a kind of guilty feeling. The Uighers were so pious, open, warm and innocent and this contrasted sharply with the modern, money driven no nonsense Chinese. I know I am WAY over simplifying here the Chinese people I met were all wonderful to a fault and behind the Uigher “simplicity” was the segregation of women, keeping children out of schools (especially daughters), and I’m sure all kinds of domestic abuse. It’s just that you could see the Uigher culture being eroded away so vividly. You could literally watch the bulldozers in the old towns and see the two ways of life scrape against each other. Especially after the night at the discos I started really feeling the inevitability of the Uigher’s tenuous position. Life as they knew it couldn’t last and more and more I knew that I was both a symptom and an agent of that change.
C-Murderous Y’a Heard of us.
Awesome or not after three days here I was beginning to get a little stir crazy. Every evening when returning to my hotel I passed a huge poster inviting me to go on a camel trek into the infamous Telekamakan desert. On day four I decided to go for it.
Now, anyone who knows me knows I enjoy a good desert (read Palm Springs) but my taste in animals is skewed distinctly in favor of the petting zoo variety excepting of course the noble donkey. That and I'm not even quite sure what trekking is exactly… maybe hiking with snacks? Anyway, skipping the boring bits, by that afternoon my guide and I had arrived at a grape plantation on the outskirts of the desert and were waiting for the “camel man” to arrive. I was happy as can be munching on grapes off the vine and making friends with an adorable little two year old boy I had met who was naked from the waist down wearing my sunglasses and sharing my grapes. The camel man arrived. The only two words I can think of to describe him are rugged and pious. He brought with him two pissy looking camels. The camels knelt down and allowed the camel man to load them with our tents, blankets, saddles and our dinner of melons and bread. The first sign of things to come came when the camel man put my little two year old friend on the camel’s saddle. At first it was an umissible photo op but then the camel stood up launching the child into the air and sending him face first into the sand. I was about to freak out and was preparing to take the kid to the hospital but the camel man just spanked his butt, told him not to cry and sent him running off back to the farm house. It was at this moment that I decided that particular camel was a jerk. He quickly went from grouchy to downright uncooperative which was exasperated by the camel mans only form of discipline which involved beating the camel in the face with a length of rope. Under normal circumstances this would be unpleasant but this time my camel (a smaller one) was tethered to the big cranky one and was being pulled back and forth by his panicking fellow. It was in this state that we set off. Riding a camel is uncomfortable. Every step manages simultaneously to mash your testicles, wrench your lower back, bruise your ass and pry your hips apart from each other. This is if the camel is walking on level ground. If the camel is running or walking on even a slight incline it feels as if you are actually birthing the camel. There is a longstanding camel-myth which states that camels are the most sure footed of all of the beasts. This is false. Camels travel through the desert in much the same way that I do. I may not actually fall on my face but I will not miss an opportunity to stumble and slide around and if the going gets real tough I’m libel to just stop wherever I am and lie down. So goes the mighty camel. After the first twenty minutes of camel riding I was just starting to get comfortable when the camel man shrieked and started beating a shrub with the rope he was using to lead the camels. Then he took off at a full sprint into the desert trailing my running and freaked out camel behind him. Finally he stopped and began throwing his shoes repeatedly at the bush in front of him. After about a minute of this he came up beaming holding a small dead snake, announced that he would sell if for medicine and went back to camel-leading as if nothing had happened. Just as I was calming down, the camel in front of me shat. He shat so hard his anus prolapsed, leaving his ass looking like it had given up trying to inflate a pink party balloon. Normally the camel’s anus would have been his business but the nature of the camel caravan meant that the front camel’s posterior made up about half of my view. That was bad enough but this was an especially flatulent camel and often his rear resembled Sylvester the cat trying to urgently communicate something to me. It was around this time that the lead camel shat again but this time directly into my camel’s waiting mouth. I suppose this happens from time to time in the life of a camel but unfortunately this time my camel reacted by turning and sneezing a nice mixture of snot and camel poop all over me. After sneezing my camel promptly sat down. The camel man began kicking him savagely but my guide saw my horrified face and told him to try a more humane technique. The camel man looked momentarily confused but then rallied and began throwing rocks at the camel while I was still perched on his back. It really freaked me out but it must have also freaked out the camel because we were quickly back on our feet and headed off into the dunes. For the next three hours things progressed in about the same vein. Eventually we reached a flat sandy spot in the dunes and set up camp. Then we spread out blankets and feasted on melon, bread and nuts breaking Ramadan with the guides. We told stories, sang songs and I dispelled myths about the Jews. As night fell I pulled my sleeping bag and blankets out from the tent and slept under the most amazing stars I’ve ever seen. Every now and then the peace was broken by bright flashes on the horizon further out into the desert and the guide told us they were cause by secret military experiments. What started unpleasantly was in the end one of the most undeniably pleasant experiences of
my trip so far.
More to follow
I was walking down the platform in front of the train wondering to myself where I would stay the night and reassuring myself that something would fall into my lap as it always does when my Kyrgyz friend walked up beside me and asked if I had a place to stay. When I said I did not he told my he knew a great hostel, that he stayed in Urumqi every two months and would show my around. Upon leaving the train station I noticed a few riot police with shotguns but nothing too serious and I followed my new friend into a waiting minibus. Here’s where things begin to get strange. We weren’t ten minutes on the road and he had just asked where I was from, when my companion began listing in minute detail everything that was wrong with America and Americans (their stupidity, corruption, greed, obesity etc etc) summing up his rant with “Come on don’t be naive! 9/11 was an inside job between moussad and the CIA” and concluding pounding his fists on the seat in front of him “There is no change we can believe in! Obama is the house nigger of the Israelis!” I kid you not. Now this was bad enough but at the very same time it was dawning on me that my traveling companion was potentially a Nazi, I was also realizing that I had entered a war zone. Hundreds of soldiers were on the streets marching in formation with bayonettes fixed, under each over pass were huddled riot-soldiers peering out from behind Plexiglas shields, there were road blocks everywhere and troop carrier trucks patrolled the streets repeating Chinese slogans from bull horns rifles pointing out from under the canvas. I have never seen anything like it. I was stunned into silence and we completed the journey not saying a word to each other. When we reached the hostel I discovered that is was on Government Square which was acting as the major troop barracks. The front door was barricaded by a steel great and six soldiers with machine guns and riot shields who checked our passport before allowing you admission. Once inside the hostel I discovered that A) there were no single rooms available and that I would be bunking with my charming friend and that B) there was no internet or international calls permitted in the entire region of Xinjiang (read pretty much all of western China).
It turns out my fascist friend’s father was in the hospital so he needed to call home and had an idea of how to. He told me of a Russian hotel way out in the Uigher (read militarized) part of town that housed some representatives of what I think he said were the Kyrgyz Transport Authority. As I spent more time with him I discovered that along with being an audit lawyer for western companies in Thailand he also ran wholesale cigarettes to Afghanistan and bought and sold buildboards all around Central Asia. Despite being a raving anti-Semite and a self-described Stalinist he turned out to be a remarkably helpful traveling companion. He spoke Russian and Turkic and could read both Cyrillic and Arabic script. He also had a surprisingly good knowledge of the city. For example when I broke a flip flop (the second pair of the trip) he ducked into a non descript alley and yammering in Turkic emerged within a few minutes with a new pair. Don’t get the wrong idea. He was awful and a complete nut. As the evening progressed I’m sure he judged by my silence that I did not agree with his political views and began tempering his opinions by saying things like “I’m not a Holocaust denier but I do think the Holocaust was arranged by the Nazis and high caste Jews to sell Swedish iron ore and encourage Jewish overseas banking” or “I’m not an anti-Semite I have lots of Jewish friends and when they get drunk they tell me how it really is.” Anyway we finally found the hotel surrounded by military personnel and made our way inside. The hotel was one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. It catered to the unique needs of its wealthy Russian merchant clientele including a clinic on the first floor proudly advertising that it could remove facial scars and bruises from women’s faces in a matter of hours. I skipping some shit here but eventually we found ourselves in a hotel room, Russian television blaring, with a few Kyrgyz men (who were awesome, open and charming and provided a good contrast to little Stalin) and somehow dude was able to make his phone call. He even let me call my mommy and tell her I would be out of the loop for at most a few weeks. At this point I was starving and we went to get a bangin dinner of lamb shishkababs, naan bread and yogurt. During dinner dude kept assuring me that Russia was better under Stalin than the US is now. I tricked him and shut him up briefly when I asked how come Russia has never been competitive on a global scale. He replied yelling that in 1914 Russia was the greatest exporter of grain and raw materials in the world. This is true but he had walked right into my trap. I said that then it was shocking how far and how rabidly Russia had fallen in such few years with the introduction of Communism in 1917. This shut him up for about five minute until he explained (?) that this was because Marx and Engles were both Jews and Lenin, Stalin and Gorbechov had all married Jews. When he changed the subject by asking what the problem was with “United States niggers” I had had enough. I responded that “their problem was hundreds of years of slavery, institutionalized racism, and disenfranchisement that continued to this day” and that I was tired and offended and didn’t want to talk to him anymore. We returned to the Hostel in silence. Even without the Nazi something was wrong in Urumqi. The military presence everywhere was subtly morally exhausting. On the way back I saw an old woman puking into the bushes, a young women puking out of a park car, a man slapping a woman in the face and just was were getting home we watched a woman struggle drunkenly as two huge men strong armed her into a Taxi. The Nazi noticed and I thought maybe I would see his humanity come through a little or even see some of that Moscow military training he always bragged about. Instead he turned to me saying “I don’t get it. She’s Ugly. Not worth fighting over” then went back to comparing the prices of Thai Kazak and Russian hookers. I went immediately to sleep after I got back feeling powerless and disgusted hearing the Nazi snoring in the bunk next to me.
The Kyrgyz had planned on taking me to buy train tickets in the morning and wanted to give me his contact info so I could stay with him in Kyrgyzstan. Instead I set my alarm for early and snuck out while he was still sleeping, checked out the room and made my way to the train station. Getting my train ticket was a bitch of long lines and security formalities but it felt great to be free of the Kyrgyz. After I got my ticket I sat down, drank a huge beer (at 11am), ate twenty lamb dumplings and boarded the train feeling like a new man. My pleasure was complete when I discovered I had the berth all to myself. So to sleep! Next stop Kashgar!
Postscript: After Kashgar I was forced to return to Urumqi and spend the next three days there working out visa formalities. On second look, and without the Nazi, I found I really liked it there. It is the farthest place in the world from an ocean but because of it is located near so many trade roots it is ironically registered as a port city. As a result the population is a diverse mix of Kyrgyz, Persians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Russians, Chinese and Uigher. Most signs are in Arabic script, Chinese and Cyrillic. I even ended up staying a few days in the weird Russian Hotel and some friendly Uighers took me out to Hotel nightclubs to celebrate their rose festival (the day after Ramadan). Although I grew to love Urumqi I never figured out the throwing up thing. My second to last day a cab drove by me with a Uigher woman leaning out, holding back her head scarf and vomiting out of the back seat window. The next day before I got on my train a woman at the restaurant where I was eating asked for plastic bags and started puking right there and no one really even looked up… What is up with this place?
Monday, September 7, 2009
Note: Sorry that this post is so long and took such a long time for me to put up. The thing is the Chinese government, in their infinite wisdom, has banned my blogging website (along with facebook, myspace and youtube). So I depend on my lovely girl friend to post what I send her from Africa. So it makes more sense to post long ones every week or so than a bunch of shorties all the time. Haha a bunch of shorties all the time. Helluv an R Kelly song.
Ok. I’ve been in Beijing for some time now and thought it would a good time for another post. I discovered in Hong Kong that my boy Lucky was staying in Beijing for a job interview so I changed my plans of going to Shang Hai and hopped the first bus to the Capital. I was able to move into his hotel room which for some reason was upgraded to a suite so now I’m living large in a big comfy bed, in one of my favorite cities with my best boy at my side. We are having a pretty wild time here. Well, kind of. In reality most days we just eat three HUGE meals. Pretty much every day we hit up the best Indian food I’ve ever had and my favorite spicy noodle and dumpling place in between snacking on fried meat filled pancakes off the street. After gorging ourselves we spend most of the day light hours lying in bed recovering, reading and watching the hotel’s limited DVD collection (Mr. Bean, Australia and X-files 2). By the way if you haven’t seen Australia and have four and a half hours to kill then you should run out and pick it up because it is the strangest film I have ever seen.
I lived with Lucky in Beijing two years ago so there really isn’t anything we need/want to see except for check out our old favorite restaurants and clubs and see some old friends. As it turns out most of my old friends from Beijing have either been deported or killed in a government sweep of drug dealers before the Olympics. Robinson, I hope you made it out homie and are livin large in Lagos. Anyways there are still a few old heads here so we’ve been chillin with them. One of the reasons we’ve been spending so much of our days in bed is because our sleep schedule is completely fucked. The night life here is as wild as ever. For like thirty bucks you can stay out until seven poppin bottles, dancing on platforms surrounded by hundreds of beautiful people under insane laser light shows. The fact that in Beijing shots are sold in groups of twelve can be a little dangerous. Like our first night out when I got separated from my friends at around four am and then came to, closer to noon in the back of a row boat with a Finnish man and an Australian in blond wigs and sweat bands, a Chinese kid who was wearing a huge gold chain and kept saying he was the king of Beijing and a silent smaller Chinese kid in a button down and ray bans who said he was called “Little Dragon”. The two westerners apparently worked for some internet company who payed them to dress up as Scandinavian tennis players and take their picture all around the world. When I cleared my head a bit I discovered that we were surrounded by about five hundred senior citizens dancing and doing their morning exercises. It gets a little bit hazy after that but I do know I made it back to the hotel, slept for about twenty two hours and woke up with about fifteen dollars in US ones in my pocket . To this day I have no idea where the lake was and any Chinese person we ask says a place like that doesn’t exist.
Day before yesterday we decided we had been waking up at four o’ clock still drunk too many days in a row so we decided to treat ourselves. Well, more accuratly Lucky decided to treat me. He has developed quite an infatuation with one of the women who work at the front desk of our hotel so he offered to buy me a massage to get me out of his hair so he could take her out on a date. When I got to the spa place they had a huge menu in Chinese which for the most part I couldn’t understand except for that an inordinate amount of them involved fire in someway. Because I could understand it and also because it sounded most likely not to be any kind of sexy massage I picked the one called “Medical Massage”. I followed an attendant to a back room and was promptly joined by a middle aged man in a lab coat. He told me to leave my clothes on and lay on my stomach and then proceeded to abuse me mercilessly for the next hour. Culminating in the hardest spanking I have ever received (seriously there were tears on the pillow). Then he asked if I wanted to try a Chinese specialty. Thinking he might mean some sort of snackie I said yes and he told me to lie back down. The specialty, it turned involved lighting small fires in weird shaped globular jars before placing them mouth down all over my back. The resulting suction sucked my skin up into twelve or thirteen circular welts and pulled my skin so tight my eyebrows rose into a look of perpetual surprise. After being sucked on for twenty minutes (got em) I went home to find my boy and take a bunch of aspirin. That night we decided we both deserved a little relaxation so we went out to a restaurant I had heard about back in the US and ate what is certainly the most delicious duck I have ever tasted. Words cannot describe this duck. The restaurant is in the Grand Hyatt hotel so after dinner we were both too full to move so we waddled down to the hotel’s health spa and pretending we were guests went for swim in their huge palatial underground indoor pool, complete with Phoenician columns, waterfalls, and fake twinkling stars over head and luxuriated the evening away in their hot tub.
I was supposed to leave here on the fourth but because school is starting now all trains west have been booked up until the eighth so I am finally leaving tomorrow by train to Xian then from there across the vast deserts of western China to Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang province. I don’t know if you’ve been following the news but ethnic tensions are currently boiling over in Xinjiang with riots and people being attacked and sometimes killed in the streets. Xinjiang is home to 8 million Turkic Uighers and the government has aggressively been moving ethnic Han Chinese there for the last decade. The government strictly controls the Uighers and often insinuates that they have ties to Islamic terrorist groups. The Uighers are encouraged to abandon their language and Uigher women of child bearing age are often sent to work in factories in far eastern China to discourage them from reproducing. It is forbidden for Uigher mosques to teach from the Koran. For their part the Han Chinese resent the government quotas for Uighers in schools and work places and say the Uighers lazy and, god forbid, more interested in religion than making money. Last month race based rioting erupted killing hundreds of people and this week Han Chinese marched through the streets of Urumqi calling for the dismissal of the communist governor because he has “failed to protect the Han and punish the Muslims”. The governor went to his balcony to plead with the protesters but to no avail. Five people were killed in the protests and shockingly the Government in Beijing forced the governor to resign. This is the first time anything like this has happened in modern China where the people have risen up and the government has caved to their demands. It is a tragedy and a shame that what finally got the Chinese people to assert themselves politically is a shared bigotry. The mood in China now is actually pretty ugly with the radios often playing racist anti-Uigher comedy routines and commentators saying the Han must band together to protect themselves from the “lazy Uighers” or the “terrorists”. Just this morning I saw a Han Chinese almost gets into a fist fight with a Uigher dried fruit vendor outside of my hotel room. Anyway, I will be in Urumqi the week and will report on what I find there.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Last night I arrived in Hong Kong and decided to stay in a hostel in a part of town I had never stayed in before. Hong Kong itself is booming. I heard from some locals that when the economy tanked the Hong Kongers took all of their money out of the international market and invested it back into Hong Kong. As a result there is construction everywhere and a smile on the faces of all the business types on the metro. Other than that not much seems to have changed. Mandarin seems more prevalent than ever and for the first time my Chinese was more helpful than my English. Also, there is some sort of ad campaign for footcare products in full swing so the subway stations are full of posters of beautiful women and bright eyed men with what look like crippling calauses and blisters. Before leaving on my journey everyone kept asking me what my favorite place in the world was and Hong Kong might be it. It is a crowded, towering and diverse city with a clean and convenient public transportation system and an unbelievably charming ferry. It has a massive, young, attractive, and vibrant English speaking population and some of the best food in the world. It's unfortunate that the entire population might soon be wiped out. You see whereas some hippies may look to nuclear proliferation with apocalyptic terror, in terms of earth shattering catastrophes I only really fear one thing, hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer (and sanitizing wipes, and disinfectant sprays etc.) are turning the human race into antibody-free lambs waiting around for one really bad case of the sniffles that will kill us all. When this happens, mark my words, the Hong Kongers will be the first to go. Here there is hand sanitizer in most stores and restaurants and in every metro stop. Face masks are distributed on street corners as loudspeakers warn you to cover your mouth and avoid anyone who may seem sick. I came to Hong Kong with my usual terrible cough and getting over a bad cold to boot so most people here eye me like I might at any moment stab them and they are considering whether to turn me into the police. If the hand sanitizer thing weren't enough, everything that a person might touch is accompanied by a small notice telling how often it is sanitized. The key pad to get into my building informs passerbys that it is sanitized every two hours, my entire elevator is sanitized every six and the elevator where I ate diner just says "sanitized constantly."
Anyway I digress, after checking in my bags I headed out to get my bearings. To be honest the Valium and on board bloody marys have rendered my memories a little hazy and my notes illegible. I do know that I ventured forth to find the spiciest thing I can eat, in order to clear my head and stuffed up ears, and was promptly menaced by a cross eyed mad man-vagrant dressed in tattered jeans and an "I am a master shotgunner in San Francisco" T-shirt. Eventually I found a noodle house and consumed a bowl of painfully spicy pork noodles. I assume I made my way back to the hostel because when I awoke it was one o'clock in the afternoon and I was safe and sound in my hostel-bed snug in my pj's. At least I thought it was the afternoon until I left my room and found the hostel attendants stretched out of the floor surrounded by pork bones in the pitch blackness. It turns out it was one AM so I went back to bed and watched Chinese infomercials for weight loss tea (odd) and bust enhancing bras (bangin) until the Dim Sum shops opened and I set forth for my first meal of the day. Again I'm skipping a lot but I ate the best Dim Sum of my life for about two hours, bought a map and wondered aimlessly in the 90 plus degree heat for most of my day until five o'clock when I had a meeting with an Asian travel magazine. The meeting went much better than expected and I left commissioned to write three articles on travel in Tashkent, Bishkek and Tehran. To reward myself I went out of my way to the North Point metro stop and walked to the Java cooked food market where I treated myself to a feast of spicy Sechzhuan shrimp, pork lung* braised in Chinese wine and ginseng and about fifty ounces of beer. Then it was back on the metro and to my waiting bed where I am now in a room that can barely contain my smile.
I'm not exactly sure where this blog is going but it should get better as the places I go to get weirder and I get more frightened and confused,
* A quick rant/theory on eating offal: I've discovered that when eating internal organs it is best to refrain from eating more of any one organ than your body already has naturally. When dining and I approach the equivalent of one whole liver or two kidneys I always find myself overcome with a sort of long lasting funny feeling. Not physically sick per se but more like I've been caught doing something naughty. Its as if my body is confused as to whether it is enjoying a meal or receiving a transplant.