Senior Moments

Definition: Instances when one forgets or fails to deal with something because there are many other things to think about or do at the same timešŸ˜‡šŸ˜˜

I decided to title my blog SENIOR MOMENTS to chronicle the varied events and musings that I, as a senior of seventy-three, am very fortunate to experience. For example; yesterday I participated in my regularly scheduled Tai Chi class, then visited my masseuse for my regularly scheduled Shiatsu session. In between, I made phone calls to discuss my consulting arrangement with the Mental Health Clinic that wants my psychiatric services part-time. I have signed up for these 2-day per week independent contract work periodically to replenish my travel fund. I have just returned from an extended trans-Siberian Railway trip from Moscow to Beijing, and with the holidays just over, my coffer is low. I then had a phone conversation with my banker about the construction loan application he is processing for me, and he got me very frustrated with the minutiae required to establish my credit-worthiness. Banks have knee-jerked in the opposite direction of over-documentation since the mortgage fiasco. And the humans pushing these papers are no longer capable of thinking logically. I am retired, I explain, and no longer working, therefore I have no pay stubs. They already have my IRS returns which details my finances, and they are asking for pay stubs. So I was upset after I hung up and forgot where I placed my reading glasses. I was in another room with them when the phone rang with the banker on the line. I retraced my steps but couldn’t find them. In the meantime, while I was looking for my glasses, I decided to put away my little table Christmas tree, to hibernate in storage until the holidays. I also took my holiday wreath off the door, since that will hibernate in storage too. I then took my trash, since I’ll be passing the trash chute on my way to my storage closet. Not finding my glasses, I went back to my computer to pick up where I left off writing the fate of my heroine, in this historical novel I’m working on for my third book. I used another pair of reading glasses, one of those cheap drug store variety I had all around my condo before my cataract removal. But these did not fit because my vision changed since the surgery. In the evening when I was changing to go out for dinner, I found my prescription glasses in my dressing closet. How they got there, I have no idea.

 

 

FB Share Your Memories Notifications

I was checking my FB page and there was this “share your memory” feed in my timeline from 2012. I was in NYC in the photo, having lunch with my brothers. I like these share memories reminders. It gives me pleasure to remember the past, and if the memory is sad, it gives me another opportunity for healing. This photo with my brothers evokes nostalgia for past holidays. I was in NYC to experience El Dia de los Tres Reyes, the 35th annual parade of the Three Kings in Spanish Harlem. In the Philippines, which shared cultural experience with Mexico and the Americas during centuries of Spanish colonization, January 6, marks the end of the Christmas season. The holiday of Epiphany marks the biblical adoration of baby Jesus by the three Kings, also known as three Wise Men or Magi. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the men found the divine child by following a star across the desert for twelve days to Bethlehem. The exhausting progressive ditty, Twelve Days of Christmas alludes to this journey. Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar — representing Europe, Arabia, and Africa respectively — traveled by horse, camel, and elephant in order to offer baby Jesus with three symbolic gifts. Gold is acknowledgment of Jesusā€™ royal standing as ā€œKing of the Jews,ā€ while the frankincense manifests the divine nature of his existence, since he is not an earthly king but the Son of God. And finally the myrrh, used to embalm corpses, is a symbol of Jesusā€™ mortality — foreshadowing his death in order to cleanse humanity of its sins.

Where I was born in the Philippines, children did not have visits from Santa Claus. I remember we used to hang our stockings outside our window on the eve of the Feast day of the Three Kings, Twelfth Night. We believed Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar came to visit in the night and filled our stockings with candies and small toys, on their way to greet baby Jesus.

I have grandchildren now, and their mother, my daughter, has discontinued the tradition and replaced it with Santa Claus. Inadvertently, I had traumatized her by having The Three Kings bring her gifts when she was little. Upon returning to school after the holidays, she must have felt awful, when everyone shared their presents from Santa Claus, and she had none.

In Spanish Harlem, the religious tradition is celebrated with a grand parade attended by more than 10,000 spectators, costumed participants riding on elaborate floats, giant puppets, school groups and civic organizations, marching bands, and live sheep, horses and camels. Nostalgia moved me to go and relive my childhood memories.

Continuing with FB share memories, I have photos in 2013 of my grand tour of the Philippines. While growing up in the Philippines, I had limited opportunities for travel. I immigrated to the US in 1967. After I obtained a US passport, I began traveling even before I could afford it, and was crisscrossing the world. I thought, I had not really seen the Philippines before I left it, why not be a tourist in my own country? So I promptly made plans to do so which I detailed in my book, Hello, From Somewhere: Stories of the Roads I Traveled, available in my website and from Amazon.com.

For two months in January and February of 2013 I covered the Philippines, from Batanes, the northernmost islands, to Mindanao, the southernmost island. In between I visited, Ifugao and its legendary rice terraces and the hanging graves of Bactad. I toured Ilokandia, Tagaytay, Cebu, Bohol, and Palawan and its surrounding unpopulated small islands and the underground river, and the finale, in depth Manila. I checked the offerings at the Philippine Cultural Center, and was blown away by the superb adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Tres Marias, and a contemporary dance recital by its ballet company. I was very impressed by the art exhibited in the National gallery and the private museums of Ayala, and Yuchengco are expertly curated with a rich collection of pre-Spanish artifacts. I topped my Manila discovery by hiring a calesa to tour Malate, Intramuros, crossed the Pasig river to Escolta, Quiapo, and Binondo, where I got off to join the celebratory crowd for the Chinese New Year of the tiger. Chinatown was stomach to buttock packed with people and it was a mystery to me how they cleared the crowd for the dragon dance to slither on the street. Then children beating cans and drums to a deafening roar visited stores to drive away bad karma. I retreated to an air-conditioned restaurant where the huge reception foyer was lined with dozens of tanks holding various swimming edible sea creatures, that you can select for your meal, cooked any style you desire. Out of this world!

My FB share memories also relives for me that I was in Iceland in 2014, and continued to Lapland in Sweden for a two-night stay in the breathtaking Ice Hotel. I took the trip to experience the aurora borealis, alas, it was not meant to be. Clouds covered the skies throughout my stay and deprived me of this heavenly light display. I returned via London and had an extended stay, to catch the blockbuster shows in the West End, and to check out the Tate Modern. in March, I was in India, Nepal and Bhutan. I then visited Pellicer cousins in Mexico City, then to Puebla, and onto Oaxaca to join friends for the Guelaguetza.

The FB memories of 2015 started with my post that my first book Hello, From Somewhere was ready for publication. As I was traveling in Southeast Asia, I had the galley delivered to my friend’s address, while I proceeded to Bicol to spend the holidays. I wanted to relive my childhood experience of celebrating Christmas in the province. The tradition of simbang gabi or misa de gallo, dawn masses at the crow of the rooster, held nine days before Christmas is still observed and capped by the midnight mass, first mass celebrated on Christmas day. The feast served after the mass, the noche buena, includes ibus, sweet rice and coconut steamed in cylindrical coconut leaf casings, sotanghon, mung bean noodle and chicken, Chinese ham, and queso de bola, aged edam-like cheese, and special fruits, persimmons and pomegranate. The memories recalled during these times in childhood are priceless and detailed in my second book, From Miman, With Love: A Grandmother’s Memoir. The book can be ordered from my website and from
Amazon.com.

After Christmas I took the bus from Naga City in Bicol to Manila, despite warnings of bus breakdowns and kidnappings from dear friends and family. I wanted to see the small towns along the route and the countryside which air travel denies. Regular travelers take the bus all the time and they are fine, so I figured I’d be fine too, and I was just that. The only problem was a 4-hour delay in arrival due to heavy New Year’s Eve traffic. Manila has over the top celebration to greet the New Year. I booked a room at the Heritage hotel where there is a rooftop deck with 360 degree view of the city. The fireworks was all around and lasted for hours after midnight engulfing the metro area in a thick cloud of smoke, and music and dancing were non-stop until dawn. In the morning I flew to Taiwan to join a friend in Tainan, the oldest city in Taiwan. I failed to get off the train, missing my friend, because I slept through the train stop, and then I felt miserable throughout the trip, because I had developed cellulitis from an infected bug bite and had low grade fever, malaise, and stiff neck. I got over it, and had a great time. I returned to Manila, to open a copy of the newly published Hello, From Somewhere. Invited by my friend to use her home as a base to launch my trips, we went together to attend the Ati-Atihan festival in Kalibo, Aklan, where her sister’s in-laws are old members of the original clans who started the festival. We helped decorate and push the family float during the parade. The parades that climax the festival are reminiscent of the carnival in Rio, where colorful costumes, painted bodies, street dancing, hypnotic drum rhythms, and revelry, mark the occasion. It is a hybrid pagan and religious festival celebrated to honor the Santo Nino, the infant Jesus, and the friendship forged between the pre-Spanish settlers from Borneo and the indigenous inhabitants the Ati. From Aklan, we went to Hongkong, then I proceeded solo to Singapore and Macao. Back to Manila then a winding down in the luxurious Tugawe Cove resort in Caramoan, Camarines Sur, where wilderness surrounds it and pristine beaches and islands are visited including the island where the Survivors Reality TV series were filmed.
FB ended my memories there, That’s all for today.

A Trans-Siberian Rail Journey, First Leg: Moscow-Yekaterinburg

First Leg: Moscow-Yekaterinburg, 1876 miles, 26 hours, 2 time zones

Trans-Siberian Railway
Trans-Siberian Railway

I can tell it’s getting colder where I’m going by the state of the birch forest enclosing the railway corridor. They begin to appear as the train exits the concrete jungle of Moscow, and they are everywhere. They grow in clusters like bamboo, with tall, gangly trunks, whitewashed to a sheen and broken by black excoriations where bamboo nodes might be, and like them, they seem to dance gracefully with the breeze. Their leaves are still green and cover a full canopy. Six hours later, in the autumn’s twilight, the leaves have turned to gold, but they still cling to the branches in precarious fashion. In the breeze they flutter like golden coins reflecting the gleam of the setting sun.

Siberia in Autumn
Siberia in Autumn

The train brakes gently to a crawl to its first stop and receives more passengers. There are vendors on the train platform offering besides food, all manner of merchandise; kitsch jewelry, sweat pants, hats, stuffed toys. The summer season is over, the kids have gone back to school, and only the occasional tourist, like me, is on board. I am told, the entire train is nearly empty, even the usually crowded third class coaches. Only three compartments out of nine in my first class carriage are occupied. In one, a couple with a young daughter. In the other a mother and her daughter are going home from visiting relatives in Moscow. They are getting off before the train’s final destination in Yekaterinburg. Thankfully, they speak English and that is a treat on this 26-hour journey of 1816 miles and passing through on one of seven time zones. Though friendly and they help me order my three meals on board and interpret with our carriage hostess, they do not converse freely and respond only to my initiative. I don’t know, is it due to language barrier or is it a Russian characteristic? Perhaps they are more reserved and not accustomed to the easy informality of Americans. Alexei, my Moscow guide, is taciturn, but has no ambivalence on current life in Russia with Putin. He recites without elaboration that Russians approve highly of him and he is very popular among the common people. Putin is going to be another Brezhnev, who provided the people with jobs, housing, free education and medical care. Never mind that Brezhnev presided over the stagnation of the economy and ushered the worst recession. He dismisses Gorbachev and detests perestroika and glasnost, summarily blaming him for the bread lines and Russia’s economic collapse. He dismisses Stalin’s ruthless policies and human rights violations as necessary to build Russia’s power to win the war, “He saved mother Russia from the Germans!”, Alexei pronounces. He notes for me that Moscow has plans to build 200 churches to replace those destroyed during Stalin’s time but he does not see the contradiction in his insistence that the people were free to worship then. I stop. He was born in Moscow 39 years ago, has not traveled abroad, and has not even traveled on the trans Siberian route.

The train is pushing from the station and it’s getting dark. I settle in my compartment and my provodnista, the cabin concierge, prepares my bed for the night. I wobble to the restaurant car, next to mine and eat my dinner of desiccated fried pork and boiled flavorless elbow macaroni garnished with three crunchy cucumber slices. I ask for lemon slices from a picture to improve the flavor, and order beer from a picture to wash the dry meal down. The waitress does not bother to try to understand what I am saying, until I find a way. The service people I encounter are uniformly unhelpful. On the metro they scowl and wave me away and withdraw eye contact. I get around by choosing passers-by and most go out of their way to help me. Not much has changed in this regard from my encounter with petty bureaucrats in 1986. Anyone with any authority at all, no matter how small, acts like a Napoleon.

But a lot has changed.

The USSR is no more. Capitalism is in. Gone are the empty shelves at GUM, the palatial department store next to Red Square. Designer fashion fills its spaces. Gone are the food lines. Imported cheeses, juicy meats abound in well-stocked supermarkets. Sushi is in fast food and fine restaurant menus. Cafe society is thriving, and the bar scene rocks. There are homeless people, there are beggars. There is unemployment. Gone are the giant banner portraits of Lenin flapping on building facades. History is being rewritten, there is movement to bring the new history to schools. Michael Jackson has a statue in Yekaterinburg, rap music is all over. But still the more things change, the more they stay the same. CNN is blocked and real journalists disappear. There are certain industries that masquerade as innocuous businesses whose locations do not get shown in maps. While some rules can be flaunted, like playing loud party music and ignoring police if called, there are lines drawn and people are careful not to cross them; public criticism of Putin, for example.The Russian Orthodox church is gaining ground and no one knows where it will lead. My Yekaterinburg guide, Vadim, has more complex comments than Alexei, reflecting his different position in society. He is an entrepreneur who owns his travel business, has traveled abroad extensively and has a wide network of contacts, and many friends who emigrated to Europe, the US, and the UK. He pays attention to world events and understands politics. His patriotism is derived from the rivalry between Yekaterinburg and Moscow, and his belief that his state is the heart of Russia, and the next leader will come from its ranks. I must not forget to get his contact information and invite him to Atlanta and to make sure he remembers me. He is going places. Perhaps a generous tip will do?

Second Leg: Yekaterinburg-Irkutsk, 49 hours, 2158 miles, 3 time zones

Oh my! I am surprised to find a man sleeping in my compartment when I board my train to Irkutsk at 3:50 am. I had sole occupancy on the first leg of my journey and thought that the single supplement fee I paid included my train accommodation. First class berth is a double, my single supplement only applies to hotel rooms. I should have purchased two tickets to have exclusive use, which I didn’t figure out beforehand. Hmm, this will be an adventure, I better brace myself.

Morning in Siberia
Morning in Siberia

The provodnista is nice. She switches on the reading light on my side of the compartment and helps me get settled. The man across me rolls over in his bunk with a grunt and ignores the intrusion. I do not pack my pajama in my overnight satchel as I assume I will be alone, oh well. I pull off my clothes and slip under the covers in my underwear. The provodnista tells me he is getting off in Omsk, 6 hours away. I am half asleep when he gets off. I don’t even see his face. I get up and rearrange my things and finally I am alone. At 11 am a young man in a business suit gets on and occupies the vacated bunk. He speaks a little English, that is welcomed. He is getting off at Krasnoyarsk. That means he’ll be with me overnight. He only responds to my initiative in conversation. After I find out that he is a salesman of some heavy equipment manufactured in China, and lives outside of Moscow, but travels regularly to the industrial centers in Siberia I leave him alone. He isn’t curious about anything or me at all. I feel snubbed! He is at his smartphone the rest of the day. I guess he is working while on the rails. I have a late lunch in the dining car and read until bedtime. Thankfully, he does not exude armpit odor when he settles under covers in his t-shirt and briefs. When he disembarks the next day, he wishes me safe travels. He didn’t snub me after all. Russians are taciturn.Then a short, jolly, round Russian comes on board to replace him. He beams at me and speaks as if I understand him. I don’t think he understands me either, but he keeps the prattle. He is a veteran rider. He asks me to step outside, while he changes into comfortable loose clothing and slippers. And he continues talking to me. I gather he has visited New York and Miami and Disneyworld. He shows me pictures of his mother, daughter and granddaughter. He doesn’t show me a picture of his wife until much later. He is getting off at the Manchurian border, in Chita, after Irkutsk. Groan! He gets off the train at each stop to smoke and buy food, and keeps offering me. I accept a banana to respect the custom of sharing food on the train. I sigh relief when night comes, but that is worse. He snores like the roar of Niagara Falls with quivering hisses and expulsion of air. To add to the cacophony the guy in the next compartment joins the rumble. I am tempted to pour the bottle of water on him. But I can sleep in the middle of a parade so I wake up the next morning with the provodnista knocking to announce that my station is coming up next. My jolly good fellow is giving me commentary on the scenery, and telling me when to take photos. As the train comes to a stop he insists on carrying my luggage and endorses me to my tour transfer guy. In retelling this tale, I will summarize that I slept with three men in one night on the train.

Asia-Europe Border
Asia-Europe Border

Third Leg: Irkutsk/Lake Baikal to Ulan Bator, 1297 miles, 26 hours, no time change

Checkhov pronounced Irkutsk the Paris of Siberia when he first laid his eyes on this city by the river Angara. It might be a stretch to imagine that after the Soviets did their sweep of all that it stood for in the past. Stalin leveled the magnificent orthodox Cathedral of the Blood, the biggest in Russia, and only its belfry remains today. The Church of the Epiphany, with its ceiling and walls covered with brilliant frescoes was painted over and its iconostasis dismantled and reused as crates. All the other churches met the same fate. Irkutsk, tolerant of all religions then, had a gothic Catholic cathedral, and there were mosques and synagogues, all with their distinctive architecture. Stalin also demolished the traditional wooden houses, with their painted shutters and filigreed window frames. He replaced them with utilitarian boxy Soviet mass housing and his public buildings were poured from the same cast, a hybridized classical style built with massive proportions and arose from the destruction of everything associated with Russia’s Tsarist and christian orthodox past. It’s monuments and statues were toppled and upon their rubble, Lenin and other Soviet idols were installed. Today, in its bid to jump onto the lucrative tourism bandwagon, Russia is trying to bury its recent ignominious past by reclaiming its old glory in the distant past. Demolished cathedrals, palaces, and rich merchant mansions are being rebuilt. Fortress-like work, shopping, and residential spaces are being replaced by open squares and gardens, pedestrian shopping malls and open streets. Cafe and bar culture is thriving, and consumer goods overflow from store shelves, that even those who lived through the repressive years have forgotten what that was like. That past is past, we don’t have to bring it up. Let’s bring on the Tsars and the church and make money off the tourists and reestablish ourĀ reputation and supremacy. Irkutsk may reclaim its fame yet as the Paris of Siberia.

What cannot be replaced once destroyed is the land. Siberia is where the Soviets focus their development efforts to catch up with western Europe and the USA and to translate its ideology. Its great rivers are Ā dammed, its path diverted to irrigate parched lands, subsistence family farming is replaced by collective agriculture. Coal and oil and minerals are extracted from the earth’s core and waste poured into lakes and rivers, changing the biological balance of the environment drastically. Siberia’s permafrost is melting and if nothing is done its cities may soon be floating on the ice. The Tran-Siberian railway is witness to these industrial cities that line its route, from Moscow, in western Europe to Vladivostok in the east.

Russia’s territory overwhelms. Near Irkutsk is Lake Baikal, the biggest and deepest fresh water lake in the world. It can hold all the Great Lakes of north America easily. Thankfully its sheer size is able to withstand its industrial abuse, and with its UNESCO World Heritage protected designation, its pristine grandeur can be preserved for subsequent generations to marvel at. And marvel at I do.

As the train rounds the southeastern shore of Lake Baikal, the track follows it so close, you can almost touch the water. Its water is like crystal, the visibility is clear up to a depth of forty feet. The lake area is a popular Ā destination for hiking, camping, fishing, all manner of outdoor activities. Fishing on Lake BaikalWhen the temperature gets down to below freezing, visitors warm up with a Russian banya. Naturally, I must have it and my B&B offers it. I roast in a sauna wearing a felt hat to protect my head from the intense heat. After sweating, I am thrown into an outdoor freezing pool and rewarmed in the sauna. Nikolai, my B&B host and banya guide, wearing his organ-clinging brief swimming trunk, takes a clump of birch branches moistened in very hot water, the banny venik, and hits me firmly with it, from head to toe. The flogging is supposed to improve circulation and to reinvigorate. This sequence is repeated as tolerated. I give up after one sequence. Ā Nikolai leads me to another hot room where he pours warm water over me and covers me with lavender suds and scrubs me until I am tingly all over. I rinse and step off the sauna. I ask Nikolai to pour me a shot of vodka and I sleep great.

Snow-capped but slowly melting with development
Snow-capped but slowly melting with development

For hours on end looking out the window, the vast expanse of Siberia unfolds. The thick forest of birch trees, the symbol of Russia, lines the railway corridor, first in full autumn colors of sunny gold on pristine white trunk and branches. Gradually the bottom leaves have fallen, leaving skeletal white branches holding the golden crown, and then the trees are naked and ghostly in their white bodies. imageAs the train hurtles forward, these trees are incrementally replaced by conifers. The mesmerizing blur of gold and white is darkened by the green of spruce and pine, and later when the birch disappears the deciduous larch conifers replace the buttercup yellow of birch with its own autumn golden mustard glow.

After eight hours we stop at Ulan Ude, the last major train junction. There are many trains in both directions passing through, long chains of iron boxes carrying the bounty of Siberia to the world. A train passes next to us blocking our view for minutes. I counted more than forty-five metal tube tankers linked together like a tennis bracelet, ferrying oil, almost a mile long. Another four hours and we reach the Russian border at Naushki. Border police mounts the train in full regalia. We are ordered to remain in our compartments. My visa is scrutinized menacingly. Flashlight is shined on my face and my visa photo and my passport photo checked against my visage. All the numbers in my documents are checked for agreement. Then an unsmiling scrutiny of my face and photos again. Then another appears, orders me to step out and mounts my berth and upturns lids and whatever is up in the ceiling, looks under the seat, shakes the walls, checks the coat closet and sink/shower room, flashes light in every nook and cranny. He leaves without any acknowledgment, but his dusty footprint on my comforter. I assume inspection is over but I am deterred from reentering by another, leading a sniffing dog. We are at the border for 110 minutes.

After Ulan Ude the landscape gradually loses the trees and bronzed low shrubs and undulating brown grassy pastures that looked like windswept dunes in the distance appear. Rivulets slash the terrain here and there and grazing cows and sheep materialize from nowhere transforming the desert into a bucolic scene.

Siberia towards the Mongolian border
Siberia towards the Mongolian border

I have exclusive use of my double berth first class train compartment, thankfully. We are using an obviously older train that still shovels coals to keep the water on the communal samovar heated. The brocade upholstery and curtains have lost their brilliant colors, and the shared shower-vanity closet between two compartments has mildewed grouts and smells of urine, despite a toilet. I ask it be cleaned, but the odor remains. Unlike the Russian female provodnistas, who are clean-freaks, their male Mongolian counterparts are laid-back. This trans-Mongolian train can use a thorough vacuuming and scrubbing and refurbishing. I also have to make my bed but thankfully, the linen provided are crisply ironed and spotless. As the train chugs towards Suhe Bator, the Mongolian border, ice-peaked mountains frame the horizon before darkness obliterates the view. But not before I am treated to a dazzling display of pink, lavender, and orange swoosh of sunset against blue sky and cottony cirrus clouds.

Mongolian customs agents board the train. One looks in on me, smiles and hands me an immigration document to fill up. Another stops to collect my passport while I am still completing the document, signs he’ll return for the paper, and smiles and waves good bye. A flustered young female agent, looking smart in her uniform, apologizes and hands me a customs declaration to complete and asks if I have any drugs. I show her my Benicar antihypertensive and Calcium pills, and she says that’s OK, and sorry, collects both my papers and says goodbye with a smile. Later, the first guy returns and hands me my passport. The train maneuvers to switch the dining car. The two ladies from Denmark in the adjoining compartment, who I share the sink/shower closet with, have not eaten dinner yet, and it is past 11 pm. I am smarter and have dinner in the Russian dining car before we arrive at the border. After 105 minutes, the Mongolian diner is attached and we are on our way. Overnight on the train and I awake to the glimmer of dawn outlining the mountains surrounding Ulan Bator, and the night sky twinkling with the brilliant light of Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus. As the train decelerates to the station, the sky bursts in pinks, soft oranges and golden yellows of morning.image

Fourth Leg: Ulan Bator to Beijing, 1209 miles, 28 hours

Mongolia
Mongolia

Thirteen hours of unrelenting Mongolian steppe landscape unfolds, a rolling valley of bronze grass broken by random little villages of gers and industry. There are gaping slashes of the land, from abandoned sand quarries.

Ger hospitality
Ger hospitality

There is a parallel road running alongside the tracks, but rarely do I see any car or truck on it. The land looks barren but there are herds of sheep, cows, horses, and occasional yaks grazing.

Mongolian Village
Mongolian Village

A flock of small bluish birds suddenly burst flying from a brush cover, disturbed by an unseen threat, the train perhaps? Beyond the presence of man’s habitation, encouraged by the mobility of the train track and the road, lie an ocean of brown grass as far as the eye can see, to infinity, beyond the horizon.Mongolian steppe

Nomad Shepherd
Nomad Shepherd

You lose direction, there is no landmark to orient your space. The train chugs along, a marvel of conquest of this vast land, even in these modern times.

Aliens on the Steppe
Aliens on the Steppe

I imagine how this trans-Mongolian iron horse looks from space, if visible at all. And I am transported by the romance of Chingiss Khan and Kubla Khan who with mere horses and arrows ruled an empire spanning all of Asia and Europe in the 13-14th centuries, the largest contiguous land empire in the history of the world. Scholars have theorized that the Mongols’ success in conquests was due to a superior communication network, the Yam, a series of courier posts relaying a medieval pony express system. A Mongolian rider can deliver a message traveling 200 miles a day, and be relieved by another rider at these relay stations to continue the journey, non-stop. Today, every Mongolian holds this network in a smartphone in his hand.

In the shadow of Chingiss Khan
In the shadow of Chingiss Khan

On this last leg of my journey, a young man shares my double, de luxe class compartment. He speaks excellent English and he is gallant enough to exchange my top bunk with his lower bunk. My travel agent purchased my train tickets and didn’t pay attention to bunk arrangements. This train is much newer with more room and an ensuite shower, sink and toilet that is not smelly! Michael was born in Ulan Bator, an only child of parents who worked in the US, but returned home five years ago. He lived in Las Vegas and California as a teen and went to high school there. He is 21 years old, still in college studying history, and travels often whenever he has the money, to Moscow and Beijing, where Mongolians do not require a visa. He says he has a US green card and likes to visit again but he can’t afford the travel. At our parting I give him the rest of my MNT, 15,900 Mongolian Tugrik, about $8. He seems to have a touch of Asperger’s in the way he is alienated from his peers and the way he twitches in his expression whenever he gets animated by his favorite subject, a preoccupation with the physiognomy of the different races and ethnic groups. He challenges me to tell a Slav from a Mongol, Korean from Japanese, a Turk from a Khazak, etc. I get bored quickly and I allow myself to be mesmerized by the passing view.

Turtle Rock
Turtle Rock

After thirteen hours we are at Dzamynude, the Mongolian border, where we stop for 105 minutes for customs check. Half an hour later we arrive at Erlian at 9pm, the Chinese border, where we pause the journey for 260 minutes for passport processing, to switch dining cars and to change the train wheel-sets, bogies, to China’s narrower gauge tracks. We are not allowed off the train. The train is taken to a shed and separated into two. Then each car is hoisted up by powerful jacks, passengers with it and all, its wheels removed and a different set reinserted. We experience sudden jolts and clunks and gnashing of iron rails and wheels, and after three hours we are chug-chugging along on our new set of wheels at 1:20 am. My young man sleeps in his top bunk through it all. There is pitch darkness outside my window. The heavens with stars twinkling do not have enough brightness to illuminate the Gobi desert and the Great Wall into view, as well, the moon is just a sliver of a crescent swoosh in the sky. I awake to the dawn at 6:30 am and gradually the varied landscape of the Chinese countryside unfolds. There are ice-peaked mountains in the horizon, green valleys in autumn colors, golden wheat, red-leaved and orange trees, flowers, vines burdened heavily with grape clusters, cascading waterfalls, winding rivers and wind-swept hills, badlands and gorges.

Chinese landscape
P Chinese landscape

Chinese landscape

The sun soon bursts with explosive energy and the air is warm. My young man wakes up, does his morning ablutions while I have breakfast of scrambled egg. He declines my invitation, says he will have a McDonald’s at our stop. Beijing is announced, the final destination of my trans-Siberian rail journey, from Moscow, 6540 miles.image

Red Square, Moscow
Red Square, Moscow