The week in Shanghai was a good time. I spent the majority of it in coffee shops with my friend while he worked on his thesis. During the day it was too hot to do much else anyway. At night I had a few drinks with Linda and friends in one of the nice places to have drinks, including a feral bar that sprung up in the pedestrian area outside the house. Nothing too exciting, even thought I did manage to squeeze in an hour of barefoot racquetball with Mathew and Linda.

On the weekend, Mathew’s friend, Cock-Doctor Brad came to town. This gave us an excuse to bag the coffee shops and do something touristy. So we went out to Wuzhen, a historic water-village near Shanghai. The four of us, including Mathew’s wife spent the day walking about the very touristy old town. Between this and the incredible Shanghai Museum I didn’t do much other touristy stuff. We did do some more shopping for fake goods though as the pecker-checker (OK, Brad is actually a Urologist, but with a great sense of humor about his chosen profession) needed some business clothes to visit a local hospital. One more night of great food (food in Shanghai is awesome) and it was off to Xi’an on a high speed overnight train.

This time I was able to get the tickets in advance, so I actually had a bed. That was nice. The train was new and modern and clean, and best of all I got to sleep. Waking up nearly to Xi’an the first thing I noticed was an incredible amount of smog. The locals blame it on the weather, even though the nearby coal plant is clearly one of the culprits. A few hours later, the phantom traveler, my friend from Hong Kong, arrived.

The main reason to come out to Xi’an was that it used to be the former capital of dynastic China. And it is also home to the famous Terracotta Warriors. These make up the army that was to escort Emperor Qin, the first emperor to unify China, into the afterlife. The site is enormous. It is housed in 5 buildings covering the archeological pits, and there are even more pits yet uncovered or undiscovered. This is the largest known burial site for one guy in the whole world. There are thousands of warriors, mostly in formation but some also in meeting rooms and leading horses and whatever else soldiers from so long ago did. They are all life sized and used to have color finish until it was
oxidized after discovery and subsequent exposure to air in the 1970’s. We hired a guide to show us around the main pits, and this was well worth it as the site is so large. In the afternoon we explored some of the smaller pits and went around the gardens surrounding the man-made, pyramid-shaped mountain that is the actual crypt. This is a simply incredible place, a true tribute to megalomania the likes of which are matched by few sites on earth.

The next day, we rented a bike and rode around the walls of Xi’an. When I say around, I really mean on top of. The walls are probably 10 meters thick and 15 meters tall and make a perfect square around the city. I think they are six or eight kilometers in circumference. It was good exercise to ride the bike and made a little more difficult by the smog. But this was a great way to see the old capital. That night we caught an overnight deluxe train to the new capital – Beijing.

If the Terracotta Warriors were an over the top way to celebrate an emperor’s death, then the Forbidden City, AKA the People’s Palace, is an over the top way of celebrating the emperor’s life. The palace is claimed to be the largest palace structure in the world. The difference here though is that instead of being the center of commerce and protection for the city and populace, it was home to just one man and his servants and such. Now it is home to a large painting of Chairman Mao gazing on Tienanmen Square, but that is beside the point. This is the main tourist attraction of China and as such is also maybe the most crowded. Good thing we went on a weekday. The palace is simply amazing. The walls are as big as those in Xi’an, but you are not allowed to ride your bike on them. The interior is divided up into several sub-palaces for different purposes and in between each section are huge courtyards. There is really no way to see all of the Forbidden City. It is incredible and huge and architecturally significant but at the same time it is such a tourist activity that it is hard to convey how interesting it is without sounding like I am trying to describe an amusement park adventure without the rides.

After leaving the forbidden city, it was across the street to Tienanmen Square, center of the Chinese Capital and site of the 1989 protests and resulting massacre. You can tell that the government is still sensitive about this as the square is protected by metal detectors and x-ray machines (ubiquitous in China) as well as more security cameras than I have ever seen, ever, combined even, I am not sure. The square itself is completely empty save a few commie monuments chiselled from seemingly single

locomotive sized pieces of granite at the far end. This is something that only commie artists can do. The highlight of the square, aside from getting to be on TV (security TV that is) was to see the Mile Marker 0, Where all roads begin in China.

As if seeing the Terracotta Warrior, The Forbidden City and the square, Shanghai and Xi’an were not enough in 10 days, the one last thing to see before leaving was The Great Wall. We chose to go to Mutianyu as this is less crowded and a bit more of a hike. On the way we dove off the bus and I forgot my hiking shoes on the bus. Ugh, so mis-sized fake Adidas flip-flops for me.

We met two more people going there in a cab and off we went. We got really lucky with the weather too, it rained the night before and a change of wind direction blew the pollution away and we had beautiful clear blue skies! The Great Wall, or at least this portion of it, is probably the best thing I saw in China. It lies up in the mountains a bit and snakes over the ridge-line from as far as you can see to as far as you can see. We only walked along 6-8 km of it. We took a chair-lift to the wall and started our walk from there. The views are breath taking and the hike up the stairs along the wall is also, well, breath taking.

The wall is only maybe 12 feet wide, but in the restored sections you can walk as on a side walk. At the end you can see some where the wall has not been restored and is instead overgrown. I could not imagine being the first Mongol invader to come upon the wall, what a shock that would be. After a day getting sunburned and worn out, we had a beer on the wall and then rode a luge down to the parking lot.

That was it for China. The next morning we boarded train K3, one of the Trans-Mongolian, Trans-Siberia Expresses, bound for Moscow. Before I talk about that though, I think I am leaving China more enlightened. It has occurred to me that China is no longer a commie regime of Mao’s dreams. There are still nearly a billion people living in poverty but for the ones living in the cities near the coast, where all the goods are made, life could be confused with that of the US. Sometimes, you look around and don’t realize that you are even in a commie country at all, you are surrounded by BMW’s and Buicks (strangely enough). The sense that I got was that the central party is still in charge but only by clinging to some lost idea of communism. Communism falls at an extreme corner of the social-economic spectrum known as government. The other end of the plane being made up by fascism and all other forms (including the republic) lying somewhere in between. What occurred to me is that the right doctrine for China is not on a plane defined only by social and economic management, but instead needs to have another dimension to fully capture what is next for the country. In any case, I doubt it will contain the Central Party in it’s current form.

Meanwhile, back on the train… We decided to take the luxury first class train, which really means that you have a shared shower with the cabin next to you, a chair, and two beds. The train interior is done in fake wood, but according to another passenger who has been riding the train since the 70’s these are exactly how they have always been, except in real wood. We brought a bunch of our own food on the five and a half day train ride, and to reward us the dining car gave us free food the first day. The experience on the train is a pretty straight forward one. I guess it is like any long distance train ride, except longer, way longer. You look out the window and watch the scenery, jump off and run around the stations buying stuff, cross borders, have a few glasses of wine or beer or, in this case, Chinese ethanol. It is a social experience as well, especially since Ulaan Bator, now there are only about 20 people on the 18 car train.

The first landscape leaving Bejing were the mountains that separate it from Inner-Mongolia. The desert came next, and it reminded me a lot of Tri-Cities, complete with tumble weeds. That night we crossed the border into Outer-Mongolia, or just Mongolia as it is known. I woke up early enough to see some real deserted desert but we quickly came into pastures and it gradually got more green, but there is literally hundred of miles of nothing. Nothing but the occasional Yurt. In Ulaan Bator most of the train passengers got off, and this was the station for our first platform sprint. The idea was to get some money and some post cards. We got the money and some weird meat dumplings but no post cards. Then it was straight to Russia.

The border crossing came late that night. It was fairly easy, just the usual searches and paperwork. They let us in without any fuss. We were then able to walk the platform, but this was more to stretch the legs as everything was closed. Strangely, even though Russia encompasses 11 time zones or something like

that, all the train times are set to Moscow Time. This makes logistical sense, but resulted in a 4 hour time change. The last several days have become routine. Trying new food on the platform, searching for some item in the 15 minutes you stop. This is especially fun since I know about 17 words in Russian and can’t read anything. So far though, aside from food, we have procured money, a SIM card for internet, and a few post cards. Somehow though, vodka has eluded me.

The scenery has become fairly uniform too. After another small desert, came Siberia. The highlight of this was the large wind around Lake Baikal. After this came a climb up to the central plateau where the land scape varies between dense Birch forests and wide open farm lands interrupted by Russia’s wrong-direction rivers. The cities are very communist but are lacking the crazy Stalin monuments I heard still stood around out here. The stations are all nice and it all feels very European. Come to think of it, we crossed into Europe just a few hours ago, there was an obelisk marking the point. Now it is down hill to Moscow, we should arrive tomorrow. One last thing, I spend a lot of time window gazing. Russia is beautiful, it reminds me a lot of America, and I sort of wonder how we ended up so different. I can imagine seeing much of the same things, especially the rolling hills, forests, mountains and riverside industrialization if I was crossing the States. Much of that industrialization has gone cold, just like home.

This has been a very busy two weeks since the last post. Most of it is taken up by movement, but when I think about it I am accomplishing a lot of things I have always wanted. Next up, a quick trip through Moscow and St. Petersburg and over to Helsinki. Then Finally down to see my wonderful Slick!