Back in Beijing, will arrive back in WA 30 minutes before I left tomorrow morning, or something like that. The triumphant return to Mongolia was awesome - we braved an intense Siberian cold front turned blizzard, Dan saved the lives of six Mongolians, and one of our horses went lame. No problem, we sold him for meat - that isn't exactly true - but I wouldn't be suprised if he turned out that way soon. My horse was named Oatis but I called him Car 55 and we got along great. Didn't bite, didn't kick, and when he spooked and ran away at full speed with all of my earthly belongings one afternoon he only made it three quarters of a mile before stopping to feed. There were other mis/adventures but at the moment I'm thinking of food. That reminds me, when we made it back to civilization the three of us promptly prepared three dozen deviled eggs and wolfed them down in a disgustingly delicious frenzy. And now, I'm headed home, or the closest thing I can call home - Salmon Beach - for four days before heading up north. Would love to hear what people are up to, send word to 828-361-6055, and be well...
Location: Muron, Mongolia
We're a day away from embarking on the epic horse trip that I've been preparing for over the last eight + months. I'm travelling with two pacrim students and we've been busy in UB and here in Muron getting our gear together for the cold trip into the mountains. Alot of our gear we're making ourselves - saddlebags fashioned out of Chinese military surplus backpacks, horseblankets made from handpounded ger (mongolian yurt) felt, hobbles made from old dog collars etc. We've also been retrofitting our tack to blend the best elements of mongol and western riding accessories, changing out bits and repairing/replacing a lot of the rawhide on our used Russian saddles. My favorite so far is the leggings I've cut, sewn and riveted together out of half a bull hide from the Black Market in UB.
It was dumping snow in UB when we landed a week ago and it snowed there again yesterday. Spring comes a month late in the area of Mongolia where we're headed but it's been a mellow winter and our prospects are looking good. We'll be on the lookout for earth's largest species of salmonoid, the taimen, while enroute. So much more to write, but am going for afternoon ride to the river.
Will check in in a few weeks when I return...
Location: Beijing, China
With only two days remaining on my contract here in Asia I feel its time to start tackling those eternal questions that arise in a time of major transition. What has it all meant? What does it all mean? etc. Traveling tens of thousands of miles over, around and through the Asian continent with a group of twenty-four people has meant a unique set of living and traveling conditions for all of us, but we in turn, as a group, have more than any other single element shaped or framed each others experiences throughout this trip. What else could one expect by sharing so many new places and new types of people with an anarchist minstrel, an intellectual spiritual redneck, a swing dancing vegetarian, a hippie-dancing mountain climber, a Tibetan sage, a romantic writer, an Alaska-grown girl, an aspiring geneticist, several ambitious litigators-to-be, an Okie who thrives on awkward an uncomfortable situations and a trash talking east coaster, among others. To say we always operate as a well greased traveling machine would be slightly misleading, but considering the variety of trying situations weve been in together and the fact that some of these students had limited or no international travel experience going into it, weve come a long way. Pacrimmers will leave as travel veterans, not so much as tourists. Impressive.
The UPS students who make up this years Pacrim are an eclectic bunch, to say the least, and have made this trip an overwhelming success thanks to their courage, curiosity, and unwavering sense of wonder at experiencing first hand and in depth the sights, sounds and smells of this fascinating place we call Asia. Suffice it to say that I will always remember them for who they were and what they have become, and I thank them all for allowing me to work for and along side them through the rollercoaster ride of intensity that has been the last eight months. All the respiratory infections, cysts, head trauma, amoebic infections, food poisonings, motion sickness, viral infections, sleep deprivation, worm scares, dehydration, blisters, not to mention a full spectrum of gastrointestinal disorders weve faced together could ever pull us apart. And then there were the happier times too...
As for my own personal, albeit unsolicited impressions of what this trip has taught me, I feel an overwhelming need to write and speak in sweeping generalities, as the overall scope of this trip makes it difficult to do otherwise. Driving: roads in Asia are meant to be driven on, by whatever means available; they are not there for stifling regulations, restrictive laws, or any semblance of order. Chaos is the only rule, and it's scary/fun as hell - Hayduke would be proud. Music: Asia loves the Eagles, and the song Hotel California in particular. I have heard it over and over in every country Ive visited and in an infinite variety of ways. Id be happy to never hear it again in fact. Food: Street meat on a stick is king in Asia. The food here is awesome, both in how it tastes and what is available or considered fit for human consumption. In China you can eat literally any part of any land animal, sea creature, fowl, amphibian, and insect that you can think of. Everything from the claws up to the beak is fair game when you order chicken, which brings up my next observation... Resourcefulness: More is done with less here, especially by those who manage to eek out an existence despite impoverished conditions that simply do not exist in the states. I have been consistently impressed by the ingenuity displayed by countless numbers of people who simply reuse what is available to better their lives and those around them. Witnessing this imaginative spirit in action has been the best part of this trip for me. Humanity: much like everything else I just wrote this is vague and overly broad, yet I can think of no other way to describe this most stirring aspect of Pacrim. Humanity washes over and floods you at every turn on this continent, except high on the Mongolian steppe. The inordinate number of people here, the disconnect between hyper rich and super poor, the lives of several billion people assaulting your senses
it can be too much to handle some times. Both inspirational and heartbreaking, it will take me the rest of my life and beyond to sort out how and why we have come to live the way we do.
And now what? I have three noble steeds waiting for me in Mongolia and the plane tickets to get me there. I have a brief stop planned at Salmon Beach. I have a summers worth of work and play in Alaska to look forward to afterwards. Are there three better places on Earth to further debrief this trip? I think not. As for all of you, thanks for checking in. Im planning adding to this site throughout the summer so stay tuned if youre into it. I look forward to seeing you all when I get back stateside, but I might be hard to catch until at least mid September. More to come but until then, keep your powder dry and your passport current.
Location: Beijing, China
Time is running short here on Pacrim and many of the students are beginning to smell the proverbial barn, especially now that their theses are handed in. It's been a good run so far and everyone is busy making plans for the future, which is understandable considering how difficult it is to venture out of doors here in Beijing. I know I have mentioned them before but the duststorms that sweep through this city are unlike anything I've ever experienced. Every other morning or so the city is blanketed in a fresh coat of fine reddish dust that kicks up again at the slighest breeze - cars, windows, streets, vendor stalls, everything is covered, including the eyeballs, inner nostrils and lungs of any living things caught out in it. How Beijing secured the '08 Olympics is beyond me, unless they plan to host all events in climate controlled indoor facilities.
The duststorms aside, I'm still trying to figure out how this country works. I've learned and experienced some interesting things, one being that every country in Europe (in addition to Canada and the US) spends a higher percentage of their GDP on social services than China does, in effect making all the them more socialist than this officially communist state. Capitalism is the fuel powering China's growth and everyone wants a slice of the pie. It's true that a remarkable number of Chinese have risen out of abject poverty under the free market system but with increased affluence has come increased consumption that you can see everywhere. My favorite part is the $60 billion knock-off industry that thrives here like no where else in Asia, catering to westerners and Chinese alike. Greed superceeding ethics, the central flaw in this system, makes it possible to pick up the 32 full-length high-quality feature films that make up the nicely packaged Coen Brothers and James Bond DVD boxsets for under $35. Suprisingly, or maybe not so suprisingly, this market brings in the same amount of revenue each year as all the foreign direct investment in China combined. Hard to believe, but true, even when itellectual property rights are "officially" protected by the constitution - along with the freedom of speech, assembly and a littany of other more less ignored guarantees.
It's not all bitter dust here though - the next few weeks hold a trip the Great Wall which I'm really looking forward to as well as the final gathering of all the guys on this trip for something we refer to as a Mandate. Previous Mandates have been fun, and we're hoping to trump them all with a final blowout. Alright, that sounded weird. I'm also finalizng my return trip to Mongolia for a month on horseback when the program ends. Thinking of you all too, hoping all is well. more pictures to come...
Location: Beijing, China
It didn't take long to see results in Thailand afterall. One day after "winning" national elections the ravaged Thai PM stepped down, acknowledging the will of (mainly urban) Thais and probably heeding the advice of the king. It's kind of strange to transition from such a widely accepted display of civil protest in Bangkok to the expanses of Tienanamen Square in a relatively short period of time, where, suffice it to say, gatherings of that sort can bring big trouble. Tienanamen Square is the largest square in the world, capable of fitting over 600,000 people, and it's flanked by Mao's mausoleum on one side. My time there was short so I plan on going back soon, alone, to see what else I can make of it besides having visions of tanks rolling through it.
So far being back in Beijing has been bittersweet, but mainly bitter. Beijing recently surpassed Mexico City as the most polluted city on the planet and you can damn near stare at the noon day sun without shutting your eyes. Frequent dust storms - the result of extensive clearcutting dating back to the revolution - are known to sweep across the city this time of year and you can taste, smell and feel it everytime you go outside. That and there's a twelve lane superhighway less than 100 feet from where I'm living. I have no fear though - being in the politcal capital of a nation with more than 3000 years of history will prove fruitful one way or the other as I struggle to better understand this country that mystifies me so. Perhaps I need to go visit Mao and have a face to face. Here's hoping all is well stateside.
Location: bangkok, Thailand
Northern Thailand is on fire, literally, and the political climate that I've returned to in bangkok is no cooler. I'm back from a week in the mountains which were undergoing their annual burn, supposedly to clear brush and make way for new shoots although i could find no one to explain the exact thought processes behind this practice. No landscape was left untorched, from mountain rice fields to steep remote valleys and ravines. "It's always done this way" was the typical response to my queries. Good enough. There were crews working the fires everywhere, some dedicated to the lighting, some to the fighting, and most just to the watching. The hazy air and raging brushfires made hiking tricky so I spent most of my time hozzling monster catfish on light tackle and caving near the myanmar border. All in all a top notch 'spring break', complete with rocky mountains-in the summer-sunsets.
Now things are heating up in Bangkok too. I'm not sure how much of this is being reported by the McNews press corps back home but Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, is going over some major rough ground with its Prime Minister. People are pissed. Although protests have been going on for weeks now there have been two gigantic congregations right around the corner from me in the past two days of 100,000 + strong. There's a littany of issues involved -corruption, cronyism, election fraud, monarchal interventions, strikes, economic disruption - the works. It's pretty awesome to see the people flexing their rights, but as is too often the case the power players on the other end seem to be playing a waiting game that can only be advantageous to themselves. It will be interesting to see what happens next... Tonight: red-eye to Beijing one day later than the rest of the group on account of a lost Chinese visa and US passport by one of our students. I can't help but wonder - will there be jackbooted Red army soldiers waiting for me upon my arrival? Have they tossed the elephant teeth or have they been waiting for my return to nab me? Hope you all are doing well, send word to china but watch what you say and how you say it...
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Being back in SE Asia means that my two month experiment in vegetarianism has come to an end. I could have eaten meat in most parts of India but the vegetarian food there was so damn good that I didn't really have to. Brimming bowls of palak paneer will be missed, but I must admit it's good to back where meat on a stick is prevelant. As far as food goes, some of you will be interested in the fact that I have learned to embrace spicy food as an important part of my diet, not that I really had a choice. For years even mild picante sauce was temperature-wise too hot for me but in India I learned that spice can mean intense flavor, not just intense heat. Lovers of bland food know this: you are severly outnumbered in Asia and don't stand a chance of surviving here without some level of conversion. Embrace it as I did, and you won't reget it.
Spring break started a few days ago - something that I never thought I'd really get to enjoy again - and the students are scattered all around the eastern hemisphere. After this long it's nice not being on the road with 24 people, but I'm eager to bail on Bangkok and head up the mountains in the north of the country near Myanmar. I'll get to spend a week up there exploring after finishing up duty here in the capital. Bangkok is like most cities I guess, and although it's a hell of a lot cleaner than anywhere I went in India, there's a seedy quality to it and vice is prevelant. So are wasted tourists. Today - boat ride on the canals downtown, tomorrow - boat ride somewhere else.