English translations by Isabel Ottlewski
Take-A-Walk – an idea arisen from current social contradictions and actions. An age of fomented xenophobia and exploiting fears in order to take advantage of economical and political interests.
His superordinate thesis reads as follows: “We have more things in common than divide us.” This conclusion means to convey confidence and gain insights for the “foreign parts”.
A photographic and cinematic documentation catalogued and edited after his return home. Let us follow his traces together:
- Jan Wohlleben
- 11 August 1987 in Rostock
- Sport Manager
- a round-the-world trip, as far as possible without going by plane
- a documented journey by photography and film
- getting back home safe and sound
What is the importance of photography during your journey?
- It’s a great medium to capture moments, moods and memories. At the same time you can let loose with camera equipment, try a lot and be creative. It offers the great chance to share experiences with relatives and friends.
Whenever you choose one way, you decide against all other ways at the same time.
So now is the time to follow this one path I wanted to go for a long time. At the beginning, I do not know how the road will look like of course. I do not know if it will be wide or narrow, solid or slippery, straight or full of curves. But that is exactly what excites me, to go off and explore.
Am I free from expectations,
To what is before me,
Then I drift,
I am with all my senses at this moment,
Appreciate the value,
Which affects me.
Let’s take a walk.
Neubrandenburg – Tallinn (August 2, 2016 – August 13, 2016)
With the door of August 2nd, 2016 at the wall calendar, the day has come, which I have chosen for the start of the great journey. However, even with all the preparation, I am not prepared to sort out and rearrange my bag again this morning. ... continue reading
... I realize that every additional pound I take with me, will bother me every day. Some things are necessary though, for either going through the landscapes, to and from the sea or into the mountains and through the deserts. In addition, there is the film and photo equipment. I think I could have easily planned two more weeks of preparation, but somehow I also realize that I will never feel 100% prepared and I just have to go. Fortunately enough, I'm not alone at the beginning. André will take the chance and accompanies me to Saint Petersburg. Hannes, another friend called me two days ago, said: "I’m coming with you to Tallinn." So we are standing in my parents' living room, looking at the battlefield of clothes and equipment which either have to fit in the backpack or need to be sorted out.
When the bags were packed, André, Hannes and I, decided that due to the advanced time of the day and due to the fact that we are three guys, it will not be easy to hitch hike. Therefore, we will take the train to Stettin. Now it's time to say goodbye to “Mamuchka” and “Vaddi”- my parents. The two hide their fears in front of me. They don’t want me to start my journey sadly. I can do the whole “saying goodbye” thing pretty good. The dull feeling in my stomach usually comes a few days later.
Than we are at the railroad in Neubrandenburg, Germany. There is already the first problem: rail replacement traffic via bus. However, this is the only unpredictability and so we are looking forward to Stettin. We will be staying at an AirBnB accommodation.
The next day, we take the train to Gdansk. We enjoy stretching our heads out of the moving train, letting the wind play with our hair and with our eyes squinting, we take a deep breath of the upcoming adventure.
The train ride is unspectacular and so we arrive in Gdansk. Wow, this is a beautiful city. The Augustus markets run through the streets of the city center and there are various regional delicacies and treasures everywhere. Right away, we are noticing huge pieces of bread with lard and cheap antiques. With a harbor walk and a relaxed beer at the Ulitza Mariacka, the most beautiful street of the city center, our day ends. It is worth mentioning that on this day we get to know two sides of the people in Gdansk. Looking for our accommodation, Goisa noticed we were lost and helped us immediately. She was very friendly. Even though she was under time pressure, she helped us for almost an hour until we got to our accommodation. On the other hand, we met a young man at the port who asked us for cigarettes. When he realized that we were Germans, he mentioned just how bad it would be in Germany with all the refugees. That Merkel must be crazy, to invite these “criminals”. We mentioned that we do not feel his way. We are even proud that our society is helping people in need. We also enjoy living in a country characterized by diversity and tolerance. With a disbelieving glance, he said that he was glad that the Polish government did not let anyone in. On our question of what he would recommend us to eat in Gdansk, he says that the best Doner Kebab is around the corner.
It is August 4th, after breakfast, we are going to the European Center of Solidarnosc. So far I have never heard of it before. I must have slept through that history lessons. How a protest of Gdańsk shipyard workers developed in to a movement that in the end installed a new Polish country leader and nonviolently fought for human rights is simply impressive. It encourages to reflect. This museum is an absolute must if you are in Gdansk. Especially the Pope John Paul II room at the end has deeply touched me. With all the impressions of the museum in our head, we are taking the ferry to the Hel Peninsula. There we are setting up our camp for the night behind the dunes and enjoy the first night in the wilderness. As we walk the beach at dusk, we discover a beach bar with a summer cinema. There we meet Martyna and other stranded travelers. We invite them over to our camp and listen to their stories. They tell us about their journey from Spain to Poland without any money.
On the following day, we decide to move on due to the weather getting worse. We are taking the night bus to Vilnius. Right before leaving, Adam from Northern Ireland jumps into the bus. Also Pilar from Argentina and Laura from Italy are sitting next to us. After a short time an interesting conversation develops. Laura talks about her former job as an editor. One of her writers even received a Nobel Prize for literature. But after the financial crisis the publishing house had to cut jobs. Now it is a new challenge for Laura to work as a teacher with children. Adam, on the other hand, tells us how he experiences the Brexit. He works in Manchester and wants to stay there, but he is sure that the Brexit will not be beneficial to his current life in the UK.
We arrive in Vilnius in the morning hours and explore the seemingly deserted city. From café shop to café shop we go. On a bridge we discover the access to the Republic of Uzopis. This is an enclave created by artists with an elected president, its own constitution and its own currency. The currency is valid only on the annual holiday and can only be used to buy beer. It is a pleasant spot, full of little shops, workshops and street art wherever you look. We enjoy our stay. At night, we walk through the streets again. Then, we hear good electronic music sounds from a bar. We agree to have one "Kloinen" (a small drink). When we enter, the doorman reaches out to shake our hands to greet us. He does not ask us for a cover charge, but welcomes us individually and friendly by hand shake. We give him a surprised look. We have never experienced something like that, especially going out in Berlin. Instead of one we have three "Kloine" and soon enough, the rhythm catches us. We want to dance. So we join the rocking group by the DJ desk. Whenever the DJs pull the volume level slowly upwards, the friendly bouncer comes up and corrects the level somewhat down again. This show is repeating itself three or four times until the last song is announced. The guys play "power" from the Pachanga Boys and we enjoy the booming bass. Again, the doorman comes and we send him our pleading glances, that he may please us this last song a bit louder. A short look on his part to the bartender, who nods at him and he steps to the action. But this time he turns the button to the other direction and turns up the Function-One speakers. Please, how effing awesome is that – I’m thinking to myself? The raging crowed starts to turn up even more. It’s an unexpected awesome moment.
Our next stop is Riga and yes, the legend is right. The historic old town is absolutely worth seeing. Beautiful houses are lined up, the city is full of life and music is in the air. We spend the night at lovely Madara and her very good English-speaking, seven-year-old son Paul, in a beautiful renovated old apartment. She seems to be a bit muddled, but she is very friendly and patient in answering our questions. Among other things, she recommends us Lilaste, for our planned beach camping trip. It should not be so crowded and a relaxed bonfire should be possible. So it is. On August 8th, 2016 we prepare for the camping trip. While brushing my teeth, I look out of the window and notice a drunk man asleep on the sidewalk across the street. Then I went to pack my bag and suddenly André shouts from the other room, "Fuck off you little shits, leave him alone!" I run into the other room and only see two guys running away from the drunken man. "They stole the mobile phone!" André said and went outside to help the drunk man. Fortunately an ambulance came by and the paramedics took care of the guy. With all the kindness and beauty we have encountered so far, this moment brought us back and showed us not to go careless throughout life. When we were about to go on our trip, Paul did not allow us to leave without a little pillow fight in the living room. After taking another picture on the couch, we pick up our backpacks and little Paul realizes, that we are really about to go. Quickly he runs to his room, gets his biscuits and shares them with us. So that we do not starve on our way, he says. I am impressed by this little seven-year-old.
At the train station of Lilaste is nothing. We have the direction of the Baltic Sea in our guts and go into the forest. We walk through the woods over gentle mossy hills. We notice how our steps sink into the soft, green shining forest floor, and then we hear the sound of the sea. After a short while, we find the right spot for our camp. It’s a circle of trees that gives us protection from the wind, with sufficient space for a fire place and a perfect view over the ocean. We also find a spade and an old barrel in the dunes. Our two beach days can begin! First of all, we jump in to the ocean – naked. A beautiful sunset completes our bathing fun. Then we make a fire, carve skewers and grill sausages while night gets darker and the bright stars come out. With a crackling fire and a few beers, we lean back and watch the sky. Every now and then, someone says something, but what impressed us the most are the many shooting stars that everyone admires for themselves.
The next morning, we wake up to the wind in the trees and the sound of the ocean. After an extensive breakfast, we decide to explore the area by a beach walk. The beach is almost completely deserted. Here and there we find buildings made of ocean debris. It shows that this place has already attracted some visitors to stay. We also find a self-made hammock, in which we, as chill as we are, immediately have to hang out in. After another skinny dipping session in the ocean of the foamy Baltic Sea, we enjoy some leisure time with reading and sleeping. This is how we imagined this trip.
On August 10th, 2016, we leave our enclave of happiness and drive back to Riga. Due to my upcoming birthday, we decide to have dinner in an old-romantic restaurant with wallpaper with Eastern-Europe charm. We are getting the best seats in the restaurant. It’s an old, beautiful looking settee. Afterwards we go to the “Settee Culture Center” for a few drinks. Just in time for the midnight hour, three small burgers with candles are brought to our table and I gladly accept the congratulations of Hannes and André. A very successful and especially delicious surprise. In the course of the night, we get to know the US poet “K”, who tells us a few toasts before our many rounds of Absinth. When the nicely decorated restaurant closes, we meet Jimmy, an actor who invites more or less all the remaining guests into his loft for a whiskey tasting. Of course, we do not say no and we are aware that this will definitely lead to a big hang over the next morning. But good times are worth it, to forget about tomorrow!"
Hung over, we wake up and for hitchhiking to Tallinn it’s actually already too late. But we want to try it at least. First, we strengthen ourselves in Lido, a beautiful self-service restaurant with delicious, regional dishes just around the corner.
Hitchhiking can be so easy, but it is not. That’s what we noticed painfully. With a beautifully painted “Tramperpappe” (hitchhiking cardboard) we stand on the three-lane highway to Tallinn at the exit of Riga. We try to catch a ride for about an hour, with and without the cardboard, waving, smiling, holding up our thumbs and all possible ways of jumping around, but nothing works. Then, there are two other hitchhikers. Better said, two French girls. After a friendly chat, the two stand 20 meters behind us. It takes five minutes until they catch a ride. We are now officially demoralized. But then Andris arrives and offers to take us to Tartu. "It's perfect", we think, because that's half the way and in case of emergency a train goes from there to Tallinn. Joyfully, we stuff our bags into the already overloaded car and squeeze us in as well. The journey begins! Andris is very open-minded and tells us, that he always wanted to give hitchhikers a ride, but unfortunately has not seen any. A pleasant conversation develops rapidly, until we realize that we have passed the right exit. We ask once again where he is going and we realize that we have misunderstood him. We are now about 15 km outside Riga and if I had free hands, I would have put them over my head. Oh, fortunately, Andris is so kind and takes us back to the starting point. Somehow we have to laugh about the situation and take a photo together. Since we are hungry, still hung over and at the same time disappointed, we take the tram to the bus station and wait for the night bus. Perfect hitchhikers are we. Hitchhiking can be so easy, but it is not.
Early in the morning we reach Tallinn. Again we walk through a still sleeping city. However, we notice that Tallinn is more Scandinavian. We go to the market square and in a 24-hour shop we get a coffee and a small breakfast. On the steps of a house entrance at the market square, we settle down, enjoy the first sunrays and watch the awakening of the city. André offers to get a second round of latte macchiatos and disappears for a few minutes. When he comes back, he holds his head and I can see pain in his facial expression. Blood is running down his hands as he approaches us. He stops in front of me and I ask him what happened. "With my big head, I ran into a road sign," says André and he takes his hand from the head. I flinch. "Wow" I say and briefly I turn pale. A cut of about 13 centimeters runs from the hairline over his forehead. Harry Potter would have been envious. This has to get stitches. Immediately, we ask the next person for the emergency number. 112. I take the mobile phone and call. However, it takes about 1 minute until someone is on the phone who speaks English. Until the lady at the other end understood what a street sign is, it takes another 3 minutes and as the ambulance arrives 20 minutes. A somewhat chubby and relaxed paramedic climbs out of the ambulance with a cup of coffee in his hand. "Do you have insurance?" is the first question. "Sure," I say, "And now, get going and sew together the head of our friend!" I tell him in German. He looks at me like a deer in the headlights but then takes André to the hospital.
Hannes and I go to our accommodation. Our hosts Jana and Ivo have to leave the house at 8:45 am. We are there in time and Ivo welcomes us friendly and calm. We go to the apartment and are pleasantly surprised. In this old wooden house in Kalamaja, the two have some stylish furniture and just a cool interior. Jana is a photographer and Ivo is an actor. This explains their understanding of aesthetics, which is reflected in their home. As the two want to leave, the next incident happens – a water pipe bursts. Oh man, what a morning. Fortunately, the burst of the pipe is "only" at the neighbors. The neighbor quickly turns off the water. We all laugh about it and hope that this will be enough disasters for one day. Jana and Ivo leave for their jobs and André returns to us a little bit later, sewn together with seven stitches.
André, Hannes and I decide to go exploring again. Near our house, we find the hip center of the city. We look at the market, the street style and the small shops of Kalamaja. The area is inviting to linger and so we sit down in the sun and order a round of beer. Afterwards we go to the port and I see the inscription "Entrance Patarei" at a decaying old building. I enter and somehow, this place seems oppressive. I see cells, a library, treatment rooms and here and there a little street art. There are no explanations to this place and when I leave, I feel sick. Later, I am researching and discovering that this place was a prison used by the Communists as well as by the Nazis. In the cells with 16 beds were up to 50 people locked up. Many atrocities have happened in these rooms. Now I know from where my queasy feeling came. As we continue our exploration tour, we climb a large bunker in the city port of Linnahall. This building also has a rich history and is probably the largest venue in Tallinn. When we arrive at the apartment late in the afternoon, Jana baked a cake. Together we enjoy the “fruits of Jana's baking art” as well as a really nice conversation. We realize how well we understand each other and we become friends in no time. I hope that Janas and Ivos dream of studying at the Los Angeles Film School comes true. Maybe than, we'll meet again next year.
The following day, we take part in a free-walking tour in spite of the rain in order to learn more about Tallinn and Estonia. We hear something about Estonia's one-day-long independence, the church of atheists, stamps-collecting punk rockers, online elections and the rapping Twitter-President of this interesting country. Estonia is definitely special, but absolutely recommendable. In a special memory, however, remain Jana and Ivo.
As André and I are heading towards the ferry to Saint Petersburg, we are not only saying our farewells to Jana and Ivo, Tallinn, Estonia and the EU, but also to Hannes, who is already taking the plane back to Germany. I am glad and very grateful that he came along and we experienced so much together. Maybe I can see him again on this trip.
Russia – Как сказать (August 13, 2016 – September 04, 2016)
After saying our farewell to Hannes, Jana and Ivo, we go to the port terminal and on the ferry to Saint Petersburg. André and I check in and even get a compartment for ourselves. We look forward to exploring the ship and experiencing the entry into Saint Petersburg ... continue reading
... But first we have to cast off. In order to defy the weather, we stand at the stern of the ship, order two cocktails and cheer to the start of the next chapter of the trip. There it is again, our euphoric mood towards the next part of our trip. So we explore the ship and finally get to the upper deck. A storm comes up in front of us. "What should we do now?" I ask. "Order two beers and let’s go to the front", André suggests. I agree and off we go. Unfortunately, we cannot go all the way to the front. But by the portside under the bridge we are protected from the rain. Here we can look both forward and on the complete side of the ferry. The wind is getting stronger. Thin rain comes with it. We talk and laugh at the experiences so far. We wonder how Russia may be. The cold beer tastes good, even if we freeze off our hands. After a while, however, we notice that both the cocktails and the beers do their work. It is not the alcohol content. Because our spot on the deck is too good to leave, only one thing can help. Off to the rail and let it run. First I, then André. It is about 15 meters to the water surface. What a fun way to pee like that. After we've finished, we laugh at each other. Suddenly, a burly man with a miserable expression on his face, wearing a uniform, comes out of nowhere. "You cannot pee here!" I hear him say. I startled and think "Now we are in trouble." André says, "No problem, we'll leave immediately." We pass him, and I wonder why the guy lets us go so easily. I tell André that we were lucky. He looks at me and says, "Why? He said, "You cannot BE here." I tell him what I thought, what the guy said and we laugh. "Okay," says André, "and what are we going to do now?" - "Let's go eat and have a drink." I say.
After the meal, we continue the exploration of the ship. We watch some Olympic basketball and finally reach the large hall at the stern of the ship. The hall is packed to the last place. As soon as we enter, a guy comes on stage. What then comes out of his mouth confirms every stereotype about Russia. "Kalinka, Kalinka, Kalinka, Kalinka" the young man sings and the crowd is getting loud. We look at each other with question marks written all over our faces. Afterwards, we find a standing table near the bar to follow the rest of the program. After the singer come dancers in classical Russian robes, then a saxophone player, a quiz, again the dancers, the singer once again and finally a pianist. After a while we notice Ruud and Stan from the Netherlands as well as Rebekka from Canada. We start talking and since we have nothing better to do, we order Vodka. Eventually the program is over and the stage becomes a dance floor. Of course you don’t need to tell us twice. Off we go dancing. Afterwards we go to the late-night bar and later end up in our beds without knowing how we got there. We close our eyes and suddenly it bangs on the door three times. First we look at each other and then at the clock. Oh dang! We arrived in Saint Petersburg an hour ago and now the cleaning lady ask us to clear the cabin. "Oh, we missed the port entrance," says André, partly annoyed, partly betrayed. We are hurrying. As we leave the ferry, we see that it is foggy and not particularly nice at the harbor. "It looks like, we haven’t missed anything." I say, while entering mainland Russia.
What we see in the following days, nobody should miss out on. Saint Petersburg is a Russian pearl wearing a European robe. The streets are a mixture of Wilhelminian architecture and socialist classicism. Many small shops and restaurants decorate the streets. Bridges everywhere lead over canals and rivers. It somewhat feels like East Berlin to us. Even though the river Spree (as beautiful as it is) cannot be compared to the delta of the Neva River.
Here and there, however, we also face the current political situation in Russia. We go to the 'Botanist', a small, privately run, vegetarian restaurant. The menu points out that due to the geopolitical situation and the sanctions against Russia, they don’t always have all the ingredients for the dishes in stock. We accept that. Another time, a storm raises and we run into a fancy restaurant and drink coffee. There is no note in the menu, that there is a shortage of ingredients. However, guests should be aware of the appropriate behavior of their children. Their animals and bodyguards must remain outside. It seems a little odd, but I start to see Russia as a country of the extreme.
The most impressive feature of Saint Petersburg is the cultural heritage – one of the Russians pearl of the Tsar period. We go to the fortress of Peter and Paul, where Katharina the Great is buried. We visit the Mikhailsburg, the Isaac's cathedral, and admire the beautiful Church of the Resurrection Christ, with its numerous colorful decorations and onion domes. The highlight, however, is Saint Peter’s Square and the Hermitage with the Winter Palace. For a long time we were looking forward to it and in spite of the queue and the rain, we arrive at this important art museum. Around three million copies are in the collection, of which currently about 60,000 are exhibited. A proverb says that if you want to take five minutes for each of the exponents, you need a whole lifetime to see all of them. We go through the large, decorated rooms and are very impressed. André is drawn to the antiquity, I rather enjoy the paintings, but the living quarters and the interior of the Winter Palace as well as the Portraits of the Czar family, we both admire. Something we don’t enjoy however are the many people visiting. Especially the tons of Asians are making it challenging. If you want to go through a door and suddenly a large group comes, one has to jump a side quickly, otherwise one is taken back several meters. Without any chance. Even when I stand in front of a picture of Leonardo da Vinci and would like to enjoy it, I am constantly pushed and dozens of times cameras flashing around me. Fortunately, there is another building, which is situated at the opposite of Peters Square and is not visited by the big tourist groups. There we go on the second day and this compensates us for all inconveniences the day before. In addition to works by Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas, Cezanne and Monet, we also admire the famous Faberge eggs. I especially like the dance of Matisse. Likewise, I see a picture depicting the battle of Borodino between Napoleon's French and the Russian-Austrian alliance. This is described in Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and it is interesting to see a picture of the events. After an interesting week in Saint Petersburg, André has to go to take the plane back home and I take the train. We limit our farewell to a short «Bis bald Digga» - (See you soon brother) We don’t want to become sentimental and hope that we will see each other again soon.
With the Sapsan, the high-speed train, I’m riding to Moscow and I’m anxious to see what will happen. I’m arriving at Leninsky train station and I’m realizing that everything is a bit bigger. Even the ride with the escalator down to the subway takes forever. Downstairs, I see the ceiling vaults, arcades and decorations of the station. I feel as if I have been brought back to the hermitage, it looks so magnificent down there. I already heard that Moscow has the most beautiful subway, but I haven’t expected that. Arriving at the hostel, nobody speaks anything other but Russian. Luckily I still have the migration card from the ship, because otherwise I would have run into some problems. With the translator, that Paul sent me, I manage to do the check-in. Then I go straight to meet Daria. She will show me the city. Daria is a friend of Dimitri, my French friend of Russian descent. He made the contact. We meet in Ljubjanka in the center of Moscow. Daria is a bright 19 year old girl, with brown eyes, long hair and is studying photography in Moscow. She speaks very good English and loves to show “her Moscow” to friends and acquaintances. We welcome us briefly and then we go on the terrace of a department store to get an overview. She starts talking and explaining everything to me right away, but I can’t remember all of it. We continue to the red square and the Kremlin. Unfortunately, the square is filled by huge bleachers built for the upcoming parade of the military chorus. We can, however, walk around and see the eternal flame at the foot of the Kremlin. It burns in honor of the victims of the Second World War. Likewise, the names of the devastated cities are written in large letters. Daria tells me that the Russians take the history of their country very serious and read a lot about it. It is common that stories about the time of the war are consciously passed on in the families. So every family has its own reports and anecdotes and is proud of it. She asks me if this is the case in Germany as well. I can only speak for myself and point out that in Germany in general there is no pride in the war. It has resulted in a national feeling of guilt that drives us to do good things in the world now. We can, however, be proud of this and the generations that rebuilt Germany after the war.
We continue to walk through the city and end up in a pub. Leo works there, a friend of Daria. We talk, laugh and I feel well cared for in the new society. Later, Daria and I go to “The Konstruktor”. This is a relatively new club for electronic music in Moscow. At about 3:30 pm, Dusty Kid is scheduled to perform, a DJ from Italy whom Daria wanted to see for a long time. We are there earlier, have a Mate refreshment drink and dance a little bit. Right before Dusty Kids appearance, Daria wants to get out to smoke another cigarette. We go outside and stand across the club. Suddenly, three small transports are driving up with squealing tires, the doors open and fully-armed police officers carrying machine guns run out of the vehicles. One group locks the entrance and the other storms into the level entrance. The loud booming bass goes out and more and more people are pouring on the stairs, outside the club. People are squeezed together. Below, the policemen hold against it. People make photos, videos, scream and want to pass the policeman. But they do not give ground. In short, it seems as if the situation escalates. After a few minutes, part of the crowd goes back inside the club and the pressure on the front rows decreases. We are on the opposite side. Daria and I look at each other in disbelieve. She tells me that she has never experienced something like this before. We are both happy that we are not on the other side because we do not have our passports with us. After about an hour, a bus comes the police control begins. Anyone who looks suspicious or has not a passport has to go to the bus. We ask if we can get our jackets, but the police makes no effort to answer our question. After another 30 minutes, I go to the edge of the incident and ask someone from the inside get our jackets with our wardrobe mark. He brings our clothes, so we can finally go after two hours of waiting. The sun is slowly rising, when we cross a bridge. I notice the first time how spacious, big and powerful everything appears in Moscow. This city is something quite different from Saint Petersburg.
The next day I meet Daria in Kitay Gorod. We walk a little through the city center and then go to Gorkipark. First, we visit the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. At the entrance I have to roll down the legs of my pants. I had them rolled up during the day actually. A man with short pants is even rejected completely. Women have to tie a cloth around their hair. Daria is asked to spit out her gum and an Asian must put his camera in the pocket. Pretty strict. Why do I write this? This Russian Orthodox cathedral is the place where the activist group, Pussy Riot, has presented her famous punk prayer at the closed altar. One of the three women is now free, the other two are still in custody and were not released despite hunger strikes. When one looks at conservatism at the entrance, then the action of the feminists, who took action against the close connection between state and church and women's rights, seems even more daring and impressive.
Arriving at the Gorkipark, Daria calls her mother. After she hung up, she said, "Hey, you're invited." I ask her to what I was invited. "We have to get going and buy something, let’s hurry”, Daria responds. I look at her with question marks written all over my face. "My mother invited you to dinner," Daria says. "Great, and when" I ask. "Today, later, we have to go." At this point, I remember what Daria and Leo told me in the pub about the people in Moscow. If you live in Moscow, you are always on the road, you are always in motion and always have something in mind.
I am at the doorsteps of Darias apartment near the terminus of the red subway line Rosskovska Bulvard. It is the 9th floor, I think I remember. In my hands I hold a bag full of food and two bottles of wine. Daria opens the door and I hear her little brother jumping around and yelling. Then Darias mother enters the hallway. She has dark hair, wide awake eyes and welcomes me with a mild, friendly smile. Dasha also takes part in the cooking session, she is Darias cousin. Daria shows me the apartment. It consists of three rooms, kitchen, bathroom, hallway and balcony. The view over the entire city is great. We sit down in the kitchen, open the wine, begin cutting vegetables and start a conversation. Darias mother was already in Germany and speaks a few words German. The grandfather lives in Düsseldorf. For several years she is living alone with the children, separated from her husband. The relationship was not going well. She works as an ergo therapist and likes to travel during her holidays. She is a good person to be around with. There are tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and a whole chicken. For dessert we make an apple pie. We talk about everything, eat a delicious meal, drink and laugh. It becomes even funnier when I take out my dictionary and open the slang chapter. There the expression "freak out" is translated with "писать кипятком", which literally means "to pee boiling water." The evening is very entertaining and goes by way too fast. At the end of the evening, Darias Mom asked me a crucial question. She asks me what we think of Russia and Putin in Germany. In my opinion, I am too little of an expert to be able to judge the whole situation. In general, however, I believe that neither the Western nor the Russian media can be trusted and the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. But it doesn’t mean, I approve that human rights are not respected or protected. Putin still has to catch up on those issues. She nods approvingly and I ask what she thinks of Putin. She thinks that in comparison to many other influential politicians in Russia, Putin is maybe the least evil.
The days in Moscow fly by, we keep busy exploring the city. On the last day, Daria and I go shopping. She offers me to cook a few things for the long train ride with the Trans-Siberian Railway. I agree and we cook some eggs, grill some steaks and pack everything. Suddenly, a friend calls and asks if we come by for a photo at his driving education school. The photo will be published in a newspaper and since the course is not so crowded today, we could help as extras. We will go to the school right away. When we arrive, we meet Ivan. He is 28, took over the driving school two years ago and makes his living with it. He is a very pleasant guy and offers me tea and sweets. A short time later the photographer comes and we go to the classroom. Today's topic: road signs. I have to laugh out loud because I’m thinking of Andre's accident in Tallinn. After a few minutes everything is over and I take the opportunity for an interview with Ivan. He likes Jazz music, likes to walk with his girlfriend and is probably the only Russian who officially doesn’t like Vodka. For his future life, he wants his driving school to develop well so he can start a family. I think this wish could also come from one of my friends back home.
After seven eventful days in Moscow, I’m at the train station and say goodbye to Daria. I would like to thank her for taking care of me and I wish her all the best for her semester that is starting soon. I get on the train and go to my coupe. There I meet Oleg and Maxim from Russia as well as Will from the USA. We welcome each other briefly and the train starts. I'm taking four beers out of my bag to set a relaxed mood, build trust and serve the stereotype – Germans drink beer. We enjoy the beers and try to introduce ourselves by using our hands, feet, online translators and dictionaries. It turned out that Will works for an online app in San Francisco. Oleg is a security man from Rostov-on-Don and likes fishing and hunting, and Maxim is working with the army in a space research center in Xatabarovsk. With these three fellows I spend the next three days. After a few hours, the first excitement fades, and everyone does what he wants, like looking out into the countryside, walk around on the train, eat, listen to music, read, sleep or solve crossword puzzles. One could also say: “drink, eat, sleep, repeat.” At this point, everyone is wearing sweat pants and slippers. It is always exciting when you stop. At those stops, there are usually small stores or flying traders with all sorts of stuff. Many people use the break to stretch their legs or to smoke. On the second day, the nice lady who swings the vacuum cleaner and refills the Samovar (a metal container to boil water for tea), allows people to smoke between the compartments on the train, if you buy five sweets. Maxim is taking her up on the offer. He is gives us a round of sweets. Oleg, on the other hand, digs out his self-brewed Russian whiskey, including glasses and gives a round of shots. “Nastarowe”. Because one should always eat something when taking shots, I take out the good German sausage which “Vaddi” (dad) gave me. Even the guys in Riga loved it. So I'm sure the guys in my coupe will enjoy it as well. They are thrilled. Good German sausage, another German stereotype. We empty the bottle together and then we sleep peacefully. There are also some things happening outside. First, we see only deciduous forest, then swampland, then mixed forest, then grassy landscape. From time to time, we cross big rivers or stop in different cities. Sometimes five, ten, or 30 minutes. The cities are so far away from each other, it feels like they are in the middle of nowhere. But almost all of them have a population of over a million people. Not only the landscape changes, but also the faces and clothing of the vendors and passengers at the railway tracks change from stop to stop. On the third day on the train, I look out of the window and realize that Russia is really a huge country with multiple ethnicities. The typical Russia does not exist.
It's midnight and I wake up. We have just stopped in Krasnoyarsk. I go on the platform and it is quite cold. I see Maxim as he smokes, shivering in his thin shirt. I stretch a little. As Oleg comes out of the station building and says: "Piwo, no." I remember that he wanted to drink another beer last night with me. I shrug, and say, "I have some Vodka left." He replies, "Malinki Vodka" and gestures with his fingers that he wants to drink only one shot of vodka. I nod. When we're back on the train, Maxim falls asleep. Oleg begins to cut a few cucumbers and the sausage. I get the dark bread and the bottle of vodka, which is still untouched, out of my bag. Oleg and I toast, eat a piece of cucumber and drink the vodka. He refills again. We toast, eat a piece of bread with sausage and drink a second vodka. The smell of the sausage wakes up Will. We gesture him to come down from his bed, eat something and drink some vodka with us. He nods and comes down. We toast, eat and drink. Then Maxim wakes up again. We start to laugh, get the cards out, eat together and drink. At some point, the bottle is empty. Will and I look at each other. Will says, "Okay, now we can go back to sleep." "Indeed," I replied. We look at Oleg and he grins with his slightly blushed cheeks. "I am magical Oleg," he shouts out while reaching for his seat. He brings out a bottle of his self-brewed Russian whiskey. Will and I shake our heads, but Oleg's loud laughter makes us all have to laugh. When we emptied the bottle, it was six o'clock and the sun was back outside. The first rays of sunlight strike the mist between the shallow hills. We enjoy the view. I drink another tea and go to sleep.
When I wake up we stop. Oleg is on the platform, the other two are sleeping. As we continue the ride, I wash myself, brush my teeth, grab my things and make me a noodle soup. An hour before we arrive, Oleg again has this grin on his face. "I am Magical Oleg", he says again, pulling a bottle of cognac out of his box. "He bought the bottle on the platform earlier," Maxim says, "and now Oleg would like to teach you 'Passatchock." The rule is as follows. First, in Russia, you toast with 'Nastarowje', or 'Starowje'. But the last round is always with 'Na Passatshock'. However, there is never just one last round. That would be a pity. That is why the wistful Russians, who can’t stand the coming pain of separation, sometimes drink the entire last day before the actual farewell 'Na Passatshock'. The four of us drink the whole bottle of cognac 'Na Passatshock' and then the glass Ctogram Vodka, which I still had in my backpack from St Petersburg. When Will and I leave the train in Irkutsk we brotherly say good-bye with kiss-cheek on the right, kiss-cheek to the left of our Russian friends. Arriving at the hostel, we notice that we are both tipsy again.
The Rolling Stones Hostel in Irkutsk is the best hostel so far. I am enjoying the best shower ever since Germany. I am not saying that because I was tipsy and had no shower for 3.5 days on the train, but it is fact. The hostel is relatively new and the two guys, who own it, work and sleep there as well. After about an hour, I checked in, showered, ate, put my clothes in the washing machine and organized a transfer for the next morning to Lake Baikal. I also got a map from the island of Olkhon with a marked place, which is good for the camping on the beach. So I put my feet up, call home and go to sleep.
At 7 o'clock I get up and after a small breakfast I hear the horn of the minibus from the driveway. It is about 120 km on partly unassembled roads, also called 'bumpy roads'. We are 15 people on the bus and we are really squeezed in. Fortunately, the luggage is strapped to the roof. The trip is already an adventure. The windshield of the minibus has innumerable cracks. In the meantime, we have to avoid some cows that claim the right of way. The last kilometers in front of the ferry to Olkhon Island are rather bumpy and we are thoroughly shaken. The very friendly group of Koreans on the bus smile all the time and during a short stop, unexpectedly gives out a round of ice cream. Then we reach the ferry and after the crossing it takes another bumpy hour until we reach Xushir, the only real city on the island. I say goodbye to the others, buckle up my backpack and go straight to the sea. There I have a great view of the famous Shamans Rock. I reach a coastal section from where I can enjoy the sun, the view and the fresh air. After a while, I notice drumming and indeed, a few shamans have come to speak their prayers. I watch them but do not want to disturb them. It is truly a magical place. After I have hung out at this magical place for a while, I feel full of strength and energy. So I walk past the Prayer Point with the thousands of Prayer Flags, down to the beach and search for the place indicated on the map for camping. When I see a small hill, on the edge of which stands a tree, whose roots are curving down to form a seat, my campsite is found. I pitch my tent, collect wood in the nearby forest and start a small fire to cook a soup. Then I enjoy the sun setting behind the beautiful mountain ranges on the other side of Lake Baikal. I stoke the fire and enjoy the loneliness after all the company. I’m thinking back to some of the moments I have been able to experience so far. At the same time, I haven’t noticed, how others put some fires up next to me. The night sky is coming out. The sky is clear, full of stars and the Milky Way is clearly visible. It’s a beautiful sight. I’m thinking about how small and unimportant we are. All the things that really concern me so much, stress me, the things I’m thinking that are so important, or constantly try to get my attention, appear so insignificant in the face of this sight. I feel small but at the same time I feel being part of this great whole something. I accept my place in it and feel free. Free from expectations, free from constraints, free from thoughts. I dive into this moment, in this place, at this time.
The next morning, I get up, jump into the ice-cold Lake Baikal, with a temperature of approximately 12 ° C and I feel alive. After my breakfast, I put on the hiking boots, grab my backpack and go into the forest. I would like to see the other side of the island and the larger part of Lake Baikal. The island is 73 km long and 12 km wide. I go cross-country through the pine forest. It’s a good walk. After an hour it becomes steeper and the last walkable path ends. Now I am in the middle of the forest and when I am on the first hill, I still see no end. It becomes more difficult. I have to beat through 1.5 meter high thicket and a machete would certainly be better than the walking stick I have picked up. While walking through the thicket, branches crack under my weight and I arrived on the next hill. I look at the GPS and there is a way for the last third of the way. I fight myself through the thicket to the next hill and go to the valley where I can see a path. But to my disappointment, there is a broad, densely engulfed moor area. The mosquitoes rush at me immediately and I decide to go to the steep hill to my left. It costs me some effort to get up there and partly I have to climb on all fours to climb the rocks. At the top, I take a break and see a blue glimmer between two hills in the distance. I look at the position of the sun and the clock. It's 4 o'clock, I've been running for four and a half hours, and I've traveled about ten miles. The sun goes down at about 7:45 pm. Phew, I should have started earlier today. Heavy hearted, I decide to turn around and go back. It is anything but clever trying to fight my way back at night through this undergrowth. So I go a few steps in the opposite direction and suddenly I hear a snort. I stand still as if rooted to the ground like a tree. I listen in the direction from where the sound came. Another crack, then silence. I look into the forest and a thousand thoughts run through my head. What is there? Is it a stag or even a bear? There will be bears on Olkhon. I look around and look for a tree I could climb. Then I remember a documentary on National Geographic. When you meet a bear and he notices you, you can only do one thing. Run downhill, because the main weight of the bears is at the back and the short front legs do not allow it to reach its full speed during the downhill run. I wait for a moment and sprint in the direction of the valley. I notice how my heart is racing and I'm full of adrenaline. In the valley, I walk another five minutes as fast as I can through the shrubs. I look around and see nothing. I go on quickly and think how stupid it was to go without knowledge of the area, without a guide or telling anybody where I’m going. Quickly I go further and after another hour, I find tracks. I follow the tracks until I arrive at the outskirts of Xushir right after the sunset. When I reach the tent, dawn has already set and I decide to cook something and go to sleep. I can’t make a fire anyway, since I have no wood left. Suddenly two figures came up to me. "Hey Buddy, how are you?" Asks a young man with curly hair and Spanish accent. "Fine, what’s up?" I say. “Same same, but I like to ask you if you have a sleeping bag to share for the night” he asks. "You're lucky, I got a sleeping bag inlay, I could give you" I say. “Great, I take it, and if you want to, just come over to our place over there, we are going to make a fire”. “Yes why not, I will come after dinner”, I replied. After my dinner, I walk over. The young man with the Spanish accent is Manuel from Argentina and the other is Martin from Bremen - Germany. Both quit their jobs and are now traveling the world. It sounds familiar to me. I’m not going to be the only guest. Two Polish girls as well as three Russian guys are joining later. Of course, there is vodka and beer again and we enjoy some drinks under the charming starry sky. We talk for a long time, tell stories about our journeys and start philosophizing with rising alcoholic levels. It will be an unexpectedly funny evening.
The next morning, I just see how Martin is running across the beach to catch the bus. Manuel comes to me later and we go to Xushir to meet the Polish girls, because we all want to explore the area with bicycles. Since we do not meet the girls at their camp, Manuel and I go for ourselves. In Xushir we find a bike rental and ride along the sandy and rocky paths through the forest. It is really hot. But when we get on a hill, we see the wide meadows that lead to the cliff, we push the pedals hard. The refreshing wind in our hair, the feeling of freedom as well as the beautiful view makes us scream out for pleasure and joy. What a great moment. After a while we take a break. We pick up the conversation from last night and talk about the reasons behind our trips. We both agree that we want to fill our days with life and not just our lives with days. However, this can only be achieved if one knows oneself, which is only possible through self-reflection. So Manuel tells me that he wants to go to a monastery in Uruguay for half a year. On the other hand, I see this journey as an opportunity to face new challenging situations, grow and learn more about myself.
After we left the bikes in Xushir, we got stranded in front of a small shop. We treat ourselves one ice cream, then another one. The old women, who sell fruit in front of the shop, are reading their future from the coffee ground of their cups. When they see us, they praise their fruits. One shows a stack of fruits. She tells us that the apples are from Georgia, the plums from Tashkent and the watermelons from Burma. We smile and Manuel asks: "Do you have anything from Argentina." The old woman points again to the plums and this time they are supposedly from Argentina. We all laugh and ultimately Manuel and I take a couple of plums, wherever they may come from.
The rest of the day, Manuel and I spend together at the beach. In the evening a girl from Russia passes by and warms up at the fire. Manuel tells her about my adventure through the jungle the other day and she says that it is teeming with wolves in the forest. They are relatively relaxed in the summer, but in the winter at -40 ° C it’s better not to go there. The next morning, we get a visit from little Anjeshka. She comes from the Tippi, which is built about 100 meters further up the beach. A few hippies live there, who always greet friendly, when they pass by on the way to get water. The little girl already came by a few times in the last couple days to climb and race around. This time, she brings yogurt and M & M's alongside her bow and arrow. She is a bright child and comes from an area some hundred kilometers north of Lake Baikal. Soon she will go to school. Unfortunately, she can’t give me any information on how this is going to work in Siberia. Later I learn that the school stays open up to the temperature of -36 ° C. The little one has a lot to do in the coming winter. Heavy hearted I grab my things and say goodbye to Manuel and little Anjeshka. I walk along the beach back to Xushir. From there, the minibus (delayed by an hour) brings me back to Irkutsk. In Irkutsk I spend another day before I leave early in the morning. I’m taking the train towards Mongolia. This is the end of the exciting and varied time in Russia. What should I say now - Как сказать.
Mongolia – Weite unter dem blauen Meer (September 04, 2016 – September 15, 2016)
I’m sitting in the dining car of the train to Ulan Bator, enjoying the last portion of Russian Pelmeni. These small dumplings are really damn tasty. Across from me is Josh, a life-long artist from New York. ... continue reading
... We already talked briefly at Olkhon when I was waiting for the minibus to Irkutsk. Afterwards, we met again at the Rolling Stones Hostel. We found out that we also had the same train. During the train trip we played the card game "Donkey" with three retired Indian professors. Hungry from the game, we decided to quickly eat something before we had to go back to our compartments while crossing the border when the dining car gets decoupled. We devour the last dumplings as he tells me everything he has done so far.
He came to New York without a plan and started out as a bartender and an intern in a marketing agency. As lucky as he was, he replaced a photographer in a photoshoot and performed so well that he established himself as a professional fashion photographer. Now he‘s working in TV production. "In New York, you have to be strong and always ready to turn your whole life around in a heartbeat," he says. Aftering finishing the excellent Pelmenis, we reach the border and go into the compartments. The border control checks proceed normally. The border control people are wearing depressing, monotonous uniforms and spared few words. One of them has cold eyes. It takes about an hour and the most annoying thing is that you can‘t go to the toilet. Jeff, who is also an American and a bit reserved, but with depth, is quite accustomed to travelling and remains nervous. Although he has traveled around the world for six years as a graphic designer and continues to live where he likes it. It‘s an hour past midnight and suddenly there is some commotion in the hallway.
After a brief discussion, three Norwegian women are sent off of the train. Apparently, their travel agency made a mistake so their visa expired one day too early. They'll have to wait for the next train to take them back to Ulan Ude to apply for a new visa and then wait for five days to eventually return to Ulab Bator and on to Beijing.
It's early in the morning and we're reaching Ulan Bator, I say gooodbye to Josh and Jeff and look for my hostel. It's not that easy actually. Even though the Cyrillic script from Russia is omnipresent as a relic from the times of socialism, the words have completely different meanings. At last, I manage to find my accomodation where I‘m staying in a single room for the first time on my journey. What a luxury, for just $13. After taking a shower and doing the laundry I start planning and researching for my stay. The result is very respectable indeed: the next day I have a travel companion, Bibiana, a judge from Bulgaria, a guide, Munkhsaikhan, with the nickname MC and a driver, Otchero, nickname Ogi and his suitable vehicle.
We start the eight day tour with the destination being Inner Mongolia with our 4x4 off-road van. It's an pleasant trip on properly tarred roads until we turn into a field path where the rocking begins. I found the ride between Irkutsk and Olkhon quite bumpy but this trip easily tops it. The lanes between the green and brown gleaming steppe hold several surprises. Sometimes it's a gorge appearing suddenly, a river coursing by, bizarre stone formations or just some cows, sheep, goats and yaks that keep us excited in the back seat. The traffic situation also seems to be unpredictable. Six sandy lanes more or less parallel to each other go into all directions, criss-crossing each other or just stopping entirely so we have to continue driving into the open field. Bibiana and I have a hard time imagining how the drivers find their way through this area.
In the afternoon, we reach Khustai National Park where you can find the last real wild Mongolian horses, called Takis. After 1969, they had completed disappeared from nature and thanks to support from zoos and private breeding stocks, a population of 2,000 animals have a home there. We go to a river where some horses can be spotted in the evening now and again.
And we`re lucky indeed - truly lucky. Riding down into the park we spot more and more Takis. All in all, we count about ten groups each made up of six to eight animals. There are even a few foals. We stop and watch the Takis, some even approach curiously to within a few meters. Suddenly we spot a huge deer on the hill opposite of us. Its impressive antlers and elegant posture leave us speechless for a few moments. While he surveys the environment, a bunch of hinds walk towards the river to have a drink. We continue looking around and discover a few marmots looking out of their holes. If you pay attention, you can watch eagles circling above them. Suddenly, there is a loud howling from the mountains to our right side. "Wolves!", MC is saying. I have to smile since this makes me think of my adventure on Olkhon. The howling signals the beginning dusk and thus is a sign that we must soon return to our night camp.
We reach our lodging at some elderly lady's house. She invites us to come inside and surprisingly there is a TV in her living room where "Friends" is shown with dubbed Mongolian. She switches it off and serves some "Tsotsgi"- milk butter, "Suntei Tsai"- milk tea and "Airag"- milk vodka. These three local specialities will be offered to us every day from now on. Sometimes its made from beef, yak, goat or even horse milk. I like these treats, though one should enjoy them with moderation considering the fat content. The typical Mongolian diet is rich in protein; vegetables don't play an important role in it. Orchero, our driver, is living proof of this as he refuses any meal without meat and never touches the veggies on his plate.
After dinner, we go to our sleeping places, so called "Gers", typical, circular Mongolian yurts. Already during the times of Dschingis Khan, the Mongolians used to live in these tents which are suitable for nomadic life due to their simple construction and design. The round shape is based upon the belief that Evil hides in dark corners. The walls are formed by wooden batten with a small crown engraved on top. The ceiling is also formed by slats that leave a hole in the middle which serves as smoke funnel for the oven in the center of the yurt. Symbolically, the hole represents the sun with the decorated wood sticks as its beams.
At the entrance, you find a small door which forces every visitor to bow no matter how important or rich they are. The first few times I enter our Ger I hurt my head but slowly I get used to it and like the idea behind this concept. Before going to bed, I leave our yurt once more to listen to the wolves and watch the full moon in the cleary, starry sky. It's gotten quite cold and somewhere in the Mongolian steppe, I admire the silence and width of the hilly landscape covered in grey veils.
The next day we go deeper into the steppe and stop in a small place called Lun to fuel up when I discover a memorial with strange characters below a horse statue. I ask MC if he could tell me what this structure is about and what these mysterious signs mean. He explains to me that this is old Mongolian language synonomous with the rise of socialism and using the Cyrillic and Russian alphebet as the official language during its establishment. Nowadays, only a handful of people are still able to understand the words written there. When a few elderly men pass by, I ask MC if he could talk to them about it. They all stand in front of my object of interest, staring and puzzling over it. After a few minutes, more people join and at the end, we're about 15 to 20 people gathered looking at the sculpture. Unfortunately, no one can really tell what's engraved there. Right when we were about to leave, another old man is called to help and he seems to bring some light into the darkness as MC is pointing down the meaning in Mongolian. Unfortunately, the translation into English doesn't make a lot of sense. In any case, it seems to be a poem, dedicated to a special horse from Lun, just like the sculpture.
I should mention that horses are the pride and joy of this nation. During the Vietnam War, the communist government decided to support its neighbor state with tens of thousands of its beloved horses. Apparently, none of them ever came back home. One day, seven years after their deployment, a lonely, emaciated stallion covered with scars passed the village entrance of Lun and returned to its former stable. He must have walked all the way through China from Vietnam by way of the Gobi Desert in order to get back to Mongolia. The inhabitants of Lun couldn't believe their eyes and did their best to take care of it. After recovering, it became the breeding stallion of the area and to this day, horses from this village share that same horse’s lineage are still known considered especially strong and resilient.
We continue the journey through extremely hot and sunny weather, without a single cloud up above. People here are used to it because of the 260 days of sunshine every year, MC explains. It rarely rains, which is why water is in short supply. Mongolia used to have access to the sea but that land has since been annexed by China. On the other side, Russia occupies the border region to Kazakhstan so trade and access to necessary resources is limited because of those two Great Powers. At least we never lack of blue sky, MC jokes. He further explains that this is what the blue part in their national flag stands for.
In the late afternoon, the seemingly infinite grassy desert turns into a strange landscape. There are huge sand dunes in front of us surrounded by craggy rock faces on one side and a small moor on the other. This is where we embark on a camel ride before stopping at a 79 year old Mongolian man's house who I watch, galloping rapidly on his horse's back collecting his sheep and goats. This man leaves a lasting impression on me in his old-fashioned clothesm, seeming to be a truly proud descendant of Genghis Khan.
Our next destination is called Orchon Valley. On our way there, the condition of the so-called streets gets even worse, we pass large hills until reaching a collapsed bridge. Otchero takes a path which leads us through a river about one meter of deep. "Russki Automobil, good good", he says while I acknowledge his driving skills with a nod. This won't be the biggest challenge of the day since shortly afterwards we reach a stone desert. Otchero confidently approaches the new underground but soon starts gesticulating wildly behind the steering wheel. One moment, we're bent at a 45° angle to the side, then topple to the front before our driver shifts to all-wheel-drive, manoeuvring us over the next pile of stones. This continues for half an hour and he works up a sweat until we finally arrive at Orchon falls. I must admit, the trip was worth it. We follow the river‘s course until suddenly a steep, 15 meter gorge appears next to us where the crystal-clear water rages into with all its power. We watch this spectacle for a while and walk on a small path that leads down into the canyon. At its end, we discover another river that winds through the tale in shades of beige. Seeing these two quite different streams uniting is an unforgettable image.
At dusk, Otchero comes into my Ger and asks if I could follow him to the car. He asks me to sit down on the driver's seat. I recognize his strange smile and after having entered the vehicle, my suspicion is confirmed. This guy is stone-drunk. My eyes catch a bottle of vodka emptied by three quarters and a cup next to it. Otchero offers me to call him by his nickname Ogi and to try some of the liqueur. Is this Déjà-vu? I feel like back in Russia. Eventually, I decide that it would be more reasonable if I drank the rest of this bottle instead of Ogi who would somehow need to get us back the next day. While I finish his vodka, Ogi shows me pictures of his trips, his family and some Mongolian music videos. For some, he sings almost every line. Half an hour later, I'm done with my drink and say goodbye to head back to our Ger for dinner. Not ten minutes after that, I hear the car start. When Bibi, MC and I start preparing for bed, the well-known rattling noise of our vehicle approaches again and few moments later, the door of our tent opens again. Ogi enters, sits down and asks if I'd like to have another drink. He went all the way especially for me, he tells me. As I say no, he continues to Bibi and invites her. He staggers and starts hitting on her until she pushes him away forcefully. MC starts talking to him in Mongolian, kindly asking Ogi to go to bed as well, but he adamantly ignores the young guide. I start up a conversation and manage to convince him to hand me the bottle. When promised that he would get it back the next evening, his anger stokes. Nonetheless, he would like to fight with me outside, he says. This reminds me of an experience I had in Santiago de Compostela when a drunken "lion" wanted to mess with anyone and anything crossing his way. The only way to defuse this situation was by subtly changing the subject. "Say Ogi, where did you actually get the car, how much did you pay and for how long have you been working as a driver?" are just a few of my numerous questions. This seems to be causing such confusion in his mind that he eventually lets me take him to his makeshift bed in the back seat of the car.
The next morning, it's raining as I leave the Ger to look out for Ogi. Before I reach the car I recognize the side door is open, his legs stretched out of it, consequently as wet as the seat cushions and another empty vodka bottle next to him. "Great", I'm thinking out loud. Rain and an intoxicated driver makes this a nightmare of a trip facing us. When Bibi realizes what's going on, she's rightly beside herself with rage. I'm feeling uncomfortable thinking about what's waiting for us too. These are exactly the types of situations which one speaks about in remourseful mood after a catastrophy. To MC's question of whether I could get behind the wheel in the worst case I answer: "Basically I can do so, but I'm not sure if I can to master the trail through the river and stone desert.
After waking up, Ogi shakes his body and acts as if all was in order. He laughes and jokes while clearly shaky on his feet but according to his motto: "Get me into the car, I'll take you home!", he casts no doubt about his fitness to drive. We give him all the water we can find and wait for one more hour for him to recover a bit more. During the first five minutes he switches to the wrong gear several times so the enginge produces even louder noises and we could have certainly avoided a few stones. Then we stop in order to take another Mongolian driver with us. He sits down on the front passenger seat and is completely drunk, too. The worst part about all this is how the two start an animated conversation which leads Ogi to pay more attention to his interlocutor than the so-called street.
When we reach the stone desert, Ogi suddenly seems to pull himself together, as though this was about saving his honor. He carefully manoeuvres us over the first stone hill, the mood is tense. We slowly continue and even though Ogi seems to make an effort, the rain has done harm to the way. In one difficult location, the soil is really muddy and the car begins drifting to the side. We all look at him a bit scared but he just turns around laughing, speeding up and throwing his hands together. That's when the car starts jumping forward uncontrollably for a few meters. I would have liked to wring his neck, but right before we crash into a big stone, Ogi turns the wheel so we slide past the obstacle. The front passenger is laughing as well which annoys me even more.
About an one hour and several near-death experiences later, we've made it through the stone desert and approach the river. Fortunately there isn't much more water in it than last time, so we can pass the same way as yesterday. Around two kilometers after that, we drop off the other driver, climb up a hill and arrive at a young family's house. Ogi goes to bed and Bibi, MC and I set out on a 10 km hiking tour through the beautiful mixed forest to a Buddhist mountain monastery called Tuvkhun. The silence of the forest and the touch of our feet on the the ground is doing us some good. Approaching the monastery, we start feeling relaxed again. The building is perfectly embedded into the mountain though we have to climb a bit in order to explore all its various parts. What I find especially interesting are the praying caves. One of them, which was about 1.5 square metres, it‘s told that a monk spent 11 years praying in. Unbelievable. After returning to our Ger, I'm looking forward to the dinner and a smooth end to our day after all that happened, but there's another surprise waiting for us: horse riding.
The young man of the house brings me a Mongolian horse and asks if I was able to ride. I have always been a bit intimidated by horses, so I shake my head. He helps me to get onto the horse and just remarks: "If you want to stop, pull on the reins. Have fun.“ So I hold the reins and push my feet into the horse's flanks. So we slowly start moving forward. After ten metres, I'm pulling the reins and we stop. Great, this works well. I pull with my left hand and the horse responds by turning. I feel like I‘m calibrating a joystick. We repeat the same procedure two to three times and I take heart. During the slow steps, I hit my horse one more time and we begin to trot. I hold on to the saddle and stretch my legs which works well, too. A few changes of pace between walk and trot and direction later, the young man appears on a horse next to me. Dusk has begun and we ride next to each other over the steppe. He gives me a sign to hold myself tight to the saddle. I do just like him and he spurres. Suddenly, I feel a strong jolt and immediately have to pay attention since my animal shows all of its incredible strength. This gives me a rush of adrenaline. Bending forward, we race through the surrounding nature. Riding towards the Ger where all the others are waiting, I can hear my companion laugh and see him getting slower whereas I keep the full speed. Surprised by this newly discovered skill and full of self-confidence, I narrowly pass the tent and loudly scream: "Yiiiieeehhaaa!" passing the spectators. Everyone starts laughing and the day comes to a good end after all.
We're leaving our warm-hearted hosts to go to the famous Kharakorum. The former capital of the Khans whose empire reached from Japan to the Mediterranean Sea. After its destruction, it was covered by the steppe's sand, though you can observe archaeological excavations all around. At first, we visit the museum and learn a lot about the country's history and origins. I'm specifically fascinated by the epochs of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan. In spite of their brutal acts of military conquests these meaningful rulers had always been tolerant and open-minded towards individual differences. For instance, religious freedom was granted to all inhabitants. Therefore one could find mosques, synagogues and even a Christian church beside Buddhist pagodas in Kharakorum. That's what I'd call practised ecumenism. I'm wondering how this was possible at that time but poses such a tremendous challenge for our "oh so" modern society. After the museum, we visit the first Buddhist monastery of Mongolia, Erdene Zuu, where over 1,000 monks used to inhabit 62 temples. During the era of communism a major part of the complex was destroyed during the Stalinist cleansing by technocrats.
Only a small part of the building was reconstructed and went back in operation in 1990. I'm admiring the numerous Buddha's in the centre of the complex and find out that there are eight of them representing the Buddha of the past, the present and the future in some kind of rolling process. A switch takes places every 5000 years.
The number 108 is of special meaning in Buddhism, 1 symbolising life, 0 death and 8 standing for the eternal alternation. On this basis, you can find the figure 108 in several Buddhist rituals.
At the end of our visit in Kharakorum, I feel a bit sad since obviously a lot of the original history and tradition of Mongolia got lost during the time of Russian influence.
I talk to MC about it and he tells me that there is has always been mutual interaction between the two countries. The city's name "Ulan Ude", for instance, means "red gate" in Mongolian, the translation of "Baikal" is "nature". The word "Mushkwa" describes a snake which apparently lead to the naming of a city in Western Russia located next to a meandering river as "Moskwa".
We reach the nomadic family with which I will stay for a few days. After a friendly welcome including milk tea, milk biscuits and milk vodka I take a stroll through the tale. There are Gers, horses, sheep, goats and cows all around. Here and there you can watch a Mongolian ride through the step and in the middle of the tale a small river crosses the rural setting. There are the family's children playing and throwing mud at eachother. The sun is shining with all its force from the blue deep sky. I enjoy the view. When the sun starts sinking slowly the entire landscape is covered in shades of soft beige and dark red. I continue to a hill nearby and wartch the collecting of the animals. With the darkness temperatures start falling, so I return to the Ger where a fire in the oven heats me up. The father went to the winter's Ger with the oldest son to prepare for the upcoming months, where the nature will be covered in white and it often cools down to minus 40 degrees. So it's only the mother, the two younger sons, their cousin and me. While mother Otgonbayar starts preparing the dinner, pasta and yak meat, I play cards with the boys called Lhagvasuren and Uurtsaih as well as their cousin Dorjderem. Unfortunately, no one of the family nor in the entire tale speaks English so we try our best to communicate otherwise. It's interesting to see that this somehow works as well. The next morning, I'm observing the family's routine. Feeding the animals, milking, brushing the horses, washing some clothes, preparing butter and Airag are just a few of the things to be done. For me, as silent observer, the day doesn't seem to be too eventful until Lhagvasuren asks me to go for a walk. I won't say no and follow him. We climb up a hill, drink from a mountain spring, look for trekking sticks, throw stones as far as we can and scream into the tale hoping for an echo. Lhagvasuren points at a hill to my left, then at me. "You, Sheepse!", after that at a hill to our right and himself "I, Goatse!". I'm staring at him and before I can ask what he's trying to tell me, he screams and runs down the hill. I don't take the time to think about it and do the same.
Around 15 minutes later, I find the "sheepse" behind another hill grazing in a forest clearing. I walk around the bleaking herd before trying to make the sheep walk by energetic gesticulation with my stick. They just observe me unimpressed.
It's not until I carefully hit one of the sheep on their back that the community starts moving reluctantly. On our way over the hills, some of them try to escape or just stop to enjoy some fresh grass. It takes me a while to find the right tone and gesture to make the herd move into the desired direction. With my hat, the walking stick, and the beautiful view over the small mountains I feel like the young Andalusian in Paulo Coelho's book "The Alchemist". I dive into the nomadic life and feel connected to all the shepherds in this world. What a liberating feeling!
The following night I'm waking up by stomach cramps. It seems there was some food I didn't tolerate, I'm lying awake until the sun rises and nothing seems to help. I truly don't feel good, I'm feeling hot and cold. When Otgonbayar serves me some milk tea and bread, it gets even worse. The crisp bread from by backpack, pain killers and a lot of hot water help me get through the day but it's only after another night that I start feeling better.
The bus ride back to Ulan Bator becomes a real torture but fortunately a coke helps soothing my stomach.
Back in Ulan Bator I'm looking forward to taking a shower after nine days and some vegetarian food which I find with Maika, a friend from Berlin and Aleks, my Danish friend from Moscow in a Korean restaurant.
Looking back I think about the special small moments in Mongolia. The nativeness of the nomadic families' lives, the incredible calmness, the step and the diversity of the moments will remain precious memories. Mongolia is a country which should be proud of its history, its traditions and way of living. I hope that some of the young Mongolians who increasingly move to bigger cities are aware of that and preserve their culture in spite of the attractive Western influences.
China (September 15, 2016 - October 11, 2016)
Once again I sit in a train and the stomach pain accompanying me that I experienced throughout the time in Mongolia strikes again. Nevertheless I'm trying to enjoy the journey which then turns out to be a bit easier after one of the three friendly Belgian women in my cabin gives me a water-soluble painkiller. ... continue reading
... We play Rommikub, Rommé with tokens. The girls are pretty good at it and eventually I manage to beat them once.
While travelling to the Chinese border China, we listen to my Oldies playlist as we begin to answer trivia questions of song names and bands. It‘s so engrossing that we don't even realize the train is being driven into a hall. Only after the entire compartment with us inside is being lifted by some kind of hydraulic platform we start to look out the window. A lot of short workers eagerly exchange the narrow chassis for larger ones so that the train can run on the Chinese rail network. We watch the scene intently until the train is lowered and we spend our first night in China, a country ripe with legend and lore.
Looking out the window, the steep, craggy hills and green rice fields are gradually giving way to the sights of ever taller buildings. It means we‘re approaching our destination: Beijing, China’s capital city. After arriving at the main station, I bid adieu to my Belgian travelling companions and set out towards the subway. I looked up my way to the hostel beforehand in order to avoid the unnecessary cost for a taxi. Unfortunately, I completely forgot to save the information.
That's how I ended up at the ever-present McDonald's, in order to use their free Wi-Fi. I find a route suggested by Google and proceed by the instructions. I head back to the subway, and after changing trains twice followed by a 10 minute walk, I reach my destination. Strangely enough, there is an army of fire trucks in the yard. Going into the entrance, my hunch is confirmed, I’m at a fire station. I ask around if there‘s a hostel nearby but nobody seems to know. I’m a bit discouraged at this point so I decide to ask a taxi driver and show him the hostel's telephone number. He calls them and finally finds out the correct address. Even though I am well aware that Google doesn't work in China, it seems as if Google Maps does, which somehow just leads to a different result. This isn‘t exactly what a good start looks like.
My lodging is situated in a hutong, which originally means narrow street, but also stands for the old districts with a classical, one-storied housing development nearby Tianmen-square. It's the largest city square in the world with a capacity of up to one million people. From 1911 onwards, Tianmen Square was one of the most important locations for demonstrations in China.
On June 4th, 1989, it became infamous because of the tragic events that took place there. The protestors for a democratic movement were pushed away from Tianmen Square to surrounding hutongs by police violence and 3,000 people lost their lives. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine even the smallest of demonstrations taking place here, in plain view of the strong presence of police and military forces. Military parades and other events supported by the government are still held here on occasion.
In the north, the square is divided by the Tianmen Gate, where the entrance to the forbidden city lies. On October 1st, 1949, it was from the gate's balcony that Mao Tse-Tung declared the land to be the People's Republic of China. Unsurprisingly, one can see his face on a massive picture hanging from the same balcony. Between the gate and square there is a bustling eight-lane street. The reason I mention this is because every morning and night, at sunrise and sunset, this street is blocked by the military for half an hour. That's when a battalion of soldiers marches on the street in formation at exactly 75 cm intervals in order to raise the Chinese flag. Of course, this leads to traffic jams everday, adding another drop to the ocean of smog that the immense city has to deal with everyday. Thankfully, you can buy some canned fresh air in the neighboring Hutongs, which is not a a joke.
Back in my room at the hostel in a fire station, I get to know Margrit and Martin from Austria. They‘re studing informatics and chose to spend their vacation in China. We chat a bit and they ask if I'd like to accompany them for their trip to the Great Wall the next day. Naturally I do, but that also means waking up at 5.30 am and I still feel my stomach pain a bit. As expected, to get up in the morning is pretty tough, but the two Austrians are enthusiastic enough to motivate me as well.
We take a subway, a bus and a taxi to Gubeikou, the old, un-restored part of the wall from which it takes approximately five hours of walking to get to Jingshangling. Having found the entrance we walk along the part of the wall reclaimed by trees and plants. It's the original Great Wall, partly broken and unsecured. The view is phenomenal. The wall bends and makes sharp turns between woods and fields over hills, continuing until it reaches the mountain crests in the north and south, ending at the horizon. It feels endless and even just the walking tour with all its ups and downs is a challenge. It‘s hard to imagine what a monumental task it must have been to build this wonder of the world.
Upon reaching some rather decayed guard towers Margrit is reading from the Lonely Planet guide: "Starting in 7th Century in different epochs several walls had been constructed for boundaries and expansion of the empire. However, the Great Wall which can be visited nowadays was constrcuted during the times of the Ming Dynasty as protection againt the hordes of Mongolian horsemen. The guards then used to live permanently on the Wall."
I try to picture what their lives must have been like. It somehow reminds me of John Snow and the Night’s Watch in "Game of Thrones", even if the Mongols surely didn't threaten China with an undead army. In any case, I find it rather exciting and fascinating to walk on the same wall that the guards used to patrol on with bow and arrow centuries ago. After a while, we reach the militarily locked part and leave the building in order to continue on an offbeat path leading through dense forests. The road goes up and down and gets quite steep sometimes. Coming back alongside the Wall, we sit down on its edge to rest our legs and take a lunch break. Though I still can't completely enjoy the omelette I bought at the train station a few hours before because my stomach remained ill.
After our break, we reach the reconstructed part of the Wall which looks exactly like what most people would recognize from pictures and movies. Every 300 meters or so, the six meter tall structure made up of enormous bricks is interrupted by well-preserved defense towers. Looking for the one from which we‘re supposed to catch our bus back later in the day, we realize how long the way ahead of us still is. In spite of the decent speed of walking and just one break so far, we will be forced to hurry a bit in order to arrive on time. Above all, the road conditions don't get any easier and we're all sweating. At some points, the way is so sloped that we need to use our hands to climb up. We certainly didn't expect that. At one of the defense towers, we encounter a group of international exchange students who spent the night in the tower and also has to catch the last bus back to Beijing at 4 o'clock. We all speed up together and manage to reach the shuttle in the last minute. Looking around in the bus, I can clearly see the exhausted but entirely happy faces.
Back in Beijing, Margrit, Martin and I are having dinner at a Hutong near our hostel and each one of us is enjoying a big glass of beer. The workout seems to have not only been good for my mood but also beneficial to my health since for the first time in days, my stomach doesn't hurt anymore. It's strange how you really start appreciating normal circumstances once they're gone. That does not only apply to health but also home, family and friendships.
Waking up the next day, the Austrian hiking enthusiasts are already on another trip. I'm taking things a little easier today so I head over to the forbidden city after a small breakfast. After having passed through three security controls I am standing in front of Tianmen Gate which is also called the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The face of Mao Tse-Tung is staring at me, convincing and somehow kind at the same time. If you didn't know his background, he may even seem like a good-natured, calm and almost wise, old man. Though he fought any critics and opponents with extreme harshness. According to estimations, at least 1.5 million people lost their lives under his strict military regime.
Nonetheless, I get the impression that there is little public debate about that time.
There is no such thing as a critical public in China and it's development is repressed in every possible way. It saddened me to realize that the majority of young Chinese people I talked to didn't show any interest in politics or political participation. The answer to my question of what was important to them in life was mainly money. When I replied to them that this doesn't exactly correspond to the communist spirit, the reaction I got mostly was a shrug of the shoulders accompanied by a weary smile.
I remember that Erich Fromm stated that communism was based upon desire. Resulting greed and the strive for peace are excluding one another according to Fromm which makes it even more interesting to observe the future development of Chinese society.
The environmental pollution affecting the Chinese population day in day out, in particular, is an issue that starts causing recurring criticism and political turmoil. Of course, you don't hear about that in Chinese media. It seems almost as if the Chinese government was free to do whatever it wants when it comes to domestic politics as well as foreign affairs.
Some people from Norway told me that they weren't allowed to enter China or allied countries of China without a visa anymore and that they couldn't go to Tibet at all which has been caused by the author and critic of the system, Liu Xiaobo, winner of Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. The intention was to honor him for his long and peaceful fight for Human Rights in China. Even before the award ceremony China threatened a deterioration of political relations to Norway and pushed for a boycott of the ceremony. 18 countries followed China's example, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Iraq and Vietnam.
Xiaobo has been detained for "Subversion of State power" since 2009 and his wife is allowed to see him once a month. Their topics of discussion are restricted and she is not allowed to hand over letters to him. I wish him a lot of energy and perseverance and hope his commitment will continue to inspire many more people.
I am entering the forbidden city along with a huge mass of other tourists. The first thing I catch sight of is the parade going on in which Chinese army recruits learn how to march accordingly. After that, reach the Gate of Celestial Harmony. In front of it, there are five small marble bridges on which the so called ‘golden water‘ is running. The bridges stand for the five main virtues according to Confucius: humaneness, justice, decency, wisdom and honesty. I leave the flow of people and head west to a smaller temple for calligraphy before visiting the Hall of Heavenly Harmony.
In the central and biggest hall of the forbidden city, you can find a golden throne. This is where the emperor received distinguished guests and where special festivities such as crowning ceremonies took place. The palace is designed in a remarkably diverse way and you can find a wealth of detail all around which is a proof of the highly developed craftmanship of China at the time.
I continue to stroll around the forbidden city and visit a few smaller but still impressively built temples around which life at court used to take place. It is said that more than 45,000 people used to live in the forbidden city. Grooms, cooks, gardeners, craftsmen, soldiers as well as scholars and specialists from abroad all had to constantly be at the emperor‘s disposal. In another temple, one can admire the works of his clockmaker, which are not only beautiful but technically sophisticated and full of surprises. The function cycles do not only move the hands but also trigger water games or move a coach in circles. I have never seen such delicate and elegant pieces of art before. Towards the end of my visit I reach the Imperial Garden where I enjoy a walk through narrow and large lanes surrounded by exotic plants and carefully modelled stone sculptures until arriving to the exit gate.
One day isn't enough to capture the forbidden city with all its temples and diversity of structures. Though it takes some effort to focus on the architectural site in view of the huge amount of tourists which takes away some of the historical charm of this impressive complex.
I am only allowed to enter Tibet or Lhasa by booking a guided group tour at an agency licenced by China. At the same time, it is recommended to not mention any planned trip to Tibet when applying for a visa to China. In the evening, I receive a message from my travel agent for the trip to Tibet saying that the Chinese government isn‘t reopening the border to Nepal for foreign tourists as announced. It has been deferred for an unknown period of time due to a landslide at an access road on the Nepalese side. Strangely, the border remains open for Chinese and Nepalese citizens which must mean that the Chinese government worries more about tourists from other countries going ot Nepal than their own nationals travelling there.
Either way, this obliges me to change my plan because a direct crossing of the border seems nearly impossible now. In addition, trying to cross carries a high risk of being caught and going to a Chinese prison. Expulsion to Germany would occur after having served the sentence too. I try not to give up hope but that forces me to look for alternative routes since I don't want to take the plane.
I contact other travel agencies as well as a few acquaintances who know the region a bit better. The responses are similar, all of which discourage me from choosing the illegal option. It's only possible to apply for a visa for Pakistan and Cashmere at the embassy in Germany. Any borders to India are closed as well so the only remaining way is to make a detour through South East Asia. I buy a ticket from Lhasa to Chengdu along with an online visa to Myanmar and apply for a visa to India.
After this bad news I decide to head over to the hostel bar and order a gin and tonic. The bartender is telling me that she was an artist. I'm asking if she knows the famous Ai Wei Wei who is currently teaching at the University of Arts in Berlin. She will remain the only person answering positively during the whole of my trip to China. We keep on talking about the art scene in her country and she recommends to me Art Disctrict 798, a former industrial complex now full of studios, cafes and young modern ideas. At this point, I know how I'm going to spend the upcoming day.
At the entrance of Beijing's art district, you can see three big slightly rusted sculptures forming the number 798. I turn into a side road and see a lot of graffity on the walls of interesting looking industrial buildings containing different kinds of installations. Small and big galleries are welcoming visitors to their exhibits of modern design objects next to paintings and sculptures. I'm feeling a bit as if I was in Berlin or London, though 798 seems more spacious and tidied up. You see well dressed people of all ages everywhere in the fashionable bars and cafes. Reaching a bigger square where an old American plane is fixed into the ground, I discover the office rooms of Goethe Institute, but unfortunately it seems to be closed today.
After visiting several galleries I come to a three-story building containing a shop for furniture and clothing as well as a planning office for interior design along with a cafe. I order a leek soup, some sweets of which I am unable to pronounce the names and a cappuccino. From the terrace I am observing people passing by and finish my text about my time in Russia.
The next morning, I'm feeling somewhat excited as it's my departure to Tibet and I am very curious to see what waits for me there. The movie "Seven Years in Tibet" raised my interest for that region years ago and I can't wait to travel there by myself. First of all, I find out my ticket for the train is at 7 PM, but unfortunately, there is no ticket at the reception as agreed beforehand. I am contacting my travel agent who informs me that there had been troubles with the courier. She asks me to wait in front of KFC at the northern forecourt at 6 PM to meet the courier there.
So I'm strolling a bit through the city, sit down in a small bar and at 5 PM, I arrive at the crowded Western station of Beijing. It takes a while to make my way to the KFC when I realize that it's a three-story fast food restaurant with an entrance on every floor. I decide to wait next to the top entrance, first for 5 minutes, then 10, and finally at 6:10, I call my agent. She says that the couries will arrive a bit later, at 6:20 I start getting nervous and recontact her 5 minutes later. He will come very soon, she tells me at 6:30. It's 6.45 when a young man and his son, both dressed casually walks towards me in a relaxed way, asking "You, Jan?." I'm nodding and he is taking the ticket out of his pocket and handing it over to me.
The little boy is looking at me his eyes and mouth wide open. I guess I'd have the same facial expression if I hadn't started running towards the security control right afterwards.
After a check of my passport, visa, luggage and identity I arrive in the enormous main hall of the Western station. Reading platform five on my ticket, I run down the long escalator until I reach the train, jumping inside when a whistling announces the departure of the train. That was a close call!
The long trip from Beijing to Lhasa is finally starting. While squeezing myself through the long, crowded corridors searching my compartment I noticed the attentive looks of people around me. I eventually reach my six-person cabin and fortunately I‘m assigned the upper bed. Hoping that this will give me the opportunity to relax a bit after stowing away my luggage I soon realize this will hardly be possible. Since it seems I am the only non-Chinese person in the whole train, almost every passenger in the compartment is observing me attentively, talking to me or asking for a picture. We communicate with hands and feet since no one seems to speak English or German and except for "Nihau" and "ChiChe," my knowledge of Mandarin is pretty limited. After the first arousal has calmed down, I'm feeling hungry and decide to make a typically Chinese instant noodle soup by pouring hot water over it. It's impossible for me to ignore the loud laughter of proud looking locals‘ faces. Returning to my compartment, I can't count how often I'm getting patted on the back. "These Chinese people are a bit crazy but still warm-hearted," I think to myself.
Starting to finally eat my soup, there are more people coming over to watch me and offering me undefinable Chinese snacks. I don't want to seem impolite so I'm accepting the ones looking more or less enjoyable and am surprised how much I like some of them. What makes me happiest though is when Tao, a short bald cook sleeping below me is conjures up a six-pack of Tsingtao beer. By the way, the brewery that produces it was founded by German colonialists in 1903 and is the 6th largest one in the world. We share the package and lay down on our plank beds.
The trip takes a long time indeed - 46 hours and a train full of Chinese people, their belongings and full of impressions. People lay, stand, sit and squat everywhere. There are pieces of luggage all around. The washing areas are constantly overstuffed. Depending on where you find yourself, it smells of food, cigarette smoke, sweat and faeces at the end of the train. I have to get used to the squat toilets and can't help but hold my breath. The corridors are full of families, business men, young couples, people travelling alone, pushing each other and a lot of military personnel. I am surprised by the amount of armed forces accompanying the train. Glancing outside, I can see a convoy of military cars stretching for miles following the obviously newly built streets.
The surrounding is transforming from greenish shades and hills to flat and sandy before turning into a barren, steppe-like landscape. The journey becomes a bit rougher since we're crossing a lot of curves in the mountains. We get higher and the first passengers are starting to connect tubes to valves in order to inhale some oxygen. Smoking is forbidden as of now.
At an altitude of 5100 meters, we are crossing a pass in order to reach the high plateau of Tibet. I am observing a traffic jam packed with trucks for several minutes. At the beginning, I discover the construction of a road through the middle of the mountains. You can see the workers and rollers making their way through the big hills. You've got to hand it to the Chinese - if they decide to do something, they do it 100 percent, and don't give up easily.
The breaks are squeaking, the train is stopping, and I am about to reach Lhasa. When leaving the train station, I have to present my passport, visa and permit. At the exit, there is a young Tibetan with a sign in his hands that has my name written on it. We get into his car and he takes me to the hostel. During the ride, he is telling me that he was Tibetan. I'm asking if his way of living and freedom was as restricted as depicted in Western media. He is putting his extended index in front of his mouth whispering: “They are everywhere, they control everything, probably they are listening even now.“
He is offering me some kind of bark which I should chew. It tasted a bit like a chewing gum, agreeably sweet, so I'm taking a second portion. Later I find out this was a betel nut whose effect on the body is similar to that of a cigarette; slightly stimulating and calming the hunger but addictive and unhealthy to the nervous system and teeth.
I take a stroll through Lhasa. The city center is classically Tibetan which means that no house is more than four floors and the walls are white. The wooden frames of the windows are decorated differently and below the windowsill you can see curtains in yellow, blue and red made of Yak-thread. On the roads, there are mostly scooters and rickshaws next to cars. I approach the first Buddhist monks in their well known red and yellow gowns while coming closer to Potala Palace, the former seat of the Dalai Lama. After passing one more security control, I'm standing in front of the palace and feel like sitting down on a bench to observe this impressive multifaceted building with all its details. I’m again reminded of the movie "Seven Years in Tibet" when the young, curious Dalai Lama is looking at the goings on the road through a telescope. I hear his musical clock playing Debussy's "Clair de Lune" and get lost in thought. On the way back, I take a picture of myself with the palace in the background to post on Instagram. I've downloaded a VPN-program before enabling me to use Western internet services. As a caption I'm type “Standing in front of Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, a dream becomes true! Unfortunately no Dalai Lama around anymore.“ I try to upload the picture three times. At every try the charging process takes surprisingly long until stopping unsuccessfully.
I delete the last sentence and try once more. Suddenly, it works without any problems. Shame to those who think evil of it.
At night, I decide to go to a small fast food restaurant. The friendly waitress is giving me two bowls and pointing at two fridges standing next to her. One is filled with different kinds of vegetables and the other contains all kinds of meat. I choose whatever looks tempting, fill it into the bowls and hand it to the waitress who weighs my food, tells me the price and starts to prepare it. I really enjoy the result of this rather unique meal. I finish pretty fast because of the hunger that brought me here and take my time to observe the other guests with their eating patterns and the slurping that seems to be considered good manners. On my way back to the hotel, I pass by a bar with some live music that sounds attractive. It doesn't even take three minutes until I'm sitting at the counter when Koby, a Tibetan and his wife are starting to talk to me. We are speaking about Potala Palace. He shows me a picture of him in front of the monument in a climbing harness painting the walls. Once a year, every Tibetan is supposed to contribute to the preservation of the numerous temple complexes. What‘s special about this is that there is no colour used to paint the white walls but self produced dairy products. I am impressed. He further explains that bamboo is used for red surfaces and yak wool for the black curtains. When I'm trying to steer the discussion to the Dalai Lama, he takes his index finger up to his mouth and imitating that we may get in trouble for mentioning his name in public. We are arranging to meet the upcoming friday after my tour and say goodbye.
The next day I change accomodations to meet the rest of our travel group. It's a four-star hotel with a single room. What's this luxury all about? This morning, I woke up on a hard plank bed in a 10 person dorm, taking my shower in a dirty bathroom with only a little ice cold water coming out of the showerhead and now this. Of course, the first thing I do is head over to the sanitary facilities with sidelamps, a huge rainfall shower head and agreeably warm water. "Christmas comes but once a year," I tell myself while activating the all-in function and enjoy the clattering of drops on my skin.
The tour is starting with a temple stay in Lhasa. In the hotel lobby, I'm meeting the other participants. We're a pretty international group consisiting of May and Dan from the US, Annie and Peter from Australia, Kengo from Japan, Justyna from Poland, Lee and Gua from Malaysia, Cheryl and John from England as well as Irina from Russia. At first, we are visiting the Drepung Monastery where around 5,000 monks used to live. The monument was partly destroyed during the war with China and nowadays around 1,200 monks live there. After our walk around the complex we are lucky enough to be able to observe some monks sitting on the terrace during their prayer with a view over Lhasa. They are sitting in several rows opposite of the prayer leader in elevated position wearing traditional garments. There‘s a fire of brushwood and cow dung ignited in front of him. Next to him, there is a small table with all kinds of ingredients. While all the monks are singing and reciting verses the ingredients are passed to the leader, who crumbles them, while filling them into a dipper containing oil. At the end of each verse he is pouring the content into the fire causing hiss and smoke, the latter being blown down the hill towards the city by the light breeze.
Still quite impressed by the ceremony we head to the Sera Monastery. Entering the complex, a lot of families are crossing our way, children run around happily. They all have something in common: a little black dot on their forehad. It's the monks giving it to them as a blessing so they stay healthy. At least once a month, parents are visiting Sera Monastery to care for their children's well-being.
Though we are here for a different reason: we want to watch the Tibetan monks debating. Every day around a hundred of them gather in another garden for a discussion. This regularity is of high importance since education constitutes an essential part of the buddhist monks' life. Each debate is held by two participants, one of them asking questions, the other sitting and answering. The next day, roles are switched. The person standing is actively putting forward a question and clapping his hands. The other one answers and if the interviewer is satisfied with his reply, he moves his hand towards his partner, and if he isn't, he will continue clapping with the back of one hand into the palm of the other and the sitting person is demanded a better answer. The monks get into a frenzy, some of the interviewers jumping around while the interlocutors risk their neck with unbridled talking.
I find this spectacle nice to watch and wish I could understand what they are talking about. I'm imagining this way of talking in the German parliament. Some of the politicians would surely work up a sweat when once again a pointless draft law influenced by lobbyists' interests is being presented by a minister and backs of hands are clapping in order to show disagreement with a proposal.
Awaking from my day dream of the first Tibetan debate in my home country's parliament, we are already on our way back to the monastery. I'm discovering a single square meter size mandala on the floor. It takes seven monks over seven days to create this image formed of small colourful pieces of sand stone. After having finished the work they erase it rightaway to worship the transience of all things.
I'm encountering that transience the following day visiting Potala Palace. This place, once the spiritual and political center of Tibet is nowadays only being used for museum purposes. Where once upon a time a myriad of monks used to live and the Dalai Lama received guests from all over the world, there are only tourists wandering around. Of course, I also benefit from these circumstances that allow me to visit the huge entrance halls and private chambers, but I'd go without this experience if in return the Dalai Lama had the opportunity to return to his former winter palace. Speaking of which he received his title from the Mongolian leader, Kublai Khan, and was nothing but a religious leader at that time. It was the fifth generation's Dalai Lama who also took over the political leadership of the country which is why he is considered the most significant one. Therefore, his tomb is the biggest and grandest at a height of 17 meters with three levels decorated by a total of 3,700 kg of gold. The precious metal has been donated exclusively by the Tibetan population with an estimated value of around 140 million euros.
I'm looking down from the roof terrace discovering Jokhang temple in the heart of the old city which is our next destination. It can only be reached by foot and many Tibetans walk around the complex seven times before entering. Doing so, they pray, first standing, then laying down on the floor. They repeat these rituals over and over. This way, some monks make a pilgrimage of up to a thousand kilometres.
From the entrance, I look around the square filled with praying people while two men dressed in civilian clothes sit on top of a small house catch my attention. I decide to take up the initiation before finding out that the two were civil policemen. Dan and I see four Chinese military personnel patrolling around the temple with weapons and fire extinguishers in order to prevent monks from setting themselves on fire to protest against Chinese domination. Shaking our heads we enter the temple where luckily we get the chance to see monks gathering in the building's center. They start praying and their singing is touching me while I get absorbed in thought. Peter has to tap on my shoulder to wake me up so we can continue the visit.
At night, we visit the restaurant "Makye Ame" meaning "Nice Past Dream". It's a special place with an amazing terrace in the middle of Lhasa where the sixth Dalai Lama, Tshangyang Gyatsho, often went to eat. It seems he wasn't very popular among other spiritual leaders because he often went out, met women and enjoyed life too much for a political and religious person. He claimed that the reason for that behaviour was his interest in life and the emotions of common people. During a meditation, an enlightened being, Bodhisattva, told him to search for the Goddess Tara who mostly emerged as a beautiful woman. Since women weren't allowed to enter temples the Dalai Lama often left his residence to find her. In order to remain undetected he changed his clothes. He seemed to have had a special talent for poetry therefore you can find traces of his creative power all over Tibet. This is the main reason Tshangyang Gyatsho is liked among Tibetan population.
One day, he met a beautiful woman in Chang House. She looked at him, smiled and he felt like she knew his soul. He felt overwhelmed by that moment and was convinced it was the Goddess Tara he encountered. Henceforth, he searched for her again and again and returned to Chang House many times but never found her. In memory of this story of the sixth Dalai Lama, the name of the house was changed into Mayke Ame, connected with the wish to awaken an old dream in every visitor.
We prepare our luggage, get into the minibus and drive to the outskirts of Lhasa. Before leaving the city, we have to stop by a police station in order to collect our Alien Permits that allow us to travel outside Lhasa as we are accompanied by our guide. But returning to the car, there is a policeman next to it. That man wouldn't leave us alone for a even moment during the rest of the journey, allegedly to protect us. In spite of our new travel companion, we get checked six more times by the police on our way to the Himalayas. I'm impressed and at the same time disillusioned from my hope of somehow managing to cross the border.
On our way to the roof of the world, we visit Shigatse, the city with the highest number of Tibetan people. We visit the monastery of Panche Lamas, the second highest spiritual leader. His story is as tragic as that of the Dalai Lama. After the death of the last Panche Lamas the Chinese government intervened and the boy recognised by Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the new Tibetan dignitary as well as his family have disappeared until today. At the same time, China reclaims the appointment of future Panche Lamas for itself. It’s as though the Italian government decided to choose the future Pope. Due to the disappearance of the actual Panche Lamas, a new one had been elected who continues to live in exile in India.
We keep on following the surprisingly well-developed streets and pass by the city Tingri, a departure point for expeditions to Mount Everest as well as high altitudes of 5100 m and above. Turning to the valley of the Rongpu Monastery, I spot the road sign of the way to Nepal. It's only 90 kilometers to the border. But after two security controls by the military, only a miracle would allow me to enter into that country. I ask my guide if she thinks there may be any possibility to cross the border by taxi with a hundred-dollar bill in my passport but she answers in the negative, saying that this would lead to considerable problems including the loss of jobs for every Tibetan involved.
While passing the route leading to our night's lodging, we're able to enjoy a stunning view over the Himalayas. Even though Mount Everest is wrapped in clouds, we're able to catch sight of Lhotse I, Nuptse and Makalu. We're still 30 kilometers away but even now it's hard to describe how majestic these mountains are. Back in the car, we're driving down the endless twists and turns of the serpentine roads. After each loop, everyone is turning to the side of the mountains and enjoying the view until reaching Rongpu Monastery where we can finally get off and relish the sight of Mount Everest in its full splendour.
Meanwhile, the clouds have disappeared and after a few moments of awe and deep admiration in silence, the clicking of cameras begins. So that is the biggest mountain in the world - this beautiful colossus which has been there for innumerable days. "Finally, I'm meeting you face-to-face," I say to myself. The feeling is overwhelming. We get a bit closer until we reach the small tent city where our group is supposed to spend the night. It's too late to reach the base camp so we're watching the sunset in freezing temperatures. The moon starts to appear and I'm observing the numerous facets of the magestic Mount Everest. The sky's colors are slightly changing and the peaks' beaming white is turning into orange-reddish shades. The sunshine keeps rising until nothing but the summit is brightly illuminated. I don’t even realize it's getting colder, up until the point where a light breeze starts freezing my face. May, Dan and I are standing in front of a small natural stream enjoying the moment to its end. Full of happiness, we return to our big tent and have some noodles before going to bed.
Our alarm rings at 5:30 the next morning. Justyna, Dan, Peter and I get up, put on our warmest clothes and while it's still dark when we start hiking towards the base camp. Our breath is freezing, every step hurts a bit since my limbs feel so stiff. It takes some time until we get warmer and the sun is slowly starting to rise so we can actually see what's around us. It is quiet, all we can hear is the flow of a small river near us and a raven yelling from far away.
We have to take a break here because the trail is so steep. I admire Peter who, after all, is 78 years old but doesn't want to miss this experience. After around two hours we reach the base camp, but unfortunately Mount Everest is covered in clouds. At least the sun is continuing to rise. We are feeling blessed to be the only four in seven billion people at this spot of Planet Earth right now. Since it's not the main season, all you can see in plain view in front of us is usually covered with tents or piles of stones. We're observing the movements of the clouds and get excited every time there is a small hole showing a tiny part of the massive mountain. After some time, we're getting too cold to stay any longer but before leaving I stick one of my quotes onto a stone. All the time I was wondering how this mountain must have developed, how the area may have looked before, how many people, just like me, have had the chance to admire the view from this spot and why I am so fascinated by mountains. That's why I decided to write down: "There are not enough answers to so many questions."
On our way back, we move away from the Chinese-Nepalese border and I now know that I won't get any closer to it. While I start feeling a light but persistent headache I decide to do anything to go to Nepal and India through Myanmar. As we're reaching Tingri, the whole group seems tired and are suffering from headaches. Some even feel queasy which doesn't come as such as surprise to me since none of us is used to spending that much time at an altitude of 4800m. Fortunately, everyone slept well during the night so all of us are in a good mood at breakfast.
During the upcoming days we drive on long roads through the sparse and fascinating landscape of Tibet. We visit the circular Pelkow Monastery with its numerous statues of Buddha in Gyangse as well as the foot of the Kharola Glacier. I'm surprised by the two lakes nearby Jia Re Cun that I didn't expect to be so beautiful. One of them is huge and called Yamzho Yumco, the other one is turquoise with reflections of the surrounding mountains on its surface. I can't take my eyes off the small island in its middle on which there is a small, decayed Tibetan house.
It takes us about two hours by car to get from one end to the other. When we get off to enjoy the view, we realizing that we're not alone. I count six bridal couples that have come to this place to take souvenir photos of their special day. You can see the joy in their faces about the beautiful weather. I remember another apparently sacred mountain full of vultures. Our guide explained to me that this is where Tibetans come to take their final path through sky funerals. The dead bodies are offered to the beings of the sky because it is believed that this is the right way to go to heaven.
On the other hand, if animals living on the earth such as wolves or dogs eat the corpse, the soul would end up in hell.
After having returned to Lhasa and bidding farewell to the policeman everybody feels more relaxed, so we decide to have a last beer. That's where we meet Koby again who is there with his wife and we continue our chat. The musician is playing and I find out that he's a good friend of Koby. Entering the stage he's welcoming us and dedicates the first song to our group. I say goodbye to most of my travel companions and accept Koby's invitation for lunch the next day. I'm grateful to have shared this experience with such a colorful group of different nations and enjoyed the exchange about our feelings and impressions throughout that journey.
On my last day in Lhasa, a bike-Riksha is taking me to the restaurant Koby had suggested. His sister is the owner of this former lodging for educators who taught at Jokhang Monastery. I leave the choice to Koby who knows all the delicacies best. During our delicious meal he is telling me stories from childhood to his marriage. I find out that he isn't allowed to leave Chinese territory. Though he will only get a Chinese passport on the condition that he's buying land in China which seems to be harder than one would expect. Without that document, he isn't allowed to travel to other countries so it will probably take some more time until he can come to visit me in Leipzig.
We also talk about the educational system in the country and somewhat surprisingly, he tells me that higher education is a privilege and reserved for very few Tibetans. I ask about the war between Tibet and China and his attitude about it. He supports the current policy - Tibet may have lost the war but not its faith. Peace under repression had been chosen at that time to avoid further loss of life. It was up to every citizen to bring progress to the country in spite of these circumstances. His personal aim, he continues to explain, was to build the biggest library in Tibet so that education becomes accessible to more and more people.
The next morning, I head for the train to Chengdu. When reaching the station I'm surprised by the crowd of people there. At the counter, I’m told that today was October 1st and the next seven days are Chinese holidays. It's estimated that around 500 million Chinese will travel during this week. That's as if every European went on holiday at the same time. You can imagine how crowded the train is. Whereas I already found the outward journey kind of exhausting the next 44 hours are even more of an intense experience. Of course, no one speaks English and the different smells and stenches are stronger than I could have ever imagined. My mission is to avoid the toilet and to adjust my diet throughout the next two days.
The trip seems endless but eventually, right after having finished the audiobook "Nighttrain to Lisbon" by Pascal Mercier, we reach Chengdu. I don't know anything about the city yet and only booked a hostel for one night to continue straight to Kunming the next day in order to get closer to the border of Myanmar. I take a stroll, observing a few boys playing football and feel like joining. Checking my mailbox shortly afterwards, I receive a message that blows me away. The agency by which I tried to organize my permits for the border crossing from Myanmar to India tells me that the processing time is around four weeks and that I have to present my visa for Thailand and India beforehand. In addition to that, I have to own a vehicle in order to pass the border posts. I ask if a motocycle counts as vehicle and they answer positively. But the worst news is yet to come: I have to hire a guide to accompany me all along. The answer to my question of how much that would cost me results in a quotation of 5,600 USD. Boom. That hurts.
I fell the need for a beer. Sitting at the bar, I start thinking about my options. Either passing the border illegally and risk getting arrested in Myanmar, which my friend Aleks from Denmark has warned me to do so out of his own experience, or considering flying there. Playing a ping-pong game in my mind I'm looking for flights. Using the air route would cost me 280€ without having to buy my own vehicle, without any permits, without an obligatory guide, without a visa, without four weeks of waiting. In addition to that, Loreen, a close friend from Berlin has been in Nepal for a week now and is waiting for me to arrive so we can do the Annapurna Circuit Trek together. I decide that sometimes one has to take life as it comes without sticking too much to their plans in mind. I'd like to leave China soon and there is no senseible way to do so without an airplane. A good friend is waiting for me too.
I book the flight and feel ready to enjoy my last days in Chengdu. The apartment of Arvid, that warm generous "Exile-Berliner" turned into some sort of commune composed of Colin from Canada, Graciana and Maciej who hitchhiked all the way from Poland (and continue to do so) and Tom, who I love playing frisbee with while getting to try more of Sechuan's cuisine.
Then suddenly the moment has come where I'm standing in line for the check-in at the airport and I get that strange gut feeling. We make a stop-over in Lhasa which strikes me as rather strange. I could have gone without that endlessly long, disagreeable train ride. On the other hand, I wouldn't have had the same experiences and wouldn't have spent these nice days in Chengdu. I find it fascinating to see how small coincidences and decisions lead you to where you are. Lost in thought I look out the window, Mount Everest looks back at me. Nice to see you from this perspective one last time.