Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Arrival In 北海道函館市 (Hakodate, Hokkaido)

Goodbye to 本州

At 2010/09/08 07:06 this morning, I had just boarded my fourth ferry of the voyage, and was accompanying this seagull across the water:

Hello to 北海道

Upon stepping onto the soil of this vast northern island, the first thing I saw was this sign:

... which reads "Thank you for your custom. Please take care to your destination."

This made me laugh, because I have, as of the present moment, no destination: I am already here! My aim (amongst many) was to come to Hokkaido, and, well... here I am! So now what do I do? I need to invent for myself a new destination.

Feeling the need for orientation, I took the first bus available to the railway station, where I felt somewhat stuck, due to the exorbitant-seeming fares. Only when I had bought a map did I realize that that these are due to the vast distances involved.

Hokkaido really does seem like a foreign country when arriving here from Japan. It's as if it' Japan's colony - and historically, this is not far from the truth. So here are a few first impressions

The people here seem slightly less highly strung than a lot of those across the water, and perhaps a bit more outside-the-box thinking. Physically, they are somewhat larger and stockier in general. Good gracious - I'm starting to sound like Isabella Bird... these are merely highly generalized first impressions, and may yet be proven wrong (actually 4th impressions, but this time they're in context of a gradual non-airborne voyage).

Geographically and historically, there is bound to be some Russian and Ainu blood in the veins of many of the people around these parts. And compared with the 田舎 I have come from, 函館 seems infinitely more built-up and cosmopolitan.

Weather-wise, I immediately feel more at home: although there is still bright sunshine, there is a definite cool breeze blowing across the sea from Siberia.

To celebrate the ever-so-slightly Russian flavour to the people, the signs and the weather, I have uploaded a "missing link" blog post, giving more detail on life aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, which you can get to by clicking here. This now seems like centuries ago (118 days, to be precise!), but is fun to remember, and remains one of many highlights of the journey so far.

This evening, I went down to a beach, and skimmed stones across the water towards where I spent last night. Were I able to walk across water, or sail / canoe like my brother, I could have done it in a day. There are talks of building a bridge across this strait, but I think it's pretty pretty without.

For years, I have been promising myself that one day I would live in Hokkaido.
And here I am!

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Japanese Art(s) Scene - in Hachinohe

At the start of September, I hitchiked north, and arrived in 八戸 (Hachinohe), where I had been put in touch with an artist whose residency here was just coming to an end.
こういちろう 山本 (Koichiro Yamamoto) has spent the last month or so based in an empty shop filling Hachinohe with yellow speech bubbles printed with a variety of phrases which seem to constitute gossip, rumours, and hearsay, or うわさ (Uwasa) in Japanese.

These mostly take the form of pin badges given out to anyone who wants one, and the shop walls are filled with photos of people wearing these badges, which proclaim such statements as "I've heard there's something amazing going on", "They say Hachinohe has many beautiful people". The effect is somewhat similar to that of Gillian Wearing's 1992-3 work Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say. In Yamamoto's work, however, the phrases are mostly not the wearer's own thoughts, but the phrase the wearer selected from a pool of about 400 different Uwasa on display in the shop.

Yamamoto has done a very good job of going out and engaging with the locals, and the presence of the shop with the yellow speech bubbles has generated quite a stir throughout the city. The display of photos gives a picture of a fun community art project that has brought people together and integrated with local culture such as the summer matsuri. However, in translation, this whole project loses a quirky edge that gives it a sense of fun in the context. The majority of the speech bubble comments end in the word 「らっしい」 -rashii, which is difficult to translate accurately. -rashii is most often rendered in English as "it seems...", or "maybe". The dictionary gives an explanation that ~らっしい "expresses judgment based on evidence, reason or trustworthy hearsay" but that's a bit of a mouthful, and still doesn't quite capture the subtle nuances that these speech bubbles contain.

The residency is part of the Hacchi project (a play on the city's name, the number 8 and the English word "Hatch"), an initiative organized by the City Council to foster the arts in the city, and at the same time make use of some of the empty properties left in the wake of hard times. This is going on in many parts of the world (Art360 and MECA are my homeland's local versions) but Hachinohe City Office seems to be setting a particularly good example of being proactive in instigating and facilitating such a program.
The Hacchi project is in the process of preparing a whole building as a permanent base, or "Portal Museum" and it seems that it is due to open in February 2011, when Yamamoto will be back in town, this time decorating buildings with large-scale versions of the pin-badge Uwasa.

On Friday evening, a couple of hours after arriving in Hachinohe, I went with Ko Yamamoto to another Hacchi organized event, part of an arts festival sponsored by Asahi Beer.

I was initially somewhat put off by the title of the evening, 酔っ払いた愛を (Yopparaita Ai wo): a suggestion of a combination of drunkenness and love, or a love of drunkenness. The location was the maze of snack bars and tiny 居酒屋 izakaya (drinking establishments) that are so plentiful everywhere in Japan, and especially here up north. Many of these establishments have also closed down, so there was a good variety of venues for the organizers to choose from.The evening consisted of three separate performances, each in a different izakaya, each lasting about 15 minutes. Performances were repeated 4 or 5 times throughout the evening, and the audience, armed with a 3-part ticket and a map, was free to move around the 3 venues in any order. In each case, the intimate size of the venue brought the audience of about 7-10 people right into the action, and feeling somewhat intrusive into the small world being depicted. We started with a play depicting a couple of businessmen getting slowly drunk and finding it gradually more and more difficult to make decisions on what to sing, whether to order food, and ultimately when to leave. A clever play on the nuances of Japanese social behaviour was offset by an undercurrent of the effects of stress and alcohol poisoning: one of the characters periodically clutched his abdoimen in pain and took a swig or two of sake to dull the pain.

The second show we saw was announced as 落語Rakugo, a Japanese tradition of comic storytelling, but the orator admitted to us from the start that 15 minutes was not quite enough time to engage in a proper rakugo session. He resorted to a few short funny stories and a card trick.

The highlight of the evening was a couple of dancers from Tokyo who skilfully portrayed the whole of Japanese nightlife in 15 minutes of interpretive dance. The audience entered to witness two apparently drunken girls dancing freely to a groovy big band dance music riff. The dancers' movements gradually became more controlled and synchronized into a well-choreographed interpretation of the physicalities of drunkenness. As the music went on, the dancers moved around the room, causing the audience, who had lined up along the bar, to move over to where the dancers had started. The dancers eventually moved behind the bar, and took on the role of the typical Japanese bar girl, whose role is not just to serve drinks, but to listen to the problems of the salaryman and make him feel good about life. The dancer's actions were mostly simple mimes of activities such as pouring drinks, listening with feigned interest, and trying desperately not to yawn; repeated and contrived to fit the music, these actions became a strange dance that somehow really captured the atmosphere of the past nature of the venue.

Later in the evening, Ko and I went to the after-party for the residency and for the performance event, where we spent a while meeting the dancers from the show, the mayor of Hachinohe, and various artists and curators from around Japan.

I am now about to head north to 恐山 (Osorezan, or Mount Fear) and then find a ferry to 北海道 (Hokkaido) to search for autumn and winter employment.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Unravelling Japan's Mysteries: A Very Good Way to spend the Summer!

By various turns of fate, I have had the good fortune come to a most wonderful place:

For two and a half weeks, I have been living on a family-run fruit farm in a rural part of Fukushima city in the south part of northern Japan. The farm is called Ankaju which is short for Anzai Kajuen, or Anzai Fruit Tree Garden (I have notified Shinya the farmer of this overly literal translation, but I have to admit that Orchard, while being a good word in its own right, doesn't sound quite as poetic as Fruit Tree Garden).

I am engaged on what is essentially a working homestay - I am essentially a WOOFer without having gone through the official WWOOF channel. In exchange for food and board, I help with the plethora of tasks that need to be done to keep the farm and household running. The farmer and the other workers start at around 4:30 in the morning. I have convinced them - as I have convinced myself - that I would not be able to function without a decent amount of sleep, so I am allowed the luxury of getting up as late as 6:30 in time to help prepare breakfast for 7.

The family of 6 spans 60 years: the 61-year-old patriarch - whose wife runs a pottery shop in the front room - has passed the farm management onto their 32-year-old son, Shinya, who is married to Akiko from Kamakura. Their 4-year-old son Sou-kun is interested in everything but only for brief periods, and their 1-year-old daughter is just on the verge of talking - she can now say "Yes", "Hello" and "Thank You" (suggestions for new words to teach her would be most welcome!) A couple of names must be mentioned: the almost-talkative daughter is called Momo-chan (Little Miss Peach), and the dog is called Ringo-chan (Little Miss Apple). Another family of young cousins lives in a house next door. There are three of us extra labourers - Oonishi from Kamakura who I am sharing a room with, and Ryuusuke from Fukushima, who drives here every day.

Being here is almost like being in Japan for the first time again, only with answers to the questions. Many of the mysteries that have puzzled me about Japan over the years are starting to unravel.

On the first morning, I learnt why Japanese apples are so big and expensive: after blossoming, as the apples start to develop, the majority of the apples are removed from the tree, leaving the biggest and best to grow even bigger and better. It might seem better economic sense to leave more apples to grow, and sell more smaller apples slightly cheaper, but the problem here is that there is simply no market for small apples. Also, apple wood is very brittle, and the apples get too heavy for the branches - we have had at least two broken branches in the last few days.

The majority of the work I have been doing has so far focussed around the cutting away of these smaller apples, as well as the removal of many many hungry leaf-eating hairy caterpillars from the leaves of the trees in the one "experimental" organic field. At my suggestion, we have started feeding the caterpillars to the chickens, which seems to fit in with the household's "waste not want not" attitude. (Organic farming and vegetarianism makes for many a moral dilemma). As well as caterpillars, the trees are populated by a plethora of small creatures, the quantity and variety of which is astounding. Frogs are plentiful - yesterday a huge frog sat contentedly on an apple for an hour or so, occasionally glancing around, but otherwise still, while we cut the smaller apples from around it. Mosquitoes also abound - I am half way between being able to tolerate or ignore the itchiness of their bites and having to resort to magical menthol-based substances to soothe the itches.

The most evident creatures at the moment are the セミ (semi, or cicadas), which cling to trees and rub their wings together, producing a screeching sound. The combined effect of hundreds of these insects is a deafening background white noise (something like a hyper-active string orchestra with tuning difficulties) which is actually louder than the traffic on the main road, albeit much higher pitched. When they are not attached to trees, the semi fly in between trees, making a sort of croaking noise, and since they are about the size of small bats or tiny birds, this can be potentially hazardous to the unsuspecting farm worker. Every now and then a semi will land on one of us, clinging on with its sharp claws, and then suddenly realise one is not a tree, and fly off with a shriek.

An aspect of the Japanese countryside that puzzled me right from the first time I visited 13 years ago is the presence in any given town of sirens or tunes echoing out three times a day from a few strategically placed loudspeakers. I have now learnt from experience that when one is working in the fields, it is most useful to know when it is 12 noon, or 5 pm, so as to be able to return to the house knowing with confidence that it is time to help prepare lunch or supper.

The food here is amazing: three solid meals a day, proper real farm food mostly prepared from scratch using freshly picked or bartered vegetables. The other day, someone came around with two huge boxes of なす nasu - aubergines (my favourite vegetable) and since then, every meal has included 3-5 dishes of nasu prepared in different ways - deep fried nasu, shallow fried nasu, salt nasu, sky blue pickled nasu, miso pickled nasu, spicy pickled nasu, nasu fried with miso, nasu tempura, sliced nasu, diced nasu, with new combinations appearing every day. I have just eaten the first meal for days in which nasu was not the main part of the main course (there was a side dish of spicy pickled nasu, left over from last night), and it seemed very strange.

On the occasions when I have helped to pick peaches, I have found it impossible not to think of Roald Dahl's fantastic story James and the Giant Peach... especially when discovering peaches that have either been infested by beetles or have mysterious holes bitten into them...

Another job I have been helping with from time to time is tending the fruit stall, which at the moment is selling the first of this year's peaches, and the last of last year's apple juice. Fruit-hunting tourists drive along the road (part of a rural bypass route called the "Fruit Line") and many of them - especially those who stop - are astounded to find a foreigner tending the stall (let alone one who can *actually* speak Japanese, ask them if they want to taste a peach, etc...). "Are You tending this stall?" "You actually work here?" etc,,, and wondering how i came to be here - Shinya and I are also not entirely sure how I came to be here - or if we are, it's a long story...

Selling peaches is not simply a matter of handing over the goods and accepting the cash. For a start, the peaches are laid out in baskets and boxes in such a way as to look appealing to the passer-by. Those who approach the stall are welcomed in the typical Japanese shop manner, いらっしゃいませ~! and invited to taste a sample. But simply cutting a bit out of a peach and proffering it will not do. Different parts of a peach are different sweetnesses. You may already have noticed that the flesh further away from the stone is sweeter, but did you know that the sweetest part of a peach is about two thirds of the way down just next to the side opposite the line linking the top (stalk) and the bottom? To expose this section to the customer, the peach is cut with the stalk facing the customer, and the line facing the floor. A small segment is cut, and slid out towards the customer. If all goes according to plan, the customer takes the part that is nearest to them, and rotates it towards them, biting into the part that is furthest away, which is the sweetest part. Furthermore, the peach (or at least the part offered to the customer) must be peeled, as in these parts, fruit peel is not generally considered to be consumable. I had this wrong for a while, as to my way of thinking, the sweetest flesh is that nearest the skin, which is therefore worth eating, and the fuzziness of the skin creates a pleasant textural contrast. Alas, however, I cannot share these delights with my Japanese customers, as the proper way to eat peach here does not involve consumption of fuzzy textures.

I am sitting in the peach stall area, surrounded by boxes containing the biggest, fattest, juiciest and most expensive peaches I have ever seen. I am astounded that many of the people who come to the stall exclaim "How cheap!" when confronted with a box of 6 or 7 peaches costing the equivalent of 10 British pounds. Many people also complain that the peaches are still far too small. I try to explain to them that the peaches we buy in the UK are around the size of the very smallest ones we are selling here, but they are having none of it. Shinya the farmer has tried to convince me that next week's peaches will be even bigger and sweeter - but I have yet to see or taste them.

Shinya has suggested that it would be a good idea for me to stay around for the majority of the peach harvest - until around mid-August - to help sell peaches and entertain the customers. Now we have finished apple-thinning, I have also been helping put reflective sheets down in the peach field (to help the peaches ripen more quickly and from below), helping to lay a concrete floor in the peach stall, and building wooden garden furniture for peach-tasting customers to perch on while they wait to fill in mail-order forms...

I am learning such a lot here - how to make things, how to say things, how to sell things, how to be good in a community.... This seems to me to be a very good way to spend a summer, so I may be here for a few weeks yet.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Arrival back in Japan and the Need to Clear My Head.

Arriving back in Japan has been strange and interesting. My path has been dictated by visiting old friends and revisiting old haunts. My journey has become one of repeat experiences: doing things or visiting places for the first time since... 2006, or 2002, or even 2000 (although it is difficult to think of many things that I did in 2000 that I did not repeat in 2001-2 or 2004-6).

I had forgotten quite how frustrating Japan can be at times: it often seems that there is a set way of doing things and if you don't do something the way it should be done, you have a really hard time of it. Wireless internet, for example, is almost impossible to find unless you have a subscription to one of Japan's mobile phone networks. And to travel, you pay for what you get: if you want to go faster, you can take the shinkansen, but it will cost you: some of these are the Japanese train equivalent of flying on Concorde (I guess that comparison's a bit out of date now). Veering towards the cheap side of expensive (i.e. wanting to cover lots of ground without spending too much money, and having enough time to do it slowly) I took a wild but logical route from Hakata 博多: by slow train to my former workplace of Yoshitomi 吉富, by slightly faster train to visit Texan Dan in Beppu 別府 (everyone's favourite hotspring resort: twinned with Rotorua and Bath), then by overnight ferry to Osaka 大阪. (This was the same as the last ferry journey I made in Japan just before I left 4 years ago.)

I had also forgotten quite how wonderfully hospitable Japan can be: In Osaka, I had a wonderful 3 days being treated somewhat like a prodigal son by my Sensei and her husband, and revisiting Kurama-san 鞍馬山, a favourite mountain temple near Kyoto. I then took the cheapest rail option to Tokyo 東京 (11 hours instead of 3 and a half, but half the price.)

For the last few days I have been staying with Ken who I worked with 4 years ago, in 三鷹市 where I lived 8 years ago.

Outside Sakura heights - 8 years on! (a new building, I think)

I have now moved on to the residence of Ryan and Nami, who, likewise, I haven't seen for 4-5 years, and who live nearby with their 2-year-old daughter. I am promised a trip with them up Takao-san 高尾山, a favourite mountain temple near Tokyo. Meanwhile, tomorrow I am meeting up (for the 1st time in 6 years) with Durham friends Dan and Helen (and Helen's fiancé), for some monja-yaki (which I haven't eaten for 5 years).

I really ought to be looking for a job, to fulfill my fortunate position as the holder of a Working Holiday Visa. But first, as I may have been insinuating in recent posts, my head needs clearing. I have been attempting to do this by staying in the cities and starting to fill in some of the gaps in my blog but it doesn't seem to be working as completely as I thought it might. (I have done a few entries: to find them, click on the arrow by May, to the left of this post. Also new Toilets on Trains images...)

Good advice from Steve (bro) and Jo (who I left in London but have been chatting with on Gmail) as well as a touch of serendipity / gut feeling (advice from God?) are all pointing towards a trip out into the wild as a means to clear my head, and this is what I am planning. I have left half my luggage in Ken's spacious loft, and will probably walk on from Takao-san into pastures - or forests - unknown. There is a travel book entitled All The Right Places at the start of which the author finds his way to Takao-san, and knows not where he is going next. I am in much the same position.

Unlike the protagonist in the film Into The Wild, I'll be in touch.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Raw Uncertain Displacement and the 日本の私への変化 (Transition to my Japanese self)

In Seoul, I had the rather dubious pleasure of seeing Japanese tourists behaving all foreign and rude... This I have not experienced before. Admittedly, the service in Seoul was not quite what you might get in Japan, but does this necessitate shouting their order loudly in Japanese or clapping hands to get attention?
One of the ladies in the group looked across at me apologetically. Afterwards, I approached them and asked how long they were in Seoul.
I had never before been on quite such a level footing with Japanese people - always having been either a guest in their country or a host in my own - here, though, we were all tourists in this strange and different country, coping with the language barrier and illiteracy, and the raw uncertain displacement of foreignness.

I am now sitting in 푸산 International Ferry Terminal where I have just bought myself a ticket for a Friday night ferry to 博多. Right now in front of me is a group fresh off the boat having a roll-call by a lady with the ubiquitous tour-guiding flag.

It's so refreshing to be able to understand what's being said! To be able to communicate!

It's strange, but I can feel a different sense of self bubbling up inside me - it's my Japanese self! Already I've started nattering in Japanese, and sending Japanese emails to people I'd refrained from contacting just because of the laziness of the trans-planetary language barrier.

In the past, this transition has been lost in the chaos of a 12-hour flight, but here in the gradual overland nearing, I can experience it palpably.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Leaving (my) Seoul Behind

I have now been being bewildered in South Korea for just over 11 days, and have spent most of this time with my sister Clare, who has just finished teaching English here for a year and a half. I am less literate in this country even than in Beijing, so Clare's knowledge of Korean and its 한굴 writing system has been most helpful. We spent a few days exploring the woods and mountains of Jiri-san National Park (including the highest peak on the South Korean mainland) and then spent a couple of days wandering around the area she's been living, engaged in flying paper aeroplanes from high-rise apartment blocks and other such frivolities. Yesterday morning I accompanied her to Incheon airport to catch a plane to Vietnam, and then sat in the airport for a few hours, attempting to catch up with myself. Even the smallest iota of self-catch-up organization takes many hours, and I have had so much input, and so many varied experiences during the last month that I need a good bit of time and space to process it all.

After the airport, I was going to head straight to Busan, but 서울 sucked me in, as these big cities have a tendency to do. Seoul seems to be on a frantic mission to be a demonstrative example of the most modern, perfect city possible. It seems to be doing pretty well, although as with any such city, there is plenty of evidence of homelessness. Skyscrapers abound, with many more on the way, and in the spaces between them, extreme looking rocky peaks form a backdrop that seems almost as planned as the city. Information and advertising are everywhere you look, and the whole effect is a frenetic mix of organization and disorganisation. I can imagine Ulaan Baatar becoming very like this city in about 10 or 20 years time. 北京, by comparison, seemed very chilled out.

Last night, I found myself on the first bed that I have slept on (not including dormitory bunks) since leaving Jo and Tom's Wood Green flat 33 days ago. I had been looking around for a 짐질방 that Clare had told me was opposite Seoul station. Since there were a myriad of things opposite the station (from the 서울Hilton to the 東京 Japanese restaurant), the 짐질방 eluded me, and I eventually found myself wandering a backstreet in the direction of a sign saying "Motel". Long before I reached this, however, an old lady approached me asking if - or insisting that - I wanted a motel room for the night. Without giving me a chance to refuse, she ushered me down the road in the opposite direction, around the corner through crowds of drunken businessmen, and up a dingy staircase into a corridor above a row of restaurants. She told me that checkout time was midday, and she would charge me 30000 won (just over £15). While this is 3 times the cost of a Chinese or Mongolian dorm room, and several times what it would have cost me for a mat on the floor of a 짐질방 (which may also be filled with drunken businessmen in varying states of slumber), it turns out to be fairly reasonable for what I got: a not-overly-dingy private bedsit with TV, aircon and ensuite shower. Pointing out the shower, the lady told me in no uncertain charades that I stank terribly and had better use it ASAP.

Having de-stinked, slept off yesterday morning's early start, and checked out - by leaving the room key in the ashtray and nodding to the lady as I passed her standing in the same spot where she had originally accosted me - I found a place to fill up on supposedly meat free 김밮 (which nevertheless contained some sort of reconstituted pigflesh). Thence to the station, and I am now being whisked backwards on the Southbound KTX.

KTX is Korea's high-speed train, and is almost indistinguishable from France's TGV. I was excited to notice, as I entered the carriage, a sign on the door saying "@ internet Zone". Like on the Brussels-Koln Thalys, however, the internet service is only for those willing to pay extra money. We have just stopped at 대구, which means that by spending the journey typing, I have missed the chance to see from the train the town called 구미 where Clare has been living. Now at last I am en-route to 부산, Korea's second largest city and the main port for ferry crossings to Japan, in search of a place to stop and spend a few days catching up with myself, perhaps filling in a few of the glaring holes in this blog, and then a few more days formulating a plan for Japan.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Ulaan Baatar: City of honking traffic and dingy basements

I'm in Mongolia!

I actually arrived here on Monday morning, and since then, I have explored Ulaan Baatar, taled to many fellow travellers, and made a solitary 2-night foray into the woods with just a bivvy bag and a bag of food. More on that later... (Tempus fugit)

For the moment, here are some diary snippets:

I knew as soon as I arrived (or perhaps I knew long before) that Ulaanbaatar is an amazing city. When I arrived, it was raining. My train companions (2 Germans, 2 Brits, 3 Dutch) told me there was a man stood on the platform holding a sign with my name on. This man took me to a waiting minivan (the preferred method of transport here) and informed us (me and 2 different Germans who had already got to the van) that the rain would stop the next day. And it did.

Straight away there is a sense that I am properly in Asia now. The intensity of big flashy signs lining the streets; everyone seeming very friendly and eager to help; everything down to the design of the pedestrian crossing lights (presumably imported from Japan or Korea) and the doorbell of the hostel; it all adds up to a particularly (East)Asian feel. Maybe the rain helped at first, but the feeling continued.

What an awesome place! What awesome space! The mountains are constantly in view beyond the fast-appearing skyscrapers: both of these imbue the city with a lively young energy. A traffic policeman stands smack bang in the middle of a busy crossroads amongst ferociously honking traffic, either completely in charge or completely out of control.

Crossing the road here is either an art or an extreme sport, I can't decide which. People weave in and out of cars like silverfish.

And the cars stop for them. They honk, yes, but they stop. And the honking is mostly at other drivers - a lot of cutting up goes on here.

Changing American dollars into Togrogs makes me feel rich: I hand over two fifty-dollar bills and am returned a huge wodge of notes - they don't have coins here (as far as I know) and the note denominations go right down to 50T (about 3p).

One of the first things I discovered in UB was...
... a vegan restaurant! Should I drop my preconception that Mongolians eat nothing but meat? In the restaurant (where the most expensive main dish costs just over £2.50), the menu claims that the traditional Mongolian diet actually consists of 8 months a year of vegetarianism. This may very well be a biased view, but apparently there are quite a few veggie and vegan eating places around.

While I was looking for Narantuul, which is alleged to be Asia's largest black market, I accidentally stumbled into a couple of much smaller multi-storey markets, in which the stalls were based in glass rooms. This gave the space a similar feel to an airport duty-free area. Swarms of kids and many other people were busily pushing their ways in and out of the glass doors and up and down the unmoving escalators. This was clearly the place to be on a Monday afternoon. The floors seemed at first to have general themes - fruit, clothing, gadgetry, etc, but each stall held surprisingly disparate items. Washing machines were sold alongside widescreen televisions, and a saucepan seller had a sideline in silk garments - or was that the other way round? On top of the first market was a cinema, which seemed to be closed, and a selection of restaurants, all of which seemed a bit dim and murky.

In the next multi-storey small market, all the lights were off, which presumably explains the non-functioning escalators and unlit restaurants. I went down into the basement floor - fruit and sweets - parts of which were near pitch dark. And lit only by one small candle in each window, the whole conglomeration of enterprises continued its business as usual!

Why, then, was I looking for the black market? Well, one valid reason would be to get pickpocketed - this is apparently rife there (hence no camera, hence no photos). Another reason would be to search for a cheap camping stove (I had been informed these could be sourced there). But the main reason I went was simply to experience it. Narantuul itself centres on two - or perhaps three - huge buildings reminiscent of Victorian railway stations. The first I saw of it, having rounded the corner from the two smaller markets, was a slope going down into the ground below one of these huge buildings. Down there was dark too, but there were people swarming in and out as if it was a tube station. (No tube here.) I got part way down, before deciding it was too dark and so I went up and around and into the side entrance. In and around these edifices are squillions of stalls selling pretty much everything. Words now fail me to describe it accurately: I think it has to be experienced. Suffice to say there are lots and lots of stalls, with lots and lots of stuff. Had I had the inclination, I could have come away with half a cow or a bunch of carrots or bananas or a pile of shopping bags or a chimney for a ger, or anything else for a ger, or a bronze buddha (presumably imported from China), or... I have since heard a story of a couple of Israeli travellers who went to the market and bought two horses and a mule, on which to make their journey across Mongolia. (Most people go by minivan or jeep on tours organized by their hostel or other private companies) The one thing I couldn't find was a camping stove, so I kept my wallet safely tucked away.

In the hostel (run by a Mongolian family from the Gobi desert) there is a sense that everyone is either just back from or just about to embark on some amazing excursion - the Gobi desert, a ger-to-ger expedition, a horse riding trip... it is very easy to sit in the hostel and wonder why one isn't out there in the wild having some amazing experiences...

...but now I'm back from my own expedition (which was unlike anyone else's) I sort of feel more part of the whole experience. I intends to post on this soon.

It is late at night. Traffic hums outside, and travelling Aussies breathe in their bunks. Please inform me of various typos by leaving a comment, or using the contact link at the top.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

City of Pine Nut Chewing

Irkutsk is pretty bleak. It is in Siberia, after all. In huge contrast to the heatwave we had in Moscow, May here seems like the duller parts of winter in Japan.

Irkutsk is grey weather, grey buildings, grey parks consisting of the same silver birch groves that make up the majority of this part of the world.
Many of the back streets are unpaved, and muddier than a Herefordshire farm track!
And here am I walking through the middle of it all in my bright green anorak. I get stared at a lot. I make a fool of myself going into shops and not knowing how to ask for anything, nor even quite how to pay for it. Roubles seem to flow away like sand through the fingers. This is apparently the case for everyone here, although melting snow is perhaps a better metaphor, suggested by a Moscovite I didn't quite meet.

Most of the men here seem to be chewing pine nuts from their shells, including the Uzbek immigrants who stopped me to ask if I knew David Beckham. I too have picked up pine nut habit since my chess opponent on the train recommended I buy a bag being sold cheap on one of the station platforms. The technique is to break the shells between the back teeth, and suck or roll the kernel out of the case. This characteristic action is seen all over the place, and is apparently an integral part of Siberian life.

In amongst Irkutsk's tumble-down and burnt out wooden houses and the crumbling concrete blocks, there are a few new glassy office developments, but even these appear somewhat unloved: the cracks and broken paving seem to appear as soon as a new development is completed.

Crossing the road here is like an extreme sport: the traffic doesn't stop, it just goes around the pedestrian. If you're caught in the middle of a long crossing, like this one outside the city hall, it can be very hairy.

There are hundreds of buses, none looking very official, mostly looking like they may fall apart at any moment, and all driving extremely fast, leaving a strong diesel-stench. The buses are generally crammed with people. I keep having to remind myself that I am still on planet Earth (the sky and the gravity are a dead giveaway) and every journey made in every car or bus going past (or staying still) - everyone I see - has a story.

A snippet of one of these stories is illustrated in this spur-of-the-moment film I made at a church (now a museum) near the city centre.

stones throw from Mark Baldwin on Vimeo.

While the carillon played its surreal repetitive melody, two boys who had been throwing stones at the church noticed that they had been noticed, by a man with a long grey beard. Wherever you go on planet earth, boys will throw stones; grown-ups will catch them at it; humans are humans.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Fresh off байкал, the Moscow - Irkutsk train.

I am aware that this is a bit of a jump from my previous post, but I have had little time to fit in any blogging. Looking back at that photo of me sitting in the Cercle des Voyageurs is like looking down a long tunnel into a distant past. I hope to fill in some of the gaps sooner or later, but for now, here is a little taste of the main "Trans-Siberian Railway" experience I have just undergone.

For three whole days and four nights, across six time zones, I have seen almost nothing but silver birches:

My diary has got 23 pages longer - I have got quite good at writing about stuff as it happens - so rather than attempt to replicate or précis all that, I will reproduce here the comment I left in the carriage visitor's book:

Time has a different shape here. The train goes on and gets nowhere.

Where are we? Now here. What time is it here? Now.

The scenery changes and remains the same. I never imagined I would see so many silver birches.

Language also has a different shape here. I never expected that such effective communication could be had by means of a few mispronounced syllables and the odd shake of hand or head.

As the train trundled through taiga, forest and fire, we inside have developed a world for ourselves: a world to and from which people have come and gone, from which no escape is possible but the final place-name on the ticket, but from which no escape is necessary, nor even desired in the slightest.

The endless trips to the samovar, the brief, tentative forays onto station platforms, and the continuous gentle rocking motion of the train all combine into a rhythm that will deliver us, all being well, to our temporary goal:

To all I have met, and all who - thought some may be invisible or unknown to me - have delivered us thus far (like the living, breathing goods train that we are),
балшой, балшой спасибо!

I wrote that last night, and having got a good nights sleep as we moved into Irkutsk-time, I arrived in Irkutsk this morning, and bade farewell to my fellow passengers (more on them sooner or later, I hope).

I am now in a sitting-room with a Union Flag painted on the floor, and three cats, one of which is completely bald.

I also have a yen (or should that be a Rouble?) to go out into Irkutsk and see if it really is dustier than Moscow, as my first impressions have suggested. It is already after 4 pm here (see how much time blogging takes!), so it's about time I got my boots on!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

People and Life aboard байкал, the Moscow - Irkutsk train

As I boarded the train at something past 11 on a sweltering Moscow evening, it seemed like the hottest, least spacious environment I had ever come across. I had chosen to be in third class, or плацкартны, which is not corridor and cabins, but open plan, with bunk beds along each side of the carriage - parallel on one side and perpendicular on the other. The remaining space was full of people, food, and blankets piled high. It didn't seem like there would be any room for anything else. The first challenge was fitting my backpack and all extra bits and bobs into the space under my bottom bunk. The bed lifted up on a hinge, and one or two people immediately rallied to help me squeeze my backpack underneath. The space was surprisingly large, so after removing my rollmat, my pack fitted perfectly. Everyone else in the carriage was Russian, and all were immediately friendly and helpful and interested.

At the start of the journey, the people in my immediate vicinity of 6 bunks were as follows: In the bunk opposite me on the same side of the carriage was a middle-aged lady who had been visiting family in St Petersburg. In the bunk across the carriage was a tiny, extremely ancient, fairly toothless, wizened granny who was presented to me as "very old". Old she may have been - I guessed probably at least in her 90s - but she was nevertheless very energetic and talkative, and when she wasn't engaged in deep and animated conversation with her daughter or one of us others, she was on her bunk doing situps and leg stretches. I later learnt that she had previously been a top volleyball player.

On the bunk above Granny was a somewhat younger middle-aged lady who turned out to be her daughter. At one point, I saw her grating an apple! This made me intensely happy, as I thought I was the only person in the world who grated apples, and here was a lady doing the same in the middle of Russia as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. All three of these ladies were heading home to Irkutsk or nearby. On the bunk above me was a man who, having asked if I was English when I first got on the train, mostly slept until he got off the train a day later. On the other top bunk was a young girl - presumably the man's daughter - who, as far as I can ascertain, did not speak for the entire duration of the trip, and like her father mostly slept.

I was amazed to discover how much information can be shared with little or no overlap of language, using gestures, maps, place names and a lot of enthusiasm. The lady in the bunk opposite me spoke a fair bit of German, and while I cannot claim to having any proficiency in that language, I can just about manage the sentences "Ich habe ein brüder und eine svesta" and "meine svesta ist im Korea, und mein brüder ist im Canada". When you find an even vaguely shared language, there's a kind of click as minds open up, allowing a flow of information. Speaking limited, bad German was immensely satisfying: I could actually get an idea or two across to someone with whom, a few moments before, I had had barely any mindflow whatsoever.

A somewhat tipsy man wandered past every now and then on his way to have a cigarette in the smoking area at the end of the carriage. He seemed to take an interest in me and once asked if I had a light. I ran through my mental inventory of belongings, and decided that if I did have a lighter or matches, they were buried far too deep in my bag to be worth hunting for. However, when the man later managed to get hold of a chess set from one of the Provodnitsas, I had no excuse not to engage in a game or two.

At various intervals, a lady with a trolley full of meat and potato doughnuts and beer would wander past, saying something like "Soukh? Kartoschke?!" in a soft but persistent voice. "Soukh" may have been a different pronounciation of сок; Kartoschke no doubt referred to the potato thingies. At some time on the first day, I decided to try one of them: there were two varieties, one without meat. It was not bad, but luke warm, a little greasy, and not particularly worth the number of roubles I paid for it. After that, every time the lady went past, she caught my eye and tried to persuade me to buy another kartoschke. Having refused a few times, I gradually noticed that noone else was buying them... The other passengers eventually explained in mimes of approximately the following meaning: "Think about it: the Kartoschke go past on the trolley every day. And they're always warm. You think they cook them fresh every day? No, no, no! These same doughnuts have been with us since Moscow. It's pretty likely, don't you think, that the same potato doughnuts have been going back and forth between Moscow and Irkutsk for goodness knows how long?"

I was keen to practice my Russian, so with a combination of my phrasebook and copying what I heard others saying, I started each morning by wishing the others доброе утро, and asking как спалнй? Granny took this very seriously, and upon hearing my words would stand to attention, and, with a carefully controlled bow, wish me a slow, steady доброе утро in return. I somehow found out that as well as playing volleyball, she had been a teacher of Russian. I continued practising my previously non-existent Russian with her, and when we passed through a city I couldn't identify on the map, she taught me the word for city, by eliciting the concept from "New York, Moscow, Leningrad..." and told me all about it.

The chess man's name was Dmitch, and we ended up playing chess for hundreds of miles. It was a great aspect of the journey: the bunks that along the side of the carriage converted into a table with two chairs, so we sat by the window with a foreground of chess and a background of endless silver birches passing by. I surprised us both by beating Dmitch in the first game we played. He beat me soundly in the second game, but i managed to win the third. After that, he gave me a meaningful glance every time he walked past.

On Wednesday, i woke up to discover a strange pair of boots below my bunk, and the bunk above occupied by a new arrival, sleeping. When he awoke, he became Ed, who had joined us in the night at Yekatarinberg and was the only other Brit on the train. What were the chances of this? Miles from nowhere and even further from anywhere; the only 2 Englishmen within hundreds of miles, and here we were sharing a bunk! Was there some conspiracy afoot in the train accommodation planning office?

Ed was en route to Vladivostock, from where he was going to fly back to Europe and hike across the Alps (a bit of a funny way around, but that's Englishmen for you...(

Dmitch and I continued our chess battle: after 5 games, we were drawn 2-all with one stalemate. I think i was distracted by the sheer volume of silver birch trees. I spent a day or two reminding (or teaching?) Ed how to play, so that he could join in the competition.... I admit to having a selfish motive: I was hoping that Ed would play chess with Mitch, giving me some time away from the chessboard to explore the train. But of course, we had plenty of time to explore: Ed and I spent a couple of hundred miles wandering between carriages, discussing the (then recent) changes in British politics.

Wandering the corridors

In between carriages

At Barabinsk, Ed and I both got off to sniff the air. I immediately had to get back on to put my second fleece on. Such a contrast from Moscow - it was positively Siberian! (I was extremely glad to be able to use that phrase without exaggeration for the first time ever.)

What a contrast from Moscow! We walked up onto the footbridge, keeping our eyes fixed on the Provodnitsa standing by the open carriage door - we did not want to miss that train! The prov. seemed to make a sudden move, and my heart went into double time. As I ran back down the bridge, my Trans-Siberian handbook fell out of my pocket, scattering loose pages, bookmarks and useful bits of paper away over a fence. I had no option but to climb over and gather them up. As I hopped back over the fence, I found myself looking up into the eyes of a Russian policeman glaring at me. I waved the bits of paper at him, miming that I'd dropped them, and scarpered back to the train, where I learned that the engine was still being changed, and we had a while to wait.

Every now and then, Dmitch would bring his guitar along the corridor, and start playing Beatles' songs (there's nothing like being British for getting people to reveal their inner Beatles' fan..) So we had a good few jamming sessions, him on the guitar, and me on my Jews harp, which, with a completely different tuning, gave songs such as You've Got To Hide Your Love Away and Day Tripper a completely different macabre edge. In between chess games, wanderings and busking sessions, the others on board shared food with us, and I felt very much like my companions were treating me as their guest. It was a homestay on a train.

In retrospect, the 5 days aboard the "Baikal" train are a tiny part of an extremely long journey. But they are a wonderful part. Not only did I cover more ground during those 5 days than I have in any other 5 days this year, but I think I learnt more than ever before or since about the resilience of human interaction - the ability to communicate whatever the linguistic circumstances. I was quite sad to arrive in Irkutsk, knowing that this experience was behind me, and never again would I be able to travel for the first time on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Moscow Map Making

When I first arrive in a place, all I have of my internal map of the area is what I can see, hear, smell and feel, there and then. Whatever is beyond the limit of my personal spatial experience, is unknown and does not yet exist for me as a place. The great block of Unknown builds up behind the wall of my horizon, and can only come to be known by injecting my presence to slice it apart.

The scale of Moscow's stubborn grandeur is difficult to come to terms with - as is the general unhelpfulness of the place: even the writing did not initially not fit into my experience bracket. The weather was also somewhat unhelpful: as we got off the train in the early morning, it was a nice hot sunny day, and this heat continued to increase as the day went on.

On the morning of the 8th of May, my horizon consisted of a row of large rectangular buildings surrounding the square outside Belorusskaya station where I had arrived. Not knowing quite where to turn first, having left the directions for my hostel on the internet, I headed for the Metro system, as I had read that this is the best way to navigate the city. The Moscow Metro is a half-buried warren-shaped palace. It it a surreal maze of opulent décor. Unexpected passages lead off in every direction, and each station is potentially three in one, as stations that span more than one line have a different name for each part. милиция wander its passages in strict formation, presumably keeping their eye on things, although their youthful faces belie their human interior.

The милиция presence was especially huge in the city centre, most of which had closed down due to the Victory day parades. All the Internet cafés I had been recommended were within a huge underground shopping centre, which was completely off limits, so I had no access to the hostel directions. The милиция were no help at all, answering most of my questions with a gruff "нет". The most helpful people I met that morning were the doormen of a grand looking hotel, who told me that although the central area was closed, any open coffee shop in a nearby street would probably have an internet connection I could use. This turned out to be far from the truth, and I was without internet after all.

I knew that my hostel was in between two Metro stations, so I travelled to one of them and started walking in the direction of the other. As I went, the map I had seen on the hostel's website gradually came back to me - albeit warped by my memory - and I worked my way to the location of the hostel. Seeing no sign of any hostel in any of the streets I passed through, I concluded that I must be mistaken, and went off to find somewhere to log on.

Refreshed (by a cool fruity drink) and connected (by an intermittent and unofficial internet connection), I found the hostel's access map and discovered that I had already walked past the hostel, perhaps even twice! So I retraced my steps, and found yet again that there was no sign of a hostel there. A large long building with a roughly plastered painted brick exterior was undoubtedly the location, but there were no signs - just a couple of blank doors. I settled for the door on the left, and went through into an apartment building. I started climbing some stairs which looked rather private, thought better of it, and consulted the map and directions, now saved on my computer. The directions said something about pressing the right number to buzz to be let in. While I was sitting on the steps, my large rucksack on the step behind me, my laptop on my knee, an old lady came downstairs. She peppered me with harsh-sounding Russian words, but no mention of a Youth Hostel had any pacifying effect on her.

I apologized, escaped fury and went outside to try the other door of the building. Inside was a numeric keypad as described in the directions, so I pressed the correct number and was let in. Still no signs or anything to suggesting a hostel. I went up three flights of stairs to where a woman was looking confused at a door. She also could not find the hostel, even having got this close. Emboldened by company, we tried the last door, a big heavy metal affair. It opened onto a polished stone staircase with steel bannisters, leading up to a bright modern interior with a big friendly sign saying "Welcome to SHELTER Hostel!"

That evening, I met a youngish chap who introduced himself as George, and said he was originally from Armenia, lives in Russia, but has latterly, "for whatever reasons", been mostly speaking English. He seemed to live at the hostel, and was involved in various English teaching activities. George has a natural inquisitiveness for language, and is constantly hungry for the lowdown on colloquial expressions. He invited me to his English converstation class the following evening.

On Sunday, I indulged in the main reason I had decided to spend more than a day in Moscow: Сандуновские баня. This turned out to be the most opulent (and perhaps the most expensive) bathhouse in the world Despite its grandeur, the place fell somewhat short of my expectations as a bathhouse: there was no hot bath, the only large masses of water were cold. After a sauna and scrub and some delicious fried aubergine eaten in the nude in the leather-clad changing room, I returned to the hostel, where George was waiting for me.

George and I on the subway escalators

He took me via the Metro and through the still closed Moscow streets to a coffee shop. None of his students were there - he suggested the continuing national holiday may have put people off coming. We waited anyway, and two people eventually turned up - they had been out clubbing late the night before, although this was about 6:30 in the evening - so I guess it was a pretty late start. It was all very informal, and we talked of the world, travel, and hopes and dreams. I learnt that lots of Russians and Belarussians (so it seems) want to leave Moscow and go to America.

This does not apply to all Moscovites, however. On Monday 10th May, I met up with Paul, who I had met when working for EF in Minehead in 2003. He is Moscow-born-and-bred, and has an inexhaustible passion for the city and its places and their stories. I felt lucky to know him, as he gave me as complete a tour of the city as I could possibly imagine having in a day.

Moscow is a complete mix of different architectural styles, ranging from the solid "Don't mess with us" former KGB headquarters to the floating golden and coloured domes of the churches, monasteries and cathedrals.

Moscow seems somewhat like a dustier version of a cross between Paris and Barcelona with different famous bits. It is lively in parts with quiet backstreets, and all framed by 4 or 5 concentric ring roads and 8 huge towers, each of which serves a different function. The one we got closest to is one of the biggest, and houses something like the Foreign Embassy. These huge structures make me think of Orwell's government buildings in 1984 and Huxley's rocket towers in Brave New World.

Paul also showed me a selection of the most impressive Metro stations, one of which has statues on every corner (and about 20 corners per platform) depicting idealized images of humans in various roles: Sportsmen and women, factory workers, writers, farmers... Truly the Moscow Metro was - and still is - a palace for the people.

The tour finished with the two of us running up a grassy ski slope to a viewpoint in front of the University, which itself is housed in one of the impressive scary towers. It was too dark for a decent photo, but we could see right across the entire skyline of the city, counting all eight towers, and also spotting the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and St. Basils. My internal map of Moscow is now fully structured - with just a few more details waiting to be filled in if I ever visit again.