Unexpectedly, the Burmese Embassy called and gave me the all clear: my visa was approved by MOFA HQ back in Burma, and I could come in and pick it up any time: off tomorrow for a week-long furlough in the Union of Myanmar, a country so overwhelmingly interesting that I don't even know where to begin.
This is a nation run by a consortium of military leaders who decided in late 2005 -- on the advice of an astrologer -- to move their capital city from Rangoon (which they renamed Yangon, in keeping with the Burmese language) to an undisclosed location some 300 kilometers north, beginning at the lucky hour of 6:37 in the morning on a particularly auspicious day in early November, and then reinforcing the luckiness of the move by capitalizing on the power of the number 11, moving 11 government ministries and 11 battalions of soldiers in 11 hundred vehicles beginning at 11 o'clock on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year.
It took almost five more months before the Burmese Government unveiled the capital city to the world, hosting a massive military parade in March of 2006 to mark Burmese Armed Forces Day, an appropriate holiday given that the nation is run by a military junta. They call the new capital Naypyidaw, meaning the Abode of Kings and while it's an auspicious place, it sadly lacks enough schools and infrastructure to adequately host the entire Burmese Government: such logistics are not the purview of astrologers.
I'm panting in excitement that they're going to let me go: you can't make stuff like this up.
Posted by Dakota on 8:19 AM link |
My visa to Burma is now on indefinite hold, with a potential answer maybe coming -- maybe -- sometime next week. My hell/high water plan was to attempt to make my way to East Timor in the event that everything with Burma went pear shaped. That said, having now done the research on plane tickets (Bangkok -- Bali -- Dili, in Timor, and then back), I can say that East Timor would be an additional 600 bucks on top of an already expensive trip. Worth it?
I'm leaning no. Pear shaped, indeed.
Posted by Dakota on 12:31 AM link |
Sometimes I think I can still swing it as part of the grungy backpacker scene, that despite my luxury 3-bedroom in the swank part of Beijing, I can still hack it in 4 dollar hotels and on long and miserable bus rides with livestock as seatmates. I still think of grungy backpacker types as my people, even though the Embassy is largely tasked with taking care of that subset of the population when they lose a passport, or get busted for possession, or run across the law in some other disastrous and unpleasant way: still my people.
But now I'm standing in the visa line at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok. The guy in front of me has a half-inch thick chunket of ivory -- it's fang-shaped -- through his pierced left ear, and I overheard him debate with his fellow traveller if, on the visa application under 'purpose of travel,' they should just be honest and write 'hashish.'
I feel so old.
Posted by Dakota on 12:23 AM link |
This much I know is true: I am a wretched photographer. I have a nice enough camera, the digital SLR that I bought used a few months ago, and I make up for my lack of skill by the sheer volume of photographs that I take. This makes my photographs almost impossibly boring to look through, with hundreds of photos of wide open spaces, and I (packrat to the stars) for the most part unwilling to delete any of them. I'm also unwilling to put them on to a publicly accessible website (flickr or picasa), because then the world will know that I'm an overwhelmingly boring photographer.
I went on the three big trips since the blog went silent. Three big trips without a lick of blogging to me indicated that the blog was dead and I should kill it once and for all, but I get too much of a kick out of my old travelogues to do that. I think the camera is what hurt me most: I normally take notes while I travel, writing down random chunkets of what I'm seeing, as I see it. Nothing makes the blog except what I note. But with a camera, my first impulse is to snap pictures rather than to write things down. And since I'm a wretched photographer, the last three trips were largely unrecorded.
I don't want to turn this blog into a photoblog. I'll keep the pen handy on the next trip.
So, to recap in brief, and in chronological order with just a few photographs to indulge my wretched photography habits:
Mongolia was beautiful beyond any speaking of it. It was also cold beyond any speaking of it, with the temperatures in late September already firmly in the low 20s at night. Mongolians sleep in open-topped yurts, and once the fire in the middle burns out, it's ridiculously cold.
I remain committed to traveling solo, but in Mongolia it's largely impractical: the things that one goes to do to Monglia are either prohibitively expensive or outright lame if done alone: horse trekking, hiking, camel tours, what have you. But Mongolia is studded with Tibetan Buddhist temples, and since getting there is half the challenge in Mongolia (guidebooks give GPS coordinates -- useless to me, as I lacked both transportation and a GPS device), set off for a few of the more remote monasteries with just the goal of getting there.
I started in Ulaan Bataar, a pleasant enough but largely unremarkable town where everything is named Genghis Khan.
This isn't Genghis himself, but he's pretty much everywhere else.
I snagged a bus to Darkhan, the second largest town in Mongolia, but the country so lacks infrastructure that even the road linking the capital with the second largest city is half unpaved. I stood in a parking lot where cows were grazing in calf-high trash, and hired a car and driver via pantomime who took me to Amarbayasgalant Khiid, a monastery 150 kilometers from nowhere and 30 kilometers off anything resembling a road. I invariably have ridiculous luck with temples, and they were having a temple fair for no apparent reason that I could figure out.
Nice horns. Nice mask. Nice hat. Nice... head.
The gentleman above wandered around and passed out candy to all the Mongolian kids who were wandering around the temple grounds. I still have no idea what the fair was about, what holiday (if any) they were celebrating or what point in Buddhist theology they were trying to drive home. I speak no Mongolian, and what limited Russian I speak is certainly nowhere near good enough to grasp religion. But god knows it was pleasant to look at.
Darkhan. Ulaan Bataar. On to Kharkhorin, to see the Erdene Zuu Khiid, the first monastery founded in Mongolia at the time of Tibetan expansion in 1586.
Does it look cold? My god it was cold.
I stood on the outskirts of Kharkhorin for about three hours with my thumb out, hoping to catch a ride to somewhere near Tovkhon Suum, a monastery and pilgrimage point tucked in the mountains somewhere near the town of Khujirt. I got picked up by an amiable Russian-speaking used car salesman from Ulaan Bataar who was out to find a spot in the forest to bury his parents' ashes. He let me tag along.
We started with vodka at 10:00, moved to fermented, lightly-alcoholic horse milk at noon, and found a suitable spot at around 1:00. His wife made instant noodles while he tied prayer flags around nearby trees and I, on his instructions, dug a hole. He chanted, burned incense over the hole, and built a pile of cookies for the birds. We toasted his parents and his wife and life in general, and lay in the late autumn sunlight in the Mongolian forest. The mood was upbeat, almost exuberant. My lack of talent for photography does the event no justice.
Amiable, that's for sure.
We spent the afternoon driving from yurt to yurt on the open Mongolian steppe, stopping at nearly every yurt we passed. He knew everyone. At least it appeared that way: I have no idea what they were talking about. I love the sound of Mongolian -- vowels come in not just long and short, as you'd expect, but also in 'whispered' or 'breathy,' so Mongolians appear to stop speaking halfway through a word and start whispering. It's hypnotic; I'm convinced it sounds like hoofbeats. But hypnotic or otherwise, I understand not a single word of it, and it was unclear to me if he was stopping at strangers homes to chat or if he actually knew the inhabitants.
At every home, there was fermented horse milk -- airag, in Mongolian -- and it's the only Mongolian food product I developed a taste for. Well-fermented airag tastes lightly carbonated, and it has a sweet, almost candy-like undertone. The fresher stuff isn't so good, with a distinctly horsey undertone that follows you around once you're done drinking. Mongolians drink from communal bowls, and you have to blow away grit and crust from the top of the airag before you can drink it, but it's the primary source of nutrients in the Mongolian diet and I actualy enjoyed it.
The rest of Mongolian food is so ungodly bad that I lost 14 pounds in 10 days. At every stop, there's horse cheese. It comes in a small variety of textures -- there's soft, creamy horse cheese that feels like cream cheese and has a layer of horse cream on the bottom, and there are dried chunkets of cheese that are so hard they have to be gnawed on. At every stop, I choked down one bite to be polite and then stuffed the rest into my pockets. Dogs started follow the smell of my pants. I only got caught once, but they thought I liked the cheese so much I was saving it for later, and thrust more into my hand as a parting gesture. Mongolians were infinitely giving and hospitable; the unfortunate part is how truly awful what they had on offer was. I'm still convinced that I'm carrying a vaguely mare's milky smell with me.
I had largely forgotten about the monastery by mid afternoon and, slightly buzzed and vaguely nauseated by all the airag, I didn't really care. I wasn't sure where we were headed when we passed by a couple of hitch hiking teenage monks, picked them up, and drove 10 kilometers straight uphill through the forest to the monastery, perched on a peak in the middle of nowhere. "We'll sleep here tonight," they said.
Could be a lot worse.
The monks put us up for the night, made us a meal of mutton soup, and chanted for a safe onward trip. The ranking monk was a scant 21 years old, and the other three were really just kids. They clowned around for the camera and then looked through my photographs from the other monasteries and pointed out their friends: apparently the community of monks in Mongolia is ridiculously small. The next morning we hiked the nearby forest, and took the pilgrim's walk through the temple. Sunrise was glorious, both because of the view and because it meant that heat and feeling would be returning to my limbs.
Prayer flags under the deep blue sky. Monks. The monastery is the green-roofed building tucked in the mountain behind them.
So that was Mongolia: wide open spaces that take forever to cross, bone-numbing cold, and miles and miles of steppe, livestock, yurts and forests. The people are ridiculously friendly, and I wouldn't hesitate to go back, but I'd want at least a month, and I'd only go again in summer, that's for damn sure.
The Mongolia blog went a lot longer than expected, but if I don't keep going, I'm finished forever.
Kyoto is lovely beyond any speaking of it. It's probably the nicest city in Asia, and certainly the most romantic place I've been in a long time. It largely escaped World War II, and is so packed with temples that you can't help but wonder if they really need that many.
I went for Thanksgiving. I skipped turkey and had katsudon, which I love, and I topped it off with sushi from the sushi-go-round, which I hit twice in four days. I deserved it, frankly.
I again failed to take adequate notes. The city was blanketed with red leaves (I briefly understood the New England fascination with autumn), and went to dozens of temples and took hundreds of mediocre photographs.
I've got thousands that look like this.
The temple above is Fushimi-Inari, the temple of the temple-gate, dedicated to the Fox God. They sell onigiri -- rice and seaweed packets -- which are the favorite snack of the fox gods, and you can munch on them while you hike around the temple. You're supposed to pray to the fox gods (ring the bell, make a wish, clap twice) to have your wish will come true.
"Don't pray to the fox gods," my buddy told me. "I prayed before my Chinese test, and I failed. In fact, take one of those rice packets and shove it in that fucking fox's mouth," she said. (I prayed. No luck on the wish just yet: foxes are damn close to worthless).
Cambodia: the Angkor Wat half marathon. I've lost my will to keep blogging for the evening, so I'll just say that the Angkor half marathon, on a tree-lined street that leads through the temples at Angkor -- you actually pass through victory gate, and it's glorious beyond any speaking of it -- is possibly the best run I've ever done. Hundreds of Cambodian kids line the streets to cheer you on, as do monks (monks!), and the whole thing raises money for charity to buy artificial limbs for landmine victims. Greatest. Run. Ever.
Posted by Dakota on 7:50 AM link |
After toying with the idea of killing this blog once and for all, I realized that I like the sound of my own voice far too much to actually do that. Where else can I wax poetic about grammar? Where would people go except my page when using the search query "typical Romanian woman" or "female escorts in bandar sari begawan" or "hooker bars in muscat"?
Other nonsexual queries which won't be answered by this blog but I'm still pleased brought people here include "How to say I feel your pain in Chuukese" and "light from the sun how long ago did it leave the sun" and "songs in switzerdeutch."
So we're still a go here at Face The Sun, and as such I think it's high time for a quick recap of the last few months of 2008. The blog of course fell silent and I have little patience for detailed review after the fact, so I'll see if I can make this as brief as possible in an easy to read power point-esque bullet format. Actually, since I lack follow-through and generally like fragmentedness, I'll probably break this into multiple posts. And while we're being completely honest, I'll also go ahead and predict that I'll stop one shy of actually finishing and then let the blog languish until March or so.
In the mean time:
1. The Rest of the Olympics, Gallopingly/Chronologically:
Athletics: Racewalking finals, mens. A ridiculous sport, and one that makes my hips bleed just thinking about it. This much I know is true: Racewalkers are some of the very few Olympic athletes I wouldn't want to see naked. Or maybe would want to see naked just once.
Trampoline Gymnastics: Throwing yourself 40 feet in the air while flipping crazily makes for an unsurprisingly good spectator sport. As a bonus, Australian Trampoline Gymnast Ben Wilden was hanging out in the stands after his disappointing 6th-place-ish routine, and he was mobbed by Chinese girls and Dakota. I didn't dress like him on purpose, but retrospectively I'm kind of glad I did.
Two trampoline athletes: one real, one fictitious.
Ben Wilden became a recurring theme in my Olympics experience -- we're now Facebook Friends, making our association valid and blessed by the internet -- and it almost because awkward how often I ran into him in bars. It kept happening: "hey, you're trampoline gymnast Ben Wilden!" I think it's safe to say that I was the only one celebrity-spotting him, if we can call it that.
Rowing: Beautiful venue, gorgeous athletes, hideously boring sport. I was pretty excited to see the other twins on the US Olympic team; Paul and Morgan Hamm having ditched out on gymnastics, I was left with second-choice twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, on the men's rowing team. But they were so thoroughly destroyed in their race, coming in so far in dead last that the other boats were practically out of the water by the time they crossed the finish line, that they didn't stick around so I (general stalker posing as a rowing fan) could talk to them afterwards.
Beijing is a gigantic city with a glorious small town feel where everyone seems to know everyone. So my colleague's significant other, a former Yale rower and current Beijing University visiting fellow, was able to say with confidence that the Winklevoss twins are assholes, and not particularly good rowers to boot, and I didn't miss much by not talking to them. Phew.
Beach Volleyball: mens, and basically everything I'd hoped for, but I attended with a Marine from the Embassy who was game for neither ogling nor gambling; what, I ask, is the point? I perhaps should've been more upfront about the gender of the players.
Triathlon: Stroke of dumb luck: a guy at work's wife has a brother who happens to be an agent for a small fistful of Olympics athletes. Amongst his stable is not only Troy Dumais (a diver -- he referred to him casually just as Troy, and when it dawned on me who was talking about, I got all awkward and stuttery and asked if he could introduce me; he said he would but never did), but also Hunter Kemper, the favored US athlete in the triathlon. So I and another friend (the inimitable Bernie, who left Beijing to become a professional triathlete himself) hitched a ride with them to get our triathlon on.
The course wrapped around the Ming Tombs (I made sure to show off my flashy knowledge of the dates of the Ming Dynasty -- 1366 to 1644 -- at least once an hour), and was designed for spectators more than athletes; the swim was entirely visible, and the run and bike were both on a short course that lapped by the spectator stands multiple times. I had assumed that the race itself would be pretty boring, but it was ridiculously exciting to watch. It finished with a glorious four-way tie coming down the final run stretch -- four guys running, three medals to be distributed -- and was edge-of-seat exciting, certainly one of the best events I saw at the Olympics.
Kemper was the highest-ranked US athlete, placing 7th over, and as we walked away from the venue (I, hooting encouragement at the triathletes I recognized -- I had studied the participant list in advance) Kemper's agent asked -- hey, do you want to have lunch with Hunter?
Yes, I did want to have lunch with Hunter.
So we waited for him to show up (he was tagged for a random drug test immediately after the event, and it delayed him a bit), and the hotel where he was staying suddenly filled up with triathletes: all three of the US team members were staying there. So I gushingly met Matty "Boom-Boom" Reed (a US immigrant -- his brother is a professional triathlete on the New Zealand team), and admired his bike and asked for a photo while he was still wearing his gear.
The reason they call him "Boom-Boom remains unclear to me."
And then Jarrod Shoemaker strolled in and similar things happened. I had chatted with his parents about consular services and passed them my card; he emailed not to ask about passports or visas, but to see if I wanted to get a drink. He never followed through, even though I of course leaped at the opportunity. "He's worthless in a non-draft-legal triathlon," the agent had informed me, but I still would've been happy to get a beer with him.
Yes, I'd still like to get a drink if you're available.
And then came Hunter Kemper, who plunked himself down at the table with a grin on his face and said he wanted McDonalds immediately: he'd earned it. We had Chinese food instead, and he ran through the race and gave Bernie, the triathlete-to-be, advice on the best way to draft, and to position oneself when entering or exiting the various portions of the race, and it was, in general, glorious beyond any speaking of it. He and his wife (also a former Olympic athlete, on the US women's volleyball team) were ridiculously nice people, and strikingly normal to boot: they were just people.
I kept my athlete worship relatively in check for most of the meal. Relatively.
Really fast moving people, both in the water and on land. Cool.
Table Tennis: You'd think that table tennis would be the crown jewel of Olympics tickets in China.
With form like this, I can't believe I didn't make the US team.
You're be wrong.
Here's the deal: there are a billion tables playing at once, so it's hard to focus. Obviously, you're betting like a madman with the guy next to you, but that can only carry you so far.
No, really: a lot of tables.
The real problem, of course, is that the Chinese are just too damn good at table tennis and they've got a lock on the entire sport, throughout the world, period. So the placards indicate that Hungary is playing Australia, but the athletes are named Hu Weizhong and Sun Xiaoli and what have you. They've got different passports, but for the most part, the entire sport is dedicated to figuring out which Chinese person is the best in the world. Ultimately, it was decided that Chinese Chinese people are the best in the world -- and the second best, and the third best as well, having edged out Sweden in the Bronze medal match and played against each other for silver and gold.
Baseball: Man, baseball sucks. Major League Baseball sucks, but Olympic baseball really sucks. I suppose it was vaguely cool in a sort of theoretical way that I got to see the USA win over Japan for the bronze medal in the second-to-last Olympic baseball game ever, but once you get past the theory of it, it's really just a dumb game in the hot sun.
Mountain Biking: Almost as bad as baseball. You hike out to the middle of nowhere, stand in the woods with a few other stalwart biking fans, and then wait. Every few minutes there's a flash of color as a couple bikers go by, and that's it. There's no means of knowing who's winning or how many laps they've done or when they're going to finish. Occasionally people would try to sneak across the course and several of them almost got mauled by incoming bikes, but aside from that the whole thing was pretty lame.
Men's Beach Volleyball, Redux: by some miracle and stroke of good luck, I was chosen as a "site officer" for Men's Beach Volleyball for the closing ceremony delegation. Site officer means you're the fall guy -- you're there in case anything goes tragically wrong and they need someone to blame. You're also there to speak Chinese if need be (there's never a need) and generally to make sure that the principals involved are ok.
The principals: your Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao (Zhao Xiaolan in Mandarin, which means "Little Orchid Zhao" and which I considered addressing her as before deciding that "madam secretary" was probably more appropriate), and your Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael O. Leavitt (who does not, to my knowledge, have a Chinese name, and would likely not respond to the name "Big Orchid.")
Also present was your Ambassador at Large for Public Diplomacy, the inimitable Michelle Kwan. Let me repeat that so the importance of it can sink in: your US Ambassador at Large for Public Diplomacy, Michelle Kwan.
It goes without saying that I can't tell a triple axle from a triple lutz (not even wikipedia is helpful on figure skating -- but it did teach me that the correct spelling of "sowcow" is in fact salchow), but that doesn't mean that I won't forever think of our time at gold medal men's volleyball as our first date.
First this: the sky was gloriously blue, and it was 10 in the morning on a work day and I was sitting in the VIP section of an outdoor venue and watching the US kick Brazil's tail to win the gold medal in an awesome game of beach volleyball, and I couldn't help but think that this -- THIS -- is why I'm so lucky to have the job I do. My god the Olympics were glorious.
Anyhow, so the game finished up (triumph!) and the Olympics coordinator who was there asked the Secretaries and Michelle Kwan if they wanted to meet the athletes, and they did, so I got to tag along and shake hands with two enormous volleyball-playing beasts (one of our guys, Phil Dalhausser, is 6'9; the other is a scant 6'2; I felt tiny).
I don't have the patience to photoshop myself in here; pretend that I'm there.
Post game, Secretaries Chao and Leavitt had some official function of some sort or another and had to bolt. I was never able to ask the Secretary of Health and Human Services exactly what in god's name a "human service" is, which makes me think that the world will never know. In the mean time, Michelle Kwan asked if I wanted to go to lunch. I can't turn down dumplings.
I also can't turn down ambassadors at large for public diplomacy or professional figure skaters, so it was basically a confluence of all of my favorite things. I'd like to pretend that the atmosphere was romantic and datelike and it was just the two of us rocking the xiaolongbao and shaomai at the Din Tai Feng, but in reality we were chaperoned by some 10 other people there as well. In fact, Michelle Kwan might not have asked me if I wanted to go to lunch so much as I in fact just stayed on the bus with her until it took us to a restaurant, at which point I followed her inside. Whatever.
The Ambassador's wife was one of the ten hangers-on sitting at the table with us, and she pulled me aside later to whisper urgently that Michelle Kwan is a LEGEND, and as such everyone is terrified of her, terrified! and so no one's willing to ask her out, because they're all too intimidated, so you, Dakota, you have to ask her out. Offer to buy her dinner!
I chickened out, of course. She's an Ambassador at Large! She outranks me by like 600 rungs on the totem pole! And she's a LEGEND! She's so intimidating!
Also, she's really into the sweet red bean-filled dessert dumplings, and as far as I'm concerned that makes her undateable.
So that was the rest of my Olympics experience. I'm guessing that if you've made it this far, you're probably wishing that I had in fact killed the blog as I was originally considering.
Posted by Dakota on 10:13 PM link |