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In the 70's, before a road was built, the only ground connection betwween Jordan and Saud Arabia was across the trackless expanse of a hundred miles of desert. From the highway checkpoint in Jordan, truckers had to muster into a convoy, and start out late afternoon, together for mutual assistance. Nobody goes out there alone. The definition of a convoy was at least two high-axle Mercedes trucks, and our laughable Renault Six made it an unlikely threesome.
There was no road, no signs, only occasionally visible marks that other trucks had passed in recent days. My car went between. Not nose-to-tail, but three abreast, an the left and right of me. Several times I got bogged down without traction, and the big-wheels hitched up cables and dregged me through. The sand was often like flour, and sooon we looked like silent screen actors. The dust even got under my watch crystal.
The truckers drive solo, without a co-driver, so it was just the four of us. Oul escorts would have known each other only fron a chance matchup on a previous convoy. They were, as not always a given, wonderfully attebtive and considerate of my western wife's modesty, and she never felt uncomfortabe in their openly gregarious. The drivers were cheerfu and talkative at rest stops, and showed us how they literatally navigate by the stars on the desert sea.
Oncs fully dark, they stopped for supper, getting out ther kero stoves to boil their sweet tea and open their brow bags lovingly packed by their wives. A detail we had not thought of, but there was plenty of hummus and cheese to share amog the four of us. In the awesome silence of the stars, fifty miles from the nearest life form. We fully trusted our gudes, honor- and duty-bound by the law of the desert to protect these two foolish land-lubbers, and had no impatience for these tasks add to their usual day-s work.
At about midnught, the only traffi of the day, our convoy, reaches the Saudi customs post at al-Hadithah, manned by the 18-year-old son of the official. He has been to school in England, speaks English well, knows how to comport himself well among the English. Customs check was a riffle through a couple of magazines, and blotting out the bare arms of a model with her new Minolta, mainly just a show of the flag.
"Would you like to come to my home, freshen up a bit, have something to eat?" That was not a question we epected, but we eagerly accepted. We followed him in his 20 year Chevrolet, to aspacious but sparsely-furnish hous, My wife was quickly whisked away to the women's and children's quarters, to be regaled with the happy chatter of girl talk, trying on each other's clothes, googling the babies, sign language for vocabulary gaps.
It was my unhappy fate to be ushered into the men's room. A largish salon furnished with a couple dozen hard, straight-backed chais along the walls, and a punch-bowl full of varied packs of cigarettes on a low table in the center.
About half the chairs were occupied by dour men in dishdashis, paying absolutely no attention to this dusty stranger. The room filled with smoke and muttered Arabic gutturals, until finally, as af at some arcane signal thee men got up and wandered out, avoiding the eyes of the infidel. My young host (I never saw his father, that I know of -- the eldest son inheerits the patriarchy) then beckoned me into a smaller room
This was apparently a multi-purpose room, for it was also occupied by a female, in the person of my wife. In the center of the floor was an ornate carted, with a meter-wide silver platter with a mountain of rice topped with a dripping roasted chicken. The two of us were to eat our fill, while our intelligent host watched and answered our questions about Arabia that didn's sound offensively cundescending.. Maybe he wasn't allowed to eat with women, or with infidels -- I didn't ask.
After dining, at about 4-am, we were offered a bed for a good day's sleep before continuing on our way, but the Arabian detou was already setting us back about four day. We wanted to get in a few hours of night-time driving before facind a day of the blistering and relentless sun. So our host showed us the way to a gas station, generously treated us to a 50-cent fill-up, and started us on another desert adventure.
The very straight 2-lane blacktop carried very little traffic, even at this cool pre-dawn hour. The road crossed at the isthmus of what Trivial Pursuit calls the world's largest peninsula, and exists only as an adjunct to an oil pipelime connecting the Persian Gulf with Mediterranean tanker ports. Except for the gradually intensifying of the thermomrter readings, there was virtually nothing to mark the passage of time and distance except the unchanging monotony of mile after identical pipeline out the right side window.
There was none of that spectular and colorful mountain topography, as seen in "Lawrence of Arabia", Rarely a slight promontory, nothing that resembled an oasis. A couple of towns, only as populous as the fuel stop required. Which, I was assured "usually" have gas, which has to be trucked hundreds of mile. So, off we went on what was expected to be a 16-hour drive, in a tiny car with no AC.
The 1973 Renault Six turned out to be Yeoman to the task, an uncomplaining beast. She hummed along at a steady 100 kph, and never once gave me a moment's anxiety. We were mot at all well prepared for anything more than a drive in the countrym with not much more water than for own personal needs. No spare car parts at all. The Renault behaved honorably in a place where no new is good news.
The car didn't mind the heat, but the passengers had a different point of view. It just kept getting hotter. I've read since about dew point, The true measure of how stupefyingly and excruciatingly humid, the air can be. The world record high dew point ever observed was in the Persian Gulf -- and maybe that was the day they set it. It was a steam bath. The sun was dimmed, unable to penetrate the vapor that hung in the air.
The air blowing in the windows was like am oven. Closing the windows gave a little relief, but in a minute we were soggy with sweat. Reopening them would give a few seconds of cooling reliefm then just the oven again. The pipeline was a meter above the ground, and we tried lying in its two meter wide swath of shade, but that did little to relieve our misery, and nothing to get us nearer our destination.
But finally, and almost suddenly, as the sun began to set and we approached the cooling maritime gulf air, things became bearable. A couple of hours later, in the bustle of Kuwait's downtown market, it was the loveliest summer evening you could dream of. Unpacking at the hotel we remembered the chicke. We put a frozen one uncooked in the trunk in Amman, to eat alone the way. It was nicely overdone.
Our Iranian destination was drawing nearer -- we had reached the Persian Gulf. Just need to get across. Amman to the Iran border is a longish day's drive across Iraq, but they wouldn't grant even a transit visa to my US passport, so we had to circumvent Iraqi territory.
Kuwaitis were wonderful hosts. The first morning, it was easy to find the right people who could arrange the transport of the car. It wasn't something as simple as a rollon-rolloff ferry operating for a fixed toll according to a printed schedule available from a travel agent. Our car was freight, and were shipping it, the same way we would ship, say, a ton of watermelons. The exporter contacts a shipping agent, who looks for a suitable vessel that can fill up and sail fairly soon,
Relatively speaking, I I don't know if it was good luck or only fair, but it suited me fine. A motorized wooden dhow could sail to Khorramshahr the next afternoon. As a bonus, the exporters could accompany their freight as passengers. The cost was reasonable, about comparable to one of Canada's day-long ferry crossings. All this was easily accomplished in a day, which my wife would spend in a leisurely bath.
Next day at noon I delivered the car to the docks, where I was astonished by the orderly efficiency. Everything had its place, everyone knew its place with reassuring confidence. I hung around and watched, more out of fascination than anxiety. The car was rolled onto nets under the wheels, then lifted and swun6 out over the waiting dhow. Once I caught myself wondering what it would sound like if they dropped my car, but that was soon dispelled.
A few times in one's life, one is rewarded with a show of a magnificently skilled worker performing magic with his hands, and you can't take your eyes off it. It is mesmerizing. A slight, somewhat effeminate middle-age Arab in dishdashi and flip-flips gently moved tons with two fingertips as effortlessly as a black-jack dealer doubling down..
It was a short pleasant walk back to our hotel to get checked out and moved to our new accommodations of included passage. Luxury it was not. At one end of the open dhow, there was a wheelhouse and an awning for shade, the rest of it was loaded to the gunwales with cargo, consisting of our Renault and you guessed it -- a few tons of watermelons. It remains a mystery, that Kuwait is an agricultural exporter to vast, rich Iran.
We set out mid-afternoon, after exploring the shipboard amenities. Sleeping, apparently, was traditionally open-air on the wheelhouse roof, but the deck was another option. No chairs, but a couple of simple bench-like forms. The "facility", should nature call, was a three-meter plank extending abaft suspended out over the sea, with a rope hand-hold for balance, visible to all the world. The morose deckhands had never seen a western woman up this close, but we conceded a tacit promise not to peek.
The dhow was not equipped for night navigation, so shoutly after turning into thr Euphrates, we lay at anchor overnight. The captain was of the opinion that the ideal sleeping arrangement would be all three of on the wheelhouse roof. Wiyh the lady in the middle, so she wouldn't roll off. I nn general, his compooooortmrnt was gentlemanl, in a rudimentary sort of way; but there were times when he seemed to be bordering on some fantasy of getting lucky. I prevailed, took the middle berth, and the starry night passed without incident.
The Euphrates is, for the most part, the border between Iraq and Iran, with our destination port of Khorramshahr on the right Iranian bank. Due to flooding and meandering, the main course of navigation shifts a little over time. There are places where the entire river's width lies in Iraq, and is therefore Iraqi territorial water. An Iraqi gunboat sailed out to hail us, a routine practice. Our boat was boarded, polite Iraqis gave our papers a cursory glance, didn't seem to care that I had no visa, and we were on our way with a salute. So after spending four days skirting around Iraq, here we were being given a pass by Iraqi authorities after all.
Meals were served on the dhow, cooked and presented picnic style, from a kerosene stove. The fare was plain and simple, not at all bad, fish and rice. Topped off by the most luxurious desserts: Throw a watermelon down on the deck to split it open, scoop out the dark red honey-sweet core between the rows of seeds, throw the rest over the side, and split open another one, until you've had enough and you're groaning.
It was a long day, I had underestimated how long it would take upstream against the river current. By the time we disembarked, it was too late afternoon to clear our car through customs, so we were shown to a hotel for our fifth night on the road.
Morning came quickly and bright, and after breakfast, we were escortes to the customs house with our car papers, which I expected to be like a ferry landing. Drive through a gate and show our documents. Nope. We were ushered into a big room as chaotic as a stock exchange. A hundred smoking men all trying to import everything from axe handles to vinegar. For maybe ten minutes, there were no visible signs of how to make any progress, and nobody paid any attention to us.
"What do wee have to do to get our car?" That, in a loud penetrating voice just shy of a scream got atttention, drawn to some crazy woman who looked like a movie star. Within seconds, a man of some uniformed authority was apologetically steering us by the elbows to an important-looking office. Words were exchanged in Farsi mixed with genuine smiles, and another man was summoned. He, we were tol, would get everything straightened out. He did. Within minutes, we were walked to the customs impoundment garage, tool the wheel of the car, passed through a couple of cursory checkpoints, and on the road to Isfahan.
In 1975, Frelimo revolutionary trooops were still occupying much of Mozambique, which had been vacated by the Portuguse in the de-colonization of Africa in the previous decade, so it was pretty well-known that was off the travel itineraries. By a quirk of colonial mapping, though, the newly-named Malawi still owned the dry land of Likoma island, in Lake Nyasa, was surrounded by Portugal's territorial waters, and if you stepped into the water from Likoma, you weere technically in Mozambique. That wasn't enough for me to tick Mozambique -- I needed a landfall. There was a weekly Malawi boat to Likoma, so I had a week to figure it out. Likoma was lovely, and we were adopted by 12-year-old "Rezrie" (speech impediment) whose worldly belongings were a faded adult T-shirt that came to his knees. He was our liaison to the island's couple thousand people and their spartan, non-electrified lifestyle.
One of them was a fisherman, who needed, every day, to go to the Mozambican lakeside village of Cobue, get a permit to fish their waters, and return to report his catch. Each day, several Malawian ladies wou take a meager harvest of garden vegetables in hopes of a better price in Cobue. Can my wife and I come along? Sure. You could see the distabt shoreline from Likoma, and he had an Evinrude, so offf we went next morning on about an hour's crossing. Our arrival caused something of a stir in the sleepy bush, as we were greeted by several armed Frelimo troops in full battle gear led by a man with bars of some rank and a beret. He clearly had to make up protocol on the fly for this unexped development. I felt apologetic to he Likoma fisherman, who was obliged to help sort this mess out. But only he could speak English, besides his Chichewa. The officer, from the capital, could speak Portuguese and some tribal tongue from the south. A few enlisted men from the area spoke Chichewa and Portuguese. For some time animated translations and puzzled frowns worked their way around the table, until finally everyone remained silent and avoided each other's eyes for maybe five minutes, so I asked the fisherman what was happening. The version that came back to me amounted to, we'd be allowed to sightsee in Cobue, the man could fish as usual, and then come back and get our butts back to Likoma. We could go where we pleased, but would be accompanied by this soldier, he pointed, who would carry our passports until time for us to depart. Shortly, we met a local man who had fled long ago to Malawi, learned goood English, and hopefully retured to holp build Mozambique's promised nationhood. He proved to be an excellent and talkative guide. Just as well, because our official military attache' dropped out of formation as soon as we passed a place where beer was served. Cobue was a typical African town, nearly every building straw-roofed, littke cash commerce. A shop actually had postceards, there was a functioning post office. Our small change was assorted coins from Mozambique, Portugal, Angola, Malawi, and a six-pence. Every postcard to America was delivered.
Late afternoon, to our great relief, I saw our passport bearer coming down the hill when the distant silence was broken by our returning Evinrude, the only machine we had heard all day. Everyone was non- threatening and cordial that day, from the army to the townspeople, and I wasn't scared. Not until the afteernoon winds made the lake choppy and the open boat started shipping watere. But she proved seaworthy, and we arrived only ankle-deep in the holds. Drowning would be fine ending for a day that started with guns pointed at us.
Timbuktu overland, and back to work Monday morning. I seemed like a pretty ambitious goal, even if it was a three week vacation
In 1970, online air ticketing couldn't even be imagined. Store-front travel agents had a monthly subscription to the Official Airline Guide -- fine print on every detail of every flight on earth. Updated monthly, and a friendly travel agent will happily save last month's issue from the waste basket for you. How else would anyons stumble across a weekly flight from Las Palmas, Canary Islands, to Nouadhibou, Mauritania -- my ticket to Africa. In those days, there was only one flight a week New York to Dakar, and the fare was as high as a budget round-the-world fare through popular stops.
Air Canada and partners had block pricing -- Canada to anywhere in the UK-Spain-Portugal zone for a fixed price, regardless of routing, and Las Palmas is in Spain. So even with the add-on, Africa was cheaper than Frankfurt. I could get a Mauritania visa in a day in Las Palmas, and it took a charming reply to snail-mail letter to find that out. Once I am on the ground in Africa, I can figure out how to get to Timbuktu.
Flying Gander-Shannon-London-Lisbon-Funchal-Las Palmas-Nouadhibou with a visa wait has now cost me a halfa week, but saved me 80% of the alternative JFK-Dakar fare. The bad news is that I still have more flying to do. Fron Nouadhibu to Nouakchott, trucks sometimes make it along 500 kilometers of roadless beach, and sometimes they don't. The flight is cheap, but it's tomorrow. French ex-pats in the bar suggest overnighting in La Guera, a short taxi ride across the border in the Spanis Sahara territory.
La Guera had a little pension, with a few spare rooms and several old Spanish colonial hangers-on with no place else to go. They re-read old papers in the lobby until the dim generator was turned off. (Note: La Guera, now in Sahrawi, has since been reclaimed by the desert, with only a few foundations detectable to the eye.) The taxi, to and from the Spanish territory, passed immigration posts at the border, which were unmanned.
Nouakchott was an unlikely capital, with virtually no motorized traffic. A fleet of a few dozen Renault 4s had been ordered, and men quickly tautght how to steer and stop them. Otherwise, only the president's Citroen, which I saw driving His Excellency to the airport, to fly to the funeral of General deGaulle. He had died the day before -- I had been apprised of that by the bar expats, openly weeping.
My feet on the African ground now for good, I took a seat in the canvas-covere box of a Senegal-bound Peugeot pickop -- the universal means of public transport in West Africa. You wait, sometimes all day, until all the seats are sold. If you're in a hrry, buy all the empty seats and leave now. But Nouakchott-Dakar was a busy route and departures were frequent.<
A flat barge ferry gets towed across the river to Senegal, where again passengers muster for seats in the Peugeots. The featureless road improves quickly &;as it rolls closer to Dakar, one of Africa's great cities, and before the days of the modern skyscraper, the kind of urban atmosphere that will never again be seen on this planet. Dakar's Corniche, skirting the gulf, had an every-day-is-Sunday vibe. In my wait time for onward visas, I took an overnight trip down to The Gambia, where Bathurst had a much more British business-like feel than the former French colonies surrounding it.
Fortified with visas, I boarded the weekly train to Bamako, Mali. A 40-hour journey with no relief. First Class, I was told, wasn't worth it. The AC stopped workng years ago, windows still sealed shut in 42 degree heat, upholstered seats vandalized. Second Class had wooden benches, and windows open and/or broken. Third Class was free, the roof of the carriages, and every trip, at least one person falls of, having neglected ti tie hiself on. Second Class was the clear choice. I had gotten used to the leisurely comforts of African road travel -- and now this.
Mercifully, the train was not crowded, and one could spread out on the bench seats, but thew were too short to lie, and to a culture acclimated to chairs, there was lots of fedgeting for comfor For variety, I sat for a long time on the steps in the carriage doorway. Africa was dark. Hour after hour of pitch black. Only six towns in Mali had an electrical grid, all else was dark or personally lit. The passing of the weekly train, at three AM may havee been the only marker of time in a railside village, where children would shout gleefully at the machine as it clattered by at speed.
The train rarely stopped. But once, men got off, and gathered around an oil lamp. where someone had a dozen dented, chipped enamel mugs, being filled with hot strong coffee and sweet condensed canned milk. Someone handed me one, it hit the spot, when done I passed my to another. I never saw mony change hands. There is just enough chill in the Sahel darkness to make the coffee heavenly, along with the impromptu cameradeie. Women and children remain on the train, in this Muilim cultural socialization.
There was no Lonely Planet then, nor anything else. Just the Michelin maps, three miraculous sheeta of Africa's quarters, showing literally every usable track in Africa, and which were the precious few that could be driven by a car, during which seasons, with symbols to mark settlements with sleeping accommodations. Word of mouth had it that the Bar Mali was the hotel choice when the train arrived in Mali's capital at midnight.
From somewhere, two more western budget travelers turned up at the same time, and we were told there were no rooms, and nothing else in Bamako was as cheap as we pre-backpackers would like it to be. As we reviewed our options, two young men in the lobby said "We can show you a place". Something short-circuited our mental alarm systems, we looked at each other, and said in unison "Let's go". A couple of minutes later, the old Peugeot sputtered out of gas. Never mind, he had several pop bottles full of gas. Everybody knows that cars use moe gas when the tank is full.
With a Coke bottle-full of hope trmaining in our tank of optimism, we pulled off the dark road a few minutes later, into a dark yard, announced as our destination. I was led by flashlight into a small but neat one-room cabin furnished with a single cot. As our frugal druver cheerfully left me there to my exhausttion, I saw someone else standing in the room. I slept like a rock.
A bright African morning came instantly, revealing a coat rack with a hat on top, and voices of good nature comng from outside, where several boys were finishing up their breakfast at outdoor tables of a casual hostel of sorts for students. I was welcome to coffee, oven-warm baguettes and tamarind jam, a small amount of money changed hands, and I was instructed how to find passsing thansport back to central Bamako and my road to Timbuktu.
There would be others on that road. In Bamako, I saw a stake-bodied truck, occupied by about 30 women and children. They would be crossing the Sahara and Nubian deserts and the Red Sea, on their Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. I felt humbled, as an adventurer.
So as not to retrace my steps, I chosa an alternatee route, hitchind through Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) to swing back up into Mopti, Mali. Mopti is where I would depart on the last leg of my journey -- a river boat down the Niger River, there flowing northward to Timboktu.
My truck from Bobo Dioulasso took about twelve hours, arriving at my comfortable little guest house at nearly midnight. Plenty of time for a good night's sleep before boarding the flat-bottom passenger barge to Timbuktu, skirting the Sahara, and a week or two later, without me, the coast of Nigeria. There was no boat. "It will not stop, Monsieur."
What? Look. We can see it comimg on the horizon of the flat river. Last night, Mopti was placed under Cholera Quarantine. Nobody comes, nobody goes. The boat will not come ashore.! Passengers tickeeted for Mopti can be brought to the pier in rowboats, but nobody leaves. But I have a yellow vaccination card, My shots are up to date. Not good enough, we're quarantined. Nobody leaves. For how long? Shrug.
Mopti was slow-paced and lovely. People smiled easily, speaking ten different languages. There were several other travelers in the same fix, from France, Belgium, Quebec, all thankfully speaking French better than I. If we had multiple tasks, between us, like changing money and buying stamps, we'd split up into groups to get it all done. We tried eveyone with authority for relief -- health, police, army -- no-one would budge. Finally, after three days, a health official stamped exit permits, and we took a taxi five kilometers out of town to the checkpoint, and a truck back toward Bamako. There, the US Consul told me the Mopti health officer was reprimanded,for letting us leave.
Sunday night, the Canadion pilot successfully landed in the fog, on the third try, and I was back at work Monday morning. Talking about my trip to Mopti.
Two weeks in rural China--October 1996
I'm not a writer, but I'll write this anyway, which may be what I should have done four years ago, when the events were fresher in my mind. Then again, maybe only the memorable is left, and that's the part worth telling.
The first chapter of a travel book is the least interesting, being more about the author than the place, and after all, I am not so interesting that China would come to me. I went to China at 8 am, when I stepped off the gangway onto the decks of a Chinese boat tied up at the chaotic Hong Kong port. I wasn't yet sure I was in China, but the fact that it was a Chinese boat gradually confirmed itself, and it wasn't so other-worldly after all. Not yet. The crew was Chinese. But they were dressed casually, and wore Nikes they had bought in Hong Kong, and had a relaxed air about them as they took orders for lunch and then spent quite a bit of time smoking and acting like there was no link between themselves and the tyranny that was supposed to keep them in cowering terror.
The boat was a fast "jet-boat" or something, and sped up a river with periodic glimpses of human presence along the shore line, but I was unable to detect any visual clues that appeared to signal a territorial transition from Hong Kong to China. So, whether I liked it or not, stepping aboard the boat was the entry to China.
This would be my China for the rest of the day, since we had opted for the boat ride all the way to Wuzhou, some 300 kilometers into China, beyond the frontier of the coastal province of Guangdong. I suffer from what I call "terminal anxiety", that uncomfortable feeling of being thrown out of the warm womb of a bus or plane, into the chaos of a terminal full of people who know the local language as well as where they are going. Two things of which I am remarkably ignorant in such situations. Wuzhou, in my estimation, offered a much more digestible terminal for my anxiety than the other option, the great, bustling, industrial city known for centuries as Canton.
Sherry confirmed my accidental wisdom. It was dark when the boat pulled into Wuzhou, a complication that was not considered bucause it was not reflected in the fictitious timetable. The Chinese entry formalities were among the easiest and most amiable in the world, as a young heavily-armed woman in military regalia gave our visa a cursory glance, our visage a bright smile, and our passport page as lady-like a thump of a rubber stamp as allowed under the ancient technology invented by her revered ancestors.
This is the point at which my terminal anxiety crescendoed and just as suddenly crashed. A moment later, heading out into a frightening and mysterious new dark, a slim hand was extended: "Welcome to China. My name is Sherry. Do you plan to stay in the hotel recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide?" We were escorted in the dark down a slippery slope to a "taxi" landing, where a few small, rickety boats with kerosene lanterns were waiting to transfer passengers across the river to the city of Wuzhou, on the opposite bank.
Sherry paid the fare, and led us several blocks down rather deserted streets, and presented us to the desk clerk at the hotel we had chosen with our baffled nods back at the customs house. She announced the hotel rate---a figure that included the taxi fare and no doubt, her commission, and if we wished, an add-on for our tickets on the bus the next morning to Yahgshuo. She'd be back, she promised in better English than Schwartzenegger's, in a few minutes with the tickets---the bus station is less then a block away. Meanwhile, let her know if thre is anything else we might need. Sherry is the perfect antidote to terminal anxiety.
The lunch on the boat was excellent, but still the only thing under our belt, so we were delighted to see that there was a little open-air cafe almost next to the hotel, where two schoolgirls were still hanging out at this late hour of maybe 7:30, seemingly relishing their adolescent struggles. The struggle between their natural bashfulness and their wish to practice their school English. Their struggle between childhood and adulthood. Their struggle between the China of their ancestors and the China of the global marketeers. Their struggle between being home at a decent hour, and attending the side-show that we were unwittingly staging for the amusement of two billion Chinese. It was clear to us that, Sherry motwithstanding, most foreigners still went straight to Canton.
Wuzhou at 7:30 am is the antithesis of Wuzhou at 7:30 pm. the streets were a-clang with bicycles and an impressive variety of vehicles capable of cartage, rising in modernity to those belching clouds of diesel smoke. Everything true-to-form: Chinese riding bicycles. The same cafe was there for breakfast, but each of the girls was now just one-one-billionth of China, a memory stamp for whom we wish good Karma for the pleasure their company gave us.
The bus trip to Yangshuo was pretty uneventful, relatively speaking. It did not crash. The bus spent an hour or more getting out of the city by a route apparently devised by an infinite number of monkeys, picking up a few people along the way. Once on the highway, we saw how uneventful our trip was. Not far along, the fairly fresh wreckage of a horribly mangled bus still partially blocking the highway. Another hour later, an even more grisly sight---another bus in similar posture, a few covered bodies not yet removed for burial, a few more gawkers for whom the spectacle had not yet worn off. This one happened maybe two hours ago.
Still in Guangxi Province, we planned a stop in Yahgshuo, thinking that China would be such a jolting new travel experience, that it would be a good idea to lay about in a town full of backpackers and acclimate ourselves. Also get some accounts of other people's experiences, and learn how to cut some corners and avoid pitfalls. Ordinarily a place we would avoid, but we had terminal anxiety about China as a whole. Partly due to the Lonely Planet guidebook, which seemed cover-to-cover to be a dire warning about how hard it is to get around in China. By the time we got there, though, China had given us enough warm hugs that she was not such a threatening, inscrutible place after all.
Yangshuo is one of two Meccas in China for the budget traveler. Full of cheap guesthoues that are at once China and any other place on the "gringo trail". It is China, provided one wanders outside the triangle describing the bus station, the post office, and the guest-house strip. Just across from our guest house, there were two restaurants. Where we ate, the food was served in Mongolian style, the staff bent over backward to serve us and see that we enjoyed our experience and gained a knowledge of China from it, the atmosphere was whatever the Chinese clientele brought in with them. The backpackers ate next door, where the staff was surly, the table-cloths were white, banana pancakes were the specialty, and "Hey Jude" came out of the loud-speakers.
We were anxious to move on, yet Yangshuo was still an enriching exprience. Being birdwatchers, we wandered out of the triangle, and headed for the countryside, famous for its imposing geological wonders, the Karsts. Vertical-sided rock pinnacles sticking up at random, hundreds of feet into the air, with fairly flat land between them.
Birders are always wary in new terrain, because local customs about trespassing, land use, and the presence of strangers can vary widely and complexly from one place to another. So we set out with some trepidation, to see what our first rural wander would be like in the most inscrutible of the world's corners. We felt that none of the other backpackers had ever been this far from "home". Soon enough, we encountered a family picking what were probably Kumquats, although this is a vegetable I have little imtimate acquaintance with. With a wide grin and a friendly gesture, the man offered us each a fruit, which we regarded with a certain visible uncertainty, meant to show that we would appreciate a primer on how to consume them in accordance with local custom. Or any other custom. Far less inscrutibly than a tea ceremony, the whole orange plum-sized object popped into his mouth, and he spit out the seed after a moment's chewing. Hey, we could do that! And a brotherhood was formed. So much so, that the Kumquatteer would not hear of us departing with any part of our pockets and paraphernalia unstuffed with fruit. In the most populous country on earth, overcrowded and poor, we saw no other people in a three-hour walk through rich, fertile land. Only the man who gave us a part of his family's meagre wealth, out of a relaxed, amiable hospitality. Not as a gesture of anything---but as The Way, in a place where the Tao still is. This is China.
Rural stops like this are a hard luxury to find, in China. A special government permit is still required of hotels if they wish to receive foreign guests, and few hoteliers will trade off the red-tape for a few yuan from the token stranger. Even fewer are the regular bus routes that might link one small town with another over any appreciable distance. Guilin is the bustling, modern capital of Guangxi Province, and from there, a bus can be taken onward to Longshen, where the woman who teaches English at the local school also has a hotel. And a permit. Longshen is a picturesque stone-bridge town, and our hotel balcony overlooked the river, where fishermen still use a Cormorant with a ring around its neck to catch fish.
Approaching Longshen, we noted that the bus descended about 10 kilometers down a mostly forested mountainside, with virtually no traffic, so in the morning we decided to catch the Guilin bus and get off near the top. There, we could get in our first real serious birdwatching, and walk back down if no passing bus materialized en route. A few footpaths led off the road, and following one for a few hundred meters brought us over a little rise, face to face with a picture-postcard view of a Chinese village, of maybe twenty houses. Just in time to meet a resident, walking toward the road. What will he think of us, I wondered as I flattered myself with the thought that I was perhaps the first foreigners to ever see his village? "Ni hao ma", I said, showing off about half my entire Mandarin vocabulary. "Ni hao ma", he said, as if he met me at that same spot every morning, and he disappeared down the path behind us. So much for the idea that the Chinese are suspicious of foreigners!
"Chinese", now, has become somewhat of a misnomer. By Longshen, we have left behind the Han Chinese, the typical Chinese who occupy the entire eastern half of the country, and we're now in what in America would be Window Rock, Arizona. Here the people are Dong, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically, and the man who exchanged "ni hau ma" with me on the trail was also speaking a foreign language. Dong is the fifth most widely spoken Sino-Tibetan dialect in China, with a little over a million speakers. If we had needed to converse, the villager would have recognized that we spoke no common language, and he would have written his words on his hand, since the written word is the same in all of China, regardless of how the word is pronounced by a dialect speaker. This was a source of daily amusement and frustration to us, as shopkeepers would write things down that we did not understand, with an air of "that settles any misunderstandings". The Chinese are quite accustomed to people who look funny, but they are presumed to be from far-flung corners of China.
The walk down the hill confirmed what we had already learned in our Yahgshuo perambulations. China is a nature-friendly country, as old Buddhist/Taoist mentalities can hang on through adversity as tenaciously as Judaeo-Christian ethics did in Europe through the middle of the century. The Chinese have not taught their birds any particular fear of human presence, and coolies working in rice paddies seem no more threatening to the clusters of birds than do the oxen. No doubt there are parts of China in which a more crushing population and deeper poverty has taken it's toll, as in Laos, where the collection of birds for the pot or cage is a national cottage industry. But the parts of China we saw showed little visible evidence that harvesting the local birdlife would be a crucial part of a precarious living. As we walked past a house in a tiny roadside settlement, children playing noisily under a door-yard tree did not dismay in the least the dozen or more species of songbirds we identified feeding among its branches.
Half way back to Longshen, the land leveled off, and the agricultural area became dotted with towns, so we tried to hail the first little local bus that passed. We were peremptorily ignored. It occurred to me about ten minutes later that it was not to be taken personally, for along came the more appropriate bus from Guilin---a fact probably known to the first driver. We were cheerfully picked up, and we began to get off at the first stop in Longshen, several blocks from our hotel. "No, no, wait" gestured our conducter, who then dropped us off exactly at the front door of the hotel at which we were already registered. Jungle drums? Did everybody know we were there, including the man who said hello to us on the mountain village path?
China -- Part 2
Of the few Chinese people we met who could speak English, less than a half-dozen of them, none of them told us a thing. Nothing. Information that is in the standard tourist brochures is quickly forthcoming, fluently and with enthisiasm. But no questions about anything else were ever answered. Nothing about life in China. Nothing about who owns this hotel. Nothing about where any of those mysterious busses go. Nothing about the nature of the nearby countryside. Nothing.
The departure of the bus from Longshen to Sanjiang is officially sanctioned tourist intelligence, but how we got there is anybody's guess. It had been days since we had seen a road sign in any language other than Chinese, so our itinerary from one known town to another can only be taken as an article of faith, inferred by very imperfect maps and an assumption that the bus goes the shortest way. On a map, as the crow flies, it looks like about an eight-hour walk. The bus left at nightfall. Somehow, it managed to keep on going, without reaching Sanjiang, until we had dozed off in our seats, and then kept going, making occasional stops, until finally a stop was accompanied by a bit of commotion. Wonder began to replace our stupor, and our investigation revealed that a truck-driver's misadventure had blocked the road, which would remain blocked until the truck could be moved, and the Chinese Auto Club does not respond with any particular alacrity. Neither does the Guangxi Department of Highways, so there was nothing to be done except build a new road around it, with whatever tools were ready at hand, like screwdrivers and hubcaps. This was done.
I often hear men in suits extolling the virtues of hard work. I can assure you that such men have never done an hour of hard work. Hard work is what was done by the bus driver and his assistant and a few particulary skilled passengers, with their bare hands, who built a bus-length of road in the middle of the night in the mountains where there had been none a few hours before. Hard work was what was done when it was then discovered that the roadway was still too narrow, and a utility pole had to be removed, too. This was done, in the dark, without disrupting the flow of whatever flowed through the wires above. Hard work is also done every day by a billion peasants bending over rice paddies, but not by men in suits.
It was still dark when the bus squeezed past the truck and continued on its way to Sanjiang, one of the better known places in Dong country.
Sanjiang boasts a number of Drum Towers and Wind Bridges, the architectural artifacts that, like the Great Wall of China, represent the open air museums that one encounters while traveling through a land that hasn't really changed very much since Marco Polo was here. Among the accommodation choices in Sanjiang, is the place whose name, as I reacall, translated into something like The District Guest House of the Independent People of the Autonomous County of Dong. It consisted of more than a few long, rambling darkened wooden two-story dormitories with sweeping creaking verandahs which made one think that for some reason, the enire population of the Autonomous County of Dong periodically assemble here and need to be lodged. Toward the further end of one of the buildings, up on the second floor, a room identical to all the others was found for us, and a charming lady in the universal bright maroon, long-skirted, straight-lined dress of Dong was designated to be our escort to our room in the otherwise deserted building. I was never able to determine whether the women of Sanjiang had for centuries identified themselves with this indigenous typical costume, or if maroon was the only color in the last bale of fabric that arrived at the Dry Goods Store of the Autonomous County of Dong. The English-speaking boy at the Dong Tourism office was characteristically taciturn.
Long-e is not on any map I know of, maybe not on any at all. The road from Sanjiang to Liping crosses the Guangxi-Guizhou border somewhere on one side of the other of Long-e, which might even be in Hunan Province, for all I can tell. Whoopie Goldberg owns the bus and the town. Kate and I stared at each other in disbelief. We have never before seen such a convincing celebrity look-alike as this Dong woman. Face, expressions, geatures, body language, hair, voice, everything. Pure Woopie. She ushered us and the other passengers onto the bus--she was the stewardess. She sat in a jump seat facing the rear, just behind the driver, and picked up the children and hugged them and tickled them, and regaled them with stories that for all I know might have been Chinese translations of Jumpin' Jack Flash.
Just at night fall, the bus arrived at Long-e, which is the designated overnight stop. The road house of all roadhouses. The town consist of little more than this hotel, which is an extension of the bus. Everyone gets off, and heads for the dining room. Whoopie and the driver get off, and make for the kitchen. Beer is unloaded from the bus, Whoopie's sleeves are up, and in an hour, a magnificent and sumptuous banquet is laid out of incredible if not diverse Chinese cuisine. Guests are then shown to their candle-lit rooms, for those who think hotels are for sleeping. But now, the only electricity for miles around is put to good use. It is the generator of the idling bus. Charles Bronson films are loaded into the VCR, the volume turned up high, and nightlife in Long-e rattles the windows with the sounds of gunfire and karate grunts until what seems like about 15 oclock in the morning. Somehow, the second leg of the trip on Whoopie's bus to Liping seems tame.
The banquet at Whoopie's Roadhouse was by no means an unusual feature of travel in this part of China. The people in rural south China are very, very well fed. Food is everywhere, and it is rich, varied, delicious, well- prepared, and abundant. Noodles are more common than rice, and the most frequenty encountered dish is soup, which almost always contains plenty of chunks of meat. Soup is eaten at any hour of the day, and it is also the most common breakfast. Solid matter is eaten from the bowl with chopsticks, then the broth drunk directly from the bowl, but the soups are thick and leave only a moderate amount of spicy broth. Most people probably go for days with nothing else, but the soup is a substantial, filling meal with plenty of fidelity to any nutritionist's food pyramid.
We could learn little, though, of the eating habits of families in their private homes, and know only about restaurant cuisine. But outside eating is very widespread. Plenty of restaurants everywhere, and very busy. Proper meals also abound, and portions are huge. One can get a bowl of soup at any time, almost anywhere. It is hard to find a well-traveled street without a sidewalk cafe within a few blocks, ready to serve soup at any hour.
As for quality, the sky is the limit. So is the imagination of the people who provide the food. One of my best meals came at a lunch-stop in a bus-line roadhouse. Wonderful-looking dishes were being served, so I pointed to a masterpiece, indicating my choice. It turned out to contain not just Canadian Bacon, but maybe a half-pound of it, in thick slabs, beautiful to savor as well as behold. After enjoying, I reflected on some other aspects of the rest stop. The toilets seemed more elaborate than one usually encounters, and the cinder-block building quite large and well constructed. As often the case, there were no fixtures---just a wall that came down to floor level, with an opening to allow for a trough under the wall. Being in a rural area, the sound of livestock did not seem out of place, but only later did I realize that hogs on the other side of the wall were in fact the flushing mechanism. And my dinner.
Nothing goes to waste in China. Small villages typically did not feature in-house conveniences, but rather community bathrooms that were built up a few steps above the ground. The nightsoil of the village is gathered from this central depository, as the most natural of all fertilizers for the practical use of increasing food production. At a half-pound per person, China produces a half-million tons of shit every day. Nothing goes to waste.
Liping was not a friendly town. We arrived at mid-morning on the bus from Long-e, and our first inquiries about lodgings were met with surly rudeness. Nobody knew where the hotel was on this Sunday morning, although a couple of times we were directed to a doorway that was unceremoniously closed with curt but unknown explanations that sounded an awful lot like "Go away". We decided the best way to spend this Sunday would be on a bus to the next place. But, as often happens at bus stations, the local boy who likes to practice his English is hanging around, and he seems willing to tolerate our presence. He enthusiastically agrees to accompany us to a place of his recommendation for lunch, and although his English is rudimentary, the event is cordial. More importantly, now that we have been "adopted", the townspeople seem to have warmed to us somewhat, and we no longer feel antipathy. But by now we already have our bus tickets in hand, for an evening departure, and the ticket-master has even revealed to us that there are day-rooms above the bus depot---rooms that look suspiciously like hotel rooms, but they are designed to enable families with a long daytime wait for a bus to make themselves feel at home. Ultimately, the Liping ticket master proved to be the characteristicly helpful Chinese, who had infinite patience for the idiocyncracies of strange foreigners who not only could not understand the language, but couldn't even read it! Time and agian, we found that any question addressed, however indecipherably, to anyone in China would generally result in the questionee setting aside whatever he may be doing, to apply himself the task of seeing that these aliens succeed in their quest. The first time it happened was in Taiwan, where a bus-station attendand patiently drew us a map of where to go to find our appropriate bus, which did not use the bus station, but just passed through town and stopped at a designated spot on a main street. We found the spot, or at least thought we did, and after ten minutes, along came the man from the bus station, on his bicycle, to make sure we were at the correct place. Throughout China, similar small sacrifices were made on our behalf so frequently, it quickly ceased to astonished us.
China -- Part 3
The next 24 hours were spent on busses, with changes at Kaili and the Guizhou provincial capital of Guiyang---neither of which appeared to generate any regrets about not stopping. Anshun was our destination and we were also glad of that choice. A little bigger and more developed than our previous stops, it was still a pleasant city with moderate traffic and easy walks to the hills and paddies from our hotel near the edge of town. We were also near the light industry district, and experience on several continents has taught us that the best sidewalk cafes are where people eat with hardened and dirty hands. As everywhere in south China, plenty of meat in the cheap soups.
At Anshun, a river flows into a small marshy lake, and the city straddles the inlet, with a wide causeway connecting the two parts. A walk around the lakeshore appeared to offer the kind of birding habitat we had seen little of, and there was also a ramshackle but pretentions hotel just across the causeway, where the birds of the ornamental plantings on the lawn beckoned. But the causeway presented a view we did not expect.
"That's a body!", gasped Kate as we neared the far end of the causeway. I didn't see where she was looking, so I checed out the water for a suspicious floating object. No, on the road! There, on the pavewment, about 50 yards ahead of us, was what looked like a duffel bag that had been run over by several vehicles after falling off a bus. It was a child--a boy of maybe 7 or 8, dressed in clothing a bit more ragged than the local standard, his skull partly crushed. Forensic medicine is not my strong suit, but I would guess the body had been there since being struck by a passing vehicle, probably the night before. Hundreds of pedestrians had walked around the body since then--most of them probably trying, as we did, to give it the kind of glance that would not signal an excessive morbid curiosity. Life is cheap where there are two billion of them. After birding, we'd have to pass this way again to return to our hotel, several hours later. It was still there.
Anshun is where we first saw the culinary art of preparing dog. Shops that sell or serve gastronomic dog prepare the animals with a maximum of conspicuous flourish, on the sidewalks in front of the shop, where the animal is on display until ordered in the dining room. I'm not a dog lover, dead or alive, but I felt the posture of the canine cadavers presented a too-sad-to-be-comical aspect. The meat is also too expensvive to fit our budget, so we went on to our usual beef or pork soup.
Our western turn-around point was Xingyi, just inside the Guizhou border from Yunnan province. As is often the case in smaller Chinese cities, there is only one hotel that is licensed to accept foreign guests, and when the rickshaw driver pulled into the courtyard, it had an ominously expensive look. It was at the end of a cul-de-sac, and several Mercedes were parked under the ornamental greenery along the circular drive. Oh well, nothing could be done but go in and inspect the rate chart behind the desk. But we had forgotten that there is no "class" in China. This was not a first-class hotel, it was a hotel that was designed to serve the needs of the citizens who chose to pop for a bit of luxury and style. And for their hired drivers. There was a wing of very pleasant rooms, all with TV, all occupied by those who served other more opulent guests. Not the best rooms, not the best view. We had a view of a man who spent his entire day carrying buckets of coal by hand from somewhere to the coal pile adjacent to the hotel's power house.
It started to rain when we got to Xingyi---never hard, but never stopping, either. We could make it to the little store a block away where excellent local beer was exactly the same price as bottled water. And, where on an errand, I discovered that there was an inscrutible and imperceptible difference between the words for toilet paper and sanitary napkins. The Chinese are delighted when we amuse them that way. But, because of the rain, we ate all our meals in the hotel dining room, surrounded by people who could afford to exude endless clouds of tobacco smoke and the consequent hacking coughs, without a thought about any apparent effect this might have on people at the next table. Or at the same table, in the case of a couple of Chinese who welcomed themselves to our table to try out their limited English.
We gloried in this dining room. The food was incredible. No matter how hard we tried, we never succeeded in getting our order down to the quantity that would have fed only four or five hungry people quite nicely. We didn't care because it was so cheap, and we knew someone would eat the leftovers. The waitresses seemed delighted with us. Coveys of them would gather around our menu to giggle through bizarre transmigrations of ideas to the Mandarin page from the almost equally incomprehensible English page.
This was our home for four days, while it rained. We didn't understand the significance of the rain until we went to the bus station on the second day, to secure tickets to Nanning. Dutifully, we then returned to the station in time for our late afternoon bus, only to be told something. Bus company empolyees and waiting passengers alike took us under their wing, and we were finally ushered back into a waiting rickshaw and taken back to our hotel. Of course, when we did not understand what we were told, it was written down for our clear understanding. We presented the note to a hotel desk clerk who had some knowledge of English, and we were told there is no bus. Try tomorrow.
The events of the next day did not differ to any significant degree from those of the first day, except that now, information about muddy roads got through to us. On the third attempt, we were assured by the small bus station crowd concerned with our welfare, that there would be a bus to Nanning. We sat and waited, while all sorts of modern busses arrived and left, some with passengers and some without. Finally someone came and beckoned us to a lot behind the bus station where a rickety old bus was loading baggage. Our bus. "Nanning?" I insisted, inquisitively. Yes, yes, we were constantly assured. I got out the guide book to show them the word in Chinese. No problem. Get in.
The bus filled up fast, and we sat on huge cloth bags of something just behind the driver, where there were also five Vietnamese boys. Since Nanning is closer to Vietnam than Xingyi is, this gave me some assurance, even though Vietnamese must ride a bus in the opposite direction to have gotten to Xingyi in the first place.
The quality of the road deteriorated rapidly as we got into higher country, and we saw no busses at all coming toward us, nor any other traffic. I notice things like that, with trepidation. It soon became clear that our driver was a bush pilot, and was blazing his way where no other dared to go. It got dark soon after we left Xingyi, so my only impression of the outside world was in the headlights. It was not reassuring. At one point, we came to a town. The road did not become a bit better going through town, in spite of the fact that the "town" was in fact a vibrant city, where I could look up into high-rise, ten-story apartment buildings at people sitting in lighted rooms at desks doing their homework as nonchalantly as if there were a road to the outside world.
Every half hour or so, we would pass a tent, with a light inside, from which a man would come out and wave to the driver or perhaps talk for a moment. The road maintenance crew, keeping the road open for us, or warning of diffuculties ahead. We kept going. About halfway through the night, the driver stopped at a village roadhouse for a rest stop. He was exhausted from the ordeal, and got off the bus looking like a fire-fighter on CNN who had been up for 48 hours in an Oregon forest. It was three hours before he again had the nerve to head back out onto that road, which for all I knew, was hairpin curves and sheer dropoffs all the way.
By daybreak we were through the worst of it, and even got back onto a paved road, passing through prosperous- looking cities. In one of them, the driver blew the horn and gestured to another bus-driver, and pulled up beside him and some questions and answers were exchanged. Get off, we were told, there is a bus to Nanning! What? Where was THIS bus going? Another of China's unanswered questions. The new Nanning bus was a delight--comfortable seats, all to ourselves, smooth roads, and in two hours the bus pulled into a city which I later confirmed was actually Nanning.
Nanning is totally different from the China we had just come from, and it wasn't just the sunshine. Wide throughfares full of cars, people walking around who do not spit. Shopping malls with clothes and jewelry and electronics and appliances. People dressed like they have heard of London. Telephones, from which Kate tried unsuccessfully to phone home, but did pump from the AT&T operator the intelligence that Clinton had beaten Dole. She shushed me when I said "ask about the World Series."
But Nanning was, for all its differences, still China. Everyone bending over backwards to make everything nice and well-oiled for us. Even the train tickets to the Vietnam border was done in only two trips to the railroad station. Always someone to show us the way, and try patiently and valiantly and sometimes futilely and apologetically to help, wherever confusion might or did or would leave us feeling helpless. A stranger always feels helpless in China. But it seems that the Chinese have an unerring sense of that, and with an empathy we cannot even imagine, feel an altruistic compassion to dispel that sinking darkness from their honored guests.
Mrs Kainulainen kept the keys to the Russias. To get into the USSR from the north, you had to pass through the only Helsinki travel agency authorized to process a visa, which meant on Monday morning, at Mrs. Kainulainen's desk. Next Monday, it's ready. Not just a visa, but a complete packet of vouchers for exactly when and where you said you wanted to go, all paid in fulll, in advance. In 1968, even the US State Department conceded The East was safe to travel. A few other Helssinki hostlers were whiling away there time, and one had a car, so four of us drove up to Nordkapp to see the Midnight Sun. Same old Sun, but you can say you saw it at midnight. The week passed, the sun never set, and soon it was another Monday morning with the always cheerful and efficient Mrs Kainulainen. I was soon out the door with my travel documents and an afternoon train ticket to Lenengrad. Border formalities were cursory. My papers were, obviously in order, most Finns got off, mosy Russians got on. Belying my US propaganda upbringing, none were shot or dragged off in chains -- that I knew of -- and I was shown to a compartment occupied by two dour young Russian soldiers, who traded for my Playboy Magazine. I eagerly accepted a deck of of Cyrillic-indexed playing cards, which I kept for decades as a souvenir. At a decidedly un-romantic Midnight in Lenengrad, I was met at my compartment by a paunchy balding man in a suit, seemingly the only human awake in the metropolis. If there were any other foreigners on the train, I didn't see them. My guide took me by taxi through deserted streets to the other train station, and showed me my berth on the Vilnius express. Then, I guess, he went home to bed, his graveyard shift over. Vilnius was the focus for my itinerary. Presumably, it was the origin of my mother's parents, who spoke only Lithuanian when they stepped off the boat with papers from the Russian Empire, and a baby, two years before Mom was born. Few family stories were handed down, the rest is extrapolation, and Vilnius would have to do as the default backdrop. The czars then, as the Soviets now, tried to Russianize Lithuania, occasionally using genocide, but the efforts were lackluster. As It was my nationality, I was at least bound to rub shoulders with it. I could almost guess which one he was: A paunchy balding man in a suit, another one, looked straight into my eyes from the platform coasting to a stop, he had my photo, he boarded the train at Vilnius, and a moment later tapped on my door.The Volga taxi was waiting to drive me to my hotel. It was explained to me that each days accommodation incloded two hours with a personal English-speaking tourguide, who would show and tell whatever I wanted. Starting with the standard agenda -- The People's Democratic Ball-bearing Works, to the Vilnius Zoo, where ferrets and goosanders and varioua amphibia hid huddled in the darkest corners of their own gulags. That was all ass easy to endure as an Ozark time-share, considering that my assigned gude was not paunchy, but a very sociable and attractive twenty-something lady in a nice classy outfit, unhesitating English, a quick wit, and, eventually, an an easy smile. My first day -- was I being set up with a femme-fatale? She had exhausted the first hour of her program officiously, I've paid my dues, was there anything in particular I wanted to see? Yes, folk architecture. The gingerbread houses everyone hoped their grandmothers hadgrown up under the goose-down comforters of. Soviet urban Vilnius with its blocks of flats, was not a city that evolved much pride in those kinds of anti-socialist reminders, but a few cottag survivors were found on the ouskirts for me. In fact, such surviving anachronisms were a source of some pride, and later, browsing for gifts, , I found a book, mostly text, featurind a dozen watercolor plates displaying exactly the humble scenes I was looking for.. Years later, my father revealed that Mom was inordinatelyy proud of thet book, getting it out to show to any and all household visitors. Her only link to another century that she could stroke with her Lithuanian fingertips. . Among things I learned about Vilnius was that, emblematic of its worldliness, the city had been chosen as the site of the Soviet Union's first experimental opening of a "night club". I just couldn't let this one pass, so with the assurances that I was not about to embarrass the lady with my my two left feet on the dance floor, perhaps we could have a drink. My grinning guide accepted my stammered invitation to the Night Club. Maybe five other formica tables were occupied by Soviet citizens who, like everything else, danced as though everyone was watching. It is always my hope as a traveler to be given an invitation, no matter how brief and perfunctory, inside the private living quarters of someone in the host country. She explained that she lived in her parents home with other siblings. I visualized insufficient, cabbage-smelling rooms of carefully-guarded and suspicious personal privacy. Instead, with a warm and polite handshake, our evening ended in tre sreeet outside her walkup. My final day was blocked into radio interview, to be broadcast later on the short wave English Service of Radio Vilnius. She thought I would be a good choice -- a visitor from the Dark Side, already at odds with the US, a war protester, inclined to make thoughtful comments about the gray areas. I tried to be candid and frank. Propaganda they can get anywhere -- I felt that I owed my hosts a fair assessment of what I had seen, or expected to see. I will never know what part of the hour, if any, actually got on the air. But I passed an FBI security clearance after that. The remaining hour or so, I honestly do not remember at al. But my train to Warsaw was scheduled to depart in a couple of hours, and Femme Fatale had come and gone. I had been blind-sided. Vilnius came and passed my naive eyes. I never even noticed whether people in the streets spoke Russian or Lithuanian. But I still had months to chip away st my naivete. Before me was a more relaxed Poland, open visa, go where I pleased. I still met no foreigneers. Briefly a Chicago boy whose Slovak grandmother imparted to him a few cognates, for a while we found our way through Warsaw. The sign at the Opera House said Tonite--Carmen, sung in Polish, but my first real opera. I was becoming worldly, but lonely. I began to miss even my Femme Fatale. Then, finally, a social release. I shared a compartment with a Lithuanian women's track and field team, on their way to international events in Gdansk. The girls loved at least the novelty of me, and I was mother-henned by a girl half my age , who could put a shot 20 meters that I could barely lift. Led by the exuberant and effervescent shot-putter, there was a lively spirit on the Polish train, until i was funneled into the Berlin corrider and another month of western lifestyle.
Germany, Switzerland and Austria brought me back down to the level ground of western hosteling -- the Dutch, Canadian, English, Swiss of continental back-packing or the down-the-hall showering of the budget Post Hotel across the platz from the bahnhof. I started to feel upward mobility of my status. That 30-ish American , traveling in a drip-dry jacket and clip-on tie for $5 a day. Hitching in a tie, a Norwegian farmer said he thought I was a local who missed his bus to work. My college German was creeping back, and I'd been to ten countries. Now for another test: The Orient Express out of Vienna, whistle-stopping in Bratislava and back in the eastern capital of Budapest. My lodgings, like in Poland, the spare room of a kindly older couple watching for travelers at the nearby train station. One of the few examples of market capital left in private hands. By now I had learned how money works. Officially, the rate of exchange to foreigners was about ten Hungarian forints to the dollar. Foreign diplomats had all the forints they needed but they couldn't buy Marlboros with them. Western trappings could be bought only with dollars, and they would pay 50 forints each for them. Most of these hungry diplomats were from African republics, whose students were offered scholarships at sociasist universities. It was a cospicuous matchup -- African studens were the black market money exchangers. At their rates, a little frugality of living style could keep a western backpacker going, for less than a dollar a day. These transactions were normally done in darkish corners, but nobody really cared, it was an illegal but established fact. Hungarians would not sell forints for dollars, since they cannot spend dollars without arousing suspicion. Sunday afternoon in the park was always a holiday. The day off for all workers. If there was anything new in their lives, it would be seen on Sunday. African students would be cat-calling the Hungarian girls, they knew how to make a profit from the seamier side of that, too. As I was concluding my transaction and recounting the funds, always carefully, he exchanged a greeting with a passing tourist. Perhaps lonely and bored, she gave a polite response, and I considered an introduction to have now been transacted. The bold African boys quickly ignored her -- way too old for them. In fact, Diana was my age, pretty enough, unattached, on a long weekend from her prestigious job in Romania, and as lonely as I was. Much later, she would confide in me that what won her over was the way I protectively held her close a feew minutes later on the overcrowded, accordion-connected tandem bus. Protectively! She had to go back to Bucharest tomorrow, we'd meet in Bucharest next weekend. I'd be there, I promised, protecively. So now I am in a secret police state, with a femme fatale. I saw a Fantomas film during a stopover in Cluj and otherwise whiled away the week. Friday, from the Gara du Nord, I phoned the number of our contact, a colleague who spoke excellent English. Nobody trusted anyone in Romania. He was straightforward and without unnecessary niceties, I passed the interview, and I'd be met at my hotel the next morning. They both showed up, he tipped his hat formally, and wishing is a nice day, he disappeared. Diana and I got down to the pressing business of relocating in a youth hostel --- the repurposed summer rooms of a university dorm. Caulay, a lanky Brit with an habitual finger-snap, was in the other bed. He was a club singer who answered a British recruitment ad for a month-long gig at at a night club in a Black Sea resort hotel. He drove out in an old Zephyr, skidded somehow into river, and waterlogged his passport to a condition of illegibility. He was now jobless with little money, his car and passport both dubious, his spirit undaunted, a few boxes of Kellogg's Rice Krispies remaining to be cheerfully shared with about six more fellow hostelers. I learned the ropes from Caulay, who knew how to live on a few bani a day. Every evening, I'd meet Diana whom Caulay called "the only happy Romanian". The cheapest processed food was canned eels from China and tins of apricot nectar. But there was no shortage of "real food" sold in tiny stores with color-coded signs -- red for bread, green for produce, blue for dairy -- but their stock would be irregular and sell out quickly, then be empty until tomorrow. A lovely old lady and her husband sold ice-cream bars in the park. They'd spent most of the terrible century in France, returned hopefully to their beloved Romania, and from them I got my daily injection of their contagious optimism and good will. Diana came to to the hostel by surprise one weekday with the announcement of a holiday. Czechoslovakia was invadad, and Romania's President Ceausescu was announcing his refusal to support the Warsaw Pact invaders. We went to see the speech by the otherwise hated Ceausescu. The summer had already been gayer than usual, with thousands of Czechs holidaying in friendly Romania -- this added a litttle warmth to an otherwise desolate atmosphere. It had been a long time since I'd left Vienna, and I was short-sightedly running low on the hard currency that can be exchanged on the black market. To the resscue came the dollar-store, a government shop where foreigners could stock up on westeern needs -- Marlborosm Johnny Walker, Chanel No. 9 -- pay in dollars, get change in dollars. They accepted tvavellers checks. A $20 check = a pack of Pall Malls and 19 greenback dollars change. I bought Diana and me a bottle of Benedictine B&B, as a calendar, to be timed to run out when my 60-day visa did. Diana lived in a modern block of flats about midway out into suburbs. She had a tiny room of her own, sharing the flat with her retired parents, her married sister and Diana's niece Ilena, age ten, whom I adored. Often, meeting for the evening, a mortified Diana would have a baby-sitting responsibility in tow. but it never disappointed me to have a threesome with a sparkling, intelligent, well-behaved third. Often, it was as if we were already settled parents. Diana never got over her distrust, and would test me. One weekend she took me to the Carpathans, to verify my physical endurance. An alpine lodge stood at a vertical climb of a thousand meters, routinely done as a Sunday walk by Romanian girls in their dressy shoes and best clothes. Uphill took a bit of huffing, a few places needed scrambling on all fours. Brake-stepping made coming down a lot harder. Two months had trashed my trusted old desert boots, and there was no chance of replacing them until Greece. My Romanian-bought shoes were essentially archless cardboard. Rising blisters were taking over my feet. I whined a little, but got my Alpine merit badge. The next one, I failed. One evening, she invited an old acquaintance to join us. He got drunk very quickly and challenged to a fist fight. I got up and walked to the hostel. Next day she admonished me for leaving her at the mercy of that lout, but agreed there were no right answers. Assuming the fetal position under the table, my other option, would not have contributed to her protection. Every time Diana and I met, when she saw me coming, her rigid shoulders sagged in relief, her elbows opened to an air-hug, her head cocked to a radiant grin asif she were dying to tell me a joke she'd just heard. I had not yet, for another day, disappeared. I did not, for myself, fear police-state consequences of running afoul -- the worst they would do with a foreigner would be an escort to the airport and a seat on the first international departure. There were some eerie moments. Caulay had figured out how to slip in through dorm windows. Half asleep one night, the dooor suddenly opened, lights came on, a hostel staffer marched straight for window to secure it, and just as quickly, shut the door and lefy -- without noticing me under the bedclothes. But I didn't feel fear. Fear was for Romanians. However, there was a clean-cut American about 30, who showed up acting like a hosteler. There were rumors he was CIA, just look at his shoes. He said he'd see us on Tuesday, he was flying to Odessa and would return on a boat. He never came back.
Caulay pumped up the tires on the Zephyr, and loaned it to us , as Diana still had another week of holiday. We drove from Transylvanian village to town seeing every minute the old architecture I was seeking in Vilnius. Then to rest the car, a couple days by boat in the swampy roadless Danube delta. Romania is clearly the most beautiful country in Europe. Returning to the city, we picked up Ilena at school, dropped Diana at her office. Then I drove Ilena home, maybe her first car ride ever, gleefully waving to her friends from the left front seat of the right-hand drive car -- the look on her face the highlight of the whole year. Caulay's tires, nobly trouble-free the whole adventure, started leaking the minute we got back, and so did everything else. Just for the two of us, the car lived only to watch over our love, and when that was deemed secure, let out its last sigh.. We followed the drill for all the red tape for a marriage permit, but knew that wasn't going to happen She was a super-star with cutting edge computer training. But there was never a final denial. We agreed to meet again next year, shared the last few drops of B&B, and she saw me off on the Bulgaria train. Caulay had a copy of the OAG airline guide, so I knew there was a daily flight from Ruse, on the border, to Sofia, for under two dollars at my exchange rate. The airline had an office downtown near the rail depot, where passengers waited for the flight. Suddenly a message crackled over a WW2 wireless relic, and the ticket agency clapped her hands twice, saying "Let's go". The passengers filed outside, boarded a couple of vans, and drove through cornfields plowed by horses to the air-strip, where a Balkan Airlines Tupolev was in a landing approach. Therre was no terminal building, just a big shade tree, with a wheeled stairway under it, which the ticket agend and a van driver wheeled out next to the plane. Within minutes, the passenger exchange took plac, and we were all airborne bound for Sofia. When we landed, it looked like a lot of people had vouchers for transfer downtown. So I just acted like I knew what I was doing, and hopped into the back seat of a waiting ZIL. In Eastern Europe, lots of things worked by the honor system. Nobody makes a fuss about payment, since the money has no value anyway, and the theory was that everyone was equally entitled. I tried not to overdo it, and normallly tried to pay In Sofia, I hacked and coughed through a bad cold for two days, then boarded a bus for Skopje, then in Yugoslavia, and still recovering from a disastrous earthquake five years before. Railroad-bound until then, I now resorted to my only flight and first bus leg of the journey. One sees a very different view from a bus. Still sniffling, I rode to Ohrid, a town of old churches bathed in September sunlight on a lovely lakeshore with a view of Albania, the only Socialist republic I would miss. In Ohrid, every midday, a tantalizingly empty bus pulled into the motor park, driven by a neat little man with a sport jacket, white fez and a bushy camel-hair mustache. He stepped down, stretched, unpacked his wife-packed lunch bucket, read a few columns in a newspaier. Then, back in the driver's seat, a careful look aroun to see any last minute passengers rushimg and waving. There were none, there would never be. Turning onto the highway, the last thing I saw was the "AL" oval next to the number plate. Albania. A last vestige of an ancient treaty that assured bus connection between the two countries. I went to see him every day. On my last day I signalled to him him a little wave of friendship and solidarity. A bus trip back to Skopje, where a stopped clock marked the moment of the quake, and then on to Salonika, Greece. Culture shock is very real, sometimes because you simply let yourself forget. The night sky was aglow from the ground light of gaudy, flashing, multicolored commercial advertising. I had a date with a shoe store, first thing in the morning. EPILOG A year later, I returned in a more reliable rental car from Belgrade. That was the year tubeless radial tires emerged. No Romanian tire shop was equipped to repair them. Most of the trip was on one leaky tire and no spare. Dispirited but amiable, Diana and I also deflated. She said she would ride with me as far as Craiova, then take the train home. There, she suddenly stepped out of the car, and disappeared into the crowd. The kindest way to end it. An hour later, I pulled off at a wide sopt on the road overlooking the hydro-electric project at Turnu Severin, and sobbed. I caught up with Caulay seven years later, in his Glasgow flat, watching telly as Nadia Comaneci put our beloved Romania on the map. In 1990, I sent a note to the best I remembered of Diana's old address. She was still there, had a husband and a daughter, and Ilena was distinguished and proud and making her mark.
Here is a list of all the countries I've been to. I've also been in
all the Countriesand Territories, in alphabetical order, by name currwntly in use or at last visit,
year of first visit, and extent of travels.
(Parenthesis) = 11 territories that do not have full sovereign status
or not yet fully recognized as sovereign)
138 are current members of United Nations (70% of 193)
Miles traveled on surface, by continent:
Europe = 30,000
Africa = 18,000
South America = 21,000
Asia = 11,000
Australia = 150
TOTAL = 80,000
(( (Akrotiri) '75: Landed at British airbase D
Algeria '68: One week across the north
Andorra '68: One overnight
Argentina '92: Several visits of 2-3 days
Armenia '15, three days Vanadzor
Australia '16, Three days NT
Austria '68: Several visits up to 5 days D
Azerbaijan '75: Per GoogleEarth, Iran Road 16 passes into Azerbaijan (then USSR). D
Bahrain '16: Entire length in one day
Bangladesh '97: Ten days
Belarus '68: Train transit NW corner, via Grodno (was USSR)
Belgium '68: Several visits of 2-3 days D
Belize '91: One week D
Benin '76: Ten days around Cotonou
Bolivia '92: Four months residence near Tarija; several visits D
Bosnia & Herzegovina '71: Transit by car (was Yugo) D
Botswana '76: Two day-trips; no overnights
Brazil '92: Two months up east coast; 3 other visits
Brunei '16: Four days
Bulgaria '68: Three visits of several days D
Burundi '76: One week
Cambodia '16; Three days Siem Reap
Cameroun '76: Four days around Douala
Canada '53: Ten years residence: Que, NB, Nfld. D
Chile '92: One year residence, Quintero. Other visits
China '96: Three weeks, mostly Guizhou & Guangxi
Colombia '73: Three visits of several weeks
Comoros '76; Six days, Grand Comoro
Costa Rica '91; Two visits of several weeks D
Cote d'Ivoire '76: Three days in Grand Bassam
Croatia '72: Two days (was Yugo) D
(( (Curacao) ''71: Three days
Cyprus '64: Two visits of up to ten days D
Denmark '68: Two visits of up to a week D
Djibouti '16: In capital, five days
Ecuador '92: Three weeks
Egypt '75: Three weeks, Cairo to Sudan
El Salvador '63: Two days
Ethiopia '16: Two weeks, Addis and Dire Wawa
Finland '68: Two weeks, Helsinki to Lapland
France '68: Two one-week visits, several briefer D
((( French Guiana '17: St. Laurent, lunch in market stall.
Gabon '76: Eighteen hours in Libreville
Gambia '70: Two days, Banjul
Georgia '15, one week
Germany (East) '68: Several hours in Potsdam, three corridor trips D
Germany (West) '68: Many visits up to one week D
Ghana '76: Four days in Accra
(( (Gibraltar) '68: Three days
Greece '68: Two visits up to 4 days D
((Guam '17 18 hours
Guatemala '63: Four months residence Antigua; two one-month visits D
Guyana '17: Six days. Georgetown to border
Honduras '91: Several 3-4 day visits D
(( (Hong Kong) '96: Two weeks
Hungary '68: Several 2-3 day visits D
India '97; Three weeks, Sikkim & Assam
Indonesia '96: Two months residence, Singkep Island
Iran '75: Five days, from Kuwait to Caspian D
Iraq '75; Papers inspected in Iraqi waters
Ireland '68: Three visits up to one week
Israel '75: Three days
Italy '68: One week Sicily, two visits North D
Japan '16: Overnight Narita
Jordan '73: Two years residence Amman D
Kazakhstan '15, daytrip
Kenya '75: Three weeks Nairobi & wildlife parks D
Korea (South) '96: Ten days
Kosovo '72: Drove across (was Yugoslavia) D
Kuwait '74: Three days D
Kyrgzstan '15, Three weeks Bishkek and Karakol
Latvia '68: Train transit (was USSR)
Laos '96: One week, Savannakhet
Lebanon '64: Several 1-2 day visits D
Lesotho '76; Overnight
Liberia '76: Five days
Libya '68: Five Days, Tripoli
Liechtenstein '68: Several overnight visits D
Lithuania '68: Two days in Vilnius (was USSR)
Luxembourg '68: Once overnight, several pass-throughs D
(( (Macao) '96: Three days
Macedonia '68: Five days (was Yugo) D
Madagascar '76: Two weeks, around Tananarive
(( (Madeira'70: Flght destination, onward same day.
Malawi '76: Three weeks
Malaysia '97: Three weeks
Mali '70: Two weeks, Senegal to Mopti
Malta '68: One week , D
Mauritania '70: Three days, coast
Mauritius '76: Five days
Mexico '61: Many visits, all states, up to two months D
Moldova '15, three days
Montenegro '71: Overnight in car transit (was Yugoslavia) D
Morocco '68; One week
Mozambique '76: Eight-hour visit to Cobue
Myanmar '97: Eight hour visit to Victoria Point
Nepal '97: Two weeks
Netherlands '68: Several visits up to five days D
Nicaragua '91: Two 3-4 week stays D
Nigeria '76: Three days, Lagos
Norway '68: Two visits: Bergen-Oslo and Lapland (70+N-lat)
(( (Palestine '75: Two passages, overnight
Panama '91: Two visits up to 5 days D
Paraguay '92: Two months residence, Atyra
Peru '92: Several visits up to 4 days
Philippies '16: Manila , four days. Residence '17
Poland '68: Two visits up to 3 days D
Portugal '68: Five days, also Madeira
Qatat '16: Brief visit near airport
(( (Reunion) '76: Overnight
Rhodesia '76: One week. Now Zimbabwe
Romania '68: Two month visit, two week visit D
Russia '68: Train transit, taxi in Lenigrad (was USSR)
Rwanda '76: Two weeks
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic '7o: Overnight in LaGuera (then Spanish Sahara)
(( (St. Pierre & Miquelon) '70: Three two-day visits
Saudi Arabia '74: Two-day drive across, Jordan to Kuwait D
(( (Scotland '68: Multiple trips up to a week
Senegal '70: One week, Dakar
Sierra Leone '76: Four days
Singapore '96: One week
Slovakia '68: One overnight and a day trip (was Czecho) D
Slovenia '88: Two days (was Yugo) D
Somalia '16 In Somailand, five days
South Africa '76: One month
South-West Africa '76: Four days Now Namibia
Spain '68: Several visits up to a week, continent & Canaries
Sri Lanka '16; Ten days, Negambo.
(( Srpska '73 Transit by car. Was Yugoslavia
Sudan '75: One week, Egypt to Khartoum
Suriname '17: Four days
Swaziland '76: Three days
Sweden '68: Several visits up to ten days D
Switzerland '68: Several visits 3-4 days D
Syria '64: Several visits 2-3 Days D
Taiwan '96: Ten days
Tanzania '76: Three weeks D
Thailand '97: Six weeks
Togo '76: Three days, Lome
(( (Transdniestria), '15, crossed on train
Trinidad and Tobago '17 , Twice, Port of Spain
Tunisia '68: Three days
((( Turish Nothern Cypris, '64, Many trips across border D
Turkey '70: Three visits up to 5 days, Europe to Iran D
Uganda '76: One week
Ukraine '15, three days Odessa
United Arab Emirates '97: Overnight
United Kingdom '68: Many visits up to ten days D
United States '38: Residence 13 states, visit 48 D
Upper Volta '70: Two days, Bobo Dioulasso *Now Burkina Faso
Uruguay '92; One week
Venezuela '92 One week, around Merida
Vietnam '96: Two weeks, Hanoi and Hue
(( (Wales '76: Overnight car trip. D
Yugoslavia '69: Several visits, 1-2 days D
Zaire '76: Three days, Bukavu
Zambia '76: Four days
(( (West Berlin, '68, one week. Legally, West Berlin was not a part of West Germany.
(Canary Islands '70: 3 days. (Spain)
(Catalonia) overnight, Lerida '68 (Spain)
+Non-sovereign overseas territories would be counted if meeting
one of these conditions:
1= on a different continent (St. Pierre/Miquelon, Reunion)
2= Nearby, but with significant special status (Gibraltar, Hong
Kong, Puerto Rico, but not Canary Islands, Alaska)
3=Autonomous, no voting rights in national assembly
+To conform with the more usual practice, I have amended my policy
to count any country/territory that comes into existence after my
visit. I now count, for example, all current nations within what
was Yugoslavia at the time of my visit, proveidd I was then in the
territory of what became each country. Similarly, if two countries
merge, one is lost, unless it retains a special status. E.g., East
Germany is lost, but not yet Hong Kong.
In other words, the entire itinerary is superimposed on today's
globe, and today's countries are counted if the itinerary passes
+Where extent of visit is not shown, it is assumed that I travelled at
least half the length of the country.
The following list shows countries gained or lost as a consequence
of subsequent political events:
Countries gained Countries lost
Latvia East Germany
Belarus West Berlin
I have flown over (A) or sailed through (S) or landed in (L)
the territory of:
Congo Brazzaville A
Czech Repuboic A
Dominican Republic A
Equatorial Guinea A
South Sudan A
Timor Leste A
Furthest from ocean:
1,304 miles, Korday, Kazakhstan