Saturday, October 9, 2010

Day 49 -- A China Reader, Part 1: Guilin and Yangshuo

Vast and boundless the internet may, China strives to eclipse it in ponderous bulk.

I have been remiss in posting information lately about my trip, for which I can only offer as an excuse that I have been laboring under Communist oppression and internet censorship (a suitably archaic statement that I would never have thought to utter a few short months ago). I have been in China, of course: that much was clear from the start. Some weeks ago Michelle and I ventured north to the city of Guilin by express train, a journey which I will recount momentarily.

Of course, I knew before coming here that certain websites were unavailable within the People`s Republic of China, yet I was unaware of the degree to which information technology is carefully regulated and massaged by the Communist party. They are like some mischevious satellite blotting out information, refusing to budge from their precarious perch in between reality and the stagnant shadows of truth and history that hang over the nation. It is difficult to concieve of comparatively silly things like Facebook, Blogspot and functional search engines as democratic freedoms, but I assure you that I will never again take them for granted.

(At least I and the countless legion of petty bloggers can take solace in the fact that we are sufficiently subversive in our personal views to erode Chinese soverignity and threaten its citizens` moral virtue; for if travelling has taught me anything, it is to take pleasure in such minutia.)

Politics aside, China has proved to be a fascination like no other. South China is known for its rustic charms and dazzling landscapes: towering karst peaks and flowing rivers with bent pine trees jutting out over impossible gorges. You may have encountered the oft-repeated adage that whatever it is that you expect to find in China exists somewhere in the country, no matter how bizarre or strange it might be. This quite true, but so is the inverse. We arrived in the city of Guilin late at night and found accomodations for ourselves situated across the street from a large shopping arcade: a brazen, neon encrusted thing that glowed like a pulsar in the hazy night air.

Fancying an evening stroll, we took advantage of its proximity to sample something of Chinese society. The experience was much like that of walking through Central Park, or indeed any other fashionable Western neighborhood. The streets were well lit and as we penetrated deeper into the maze of Gucci and Louis Vuitton storefronts the neon gave way to soft streetlamps; elevator jazz played softly as smartly dressed men and ladies walked to and fro leading groomed pets (mostly dogs--poodles and the like, but occasionally a small child was at the end of the leash instead). The occasional electric palm tree and prefabricated beach hut gave the place a distinct holiday feel: it made you relaxed enough to buy something expensive at one of the shops.

Thus, my first impressions of China went something like this:

Ah, what a quiet, well-ordered country full of mild-mannered individuals from the upper-middle class!

This remained my more or less consistant opinion of China all throughout the southern part of the country. Guilin itself is something of a playground for Chinese fleeing the cities of hives of Guangzhou and Shenzen (that's where the money is, in case you were wondering) due to its image as a plesant backwater with low population (about 1.3 million residents) good shopping, nightlife and very little else unless you count the Li River and the rolling karst cliffs that pass through the center of town.

For Michelle and I, these natural features were the main draw to the region. We spent a considerable amount of time in the small town of Yangshuo, a typical backpacker haunt with its electric boogaloo of discos, fireworks, street food and tremendous geological beauty with the titanic karst cliffs of illuminated by giant floodlights at night so that tour busses could run into the predawn hours. Tourism was endemic to the region, and I felt positively ragged in my backpacker chic by comparison to the coiffed Chinese tourists in bright silks and linen who needed no provocation to snap pictures of the quaint Americans with their glittering Nikon lenses. We were very much on display, almost a part of the local color so far as the visiting Chinese were concerned.

Money seeped from Yangshuo's pores; the touts and shopkeepers barely looked our way, knowing that their marked-up handicrafts would always sell to the next visitor unlike the frenzied bargaining of Southeast Asia. The wide streets and pedestrian boulevards bespoke careful planning and capital investment on a large scale as did the cleanliness and well-groomed appearance of the tourist areas. It was unsettling in a way to visit a developing country and find myself economically outclassed by the average person on the street though the reality of that wealth was cold and hard as the diamonds and jewels priced higher than my entire bank account. The Chinese do enjoy their shopping excursions; at least for those that can afford to travel and vacation at leisure. For every well-to-do Chinese tourist, there was at least one local picking through garbage.

Despite these oddities, I cannot fault the scenery and natural beauty of south China for being anything less than stunning. The jagged peaks shrouded in mist and golden terraces of rice were magnificent and utterly unique (if a trifle hazy in the afternoon). The dainty brushstrokes of a Chinese mountain watercolor are less fanciful than one might suppose, a credit to the eyes of local painters throughout history.

Yet after a week we were happy to trade floodlit mountains for flourescent skyscrapers: Hong Kong and Shanghai awaited to the north, the urban jewels of China though there is much to see beneath their faceted surface. In my next post I hope to offer a fruitful comparison between the two and bring you up to date on my movements thus far.

Don't worry--I'm not under the China's digital shadow just yet. Look for more news tomorrow, if fortune allows.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mile 4261 -- Hanoi, Vietnam -- Day 26

I really wanted to title this post Great Communist Mummies of the East, Part 1. I really did. One of the fringe benefits of this trip is getting to view the cryogenically embalmed corpses of famous Communist dictators--Lenin, Mao, and in a more immediate sense, Ho Chi Minh. Each of these corpses inhabits a fine mausoleum in the capital city of its respective nation and is on public display within a glass coffin during certain visiting hours, though one might suppose that receiving so many guests takes its toll on even the most deceased host. As such, Uncle Ho left for his annual spa trip in Russia somewhat early this year: while I'm certain that his crack team of ex-Soviet morticians can keep Uncle Ho looking firm and youthful for many more years to come, I do feel a small sense of loss as I  am unable to complete the entire circuit of Communist mummies my first time around.

Oh, well. As MacArthur said, "I shall return!" With luck, in a month or so I hope to give you a better report of these 20th century mummies when I reach Beijing.

One of the benefits of visiting Hanoi at this time of year is that it roughly coincides with National Day, which was officially held on September 2. The general festivities continue on for quite some time, however, and the city is still decked out in red flags, paper lanterns and that pervasive Communist sigil, the hammer and sickle. There are also many veterans in town: their olive uniforms frayed around the edges and cigarettes dangling between ruined teeth, these are graying veteran units from the American-Vietnam War who have returned to Hanoi with their families to pay their respects to the war dead. Michelle and I encountered a platoon of them outside the closed mausoleum accompanied by their wives in bright silk costumes with waxed paper umbrellas to ward off the mist and drizzle. Their medals glittered as camera bulbs flashed in front of the tomb; some saluted while others simply stood aside and continued to smoke, regarding the gray stone tomb and its youthful honor guard with sharp bayonets and crisp white suits and safari hats with suspicion. Of course, one wonders why they felt the need to visit the tomb itself when the whole of Vietnam is filled with monuments and fields of tiny white headstones--there is nothing akin to the size and scope of Arlington Cemetery, but the graves of fallen soldiers are pervasive throughout the entire country in batches of up to a thousand or more.

Still, I am glad to have visited Hanoi. The city is warren-like, with web-like streets constantly turning circles and changing names. This makes conventional navigation difficult though it does enhance exploration: one never knows what they will find around the next corner (except for more motorbikes, a noodle stand, and perhaps a mattress store; the city is saturated with these). Of course, it is not easy to come and go from the city by train, as I have and yet plan to do. The train is one of the few industries left solely in the grasp of the Communist government, and as such does not offer kickbacks and commissions for third-party ticket sales like the air and bus lines are wont to do: many agents and merchants will simply lie to your face about the availability of berths, or name some absurd price in the hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single ticket. This lack of graft makes train travel all the more enjoyable for me, however, so I am happy to chase down tickets like a bloodhound.

Plus, traveling along the Vietnamese coastline is a truly beautiful experience. Much like California's Highway 1, the train snakes along the coast through jungle mountain peaks that plummet down into the emerald waves of the Pacific and wind their way through rice paddies and irregular karst limestone foothills eroded by rain and natural acids. The passenger can travel in style through these environs, nibbling at a generous portion of boiled pig's feet and rice in the dining car whilst sipping a local brew. (The meat in question was fatty and delicious, if a bit bony--not nearly as good as the brace of grilled rats I dined on last week, wrapped in cabbage leaves with their heads ceremonially served in a dish of plum sauce.)

Michelle and I will depart for Nanning in Guanxi province tonight in a similar fashion. I look forward to moving further north for both meteorological and cultural reasons: visiting China is really my chief purpose in visiting Asia. I hope to determine, among other things, if it the region is sufficiently fascinating for me to study it in graduate school. This is the last time you will hear from me in Southeast Asia, at least on this trip. Don't wait up for me: tonight we'll be turning our clocks an hour forward and breaking gauge as we enter into China by express train.

View Phnom Penh to Hanoi in a larger map

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mile 3925 -- Hue, Vietnam -- Day 21

We had left early that morning from Phnom Penh. The river ferry was a noisy craft, leaving behind it black tendrils of smoke to mingle with the smell of cooking fires in the villages that marked our progress on the banks of the Mekong River. Rice fields stretched away into the far distance roamed by small children and water buffalo as monsoon clouds gathered strength in the sky. After several hours we stepped ashore; chickens scattered before us and a pair of rangy dogs barely looked at us as we approached a group of ramshackle huts. Several men sat at a table smoking, a long extension cord powering a television which just barely played Chinese soap operas beneath the static. This was, of course, the local border post: I held out my passport to the nearest of them and was rewarded with an exit stamp. Cambodia was now behind us.

The next checkpoint was nearly a mile downstream. The Vietnamese immigration office was a stainless steel cube with chrome rails and a single door of spotless glass. The Mekong flowed beneath the structure like chocolate milk and it bobbed up and down on large pontoons. Wide steps led upward into the building where a young woman stood in the neat olive suit surveying us and the ferry with a critical eye.

"Good morning Vietnam, sir. I take your passport, please?"

The girl smiled self-consciously, the sun gleaming off of her hammer and sickle lapel pin. I handed over my documents without argument and she gestured into the next room. "Welcome to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. You wait in gift shop and I bring it back to you. Maybe you buy something?"

It was still before noon. The gift shop was a disappointing bastion of socialism in addition to its free-market implications. The chamber contained the usual Communist kitsch available around any college campus in the United States: Mao hats, Che Guevara shirts and lighters made from shell casings. Another woman in uniform appeared, as if on cue.

 "You want beer, sir? Heineken?"

I declined. Still, if this was all that the Communists were up to behind in Southeast Asia I can’t see why Lyndon B. Johnson was so worked up about it.

As we continued our way down the Mekong, it was further apparent that we were in a new country. Cranes lines the shore lifting steel girders and cement flowed like wine in booming river towns; barges moved vast containers toward the Pacific and industry blossomed with quaint tendrils of smoke replaced by towering chimneys. Our approach to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, as the government would have it) wound between highway overpasses as the city stained the evening sky with an orange wash of light. There is no skyline over the city yet, though high-rises have begun to make their debut with cheerful portraits of Uncle Ho and scrolls of Red propaganda to decorate their facades. There is an unmistakable sense of commerce and gathering industry about the place.

Michelle and I stayed in a small guesthouse on an alleyway full of small guesthouses; at least a dozen in all, the local families that owned them inhabited the bottom floor while five narrow floors of three rooms each were reserved for guests and foreigners. Each of these structures was identical down to the last nail as they had been built by the government in an attempt to socialize the hotel industry, giving the effect of a vertical subdivision budging skyward. Our room commanded a fine view of the nearby park and promenade: one of the few suggestions of the French colonial era aside from deep-fried crepes and the occasional heel of baguette for breakfast. Scooters abound in the streets, outnumbering cars at least 50 to 1 without any exaggeration on my part. Their riders come from all walks of Vietnamese life, from the elderly shopkeepers selling noodle soup to trendy youngsters in business suits and designer labels clung to by girls in trailing dresses and stiletto heels on Vespa bikes in the scrum of traffic.

I find the Vietnamese to be far more approachable than Cambodians. More English is spoken by the older generation (in addition to French by those who lived through the “American War” as they call it) as well as the very young who are now learning it in school, and there is a very great openness to Vietnamese society, despite an unfree press which chooses to make future predictions about government successes rather than reporting current events and feeble internet censorship (I am in fact working through the expedient of a proxy server as we speak). While the Cambodians are still scarred by the Khmer Rouge years, there is a great resiliency in South Vietnam to adversity that I find fascinating. Among those Vietnamese that I have spoken to at length, those who were born before 1940 regard the war between North Vietnamese communists and the United States as a minor footnote in compared to not only war with the French but particularly the Japanese occupation of Indochina during World War 2. The years under Japanese rule were characterized by famine, disease and a long pause in the conversation with many of the grandparents I have met. We have not encountered any other Americans in Vietnam, but the Vietnamese themselves are quite comfortable with discussing wartime topics and in general bear no grudge toward Westerners. Even the wartime amputees are willing to have a dialog on the subject and will frequently approach one in order to do so.

As a result, some days ago Michelle and I chose to visit some of Vietnam’s wartime attractions: the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. I was of two minds about visiting these sites, given their sensitive nature. We chose to avoid the killing fields in Cambodia, but something drew us to these relics of the American War—a sense of history, or perhaps of responsibility. Also, I was interested to see the official reaction to the American intervention in Vietnam.

The museum, opened in 1975 as the “Exhibition House of American War Crimes”, is primarily a photographic exhibit of the American-Vietnam War. It appeared that we were the only other American visitors, though there were many Canadian, South Korean and Australian tourists in attendance. Interestingly, each of these nations fielded combat soldiers and military hardware in Vietnam to the war, though none did so on the same level of magnitude as the American government. While the prints are grainy and the interpretive panels generally unhelpful (reading like so: “Behold the styles in which the American agressives began their provocative fornications across resistant Vietnam!”) the museum does indeed provide mute testimony as to the shattering destruction of the American War in Vietnam. Of course, most of the images are copies from Time or Life magazine and were taken by American journalists, many of whom died in the process of documenting the struggle. The museum is government-run and unabashedly antagonistic to Americans, though I believe that such treatment is probably well-deserved given the vast destruction American bombs wreaked upon the nation. What is suspect about the place, however, is that while it purports to memorialize Vietnamese casualties, it in fact only lists Vietcong fighters among the dead. The nearly 3,000,000 South Vietnamese soldiers killed in the war are merely “American Puppets” and apparently must be better off dead for having not contributed to the People’s uprising.

Cu Chi was a more surreal experience. The region once held a darksome net of underground passages once used by Communist guerrillas to move about the countryside undisturbed by wandering helicopters or pesky free-fire zones. The Vietnamese government has turned Cu Chi village into a very credible tourist attraction, charging approximately $5 to step into its animatronic jungle theme park rendition of the year 1967. A state-approved tour guide will lead you through groves of bamboo and imported eucalyptus trees to view robot Vietcong soldiers going through their daily routines in situ: shooting Americans, writing slogans, drinking and constructing roadside bombs, occasionally at the same time. One of the mechanize dolls in particular caught my eye, however: a female guerrilla soldier, her rifle at her side, brushing her hair and applying lipstick.

I was not the first to ask the guide just what her intentions were applying product on the battlefield.

“Oh, she is to go out flirting,” he responded with a smirk. “You know, she will ask that handsome American Imperialist from over there to go to the village with her tonight,” he indicated an American doll some meters away. “They might sit together, touch hands, and discuss the finer points of proletarian revolution in the rice paddy.”

There was laughter and we continued.

Next was a field of tiger pits and functional booby traps hidden by a thin carpet of grass and set in front of a lengthy mural of soldiers being punctured by various homemade traps in the jungle.

“This is how the Americans died,” the guide intoned with a bored look.

He thrust a long stick into one of the holes, and a spiked mallet shot forward and crushed it.

“They were also defeated in this gruesome manner,” he continued, repeating the performance with a similar deadpan.

In order to liven up the visit, we were then subjected to an interesting film in black and white regarding the “American-Killer Heroes of Cu Chi”, a 1967 propaganda piece produced by the North. I do not exaggerate this point, nor will I try to belabor it, yet despite the serious subject matter it is difficult not to snicker in the aisles at such a wanton butchery of the English language. We were led into a thatch-roofed hut where a television and VCR awaited us upon a pedestal beneath the watchful gaze of Uncle Ho. The television itself was a counterfeit RCA unit purporting to be “Made in California” by a peeling sticker.

The Cu Chi tunnels themselves were purgatorial. Visitors are allowed to crawl through a 100 meter portion of the network which has been especially widened for Western visitors. Despite this, my shoulders dragged against the stone walls as I crawled through the passageway on my belly, watching for the electric candles set into the rock every 10 meters. I do not think I could physically fit into the tunnels as they were originally built, nor can I imagine living in them for days on end as bombs rained overhead: it was suitably hot and unpleasant as to give up a taste of revolutionary life and keep me off any uprising for good, though it was truly an impressive main attraction and there was a certain thrill to having completed the challenge without suffering any serious mental disorder afterwards.

Of course, no visit to the park would be complete without a visit to the live-fire range. Here we were offered the chance to shoot a variety of surplus American and Chinese firearms for approximately $1 per shot ($10 minimum) ranging from the venerable M-16 all the way up to various tripod-mounted heavy machine guns. Hitting various targets granted several prizes, including a portrait of Ho Chi Minh himself. While I chose to pass up this opportunity, several British youth took their chances with the rifles and I became intimately familiar with the sheer volume of automatic gunfire—something that I had become inured to in the movies but is entirely different in real life.

I thanked the guide for the tour as we departed. He was an older man, perhaps sixty years old, and I learned that he had grown up in the region around Cu Chi and had no doubt lived through the bombings he had recounted to us. I glanced at his replica uniform: all brass buttons and red stars. No so good for concealment. He must have caught me doing it, because he returned to the subject later in our conversation:

“No, I know what you’re thinking. I was no Vietcong. You know why?” The guide became animated once more, his face cracking with a smile. “Because I’m too ugly. Look!”

He pointed with his stubby finger to a long banner pasted to the side of the ticket booth near the exit. It was typical propaganda fodder: two revolutionaries, male and female, (with a height, stature and in the woman’s case, bust line that no Vietnamese can yet hope to match) their Chinese guns gleaming with red light as their bayonets pierced an American flag with pink-cheeked children looking on joyously. They were beautiful people, sculpted by the revolution into perfect citizens and physical specimens.

“Only pretty people can revolt, you see? All the ugly ones lived in Saigon!”

We had a good laugh over this, but I saw a bit more truth to it when I returned to the city. The beautiful people are already in revolt in Vietnam—the boys and girls with Gap and Gucci riding their scooters after dark started it, but they aren’t the only ones spending money and opening businesses. Time will tell, of course, but I suspect that a Capitalist revolution is only just beginning in Vietnam.

Talking politics is tiresome, however. Michelle and I are heading northward to Hue and Hanoi in due course, but no more of these barbarous busses: look for a report on Vietnam’s rail network in short order. It’s time for me to be riding the rails and breaking gauge!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Mile 3152 -- Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- Day 13

Cambodia is a dark country. Approaching by air, the observant passenger can discern the stars in the sky more clearly than the ground. The runway is lit by a single torch in the far distance with little of the dazzling fanfare and extravagant runway lights most passengers expect upon landing in a strange airport. On foot, by night the streets are black save for the darting headlamps on passing motorbikes; there are no streetlamps. Electricity, as we will learn, is expensive here. At night, the nation's lights are put out.

Landing in Siem Reap was, in retrospect, probably a wise decision. It is an unabashed launchpad to Cambodia's ancient temples: an unnaturally swarming amalgam of guesthouses, restaurants (mostly Thai and French, in acknowledgement of the region's colonial administrators) and swarming motorbikes pulling fancifully decorated carriages. These are the tuk-tuks, Cambodia's raucous alternative to public transit, who will carry you every step of your journey across country for a small fee (in USD, naturally) and will dog you mercilessly if you should decide to stretch your legs across town for a short walk. It was an easy transition from the United States as the city lives and dines on tourism; the visitor has merely to arrive in good order to be led (or vigorously seized) by the hand wherever they wish to go.

Siem Reap is collectively charmless, lacking as it does public transit and any sense of urban coherance. It has risen out of the jungle in a haphazard manner over a remarkably short span of time after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Yet many of its entrepreneurs have done well by the city and opened a number of venues posessing great individual merit: the walled temple gardens, open-air cafes and balconied lounges all embody the best of tropical langour and invite one to lounge in the vaporous monsoon air. Khmer cuisine, while less well-known than its regional counterparts, is also thus inspired and seeks to distinguish its stew-like curries with sour notes of lemongrass, jasmine and coconut over fresh fish and shellfish from the murky Mekong waters. Scents and noise stream out of every doorway as traffic revolves in endless circuits; motorbikes are like platelets closing gaps in the wide arteries between Mitsubishi trucks and tour buses. It is otherwise a relaxed and civil place, despite the best efforts of its street hawkers and scavenging tuk-tuk drivers.

Of course, "Angkor" is the magic word on Siem Reap. Uttering it as an exclamation (à la ang-KOR) will get you a beer--another third-world Pilsner, clear and foamy--and cost you about $0.50. A more innocent "Angkor?" in question form will cause you to be whisked away in a cloud of dust by the nearest tuk-tuk driver and amateur tour guide for the famous Angkor Wat ruins, less than 15 kilometers away into the misty jungle, costing you about $35 for the transportation and an identification badge with your photo on it allowing access to the archaeological park. Nearly the size of Manhattan, these sprawling ruins attract tour buses full of French and South Koreans like nothing else to marvel at their splendor. It is rare for such attractions to live up to their own reputation, yet I believe Angkor does just that in spades. While the main temple complexes are indeed heavily touristic* and infested by waif-like children selling postcards and their skulking minders, the outlying ruins are carved straight from the Cambodian jungle in cyclopean forms of immense splendor and utterly deserted at all hours of the day. The sky was angry and overcast as Michelle and I made the jungle trek at 4:30 AM to see the temples at sunrise, yet I count this gray uncertain weather as a blessing--the green lichens and deep-hued sandstone stood out against the sky in sharp relief as if they still hosted processions of Hindu monks doing obeisance before the devaraja of Angkor some thousand years ago.

Nonetheless, I was not unhappy to leave by bus for Phnom Penh the following day.We transitioned through endless acres of rice paddies and the Mekong floodplain where stilted houses rise above the sienna-toned water. The driver was kind enough to curate a wide selection of popular Khmer love ballads on the bus speakers as we progressed, their studio reverb blaring as we lurched through villages on dirt thoroughfares blossoming with dust and lotus petals behind us.

There is less to say of Phnom Penh. It is a quiet capital by south Asian standards; the traffic is the usual scrum of wildly swerving motor vehicles, yet each blast of the horn carries with it a certain restraint and sense of caution that is reinforced by the moderate speed of traffic; a mere 40 kilometers per hour. Even the monkeys are civil, and anyone who feels the busking tuk-tuk drivers and their touts overly aggressive has never visited Delhi or anywhere else in India. Michelle and I felt a certain oddity when strolling the Mekong riverfront park with its French restaurants and lofty hotels. It is indeed odd to think of the city as utterly empty, yet it was so under the Khmer Rouge, who drove its inhabitants from their lives into jungle work camps during their deadly reign. It has since risen again and grown past its optimal size. Corruption it endemic to society here, though the police have little better to do than blow their whistles and tourists in the Wat Phnom park who tread on the temple lawn. There is little money and little investment here: even the most basic exchanges are handled in US dollars instead of the homegrown Cambodian Riel. I have been here almost a week and not even handled a single bill of foreign currency; even the ATMs dispense American dollars, a testament to the Riel's mercurial nature.

Despite the monsoon season, the clouds show little sign of granting us rain enough to wash the streets clean. Cambodia has been a worthwhile venture, yet I look forward to the capitalist paradise that is Vietnam, only a short cruise on the Mekong away. We leave tomorrow, if visas can be arranged: two Americans who long to visit Vietnam, after my father's generation spent so much time and effort to avoid the place.

View Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in a larger map

* That is, for those with the poor sense to visit them during regular park hours. For the modest "administrative fee" of $5, the park staff will suddenly forget your individual presence and you may climb the highest towers of the Angkor Wat complex after sunset unmolested. The guards will helpfully suggest this possibility to you, should it not occur for you to ask.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mile 2864 -- Salinas, CA, USA -- Day 7

Los Angeles!

You have some impression of the city, no doubt. One of the great megalopolises of America alongside Chicago and New York, the city is full of stars (at least in the eyes of its residents). I carry a great deal of Midwestern baggage with regard to big cities. Chicago is to my liking for a variety of reasons--its distinctive urban center and lakefront chief among them--and I appreciate the cultural melting pot that is New York City as well as its iconic profile across a steel and glass horizon.

Los Angeles is none of these things. Previously, I noted my surprise at the clement temperatures and ocean breeze that I experienced at Los Angeles Union Station--a sea change from the sultry heat of Indiana. I had expected a shimmering concrete jungle and was not to be disappointed, though I had never fully considered the implications of LA being a coastal city with a maritime climatic influence. My stereotypes for city and its residents were mostly validated: poor drivers and mired freeways, it was an automotive purgatory with an endless expanse of flat houses and squashed commercial space inhabited by the trendiest legion of groomed fashionistas this side of Tokyo.

That being said, I had lovely visit. I made a rendez-vous with Michelle, who will be my traveling companion and her close friends, Ashley and John, whom I had never met. Both are lovely hosts and I hope to renew my acquaintance with them at greater length in the future. I stayed at their apartment in Santa Monica just long enough to get my bearings and get a sense of the wide breadth of the city. I confirmed my presuppositions about Los Angeles in a very neat fashion--too neat, if you ask me--as it no doubt deserves a more detailed evaluation and a much longer stay to make an informed judgment as to its relative virtues. Time is short and let me close by saying that in Los Angeles you will see what you expect to find in the city. Anything and everything may exist somewhere amidst the sprawling neighborhoods (or more accurately, disparate human colonies) that make up the greater metropolitan area. It is no worse than I had at first supposed and perhaps somewhat better, though I regard it as a failed urban experiment that I and my four generations of eponymous ancestors absolutely abhor.

Michelle and I left together after only two days in Santa Monica for her hometown of Salinas, a pleasant day's journey north along the historic Highway 1. While I do not normally condone driving as an effective means of sightseeing, the Pacific coast highway is really not to be missed. The palisade cliffs, kelp forests and crashing waves of central California are a sight both dramatic and uniquely American. This is particularly true on Sunday afternoons when the speed limit is not regulated by signposts or even the winding lanes of traffic mere inches from the plummeting cliffs, but rather by the slow, determined progress down the coast made by beetle-like Recreational Vehicles and Airstream trailers. These specimens are all but extinct in middle America but thrive along the temperate coastline as rental machines for the comfort-conscious driver and family with a high disposable income.

Though the days since have entailed a great deal of last-minute preparation as a result of my excursion into Southern California, I am pleased to have done so not least because I was able to visit several of the places my father called home when he was my age, chiefly Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. There is much charm and even more money to be found in theses places besides the waves and ubiquitous surfers paddling on the horizon. Yet all this pales as I face the prospect of departing for Cambodia tomorrow afternoon at 1:20 PM. I suspect that the flight will be long and uneventful much like teleportation, though it does cover the distance of 7814 miles at a speed that cannot yet be bested by the commercial market. While my father encourages me to include this figure into the sum of my total mileage (as you see in the title of this post), I myself am more interested in keeping record of my total overland miles, and as such I will keep that tally separate from my overall mileage which will include two instances of air travel both to and from the United States.  

Tomorrow is the real beginning of things, even though I left home a week ago. Michelle and I will be breaking gauge (from American Standard Gauge to nothing at all--there is no conventional rail travel in Cambodia at present, courtesy of the Khmer Rouge) and crossing oceans, beginning our Trans-Asiatic crossing in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I hope to see you there.

View Los Angeles to Siem Reap in a larger map

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mile 2492 -- Los Angeles, CA, USA -- Day 4

To me, the American west exposes one of the great secrets of our nation: that much of it is empty. Perhaps I am alone in the believing in the fallacy that America is a fundamentally populated nation, yet I must confess that no amount of reading academic texts nor pioneer fiction and spaghetti Westerns prepared me for the reality of the Great Plains.

I am crossing them by train, specifically Amtrak's Southwest Chief. The train consists of nine cars and three engines: three coach and sleeper cars, an observation lounge, dining car and a baggage car. The modern-day Chief is of course successor to the Santa Fe railway's Superchief, the so-called "Train of the Stars", one of the great 20th century luxury trains with Pullman cars and uniformed porters serving haute cuisine on silver platters. My father took the train with his family back and forth to Chicago in the 1950's and can attest to its former glory; while the route has changed little over the years, my coach seat is no doubt a far cry from the feather-mattress that he enjoyed as a child (let alone the fact that the Superchief set its fastest run speed in 1937 at 39 hours and 49 minutes; four hours faster than its Amtrak cousin). My seat is not dissimilar from a first-class airline berth, with ample legroom and a long recline as well as a footrest though I have chosen to carry my own provisions aboard in order to avoid the microwaved fare in the dining car. The long-haul passengers such as myself who have resigned themselves to spending two full nights in coach seats are seated together at the rear of the train, where we can observe the steady progress of the train and its elegant curvature as it bends in wide arcs across the landscape.

We speed across long tracks of standard gauge, the great expanse of angleless land and sky surrounding the train like a perfect cube. Sagebrush, red rocks and Angus cattle abound on all sides punctuated by the occasional flight of a skulking coyote before our rumbling diesel locomotives.  The towns of Western lore pass by day and night: Kansas City, Dodge City, Flagstaff and others, each a dusty affair of signals, switch yards and dwindling fortunes.

My fellow passengers are from all walks of American life. My most intimate acquaintances (of the last several hours) include Raymond--a rusty, old pensioner from the Bronx--Jemira, a young lady and her elderly grandmother--and Malachai et al., the young patriarch of a 21st century Amish family. Without doubt, the train is an ensemble cast of characters, each deserving their own particular sketch. A comradeship unique to train travel has sprung up among us who will never meet again upon reaching our destination, sharing much between us that might otherwise remain unsaid.

Raymond, like myself, is a traveler. The open spaces we now pass by appeal to him given the close living spaces typical of Long Island. A staunch advocate of timeliness on the rails, he has memorized our timetable to an even greater degree than I. (For this reason, I should introduce him to the doctrines of Mencius, the great Confucian scholar). We consult our pocket watches together at each stop and tut-tut approvingly at the conductor as the train glides into each station on time (which our train #3 typically is, approximately 83% of the time). Raymond is pursuing a grand tour of the United States by way of its great ballparks in a triangle with points in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago. His affection for baseball is such that each morning he scurries into the station to purchase a newspaper with adequate sports reporting and was much chagrined to learn that my cellular phone was insufficient for checking the scores in real-time.

Jemira is a far more patient companion. She knows much of geology and remarks upon the canyons and rock formations that we encounter along the way with the measured tones of a consummate tour guide. Though I expect that she is my own age, Jemira's grandmother snaps awake in an instant when I speak to the girl. Ever the chaperon (though I never hear her speak a word in English) her eyes hold a tacit suspicion of my conversation with her granddaughter. The young woman rolls her eyes at me. Born in California, she is a budding novelist and I admire her success at writing in English. She shows me a bundle of papers--her great American novel, she says to me with a wink. The irony is not lost on her as Grandmother rattles off some phrases in curt Spanish at the two of us to which Jemira chatters back. I look over the novel draft  as she tends to her relative, making a few corrections to her prim cursive text.

As the plains fade way behind us, the train begins to rise through the Raton Pass (7834 feet above sea level, necessitating the third locomotive at the front of the train) and at its peak the crags and scrub desert of New Mexico are at our feet. The train passes through a long tunnel and in the darkness I feel Jemira return and pluck the manuscript from my grasp once more, carefully noting my remarks.

"Now tell no one what you saw!" she laughs. "Trade secrets, you understand. You'll have to wait for the paperback."

"Of course," I replied, noting a horned antelope skipping across the landscape, content to look for her on Amazon some years hence.

I enter into a description of Malachai and his family last of all, for it took me longer to enter their circle. We left Albuqurque and he turned to me. "I'll bet you a turkey you've never sat this long either," he says.

I concur; my previous record was 20 hours on a train to New York. I inquire after his destination and that of his family: eight men, women and children spanning three generations.

"Tijuana. It is our first time away from Michigan."

The decision to travel there by train had not been made lightly. Malachai's father maintained buggies and kept horses, yet the thousands of miles to the Mexican borderlands would no doubt prove overwhelming even for the most determined horse and driver. His wife sat next to him with a squirming infant in her arms.

"My son," Malachai said. "He has a brain tumor and there are doctors that can help him in Mexico. American trained, I am told."

And we can afford them, I clearly understood from his gaze.

We spoke little more of the matter. For what could be said, beyond further grumbling at American health care. I am normally speechless on account of reticence, not shame or surprise.

Malachai told me much of his family. They were dairy farmers and between the vast assortment of uncles, brothers, sons and cousins their family holdings totaled over 600 acres near Camden, MI. They had seen the rise and fall of many larger farms with better financial backing even as their friends and neighbors had begun to sell off their land in search of an easier life. We spoke of windmills, of cattle and cheeses (their primary product) and I took great joy in experiencing the Western scenery at their side. Their wonderment was infectious at the tracks and tunnels, canyons, red soil and rocky mesas. Together we marveled at freight trains passing in convoys, each individual longer than than the eye could see carrying Chinese goods out of Californian ports. The Western stones burned with raw color across New Mexico into Arizona and the canyons ran red with murky waters. The Amish family peeled away a worldly lens from my eyes for which I am grateful.

The train appraoched Los Angles at dawn of the next day, a four-hour approach through the metropolitan perhiphery toward a city I regard with uncertain intentions. I wished my erstwhile companions luck at the platform, some of whom who would need it more than others. The air bore a plesant chill to it, a shock to my preconceptions as I stode away toward the waiting car where better-known companions awaited me.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mile 0 –- Bloomington, IN, USA –- Day -3 until departure

In Bloomington, the sky is a wash of gunmetal haze and the ground has begun to crack for want of rain. The quiescence of summer is given way before the vanguard of returning university students who walk the shimmering pavement, pitting the fulsome heat of youth against the soaring temperature. At length, even the clamorous tone of the cicadas fades; the still air hangs like gauze as distance dissolves into humidity.

The summer monsoon in Cambodia sounds better than it once did.

You will forgive this grim paean to Indiana in the month of August, but it is only proper to consider the merits and faults of my own home before commenting on foreign cities and their environs. Bloomington has been my hearth for many years and I am inordinately fond of it, perhaps giving context to my later remarks if I now say something of the place.

I have spoken of heat that makes me long for tropic climes and alluded to the presence of Indiana University, a pleasant campus of short skirts and limestone shadows. Indeed, the chalky aspect of most academic and municipal buildings in Bloomington makes it a city of ivory towers; a generalization, perhaps, in light of the old neighborhoods of peeling Victorian construction and abandoned manufacturing plants, but an accurate and useful metaphor. Southern Indiana is much know for the production of cattle feed, hogs, gravel and stone blocks: thus I believe it best to call attention to the community's most upmarket means of production.

The town itself is unsurprising--a center square with a towering courthouse (which I need not remind you is surmounted by a bronze trout) ringed by shops and dining as well as the university campus, in turn surrounded by established neighborhoods then again encircled by a weedy hedge of businesses occupying long strips of concrete, very few of which involve any actual state of déshabillé. These are each interspersed with young forests and even younger reservoirs which have settled across and the land's ancient contours, untouched by the glaciers that flattened the northern half of the state during the Pleistocene era.

This arrangement can be seen throughout the nation, if my sundry adventures along the numbered highway system are any guide. Whether my fondness for Bloomington stems from its small-town characteristics and Midwestern timbre enhanced by higher education or some elemental connection to the place where I was raised (both may well be the case), it is an admirable city at odds with its corn-fed surroundings. Indiana University stimulates and attracts worthy citizens and sets an example of cultural pluralism just as Bloomington has begun to conduct several worthy experiments in community living. Recycling, for instance, has begun to improve in Bloomington in recent years as has the availability of regional produce and artistic pursuits including music, cinema and theater in addition to the slow transition from an automobile-centric city to a walkable pedestrian downtown.

These facets of local life are growing, for now, and I find them promising. If they take hold, then the city will prosper in the years to come. I take comfort in Bloomington's ability to change and adapt from its agricultural and industrial past and in due course I will be glad to return to it as an oscillating resident: always leaving and always returning once again.