Sunday, July 25, 2010

Risen anew in China

I enjoy reading history: it is one of many important nutrients that strengthen human society and molds the common purpose and desires of our species. Indeed, one can only imagine that to the historian there must be an unmatched thrill to ordering cyclopean epochs with pen and ink.

Good history has the capacity to edify, challenge and inspire decisive action in its possessors. As for myself, I have briefly described the journey across Asia that I propose to make, but I have not yet told you its purpose: the genetic imperative that draws me to China and beyond.

My great-great-grandfather was also Daniel Burnham, an architect in the city of Chicago. He built skyscrapers, among the first of their kind in the 1800s and designed a comprehensive plan for the city of Chicago in 1909 in cooperation with Edward Bennett. The Plan of Chicago laid the conceptual groundwork for many of the city's notable features such as the lakefront, for instance.

What interests me most about Burnham and Chicago, however, is the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. One of the great world's fairs of the 19th century, the Columbian Exposition commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' contentious arrival in the Americas. Burnham served as the Director of Works, supervising the fair's construction and architectural design as it rose like a mirage along the lake shore. 27 million visitors attended the fair over the course of 6 months; a staggering number in an era without air travel and mass communications. They were greeted by the alabaster profile of the White City: an expanse of classical urban forms out of place amidst the Chicago stockyards. This columnar beaux-arts landscape was a cultural proving-ground, whispering of things yet to come in the 20th century. It was at once all-American, introducing the American public to inventions such as Heinz ketchup, cracker-jacks, and the Ferris wheel while a massive generator powered electric streetlights and brilliant neon lamps. The first commercial moving-picture was shown to an audience chewing Juicy Fruit gum, while elsewhere the zipper and mechanical dishwashers made their debut.

The international pavilions revealed more ominous portents. The German-sponsored Krupp gun exhibit displayed the world's largest artillery gun at 248,000 pounds, its barrel looming skyward with the other European pavilions dwarfed beneath. The Continental powers flexed industrial muscles at one another across the fair’s pedestrian boulevards, though war seemed unlikely. Indeed, the Columbian Exposition represented unabashed progress, fueled by an endless optimism in the potential for science and technology to shape the coming century.

The milieu of the fair must have been heady beyond belief. I can only imaging how Burnham himself felt being swept up in such a grand spectacle, as great machines labored so that for a short time the stars were eclipsed by brazen streetlamps signaling the Western world's strength and will to create a brilliant new era. Could I in my lifetime ever see a such a sight as that and be so moved as my ancestors must have been?

There have been World's Fairs since 1893. For instance, my great-grandfather was on the board of the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition, also in Chicago. It bore the cheerful motto "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms" which suggests a chilling twist the Arcadian visions prevalent 40 years earlier. Yet as 20th century progressed, the World's Fair diminished in stature particularly with the advent of permanent sites such as Walt Disney's Epcot center which embody the same spirit of futurism and international exchange albeit with a different end goal.

You may rightly ask, "Whither, then, these dreams of science and shining argent gears?"

To which I would reply, "Thus it is that what bold dreams have set in the West have risen anew in the East."

China, with all the zeal and economy applied to the 2008 Summer Olympics has already begun to host the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and I propose to go there and see it for myself. The numbers are right: China alone has spent over $44,000,000,000 in preparation for the event, (and by all means, count the zeroes) less what national governments have spent in order to put their best feet forward with brilliant and varied national pavilions. Visitors are expected to number between 70,000,000 and 100,000,000 in total, more than any other fair in history.

Reports have begun to filter in as regarding the Shanghai expo and its relative merits, but I have avoided them all. I want to go and feel childlike wonderment there; I want to feel like I'm walking in my great-great grandfather's shoes on foreign soil. By that, I don't mean China--rather, I want to feel like I am treading decades hence into the future. That is my ultimate raison d'ĂȘtre for traveling here. My eyes will be open, looking for the devices and slogans that will typify 21st century optimism. "Better City, Better Life" is perhaps something that Daniel Burnham would have agreed with in 1893, and it's a sentiment that sounds good to me now. But what of the inventions, the architecture and politics of it all? There will be no German guns or colonial empires on display, though I look forward with some reserve to seeing what the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Iran and Myanmar wish the world to see inside their sprawling pavilions. Iraq and Afghanistan stand on parade alongside them, 2 of 189 participating countries in this six-month long typhoon of nations and dreams.

Only one thing is assured: the fair will have Daniel Burnham in attendance, just as Chicago did in 1893 and 1933, watching the history go by.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rail Politick, part 2

I told you that story so I could tell you this one. 

I may have put the carriage before the horse, in fact. Feeling rambunctious, I began my conversation with you by praising Caesar (a cheeky suggestion, contra to the great Shakespeare and his crony, Marc Antony) with a short monograph on rail gauges and their circuitous connection to the Roman and Chinese imperial dynasties.

My singular interest in this subject is not unwarranted; in one month from today, I leave for the Asian continent with the aim of traveling from the murky fringes of the ancient Qin frontier to the periphery of the Roman Empire, traveling by rail and breaking gauge across China, the Mongolian steppes and Siberia into Scandinavia. I have founded this webspace to record this lengthy passage across 20,000 kilometers of steel rail. 

It is not possible to do this on a single rail network, of course. I will begin in Cambodia, where there are no trains; following the Mekong to Vietnam will allow me passage on 1000 mm gauge rail to China, where high-speed tracks bleed across the map, spreading like capillaries from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing into the terraced hinterlands and shifting loess bluffs (which mandate our favorite, standard gauge). To the north, the Iron Curtain still stands--1520 millimeters wide--as the tracks widen across the Russian tundra before settling once more into familiar dimensions at the European border: 1435 mm, the standard gauge, or a more comfortable 4'8½ inches for the homesick American vagabond.

These are the overlooked clock hands that chime away the passage of miles; time is of little consequence on a long-distance train. The rising and falling of the sun becomes a weaker rhythm than the constant swaying of the carriage and the blurred mile markers passing outside the window like lonesome cairns marking a worn pathway.

It is my hope that this record will prove to be interesting to you, perhaps as more than picaresque "traveler's tales" and something more concrete. For myself, I hope that it will proves useful as a way to practice writing while overseas and ultimately improve my abilities through repetition and criticism (which I count on you to contribute). I hope to write in greater detail about my route as well as some of the preparations which remain to be made in the upcoming weeks before I depart, so look for further remarks in due course.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Rail Politick, part 1

If you are a traveler, you would do well to think kindly of Julius Caesar and Qin Shi Huangdi as I did this morning over breakfast.

This may suggest to you that I am a man who is ill at ease dining alone, or one who indulges overmuch in praising imaginary phantoms. Yet these spectral monarchs came to mind unbidden, like palace incense on the wind. To begin my narrative with them is appropriate, for both men were consummate travelers as well as autocrats and did much during their reigns to improve the lot of future globetrotters. Thus, tribute is due for for some of their lesser-known accomplishments.

For instance, as I crunched my granola in the morning light (imagining for an instant the finch on my windowsill to be a stately Roman eagle), I reflected that there must be some sympathetic relationship between my ossified breakfast cereal and the superlative highways constructed in ancient Rome and Imperial China. Both the ancient Romans and the Imperial Qin are credited with standardizing the axle-widths of wheeled vehicles within their respective domains; thus, every single wagon in each empire left behind it identically sized ruts in the soil much like the regular furrows I dug amidst the contents of my breakfast bowl.

Such hungry metaphors aside, this was a grand accomplishment. A traveler could reasonably expect his trusty horse and wagon to comfortably traverse Imperial roads all the way from Rome to Gaul, or ply trade from the Yellow River to the Yangtze (whose waters swirl and gyre like the rising steam from my tea grown in Fujian province) without bouncing in and out of precarious crevasses left by the other passers-by with a narrower wagon frame. The multitudinous subjects of Rome and Qin China could travel effectively and at will throughout their great domains using equipment built to match the realm standard. On the other hand, foreigners found themselves at a disadvantage—non-native wagon axles were like square pegs in round holes, prone to jostling and breakage as they dipped in and out of the standard-width wagon ruts. Consequently, national boundaries began to be defined in part by transit infrastructure and the ease with which goods and ideas could be physically moved across them into cultures, nations, and linguistic zones.

It is worth noting that the standard Roman axle width from the 5th century BCE was between 55 and 58 inches wide, or about 1.45 meters. Such dimensions were well-suited, stable and effective for wheeled transportation, changing little over the millennia. As a result of this practicality, British railway engineers adopted a railway gauge of 56.5 inches (or 4 ft 8½ inches, to be precise) throughout Great Britain in the 19th century. Rail gauge is, of course, the inner distance between two parallel rails that from a navigable railroad, very similar indeed to our wagon ruts. This span in turn mandates locomotives and rolling stock (that is, train cars) of a certain size. The 56.5 inch “standard gauge” has since spread throughout most of Europe and North America, Australia and China as the default railway configuration. From an engineer’s perspective, it is an accidental hand-me-down, having less to do with dusty empires as opposed to Newtonian physics.

The standard gauge is less so than it would claim to be, of course. Nearly 40% of the world’s railways maintain gauges either wider or narrower than 56.5 inches, and not all adjacent countries have identical rail gauges. Should a passenger wish to cross such a border, they must first navigate a “break of gauge” either by changing trains or replacing the undercarriage on their rolling stock.

Indeed, such a thing is almost the true measure of passing from country to another as it forces a physical transition from one place to another; a calculated departure from all things near and familiar.