Darkness in The Golden Land

A temporal disjuncture of sorts.

Sin Ming coin prata, mutton curry, teh si kosong ping. Karen Connelly's When I look up from the book I’m reading, while nibbling coin pratas (doused in spicy tender mutton curry) and sipping a teh si kosong ping, I am, for a brief moment, amazed to find myself Singapore coffeeshop under a HDB block in Sin Ming.

A week ago, this would have been a dark teahouse or streetside affair in Yangon, with a semolina cake and very thick sweet tea. The dusty air, swirled about in the afternoon heat by an old fan, would have been a delicate potpourri of cheerful cheroot, flaking thanka, juicy red betel nut chews, and exhaust fumes; of sandalwood, jasmine, rose.

It is strange to feel this way. Just a hint of that sour-bitter taste of leaving the people I loved in London to come to Singapore. But how could any part of this heart have been left in the Golden Land? True, it was easy to slip into local life there – the cheap, ubiquitous, delicious street food; the oases of teahouses; the pedestrian dance with slow-moving traffic; the clean derelict streets… But no real gospel partnerships were found.streetside tea shop, Yangon

CC was both keen and cynical – the Judson translation was in Old Burmese and far too difficult for anyone to comprehend (LC agreed: “it’s like the KJV, in Latin”) so good secondary material was necessary, he thought. But so few of those were in Burmese. Yet, the situation was dire: Sunday school teachers were known to teach stories not even found in the Bible because that’s what they themselves had been taught. Meanwhile, Singaporean churches were arriving in Myanmar and throwing their money around, starting cycles of dire dependency and dangerously linking Christianity to material prosperity. Right doctrine, thought CC, was the way to go. – reformed doctrine, Westminster Confession etc.

LC, on the other hand, enthusiastic and well-intentioned, had an endearing way of sharing his life and his struggles, and was keen on social justice – visiting orphanages, feeding the poor in villages, fighting for the rights of those he perceived to be downtrodden. This was admirable and certainly love for neighbour in this sense must be one of the effects of the gospel in one’s life. However, not to the exclusion of and not divorced from even more important things: love for God and his word. LC had a risky loose way of speaking about things: “you are blessed” he said when I made it to the airport in time despite Monday morning traffic (so would I be “cursed” if i suffered the natural consequences of my procrastination?), “God told me/him/her” he explained, admiringly, as the reason why people arrived/left Myanmar sometimes just on the basis of someone’s dream, etc. And when I pointed out that his church was using “salvation”, “healing”, and “wellness” interchangeably, he got annoyed and said that I should not bring intellectual Singaporean standards to Myanmar.

waiting for the sun to rise in Bagan, atop a templeBut if we do not speak according to God’s word, there will be no light of dawn.

Attention to God’s word is necessary because it is our only authoritative communication from God – by his Scripture, God speaks to us and tells us of himself and his plan for the world, of our dire situation, of his Son’s saving work and future universal reign. And by God’s word, God works – his transforming powerful word does not return empty but accomplishes his mission of uniting all things under Christ.

God’s word is sufficient as the means by which we can have knowledge about salvation and knowledge about how to live godly lives. One shouldn’t admire the occurrence of random doubtful dreams and prophecies, but rather praise God for the miraculous ability of Christians to now live lives pleasing to God, putting to death our sins.

And God’s word is clear. God has not left his word to modern intellectuals; he gave his word to people in many places and many times – they were kings and court officials, and also peasants and fishermen, and the uneducated and the orphans, and he expected that they would understand and obey. But we do have to do the hard work of understanding it, just as we would a textbook or a legal document. And the Bible is far more important!

goatherds in Bagan, MyanmarPerhaps this heartache is for hungry goats without a goatherd who will beat the trees of leaves and feed and nourish them. Yet, I take heart that God is the ultimate provider, and will be praying for these dear brothers and for Myanmar for quite some time to come it seems.

*************

Flight from Singapore to Yangon: Jetstar Asia (S$230)
Train from Yangon to Bagan, and Bagan to Yangon: purchase at the station – second class (6,000 kyat), sleeper (14,000 kyat)

The Modern Fear of Boredom. The End of History. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia)

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaNo more seats left on the Bangkok – Butterworth train, said the man at the ticket counter at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station.
What about tomorrow?
Not for tomorrow, or the day after, or the rest of the week, or the next week, said he matter-of-factly.

It looked as if I wouldn’t make it back to Singapore in time to meet a friend before he flew back to London. AirAsia wasn’t an option since my passport had less than 6 months’ validity.

I checked out of Lub D hostel anyway (tip: Siam Square one is more accessible than its Silom sister) and returned to the station with my pack, planning to get any train anywhere. On a hunch, asked a different counter if there was a ticket to Butterworth.
Oh yes, do you want it for today? Which seat do you want?
I threw my baht down and did not ask why.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaGrabbed some Thai snacks from a provision shop in the station. Just after the train chugged out the station, a lady came around with menus – there wasn’t a restaurant car we could go to but she said she would bring the food to our seats. The English menu was shorter than the Thai one and there was a slight difference in price. And unlike the culinary desert of the Trans-mongolian train journey, there was also the option of getting something from the itinerant vendors who seemed at liberty to ply their wares, hopping on at one station and off at the next:
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia

After a magnificent sunset that looked like paints of red and orange and yellow and purple splashed across the evening sky, the train attendant came around to convert the seats into sleeping berths, complete with pillow, bedclothes, and curtains for privacy and to block out the light:
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
The carriage was pleasantly clean and would have been perfect, had a screeching toddler not kept the whole carriage up all night.

The second most common question asked about this trip was:”Aren’t you afraid of being bored along the way?”

But exactly is this “boredom” of which they speak? And why is this boredom so dangerous or nasty that it is assumed that any sensible person would avoid it at all costs?

Train attendant converting seats into berths. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaMartin Heidegger considered this existential fear of boredom and consequent craving for novelty and stimulation, a sickness of the modern age. Joseph Brodsky agreed:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. this predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorised onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

By rejecting God, humans found their lives to be merely fleeting moments in infinite time, and completely meaningless, and if there is no meaning, then nothing is worth doing. And a life of boredom is all there is.

A major cause of this boredom, says Andrew Potter in his chapter The Authenticity Hoax: The End of History, is that elucidated in Francis Fukuyama’s essay, The End of History?: the universal, homogeneous state of human civilization sharing liberal democratic ideologies and free-market driven consumer cultures:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognise its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilisation that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

And by getting “history started once again”, he meant a return to (i) totalitarianism in the form of communism or fascism, or (ii) the ethnic nationalism that liberal cosmopolitans imagine has been lost.
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter sees signs of the first already in the rise of totalitarian theme parks in former Soviet states and the shocking nostalgia for the past – the mass murders and torture and unjust imprisonments and repression of communism and fascism are ignored and replaced with a sepia-toned time when things were more real, more authentic.

And the second has been seen all over the world as countries close their borders to immigrants and nativism is on the rise, and anti-immigration policies are regularly laid-out as voter bait. Radical Islam and Islamic fundamentalism as espoused by groups like the al-Qaeda (and I guess now the ISIS), says Potter, is essentially an authenticity movement devoted to the rejection of American consumer capitalism. In what Benjamin Barber terms “jihad vs. McWorld“, “religious and nationalist identity-movements [rebel] against cosmopolitanism, mass media, and consumerism”.”In the mind of Osama bin Laden, Qutb’s rejection of Western rationalism became a hypertrophied revulsion for “America”, which was jihadi shorthand for every aspect of the modern world, from politics (individualism, democracy, secularism) to business (globalisation, trade, commerce) to pleasure (consumerism, alcohol, sex).”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaBut while little distinguishes several Western authenticity movements from Islamic fundamentalists in their diagnosis of the problem with the world, their solutions are quite different. The latter petition, rally people to their causes, harass, or just go off-grid; the former want to takeover the world and return us to cavemen – because, Potter says, “the creation and sustenance of an authentic Muslim community…requires a great deal of conformity of thought, of worship, of dress, and of habit” and so is impossible to “settle into peaceful co-existence with modernity”.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter’s conclusion, then, is that first we need to recognise that “the confused and self-defeating search for something called authenticity, is itself nothing more than a hoax”.

In The Authenticity Hoax: Progress, The Very Idea, Potter suggests:

  • “coming to terms with modernity involves embracing liberal democracy and the market economy as positive goods. That means no just conceding that they are necessary evils, but that they are institutions of political and economic organization that have their own value structure, their own moral foundations, which represents a positive step away from what they replaced.”
  • “…perhaps it is time to rehabilitate the very idea of progress: not the blind conviction that things are getting better all the time, but the simple faith that even when humans encounter obstacles, we’ll figure things out, through the exercise of reason, ingenuity, and goodwill. Faith in progress is nothing more, and nothing less, than faith in humankind…”
  • “Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the trick to doing philosophy is knowing when to stop asking the questions that lead us awry. When it comes to the modern search for authenticity, the irony is that the only way to find what we’re really after might be to stop looking.”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaI’m afraid I would have to disagree with Potter’s suggestions. He has mistakenly thrown the baby out with the bathwater by:

  • assuming all religions to be alike and not bothering to examine the truth claims of each. If the biblical claims are indeed true, then it is no wonder that, as he so astutely observes, humanity’s search for authenticity must necessarily fail. Because of Jesus claims to be the only person who can reveal what God is truly like, because he is the only person who has ever seen God (John 1), then any other attempt to understand what we were made for and what would be good to do with our lives must fall flat on its face;
  • assuming that human motive and intellect are essentially good (but what is “good”?) and worth having faith in; and
  • assuming that we should just shut up now since we’ve tied ourselves up in knots, rather than realising that he hasn’t found any solution to the problem because he has ab initio rejected the only solution – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created and have their being (John 1).

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapor

Sleeper Train from Nanning (China) to Hanoi (Vietnam), and Rousseau’s Romanticism

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam)

train from Nam Ninh (Nanning, China) to Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
sleeper train from Nanning China to Hanoi, VietnamBid farewell to China and headed down to south-east asia by train. First stop, Hanoi in Vietnam.

Ga Gia Lam, Hanoi, VietnamWalked out Ga Gia Lâm,

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnamand following the familiar smoky aroma of pork grilling on the street, was heartened to see the familiar roadside scenes and hear the beeps of motos coming in both directions. I couldn’t decide if I’d consider Copenhagen or Vietnam my third home.

Phở bò, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò shop, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò, Hanoi, VietnamThen, the first person I talked to, a phở bò seller, laughed at my very rusty Vietnamese.

Ho Chi Minh's Tomb. Hanoi, Vietnam
communist poster, Hanoi, VietnamHere are more photos of lovely peaceful Hanoi scenes interspersed quite randomly (ah, can anything be random?) with a continuing read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax:

The Authenticity Hoax: A False Return

“The Romantic response to modernity was an attempt to transcend or mitigate the alienating effects of the modern world and recoup what is good and valuable in human life.”

“What [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau came to realise is that the gap between appearance and reality is not just metaphysical (as Plato thought) or epistemological (as it was for Descartes) but that it has a moral dimension as well, since it is the source of all that is wrong with the world. Appearance is the realm of guilt, reality is the domain of innocence.”

“The problem ultimately lies not with men and their bad intentions, but with society and the inevitable friction it introduces into relations between people. Society is necessarily the land of appearances, and it is society that introduces evil into the world, in the form of the quest for prestige, status, wealth, and esteem.” [Comment: (i) here Rousseau apparently discounts any responsibility Adam and Eve might have had for eating that fruit. (ii) this was exactly what i thought too as a kid! need to find those angsty diaries.]

“For Hobbes, the state of nature is a large, multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma, where what is good for everyone, collectively, is undermined by each person’s individual rational calculations. Without a coercive authority to enforce cooperation, each of us retreats into tactics of self-preservation that are collectively self-defeating. It is not human nature, but the structural lack of restrictions on people’s behaviour, that led Hobbes to assert, infamously, that life in the state of nature wold be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Rousseau has a rather different account…as he imagines it, it is rather a congenial sort of place, in which man enjoys a life of isolation, equilibrium, and self-sufficiency.”

communal dancing, Hanoi, Vietnam
communal exercises in a park, Hanoi, Vietnam“In contrast with Hobbes’s monotonic “psychological egoism” (the claim that we are utterly self-interested), Rousseau sees human nature as characterised by two basic drives…self-love (amour de soi) and…pity…Rousseau sees self-love as motivated by nothing more than the need to promote the survival and flourishing of the individual, by satisfying each individual’s rather modest needs…finding food and shelter, little else, but even this minimal amount of self-interest is moderated by the second drive, pity.” [Comment: a just-so story? The Bible’s explanation of human sin in Romans 1 is far more convincing.]

“How did we get from the congenial state of nature to the cutthroat selfishness of modern life?”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnami just like the juxtaposition of this evidence of community in Hanoi and Rousseau’s whine

“Before, social intercourse was transient and fleeting. But then these transient relationships started to congeal into a more settled form of life…inevitably, this nascent society led to the idea of comparison, or what Rousseau calls “relations.”…In becoming aware of how they compare with others, men got into the habit of self-regard, and “thus it was the first look he gave into himself produced the first emotion of pride in him.”…The sense of pride…gives birth to a new motivation, and a new form of self-love, which Rousseau calls amour-propre…it is nothing less than the quest for status, from which all the evils of civilization follow.”

“…the real problem with society is not social alienation, but self-alienation. Once amour-propre comes to dominate the relations between men, everyone becomes obsessed with appearances and with questions such as who sings or dances the best, who is the best-looking, or the strongest, wittiest, or most eloquent. Status becomes the only good worth pursuing…”

“In such a world, deception becomes a necessary survival skill. In a society dictated by relations of vanity and contempt on the part of social superiors, and the envy and shame of inferiors, it becomes imperative to appear better than you actually are. The mediated world of seems is now paramount, and the unmediated and unmasked world of is ceases to matter.”

motorcycle jam, Hanoi, Vietnam
on a motorcycle, Hanoi, Vietnam“When it comes to coping with the downside of the modern world, there are two lines of approach. We can try to eliminate the causes of our problems or, alternatively, we can work toward mitigating the effects. That is, we can see about changing society and eliminating competition and inequality or we can focus on building stronger, more self-sufficient individuals within the sphere of modern life. As it turned out, Rousseau thought the second approach had the best chance of success…”

“…Rousseau’s rather dismal account of civilisation…had considerable uptake among his contemporaries. Characteristic of the neo-Rousseauian genre is the work of …Dom Deschamps, who dreamt of a world free of the petty jealousies and enviousness that arose out of prideful men competing with one another in a market economy. In a passage that makes…the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban seem urbane in comparison, Deschamps proposed a world where intellectuals would be banned and everyone would live together in a hut, “work together at simple tasks, eat vegetarian food together, and sleep together in one big bed of straw. No books, no writing, no art: all that would be burned.”…Modern civilization is alienating, while primitive societies promise a return to our lost unity and natural wholeness, where we can avoid the status competition and raw commercialisation of society and embed ourselves in a true community based on simple, nonexploitative relationships. In this view, the search for our lost authenticity is essentially an exercise in retrieval, as we hearken back to our own premodern past.”

“If contemporary evidence is anything to go by, there is nothing peaceful, congenial, or even terribly solitary about tribal life. Instead, it is a world of “despotic chiefs, absurd beliefs, revolting cruelty, appalling poverty, horrifying diseases, and homicidal religious fanaticism” (a state of affairs which has been almost completely eradicated from the modern world).” [Comment: this sort of bunk thinking is truly alive in the present world. Recent examples include the refusal to vaccinate children for measles due to misinformation about children’s “natural immunity” and allegations that it causes autism (what’s wrong with autism? an autistic writer then asked).]

“…a more charitable reading of Rousseau is to think of his state of nature as a “regulative ideal” that is unattainable in practice but that an be used to evaluate actual social institutions and relationships and to measure our progress toward a more egalitarian and less exploitative society.” [Comment: but surely if the basis of the theory is inconsistent with facts, then the purported goodness of such an ideal might not be valid.]

street-side meat seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
street-side meat-griller. Hanoi, Vietnam“…on the living tree of Rousseau’s intellectual descendants, there is one group that has enthusiastically adopted this tunnel vision and developed it into a root-and-branch condemnation of the modern world…Let us call the people who seriously foresee the coming apocalypse “declinists,” and their animating philosophy “declinism”…the rights-based politics of liberal individualism, combined with the free-market economy, have served to undermine local attachments and communitarian feelings, leading us to seek meaning in the shallow consumerism and mindless entertainment that is leading us to ruin.”

“In order to recover from this alienation and restore our lost authentic wholeness, we need to learn “the grammar of harmony”, restore our lost “balance”, and achieve “organic order”, by inventing technologies that “work with the grain of Nature rather than against it.”…It is typical of this genre of critical declinism that any positive programme must remain unstated, and any concessions to the benefits that have accrued to humanity over the past hundred years or so must be grudgingly downplayed or even denied.”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam“…the central concern of Rousseau’s philosophical project is to distinguish what is natural from what is artificial in the state of men in society. He knows that civilization deforms human nature, but the precise contours of that deformation are unclear.”

“And so the popular, primitivist view of Rousseau’s ambition is mistaken: instead of looking for some sort of modernity-free sanctuary somewhere in the world or in our distant past, he proposed that we look inward and find our authentic self by attending to our most basic, spontaneous, and powerful feelings and emotions. In this view, the authentic person is someone who is in touch with their deepest feelings, whose emotional life is laid bare…Who am I?…Je sens mon coeur…”I feel my heart”…”I truly am what I feel myself to be.””

Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, Vietnam
Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, VietnamBún Bò Nam Bộ, 67 Hàng Điếu – my heart says,”Yummy tum-tum, this is delicious”

“The truth is an elusive beast, and one that ultimately Rousseau does not think is worth pursuing…As he writes in his Confessions:”I have only one faithful guide on which I can count: the succession of feelings that have marked the development of my being…I may omit or transpose facts, but I cannot go wrong about what I have felt or about what my feelings have led me to do.”

“He takes the Cartesian search for certainty and completely upends it, so where Descartes concluded that the search for truth could only begin with an indubitable fact (“I am, I exist”), Rousseau says…truth begins with the indubitability of emotions, and only once you know how you feel can you make any progress.”

rattan goods seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
rickshaw riders, Hanoi, Vietnam
overladen vehicle stuck in traffic, Hanoi, Vietnam“Authenticity becomes redefined as the ongoing process of filtering our experiences through our most deeply felt emotions and constantly interpreting and reinterpreting our lives until we find a story that is uniquely our own.”
Huu Tiep Lake and the downed B-52. Hanoi, Vietnam
business tourists and a train track. Hanoi, Vietnam“…it firmly establishes the quest for the authentic as an artistic enterprise. Being true to yourself, in the sense that Polonius intended it, is now a lifelong creative project from which no one is exempt, and it plants the solitary artist at the center of our moral understanding.”

colourful laquered coconut shell bowls, Hanoi, Vietnam
pop-up greeting cards, Hanoi, Vietnam
iPho, Hanoi, Vietnam“This is the Romantic turn in the modern worldview, heralding the start of a backlash against science, rationalism, and commerce. The authentic individual is one who disengages from the deforming forces of society and looks inward, drawing inspiration from the murky depths of the creative self.”

“…it was Rousseau who launched the first serious volley in the culture wars…the dispute between passion and reason, art and commerce, the individual and society, the bohemian and the bourgeois. To be bourgeois is to be alienated from your authentic self, which is just another way of saying that you’ve allowed your creativity to atrophy in the name of comfort and security. You’ve sold out, in other words, and the only way to get your edge back is to become a bohemian, a non-conformist, a solitary rebel at odds and out of step with the main-stream.”

shopkeepers, Hanoi, Vietnam
bamboo sellers, Hanoi, Vietnam
men drinking coffee, Hanoi, Vietnam“An authentic person is one who, almost by definition, rejects popular tastes, thoughts, opinions, styles, and morals.”

Thereby tripping themselves (their real selves?) over.
*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Trains from Hong Kong to Nanning, Guangxi, China

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China)

MTR from Hong Kong to GuangzhouFarewell hugs before I dashed down the Peak to the MTR intercity through train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou.

Hong Kong train snacksComplimentary water from Watson’s, and I packed a little bite to eat, to be washed down with a soya bean drink.

sleeper replacement?Sleeper replacement people, one of whom (out of the frame of this photo) was taking a photo of us on the train passing him.

"Harmonious numberautomatic ticket office"At the Guangzhou East Railway Station, loved the Ching-lish. 🙂

Guangzhou East Railway Station

Guangzhou East Railway StationLoads of red everywhere! Even the digital signs were red. Also, chain-smoking indoors.

train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning
sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning

restaurant car, sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning
red-cooked beef with rice,  restaurant car, sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to NanningOn the sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning, Guangxi, the restaurant car provided a cheap but incredibly tasty and filling dinner.

train attendant, sleeper train from Guangzhou East Railway Station to Nanning
Later, babies were given milk (a train attendant went past giving milk powder samples – see the 2008 milk powder scandal and then the contamination of Fonterra’s milk).

Early the next morning, we were in Nanning, Guangxi.

Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China)

Walked into the 北京西站 (Beijing West Railway Station) and purchased a ticket just the day before I was supposed to depart for Hong Kong (or 九龍 or Kowloon). No credit cards accepted so happily, I had enough Chinese renminbi. The entrance to the departure lounge would not have been easy to spot if I hadn’t just been next door at one of those ubiquitous places selling instant-noodles-in-a-tub and assorted drinks.

From there, the usual security checks and immigration controls, then out the other side, just one platform and the Z97 Sleeper Train that would take me to Hong Kong.
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong KongIt was a neat, clean, new train,
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kongwith temperature and sound controls, some movies on repeat,
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kongdisposable slippers,
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kongand a very sanitary attached bathroom.

Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong KongThe toilets operated on vacuum flush, so you were never indisposed even at station stops.

I shared my compartment with a father of one who spent most of his time with his wife and kid and returned only to sleep late at night, disappearing when I went to brush my teeth in the morning.

Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong KongThe Chinese restaurant car was well-patronised, and the food, wok-fried a la minute was tasty.

Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
H had sent me away with instant coconut-flavoured milk tea with nata de coco bits – a nice sugar boost.

Outside, the view changed from remote fluorescent-lit train stations to bucolic countryside scenes with atmospheric mist:
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong Kong
Z97 Sleeper Train from Beijing West Railway Station to Kowloon, Hong KongThen, the foilage changed to banana trees and sugarcane, and before we could determine where the border between mainland China and its newest territory had been, we were in Hong Kong.

Onboard the Trans-mongolian Train 24 from Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) to Beijing (China)

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China)

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

PB130424Train 24 on the Trans-mongolian Express route from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (China) was such a nice change from the Chinese stock I took from Moscow to UB.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWhether or not due to the presence of the unsmiling Mongolian provodnitsa, the interior of the compartments were comfortingly clean and the bunks properly-made. The bed-linen wasn’t stained or dusty.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingOur compartment attendant was on her knees scrubbing the corridor several times during the 1 day-journey. And naturally, the stainless steel toilet almost sparkled.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingInstant coffee and salty milk tea were provided, and paper cups in which to mix your drinks with the hot water from the samovar at one end of the carriage. I shared a second-class compartment with an elderly Korean sailor who had been in Mongolia for the last 6 years. Or so I think he said – he either changed his story several times in the course of the journey or we were suffering terribly from the effects of Babel. Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWe shared food – I brought biscuits to the table, and he, some fried bread.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingHe proved to be quite a character – I would awake suddenly from naps to find him staring intently at me, not too far from my face. In the photo above, he is standing and staring into the provodnista’s compartment which she had just entered with a change of clothes.

For a change of scenery, I headed to the restaurant car: Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingThere were some Americans there, one of whom was throwing a tantrum about foreign food and how the cook was not doing his steak just the way he liked it back home. Felt bad for his friends who were trying to explain to a thoroughly confused waiter what the problem was, and then trying to counsel him that this was all part and parcel of travelling.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSat back and enjoyed the passing beauty of the Gobi desert. Here, a family of wind turbines; there a few yurts or gers; in the distance, a cluster of dots – cattle? camels? It was fun to speculate along with the rest of the restaurant car. “I see a hump!” “I see two humps!”

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSoon, we pulled into an assembly line to have our bogies changed at the Chinese border from the 1,520 mm Russian gauge used by Mongolia, to 1,435 mm standard gauge that the Chinese use. Now, life on board the train revolves, amongst few other things, around the loo and its availability. It’s usually locked at railway stations (for hygiene reasons) and here, it was out-of-action for more than 2 hours, causing a little distress amongst those who hadn’t the foresight to do a little bladder management.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingIn the morning, the view outside the clear train windows had changed remarkably. There were golden fields of wheat, and mountains just out of a Chinese painting. I finally understood the scenery my Chinese art teacher was trying to get us to portray.

Q: How much does the different sort of native scenery impose on artistic method (versus, say, easy availability of materials)?

Q: Further to a previous musing, how much do political borders delineate existing differences in genetic pool, culture, language, ideas, worldviews, and how much do they incite differences in these areas?

Curious minds want to know.

Meanwhile, here’s a gratuitous photo of what some fellow passengers claimed was toilet waste: frozen toilet waste, Trans-mongolian TrainYou’re welcome.

Street Scenes in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)

In the 6 a.m. darkness, I was the only one emerging from the coal-smoked cocoon that had been home for the last 5 days.

“慢慢走! (be careful!)”, said the Chinese train attendants as they helped me off the carriage. They’d become properly motherly as the days had gone by, always looking out for me. On long train stops, I could feel their eye on me as they smoked cigarettes on the platform, while I went exploring. Also, they did not trust the Mongolians – “危险! (danger)”.

“谢谢你照顾我.(Thank you for taking care of me)” I replied.

They looked properly abashed,”不用,不用!”

On the platform, hotel touts who had been waiting for the arrival of the train swarmed up in busy expectation. But as they scanned the length of the platform, it became apparent that there was only one potential in sight and that person had a hostel booked, I had to keep repeating. But they did speak English quite fluently so as I waited to be picked up from Улаанбаатар өртөө (woohoo, Cyrillic still useful here!)(Ulaanbaatar Station), we chatted. Many were in family businesses catering to tourists – they didn’t like waking up so early, but someone had to do it (“we have hostel in city center, you want to go now?”). Oh loads of things to see in UB but best to go outside (“we have car to national park, you take this brochure?”). At the arrival of my driver (the husband of the lady running the hostel), they scattered with a smile and a wave.

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThe driver was a big man, wide and tall with a heavy tread. He had thin eyes that stretched almost to the edges of his wide face and a little moustache and spoke English haltingly. I would meet many similar-looking men in the days to come, some wearing only a white little singlet and shorts and complaining about global warming: “Only -15°C! Who has ever heard of it so hot at this time of the year!”

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThe private room in the hostel was basic and clean. Like many similar establishments, it was in an anonymous apartment block and could only be accessed from the sandy parking lot in the back, where there was little in the way of signage to identify the place.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaIn the morning light, a stroll through the city revealed something of a frontier town: basic roads and pavements, shiny new buildings beside shacks or older Communist era blocks, towers left to the elements after construction money ran out, uncovered potholes, too many new cars for the roads, nothing much in the way of greenery but a bit of scrubby grass, and everything covered with a fine dusting of sand.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThere were snacks sold to school-children from repurposed (or stolen) supermarket trolleys, and an old couple sitting outside the post-office waiting for people to rent their weighing machine.

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaAround the corner from them, a man was selling secondhand books by the road. I loved the incongruity of the deel and the mobile phone.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

There were quite a few other deel-wearers about town, looking very warm and comfortable, and some fashion magazines might say, stylish.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

And just across the street, in front of the gianormous Genghis Khan memorial (Chinggis Khan apparently, not Genghis), electric toy vehicles, padded with fur, were hired to speed-demon kids. Here, the postcard touts operated. Wanting to support one who claimed to be the artist of several watercolours, I selected a few with Mongolian-ised nativity scenes of three camel-riding men approaching yurts lit by large stars.

“Ah, you Kkrristian?” asked the other touts, who had come over for a look at what had been sold. (“How much did s/he buy?” they asked the artist in Mongolian.)

The history of Christianity in Mongolia is interesting. The first Christian-like religion to hit the big time was Nestorianism in the 7th century. Under Chinggis Khan (Temüjin), in the 13th century, Nestorianism was tolerated alongside other religions and some of the khans even had influential Nestorian wives. Historians have concluded that the Mongolian empire was remarkably welcoming of foreign influences and beliefs, encouraging trade and commerce, putting currency (backed by precious metals) into common use, and facilitated international cultural exchange. Temüjin’s grandson, Mongke, even invited Christians (Nestorians? Orthrodox Christians?), Buddhists and Muslims to debate the merits of their faiths before him.

Since the end of communist rule in 1990, Protestant Christianity has been on the rise. I ended up at one such church on Sunday. After Bible study, we all went out together for lunch.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

It was my first introduction to the ubiquitous mutton and salty milk tea that would be my staple diet in UB. I revelled in the joy of being welcomed by people I had not known previously, who not even included me in their lives, but also bought me a meal! Even though they were a mixed crowd – English teachers from America, ethnic Mongolians who had been brought back from Chicago by their parents so they would “know their Mongolian roots”, Mongolians who had gone to India to study medicine and were hoping to practice soon, they took me in because I was in reality part of their family as they were part of mine. It is as Jesus said:

29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)