Good morning, Vietnam

It is well past noon when we hurry down a dusty alley in Danang, Vietnam. On one side of the alley, bored women, sequestered behind their piles of brown dried meats and mounds of maroon meat floss, fan themselves in the afternoon heat.

banh xeo, Danang

Where the alley turns right into another row of bored dried-meat vendors, sits a bánh xèo institution. There is a ravenous silence around the sterile stainless steel tables as we stuff rice paper with fresh herbs and leaves and cool raw cucumbers and a tumeric-laced “crepe”, itself already bursting with tasty bean sprouts and shrimp and pork, and dip the whole fat roll into bowls of tangy satay-style sauce.

Little time for chit-chat. Much has already been said about external persecution – beatings and destruction of property and threats, and about internal strife – denominational division and sheep-stealing. Now we need to ride on to Hoi An to meet another group of brothers and sisters.

Hoi An will be our third stop. We are somewhat exhausted from bumpy roads and hard beds, but encouraged by God’s work.

Hoi An lanterns

That evening, after dinner, I speak about the importance of trusting God’s word in the Bible,  of the Bible being both a divine word and a human word, and as a human word – capable of being understood by the normal means of comprehension and consideration of context. Context to be considered: literary context, book context, historical context, and whole Bible context. I see furrowed brows during the hour-long session and pray that God would use this poor dry attempt to somehow help his people.

Untitled

God deigns to use his weak vessels. Over little piles of hến trộn the next day, brothers talk about how struck they are that God’s word is primarily about God and what he is doing in the world, and about changing our fallen view of the world – not about going off to do something; and sisters say how mortified they are that they’ve been doing character studies on the life of Joseph.

Oh, that they will see the stupendous banquet that awaits them as they dig properly and heartily into the Scriptures. How much firmer they will be able to stand, knowing that the unspeakable sovereignty of our Father and the eternal salvation wrought by his Son, and the glorious hope of the new creation.

And this we pray too, for ourselves.

Advertisements

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

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

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)

There has been no end of people gushing how my London to Singapore trip, over land, was going to be the journey of a lifetime. I just could not understand it – all I was doing was taking a really slow and tedious route from Europe to Asia.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamAnd many of the epic train journeys, like the Trans-mongolian Railway and now the Reunification Express were just normal means of commuting for many people. Perhaps it wasn’t the cost of train rides that were the issue, but the rarity of the experience in our little social circle?

Continuing my read-through Andrew Potter’s book:

The Authenticity Hoax: The Creative Self

“In the last couple of chapters, we have followed the turn in Western culture that began with an initial, visceral reaction against the three pillars of the modern world: spiritual disenchantment, political liberalism, and the growth of the market economy. As we traced it through the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this reaction gave rise to the ideal of authenticity, which culminated in a celebration of spontaneity, emotional transparency, and a fixation on the creative powers of the individual to provide meaning in a world that otherwise offers none.

This last development is particularly important. Once the authentic self becomes, in effect, an artistic project, that puts a number of questions relating to art and authenticity front and center. What counts as an authentic work of art? What threatens artistic authenticity?…”

“There is an ambiguity in the way we use the term authenticity when discussing art. The first kind of authenticity, what the art world refers to as its provenance, is concerned with the correct identification of the origins or authorship of an object or work…[the second kind is about] whether the work is a true expression of the artist’s self, her vision, her ideals, or perhaps her community, culture, or “scene”. What we are concerned with in this case is that there is a divergence between the art that is expressed and what we think the artist ought to be expressing, or is entitled to express.”

“The underlying intuition here is that there is an intimate connection between your upbringing and your identity: that the biographical question “Where are you from?” is a reliable guide to answering the existential question “Where are you coming from?” Further, there’s a normative dimension to this, insofar as your background (including your race, your class, your schooling, even what part of the country you are from) frames the scope and limits of what you can legitimately claim to speak, or sing, or paint, or write about.” [Comment: class distinction and social hierarchy smuggled in another form?]

“This intuition manifests itself all over the place. For example, it is what drives one of the longest-running battles in the culture wars, over “appropriation of voice” and the question of when, if ever, it is permissible for someone of one culture or racial background to speak in the voice of another.” [Comment: long-running assumption that “blacking-up” is politically-incorrect, but what about cripping-up then? ask some]

“…what the [Sonia] Sotomayor incident highlights is the way this type of identity politics quickly turns into a form of status competition, where the relative authenticity of one voice over another results in a game of moral one-upmanship.”

“According to the standard picture of cultural co-optation, what happens is an authentic art form emerges organically out of a given subcultural milieu. Eventually, members of the dominant culture (usually rich white males) come along and appropriate the superficial looks or sounds or techniques of this artform while taking some sandpaper to its rougher edges. This softened version is then sold to the masses as the real thing…What happens if we can’t tell the difference between the original and the fake, or between the authentic and the ersatz?”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam “We might think it is a straight-forward, empirical fact whether a painting is an authentic Rembrandt, and the connoisseur is the one who can tell us. But in a world where art can be copied, reworked, and reproduced in an indefinite number of copies, the very idea of the “original” work becomes problematic, and by the end of the twentieth century it had led to a serious crisis of authenticity in the world of art.”

“[Walter] Benjamin argues that there is a straightforward answer to the question of what distinguishes an original work of art from the perfect copy, since even the perfect copy is lacking in one crucial element, namely, its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…the sense of awe or veneration we have for an authentic relic or a work of art is captured by more than just its past. What we value is its aura, which consists in the history and individuality of the object, insofar as it is embedded in what he calls the “fabric of a tradition.” That is, an authentic work of art is an object that was created at a certain time for a specific purpose.”

“In secular cultures, the aura is preserved…by what Benjamin calls “the cult of beauty”, the secularised but quasi-religious worship of art for art’s sake.”

“So to qualify as an authentic work of art, it is essential that it be connected in some way to a community and its rituals, and the further removed an object is from this ritual power, the more the aura withers. This is why Benjamin thought that the early-twentieth century debate over whether photography and film are legitimate forms of art completely missed the point. The real issue was the way in which these had completely transformed the entire nature of art by dissolving the relationships within which the concept of the authentic work made sense. The two main solvents at work in the age of mechanical reproduction are massification and commodification.”

“In the age of secularised, commercialised, mass-marketed entertainment, what plays the role of the ritual in preserving the aura of the work is the artist’s life. Their past, their history, their lifestyle or persona is what provides the ballast that anchors the work in some sort of creative tradition or narrative, saving it from the frothy superficiality of mere commerce.”

“…in the age of digital reproduction, we treat art as a commodity – cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected.”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam“…in the age of digital culture it is not just access to art that has been democratized but its production as well…But when everyone is so busy creating, who has time to consume any of it? In an economy where what is scarce is attention, the spoils will go to the artist who is best able to command it, even if this requires some rather baroque or contrived setups to achieve.”

“Across the artistic spectrum, we are starting to see a turn toward forms of aesthetic experience and production that by their nature can’t be digitized and thrown into the maw of the freeconomy. One aspect of this is the cultivation of deliberate scarcity…Another is the recent hipster trend to treat the city as a playground…This fascination with works that are transient, ephemeral, participatory, and site-specific is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect.”

“But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle…now it turns out that authenticity is something for which people are willing to spend great sums of money.”

I wondered what people would have paid for a journey from Hanoi to Saigon in a compartment full of sweaty Vietnamese men…if it was sold as performance art or as an authentic trip unlike any other.

My compartment-mates were a few too many – it seemed that they’d only paid for two berths but were 6 (and maybe more). There was an older man in a uniform and two underlings who looked very uncomfortable. And there were three other men who drank frequently from a jerry can of moonshine, smoked cheap cigarettes, and played cards. All the space under the bottom berths and under the table were taken up with their large pieces of luggage. Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThey felt at liberty to sit on my berth as well, inching closer and closer to the ball I’d made of myself next to the window, until I told them to please remove their unwashed selves.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamStill, there were offers of moonshine, and then tea as they sought to deal with their moonshine headaches. I wondered how my perception of the situation would change if this were my weekly commute, or if this was the set of a interactive art installation. Food on the train was rather dismal after the tastiness of Chinese restaurant cars: bao and steamed corn for brekkie: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnama restaurant car patronised only by train attendants, and where it was made clear that I was unwelcome: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamafter which I decided to take my chances with the packed food coming round: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThis was the only station we managed to hop off for some food-shopping: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamSo, the glamorous authentic adventure of train travel.

*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

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.

Trans-Siberian Trans-Mongolian Express Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar

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

An old Russian lady came up to me outside Рижская (Rizhskaya Metro, the site of the 2004 Chechen separatist suicide bombing) to ask how to get to Рижский вокзал (Rizhsky Train Station). The subway wasn’t very visible with all the people milling about the food booths around. Without thinking, I replied in English. There was a bemused pause before she thanked me and trundled off with her luggage.

“вокза́л” is an interesting word – apparently the short form of “vocal hall”, the setting for concerts. The internet has several theories how the genesis of this was London’s own Vauxhall station.

A while later, I exited Комсомо́льская (Komsomolskaya Metro) straight into a group of rowdy men smelling strongly of cheap alcohol. Several other commuters tried to give them a wide berth before beefy security emerged from Яросла́вский вокза́л (Yaroslavskiy Train Station) to ask them for identification. Say what you like about the ubiquitous police presence in Moscow, this traveller (and many locals) greatly appreciated them.

This marked the start of my train journey across Russia, Siberia, to Ulaanbaatar (or Ulanbatar or Ulan Bator) where I would hook up with S. People make far too much of the trans-siberian (or in my case, more specifically, trans-mongolian) train ride, employing adjectives like “epic” and phrases like “once-in-a-lifetime”. If I’d trekked across to Mongolia, that would be “epic”. If I’d crawled across Siberia on a sledge harnessed to a pack of giant snails, that would be “once-in-a-lifetime”. This was just a long trip on a locomotive following an ancient tea caravan route (says Wikipedia), over 4,887 miles and several time-zones to Beijing. Plenty of people use it to get to work/home regularly.

(For the first time in my adult life, I’d used an agency, Real Russia, in London. Since the whole trip had been a decision made on the spur of the moment in the early hours of the morning, a fortnight before I had been due to leave London, I’d thought it worth paying a premium to save the hassle of obtaining travel documents while also attempting to say goodbye to everyone and pack all my personal effects. Real Russia – highly recommended. Efficient, knowledgeable, and kept me informed of their progress in obtaining tickets and the Russian visa (the only one I would require on this trip – whew, Singapore passport!).)

Photograph Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

This weekly Tuesday night train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia was of Chinese rolling stock and came with Chinese male train attendants who might have left their toothbrushes at home. The upholstery and carpets were frayed and dirty, and the stainless steel loos looked and smelled like something out of a prison. I sorely missed having obsessively clean Latvian or Russian provodnitsas in charge.

But that and having dry showers for 5 days was no biggie. And neither was the emptiness of the train. Many online accounts of the journey waxed lyrical about the companionship in the compartments and how there would be an exchange of food and vodka with Russians travelling the route. There was no one in my compartment because the cold season meant low season. I went exploring and wandered into the carriage beyond the restaurant car where most people seemed to be, there was a ruckus and their very stout provodnitsa grabbed me by the arm and pushed me out.

So stayed in my carriage and made chat with the only other people on it – an English couple in the neighbouring compartment. Otherwise really enjoyed the solitude and quiet to reflect on the last few years and to think about the future, and to mope a bit for friends left behind in London.

Photograph dog on platform, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Most contact with the English neighbours and the outside world came at the frequent stops. We particularly liked the longer pauses at stations where:

Photograph another engine, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph another engine, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

train engines were changed,

Photograph coal delivery, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph coal implements, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

and coal was delivered – necessary to centrally heat the carriages and the hot water boiler, and the onboard water-tanks were filled from taps along the tracks.

Photograph warning sign at train station by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph warning sign at train station, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Liked how un-complex things were. Warning signs simply served their intended function. They were not fetishized as poster or postcard designs or printed on t-shirts.

I sleep best on moving objects – boats, trains, buses, cars, so thoroughly enjoyed the nights onboard. And it was good fun to awake each morning to new scenery outside the blurry window:

Photograph first morning on Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph view from Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph sunset, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

there was the sun rising amongst birch trees and setting over partly frozen rivers,

Photograph view of wooden houses, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph abandoned factory. view from Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph water tank? view from Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
there were wooden huts, and abandoned? factories, brick water tank towers,

Photograph view from Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

there were little colourful huts huddled together at the foot of mountains, with a few cattle roaming in the grassland, and there were smoke-spewing industrial buildings,

Photograph view of man fishing, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

and sometimes, there were people possibly ice-fishing.

I’d brought along Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook: The guide to the world’s longest railway journey with 90 maps and guides to the route, cities and towns in Russia, Mongolia & China. The minutiae of markers and historical titbits helped both compartments to understand the regions we were passing through a little better, but after a few days, I found myself far more content just to stare out the window and think.

Photograph passengers, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

At times, my revery would be interrupted by the Chinese train attendant pointing at one of the English neighbours and saying,”她问我什么? 她说什么我不明白.” And at other times, it would be the English woman saying,”Could you please tell this man…” I was pleased to have been so useful, especially since hardly anyone who knows me will even allow me to order food in Mandarin.

On food. I brought most of my own stuff to save money:

Photograph Dorset cereal porridge on the Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Dorset Cereal instant porridge for breakfast,

Photograph Russian bread, smoked cheese, sausage on Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Russian bread and cheese and sausage for lunch,

Photograph Mama instant noodles and a pdf book, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

a variety of instant noodles for dinner.

Photograph hot chocolate onboard Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

That samovar (hot water boiler) was good for hot chocolate and tea as well.

Photograph chocolate to eat on Trans-mongolian Express from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Alenka chocolate for snacking on Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Russian chocolate, some of which I would have to ship back to London to the church cook who’d requested specifically for “the one with blue packaging and bears” (Mishka Kosolapy, the bears coming from a painting, Morning in a Pine Forest), all sorts of goodies from Alenka from the Red October Confectionery Company. The pointy-ended packaging was a great way to enclose the chocolate without adhesives.

Photograph sunflower seeds, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

And roasted sunflower seeds.

Photograph Restaurant car on Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph borscht in restaurant car, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph fried eggs in restaurant car, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Towards the end, I got bored of dried stuff x hot water and went to check out the restaurant car. The borscht was a welcome change and the English couple (“we’ve come here every day for lunch and dinner and have only seen one other customer from the carriage beyond ours”) said their fried eggs and ham were satisfactory.

Photograph woman selling dried fish on the platform, Transmongolian Train from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

At none of the stations did we see any hot or homecooked food being sold. The closest we got to authentic local cuisine were the babushkas selling dried fish near Omsk (i think).

Thus self-contained, we jiggled along, observing changes in the flora and fauna and human habitation and facial features and dress, across Siberia and into Mongolia, where I disembarked at Ulaanbaatar.

After the density of the cities like London, and Amsterdam, and to a lesser extent, Copenhagen and Sweden, just the experience of travelling all this distance (and that’s not even much in terms of circumnavigating the globe) helped me understand a little more how big our Creator must be.

It was like the Disneyland ride where you sit on a tram that brings you through various country-themed halls with robots in traditional costumes singing “It’s a small world after all” in high-pitched voices, except it isn’t small in the sense that as we passed through towns and villages where real people lived, with their hopes and dreams and difficulties and needs and wants and thoughts and ideas and traditions and wisdom and foolishness, there was a sense of the vastness of this world that cannot be contained but in the mind of God.

PS. If anyone wants proper, accurate, up-to-date information, I heartily recommend, as at the date of this post, The Man in Seat 61 as the fount of all train-riding wisdom!