When the Soviet Union broke up in 1992, I saw a picture on television of one Narsultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan. There was a scene of him talking, and another scene of some good-looking Kazakhs in a steam bath. I don't remember what the interview was about, and I must admit that I found the steam bath scene more memorable. But the thing that struck me about Nazarbayev was Nazarbayev himself. He looks Chinese, has a Russian-sounding surname, and is a Muslim who speaks a form of Turkish. What happened? How did this part of the world get that way? In an odd way, Mr. Nazarbayev lives in a very cosmopolitan world, and as a New Yorker, that had instant appeal for me.
Since then, I've made a hobby of reading about Central Asia. There are amazing stories of red-headed mummies from ancient China, Greek cities, Buddhist armies and a nation of Turks who converted to Judaism. This is not something they tell you about in school, yet it's an area where huge amounts of history have taken place, with even bigger amounts exported to unlucky people in China, Russia, Persia, the Middle East and Europe. The Mongol empire was the largest land empire in history, and the Silk Road united Europe, China and everyone between from the time of the Roman Empire. The world is a much smaller place than I ever thought.
After two years of working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, without a break, I finally got a vacation. It was for three weeks. When you have this kind of time, you have to do something epic. If you have the luxury of time, you can go somewhere where time isn't a commodity, like Brazil, India or China. I might have gone to Uzbekistan, which I regard as the current ground-zero in Central Asian terms, but for one thing – I was exhausted and needed a rest. For this reason, I got a better idea.
I saw in Time Out that there are travel agencies that will get you on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Trans-Siberian is epic in itself. It's the longest train ride you can take. Better still, it's a normal, working train, so you get to meet people from all the countries you visit. The tour consists of getting on and off the train in various cities, and moving on after a few days. That really appealed to me, since you could have an interesting vacation in cities, yet spend a few days looking out the train window and get to meet yourself again after a few years. The trip would go through Russia, Mongolia and China.
Mongolia, as I mentioned, is the epicenter of a lot of history. But this is not to say that Russia and China are consolation prizes! My family came from (actually, ran from) Russia, and I've always thought Russia was interesting. Russian people, I've found, are prickly, difficult and very intellectually switched-on. My grandfather, for instance, collected postcards with pictures of famous intellectuals. This is something they don't do in many other places. My father's parents got caught up in the Revolution, and left around that time. I realized later on that they had taken the Trans-Siberian Railway to get out of Russia. They went east, ending up in Seattle after brushes with typhus, anti-Semitic Russian peasants and other plagues too numerous to mention. I went so far as to start studying Russian in an adult education class, but as these things go, they never followed up with part two. What better way to continue?
China, especially the food, has been a great love of my life. When I wrote intelligence-gathering systems for the Manhattan District Attorney, the best part of the job was that it was at the doorstep of Chinatown. New York has a vibrant and wonderful Chinatown, where the cooking is by Chinese people for other Chinese people. The prices are low and the quality is astounding. (I now live in London, whose Chinatown is the opposite – the quality is low and the prices are astounding.) There were four programmers, and the other three were from different parts of Asia. Every day we went out for lunch, after the customary argument about which place we preferred to go that day. It was great company, excellent food, and I was really sorry to leave the job. My friend Jorge joined me in this interest, and though he's very skinny, eats as much as I do. One fine afternoon, we took a walk through Chinatown and stopped in at 4 places to eat lunch. Years later, he was so upset that I first tried snake soup without him that he shamed me into a visit to Peru.
I stopped cooking for about 3 years, since for the price and quality you find in Chinatown, it didn't pay to cook at home. I resolved to try all 200 restaurants, and took copies of Chinese-language menus so I could study the dishes that don't appear on the English-language version. Cantonese cooking is one of the best things on earth – there are stews, soups, breads, roasts, rice dishes, buns, dim-sum and desserts. Some things I particularly loved. There was a Vietnamese-Chinese place that made a Cambodia noodle soup. I thought about it so much that I would walk to work on a Sunday so that I could have it. The restaurant closed one Chinese New Year and I was heartbroken (until Nha Trang, one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants, opened at the same site).
In any case, with such constant contact, I began to know and like the Chinese people I met in Chinatown. They're direct and down-to-earth (blunt, some people say), hard-working, and love life's pleasures, especially eating. Many work so hard that they don't have time to learn English, so I decided that it would be nice to speak a few words of Cantonese. I took an adult education course, and though I'm not a genius in Cantonese, it does help me to know what's going on, and with the odd word here and there you can make friends. (My first try at using it was when I asked a waiter for the bill. I very tentatively said, "Mai dan, m'goi", to which he shrieked, "OK! OK!" -- the abuse a testament to how well I fit in.) I know I should have studied Mandarin, but I couldn't help it. Even though I was woefully unprepared for Beijing, I was really looking forward to my first visit to China.
Speaking of unprepared, I only found out about the vacation a month and a half beforehand, so I had to make quick work of it. These countries all require visas, I needed to do some reading, and you really have to learn something about the languages, since English isn't so widely spoken. At the same time, the people at work were trying to wring out my last drop of time before I left, so my study time actually became less, rather than more. The visas were straightforward, at least for Mongolia and China. For the Russian visa, it was recommended that I absolutely not go in person, though different "experts" gave different expert advice. I ended up going to Olga's Travel Bureau, which, for a sum, made it all go surprisingly smoothly.
The language question was more thorny. Luckily, my French teacher had started taking Russian, and introduced me to his teacher – who did a terrific job getting me ready even though I didn't have time to study, and even though I was very beaten up by work by the time the lessons came around. I didn't have any time at all to study Mongolian or Mandarin, but bought phrase books that I hoped to look at during the train rides. St. Petersburg and Moscow were so close together that I read up on both at home in London, and left China and Mongolia for the train. Because of the sheer number of books, I chose the best-of-class for each category to keep my bags light.
Different guides had different ideas of what to bring. Some of the inventory:
The latter two items were the most useful, since you could buy pot noodles at any station stop. I traveled with a large duffle bag, since that's the most flexible and stashable. It struck me that I might look a little odd with matching Samsonite luggage in the middle of Siberia or Mongolia, Orlando being on some other side of the planet. In hindsight, I could have traveled with even less, but it was as exact as you can get. I'm also delighted to say that I had no room whatsoever for tacky matrioshka dolls or lacquer boxes, and even though I never wore that third pair of trousers or the other sweater, they took up enough space to keep my vacation tasteful.
I think that you start any foray into the unknown with some small sense of foreboding, no matter how fascinating you know it can be. It's common sense. My only concerns were who my bunkmates would be, and after four nights without a shower, how pungent we would find ourselves. However, to supplement my common sense, I had a lot of helpful remarks from everyone whom I told that I was going to Russia. The most helpful remarks came from the Dickensian old buzzard I worked for during the last two years, and the reason I was in such need of a vacation. This is a man who walks by a flower pot and the flowers wilt, the same one who refused to give me a vacation until other people stepped in to argue on my behalf. Since he couldn't prevent it, he thought he would "prepare" me for it in case I thought I might enjoy myself, especially since he's been to Russia and knows everything. On various occasions he told me:
Toward the time to go, he found me at the Xerox machine making copies of my visas and tickets to put in a second place, just in case. In a moment of unprecedented subtlety, he asked me if I had made my wishes known, since it would be a shame for my cats to get put down if I didn't want that to happen. I think it's comforting when your boss is predictable. Even more comforting to predict was the fact that I would be working elsewhere in the company when (excuse me, if) I got back.
But even people who I listen to were unsure of the prospect of going to Russia. Most said they had a different concept of the term "vacation", which meant lolling around on a beach and having drinks handed to you. Other people said that winter was a terrible time to travel, and the train windows might be fogged up. Still others pointed to terrorism, buildings blowing up in Moscow, the unpopularity of Americans, mafia violence, economic upheavals and other lame excuses. I argued that as a New Yorker, and lately as a Londoner, I've had every good opportunity to get killed – repeatedly if that were possible – for all of those reasons. But somehow I don't think that anyone would risk going to jail to steal a cheap watch from some jackass visiting from London. Besides, I love cold weather, and the phrase "my vacation in Siberia" has a ring to it.