As many of you know by now, I don’t let traveling alone stop my intrepid wanderings. But I love to travel with Gee Kin and others when the timing works out. On this year’s world tour, Gee Kin wanted to go on the Trans-Mongolian Express (TME). In particular, he was interested in getting a glimpse of Russia and understanding why it gets such bad press. I thought it might be interesting for you to read his own penned version of the three weeks we spent traveling through China, Mongolia, Russia and Berlin, Germany together. If any of it sounds like you heard it before–well, I plagiarized them earlier!—VV.
Since I love trains, I got what I wanted from riding the TME. I found the experience soothing and serene. It allowed me to think, to meditate and to reflect. Even if the scenery was mainly birch trees, it WAS constantly changing. I was never bored. It was good to be off-line. Sharing the experience with Vickie reminded both of us that we really don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy.
Understanding Russia was a different challenge. I only scratched the surface, but I am resolved to learn more. I regret not stopping for a few days in Siberia. I know Russia is going through difficult economic times and Moscow is not Russia. Perhaps on another trip. Speaking of stopping, going to a public toilet in Russia was a pleasant experience; “having to go” in China is still stressful.
Here are some of my quick, superficial impressions from Moscow and St Petersburg, and a couple of comparisons with Beijing with which I am more familiar. All 3 cities have humungous, clean and efficient mass transit systems (one of my “must-have” factors to be considered a “great” city). The Chinese (“my people”) seem to have pushing and shoving in their DNA; I found the Russians in crowds patient and polite. I did not see one person on the Beijing subway reading a book, newspaper or a magazine (but devices were everywhere); I noticed many Russian commuters reading hardcover books.
And OMG the women in Moscow! Nearly everyone that was on the street or that we encountered looked like a model. Even Vickie was looking ☺.
But I have come to realize what many of you probably already know. Although many Russians look “European”, Russia is not Europe — it is Eurasian.
While the feudal system was pretty much gone in most of Europe by 1500, the Russian serfs, who comprised the majority of the Russian population, were not legally emancipated until 1861, and then in a way that left most of them heavily indebted to their original masters until the October revolution in 1917. Since the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1721), Russia has wanted to be recognized and accepted as one of Europe’s major players. But because of historical, political and cultural differences, Europe (and the US for the past 100 years) has often been suspicious and demanding of its giant neighbor.
Sadly, this seems to be where things stand today. Everyone just wants peace, to be able to relax with friends and family, and a better life for their kids. I hope this current state of affairs does not turn into violence and tragedy.
Despite all the big questions that beg for more answers, my most profound memory from this trip is that of the staff of the TME. They prepared their meals from scratch every day. Nearly every time we passed their cabins, someone was chopping vegetables, mincing meat, mixing dough or making dumplings. And despite the constantly changing timezones, we knew when it was time to eat when the staff gathered together for their meals.
Yes, Chinese life revolves around preparing food and eating together. It takes up a tremendous amount of time and energy. But I don’t think this is a bad thing. Perhaps it would be a more peaceful world if all cultures did the same.
–Gee Kin Chou, August 19, 2015
(Ed. note: Photo is the one and only photo that inspired Gee Kin to take on his Iphone camera or any in the last 20 years that I can remember)–VV.