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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Team Alala's LiveJournal:

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Friday, November 30th, 2007
4:19 pm
Photo uploading.
For them as are interested, I've started uploading photos to flickr. I've only imported a third of our photos into iPhoto so far and am working through one by one selecting only the non-awful photos. You wouldn't be amazed how many photos taken from a car are blurry.
Friday, November 2nd, 2007
9:02 pm
It's a small world.
I still find myself gritting my teeth out of fear and intimidation at the size and scale of traveling around the world. From northern latitudes of Moscow and London to Shanghai and down to Honolulu. Home to Seattle, Olympia. It scares the hell out of me that I've ridden the great globe in the sky around the firey mass of the sun. It's enough to make a perfectly sane person go crazy, and I never laid claim to sane.

Tack on the bit where I still don't know what language to use for casual utterances. "Za" is "well!", "so..." and "let's go!" "Xie-xie" and "ni hao" are firmly rooted in my automatic responses to service people. I say "dank u vel" to friends and acquaintances. I say "petrol" and bite back the urge to write "tyre." Is "tak" yes or thanks? Is it "ney" or "nyet" or "no"? Should I really be saying "te" instead of "yeah" almost universally?

I wake up some days shocked that I don't have to figure out where we're going tomorrow and how to get there. There is still anger and regret for the accident, for the collision in Warsaw, for the harassment by the police in Poland and Mongolia. I still cry at the thought of yelling "look, we were both sober, and corivax needs to get to a hospital and so do I!" while the police insinuate for the twentieth time that one of us was drunk, and whoever was drunk was driving. I still loathe that feeling of impotence and being lost and afraid.

But it's a big, wide, scary world. The world at home had its own surprises laying in wait that would make a crooked Polish cop blush. Ignoring the turmoil of the economy which made our exchange rate the stuff of nightmares, we came home to landlords who decided they weren't going to have us as month-to-month tenants anymore since they couldn't get in to our apartment. They couldn't get in because they never fixed the broken lock on the front door and we weren't going to leave it unattended while we walked upon distant lands. Nevermind that they were out of the country for the weeks before we left so we could never give them a heads up.

And all of our problems are small compared to many we saw along the way. First world problems impact the daily life and happiness of first world people as much as any of the worlds I've seen are impacted by their problems. They're still problems, things still don't work.

More than anything, I am amazed at how much we got to see, how much I got to experience. It's the sort of thing that really makes you love the planet you live on and the people you share it with. For me, it carries a special weight about the size of things, the scale of things, and the reality of our not-quite-sphere and our not-quite-awareness of it. We get to live on a flat Earth, day to day, but I always had a hard time with that before. Now it's so big I can barely think about it, and so small that I can have seen with my eyes all around it. It's humbling and horrifying. I hope it's not once in a lifetime. Thanks very much to everyone who supported us along the way - I hope everyone gets to see that much of this planet in their time on it.

Getting into processing photos so we'll have something to show at our upcoming, unexpected, housewarming party. When I get an album together, I'll post it here for everyone. Until next time, so long.
Friday, October 12th, 2007
11:41 pm
Home again! Home again!
Well, there you are, then. Full circle. My laptop asleep on our bed with conversations still open from right before we left. It's been a crazy ride. Lots of picture and retrospective posts to make! :)
12:51 pm
Finally almost there...ish!
Well, we're finally awaiting a flight to Seattle, just in time to tell you all that you should come to neuro42's welcome-back party for us in Seattle! Also, American money looks weird after three months of crazy money.
Monday, October 8th, 2007
7:43 pm
Forget about the second day.
We wake up long enough to pilfer from the executive continental breakfast so there's something in our stomachs when we go back to sleep until it's time to pay for another night. Then back to sleep. Wake up long enough to respond to emails, and go back to sleep. Why do I get the distinct impression that we're adjusting from a non-terran sleep schedule?
Sunday, October 7th, 2007
6:47 pm
When the strongest words have all been used.
In spite of some entertainment at our hotel in Pudong, and the tragic loss of corivax's new Indiana Jones hat (made in Mongolia) which was devilishly handsome on him, we have arrived at Seoul Incheon. There's this big customs-free duty-free tax-free zone, so there's no ATMs. So to get an ATM I had to go through immigration. The immigration worker I asked for directions accidentally told me the route they use. I startled a room full of bored immigration workers who got me stamped and on my way. I skipped customs because I was just going to an ATM and they were OK with that. The ink was still wet on my entry stamp when I got my departure stamp 5 minutes later. Ten minutes, maybe twenty, round trip. I'd been told not to by my friend the misdirecting immigration worker - he was sure it'd take 2, maybe even 3, hours!

Business class has a few flaws, some of which screw up my normal flight habits. First class was (last time) fully empty, but they wouldn't let me move there. On top of my having a full fare ticket, they wanted my firstborn in cold, hard cash to even consider an upgrade, on the books or otherwise. With Korean Air, there doesn't seem to be an otherwise. That's alright. Just, please, fewer announcements or better game authors - having to manually refresh each item to get it to be visible after an announcement stops is lame. Also, best ever: "North Korean Airways: Excellence in Fright." Think about it. Hit me.
Monday, October 1st, 2007
8:33 pm
And now for something completely the same...
Well, we've booked tickets for three hours from now for a 28 hour train to Shanghai. I am worried we may've ended up booking with hard sleepers, which means a compartment with 4 other people. Given how rare tourists seem to be in this part of China, I suspect we will be very much the center of attention, which might gt hold after a day and change! Last night we wetnt to a ktv bar where we were apparently the first foreigners to visit.

Train K258!
Sunday, September 30th, 2007
1:35 am
A million points of light.
People's Glorious Hotel-Supplied Matches have a little too much People's Glorious Destroy The Foreigners in. Touching a match to the striking surface and aplying a light pressure causes them to explode in a way more useful for landing oneself in the emergency room, accidental arson, and other things to implicate oneself as a would-be saboteur than for, say lighting a People's Glorious Marlboro-inspired Cigarette. Scary.
Saturday, September 29th, 2007
8:16 am
People's glorious Hello! We are in Hohhot. Traveing here by train was beautiful and amazing (especially getting to watch the Gobi from a safe distance!) I couldn't be happier that a doctor told Corvi to stay in UB for 5 days and to not fly for 10! It's well past time to be home, but the road back is incredible.
The line between Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, China, was stark and disturbing. You go from dustswept poverty and herders to concrete block group farms and pavement and highways and all the infrastructure that Mongolia can't seem to muster itself.
Our hotel has four letters waiting in our room on arrival explaining which services are not working due to current government regulation. The Internet is onot one of the affected services, but the Great Firewall of China blocks LJ. Luckily, it still doesn't block SSH.
Not that I have anything to say that might be detrimental to the political, ideological, security, etc., goals of the PRC. (Nor do I have any goods that might be, just like I said on the customs declaration! Man, it was cool seeing the literal dozens of tanks on a train we passed, though.

I am very impressed with this country, as I was impressed by the shadows that the USSR had left behind in Russia - infrastructure and willpower and determination and ideology to accomplish impressive feats that modern America couldn't equal, to say nothing of modern Russia or any of the more neglected children of the USSR., like Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Ukraine would know what to do with that sort of insfrastructure, unlike the others, but just lain can't get its act together fast enough.

Here is a marvel of integration and planning and ways and means, though. And the token bits of Mongolian culture they've allowed to stay intact are impressive. Someone at the train station recognized our magpie calligraphy and half the buildings have Mongolian script on them, something lost to everyone but historians, nationalists and artists in Mongolia. The language here is solidly mMandarin, though, even though some ethnic Mongols at the station clearly spoke Mongolian at least as wel, though with an accent that was at least as affected as the stereotypical New York City and Boston accents in the USA.

I'm excited and heavily intrigued When will I get to see this place again? It's incredible! And this is nothing like the biggest city we'll see on our trip back. Exciting! Invigorating! I can't read or speak a word of it! :)
Thursday, September 27th, 2007
11:58 pm
Poor phonetic transliteration theatre, featuring: PRODUCT ENDORSEMENTS!
Nф я ият оънли аи сеънгл соүс ан евиррединг я ият, мек ит Папричи соүс!
5:34 pm
Some absurdist god's curious plans.
I figured out why we were having such a hard time getting transport through China. There's this whole, er, National Day thing. Because it wasn't enough to have watched fireworks and celebration in Kyiv and Kazan. It's even the start of a Golden Week. If some have their way, this might even be the last National Day for which there is a Golden Week. Fun!

Now instead of being all but sure we'd be in Beijing by Monday, I'm entirely sure we want to be nowhere near it come Monday. I guess there's always cabs or busses or local trains the instant we get in to Hohhot or even taking a flight to Beijing. We should be able to find flights to Korea trivially, I hope!

Ulaanbaatar has been really good to us at least, and I really hope to try the Mongol Rally again next year. To have come so close and have not quite made it is really heartbreaking. It's been an immensely wonderful experience though. I can't complain about the experiences we've had and the wonderful people we've met, though. Tonight I get to have dinner with a wonderful new friend who lives here, even! My world has been broadened to say the least, and I always lived under the idea that having spent so long around the Internet had taken me far beyond international boundaries. Something I never really adequately appreciated is how much being there can mean overcoming all the lingual and economic barriers you might otherwise face. You can become the best of friends almost through pantomime alone!

Also, the first person to make a mutton-scented car air "freshener" with a Buddhist icon on it which is sold with the claim that it will defeat traffic police (not just radar detectors, but the police themselves outright) will make a fortune here, as will the first person to dub the Fast and the Furious movies into Mongolian.
Wednesday, September 26th, 2007
12:51 pm
... and don't be surprised if we come home with tattoos. :)
One of the things that makes it most clear to me that we're Far From Home is the writing we see around the city, the most intelligible of which is the Cyrillic-plus-extra-characters that modern Mongolian is written in.
click here if you have a geeky interest in writing systemsCollapse )
12:14 pm
Tuesday, September 25th, 2007
10:28 pm
ways and means

Here's Kokua these days. He was a good car, very sturdy, drove from London to Mongolia on a comically undersized engine without needing so much as coolant or a tire change. I still can't believe we made it, drove across two continents.

We get to go home now, but Kokua's adventure has just begun: two nights ago one of the people who helped bring him to Ulaanbaatar came to us to ask about buying him. We gave him the number of the person coordinating the charity auction. I don't know what he'll do with Kokua, but we've seen several vehicles here converted into impromptu pickup trucks by taking off the body with a sledgehammer and building a new one out of wood, and that may not be a bad fate for the Little Van That Could. They could use the sturdy metal wheelchair ramp for loading sheep on. :)

I am pleased to report that after a month and a half in former Soviet Countries, caladri can now offer a bribe so smoothly that I was standing right behind her the whole time and I didn’t even notice until she told me. In related news, we now have Chinese visas, despite the consulate’s tendency to decide to close early the six hours they’re open each week- we were somehow mysteeeeeeriously let into the building, along with two sweet but hapless Filipino women caladri took pity on. :)

When we first started this trip, we knew we’d have to bribe someonw at some point, but being Americans, didn’t really have any idea how to do it, except from gangster movies. "Ah, meet my friend Mister Franklin. Now what do you say we put this little unpleasantness behind us?" which didn’t seem too likely to work. :)

The farther we get from home, the more new small silent languages there are. Truck drivers signaling passes and thanks. The long-distance hitchhikers making wooshy hand motions. Eye contact and walking posture. Accepting glasses of tea with the right hand. And bribes, of course. :) It’s amazing and humbling to watch caladri, the way she stands, holds her hands, tucks bills subtly into paperwork, amazing to watch Mongolia written on her.
Wednesday, September 19th, 2007
4:40 pm
4:41 pm
It's new to me!

  • Crossed a border illegally. Two borders!

  • Been in a car that flipped over.

  • Seen vast stretches of wild-growing pot.

  • Been denied exit from a country.

  • Bribed a police officer.

  • Called my embassy in an emergency.

  • Been invited into a ger.

  • Been invited to a dacha.

  • Debated whether it was better to buy Vodka listing Chingghis Khaan's birthyear as 1161 or 1162.

  • Begun second-language acquisition the old-fashioned way.

  • Learned a new writing system!

  • Been to the eastern hemisphere!

  • Been to Europe and Asia dozens of times!

  • Come to enjoy DW-TV.

  • Spent the night in a brothel. Two brothels!

  • Drank horse milk.

  • Offended somebody by stepping on their foot without shaking their hand afterwards.

And overall, I am delighted that I've now been outside of the US and North America, and I've now managed to see the magical gradient between occident and orient that had always eluded my understanding, up close and personal.
4:29 pm
On caladri's most excellent nature
caladri bought me two kilograms of horse-milk cheese! If that ain't love then I don't know what love is. It's very hard and salty, a lot like parmesan, but also kind of sweet, in a roasted-chestnut sort of way. Mmmm. I plan to ambush anyone who visits me in the near future with minestrone with horsemilk cheese, or maybe some sort of garlicky pasta. Bwahahaha.

Er, don't read that last paragraph if you had any plans to visit me. :)

I am also pleased to report that airag (fermented horse milk booze, also bought for me by caladri) is tastier than beer. Unfortunately, I hate beer. :) (Sorry, sistawendy!) So while airag is tastier than beer, it also tastes a lot like, well, fermented horsemilk.

Another thing that is a lot better than it sounds: "mutton pancakes". I look forward to returning to my herbivore ways, though.
Tuesday, September 18th, 2007
4:45 pm
Mongolia by the numbers
  • 1 hill carved into the shape of Genghis Khan looming over Ulaan Baatar.
  • 2 ravens living in a nest made of cow ribs and lined with leaves from nearby ancestral cannabis.
  • 3 camels grazing in a field.
  • 4 sheep vertebrae strung artistically on baling wire at a days-old nomad camp.
  • 5 saddled horses hitched outside a bar in Sukhbataar.
  • 6 yaks in the road where I want to drive.
  • 7 half-finished bows of horn, sinew, birch, and fish glue at the traditional bow-making workshop.
  • 8 golden stupas surrounding a giant white-glowing statue of Buddha.
  • 9 types of vodka named after Genghis Khaan.
  • 10 pieces of cow dung burned for warmth while camping on treeless prarie
  • 11 pairs of intricately carved crutches leaning against the blue-stone ovoo (shamanic cairn) at a mountain pass.
  • 12 hours spent in "hotels" whose primary amenity, er, doesn't wear clothing.

Sadly, I cannot lay count to either the number of ways one can cook sheep or the number of beers named after Genghis Khan, nor the number of sheep vertebrae in every field, road, and city, nor the nuber of blue silk fish-embroidered prayer scarves tied to statues, rocks, trees, mileposts...

I've actually been very surprised by how very... stereotypically Mongolian Mongolia is. Horses in their wooden saddles tied in the streets of towns! Shaman stones on most hills, and gleaming Tibetian stupas in the distance! People, not just "those people way over there", but "this helpful guy we've been speaking english with for two hours" living nomadic in round felt gers. Camels! And the cows just wander through town and eat your gardens, and everyone comes out of their houses to chase the cows off... it's half fairytale tibet and half wild west with saloons and rustling, and half again hunting with eagles and putting Genghis Khaan on every single bill. I don't usually expect places to live up to my silly ideas about them, and I'm not quite sure how to react to that.

The agricultural revolution has not happened here yet. Anyone can wander in with his sheep and goats and cows and camels and graze them anywhere. Nobody owns the land. It's a hard thing to contemplate, watching a jeans-wearing nomad fooling around, switching SIM cards in his cell phone, so much West, and so much of Something Else.

Current Mood: headachey
Monday, September 17th, 2007
12:16 pm
peace on earth
za. I am in an Internet Center in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. My cell phone is dead, the charger is shattered, and the keyboard is just about as high as I can lift my arms. There are so many things I wanted to tell you, folks. An endless stream of posts queued up and discussed at length with corivax about our Story and our strange Trip and this place and its people, and now I have this creepy lurking-lingering feeling like those things can never be said, now. About five days ago I was going to drive up to the top of a mountain and take pictures for you all, but the car got stuck in a ditch. While trying to push the car out, I had my hand on the front windshield which then shattered. Combined with my window being broken since Amsterdam, this meant I had no more protection from the wind and the cold, especially as the plexiglass replacement for my window had come out once and for all somewhere around the end of our time in Russia. Just under two hundred kilometers from UB, we were sure we'd make it, and we couldn't believe we'd made it. We were joyous, even though we could only go 50km/h without getting frostbite in a matter of minutes. I joked about how many windows we'd have left when we got to UB, having started with 8. As I write this, there are three left.

My hands shake and twitch and the fingers barely work so I'm not sure how much I'll get to tell you, but I figure if everything had to get shattered like the windows and the Story and the Trip, I might as well tell you about it properly, but I don't have the strength, let alone presence of mind, to really do a damn thing right, but my apologies for the intros and asides and epilogues and prologues. Somewhere it seems like this is how it has to be, like it's the least I can do, and all of that. But above all, I ought to tell you that we seem to be alright, that we are alive, and that we will be fine, and we will soon begin making our way home, which seems a lot further away than it's been this whole time, even though we are now working our way ever closer.

On the Russian side of the border everyone was mean, save one lady, there was a small plot of beet and onion and dill and cucumber growing just a few feet from where they impound cars whose papers aren't in order. Our border guard desperately wanted to send us there, but our papers were in order, and eventually they let us through. Along the way they questioned the validity of everything, including our passports and the new visas we'd acquired from the Buriyat Republic which would allow us to leave Russia once and for all.

They held us up for six hours, letting us through as their last car of the day, and putting us to the Mongolian side just in time for Mongol Customs to close, unable to finish processing us. We were in the country, though, and they suggested we spend the night at a hotel. They were friendly and delightful and uplifting. The hotel worked as the town brothel and bar, too, but a bed was a very nice thing, and we were glad to be in Mongolia.

That was Altanbulag. We made our way to Sukhbaatar, got some cash, got a MobiTel SIM for the phone, and ate a meal of tsuivan and some soup, complete with more mutton and sheep fat than I would have thought was possible for two vegetarians to consome. We made our way out of town and into beautiful hills and decided to make camp early, complete with a fire and elaborate fire-cooked food. Sukhbaatar glowed brilliantly along its hill marking the border between Mongolia and Russia that every Trans-Mongolian Railway passenger passes through, and there was a night sky full of stars visible clearly through the thick orange wall of our tent. We had our plastic hood crow mascot that we acquired in Kyiv keeping watch through the night with a piece of Russian sausage on his nose and awoke surrounded by magpies, a symbol of hope for the journey we'd adopted as far back as Amsterdam.

We came to a small town where we were greeted by dozens of children who we unloaded toys we bought back in the Czech Republic on, and we bought a set of Mongolian reflex bows. We ate in the town guanz some truly wonderful food, the highlight being khuushuur, which are like elephant ears (the fried dough snack) except savoury and thin and filled with minced mutton. I cannot do that stop justice as part of an aside, but would love to say more later. It was a high point of the trip.

We left and made it to Darkhan where we stayed in a small hotel, planning to nap off some tired that was eating our brains, having gotten not the most restful sleep the night before when temperatures plummeted to well below zero. This one, too, seemed to double as a sort of brothel, and I was directed to a giant naked Mongolian woman in one of the rooms who had enough English and hand-gestures to communicate the price of a room for Corvi and I. We took it and ended up sleeping through the night, following our first English-language entertainment in ages, as a Babylon 5 movie played on whatever flavor of Cinemax it was they received.

And things were sort of wrong and off the next day. The road to Darkhan was surrounded by Cannabis sp. and there was a tree with a raven nest made out of cow ribs with blue ribbons tied to it, and we had been sort of happy if feeling not our best. From Darkhan on, though, things were just weird. I was unwell in every sense of the word. Almost to Bayangol, the next city, we were driving between mountains and swerved off the road. Into the ditch that runs along the roads here. Out of it. Flung into a dried up streambed next to it. Over that. The car began to roll, and we slid along upside-down.

I got myself out of the car through the back, which was ripped open, and tried to lift the car up to get Corvi out, who was pinned under the steering-wheel, but my arms were far from working. A passing shared taxi saw us, and people lifted the car enough to get Corvi out. We discussed transport to a hospital with them but nobody would take us anywhere until we'd gotten valuables out of the car - they went on at length about how somebody would steal them.

Eventually we grabbed our backpacks out of the car, enough to convince them we would not lose valuables (not that we cared - Corvi was barely coherent and I felt shredded, but they wouldn't even discuss transport until we'd looted our car before someone else could.) A truck driver would take us back to Darkhan, which was big enough, and to a hospital there. But then he backed out and wanted nothing to do with us. Some other passing car would take us, except he started out the wrong way. For some reason he took us to Bayangol, which barely had a clinic. He informed the police of what had happened, and while Corvi's forehead was swelling and bruising, and Corvi's vision was coming and going, and I was desperately hoping for someone to offer me a bandage at some point so I could stop staring at fat beneath my ripped open arm, the police came to get me. Corvi was being iodined down, and they hadn't gotten to me yet as I was in better shape, but the police insisted I come with them. They said we had to go to the car for their report, but I made it clear we didn't care about a report. They wouldn't listen. I said I needed to be in the clinic, and that we needed to get Corvi and myself to UB for a real hospital experience. They disagreed with me and demanded I come immediately.

We went back to the accident scene and then they made me drive around for miles with them looking for cell phone service near the accident, rather than in the town, because they were sure they needed a report. They were sure I'd been driving, even though Corvi had been, and they were sure that we had both been drunk, despite having last touched alcohol three days ago, and even then only in a flambee context. They made me help move and lift the car with them and didn't care if I was crying in pain and begging to go back to town. At one point I started to just walk off - walking a few km back to town was no big deal and much less painful t han uprighting the car, and I was sick of being badgered and mocked by them.

They insisted I gather more valuables, and that we pull everything out of the car so they could photograph it. Then they made me put everything back in the car alone while they smoked and pissed. All twelve or so of them.

Eventually they took me back to town and let me go to the clinic, where Corvi was asleep but glad to be awoken when I was back. And the police took me to their station again, for two hours of interrogation about the accident for a statement. They wrote nothing down. Someone who spoke some English appeared and translated back and forth for me, but they wrote nothing down and seemed unhappy. They stole passports and other documents from my hand and went back to not believing that Corvi had been driving, and insisting one of us had been drunk. Finally they let me go back to the clinic where they reluctantly treated my wounds. Nobody cared how I felt and there was a general disdain for the idea that I had been hurt.

It was hours since we would have been in UB if we'd just hitched our way there and I began to get sick of it. I called the US embassy, they called the officer who'd been harassing me, and they told him flat out that he had to let us go. He told them he was done with us and would release us gladly. Then he stormed off without handing the phone back to me and didn't reappear for two hours. The embassy said to just wait him out, to give him time to cool off, and to let them know if things didn't get better. They expected we'd be jerked around for another hour or so regardless of what they did, but were getting upset at the police.

When the officer came back he told me I couldn't have my passport back and that he had to get the town English teacher to translate a statement before he could let us go, but that he didn't know when she'd be there, but he thought just a few minutes. The embassy called and I informed them of the situation. They were upset as they'd had a consular translator call him and offer to translate and he refused. Two hours later he wandered off again and I called the embassy in tears. Corvi was out of the clinic and in and out of awareness and I was constantly on the verge of fainting and bleeding everywhere. The embassy were angry and had us move on to talking to another police officer. This one said if we had a letter from the clinic saying we were OK he could let us go to get treated in UB, but that he could not release us to get treated in UB unless the clinic said we were OK. In spite of the absurdity of this request, we went along with it, as he promised us (and our embassy) that it would just be two minutes or so of processing after he had those letters.

This was, of course, not the case. He decided he needed a statement, too, and that he'd just wait for the town English teacher. The embassy told him outright to release us and he said he wanted to but just needed us to answer a few questions.

An hour later, the teacher showed up, and they finally got that Corvi was the driver and insisted on speaking to him, even though he couldn't stay awake at this point, and was unable to understand their complex, poorly-translated questions. The teacher had a basic grasp of English at best, and certainly not enough to take a statement from either of us. They kicked me out of the station but then all of the officers but the one interrogating Corvi went out for a beer or some food or something, so I snuck in and listened from the hallway to what they were asking Corvi, having spent at least an hour or two talking to him. I was offended to hear them asking repeatedly about our plans for returning home, how we were leaving Mongolia, and whether we owned the car. The translator couldn't make sense of Corvi's responses and the officer was never satisfied. The embassy was horribly pissed off at the questioning and demanded to speak to the officer. He wrote down his number for me and the embassy's consular assistant called him. His number didn't work. He gave it several more times, all the same as the first time, and it never worked. The embassy was upset with him and said they would call my phone instead, and to speak to the assistant when she called and then hand off the phone to the officer.

The officer was infuriated. He didn't want me in there, he didn't want the embassy telling him what to do, and he definitely didn't like the idea that the embassy was going to go back and forth between him and me. He stormed off in anger, slamming a door behind him, and the embassy called. I explained the situation, he returned, and he started yelling for me to give him the phone. Once I was done speaking to the consular assistant I gave the phone over to him, and he was lectured at length about the inappropriate treatment of us and the illegality of his refusal to return our passports. The consular assistant briefly spoke to a confused Corvi and decided that it was entirely unacceptable to continue to question him and told the officer such. They brokered a deal whereby they would collect minimal demographic information from me, taking no more than 20 minutes, and then we could go. The officer wasted half of this time asking irrelevant questions and eventually began to ask me a question and not even wait for it to be translated before just copying answers he had written down from Corvi earlier. The consular assistant called when the time was up and was none too pleased that they were continuing to waste time with us. The officer and teacher demanded hand-written letters from Corvi and I saying we had no questions for them, for their files. When that was done, he would let us go. Mine was a little long for spurious reasons, but it began relatively clearly, "I have no questions for the belligerant officer..." He was confused as to why mine wasn't as short as Corvi's and demanded to call the embassy again. He lied to the consular officer a few times who began to lose patience with him, and she and I eventually decided that I would reach across his desk, grab our passports, and leave, since he was claiming (as they had 4 hours previous) that they were ready to let us go, even though they were demanding more. When he began to yell "no!" at me, I handed the phone to him there were more lies from him, claiming neither of us had written a statement. He stole the passports back from me and, realizing there was no further way to stall, let us go.

By which time, a ride I'd arranged to UB had grown sick of waiting. So he took us to his ger and then to a guanz and then into a shared taxi - a normal-sized Japanese sedan with 7 people in it, two of them being Corvi and I. We fell asleep, switched to a taxi staffed by our original ride's girlfriend, and then got dropped off at our hotel. A few hundred dollars later, our car was in UB, in the lock-up. Three days later. I didn't have the strength to carry what little was left in the car last night up to the hotel, so I decided to wait until this morning, when it was off the back of the flat bed that brought it to UB. In the meantime, a thousand or so dollars of camping gear went missing along with most of the souvenirs we collected from this trip, including a bag full of coins from a dozen or so countries and our Ukrainian Monopoly game, along with traditional Ukrainian clothes we'd bought for relatives who they'd suit.

Yesterday we had the help of a Mongolian Kazakh whose dream is to study International Relations or something business-related in the states, who works as a guide in the summer, and has substantially more English than Bayangol's English teacher. We also had the help of a Mongolian who got a master's in Agriculture in Saskatoon. In between I got the hang of the Mongolian word za, and their nearly-as-frequently-uttered "yes"-equivalent. An old man greeted me in Mongolian, in full, as nobody bothers to in cities anymore. I carried what little was left in the van a couple of miles back to the hotel until I couldn't feel my fingers. We still haven't gotten to go see one of the expat doctors we've wanted to - the police delayed us over 8 hours and we began to feel a lot better after a night's sleep. We still aren't well, but while it was urgent once, the post-Soviet police robbed us of our urgency. We relaxed for a day which helped a lot, but every so often someone would show up about the car, ask for a little more money, tell us the police were demanding a "fee" to let our car out of Bayangol or to let it into UB, tell us the police didn't believe that we owned the car, something we had been through days ago almost as many times as we covered the fact that neither of us had been drunk, or whatever. Now that's all sorted, and most of what we had to show for the last two months has been stolen, corrupted or shattered. The car is italic from rolling over the Mongolian hills, and people bothered to steal the strangest things, right down to used ISO 25 film. We're tired, and we are still covered in dirt from the accident, since our boutique hotel can't even get running water right. We'll be home soon, but now it seems like it can't be soon enough, where before there was a joy in the travel laid out before us. But we're alright and we'll pull through, and there is still hope, and there are still magpies everywhere we look when we need them.

Take care, folks. We'll let you know if anything changes.
Sunday, September 2nd, 2007
2:22 pm
Cities, subways, rivers.
About half of the cities with over a million people are celebrating some sort of anniversary and all of those are slathered with signs proclaiming how old the city is - some we've past through had four digit numbers and appeared to be using at least base 10. Kazan was a charming, infectious city - the capital of the would-be republic of Tatarstan. There was a huge lively celebrating on Pushkina the night we were in Kazan, complete with fireworks, Tatar-colored kettle corn, endless places grilling meat products of all varieties and a stage on which people did karaoke and danced in traditional garb ranging from something looking more like you'd expect to find in Germany to belly dancers and would-be boy bands. The muslim presence was strong, and I really began to feel misguided about how I'd thought about Russia before. This was a place where Russia went beyond a cultural mosaic to a place where there had been a little bit of melting in the pot. I wanted eagerly to hold a Tatar flag and felt a profound love of this giant country (or at least, some of its republics) growing inside me.

Bashkortostan gave us Ufa, which was infinitely innavigable, but we found a little grocery store to loiter outside. They had closed minutes previous, but there were vibrant tent-cafes all around which seemed like they would never stop. Mostly cooking up aromatic meat skewers over wood and charcoal fires. Those that had shops sold potato chips with American brands flavored with the ubiquitous boletus-and-cream mixture that is one of the best flavors to put on a potato chip ever. There is brilliance here. And the cafes all had people, ranging from groups of 16 year olds drinking to small families on triple and quadruple dates, all into their 40s, drinking chai and beer and dancing wildly to Moscow. The girls behind the counter at one of the tents lavished us with attention just for being foreign and we enjoyed being immersed somewhere so alive at midnight in the summer, with the temperature hovering just above 10C.

We went north-east from Ufa to Pavlovka (and sorry if that direction is wrong - I ended up using a map using a bizarre projection) which was a gorgeous small town set in a valley by a river which was full of little birch-covered islands. Houses are built in what is clearly an evolution of some traditional method and style. There was a huge dam we managed to photograph with a brilliant communist illustration on the side. The town kiosk sold pomegranates the size of your head. There was livestock everywhere, but it was not a place in poverty, and the people there were as curious as anywhere else.

We turned to cross the Urals over endless rolling hills in agricultural use or forested on an unpaved road and saw a family waiting by the roadside for a lift, their youngest holding out an arm well after the others stopped, eagerly. We turned back and tried to offer to give them a lift. We had a book for learning English in Russian and used that to try to communicate - it even had Cyrillic (with extra phonetic marks) for the English, making it that much easier for a Russian-speaker to say the English words (a nice shop keeper in a Home Depot equivalent in the middle of nowhere in Ukraine had handed it to us in a pile of other books when she was trying to help us find a book for going between English and Russian. It wasn't much help, but after a lot of conversation that went nowhere, we conveyed that they would get in and we would take them where they were going.

Five kilometers later, we were at their dacha, and the mother insisted we come inside while her two kids ran off. Several hours later we left full of fresh-baked bread, chai and fresh moloko. There was endless picture-taking and we left the English book with them, as their oldest (who had been back at the dacha along with her babushka) took an intense interest in it and pelted us with questions from it. We exchanged addresses and really felt amazed at the display of hospitality and affection - we spent much of the rest of the day realizing that we had had other things to gift to them after all, but we'd been unable to think of them at the time. The best of the Russian spirit that we had seen so far was exemplified in them, a matriarchical family in a dacha who insisted on lengthy conversation with us until we could more or less understand what they were saying - everything from talking about how naughty the girls were (in a light-hearted way) to how strong and independent the mother was (she chopped the wood, you bet!)

They were delightful and giving and we will have much more to say about them later, I'm sure, and lots of photographs, too. We've both really fallen for Russia - it is too vast and populous to be thought of as simply as I once had. I had not imagined the result of the Soviets moving everyone around would be so visible - there are cities of over a million everywhere you go, and in between vast industry and agriculture and beauty. The cities are Soviet grid systems tacked on to old twisty messes of streets one cannot make sense of. Where there isn't a city, and the hills are rolling enough, you can watch construction of vast gas and oil pipelines, where there is a chunk taken out of the landscape as far as you can see in a perfect straight line.

We are now in Chelyabinsk, where a taxi driver who helped us navigate the tangled streets refused even the meager amount I had in my pocket. He had a little English and was delighted to use it, and thrilled by our mere presence. There is a welcomeness and a majesty in the Rus and the Tatars and the Bashkir and the Kazakhs here. The truck stops are full of kitschy art, smuggling, speed and various pirate goods, and none in the US could ever compare to their variety and filth. Every sort of weapon of self-defense a trucker might need against bandits is available for a small price, and a deluxe "Spader-Man" toy set they can take home to their kids.

We waltzed at the border between Europe and Asia, as we defined it, letting us both claim to have been to Europe and to Asia at least a dozen times, mostly on one trip. We are now in Asia. We are on our way to Lake Baikal and then into Mongolia. Tonight a camp fire with skewered garlic, tomatoes and whatever else we buy from roadside sellers. Wish you were here.

From Russia with love,

Current Mood: cheerful
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