One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Ron Gluckman

Ron Gluckman is a journalist who has spent a lot of time roaming around Asia. He has a website full of stories, including some about China, Mongolia, and Japan.

I realize as I post the link that I'm sharing something I haven't even read yet. The lesson, I think, is that the blog is just as much for my own future reference as it is for any hypothetical readers out there. I will go back and read his stories when I'm good and ready.


I'm rereading Dune by Frank Herbert right now. I caught myself wondering today if my encounter with the Mongolian people will be like the encounter between Paul Atreides and the Fremen. The Fremen have the desert planet Arrakis; the Mongolians have the Gobi Desert. The Fremen have the giant sand-worms; the Mongolians have Allghoi Kharkoi, the death worm. The Fremen are fierce warriors; the Mongol horsemen, in their time, conquered most of Eurasia. Maybe they have a prophecy about a pale red-haired stranger who leads them to victory against, I don't know, somebody. I'll ask my guide when I get there.

Not for the faint of heart

Anyone interested in teaching English in a remote Mongolian community? Click here.

Diversity in Japan

Today, Jess brought home from the Faculty of Social Work some information about different ethnic and cultural identities in Japan. There are the Buraku people - ethnically Japanese, but still discriminated against as a lower caste. There are the Ainu - indigenous people who live on the island of Hokkaido. There are the Korean Japanese, about 650,000 strong. I'll be interested to learn more about these and other groups.

Not a documentary, but still about Russia

I asked some cinephiles to recommend a Russian movie. They suggested Burnt By The Sun.


Megacities, the 1998 documentary by the Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger, is another film that depicts the lives of Moscow's street kids. I saw it at the Vancouver Film Festival in 1999. That seems like a lifetime ago.

Another still photo from the film.  Posted by Hello

Another still photo from the film.  Posted by Hello

Another still photo from the film. Posted by Hello

A still photo from The Children of Leningradsky. I know what you're thinking... "Why is he dwelling on this very disturbing aspect of life in Russia? This is supposed to be a vacation!" The answer is that I do not want to be insulated from the realities of the places I'll be visiting. I can't ignore this. If I meet some of these children in Moscow, I hope I can communicate with them well enough to help them in some small way, with money, or food, or something. Posted by Hello

More about The Children of Leningradsky

I wanted to include a couple more links about the film: one to a Moscow Times article including an interview with Hanna Polak, and one to an interview with Polak on National Public Radio.

Mongolia itinerary, as promised

Sept 2, Day 1: Boojum guide will contact you at your hotel in Ulaanbaatar.

Sept 3, Day 2: Boojum service starts. Drive to Khogno Khan Nature Reserve. Hike in the rock formation of the Reserve. Visit the ruins of the Uvgun Temple first built in 1660. Ger camp.

Sept 4, Day 3: Drive to Kharkhorin. Visit Erdenezuu monastery built in 1586 on the ground of the Mongol Empire of the 13th century. Homestay.

Sept 5, Day 4: Drive to Tsenher hot spring in Arhangay province. Ger camp.

Sept 6-7, Day 5-6: Horseback ride in Arhangay province. Ger camp.

Sept 8, Day 7: Drive to Zuunbayan Ulaan village. Homestay.

Sept 9, Day 8: Drive to Ongi ger camp halfway between the Central Mongolia and South Gobi. Visit the ruins of the Ongi temple.

Sept 10, Day 9: Drive to Juulchin Gobi ger camp. Visit Flaming Cliff, the dinosaur dig sites first excavated by an American Expedition Andrew Roy Chapman in 1922. Visit local herder’s family.

Sept 11-12, Day 10-11: Explore Gobi. Visit Yolin Am Canyon and Park museum. Visit camel breeder’s family. Camel ride. Ger camp.

Sept 13, Day 12: Fly back to UB. Guide will take you to your hotel. Boojum service ends.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Mongolia at the Oscars

Last year, several months before I started thinking about my trip, I saw the film The Story Of The Weeping Camel. This sort-of-documentary tells the story of a family of nomads in the Gobi Desert who struggle to get one of their camels to accept and look after her newborn. After trying and failing with various methods, they arrange for some folk magic. The film provides a really interesting look at the nomads' difficult but dignified way of life in one of the world's most challenging environments.

Anyway, I didn't realize until tonight that the film had been nominated for an Academy Award. It didn't win, but regardless, the nomination will likely mean a much bigger worldwide audience for a beautiful and moving work of art.

I'll have to seek out another film that was in contention tonight - a documentary short called The Children of Leningradsky, about the lives of homeless children in the Moscow subway system. Here's the official site. I had never even heard of this one before tonight, which maybe isn't surprising. The director, Hanna Polak, has gone on to establish The Children of Leningradsky Project, aimed at helping these children find safe, healthy, and supportive living environments. Maybe I should write to her.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Fun map of Mongolia

I found what I think is a pretty good map of Mongolia, although the people at Boojum Expeditions have warned me not to trust just any old map. This one doesn't show all the ger camps, maybe because their locations change periodically, but it does allow for zooming in and out, and it marks the area of the Gobi Desert where the famous dinosaur excavations are. I know I'll be going there. I think that when I fly from the Gobi back to Ulaanbaatar at the end of the trek, I'll be flying out of Dalandzadgad. Say that three times fast!

It occurs to me that I have not yet posted my Boojum itinerary. I will post it soon.

More about The Man In Seat 61

It turns out that The Guardian has paid attention to Mark Smith much more recently than 2001. His website is mentioned in an article on environmentally friendly travel. Clicking through is worthwhile just for the first paragraph of the piece, which is funny in a way that I have come to think of as characteristically British. It reminds me of my former co-workers in the planning department at BBDO.


I stumbled across a blog called The Mongolians. It wasn't what I expected, but it amused me.

The Tunguska Event

Siberia is a mysterious place - that's one of the attractions, at least for me. Case in point: On June 30th, 1908, an explosion of incomprehensible power occurred in a remote northern area near the Tunguska River. It flattened thousands of square miles of trees, and the seismic disturbance was detected as far away as London, England. No one really knows what happened. Even today, there is no consensus among scientists. Was it a meteorite? Was it anti-matter? Was it a black hole passing through the earth? Was it an experiment by Nikola Tesla gone horribly awry? Was it an alien spacecraft malfunctioning and destroying itself? The event is usually estimated to have released energy of between twenty and fifty megatons; to put that in perspective, the H-bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945 was 13 kilotons, meaning that Tunguska was thousands of times more powerful. Thankfully, the area had a very small human population. If the meteorite explanation is correct, only a few hours' difference would have meant the destruction of a large chunk of Europe.

There's a Trans-Siberian Railway connection:
Four hundred miles away, the conductor of the Trans-Siberian Railway train sees the tracks ripple and slows the train to a halt. Passengers stream out of the coaches and talk of a cylinder of white light with a fiery tail that fell with a tremendous flame and explosion. It rains down little smoldering rocks. Some of the passengers try to move the rocks with sticks, but the white heat engulfs the sticks with flames. In the skies a huge black cloud has risen, and a black, tar-like rain starts to fall. The people run for the train and wonder if the world is coming to an end. The conductor pushes the throttle forward. The tracks are serviceable, and he wants to leave this cursed place behind.
The first scientific expedition to the area didn't occur until nineteen years later. Revolutions and wars and so on distracted everyone until 1927. The local indigenous people, the Evenks, had strictly avoided the area since the explosion, considering it enchanted. They believed that the gods had become angry and struck the earth.

Friday, February 25, 2005


I received a note today from my friend and law school colleague Denise who lives in London. Denise is kind of from Vancouver, but originally from Hong Kong, and I plan to ask her many, many questions over the next few months about Chinese things. She claims not to know a great deal about mainland China, not having spent much time there, but I'm sure she knows a lot more than she thinks she does - things so fundamental that she doesn't even recognize them as knowledge, like basics of etiquette and so on. After reading my post on North Korean tourism, she very kindly sent me a link about a BBC documentary on that subject.

Denise's one China tip, for now, is to bring deodorant. Friends of hers on a four-month trek in China couldn't find any, and this was just last year.

Days of Being Wild

The opportunity has come up to sample some Chinese culture. Maybe it would be more accurate to say, "Hong Kong culture." Tomorrow night I will attend a screening of Days of Being Wild, a film by Wong Kar Wai. Although Hong Kong is now part of China, the film was released in 1991 and is set in 1960, so I should probably not assume that what I see is related to life in modern China.

Fly a MiG!

In the New Russia, there are unique tourist experiences to be had. If you've got the money, you can ride in the backseat of a fighter jet, drop down a zip-line from a helicopter gunship, try out machine guns on a military shooting range, and train for a week with Spetsnaz commandos. I guess this is all the result of entrepreneurs partnering with a cash-strapped Russian military.

From what I can gather, there are at least two companies offering these activities: Voentour and Incredible Adventures. The two may actually be affiliated - I'm not certain.

If you're wondering about me, the answer is no - I can't afford it.

The Man In Seat 61

I feel that I should mention The Man In Seat 61, a highly informative person of the British persuasion whose website I came across when I started thinking seriously about this trip in the summer of 2004. The Man, whose real name is Mark Smith, has posted a lot of information that is useful for someone building a trip around the Trans-Siberian Railway, including the jumping-over-to-Japan bit.

The Guardian profiled him and his site in 2001.

Bioprospecting in Siberia and Mongolia

Some of you may know that I did some research last year on the legal dimensions of bioprospecting. Bioprospecting, briefly, is the extraction of biological or genetic materials from the natural environment for the purpose of developing commercial applications. Think of a giant drug company sending scientists to the Amazon to consult indigenous people about the healing properties of local plants. They find a promising plant, take it back to the lab to synthesize it, and the rest is history. One of the aims of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity is to ensure that projects of this type are undertaken in a manner that respects the environment, the economic interests of the state that provides the material, and the knowledge contributions of local people. A typical scenario in bioprospecting is for scientists from a developed country to zoom into a developing country, take samples, and zoom away again, with no thought given to returning part of the profits to the country whose biological diversity is being exploited.

Although I am no biologist, I know enough about Siberia and Mongolia to understand that they are likely home to many species of extremophiles - hardy beings whose habitats would be lethal to most other forms of life because of extreme heat, extreme cold, or some other circumstance. In Siberia, as in the Canadian Arctic, it's the cold. Bacteria and other creatures that thrive in the cold can teach us a lot, and that knowledge can be transformed into inventions, patents, and profits. Lake Baikal may also contain fascinating and uniquely adapted forms of life. In Mongolia, I would guess that the hot and arid Gobi Desert is prime territory for extremophiles.

When I'm in Siberia and Mongolia, but especially when I'm on my trek in Mongolia, I plan to ask the local people if they're aware of foreign scientists visiting their regions, asking questions, and collecting samples. Although both Russia and Mongolia have ratified the Convention, countries vary widely in their actual implementation or internal enforcement of its principles. I don't imagine that Russia, with its myriad domestic problems and political centre of gravity thousands of miles to the west, pays much attention. I also don't imagine Mongolia, eager for foreign investment and eager to become a prosperous modern state, taking a hard line.

It'll be interesting to ask the nomads about their means of treating illness. I wonder if they use a lot of traditional knowledge, or if they have gone over entirely to modern medicine - stocking up on aspirin and tetracycline in town whenever they have the chance.

There's nothing inherently wrong with bioprospecting - essentially, it just means learning from the natural world. If a Mongolian lichen yields the cure for a terrible disease, that would be wonderful. The choices made by corporations during and after expeditions, however, can be destructive and unfair. There's a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Skate Mongolia

Aha! Skate Mongolia has become a blog! I like to think that I played some small part in this turn of events.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

North Korea and Potemkin Villages

In the past couple of years, I've started to hear about tours that people can do in North Korea. Apparently, the tours are micro-managed in a highly paranoid way by the state. Where you go and what you see are strictly limited, and government officials watch your every move. You might say, "Of course the tours are that way," but foreigners somehow manage to travel much more independently in other totalitarian states. Paul Theroux, for instance, wandered quite freely for most of his year in China during the 1980s. North Korea seems to be a special case by virtue of its extreme xenophobia and secrecy.

The ethics of North Korean tourism are interesting. Knowing only what any regular newspaper reader knows, I discarded any notion of going there during my trip because I assumed that fees for the tour would support, legitimize, and entrench in a small way the current regime. I guess a small part of me is also afraid of being kidnapped and forced to teach English to North Korean spies for twenty years - don't say it has never happened, because it has.

I'll be very interested to ask people in China and Japan about their attitudes toward North Korea.

I think my decision not to go there is the right one, and yet I'm very curious about what visitors to North Korea are permitted to see. Is reality crudely edited by simply not letting people look at certain things, or are scenes actually created for them in the mode of the famous Potemkin villages? If someone is truly designing the experience of visitors, what impression is meant to be created? What does the North Korean regime want the West to believe?

I wonder if history is full of Potemkin villages. I suspect that it is - there's always someone who can't be allowed to get the wrong impression.

Trek Escapes

I'm so happy with the customer service at Trek Escapes. I emailed them just a couple of days ago, explaining that the Mongolian invitation document they sent me (necessary for my visa to be processed) was illegible and asking for a new one. Today, it arrived in the mail. I guess some of the credit should go to Canada Post, as well. Based on my dealings with Trek Escapes to date, I would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone - anyone in Toronto, at least - organizing a trip to far-flung parts of the world. The link is in my sidebar, if you're interested.


I have been neglecting Rosetta Stone since Saturday. This is not good, because it's going to be a challenge to finish the lessons even if I'm diligent. Rebecca Blood was right - blogging eats into the time you spend on whatever you're blogging about!

Rebecca Blood appears to be some kind of blogging Jedi. I look forward to reading the content of her own blog. She's in Japan right now.

GPS devices are forbidden

It is my understanding that travellers are not allowed to bring handheld GPS devices into Russia. I was toying with the idea of getting one in order to document my trip with more precision, but I guess I can't. I suppose the point of the rule is to make it harder for foreign spies to record the exact locations of military bases and other sensitive stuff.

Having a GPS device would also have enabled some serious geocaching. Geocaching is like treasure-hunting for the digital age. According to the biggest and probably best geocaching site on the web, there are 22 caches hidden in Russia, some in places that I'll be visiting. In addition, there are 3 in Mongolia, 58 in China, and 184 in Japan. Yow! Maybe I can buy a GPS device in Japan in one of those vast electronics stores Uncle Bob told me about.

If I had one in Russia, I would not only find caches, but create them. You hide the treasure somewhere good, record its position with your GPS device, and then post it on the web so other geocachers can look for it. If and when someone finds it, there's a geocaching etiquette to be observed. I don't actually have any experience geocaching, but I do have some experience with letterboxing, a closely related activity.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Mongolian Death Worm

This is a rendering of the infamous Mongolian Death Worm, also known as Allghoi Khorkoi. It is said to inhabit the most arid part of the Gobi Desert, travelling beneath the sand in its search for prey. Five feet long, the worm is red, blotchy, and possibly covered in spikes. Locals claim that the worm can kill a man, horse, or camel from a distance by spraying powerful acid or delivering an electric shock. If the shock part is true, the worm would be the only land animal on Earth with this capability. Locals also claim that the species is attracted by the colour yellow, and that its victims - for some reason that is unclear - turn yellow. ("This is the creature's grotesque calling card.") More than one expedition has failed to turn up evidence of the worm, but belief persists among many Mongolians. During the Communist era, the Mongolian government denied the existence of the worm and it was forbidden for foreign scientists to enter its supposed territory. It is a fascinating puzzle for cryptozoologists. Posted by Hello

Michael Behar

I sent a quick email to the writer Michael Behar, letting him know that I enjoyed his piece on "First Contact," found it very thought-provoking, and blogged about it. He was kind enough to write back, explaining that he is still trying to find out if the "First Contact" treks offered by Papua Adventures are for real.

He also mentioned that Mongolia is one of the best places he's ever been, and that although he travelled there independently, Boojum Expeditions is an excellent company to work with. I had formed that opinion myself based on their customer service and materials, but of course it's great to get this positive word-of-mouth stuff from someone who has been to Mongolia and done a lot of adventure travel in general.

Personal legend?

I wonder if the concept of the personal legend should become part of my approach to travel.

The concept appears in the novel The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Reviews vary from "trite and shallow" / "peddling easy answers" to "inspired the heck out of me" / "changed my life completely." People are polarized about it. I am intrigued.

Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of popular mysticism, but I did like The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, which has a cosmic or spiritual flavour.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"First Contact" - a dubious type of travel

I was beating myself up about being an orientalist pig, and then I come across this!

In the February issue of Outside magazine, there's an article about a Westerner living in Bali, Indonesia who runs a company called Papua Adventures. One of the experiences offered by this company is a "First Contact" trip - a trip during which you and your guide go deep into the jungles of New Guinea for the purpose of bumping into native people who have never encountered outsiders or experienced anything of the modern world.

Some experts claim that there are no completely isolated societies left in the world - not in New Guinea, not in the Amazon, not anywhere. Others think it's possible. The guy selling these trips clearly believes it, or wants his customers to believe it.

Let's say it is true - there are tribal peoples in New Guinea who have never made contact with outsiders. I can't help feeling that "just for kicks" is a pathetic, inadequate reason for causing a lot of shock and anguish to people by barging into their world. Michael Behar, the author of the article, describes how the native people his group encountered during their trek became extremely angry - this "first contact" created a volatile and dangerous situation. Cultural contact may be an inevitable occurrence on an increasingly crowded planet, but common sense and anecdotal evidence suggest that it's a stressful ordeal for the people being "discovered." This suggests that jaded thrill-seekers are perhaps not the emissaries we want doing it. The party line from anthropologists, according to the article, is that "first contact" trips are fraudulent at best and deeply insensitive and exploitative at worst.

Behar is clearly ambivalent about "first contact" adventure travel. He's not even sure what happened out there, exactly - maybe it was a set-up. I appreciate Behar's scrupulous approach to the experience, his canvassing of both sides, and his efforts to get to the truth.

Nowhere on my own upcoming trip am I at risk of making "first contact," so the issue doesn't affect me directly. It reminds me, however, that tourism is highly political. "First contact" may or may not be a reality, but situations of "rare contact," "sensitive contact," and "potentially disruptive contact" are definitely real and available in many parts of the world, including Mongolia. When I motor off into the Mongolian hinterland, I want to be fully conscious of how my actions and words affect the people I meet. I want to understand my own motivations for being there, and be aware of my own assumptions. I want to imagine, as well as I can, how the people I meet view me. I will be telling myself, "The indigenous people you meet on your travels are not your playthings."

The usefulness of Old English!

During my second year of the Honours English program at Wilfrid Laurier University, I was required to take a full-year course in Old English. If you're under the impression that this means the English spoken in Shakespeare's day, you're very mistaken. It's not even the English spoken in Chaucer's day. You have to go all the way back to before the Norman Invasion in 1066 AD to get to the English I'm talking about - the English used by people like King Alfred, Bede the Venerable, and the author of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." It looks a lot more like German than like modern English, and seemed to us fiendishly difficult. (I took this course in 1995-96, and the requirements for an Honours English degree have since been relaxed by popular demand. I can't help but see this as a sad turn of events.)

In the Old English course, Dr. John Chamberlin introduced us to different aspects of Old English grammar, including a concept that we as native speakers of modern English found quite bizarre. The concept - cases. If I say, "John loves Betty," you know from the order of the words who is the subject of the sentence and who is the object. You know from word order who's doing the loving, and who's getting loved. You know what each noun's job is. It's a whole different ball game in Old English, though, as in Russian. In those languages, you know from the actual look of the noun itself what role it plays in the sentence. No matter where it appears in a sentence, if a noun is in the nominative case, it's the subject - the thing doing the doing, whatever the doing might be. A noun in Russian might look slightly different in each of the cases: nominative; accusative; dative; etc. We have a bit of this system in modern English, but not much - for example, the difference in case between "I" and "me." They mean the same thing, essentially, but the words play different roles in a sentence.

Anyway, my point is that Old English, which might have been interesting but never promised to be practical, has turned out to be very practical in this one respect. I've already got a basic understanding of the different cases stored somewhere in my brain. If a noun appears in the nominative case, that means it's the subject of the sentence. And so forth.


In addition to being a law-type person, I like to think of myself as an aspiring freelance writer and photographer. When I'm travelling in Russia, Mongolia, China, and Japan, I'll be taking notes and taking pictures with an eye to developing something marketable when I get home. Therefore, isn't it true that some portion of my travel expenses are deductible from my 2005 income as business expenses? Deducting 100% would be so bold as to be ridiculous, but maybe I could deduct 25% or 50%. I will keep this possibility in the back of my mind until Spring 2006.

What I know about China

I wouldn't want you to think I've been neglecting my trip research duties with regard to China. I have almost finished reading Riding The Iron Rooster, in which the travel writer Paul Theroux criss-crosses China on various rail journeys, trying to stay one step ahead of his nervous Communist Party minders. I have also read Jan Wong's two accounts of her years spent in China, Red China Blues and Jan Wong's China. Jan Wong, for those of you who aren't familiar with her, is a journalist who works for the Globe & Mail.

Despite his wonderful writing and insights, Paul Theroux irritates me very much. He is smug. He is harsh in his judgment of the Western travellers and expats he comes across in China, signalling a belief that his way of experiencing a foreign country is the only one that is genuine and meaningful. He is deliberately contrary, expressing dislike for all the things that a regular tourist would find enjoyable. In addition to being acutely conscious of his surroundings, he is painfully self-conscious. I realize that all of the best travel writing is self-conscious, and cannot help but be so, but his brand of self-consciousness is obnoxious and smacks of elitism. He is so afraid of falling into mere tourism that his thinking becomes warped. I, on the other hand, acknowledge from the outset that I'm a tourist and try to focus on being a fully engaged, responsible one.

Having said all that, I can't help but like him at some moments. I love animals, and Riding The Iron Rooster contains several stories about Theroux's tenderness toward the helpless and ill-fated animals he comes across in China, where a much more pragmatic attitude holds sway.

As for Jan Wong, I can't say enough good things about Red China Blues. It's a completely absorbing memoir of her time as a young, idealistic Chinese-Canadian woman in China during the Cultural Revolution. Her gradual disenchantment with China's "socialist paradise" is depicted with incredible poignancy and humour. I learned a lot. Jan Wong's China is based more on her journalism than on her own story and is consequently more disjointed and less personal, but it's still very interesting - especially when she writes about the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the rise of drug abuse and addiction, pro-democracy activism, and the entrepreneurial class in the New China. Both books are full of anecdotes revealing Jan Wong to be a daring, spirited, and insatiably curious person.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Further expansion of the Russian language library

I cracked under the pressure today and bought the Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook and The Big Silver Book of Russian Verbs. When am I going to have time to grapple with all these materials, you ask, given that I have four law school courses to finish, a graduation to attend, a wedding to MC, and a notoriously difficult bar exam to prepare for and then write between now and August?

First of all, I don't need to grapple with the phrasebook - the point of a phrasebook is to have it with you as a reference. Second, although there's no way that I can lug the Big Silver Behemoth around Eurasia for eight weeks, I don't need to study the whole thing with all five hundred and fifty-five verbs fully conjugated. I have devised a list of approximately fifty crucial verbs to learn. I hope that Rosetta Stone will cover some of these fifty as well. Actually, the lessons already have touched on some of them: "to write"; "to read"; "to walk"; "to have"; etc. They have also touched on some other, less obviously useful ones like "to throw" and "to catch." I place my trust in the programmers and choose to believe that they have a sound pedagogical basis for including these verbs.


There's a weird article about Vladimir Putin in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The author, Paul Starobin, devotes a lot of attention to Putin's physical self: his eyes; his skin tone; how he walks; etc. Starobin even consults with a "movement analyst" who studies videotapes of the Russian leader and speculates about his childhood, medical history, and philosophy of life based on subtle physical cues.

Russia is lighting up the 24-hour news channels today because of its overtures to Iran and the resulting displeasure of the Bush administration. I'm sure that the editors of The Atlantic are congratulating themselves about the excellent timing of the article, and so they should, even though it is a little kooky.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Great Wave

Right now I'm reading Christopher Benfey's The Great Wave, a book about the cultural cross-pollination that took place between Japan and the United States during the nineteenth century. I'm interested in learning more about the Japanese concept of wabi, which is said to have been an inspiration for the Arts & Crafts movement in the United States. I really like Arts & Crafts architecture, so I'll have to look into this connection more deeply.

I'm not sure if "concept" is the right word to use with reference to wabi... Philosophy? Aesthetic? Lifestyle? Worldview? Thing?

The Wikipedia entry is a start, anyway.


It's good to know that I'm not all alone in the pursuit of the Russian language. The author of Russkiblog is a considerable distance ahead of me - I hope that I can benefit from this person's experience.

I bought a book about learning Russian today at Chapters in Bloor West Village, and spent a few happy minutes this afternoon reading about voiced and unvoiced consonants.

The minutes are happy, but I still really envy people who had worldly, mobile, multilingual upbringings and grew up speaking two or three or four languages effortlessly. I had a fine childhood, and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but it produced a sadly ignorant man. Every day is a struggle against ignorance.

Bob in Japan

My Uncle Bob has spent a great deal of time in Japan in connection with his work as an engineer. He emailed me with some advice on things to do in Japan and how to get it done. Here are a couple of fun excerpts from his email:

Anytime you are lost in Japan, just pull out a map and look puzzled and within 2 minutes someone will try to help you (sometimes in perfect English and sometimes not). The national pastime is taking English lessons.

One of my most fun events was playing streetcorner chess in Kumagaya in front of the railway station on a Sunday afternoon. I won the first game and became the board owner for several challenging matches and got to meet folks from all over the world that day. Don't avoid the spontaneous, as it may give you the greatest memories.

I'll have to make sure to ask Bob if he can introduce me, via email, to any friends or colleagues of his still living in Japan. Maybe I can meet up with somebody for lunch one day in Tokyo. I'll see Uncle Bob and Aunt Pat at my sister's wedding in May and will take the opportunity to ask them both lots of questions about their experiences in Japan.

Moscow in 1972

We were talking last night to Greg and Carol, two friends of the family. I was telling them about my trip plans. Greg told us that in 1974, he travelled to Moscow with three friends as part of a large contingent of Canadian hockey fans. They were there to see a big hockey series between the Canadian and Russian national teams. Of course, it was the 1972 series that featured the legendary Paul Henderson goal, not the 1974 series, but that's beside the point - it must have been fascinating to be there in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.

Incidentally, Jess's father went to Lucknow High School with Paul Henderson.

Tintin in Shanghai

As a child at East Garafraxa Central Public School in Marsville, Ontario, I devoured all the Tintin books. I didn't remember until recently that Tintin had an adventure in Shanghai - the book is called The Blue Lotus, and the cover art is striking. I hope that my brief visit to Shanghai is as interesting and eventful as Tintin's, although I could do without people knocking me unconscious, trying to kill me, etc., which seems to happen to Tintin with some regularity.

I didn't appreciate until just now, having done a Google search, just how large a worldwide following Tintin has. For more information on any aspect of Tintin, please visit Tintinologist.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Figure Skating

Today I was included in a group email from Bobo at Boojum Expeditions. Boojum Expeditions, you may recall, is the outfitter planning the Mongolia segment of my trip. Bobo and her family spend part of the year in Mongolia and part of the year in Bozeman, Montana, where Boojum has its headquarters. Attached to the email was an article from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle about Bobo's young daughter, Onyuka. Onyuka devotes much of her time in Montana to developing her talent as a figure skater. She is, by all accounts, the only Mongolian figure skater. She does very well in regional competitions, and has upcoming meets in Billings and Jackson Hole. She will also compete in the Asian Novice Figure Skating Championship in Hong Kong in March.

Skate Mongolia is a website with news about Onyuka.

I wish Onyuka all the best. Good luck in Hong Kong!

The English Language in Mongolia

Matt Farish has brought to my attention a recent article by James Brooke in the New York Times. (The link here points to the website of the International Herald-Tribune.) The article describes Mongolia's policy of encouraging its citizens to learn English. Here's a brief excerpt:
"We are looking at Singapore as a model," Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Mongolia's prime minister, said in an interview, his own American English honed at graduate school at Harvard University. "We see English not only as a way of communicating, but as a way of opening windows on the wider world."

Camel herders may not yet refer to each other as "dude," but Mongolia, thousands of kilometers from the nearest English-speaking nation, is a reflection of the steady march of English as a world language.
I am reminded of Mark Abley's idea that English is the "Walmart of languages." This phrase appears in his 2003 book Spoken Here, about linguistic communities endangered by globalization and other forces. Abley acknowledges that the analogy is too glib, and mentions some of its deficiencies, but it still has a certain appeal.

The article confronts me directly as someone planning to travel to Mongolia. My reaction to the idea of English colonizing Mongolia may suggest something about me. Something political; something that graduate students across the world would denounce. In fact, I can't even start to write in an objective way about the story - my choice of words already assumes that Mongolians are being coerced into the policy ("English colonizing Mongolia") rather than adopting it freely. For all I know, an overwhelming majority of Mongolians are enthusiastic about it. If I feel a sense of unease over the story, does that indicate that I'm worried on some level about my orientalist fantasy being ruined? Does it mean that I look upon Mongolia as some kind of exotic theme park, held in stasis for my amusement?

Truth be told, I'm not worried about the story. Even if I do treasure an orientalist fantasy about Mongolia, it won't be ruined between now and September. In any case, I doubt that the nomads I'll be visiting aspire to working in call centres, signing people up for credit cards and cheap long distance plans. They've been living in their own way for hundreds if not thousands of years. On a related note, my fledgling philosophy of travel has as one of its primary tenets the idea that going to Destination X in order to capture some preconceived feeling or experience - "the essence of X" - is a losing game. Nothing stays the same. Nostalgia for a place you've never been sets you up for disappointment. I do have expectations for Mongolia - a set of images and scenarios - but I'm not married to them. If the reality of Mongolia in 2005 dashes those expectations partly or completely, I'll accept that as part of the richness of travel.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone is language education software - some might say it's the language education software. Last month I went on eBay and purchased Rosetta Stone for Russian, Levels 1 & 2, from a woman in Texas whose high school daughter had used the software once and then changed her mind about which language she wanted to learn. I think it would really enhance my experience in Russia if I could communicate with people on at least a basic level.

With shipping costs factored in, I saved about $50 Canadian buying the software this way instead of brand new from the official site. For people willing to go without the original packaging, installation instructions, and accompanying manual, there are significantly better deals on eBay to be had on Rosetta Stone products - you can get the software for a fraction of the retail price. I wanted all the packaging and documentation, though, and had a good feeling about the seller, so I was willing to pay more.

Since the package arrived, I've been trying to use it for about an hour a day. Sometimes I do a bit more, and sometimes I get distracted and don't do anything. Rosetta Stone tries to emulate the way that children acquire language - not through drills and translations, but through natural associations between sounds and images. Because the program does not use English to mediate or frame the Russian text and sounds for the user, it's easy to avoid the confusion, mistaken assumptions, and mental laziness that flourish in more traditional language pedagogy. In addition to doing a lot of mouse-clicking, matching Russian words and phrases to pictures, there's a speech recognition aspect to the program so the user can practice pronunciation. I bought a headset with a microphone for this purpose.

The lessons build on each other in a logical and effective way. I'm now on Lesson 9 of Unit 1 of Level 1, which means that I've gone through about 4% of the content of my CD. I've barely scratched the surface, but I feel like I'm learning some great stuff: fundamental vocabulary like numbers, colours, food and drink, clothing, telling time, etc; verbs like "walk," "run," "jump," "read," "dance," "swim"; key concepts like "in," "with," "on," "under," etc; and basic dialogues including questions and answers. Equally important, I'm spending hours and hours listening to native speakers, and developing - hopefully - some good instincts about pronunciation and guessing at meanings. In addition, I'm getting comfortable with reading words in the Cyrillic alphabet. Some letters, like "M," sound the same as in the Roman alphabet and pose no difficulty. Other letters, like "P," sound totally different from what you'd expect. ("P" sounds like our "R.") Still other letters are completely new and alien for someone accustomed to the Roman alphabet, such as the backwards "R" that makes the sound "ya."

It's not good to use the program for too long at a sitting. If I use it for much more than an hour, I start to feel beaten up mentally, and my brain refuses to absorb any new concepts. I get diminishing marginal returns.

It's way too early to tell how proficient I'll be when I've gone through 100% of the activities. (I just hope that I'm able to reach that point by the date of the trip.) My guess is that I'll be able to stumble my way through basic exchanges with people, assisted by a phrasebook and a Russian-English dictionary. Russian people will laugh at me when I use the wrong ending for the word that corresponds to "o'clock," when I put the stress on the wrong syllable of the word that means "black," or when I mix up the words for "man" and "car," but they will understand me.

When I tell people about the specific content of the lessons, they often say, "Shouldn't you start out by learning key stuff like, 'Where's the bathroom?' and 'How much does this cost?'" This attitude is not unreasonable or unexpected but definitely vexing. Of course it's important to know these phrases, but almost anyone can memorize twenty key phrases the day before the trip. Given that I'm not leaving for quite a while, I'm being more ambitious. As long as I persevere with Rosetta Stone, I won't need to memorize anything - I will have internalized the knowledge of how to make those meanings, and many other meanings besides. At least, I hope I will have. People who just learn a few phrases are limited not only in what they can say, but also in what they can understand, and I want to understand as much as I can.

So, why learn Russian and not Mandarin, Japanese, or for that matter, Mongolian? I'm limiting myself to phrasebook Mongolian because a) the majority of my time in Mongolia will be spent with an interpreter by my side, b) there aren't a lot of resources available, and c) it wouldn't have a lot of application after the trip. I'm limiting myself to phrasebook Mandarin because a) I think it'll be easier to learn Russian than to learn a notoriously difficult tonal language with a completely different system of writing, b) I'm spending more time in Russia than I am in China, and c) a big part of my time in China will be spent in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan place with lots of English speakers. As for Japanese, that's a bit harder. I really would like to learn Japanese for the trip, and just for my own enjoyment, but I don't think there's time to do justice to both. People spend years learning even one foreign language, and I'm kidding myself if I think I can get the rudiments of both Russian and Japanese between now and August, especially given that I've got some extremely important and time-consuming things going on in that time frame. I'll consider myself lucky to get basic Russian under control.

I really hope that I don't look back at this post months from now and wince because I let the Rosetta Stone lessons fall by the wayside. I also hope that after I come back from the trip, I protect my investment of time, energy, and money by continuing to study the language. Otherwise, whatever knowledge I have will just fade away. One fun way to keep it up, and even expand the skills further, would be to do one of the intensive courses in Russian at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. I'm sure there are lots of other good immersion programs in North America, but this is the only one I've discovered so far. Of course, it would also be good to try reading Russian newspapers and speaking to people in the Russian neighbourhoods of Toronto.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Books, Agencies, Outfitters

I've known for a while that there will be a long stretch of free time between writing the bar exam at the end of July and starting my new job in October. I think it's one of the best opportunities I'll ever have to do some real travelling, and I want to make the most of it. Last summer, I started thinking seriously about building a trip around the Trans-Siberian Railway, so I purchased the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas and Trans-Siberian Railway: A Classic Overland Route from Lonely Planet. I knew that I wanted to start on the European end and go through Mongolia to Beijing, so it was a pretty easy and logical decision to extend the trip to include Shanghai and then Japan. As a result, I also picked up Lonely Planet: Shanghai and Lonely Planet: Japan. I realize that this must sound like a Lonely Planet ad. On previous trips, I've been a big Let's Go loyalist, but I was irritated by spelling and grammatical errors in the text of the Let's Go books for China and Japan when I looked at them in the bookstore, and decided to go another way. Copy errors do not inspire confidence.

The books helped me craft an itinerary. I knew that I was going to need a specialist travel agency to help me arrange everything, but I wanted to go to them with a detailed, viable plan. After a false start with an agency that shall remain nameless, I spoke to Tom Gehrels at Trek Escapes in Toronto. When arranging custom trips on the Trans-Siberian and elsewhere in Asia, Trek Escapes partners with another company, Sundowners Travel. Sundowners has people on the ground in Russia, Mongolia, and China who make everything happen. Sundowners offers a lot of group tours in that part of the world, but even the longest of the group tours blazes through cities and countries a little too quickly for my taste. Trek Escapes and Sundowners are taking care of all my flights, rail tickets, and accommodations, with the exception of my time in Japan. They could take care of that, too, but I'm still deciding how I want to spend my time there. I'll make all those bookings later.

Boojum Expeditions is another company bringing something important to my trip. I'll be in Mongolia for the first half of September, and for ten days of that time I'll be moving around the country according to a plan that Boojum Expeditions has made for me. Boojum is a small adventure travel outfitter headquartered in Bozeman, Montana. They organize trips - specializing in horseback trips - in Mongolia, Tibet, Patagonia, and Uruguay. I found them on the internet and thought they looked much more professional, credible, and reliable than some of the other companies out there. They don't try to be all things to all people, and they're candid about the challenges inherent in this kind of travel. I was also very impressed by their emphasis on respecting the local culture and protecting the natural environment. National Geographic tapped Boojum's expertise in Mongolia to produce an episode of the TV series Worlds Apart. Tim Cahill, author of Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and other books, has travelled with them and written about it for Outside Magazine. I'll be riding a horse on the Mongolian steppe, ridings a camel in the Gobi Desert, sometimes camping at night and sometimes staying with nomad families. Boojum provides an interpreter/guide, as well as a jeep and driver for the days when we're not riding. Bobo and Kent at Boojum have given me lots of good advice about Mongolian etiquette, particularly with regard to gift-giving - it's an important part of the nomadic culture. I have to make sure that when I leave Canada, I'm carrying a bunch of small, fun, portable items that Mongolian children and adults will enjoy.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The orange line is a simplified rendering of the route I'll be taking. As of today, it looks as though I'll be flying from Toronto to St. Petersburg via Amsterdam. Then, the order goes like this: St. Petersburg; Moscow; a long stretch of the Trans-Siberian Railway; Irkutsk; Ulaanbaatar; ten days of horses and camels in the Mongolian countryside; Beijing; Shanghai; flight from Shanghai to Osaka; Osaka; Kyoto; Nagano-ken; Tokyo. The Japan part of the itinerary is a little rough at this point. I'm still doing research and soliciting advice from people who have spent a lot of time there, like my friend and colleague Steve Penner. One thing is certain, though - I absolutely must visit the snow monkeys who soak in the hot spring all year round. If you've seen the movie Baraka, you'll know which monkeys I mean.
Posted by Hello

Thursday, February 10, 2005

First Post

Thank you to languagehat and Dr. Matthew Farish for encouraging me to set up a blog. I won't be leaving on the trip until mid-August, but I've already invested a lot of thought and energy in preparing for it, so I thought I'd write about some of those matters. It'll be kind of like a Superbowl pre-game show that goes on for several months. Many important aspects of the trip - itinerary, flights, trains, lodgings - are shaping up nicely. I don't know whether to be proud of my organizational skills or ashamed of my irresistible urge to eradicate everything spontaneous. Actually, that's a mischaracterization and more than a little unfair. I fully expect that the trip will contain surprises, weird happenings, and moments where I have to adapt my thinking and be flexible. That's part of the fun - maybe the main part of the fun. I just don't want to be wasting time flipping madly through Lonely Planet or dragging myself from hostel to hostel looking for a room when I have a precious and finite amount of time to soak up the atmosphere of any given place. It's about efficiency, really. Safety, too. It might be okay to saunter breezily through Connecticut or Vermont in the tradition of Walt Whitman, but when you're travelling, alone, with (ahem) imperfect language skills, in Central Asia, for the first time, there's something to be said for knowing where you're going to sleep that night.