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.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Different styles of travel

I recently had a conversation with someone else who's doing the Trans-Siberian this summer. It quickly became obvious that although we both love to travel, we wouldn't be compatible travelling together. I love to plan things and look forward to things, and she seems much happier to let the chips fall where they may.

For instance, she made a comment along these lines: "If I accidentally get on a train heading in the wrong direction, and getting back to where I was supposed to be eats up a couple of days, that's okay. It's part of the fun." Don't get me wrong - I like spontaneity, flexibility, and adventure - but I prefer the unexpected to appear in smaller chunks. Getting lost in a city and spending a few interesting hours figuring out where I am - fine. Train journey much different than I expected in some way - fine. A quiet evening turns into a crazy evening, or vice versa - fine. Departing radically from my lovingly crafted itinerary - not fine. It's a work of art, my work of art, and I shall honour it.

I think my new acquaintance is going to have an amazing trip. It would be frustrating for me, though. I like to do things my own way.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Venture capital in China

I have just finished downloading and printing an enormous number of journal articles on the venture capital industry in China, as well as foreign investment in China, high-tech entrepreneurship in China, business culture in China, the intellectual property regime in China, and economic reforms in China. You may have guessed by now that I'm going to be writing a paper about China - specifically, about foreign venture capital firms operating in that country. I figured, "Why not write about something relevant to my trip? It'll be a more interesting experience, and in the month of April - with the sun shining, the birds singing, and my morale as a law student nearly exhausted - I need all the help I can get focusing on my work."

Russian medical breakthrough

According to today's Facts & Arguments page in the Globe & Mail, researchers at the Novosibirsk Institute of Medicine claim that beating people with a cane on the naked buttocks is an excellent treatment for a variety of ailments. The canings release endorphins, which do good work in different parts and systems of the body.

I recall reading somewhere that Russian men habitually flail themselves with some kind of branches after sitting in a steam bath. The exact reasoning escapes me at the moment, but some health benefit is presumed. Could the medical breakthrough described above be a confirmation of this Russian folk wisdom?

I may try the steam bath while visiting Russia, but will avoid the caning.

Tomorrow's Globe & Mail will contain a special report on Japan. The report will touch on robots, among other things. What is it with Japan and robots? I would know the answer to that question if I had paid closer attention to Daily Planet last week. I heard the host saying something one night about the longstanding Japanese fascination with machines that look like human beings, but I didn't look up from my book, or dinner, or whatever.

April is the cruellest month

No points for identifying the literary allusion in the title of this post. What I'm trying to get across is that the next few weeks are going to be extremely unpleasant. Much studying will be done. Many hours will be spent in the southwest corner of the first floor of Bora Laskin Law Library. Blogging will be irregular, and likely less coherent than usual.

Television

Sometimes I end up watching The Amazing Race. Tonight was one of those nights. At one point in the show, all the teams were racing across an arid, scrubby African landscape in super-cool Land Rovers. One of the drivers lost control on the loose sand of the road, and their vehicle flipped onto its side. Their cameraman, along for the ride, suffered minor injuries, and the setback almost resulted in the team's elimination. The whole incident reminded me that travelling in the Gobi Desert will not be a game. It's a long way from hospitals, auto repair shops, and police stations. There's a whole range of things that can go wrong - maybe spectacularly wrong. I am hoping and anticipating, however, that the rewards will be great. As I've suggested before in this blog, all I can do is take reasonable precautions, stay alert, and make good decisions based on the information I have at the moment. The rest is in the hands of God.

I would find it very frustrating to be a contestant in The Amazing Race. They never get to explore any of the fascinating and beautiful places they visit. Everything must flash by in a blur. In Amazing Race 6, the contestants spent about eight minutes in Shanghai, most of it under extreme stress. I've scheduled a leisurely five days. In addition, the contestants spend an incredible amount of time in airports - one of the most horrible, soul-crushing environments ever devised by humankind.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Things that make me a good traveller

I'm generally an optimist. I respect and enjoy the diversity of cultures. I acknowledge that things don't always go as planned. I fall asleep pretty easily on planes, trains, and other forms of transport. I try hard not to make assumptions. I'm not afraid to ask for advice and directions. I try to learn at least a little of the language spoken in the places I'm visiting - even if it's just a few key phrases. I like to think that I'm mentally tough. I can laugh at myself.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Comfort women

An op-ed piece in the China Daily addresses one of the issues responsible for tension between the governments of China and Japan.

The Canadian angle

Two new items of interest popping up in the Canadian media: an article from Saturday's Globe & Mail about one man's journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway; and a documentary about Russia airing tonight on CBC's The Passionate Eye.

The documentary, entitled "The Hockey Nomad Goes To Russia," is written and hosted by Toronto-based musician and writer Dave Bidini. It's a look at modern Russia through the lens of hockey. For my non-Canadian readers, it's important to understand that hockey has long been an important symbolic interface between these two parts of the world. Bidini devotes some time in the show to a "Where are they now?" investigation of the Russian stars and fans who helped make the 1972 series between Canada and the Soviet Union so exciting and memorable.

As for the Trans-Siberian article, I'm a little disappointed, because if the Globe is publishing Tom Koppel's story now, they likely won't want to publish my own story a few months from now. In the back of my mind - actually, in the front of my mind - I planned to take lots of careful notes during my trip and then write an article or series of articles after returning home. In truth, I will probably still take notes with an eye to writing something. The Globe isn't the only publication in Canada whose readers might be interested in the Trans-Siberian Railway, and besides, I can write about topics that Mr. Koppel didn't cover. Mr. Koppel's article is fun and informative, but it's a general overview of a rather fast-paced group tour. My trip is more leisurely and more independent, and may allow for deeper looks at specific subjects. Maybe I'll write a whole article about Moscow taxi drivers, or Mongolian etiquette, or sinus difficulties in Beijing. Plus, I can always approach U.S. publications if no newspaper or magazine in Canada shows any interest.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Chinese tax collectors visiting America

Lostgal sent me this terrific article from her local paper. It describes the experiences of twenty tax collectors from the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia who visited the United States in order to learn about the American tax system and take some innovations back home. Most of the government employees selected for the trip were young women, abroad for the first time, and it's a lot of fun to read about the things that made a strong impression on them: free public libraries; Desperate Housewives; the fact that Michael Moore is able to say what he says without fear of being shipped off to a prison camp.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Trip on the horizon

Law school will be finished, utterly finished, in one month and two days. After that, only the bar course and bar exam will stand between me and Lester B. Pearson International Airport.

More things that make me a bad traveller

I loathe heat and humidity. I have a tendency to oversleep. I become anxious when there is no ready supply of Kleenex. I am devoted to Reason and may blow a circuit if too many random, senseless things happen in too short a span of time.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

It behooves me

I think it behooves me to have a look at this book before travelling to Japan. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, you know.

[Note: Matthew Farish is quite correct to point out that one of the Pulitzer-winning books from 2000 would be relevant as well. I thank him for bringing this to my attention.]

Racy Chinese novel gets banned

After reading this brief news item, I'm not sure whether the book was banned because of the illicit sex, or because of the political content, or both. My understanding was that it's permissible in China today to be critical of Mao Zedong and the disastrous Cultural Revolution, but the ambiguity in this article has me doubting. Maybe people still have to tread lightly around these aspects of Chinese history.

Killer icicles in St. Petersburg

After reading this op-ed piece in the St. Petersburg Times, I'm glad to be visiting the city before the first snowfall of the season.

The Challenge Bibendum

More about electric cars, but this time from Wired, and this time in China. It seems inevitable that before too long, hundreds of millions of people in China will be acquiring and driving cars. The urgent question is whether they'll be driving cars with old combustion technology or cars that use some kind of new, environmentally friendly engine. "[China] may be in a unique situation to leapfrog," says somebody high up at GM. Just as many Chinese people went straight from no phone at all to a mobile phone, maybe many Chinese people will go straight from no car at all to an electric car. I certainly hope so.

Ashamed

I owe the people at Sitemeter an apology. I criticized their product publicly, without first giving them a chance to respond to my concerns. A representative of Sitemeter very kindly approached me with an offer of help, and it turns out that I just didn't understand the way it works. All is well.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Safety issues

The St. Petersburg Times reports that St. Petersburg ranks a wretched 175th out of 215 cities included in a recent survey on urban safety. Moscow fares even worse than St. Petersburg, coming in at 198th. Many of the cities coming in below St. Petersburg and Moscow are in countries wracked by civil war. I guess that Russia could be considered to be experiencing a civil war, depending on your understanding of the Chechnya situation.

It's probably a bit embarrassing for Russian officials that Helsinki, the capital of Finland, which is just 300 km away from St. Petersburg, ranks 2nd in the survey. If you're thinking, "Yeah, but St. Petersburg is dealing with the poverty and corruption linked to the transition to a free market economy," then take a look at Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn is another nearby city, in a former Soviet Bloc country, and it's way ahead of all the Russian cities in 73rd place. Apparently, the Baltic states are putting Russia to shame, not just in terms of safety but in terms of political stability and economic prosperity.

Another note on safety... I've heard some people saying lately that Ulaanbaatar is teeming with thieves, ready to pick your pocket, slice open your luggage, and whatever else. This contradicts what I've read about Mongolia online and in my books. I heard the same kind of horror stories about Barcelona before I travelled there in 2002, and I was very much on my guard during my time in that city. Nothing happened, however - nothing at all. Wherever you travel, all you can do is be careful, avoid the obvious trouble, and have a plan for if and when things go awry. I recognize that street smarts and good decisions are especially important for a solo traveller, and that's partly why I'm making such an effort to inform myself about the places I'm going to visit. I'm certainly not perfect. I've made mistakes in this area. I have, however, learned from them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Apophenia

I'm not sure if anything interesting or worthwhile has ever been achieved without apophenia. A sustained feeling of apophenia is best, but even a bracing spasm of it can lead to great things. Thanks to Languagehat for introducing me to this excellent word. I would venture to argue that travel is a much more rewarding and mystical experience when the traveller has apophenic tendencies. I am such a one.

Japan Week on Daily Planet

I missed last night's show due to sloth and some other factors, but caught the show tonight. For me, the two most interesting segments were the ones dealing with the electric car and the earthquake researchers.

The Eliica electric car, developed over the past twenty years by engineers at Keio University, has eight wheels and can attain speeds of up to 375 km/h - faster than the fastest shinkansen. The biggest barrier between the Eliica and the marketplace, right now, is the fact that the car's lithium ion battery costs $230,000 US, making the total cost of one car $350,000. Have a look at the website. One of the important motivations for developing an electric vehicle is the fact that Japan has many, many cars occupying a relatively small space - the resulting urban pollution is a serious problem that is only getting worse.


The Eliica

Scientists and engineers at Japan's Building Research Institute use all the technology at their disposal to identify buildings that are at high risk of collapsing during earthquakes, and to develop techniques for modifying buildings so they can absorb seismic shocks. In an earthquake, most casualties occur when buildings collapse with people inside them. (As a child, I believed that the chief danger of earthquakes lay in falling into a bottomless crevasse, but it seems this is not the case.) Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world, and the Japanese are certainly world leaders in this kind of research.

Weird Japanese mannequins

Things that make me a bad traveller

I get severe motion sickness in cars and boats. I don't like to be dirty. I am not the most adventurous eater in the world. I have moments of control-freakishness.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Quandary

Via Russkiblog, here's an interesting post on a site called The Marmot's Hole. The author is trying to choose between Mongolian and Russian as his next language to learn. A number of site visitors, some of whom are fluent in one or the other or both, offer advice. For me, this internal debate was resolved in about one millisecond.

Daily Planet

Every night this week, Daily Planet on the Discovery Channel will be looking at different aspects of life in Japan. One of the segments tonight is about the making of samurai swords. I'm not sure if the Discovery Channel is part of our cable package, but come 7:00 pm, I'll be clicking around the channels trying to find out.

Improvements

I have made some subtle but, I think, important changes to the sidebar. The links have been rationalized. Sites that are always slow to come up in the browser have been axed. Friendly blogs have been added. Exciting and functional categories have been created.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The wisdom of Leo Tolstoy

"I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives."

Tolstoy, a man of the nineteenth century, may be forgiven for his reference to "most men" rather than "most people." This is not the most famous Tolstoy quotation, but it's definitely a good one. For a whole raft of them, click here.

Apparently, a lot of people try to read Tolstoy's War & Peace on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I will attempt no such foolishness, having learned my lesson after taking a copy of Ulysses with me to Dublin in 2003. Three months living in Dublin, and not even ten pages of that repellent beast completed. I did, however, read almost everything by Roddy Doyle. I don't think it's a good idea to grapple with heavy duty classics while travelling or otherwise out of one's element. Big, complicated books demand peaceful, familiar surroundings.

Russian robots

On a whim, I did a Google search for "Russian robots." This absolutely marvellous page came up first. It turns out that the page is part of a site called Alphadrome - "for collectors of vintage tin robots and space toys."

Here's my favourite Russian robot:

Ten years later

Today is the ten-year anniversary of the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult. Twelve people were killed and thousands were hospitalized. For those unfamiliar with the story, click here for the basics. The Japanese government responded with security measures very similar to those undertaken later in American public transit systems following the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

Invading your privacy

I am losing confidence in Sitemeter as a means of tracking visitors to the blog. It is behaving in an eccentric manner, and not the good kind of eccentric. I may have no choice but to switch to another free service. Recommendations are welcome.

For all you cool-hunters out there

It is my understanding that Japanese teenagers and young adults, particularly in Tokyo, are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to new ideas in fashion. I know nothing about fashion and find the whole subject exhausting, frankly, but here's a website that purports to document all the new styles emerging on the streets of Japan.

This is the sort of thing that would have piqued my professional interest back when I worked for an advertising agency and was supposed to keep in touch with popular culture. The website seems to generate revenue through the licensing of images.

The most visible Japanese element in North American pop culture at the moment is Gwen Stefani's entourage of pouty Japanese girls. The four "Harajuku girls" appear with Stefani in videos and live performances, including tonight's episode of Saturday Night Live. (Harajuku is a fashion district in Tokyo where young people come to see and be seen.) There's even a song on Stefani's album called "Harajuku Girls."

Here's a picture of Gwen and her girls:

Saturday, March 19, 2005

One less thing to worry about

Snopes has debunked an alarming story, spreading on the internet, about disposable chopsticks being filled with carcinogens. They describe the story as "baseless scaremongering." I will inevitably be using these chopsticks in China and Japan, like everyone else, and am relieved to know that they're not dangerous. (Unless you poke someone in the eye.)

Middlemarch on your Motorola

Ick. People in Japan are downloading novels to their cell phones, and reading them on the tiny screens. I would become nauseous almost immediately. The interesting part of the story is that there are writers in Japan who create content specifically for this medium, working with the possibilities and limitations of the technology.

Graah!

I'm going to miss, by a whisker, the 2005 World's Fair in Aichi, Japan. It runs from March 25 until September 25 - only two days before I arrive in Japan. I won't get to see the perfectly preserved head of a 10,000-year-old Siberian woolly mammoth.

Canadian Expatriates

Technorati pointed me toward a new blog called Canadian Expatriates - a place for Canadians living around the world to gather and share their experiences. Canadian Expatriates has included a link to me in their sidebar, which is great, although I feel a little guilty because I am not an expatriate at this time and my trip will not make me into one. It is possible that I would fit better in their list of Canadian blogs than in their list of expat blogs. In any case, I look forward to visiting regularly and exploring all the links to Canadian bloggers living abroad.

[Note: Canadian Expatriates has indeed moved me to the other list.]

Songs

I was thinking today that maybe I should be prepared to sing a couple of Canadian songs if someone asks me. It could happen, you know - on a train, in a bar, around the fire on the Mongolian steppe. It would be pretty rude of me to refuse to participate in this kind of cultural exchange. I've already got a short list of songs in mind: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot; "Fifty Mission Cap" by the Tragically Hip; "Hasn't Hit Me Yet" by Blue Rodeo; "Salesmen, Cheats, & Liars" by Lowest of the Low; "Lovers In A Dangerous Time" by Bruce Cockburn; "Chelsea Hotel" by Leonard Cohen; "Coffee Stain" by Sarah Harmer; "Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams; "Old Man" by Neil Young; "Carey" by Joni Mitchell; and "Money City Maniacs" by Sloan. I will also prepare "The Girl From Ipanema" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," even though they're not Canadian in any respect. I just like those songs.

Dentist

I had a dental appointment today. I was commended for being a diligent brusher and flosser, but it appears that I grind my teeth while I sleep. I have to be fitted for a preventative guard to wear. I hope that this causes my Mongolian hosts and fellow Trans-Siberian passengers no unease.

I'm curious about what kind of dental care the Mongolian nomads get. Do they go into the city for check-ups? Do they handle their own dental emergencies? Are there nomad dentists? These are the questions that no website answers.

Five days

I've arranged to start my new job on October 17th. This is only five days after returning from my trip. Four days, actually, considering that it takes a long time to get from Tokyo to Toronto. I wonder if this is enough time to recover from jet lag and the general sense of exhaustion and being hollowed out that must come from completing such a long and ambitious trip. (Never having done anything quite like this before, I don't know for sure how it will feel, but I can make a guess.) If I didn't start on the 17th, I'd have to wait until the 24th, which is far too long a wait.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Carp? The Swallows?

I have learned that the season for professional baseball in Japan runs from April to October. I think it would be great to see a game. I found a website for the Nippon Professional Baseball Association, and it has some English words here and there, but I can't locate anything like a 2005 game schedule in English. I know I'm not entitled to one, but I just hoped there would be one.

OK, this site by Michael Westbay looks more promising. There are schedules posted for all the teams. Let's see... I expect to be in Japan from September 27 until October 12. The Fukuoka Hawks play at home on September 27 and 28. The Hiroshima Carp play at home on September 28, 29, and 30. The Yomiuri Giants play at the Tokyo Dome - I assume it's their home park - on October 1, 2, 4, and 5. Those Tokyo games are too early; I won't have arrived in the city by that point. I think my best bets are the Hawks on the 28th or the Carp on the 30th.

Judging from the standings, the Hawks game would be more exciting to watch. They're leading the Pacific League.

Now for the mechanics of getting tickets. Here's a resource that looks good. Tickets, apparently, are in the 10-15 USD range, and except for the Tokyo Giants are pretty easy to get at the park on game day. Here are some fun baseball-oriented phrases in Japanese:

Where are the clothing-optional bleachers?
Gaiya jiyu-seki wa doko desuka?

I would like one infield reserved ticket on the first base side.
Ichirui gawa naiya shitei wo ichi mai kudasai.

Can I (wave your flag / bang your drum / blow your trumpet) for a while?
Chotto no aida (sono hata wo futtemo/doramu wo tatai temo/toran petto wo fuitemo) iidesuka?

What are they arguing about?
Karerawa naniwo ii arasotte iruno desuka?

What a surprising decision to bunt!
Banto suru nante shinji rarenai.

What did I miss?
Ima naniga okotta no?

Take the extra base!
Motto hasire!

What did I miss?
Ima naniga okotta no?

And for dealing with Yakuza scalpers:

OK. I'll give you 16,000 yen for two tickets if you show me your tattoo.
Jaa, moshi irezumi misete kuretara ichi-man roku-sen yen de ni-mai kauyo.

One final note. You Gotta Have Wa, by Robert Whiting, is the best known book in English on the subject of baseball in Japan. I think I'll have a look. "Wa," it seems, means something like "group harmony," and its importance in Japanese society is reflected in Japan's unique approach to the sport. A lot of reviewers on Amazon suggest that this book is really more about Japan writ large than about baseball.

New plan for Japan

I just heard back from the people at Trek Escapes. It looks like flying from Shanghai into Fukuoka is going to be $50 cheaper than flying into Osaka. This is just one more reason to change things around. So, my time in Japan will probably break down like this:

-Fukuoka
-Hiroshima
-Osaka
-Kyoto, with a day trip to Nara
-Tokyo, with day trips to Nikko and Kamakura
-then fly home to Toronto (via Vancouver, I imagine)

The Japan segment of my trip is taking on a very urban character, but I don't mind. I'll just have to go back another time to see Hokkaido, the Japanese Alps, and my precious snow monkeys. One excellent thing about this plan is that it essentially tracks the shinkansen train routes, meaning (hopefully) that I'll have little difficulty getting from A to B to C and so on.

Bobby Fischer in Japan

Another news item involving chess and one of my destination countries. If even a fraction of the stories about Bobby Fischer are true, he is one deranged guy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Code Red

Cool! A magazine devoted to Russian graffiti!

Monday, March 14, 2005

Chess and politics

I get the feeling that chess and politics have always mixed in Russia. There's a new iteration, however - legendary chess master Garry Kasparov says he's retiring in order to pursue politics on a full-time basis. (You may remember Kasparov as the chess player who took on the IBM supercomputer "Deep Blue" in 1997.) Last month, he attacked Vladimir Putin in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal. The piece is called, provocatively, "Caligula in Moscow."

Here's an interesting bit:

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov painted a very attractive picture of Russia to eager potential investors. I would love to live in the country that he described! Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few independent voices in the Russian parliament, presented the opposite view, a rather gloomy portrait that coincides with those of most external analysts. While Mr. Ryzhkov challenged the party line abroad, the Kremlin responded by having the attorney general's office initiate an investigation in his home district of Altai, Siberia. What they are looking for won't be clear until they find it, but they always do.

I'll be keeping an eye on the Kasparov story.

Moscow metro



I like maps in general, but some are more striking and beautiful than others. This one definitely gets my attention. It looks like some kind of spider deity.

Compared to this, the Toronto subway map looks like a couple of wet noodles.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Rough itinerary for Japan

I think I may have to change my plan for Japan a little. I've been strongly cautioned that it's not easy to get around the Nagano region. If I dropped Nagano, the trip could look like this instead: Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo, Nikko, Kamakura. Maybe I should fly into Fukuoka or Hiroshima instead of Osaka, if I'm going to be spending time in that corner of the country anyway. The biggest loss associated with this change of plan would be the snow monkeys, but there's no rule saying that I can only visit Japan once in my life.

Jan Wong

I am delighted to report that Jan Wong, noted author and journalist, responded to an email I sent her asking for advice about preparing for a first visit to China. Readers of this blog may remember that I have discussed her books, Red China Blues and Jan Wong's China.

Here's what she wrote, slightly edited and with links added by me:

You should see Morning Sun, a documentary on Red Guards by Carma Hinton, out last year. Also, Gates of Heavenly Peace, about the student protests in 1989, also by Carma. As for feature films, anything by Zhang Yimou would give you a taste of China. I haven't seen it yet, but I heard Shower is good. There's a sequel to the Wong Kar Wai film, I think, which was a big hit in Beijing last fall. Books: River Town is great. Also, Life and Death in Shanghai.

I looked at your blog. (I never visit blogs because I find I don't even have time to read all my newspapers.) Really enjoyed yours. Incidentally, I spoke on Monday to the Asian Studies Students Association at U ot T. Have a great time in China, and on the Trans-Siberian. Take food.

So, I'm very pleased and excited to have heard back from her. I'll make sure to follow all her recommendations in the time between finishing school and starting my bar exam course.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Simpsons in China

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I love The Simpsons. I saw a preview tonight for tomorrow's show - the Simpson family is going to China. The clip showed Homer being bitten by a panda while standing in front of the Forbidden City. Keeping in mind the distortions of reality that occurred in the episode where the Simpson family visits my own home of Toronto, I will not waste any time worrying about being bitten by a panda in Beijing. The episode is entitled, "Goo Goo Gai Pan," and Lucy Liu is the guest voice. More information is available here.

Japan insights

I was obliged to travel to Syracuse this weekend on an errand of considerable dullness. Thankfully, two other law students from my year had to go to Syracuse as well, so I didn't have to drive down by myself. Both of these students have lived and worked in Japan, and I was very entertained by their Japan stories, filing away the information and advice for future use.

I will try here to capture some of the points they made. Some of these things I knew already, or at least had an inkling about, and some things were completely new to me.

1. The typical Japanese person hates confrontations and will go to great lengths to avoid one.

2. Westerners are frequently approached by people who wish to practice their English.

3. Nagano-ken is very nice, but it is hard to get around and see things there without a car.

4. There is a particular etiquette for the giving and receiving of business cards.

5. Surly people wearing leisure suits and driving pink Cadillacs are likely to be Yakuza.

6. Japan has a small but vocal group of scary, extreme nationalists who resent any foreign presence or influence in the country. They drive around in black vans, flying the imperial flag and blasting their ideology from loudspeakers.

7. People tend not to hug each other and make casual physical contact in public.

8. Almost anything is forgiveable, as long as you happened to be drunk at the time.

9. Japanese society is not rooted in Judeo-Christian morality, and this can feel quite alien to someone raised in North America. Instead of the idea, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," the dominant moral principle in Japan seems to be, "Maintain harmony," which in practice often means, "Go along with the group."

10. For employees of a typical Japanese corporation, it is difficult to be promoted past a certain level without being married.

11. First-time visitors to Japan tend to be a bit bewildered and overwhelmed, particularly by the crowds and energy of Tokyo. One of the symptoms of this bewilderment is physical exhaustion, marked by sleeping ten or more hours per night.

That is all for now. I will add to this post as I remember more of our long and wide-ranging conversation. I wonder how many of these things I will observe firsthand when I get to Japan.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Shanghai

Yahoo Travel did a feature today on Shanghai - essentially a big collection of the most predictable links, sorted into categories, with some user comments, expert advice, and USA Today content thrown in for good measure. I am underwhelmed.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Songs To Wear Pants To

Andrew Pants is a musician and composer who writes and records custom songs for people. Contact him through his website, Songs To Wear Pants To, and he'll create a song based on your requirements. You can give him the theme, the lyrics, the musical genre, etc., and he'll take it from there. Many of the songs are posted on his website as MP3 files. He does it for money, but also for love - there's a chance he'll do your song for free, if he feels like it.

I think it's very important that I have an official trip song. Once my financial situation is clarified, I will approach Andrew Pants with the idea. Hopefully, and eventually, I'll be able to post an MP3 file of the trip song here on the blog. Should it be an anthem or a jingle? Light and fun or profound and thought-provoking? About me personally, or about the destinations, or both? I will ponder these questions.

There is an article about Andrew Pants in today's Globe & Mail. He's a local - a student in the music composition program at Toronto's York University.

Phraselator

I could use one of these in case my efforts to speak Russian fail miserably.

Kimono-boosters

Finally, the RSS feeds on my Rogers homepage are giving me something interesting to blog about! From Japan comes the news that for eleven days, starting this Friday, the city of Kyoto will offer free public transit and free admission to museums and other sites for anyone wearing a kimono. Here's the article. If the experiment is a success, maybe they'll repeat it later in the year, allowing me to take advantage of it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Members of the dream expedition

Circumstances require me to undertake this trip alone, and solo travel does have its rewards. If I could take anyone along, however - anyone at all - who would I take? Family and friends aside, here's a list of people who would each bring a unique perspective to the trip across Russia, Mongolia, China, and Japan:

Edward Burtynsky, photographer
Naomi Klein, journalist and activist
Douglas Coupland, writer and artist
David Suzuki, scientist and broadcaster
Tina Fey, writer and comedian
Will Ferrell, actor and comedian
Anne McClintock, academic
Bjork, musician
Bill Clinton, statesman
Vladimir Putin, strongman and judo expert

And while we're at it, why restrict ourselves to the living?

Theodore Roosevelt, statesman and adventurer
Samuel Johnson, writer and crank
Genghis Khan, scourge of nations
Ernest Shackleton, explorer
Franz Boas, anthropologist

And why restrict ourselves to the real?

Tintin, journalist
Captain Haddock, adventurer
Snowy, dog
Wolverine, mutant superhero
Cayce Pollard, protagonist of Pattern Recognition

I invite any of the above-mentioned people, living or dead, real or fictional, to join me. The conversations in the dining car on the Trans-Siberian journey promise to be fascinating.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Mongollywood





That looks like fun. It's hard to tell in the top photo, but that's actually Julia Roberts galloping across the Mongolian steppe. I did have a larger version, but it screwed up my blog template for some reason. Roberts, a serious horse enthusiast, lived with nomads for several weeks and learned about the vital role of horses in their way of life. The PBS documentary that resulted from this visit, Wild Horses of Mongolia with Julia Roberts, also looks at the history and fate of the Tahki (a.k.a Przewalski's Horse) - the world's last truly wild horses. Although many live today in captivity in Mongolia and elsewhere, sadly, none have been observed in the wild since 1968.

Here's a fun little game with animation to test your knowledge of things Mongolian.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Worlds Apart

Last night, I finally got my parents and Jess to sit down and watch the episode of National Geographic's Worlds Apart that Boojum Expeditions sent to me on CD-ROM. In every episode of Worlds Apart, a typical North American family is packed off to some far-flung part of the world to experience a different culture. Boojum assisted National Geographic with an episode of the series in which a family from St. Louis spent a week living in a community of nomads on the Mongolian steppe.

My parents and Jess claim to have really enjoyed the show, even though they all had to huddle around my laptop screen to watch it. I want them to be informed about where I'm going and to understand why these destinations are appealing to me. I also thought it might ease their concerns a bit to see that not everyone who goes to Mongolia gets attacked by brigands, torn to pieces by wild dogs, etc. I am told that, in fact, those things almost never happen.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Russian brides

I am deeply ambivalent about the whole "mail-order bride" phenomenon. From one perspective, it looks like a bunch of Western jerks exploiting desperate, vulnerable Russian women. From another perspective, it looks more positive - lonely Western men connecting with Russian women who have tried and failed to find true love closer to home. Why shouldn't they be assisted in finding each other? Aside from the complex ethical questions, there is the whole issue of con artistry in the bride business. Here's an article about con artists, with a Canadian connection.

The article led me to the Russian Brides Cyber Guide, which promises to be a fascinating read. Created by a Russian woman married to a Western man, it describes itself as a con-exposing, myth-debunking kind of website.

Just to be perfectly clear, I myself am not looking for a Russian bride, nor indeed, a bride from any of the former Soviet republics.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Snow monkey webcam

I referred once in this blog to the famous snow monkeys of Japan, one of whom appears in the movie Baraka. Have a look for yourself at the monkey onsen in Jigokudani.

Russian movie

I was at Queen Video in the Annex today, getting a membership and renting the David Lynch Dune (1984) and the more recent Frank Herbert's Dune miniseries (2000). I happened to notice on the shelves the Russian movie Tycoon, about a fictional crime boss in the New Russia who comes to a violent end. I'm not spoiling anything - it tells you that right on the box. I checked it out on IMDB and the reviews are lukewarm. "This could have been the Russian Goodfellas," they say, "but it's not." I'll probably check it out anyway.

William Gibson on Japan

I followed a link from Gibson's own website to this 2001 article he wrote for Wired.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Risk and uncertainty

I attended a talk today at the law school by Richard Ericson - a very learned, distinguished, and interdisciplinary person I first met in 1999 while living at Green College in Vancouver. The topic was "Criminalization and the Politics of Uncertainty." Professor Ericson is a criminologist and has been interested for a long time in how individuals and societies cope with risk. He got me thinking about risk management in the context of travel.

For me, at least, the optimal travel condition is when the risks that might materialize into truly obnoxious, irritating situations have been minimized, but certain other risks - the stimulating, fun risks - have been preserved. For instance, I purchased a comprehensive and fairly expensive insurance policy for the trip, because getting hurt or sick while away from home and then receiving sub-par medical care is not my idea of fun. On the other hand, I am clearly courting risk: by travelling alone; by travelling to crime-ridden Russia instead of cheese-ridden Wisconsin; by riding a horse and a camel; by travelling through that supremely hostile natural environment, the Gobi; and by entrusting strangers - the guides - with my life.

I suppose the bottom line is that some risks have associated rewards, and others don't. I don't leave my train tickets to chance because I don't perceive any reward in wandering around a foreign city looking for the right kiosk, wasting my precious time. I perceive serious rewards, however, in travelling off the beaten path on my own terms. Unpredictability, surprises, and revelations are rewards in themselves, and risk is kind of the yin to that yang. You can't manage it away, or you'll ruin your trip before it begins.

Gigantic Buddha


la farge buddha, originally uploaded by Aaron4.

The Great Statue of Amida Buddha at Kamakura, Known as the Daibutsu, from the Priest's Garden, 1887. By the American painter John La Farge.

Nuclear test site in Kazakhstan

Matt sent me an article from the March 3 edition of the New York Times about the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan, where Stalin detonated the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb in 1949. Here are some scary bits:

Kazakhstan's nuclear arsenal is now gone, returned to Russia in the 1990's. But one of this sprawling country's dismal inheritances after decades of Moscow's rule is this vast poisoned zone. It is a measure of the disarray bedeviling many corners of the former Soviet Union that access to it is fully unrestricted.

If you can find your way here, you can enter at will.

Near the very center, Yuri G. Strilchuk, an employee at Kazakhstan's National Nuclear Center, which conducts limited monitoring of the radiation emanating here, leaves the car and moves forward with careful steps, taking care not to drag his feet or overturn small stones. The ground, he says, is still "hot." Flipping stones turns the hotter sides up. The dangers vary. Experts say that short visits, with a guide and radiation detector to navigate through "cooler" areas, are not necessarily unsafe. Longer visits, or any disturbance of the soil, increase the risks.

The sights are otherworldly. The blasts generated such heat that the surface of the steppe was liquefied and splashed onto the surviving steel and concrete. The substance remains - a thick and dark lacquer, frozen as it oozed and dripped. It is also underfoot. Marble-size balls of glassified soil crunch beneath Mr. Strilchuk's boots. He reads his radiation meter. Safer to stand here, he says. Not there.

The test range is a peculiar post-Soviet legacy. In an area roughly the size of Israel, the Joe One site is just one of several places where the hundreds of bombs were detonated. Across this vast stretch, no one who wanders the range can be sure of the risks. No one who lives nearby can be sure the meat in markets did not come from animals that grazed on radioactive grass. No one knows where all of the irradiated metal has gone.

I was aware that the former Soviet Union is riddled with environmental disaster zones. The journalist Robert Kaplan makes occasional reference to Feshbach and Friendly's 1993 book, Ecocide In The USSR, in his 1997 travel book, The Ends Of The Earth, and the main character of William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition stumbles into a contaminated site while fleeing her captors across the Russian hinterland. Never before, though, have I seen the poisoning of the land described so vividly and in so much detail.

Early on in my trip planning, I considered a couple of itineraries that would have taken me to, or at least through, Kazakhstan. One southerly train route from Moscow to Ekaterinburg cuts briefly through the top of Kazakhstan, necessitating a transit visa. I decided, however, that the benefit - spending a couple of hours staring out a train window at a different country - was not worth the hassle of getting the visa. As for a substantive trip to Kazakhstan, I ruled it out based on the opportunity cost. Every day in Kazakhstan would cost me a day in Siberia, Mongolia, China, or Japan. I already feel rushed. Someday, I'll go back to Central Asia and visit a few of the 'stans. Some interest me more than others.

Incidentally, there are lots of ethnic Kazakhs living in the mountains of western Mongolia. They're famous for hunting with the assistance of trained eagles. I won't be seeing this part of Mongolia, which is sad, but you can't do everything in one trip. You just can't.

Nikko and Kamakura

I'm still reading Christopher Benfey's book, The Great Wave. Right now, I'm reading all about the Asian adventures of American writer Henry Adams and American painter John La Farge during the 1880s and 1890s. Japan was apparently the most inspiring and meaningful place they discovered during their travels. Benfey's account has certainly got me thinking that if I spend five days in Tokyo, one should be spent on a day trip to Nikko, and one for Kamakura. My friend and colleague Steve Penner also recommends Kamakura.

Long Way Round

Pickle suggested that I have a look at the website for Long Way Round, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's book/documentary/etc about their 20,000-mile motorcycle trip across Europe, Asia, and North America. At first glance, there's a lot to explore on this site. I've had a good long look at the book in Indigo, but I haven't seen the documentary yet. Maybe I can rent it, or maybe it'll be on Bravo again soon.

"Worker & Parasite"

A gem of Soviet animation, presented for you in lo-res Quicktime. Endut! Hoch hech!

Russian cartoons

A few brief clips of animation on a Wellesley website. One of them appears to be the Russian version of Winnie the Pooh.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

More about The Simpsons

This is my second time typing out this post - grrr. It'll be an abbreviated version.

As I was saying before the post erased itself, there's some interesting material out there on the Simpson family's interactions with other cultures. There's an article by Robert Hamilton that discusses the episode "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo," in which the Simpson family visits Japan. There's an ESL lesson plan by Rachelle Meilleur, with activities based on that same episode. Finally, there's a collection of Quicktime files of Japanese TV commercials featuring The Simpsons. (Shilling for a drink called "C.C. Lemon.")

Here's the script for the Japan episode. An excellent one, if I do say so myself. Both Hamilton and Meilleur take it to task for propagating Western stereotypes of Japan and the Japanese, but no one says anything about the hurtful stereotypes of Canadians that are introduced in the final seconds of the episode. (Sniff.)

Flickr

I am so sick of having problems with Hello, the photo sharing program recommended by Blogger. I am switching to Flickr. "This isn't your grandfather's photo sharing site!"

I found it!


homer, originally uploaded by Aaron4.

Here he is - Homer in Russian mode! This is the image I was looking for. Well, to be precise, this is the image I was looking for, transformed into a banner for another Russian fan site. Look at the Slavic intensity on his face!

The Simpsons

I was looking around on the internet for that picture of Homer Simpson wearing one of those big Russian fur hats and doing that Russian kicking dance in the middle of Red Square. It's from the episode where Homer is in the naval reserve and inadvertently steers a nuclear submarine into Russian waters. "Treason season came early this year!" chirps the news anchor Kent Brockman, and the image of Homer appears in the corner of the television as he reports the story. "I told him he'd regret that photo," Lisa mutters to herself.

Anyway, I couldn't find the image, but I did find a Russian fan site for The Simpsons. I think the site is called "Homerchik." Take a look at this comic strip - I can't tell whether it's actual Russian fan art or just someone's translation of a pre-existing work.

Eureka!

I just saw someone on television explaining how I could add up-to-the-minute content, on many thousands of different topics, to my Rogers/Yahoo homepage via RSS. I immediately ran downstairs and added a bunch of content having to do with Russia, Mongolia, China, Japan, tortoises, and turtles. I quickly removed the turtle-related material because instead of what I hoped for ("Giant tortoise spotted in Lake Ontario! Shares wisdom acquired during long life!") it was all rather mundane ("I can't seem to get my turtle to eat").

The point of this post is that I may be getting more systematic in my sharing of news related to the trip destinations. I'll look at the updates regularly, see if anything is worth posting, and then post it.



On a whim, I did a Google image search for "weird Russia." This was one of the images that came up. Please submit your ideas for captions. I will think up a prize. Most of my own caption ideas are answers to the question, "What is Boris Yeltsin thinking at this very moment?" Posted by Hello

China overload

Is anyone else sick of hearing about the Chinese economy? We know it's good, okay? WE KNOW. EVERYBODY KNOWS.

I'm starting a collection of adjectives and metaphors used by the media to describe the Chinese economy. You know - things like "roaring," "tumescent," etc. Sometimes it's just an adjective, and sometimes it's just a metaphor, and sometimes it's a metaphor implied by an adjective (for example, referring to the Chinese economy as "accelerating"). If you come across an adjective or metaphor about China in the newspaper or anywhere else, please leave me a comment here and I'll post an update with people's contributions when I get a few together.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Pronoun politics

I had a conversation today at school with my friend Gleb Bazov. Gleb is Russian, and he gave me some advice about how to address people. In Russian, as in French and I suppose many other languages, there are different ways to say "you," and they connote different relationships. In Russian, there's "ty" (singular, friendly, and informal) and "vy" (plural, or singular with a more formal, respectful feeling). Please excuse the romanizations. These pronouns are both in the nominative case - I won't bore you with the equivalents for all the other cases, because it's not necessary to make my point. I mean, Gleb's point.

Now, it was already clear to me that if you're talking to someone like your boss, or a professor, you'd use the "vy" set of pronouns. My question for Gleb was, "What if I'm talking to a waitress in a bar?" She's not above me in status, but it's still a business type of interaction. Maybe it could go either way. Gleb suggested "vy," unless the waitress is being extremely friendly. Anything else would create a risk of bad service. "Vy" is the safe course.

Decision

I've come to a decision. Until further notice, I will not spend more than fifteen minutes a day working on this blog. I need to concentrate more on school things. I will try to post something every day - a thought, a link, an image, a bit of news - but there may be a day or two, here and there, that I miss. Once school ends, I'm sure I'll be back with a vengeance, posting up a storm. May, for instance, will be heaven - the sweet, sweet time between finishing law school and starting the bar review course.

Rosetta Stone

I'm having a lot of trouble motivating myself lately. I only used Rosetta Stone for about twenty minutes today, and then I tore my headphones off in exasperation. In the past week, there have been a few days when I didn't use it at all. What's happening? It's not the program's fault. It's something about me.

On a brighter note, I have been studying up my Lonely Planet phrasebook. I know, I know, that's not the best and most efficient use of my time, but it's something I can do on the subway. I actually made myself quite nauseous reading words in Cyrillic script on the subway the other night. My brain cannot stave off motion sickness and decipher Cyrillic script at the same time. It is too much to ask. I suppose I could just look at the romanized version of each word (e.g. "spasiba"="thank you") and in this way prevent the nausea, but that feels like cheating. Romanization is a crutch that prevents or at least delays real understanding.