words written in the week of
July 28th to August 3rd
in previous years.
This was 13 years, 9 months, 9 days ago

irkutsk to ulan bator, day 2.

(from a letter)

Today we crossed the border from Mongolia to China. The crossing took nine hours all in all: Six hours on the Russia side, three hours on the Mongolia side. The Russia side was a lot of waiting around, a lot of being unsure of what was going on. The Mongolia side was spent half in a card game with Jon and Eli, and half at a small (but surprisingly wonderful) restaurant with Aurelie and Philip.

It turns out that the two cars that started in Irkutsk are filled mostly with travelers. I hesitate to describe them with their nationality but that's really how introductions how done here: where are you from? And it all spirals out from there. I'm not complaining at all, but it's true that nationality or locale is the defining center out of which everything starts; I suppose that's not so surprising for a bunch of people who have met specifically because they're devoted to traveling on a slow and inefficient train. So here we go.

There's the French couple: the guy a guitar teacher from Lyon, and his Ukrainian-French wife who will soon be a teacher's assistant. There's the four people from the Basque country. There are the two Californians teaching in Dalian, China. The guy from Cologne, Germany, and another guy from Dusseldorf who studies product design. There's the two German girls, one of which is doing a doctorate on agricultural byproducts and bioengineering in Tanzania. There's the American refugee/immigration law expert working for a campaign manager in Colorado, having come back from Egypt. There's the Quebecois Harvard student studying 20th century intellectual history. There's the two English women, one of which works at SAP and travels often, the other one who quit her job at conservation to go teach in Vietnam, on her train journey there.

I am so eager, so so eager to meet people. It's surprising to me.

On the Mongolian side, I changed my currency from rubles to togrog. I watched them say "how much?", then type in on a calculator, '40', and that was the going rate for togrog per ruble. So I walked to one of the less equipped ones further away and typed in '45', and she shook her head and punched in '40', and I pointed over to other people and pushed '45', and she said '42', and I said '44', and she said '43', and I gave in. And then so we did the calculation. She handed me bills, then, but tried to give me less togrog than the calculation came out to, and I shook my head, and then she gave me a few extra, which still wasn't right. And then finally she caved in and gave me the right amount, with the air of rueful acknowledgement, like 'oh, okay, fine, whatever you want.' Needless to say (as you can probably tell) I walked away, feeling very pleased with myself.

After that A and P and I went to a small restaurant, that was quite cozy and homey, and the waitress smiled, and we picked out dishes that she liked, and they were wonderful, and delicious, and hot, and soupy, and just what I wanted. My box of instant doshirak (yes, korean) ramen sat unloved in the train compartment, and I am happy for that. We ate, and talked, and later went to the train, waited around on the tracks for our train to be attached to the end of another one. While we were there a dog came up to us, sat at our feet, watched a worker drain the gray-water tanks of the train. There was a wonderfully cool breeze, and the sky looked as if it was about to rain, or thunder, and the sun was setting and throwing every single high cloud into marvelous relief. For some reason that small period of waiting, that half an hour of sitting around and waiting for the train really stuck in my mind, just nothing but train tracks, a dog, many many clouds, a cool breeze, time to pass the day with, because we're going somewhere and waiting to do so. I'm here, waiting to go, wanting to be here so I can be there, okay with being both here and there. Transition, itinerant-ness, nomad-ness is my desire and I'm doing that whether moving or not.

(One thing that the ramen reminds me of: I was in Irkutsk, when I saw the most amazing sight: A bus pulled into the front of the train station, and as clear as day the bus said, in Korean, "Seoul Station", and so on, with a full list of stations (in Korea) the bus was running to. I almost rubbed my eyes, fulfilled the cliche gesture, but I was mindboggled. It turns out (and I'm assuming this, but I don't think I'm wrong) that many used buses from Korea are sold to countries, including Russia -- and clearly Irkutsk's bus company hasn't bothered to scrape the sign off the window. And since most, if not all Irktuskians can't read Korean, they probably ignore the sign and focus on the Russian signs. Meanwhile, the bus is this strange object, clearly for Russian use but bearing all the hallmarks of its former self -- and not only that, it's that everybody looks at the Korean and ignores it that is absolutely mind-blowing, language differences taken quite literally, unreadability turning those symbols into abstraction, maybe, maybe to a non-Korean reader it's so easy to gloss over those symbols, look at the Russian only. A bunch of lines at right angles to each other, and Russian. Which is even more amazing because those signs and words were designed to be so visually accessible, the first thing you see on a bus, to pop out at you and to let you know where it's going. And all the while I'm pondering this and getting the strange sense that this bus could be going anywhere, that I could get on it and fall asleep and arrive at Seoul Station, indeed....

This train, while a bit smellier and older than the previous one, is quite nicer, more train-like, more lullaby-like in the way it rocks me to sleep. Each train I take is successively nicer. The first train from St. Petersburg to Moscow was quite boring: I stepped into the compartment, and two half-naked Russian businessmen were sleeping; I climbed in and peeled off my shirt and and fell to sleep as well. Woke up in Moscow.

But this train, this one is full of errant laughter that floats down the aisle, and the sound of train tracks so well defined, and the smell of green coming in through the window, and there's faraway lightning and you can see that it's raining on the mountains over there, over there (gestures with arm). For a good hour I stood at the window looking out, out at the clouds and some mountains and the sky with such clouds, clouds, clouds. There was this one cloud far away that stretched out and down in such a way that it looked like another mountain in of itself; and if you pretended to follow its contour down to the side of the mountain/cloud, it looked as if the mountain narrowed and disappeared into the sea, and so all of a sudden it was as if the faraway ground was curving upwards and I was looking down from a high valley into a faraway sea, with islands, streaks of white foam, small fishing boats, water turning orange, reflecting the setting sun. Sea in the sky.

I am so eager to be here, I am so happy to be here. On one hand part of me is so in New York, so thinking about home and more, but as we slip into Mongolia and I hurl the window down and shove away the curtains and breathe this air in more and more of it slips away until I'm just at the window, breathing in, not thinking. I have my time, all of it, and it is so wonderful. I slide into presentness.

12:16 in the morning, on my way to Ulaanbaatar. July 29, 2010.

This was 13 years, 9 months, 9 days ago

6:32 Moscow time, 11:32 Irkutsk time.

Today morning I said goodbye to Sasha and Vanya and Tanya. Last night Sasha made some attempts to talk to me, us passing the russian-english dictionary back and forth, and I learned that they had actually gone to Moscow for a relative's wedding, and that Vanya was one of seven children, and that they were returning home to Angarsk. I told him to wake me up in the morning when they left.

In the morning I woke up, everything full of fog, sun not yet risen, moon not yet set. Maybe it was the latitude here or such, but in the daze of sleepiness it seemed to me that the sun was rising before the moon was setting. In that quiet hushed tones that are so particular to early mornings, we got up, packed our bags. I helped Sasha and Tanya move their bags to the train door, and then we spent fifteen minutes looking out of the car into the distance. I tried to play this game where I would look for the reflection of the train in the windows of opposing shacks, houses, and every once in a while I would succeed, would see a row of rectangular yellow squares suddenly jump out at me out of the window of someone's home, windows glaring, like the rows of a spider's eyes, and then gone as quickly as they had appeared.

After fifteen such minutes the train stopped. Vanya gave me his lighter. Having nothing else to give I gave him my card, and he looked at it and gestured 'language difficulties', and I shrugged and smiled and felt sort of sad because obviously his gift was a gift and my gift was the signifier of a gift, like "here this is sort of a gift", or maybe his gift was a signifier of a gift and my gift signified a signifier of a gift. But then I rubbed it all out like an eraser on paper and smiled and said bye, dobrizeh, I think, I could be wrong, but said it anyways and waved, and went back to my compartment to wait for my own stop, half an hour later.

On the platform at Irkutsk I met most of the people I had met on the train, and shook hands and said bye, take care, have fun on your trip. And then I went to the station ticket counter (KACCA), realized it opened at 8am, and went to the service center to sleep for an hour, but couldn't, so I watched the sun rise through the city of Irkutsk in a quiet room full of sleeping travelers, listened more to a train mix made for me. I looked at the ceiling a lot.

Once thing I've been thinking a lot about the ornamentation of Russian buildings and interiors is that they depend a lot on the obfuscation of immediate understanding, of a quick gestalt, and instead make things complicated. Intricately ornamented chandeliers created as to please the eye because the eye drifts up and down it, isn't sure how to grasp it immediately, and there's this time-taken-to-look that is taken as a valuable function of ornamentation, maybe. As if anything that makes you look at it and try to understand it and in the process take some time is valuable. This happens outdoors, on the exteriors of moldings; this happens inside, in the most mundane of rooms, where the absence of any decoration would have been accepted equally as well.. it's like ornament is this friction force of the eye, drags it, makes it stop. A holder of attention, sticky eye-glue.

(Right now we're passing Lake Baikal as I type this, the deepest lake in the world. It looks unphotographable. Untouchable. And oh my god, the sky. And the moon. And the lake. And the train. I am sitting in a darkened car, all by my self, writing this, and unlike the previous train I was in (the Rossiya) you can open the windows, here, and it's so much better, I can feel the train with every sense of being, the rhythm of the train wheels is so hypnotic. Passing trains are like thunder and lightning, descending onto me all of a sudden, disappearing just as sudden. The moon is so very bright, illuminates the inside of this compartment. This is the train ride I wanted, yes, yes yes yes. It's a cool night, and everything smells like trees and grass and green.)

I am struck lately sometimes by the urgent impulse to shout and say something like: "I am here! I am really here!" as if not fully aware of my presence here. I sometimes sit and think: what does it mean to be here? Me, being here, not being there. I was just there. Just there, not there anymore, but here.

I think what especially touches me is that I am so presently here, that I arrived here and am suddenly so here here, that it strikes me as odd that it is so natural for me to be here. What is it about Russia that is so familiar? It's some affinity with old/rural Korea, some infrastructural details that are similar, at the very least. Examples: Apartment buildings, entrances, apartments on either side of the elevator. Painted yellow-and-green mini-fences in apartment yards. Grandmothers sitting around and selling half-useful items in shops that play sped-up tinny pop.

But there's something else too, something that makes me feel so here. Maybe it is that I am so here within myself much more lately and thus when I think of myself as here it is so natural. I'm here more because I can feel myself in me more.

Regardless, there's this constant sense of overwhelming (and thus invisible) presentness. Presentness is grace?

After I got a ticket for Ulan Bator from the station I wandered around the city of Irkutsk a bit. Tired from my stomach bug the day before (and not having eaten anything for a day as well) I decided to just half-ponder going to Listvyanka, one of the port towns around Lake Baikal an hour away. And so I drifted around town, bumped into D and R and their three children again, chatted for a little, said goodbye and continued on my way until I found myself at the tram stop that supposedly would take me to the hydrofoil stop. And so I climbed aboard the tram, paid my twelve rubles, and sat down in a seat. The warmth of the sun and the vibration was too much for me, and I fell asleep in the tram and woke up at the end of the stop, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.

I asked the driver, "Raketa station?" and she half-nodded, maybe, and said something which I didn't understand, but I got off anyways, looked around. Some area vaguely seemed to correspond to an area on the map I had, so I started walking south. Why not? Far off in the distance I saw a hill of houses, which could have meant a valley of houses below it, or even better a river, and so I kept on walking, played this game of follow-the-babushka, followed grandmothers, mothers, also fathers, grandfathers. On dirt roads, paved roads, past crumbling Soviet-era apartments, new apartment skeletons barely under construction, graffiti on walls, and so on. Very peaceful, though, very sunny and overgrown weeds and old old old swing sets. Somewhere in the distance the sound of a lone hammer against steel, "klink, klink, klink", and some birds chirping, and again that smell of green, and that was enough to make me keep on going.

Eventually I found myself in the middle of nowhere. The hill I saw, I realized, was just a hill; there was no river, no hydrofoil station, just old gray apartments showing their age and grandmothers hanging sheets on a line out the window and people selling dill and cucumbers on the street and a bus stop station selling thirty varieties of ice cream, and the lone sound of a hammer working away in the distance. Colorless dust accumulating at the corners of everything. Half-ripped posters of last election cycle's candidate, a face looking at you proudly, four-and-a-half times over. Ads for credit, rent, and erotic massage pasted, torn off, new ones pasted, torn off, pasted, torn off, creating geologies of advertisements, depth, strata. And amidst all of this, a strange strange sense of comfort, domesticity, familiarity, home.

This was 13 years, 9 months, 11 days ago

Waiting room, high ceilings, the sound of errant footsteps and of
people sleeping.

This was 13 years, 9 months, 11 days ago

(from a letter)

Today I woke up around nine, the same time that the Russian family I'm traveling with woke up. I don't remember how much of my last email I spent talking about my compartment companions (I remember falling asleep writing my email), but they're a family of four: the father, Sasha; the mother, Tanya, the son, Vanya, and the sister/relative, Tanya. They speak very little English, and I little Russian of course, but they're so nice and have been pressing their food onto me, offering me pieces of lard, cucumber, tomato, bread. Just now I came back from the restaurant car and they immediately asked me if I ate already, and I said yes, yes, thanks, at the restaurant wagon ("da, da, spasiba, v ristorant vagon"), and they smiled, and that was that.

Today after I woke up, brushed my teeth and had breakfast, the train stopped at a station for fifteen minutes, and I got out and bought some instant coffee. At the store ('produkti', the sign always says) I overheard a couple talking in Aussie (or so I thought) English about the prices, so I talked to them briefly, said hi.

Afterwards, on the train, I wandered the length of the entire train. After lunch, I made my way to the first wagon (I'm in the second), where I stumbled upon the couple I had met earlier with their three kids. Rose and Davy and their family from New Zealand were very friendly, and we quickly stumbled onto a three hour long conversation about Russian culture, traveling, Facebook privacy, and so on: sprawling but enthused. They had just come from traveling through Iran and Turkey, among other places, and was headed to Beijing, like I am.

Encouraged by this interaction, I made my way to the rear of the train, armed with a camera I bought in St. Petersburg (Lomo Lubitel 166B, from 1982), and tried to peer into compartments to look for anyone reading something that didn't look like Russian. Funnily enough, the blue cover of the Lonely Planet guide to the Trans-Siberian has proved to be a very good indicator of I-am-a-traveler-ness, and so on my way to the back of the train I met a few people who spoke English: John and Sigrut from Belgium, Mutter(?) and Kastina from Germany, Matt and Dave from New Zealand and their Russian compartment-mate Alexander, and a Swedish couple whose names escape me at the moment. I tried to take a photograph of everyone I talked to, which was nice. Everyone has been uniformly interested and involved and friendly, which is wonderful. I guess that makes absolute sense, as anyone going on this trip (especially as a tourist) is so open to newness and interaction, so ready for change. This is so lovely.

The last few wagons are platzkart wagons, or third-class wagons, which means that there are no compartments; it's a little bit more quiet there (counterintuitively) as every sound carries across the corridor, and I didn't find any non-Russians there --- or at least, I think. And the last car at the end of the train opened on to a wonderful smoking spot (not that I've been smoking) that looks onto to the train tracks sliding away into the distance.

After that I made my way back forward, and started reading more of Dostoyevsky's /The Idiot/, which is actually quite wonderful and mesmerizing, and read it until I got tired and fell asleep for a little bit. (If the way I've just been writing to you is a little bit different, with a little bit more long-winded sentences, for example, then it's Dostoyevsky's fault!) After waking up, I drank some water, stretched my legs, and by then it was nearly ten pm.

I decided to go to the restaurant wagon for dinner, instead of having bread with meat and spreads this time, and so made my way back to the wagon. I wasn't expecting this, but the wagon was filled with people, including John, Sigrut, Matt, Dave, and Alexander, and three other people (whose name escape me) and one other guy. Everyone greeted me so very warmly and offered me a beer, and so I sat down, ordered some borscht, drank a few beers, and talked with people. It turns out that the 'one other guy', Andre, was a little creepy and drunk, and so after he left we spent the rest of the next two hours drinking and talking, with a wonderful amount of camaraderie. I bought a bottle of vodka just for the train, and tried to suggest it as an "authentic" trans-Siberian pastime, but nobody was as enthusiastic as I thought they might be. I suspect this might change by the third day, I think.

Time to sleep.

July 24, 1am, between Yekaterinburg and Tumen.

This was 13 years, 9 months, 11 days ago

Moscow was large, and bustling, and New York-like, and unbearably hot.

Moscow was unbearably hot. All I can remember is the sensation of a
full droplet of sweat rolling down the hollow of my back; that
sensation, in the metro, crossing the Red Square, looking at that
famed St. Basil's Cathedral, waiting in line to see an embalmed Lenin,
walking in the Kremlin, stopping in front of the Bolshoi theatre,
walking along the rivers, going into the Metro, looking at the ornate
arches and decorations of each and every stop -- and amidst all of
this, that sensation. The sweat, the heat, the hotness.

That was this unifier, however, everybody sitting down, standing,
eating ice cream, drinking water, flapping their shirts soaked with
sweat, cringing in the sun, sunglasses down as a default. Just earlier
I boarded the train to Irkutsk, and the AC wasn't on while it was in
the station, so I sat there with my compartment-mates, sweating it
out, everyone panting in a daze, too short for words to really greet
each other, and this situation itself mutually acknowledged. Just sit,
pant, sweat, in silence.

In Moscow one night I joined up with some buddies I had first met in
St. Petersburg, and we sat in a car for a second, then had dinner,
walked around to this beautiful ornate decorated supermarket, bought a
matroshka-shaped bottle of vodka, sent A to the airport. V's mother
picked us up afterwards, and we drove back to the hostel, some haze of
a song playing in the background, just ambient enough, and I, content,
watched night-Moscow slide by, all lights and dim infrastructure.

The next day, I went to this area, which was full of small galleries,
graffiti on walls, up-and-coming, a little raw. (Much better than the
Garage, which was a little too slick -- or rather, the issue was that
they were wasting away their space on nothing, clean vinyl, white
walls, paintings on walls, whereas there could be so much more
interesting things going on: site-specific performances,
installations, theater-in-the-round, and so on. Installations
celebrating the size of the space, not operating in spite of it.
Paintings swinging, suspended in air by steel wires from the ceiling
fifty feet above. But instead there was an armed guard with a
semi-automatic at the entrance(!), and a small white-walled-gallery
constructed inside the entire space to showcase a myriad of Rothko
pieces, and I left feeling a little bothered, a little itchy from the
space and potential being yet untouched.) The new space that I saw
unstead was called Winzavod, or Vinzavod, and it was young and new and

..am falling asleep..

am on the train.
am sharing a compartment with a russian family: sasha, the father,
tanya, the mother, vanya, the son, and vanya, maybe the sister.

will write later.

This was 13 years, 9 months, 11 days ago

st. petersburg was wonderful. When I was fourteen I bought this camera off of ebay that came from st. petersburg; it was the LOMO LC-A, and the package came wrapped in brown paper, tied in twine. When I opened it up and picked up the camera, I very vividly remember holding it to my face and inhaling the smell, and there was this dusty, musky, not altogether unpleasant smell. It's still there. As a joke I had thought, "this is what Russia smells like!" But to my utter surprise, walking down the street in St. P, I could catch whiffs of that same smell here and there, next to an elevator, some street corner, and so on.

Right now I'm in Moscow, right next to the Kremlin, looking at St. Basil's cathedral, sitting somewhere and having breakfast. My train got in today at 6:30, and until now I've been checking my baggage in at a train station, as I'm staying at some place a little too south of the city center to lug everything around. I've found this girl, Nadia, on couchsurfing to host me, and so I'll head there later tonight, bring a bottle of wine maybe, eat dinner, say hi and talk to her about her life, what she does, sleep on a couch on the outer edges of a city.

I've made so many friends so far; too many, I almost thought at some point, because I realize how much I like wandering alone, navigating these cities. Walking around I do this thing where every word I see I subvocalize and try to pronounce out loud, roll the syllables in my mouth, swallow it down like the second sip of coffee in the morning: the first one's a test sip, the second one more joyful and thankful..

But yes, friends seem to come everywhere, and I am thankful for that, and joyful for that. I met someone on the plane, and his girlfriend offered to let me stay at their place (which I couldn't; I didn't have time), I met a small friendly trio from russia/germany/thai and we may see each other here in Moscow; I might meet a few people in Mongolia again; I walked around for hours with this guy from St. P, talking about Russian lit..

So far, it's been wonderful.

This was 15 years, 9 months, 5 days ago

whoever said that arbitrarity was this enemy? whatever metalogic that governed my feelings of miasmatic muddlng needs to be examined. what is this concern for? what do I wish in this stead? overarching logic is a myth of gargantuan proportions- or rather, the separating boundary between logic and chaos itself maybe really needs to be understood as arbitrary. distribution of the logical.

arbitrarity not necessarily uncoupled with meaningfulness, however. who included transitivity in the order of logic? who decided on these propositions of transitivity? Yet Alice is taller than bob, bob is taller than charlie, and so on and soforth. or more importantly, why do I assume that logic is uniform across rhetorical logic, mathematical logic, political logic, and so on?

what I need to do- be okay with these constructions- or rather, be okay with construction itself, content with boundaries, lines, divisions. a pre-social hobbesian state of nature is not really pure nor an untainted mythical origin-state, and a dream of an egalitarian distribution is valid although the dream of a nonexistent distribution isn't. that would maybe be like trying to have relationships outside of politics.