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The Ticketless Traveler
In Praise of Unconventional Travel
I once heard it said that no one ever got drunk by reading the label on a bottle of wine. This is an apt metaphor for the difference between studying another region of the world versus experiencing it firsthand. What does it mean to become drunk on another culture, to internalize the experience of a different place to such an extent that it alters you?
It seems such a waste of money and opportunity when someone's vacation resembles a pale imitation of the Grand Tour, an excuse to trek from one tourist trap to the next while luxuriating in a vague sense of Old World prestige. Travel should involve a sincere desire to know and understand other peoples and cultures, to gain some context for our own subjective place in the world.
Allow me to acknowledge, as a sort of disclaimer, that travel is not cheap, and you can certainly learn a great deal through research. The strangely persistent conspiracy theories about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays usually cite Shakespeare's humble origins and claim that he had too little experience of the world to write about it so perceptively. Anthony Burgess counters that no writer takes these claims seriously because writers understand how deeply we can experience other places through reading, writing, and conversation. I often cringe when someone proudly lists the countries that he or she has visited, as though having traveled extensively is proof of erudition rather than mere privilege. I hope not to give that impression.
I have left the U.S. three times in the past fifteen years. I would like to share my reasons for choosing each destination and describe some of my more memorable experiences.
Like many children of the 1980s, I grew up on a steady diet of kung fu movies starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. I wish I could tell you that my interest in China grew out of less typically adolescent interests. I began studying Mandarin Chinese in tenth grade and started attending Master Shawn Liu's martial arts school at around the same time. A few years later, Master Liu had arranged a three-week trip to China, beginning the August after my high school graduation. Six other Americans would join us, though Master Liu and I were the only two acquainted beforehand.
I have come to view knowing someone (not just a tour guide) and speaking at least a bit of the language as indispensable when traveling. Deserved or not, Americans have acquired a reputation for knowing nothing of other cultures and then rudely demanding accommodation when they arrive overseas. (We in New York know that oblivious tourists can originate in any corner of the globe.) Besides being useful if you want to accomplish something as simple as ordering food on your own, proving this assumption wrong can be very satisfying. After arriving back in Beijing toward the end of our trip, I would meet two Chinese businessmen. One of them told me he spoke a bit of English and then asked if I spoke Chinese. His companion immediately interjected, "Bu, ta bu shuo zhongwen." (No, he doesn't speak Chinese.) I replied, "Wo hui shuo i diar." (I can speak a little.) My new friend turned to his companion and triumphantly pumped his fist in the air as he repeated what I had said.
As for the rest of the trip, we did our share of touristy sightseeing. We saw the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the terra cotta warriors in Xian. While enjoyable and sometimes even moving, these were sights rather than experiences. I will always much more vividly remember riding into Chen Village and having a small crowd form around our van because many of them had never seen westerners before. I have always enjoyed feeling as though I have arrived in as foreign a place as possible, unreachable and disconnected from my ordinary life. We had come to visit Master Liu's old friend Chen Xiaowang, the 19th-generation Chen Style Tai Chi master. There were no tourists and few gift shops in this place.
At the Shaolin Temple, we learned forms from Shi Deyang, the Temple's martial arts headmaster, and we were the first westerners to practice in the personal courtyard of the abbot, the Grandmaster Shi Suxi.
During our first stay in Beijing, we practiced with the Chinese National Sanshou Team. (Sanshou is a Chinese fighting style involving kickboxing and takedowns.) Scott Sheely and I, being the two young men in our group, each sparred with a Chinese team member. Scott had been on the U.S. National Sanshou Team, and he was paired with an up and coming Chinese fighter. These two men were peers, and heavy blows were exchanged. I was a little nervous when my opponent turned out to be a three-time national champion, but it was actually the best-case scenario. He was a nice guy with nothing to prove to an 18-year-old kid and, as an experienced fighter, he instinctively read my facial expressions and body language. He took it easy on me, but perhaps not wanting to deprive me of an authentic experience, he did give me one good kick to the thigh. If you've never received a world-class roundhouse kick, both the sound and sensation are reminiscent of an ax splitting wood.
What started as a three-week trip turned into a month for Master Liu and me when the pilots at Northwest Airlines went on strike. Our companions had acquired new tickets home through other airlines. This extra week was a major highlight and a welcome respite from a whirlwind trip. We got tickets to the first ever performance of the opera Turandot in the Forbidden City. We no longer had to coordinate the movements of eight people wherever we went, and the two of us could blend in somewhat better. We spent relaxed evenings wandering dodgy side streets in Beijing and eating traditional foods sold by sidewalk vendors. Again, this lent the trip a far different character than it would have had if I had been alone or relying on a nine-to-five tour guide, and I will always remember China as my first experience of the larger world.
I developed a fascination with Russia at the age of twelve when I read Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. Vivid descriptions of the last Tsar's final years with his family, their tragic fate at the end of the Revolution, and of course, Rasputin the Mad Monk, left me with a lasting sense of a unique, almost fantastical history and culture. Because my high school did not offer Russian classes, I enrolled in a university course a couple of nights per week in ninth grade and eventually took additional courses when I was actually in college.
I finally traveled to Russia for two weeks in 2008. I had acquired Russian friends through social media and other online venues for language study, and I was to go to Orenburg on a guest visa (rather than a tourist visa which requires regular "check ins" at a hotel or hostel).
Despite my opening remarks, some things can only be experienced firsthand. When I disembarked for my layover in Moscow, I was surprised on some level that everyone at the airport was speaking Russian. Despite my courses, despite having met real live Russians and watched any number of Russian films, it was odd to me that Russians were speaking Russian in Russia. Incidentally, this was the first thing that my Russian professor, Dr. Mozur, asked me about when I returned. He was an Air Force linguist and worked as a translator for Reagan and Gorbachev, and he had had the same experience.
Orenburg is a beautiful city. My friend Andrei, an Orenburg native, agreed that it was a good opportunity to observe "pure life" in Russia rather than international, tourist-centered areas in Moscow or St. Petersburg. The only other Americans I encountered (or that anyone knew of) were the Mormon missionaries who offered free English classes. There were a few small museums, and I was present for the city's 265th birthday celebration, but most of all, I savored the sensation of having been transported, mind and body, to a wholly new environment. Everything from language to architecture, stray animals, and personal style were different. I continually reflected on just how much people are influenced, knowingly or not, by their culture's celebrities and advertisers. People could tell immediately that I was a foreigner due to my clothing and mannerisms. As my friend Olesya put it, "Just...everything is different." Among many Russians, the mullet is still a socially acceptable hairstyle, and clothing choices would not be out of place in early 1980s America. I say that without condescension. It was fascinating and refeshing. Paradoxically, you can sometimes feel most at home when everything around you is unfamiliar.
I could go on at length about any number of beautiful experiences I had in and around Orenburg. We watched the sun set over the salt lakes at Sol Iletsk, traveled the countryside near the border with Kazakhstan, and visted a church where priests were killed during the Soviet anti-religious purges. I love museums as much as the next person, but museums are a substitute for lived experiences, and I would not trade a single day I spent in Orenburg for a private tour of the Hermitage.
This is when I started getting some strange looks and incredulous questions, from friends, U.S. Customs agents, and Uzbeks themselves. "Why would you come to our (certain part of human anatomy) of the world?" During the 2012 presidential campaign, Herman Cain famously referred to the leader of "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" as an example of an obscure, irrelevant piece of trivia used by journalists to unfairly stump candidates. Uzbekistan has been ruled by the same man, Islam Karimov, since the fall of the Soviet Union, and has been of great strategic importance during the Afghan war. To understate matters a bit, controversy surrounds their economic and human rights policies, with the Karimov regime accused of torturing suspected Islamist militants, in some cases allegedly boiling them alive. I strongly recommend the book Dirty Diplomacy by former British Ambassador Craig Murray, who claims that he was railroaded after objecting to intelligence gained through torture and used to bolster George W. Bush's foreign policy. Whatever your political views or feelings about the author (a self-described "scotch-drinking, skirt-chasing, dictator-busting and thoroughly un-repentant ambassador stuck on the frontline of the War Against Terror"), the book is a fascinating inside look at the cultural and political landscape of a region poorly understood by most of the rest of the world. Uzbekistan is an important place, is what I'm trying to say.
You might still reasonably ask why I would want to visit. The Possessed represents a good starting point and a far more lighthearted read than Murray's memoir. Fortunately, a people and their government are not synonymous, and Uzbekistan is home to an immensely complex culture, a mostly Muslim nation strongly imprinted with Russian culture after many decades of colonization. Part of my fascination with Russia emanates from its history as a sprawling, multi-ethnic empire. Many ethnic Russians left Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics after the fall of the USSR, but you still see a multitude of races and ethnicities living together and improvising a shared patchwork of language and lifestyle in the wake of relatively recent and staggering geopolitical upheaval.
My friends are great examples, children of an Uzbek father and a Russian mother whose union caused a bit of a scandal among the more traditional Muslim side of the family during the first years after their marriage. The older generation eventually decided to make things work for the sake of their grandchildren. Their situation represents one of countless personal and societal adjustments still being made as a result of government actions beyond the control of any individual. Some want to use the Uzbek language more often in day-to-day life, but people are slow to catch on after using Russian for so long. Aside from such weighty political and religious issues, I was intrigued by more mundane cultural quirks, such as the fact that Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, is brimming with unlicensed cabs. One has only to stop at the street corner and hold up a hand, and a driver will quickly pull up to the curb and negotiate a price (an absurdly cheap price by New York standards).
Perhaps my most uniquely Uzbek experience occurred late one evening as I started back to my rented apartment in Tashkent. As I walked out of my friends' apartment complex and approached the sidewalk, I noticed soldiers lining the streets and turning away pedestrians. I decided to walk along the back alley to avoid the closed street, but when I had gone one block, I discovered another soldier blocking the alleyway. He was very friendly and apologetically admonished me, "Brat, brat, nelzya!" (Brother, brother, it's not allowed.) Having no other option, I returned to my friends' apartment and told them what had happened. "Ah, Karimov is on the way to the airport. No one is allowed along the route." They actually close down a swath of the city for the man to go to the airport. The official motto of Uzbekistan translates to "Everything we do is for mankind," but many Uzbeks tweak the language and say that, rather "Everything we do is for a man (and we all know which man)."
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there is more to see in Uzbekistan than postcolonial adaptation and an oppressive government. I ate some of the best food I have ever had, and people were unfailingly polite. We visited the city of Khiva, parts of which are five thousand years old.
I don't mean to sound as though I'm passing judgement on any travel plans that don't live up to my arbitrary standards regarding what is interesting, informed or informative. Every trip I have described was taken for fun rather than any academic or business purpose, and as you may have noticed, each one did, in fact, involve sight-seeing. I do want to see St. Petersburg and the Hermitage the next time I take a trip, and I'm sure that a candlelit dinner in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower could be a deeply meaningful experience. If I'm advocating for anything, it would be a conscious, applied sense of curiosity about any country you plan to visit, which will provide you with any number of meaningful moments above and beyond anything you may have planned in advance.