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The passport stamp at Chiang-Kai-Shek international airport in Taipei stated that I had entered R.O.C. – the Republic of China. Once upon a time, in fact not that long ago, the only Republic of China recognised by most countries in the world was that tiny island, Taiwan. And I am sure that once, not so long ago, you would not arrive and feel that something was missing. But it took me a while to identify that missing feature. The first hints came with the cracks in the tile floor, the old fittings in the bathroom, the faded decorations in the main hall: this was an airport not undergoing renovation. Most airports one visits (and I like to visit as few as possible) are in the process of one or another or multiple upgrades – to improve your flying experience, they claim, but really to fleece you more readily. But not at Chiang-Kai-Shek airport. Everything seemed to work, the airport staff alert, but there was simply no need to upgrade, for this airport was not expanding.

Walking the City

The fate of Chiang-Kai-Shek airport, and indeed the legacy of the man himself, was tied up with the convoluted politics of that island. I had time enough to ponder such matters in the days to come, but for now my thoughts were broken off by the arrival of our guides: Michael and Yu-Yeh. He felt rather important, having been delegated to chaperone an overseas ‘professor’ – a title that stuck no matter how much I tried to disabuse him of the moniker. Yu-Yeh had far greater depth, preferring to stick to her Chinese name.

We buzzed off on the freeway to Chung-Li while I got my bearings. Freeways are not among the most beautiful of human creations, easily run down, full of heavy metal pollution, scars on the landscape. But the trucks belching along beside us were battered, the articulated buses tipped up in the middle, and the air was a permanent soup. It was obvious that this part of what is really a beautiful island was the dumping ground for filthy American-style industry. Thankfully we slipped down to Chung-Li soon enough, but not before I had asked about their names.

‘How come you are Michael?’ I said. ‘And you are Yu-Yeh? One in English; one in Chinese’.

‘Huilin is my Chinese name’, said Michael-Huilin.

‘And Lisa is my English name’, said Yu-Yeh Lisa. ‘But I don’t use my English name much’.

‘How does that work’, I asked. ‘Do you get two names at birth or do you choose a name that means the same in English? I remember a girl of five who moved to Montreal a few years ago. Her name was unpronounceable for English speakers – Xi Xun I think. In a week or so she became Michele’.

They both laughed. ‘No, we simply choose an English name that we like, or perhaps that has a meaning we like’.

‘So you are like a parent choosing a name for its child’, I said. ‘Except that parent and child is the same person – you – choosing a name for yourself at your own birth!’.

They dropped me at the university rooms where we were to stay for the night. Simple rooms, firm beds, disposable indoor slippers (which I still love to get), a fistful of travellers’ toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste.

But we were to go to a Hakka restaurant, deep within Chung-Li. The sun had set and we had to walk the city to get there. Anyone who has threaded his or her way through an Asian city will tell you about the new and battered motor-scooters, with parts and people hanging off them at curious angles, billowing smoke and pushing through the smallest opening, brushing pedestrians and cars on their way through, or about the bicycles themselves, ancient, bearing loads of every conceivable and even inconceivable item, or about those who choose to ride with face masks at silent protest against the poor air quality, or about the people weaving and winding their way through the organised chaos, dodging puddles and cars and motor scooters and bicycles and piles of vegetables and fruit and tables with goods.

But what intrigued me about Chung-Li (and, I was to find later, Chinese cities in general) is the organisation of space. It is though it is organised to ensure the immediate presence of human breath: shops much smaller, often mere alcoves with a pot and a few plates, signs impossibly large and bright in the night sky and of course tumbling over one another. In any other culture it would be would call a crowd, crammed, claustrophobically suffocating, but not here. It is perfectly possible to find a quiet spot of one’s own – a table in a corner where two or three could sit quietly and talk, a chair in a place not stepped in as often, a chance in the to and fro of people to reflect quietly, oblivious to the world a hand’s breadth away.

Visitors from Taiwan to my town – Newcastle – comment on how few people there are on the streets – and this during the busier times of the day. To me, of course, the streets seem full enough here, while those in China are at first overwhelmingly dense.

But our group threaded its way without wavering to the restaurant, where we were treated to a magnificent array of food, from succulent and mouth-watering vegetables, through glorious fish dishes and those that used parts of animal and plant I had never imagined possible for food, to a final triumph: a vast bowl of soup with every conceivable and inconceivable ingredient. From this we poured out helpings into our small bowls and sipped from the bowls themselves.

Not only was it a celebration of simplicity and the sheer pleasure of eating, but it also began to explain why Chinese toilets smell the way they do (the habit of throwing the toilet paper in a large bin, emptied every hour by some poor soul, only enhanced the aroma). After a few days of eating such food, my turds too began to have that distinctive, rich and earthy smell that only Chinese food can produce. The subtle transformation of the interlaced tastes of the food into the pungent and aromatic smell of what comes out the other end is impossible to describe, but it is certainly not the dull and cloying smell of a Western ‘poo bat’.

People

With a camel hump of a stomach and more Chinese beers than I care to remember, it was time to leave. But not before we had said our profuse thanks to the proprietor and cook. The reverential passing over of business cards – with two hands, a bow and an admiring study of the card (and its frequent spelling errors) – along with the introductions in strict order of rank were all done with comments about how the proprietor was a very good friend of our host, whose wife also is Hakka.

Our group was a grand mix: Kenpa, the impossibly young professor who seems to found the elixir of youth, Philip, the academic entrepreneur who kept talking of settling down quietly and writing but enjoyed the hurly-burly of deals and travel and opportunities, and Gan, the old Chinese theologian who wrote in German, for Germany provided one strong model of the intellectual life even here (that his wife was German no doubt strengthened the links for him).

In fact, it was during his presentation later on that I felt as though I had suddenly joined the United Nations. Gan had handed out a thick wad of notes for his lecture, all of it written in pompous German; he delivered his talk in Chinese; but we had a translator working away simultaneously, whispering English into one ear while the Chinese seduced the other ear.

Here too the question of status returned with a vengeance. Too used to the intellectual flexing and subtle competition between silverbacks that characterises intellectual life in the USA, here there was no question about one’s status: prominent place markers indicated that the professors should sit in the first row (partners were given the status of professor to ensure their place in the first row), the slightly less important guests should sit in the second row, and the unidentified riff-raff was permitted to sit in the outer row. No contest, no need to put on a posing routine, no worries.

But it did mean that a faux pas was all too easy to make. The keynote speaker, who had already horrified people by blowing loudly into his handkerchief at dinner in the midst of a swine flu epidemic, decided to stand rather than sit during his talk. He felt more comfortable standing, he said. So when my turn came to speak, I turned to my colleague and said,

‘Should I stand too?

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘That’s only for the president (of the university)’. At the brief opening ceremony and opening of the gathering, the president had stood while every one else sat. Even in his absence we were to show our respect by remaining seated.

The catch is that I am not one for such genuflection to external marks of status and privilege, preferring the first name basis of comrade for any transactions. So I found greater pleaser in our student guides, Michael and Yu-Yeh – especially the quiet and profound Yu-Yeh. They took us to museums and local eateries, but the crowning moment was a tea shop (minus Michael).

Yu-Yeh and two student friends ensured that status and respect was thrown out the window, for one a butch lesbian and the other a Marxist radical who could tell what side of the mountain the tea came from and how it was cut. The three of them led us through the rituals of the tea shop – the serving board with pot and small cups, the way to pour the hot water over the leaves and into the pot, how long to wait, how to pour and drink, and what was best eaten with the different teas. The English might pretend that they know what tea is, the Indians or Sri Lankans might proclaim that tea is their natural drink and flog it off to the world, but the Chinese know that tea is theirs by origin, that the skill of growing, drying and drinking is not learned in a lifetime or even in a century or two, but that it can become part of cultural wisdom only after the odd millennium or three.

Politics

Over tea politics was never far away, especially with a theologian, a lesbian and a Marxist. The first thing I learned, to my surprise, is that Marxism is a vibrant topic of inquiry and debate. But I should have known, given the mainland’s proximity, and yet I had assumed that Taiwan’s resistance to the mainland, US military protection and economic favouritism of that tiny island would have ruled Marxism out of court. Not at all: the proximity of the mainland and the fact that Taiwan has for too long been the dumping ground for the fag-end of filthy capitalist industries means that Marxism is a lively option indeed.

But the overwhelming political filter through which so much passes is the relation to the mainland: to cooperate or not to do so – on that question hung so much. With a surging economic superpower across the Formosan straight, isolation and belligerent talk meant economic exclusion. Cooperation, on the other hand, may mean jobs but it also raises fears that China would act on its long-standing policy of reintegrating Taiwan within its borders. As I was there, the ruling political party was distinctly on the nose and soon to be ousted, not least because of its isolationist stance. With the change of government that followed and the abandoning of the old Chiang-Kai-Shek polemic, direct flights and even passage by ship had been opened up once again. Above all the flow of goods and human interaction has sped up, revealing once again that a soft takeover is far more effective and subtle.

Review of Christian Wolmar. To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Railway. London: Atlantic Books. 2013

No reliable recent history of the Trans-Siberian Railway exists. Unfortunately, Christian Wolmar’s book does not fill that role. It is many things – advocate of the railway, entertaining read, anti-communist, ode to tsarist faithfuls – but it is not a history that will stand the test of time. For that, we still have to go back fifty years to Harmon Tupper’s To the Great Ocean (1965), and even there one encounters a curious mix of history and anecdote that also appears in Wolmar’s book.

This is not to say I did not enjoy reading the book. I did so in bed in the evening, racing through the chapters and dreaming of my next journey on the Trans-Siberian. Wolmar writes lightly, if a little too hastily, so the text is easily digestible. To his credit, he focuses mostly on the railway itself. It is the real actor in this story, which runs from the long process in the late nineteenth century of deciding on such a massive project to its role today. Almost half the book concerns the railway’s construction, from the slow process of deciding to undertake the project, through a loving portrait of the man who made it happen (Sergei Witte), to the extraordinary engineering achievement of completing a 9,288 km line in a little over a decade (1892-1903). It passes through some of the most difficult terrain in the world – through remote mountains, vast forests, marshland, endless steppe, permafrost and areas with constant seismic activity.

The initial line ran in its eastern section through what was known as Manchuria, cutting out a long loop, running north-east from Lake Baikal and then down the Amur River to Vladivostok. It also relied on an ice-breaker to take the train across Lake Baikal, due to the forbidding terrain around the lake. Manchuria, of course, became a flash point, for the Russian tsar turned the Chinese concession to build the railway through their land into outright imperial expansion. A modernised Japanese navy also had imperial ambitions, so it was inevitable that a clash would ensue. The Russo-Japanese war (1904-5) was the result, and the railway was one factor, although not the prime factor, as Wolmar suggests. Due their severe losses in the war, the Russians decided to complete the north-eastern loop to Vladivostok, which was ready by 1916 – the year before the October Revolution in 1917. Yet, this focus on wartime is one of the weak points of the book. Wolmar has a hawkish bent for military matters, having a written a book called Engines of War (2010). Railways were, of course, as much military constructions when they were first built as anything else. Until the advent of aircraft, they were the fastest way to move troops and military hardware. So we find long sections on the Russo-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the Second World War. All the same, wars are interludes to the much longer peacetime running of a line, and Wolmar leaves one unsatisfied on that account.

He cannot quite decide whether the railway was a triumph or a tragedy. On the one hand, he exults over the greatest railway in the world, writing of its profound effect on Siberia. The commission in charge of the railway spent more money fostering Russian settlement in Siberia than on the railway itself. Whole towns were built, settlers were given reduced fares and financial assistance, and the agricultural and mineral wealth of Siberia began to make an impact. Some of the richest coal and oil fields in the world were opened up, and agricultural products such as grain and butter (yes, butter) flowed westward. The railway – at least the regions close to it – became woven into Russia as never before. On the other hand, he constantly notes the mistakes made. While he berates western naysayers, who were vocal from the moment construction began, he too joins the chorus from time to time. The line required constant upgrading, from the initial single track with its too-steep gradients and light steel, to the multi-line arterial that it is today. The cost of the construction was astronomical, a cost that the tottering tsarist regime could ill-afford during revolutionary times.

However, he reserves most of his carping criticism for the long era that the railway was crucial to the Soviet Union. No lover of anything that tastes remotely of socialism, he praises the monarchist Sergei Witte (minister of finance and in charge of the railway commission) to the skies. Meanwhile he berates the soviets for their misuse of the line. In passing, he cannot help note that the railway provided both the means for the massive industrialisation under Stalin, as also for the extraordinarily rapid relocation of industry eastward after Hitler’s invasion in 1941. Indeed, he hints that were it not for the railway and what it enabled, the Red Army may not have won the Second World War. Yet, he betrays a distinct wish that the White Armies might not have been so brutal, that the massive support (in money and equipment) for those armies might have been better coordinated, that they had used the railway to better effect, so that they might have triumphed in the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution. That Wolmar’s father was Russian, sympathised with the White Armies and hated the socialists until his death is clearly a factor here.

However, it was the soviets that made the line what it is today, a massive arterial route that is fully electrified from Moscow to Vladivostok. Some of the most difficult aspects of reconstruction, with tunnels, better gradients, and multiple lines were undertaken by the Soviet government. Much of the line had to be rebuilt after the Civil War. The soviets too constructed the BAM, the Baikal-Amur Mainline that runs hundreds of kilometres north of the eastern section of the Trans-Siberian, from Tayshet near Lake Baikal to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific Coast. Perhaps one of the most formidable projects ever undertaken, it is 4,324 kilometres long, passes over and through impossible mountain ranges, alpine rivers, permafrost, and required the construction of 60 new towns. Begun in the 1930s, it was completed only in the 1991.

The paradox of the Trans-Siberian is that one usually thinks of it in terms of a passenger service. It takes seven days (six nights) to travel the full length, as I did in 2010 and will again in 2014. Wolmar cannot help providing anecdotes, either from his own trip on the line, or more often from others who have written of their varied experiences over more than a century. This practice is of course part of the genre of travel writing. One attempts to give a feel of the landscape, the people met, the quirky moments and crises overcome. I was often absorbed by these accounts, especially of the BAM and the appeal of travelling on the remotest line in the world (Wolmar relies on the entertaining account by the septuagenarian, Devla Murphy, in Through Siberia by Accident, 2005). While entertaining, it also reveals a dilemma Wolmar is unable to resolve. He cannot decide whether he is writing a travelogue or a history, and often falls in between both. The catch is that the prime purpose of the line was and remains freight. Massive amounts of minerals, timber, agricultural produce, and finished products are hauled over its length day and night. Indeed, it is far quicker to go overland with such freight than by the ocean. But the story of a freight line is far less interesting for the travel reading public, even though that would be a proper history.

TSR

The bicycle is checked, the panniers are packed and the road beckons. It may be a couple of days’ escape on quiet back roads, or it may be a slightly longer haul, such as the back way from Melbourne to Sydney, or perhaps the cyclist’s mecca, the Nullarbor Plain. Whether you are a seasoned tourer or a first-timer, let me offer some tips with a difference – assuming the basics have been covered, such as bicycle roadworthiness and letting someone know you are off.

1. Keep it simple. You don’t need the latest, fancy tourer with expensive running gear. If you do set out on one, inevitably you will find that a crucial, intricate part will break down in the middle of nowhere and that it requires a highly specialised tool and a university degree to fix it. Once, when planning a long haul over a few weeks, I walked into my local bike shop with a fistful of cash. Thinking that my 20-year old bicycle was not up to the task, I was all set to buy the latest pair of touring two-wheels on offer. But out from the workshop came Margaret, who had set the world record for Sydney-to-Melbourne back in 1969. She took one look at my ancient bike and said, ‘that’ll make it, no trouble’. In fact, she pointed out, it was probably better built than anything I could buy now. I walked out, cash in hand, and hit the road with the old bike.

2. If you are in another country, buy second-hand. Do not worry about carting your bicycle half-way around the world to ride. It is a massive hassle getting a bike on a plane, especially with airlines becoming ever fussier about such bulky items and almost bankrupting you in the process. Find a reputable second-hand bike shop and buy one. You can sell it when you leave. I know people who have ridden across Europe on a second-hand bicycle that cost $300, with absolutely no trouble.

3. Steel is better than aluminium. Why? Steel absorbs the inevitable bumps you will meet on the way, flexing and providing a more comfortable ride. Notice the way aluminium (or indeed other compound frames) often have shock absorbers in the seat or perhaps on the forks. They are there to soften a harsh ride. And steel can easily be welded in a farm shed should you be out in the sticks and find a crack in your frame. Isn’t steel heavier? Slightly, but by the time you add the running gear, racks, panniers, water bottles and so on, it makes little difference

4. Travel light. This one is obvious, but usually forgotten. Even if you are setting out with camping gear and winter gear, everything should still fit in two rear panniers. One change of clothes, tent, sleeping gear, food, cooking and eating utensils, tools and spare parts, even a book, can easily be loaded that way. Staying in accommodation? All you need is a small bag strapped onto the back rack.

5. Mudguards. I may be old-fashioned, but the cost-saving move (by manufacturers) not to include mudguards on modern bicycles is a crime. They are simple but wonderful devices. Wait until the first downpour or muddy track, and the spray of mud in your face or in a line up your back will become a complete nuisance. Panniers covered in road grit are no fun either.

6. That extraneous item. Every touring cyclist has at least one unnecessary item they bring along. I have seen riders with a complex solar recharging unit sitting atop the rear panniers, a fold-out stool, a laptop, a mosquito net for morning and afternoon tea … My own indulgence is a book. Desperately, I try to restrict it to one book, but I never get through even that one.

7. Rear cluster wrench. That said, one or two items are a must. One is a rear-cluster wrench. If you are going to pop a spoke, then it will be on your rear wheel on the cluster side. The reason is that those spokes are under most stress. They are on the drive (chain) side, and they carry the panniers and most of your weight. A rear cluster wrench will enable to you to remove the cluster and replace the spoke.

8. Carry a cigarette lighter. Another must-take item is a cigarette lighter, not so much for the smoke you may wish to have over a beer upon meeting another rider, but for a fire in the evening. Or during the day, for that matter, should you wish to boil a billy, as I like to do on a break.

9. Ride within yourself. Again, this may seem obvious, but on a tour you need to be able to get back on the bike the next day. 150 km may feel like a real buzz, but the next day won’t. About 80km is a target than can easily be achieved without wearing you out over the long haul. More than that and carbohydrate depletion sets in. Plus, it gives you time for either a leisurely morning before departure or a quiet afternoon on arrival. Time to read, wash some clothes, enjoy a beer, cook some food, ponder the universe over a campfire.

10. Take your time. You would not be on a bicycle if you were in a hurry. And it is neither a race nor an event to set the world record for cycling around Australia, or China or Europe. Instead of looking constantly at the speedo (which is really not a necessary item at all), you can enjoy the world slowly passing by.

2011 April 025a

In the market of Tseva, a small village near Zestafoni in Georgia, the local priest was minding his own business. He was greeted by young man who was obviously not a local.

‘I am Koba from Gori’, said the young man. ‘May I request some private business?’

‘What do you mean?’ Said Father Kasiane Gachechiladze.

‘I need to get to Chiatura, over the mountains, and I have heard that you have some donkeys’, said the young man.

A little nervously, the priest looked up and noticed that another man was standing guard in the bazaar. He recognised him as a member of the local Red Battle Squad. With no police in the area, the Red Squads were in control. Seeing the priest’s anxiety, Koba asked after his family, mentioning the names of his wife, parents, and children.

‘I would like to offer you fifty roubles for your troubles’, said Koba.

The priest thought for a moment and said, ‘Deal’.

‘Let’s go for a drink, to celebrate’, said Koba.

As they were toasting each other’s health, the future of Georgia, and their respective families, Koba said: ‘They will let you know when I am coming’. He waved his hand towards a number of other Red Guards. ‘Father, don’t be late. I must make the journey to Chiatura and back in a day. After all, we are both still young’.

Stalin as a young man 03

So it was that a priest met ‘The Priest’ – the nickname for one who would later be known as Joseph Stalin. The nickname was no accident, for Koba – his personal name – had studied for the priesthood too, leaving the Spiritual Seminary in Tiflis on the eve of sitting his final examinations. As he left the seminary, he passed from one faith to another. Or rather, he realised the continuity between the two faiths.

Within a couple days, Father Gachechiladze received the word, and ‘The Priest’ met him with two comrades. They loaded the donkeys with pieces of a printing press, money, and ammunition. ‘The Priest’ wanted a safe passage for his cargo, far from the prying eyes of the police, who often searched the trains looking for socialists.

Stalin in Georgia 03

On the trek over the mountains, the priest and Stalin talked. Stalin recited poetry, from the Georgian classics and from his own compositions.

‘Some of my poems have even been published’, confessed Stalin after one of recitals in the clear mountain air.

They drew closer, both of them singing songs as they clambered up to the mountain pass. Stalin rested his head on the priest’s lap when they rested. The young priest found him restrained, serious and decent. Stalin even recited the traditional blessing over their meals.

‘You see, I still remember it’, exulted ‘The Priest’.

‘You’d have made a great priest’, said the Father Gachechiladze.

‘I the cobbler’s son did very well against the offspring of nobles’, said Koba. Stalin had indeed topped his class at the Tiflis Seminary.

Too soon did they arrive in Chiatura. Stalin took the saddle- bags and returned with them empty.

‘At least I can use them as pillows on the train home’, said ‘The Priest’.

They parted, never to meet again.

Stalin as priest 01

A sign of intelligence is the ability to make the most of the situation in which you find yourself.

This old piece of advice came to mind as I followed none other than Joseph Stalin to his second Siberian exile. In 1913 he was arrested by the Okhrana and sent for some years to the northern Siberian territory of Turukhansk – a vast area of taiga, winters of nine months, and minimum temperatures of -60 degrees. Initially, he stayed near the capital, Monastyrskoe, on the Yenisei River, which flows northward into the Kara Sea. The consummate escape artist was well-known to the Okhrana, and they were tipped off regarding yet another planned attempt.

Stalin in Siberia 01

Joseph was promptly sent 180 versts (almost 200 km) further north, to the hamlet of Kureika on the Arctic Circle. Here 67 residents, made up of three inter-related families, lived in eight communal huts. Joseph – Osip to the locals – was allocated a corner in one of them. Existence was a struggle, to say the least. When Joseph had to visit the outhouse during one of the long nights, he made sure to take his rifle with him. A shot or two was needed to keep the wolves at bay. The inhabitants looked longingly southward, down the Yenisei River, for this was the only means of getting out the village. In winter, one would use a sleigh pulled by reindeer dogs (and surrounding by the howling of wolves), while in the brief summer, river boats were hauled along by dog teams. In between, the ‘bad roads season’ meant no-one could move.

Stalin in Siberia 12a

But others made this part of the world their real home: the Evenki (Tungus) and Ostyak peoples. Semi-nomadic fishers and herders of reindeer, they had creatively combined some elements of Russian Orthodoxy with their shamanistic practices – ‘shaman’ is itself an Evenki word. As one who had studied theology for many years, Joseph was intrigued by the way they held to beliefs in the spirits that inhabited the vast regions of Siberia. He would visit them, staying all night at their parties, and they would do the same to him. At other times, the company tended to be peaceful. When they visited, they would sit down for an hour or more in complete silence and then say, ‘Goodbye, we’ve got to go’. Joseph took to them.

Stalin in Siberia 07

With a compliant companion-guard – Merzliakov – in the later years Joseph was able to roam freely with the Evenki and Ostyak. Initially, they brought him fish and reindeer meet, but soon they taught him to catch his own. A close companion, Martin Peterin, showed him how to make a fishing-line and cut a hole in the ice of the Yenisei River. Soon he had learnt the skills of hauling in sturgeon and sea-salmon. His skills became such that even the locals were impressed. ‘Thou ist possessed by the Word’, they said.

Stalin in Siberia 17a

Yet the fishing was not simply a matter of sitting quietly by the ice-hole on a sunny day. The Arctic is an unforgiving world. On one occasion, he was returning with a group of Ostyak comrades from a successful fishing trip. A blizzard blew up suddenly and separated him from the others. What to do? Abandon the heavy load of fish and speed up to catch his friends, or hang onto the fish and trudge on? There was little choice, for the fish would provide weeks of food. He stumped on, until figures loomed up in the snow. He yelled to get their attention, but they scooted away. Finally, a hut appeared with a light shining. He crashed in and his comrades said, ‘Is that you Osip?’

‘Of course it’s me. Why didn’t you wait when I called?’ He said

‘We thought you were a demon spirit’, one of them said. ‘You were covered in ice and snow’.

‘As you can see’, said Stalin. ‘I’m not a wood spirit’. He slept for eighteen hours after the ordeal.

On this occasion, Joseph was lucky. Losing a man on a fishing trip was not uncommon. On another such expedition, thirty men had gone out but only twenty-nine returned in the evening. When Joseph asked where the missing man was, they said, ‘Oh, he remained out there’.

‘What do you mean “out there”?’ Joseph asked.

‘He’s drowned’, said one of them.

‘Drowned?’ Said Joseph.

‘Why should we have pity for men’, said the other. ‘We can always make more of them, but a horse, try to make a horse!’

Many years later, Stalin would still eat fish the way he had learnt in Siberia. With little salt and with temperatures well below zero, they would pile the fish in the outhouse, stacking them up like wood. When hungry, they broke off flakes and let them melt their mouths.

Stalin in Siberia 09

But the hunting he loved most, especially its solitude. Dressed from head to foot in reindeer skins and fur, he would head out on a sled hauled by reindeer. Of course, reindeer meat was one of the staples, but arctic hare, partridge and ducks also added to the stock. In summer, he took to a boat, hauled by dogs upstream and rowed downstream. Indeed, in the last summer of his exile (1916), he disappeared for some months. The fact that his young girlfriend, Lidia, was pregnant was perhaps an added incentive. Yet the main reason was common to all the Evenki and Ostyak: a long winter in crowded and reeking accommodation would lead to an almost insatiable desire to be out in the wide world of Siberia. Joseph was off too.

No-one quite knew where he had gone, although his amiable guard had an idea: ‘It’s an empty (uninhabited) place, this Polovinka. Just sand. Where was he fishing? There was nobody else there’.

Stalin in Siberia 11a

He was indeed on Polovinka, a remote island downstream on the Yenisei. He built a small hut with birch bark. The only others on the island were the few members of the Dubikova family, who had their own birch shelter. Occasionally he visited, and shared a meal of grilled sterlet. Otherwise, he was on his own. He fished for himself, tended his hut, went on long hikes around the island. Above all, he learnt to be comfortable and content with his own company – an invaluable skill.

As Molotov put it much later, ‘A little bit of Siberia remained lodged in Stalin for the rest of his life’.

Stalin in Siberia 15a

Once again I tried to dance on the pedals, rising from my seat, desperately and unsuccessfully dodging the boulders that passed for a gravel surface, leaning forward over the handlebars to prevent the bicycle from rearing up like a frisky horse. Once again I was forced to stop and leap off the bike before it tumbled down the mountain slope. And once again I checked the map: it clearly indicated that this was a paved road over the mountains and back to my lodgings in Pistoia, a village between Florence and Pisa in Tuscany. Obviously, the map was an imaginative, utopian work, perhaps a plan for 2100. For this ‘paved’ road was a track that would defy even the most agile mountain goat.

So I heeded the sentiments of my mountain-loving comrades and regretfully turned back, resigned to the long way back to Pistoia. As I did so I recalled the words of a young woman in a shop:

‘Are you cycling around Italy on your own’, she said.

I nodded and smiled.

‘You’re mad’, she said.

I had come to Italy on my first serious trip to Europe, released from a prison of a relationship, relishing that age-old feeling of freedom. And I had planned to cycle through Italy, or, rather, through a steamy, burning Tuscany for a week or so.

Pistoia

The small town of Pistoia was my base, where I had arrived with a newly-acquired fold-up bicycle, a Dahon tourer that turned out to be a sheer joy to ride. Soon enough, I settled into the Brooks leather saddle as though I were settling into a comfortable armchair. But why Pistoia, whose only claim to fame was a contested religious relic? Why not Rome or Florence or Milan or Venice, one of Italy’s famous cities? It came down to a slender Italian woman, who was studying in Australia. Her family lived in Pistoia, her sister owned an apartment for guests, which would be available for me cheaply. Perfect, I thought: a small town in the country; I had time to myself to ride; she seemed more than friendly, dropping in every day.

But she remained friendly and no more – over wine and pizza and coffee, introducing me to her friends, guiding me through Florence, posing for some extraordinary photographs, talking endlessly. So I concentrated on exploring the town and riding the mountains. She turned out to be the only English speaker in Pistoia. Otherwise, I was on my own. When I bought bread and cheese and tomato at the twelfth-century piazza, I would hand over far too much only for the smiling farmer to hand most of it back to me. I desperately plundered the phrase book to find the words to buy smokes, to get a raggio (spoke) fixed, to ask directions when the map failed me. I explored the walls and towers, wondered at how so many people could be well-dressed, even from the farms and villages, and absorbed the party atmosphere from the music festival that descended upon the town in my last days there.

Riding

Above all, I rode. I rode into the Apennines, was overtaken by a svelte peloton as I sweated up the long haul to Vinci, where I visited the birthplace of Leonardo. I sped along the busy road back from the fortress of Lucca, hard by Pisa, dodging the mad Italian traffic. I pedalled to Prato and eventually Florence to catch a train for the next phase of my riding in the Netherlands. All the while, I repeatedly became lost, aided by that wonderful work of imagination, the road map.

In more detail: on my first day, I rode via a twisting road high into the upper reaches of the Apennines, by villages and ruins and evidence of wild boar. I bumped over the cobbled village streets of Villa Baggio, pushing up and up until the bitumen disappeared and ruins began to show. Scratchings of wild boar became so common that I began watching for tusked hulks thundering out of the undergrowth. On my way down I paused for a piss just above Baggio, only to be met by a toothless old woman who shouted Italian at me ever more loudly, hoping that sheer volume would crash through my incomprehension.

‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ She might have said.

‘How wonderful to be able to ride these mountain roads’, may have been her meaning.

Or: ‘Don’t piss on the side of the road, dickhead’.

Or perhaps: ‘Haven’t you heard of the Mafiosi, dimwit?’

Smiling sweetly, I took my time about remounting the bike and coasting down the mountain.

On another occasion, a long climb suddenly gave way to a quiet, winding, single lane road and a uniquely Tuscan experience. The narrow road was bordered by low stone walls, centuries old. Beyond the walls were terraced fields of vines and olives. And it was all bathed in that unique Tuscan sun – which also left me chronically dehydrated.

But it was here that I discovered the tiny village of Tizzana. Tizzana? Is there not a winery by that name north-west of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River? Yes, and it was built by a certain Dr Thomas Fiaschi, an Italian surgeon in the early European colony (see www.winery.tizzana.com.au/history.html). That Tizzana became a refuge for him and his new wife, a former nun with whom he had eloped. But why call it Tizzana? This surgeon hailed from the village of the same name, in Tuscany up in the mountains. And while he took a break from cutting people open in the new colony, he developed the winery he had built, constructing a stone home and winepress such as those in his old village, and introducing Italian wine-making techniques to the land down under. Our surgeon-vigneron was also responsible for Il Porcino, the bras boar in Macquarie Street, Sydney, outside the original hospital. Or rather, the citizens of Florence sent, after Fiaschi’s death, the boar as a gift, a copy of the one in Florence itself. It is said that stroking the boar’s polished nose is meant to bring good luck, along with a rich cluster of collected bacteria.

On another day I caught a local train to the fabled Lucca, walked the walls, wondered at the round piazza with its overlooking balconies and then decided to battle the traffic for the ride back to Pistoia. But on this ride – relatively flat and fast and ridden with that extreme-sport thrill of an unhelmeted tussle with Italian traffic – it was the women in uniform who took my imagination.

On the train, the conductor was anything but frumpy. A sleek uniform, a shirt partially unbuttoned, a blue cap perched on perfectly made hair; at each stop she would saunter out onto the platform on high-heeled boots and casually blow the whistle in a way that was all too suggestive. And in Lucca a police officer was directing traffic around a building site. Once again the uniform was a sleek affair, a gun was slung well over a well-defined thigh and signals were given to traffic in a way that said, ‘Don’t mess with me!’ Yet all the time she smiled and flirted with the builders, who thoroughly enjoyed the game while not realising that they were thoroughly wrapped around her little finger.

Politics

Too soon did I have to pack my panniers and say farewell to Pistoia. Slowly I did so and slowly I rode, eventually to Florence and a long-distance train ride north. On that ride I pondered again the curious bifurcated politics of Italy. Here the communists have always been strong; here the imprisoned Gramsci wrote some of the most influential works of communist theory; here Negri had taken up the mantle, now residing in Venice after two decades of exile in France. But here too Mussolini had come to power and linked arms with Hitler. And now Berlusconi was dominating Italian politics as I rode.

When I was at school I had read that Mussolini’s claim to fame was that he had drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains ran on time. A piece of hagiography, surely; a cute formulation from a witty historian. Curious, I asked people about the fascist past and present, about how Mussolini was remembered. The response I received again and again was, ‘Well, you know, at least he drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains run on time!’

What about now? Do the trains run on time? Not at all. My train from Florence to Milan arrived two hours late, at the other end of an unannounced platform. Its air-conditioning was broken, the ratio of people to seats was about three-to-one, all of them deftly avoiding the train conductor as he moved about checking tickets.

So I now apply this foolproof test: if the trains run on time, then fascism has already arrived. If not, then one can relax. So it is with Italy.

A massive, battered pot steams on the corner, emitting mouth-watering smells, a group of young people sit beside it on a makeshift table, enjoying a freshly-cooked breakfast, a gaggle of retired men and women sit on sagging easy chairs across the road, with time on their hands. I am out in the early light of a Shanghai morning.

Woven through the interstices of the horizon-wide high-rises of that extraordinary and untried experiment in collective human living known as Shanghai one finds its streets. Never before in human history have so many people – 19 million or so – lived together before. Only Beijing eclipses Shanghai in sheer population, with its 23 million, but that is a recent development, the result of the government’s efforts to give Beijing as much economic clout as its rival.

But I am less interested in the freeways, the commercial high-rises springing up overnight, the biggest port in the world, the massive museums or even the old French concession. Far more fascinating are the streets, or rather the few streets close to my apartment. For hours I stroll slowly along, sitting at times on a makeshift stool to enjoy some freshly steamed bread or a dish of tofu.

As soon as I step out of my apartment I am greeted by chorus of birds, their songs still new to me. Have they gathered in the trees thereabouts, a collective morning ritual to greet the street’s many occupants? No, for I see first one bird, then two, then a score or more in simple bamboo cages, with elaborate and tiny porcelain cups for water and food, a perch and twigs and carved trinkets inside. The brown, black and yellow birds with strong beaks sing in a way that ensures their individual voices are not lost in the chorus. And the cages hang from a tree branch, a hook on a wall, a gate or a lamp post. Their carers flock together beneath the cages, sharing a smoke and a chat that begins a relaxed day. For they are all old men, retired and pursuing a modern version of an ancient Chinese passion, a passion for those who have achieved the respectful age of retirement.

A few steps further on, I pass by the gate to their apartment complex. The uniformed guard at the gatehouse – which you find at the entrance to every such block – barely notices me as I pass. An old woman emerges with her husband, both walking in a way that says they have all the time in the world – with a short, slow step of the aged. Is it not strange that time seems to slow down and approach eternity the closer one draws nigh to death? She is dressed in a way reminiscent not only of the Maoist era but also more traditional Chinese clothing (the two have a curious linkage). So also is another woman, who calls out to the man stretched out in an ancient chair that seems to have been there since before the revolution.

He wears the characteristic light blue uniform, with its yellow stripe down the side, of the ubiquitous street cleaners. He gathers the detritus of the street into a stained metal trolley, which propped up with a broom made of tree branches and leaves, a pincer and a rag. His responsibility is restricted to the couple of streets along which I walk – a phenomenon repeated across Chinese cities and towns. No wonder the streets are so clean. But now he rests, snoozing a little before the long, measured day.

On the next corner is an equally ubiquitous phenomenon: the bicycle repair stand. Nothing fancy here; no bright new parts in a vast shop. Instead, on the footpath is a small on-street cupboard, containing a few ancient tools, a couple of pumps, tyres and tubes that have obviously been used more than once. Should one have a flat tyre, an odd clunk or a squeak or a missing part, then this is the place to pull up. The woman here examines your bicycle on the street corner, tinkers here, patches there and pumps away in order to get you on the road again. No wonder the average Chinese person knows little about bicycle maintenance, for all you need do is walk a few paces to find such a repair stand. Or if you have any other piece of simple machinery that needs repair, she may do that for you as well. For most stands gather spare parts of all manner of machines, simply stacking them on the footpath, should anyone require the services of the corner handy-woman.

Across the intersection, I walk into the midst of the food zone. The sheer richness of this block makes the ‘food courts’ of Western shopping malls seem like anaemic copies. On a simple gas flame a woman boils a pot of dumplings, serving a Chinese ‘queue’ steaming fresh morsels from her pot. Behind the shelf looking out onto the street she stands in her ‘shop’ – a hole-in-the-wall that makes a train toilet seem like a mansion. I step over a stream of curiously coloured liquid that emanates from her alcove. Next to her a man in another spacious abode throws flat pancake-like batter onto a hotplate and crisps them into the delicious breakfast bread for hungry students. Out on the footpath a woman stirs a massively battered pot, regularly pulling out a concoction of noodles, cabbage, rice and pork, served into bowls with ample soup for those who sit nearby on some makeshift stools and a table.

And on they go almost without number, with endless varieties of rice noodle, wheat noodle, dumpling, steamed buns, the griddle-cooked flat cakes, stinky tofu, unidentifiable meats on skewers … food prepared on the spot for a people in which eating orders the day. Rarely do I find a person walking along the street, munching from food in hand or sipping from a paper coffee-cup. Chinese people give food and its eating much more respect, for you always sit down to eat, even on the street. So important are meals that the times of the day have a specific term that turns around meal time: before breakfast; after breakfast; before lunch; after lunch; before dinner; after dinner. And any self-respecting work-place has two hours set aside for lunch, from 11.30 to 1.30.

Competing with the myriad smells of freshly cooked and mouth-watering breakfast food are those of the market. Emitted through an entrance way in between these street and alcove cooks, the market smells speak of fresh and unfrozen fish, crustaceans, eel, and all manner of creatures of the sea that I have never smelt or seen before. Subtler are the smells that come from the orange, red and yellow vegetables scattered about, as well as the collection of greenery that is a mass of grass and stalks and leaves – edible I imagine.

I stop by the tiny fruit and vegetable shop, across the street from its twin. A child plays on the step, his grandmother inside. With the sun-darkened face of peasants and workers who spend all day outdoors, she smiles at my ‘nihau’ and points to my regular items – bananas, fresh oranges, some Chinese green vegetables (I call them all bok choi) and the massive yellow citrus in a net the name of which I cannot remember. As usual I give her too much money and as usual she hands me back a pile of notes and coins, some of which are plastic toy coins mixed in with the real stuff. ‘Sise’, I say as I leave and she smiles.

Today at the other end of the street stands a man in worn clothes and some mesh bags at his feet. At a distance I can see that they move, curiously. Closer by I suddenly realise that he has brought live snakes to sell for whatever soup or noodle dish one might want to make with freshly-killed serpent. I pass on that one. Beyond the snake-seller, a fish leaps out of a plastic bucket outside a ‘restaurant’ (defined by the fact that one may sit at a couple of tables indoors). Desperate to make a break, it soon realises that air is not quite its preferred medium, flapping about on the footpath until a woman deftly grabs it and drops it back into the bucket.

Around the corner, I meander past the street peddlers with their massive carts pulled by those solid, single-gear tricycles. A rack of clothes may have been temporarily installed, or a range of boots and shoes strung out along the side of the road. Women gather around to touch, test and haggle. A cart full of second hand books displays anything from Barack Obama’s biography to a Chinese mathematics textbook. Another is full of notebooks with hand-crafted covers, while next to it is a trolley full of chestnuts and a hotplate for roasting them. Atop a pile of sweet potatoes is a man who looks very much like his produce, and beside him is a cart overflowing with wallets and bags, or perhaps umbrellas and raincoats. At night they string up a single light globe above their wares so that the street looks like the stars have come down to earth. And around the stars are cigarette vendors in their cubby holes, mobile phone shops that sell credit and phone covers but not phones, and places where you can obtain the necessary items for a kitchen, such as woks, bowls, lidded teacups and chop-sticks.

All the while people weave in and out at a leisurely and human pace; beaten up bicycles weave in and out, often with passengers perched precariously on the rack or crossbar; motor scooters of all makes and ages – some kept together by masking tape – skim in and out of the crowd; cars blast their horns for a way through even though it is against the law to thump the horns so; a bus edges ever so slowly through the throng, which gradually makes way for it.

Eventually I find my favoured spot on the corner, with a view down both streets. I buy a bowl of tofu, vegetables and noodles, sit down on a stool and dig in with my chopsticks. Again I ponder: how is it that some people, some cultures are able to make the street their home in such a way? Why do they not retreat into the privacy of their homes, lock the doors and close the curtains? Why is the street not left to be a locus of transport, of getting from one private space to another? Why do they prefer to mix and mingle, meander at a pace that encourages one to stop and talk, to sit and while away the time among friends in the constant interaction of people? Is it merely a cultural and social history that makes it normal to do so? Or is it one of the myriad results of an emphasis on a communal life in which even the streets of Shanghai become common space?

2011 October 057b

 

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