Nazi History from Inside Germany

Everywhere I went last summer had been impacted by WWII, but I mostly avoided war memorials so my encounters were more side-notes like, “people hid in these caves”, or “the Allies / Nazis used this tower / bombed this building”, or “here’s where we smuggled Jews out”, but everyone else had the by-line “we were invaded, it’s not like we wanted the Nazis here”. Since the Nazis originated in Germany, you can imagine the story isn’t quite the same, and yet Germany is (rightfully) not proud of it’s role in the war. I always take photos of the signs in museums to help me write later, but in this case, I’ll be quoting those signs rather than summarizing them because I feel like the way that the Germans handled the history is much more significant to this post than the history itself. You can read about the events of WWII on Wikipedia, but you can’t hear the voice of Hamburg unless you go there.


Church Days
It started out like many other historical museums of ruins, the various buildings and rebuildings of the church over 900 years. There was some information about the reformation and the change from Catholicism to Lutheranism… normal church history stuff accompanied by some statues, stained glass, and other relics from the history of the building.

The history of St. Nikolai began in 1195 when Count Adolf donated to the cathedral a plot of land on which a chapel was to be built. This chapel was dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seamen and merchants.

Over the following centuries St. Nikolai gradually grew to become one of Hamburg’s largest parishes. Growth of the parish as well as natural disasters called for the constant enlargement of the building. In 1527 the change brought about by the Reformation movement made itself felt as well. Johann Zegenhagen became the first Lutheran Senior Minister.

St Nikolai was destroyed in the Great Fire of Hamburg on 5 May 1842. It was only four years later that the cornerstone was laid for the new neo-Gothic church designed by British architect George Gilbert Scott. The spire, finished in 1874, is still the fifth highest sacred building in the world.


Propaganda Machine!

Since the days of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg has played a major role in German politics and economy. Because of its importance for trade and industry, the Hanseatic city was given the title of a Führerstadt (Fuhrer City) in the 1930s. Adolf Hitler personally was strongly involved in Hamburg’s urban development plans. A large part of the population sympathized with Hamburg’s role as the new Reich’s ‘gateway to the world’.
Hamburg’s population had been prepared for a possible air war at an early stage. The construction of air-raid shelters and ARP training were meant to boost confidence in the system. A wide range of propaganda measures aimed at strengthening the Volksgemeinschaft (national community). 

Hamburg’s citizens were meant to cope with the challenges of aerial warfare in a ‘soldierly’ manner. Propaganda Minister Goebbels even hoped for a positive effect on the coherence of the community. The air war, he said, could tear down class barriers and create the true Germany.

*ARP stands for “Air Raid Protection”

Air War: Entertainment for Young and Old

Right from the beginning, the Nazi regime had pretended that civil air defense was perfectly normal. A board game called Luftschutz tut not! (Air raid precautions are essential!) introduced entire families to the everyday life of air war. Entertainment and war was not a contradiction in terms.

The Fascination of Bomb Craters

Given the initially ‘successful’ German campaigns, war seemed to be a long way off. Early air raids on Hamburg were considered a rarity. Bomb craters and destroyed houses became popular sites for outings that people could then talk about.


Increased Air Bombings Used by Nazis to Further De-Humanize Jews/Minorities

The history preceding the events of summer 1943 began no later than on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. The decision of the Allies to area-bomb the city of Hamburg was also a response to earlier German air raids. The massive destruction of Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Coventry by German bombers fleets was paid back to the German “home front” in the shape of a firestorm.

The Nazi regime had begun long before 1943 to prepare the population for bombing. The systematic exclusion from the air-raid shelters of specific categories of people again demonstrated the regime’s contempt for humanity.

The relatively successful operations of German forces represented a massive challenge to the Allies. Political and military developments led to a fundamental change in strategy. After targeted raids had been made against Hamburg’s industry, Operation Gomorrah was intended to break down support for the Nazi regime from the German population. In the city on the Elbe the Allies’ area-wide airstrikes exacted the highest toll of casualties so far in the bombing war.

As the bombing increased leading up to 1943, it only fueled the Nazi desire to punish the Jews and other “unwanteds” living in Hamburg.

As in all parts of Nazi society, Jews and other marginalized minorities were excluded from official ARP. At most, they were permitted to seek refuge in self-made makeshift shelters.

As the war advanced, discrimination and exclusion intensified. In the wake of the first major air raids on Hamburg the Gauleiter, Karl Kaufmann, turned to Hitler asking for help. He intended to deport Jews to benefit those who had been bombed out.

With Hitler’s approval, thousands of Jews were deported. Their homes and part of their possessions were distributed among bombed-out ‘Aryans’.

Some citizens applied specifically for such homes and quite knowingly benefited from the deportation of the Jews without showing the slightest trace of a sense of guilt or wrongdoing.

On display were the actual records of items that had been taken from imprisoned and deported Jews and auctioned off to loyal ‘Aryan’ citizens.

The Story of the Ledermann Family

The preserved letters of Anita Ledermann, a Jewess, shed light on her life and that of her family during the air war. All in all, 72 letters to her friend Gunnar Schweer, and his family were preserved. She reported about the increasing oppression by the Gestapo, her experiences during and after the bombing, her futile attempts to leave the country, and finally her farewell before being deported to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt.

Anita and her parents were later killed in Auschwitz. Only her sister survived as a forced labourer in Saxony. Auction files document that Hamburg citizens acquired the abandoned possessions of the Ledermanns at a bargain price.


Operation Gomorrah

Attack on Hamburg

Operation Gomorrah began on the night of 24/24 July 1943. Over the next ten days, British and US bomber fleets destroyed a large part of Hamburg. About 34,000 people lost their lives.
This catastrophic event made a deep impression on the population. Nevertheless, each individual experience offered a unique and very different perspective. Both the pilots carrying out orders and the population seeking refuge in – sometimes only makeshift – air-raid shelters were scared to death.

During those days and nights Hamburg was permanently on alert. With their suitcases packed, citizens waited for the next air-raid warning. Only a few of them found places in the shelters that were thought to be safe. Jews and foreigners and forced labourers were automatically refused entry. Many of them searched in vain for shelter in the burning city.

Those persecuted by the regime feared for their lives, but at the same time hoped for liberation.

The City of Hamburg also used prisoners of the Nuengamme concentration camp for clearance work. In constant mortal danger and under dreadful conditions, they were forced to clear rubble, retrieve bodies and look for unexploded ordnance. The people of Hamburg could see them and occasionally came into contact with them.

Recovering bodies not only caused extreme psychological stress, but was also highly dangerous because parts of buildings came crashing down. Some boroughs in the east of the city had to be declared restricted zones because the danger of an epidemic loomed.

Stories of what was going on in Hamburg, oppression and exploitation, evidence of such things which actually made me cry because the stories are so personal. This person was taken away and their home and goods were redistributed to “good party members” whose homes were lost to air raids.

The propaganda. The division of classes. The way that those not deemed worthy were denied safety. I was struggling. This was the reason I didn’t want to go to an actual war memorial. If this little underground museum is so full of pain, what is it like at the ruins of Dachau?

And then I watched a film about the Firestorm in 1943 that destroyed 90% of the city including the church I came to see. It was insanely graphic and personal. Nonetheless, I had trouble feeling sad for the people who suffered and died as these were the people who had been complicit in the cruelty and deaths of those featured in the first section of the museum.

True they were mostly civilians, but they happily benefited from the system of oppression and tyranny. This isn’t the same video I watched. The one in the museum had a narration telling us of the horrible suffering of those caught in the fire who burned or suffocated while trapped in collapsing buildings; however it was the most similar visually, if you feel the need to look.

There was a section that was more or less neutral with photos of places around Hamburg before, during, and after the war and reconstruction. Normally I cringe to see the aftermath of bombing yet when the photos showed Nazi structures being destroyed and rebuilt it didn’t feel like destruction so much as it felt like the surgical removal of a cancer.


In War, Everyone Suffers
Finally the last section was about Germans who escaped the Firestorm and fled the city. They were almost all children at the time of the war, and they again told deeply personal stories.

A Ticket to Get Away

My husband had given me those Atikah cigarettes and so I said to my sister, ‘You know, we’ll take these; who knows, they might come in handy.’ Barmbek was still intact at the time, so we got through all right. Everywhere there were treks that also wanted to get out of Hamburg. We walked through this bombed city, by no means could we ride our bicycles, because the streets were so utterly destroyed, and sometimes the houses were still burning. Above all this there hovered a terribly undefinable stench. It was the smell of corpses. I don’t know what dead bodies smell like, but that was how I had imagined it. 

Then at some point we were on an outward road near the Berliner Tor. Everywhere there were crowds of people with all sorts of wheels to which everything was attached that they wanted to save and take along. We also waved at people. But nobody wanted to take the bikes as well. But after all, they were worth a fortune. How could one have got hold of a new bike later on? All of a sudden we had this idea about the cigarettes: We’ll hold up the cigarettes and everybody prepared to take us on board will get cigarettes. It didn’t take long and someone stopped and we said first of all, ‘But you’ll also have to take the bikes.’ ‘Yes. That’s all right. Where are you heading for?’ ‘Lüneburg.’ ‘Okay, get up then.’ They got their cigarettes and we were permitted on to teh vehicle. At eleven at night we arrived at the market square in Lüneburg. We were tired to death and absolutely knackered.”

–Inga Bonn, born 1920

Inga would have been 19 when Germany invaded Poland, and 23 when this story took place.

The First Step into a New Life

“There we were, left with nothing. We had absolutely nothing. The first saucepan that my father bought after we had been bombed out, well, I still take great care of it even today. It is a small old iron saucepan, and every year on Christmas I use it to render goose drippings. My daughter has told me ten times already, ‘I would have chucked it out long since.’ ‘Nah’, I say, ‘it means a lot to me.’ This was the first new item than my father got. That was in 1943. My father died in January 1944. He was gone.”

–Eva Kralle, born 1931

Eva would have been only 8 when Germany invaded Poland, and only 12 when the city of Hamburg was destroyed.

Barefooted Through the Phosphorus

“We walked through cellars. Until then we didn’t know what the world outside looked like. Then we climbed out somewhere. Whether it was a window or a door, I don’t remember. In the morning at eight, a storm, a firestorm. And the sky was red and black, no daylight. And the storm. We put blankets over our heads so nothing was peeking out. Us girls one after the other and the lieutenant always in front. Then the houses crashed down, those to the left and right. There were only ruins left. Well, we had to scramble over rubble, over tram rails that had already bent. Then I lost my shoes and I walked on in my bare feet.

For hours we walked on to the Dammtor. I had been burnt by phosphorus, because I was barefoot, you know. On arrival I was immediately seen to. There was a paramedic there and she said, ‘You have phosphorus burns.’ Do you think I could remember that it was painful? I can’t remember at all. Then she bandaged my feet and asked me if I had any shoes. ‘I have straw shoes’, she said. ‘I can give you those, then you have at least something for your feet.’

—Esther Angel, born 1925

Esther was 14 when Germany invaded Poland, and 18 when Operation Gomorrah destroyed her home.

My Brother

“My brother died on this path near Frankenstaβe. He had a briefcase and was allowed to take it to grammar school. I was the little brother, going to primary school with a satchel. Satchels were something terrible. I had always envied my brother that briefcase. And as luck would have it, the briefcase needed to be repaired. Something had to be sewn. And our cobbler, well, he lived at Raboisen and was not bombed out.

One day he came and brought us my brother’s briefcase which I got then. For years I used that briefcase to go to school. It was one of the few keepsakes of my brother’s which were of incredible value to me.”

—Andreas Hachingen, born 1930

Andreas was 9 at the invasion of Poland and only 13 when he lost his brother in the bombing of Hamburg.
I realized that however much I might hold the adults complicit, children can’t be held to the same standard. It makes you ask where is the line, when does someone become old enough to own the fact that part of their culture is hatred and murder?


What is the Right Way to Remember?
The language used for the displays is deeply personal and vivid but also very matter of fact. “This is what we did. This is what was done to us. Draw your own conclusions.” It’s very emotional. It’s also very different from every other country even Japan who tend to want to forget their own role in bringing the air raids to their shores. Or America’s memorials about slavery which tend to be “oh, yes we did horrible things but we figured it out and got better” (not 100% true).

At the museum of St. Nikolai, it feels like, “this horrible thing happened here and we want to remember it happened because we did horrible things first”. There is controversy on how to honor those who died.

The Hamburg firestorm literally burned its way into people’s memory. Only a few days after the bombings, the Nazi Gauleiter denounced the ‘Anglo-American bombing terror’.
After the end of the war this crude propaganda was replaced by complex and divergent memories. Each decade chose its own way of remembering. Often specific interests governed the format and contents of commemoration.

After the end of the war the anniversaries were observed on a highly regular basis. Many different memorial sites were created, ranging from a modest clay tablet on a new building to artist-designed monuments. At Ohlsdorf cemetery there is a mass grave of bomb victims. This is where in 1952 Gerhard Marcks’ memorial was inaugurated.

On the 60th anniversary of the Hamburg firestorm Jörg Friedrich’s book “Der Brand” (the Fire) triggered a heated debate on the air war. Many people were wrestling to find a proper way to navigate through the culture of remembrance. Some even declared the bombing war a ‘taboo’ topic.

In fact, the bombing in general and the Hamburg firestorm in particular have never been a taboo issue. Furthermore, the debate on the right form of commemoration is as old as the bombings themselves.

The commemorations are not only for the victims of the Nazis, but the ordinary citizens of Hamburg who likely felt themselves “not involved in politics”. If only the children, at least some who died here were innocent, and all who died here had loved ones. Yet the firebomb was not a random act of aggression. There were not “very fine people on both sides”. German invasion and aggression had to be stopped. However horrific the Firestorm was, we still see it as justified because it was used to stop the spread of Nazis.

I can’t tell you what to think any more than the museum seeks to. I can only encourage you to explore history, to seek truth and perspective, and to never grow so complacent that you think it can’t happen again if we forget.

The Ordeal was created by the Hamburg artist Edith Breckwoldt for the memorial site of Sandbostel, Lower Saxony. Sandbostel is the place where until 1945 one of the Nazi’s biggest prisoner camps was located. More than 50,000 people from many countries met their death here. The sculpture’s pedestal is built from the original stones of the prisoners’ barracks which were collected by pupils of Sandbostel on the ground of the camp. Sandbostel was also the final station for about 10,000 prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg.

More Moscow: Izmailovo Kremin

If possible, in every place I go, I like to find at least one less well known but still terribly interesting place to go. Atlas Obscura has become one of my best research and planning tools for this particular goal. In Moscow, I settled on a place called Izmailovo Kremlin. The website described it as “an unexpected, fairytale-like cultural wonderland” so of course I had to go. It was a bit of an adventure just finding the locale, and the weather was not especially co-operative, but it was definitely an entirely unpredictably unique experience. Plus, I got some bonus political commentary fodder at the airport on the way out!


Getting Lost and Found

Without any WiFi, even in restaurants or cafes, I was totally unable to look up the route to travel there. I found myself standing in the Revolution Square (red square) metro station with no idea how to get to my goal. I racked my brains trying to remember how in the world I had navigated complex subway systems before my life was data-plan dependent and finally remembered the existence of metro maps!

metro_map

I knew the name of the station (Partizanskaya) I wanted to go to, but I couldn’t find the station on the subway map. I didn’t even know which color line to look at. Finally, I fell back on the most low tech of options… I asked the person at the information desk. It’s not that I mind talking to humans, I like talking to humans quite often, but I have become rather dependent on my map apps and had nearly forgotten how I used to do this when I didn’t have a smart phone. Thankfully she was able to pull out a Metro pamphlet with English and show me where I wanted to be in relation to where I was.

Armed with this knowledge I set off into the subway. It turns out the one place you can maybe sometimes get actually free WiFi is ON the subway (not in the station, but in the subway car). This WiFi did allow me to pull up maps and do basic google searches, but it blocked me entirely from any and all social media platforms. It was also very hit or miss and dropped out quite often, but I grasped it like a lifeline to verify my travel directions.

At this point it is important to note that I cannot read Russian letters. I picked up a couple just looking around. The thing that looks like “P” is really “R”, and П is “P”, and the thing that looks like Greek “theta” is “F”, and the thing that looks like a backward N is “i”… and I just do this because reading is such an important part of my world that my brain needs to make sense of the symbols it knows are words. Whenever I saw English and Russian side by side I’d try to piece it together. But, mostly, I was relying on the English transliteration of these words to find the right Metro stop because, bless, they are all written in both alphabets at all the stations and on the maps.

Anyone who has ever tried to learn a complex new word or name in a language quite different from your own will understand how all our mental tricks for remembering are totally useless! If it’s more than two syllables, I’m going to need to hear, say, write and read it several times to really remember. So, when I’m looking for a shortcut to help me identify things like metro station names, I tend to look at the first sound and last sound (or letter cluster) in a word and forget the middle. So “Partizanskaya” became “P -something – kaya” in my head. Most of the time this works very well.

Most of the time.

On the blue line in Moscow, there is another stop that is “p-something-kaya”, Pervomayskaya, that is only two stops over. Now that my linguistic brain has had more time to look at the map, I realize that “kaya” is basically “station” or “platform” and ALL the stops end this way. Instead of getting the beginning and end of the station name, I actually was looking for “P-station”. No wonder that didn’t work out well. In hindsight, I can see several other mnemonic aids that would have been far more effective, but alas, at the time, p-something-kaya seemed like such a great idea.

I actually rode outside the brown circle during this trip. There’s a wall or fence there. The metro comes out from underground and you get to see some scenery. I’m a little tripped out by the fence. The first time I saw it I thought maybe it was the edge of a park (because I was looking at the wrong part of the map), but on my way back in, with proper spacial orientation, I realized that it lined up with line 14, the Moscow Central track, the edge of the city proper. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t able to find any official information on whether this fence goes all the way around or covers just a part of the area, but I did find an interesting article on fences in Russian culture.

I got off the metro at the wrong P-something and was staring intently at the signs and street names trying to orient myself on a Google Map that refused to tell me where I was (GPS doesn’t need data or WiFi, but still worked very sporadically in Moscow). There were some people handing out pizza coupons at the metro entrance and I asked them if they knew where the Izmailovo Kremlin was. I was hoping that even if they didn’t understand my English that my pronunciation of “Izmailovo Kremlin” would be decent enough to get the idea across, but they were flummoxed. Thinking I was going to just have to pick a direction and start walking, a young lady asked timidly in accented English if she could help.

I accepted gratefully and she was able to explain to me my mistake with the P-something station names and directed me to go back two stops and that it would be quite obvious from there. One more reason to get unlimited metro travel if it’s possible is the almost inevitable need to back track, or side track or otherwise take more trips than would be necessary if you weren’t a lost tourist.

Fairy-tale Skyline

When I did make it to the right stop, it was fairly obvious which way to go as soon as I got to the main intersection. Izmailovo Kremlin’s distinctive fairy-tale buildings are visible a good way off, and gave me the almost immediate impression that I was walking into the Russian version of the magic kingdom.

Not really knowing anything about this place, nor being able to read the signs, I just followed the road into the large and colorful gate. The gray skies were a disappointment since bright sunlight would have brought out the color more, but I was determined to make the best of it. However, just as I entered the main gate, a torrential downpour that had more in common with an Indian monsoon than a European rain began. It was even more intense than the rain that had fallen while I was walking around the real Kremlin. The concrete pathways of the nearly empty market became ponds and rivers within a few moments.

Recalling how quickly the earlier deluge had subsided, I huddled up next to an empty stall under the wooden awning and exchanged “what can you do?” looks with the vendors nearby. It took about 15-20 minutes to calm down and even then, walking was precarious.

At first I thought these were simply vendors lining the entrance of the park. It’s fairly common to see the souvenir shops at the entrance/exit of any attraction, but as I walked more, I realized that the entire space I was in was nothing but market, and more than 90% was empty. I have seen pictures online where it looks full, but I have to think that was just a really creatively aimed shot because it is huge. I stopped and spoke with several vendors selling matryoshka (nesting) dolls. I had one when I was a child and I thought that some authentic Russian dolls from Russia would be nice gifts for my niblings.

If you are in the market for unique matroyshka, this is the place. While there were plenty of vendors offering the same factory mass produced dolls as every souvenir stand in Russia, there were also many vendors who had exclusive deals with local artists or were themselves artists. I spoke with one man whose wife painted the dolls he sold. They were exquisite. Each set, he said, took her 10+ days to paint and he was selling them for 40-60$ US. You can’t GET original hand-painted art of that quality at that price most places. After even just a few booths it became obvious which styles everyone had and which styles were unique among the vendors. I wish I’d been in the market for some art because I was honestly blown away. Some sets had more than 10 layers and the smallest doll was only the size of a lentil. In the end, I settled on some of the lower cost, but still unique styles to send to my sister’s kids so they could have something special, but not too special to play with.

Ghost Town

Once I moved in past the opening cluster of booths (which were still less than half occupied) the whole place turned into a ghost town. Row after row of empty, disheveled booths. Perhaps once grandiose decorations in a state of discoloration and disrepair. Gardens and their statues overgrown and wilting. And everything empty and silent. It was eerie, but more than that, it was bewildering. Where were the fairy tale buildings? Where were the museums? Where was all the stuff that was not market?

I could slightly see some interesting looking buildings that were off to one side of the market area but had no idea how to get to them. I followed path after path that led me to soggy, deteriorating and empty spaces for displays or cafes. A huge covered space of tables and benches stood abandoned, no restaurant in sight. I don’t know if it was the rain or the season that led to the strange emptiness of the park that day.

Finally, I met up with a group of Spanish tourists who were also trying to find a way into the “other side” of the park. They were looking for a place to eat as well as the advertised attractions. In the end, we found a single bridge that went from the gardens at the back of the market up and into a much more active looking area. Alas, the bridge was flooded. The sides of the structure went from footpath to handrail in one seamless block, allowing no spaces for air or water to escape. Instead of being built, as most bridges are, with a slight arch that would sweep water off the ends, this bridge sagged in the center and allowed a positive lake of rainwater to collect across more than 3 meters of the path. I was so focused on crossing, I forgot to photo the flood, but here’s more eerily empty shopping stalls!

We searched for an alternative route in vain. None of us were wearing waterproof shoes, and I had so underestimated the rain in Moscow that I packed my rain-covers in my checked luggage! The idea of spending the rest of the day, the whole flight back to Korea, and the bus ride to my home with damp socks was not appealing. I was just about to give up and head back to the main entrance when one of the guys figured out the secret: walk on your heels! He carefully walked, stiff-legged, placing only the heel of each shoe into the water gently so as not to splash and made it to the other side with dry socks.

Slowly the rest of us followed suit with someone I assumed was the “dad” of the trip laughing and filming the girls who were walking across as I did. I expected to feel the cold seeping wetness in my socks at any moment, but I did make it to the other side dry. I’m sure I looked like a perfect idiot, but I’ll take looking silly over wet socks any day.

Crossing into the Secret Place

Finally we were in the fairy-tale realm. It was still astonishingly empty, especially compared with the huge crowds at the real Kremlin in Red Square. I bustled around taking pictures and exploring the space. There were several places to get food and drinks, although I was still happy after my Metropol meal. Most of the museums were either closed or thinly veiled gift shops. And there was an excess of brides. I think there is actually a chapel there, but definitely a wedding photography studio. I can understand why people would love to have wedding photos taken against the dramatic background, but I felt sorry for the brides that day who had gray and rainy skies. One of the Spanish tourists told me that in Spain it’s actually good luck to have rain at your wedding, so maybe they brought some of their cultural luck with them that day.

I meandered into the church of St. Nikolas and up the stairs of the central hall. It wasn’t open that day either, but I think the interior is used for parties or receptions. There seemed to be a stage in front of an especially colorful building, but no performances listed. I don’t know what the experience would have been like if it had been fully open and bustling, but I rather enjoyed the silence and stillness after the rush and crowds elsewhere. I felt like it was my own little private discovery I was sharing with only a few other people that day. I also felt like it gave me a view of Russia behind the curtains.

I think every country wants to show it’s best face on websites and tourism videos. I know for a fact that LA doesn’t really look the way tourists expect it to. However, I find that some countries try harder to keep tourists in the “pretty” places than others. China, for example, works very hard to create an image in tourist areas that you have only to walk a few blocks away from to realize isn’t really accurate. Most tourists never do, though. Moscow felt like that to me. Because I used the public transit, got lost a couple times, and went to this out of the way attraction on what seemed to be a rather slow day, I saw parts of the city and the culture that I would have missed on a well managed tour.

Of course, there’s only so much I could see on a 20 hour layover no matter how lost I got, so I know that my impressions are only cursory. Nonetheless, I’m glad I chose to set out solo and take my chances, even if that meant taking some lumps along the way.

Toward the end of my time in Izmailovo Kremlin, the sun came partway out, creating a dynamic sky of dark clouds with golden light. It made me happy, standing on the top floor balcony and looking over the church and square below, to get this little sliver of sunlight as my farewell.

On my way back out, I paused at one more puddle to take a reflection photo. This requires squatting down to get the camera lens as close to the level of the puddle as possible, and some other tourists stopped to watch me. When I stood up again they politely asked what I had been doing and I showed the mother and her two tween girls the effect of using a simple rain puddle as a reflecting surface. One of the girls was instantly enchanted and dropped down to try it out for herself. After very few pointers, she had it down pat, and even got a beautiful shot with one of the brides walking away. I missed my chance at that one because I was looking over her shoulder playing teacher, but I think it was a worthy trade.

I took a lot of photos that day, so here’s a little video montage with the rest of my best shots from Izmailovo Kremlin.

Pravda in the Airport

The airport express from central Moscow to SVO is, like all the public transit in Moscow, quite efficient. It was a little crowded, but affordable and on time with no unexpected troubles. It did let us off a very long way from the international terminal, but that gave me a chance to get some coffee and new earbuds for the long flight back.

I’m very glad I was already checked into my flight and had a boarding pass. The lines for customs and security check were ridiculous. I had finished my coffee and of course emptied my water bottle during this process and had no recourse but to buy water from the airport vending machines. I still haven’t found a single source of free drinking water in the Moscow airport.

Last but not least, while waiting for the boarding line to shrink enough to be worth standing in, I noticed one of the large TVs was rolling trailers and advertising for one of Russia’s major news networks…. Russia’s state sponsored “news” networks.

As an American who actually remembers the USSR and the cold war, I grew up with some ideas about Russia that were surely American propaganda, but one of the things I learned about that was not was that the Soviet’s state run newspaper was called “Pravda” which means “truth”. It was anything but. Between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the cyber war, there was a short but glorious time where we were able to get some relatively accurate information about the Soviet state.

I didn’t bother much with Russia when I was studying my MA because I very foolishly thought we were allies now. Oh, past me, how optimistic you were. I did, however, study the entire history of nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation activities which MOSTLY involved us and the USSR / Russia so I had to learn a modicum of Russian history and culture as part of that. Let me just say, when the Guardian called the Russian state run media “a propaganda machine”, I don’t feel like they were exaggerating. On a scale of 1-10, I’d say it’s on the propaganda side of Breitbart, well past Fox News, and can’t even see the BBC with a telescope.

And yet, because of what it is, it cannot help but spew propaganda, especially to a captive audience in the airport. In English, so we know it was directed at us and not the locals. Putin uses any and all foreign media bashes on Russia to bolster his own popularity and prove the greatness of Russia, but unlike Trump who throws angry temper tantrums on Twitter when he doesn’t like what other countries (or his own’s) free press has to say about him, Putin and the state sponsored media are using … sarcasm.

“The more people watch, the angrier Hillary gets.”

“Warning! Propaganda Machine in action!”

“Missed a flight? Lost an election? Blame us!”

…and several more I failed to make note of. Other than remarking on a fascinating and somewhat frightening public communication tool, it had little effect on me, but seeing the way that these English slogans were written and presented in Russia made me take a serious think about some of the slogans coming out of the MAGA faction on social media, where the Russian trolls and bots live. Especially that one about making Hillary angry. I mean, why would Russians care if she’s mad? The only people still chanting “lock her up” are at Trump rallies.

Russia may have beautiful scenery and nice people, but that final interaction before boarding my flight was a chilling reminder that they are not now and possibly have never been our allies. The competition between “the West” and “the Soviet” has always been one of ideology, fought in the shadows with science and spies. When I look at things like “post truth” or “alternative facts” it seems like their ideas are creeping in like mold under paint.

I’m a big fan of multiculturalism and respecting cultures different from my own. I don’t know if it was my cold war upbringing, or if it’s a more objective analysis that things like “facts” and “free press” and “transparency” (glasnost) are necessary for a happy and healthy society, but either way, I just can’t accept the notion that Soviet ideology is the right way forward. I’m grateful to have had the chance, however brief, to visit. It helps me to remember that the people in each country are mostly kind and just want to live happily the same way we do. Whatever I think of their leaders or government policies, I hope I can always remember the regular people I met on the streets and in the subways who helped me when I was lost and shared the beautiful things in their city with me.

Miniatures

I have always loved tiny versions of regular things. As a child, I was most fascinated by toys like my tiny working blender where I could make about 2 oz of chocolate milk at a time, my tiny Barbie spoon which I would use to make a dish of ice cream last longer, and a series of miniature fuzzy animals. Living in Japan in 3rd grade may have been the most ridiculous overexposure to the cute and the tiny since I was easily able to get tiny art supplies, tiny erasers shaped like tiny food, and tiny key chains shaped like tiny everything. As an adult, I have stopped acquiring stuff so much, but I cannot help but squee at the sight of well reproduced miniatures. Thus, when I found out that Europe has a proliferation of miniature theme parks, I was captivated. After careful consideration, I chose to visit 3: The Mini-Europe in Brussels, The Madurodam in Den Haag, and the Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg. I was not disappointed.


Mini-Europe, Brussels

The weather this summer was insanely hot, and the northern Europeans are simply not prepared. It cut into my outdoor activities severely, and I almost didn’t make it to this park. Lucky me, there was a single cloudy and cool day during my week in Brussels. It doesn’t make the best photos, but overcast skies certainly make a happier me.

The park is right next to the Atomium a huge statue constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. I honestly believe that nearly every strange structure in a city can be attributed to this cause, not the least Seattle’s own Space Needle and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You can go inside. I did not.

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General admission is not too expensive at 15.5€ and it’s so full of amazing things that I felt it well worth the cost. I recommend bringing snacks and drinks since the on-site Cafe is overpriced.

Once inside, there is a winding path through a whirlwind tour of Europe. It is seriously all of Europe. The most famous buildings and historical sights of each country (at least as decided by the Belgians). It’s enormous.

While ogling the array of tiny architectural marvels from a distance, I came across a series of informative signs at the front. They were… interesting. Among other things it gave credit to UK for modern democracy (as an American my response is, “um excuse me?”) and also represented rampant European colonialism as “the spirit of adventure”. I know each culture teaches history in their own way, but… I suppose if the history can’t be accurate, at least the architecture is pretty spot on. (top: mini Brussels, bottom: real Brussels)20180710_14411620180711_111548

Some vignettes were reproductions of old villages, but most were modern familiar and famous sights. At the starting point for each nation, there was a button to push that played what I’m fairly sure were the national anthems. Some exhibits were also animated, many activated by another button. As you can imagine, kids raced along to be the first to push each button.

Because they’re miniature and placed on the ground, most exhibits are at eye level or below. I took some bird’s eye photos, but my favorites are the ones where I was able to get level with the model ground, as though I were standing inside. I used the selfie stick a lot to get better angles, and wished I had a better zoom since many of the amazing details were hard to capture. The three I loved most were Galileo testing his ideas at Pisa, Don Quixote and Sancho in la Mancha, and a tiny blue TARDIS in London.

I was blown away by the level of detail, the cathedrals especially. It’s hard for me to say how accurate they all are. I found the models of places I’ve been before to be a bit lackluster, while I found the ones I haven’t seen in person to be amazing. I visited several of these cities after Brussels, so you can see for yourself how they stack up. (top: mini Copenhagen, bottom: real Copenhagen) 

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More than anything, it reminded me of the “bigatures” that were used in the LOTR movies. These models were often gigantic, the size of a sofa or even a car, yet because the originals are multi-story, towering masterpieces, it still counts as “miniature”. (left: mini Maastricht, right: real Maastricht)

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It took me hours to navigate the entire park, and I am ashamed to admit there were one or two countries in the mini-EU I hadn’t heard of before. Overall, it was an amazing visual experience, and a fun photography day since I got to do a lot with experimental angles and effects. I took hundreds of photos, but here are the 50 I think are best.


Madurodam, Den Haag

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The Madurodam is far more focused than the Mini_EU. It is exclusively about the Netherlands, while Mini-EU covers all of Europe.  The attempt at being interactive was really more of a pain than an enhancement. Mini-Europe had a plethora of buttons that played music or activated moving parts. Most of the animations at Madurodam were coin operated so cost extra, and the informative audio clips, while free, required you to scan a card to hear it and see the educational video. I was constantly having to rearrange my camera and sunbrella (umbrella for sun) to dig the card out of my pocket. 

Despite this inconvenience, I did enjoy the miniatures. The quality of the constructions was high, and I liked the fact that there were more scenes of neighborhoods or city blocks rather than just a single monument in isolation. It’s hard for me to speak to the accuracy, and I didn’t recognize as many landmark buildings, since my travels in Holland were somewhat limited. Photography was if anything more fun since I was able to get much closer to the buildings and there were more interesting and active scenes, rather than stark and empty buildings (although both styles have an appeal). The one building I did get to see for real was the Dom Tower at Utrecht (left: mini, right: real life).Utrecht Dom Tower.jpg

One thing that Madurodam had that Mini-EU lacked were the shows. There were several locations where one could go into a small theater and watch a kind of puppet/animation show about some aspect of Dutch history. The shows reminded me of 80’s Disney animatronic entertainment, and some used puffs of air or sprinkles of water to create realism. 

One was about the namesake Maduro, one about the rebellion against the Spanish with William of Orange, and one about the founding of New Amsterdam. The performances were lovely, and I’m grateful that they were all available in English as well as Dutch, but the content left me feeling very uneasy.

George Maduro was a military officer who fought in WWII and eventually died in Dachau. His parents donated the money to start the park as a living memorial to their son. I’m quite sure that the video of his heroics is hyperbolic, but it is the one I mind the least, since it is after all a monument to his memory. Nonetheless, it does seem he was an extraordinary young man, who became a leader at a young age, escaped a German prison, became part of the resistance smuggling Allied troops through Spain, and finally perished in a concentration camp. The presentation was a panoramic movie screen that used a combination of actors in historical dress, photos of historical events, and shadow animation to give a sense of the battles and prison experiences of Maduro’s life.

The Rebellion against the Spanish was part of the 80 Years War, or the War of Dutch Independence. It was a combination of religious rebellion (Catholic vs Protestant) and of course the tangled web of European nobility and the right to rule (collect taxes). The Dutch were tired of being controlled by the Catholic Spanish, and William of Orange provided a central figure to rally around. The presentation was captivating. We entered a war room of the mid 1500, decorated with all appropriate trimmings. We sat at a large table and the video projected a revolutionary leader apprising us of the dire situation, and of the need to go to war for Prince William. We were made in large part to feel like active participants in the planning of the rebellion.

The last performance I visited was the most elaborate. We started off by going in a dark ship’s hold. The space was decorated with ship’s stores and some animals and it swayed slightly to represent the waves at sea. A ship’s captain narrated the journey of the Dutch pilgrims to the Americas, including a small storm with special effects. When the “ride” was over, we emerged into the harbor of New Amsterdam where we stood on the quayside and watched the invasion of the British. Well before the American war for Independence, this battle was fought between the Dutch and English for control of the colony, and the port city later named New York, after the English won. We were encouraged to take up “firelighters” to ignite the cannons before us and try to sink the English ships. Very fun and interactive, but sadly historically inaccurate and loaded down with propaganda.

I didn’t have the best cultural connection with the Dutch. While I found the individual Dutch people I met to be courteous and friendly, the culture as a whole felt to me like one of wealth and entitlement. Madurodam was far from the only place I encountered these attitudes while there. Basically every Dutch written info blurb or tour guide about this country did this at least a little, but the shows at Madurodam were best at putting them in a clear and succinct way that helped me identify my unease.

They’re rich and proud of it, but more they know they got rich with the Dutch East India trading Co. and rampant colonialism and they’re proud of that. Like ‘we are so awesome cause we built better ships than those horrible English and we got billions of euros of equivalent wealth by exploiting “unexplored” regions of the world’. Oh and ‘we invented democracy a 200 years before America when we fought a revolution against the Spanish (for King William) and we are responsible for everything good about New York, which was completely devoid of people (Indigenous People don’t count, right?) when we arrived to build it’.

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I did not know anyone was still bragging about colonial wealth. A lot of people (mostly white and Western) benefit from it, but most of us at least try to acknowledge it was a horrible atrocity. They seriously brag about it here all the time. At Madurodom, it was laid on so thick I felt like I was drowning in it. Holland and I are not destined to be friends until this country gets woke about it’s role in global wealth inequality and gets rid of the saying, “God made Earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands.”

The miniatures were of excellent quality, and it was a cute park. Despite the colonial superiority complex, I still took a million pictures, which I have winnowed down to the top 50 in this video.


Miniature Wonderland, Hamburg

The miniature museum was astonishing. It is completely different from the other two miniature parks. Both Mini-EU and Madurodom were outdoor parks that focused on reproducing famous architecture in miniature with great detail. Miniature Wonderland is an indoor attraction (climate control!), and focuses on the tradition of model trains. If someone had told me “model trains” I would not have gone, and I would have missed out. I don’t know what most people think of when they hear “model trains” but I think of the train, the tracks and maybe some engineering specs with a side note of mini-landscapes. At Miniature Wonderland, the landscapes the trains travel through are far and away the stars of the show. The trains are fun, but in many ways, merely an added detail. Although, I did see the Hogwarts Express pass by once, and that was a nice touch. I took so many more pictures here than at the other two parks I couldn’t actually narrow it down to 50 photos, so there are 2 videos. Here’s the first one.

Famous places were replicated, but in the style of a model train set, rather than a single building. As a consequence, there were many reproductions of famous landscapes, as well as cities, and towns. There was so much detail not only in the buildings but in the humans! There were thousands and thousands of tiny miniature humans engaging in every activity imaginable. There were passengers in the trains and people inside the buildings. I even found some nude bathers in a secluded lakeside retreat!

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In addition, everything moved and lit up, not only one or two attractions, but nearly everything. Every building and car had working lights. Of course the trains moved, but also ski lifts, and airplanes, and dolphins in the sea! Some were button activated, others on a timer. It was enchanting. Moreover, the lights would change from day to night and different things would be visible. At night, all the buildings lit up and you could see the delicate window dressings, or be a peeping tom and see what people were doing inside. During the day, the landscapes and building exteriors were on display, while the insides of buildings were dark and hidden. 

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The museum spans two floors in a large warehouse building near the water. Although there is a gift shop, and a restaurant, most of that space is dedicated to the models. There’s also a central control area where several employees monitor the trains movements and other activities around the scenes.

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My only complaint is that many of the viewing areas were cul-de-sac, so once you got in to see the point of interest, you were sort of trapped fighting the tide to get back out. Mini-EU had a single path with easy to follow arrows that kept the flow of people moving and avoided clumps or jams. The Wonderland was much harder to move around.

A local woman visiting with her husband noticed I was on my own and took it upon herself to point out the curious and interesting details around the various sets. She would run off and then come back to show me something else, and before she left she made sure that I wouldn’t pass by the Lindtt Chocolate factory which gave out actual pieces of chocolate!

I watched Mt. Vesuvius explode and pour lava made of light down onto a tiny replica of ancient Pompeii.

And we all flocked to the airport whenever a plane was ready for landing or departure.

There was even a miniature miniature park!

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Tickets are sold for an entry time, and you can stay as long as you like afterward (until closing). Early morning and late night tickets are cheaper, and I got a deal on a combo harbor boat tour. I enjoyed the boat trip, but seriously underestimated the amount of time I would want to spend inside the miniature display, and while I was shuffling out as the exhibits were being shut down for the night I felt I had still seen less than half of the stunning hidden delights tucked away in the extraordinary displays. Here’s 50 more of my top photos from the second half of the displays.

Letters From China (About Tibet 2008)

When I was in China in 2008 and teaching this class on American Newspapers and Magazines, I walked a fine line balancing between American concepts of free press and Chinese, uh, absence of these thoughts. I generally stuck to fluffy topics like sports and fashion and celebrity, but then in March there was a riot in Tibet. It was on the state sponsored Chinese news. It’s also the reason I didn’t get to visit Tibet that spring. However, in my naivete, I thought that anything on Chinese news was fair game and I brought it up in this newspaper class only to run straight into a giant red wall and my first hard lesson in government censorship.


Mar 24, 2008 at 8:39pm

Tibet in the News

First of all, I’m fine, the whole thing is happening on the other side of the continent. I may not be able to travel there like I wanted, but I’m in no danger here.

DO NOT PUT YOUR OPINIONS ABOUT TIBET ON MY WEBSITE. (this is not for my sensibilities but because the internet police are a real thing here)

I thought it would be ok to discuss with my students, since I saw it on the Chinese news, but apparently not.

I am not able to go into the history of Tibet on this page, but I what want to share here is…

The Chinese Perspective

Tibet has ALWAYS been a part of China.

I asked my students to tell me when it had first been, and they could not give a date, even though we discussed China from the Qin dynasty forward.

The brown area is the Qin territory. It is the first time China was unified under a single government, and it doesn’t even share a border with Tibet. The Chinese government teaches this map as history… but Tibet has always been a part of China.

In 1950, the Chinese army liberated the people of Tibet from an oppressive and cruel imperial regime under which they suffered greatly. The Tibetans welcomed their Chinese liberators and the REUNIFICATION of China.

The people who are rioting are:

1) under the orders of the Dali Lama

2) not really protesting over religion or independence, but only want to disrupt social order and make China look bad.

3) are using the Olympic timing to capture the attention of the world (they don’t say for what, but rather emphasize that they are trying to destroy the image of the Olympics with violent behavior, and distract the world from the Olympics)

4) possibly PAID to inflict violence as mercenaries in a political conspiracy.

This is a Tibetan man burning himself to death in protest of China’s policy toward Tibet. It’s from 2012, in New Delhi. There are no pictures from inside Tibet during the March 2008 riot except those released by the Chinese media to uphold the official story, but things like this, as well as massive police brutality, and government sanctioned executions are rumored to have taken place.

These riots should be ignored. We should not let ourselves be distracted from the true spirit of the Olympics by their behavior.

The Chinese government has provided tremendous aid and relief to the people of Tibet, raising their standards of living, freeing them from oppression, etc. and the Tibetan people are surely grateful. These riots do not represent the will of the people.

And finally, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS. Foreign travelers and reporters have been asked to leave the provinces of Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu and possibly others because its no one else’s concern, but an internal Chinese affair.

East vs West

If your brain is in knots, don’t worry, its hard to see things from the other side. But in trying to understand it, I reached a fundamental conclusion.

The Chinese say that there can be no freedom without peace, and the Americans say there can be no peace without freedom.

This may not seem like a big difference, but I assure you, it is HUGE.

One student told me that they will accept a lack of freedom because the most important thing is survival, and that only once economic prosperity was assured and the survival of the people was no longer at stake could they worry about thier freedoms.

I said that for Americans, survival without freedom isn’t worthwhile.

Another student told me that the Chinese were just waiting for the people of Tibet and Taiwan to accept the One China policy, because only when there is one unified China can there be peace. She referenced the ideology of Emperor Qin who fought like crazy to unite China (for the first time, 2200 years ago) because he believed that only if the warring states were united could there be peace, and he was willing to spend his own life fighting so that there would be peace in the future. (Check out the movie ‘Hero’ if you haven’t seen it).

This idea, that we must fight now for peace later is close to the American one, but the root of it is submission.

I believe both our cultures value peace, and both will fight to create and defend it, but what we are willing to sacrifice to get it, and what we believe makes life worth living are diametricly opposed.

“Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there is no peace… Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?… I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” — Patrick Henry, 1775


My brain had some hardcore cognitive dissonance reading this post today in 2018. On the one hand, I’ve certainly become less mono-focused on American cultural values (although I’m sure they will always be a part of me). On the other, I read the line about violent protesters being paid to incite riots and went… Fox News says what? 

I look at the current American sentiment and it seems like the assessment I wrote here has somehow been taken to the absolute extreme. While the Chinese are gradually becoming less willing to sacrifice the freedom of today for the security of tomorrow, the Americans seem to be willing to sacrifice everything at the altar of absolute freedom. And yet, despite this, we are burdened with a spin cycle that paints protesters who claim to be “against fascism” as paid inciters of violence rather than actually dissatisfied citizens just the way that Xinhua news did with the protesting Tibetans.

I saw then what it looks like when citizens believe the “alternative facts” presented by their government so fiercely they cannot see the holes in the story, and dismiss any contradictory evidence as fake propaganda. I saw it then, and now I realize why it looks so familiar.

August 19, 2017. Boston. According to ABC News where I found this picture, these brave police are protecting free speech advocates from violent socialist counter-protesters. Has anyone seen my dog whistle?

Letters from China (Queen’s Village 2007)

In October of 2007 I was invited to visit a small village near the university where I was teaching. This remains on of the most unique experiences I’ve had while living and traveling abroad. I was able to see parts of China that foreigners simply don’t visit. I was welcomed into their homes, and allowed not only to observe their way of life, but live it myself for a couple of days. I don’t where Queen is right now, and I don’t even know the name of her hometown, but I hope that she and they are doing well and can understand the impact they had on my life as an early traveler.


Oct 26, 2007 at 3:36pm

This weekend (Oct. 19-21) I went to a small farming village at the invitation of one of my students. Her English name is Queen. She is a sophomore (second year at university). She is 20 years old, and she is one of only 4 people in her generation from her village to go to college. She is also the first person in her family to pursue higher education. Her older brother didn’t even go to high school, and is now the only veterinarian for the whole area. Her family farm grows mainly corn which brings in about 1000$ USD per year. Her family grows its own vegetables and fruits in their yards, things like potatoes, turnips, cabbage, apples, pears, grapes and a kind of date called a jujube, mostly foods that can be stored, dried, pickled etc. There is only one store in the village to buy other goods, and most people simply eat what they produce or buy from each other what they need. They also have their own goats for milk and chickens for eggs, and one of her grandmothers even has bees for honey (they sent me home with coke bottle full).

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The Plumbing

The village does not have indoor plumbing, and while this may seem entertaining in an outhouse kind of way, they also don’t have running water indoors. There is a spigot in the yard that only works for one hour a day, since the government is restricting the water in the name of conservation. The northeast of China is very dry. So her family has to collect all the water they will use for the day during that hour. They collect it in a large basin and several buckets, and if they run out there is no way to get more. This means any cooking, washing or drinking they want to do requires them to get a measured amount of water from the daily store to use, heat it over a wood stove (more on that later), use for whatever purpose and then carry it out (no drains in the house either) to dump in the yard (don’t waste water that can help the crops).

In the summer they have a building in the yard they can take showers in (see picture below, its the building next to the doghouse), but since there is no way to heat the water for the shower, they don’t take showers in the winter, but rather heat up some water and use a basin to wash their hands, face and feet. There is a hotel in the village (apparently owned by one of her cousins, it specializes in offering city folk a real rural experience: Dude Ranch Chinese style), and every so often they go there to use the hot water showers in the winter, but it’s a special occasion.

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The lack of indoor plumbing extends to toilets as well, in the northwest corner of the yard (the least auspicious area in accordance with feng shui, I kid you not, and so the best place for a toilet). The building is brick (left), and the toilet is a rectangular hole in the ground (right), no porcelain here, that drains into a hole beside the building where the waste is collected for use as fertilizer. We stayed in two different houses the two nights I was there, and the first (her mother’s) had a nice clean toilet area, which I have a picture of, and the second (one of her grandmother’s) was pretty gross, covered in fecal matter and obviously not regularly cleaned (I have spared the world this image and have no photos of it).

The Electricity

There is some, but like the water it is limited. There is power for the lights, and they have TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players etc that they can run. Some of them also have a few electric cooking devices, like a rice cooker or hot plate. However, there are no stoves and no electric heating. The houses have large glass windows that collect and focus sunlight during the winter. People live on the sunny side of the house in the winter and move to the shady side in the summer, so the houses are built in mirror images. The main beds are made of brick. They run from one wall to the other and basically act as a horizontal chimney carrying heat from the wood stove to the real chimney in the outer wall. The bed stays very warm this way, and the whole family gathers in this room in the evening to eat dinner, watch TV, play cards etc where its warm. I was given this room to sleep in as the honored guest, and the family all slept together in another room. The stoves are fire, the fuel is whatever they can find, sticks and twigs from the orchard trees, dried chaff and stalks from the corn or other crops, etc.

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The climate in the northeast of China is very dry and very cold. It’s not the Gobi desert or anything, but it is very dry. The natural vegetation and the rock formations are very similar to the scrub-lands of southwest America, but its not as warm. If you could take a small rural town from the poorest part of Mississippi or Louisiana and move it out of the wetlands into the arid high plateaus of Arizona you might have an idea of what this place was like.

The Journey

We left Yanjiao about 1030 am. We took the 930 bus to the main terminal at Dawanglu, which is in the southeast corner of Beijing, out around the 3rd ring road¹. This is my normal route into Beijing and it takes about 40 minutes. We picked up some breakfast there, something a little like an egg mcmuffin, but fried. Then we got on the subway to go to Jishuitan, which is on the northwest corner of the second line (also the second ring road). This took about 30 minutes. Then we walked over to the bus station, passing one of the many old city gates, and got on the 919 to go to Yan Qiao. The mountains are apparently called the Yan Mountains, so many of the small towns start with “Yan”.

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We passed by many sites of the Great Wall, including Badaling, which is the most famous, and we paused for a brief rest stop and I think to change drivers, and I took some more photos of the wall.

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After about an hour and a half we arrived at the town, we took a little ride around the town square and went to the park.

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Then we flagged down a private cab (a guy with a van who doesn’t work for any taxi company) and my student negotiated a price for him to drive us to her village. The driver initially offered to take us for 13 Yuan, but later changed his mind, charging us only 3 and telling Queen to “take good care of the foreigner”. It took us about another 20-30 minutes to get to her village gate. As long as we remained in the Beijing zone, the roads were good, but as soon as we crossed the border into Hebei province, the roads became a mess of potholes and bad roadwork.

¹Beijing is an autonomous zone, a city without a province, like Washington D.C. is a city without a state. The city is zoned by the “ring roads“, which are just what they sound like. I only knew 5 at the time, apparently there are 7 now. It basically tells you how far from the city center you are.

Queen’s Family Home

We were dropped off at the gate and walked from there to her mother’s home. The streets within the village were more like dirt alleys, filled with rubble and trash. The homes were fairly old, most having an outer wall, a large yard used as a vegetable garden and a reasonably large home, which often housed 3 generations.

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Queen was very eager to show off the brick bed I described earlier, which was in the main bedroom.

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There were bright posters in many rooms which I was told are renewed at the spring festival and symbolize good fortune and fertility. I also took a look at the kitchens (both) to see the wood stoves that fed heat into the beds.

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Her mother was quite gracious. I was offered grapes and jujubes (the fruit not the candy, it’s a little like a date, but drier) from their garden as well as tea to drink. After a while, Queen wanted to wander over to her Grandmother’s house (for the sake of argument, since I honestly lost track of relatives, we’l just call this one Grandmother 1). It was a short walk, during which I was stared at by everyone we passed. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle greeted us and I was plied with apples and haw fruit from their garden. Haw is a small red fruit with soft tart flesh; you might be able to find some candy or tea of that flavor in an Asian import store.

The people in Queen’s village don’t speak “putonghua” the common standard Mandarin Chinese, but rather a local dialect that I couldn’t understand at all. However, she’s a good student and was able to act as a translator for her family and me.

After a visit there, we headed back to her mother’s, stopping at the general store on the way back to pick up some snacks and packaged meat (kind of like Spam, but not in a can). Her mother prepared a nice dinner for us. We had sweet potato and rice porridge, a dish of potatoes and turnips, some candied almonds, and some mild pickled peppers her grandmother had sent back with us. Everything we ate except the meat was grown in her family’s gardens. Oh, and there was fresh goat’s milk from the goats in the back yard as well as a kind of strong clear alcohol that her mother soaked fruit in to make a tasty drink. I swear I ate until I was stuffed and her mother complained that I didn’t eat anything!

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Two of her young cousins came over after dinner and we all sat on the brick bed chatting and watching TV. Queen made her cousins speak slowly in putonghua to see if I could translate for myself. This seemed to amuse them for a while. I saw a beautiful show on TV of a troupe of dancers, all deaf and mute, doing a tribute to Guan Yin. They lined up behind one another and made elaborate patterns with their arms to imitate the multi armed statues of the goddess.

When it was time for bed, they set me up with plenty of blankets, made sure I had food and water in case I got hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night, and left a bucket so I wouldn’t have to brave the freezing outdoors to get to the outhouse.

Despite the bitter cold outside, the bed stayed warm, if terribly hard. I slept fairly well, though I woke up a little stiff. Breakfast was more fresh goats milk, some steamed eggs (which by the way had green shells, a nice pale sea-foam green, which I can only attribute to the breed of chicken, since I know the eggs were fresh since the chickens were also in the backyard)…anyway, this means I ate green eggs and spam for breakfast, I told Queen about Dr. Seuss and recited what I could remember of the poem which she seemed very interested in. There was also a nice pickled cabbage dish, almonds leftover from dinner and possibly some other things, it kind of blurs together.

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Local Schools

After breakfast we took a walk to the local schools. Queen told me that very few of the students finish middle school. The classes are too crowded and all the good teachers have left for better jobs. Many of the boys wander the streets during the day rather than going to school. Their parents don’t want them to get outside jobs at that age, but don’t make them go to class. When they grow up they will be manual laborers, working in the fields or building roads, earning only a few hundred Yuan a month.

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The children in the school were excited to see me, I may not have mentioned, but I was the first foreigner to ever visit this village. Queen herself was bursting with pride to be walking beside me and translating for me. The head of the kindergarten wanted to take pictures of me in his school, I hesitate to imagine that soon there will be pictures of me proudly displayed there, although I did nothing more than walk through it.

It was so strange to see all those bright and curious faces and know that most of them would never leave the 50 mile radius of their increasingly poor and dry county; would never see the world; would never even finish a basic education, and that for many of them, the few minutes that I was in their school was the only time they might ever see someone from another country not on TV.

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We returned to her mother’s house where an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I will continue the story in another post, since there’s a character limit here. Tune in next time for the continuation of the Village Excusion!

Oct 26, 2007 at 3:57pm

When we left off, an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I do believe that the truck had no shocks at all, the roads were bumpy beyond belief, and sometimes there wasn’t a road, at least not what we would call one. There were certainly no traffic laws, and people simply drove wherever they could.

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This turned out to be quite a distance. On the way we drove past an interstate under construction, where I was informed that the government had taken up farmland to build a highway for the Olympics. We also passed a large metal statue of a hand holding a wine bottle, seemingly in triumph, a tribute to the wine of the region, which I have still never tried.

The Other Grandparents

Grandmother 2 lived in an older and less orderly village. The amenities were a good deal dirtier. The number of times I silently thanked my mother for teaching me how to be a gracious guest were countless. The yard was sort of a garden, and of course there were goats, fruit trees and even some beehives, well boxes of bees anyway.

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We walked around the village a bit, saw the main streets and the aqueduct which also doubles as a washing machine.

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Then her cousin came to pick us up and take us to some of the “sights”. There was a stage that the Beijing (Peiking) Opera apparently performs on during the spring festival.

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Is That a Town or a Film Set?

We went next to an old ruined village near the lake that has become a popular site for film directors. Apparently about half the ruin is authentic and the other half has been built over time by various film crews. I walked over a very rickety bridge, and was reassured that in the film, soldiers had run over it, but given what I know about film, this is not actually reassuring.

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Hostessing: Chinese Grandmother Style

We returned to her grandmother 2’s house, and the family picked up a chicken to serve with dinner, another nod to the guest of honor, as meat does not usually feature in their diet very much. A small swarm of relatives joined us, and I was ushered in to eat, at first alone, but I expressed they should join me; Queen said they were too shy to, but got them in anyway. They were also constantly pressing food on me, since both before and after dinner they made sure there were always snacks of fruit and bread nearby, and at dinner they constantly urged me to eat more.

They were also constantly worried I was too cold. They were amazed that I could use chopsticks. They were worried that Queen wouldn’t think of things I might need. They were generally very kind if somewhat fussy hosts.

After dinner, we gathered again on the brick bed, the kids worked on homework, I got a chance to look at some of their books. A few more people came and went, including her brother. As I became sleepy, they decided to evacuate to let me sleep. Queen told me that her family thought it might be rude to leave me to sleep alone, since the custom there is for the family to sleep together for warmth, but thankfully she was able to assure them that I would not be offended.

Again, they made sure I had food, tea, blankets and a bucket before leaving, and I headed into a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by a nocturnal goat and a lonely puppy. I had no idea up until this point that goats were the least bit nocturnal, nor was I aware that any animal not in some kind of serious distress could make noise that constantly for that long.

A Sunday Morning Stroll

I gave up on sleeping around 7am, got dressed and found a corner of the garden to brush my teeth in (remember, no sinks), had a cup of tea and headed out for a pre-breakfast stroll thru the village. On the way we passed a sign, which I was told was put there by the government to entreat people not to follow Falun Gong, and those of you who have talked to me at all in the last 3 years know that this has been a bit of an interest of mine¹, so I was unable to resist the temptation to engage in conversation when I discovered that all the tales I had read of Chinese propaganda were true.

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They were told that FLG followers committed suicide and killed people. She was angry that the US wouldn’t turn over Li Hongzhi (the leader) to the Chinese government, and simply seemed to have a block on the idea that the facts might have been distorted. I tried to explain the concept of independent studies, and that thus far the Chinese had not allowed us to conduct one. I told her that FLG practitioners in other countries were peaceful (if a little noisy), and she was amazed there were practitioners in other countries, which just goes to highlight the lack of information available, since in America, one only has to do a google search to find thousands of mentions in the news².

She also told me that prior to the ban, her mother had been a member, though they had renounced it when the government turned against it. All in all, it was illuminating. It took me a long time to convince her that I didn’t like or agree with Li or FLG, but that I respected their right to believe as they wanted. She argued that China had plenty of religious choices; I said 5 is not plenty. She said more religions cause more conflict, I said, no, pluralism decreases violence. It was interesting.

Anywho. There was a lovely breakfast, egg fried rice, more veggies and a kind of spicy mutton stew. Afterward we set out to climb the small mountain behind the house. There was a ladder going partway up the wall in the back, from which you could reach the road at the base of the mountain, and I was much mocked for not wanting to climb the wall, steep and without secure footing as it was, so we walked around.

The mountain had some goat trails, but for the main part, we picked our way upwards thru steep shifting gravel and spiky scrub plants. The view from the top, however, was expansive. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but you could make out the main mountain range, the lake and the railroad. Queen told me that when she was a little girl she could often see the Great Wall on those mountains clearly, but the pollution has now become such that you can only occasionally see the mountains at all.

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¹When this was written, I had only just finished my MA and my thesis was on the Falun Gong. The upshot is that any of my friends who held still for more than a minute over the last 18 months had been regaled with my research findings. Short version: it’s a cult based in Qi Gong practice (like Tai Chi) started in China in the 90’s, first embraced by the government, but banned in ’99. The leader lives in New York and directs his followers from there. Most people around the world who practice it are only aware of the exercise aspect, not too many people read far enough to get to the aliens with bone noses, the demons who want our bodies, and the leader’s determined efforts to take down the Communist government of China. It’s a major controversy in China. Followers are imprisoned, allegedly tortured and possibly even used as unwilling organ donors for transplant tourism. It’s a mess. You can start with Wikipedia, but the rabbit hole is deep.

²Still. I just looked and there are news articles as recent as a few days old. It looks like the controversy is still on.

Getting Back

Her cousin came back to get us, and drove us to a place where we could catch a ride back to the bus stop. This ride included driving on the still under construction highway, battling non-paved roads and trying to get around construction crews. We stuffed into a van with 8 other people and wended our way on the back roads to avoid the traffic jam caused by the fact that due to some visiting dignitaries in Beijing, trucks were not allowed into the city (makes a motorcade block seem like nothing).

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I would like to add, however, that throughout the whole weekend, Queen and I had a number of very deep discussions on the differences between China and America. I not only learned a great deal, as she was pleased to tell me the history and conditions of the many places and people we saw, but I was deeply impressed with her mind. It was obvious that even though she had been taught how to feel about certain things by the message of the party, that did not stop her from thinking about other things once they were presented to her.

*(please take a moment to go and look at the photo album, as this is an environment most people will never see in person or even in a National Geographic. My photos may not be travel magazine quality, but this village is off the map, and only seems only to be known to the families who live there. I store my albums on Facebook because the free storage space is limited on WordPress.)

Reflections *(2007)

All in all, the trip had a profound affect on me. What I saw, what I learned, there is nothing to compare with it in all my other experiences and I hope I will never forget it. I know its impossible to relay the depth of the experience, there is nothing you can read or even see in a photograph that compares to being there, but I hope that in some way this sharing of my experience has impacted some of you as well.

That I am living in a country where less than 100 miles from a city that rivals New York there is such amazing poverty, devastatingly poor education and tragically low standards of living is so mind blowing I still don’t think I get it, and this wasn’t anywhere NEAR the poorest part of China. And yet, despite these conditions, the people are kind to foreigners, proud of their achievements and their nation, and hopeful for the future of their children and it was able to produce this girl I met, who is brilliant and motivated. And not only does this girl have the desire and ability to go to college, to get a master’s degree and even to study overseas, her greatest ambition is not to flee to a big city and a high salary job, but to return to her village after all that and help the next generation to produce more people like her.

There is so much I could not include here, and already its 6 pages long, so I’m stopping, but I’ll be putting up the pen pal lists soon, and all I can say is that I encourage you to meet one of these students, not just to enrich their lives, but to enrich your own, because they are amazing.


Reflections 2017

It was and still is one of the best experiences. It opened my eyes to things going on not only in China, but around the world and in my own country too. It’s so easy for people in the cities (or in moderately well-off rural areas) to forget that millions or even billions of people on Earth still live in these conditions or worse. I have seen people around the world struggling to make a living, struggling to get an education, struggling to make a better life for the generation after them. And yet, most of those people have been the kindest and most generous. 

As much as I love gaping at the wonders of nature, or history, or even of the modern world, nothing in my travels can ever compare to the simple experience of sharing time with another person, whether it is an hour, a day, or a year. I never want to give up seeking out the wonders of the world, but I never want to forget that one of those wonders is human beings themselves.