Travel Journal

Faces of Nepal

Teresa Shaw Lengyel

A purple backpack ablaze with a big white Venture Up logo made its rounds on the luggage carousel at Katmandu’s international airport. What a great advertisement I thought, wondering if anyone would know us in Katmandu.

“Do you work for Venture Up?” An American had approached me, seeing the same logo on my T-shirt.


Here I was on the other side of the world and already feeling right at home in this Himalayan mountain kingdom. Funny how you can travel to just about any mountain land and catch up with someone you know, or somehow connected to you. Over the years it’s become less a coincidence and more a welcome expectation. There’s something about the mountain regions everywhere that draws in people of all backgrounds and connects them to one another on some level, if only for a moment.

?Thirty minutes from Katmandu, I sat on a hilltop with R.P. Pant in Patan. Rolling green farmlands broke way to a white sunlit stretch at the horizon. The snow-capped Himalaya have remained the same for eons, save for the changing light of day and the mood of the season.

He pointed to a faraway niche in the emerald hills where he was raised and worked on a farm before leaving his homeland for an education at Calcutta University. Thereafter he formed Sagarmatha Trekking agency in Katmandu with former Phoenician Bill Kite, and also served as the president of the Trekking Association of Nepal.

We didn’t talk much that morning, R.P., me or a friend who accompanied me from Arizona. We sat and watched faraway clouds drift across the peaks. A light wind picked up and it wasn’t long before a grey shroud smothered the snow-capped horizon. This land is a world apart from Katmandu, and now it was time to return there.

The road bends and blends through quiet meadows and mountain scenery en route to Nepal’s capital city. The car broke down on a lonely shady street. Parked cars with Westerners inside are magnets for curious Nepali children. One of them surfaced and stepped our way. R.P. talked with the soft spoken boy, who at 19 looked 12. He, like R.P., was a Hindu. His parents were arranging a marriage for him in a few months. He didn’t know the girl, but said he trusts his parents judgment. “I want someone a little fat, with light skin and educated.” He had quit school at 13. All his friends got married at 15 or 16, he said. “Why not me?” Before long, the car was ready and we were on our way to the Swayambhunath Temple. The boy was off to his farm.

?Katmandu is a fast and fun city, full of cars, tourists, street merchants and other Nepalese — some who live there, others trying to make a go of it. Like New York City, Katmandu does not reflect the essence of its country. Nepal is a fabulous melting pot of some 29 ethnic cultures, and Katmandu reflects this mix, although most are the native Newars.

While Katmandu offers a world of cultural experiences — the Swayambhunath stupa, Durbar Square, the artistic performances at the Vajra Hotel, to name a few — that’s not the main reason why people come.

Katmandu is the first stop before heading to the hills of Nepal. On this trip we were off for a short trek in the Annapurna region, a raft ride on the Trisuli River, and an elephant safari in the Chitwan Jungle. But we had to get to Pokara first.

West of Katmandu, Pokara is the gateway city to the trail head for the Annapurna circuit, the most popular trekking area in Nepal. Nepal Airlines offers flights there, but they are often booked up, as they were in our case. A 9-hour bus ride connects Katmandu to Pokara, and we were on the next departure. We were the only Westerners on board, and the only ones in the village where we stopped to eat. There was one meal for lunch that day: rice with chicken. A thin old man wrapped in swaddling clothes cupped rice in his hands and ate greedily. Locals lined up for food. We sat at a table and waited for our porters to bring us ours. To get it ourselves would be an insult to them. According to their culture, this would be the same as saying, “You’re not doing your job, so I’m doing it for you.”

?In Pokara, we ended up at a Tibetan refugee camp, open for trekkers to stay. The sun dropped and a Tibetan boy invited my friend and I to his home where he showed us some jewelry he brought from Tibet. Sitting in a dark adobe room, he lit a fire for tea and the dancing flames brought lively shadows to the small confines. We talked into the night with him and his father, who let his son speak for him for the most part. Then he brightened and talked on his own about Jimmy Carter who stopped by their camp in his helicopter when viewing the Tibetan refugee camps in the 1970s.

Annapurna Trek

From the camp, tiny farm villages dot the trekking route. Our porters were Ram, 27, a Newar, and Pema, a Sherpa from the Everest region, who was either 16 or 24 depending on who asked him. The first part of the trek was very steep. It was hot and humid in October, the peak month in the high tourist season. Passing through Dhampus, laughing children chased us, turning sad when pointing to minor cuts and scratches for us to heal. Some were already scarred. With great concern, I played along and wiped their wounds with a moist towelette.

We reached Potana, the first stop on the trek. There, I met Bal Bahudur, who had just returned from a month-long trip to Tibet, and also had a load of jewelry. His family had for centuries lived in a farm village higher in the mountains, but the flocks of tourists on the Annapurna circuit drew him to seek his fortune here and abandon a life of physical hardship on the farm. Unfortunately, nobody was buying jewelry that day.

?Dusk turned to darkness and foreign trekkers from several countries sat at a teahouse table exchanging travel stories, a scene so common in any of the world’s remote tourist areas — the outsiders gather in one spot, isolated from the locals.

Village neighbors sat together outside their homes. I walked in the darkness, saying “Namaste,” the common greeting meaning, “I salute the peace within in you.” To my surprise several of them spoke very good English. For the most part the villagers were self taught, with the help from a few in the hoards of passing trekkers. Being the most popular trekking route in Nepal, the Annapurna region attracts 25,000 outsiders per year. Nearly all come from October through March, overwhelming the region’s 40,000 inhabitants.

I didn’t buy any of Bal’s jewelry, but gave away nearly half of my medicine supply. The night fell and I retreated to my bed in the teahouse. I ordered chicken for dinner. The cook made a long face. “That will take a long time,” he said. “We have to kill it first.”

It was a perfect cloudless day when we passed the Talka Lodge, a high point on the trek with deep, plunging valleys and high summits fat with snow. A man with a big book ran out of the lodge chasing after us. He said his village needed a bridge and we got the idea he was soliciting donations when he showed us a book full of signatures of North Americans and Europeans. It noted the amounts each person gave, which were questionably high. We gave him a few rupees for his efforts.

?A rhododendron and oak forest leads the way down a valley and upward to Ghandrung, a mountain hamlet that connects to the glacial foothills of the high peaks. Ghandrung is part of a 1,000 square foot area involved in the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), a product of the World Wildlife Fund that has managed to direct trekkers’ permit fees to support the environment and protect it from the encroaching tourists. The program provides the local people with the skills, knowledge, technical and financial assistance needed to help them improve their quality of life.

From Ghandrung, there are a few ways to go. The longer term groups usually head closer to the Annapurnas, where a minimum of 22 days are needed for the round-trip hike from Pokara. Most of the others head to Gorepani to take in spectacular views of Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Kali Gandaki Gorge. Aquamarine waters runoff the mountains forming wide flowing waves to the lowlands, filtering to Nepal’s rivers and eventually to the sacred river Ganges in India. I took refuge at a sandbar, closing my eyes to the rushing waters and the ominous looming peaks.

The porters were behind, and continued up to Chundrakot a major transition point where descending and ascending trekking teams meet. A dozen merchants sold jewelry to the passing crowds. A woman called me over, asking me to trade my glacier glasses for a necklace. No deal. A thick herd of sheep crowded the trail as we rambled down to Pokara the next day. The shepherds apologized to the porters for blocking our way and swatted the sheep to make them go faster. “No,” I told Ram. “This is his home. We’ll wait.” The white mass waddled over the bumpy trail lined with stone-laid homes. Terraces of crops unfolded to the valley below. The sheep moved out to pasture, signaling our descent through thick trees and farmlands toward Pokara.

It was sunny and hot. Too hot. Fishtail Lake was clearly ahead, below in the distance. My pace quickened as I neared the water. I shot ahead, dropped my pack at its banks, and dove into the coolness. Swimming around, I noticed a group of startled Nepali women gathering at the shore, smiling in quizzical amazement. Nothing felt better, save for the shower to follow at the charming Garden Hotel in Pokara. The next day we were ready to raft the Trisuli.

Monkeys dangled in trees lining the Trisuli River. Children swam and waved at the shores. Rope bridges hung high from above, connecting the cliffs that plunged upward from the shores. The waters of the Trisuli are mild, its wildest rapid is called “Upset,” which didn’t upset us in the least. Having rafted both the Trisuli and the Sunkosi, Nepal’s largest river I realized why Nepal is not known for its wild rivers. It’s not the rapids that draw thousands of travelers here every season, but the Nepal experience by way of boat.

Chitwan Jungle

Next we headed to the Terai region of the Chitwan Jungle, home of the Tharu people. Dusty villages and dirt roads lead to a river with no bridge. A jeep awaited us at the ?banks. We jumped in and without warning were headed into the river sharing it with bathing people and wet elephants. Banana trees, thatched roofs, covered ox carts and elephants signaled another way of life apart from the mountains, which were still in view. Peaks visible from the area include Manaslu, Himalchuli, Pun Hill, Annapurna II, Lumjun Himal, Annapurna II, Annapurna III, Fishtail, and Annapurna South.

One-horned rhinos and the elusive Bengal tiger are the highlights of the Chitwan Jungle safari experience. Both endangered species, there are only 1,000 one-horned rhinos left in existence, 300 of which reside in Chitwan. About 40 of Nepal’s 200 Bengal tigers are also found here. A fish-eating crocodile, called the gharial, is another rare species, for which a breeding center has been established near the park headquarters. Chitwan also hosts leopards, sloth bear, jackals, porcupines, buffaloes, wild boar, monkeys, and more than 400 species of birds, including peacocks. River dwellers include the Gangetic dolphin, the python and the king cobra.

The Tharu people of the Terai are darker skinned than the other ethnic cultures of Nepal, and have a rich ethnic heritage. Farming is the their way of life. Tharu farmers here erect machan towers which serve as scarecrows to help keep the rhinos away from the crops. At sundown, villagers take turns sleeping at the top of the tower to keep watch of over the fields and scare off the rhinos.

A rhino was spotted near our jungle huts we learned the next morning. Visions of a charging rhino came to mind. The rule is, if a rhino comes running after you, run in an ?arc. Their eyesight is so bad that they won’t be able to follow you. Better yet, find a tree and hide. We needn’t fear of rhinos that day; we were headed for a more tame experience: bird watching. More impacting were the insidious spiders and 4-foot tall vultures high in the trees where a myriad of birds made their homes. Later, I ventured alone to one of the elephant camps. There are two camps in this region, each having a total of 40 elephants. Elephants are not native to the Chitwan Jungle, but were gifts from the government of India. They eat at least 500 pounds of food a day . Full-time caretakers make so-called “elephant sandwiches”, grass wrapped and packed over grain.

A witch doctor appeared to perform a routine ritual. He prayed to several icons during his many rituals, I was told. At this time he was praying for the overall health of the elephants, and the wooden icons were set in a row. Other times, if an elephant gets loose, he prays to the jungle goddess Durga Mata, for the elephant’s return. The witch doctor, in turn, sacrifices two goats to show his faith.

I had looked forward to the elephant safari the next day. Our safari left from the other elephant camp, which we reached by way of the river. A dugout canoe awaited at the banks. It was unstable until we all sat down. The boats are carved from a capoca tree; it takes seven men one week to make one of them. Canoes also serve as another way to explore the area, and the best way to meet the crocodiles. Birds swooned along the sandbars. Two crocodiles lifted their eyes from the water’s surface, never posing a threat.

?Dozens of caretakers were spread throughout the camp. A baby elephant, seven months old, swayed and bounced his head and body, crossing his legs like an anxious child who needed to use the bathroom. Then he’d lift his trunk and pounce it at his intruder. Further away were large, tusked elephants. When I approached them the caretakers screamed, “Hello, Danger,” warning me to keep away. Bull elephants are more aggressive then the others, but with a little pressure they still allowed me to take one on the safari.

Elephants lead our way and the safari was about to begin. With the tap of a stick, the caretaker brought the massive saddled beast to the ground. His hind quarter spread out like a slope of dry, cracked mud. I stepped up on his foot and scrambled up to the saddle, feeling like one of the captors of the giant in Gulliver’s Travels.

Three rhinos ripped through the grass as we began the safari. Then we learned the other rule about rhinos. White and red are the two colors to incite anger in a rhino, the exact colors my friend and I were wearing that day. Thank goodness for the beasts below us.

The day grew dim. As we returned to camp, a low resonant roar came through the grass. That foreboding feeling ignited by the sound of a rattlesnake in the desert, heard but not seen. This was no snake. A Bengal tiger was rattling in the brush. The tiger is a solitary animal, hiding by day, hunting at night. We waited from afar, hoping he would appear. Maybe the guide was reluctant to get too close, as dinnertime drew near.

Our covered ox-drawn wagon brought us away from the elephant camp through fields where families of children herded sheep. Sometimes they’d hitch a ride, reaching for our arms as they stepped on the moving cart. One group gave us their littlest brother. When he cried, I jumped off and returned him.

Plans called for Tharu dances that night. I had expected a busload of dancers would arrive from Katmandu, for there was no semblance of a thriving tourist community here. Playful children ran in the dusty streets trying to fly a kite made of leaves. In all ways, they seem to live off the land and make do.

Fire lit the night and the dancers came through the trees. The same people I saw in the village were now at our huts, dressed as they were at work; no pretenses or costumes to please the tourists. It was refreshing. The dances were genuine, an uncontrived example of their normal cultural expression. The stick dance, the last one, was most impressive. Using 6-foot poles of thick wood, they danced in a circle cracking sticks together in a remarkably synchronized order. Bowing briefly, they exited through the trees toward home.

Morning broke and the covered wagon sat in the sun ready to take us through the trees, and to the jeep to cross the river. We, too, were heading home, by way of a winding cliff side road to Katmandu.


A Night in Dracula’s Castle

Teresa Shaw Lengyel

(Arefu Valley, ROMANIA) — Dracula’s Castle loomed 1,500 feet above the Arefu Valley where I stood. This is no storybook land, but a region roamed by the real 15th century Count Vlad Tepes Dracula upon whom Bram Stoker based his famous novel, “Dracula.” This was my third trip to Eastern Europe, the land of my forebears. I had just descended from the Transylvanian Alps, where lay the roots of the maternal side of my heritage. Beyond Transylvania now, I was about to ascend to the castle set on a rocky Carpathian ridge, 120 miles northwest of Bucharest. It was a last minute impulse on the final day of the World Dracula Congress. Seeking to jump start its tourism industry, the Romanian government invited 300 writers, academics and entrepreneurs to the congress, which included a first-ever tour of Dracula landmarks. Forty had come on this tour to see the Castle of Arges, named for the river that flows freely at the mountain’s base 500 feet above the Arefu Valley where I stood. This is no storybook land, but a region roamed by the real 15th century Count Vlad Tepes Dracula upon whom Bram Stoker based his famous novel, “Dracula.”

This was my third trip to Eastern Europe, the land of my forebears. I had just descended from the Transylvanian Alps, where lay the roots of the maternal side of my heritage. Beyond Transylvania now, I was about to ascend to the castle set on a rocky Carpathian ridge, 120 miles northwest of Bucharest. It was a last minute impulse on the final day of the World Dracula Congress.

Seeking to jump start its tourism industry, the Romanian government invited 300 writers, academics and entrepreneurs to the congress, which included a first-ever tour of Dracula landmarks. Forty had come on this tour to see the Castle of Arges, named for the river that flows freely at the mountain’s base.

My wife, Teresa, walked me to the trail head and insisted I take the blanket she carried from the bus. Others in the group were caught up in a photographic frenzy, too busy to notice my departure.

The air smelled of rain. As a mountaineer, I had spent many cold nights sleeping on icy cliffs. A night of wind and rain in June wouldn’t kill me. We didn’t know if overnighting in the castle was legal, and surely weren’t about to ask our inflexible escorts. Still set in Communist ways, they had one answer for any request beyond protocol: “Impossible.” Teresa, pregnant with my first son, Mason, stayed with the others who would spend the night in village homes.

The clouds grew darker and the sun dropped behind the peaks. I shot through the black forest on the very route the Boyars used to haul brick, stone and mortar up the mountainside. Count Dracul had captured in the Boyars in 1457 after they had killed his brother. They were marched from Targoviste and sentenced to build the castle within two years or die. True to his word, those who succeeded were set free, others had already died from sickness or overwork.

The trail led to hundreds of steps winding upward through the trees. I moved quickly, taking three steps at a time, energized by the fear that one of the escorts would yell for me to stop or chase me down. But it was quiet, save for my steps gaining rhythm, the same upward motion that had trained me for more serious ascents.

It was an easy trek without a heavy load. I wasn’t exactly equipped for a night on a mountain. I had a loaf of bread, two bananas, two beers and a pack of matches, all of which I would have traded later for a flashlight.

The unmistakable roar of the bus engine left me to ponder. I was alone in the forest, deep in Romania, a long haul from my native Arizona. I had no idea where the bus was going. Experience traveling the Romanian countryside convinced me the villagers below probably did not speak English, and public transportation didn’t reach them. I was slated to meet Teresa in Bucharest the next evening. That was tomorrow’s problem.

A uniformed figure stood a hundred steps above me, with an assault weapon and radio on hand. Perhaps he was guarding the castle, I thought, climbing toward him with my eyes cast down. Passing him, I pointed to the castle, saying “Dracula”. He smiled and said nothing. I realized he was guarding the rear flank of the hydro-electric plant hidden in the limestone canyon below.

Breaking through the trees, sweat dripping, I was atop the ridge in 30 minutes in full view of the castle and the road below. The bus was parked a few miles further up the canyon. I waved my arms. I could see everyone, but like Dracula’s reflection, no one could see me. I was in the 15th century now, thousands of miles from home, in an old fortress high on a mountain, home of “Vlad the Impaler”, killer of thousands.

Romanians consider him a national hero for his success in fighting off the Turks. He is most notorious for impaling invaders on wooden stakes and leaving their bodies to rot at public roadsides. ! History shows more than 10,000 Turks were impaled and displayed in nearby Targoviste. Many Romanians take offense at the West’s fascination with the count and the vampire icon he inspired.

The belief in vampirism is a modern day fear in many Romanian villages. In 1960 Boston College Professor Raymond McNally, co-author of “In Search of Dracula”, witnessed villagers in Rudne, near the Borgo Pass, plunging a wooden stake through the heart of an 18-year-old girl who had committed suicide. Other village practices to keep the dead supine include putting coins on the corpse’s eyelids, nailing heads to coffins, slitting the feet to prevent walking, and tying the hands to the feet.

The first Romanian translation of Stoker’s novel appeared just six years ago. Only now is the government ready to cash in on its fame as the land of Dracula, a move that sparked plans for a second conference in Los Angeles in 1997 — the hundred year celebration of Stoker’s novel.

Dracula’s castle is in ruins, although its layout is still obvious with its long corridors, archways and large rooms. It covers no more than 8,000 square feet, and at one time had two stories and a dungeon. I ran through the structure searching for a place to sleep. Lizards, millipedes and slugs crawled around, bringing to mind Renfield, Dracula’s slave in Stoker’s novel, who feasted on night creatures.

A stairway led to a wooden planked bridge where limestone cliffs fell away thousands of feet on both sides. Steep steps climbed upward and disappeared in the castle walls.

By 7:30 p.m. it was nearly dark and raining. I sat on the cliff below the bridge waiting for the rain to stop. When it did, the wind whipped. I was shivering. I scoured the steep hillside for firewood. The work warmed me until I was pelted again by rain. Running to the bridge, I flung the blanket across its railings to create a roof. I needed something to weight the blanket. I clawed at the castle floor for rocks that were caked in hardened dirt. Blood oozed from my scraped knuckles seeping into the dirt; appropriate to the setting. Bat silhouettes spotted the sky, which was no surprise in a land of limestone. Romania has an estimated 11,000 limestone caves.

I noticed an intact archway leading to a 15-foot deep pit. Its wall stretched an additional 30 feet above me. This was part of the very tower from which the count’s wife jumped when the Turks invaded the castle. According to some historians, the Turks had her impaled at the castle entrance.

The count reportedly escaped by riding a horse with its shoes on backwards, fooling the Turks that he had just entered the castle, rather than left.

The night turns black. Wolves far and near begin to howl. Bears and wolves commonly enter the fortress at night, according to the conference escorts. I am stuck until dawn. My mind races. I imagine powerful hungry beasts roaming through the fortress. I contemplate my escape should any such creatures venture onto the catwalk leading to my small encampment under the arch. The bridge is the only way out, unless I jump into the walled pit behind me.

At 3 a.m. the wind is ferocious. My only protection is the blanket I was reluctant to take the evening before. Firewood is low. I have no flashlight. I have no choice but to force my way through the darkness and search for more wood. Fighting the wind, wrapped tightly in my blanket, I walk on broken stones through a high walled corridor leading to the forest. Around a bend, the moon appears and lights my path.

The moonlight raises my spirits. The wolves call. The wind catches my blanket, now a cape billowing in the wind. Shadows dance before me. I’m lost in the moment. I see myself from a distance. A lone figure doused in moonlight standing at the entrance of his cliff side castle. This is the spirit of Dracula.

I run through the wind and easily find a new load of wood. My movements are passionate and free. The activity is invigorating. It’s a magical event to be rushing through the woods and castle walls, alone, at night, with the wind and the wolves on my side.

I sit by the fire listening to the wolves calling, taking in the final hours of a night in the 15th century.

At 6:30 a.m. I disappear into forest. The morning light brings warmth and comfort and takes the magic away. I can easily see through the trees and follow the steps back to the main road. I stand atop the stairs as two armed guards walk up towards me. I smile and nod as they pass. They look right through me.

As told by David Lengyel to Teresa Lengyel, co-founders of Venture Up Travel and Team Building Events.


Cultural Comments

Teresa Shaw Lengyel

(Kathmandu, NEPAL) — Nowadays anybody can be an adventurer without facing the risks and dangers of the first explorers of long ago. The typical adventure traveler is not a great athlete, but one who simply enjoys the outdoors and new experiences. Adventure travel has caught on, and more and more tour companies are promoting their trips as “adventure travel,” when there is hardly any risk at all.

Modern equipment, transportation and communications have made adventure travel safer and helped bring the great world of adventure to the masses; people of all ages and abilities. In remote regions, porters and pack animals make hiking much easier — yet this kind of hiking is called “trekking”, which sounds much harder than it actually is. While many adventure trips require physical ability, such as mountaineering and moderate hiking, some trips require merely physical activity, such as safaris and cultural journeys. These adventures may involve long rides off road and occasional walks in historic sites or wildlife preserves. Active travel is the more appropriate term for today’s type of adventure travel. But that would take the fun out of it.

In bringing the masses to the remote, adventure travel has also brought together people from worlds apart. And the impact of tourism on local cultures has not always been a good one. For years adventure travelers have come to faraway lands, trying to absorb in a few weeks what took centuries to develop. While a visitor’s objective may be to reach a famous overlook in an hour, or take the best photos for slide shows back home, the goal of the hill people they meet is basic day-to-day survival.

Many haven’t the education or the money to learn about people of other lands except through direct contact with outsiders who pass by their homes.

Cross-cultural exchange is a major part of the travel experience. Once we return from a trip, it’s not the raging river or the towering summit that’s remembered most back home, but the game you played with village children or the exchange with the wandering merchant who left his farm life in the hills for a trade to appeal to travelers like you and me.

All people have a natural curiosity for the way others live. Native peoples are intrigued by the exotic visitors who pass by their homes, but not all of them aspire to acquire our ways.

While in Nepal I met Lhakpa Dorje Sherpa in Khumjung, a tiny village dwarfed by the peaks of the Everest region. Dorje had reached the summit of Mt. Everest with an American team a few years before, and had spent a few months in the United States giving slide shows, organized by the American friends he met in Nepal. It was a weary chore he recalls. While in Arizona he enjoyed Chinle, near the Four Corners Region on the Navajo Reservation,. “Before I came to America I never knew they had Indians,” he told me. “They thought I was an Indian. They wouldn’t believe me. They didn’t know about Sherpas.”

Back in Nepal, he lives with his family in his Khumjung hut when not leading treks or climbing. We sat for a long while before the hot coals one cool evening in January. We had a nice Sherpa meal and for some reason it didn’t taste as unusual as my last attempt at Sherpa food. “Would you ever visit America again?” I asked. He smiled and shook his head. “No. There would be no point.” I had the impression he thought America was a silly place.


Berlin to Moscow by Train: 30 days to USSR Collapse

Teresa Shaw Lengyel

(Berlin, MOSCOW) — It was Saturday night in December 1991, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when we crossed the line into East Berlin. Expecting a city in rapid transition, full of eager Western wannabes, and night life rivaling its western counterpart, West Berlin, my husband, David, and I found ourselves walking alone on the famous Alexanderplatz.

Walking the lonely streets to areas unknown, a half dozen cars pulled toward us, each asking us directions in rapid German. It was assumed we were East Berliners, but I was convinced by now the locals were mostly at home drinking hot tea, and everyone else was as lost as we were.

The drabness was broken by a stretch of well-lit stores, now closed, built some time after the fall of the wall. A fashionable pub was open, with a limited menu of ice cream, coffee and liquor. The only obvious place to eat was at Wienerwald, Germany’s answer to Denny’s.

We stumbled upon Zur Letzen Instanz, a smoke-filled tavern dating to 1612 on a dark hidden street. Napoleon and his team of men favored this place, and they probably got better service than we did. Nothing can be said for the food since we were never waited on, but the atmosphere brimmed with old world flavor, which is why we stayed in the first place.

Returning to West Berlin, where Saturday nights don’t end until noon on Sunday, neon streets lit the way to our hotel, the Schwiezerkoff Berlin, a brand new addition to the Intercontinental chain with the largest hotel swimming pool in Berlin, then anyways.

Set in lush white surroundings, the immense lap pool evinced the extremes of Western extravagance and provided a last chance workout before riding a 32-hour train the next day to Moscow, where the Soviet Union would collapse in 30 days.

“May we have two first class tickets with a sleeping cabin to Moscow,” I said to the woman at the railway station who greeted me in English. She laughed. Should I have asked in German? Was it my emphatic “first class?” “Moscow,” she shook her head. “That’s a long way.” Smiling and breaking into chuckles throughout the transaction, she gave me reason to worry. “Do many Americans take this route?” She laughed again. “No. Only the Russians.”

It was an investigatory trip for us. We were exploring business opportunities in Russia and were scheduled to meet at the White House with senior officials of the Prime Minister’s Innovation Council. Tourism was one of our interests, which is one reason why we took the train from Berlin.

Our train attendant spoke only Russian and a few German words. She appeared in her late fifties, with severe brown eyes that missed nothing and a strong sense of authority that didn’t match her five foot frame.

Whenever she asked a question, we’d both say “yes,” a polite way of saying, “We have no idea what you are saying.” She understood when I asked “Parlez-vous francais?” and shot back her answer: “Russe”. She left with our train tickets and returned with an old dictionary pointing to a key work, spelled “t-e-e”. Yes, we answered in emphatic fluency. We’d like a cup of tea.

Two ornately carved silver covers held the glasses of bland tea that she set on the table. It reminded me of Hedrick Smith’s book, “The Russians”, when he described things created just for show.

David returned the favor with a pack of Marlboros, which brought her hand to her heart and a smile to her face. I hoped she wouldn’t light up in our non-smoking cabin, but that was before I learned rules don’t bend or break on a Russian train. Marlboros, like bubble gum and coins, are typical Western tokens desired by the Russians, so we were prepared in case we needed a favor or wished to return one. Marlboros, like bubble gum and coins, are typical Western tokens favored by the Russians, so we were prepared in case we needed a favor or wished to return one.

It was a quiet train, interrupted only by the calls of regimen. We slept through the rest of Germany until a passport policeman entered our cabin. “Russe?” we asked. He laughed. “Polsh” (sic). We were a long way from Russia. Delight filled his eyes as he thumbed through our U.S. passports. He toyed with David’s worn out one, running his thumb over the photo a couple of times. We asked for a stamp, he smiled and gladly gave us our only token of Poland.

Having ridden trains across countless countries, it was surprising, almost suspect, how quiet this one continued to be. I knew the Russians were not known to be gregarious and expressive, but 32 hours on a train would drive anybody a little stir crazy. I inspected the aisle to discover a couple speaking inaudibly. Two young children came to peak in our door and ran away.

The train dragged through a dull day in Poland, rolling past bare yellow hills and still people in muted clothing fishing in lakes lined with scraggly trees. We passed run-down farmlands and lonely tin-roofed houses, some in bright yellows, blues, and reds, Crayola colors that lent hope to a somber season. Storybook garden houses were well-groomed, waiting for their bare lands to brighten at the breadth of spring. Wafts of white vapor hung in the air. Colorful gates surrounded families of gravestones. Men huddled around fires, others repaired train tracks in the rain.

The day grew dim in mid-afternoon and Poland took on a warm pink hue. Soft sloping hills folded into the mist and bare birch trees made spider web-like impressions against a graying shroud. Fiery pink, the hard-edged sun dropped into the last fold, bathing the land with an unearthly luminescence. The sky was black at 4:30.

At night there was nothing to do but sit, read, and think of food. Hot water and tea were the only refreshments available on board, no food. There was no dining car, so it was good that we had stocked up in Berlin, especially because the Warsaw train station had nothing to offer either.

A black trench coat appeared at the door, signaling our approach to the Russian border. Surprised at the sight of our passports, he asked “U.S.A.?” staring my husband and me hard in the eyes. Guilty!

It was a scene from an old Russian spy novel, but it was December 1991. There was nothing casual about the officer’s demeanor, as if he hadn’t learned about perestroika, and the inevitable changes that are happening now and still lay ahead.

He checked the pages of my passport several times. David’s tattered one showed the ravages of a fall in the Sea of Cortez, so it required more scrupulous inspection. He ran his thumb across his photo over and over again, much more severely than his Polish counterpart. We laughed. There’s something about having a governmental invitation in your back pocket that sets you at ease when you’re being scrutinized by the Russian police. Our laughter ceased when he ordered us out of the cabin, but he was only checking for stowaways. (I could understand that if we were heading the other direction, but we were going to Moscow at a peerless time of turbulent change and unrest). On the floor lay the Arizona Republic I had saved with a photo of a man and woman rummaging for food in a garbage dump near Moscow (as seen in America, but they’d never believe that).

“We’re dead,” I thought, remembering the section on the customs form about foreign literature that I left blank. He didn’t notice it. He stamped our visas, which were tucked into our passports and handed them over. Relief.

Next came a green suit with emblems who snatched our customs forms. He perused them quickly. “Golt?” he barked, bending over me and pointing to my wedding ring. I nodded and the ring was registered as a commodity that cannot be sold or exchanged.

Discovering that our passports weren’t stamped I gathered the gumption to follow them to the door to request the official mark of Russia. Stamps are not required, and certainly not part of the regimen, so my request was already denied by protocol. Pointing to my stamped visa, the policeman’s hard expression was enough to tell me that another stamp was out of the question. They stepped onto the wet crackling gravel and disappeared into the night mist.

Returning to the cabin, the cast of our railroad car appeared in the aisle staring in wonder at the foreigner who questioned authority. Drama on the Moscow Express.

Our train conductor followed me to our cabin attempting to explain why I didn’t need a stamp. Imitating her reaction to the Marlboro gift, I took my hand to my heart, and she understood my persistence. Passports in hand, she went outside to the officials, only to return in minutes. “Nein,” she said shaking her head.

We were entering the land of regimen, a land where change requires a jolt to the Eastern mindset. One way to do that is for the Russians to come face to face with those once forbidden foreigners who now visit more often, to do business, explore and profit from their land —a land of growing joint ventures with firms of wealthy nations that some say will save them from economic ruin.

Two weeks later the land we were crossing, Balrussia, became part of the new commonwealth. Boundaries and new policies may change overnight, but the people, long set in regimen, are slow to recognize their new independence and how to make the most of it.

Our train conductor tried to make the most of her face to face opportunity. That night, she drew me to her quarters, turned on the light and showed me a tacky watch with a guys face on it. The light flickered, and the face was Gorbachev, still tacky. She took out a German dictionary, pointing to “kaufen” (to buy) and I began to feel squirmy. I pretended I didn’t understand, excused myself, and sent David to her.

Peeking through the door, I saw her write $50 on his pad and hoped in his reluctance he was pondering a polite way to exit as I did. We still had a long way to go and she was the last person we’d want to offend at this point.

Boredom struck. Escaping our first class confines, we headed for the dimly lit second class cars which seemed twice as full as ours. Russians stood in the aisles talking in monotone, casting puzzled looks our way as we passed them smiling. Nobody laughed or smiled, not even the group in the next car which was full of empty bottles of Cobemckoe Ulaunarickoe, a Russian champagne. I took an empty bottle so I’d know how to spell it, drawing a car-full of eyes upon me as I slithered back to my cabin.

The first class aisle was empty, save for a plump young girl who directed me from a cabin I had mistaken for mine; and for our next door neighbor who stood outside our door. “On a tour?” he asked. He was a developer working on a new joint venture with a German firm and he wondered what two Americans were doing traveling alone to Moscow.

If we were on a tour, we were the only two in it, he probably could figure on his own. So I had the impression he wanted to talk with us. We welcomed his dry questions on a train where even the children seemed severe and unapproachable. Our tickets were set on the table, marking our approach to Moscow. One at a time the cabin doors slid open and the cast reappeared.

The two cars next to us were full to the ceilings with boxes of goods to be sold in Moscow, and we realized why the train was so quiet. The family of the young girl who stirred me away from one of the cabins earlier owned the boxes. Our neighbor had told us her parents worked for one of the embassies and were capitalizing on their freedom to travel back and forth.

We chugged slowly, endlessly through an immense jungle of high rise apartment buildings and dimly lit streets, bringing to mind images of Gotham City in the 1930s, or East Berlin with 50,000 more high rises. It took more than an hour to make it to the Moscva Train Station. On arrival we bolted from the train, ignoring the black market money changers who swooned upon us.

Outside a sidewalk orchestra played a concert hall rendition of Dr. Zhivago’s theme song to a crowd of men; a surreal effect in a seedy neighborhood of pesty opportunists and hustling taxi drivers who wouldn’t leave us alone. When the music stopped we left in a waiting car ready to explore the new land of opportunity.

Teresa Shaw Lengyel is a travel writer and lifer at Venture Up Travel and Team Building Events.


Passage to Inner Mongolia

Teresa Shaw Lengyel

(Bejing, CHINA) — The air was thick and humid and the light of dusk lent a green hue to the Beijing train station. Crowds moved hastily in the heat, feet slapping at the concrete in decisive directions. Few took notice of the five Americans led by suited officials through the maze of commotion.

Somehow, we weaved a path to our train and in minutes were off to the fringes of Inner Mongolia in a cramped 4-person sleeping cabin.

Six hours and 167 miles from Beijing, we landed in the ancient city of Datong, just south of the Great Wall of China and the border of Inner Mongolia. Minutes away, a long muddy stretch called the Jade River kept us from venturing to the border. I took off my shoes, rolled up my jeans and walked alone through the soft oozing mud towards it, while the group waited for the guide to fetch boots.

Adobe remnants of the Great Wall, a time worn border, mark the boundary between China and Inner Mongolia. A farmer’s path showed the way to the Mongolian village of Shi Yao, where a woman sitting on a log bench beckoned me to sit by her. Soon I was surrounded by others.

She took my forearm and studied it, then felt if for firmness and strength. The other villagers were curious too, and felt my arm. Later, when the guide caught up, they asked him if I hoed. “No, but I swim with training paddles,” I said, knowing that nobody there would understand even if I said it in Chinese, Mongolian or Hungarian.

She said my skin was fresh and soft, and she pointed to some freckles on my arms, something she had never seen before. I taught her a new word, “freckles,” inciting the villagers to giggle and call out “freckles, freckles, freckles.” The village was rarely visited by outsiders, save for foreign guests and diplomats.

Yungang Caves

What attracts most people to the Datong region is the Yungang Caves, built in 460 A.D. The Yungang Caves — 53 in all — are set at the southern cliffs of the Wuzhou Mountain. The caves comprise a mass of sandstone carvings of Buddha, totaling 51,000 in all. The largest is 55 feet high, the smallest, a few inches.

The faces of the largest Buddhas withstand the ravages of time. Each took only two months to build, but that involved the 60,000 men who created the sacred site during a 40 span.

Little changed over the centuries, save for the weathering of more exposed and fragile figures, and the addition of wood structures around the caves in 1661. But, like another victim of the modern age, this century brought the most significant change. In 1949 the Yungang Caves were declared an historic monument, triggering the most unscrupulous of art thieves to decapitate hundreds of the figures and land their heads in the arms of museums in Japan, Europe, and North America.

To reach the heart of Inner Mongolia, a train ride with too many stops took us from Datong to Hohot, capital of the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, and gateway to the grasslands. We were making our way to Gegantala, site of the Grasslands Festival.

Hohot breaks way to smaller towns, then layers and layers of serene swelling hills that continue forever. Mushrooms, black moss, and this season, yellow, gold and purple wild flowers mottled the vast green carpet. A huge white dome loomed ahead. We had reached Gegantala.

Grasslands Festival

It was hot and bright. Slow fat clouds dragged shadows across the rolling plains. Bright pinks, yellows, and blues lit the festival grounds. Colorful performers from districts far and near were preparing for the biggest event of the year, Nadamu, an 800-year-old Mongolian tradition celebrating the harvest season.

The next four days brought horse races and roping competitions, archery, wrestling, dancing, singing, and fancy feasts of mutton and other meats; never fish, because to Mongolians fish is the food of the gods. Some of the activities were organized, others were not. Mongolian horses were the main attraction. The ground thundered and clouds of dust welled high into the distance. Riders broke through the dust, moving their feisty horses to clearer vision.

A crowd ran to the horses, and scurried back as they charged in their direction. Eventually, the horses spread out. Some of the riders cantered them in random fashion before the crowd, showing their skills. Others rode off to the hills to their homes.

At night, we slept in a yurt, which bears a strong resemblance to a Navajo hogan. The yurt is the main house for nomadic Mongolians and dates to ancient times. It is a round domed tent, with a wool floor, wood poles, a stove in the middle and a hole on top for the stove pipe. Modern families who are not nomadic use yurts as Americans would a patio, for morning and afternoon teas. Anyone can buy one for about $2,000, minus shipping.

I awoke one morning at 5 a.m. feeling the need for a jog. I ran into the dark night wind straining my eyes as they played tricks on me. The wind whipped and the sky was too dark to make out anything at the horizon, or anything at all, save for my feet clapping at the cool, moist ground. The sky was slow to brighten as I searched for the aobao I had seen the evening before.

Aobaos are found in high places on the steppes and serve for orientation and as places to make sacred offerings. These 3-tiered conical mounds of white rocks piled high have branches on top anchoring a line of prayer flags to the ground.

I jumped a fence past Mongolian yurts, through fields of horses, feeling the sweet grass ripping at the root. It grew thicker and I veered off to a winding dirt road and continued on a flat brown stretch. Prayer flags snapped in the wind. The sun rose drawing long shadows to the west, and a cool calm to the grasslands.

I ran uphill through the thick wet grass and waited in the dull cloudy light until 6 a.m., when our van was scheduled to leave for Baotou. I shot a roll of film and jogged down my matted path.

The grasslands were quiet. My feet resounded like cantering hooves and a long dancing shadow mocked me. From a distance, the grasslands appeared like rolling hills. When you’re on them, they look flat until you finda long dancing shadow mocked me.

From a distance, the grasslands appeared like rolling hills. When you’re on them, they look flat until you find new hilly horizons every hundred feet.

Beyond Mongolia

The van came to meet me and we were off for a long, dusty ride to the Resonant Sand Gorge across the Yellow River at Baotou. Located in the central part of the Kubuqi Desert, the gorge measures a very steep 130 feet high.

We hiked to the top, sat back in the sand and slid down to the sounds of a muffled roar. Walking along, you can also hear the sands mysterious sounds if you push the sand forcefully. One story says that the sand is fine and dry, with large quantities of quartz. After it is exposed to the sun, the rubbing of the fine sand particles causes static electricity and the noise. We left the sands for a harrowing route that landed us at the foot of the Jabhlangt Mountain and the largest lamasery in Inner Mongolia.

The Wudang Lamasery is a training ground for monks practicing the yellow sect of Buddhism, which is widely practiced in Tibet. Young men with a calling come from all over China come to learn the way during the 3-year program. Each class has about 30 young men who upon graduation are assigned to various provinces throughout China, including Tibet.

The next step was a stop at the remnants of another “great wall”, built about 300 A.D. during the Confucius Period. We stopped at the sacred Nanguan Mosque in Yinchuan, and made a spontaneous visit to the herbal medicine hospital, where we were welcomed by the head practitioner who allowed us in the acupuncture clinic. But that was after our government tourism officials talked him into it.

He was not about to say no to the first group of American travel writers and photographers to visit after the infamous student uprising in Beijing. Fourteen people sat in one room with painful looking pins in their bodies and faces. Needles in China are much heavier and more painful than those used in the United States, but none of the people here looked uncomfortable. The practitioners offered us herbal remedies for headaches and stomach upsets to take with us.

We also visited the Rock Paintings of the Helan Mountains, a collection of sand monuments and pictographs that were discovered in 1988. The paintings and carvings were predicted to be anywhere from 30,000 to 300,000 years old, but nothing much more is yet known about them.

In Shapotou, we rode on a sheepskin raft, an ancient mode of transport once used on the Huanghe River. These rafts are made of whole, hollow sheep skins, tied at the neck and feet and filled with air. Each raft has about 16 inflated sheepskins latched to a mesh of reeds that serve as the sitting area. The ride was short and not very comfortable. Further up from the river, we rode camels in the velvet wavy sands of the Tenggerli Desert. Most captivating of all was a visit to a Muslim community in Yinchuan. The area was just opened for the first time to outsiders. And, as it was planned, we were the first outsiders. The government had arranged for us to meet a wealthy Muslim family. While in the home, I had the chance to slip away from the guarded group and into the village.

A wizened woman coaxed her shy companion with her as she drew near to me, smiling like a long lost relative who hadn’t seen me for years. She seemed to say in a long melodic tone, “Where have you been? Where did you come from?” She held my hand in the warmth of hers and spoke to me expecting an answer. She touched my hair, my clothes, my skin. I was caught up in the fascination. She had never seen a white woman before.

As China opens more and more new areas to the world, opportunities for fresh cultural exchange will become less rare.

China continues to open up its little towns and kingdoms, offering the tourism industry something few other countries can. And as it unfolds its treasures, cultural assimilation is inevitable. Tourism can serve to break cultural barriers, and this woman made me a part of that break at that moment.

The air was thick and humid when we boarded a small, cramped plane for Beijing. I worried a little when the vents began to spew before my face cold white vapors — China Airlines version of air conditioning.

I turned my thoughts to visions of monasteries and temples and hillsides that I had captured on film. What took greatest concern, though, was the number of untouched regions soon to open up to a new world of people. And they may not be ready for what’s ahead of them.