Wednesday, January 11, 2006

one more time (asia), with feeling

I didn't imagine this was how I would see Siberia the second time. Somewhere in between a good Chinese movie called "Gimme Kudos" and my guidebook, in the pitch dark limbo of the international flight, I caught a glimpse of the live map on the little screen in front of me. In my manifold preparations for the trip, of course I had meditated on how an airplane gets from one east coast to the other one, from the Hong Kong of America to the Hong Kong of Guangdong province. For reasons of distance, I knew the plane would have to fly west, but would we pass over Los Angeles, or San Francisco's Chinatown? Toronto or Alaska? Well, five hours out of New Jersey and we were still going straight up, now passing over Goose Bay and Gander in Newfoundland, headed straight for the Arctic Circle.

I didn't know what to do. The man next to me, occupying the window seat, was sound asleep, and Naomi, my new friend from Bangledesh-by-way-of-Dallas, could have also been sleeping, though her eyes were trained on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Everyone else on the plane, tucked under their filly looking flannels and blindfolds, their necks awkwardly couched in those traveling pillows, seemed as blasé about this scenario, or simply, happily, unaware. I fell into a state of quiet panic, which can be an easy thing to do when you are sitting in a small space, between two people, at 31000 feet, with an outside temperature of -70 degrees, and headed straight for the top of the world. I started chewing on my blanket.

Of course, I realize that this "top" of the world business is a bit silly given the particular shape of the world, but all the same, that's where we were going. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse out the window of any hangers-on, obstinate towns, stars, any last signs of life before we slipped into that white blotch at the top of the screen. The only thing I could see was the slowly flashing warning light on the wing. It was a breathtaking reminder of solitude, as when you discover another person in an otherwise lonely room, only to have your heart broken a second later upon realizing it's just your reflection in the large living room mirror.

Some hours later, after all that darkness had left, I almost saw my reflection in the window. I had to peek out the porthole in the plane's door to get a look at this: the wild mountains and plateaus of northern Siberia, a permanently white, uninhabited landscape too intense for even the meanest Soviet exile. Having spent some months in southern Siberia, this felt like home but one I would never visit, one of those areas of the world I may never touch but couldn't help smiling about out of some familiarity. Fatigued from staring at all the rough blankness, the blanket of white, I returned to my seat, but later hopped over my sleeping Naomi to catch other glimpses: white-rooted forests, the distant Sayan mountains, the impossibly blue sky, and then, even more impossibly, the lake I had visited two months earlier, the great Baikal. I had dipped my hands in, I had sailed on it, I sat next to it, had studied it on maps, had seen a 3d model showing just how deep it is. (Sitting on the continental rift between Asia and Europe, it is the deepest, and oldest, lake.) But seeing it from above was a chance to see it in its true size. But this wasn't the capstone on my Baikal capstone, it still confounds. I asked another curious legstretcher who was staring out one of the window if he had seen the lake. He said he hadn't, but he had. It is so white now and so large (it is easily visible from space) that it looks less like a lake than some enormous swath of steppe land. The occasional slits in the ice give it away.

Ulan Ude wasn't so easy to spot. After flying directly over Irkutsk (the "Paris of Siberia") and passing over the lake, I tried to spot my previous eastern home, but all I could make out was some texture in the distance, some shadows. It may have just been some hills and not the apartment complex where I lived, the factories along the Uda river, the square with the largest Lenin head in the world. How happy and disconcerting it is to pass by an old home, or at least think you're passing by it.

18 hours after NJ Transit, the Hong Kong Airport Express ferried me to the city at speeds faster than I've ever known. The shipping containers of the port, the harbor, the cars and shiny buildings and billboards for Disneyland flash by and then you're in the center of town, which looks like Vegas just made a hotel deal with Manhattan, with its dizzyingly high and narrow towers. See these glistening, neon topped, swirling and spiny monuments to international banking from one of the surrounding mountain peaks, as my new friend and roommate David wisely suggested we do that first night, and you might feel like I did: horrified and delighted, like the devil's played some trick that you must confront even as you keep trying to convince yourself it's not real.

Getting in there, in between the buildings, down the streets, across the elevated footpaths, is no help. The buildings, whether black glass or prickly concrete or covered in bamboo scaffolding shoot upwards as the narrow roads angle off in every direction, chock-a-block with warrens and alleys. Even the super fast automated subway inspires a sense of vertigo: it there is nothing separating one subway car from the next, so we have an impossibly long subway car, extending as far as the worn out eyes can see. Only adding to the confusion is the embarrassment of neon signs hovering above every street like so many tailors hawking their shops, the warm, breeze-less air that makes you wonder if you're really outside to begin with, and then the buses that pass you before you know they're coming. The familiarity at certain points (the cars, McBody Shop and Eleven, Starbucks and Gabana) only makes the rest of the city, physically and psychically, that much more inscrutable. You stand back and wonder, what are we looking at? At an intersection of three streets, each pitched at different degrees, and four tall buildings some of them with light patterns running up and down, you feel like you're walking through one large Escher painting. This is certainly not China, this is not even really a city. It's one large open-air market for the 21st century. Almost anything can be found at any price, and no matter if it's a fancy, authentic LV handbag or a pirated copy of the last Wong Kar-Wai movie, none of it seems real. How bazaar.

Hong Kong's enough of a sensory overload to make you want to get a massage by a blind person. After having lunch with one of David's Yale friends yesterday, that's what we did. It was great. If you're interested, I had my neck, upper back, well, and arms done. And then we went looking, unsuccessfully, for a blanket for me, since it got really cold in my room the night before (we didn't find one, but we did manage to find two incredibly inspired Japanese shirts, each one with a long, droopy neck that doubles as a mask). Anyway, the weather is unseasonably cool, which isn't that bad because miraculously it's still at least 20 degrees warmer than New York City. Our apartment is quite central, bordering on the slightly upscale Soho neighborhood, and while we've got a very large television and a rich cache of back issues of Time Asia and assorted good books (we're renting from a reporter at the magazine), we have only one electric heater and one blanket. Last night that meant sharing a bed, Queequeg and Ishmael style.

And today we launched off on our new ship, aka Time Asia, a clean, well-lighted affair of mostly empty cubicles, perched high above Quarry Bay. Ahab (international editor Michael Elliot) returns tomorrow, perhaps with more pink slips. The wreck and the whale. I'll survive I think, and next time I'll tell thee more!

Missing you in the anti-Siberia,


You can see some visuals here:

You can write to me at

30 F Oxford House, Taikoo Place
Quarry Bay, Hong Kong

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