A Journey to the East

This is a photo essay describing four months I spent shoestring-traveling around Asia in the spring and summer of 1993. I began my journey by flying across the Atlantic to Europe, and, after visiting a few friends there, took a train to Moscow. The Trans-Siberian brought me from there across most of the width of the Asian continent to Beijing. In China, I worked my way first southward then westward, then finally northward to Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, completing a great "U" over the course of six weeks. From Chengdu I flew westward into Tibet (overland travel for this leg would have been difficult or impossible), and I continued westward and then southward into Nepal via jeep. In Nepal, I stayed for three weeks, going for a Himalayan trek and resting in Kathmandu. After this, I headed south into India, where, although it wasn't the hottest time of the year (this was supposedly May and June), it was still pretty darn hot (I was there in late July-early August). I spent little time there but headed further southward almost right away, down to Madras in the very southern tip of India, and hopped over to Sri Lanka, where I spent just two weeks. At last came the extended journey homeward: four days in Bangkok, one in Seoul, and five in Tokyo (with flights in between) before catching the final flight home across the Pacific.

The images below here are a small selection of my pictures from the trip, presented in more or less the order they were taken. I'm afraid they haven't all come out so well (my skills with the scanner still have a long way to go), but I hope they still manage to convey something of the feel of these faraway places... Also note that, given the size of the pictures, the formatting on this page works best in a browser window around 800 pixels wide or less.

Across Asia

During forty years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, standards of living declined relative to the West. But the government put great energy into building stark, hypermodern-looking megalithic structures to remind people of its progressive ideals and to encourage a break with the past. The Prague subway was one example - straight lines, metallic surfaces, and a complete lack of decorative adornement carried the impression across quite strongly that a new era had arrived. A strange contrast with the relatively poor and backward state of things above.


It was a shock to travel to Russia, so long feared and respected as a powerful enemy, and see how poor conditions there actually were. Out on the farms I saw fields being tilled by human power alone - no tractors or even ox-drawn plows. In the cities, buildings everywhere were in disrepair, and order seemed to be barely hanging on against pressing chaos. I was surprised to see how little variety of food was available, even in the best hotels. On the Trans-Siberian, the dining car on the train had very little that was appetizing, and instead we bought food from local entrepreneurs at stations like this one. A loaf of odd-tasting bread, perhaps a cucumber, and occasionally when we were lucky we could find someone selling boiled potatoes.


In Eastern Siberia I changed trains to the Trans-Manchurian which descended through the vast steppes east of Mongolia to Beijing. For three days we traveled through open, grassy land stretching out and away, unbroken, to the horizon. On the other side of this vastness lay China, a completely alien culture. It was easy to see why it developed in independence from neighbors to the north and west.

Through the Heart of China

In Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the picture of Mao Zedong, leader of the communist revolution, hangs above the entrance to the Forbidden City, the grand palace complex of the former emperors of China. Such a display blatantly grafting the new onto the old would be unthinkable in the West, but here it typifies the Chinese people's attitude of acceptance toward their government's actions and statements.


Over the centuries the Chinese developed gardening into a beautiful art expressing philosophical ideas of man's relationship with nature. The city of Suzhou is famous for the gardens constructed there by retired government officials, which are so cleverly laid out that it is possible to walk a mile or more through a garden of only a couple of acres, weaving and crisscrossing, now above, now below, without ever gazing upon the same view twice. Wonderfully, the gardens were also residences, with living structures ranging from gazebos to small two- to three-room buildings distributed through them, blended unobtrusively with water, rock, and plant. Each garden is a microcosm expressing the ideal of rich harmony between man and landscape.


The countryside around Yangshuo in southern China is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. The landscape was so fantastic I could have been dreaming, but when I was there it seemed like the ordinary world of my past was the dream.


One of the best things about traveling in Asia was meeting other travelers from different Western countries and backgrounds and exploring together, reacting to the exotic surroundings in ways that were similar enough for mutual understanding, but different enough to expand our outlooks. The two women here, Antje and Susanne, were German interior decorators who saved money to take long trips every couple of years. The man, Gunther, actually traveled almost full time, earning enough money from slide presentations he put on back in Germany for a couple of months each year to support himself on the road for the remainder.




In southwest China, the land is mountainous and built on a grand and magnificent scale. Towering, wall-like mountains and sweeping vistas charged my soul and carried it surging to a higher level.




One time I hiked up over trackless ground to a Buddhist monastery situated halfway up a mountainside. Much to my surprise when I got there I found a marvelously constructed stone path leading from behind the monastery further up the mountain. I followed it up and then along sheer walls to a place where a stream came crashing down from above. A branch of the path led up along the stream, and following this I came to a remarkable series of waterfalls, each with a little sidepath leading to the water's edge so that it might be contemplated with greater immediacy. A name was carved in characters into the rock above each falls, but these did not seem disfigurements to the natural surroundings. I wished I could read them.


Another time a Frenchman I met and I decided to partially climb a 17,000 foot peak that was several miles outside the town where we were staying. We hired a motorcycle-sidecar taxi to take us out there, but the driver must not have known what he was getting into because he ran out of gas on the way out! Luckily a bus driver came by who happened to be a friend of his, and he was able to top us back up.


Beiyue temple.
It is rare to come across a place of such blissful tranquility.


On a more mundane side of things, one of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling in China was sampling the array of various "delicacies" that people prepared in stalls on the streets everywhere. Being in a Chinese city was not unlike being in a great big dim sum restaurant in this respect.


Shared life on the road makes for fast friendships, and my path and that of this Israeli lay together for almost four weeks. He is a brother to me now.


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