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Prologue

Nog geen minuut nadat ik Laura een sms heb gestuurd dat het enige treinstel dat naar Moskou gaat leeg is, op mij en de provodnitsa na, springen twee jongens naar binnen. “Can we sit here? We’re hitch hiking”, maar voor ik iets kan zeggen hoor ik de provodnitsa om hun biljet schreeuwen. “Out! OUT!” En zo ben ik weer alleen. Een kwartier na Utrecht gaat de deur weer open, en dezelfde twee staan in de deuropening. De Braziliaan heeft een camera. Volgens hem op een festival in België gekregen (of gekocht, dat wordt niet helemaal duidelijk) van de zanger van Coldplay. Hij rapt in in overstaanbaar Portugees in de camera. Over het leven. En de dood. De Amerikaan komt uit South Carolina en heeft vier kegels bij zich. Ze zijn welkom – 36 uur alleen met de provodnitsa is ook maar alleen. Maar de deur moet dicht, om blikken van de patrouillerende conducteur tegen te houden, en er is geen ventilatie in het coupeetje van drie vierkante meter. Nog voor Arnhem is het zuurstofgehalte in de coupe gedaald tot nul en de temperatuur zo hoog opgelopen dat het zweet in straaltjes langs ons voorhoofd loopt. Ik vermoed bovendien dat één van de twee al een tijd niet gedoucht heeft. Iets voorbij Emmerich verhuizen de twee naar één van de leegstaande coupe’s, hopend dat er niemand in komt vóór we om 5 uur vannacht bij Berlijn aankomen. Bij Oberhausen kan ik weer ademhalen. De provodnitsa kijkt Russische soaps.
Bij Köln komen er nieuwe passagiers binnen. Aan mijn rust lijkt een einde te komen, maar dan blijkt dat Grigory, die bij mij in de coupé zou komen, de provodnitsa heeft omgekocht zodat hij een eigen coupé heeft. Helaas voor de lifters betekent dat dat hun rit hier eindigt, met een woedende provodnitsa die met zwaar Russisch accent ‘Kommt Polizei! Polizei!!’ schreeuwt.

“I have been drinking today, so… I can’t tell you if this smells good – because I’m drunk, I don’t know.” Ah, Belarus. Onze stop in Brest duurt ruim twee uur, omdat het onderstel van de trein moet worden verwisseld. Omdat ik geen woord Russisch spreek is het maar goed dat Grig mee is, zodat hij kan vertellen waarom het vrouwtje dat ons een meloen probeert te verkopen enigszins beduusd haar schouders ophaalt en de meloen in m’n gezicht drukt.

Grig vertrok 23 jaar geleden naar de VS, toen dit nog een ander land was, maar is nu terug om oude vrienden op te zoeken. “My friend who lives here has all these stories about these beautiful women in the nightclubs, and they just come up to you and stare you down… I mean, I’m happily married, but still, have you SEEN these girls?? Statistically, there are like, FOUR women for every man, and they’re drunks, so, if you’re a guy, it’s VERY easy to get laid.” “I have this friend who is rich, like, I mean, crazy rich, and what he does… He got divorced, his wife took a lot of his money – he made it all back, and more – and what he does, he like, signs a contract with a girl, every year, and he says – I’ll provide for you, I’ll provide decent shopping, you know, but he can do whatever the fuck he wants, you know, If I get home, don’t wanna talk, you don’t talk, you just go up to your room, if I wanna go out with friends and I want you to accompany me, you accompany me, you know, and he does this every year, and the women, some of the most drop dead gorgeous women I have seen, I haven’t seen them in like, the top modeling events, and – and he’s happy as a clam.”

Het oude vrouwtje moet echt totaal van de kaart geweest zijn, want de geur van de meloen vult het hele compartiment, de pitten vallen als vanzelf van de vrucht en het vlees is zoet als dat van een peer. En de appelgebakjes die we op het laatste moment op het station hebben gekocht zijn de beste ooit.

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China Photos

The photos from China are now online!!

High-Speed Train Crash

A little over a week ago, around 40 people died in a high-speed train crash near Wenzhou, China. According to some sources, a train carriage was struck by lightning, lost power and stalled. An approaching train then rear-ended this carriage. Questions abound — how could it be that the approaching train wasn’t warned there was a stalled carriage on the rails? Rumor has it that the railway was (at least partially) German-built, or built with German technology, and that the Germans had told the Chinese it would take three months to train the engineers, to which the Chinese replied that it should be done within 10 days. The Germans just shrugged, but this was of course heralded in the Chinese press as ‘what takes the Germans three months, only takes the Chinese 10 days’! It seemed like a thorough investigation was in order.

Well, not quite. According to eye-witnesses, the train wreck was being buried immediatly after the accident, even before investigators had started their work. Media censors ordered journalists to downplay the accident; lawyers were told not to take victims’ cases without government approval. This sparked popular outrage, and even China couldn’t censor what happened next: thousands if not millions of people started micro-blogging about the event on so-called ‘Weibos’. Weibo is something akin to Twitter; you can post messages 140 characters long and over 200 million Chinese have such a micro-blog.

For a few days, it seemed like this had forced the government to be more open. Not so, however. According to the NY Times, traditional media (usually heavily censored) that had started critical coverage of the crash were told by government censors to back down and were forced to replace pages upon pages of coverage with cartoons or whatever. Ho hum.

In other news, this is my last post from China — Im gonna make my way to the airport now. It’s always a bit sad to be leaving. I feel that only in the last few days did I really get into the rithm of this city. It always takes a while. In any case, if you get to the point where you’re the one helping locals with the automatic ticket machines in the subway station, you’ve come a long way.

Last days in Beijing

The last days in Beijing are passing slowly. I had expected Beijing to be this great city with lots of sights. And the guidebooks say it will take a week to take in all the sights, but really it’s a lie. This isn’t Paris or New York, and you can see pretty much all there is to see in a few days. The Lonely Planet says you should allow yourself a day in the Forbidden City ‘for exploration’ and then another day just to see all the exhitbitions. Truth is, you can see all there is to see in the Forbidden City in one day, including all the exhibitions, and read all the captions at that. The average visitor will probably have had enough after at most three hours. Of course, travel guides don’t sell by saying there’s not that much to see.

Still, it gives you the chance to talk to other people. Some are rather boring, some are quite fun and every now and then you stumble across someone who has something interesting to say. Last night, I stumbled across Mat. Mat was gonna start Law School next year but had done some consultancy work for the government the last two years, and told me about the procedure to get security clearance. I thought I had to answer some ridiculous questions on my visa application, such as ‘were you ever a part of nazi-regime of Germany?’  or ‘are you planning to engage in any terrorist or subversive activities during your stay in the United States?’, but this was on a whole different level. Hooked up to a poligraph, he had had to answer questions such as ‘how many girls have you had sex with’, and ‘how do you like to do it with them’, the aim of these being to find out any information with which you could be blackmailed. Damn.

Back in Beijing

Well, the title says it all. Time seems to fly. Been doing so much that there was hardly time to sit back and relax, let alone write. But now I have a spare moment.

For those who thought after my last report that I hated it here, I don’t. Well maybe I do, a little bit, but I’m still having a great time. It’s just that everything takes soo much effort, everything takes so much time and energy when really it shouldn’t. You take a taxi from Shanghai airport to the center of town and the meter shows it was 31.5km ride, when you know it should be 15km to 18km. Tapping the meter and grunting gives you a 15% discount but it’s still too much. But I don’t mind paying 10 euro for a taxi ride. I mind being taken for a ride and I mind sitting in a traffic jam for an extra 30 minutes just because this, this, [censored] of a cab driver is trying to scam me. I mind the ‘art students’ that want to take you to a ‘tea ceremony’ that costs hundreds of euro and hawkers that quintuple their prices if you’re white – it goes on and on. It’s as if someone is trying to scam you every single thing you do and it’s not funny. And it’s not just scams either. If you can’t communicate with people around you, even the simplest things become difficult. “I want to do laundry. Wash these clothes. Wash. Washing machine. Do the laundry. LAUN-DRY.” And then you get taken to the room where they store your bags. Sigh.

Shanghai, though, is easily mainland China’s most liveable city, with monumental buildings, promenades, parks and museums. But we were there for only a day before we headed to Tunxi – recently renamed Huang Shan Shi or Huang Shan City, Huang Shan being the mountains that Avatar’s are based on. And there’s no denying it: the scenery is stunning, with almost vertical granite peaks piercing the clouds, mist rolling over the mountain ridges. But this has made it one of the most visited tourist destinations in China. And this shows. Everyone and his mother visits Huang Shan. Literally. And to make sure mother can actually get around the mountain, there are stone paths, almost perfectly even, and stairs – actual stairs. I can’t help but feel I’m a bit in Disney Land, also because of the crowds. ‘Maddeningly crowded,’ the Lonely Planet calls it. Let’s just say ‘.mMaddeningly crowded’ has taken on a whole different meaning. I’ll upload a short film when I get home so you know what I’m talking about.

And then from Tunxi, back to Beijing. And I finally walked the Wall.