This month’s column in the Monday Magazine at 3QuarksDaily is Inside Papua New Guinea. I’ll publish it here later this week.
A chapter about travel along the Trans-Siberian railway, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:
If you don’t speak Russian and if you decode Cyrillic gingerly, one letter at a time, it’s not completely effortless to come up with bottled water in Ekaterinburg, but it is possible, and I bought six litres.
The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome. The boys in front argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six bottles way up high on a shelf and all kinds of consternation rippled through the mottled impatience behind me.
In a few hours Mirja and I would be climbing aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. We’d be a week en route, so we needed all kinds of stuff.
As soon as I had all those bottles, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station. Six litres of water is heavy.
Today was Labor Day in the U.S. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat’s denizens plodded by cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. All day the rain beset.
Every account of coming upon the Ural mountains speaks of disappointment, and for good reason. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is just hills, really, and Ekaterinburg nestles just beyond their eastern slopes.
The Atrium Palace Hotel Ekaterinburg looked so nice on the internet that we mused back home that it had to be either German or mafia owned. Well, it wasn’t German. It was E-kat’s only “5-star,” with glass elevators and snuggly, fluffy Scandinavian bedding and BBC World on TV.
Still, it had its Russian characteristics: There was the hourly rate, Rule #2: “If you stay for less than six hours, you are charged for twelve hour accommodation.” And Rule #7: “The guests who troubled a lot before can not be allowed to stay at the hotel.” Hard to know if the guys in track suits grouped around the lobby drinking coffee were part of the problem or there to enforce the solution.
Mid-rises glowered down on ancient Siberian carved–wood houses. There wasn’t much spring in E-kat’s civic step. Down Ulitsa Malysheva, a second-tier comrade (maybe it was Malysheva himself) stood statuary guard near a canal. The flowers at his feet had long since conceded to summer weeds.
Old and dusty women tended the old and dusty local history museum. They turned the lights on and off as you moved through the rooms. The Communism section was closed.
During the revolution, in July 1918, The entire family of deposed Czar Nicholas was shot while holed up at the home of a merchant named Ipatiev here in Ekaterinburg – then called Sverdlovsk – and some days later the besieged Bolsheviks burned and buried the bodies outside town.
In 1977, local Sverdlovsk party boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the Ipatiev House destroyed. Fourteen years later Yeltsin, then in the Kremlin, financed exhumation of the bodies from the burial pit, and exactly eighty years after their murder, on July 17, 1998 the bones of Russia’s last Czar were laid beside the bones of previous Czars in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. In the museum, black and white pictures of Nicholas and Alexandra were pinned up alongside diagrams of skeletons.
In a dainty candle-lit Orthodox church-let, hardly big enough for the two women inside, Mirja and I bought a tiny cross and a few icons. With a glass, the women inspected the back of each, like kids examine trading cards, and they proclaimed one Nikolai and explained of another, “Blogodot Denyaba.”
E-kat’s youth did a kind of country swagger beneath a huge billboard for “Ural Westcom” Cellular – written in Latin, not Cyrillic. Every kid in town walked up and down the sidewalk drinking big brown half litre bottles of beer. Maybe it was because they could.
Muddy Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals.
If your baseline was vodka, pivo (beer) was positively a soft drink in comparison. None of these young people – old enough to aspire to fashion and to drink and flirt and smoke – none of them remembered the days of vodka and The State. They were all eight or twelve at the Soviet Union’s demise.
The train station was white, granite and huge, a city block long and probably more, but it was hard to see why – they only used a tiny slice of it. There was just time to lug our stuff into the steamy waiting hall, and before you knew it, up rolled train number two, the Rossiya.
Here was a moment of some import. They told us our first class compartment was “very expensive,” but we didn’t care about that (it wasn’t that expensive), we just wanted to find it very empty. And so it was.
The woman under whose iron will Trans-Siberian lore demanded we cower – the provodnitsa – while no nonsense, appeared kindly enough as she studied our tickets, nodded, and handed over the key to cabin nine, between cabin eight, with a baby, and the toilet.
Inside – impeccably clean. Mirrors on each wall made a not very big space bigger. All six lights worked – the overhead fluorescent, lights on the walls, and tiny reading lights over each bunk.
The window was structurally shut and it was warmer than it needed to be. Satiny print curtains covered the window but Mirja moved them above the door. That way we could have it open and see out, but people in the corridor couldn’t see in. Brilliant.
My column at 3QuarksDaily as it ran on Monday:
On The Road: In A Tough Neighborhood
In the middle of the night of March 24, 1992, a pressure seal failed in the number three unit of the Leningradskaya Nuclear Power Plant at Sosnoviy Bor, Russia, releasing radioactive gases. With a friend, I had train tickets from Tallinn, in newly independent Estonia, to St. Petersburg the next day. That would take us within twenty kilometers of the plant. The legacy of Soviet management at Chernobyl a few years before set up a fraught decision whether or not to take the train.
Monitoring stations in Finland detected higher than normal readings. The level of iodine-131 at Lovisa, Finland, just across the gulf, was 1,000 times higher than before the accident, according to the German Institute for Applied Ecology.
Russian authorities reported the accident in the media, and I think they felt self-satisfied for doing it, but Russian credibility had burned down with Chernobyl’s reactor 4. Any more, people thought the Soviets, as Seymour Hersh said about Henry Kissinger, lied like other people breathe. And as usual, solid information was hard to come by.
A news agency in St. Petersburg reported increased radiation, and the Swedish news reported panic in St. Petersburg. A lady in Tallinn that day told me her mother had called from St. Petersburg and they were closing the schools and sending children home to stay indoors. The Finnish Prime Minister fussed that seven hours passed before the Russians told him. It was frightening.
No one believed the plant spokesman when he said on TV, hey (big Soviet smile), no problem. No one trusted the Russians.
In the same way that provincial Balkan towns had never thought of themselves as national capitals (like Podgorica, which became the capital of Montenegro, and Ljubljana, the completely delightful capital of Slovenia), Tallinn was, had been since Soviet occupation in 1940, an outpost, a modest administrative hub, though far more architecturally charming than Soviet in its medieval center, with round stone guard towers and ancient walls all around.
Back then, in 1992, there just wasn’t that much of it. Tallinn was far smaller than its close neighbor Helsinki, itself only half a million. As usual when Soviet Communism got hold of a place, the difference between Soviet Tallinn and free Helsinki was night and day – in that order – even though they are unidentical twins, only 50 miles apart across the Baltic.
The Finnish-built Viru hotel where I stayed (“Viro” is “Estonia” in Finnish) is the tall building in the background of this photo. It was just about the only place foreigners stayed, and something of a mild Estonian legend. The Viru opened in 1972 and adventurous Finns (whose language is similar enough to Estonian that they can understand one another) crept over to have a look at the Soviet way of life.
Naturally, for the Viru’s first twenty years the KGB spied on guests.
A chapter about Bhutan, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:
Only about thirty of us were flying to Bhutan, so the back of the plane held cargo: a couple of computers strapped to the seats, a boom box, a crock pot, several unmarked boxes, a quilt. And in the back seat a flight attendant drank in sleep – I mean, she snored. She, Mirja and one more were the only women.
The river Brahmaputra wound out toward the Ganges near Dhaka. Sunlight glinted and skipped across tens of thousands of acres of flooded rice paddies, miles and miles north of the Bay of Bengal. Sometimes the clouds lifted over northern Burma and Bangladesh.
Four hundred miles north of Rangoon a bend in the river ate half a town. It was July 4th. Americans celebrated independence while South Asia grappled with the monsoon.
When time came to drop through the clouds into Bhutan, the pilot announced, “We will maneuver the aircraft in the valley. This is a little different from large commercial aircraft. It is standard procedure. You will see the houses and trees a little closer than you are used to. The scenery is beautiful. Please enjoy the ride.”
He just picked a hole in the clouds and dove through. He did a 180 into the Paro valley. The automatic sensors called out, “too low,” and for the record he kept repeating, “acknowledge, override,” into the cockpit recorder.
This was George, bluff, barrel-chested, a real dude with a wide gray mustache, and one of just fourteen people ever to fly for Royal Bhutan Airlines, aka Druk Air. We said we’d buy him a beer if we saw him in town and he told us he’d drink it.
The only airport in Bhutan is in Paro, an old west one-horse town spread three hundred feet, and no more, across the valley floor, hardly movin’ in the midday sun. Uniformed Indian soldiers lolled about drinking “Thums Up” brand cola.
Phruba and Jigme, our guide and driver for the week, gathered us up for the trip to Thimpu, the capital and main city. Irrigated rice grew just about before your eyes, and every river was a tumult.
We crept and powered around corners (all week) in a Toyota Yokohama van. Jigme and Phruba both wore traditional skirt-like wraps called ghos, a lot like Burmese longyis (chapter six). Phruba’s legs stuck out below the knee. All week long he sat in the passenger seat, the picture of Buddhism, calm, legs hairy and hands clasped.
Tall and 28, he used to play basketball with the young King.
“We would stay outside and pick teams,” Phruba told us. “When he was in a good mood the King would invite us in to play. When he was in a bad mood he would play with his bodyguards. He is very good at the three point shot.”
Being taller than the King sets up a sensitive question: Does one shoot over the King’s head? Yes. The King’s bodyguards are some of the biggest men in the country, Phruba said, so he reckoned the King was used to it.
“Phruba, is the King married?” Mirja wanted to know.
“Yes, he has four Queens” Phruba replied, and seeing an eyebrow cock, he tried to put that right by adding what must have seemed the obvious: “But they are all sisters.”
With only one newspaper in the country, Keunsel, a weekly that comes out on Saturdays, how does Phruba keep up with the world? His answer was simple, disarming and direct.
Phruba’s eyes twinkled. He laughed, “We don’t. We don’t read much.”
The national dish is called Ema Datse, literally chillies and cheese (It’s those long not-too-hot green chillies we call “finger hot” in a bowl of melted cheese, eaten with a spoon). Discovering our common love of chillies, Phruba’s face fairly radiated. “Whenever people travel outside of Bhutan they carry chilli powder. To Bangladesh, India, Bengal – anywhere!”
Whether they travel to India or Bengal, Bhutanese bring back a lot of India. Everything not Bhutanese was Indian: The uniformed soldiers in Paro, those horrid polluting Tata buses and the big cement-truck look-alikes used for general transport, all of them spewing the same ghastly black smoke that’s already spoiled, say, the Kathmandu valley.
There’s Mysore Rose Brand soap. Dansberg beers. Indian videos – there were posters for Suraj! and Insaaf – The Final Justice! and Border! All with exclamation marks!
The Ngultrum (Bhutanese money) is pegged to the Indian Rupee and you can spend either of them. Bhutanese share Indian punctiliousness and an inclination to paperwork. Pads of every kind of paperwork are done in triplicate with carbons – even restaurant orders.
They’re trying to keep Bhutan pure. I think intellectually everybody knows it’s a losing long-term proposition, but good for them just the same. In a lot of ways it’s working.
Most men wear traditional ghos. Guys walk together with an arm around their buddy’s waist. You get benevolent, open stares. So few people have stuck Nikons in their faces that they still smile back.
An hour and a half from the airport the Toyota rattled up the driveway of the Indigenous Art School. Trying to keep traditional ways alive, the government brings children who show talent here from all over the country to learn to create religious thangkas, or paintings, and to learn carving and sculpting.
Here they all sat, at wooden benches, windows wide open – no electricity in the building – working in natural light. We stopped methodically at year 1 year 2 year 3 year 4 year 5 and so on up to eight. Smiling boys in robes at dusty wood benches. A fairy tale.
There was a football match that afternoon. You could hear the stadium cheer from every corner of Thimpu. Phruba boasted (or did he rue?) that it was up to 27,000 or 28,000 now, Thimpu was. No stoplights yet, but there were two traffic cops. A sign on the road between them advised, “Dumping Strongly Prohibited.”
I treaded mud down toward the sound of the crowd, down by the river, the Wang Chhu, admission fee 5 Ngultrums (14 cents), and sat with four monks from India, each contributing to the betel-juice-stain emergency in Thimpu.
A delicate, clean rain began as the football match let out, and for a little while the streets of Thimpu (only a few streets), teemed. At the Phuntsho Meat Shop a man stood under naked light bulbs on a table high above the buying public wielding an ancient scale, weighing skinned chickens and fish.
I walked into the bar at the Hotel Taksang, directly opposite Pelwang’s Mini Mart and below the billboard explaining the “Sewerage Construction Project – for better health.” They already knew I lived in room 325 and they told me my wife was asleep upstairs. I was the only one there and they made french fries to go with my beer. In this bar one beer cost 54 ngultrums and two cost 104.
Stray dogs (I think about eight billion) gave a free, full-throated concert most nights. Strays are the bane of Bhutan, just like in Kathmandu and Rangoon and Tahiti.
Being Buddhist, the Bhutanese have a little problem. They can’t kill the strays, can’t even spay them. That would be taking a life. But they can appoint Indian Hindus as dog catchers, and have them kill dogs on the pretense of rabies or rash.
The Phuntsho Meat Shop, Thimpu
Neither tumultuous, chaotic nor edgy, the polite weekend market sold no disgusting pounded meats or goats’ heads or bowls full of crawling bugs. Everybody wore their traditional clothes and chewed betel.
One guy sat sorting fat green chillies. He’d pause and turn, spit betel juice in his right hand, shake it behind him, and dig right back into the chillies.
This month’s column is up at 3QuarksDaily. It’s about the largest overland migration in the world, wildebeests and zebras crossing the Mara River in Kenya. Read it here on 3QD today, and I’ll publish it on CS&W later this week.
It all started with zebras.
Hard to believe, but sustained, hands-on field work in east Africa only has a sixty year history. Today Hans Klingel is an emeritus professor at the Braunschweig Zoological Institute, but when he arrived in Africa in 1962 Herr Klingel was one of only three scientists in the entire Serengeti.
Klingel and his wife made wildlife their career. Their first mission was to recognize individually and study ten percent of the 5500 zebras in the Ngorongoro Crater west of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Zebra stripes are whole body fingerprints. The Klingels took photographs, taped the photos to file cards and carried them into the field. They came to recognize some 600 individuals.
Their file card technique caught on. In 1965 zoologist Bristol Foster studied giraffes at Nairobi National Park, photographing their left sides to memorize their unique patterns. He glued pictures onto file cards too. From 1969 a researcher named Carlos Mejia photographed and carried cards of giraffes in the Serengeti. Scientists swarmed into east Africa and the game was on.
On the open savanna, giraffes and zebras form a natural alliance. Zebras (and wildebeests, their fellow travelers) benefit from giraffes’ strong eyesight, elevated vantage point and superior field of view. Giraffes have the largest eyes among land animals and can see in color. Their peripheral vision allows them to just about see behind themselves. The next time your safari Land Cruiser rattles around the corner into view of a giraffe, you can bet the giraffe has already seen you.
In turn, giraffes appreciate zebras’ superior hearing and their awareness of the smell of predators. Perhaps because of their distance from the thick soup of ground smells, giraffes’ olfactory senses have fallen away.
A safari guide in Botswana’s Okavango Delta once described to me the most dramatic single wildlife event he ever saw; a fierce squall of giraffe anger led a long-necked posse to kill around ten lions before one giraffe finally went down to the final five.
If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he explained, imagine the giraffe, whose foot is wide as a dinner plate. Having perfectly good sense, lions usually give giraffes wide berth. Except at the water hole.
Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey their surroundings at length and in great detail before they commit, for they will require time and effort to splay into the ungainly, legs-spread stance they need to get their mouths to the ground, and then more time to clamber back upright. Fortunately they needn’t drink more than every second or third day, because to counter the peril at the water hole, giraffes have learned which leaves yield the most moisture.
Nobody else except the largest elephant can reach twenty feet into the trees. There isn’t a great deal of feeding competition up there, so serene, heads in the clouds, giraffes can be discerning eaters.
If you weigh a ton and a half, you’ll need to eat a lot of leaves. You may spend three quarters of the day feeding. In Portraits in the Wild, Cynthia Moss writes that no more than five to thirty minutes of a giraffe’s day are spent sleeping.
Using your prehensile lips and half-meter prehensile, muscular tongue, you take a branch in your mouth, pull your head away and the leaves come with it. Your preferred leaves are thorny acacia, which contain some 74 per cent water. You grind the thorns between your molars.
Scientists like that word “prehensile” because it is obscure. It just means “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, with our opposable thumbs.
At the border of the Luangwa Park in Zambia it is jarring to see people and giraffes sharing the road. The giraffes have eaten the leaves on the other side of the river inside the park, forming a browse line. The trees are bare of leaves below a line as distinct as the bottom of the clouds, while the other animals fight it out for food on the ground.
Giraffes aren’t out to hurt you, so workers, kids on their way to school, occasional automotive traffic and giraffes share the road, if gingerly. Most unusual.
You’ve seen squirrels, maybe rabbits, dart onto the road in front of you, become confused and run straight ahead instead of ducking off to the side. Once a giraffe did just that in front of our vehicle near a bush camp on the Luangwa River.
A laptop had disappeared from a rondavel in camp a few days before. We happened upon two boys in deep woods, a place they surely shouldn’t have been. Caught out, they dropped their backpack and crashed away into the bush. Inside the backpack, the laptop. In the ruckus a thoroughly alarmed giraffe stormed onto the road ahead of the LandCruiser.
If giraffes ran like most hoofstock their extra-long legs would get tangled up, so when they run they move both legs on one side and then the other. All four of a giraffe’s legs leave the ground at once.
This is called “pacing” and has the visual effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion. In fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” Arabic for “one who walks swiftly.”
Excited as we were to return the stolen laptop, we didn’t intend to alarm the giraffe, but it was long gone. In short bursts, giraffes can put up speeds of 35 miles per hour. This one surely did.
The giraffe’s front legs are longer and stronger than its hindquarters. At a gallop, the power stroke of each front leg sends the neck moving from side to side, leaning ahead, swinging opposite its stride. No other animal has such a neck and no other animal’s neck is so deeply involved in forward movement.
Why such a striking neck in the first place?
Sixty years before Charles Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed that evolution proceeded from the accumulation of small, gradual, acquired characteristics. He wrote that the giraffe “is obliged to browse on the leaves of trees and to make constant efforts to reach them. From this habit … it has resulted that the animal’s forelegs have become longer than its hind-legs, and that its neck is lengthened….”
Had giraffes cried out for another explanation (and they didn’t, they just kept chewing acacia leaves), Darwin came along to give it a try. “The individuals which were the highest browsers and were able … to reach even an inch or two above the others, will often have been preserved. … These will have intercrossed and left offspring…. By this process long-continued … it seems to me almost certain that an ordinary hoofed quadruped might be converted into a giraffe.”
Lamarck’s and Darwin’s adherents still battle it out. Lamarck is lately staging a bit of a comeback.
Allow psychology professor David Barash to enter the debate and posit that they’re all wrong. To Barash it’s all about sex.
Younger males’ neck musculature grows visible in maturity, signaling their readiness to challenge for mating privileges. With females in estrus, male giraffes stand shoulder to shoulder and wield their necks as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”
They hammer each other neck-to-neck in turn until one cedes dominance. Barash speculates that longer necks lead to dominance, more mating opportunities, and so are passed along genetically. He calls it “necks for sex.”
Beyond the grand debate, there are simple enough ways to circumvent any generations-long path to giraffehood. Craig Holdrege, director of the Nature Institute, points out that to eat leaves, goats simply climb trees.
Baby giraffes are almost entirely vulnerable. At least half are killed before they reach their first birthday. Once in the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we came upon a newborn calf that only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. Mom kept it tight to her side and never took her eyes off us.
But protective maternal instincts can’t cover up the brutality of a baby giraffe’s birth. The calf drops head first some five and a half feet from the womb to the ground. Vulnerable as they are, calves get right to their feet, in as little as five minutes.
And they grow so fast! Cynthia Moss writes that they can grow nine inches in a single week. Oxford zoologist Dr. Jonathan Kingdon suggests this was “an early evolutionary strategy whereby very large, but relatively defenseless, animals were able to mitigate predation by growing too large for predators to overpower.”
Giraffes present as above it all, and not just physically. The biologist Richard Estes reckoned that of all the animals, giraffes give the least back to the curious viewer. Implacable, delphic stoicism, maintaining a stance, chewing and looking back at you.
I think Edith Wharton unknowingly spoke for giraffes: “Make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity – to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.”
These are the sentiments of any giraffe.
Giraffes are a safari favorite because of their utter evolutionary strangeness, but they have a little-known cousin that is stranger still – the okapi, the last large animal discovered by western science.
Further confined than the giraffe, to a single refuge in the Ituri forest in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, the okapi is the national symbol of the DRC, but you will likely never see one except on the Congo’s 1000 Franc note.
An animal seemingly built by committee, this forest giraffe is donkeylike and tall-shouldered with a thick, elongated neck and chestnut black, glistening coat. Like the giraffe, it paces, and splays its legs while drinking. But the giraffe’s closest relative displays startling zebra-like stripes wrapping around its back end. Inexplicable.
The giraffe’s habitat has fragmented catastrophically (already extinct in seven countries, there are now less than 98,000 individuals left in the world). The okapi’s circumstance is more dire still. The Okapi Conservation Project’s John Lukas estimates there are only 3,000 to 3,500 okapi in the Ituri forest reserve. Lukas says okapi are so secretive and solitary that a ranger may walk 500 kilometers before sighting an okapi in the wild.
Henry Morton Stanley wrote of the okapi in 1887, prompting the British High Commissioner for Uganda to organize a search that failed to find a single animal. 100 years later, Lukas set up his facility at Epulu in Mbuti pygmy territory in the DRC in hopes of breeding okapi.
To get an idea how isolated opaki are, Lukas told me by email, “For the first 10 years we had to fly from Kinshasa to Goma and drive 5 days to get to our field station…. We built (an) airstrip in the middle 90’s but still drove from Goma getting supplies along the way. … In 2003 we started coming in from Uganda to Bunia and either driving or chartering a plane depending on the security along the road.”
For a time, fourteen okapi lived at the project reserve, but in 2012 all of the okapi – and six people – were killed in a two-day siege of the project, the bad guys apparently exacting retribution for a crackdown on the illegal ivory trade and illicit mining.
One afternoon near Naivasha, Kenya we bounded outside our LandCruiser, excited to behold the largest group of giraffes I have ever seen. We counted 23 on one side of the road and five on the other.
This was a crowning, exhilarating moment, but as exuberant as the humans may have been the giraffes declined comment, silently cud-chewing, mild-mannered, staring you down, sizing you up, batting an eyelash, inscrutable. Their long curly eyelashes suggested a certain sensitivity.
Like elephants, giraffes and okapi communicate with infrasound, low frequency tones inaudible to humans (and in the case of okapi, inaudible to their main predator, the leopard). Perhaps infrasound accounts for some of the giraffe’s aloof silence. After sixty years of field work, there is still a lot we don’t know.
From afar, giraffes stand out as masts on a dusty sea, triangles on the plain. Watch at distance their stately traverse, waves of heat rising from the savanna. In Karen Blixen’s words, “When cruising, with its gaze on the horizon and high center of gravity, the giraffe hardly seems in contact with the earth.”