From Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia to Vladivostok took four days. Long days of rolling, rolling through snow and naked brown trees and under white skies, and over frozen rivers, a landscape without end that never changed. “Nature,” Albert Golod said, gazing out the window at it. “Russian nature!” He was 70, strong and straight, both paternal and childlike in his quest to show me the delights of Russia. He was on his way to a “sanatorium” in Vladivostok for three weeks and had long white hair and a white beard. He spoke Russian, German, Hebrew and English and he’d had two careers, first as a radar engineer and later as an archaeologist working and living in Tajikistan. He insisted I visit with him over tea and cakes, briefly every evening. “This is Russian tea,” he’d say. “This is a Russian cake.” Then he’d send me on my way again.
After the passion and colors of India, after the blue seas of Indonesia and the hot crowds of Bangladesh, after the danger and exoticism of Afghanistan, the Russian landscape seemed oppressive, Russians proud and uncurious. There was nothing glorious or grand about it save its length and breadth and its snow and unending cold bleakness. Yet Golod wasn’t the only one who looked at it with awe, with yearning. A young soldier talked to me one afternoon and the first thing he said was: “Look! Russia is so beautiful!” I looked. Snow. White sky. Bleakness.
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Carl Hoffman is traveling for The Lunatic Express, to be published by Broadway Books in 2009. He is a contributing editor at Na…
One of the opportunities afforded by writing a book like Lunatic is to put a long journey into perspective and to look back over my notes.
One of the things I’m pondering while looking back at my notes and writing Lunatic is the idea of traveling alone, of escaping into the furthest corners of the world, which has always felt good to me.
The crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Buffalo on February 11, 19 days after ending my traveling is a strange reminder of the unpredictability of, well, your fate.
Slumdog Millionaire’s victory at the Oscars last night, just at the time I’m working on Lunatic, reminded me again of the importance of plain old story, told simply and well.
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