Wednesday, June 30, 2010

St Petersbug in Black and White

St Petersburg - Unending days

After the run down cities of Siberia, and business like Moscow, I was not expecting very much from St. Petersburg. All I had in mind is that the Hermitage has one of world's greatest art collections.

My hotel, which I booked through a company called Real Russia, was too far from any metro for me to walk from. At least that is what I thought from the maps. As I left today, I walked to a metro station north of the hotel. But on arrival, not knowing better, I took a taxi to the hotel. I was a bit disgruntled as I thought I was stuck out in nowhere. But when I got to the hotel, Happy Pushkin, I was very happy. The hotel was a boutique hotel based in an old apartment. It was done up to look baroque. Very cool. It is the prettiest hotel I have stayed in so far. And when I looked at a map which I purchased at the train station, I found out that I was within walking distance of most of the major attractions including the Hermitage.

So for three days, I walked through St Petersburg, and it turned out to be such a nice city to walk through. A lot of the buildings had classical facades with beautiful ornamentation like in other old European cities. There is a huge river running through the city, the Neva, and there are several canals as well running through the city. Reminding me of Venice and Amsterdam.

The first thing that struck me was that there seemes to be a lot of 24 hours shops. And this struck me as weird in a communist country. But then as I moved around the city, and got stuck in the rain and saw the unending nights, I realised why there are so many 24 hours shops. It was only in reading up about St. Petersburg that I realised that it was very far up north and in summer they have white nights. But my sleep time went a bit screwy as I was out in the streets trying to figure out what it would be like around midnight. I was tired and asleep in the hotel in the first night in St. Petersburg. The next two nights it was like eternal twilight, because it was raining. It was more like grey nights than white nights. But on the last night before I left, it was a white night. You cannot see the sun, but the sky was lit up for sure. Really surreal.

The river Neva, St Petersburg, 23.30

One of the highlights of St Petersburg is the Church of the Saviour on the Blood. A church that was built on the spot where the Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. It is more a memorial church than a normal working one. But there are scenes from the life of Jesus on the inside of the church and scenes of life of the Tsar on the outside. It is more of a museum now because of the beautiful mosaic bible scenes in the church.

I also went to the Hermitage which is one of the world's largest fine art museums housed in an old palace. The splendor of the palace and the collection was amazing. I really enjoyed what I saw. There was a Picasso exhibition from Paris at the same time. I rented the audio guide and had a great time. Unfortunately, time was not on my side and I only visited about half the rooms. I guess that I will have to visit St Petersburg again!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


My last visit to Moscow was short. I remember poverty, shops with almost nothing on their shelves. The soldiers clothes were worn. I think that things look better now. I do not think that people are trendy in Moscow, a lot of the clothing seems dated. But the clothes are clean and neat. There are up market shops and at least some rich Moscovites are dressing it up.

The thing is that Moscow is not going to win any awards for charm. A lot of it was built to be imposing both pre communist in the Imperialistic era, during the communist era, things were built big. There is a sense of solidity here, but little sense of style. The most characteristic Russian motif is the domes of the Russian orthodox Church. But in Moscow, a good part of the time you will be walking pas solid, large buildings that have an air of decay around them. Most of the buildings were built in a age past, and except for a building like the Gum, which has been renovated by the super rich for the super rich, and they show it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the Moscovites, although outwardly having the appearance of being more market driven, actually still have a communist mentality of doing as little as possible. In a kebab shop, they refused to sell me half a roast spring chicken with salad because the salad was for the wrapped kebab. I had to let go of the spring chicken and get the wrap. In my hotel, there is no kettle for hot water, you get it from a common dispenser in the corridor. And for laundry, you take your dirty clothes to the office on the 26 floor, pay first and collect the laundry from the laundry office the next day. I get the feeling that people are not thinking of service for the guest, but how to make their lives easier.

What helped a lot on this visit to Moscow was having a friend in the city. Irina, who was on the Anders Peterson course with me a few years back works here. On the first day, she took me for a Russian brunch at this place called the Ginza Project. It was a quaint looking house, decorated to look like an old Russian house. The food was good too. Then she told me that the Moscow Photo Biennale was on. I was in luck as she took be to a joint exhibition of Paolo Roversi and Peter Lindbergh, two of my fav photographers! Roversi's work was from his book Studio and Lindbergh's work was based on his fashion work themed 'Invasion'. I had seen this work in a Stern portfolio before. But see the prints was a real treat. Tonight, Irina treated me to a sumptuous meal at the Pushkin restaurant. It was the best meal I had in Moscow. For starters I had Russian salad, a salad with different types of pate made from duck, mushrooms and lamb. For the main course I had roast lamb with cherry sauce. Yummy!  I should be cultured and say that in spite of its uninviting air, Moscow is worth coming back for its wonderful Museum. However, I would say that it is worth coming back for a meal at the Pushkin Restaurant!! I promised to buy Irina a chili crab dinner if she visits Singapore.

I visited the Red Square which is imposing. I think my first visit there, I only went to the Gum which was empty at the time. This time I visited St Basil's church, with its iconic domes. It was an interesting experience, going to a Christian church, but with a completely different lineage from the Roman Catholic/protestant one. I know that there are some doctrinal differences but I cannot remember what. Still, iconography was very graphic. A lot of the work was very illustrative of the bible stories and decorative at the same time. I had a great time taking pictures of paintings and wall motifs. I also went back to the Gum, which although full of international brand shops, had lost much of any character. This worldwide presence of Aussino, Apple, Armani etc brings a certain instant level of recognizable affluence to international cities, but also robs cities of their individuality.

What was a lot of fun was spending time, on just one metro ticket, looking at the artwork in the Moscow metro. A lot of the work have the same theme of Russians fighting their wars, growing crops, being strong and healthy. A lot of the Moscow metro was apparently built on volunteer labour, how about that? Although in the modern era we are aware of the political propaganda of the communist era, there is a certain charm to the images of strength, nation and family that the images portray. I know it is propaganda, but they are not bad ideals to strive for. Who does not want security, a happy family and health? I have put the pictures from the Metro in a slideshow of its own.

Today, I went to the Pushkin museum of fine art. There are like four wings and I went to the main museum which houses the classical art collection. There is some fine work there which unfortunately gets repetitive after a while. How many variations of the annunciation and nativity scenes can one take? Or sensual bacchanalian scenes hinting at the sexuality of the painters who cannot paint explicit porn. I got a bit of museum fatigue from this museum.

However, I also went to the Gallery of European & American Art of the 19th-20th Centuries. What happened is that the communist took over the collections of a couple of rich art loving merchants. This must have pained those guys dearly. But I must admit they had great taste. There are wonderful pieces of work by Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Picasso and others. I rented the audio guide which really kept me going. I hear that there are more works at the Hermitage in St Petersburgh. I am looking forward to that.

So Moscow as a city does not rate that highly, but there are definitely things worth seeing here. But it is an expensive city. This does not sit well with me because it is expensive because certain services exist. It is not because these services are excellent.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Quote from Paolo Roversi

My studio is a rectangular room with a high ceiling, old wooden parquet flooring, and a large window facing north. It is like a tiny theatre with an empty stage, a space to be filled, a time yet to be invented, a proscenium where everything is possible, no trick disallowed, where neither seasons, nor days, not hours exist. Here all temporal boundaries dividing live and imitation, reality and fiction, dissolve. Like any art worthy of the name, the most brazen lie can evolve into surprising and seductive truth. The furnishings are modest: two stools, a carport, some chairs, two or three lights, and an old blanket, which is my favorite backdrop. It can be a wall, a road, a field, sky, night, fear, wind… a screen for dreams. The studio is not only in this room; it is anywhere I put my camera on my tripod and my tripod on the ground, liberating my heart and mind. The studio is far more than a workplace or a tool of my trade. It is above all a state of being and feeling. The studio is everywhere. It is the corner of my mind. I have a very mystic and spiritual approach to photography, which I can't explain, and I don't need to. I like to keep things unrevealed, I like sometimes to lose myself into the indefinite. That often happens to me along the path of beauty, without every truly understanding where to proceed, and the further I manage to see, the deeper the mystery becomes. Photography goes beyond the limits of reality and illusion. It brushes up against another life, another dimension, revealing not only what is there but was is no there. Every photograph is an encounter, an intimate, reciprocal confession. I like long exposures to allow the should all the time it needs to rise to the surface, and to let chance have its way. Always, photographs surprise me; they never turn out quite the way I imagine they might. Every photograph enters the world as a sign of hope. It is late, very late. Everyone has left, and a strange silence has descended. I wander aimlessly around the deserted studio trying to bring some order to ideas and objects, but the natural and permanent chaos exerts its power. I put on my jacket, turn out the light, and close the door. But where does the light go? Silence… Darkness is the light's silence.

Paolo Roversi

Trans Siberian in black and white

The Trans Siberian after twenty years

It is hard to believe that it has been twenty years since the first time I took the Trans Siberian railway. The last time was in the other direction, from Moscow to Beijing. And it has also been twenty years since I last visited Moscow. If it were not for the war and strife along the countries in the silk route, I may not have taken this train ride again. But given the situation, this has become an opportunity to see how a train line, a country has changed in two decades. And in many ways, to see how I have changed in this time as well.

I was not all that impressed by the sights from the carriage of the Trans Siberian Railway when I took it twenty years ago. Expect for several hours around Lake Baikal, most of the trip is of forests, interspersed with drab, functional looking towns. The forests are nice and I am happy that Russia has so many trees left standing. But five days of trees, more or less close up, can become monotonous. Perhaps it is more romantic in the snow of winter, but the less than luxurious toilets and cabins would also be less than romantic in the sub zero temperatures of winter.

Like the first trip, the most interesting thing is the people that you meet on the train. For the first day and night on the train, I shared my cabin with a Mongolian business woman. She claims to be going to visit her family in Irkutsk. I think she has a lucrative business smuggling clothes bought cheap in China into Russia. When I entered my cabin in Ulaanbaatar, it was like a store room cramped with goods. I thought that I was going to see Mongolian business happen first hand. But instead, the Mongolian lady separated the merchandise into small packets which she paid other travelers a small fee to keep. Coming to the Mongol-Russia border, the customs officer could smell something fishing from her office in the train station, but she could not see the smuggled merchandise. After crossing the border, the merchandise started to appear in the cabin again. Fortunately it was only a day to Irkutsk from Ulaanbaatar. The Mongolian lady and a good sized street store alighted at Irkutsk. There was one good thing staying in the same cabin with her. The Russian restaurant on the train refused to take Mongolian money. The shrewd business woman was able to change Mongolian money to Russian money for me and other foreign travelers, for a fee of course.

Also getting off at Irkutsk was a frenchman Mattais and an English retired water engineer, Geoffery. We had a nice and short talk just before their alighted about how countries were carved up in an arbitrary fashion after the second world war.

In the cabin next to me was a relatively rich Russian teacher, Ludmilla and her horny black bull dog, Aslouf. She was very popular with the train attendants. I think it is the food she shared with them, fresh vegetables and cheese. In return, the train attendants would give her some of what they prepared for themselves. I had a taste of the food, which was much better than the cut throat train restaurant. Unfortunately, I was not as charming as Ludmilla, and only got to taste the food once. It was strange though, one train attendant hogged my iphone and she sat through the night shift and played with the games that I have on it. The other demanded that I give her some Singaporean notes but when I finally caved in and gave her a five dollar note, she gave me a Russian metal cup holder and cup. A nice souvenir from the train.

An young Israeli, Omri, had just started on photography and moved into my cabin where I showed him slides from my photography lectures. I taught him about editing images and my favourite topic of crafting images to convey meaning and emotion. Omri shared with me his Jewish music. He was a true lover of women, but he was completely hung up on a Mongolian girl in Ulaanbaatar who got angry with him and dumped him. He was shell shocked.

What was not so pleasant was a group of Mongolian army soldiers on their way to Leningrad for training. It was unbelievable that they were drunk the entire train journey, day and night. They had huge bellies, from all that alcohol. I had the usual invitations to drink vodka and smoke cigarettes. I managed to avoid most of it except I had a mouthful of Vodka. However, one Mongolian got beligerent. He somehow got it into his head that I would buy him beer. When the train stopped he would wrap his big arm around my neck and try to steer me towards the shops selling beer. This happened a couple of times. Then on the morning we arrived in Moscow, I was having breakfast and he and another Mongolian sat opposite me. He indicated that I should buy them alcohol. I just looked at them and said no, he got angry stood up and grabbed me by my collar. I screamed him back and told him to 'Fuck off!'. I am sure he does not understand what I was saying, but the sound of 'Fuck off!' conveys the correct message. His comrade ushered him to another table. The aggressive Mongolian got enough sense to know he did something wrong and kept apologizing to me and hugging me. I wish that he had stayed sober and been civil.

Photographically, I was intrigued by the hugeness of the towns and how they were run down. I took a lot of images of machinery and buildings. I get this sense of things from another era, working, but aging. Strong and fragile at the same time. Like a circus strong man, who is past his prime., still muscular, but has a weak heart.

In the twenty years I have changed too. Although the trip was not a visual spectacle in the usual sense, the characters that I met and the aging communist machinery, set amidst forest and open sky, had a lot for me to contemplate. I have begun to accept all of life, not just the peak experiences.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The White Lake (Terkhiin Tsagan Nuur) 6 June 2010

Inside a ger a stove makes it feel too warm. A light makes a defiant space in a dark night. Outside I hear strong winds blowing. The water by the lake seems to be heaving itself against the shore. There is a tempest around me which I know would swallow me up if it could. But in a ger, about three meteres wide, is a haven of warmth and light. As pretty as the falling snow and mountain lake scenery can be, this beauty is wild, untamed and dangerous.


I set of on this journey to take a break from the life that I lead in Singapore. And in my travels, I do see the suffering of the poor. It has been a harsh winter in Mongolia and my guide, Odnoo, said that she has never seen so many dead carcasses littering the countryside before. And yet the people that I meet in Mongolia are not tearing their hair out. One herder said simply that many of his herd had died during winter and he would have to raise more animals. I see the dead animals rotting on the ground, surrounded by flies. I see the harsh conditions that the people have to live in. But I also see the beauty of nature. Wonderful landscapes, symphonic sunsets, beautiful spring flowers. Am I shallow for being elated more by beauty and less by the angst of someone given over to a substance addiction. There are alcoholic Mongolians if I wanted to pursue it, beggars on the streets of all the cities I have been to since I left Singapore. Am I heartless for celebrating the form and shape of reflections and colours instead of engaging in other people's despair?

The truth is life is short, once we are born we will die. Is pain and despair any more real than pleasure and beauty? I am not a hedonist, I do not deny hard work, discipline and sacrifice in life. But honestly, I do not wish to celebrate pain and suffering for the sake of itself. I want that people all have a chance to enjoy the good things in life. And I firmly believe that as mundane as it may seem to some 'art' lovers, beauty is as valid, as much part of the human experience as pain and suffering. And to all of us, there will be death and departures, accept it. And while we live, celebrate life, relationships, care for one another and the earth.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Mogolian Panoramas

Although I am not usually a fan of stitched parnoramas, in Mongolia, I had to give it a try. There is just no way that even a wide angle lens can capture the feeling of space in Mongolia. You get a better sense here. If you want a better experience, see the slide show on flickr.

Archaeological Treasures of Mongolia - the second half

The first few deer stone and burial mounds were weathered and hard to read. The deer in the deer stones are stylized. The deer are supposed to take the dead spirits to the sky and therefor the legs of the dear are more wisps than fully formed appendages. Just outside Muron, at a site named Uushigtiin Uvur, there is a group of well preserved deer stones. And there is one with a face carved on the side of the stone. The deer stone have belts around them like the Mongolians wearing their dells. And like Mongolians there are tools hanging from the belts. I could clearly see an axe on the deer stone with the face. It is kind of impressive that people could have carved something that would say something to people thousands of years later.

We also visited the Hyadagiin Deer Stones after a bit of searching. These deer stones are in the middle of the countryside in a country that has virtually no road signs. It is amazing that the driver, Nagi, could find his way all over this vast landscape and find anything.

As the trip in time was slowly coming to an end, the scenery was getting more and more beautiful. The highlight at the end of this trip around Mongolia was three days at lake Hogsvol. Sometimes it is easy to be dismissive of pretty scenery. But in Mongolia, I think mother nature has created a work of art that is truly breath taking. Mongolia is an immense space, and the combination of lake, mountain, trees and animals, is inspiring. This is no doubt a harsh country, but there is a harmony and beauty that I think transcends the mortality. Like I felt before in Angkor Wat, the immortality of nature is not in having some live or be preserved for all time. The immortality of nature comes in the cycle of life and death of the plants and animals. The important thing is to enjoy life in the present, to have no regrets when our time is up.

On the first day at Hogsvol lake, my guide took me horse back riding. We had a Mongolian horse guide and we visited his house. We played a game with the ankle bones of sheep and goat. I drank milk tea from cow's milk. I have not eaten camel meat, or drunk Airag (fermented horse milk). I did have a sip of Mongolian vodka from a herder. But fortunately I had nothing turned out to be as repulsive as the yak butter tea I had in Tibet. I had a sore bum from three hours of horse riding.

On the second day, we climbed a 2500m mountain, Khyasaa Uul, to get a view of the 130km long Hogsvol lake. I knew something like this would happen to me in Mongolia. That is why I have been doing my best to walk and climb the hills in Guilin and Vietnam. I have spent up to eight hours a day walking in cities, but this four hour hike up and down this mountain was exhausting. I lost count of the number of times we had to stop so that I could catch my breath. I could have given up at any time but we had plenty of time and it is not that often that I have had to breath really hard. After two hours, we got to the top of the mountain, took a few photographs and it began to rain. And it was a pretty heavy rain so we started to make our way down the mountain. It was fascinating and a bit eerie seeing so many ovoo(piles of stone for prayer) up on the mountain. The view was worth the strenuous climb.

Today, my bum still hurts from the horse riding and my leg muscles are sore from mountain climbing. And then I went kayaking on a small lake next to the ger camp we are staying at. It was as difficult or strenuous as I thought it would be. But the worst thing was the swarm of flies on the surface of the lake. Fortunately, the flies did not bite. Unlike the mosquitos at the White Lake, which left long lasting bumps, these flies just swarmed. Very unsettling.

So after all the sights and adventuring, my journey in Mongolia is coming to an end. I will be flying back to Ulaanbaatar from a small town called Muron. This was always planned because there is only so much time and I have a train to catch to Moscow. But this trip was about 1800km. I am sure that I have more to see and experience ahead of me, but the raw beauty and truth of Mongolia, is unforgettable for me. And there is much more to see, at the very least I will need to visit the Gobi dessert to the south one day. Time to wash clothes and prepare for 5 days on the trans siberian express.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Archaeological Treasures of Mongolia - the first half

I always knew that Mongolia would be extraordinary in an already ambitious overland trip. However, I did not know exactly what to expect. And a few days in Ulaanbaatar was interesting but not all that inspiring. But the first excursion out of Ulaanbaatar to the Tonyukuk Monument, gave a hint of what was to come. This monument was erected in 744AD and was from the Turkic nation, the second of the three empires that came out of Mongolia. The monument talks of the states man Tonyukuk and has a brief history of the Turkic state. As monuments go, this is quite a simple one. But it is set in the middle of a plain and in the distance mountains go as far as the eye can see, and a blue sky with expansive clouds cover it all.

By choosing the Nomadic Expeditions' tour, Archaeological Treasures of Mongolia, I had chosen a journey through the history of Mongolia. The journey would take me to look at deer stones that date from the bronze age, to the old capital Kharakhorum to new sites like the huge statue of Chinggis Khan, erected just outside Ulaanbaatar. I would also get to see dessert, steppes and mountains, the three main types of landscape in Mongolia.

I am writing this at Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, a lake created when the Khorgo volcano erupted two thousand years ago. This is part of a two week loop around central Mongolia and I am at the half way point.

On the first day out of Ulaanbaatar, we went to the Hogno Han mountains and stayed at a ger at the bottom of a mountain. We went to visit a monastery around the corner of the mountain. The sun was hot and I was rapidly getting a sun tan. I thought that two weeks of this and I would be burnt to a crisp. The monastery was actually a few temples built on the remains of a larger temple that was destroyed during the communist purge of religion. The caretaker suggested that we visit the ruins of an even earlier monastery in the mountain called Uugun Khiid (Old Man Monastery). My guide Odnoo, suggested we take a leisurely stroll up to the site. I thought it would be a short jaunt and then back to the van to go visit a herder family. But it took about forty-five minutes up a rocky path. I was very thirsty, having left my water in the van. But when we got to the ruins, it was pretty impressive. It was a relatively large monastery. And then my guide suggested we go over the mountain pass to return to the ger instead of going back to the van. I protested saying that I was thirsty. And she showed me a stream that looked like it flowed into mud and horse dung. By myself I would never have drunk the water, but she showed me how to scoop the top of the running water from head of the stream. The water really tasted delicious, almost sweet. I was waiting for another attack of the runs that would send me home to Singapore again, but it never happened. Refreshed, we tackled the mountain pass and Odon was right, the ger camp was on the other side. However, the descent was a bit of a climb. This Mongolian trip was turning out to be a real adventure.

There are more stories but the highlights include taking a bath in the hot springs, horse riding with an opera singing horse guide and an out of this world sunset at a ger camp next to Taikhar Chuluu. The monuments like the black ruins (Har Balgas), deer stones and the Erdene Zuu monastery are all quite spectacular in their own right. And getting caught in a sandstorm that looked like a scene out of the mummy.

It was a long, hard winter for Mongolia and there were many dead carcasses. And amongst all the beauty that I saw, I also saw the vulnerability of life. And also because of the long hard winter, I had another surprising experience, snow in June. I visited the extinct volcano, Khorgo, this morning in what can only be called a snow storm. Oddly enough, with the proper clothing, it was not that cold.

At the half way point, I have already been through very different landscapes, gone back in time and been summer crisped to winter frozen. I have made full use of all the clothes I packed including the swimming trunks and thermal underwear. What will the next half of the journey bring?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Due to train schedules, I had a fair amount of time in what turned out to be a small city. At least most of the main tourist sites were in walking distance of the main square, Sukhbaatar Square.

This history of Mongolia is like the spirit of its nomadic people, ever changing. They ruled China in the time of Ghinggis Khan. Were ruled by the Chinese for two hundred years. With the help of the Russians freed themselves from the Chinese and was ruled by the eight Bodh Khan, who was both the religious and state ruler. Then was a socialist state and then had a peaceful revolution to a democracy twenty years ago.

I think the cliche is a heavily meat eating country with a beautiful blue sky. But the contrast between the broken pavements and roads and the shiny glass skyscrapers shows a much more complex story. The country is very poor, but the parliment has a new facade of the three great Khans of the great Mongol empire. There is a book of 'The teaching of Buddha' in my hotel room, but after the socialists did their best to wipe out Buddhism in the country, so the people are not anywhere as religious as the Tibetians. In their last election, the 4th since becoming a democratic country, the president is from the democratic party and is very involved in being green. But the people are waiting to benefit from profits from mining which were promised to them.

I think Ulaanbaatar reflects a poor country that has hope although its living conditions are harsh. And with democracy, it is up to its own people to seize this opportunity. But the world financial crisis is a big set back as well. There is a huge impressive curved glass building that was meant to become a hotel. Work on it has ceased. It stands there as a symbol of hope unfulfilled. And then going out into the countryside, and seeing how the people are able to live in spite of all that is against them, you know that the Mongolians are not a people to take things lying down.