Friday, June 22, 2007

Italy and Slovenia

My last name is Martino. My great grandfather was Italian. He immigrated to America in 1903.

He came to America to work as a coal miner in the deep dark shafts of Appalachia, the coal mines of West Virginia. He worked hard and earned little, but America offered opportunity.

My great grandfather never returned to Italy, nor did any of his 14 children, nor their children’s children. No one had been back in 104 years, until now.

My family knew little but the name of the town where my great grandfather had been born. We had lost touch.

We were proud to call ourselves Italian Americans, but it was a hollow moniker without footnotes, annotations or any depth of knowledge. We were Italian but did not know why or how.

Before I left China to return to the United States, I had a goal. I wanted to find what the Chinese would call the “old home,” my roots.


Italy is a dream, a maiden of blue shores, green vineyards, a yellow beating sun and ruins that span the ages. It is a land of great food, romance and passion where everyone seems to wear Gucci and LV and drive cars two sizes too small.

I had lived in Asia for over four years. I had become accustomed to polluted grey skies, no trees, metropolises of millions, crowded streets and buildings that had as much artistic taste as concrete shoe boxes.

When I landed in Rome, I fell in love. Everything is beautiful; the buildings, the food and even the people’s clothes. Only Paris can compete with Rome in beauty.

Rome is not a city. It is a monument, a work of art. You can not help to wander it its streets and be in awe. Living in China, I had forgotten cities could be beautiful.

I arrived in Rome at the beginning of April, before the stampede of summer gawkers, when the flowers were just starting to bloom and the weather was sublime.

Millions come to see Rome’s glories. The only bad thing about Rome and Italy’s grand sites are their high cost. While in Asia, I could take care of all my needs for between $5 and $10 a day. In Italy, I would need between $30 and $50 a day.

Always a frugal traveler, I had a plan to protect my modest savings. Rather than staying in hotels and hostels, I would tent and stay in campgrounds and farmers’ fields. Instead of relying on buses and trains, I would bring my own transport. I would bicycle. Not only would I save more, I would see more.

A Bicycle in Italy

Having a bicycle in Italy is the way to go. In Rome, I did not have to walk. I could bike the town.

From my campground, I could make it to the Vatican in 20 minutes. It was faster than taking the bus or subway. I would chain my bike to sign posts in front of pizza parlors and outdoor café’s, where there were plenty of customers to discourage any thieves, and then enjoy the sites.
I visited churches, cycled through piazzas, drank from fountains, visited the forum and cruised the Apian way.

I enjoyed what was old and Roman. I had studied Roman history when taking Latin in high school. I was shocked that I could remember the names of Rome’s seven hills that I had memorized for a test. Mrs. Gramins, my Latin teacher, would be proud. And so, the forum enthralled me and the coliseum amazed.

The coliseum was huge, as large as any modern day amphitheater. It was shocking to stand in its shadow, to know it was once one of the largest manmade structures in the world. While most of the world was still living in huts, the Romans had the knowledge to build structures truly colossal.

The Romans were not know for their artistic talents. They even considered the Greeks far superior artisans to themselves. They were first and foremost great warriors and fantastic engineers.

For artistic inspiration, I had to look in other places than the broken brick and marble faces of the coliseum and forum.

When I had interviewed for a scholarship in college to go to Scandinavia, I was asked what I would choose if I could select any piece of art for my home. I chose the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I am convinced no other painting can match its grandeur. Craning my neck to see God and Adam, I was amazed one man could have painted so much, so well. Especially while lying on his back holding paint brushes in his teeth.

While in the chapel, there was a hum, a crowd of tourists talking. A guard clapped his hands and pleaded for us to be silent. He reminded us the chapel was sacred. No one listened. How could anyone admire creation and not say a word.

In Rome, I saw more churches than I could count because Rome more than any other place on Earth screams Christianity. The city is a calliope of Catholicism, churches shouting baroque, neoclassical and renaissance, all the notes of artistic creativity done here and amplified. There is a church on every corner, a cross on every wall. St. Peter’s is huge. Priests walk the streets. Nuns are on buses. For all the Catholics of the world this is holy ground. The grandeur is awesome and inspiring.

For a week, I too was enlightened and amazed by this grandiose city of gold and marble beauty. Too much grandeur, however, can spoil you. I could not stay in Rome forever.
After a week, I turned my wheels north. My goal was Tuscany and the tiny town of Forte dei Marmi, near Pisa where my good friend Maria lived.

North Through Tuscany

I can not say too much exciting happened to me on this bicycle trip. I had no near misses. I had no flat tires. It didn’t even rain. The distance between Rome and Forte dei Marmi was not great, just 300 kilometers or about 190 miles, but I took my time. I am no longer 21. Biking in the hot sun and up hills, I could no longer sustain the pace I had when I had raced across the states in 23 days, 100 miles each day.

I was sore just from my more modest distances. It took nine days to get to Forte dei Marmi.
I slowly cycled past vineyards and wheat fields, giant olive trees giving shade to brown turned soil, ancient villas and medieval towns standing on hills.

I stopped in town markets to buy olives, fresh bread and cheese. I ate picnic lunches in town piazzas, fed the pigeons and made small talk with old men sitting on green benches.
I visited ancient castles and Roman ruins.

In Pisa, I took my picture in front of the leaning tower. For two days, I even made a side trip to the island of Elba.

Elba is a hot rock covered in Mediterranean scrub and drenched in sun. Clear blue water languidly laps rocky beaches offering cool relief for bronze sunbathers. Interestingly, it was even once ruled for nine months and 21 days by a deposed French emperor before he was rescued, raised a new army and was defeated for good at Waterloo. “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” he might have said.

Forte dei Marmi is just north of Pisa. My friend Maria lives there with her parents. She is a painter and a student. She is studying art at a university nearby. I had not seen Maria for eight years, but we had kept in touch. Every year I have sent her Christmas cards. We studied together at the International Summer School in Oslo, Norway. She was at the school to study Norwegian. I was there by luck with a Viking scholarship to learn about Scandinavian culture, girls, boiled potatoes and aquavite.

Maria had not changed a bit. She is still the Norwegian, Italian girl with beautiful blond hair and the wonderful smile I remembered. She still has the energy and dynamism of when she was 21.

Maria organized my entire stay. The first day, we went to visit the Tuscan town of Lucca. We strolled around the ancient city, took a bike ride along the town walls, had a wonderful lunch besides a church with an interesting name, San Martino, climbed a medieval tower with views of the city and finally finished the day with a cappuccino in what was once a Roman amphitheater. “You need to live life,” Maria said, after having enjoyed her cappuccino. I agreed.

The second day, we climbed into the mountains above Forte die Marmi. Forte dei Marmi means fort of the marble. A fort once protected the route where vast quantities of marble was towed by oxen to waiting ships. The marble is still cut from the mountains today. Michelangelo got his marble for his David from the mountains near Forte.

The marble made the mountain tops appear like they were capped with snow. The passes, on the other hand, were green and filled with violets, blue bells, orchids and other wild flowers. We could look out to the wine dark waters of the Mediterranean and almost see the southern coast of France.

Along with us for the hike was Maria's friend Angelo, a history buff. He filled us in on the history of the mountains, and the prehistoric people who farmed and herded animals there. He even told us of the battles that took place in the mountains during WWII when US troops of the 442 division, a famous division of Japanese Americans, fought the Germans.

Beyond sites, there was of course food to experience. Maria, her Norwegian mother and her Italian father are all terrific cooks. You can not stay in an Italian home and not expect to eat well. Maria’s mother made fantastic pizza and Maria’s father was especially enthusiastic about having me try different kinds of salami and ham. “This salami is Fantastic!” he said. He went to the market every day to find something I had not tried.
Heading South

When my visit to Tuscany was complete, it was time to head south. My goal was the bottom of the Italian boot, the region of Calabria. Calabria is where my great grandfather was born. It was where I hoped to find my roots.

I did not want to backtrack over the same countryside I had traveled to get to Forte dei Marmi, so from Pisa, I took a train back to Rome. What had taken me nine days to cover by bicycle took only a few hours by train.

Sitting on a train, however, one never gets the true feel for a country. I was pleased I had cycled under the Tuscan sun.

From Rome, I continued by train to Naples. In Naples, I began to cycle again, once again riding along the coast, but this time heading south.

Southern Italy is captivating. Cycling through it was like a relaxing ride through a cover of Conde Nast Traveler, following the outline of perfect sapphire waters along a coast of sheer cliffs bathed in Mediterranean sun. From the cliffs, I could look down and see clearly to the bottom of the sea. The water was like liquid car glass, tinted blue and in constant gentle motion.

The harsh sun beat my skin, but the cool sea breezes kept me fresh and inspired my motion.

There were more than just inspirational views and quaint villages along the coast. The southwest coast of Italy was once part of Greater Greece. I enjoyed visiting what were once old Greek cities. I saw the fat Doric columns of Greek temples and wandered in the ruins of what were once great costal ports and cities.

Just south of Naples was the grandest of all architectural sites in Italy. It was not Greek but Roman. In 79 A.D, Mount Vesuvius exploded. The whole top of the mountain was blown off like an Italian Mount St. Helens. The explosion completely buried the nearby city of Pompei in four meters of ash. It destroyed the city, but also preserved it.
For someone who had studied Latin, Pompei was like finding the holy grail. No other archeological site tells us more about the ancient Romans than Pompei.

For one entire day, I did not bike. Instead, I lost myself in Pompei’s ancient alley ways.
What makes Pompeii so special is the city is all there, the ruins are intact. No one came to build over the city, no one took marble to build new monuments. Only the roofs to the houses and the people are missing. It is a city frozen in time.

Down on the Farm

I had originally planned on visiting Italy by myself. Hearing of my plans, however, my father and sister decided they too wanted to join me on my adventure to discover my Italian heritage.
My father and sister were set to arrive on May 17th. I had, however, been able to speed rapidly through most of southern Italy. After two and a half weeks of cycling I was getting into better shape.

I passed Cosenza, the town in southern Italy where I was supposed to meet up with my father and sister. I got there a good week before they were supposed to arrive. With time to kill, I decided I would go to work.

I wanted to get close to the land. I wanted to meet more Italians and get a better feeling for just how people lived and worked the land.

While I had been traveling in New Zealand in 2003, I had heard about and subsequently joined an organization called WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

As a “Woofer,” in exchanged for a few hours of work on an organic farm each day, you get a place to stay and meals to eat. For those interested in organic farming it offers a chance to learn about different organic farming practices. For those just interest in traveling it offers an opportunity to stay with a local family and learn more about their culture.

I worked for a week on the farm of Giuseppe and Mattea Riggio. They have two children who are teenagers. Their farm is about 2.5 hectares. I worked planting tomatoes, weeding onions, gathering hay, watering the plants, tying grape vines and feeding the farm’s chickens and ducks.
I stayed in a small cabin on the farm. The cabin had a small bedroom and its own kitchen. The cabin was like my own little pastoral paradise with fruit trees where I could pick lemons for my tea in the morning and oranges to eat for breakfast.

Giuseppe was not a full time farmer, although he would have like to have been. He worked a day job for the government. Giuseppe would finish work at 5:00 p.m. and would then join me to help with projects on the farm. We would work until it got dark at 8:30 p.m. Then, we would go to his home in the village, four kilometers away, for dinner and conversation.

Dinners were rustic and good. Salami, cheese and fresh bread were always on the table. The family’s own red wine was also always served. The meals included whatever fresh produce was at hand from the farm. At the time of my visit, fava beans were in season. We had fava beans with everything. We had pasta with fava beans in the tomato sauce. We had a tomato and fava bean stew one night. We even ate fava beans right out of the pods for desert. I grew to love fava beans. They look like gigantic sweet lima beans, you can eat straight from the pod.

Even better than the fresh vegetables, however, was the homemade salami. I think I could have just eaten salami and fresh bread while on the farm and have been content.

The Martinos

After having worked on the farm for one week, I met up with my father and sister. Together we traveled by train and by bus to the town of our ancestors, San Giovanni in Fiori.
I did not know what to expect in San Giovanni in Fiori. I had been told that Calabria was the poorest region in Italy. I had also been told San Giovanni in Fiori was one of Calabira’s poorest towns. I thought perhaps the streets would be littered with trash and every flat surface would be covered in graffiti like in Naples.

I was pleasantly surprised. San Giovani is still a poor town. There is not much industry or work, but it is an extremely beautiful little hamlet in the mountains, clean and well maintained.

The town sits on the side of a mountain at about 1,200 meters. It is surrounded by the Sila mountains. There are pine trees, tranquil lakes, and ski resorts for in the winter. Nearby, there is a high mountain plateau where cows, goats and sheep are grazed. Everywhere there are blossoming flowers: red poppies, dandelions and yellow potentially bushes.

Tourists trumpet the virtues of Tuscany. It is indeed beautiful, but I found myself as equally enamored by the beauty of this mountainous land. It looked like Switzerland. I felt moved and pleased to know my ancestors had come from such a beautiful place.

We did not have much information to go on to be able to find our relatives. The last time anyone had heard anything from a relative living in San Giovanni in Fiore was in 1970 when my great grandfather received a letter from his brother Domenico.

The letter had just been recently rediscovered. From the letter we had an address, of what we believed might be the original homestead. In the letter, there were also a few photos of relatives, but none of the pictures were labeled.

San Giovanni has a population of about 7,000. Because it is built on the sides of a steep mountain, the roads are twisting and narrow. The roads do not form a grid, and there is no clear center of town. Finding Via Costa, the street we had from the letter would not be easy. A maze of streets wasn’t our only problem. We lacked a map.

San Giovanni’s one hotel, Dino’s, where we were staying, had given its only street map to another American family. They just happened to be also searching for their relatives. My great grandfather, after all, had not been alone in leaving San Giovanni in Fiore. Mountains are difficult to farm.

By chance, while out exploring the town, we ran into the family who had the map. They were returning to the hotel and gave it to us.

With the map, we could see where Via Costa was. We confidently set out to find our ancestral home.

My older sister Anne was in the lead when we came around a winding bend to a two-story church. It was a small white church capable of holding mass for not more than 75 parishioners. A metal cross on a concrete pedestal stood in front and to the left of the churches’ two varnished wooden doors. The cross was metal, four feet high and raised a further three feet by the pedestal.

The map indicated Via Costa was near the church. We searched for Via Costa, but we could not find a street sign with the name. Finally, Anne asked an elderly woman coming out of the church where Via Costa was.

The woman confirmed we were in the right location. She pointed to the narrow alleyway just to the right of the church.

The alleyway was narrow, 2/3 the width of a car. We approached the alley and looked at the first green door. It had a white #3 painted next to it, the same address we had on our envelope.
On a brass plate besides an intercom there were the engraved letters “FAM. MARTINO F.”

“Look,” my sister said. “Martinos!”

Above the door, on the second floor, of the two-story row house, there was a woman wearing a red blouse. She had long black hair and was putting out laundry.

She looked strangely at this group of unusual tourists at her door carrying cameras and a huge fold out map.

My sister looked up at this potentially long lost cousin and asked “Martino?”

“Martino, Si,” she said.

Anne pointed back to herself. “Martino,” she said.

The woman in red looked even more baffled than before. She put down the laundry she was hanging and came downstairs to the door.

It was then that we showed her the pictures that had been sent to my great grandfather 37 years before. She recognized the faces. It was then that she understood who we were.
“Martino!!!!” she said and gave us all hugs and kisses.

What followed is hard to believe, an unbelievable reception of love and warmth.

We were to discover the woman who had been hanging out the clothes was named Katina. She was the wife of Francesco Martino, hence the F. Martino on the door plaque.

Francesco still lives in one half of the original house where my great grandfather was born. In the other half his father, Pasquale, and mother Isabella Martino still live.

Pasquale Martino is the son of Domenico Martino, the brother of my grandfather, who had sent the letter and the pictures that helped us find the address. Katina recognized immediately faces in the pictures we had brought. Many of the pictures were of her mother and father in-law and of her husband when he was very young.

She immediately took us next door, where we were able to meet Isabella, her mother in- law.
No one in San Giovanni in Fiori except for the front desk clerk at Dino’s hotel was able to speak much English. I had taken one semester of Italian while I was in college and with several years of Latin was able to make myself understood, barely.

Katina and Isabella were overjoyed by our arrival. In the small kitchen of the original house Isabella sat on a chair next to a couch. She quickly ushered each of us over so she could hug and kiss us on the check. She then talked quickly and excitedly in Italian, beaming with a gigantic smile. We understood nothing that she said.

Katina started making telephone calls. In minutes more Martino’s started to arrive. First her strong husband, Francesco, a 39 year old farmer who shockingly looked like my brother. Then Luigi Martino who lived down the street. Finally, Rosina Martino, Pasquale’s sister and her daughter Maria.

Everyone wanted to see our pictures, understand just who we were and learn about the lost branch of the Martinos who lived in America and whom they had not heard from in 100 years.
With the arrival of each new cousin there were more hugs, kisses and smiles. Everyone was happy. And we got more confused as to who was who and how we were related.

It was my quick thinking sister who solved our communication difficulties. She ran outside up the street to ask in shops if anyone could speak English.

Not far from the house, she found a flower shop. The owner did not speak English but her husband did. The owner called him and had him report for translation duty.

His name was Tony Ragario. He turned out to be good friends with Francesco. He came to the house with Anne and with our deep gratitude was able to explain to all the history of our family, how our great grandfather had left, where he had worked where his children now lived and why we had returned.

From a simple knock on the door, we had started a wave of love and welcome. We were immediately brought into the care of our cousins. For five straight days, during our visit, we were introduced to more Martino’s than we could keep track of. We were ushered into our cousins’ homes to share celebratory shots of rum, served home cooked meals and given tours of the town, surrounding towns, the countryside and all the farms our relatives still run.

We learned about our ancestors, filling in blank spaces on the family tree. We learned the history of San Giovanni, toured its churches and what was a medieval monastery.

Most importantly for me, I felt like I got in touch with who my great grandfather was by seeing my cousins’ farms. I understood seeing the land why he might have left. I understood how it would have been difficult to farm in the mountains. I learned he would have grown olives and raised sheep, goats and cows.

One evening, on the third night of our visit, a huge celebration was organized. Fifty five cousins came to meet us. They clapped and cheered when we arrived at the restaurant. My father, sister and I were all deeply moved. We had come home. We had found our Italian roots.
On that evening I felt complete. I now know who my ancestors were, who my relatives are. I now know who I am.


After our fantastic visit with our cousins in Italy, my sister went to Paris for business and I traveled with my father back to Rome.

My father flew home and I went on to visit Venice.

I did not bike there but rather took the train. I had cycled enough. Taking the train was faster.
It was not very much of a fun trip by train. Because of my bicycle, I was not allowed to ride the high-speed or inter-city trains. I had to take much slower and less direct local trains, which had room to store a bicycle.

On the way to Venice, I ended up getting stranded in Bologna at midnight. The final train I needed didn’t leave until 5:00 a.m. There was no sense in trying to find a hotel, so I sacked out in the train station and spent a miserable five hours trying to sleep on a concrete floor.

The hard night’s sleep was made all the worth while when I got to Venice.

Venice is for children, dreamers and lovers, a city on water that defies the waves.

Paris and Rome are magnificent cities of beauty where one can amble and roam for days gawking at the beauty of the churches, public squares, and majestic fountains. In Venice the affect is double with its maze of canals and connecting bridges.

Venice’s magic is its water, water which brings peace and calm. It is the reflection on the water of evening lights lightly dancing. The bridges which gracefully cross it. The light splash of a gondoliers’ oars that makes us fall in love with this maiden on the sea.

I fell in love with Venice, as I had when I first saw Paris and Rome. But I must say Venice is almost too fairyland, too Disney that it does not seem real. It does not seem to me to be a living city with both rich and poor and blue collar and white collar workers.

It is not a very large place. Space is at a premium so it is thus astronomically expensive. The city felt out of balance, like a Monaco where every person lucky enough to claim residence is rich. I felt like it had simply become a playground for tourists and the rich. But a wonderfully beautiful playground indeed.


“Thank you so much for coming to visit Slovenia. I hope you enjoy our country,” the ticket agent at the small train station in Kooper told me in fluent English after having bought my ticket to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.

It was a shock to be welcomed, wanted and spoken to in fluent English.

Italy is overrun with tourists. Few Italians bother to learn English or to speak it. Being so overrun they can at times seem aloof.

The ticket agent was not the only person I found to be warm and welcoming. I found Slovenia to be an extremely friendly and beautiful country.

I went to Slovenia after leaving Venice. Slovenia sits on Italy’s northeast border. It also abuts the Alps and shares a border with Austria and Hungry and Croatia. It was once part of Yugoslavia.

It is a prosperous country and is doing well as part of the European Union.

It is a bit of an undiscovered gem. While most American tourists when they think about going to Europe travel to England, Germany, France and Italy they really miss out on a country like Slovenia which might not have many grand cathedrals or masters in their museums but more than makes up for it with natural beauty.

Four major European geographic regions meet in Slovenia: the Alps, the Dinarides, the Pannonian plain and the Mediterranean. The country is thus majestic mountains, bucolic farmland and graceful seaside all rolled into one.

Around half of Slovenia is covered by forests. This makes Slovenia the third most forested country in Europe, after Finland and Sweden. That is a bit shocking when you consider Slovenia is only about the size of Massachusetts. It bodes well however for nature lovers who want to explore an Alpine lake or wander through the European countryside.

I went to Slovenia to visit my friend Matjaz Medvesek, or Medo for short. We had studied Chinese together in Taiwan.

From Venice, I took a train to Trieste near the Slovenian border. I had been told to go to Trieste by a train official in Venice.

My plan was to bike across the border and then get another train to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. From Venice, there was only one direct train to the Slovenian capital, so I thought this method was perhaps better than waiting all day for that one train.

It didn’t quite work out as being more efficient. The Italian train official had not given me accurate information. After crossing the border near Trieste, there was no train on the Slovenian side. I had to bike another 25 kilometers to get to Kooper, which had a train station. My misadventure took up most of the day.

It was great to see Medo who I had not seen in nearly two years. He works now for Slovenian state television in the video control room.

Europeans really have it good. Medo works all of 14 days a month. In the summer, when he is needed less, he works just 7 days a month.

He was gracious to schedule his off days around my arrival. Medo took me literally all over Slovenia. Don’t forget it only takes four to five hours to get from the farthest eastern part of the country to the farthest western part of the country.

Medo took me to see a fascinating cave with more than 20 kilometers of tunnels. We also went to see Bled a picturesque alpine lake with white capped mountains as a backdrop and an island in the center with a church perched dead center. The lake looked like a picture perfect postcard used for impossible 5,000 piece puzzles.

Slovenia was the 29th country I have visited or lived in. I have seen much of the world, but looking at a map it seems like I have covered so little ground.

There are 194 countries in the world if you count the Vatican and Taiwan as countries. If you consider countries as a proxy for the world as a whole, I have seen only 15% of the Earth. I have never been to Africa, South America, Australia or Antarctica. These are entire continents!

It humbles me to realize I could keep going until the day I died and still not see it all, experience it all.

I love to travel. I love to see the world with my own eyes. But for now I am satisfied. While I was young I can say I did it. I traveled and saw what I wanted see and saw it the way I wanted to see it. Now I am tired.

There is only so long one can live out of a backpack, keep riding bicycles or motorbikes, sleep in tents and eat dinner alone.

It was time to come home.

The days of my big grand and crazy adventures are now over, but I will always enjoy traveling. Travel is like Thanksgiving dinner. You can stuff and stuff and stuff yourself enjoying every bite to the point you wouldn’t dare eat a mint wafer, but wait an hour and there will always be more room for pumpkin pie.


Friday, June 15, 2007


Losing your luggage, finding your reservation canceled, or in my case, losing my train ticket can all happen to even the most experienced of travelers. Mishaps are what make traveling adventurous. Without them, travel might as well be another commute to the office. They also make great stories.

I was in Mongolia to celebrate its octocentennial. Genghis Kahn founded the Mongolian state in 1206 by uniting the Mongol tribes. He and successive khans went on to conquer most of the know world. At its height in the 13th century, the Mongolian empire stretched from Korea to the border of Hungary.

My destination in Mongolia was its most famous lake, a 136 kilometer long sliver of water near the Russian border, named Lake Khovsgol. Surrounded by mountains and grasslands filled with wild flowers it has some of Mongolia’s most beautiful scenery.

At the lake, I wanted to learn to ride a horse. I wanted to learn what it might have been like to have been a Mongol warrior riding to battle across the steppes. I wanted to ride across the grasslands, camp beneath the stars and be free.

Unfortunately for me, no one at the train station understood English. I could not explain how I had lost my ticket and wanted to buy a new one. The golden horde, after all, had never reached the British Isles. But they almost did.

In 1241 the Mongols were set to march into Germany and Italy after having defeated Polish-German and Hungarian forces. Only news of the death of Genghis Kahn’s son, the ruling Khan at the time, saved Europe. Had the Mongols reached England, the uniformed guard stopping me from entering the just closed ticket office might have understood me. As I pantomimed my desire to buy a new ticket, the green passenger train, with my 561 Tugurt, $5, empty sleeper berth to Erdent, started out of the capital. The long green line chug-chugged-chugged, gaining momentum, shrieking as its metal couplings strained and pulled the suffering train. I watched. I stood in the rain.

Sometimes mishaps happen. And sometimes they lead to better things.

Finding A Ride

The next day, I was waiting in a parking lot swarming with aggressive drivers wanting my fare. I struggled to communicate.

I felt strange and out of place. I wanted to speak Chinese to these men with Asian faces, but I was no longer in China.

I had just finished a semester studying Chinese in Beijing. At the border between Mongolia and China, I had hurled quick witted pejoratives at a cab driver who wanted to short me two kuai, about 25 cents. Once across the border I was not able to buy a simple pen.

Being unable to communicate was but a small hindrance to visiting an otherwise wonderful land.
Mongolia has what China doesn't. After throwing off the shackles of communism in the early 90’s, Mongolia today is a democratic country. The population is small, there is clean air and water, wide open spaces and mountains you can actually see. UB, what the locals call their capital Ulan Batar, has a population of only one million. Half of all Mongolians live there. A city of one million in China isn’t even really a city. It is more like a village.

I found UB to be a charming little capital, completely devoid of anything Chinese. There were no Chinese characters, no neon Chinese flashing signs, no Chinese words on the menus and no pork, rice or noodles. Food was now beef, bread, potatoes, yogurt and cheese, a welcome relief after over two years of rice.

In the last hundred years, the Mongolians have been influenced not by their neighbors to the south, the Chinese, but their powerful friends to the north, the Russians.

In UB the buildings all look Russian. There is Russian vodka in the stores. Mongolian woman, in line with Russian fashion magazines, wear high heels and short skirts. The Mongolian language has even adapted the Russian alphabet.

The only thing in UB that struck me as being un-Russian were the numerous used South Korean taxi cabs and South Korean fried chicken restaurants.

The complete void of anything Chinese can be ascribed to the Mandarins having ruled and persecuted the Mongolians for several hundred years. Russians are revered because they gave the Mongolians guns to fight the Chinese in the 1920’s.

While I heard other tourists complain the city was polluted and the architecture was blocky and drab, I laughed. UB had clear skies. You could actually see the surrounding mountains. UB was a pleasant retreat from China. Most carping tourists, on their way east along the Siberian railroad, hadn’t made it to Beijing yet.

Back at the parking lot, the Mongolian drivers all wanted my fare. They all promised me they could take me to Lake Khovsgol.

While traveling I have learned the hard way, to never trust cab and bus drivers. One is liable to get ripped off trusting such crafty cozeners.

I haggled and tried to find out just where the drivers were going. I didn’t succeed. The communication barrier was too great.

At last, one driver handed me an orange plastic phone-an unusual device that looked like a normal phone but had no cord. It ran on batteries and had a small snub antenna.( Vendors carry the phones around on the sidewalks or set up shop sitting on a fold up chair in front of the lone department store in the capital. They let you make phone calls for a few cents. It’s Mongolia’s answer to public phone booths.)

“Hello!” an American voice asked.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello,” the voice said again.

“Hello,” I said.

We were stupidly repeating the same word, riding a merry-go round of identical vocabulary, like two village idiots, Laurel and Hardy in their famous sketch of “Who’s on First?”

“Who is this? What do you want?” the North American asked, perturbed.

“I don’t know. This driver just handed me the phone,” I said.

In Mongolia the rule is when you can’t understand a foreigner call Dean.

Dean was a former Peace Core volunteer who had taught English in a remote northern town. He was in his early 30’s with light brown hair. He was enthusiastic and passionate about Mongolia, its culture and its people. He had lived in Mongolia for over four years and will stay for many more-helping the people because he loves it, a true ambassador of American good will. He was also a rare white man who could speak the local lingo.

Fortunately, he was also just a block away, waiting for a van to go to Moron, the same city I needed to go to to get to Lake Khovsgol.

Dean was not alone. With him was a Mongolian named Sardamba. Sardamba was his friend, who had also been his mentor while he was in the Peace Core. Sardamba worked as the English school teacher in Hatgal, the town on the edge of Lake Hosvgol where I was going.

Sardamba had a flat top, was short but of stout build. He smiled and had an easy manner but did not speak much.

I later learned, he had been a police officer before becoming a school teacher. He did not strike me as an intimidating law enforcer, a dictatorial tyrant who might rule his classroom with a stick. Rather, he seemed warm and friendly-a trustworthy man.

I had been lucky to meet Dean and Sardamba. Sardamba, to supplement his meager income as a school teacher, helps tourists in the summer visit the area around Lake Khovsgol. I had found a fluent English speaking guide before I had even started my trip.

I had read an advertisement in the back of a travel magazine wanting $4,000 for a horseback riding trip to Mongolia. Sardamba promised to arrange a 10 day horseback riding trip, with his two younger brothers as guides, for $6 a day. Missing the train had been a blessing.

Flying Coffins

The vehicles of choice in Mongolia are Russian built white minivans. They look like VW Vanagons, popular with hippies in the 60’s, but without the painted flowers and with a higher wheel clearance to charge across small thrashing streams.

In the local English press, the vans are affectionately called flying coffins. Drivers pack more people into the vans than there are seats and drive dangerously fast.
A van only begins its journey when the driver can not possibly pack more people into the van. In our van there were 16 passengers, three in the front with the driver and 12 in the back.
A sleeping berth on a slow moving train would have been far more comfortable than taking the local transport to Moran, but I would have missed another chance for a story.

Most tourists skip even the train and take the two hour plane flight to Moron and then a two-hour van ride to Lake Hosgvol. They skip more than the butt ache and misery of riding in a coffin, however. They miss the fun of breaking down, the adventure of crossing streams and the cultural opportunity to mix it up with the locals.

I am glad I did not travel by train or by plane because I experienced something extraordinary. The locals gave a stirring choral concert nearly the entire way. Westerners trapped in a car that rattled, bumped and shook violently while sitting on the razor thin edge of a seat, 3/4 of their butt cheeks hanging over the empty space between the seat and the sliding door, bashing their heads against the ceiling with every bump, pressed and packed with no room to stretch their legs, would complain.

Americans complain when their flight is delayed 30 minutes, when they are stuck in traffic for an hour, when the metro is running five minutes late. But in Mongolia, Mongolians don’t complain.

The Mongolians in my van sat, no room for cards, no other cars to count license plate numbers, strangers all, and sang. They sang beautiful folk songs in the darkness with high haunting melodies. They sang to kill the time and because they love to sing. They sang herdsman songs and love songs, songs of rivers, the grasslands and of horses. They sang joy.

We traveled by night. The moon washed the van with cool silver light. No one slept, no one could. The cold cool air of open windows flooded our tin can and the 14 Mongolians sang and sang and sang, every song different, everyone beautiful.

Mongolia has few paved roads. Dirt tracks crisscross the grasslands in the vague direction of large towns. If a driver can't find a track he likes, he will cut across the steppe. The bumpy jarring ride is why insides of all of the Russian vehicles, especially the roofs, are heavily padded.
Occasionally, attempting to sleep, I enjoyed banging my head against the door. The Mongolians would laugh as my startled and throbbing head would be lashed into conciseness. The singing would stop. The Mongolians would laugh, and I would fall again into the twilight zone where the head bobs, falls, catches a wink of rest before rushing back to semi conciseness by a jerk, a bump, a jolt on the nonexistent road.

During the long ride, in-between fitful attempts at sleep, Dean, the former Peace Core volunteer, entertained me with his tales of life in Mongolia.

Dean was a happy fellow, happy because he was always smiling, telling a joke, beaming praise or laughing. His favorite topics were Star Trek, teaching English and “secret laughers,” his name for the fairer sex.

“I love the secret laughers,” he said. “They laugh and blush when I talk to them. They get embarrassed talking to a foreigner. That is why I call them secret laughers,” he said.

Although the men do not do much laughing, said Dean. “You have to be very careful dating a Mongolian girl. The men don’t like it. If they see you with a Mongolian woman you can get beat up.”

Some Mongolian men are scary big. You would not want to get in a fight with one. I generally think of Asians as being short and slight of build- not Mongolians. They are bigger than Tongans. Raised on milk and cheese, lots of the men look like juiced up pro wrestlers. They are big dudes and retain the great warrior instinct of their glorious past.

Dean filled me on the history of Mongolia and how just 10,000 of these great men through intimidation, great horsemanship and superior tactics went on to conquer the world. He told me some interesting facts, such as how Genghis is not pronounced with a G but with a Ch so it is pronounced Chinggis. He explained what the 14 Mongolians in our van were signing about and what his two years in the Peace Core living in a yurt were like. (Yurt is a Russian world for the felt tents of the nomadic tribes in Mongolia and Central Asia. The tents are called gers in Mongolia.)

Dean told me how during the winter it could get to 30 degrees below zero, how he once nearly froze his hands after he went outside without his gloves on for a brief pit stop to the lu. Luckily, it was now summer. The weather was balmy and pleasant. A sweatshirt at night was fine.
The interminably long journey in the flying coffin finally ended in Moron, 22 hours after having left Ulan Batar.

Lake Khovsgol

Moron was not much of a city. It had dirt roads and donkey carts and a dusty parking lot for the vans. Houses were cabins made of pine. Each house had a fence built higher than a man made out of planks.

There were no finished public works, no fountains, no monuments, few buildings that were not wood. Certainly there was nothing of concrete. Light a match and the whole city could have burned.

It was like a city from the American frontier, a Montana cattle town on the open plains.
Indeed this town was even rare. All of Mongolia is one gigantic open grass land where most of the people still live in gers. Permanent houses are the exception not the rule.

Sardamba and I said goodbye to Dean, bought supplies for my ten day trip, and continued on to the Lake Khovsgol. If I had thought Moron was a small town I was in for an even greater surprise when I got to Hatgal on the edge of Lake Khovsgol.
Hatgal has a population of 700. It is so small, Sardamba’s address was, Hatgal, The province- Khövsgöl-, and finally- Mongolia. There was no postal code, no street number or P.O. box.
Imagine sending a letter to your friend in New York addressed, John Smith, New York City, United States of America. What are the odds of the letter getting there? But Mongolia is still romantically wild and untamed, with a miniscule population, what I imagine the American frontier was like 150 years ago. There is something enticing and thrilling about being in a town without street names, where simply a name is enough to get a letter to a quaint town, on a gorgeous lake near the top of the world.

Even if Hatgal does have only 700 souls it can boast at least one claim to fame. It has Mongolia's only naval base. Hatgal is home to the Mongolian navy. The navy has one ship and seven sailors, only one of which can reportedly swim. Mongolians are not know to be good swimmers.

Serdamba lived in a wood cabin with a green roof and North Carolina blue shutters. His home was surrounded by a pine fence. The fence protected a grassy yard with hitching posts for horses. His neighbors had the same arrangement.

The streets in Hatgal were dirt. There was no electricity or telephone service. The town was simply a collection of cabins.

Serdamba arranged everything for my 10 day trek. He would not actually be my guide, but his younger brother, Baasanjav would be my primary guide with a second brother Ulzii joining us half way through.

Baasanjav arrived with Ulzii the morning after I got to in Hatgal. They came into the cabin from the rain.

While the horses were hitched outside and we drank tea, I got to know my guides.
Baasanjav was a bright student, 24, the youngest in his family. He was studying English in UB and helped his eldest brother Serdamba with his guiding business to help pay for his tuition.

Baasanjav’s English was not perfect but good. He wore a blue cap with a silver horse pin and a grey deel- a traditional Mongolian long coat. He had an orange sash tied round his waist to hold the deel in place.

Young, bright, cheerful, many positive adjectives could be used to describe Baasanjav. He was above all else trustworthy and knowledgeable of horses and wood craftsmanship. He was a great guide and became a good friend.

Older than Baasanjav but younger than Sardamba, Ulzii, 32, was an experienced horseman and herder. He rode a wily black stallion and could gallop at full speed across the steppe covering over 70 kilometers a day. He too wore the traditional deel and had a green jungle hat to shade his black hair. More serious or perhaps more mature and experienced than Baasanjav he did not speak much. When he did Baasanjzv listened. Ulzii was the expert about horses and on our journey looked after the animal’s hooves, cutting out dirt and trimming them with a pocket knife like a toe nail. (Mongolian horses don’t wear horse shoes) He loved to sing while in the saddle. He was a happy young man with a playful spirit. When he did talk to me he said: “eat more bread,” “drink more tea,” or his favorite which he had found in the medical section of my Mongolian/English phrase book and said as a joke, “take off your clothes.”

Rain comes quick and fast in the north of Mongolia. As fast as it comes it often goes. With the dark clouds gone Baasanjav and I began our journey.

10-Days Around Lake Khovsgol

Our plan was to make a loop. We would first head away from Lake Khovsgol and ride northwest into the mountains, which surrounded the lake. After crossing the mountains we would then head east eventually reaching the lake at the top of the loop, 100 kilometers north of Hatgal. We would then spend the last three days riding south along the western shore of Lake Khovsgol to return to town.

Riding for ten days, felt like riding into America’s wild west, into what has often been compared by other American visitors as Asia’s Montana, big blue sky and pasture to the horizon, a cowboy’s dream.

It might be fitting to even rename Montana, Mongolia, for as big and grand as the big sky country may be, Mongolia is larger and grander.

On the edges of the steppes green mounds rose and gradually increased to become the bare rock pinnacles Baasanjav and I hoped to penetrate.

We rode besides dry river beds and camped in the pines. I soaked in the scenery, took pictures of the graving horses, and stopped to admire the wildflowers which painted the green grass canvas of the plains with spots of purple, red and yellow.

In the evenings we made camp fires and watched the big bright full moon fill the sky. We were living simple but living good in god’s country.

Our meals were easy: rice and dried meat, bread with peanut butter or sugar spread on top with a spoon. We had no vegetables or fancy sauces, just a little salt. It was enough. You go to Mongolia for the scenery, not the food.

We had one pan. Baasanjav kept it in a worn leather bag that fit it like a skin. The pot had a bone handle, the horn from a goat.

We boiled tea in the pan and drank all of it before we made breakfast or our dinner. Having just one pan necessitated this process.

We did not eat lunch because Mongolians don’t stop to eat at mid day. We ate breakfast in the morning and did not stop for food until we made camp at night.

Mongolians are tough. Ride with one for a few days and you will understand how they routed all the armies of the world.

But the Mongolians could not have gone far without their horses.

My horse was a seven year old mare named Heergii. Heergii means brown in Mongolian. Baasanjav told me horses in Mongolia often are named after their colors.

"What happens when you have two brown horses or two black ones," I asked
"Oh," he said "We have many different kinds of colors for horses, maybe 300."

And so I recon, the Mongolians have has many names for the color of a horse as the Eskimos do for different types of snow.

Heergii was the perfect horse for me, methodical, slow a nice mellow maiden who would rather be grazing on grass than transporting me. Most of the time Baasanjav pulled Heergii along with a rope. I did not mind. I was happy not to walk, to have my own elevated cruiser to take in the scenes.

Heergii was small compared to a western horse. Most Mongolian horses are not much larger than ponies. But they are strong and you would not dare tell a Mongolian his horse was a pony.
The horses often roam free, foraging for themselves on the grasslands. They have big heads and stout legs. Tough only begins to describe this breed. They need to be tough to be able to survive outside in winters where the temperature drops to -40 degrees.

There is no doubt Mongolians are the best horseman in the world. Children often learn to ride horses before they can walk. Young boys can fly on and off horses like they would bicycles and race their hoofed friends at hurtling speeds across the flats. Horse racing is still a huge tradition. During Mongolia’s Naadam Festival in July young children between the ages of four and 12 race horses for distances as great as 30 kilometers across the steppes, navigating at scary speed, hills streams and dunes for victory.

Sadly, I was a mere pretender. I was sore every night after covering my daily 30 kilometer dose of distance, not at full gallop, but rather a slow walk. My butt would ach and my knees would not bend. Riding a horse is like working in a new baseball glove, your butt needs time for linseed oil and kneading before it will fit the saddle properly. Ten days is just not enough time.

Baasanjav and I traveled for three days together before his brother Ulzii caught up with us. On the fourth day we crossed the mountains and dropped down to flat grasslands, verdant pasture to the horizon dotted with livestock and white felt gers.

We rode the plains to stop at the only town on our journey, the town of Erdinet.
There were no paved roads to the town, no power lines, irrigation ditches strip malls or much of anything but grass. In a giant lawn near the mountains, people just decided to build a village.
I felt like an early pioneer, a high plains drifter straight out of a spaghetti western riding into town with all the local folks watching the new stranger. It was a town like Hatgal, built of wooden cabins bellowing smoke and fences protecting green yards. Dogs followed our horses in as we rode up to the hitching post of Baasanjav and Ulzii’s aunt‘s home.

Baasanjav and Ulzii had not seen their aunt for a year. An older woman with an asthma problem she had difficulty talking, or moving about much. Despite her poor health we were welcomed by her and her daughter. Mongolians are renowned for their hospitality. Kindness towards strangers is more than a nicety it is a necessity. In a harsh land where winter temperatures can kill, helping a stranger can be giving the gift of survival.

The aunt’s cabin was simple. It had a wood burning stove in the center and two windows facing the mountains to the south. It had a wood floor painted orange. Around the edges of the cabin’s one room were beds to be used for sitting or sleeping as well as chests to hold clothes. The brother’s cousin was busy sewing a new deel, and stretching sheep skins by hand to form the warm inner layer of the traditional coat.

We ate well in the aunt’s home and did not have to eat dried meat and rice. Instead we had yogurt, fresh bread and freshly turned butter. We had light in the evening from a single bulb powered by a 12 volt car battery. Before we left the next day I was asked to take a picture of the cousins and aunt together. The family did not have a camera and the next camera man was most likely another summer away.

Vodka Brigands

Mongolia isn’t all a pastoral paradise. Alcoholism is a sore wound. Mongolians love the Russians because they gave them guns to fight the Chinese. Unfortunately, the Russians also gave the Mongolians a taste for vodka.

On our way into the town of Erdinet, we ran into a group of three men Baasanjav called, "bad men." The men approached us at full gallop. Baasanjav and Ulzii shot up in front of my horse to block their path and protect me from the men.

The three ruffians wearing dirty deels pulled on their reins to stop their horses. You could see their blood shot eyes, smell their grain soaked breath. Two of them had bottles of booze tucked into their belts.

The brothers stared at the men. They stared back for 20 seconds. No one said anything. The horses stood. They stamped their feet, snorted. It was an odd starring contest, a show of strength.

Finally a peace was brokered by the drunkest man.
“Hello,” he said. The young vigilante then offered us a drink, taking a bottle of vodka from his belt.

It would be impolite for us to refuse a swig. We all dipped our fingers into the bottle to wet a finger. As is custom, we then flicked the vodka into the air to give a blessing to the earth. We then each took turns to have a nip.

Satisfied, the brigands accepted their bottle back and rode off. “Bad men,” Baasanjav said.
The day after we left Erdinet and the safety of the aunt’s house, both of the brothers took watches to stay up the whole night. Bad men are known to steal horses in Mongolia. Mongolia really did feel like the wild wild west.

We Reach the Lake

From Erdinet we crossed another mountain range and finally reached Lake Khovsgol. The lake was blue. Pine trees, daisies and Queen Anne’s lace held the banks. Bees came to pollinate the blossoms of the flowers. There were no signs of man. The lake is believed to be several million years old and one of the earth’s most pristine lakes. Untouched, its waters are so clean they can be drunk without filtration.

We camped besides the lake’s shores. We tossed flat skipping stones into the rippled surface of the lake. I got six skips, Baasanjav seven. I was at peace. I imagined Lake Michigan would have looked much the same way when Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette journeyed from New France to Green Bay on their way to find the Mississippi, no cities, no concrete, no pollution- just grass and a pebbled shore line, a few trees and water that lapped against the shore as gentle wind blown waves.

At Issue with a Horse

I had thought after nine days of riding I had gotten to know Heergii pretty well. I thought she knew and liked me. My arse would still be sore from riding her each day, but I could get her to go on my own and even trot.

Most of the time, Baasanjav guided Heergii, but during my last few days on the trail I felt confident enough to ride Heergii on my own.

Horses are great. They are smart. They know the way. You can point them in the right direction and they will follow the trail without much guidance. They will avoid stepping on roots and keep out of the mud. They have brains.

You can love your horse, fall deeply for its dark pleading eyes. You can pet it, stroke its head, give it a bit of sugar and call it Trigger if you want. It can be your best friend, better than a dog.

But it must be respected, for unlike a family dog a horse is more apt to get you injured. I thought I knew Heergii well. Who knew simply taking off my hat would set her off. She must have seen me lowering my hat to my knee in her side vision. I had not even thought taking off my hat would set her off. I took it off instinctually.

Heergii bolted. She took off at a gallop. My saddle twisted off her back. It slipped to the right side of her flank, a bucket disgorging its load. I fell, but my right foot was still caught in the stirrup. I was set to be dragged in a real reenactment of a Hollywood Western. Christopher Reeves oh Sh>>>>>>>>>>t.

I was dragged two feet, three feet perhaps. I was saved by my oversized boots. My right boot stayed in the stirrup and my foot luckily was expunged. There is a reason why cowboys wear cowboy boots and this was the reason. Had I had regular shoes on with laces on my ankle would have most likely have been broken.

I lay on the grass. My butt was a bit sore. I was laughing. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. The lesson: horses do what they want and Mongolia is a great place to learn to ride one because the horses are short and you won’t have far to fall.