First bite of the Big Apple

New York City is a pretty incredible place. You feel like you know so much about it when you first arrive, purely from all the movies and TV shows you’ve seen throughout your life (or at least, that’s how I felt), but when you’re actually there, you discover that it is so much bigger, so much denser, and so much more eccentric than you ever realised. It’s everything you thought it was, but also so much more. The people who live there are forever calling it the greatest city in the world, and while I personally wouldn’t be so quick to immediately hand it such a title, it definitely clocks in as a major contender. New York City and Melissa’s apartment would be my home for the next six weeks, acting as my base camp during my time on the upper east coast of North America.

***

While I was here on holidays, to explore the concrete jungle, Melissa had just started grad school, so in the morning when she set off for school in the Bronx, I set out to wander the streets. I guess it was that morning, when Melissa told me where exactly she was going, that I started to learn about the local geography that made up New York City. The five boroughs of New York City are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island – any further east and you’ll find yourself in the rest of Long Island, and eventually hit the Hamptons. Cross any bridge to your west and you’ll find yourself not even in New York state anymore, but the state of New Jersey. Manhattan is the main central island that you see in all the movies, the real “city”, such skyscrapers and department stores and parks and… well, it has everything, really. The Bronx is north of Manhattan, considered a little unsafe but also hailed as the birthplace of hip hop. Brooklyn is the western tip of Long Island and a haven for hipsters and creative types,  and Queens, just above Brooklyn, is the largest borough and a huge cultural and ethnic melting pot. Staten Island is south of Manhattan, and mostly just a residential area that honestly feels like a bit of a stretch when you try and say it’s part of New York City but whatever. That’s the most basic way I can describe it, but I’m not going to pretend like I learnt a lot about each borough – I spent 98% of my time in New York City in Manhattan. Still, it was interesting to actually study the map and the layout of the city, putting physical locations to names that I had been hearing repeated constantly on the television and in cinemas for as many years as I can remember. I finally understood what Gossip Girl‘s Blair meant every time she complained about the distance between Brooklyn and the Upper East side of Manhattan.

So while Melissa had to trek it all the way to the Bronx, I was already starting my day in midtown Manhattan, so that’s where I would begin my exploring on foot. Looking at maps of Manhattan, you would think that it would be pretty hard to get technically get lost. The streets running from east to west were all numbered with numbers, and with a few exceptions like Lexington and Madison, all the avenues running to tip to tip of the island were too. You just had to look at the street sign and any corner and then walk a block in any direction to see how the numbers changed in order to know what direction you were going in. It was so logical, and suddenly any reference to a number of ‘blocks’ as a measure of distance finally made sense – this was a city of revelations! ‘Blocks’, as such, in Sydney aren’t geographically even, so the concept of blocks had always been a little lost on me, but the way you could literally just use street signs to navigate through New York City was just remarkable. Or so I thought.

There are tricky streets that I think are thrown in just to purposely confuse people – the culprit in this particular situation being Broadway. Broadway is a street with a slight diagonal tilt that dissects the blocks unevenly, and if you follow it long enough it can be a little trickier to keep track of both how many horizontal streets and vertical avenues that you’ve crossed. Or maybe I was too awestruck but the city lights around me to really keep track. But really, can you blame me? I must have looked exactly like the kind of tourist I hate, dawdling along the footpath and staring up at the skyscrapers and the flashing lights of Times Square, but it was really was something incredible. It was my first day there, so I figured I should cut myself some slack.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Couldn't help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

Couldn’t help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

And so I stopped into a Starbucks to grab some breakfast (when in Rome, right?), and as I headed back out onto the street I turned and headed in what I thought was the right direction. I mean, I was just continuing on the way that I was going before. My plan was to walk through the city all the way to Central Park – it would take a while, but I was in no rush, and I could meet Melissa there after she had finished class. But after a while I noticed that the numbers of the streets I passed were going down rather than up, which would mean I was heading south. Well, that’s impossible, I thought to myself as I carried on. I turned the right way, I’m sure of it. The numbers must just do something a little strange here. Yet as I carried on, I started to see a few things that were slightly familiar, and eventually it became clear that I was indeed walking the wrong way. I still honestly have no idea how it happened. I consider myself to be a very good navigator, and there were few times on my entire journey where I had been unknowingly walking in the wrong direction. I guess I got a little cocky in thinking that New York was a navigators dream, because all those distractions definitely worked on me.

***

There were other dangers that I found myself unprepared for, ones that make me cringe when I think back on them, but ones that I learnt from very quickly. Times Square is for all intents and purposes, a tourist trap. I should have expected that there were people who were up to no good and trying to take my money. Now I wasn’t mugged or anything – though I’m entirely aware that’s within the realm of possibility – but I think my sense of wonder forced me to let my guard down a little bit. All along select parts of Broadway were a lot of mostly African American men who seemed to be promoting themselves as rappers or hip hop artists, giving out demo CDs and collecting donations. One of them stopped me to comment on my t-shirt – the “I ‘Heart’ BJ” one I got in Beijing – and I was glad that the humour was finally being appreciated in an English-speaking country. He asked for a photo with me, and I obliged, and then he gave me a copy of his CD in a clear plastic case. Then he said something about asking for a donation or something to help him out. I couldn’t tell you his exact words, but he came across as a bit of a sweet-talking crooner – or a hustler, whatever – and I guess he seemed decent enough to spare some change on. Except I had just arrived, and didn’t have a lot of coins. The smallest note that I had was a ten dollar bill, which I wasn’t actually prepared to give to some random guy on the street giving out free rap CD’s – I don’t even really like rap music that much. I don’t know what I was expecting – I tried to say something about not having anything smaller, he cooly said something about change, but I ended up walking away rather confused and with ten less dollars in my wallet. It was kind of surreal. When I realised what had just happened, I was a little angry, but decided it would be a bad idea to make a scene of ask for some change from the $10 I’d given him, or try and get my money back at all. I just sighed and kept walking, thankful that the damage wasn’t as bad as the last time I’d been played by a scammer in China. And now that I think about it, I never even ended up listening to that CD.

I continued on to Central Perk, which is absolutely huge. I know people have always said Central Park is huge, just like New York City is huge, but just like I never realised how huge New York City really is, I never realised how huge Central Park is too! It’s not just a casual park in the middle of the city – it goes on seemingly forever. I wandered through the southern tip of the park, where there were kids playing, people walking their dogs and riding their bikes, other people jogging on their lunch breaks, horse drawn carriages taking people for a ride, and I even stumbled across a baseball diamond where a bunch of people were playing a game. I sat down in the shade, tired of my long walk through the city, before going to meet Melissa at Columbus Circle, the monument on the south eastern tip of the park. From there, she showed me probably one of the most iconic parts of the Central Park that was within suitable walking distance – Strawberry Fields, the landscaped section that is dedicated to John Lennon, with the Imagine memorial mosaic located directly across the street from where he was assassinated in 1980.

The Imagine memorial.

The Imagine memorial.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on here,” Melissa said as we walked around the rather quiet and solemn area of the park. “People come and lay flowers and roses all the time, and people play music a lot too.” On one of the benches was a man who was strumming a guitar, not too loud to be disturbing, but more like peaceful background music. Though I think he was homeless and the guitar was rather out of tune, it was still a touch that felt very authentic for New York. There was a sole flower bud that had been placed on the memorial that morning, and Melissa and I wandered around for a little while as she told me more things about the park and the city, as well as just hanging out and catching up some more.

We decided the head home for lunch, stopping at the grocery store to buy food for the empty fridge in Melissa’s new kitchen. So we took the subway home – and this is the final feature of New York City that I want to gush about in this post. For everyone who has been following my journey from the beginning, you will know that I am a bit of public transport enthusiast. I think most of it can probably be traced back to the subpar rail network in my own hometown of Sydney, but whether it was the MRT in Singapore, the BTS in Bangkok, the U-Bahn in Berlin, the metros in Paris, Madrid, Moscow or St Petersburg, or the tube in London, I was basically obsessed with these public transport systems that could take you relatively quickly across large distances within a city, as well as having services coming every 3 to 5 minutes on average. But now I was finally in New York, and I was getting to experience the subway for the first time. I’d been very impressed with London, but I think the New York City subway really in the Holy Grail of city-wide public transportation. Sure, it’s not always as clean as some of the other city’s metros, and you’re often packed in like sardines with commuters during peak hour and there’s a 50% chance there will be some kind of musician or other irritating person on the carriage, but aside from considering all of those things as hidden perks that give the system a bit of authentic New York charm, the subway covers some enormous distances in relatively good time. There are all kinds of connections running from east to west, multiple lines going up and down Manhattan offering express services as well as local ones for the smaller stops, there are connections to ferry wharfs and trains that go to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. No matter where you need to go in the city, there is a good chance the public transport can take you very close to where you need to be, and that was just something I wasn’t used to – there are parts of Sydney I’ve hardly ever been to because if you don’t have a car then it’s almost impossible. In this city, car ownership is practically considered a waste of space.

I still had a lot to see, and probably a lot to learn about the city. But I had only just arrived, and I had quite a long time to immerse myself in one of the biggest cities in the world. My brain was already exploding and I’d been in town for less than 24 hours, but I was sure New York hadn’t even begun to blow my mind.

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In The Ring: Moscow Circus

Our second night in Moscow had been a Friday night, and since we had spent most of the week in complete isolation, I was very keen to have a bit of a fun night out. Maria had suggested that we visit the Moscow Circus, located very close to hostel, and we figured that we could do dinner and drinks afterwards, so despite the wet weather a group of us got together and headed out. Two of our party, Dan and Claire, actually had training and experience as circus aerialists, with Claire having done it professionally, so they were both quite excited to see the show.

The circus ring before the show started.

The circus ring before the show started.

We had a beer in the café before heading into the show. The performance was very entertaining. There were a handful of acrobatics and tightrope walkers who did some amazing performances, though I cowered in my seat at the thought of being that high up, when some of the performers didn’t have any kind of safety harness or net to catch them. There were also lots of animals in the circus, and this what became a hot topic both during and after the show. There was a man doing a lot of tricks with birds and parrots, making them do all kinds of stunts. It was actually entertaining to see cockatoos portrayed as some kind of rare and exotic bird, given that they were considered pests back home who would chew the wood on the veranda of my family home. There was a were about five different dogs ran around the ring and rode on the back of a horse, and there was also a horseback acrobatic performance.

Though it was the elephants that seemed to strike a chord within the audience, or at least within the members of our group. The elephant trainer came out, and there were three adult elephants who performed a variety of tricks, such as standing on their front legs, balancing on tiny little platforms, and picking things up and throwing them with their trunks, as well as displaying a host of other talents. At one stage I think the elephants mounted each other, with their front legs on the back of the one in front of them, and walking around the ring in a little elephant conga line. The crowds cheered and applauded, and from what I could see the trainers seemed to be quite gentle with the elephants. There was no whipping or anything that could be considered overly harsh. My only complaint would have been that the elephant set seemed to drag on forever – over half an hour of elephant tricks definitely felt like enough.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the show, when the cast and crew were taking their final bows, did I even notice that the seats where Matt and Jen had been sitting at the end of our row were empty. I only noticed because I saw Tracy make a point of standing up and walking out. I was a little confused, but I had an idea as to the reason of why they left. Tim, Alyson, Kaylah, Jenna, Dan, Claire and myself all stayed until the end, and we met Tracy outside. Matt and Jen were no where to be seen – I wondered when they had actually left – and there seemed to be a weird tension in the air. Dan and Claire were having what appeared to be a pretty intense discussion, so as we made our way out of the circus I approached Tim to ask what had happened.

“Matt and Jen left, I think, and I guess Tracy walked out…”
“Because of the elephants?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He gave a shrug.
“I don’t know, I didn’t think the elephant part was that bad.” I knew that some people thought having animals in the circus was cruel, but maybe the glitz and the glamour distracted me from the fact that these animals were being forced to perform. Tim was in a similar state of mind, and not really sure what to think.
“I guess. But just watching that, I dunno, their eyes seemed so sad!”
“Really? I thought they looked really happy!” That just made Tim laugh.
“Well then I guess that’s a pretty arbitrary point. I just hope it doesn’t get discussed too much at dinner. That would be a bit of a downer.”

Sign

***

Fortunately, the topic was pretty much left alone. That actually surprised me a little, with people like Dan and Claire in the group, but if they had any strong opinions about what we had seen, they kept them private. Unfortunately, the mood didn’t seem to pick up. The mixed emotions about the elephants combined with the wet weather meant that by the time we finished dinner, everyone seemed ready to call it a night. Even I, who had been so excited to experience the Moscow nightlife, was feeling far too tired to make the trek out into the city in the rain.

But the whole evening did make me think about my position on animals in captivity, and reminded me of my visit to the zoo in Beijing. Back then I had thought that the animals had seemed so sad, cooped up in exhibits with habitats that hardly seemed suitable, but I could also recognise that zoos provide a place for the conservation and preservation of endangered species. The animals in the circus were also living in captivity, but their domestication was purely for the purpose of human entertainment. Some people consider that cruel, with the animals being forced to do tricks and stunts that go against their nature, but I honestly thought that the elephants looked like they were having a lot of fun. I have a friend at home who worked in a travelling circus, and he assured me that the animals where he worked were treated exceptionally well, sometimes even better than the human performers! So when I saw the animals performing their tricks, I simply saw them as part of a team of performers, all doing the acts that they work on and rehearse nearly every day. The animals in a zoo don’t have any freedom either, but the existence of the animals in Beijing Zoo seemed positively boring.

I don’t feel like I can condemn zoos while being so enthusiastic about the circus, so now I honestly don’t know how I feel about either. I guess it’s just like Tim said – we’re never really going to know how these animals feel about their situations. As long as they’re not being whipped or beaten or locked in tiny cages, I guess none of them really have it that bad.

A Nomads Life For Me

Luckily we were only staying in Ulaanbaatar for one night, because there didn’t appear to be a great deal of tourist attractions left to see in the city. The rest of our time in Mongolia would be spent at a ger camp about two hours away, far off in the Mongolian wilderness. A ger is a sort of semi-permanent tent that the nomadic people of Mongolia live in – while Ulaanbaatar does have a population of about 3 million, there is a remarkable amount of people who still live the nomadic life out in the wilderness and the Mongolian national parks, moving from place to place with the seasons and taking their home with them, as well as their herds of livestock.

***

We had one stop in the morning on our way to the ger camp. The Gandantegchenling Monastery was a beautiful structure, and Oko explained that Buddhism is one of the major religions of Mongolia. It’s quite interesting how the landlocked country has so many different cultural influences from the surrounding nations, yet it truly becomes a melting pot that breaks all of them down and recombines everything into their own culture that is quite unique. We walked through the temple, silently moving around the people who had come to light candles and incense and to pray, before stopping at the monastery to watch the monks begin their morning rituals and listen to their chanting. I hate to admit it, but ever since my bizarre incident with the shady Buddhist monk in Lop Buri, I’ve been unable to look at any monk the same way again, and even just seeing one creates a rising anxiety within me. It really is such a shame, because I used to hold such a fascination for ideals and spirituality behind the religion, and now those beliefs have been well and truly tainted. I listened to the chanting for only a few moments before stepping out of the low-hanging canopy of incense and into the fresh morning air.

The main building of the monastery complex.

The main building of the monastery complex.

Outside, in front of the main temple, there was a big pair of golden feet. Oko explained to us that the Mongols were attempting to build the worlds largest human structure, a Buddha even bigger than the Statue of Liberty. However, all of the money for the project comes from donations, so there is no scheduled finish date because no one really knows when they will be able to finish it. Oko had also mentioned yesterday that the weather in Mongolia only allows for construction to be done for two or three months every year, which is why there were so many construction sites and unfinished buildings in Ulaanbaatar, adding to the ugly, incomplete cityscape.

Golden feet - all there is of the statue so far.

Golden feet – all there is of the statue so far.

However, the most interesting, or at least entertaining, part of the monastery visit was the swarm of pigeons outside. As we first approached the monastery, we heard the low cooing noise steadily growing louder, and we soon found ourselves in front of a formidable sea of feathers. There were thousands of pigeons, and their call almost seemed to have an eerie echo as it rippled through the flock of birds in the courtyard. Some people were feeding them with seed they had bought from a little old lady wandering through the birds, while other children ran through the crowds to scatter the pigeons and sent them flying. They always came back though. Someone asked Oko about their significance. “The pigeons? No… They just live here, I don’t know why. But they are not special, not at all.”

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

***

After the monastery it was onto the ger camp. The place we were staying at was in a region called Terelj National Park. It was more of a permanent set up that was obviously designed for tourists, but they were the same style of ger that the real nomads live in. Each circular tent was several metres wide in diameter, and had a wood-fire stove set up in the middle, which were traditionally used for cooking all the meals, but would serve only as a heater for us during our stay. I was sharing my ger with Tim and Don, the other Australian guy on our tour, and after we unloaded our bus and settled into the gers, we went for a short drive to a small landmark known as Turtle Rock.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Turtle Rock.

Turtle Rock.

We climbed to the top of the rock to appreciate the view. The Mongolian countryside really is beautiful. I spent a lot of time with my family in the Snowy Mountains as a child, and it was a familiar feeling of watching the virtually untouched landscape stretch out for what seemed like forever. Such sights always remind me of my fathers words about cities being similar from country to country, and I was even more pleased that we’d escaped Ulaanbaatar to explore the rest of Mongolia. After Turtle Rock, we visited the ger of a real nomadic Mongol, and got to see what the inside of a truly inhabited ger looked like. The walls were lined with rugs to retain the warmth and heat, there was a TV and a fridge and a whole kitchen set up, and it felt like an actual home compared to our gers, which were essentially the hotel versions of the traditional Mongol dwelling. There was only one woman who lived in this ger, and she had prepared some food for us, so we asked her questions about Mongolian nomadic life, with Oko as translator, while we nibbled on homemade cheese and bread, dried yoghurt, and sipped on warm milk tea. I didn’t care much for the tea, and the dried yogurt was so hard I thought I was chewing bone, but after spending so long in South-East Asia it was quite a treat to have some hearty, homemade cheese.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

It was definitely surprising how permanent the set up looked – apparently when they move, the nomads travel anywhere from a few kilometres down the road to hundreds of kilometres to a new region, usually for reasons of weather and climate or the availability of grass for their herds of cows, horses, goats, sheep or camels. It only takes 8 hours to completely dismantle the ger, which was deemed an impressive feat by our group. “It took me 8 hours just to pack for this trip!” Alyson exclaimed. We all had a bit of a laugh, but I suppose it was a reminder to all of us just how content people can be with so little in their lives. It feels like I have one of those epiphanies every time I visit a non-Western country, but I do think its important to retain that perspective throughout life, so I never end up taking for granted all the things I do have in life.

***

Our days at the ger camp were mostly spent outside, doing things like horse riding and archery. The warriors of the fearsome Mongolian Empire did both of those things are the same time, though horseback archery isn’t an easy skill to master in a few days, so we kept our attempts separate. We also made several small hikes up the hills and rocks that created the valley that our ger camp was in, and admired the awesome views. The hills rolled on in every direction, and in the neighbouring valleys we could see more clusters of gers, demonstrating just how common this nomadic way of life really is in Mongolia. The food in the ger camp was also amazing. Traditional Mongolian soups, salads and meat dishes, broths full of mutton and meat that melted in your mouth right off the bone, and hearty fillets of steak served with rice and potato. I wasn’t sure if there were any Mongolian restaurants around where I live, but I made a mental note to find out when I go back home – the cuisine is absolutely delicious, and I didn’t go to bed hungry once.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Trying out my archery skills - there's a reason there's no photos of the target...

Trying out my archery skills – there’s a reason there’s no photos of the target…

However, on one of the nights I did go to bed a little tipsy. As a group we’d decided we might get on the piss and have a little bit of a party in one of the gers. Some brought vodka, some brought beer or wine. I myself brought a semi-dry red that was made in Bulgaria, surprisingly delicious for the price that I paid for it. The conversation flowed freely, as is always the case when alcohol is involved, and I chatted a little more to some of the Australian girls who I hadn’t seen much of during the course of the trip. It was incredibly warm and toasty with the fire going inside the ger, and we frequently had to prop the door open for a little bit of relief, sometimes even stepping outside to cool off a little. The wine went to my head pretty quickly, but I remember standing outside with Dan and marvelling at the stars that were spread out across the dark blue night sky, thinking back to my night of stargazing on Koh Rong Samleon in Cambodia and still being a little bit excited that the constellations were all different in this hemisphere – and I don’t even think that was the wine talking.

***

While the Mongolian countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, there are a few things about it that are a little upsetting. When you’re gazing out from the peaks of a rocky outcrop the land looks untouched, but the reality is that the life of the nomadic people takes a toll on the land. Some people burn or bury their rubbish, but there is still an incredible amount of pollution. You’re just as likely to see a plastic bag take flight into the wind as you are a native bird, and at regular intervals there are huge mounds of trash that are most likely the remnants of a ger camp that has since packed up and moved on. I remember as a kid going out on Clean Up Australia Day and picking up all the trash in my local area – I think realistically this country would need a Clean Up Mongolia Year. I absolutely loved my time in Mongolia and out in the ger camp, but it was always a little bit disheartening to walk past what appeared to be a small forest of plastic bag trees, the skeleton of what was once lively greenery smothered with black and blue and translucent plastic.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

***

When we finally returned to Ulaanbaatar, we had an afternoon to kill before jumping on a train to Siberia that evening. We had lunch at a buffet style Mongolian barbecue, which was amazing – I ate so much I felt sick – and then spent some time at the National Museum. The more I learnt about the native Mongolian people and the mighty empire of warriors they had once been, the more I suspect that they as a people were the inspiration for the Dothraki tribes in Game of Thrones. Fierce warriors with highly revered leaders and a lifestyle that revolves largely around their horses, they were nomads that travelled across their vast country and were constantly at war to expand their territory. Modern Mongolia is a different story though, but I still got a little kick out of my geeky comparison. I also saw some exhibits about musical instruments – the name of the Mongolian instruments I’d seen in the show last time we were in Ulaanbaatar was morin khuur, a name that translates to ‘fiddle with a horses head’. The end of each instrument is finished of with a carved wooden horse head, and the morin khuur is considered something of a national treasure for Mongolia.

As I wandered through the museum, I realised that most of the signs and information boards were in Mongolian, with no English translation. I hate being one of those tourists who just expects everyone to be able to speak English, and get angry when they can’t – I frequently struggle silently through awkward language barriers rather than go on a “Can anyone speak English?” spree – but I have to admit I was taken aback. Almost everywhere in South-East Asia had had signs in English, which I suppose I completely took for granted while I was there. English is a common and widespread language, but it’s by no means global or universal, and I think it took being in an official building like a museum, yet there still being very little English, for that fact to truly sink in.

***

Overall, my time in Mongolia was incredibly interesting and unique. Combined with the fact that I wasn’t scammed, tricked, injured or molested, I think I can safely say its been my favourite place on my journey so far, and my only regret is that I couldn’t stay for longer. But the tour schedule was pretty set when it came to transport, and we were due to catch our next train into the heart of Siberia.