Vox Populi’s “Peace Be Upon You” at MESS 2017

 

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Bullet holes around windows on a building in Sarajevo, likely from attempts by snipers to kill civilian occupants hiding inside.

October hosts Sarajevo’s annual theater festival, MESS. We learned this through another person on our bus, a Swiss diver here in Sarajevo to meet watch her boyfriend perform as part of the theater group, Vox Populi. He meets us at the bus station and introduces himself as Syrian, though he now lives in Bulgaria. The two of them invite us to come see their play the following night. “It’s about the experiences of refugees,” they tell us, “it’s titled Mir Vama (Peace Be Upon You).”

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Sunset on the way to the theater.

It’s already packed when we arrive at the Sarajevo War Theater on the evening of the play, and we get tickets only from the kindness of someone who had two extra. The theater stage is set with little more than a line of tape up front and three vertical silk screens in the middle. As the lights dim two people walk onto the stage: Mila Bancheva and Ricardo Ibrahim, the man we met the day before. In what is part play and part documentary, the pair use videos of interviews with refugees projected onto the silk screens, symbolic scenes acted out in their minimalist set, and their own monologues to bring the stories of refugees to life.

Their interviewees are Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish, people’s children and parents and brothers and sisters. They speak about leaving their countries, what made them leave, what they left behind. They talk about a reluctance to go, and a story about people who left their homes thinking it was temporary and now decades later, they still wait to return. One man speaks of narrowly escaping death when a group of men fired several shots into his taxi. This wasn’t enough to force him to leave. Instead, it was the death of his infant daughter in an accidental raid on his house that prompted him to go. One of the actors speaks about the sensation of bombs being dropped on her city, first of fear, then of normalcy. Someone from the rafters drops a heavy box onto a stage, and it reverberates in the silence. The actors speak of hunger and starvation, as one of them desperately tears apart a pomegranate to eat, red-purple juice covering them. They speak of dodging mines, of the logistics of getting through porous borders, and then less porous borders. As refugees, they adjust to life as it is and as it must be.

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I didn’t take photos during the performance, but this post-performance shot gives an idea of the stage setup. The two actors, Diego and Mila, are front left in front of a silk screen.

Mir Vama reveals the refugees as painfully human, and our inability or unwillingness to help them palpable. Nowhere is that more evident than during a scene in the play where actress Mila cradles a mandolin she has been playing. She carries it to the front of the stage, and introduces it as her baby. And then she offers it to us, arms outstretched, but still lovingly cradling the object. “Will someone take my baby?” She pauses as seconds crawl by and we watch her. She offers it again, to the other side of the audience, “Please, will you take my baby?” Her face is solemn, imploring. I feel the urge to rise and take the mandolin from her, but I can’t tell if this is just part of the play. I can’t tell if this is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what is right to do. Mila asks us, again, “Will anyone take my baby?” The seconds crawl by as we all stare at her, actionless.

But no one stands up.

 

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The Sarajevo War Theater stage, post-performance.

 

Some short scenes are of Mir Vama are available on YouTube here, while the original playbill for Mir Vama is available here in Bosnian, and here in English.

Want to see what Vox Populi are up to currently? You can follow them on Facebook here (in Bulgarian, but Google Translate works alright)

Skopje

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We’ve continued our travels on to Skopje in FYROM, or Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia. Over the ire of the Greeks, though, everyone here just calls the country Macedonia. With wide boulevards, gleaming new buildings, and plethora of monuments in the city’s center, you get the feeling that this is a government looking to definite itself as modernized and powerful.

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Leave the city center to find yourself surrounded by densely-built neighborhoods, with neatly-constructed houses beside ramshackle dwellings and the occasionally-forgotten Soviet structure.

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Head to the “old town” to see the influence of Ottoman rule on this Balkan state. Narrow pedestrian paths weave between wooden stalls selling souvenirs and shops brimming with beaten copper, filigree jewelry, and ‘handmade’ goods that may or may not be made in Macedonia. Have a seat at a café and order a Turkish tea or coffee and desserts like baklava or sekerpare, then sit back and watch the people pass: tourists, locals, and the café workers who rush between, carrying tea and coffee on platters to shopkeepers so they need not leave and neglect their wares.

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For a good conversation in the old town find Vladimir, who runs one of the antique shops, and ask his opinions on global politics and the future of Macedonia. Sit with him as the tea drains from the glass and the cigarettes turn to ash. Ask him why he thinks the Greeks take such an issue with Macedonia and he traces it back to the Greek Civil War, a conflict that occurred 1946-1949. “We lived in Macedonia of Northern Greece before then, happily, but they drove us out during the war, taking our land and everything we owned. We are Macedonians, but Greece would never admit it because it opens the door to potential reparations.” If that is true, the Macedonians have a right to their name.

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The ancient village at Cape Atanas

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Near the white cliffs is a relatively unassuming stop. At the cape of St. Atanas sits a Late Antiquity fortress. It was a small village and fort at an optimal geographical area – close to the sea for access by boat, in a tight corner for defense. It was inhabited until about 600 AD, at which point its residents packed up their belongings, burned their houses, and left, apparently in an organized fashion. It’s a rich site, featuring artisanal structures, religious buildings, and many, many examples of clay artifacts that were made on site.

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The walk leading up to it is pretty nondescript. There’s some seating, a small museum, and a little toll booth. The entry fee is a few dollars per person. It gets you entrance to the museum as well, but that was closed for the season when we arrived.

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One of the main draws is that this is an active archeological site. During the summer season, work progresses year after year to uncover more and more of the settlement. Here is an open pit with a few clay pieces left in place as they were found. More than just viewing the artifacts in context, the actual work of archeology is on display.

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And how is the relative luxury of archeology funded? The EU! As with any EU involved project, there’s a huge sign near the entrance stating how much money was granted, and what its purpose is. This one, a bit generically, reads as : For the cultural and historical edification of the Byala Region, and to turn it into a major tourist attraction.

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Not only was the village equipped for clay-working, it was also well situated to take advantage of the amazing grape growing climate. This is an ancient grape press (wooden portions restored) and a massive clay vessel to hold the juice that poured out. The dioramas are a nice touch. They’re museum quality, and they really help bring the exhibits to life. This is one of the things that would certainly not have been present without outside funds.

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Along with pots and amphoras, the village made tons of clay tile and brick. The tiles are marked with wide, rough patterns, each corresponding to the person who made that tile. The marking was how they tallied who made how much at the end of the day and gave wages from that count. Some of the tiles are simple X’s or lines, but this one is a lovely wind or vine pattern.

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This is an early christian baptismal fountain. Bulgaria was, and is, Eastern Orthodox. Despite only becoming the state religion in the 9th century, it had roots in the Balkans since the time of Paul the Apostle. It was officially adopted as the state religion in the 9th century, due to cultural influence from Byzantium.

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At the end of the archeological walk is a piece of the fortress that once stood and guarded the town. It’s worth getting to the end of the loops because that’s where the actual in-progress excavation is. It’s not every day we get to see an active archeological site, so that was a real treat. It was, unfortunately, closed for the season, but with any luck excavation will continue here for many years to come. It’s a very nice change seeing the attention paid to historical sites in Bulgaria now. We have come a long way from the days of looting sites to sell the artifacts and repurpose the bricks.

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Roman Ruins

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Lela Stanka says there are Roman ruins on the hill beside Nikolaevo, the remnant of an old fort from millennia past. She says this matter-of-factly, like this isn’t a big deal, because this is Bulgaria and ancient ruins are everywhere. There are more ruins in this country than anyone knows what to do with and they all can’t be tourist destinations. This particular outpost sits mostly-forgotten, and Lela Stanka warns us that if we want to find it, we’ll likely be tromping in undergrowth instead of on a trail.

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An earth star on the hillside trail.

On our last day in Nikolaevo, we set out intent to find the ruins. Since we’ve pestered her for chores, Lela Stanka sends us out with a sack to collect kindling for the winter. We trudge uphill on a trail, picking up sticks and twigs and shoving them into the sack, looking for the turnoff point Lela Stanka suggested we take to find the ruins. It leads into a grove of planted trees, lined neatly in rows and identical in age. It’s almost impossible to tell which direction to head, save for uphill and downhill.

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Neatly planted trees make for mazelike conditions.

We make our way uphill until we reach the top, crowned with some rocky seats and scorched fire ring. There are no Roman ruins here. We return to the grove of trees and pick another direction, and still nothing. We spend an hour wandering in all directions. It seems like a man-made structure like a Roman fort would be impossible to miss, and yet we can find nothing.

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Is that…the trail?

We’re about to give up and begin walking back downhill when Stoytcho notices a small side path into another part of the woods. We follow its curve uphill again, around a bend and into a dry, grassy field filled with skittering grasshoppers and floating butterflies. To one side there appears to be a vertical rise in the hill, choked with vines.

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It’s not a rise in the hill. It’s a wall. We’ve found the ruins!

In this day and age, there’s not much left but the foundations, piles of rocks held together by crumbing Roman concrete.  We climb over the outside wall into the remnants of the fort’s rooms and corridors, picking our way through clinging vines and overgrown shrubs. Rumor has it that there’s a tunnel from this fort that leads down to the Radova River below, where the Ottomans hit Thracean gold during their retreat from Bulgaria centuries ago. But what little was here was probably plundered years ago, and nothing remains broken stones.

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What remains of the Roman fort, choked with vegetation.

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From a different angle, those same walls disappear into the overgrowth.

We follow a wall of the fort away from the field to a steep cliff at the hill’s edge. From here, we can see for miles across the countryside, over a patchwork of fields to the mountains in the distance. This view is why the Romans built a fort here, and where we stand now a millennia ago would have been occupied by Roman soldiers, watching, waiting, guarding, eating, drinking, thinking about their future lives, boasting about their past victories. Living.

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Following a wall to the edge of a cliff.

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The view.

We leave the ruins and return to the fork in the road, where we hid our sack of kindling for Lela Stanka. We start back downhill to Nikolaevo, its low mud walls and concrete buildings visible over the treeline. In two thousand years, I wonder whether there will be any remnants of Nikolaevo left, and if intrepid kids from a nearby settlement will explore and play here.

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Walking home to Nikolaevo with kindling.

Nikolaevo

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A street near the town’s center, looking northward to the nearby hill. You can see the edge of town from here. 

Nikolaevo is a 2,800 person town to the north of Stara Zagora at the foot of the Sredna Gora Mountains. While not a standard tourist destination, it is home to Stoytcho’s aunt and grandfather. Stoytcho’s grandfather, also Stoytcho, was the school’s math teacher and principal during the communist regime and his aunt, Lela Stanka, teaches Bulgarian there today. Together, they also still farm the plot of land that belongs to the Stoytchev family.

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Lela Stanka, Stoytcho elder, and Stoytcho younger.

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We offer to help Stoytcho elder with chopping firewood.

We stay with Lela Stanka in two-bedroom apartment at the northern edge of town. The school is still on summer holiday, so we take long walks with her in the remaining days of the countryside summer. She points out landmarks and updates Stoytcho on life here. Nikolaevo was once a larger town, with most inhabitants employed by a factory that made ceramic parts for electrical wires. “A competing Turkish company bought the factory and shut it down,” she tells us, “and most people left.”

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Old equipment lies in an empty lot near the town’s edge.

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A snake slithers through leaf litter at the edge of town.

Now, the people living in Nikolaevo are predominately Roma, but each year brings something new. British expats started coming a few years back, not just pensioners but also families with children, lured by the cheap cost of living. Bulgarian families have also moved in, lured by cheap fertile land on in the surrounding area that is ripe for planting vineyards. Winemaking is a growing industry in Nikolaevo, evident from the rows of grapevines stretching from the north edge of town and up the nearby hill, where Stanka says ancient Roman ruins lay buried in underbrush.

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Wine grapes in a vineyard to the town’s north.

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Two Roma men greet us as they pass. 

Nikolaevo is a small town like so many others in Bulgaria; things move slowly, things change slowly, and for now at least, things continue.

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A herd of sheep and goats wander beneath Nikolaevo’s highway overpass.

Warsaw

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We’re in Warsaw after an uncomfortable overnight bus ride in which I had food poisoning, but that’s ok because Poland has amazing food for cheaper than your average European country. Pierogi and golonka, here I come.

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Veal Pierogi with fresh pickled slaws.

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Golonka (pork knuckle) with sauce and mashed potatoes.

As we wander the streets of Warsaw, though, I can’t help but ask myself “Where are all the people?” Except for a handful of tourists and the occasional homeless person, the parks we find are empty. The trolleys ferry only one or two souls at a time.

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An empty bridge over the highway.

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Graffiti laced statue base. It probably once held a Soviet monument.

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Trolley rails embedded in the grass of a park.

The only crowds we see are at the local farmer’s market (which is a bit livelier, but not until about midday) and in Warsaw’s “Old Town”, reconstructed after bombing in the Second World War leveled 80% of the city. Even here, the crowds of tourists aren’t dense and on a rainy day, everyone disappears.

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People line up for fresh Chineve/Vietnamese food at the farmer’s market.

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Tourists stop to listen to violinists play in the Old Town.

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The Old Town on a rainy day.

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Men waiting out the rain in the Old Town.

The dearth of people, especially young people, isn’t surprising in Warsaw. First, we’re not wandering the financial/downtown district, where everyone actually works. Second, a lot of younger working-age Poles have left for Western Europe. Since Poland joined the EU, over 2 million Poles have emigrated, many of them young people looking for better-paying jobs.

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A young woman checks her phone while waiting outside her store.

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“The Little Insurrectionist”, a statue in the Old Town that commemorates the child soldiers who died in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

But not everyone has left. One evening, we go out for a walk along the Vistula River and find ourselves part of a steady trickle of people in that direction. They’re all young and dressed up, and many are carrying bottles of wine or packs of beer. The trickle becomes a stream of people, and when we reach the riverbank there are dense crowds of people milling around, drinking, laughing, and socializing. Food trucks and ice cream carts line the sidewalk. We ask a couple of English-speaking Poles what’s going on; “Is this a special event?” we ask. “No,” one of them replies, “This happens almost every night in the summer.” So this is where the people are.

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Warsaw nightlife on the riverbank.

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Crowds of people, sitting and standing and drinking on the riverbank.

Grand Strategy in Moscow

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Traffic outside of the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski

We’re sitting in a conference room at the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, a 5-star luxury hotel beside the Moskva River. Bottles of sparkling water, notepads, and pencils are all neatly laid out on the table in front of us. To our left is a woman in a sharp, perfectly-cut black pantsuit, vice president of a subsidiary of Gazprom. To our right is a man in a navy jacket with a scarlet silk tie, owner of half the skyscraper properties in downtown Moscow. Stoytcho and I glance at each other. Earlier today, we ate at the cheapest Stolabaya we could find and it cost USD $6.00. Each person’s suit in this room has about the same price as a month in almost any country we’ve visited. How did we get here?

The connection

Ok, let’s back up. Before going on this whole round-the-world trip, I was getting my PhD at Yale University where I met Steve Blum, a Yale alumnus who visited Russia and loved it. Steve, who’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Association of Yale Alumni, was excited that we would be visiting Russia and put us in touch with someone he knew in Moscow. “This guy can show you around,” he told me cheerfully. We’ll call him “Guy” because I never know if what I write will get someone into trouble. So we exchange a couple emails with Guy as we’re traveling around the world, and a few days before we hit Moscow we make some final arrangements. He’s hosting a professor as well as us, so we’ll meet Guy and the professor at the State Tetryakov Gallery the day after we arrive. Reluctant to meet a Yale affiliate in stained zip-off hiking pants, we shop for some slightly nicer clothes the day before.

The art gallery

We meet Guy the next day in front of the gallery and he introduces us to John Mearshimer, professor at the University of Chicago. If you’ve ever studied political science, you probably know this name; John’s work is widely taught in international relations and conflict between nation-states. He’s published half a dozen books on the subject. He’s a big deal. Coming from biology, though, I had no idea who he was and took his hand with a blank polite smile.

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A bronze statue in the museum

After introductions, Guy leads us past the line at the museum entrance to a side door. A dour security guard stops us just inside and has an exchange with Guy, whose ID card and explanation placate him. We’re let through. “Do you work here and get to bring guests?” I ask, trying to find out more about our host. Guy responds, “No. I have special status because I paid for the restoration of several works here.” Oh, ok.

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Two visitors read the plaque in front of a painting at the gallery.

Our group wanders through the gallery, trailing Guy who stops frequently to explain the history or meaning of various works. Here is a painting depicting a famous battle, there is a painting showing the great schism in the Eastern Orthodox Church (pictured here), over there is a painting depicting a wedding of serfs. He stops at a painting of two men sitting at a desk with a woman in front of them, “In Russia, we say ‘buying and selling souls’ for the sale of serfs. Nobles would talk about how many souls they owned.”

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This painting depicts serf wedding arrangements being made between families.

Somewhere during the tour, we get invited to the Grand Strategy talks that Mearshimer is giving at the Hotel Kempinski every night this week. “Sure,” I reply, “That sounds fun.” Maybe this is where all my fellow academic nerds will be.

The Grand Strategy

Stoytcho and I show up to the Hotel Kempinski and it very quickly becomes clear this isn’t an academic gathering. For one, everyone is in nicer suits than most academics probably own. These are businessmen and businesswomen, Russian oligarchs here to learn Grand Strategy for nation-states that they can apply to their businesses. They jot notes as John speaks about Grand Strategy in World War II, in the Cold War, and in the Middle East today. Between rounds of talks, they chat with each other over hors d’oeuvres and check their phones busily. They all also speak English, and we’re able to find some to conversations.

We come back almost every night that week for Grand Strategy talks. It’s interesting stuff and John’s a good speaker. Neither Stoytcho nor I have a political science background, but what John says about Grand Strategy and a nation-state’s desire for regional hegemony, to have certainty and control over resources, makes a certain amount of sense. The nation-state simply behaves like a living organism, maximizing its own success in the world, sometimes at a benefit to but often at a cost to other nation-states. In the end, I ask and answer a few questions at the seminar, and feel like I’ve got it. When I tell John, he recommends I read some of his books. I haven’t got the heart to tell him that one his books is the same price as an average day’s worth of food for the two of us.

Maybe when I start my career back in the States I’ll have some pocket change again for a book.

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For some photographic context, here’s the building we’re staying in tonight.

Things to do in Russia: Spot the Lenin

Nearly every city or town we visited in Russia had a statue of Lenin. You’d go to the main square, and there was a Lenin. You’d get off the train at a stop along the trans-Siberian, and you’d find a Lenin. You’d be walking around downtown and find a Lenin. Lenin, Lenin, Lenin.

To people from the U.S. or Western Europe, this might be baffling. “Isn’t the Soviet Union dead? Isn’t the Communist experiment over in Russia?” they might ask. But Lenin’s continued popularity doesn’t seem to have as much to do with Communism as with Russia’s image as a great country. Lenin is a great man to Russia not because he brought about Communism, but because he grew the Russian sphere of influence. He made Russia more productive, more powerful. As someone we met on our travels put it “Lenin was a great man, a thinker, an intellectual. He did great things for Russia.*” So in honor of that, here’s where we spotted Lenin in Russia:

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Tourists wait for passerbys to take a photo with the giant Lenin head in Ulan-Ude.

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Lenin hails you from under a tree, in Goryachinsk.

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Lenin stands outside a train station, somewhere in Siberia.

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Lenin standing in one of the central squares of Krasnoyarsk.

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Lenin, looking contemplative, in a statue near Hovel Hostel in Krasnoyarsk (which was actually quite a nice hostel).

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Another Lenin hails you from what I think is a government building, complete with Russian and Soviet Union flags.

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Tourists pose with Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow, where you can see his embalmed body.

This glorification of Lenin is an interesting contrast to his treatment in the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, where Lenin statues lie unloved in storage or have been moved to memorial parks, long since removed from their original posts. If you’re looking for more info, there’s a fascinating website on the Communist monuments of Eastern Europe and the Balkans here.

Oh, and the only place we didn’t see a Lenin was in St. Petersburg (although I’m sure he’s around if you search hard enough). Instead, we got this guy greeting us at the train station:

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Far different in expression from Lenin, Peter the Great stares down at you in disapproval.

*When we asked the same person about Stalin, their response was, “Stalin…was both good and bad. He did good things. But he was scary. So not many statues of Stalin.”

Travel in the Time of Trump: How to Build Two Thousand Years of Hate

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A Google Maps guide demarcating the line of the Great Wall across China. The white far above it is the Chinese-Mongolian border. Source here.

When you travel through hostels so often, you go through the same conversation with different people over and over. The questions follow an unwritten script, with little variation: Where did you come from? Where are you going? What have you seen? Where are you from? You ask and answer these same questions every day, getting to know the flow of people through your room, trying to understand who they are and how they see the world.

Last night’s companions were a trio of Mongolian women here on holiday and one stayed in last night, where we played through the unwritten script with her, asking and answering. She was here with her small governmental department on vacation; the whole group decided to head up here to Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikal for the Mongolian national holiday of Naadam. She asked about our travels and we told her about the world trip, although she was sad to hear we had passed over Mongolia. I explained it was because of flight prices (it was actually cheaper to fly to Ulan-Ude than Ulan Bator), but that Mongolia is on the list of dream destinations. We spent the next hour talking about Mongolia, the woman telling us about the vast open plains, the vivid nature, the nomadic people, and the delicious food.

At some point the question of my identity came up, and I explained that my father is Chinese and I am half Chinese. The woman was a bit taken aback, but she exclaimed, “Yes, I can see it. You don’t look quite European! You would fit in here with the Buriyati or even in Mongolia.” I laughed and told her, “I know. I look like a local girl almost everywhere.”

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A bronze statue in Ulan-Ude representing the nomadic Buryati tribes. The Qin Dynasty built the Great Wall ostensibly to keep similar Mongolian tribes from invading China.

In the morning, the Mongolian women rushed to pack and leave the hostel for Baikal. As she was leaving, the woman we talked to last night bade us farewell and excitedly hoped we would come to Mongolia one day. Her eyes twinkled and she had a warm open smile. “But please…” she exclaimed, “maybe don’t say anything about being part Chinese! Because in Mongolia, we don’t like the Chinese people. When people insult each other, we say that a person is a son of Chinese.”

Her imminent departure made her speed rushed, but also deeply honest. “I have nothing against you. But I want you to be safe. And you see how the Chinese treated us. They built a giant wall at our border to keep us out. And now where is the wall? Very far in Chinese territory, no? Because they have taken so much from us, we hate them.” She paused, but was still smiling. It seems the contempt for Chinese people did not translate to contempt for Chinese (or half-Chinese) persons like me.

Then she was gone and I was left to parse the feelings of the interaction. My enthusiasm for visiting Mongolia wasn’t dampened, but her words about the Great Wall rattled around in my head for a while. For most people, the Great Wall is an archaeological and architectural marvel, amazing if only for length alone. To find out that it was a symbol of hate for Mongolians was surprising, although in retrospect not all that weird. If your neighbor builds a big, unfriendly wall bristling with weapons pointed at you, you certainly aren’t going to view it dispassionately; you’re going to think they’re a dick and you’re going to hate that neighbor. So the wall, maybe at first borne out of mutual hatred, becomes a symbol of that hatred.

The China-Mongolia-Great Wall story might be a well-timed allegory for us in the United States. Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he argues will solve problems for the U.S., such as immigration and violent crime. But let’s set that aside and remember that this point in time is only a moment in Mexico-U.S. relations. If we do build a wall, even if it is successful, what is the cost of that success? Like the cross in Christianity or the American Flag, a wall would become a symbol of our country and a message to our neighbors. It might be a long-lasting, dark stain on our relationships. So no, I can’t tell you that the wall wouldn’t solve some of the immigration problems. But I think that it would be good to remember that the last huge wall built created two thousand years of hate.

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The bronze statue’s twin, a Slavic-looking man on a horse that represents the European settlers in Buryatia, looks out to the horizon.

Tokyo ->Shanghai->Beijing->Ulan Ude

Today we’ll be doing a marathon of traveling, from Tokyo to Shanghai and then Beijing, with an overnight layover and a flight the next morning to Ulan-Ude in Siberia, Russia. It’s going to be a rough trip. But on the bright side, this flight itinerary wouldn’t even be possible fifty years ago.

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We wait for our next flight at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport.

We board a China Eastern Airlines plane at Narita Airport and make our first stop in Shanghai. Technically, we’re still on the same ‘flight’ on to Beijing, but we’re all forced off the plane to go through customs because we’re coming from another country. The airline slaps bright blue stickers on us as we leave. The stickers have a string of numbers and letters codifying our flight written on them, followed by “Beijing” in both Chinese and English. I turn around and whisper to Stoytcho: “This is so we don’t get lost.” We weave through long lines at immigrations, then pick up our luggage and head to a customs that fifty years ago would not have been, with China just emerging from the throes of the Cultural Revolution.

After customs and immigration, we’re shepherded to our next gate and onto our flight by way of buses around the airport and across the tarmac. They’re crowded affairs, crammed Chinese and foreigners of all ages. A few are older Chinese ladies, who fifty years ago probably never guessed they would board a plane.

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Looking out the window of our plane at the airport.

One flight later we’re in Beijing for our overnight stay, where we try to find food and a place to sleep for the night. After deeming the airport hotel too expensive, we hunt around for a quiet stretch to lie down. We want to get as much sleep as we can to be prepared for tomorrow’s flight to Ulan-Ude. We’re not sure how Russia is going to be, so we want to be awake and have our wits about us. But it can’t be that bad. Fifty years ago, with Leonid Brezhnev leading the Soviet Union, we almost certainly wouldn’t be welcome.

We bed down on a line of chairs with no armrests, curling up and preparing for sleep. In the row of chairs on the other side, two guys are doing the same. One offers us a cookie and we whittle the time away with talk. The two are brothers from Iran, doing something with oil technology. They’re returning home. Because it’s my dream to one day visit Iran, I ask what the country is like and where we should go. They tell me about the ancient cities and rugged mountains and thick jungle. They ask about the United States, and what it’s like there, and I tell them about the gleaming cities and rugged mountain and towering redwood forests. We swap emails. “You should come visit us!” one of the guys tells us, and I shrug and reply, “Maybe one day. It’s almost impossible for us to visit Iran.” Without thinking I add “You should come visit us, though!” The guys laugh, “It’s impossible for to visit the U.S.” Oh right, of course.

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Our bed for the night at Beijing’s Capital International Airport, where travelers from around the world can meet and converse.

Today, I can’t visit the country of these two guys that I’m conversing with at an airport. But fifty years ago, the Shah ruled Iran and U.S. citizens could visit Iran mostly unfettered. Fifty years ago, the Cold War was at its height and both Russia and China were off-limits. Fifty years ago, no one had ever landed on the moon. Now, we’re suddenly in possession of unimaginable technologies and we’re bedding down at an airport in China and tomorrow we fly to Russia. And as I stare down at their email address written on my phone, I think about how we now send emails from devices containing more computing power than even the most powerful computers fifty years ago. Who knows what changes another fifty years will bring?

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An air traffic employee on the tarmac at Pudong Airport, which didn’t exist fifty years ago.