How they say goodbye in Russia (from an old notebook)

It begins about an hour before the moment. You leave the compartment for them to pack their luggage, place their winter clothes nearby in readiness, and surrender their sheets to the attendant. Then you all sit together nervously and talk about the weather, or the Black Sea. Perhaps a round of vodka is drunk. About fifteen minutes before arrival we all get up and move the luggage into the walkway, and stare out the windows. The train stops, but it is a false alarm - a timing stop. Then it creeps slowly forward, and we gather the luggage and crowd towards the exit, which is completely unnecessary since it is the middle of the night and hardly anyone will board the train.

The train stops a second time and the attendant opens the door and carefully dusts off the ice from the steps. Then we all gingerly step down onto the platform, passing down the heavier luggage. We stand for a moment, grinning sheepishly at each other, not knowing what to do, and then, realising that the train will leave in a few minutes, all start talking hurriedly at the same time. Our smiles are the smiles you give someone who, despite knowing you'll never meet again, you're glad to have met them anyway.

The women kiss and hug each other and the men look each other in the eye and shake hands like they mean it. By this time the attendant is rather annoyed since someone left open the door and cold air has rushed into the carriage. Plus, we're taking our sweet time and it's affecting her routine: removing the ice from the toilet outlet and suspension, cleaning out the walkway, gathering coal for the hot water, etc. So those of us who continue our journey hop back on and go to the nearest window. Those on the platform are gathering their luggage slowly, making sure it is comfortable for the walk to the taxi rank or bus stop or wherever. A quick smile, and they walk slowly away. The attendant closes the door as they walk from view, and a few minutes later the train pulls away slowly.

Of course, you are still at the window as the platform shifts past slowly, expecting. And of course, after a few moments, there they are, luggage on the ground and straining to see into the windows. They haven't made it far down the platform, and as we catch sight of each other we start waving happily, our peaceful smiles mirrored in our hearts, in the quiet Siberian woods, and in the stars above.

To the south stands Orion and his retinue, Taurus with crimson Aldebaran, and above them the Seven Sisters, of which I can make out six if, impolitely, I stare long enough. Perhaps they are wondering if this is the usual goodbye strangers give each other, despite only meeting two days previously, and sharing those two days with a mixture of broken English and a few choice Russian words. Perhaps they are wondering, just as I am wondering about the stars, as the train rattles onwards into the night.




"What matters more than my being buried / in the land where I was born?"- The Tale of Sinuhe


a) "Excuse me, Yasser?" I ask the gentleman clothed in white robes talking on his mobile phone.

"Errr... yes, Yasser," he says as he glances towards me. I can't quite place it but he doesn't seem to look exactly like the Yasser I'd met yesterday afternoon at this part of Aswan's corniche, with whom I had negotiated a good price to take me to Sehel Island on a felucca. He finally finishes his phone conversation and turns to me square on: "Yes?"

"Erm, we met yesterday evening? You're taking me to Sehel Island this morning."

He considers me for a moment: "Yes, yes, of course, Sehel Island!" It's definitely not the same guy; his nose is too big, eyebrows too thick, skin too dark, and the price is 50% more. But the other Yasser isn't here and I don't have time to waste so I grudgingly accept. "Wait here, the man who will take you will be here soon," he says as he starts dialing his phone while ambling away.

I'm left on the corniche next to a couple of KFC delivery mopeds, the sun just beginning to warm itself and the shadows melting to uncover the swirling Nile's waters below, the green trees of Elephantine Island only a few hundred yards away, and the sandy desert on the far bank. After 15 minutes or so a man walks over to me: "Sehel Island?"

There's no one else here except me so I nod and stretch out my hand, "Daniel."

He grins as he shakes it: "Yasser," and we climb down to the landing place below and into the felucca, a small wooden boat with a lateen sail.

This third Yasser is a man about 40 years old with a shaven head and angular jawline, wearing a dark blue sweater and black slacks as if he had just left the office for a cup of coffee. I sit on the edge of the felucca while he expertly pulls, twists, and guides the ropes and draws the tiny felucca away from the docked sailboats and massive cruise liners and out into the Nile. The sail is set and Yasser sits opposite me as we sail south under the steady northerly wind. It is still early morning, the town isn't yet awake and most of the boats are still tied up to the shore.
b) We sail on through Aswan, the southernmost city in Egypt, once known as its first city as it was the farthest upstream. It is so far south that it lies close to the tropic line, and using this observation Eratosthenes measured the Earth's circumference in the 3rd century BC to within 2%. To the north the Nile was navigable all the way to the Delta, but beyond Aswan to the south was the First Cataract: a series of rapids un-navigable by boats, as well as the Nubians, the desert, and mystery.

We sailed quietly past the docked cruise liners, tied up for the low season. Elephantine Island drifted by our right hand side, its name given by the large square-shaped and half-submerged black granite rocks that look like bathing elephants, and the fact that it used to host a bustling ivory trade. Behind it is Kitchener Island, awarded to that British general for his Sudanese campaign during colonial times, today a tropical botanical garden.

After a few minutes another colonial landmark drifted past, this time on the left bank, the sumptuous, aristocratic Old Cataract Hotel, built by the guide Thomas Cook for his clients and visited by guests such as Baroness Thatcher, Agatha Christie, Tsar Nicholas II, Churchill, and King Farouk. Its dark red facade and palm trees on an outcrop overlooking the Nile and the southern end of Elephantine Island, where an ancient stone Nilometer was still measuring the height of the waters after all these years.

The northerly wind had been steadily driving us south against the current all this time. Elephantine Island was behind us now, and its temples to the god Khnum, guardian of the Nile, replaced by reeds and waterbirds and sandy granite rocks. Yasser has been quiet most of the time, working the tiller unconsciously while staring into the swirling waters. He looks up and points to a house on top of cliff: "House of a famous Egyptian pop star," he says, and falls back into his reverie.

c) It is very peaceful this, sailing up the Nile. The gentle sounds of the fluttering sail, waters sloshing and slapping against the hull, the rustling reeds. On the eastern bank stand tall granite boulders, source of so much of Ancient Egypt's building material, while on the far, western bank are the sandy dunes of the Western Desert.

On top of one of the dunes, drifting by slowly in the distance rests the Mausoleum of the Third Aga Khan, a sandy coloured domed building. The Aga Khan: philanthropist, President of the League of Nations, and Imam of the Ismaili Shias, suffered from rheumatism later in life and spent his winters in Aswan. At his request, he was buried here, and after death his wife placed a fresh red rose on his tomb every day.

Beyond the Mausoleum to the north and out of sight to us is the Monastery of St. Simeon, with origins from the time the Roman legion stationed in this area received a bishop from Alexandria, and which was destroyed by the troops of Saladin. Further to the north are the Tombs of the Nobles, where noblemen from Old Kingdom to Roman times were buried, and whose walls are depicted with scenes from life's journey.

We were alone on the Nile, not another boat in sight and the only sign of life from the calls of the birds and the breeze dancing among the reeds. Yasser was opening up a bit more. He tells me about his two kids and about sailing to Edfu in the old days as a felucca guide: "Many of the guides married the tourists, one even went to Australia!" He smiles as his eyes reach into the past. "We sailed and camped all the way down to Edfu with the tourists, chatted around the campfire at night, wonderful days!"

d) Yasser is Nubian, and Nubian villages used to dot the river banks from Aswan all the way south into Sudan, but were lost after the building of the Aswan High Dam. Built in the 1960s by President Nasser with funding from the USSR, it flooded much of lower Nubia, and over 100,000 people and dozens of villages were relocated to the north of Aswan. Just the day before I was in the Nubian Museum in Aswan where there were some black and white photos of villages that were flooded by the dam. An old man was taking photos of the photos and he looked at me and pointed to a photo: "That used to be my village!"

Not only Nubian villages but dozens of ancient archaeological sites were buried under Lake Nasser. Two were saved though: the Temple of Isis at Philae, where Isis was supposed to have discovered the heart of her murdered husband Osiris and had him buried, had now been relocated to Biggeh Island after Philae was flooded. And the massive Temple of Ramessess, built to intimidate raiders from the south and rediscovered in the 19th century by Burckhardt amongst the shifting sands, was relocated to Abu Simbel.

The sun was halfway up the sky, and we were both lost in peace. Sandy colours and whispering reeds floated past us as I tried to imagine the lost world beneath Lake Nasser, locked in time. How eerie it must be, all those empty villages and ancient temples and buildings of Kush and dynastic Upper Egypt, preserved now forever by the Nile. Yasser was also staring vacantly, so to break the silence I asked him: "Yasser, can you tell me a story?"

He only half-looked at me as he smiled: "Sure. In the war with Israel in the seventies, the Egyptian army used Nubian radio operators, because the Israelis could understand Arabic but not our language. They could never penetrate our communications." He paused as if to say something, and then half turned away, with hand on the tiller and the boat's timbers creaking softly around us.
e) Finally we reach our destination: Sehel Island, the last island before the First Cataract and from where I was hoping to glimpse those famous rapids. We pulled along shore and Yasser says: "10 minutes," and off I go towards the southern end, past a few gentlemen sitting under the shade of a tree and some brightly painted Nubian houses. I reach the guardhouse and the guardsman with the inevitable exchange of baksheesh and scramble up the rocks towards the top of the hill.

Below lay the First Cataract, the legendary source of the Nile. It was a mere trickle, and I could hardly trace the waters amid the shrubs and bare rocks which used to be covered in torrents of foam before the building of the dams. It was a major impediment to travel, and for the Ancient Egyptians marked the boundary into Kush and the unknown. Travelers of old had erected a marker behind me on the hill, praying for safe travel.

Further south was the Old Dam, the Temple of Isis, and the High Dam. Beyond the High Dam was Lake Nasser, called by modern Nubians the "Nubian Sea." Still further on the Nile winds south passing through five more cataracts and making a giant S-bend in the Nubian Desert. At Khartoum it splits into the Blue and the White Nile, one arm flowing from the Ethiopian mountains and the other originating from somewhere in Central Africa. The waters flow, past the desert sands, the buried Nubian villages and temples, past the rustling reeds and tumbled rocks of the cataracts, past the ruins and mausoleums and markers and granite.

It was time to leave and I scrambled back towards the waiting felucca. Yasser cast off for our return to Aswan, only now the wind was against us and Yasser had to tack back and forth continuously, struggling against the fresh breeze. Although the Nile current was flowing relentlessly from the ancient life-giving source towards modern Aswan, the wind was unceasingly trying to drive us back south.


An Egyptian Election

"How did they die?" I ask the consular officer.

"Mostly they were run over. The army ran them over in tanks and personnel carriers. They killed 60 in one go like that." Her head bobbles a little. The Nile waters amble past us eleven stories below. "Of course some were shot. Soldiers are supposed to fire their rubber bullets into the ground and make them bounce but a lot of times they just fired directly into the protesters."

The office was quiet. Most of the staff were out monitoring the first round of parliamentary elections since Mubarak stepped down earlier in the year. This was the first day in a new era, a public holiday was declared, the shops were closed, and the streets were relatively quiet.


The drainage in Cairo is awful. There is a thin layer of water in almost all the toilets and bathrooms I used. There is no toilet paper, rather people use a bidet or a hose and tap or a bucket of water. Hence the floors are covered with water, but what gets me is that it doesn't drain away.

Similarly the puddles on the streets grow into ponds. It was raining the night I arrived, and as I approached Tahrir Square on foot in the darkness, I could see people walk in single lines at odd angles. As I was pondering this odd behaviour I stepped off the sidewalk ankle deep into a lake, my foot breaking the smooth surface which I had thought was the road. Someone giggled behind me.

As I approach Tahrir square from the north, trying to avoid the puddles even though my feet are already soaked through, I see a large road block ahead and a line of people on one side against a building wall. I join them, and we are frisked by plain clothes police and our IDs checked. Once past this checkpoint we enter Tahrir Square. It is the evening before the first day of elections, and the square is crowded full of protesters, curious onlookers, hawkers, and plain-clothes-men.

A massive crowd gathers on one side, holding banners and chanting and jumping and clapping. Elsewhere, circles of middle-aged men discuss politics in earnest. Scattered towards the edge of the protest crowd are the hawkers, offering tea, barbequed corn cobs, steamed sweet potatoes, rice with chicken, and so on, all cooked on self-contained kitchens on wheels. In the center of Tahrir Square are the protest tents, screened by banners and placards. Throughout all this are groups or couples or individuals like me, wandering about for the atmosphere and to see what was going on.

It is election day morning, and I have to walk from my hostel on the northern side of Tahrir Square to the Sudanese embassy on the southern side. I set off on foot. There aren't many people on the streets and hardly any traffic. The sun is out and the air fresh after the rain, although the puddles and ponds remain on the streets. A crowd gathers next to a cart on the side of the street, and I join them to buy a falafel sandwich.

Walking further down the street with falafel in hand, I see that people further on have turned back as the road has been blocked off by iron spikes and debris. We turn back, turn into a side alley, and emerge on the next parallel street and continue south. This time there is a checkpoint: soldiers in camouflage carrying rifles, metal barriers where civilians queue to have their IDs checked and to explain why they need to pass through this area, barbed wire, armoured personnel carriers, trucks with platoons of soldiers lounging inside or nearby, burnt out cars.

I pass through and walk south down Al Kasr Al Aini. There is a large crowd in the front yard of a school. The crowd spills out onto the street, and forms a single line down the pavement for quite a length. They are all women, and they are waiting patiently at this voting point to cast their ballot.

Throughout the day I walk through various quarters of Cairo. It is crowded, the streets are grimy and muddy. Posters are plastered everywhere with portraits of hopeful candidates. Leaflets meld into the muddy pavements. As a voting point is approached, the concentration of people increase, until it suddenly explodes into a massive crowd gathered at a door or gate. Leaflets and flags and posters burst out in sympathy, as seemingly bored soldiers in green watch proceedings with their rifles pointed at their feet.

I try to take a photo, and a busy young man rushes in front of me and shouts: "No photo!" but a young lady stops him. The people in line are validating their IDs with a man sitting on a crate with a laptop. A loudspeaker truck swerves past, it's propaganda slogans deafening, it's loudspeakers and posters arranged haphazardly, like the way it is driving.

I walk away down a street, with shops on both sides and the wooden planks on the ground so that pedestrians won't get bogged down in the mud. A man on the street suddenly stops me and offers a tour of the area. I smell 'tout', so I make some polite conversation while firmly rejecting his advances. He suddenly tells me that: "The elections are valid, not like last time. This time the Europeans, the Americans, they are watching." And he disappears as suddenly as he appeared.

The organisation of the elections were a bit confusing. There were going to be multiple stages of elections: in November, then again after a few months, and another a few months after that. Was it 3 rounds of elections? 4 rounds? Even the hotel manager was confused. The morning of election day I asked if he would be voting and he nodded and I wished him happy voting. That evening when I asked how it went he looked at me bemused, and sighed: "for me, it's tomorrow."

As I walked up the ramp to the gate, touts accosted me: "The gate is closed mister! The other gate is this way! I'll show you, I'll give you a lift on my horse!" And then once the grounds are entered more touts, posing as archeologists or security guards. One chap with spiky hair and sunglasses and a pink whistle screamed at me from afar: "Hey you! Where is your ticket!? Show me your ticket!!" as he rushed over. I showed him my ticket, and he said: "Ok, now you come with me to the tomb of X." I was having none of it, and continued on towards the pyramid of Chephren.

An hour earlier I had wondered what the pyramids really looked like as the bus jostled through the vast megalopolis that is Cairo, home to 7 million people. I imagined sandy tetrahedrons peeking above the desert curves like icebergs, with a sharp blue sky and plodding camels in the foreground. Or steep sandstone blocks under the deep red sun.

As I was wondering, the bus was driving down the streets of Giza, lined with buildings 5 or 6 stories high. People were just opening their shops, and cars and trucks and buses clogged the busy streets. Suddenly, out of the morning smog and through the dirty window, loomed a gigantic black triangular shadow, like a spaceship. The awe and surprise was physical: I inched back, then forward, then squinted.

Throughout history the power and mystery of the Pyramids at Giza were well acknowledged and recorded. They were a wonder of the world four and a half millenia ago. They were considered ancient by Herodotus. They had been measured by Thales, and had looked down upon every man-made structure until the 19th century A.D. Imams had tried to tear them down. They had seen the armies of Alexander and Napoleon. And now a democratic election was passing under its gaze.


16 hours in Syria

"Goodbye my lover, goodbye my friend,
You have been the one, you have been the one for me..."

The music stops suddenly as the bus office manager presses a button on his phone: "What was that? The last phrase?"

I look at him: "I think it's 'you have been the one for me'."

"Ah yes! That makes sense." He smiles and jots down something in his notebook. We are sitting in his tiny office, inside the intercity bus station on the outskirts of Aleppo. I am waiting for the bus to Jordan, and to escape the cold the manager has invited me into his office for a cup of tea as I wait. 

The manager is a tall, well-built, balding man, with a large fur coat and bushy eyebrows. He's an English teacher by day and looks after the bus office at night. It is 2 hours before the bus is due to depart, so we drink tea to keep out the biting cold and chat and try to decipher James Blunt's lyrics.


10 hours earlier I had crossed the border into Syria from Turkey, at the Reyhanli crossing. Once across the modern Turkish post and through the fence the road winds into a narrow defile among the brown hills. Now and then a watchtower would appear, gazing at us from above, as we pass pieces of barbed wire curled up on the side of the road like hedgehogs.

After about 5km we reached the Syrian post, consisting of a long building with a door at either end and inside a number of windows in a line: the immigration officer, the bureau de change, the customs officer, etc. I don't have a visa, as I had heard that there would be better luck trying for a visa-on-arrival rather than prearranging at a Syrian embassy somewhere.

I am ushered into the office of the immigration officer. A portrait of President Assad hangs over his desk as he regards me with his chin: "Why do you want to enter Syria?" I try to look humble and honest: "I'm a tourist. I would like to transit to Jordan." He picks up a tattered folio and starts flicking pages until he gets to one which has a list of countries and prices. "Australia," he mutters, then looks up: "I'll give you 3 days. Pay $100AUD at the counter." He snaps shut the book and I head over to the payment window.


It was the 10th month of the Syrian uprising, and activity was still isolated to certain areas of Hama, Homs, and Deraa. It hadn't yet escalated to current levels, although at that time there wasn't much news coming out of Syria, and I imagined passing through the country via countless roadblocks and checkpoints. Most of the fellow passengers from Turkey, after immigration procedures, walked off into desert, while the few remaining climbed into a minivan which proceeded on to Aleppo.

The air was clear and fresh as we sped past village after village. We didn't pass a single checkpoint or roadblock, and reached Aleppo without stop. The city itself was bustling, and I left my bag in the office of the local bus station and strolled towards the old town, sprawled beneath the citadel. Hawkers lined their wares on the pavement, cheap Chinese goods, biscuits and lighters. I bought a lighter off a chap just inside the old wall. Another sold me a cup of hot custard sprinkled with cinnamon, scraped from the bottom of a shiny pot. A kid about 12 years old boils a pot of corn cobs and shouts his vendor's cry.

Passing through the massive gate into the old town I enter the covered souks. First are the butchers, then grains and dried foodstuffs, then miniatures, metalwork, fabrics, perfumes. Narrow alleys shoot off to the side, flanked by shops, with wares spilling out into the steady stream of customers, like tumbled rocks in a flowing gorge. After some time I reach the end of the covered souks through to the other side, emerging into the sunlight with the massive citadel before me.


The citadel was built in the 10th century on top of ruins as old as the 9th century BC. You enter from the south-western side into a stone guardhouse, now the ticket booth. A stone ramp bridges the deep moat, and a massive Syrian flag in the shape of Syria covers the lower wall to the left. The main entrance to the citadel is a maze. Dead ends, 90 degree turns, ramps, all watched over by loopholes from above. Aleppo citadel was considered in olden times to be one of the toughest in the middle east to crack.

After leaving the maze of the entrance way and passing through the portal into the sunlight, the ruins of the citadel stretch out and up. The mosque, the ramparts, the cistern, the museum and cafe, everything in an area the size of two football pitches. Groups of youths and students wander about or sit on the grass near the ramparts. One group calls out to me as I stroll past: "Hello! Where are you from?" I sit with them, a group of dance and theatre students from the University. They ask me a lot of questions, joke around. One of them performs a dance routine. My photo is taken with them, all smiles. Suddenly one of the students pierces me with his brown eyes and says: "Our government is good, we are strong. We love our country." We hadn't talked about anything remotely connected to politics so I just nodded.

Continuing my walk I was stopped every so often by people, mainly youths about college age, who wanted to take a photograph of me together with them. This happened almost every 10 minutes, and by the time I left the citadel I counted roughly 15 photos with various groups. Students, couples, an old gentleman. Before entering Syria I thought I would be counting the number of times I would be stopped by policemen or soldiers, but instead I had to count the number of times I was photographed by friendly Syrians!

(Days later, in Cairo, an Australian consular officer told me that when she had visited Syria years before, the same thing had happened. She was photographed with many friendly Syrians who approached her off the street. "But," she said, "some of them are 'intelligence', and your photo is now on their files.")


It is evening and I had been wandering through the streets of Aleppo for a few hours, drinking some carrot juice off a street vendor, eating a sandwich at a roadside restaurant, browsing antiques, shopping for Aleppo soap. Aleppo is famous for its hard soap, made from olive oil and laurel. The first recorded mention of soap is from Babylon and the Levant, where Aleppo is a major city. Aleppo itself is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with evidence of activity since the 5th millenium BC, so it is very probable that Aleppo soap has been produced here and in the same manner for thousands of years.

I enter a shop stacked full with bricks of soap. The shopkeeper comes over and introduces me to the various grades. "This is okay soap, this is good soap, this is better!" He takes out a wire and slices a bar open. "Smell that, smell it! This is good stuff." I purchase a bar and he seems happy. "Nowadays no business," he says, "All the tourists are gone. There used to be many Japanese! Many many Japanese. But now it is quiet." As if on queue he falls into a quiet. But suddenly he raises his head and looks at me straight through: "Maybe one day we will have democracy, and everything will be better."

I walk out into the streets once more. People are leaving work, picking up a few groceries on their way home. There are no signs of any conflict. No sign of policemen or soldiers, no barricades, no burned out cars or protesters or angry graffiti or lingering tear gas. T. told me a few things about Syria a few weeks before, having worked there many years ago. Most of the anti-government protesting goes through Lebanon. Information is smuggled across from Syria, organised and disseminated from Beirut. She tells me of a Syrian friend who was a protester and was caught by intelligence and interrogated.

One of the things they did was hand him blank pages of paper and a pen at the beginning of the day and order him to write down every detail of his life that he could remember since birth. These pages were taken away at the end of the day and studied, and the next day he was handed new blank pages and ordered to do the same thing, write down every detail of his life that he could remember since birth. This was repeated for two weeks.


I left Aleppo that same night, by coach to Jordan, stopping on the way at Hama, Homs, and Damascus. These were all trouble spots in the uprising, but the manager assured me that the coach would only stop at the coach station in each town, far from the center of the action. The bus was late and we stood shivering uncontrollably in the desert cold, which cut through us like a scythe. Finally the coach arrived and we bundled in and found our luxuriously large leather seats.

The coach had a TV, and as the driver pulled away from the station he put on an action movie, which as far as I could work out was an Israeli-Palestinian action counterpart to Rambo. It basically consisted of people trying their best to kill each other, with machine guns, rifles, grenades, pistols, knives, etc. There were interrogation scenes, scenes of firefights in the streets, and of course buses being ambushed and blown up. It was still freezing as there was no heating on the coach, and we were well on our way towards Hama, the city which the elder Assad had shelled in the 1980s, killing around 10,000 people, and which was now itching for vengeance.


"It may be over but it won't stop there,
I am here for you if you'd only care."

Silence again as the bald-headed manager presses his phone. "'If you'd only care'," I say. "Ah ha!" says he, and scribbles away. Meanwhile I stare out the office into the waiting hall, where there is not a single person waiting. I realise this fact only after a dose of staring, and once realise I ask the manager: "Why aren't there any passengers here?"

He looks up from his scribbling with arched eyebrows: "Because today is Thursday. Tomorrow is Friday, the holy day, when people pray, and after prayer they go to demonstrate. Lots of trouble tomorrow. So today, the people stay home, to avoid the fighting. Now, it's 'You touched my heart you touched my . . . ?' "

[A nice introduction to Syria is Chapter 59 of T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". Almost 100 years old but still relevant in parts.]