Oddly around the world

Arkansas Times, AR
April 2 2004

Oddly around the world
LR’s Fred Poe takes us to some of his favorite remote places,
including the snowy Gobi Desert of Mongolia.

By Fred Poe
April 2, 2004

I have a curse. It’s the compulsion to travel. My parents shouldn’t
have sent me off on the Rock Island Doodle Bug to El Dorado solo when
I was 7: It all started then. I know that it’s a cliche to say that
travel should be the search for the unfamiliar, but like most cliches
it is true. If you want to be as comfortable and non-threatened as
you feel at home, you should stay at home. The urge to see everything
on the map is primal in me: I know that a good trip might mean beds
crafted for a pygmy, odd smells and indescribable tastes, that I’ll
probably be a prisoner of my bowels and live mostly in other people’s
time zones, that I’ll deal with alphabets that look like soap bubbles
or broken animal crackers, will have to defend things about my own
country which I don’t much like, hear guides who supposedly speak
English sound like they’re speaking it backwards, have customs agents
look at me as though I sneaking in tainted ham or an endangered
species of something and get homesick sometimes. It’s all part of the

I recently spent some months traveling around the world to a series
of places I had either never visited or wanted to see again. Some of
the places have no more in common than a pimiento has with a mule but
that made no difference for they all started my juices flowing. I’d
enjoy sharing some highlights, knowing it’s tough to hide both
enthusiasms and prejudices. Travel with me – oddly around the world!


Picture an independent nation half the size of Luxembourg where a
population somewhat smaller than Lonoke County’s speaks their own
language and lives on 18 inhabited islands roughly midway from
Iceland to Scotland. Here in one of the richest per-capita nations in
the world a visitor just might walk into the parliament building in
Torshavn without an appointment and say hello to the prime minister.
I flew into the airport at Vagar after a two-hour nonstop from
Copenhagen (Denmark manages the Faroes foreign affairs), to be met by
a member of the local tourist board whose English was as good as mine
and driven to a nearby hotel for a lunch of local specialties:
grindel whale blubber, smoked puffin, air dried fish flakes and local
beer. The beer is good enough to get through many an odd dish. By
contrast, on the last night I was hosted at an urbane restaurant in
Torshavn, a place called Merlot, to sup on local scallops in beurre
blanc, a crown of lamb with bearnaise and a tart rhubarb sorbet with
Calvados. The islands, often connected by artfully constructed
tunnels, are a thrill to wander on excellent country roads, some of
them across headlands a thousand feet above the sea. The prevailing
color in fall in a land of grasses and gorse is a lighter-than-kelly
green with the sea, alive with mysterious shadows, rain squalls and
then often almost blinding sunlight, in contrast. The first people to
settle these isles were Irish monks but they (I suppose by definition
of a monk) left no descendents other than Faroese sheep, which have
bred like guppies and are one of the two mainstays of the economy.
Norwegians arrived next, people looking to farm in peace away from
the then-frequent turmoil in Scandinavia. There are stone church and
cottage ruins from the late 15th century but the average Faroese
today lives in a sturdy, often large wooden house painted in Bermuda
pastels and boasting all the normal mod-cons and then some. Fishing
brings in the money and sometimes it is very big money indeed. The
locals know a great deal more about the world than the world knows
about the Faroe Islands, although a few years ago their national
soccer team beat Austria in World Cup prelims to the utter horror of
the Viennese, many of whom I figure got out their atlases.
Typical: A village in the Faroe Islands.

My great treat as guest of the Atlantic Airways was to board one of
their 10 passenger Bell helicopters for a day’s circuit to the
northerly islands, the choppers acting like the mail boats of eld.
The weather looked dicey, but my host quipped that it certainly did
most of the time and that the pilots (both sturdy types who looked to
be about 15) were used to it. I wasn’t. I shared a long sofa-like
seat with three locals facing another sofa with five including two
infants. While the wind howled and buffeted, I searched for my seat
belt to find it broken and – whoosh – we took off. I was terrified.
Soon we were over open water bobbing around like a cork with me
searching around for something to hold on to, at times clutching air
and at times groping my neighbors. What brought me back to some sense
of peace was the mother across from me nursing her baby and looking
about as frightened as a happy golden retriever. It helped to look
out, not down: through the mists and shadows the distant isles looked
as though they were just that moment being created, often sparkly,
craggy and sunlit through the mists. We landed here and there, at one
point on the isle of Svinoy, population 60, which looks greatly like
Pinnacle Mountain rising from a boiling sea. I want to go back to the
Faroes and tromp the wild hillsides, pal up with some Faroese sheep
dogs, make a discovery or two of an ancient cottage ruin or church
foundation, drink beer with the good looking locals, simplify my life
with people said to have the highest literacy rate in the world. What
a bit of all right!

After stops in Vienna and Ukraine and my favorite city in the world,
Istanbul, it was on to


I arrive at Yerevan Airport at three on an ebony early winter
morning. After a refreshingly quick baggage claim and customs
process, good driver Hovik meets me for the drive towards the city
whereupon, astonishingly, in this land Christian since the 4th
century, martyred since the 20th, I am in some scraggly Nevada town,
Winnemucca comes to mind: cheaply neon-lit, boondock casinos on both
sides of the road, drunks staggering about, surreal. Dawn brings a
look at the landscape, scratched and mauled, tortured by earthquakes
and somehow angry looking. Dawn too brings views of Yerevan, a
largely Soviet-looking city, a place carefully planned like Paris or
Washington or Canberra though unfortunately planned as Leninism
turned into Stalinism. With little in it older than Rancho Cucamonga,
the city is a visual horror. Fortunately, most of my planned time
here will involve travels out in various directions. I meet Hripsime,
my guide and mentor, named for a fabled virgin saint (I suppose most
female saints were fabled virgins?) and she and Hovik will be dandy

Does landscape have something to do with a peoples’ zeitgeist? Surely
it must. In such a landscape as this I can not imagine repose.
Armenia has four neighbors. They are at war with one (Azerbaijan),
they hate a second (Turkey), they greatly dislike a third (Iran) and
They are wary and seem envious of the fourth (Georgia). For a
thousand years Armenians have left this stricken looking countryside
(one alas devoid of many natural resources) to populate the world. It
didn’t just start with the Turkish atrocities close on to a hundred
years ago, though one is told that these horrors began the Armenian
diaspora. Nonsense. I’ve just seen the 14th century Armenian
cathedral in Lviv, and later Armenian churches in Dhaka and Calcutta,
both among the oldest buildings in those not-so-old cities.
Dominating the landscape is the symbol of the Armenian people, the
looming, haunting, spectacularly massive Ararat, the mountain in view
from almost every Yerevan street corner. The symbol lies in Turkey
and the fact that the Armenians picture the mountain on postage
stamps and currency piques the Turks. Hripsime retorts: “well, the
star and crescent moon of the Turkish flag aren’t in Turkey, now are
they?” Touche.

The early churches of Armenia boggle. They consist of largely rounded
hulks seeming to grow out of the surrounding landscapes, often placed
in impossibly difficult surroundings, frequently tied in with fables
about tortured martyrs or rather voodoo-like legends: animal
sacrifices today are not uncommon. The aura they give me is one of
power, mystery and aloofness. The great early churches are anything
but welcoming: God is stern, the disciples are muscular, the images
are assertive: if you don’t like me then to hell with you, a
Caucasian Bible Belt through one with great architecture unlike ours.
Hripsime, Hovik and I drive hours southeast, deep into the
countryside of what was the Soviet Union’s tiniest SSR. The day is
windy and snow is spitting as we reach the site I have longed to see:
the Sorats Stones, a Stonehenge-like assemblage strewn over about
five acres of hilltop land, the great runes often with peculiar holes
carved into them offering astrological visions at greatly varying
times during a given millennium, the whole great heap devoid of
tourism, of graffiti, reached by unpaved bad roads: travel without
explanation, eerie to the 9th power, full of the sense of discovery
and the next day I leave Armenia feeling that it would take a
lifetime I do not have to grasp this sad, throbbing little nation.

Tashi and Driver: Guided Poe through Bhutan.

Getting to Bhutan’s only airport, Paro, from Armenia involves a
stepped-on-anthill of geography: I backtrack to Vienna, fly then
nonstop to Delhi, break my trip (Indian customs people love paperwork
though they could teach their Ukrainian peers a few lessons in good
manners). Then it is onto Druk Airlines (“Druk” being the Bhutanese
name for “Dragon,” for otherwise the word certainly does not resonate
pleasingly), leaving Delhi’s sedge-brown colors to suddenly confront
the snowy Himalayas. I land at Kathmandu, making a couple of circles
into the weak consommé colors of that ugly city’s ghastly pollution.
Trekkers and some deer-in-the-headlights-earnest European Buddhist
types board, thence the flight to Paro, one of the great adventures
in world aviation. There is Everest, slightly squashed against the
sky from my angle of view, then Lotse, more dramatic and a dozen more
peaks to the horizon. The pilot now descends in tight circles for one
of the two available approaches to the short runway for a white
knuckle landing, then a kind of Shangri La.

For the next week my body feels as though it has been dissected and
put into some giant kaleidoscope. The images jump about, all senses
are stretched, the world turns into slow motion, I feel as though on
another plane, somewhere gauzy, mystical, a never-never land
experience. Prayer flags in many colors flutter from the highest
hills, wild poinsettias cascade down steep slopes, houses are
decorated to the nines like a vast assemblage of tattooed ladies, red
and green chilies dry on rooftops, masked dancers in robes of a
hundred colors dance to honor the King on his birthday, archers,
often in medieval costume, compete in the national sport, a
discordant brass band plays.

The dominant building in each large town is the Dzhong, a combination
monastery, fort and seat of government: when I counted 60 separate
colors on one given large wall I gave up. The buildings are artful
labyrinths and young monks in saffron robes dart here and there.
Buddhists kowtow and make powerful religious sounds which to my ear
sound like moos and groans and gurgling. The “national” animal, the
Takin, is like no other mammal on earth: an immense goat-like head
carried by a massive yak-shaped body. I begin to make sense of this
or of that and then something happens to addle the brain.

The hero of Bhutan is the great Rimpoche, a guru who was eight years
old when born on a lotus leaf and who arrived in Bhutan on a flying
tigress to establish the Tantric strain of Mahayana Buddhism, the
foundation of the nation. Often depicted in various manifestations,
but usually shown in royal robes, wearing an elaborate hat being
struck by thunderbolts and attended by women devotees, the Father of
Bhutan is certainly a more vivid image for the children of the nation
than is our George Washington. I travel with my minder, Tashi Penjor,
a stalwart, likeable young man who also works as an accountant plus
my driver, driving roads reminiscent of the old Dollarway (shards of
which can be seen off old Highway 65), asphalted but barely, and we
average 16 miles per hour as we traverse the nation, Paro to Thimpu
to Punaka and back again. We hug mountains with 2,000 foot drop-offs,
pass superb waterfalls, cut off on unpaved tracks: I am hanging on
inside the Japanese van like I did on the helicopter in the Faroe

The people of Bhutan are superbly good looking almost to a person: a
good tenth of the men look like a slightly Asian Patrick Swayze (clad
in a knee length elaborate tartan skirt and wearing stretch business
socks), a twentieth of the women resemble Celine Dion in a modestly
fitting, though flamboyantly multi-dyed sarong. People show their age
slowly; children are wide eyes and smiling and none beg. Dogs are
healthy and large and confident with long twisty erect tails. As we
wander Dzhongs and temples, Tashi makes the customary obeisances,
never with a hint of apology: I, so utterly untutored in Tantric
Buddhism feel a gross awkwardness, a club footed oaf suddenly in the
midst of the corps de ballet. I probe to discover the local
prejudices for every society has them. The Bhutanese don’t much like
the Tibetans whom they look upon as bellicose, having been invaded by
them time and time again. They’ve even asked in units of the Indian
Army to help protect them from Tibet (and China), often just a stout
hike over the hills beyond. English is a required subject for all
children and education is universal: in the first years the little
ones learn Bhutanese but then, by the third grade are dealing with
another language and another alphabet. Television has just arrived
and cable is available though the one channel aired from Thimpu, the
capital town (a place slightly larger than Hot Springs) consists
largely of Buddhist ceremonies, folk dancing and masquerades. I
manage in this Land of Oz a few practical things: a rather severe
haircut by the town barber accustomed to shaving the heads of monks,
the use of computers in a couple of quite up-to-date internet cafes
(at a cost which averages 75 cents and hour), I taste some of the
local potables including good Red Panda Beer from the large town of
Bumthang and decent Snow Line Gin from, I believe, the former capital
town of Punaka. There seem to be no strict food taboos, (no one much
seems vegan), the local rice has a natural coral-red hue and is
lovely, the local chilies are indeed assertive and do help disguise
the mostly food-cooked-for-buffets, a rather ghastly though abundant
diet: white bread, overcooked cabbage or carrots, mystery meat,
packaged puddings. (I hate buffets for my whole life is in essence a
buffet but I notice that rather high altitudes mute my appetite, a
good thing considering).
Birthday Party: For the king of Bhutan.

Bhutan is going to change: a Singapore/Indonesian luxury hotel chain
is building four super deluxe small properties in superbly lovely
parts of the little country, (for now, hotels are completely
adequate, often with artful cottages, though on the whole rather
boring and chilly at night), there is talk of building another
airport or two (at present it can take three days to drive from one
end of the nation to the other, a distance roughly the same as
Russellville to West Memphis), more Bhutanese are studying abroad and
DVD’s are bound to affect outlooks. On the other hand, the one
traffic light in the nation was recently removed because the locals
quite liked the ballet moves of their traffic police, the king may be
indisposed because he is an avid basketball player out on the court
with boys from the capital, and the zoo in the mountains above Thimpu
was recently disbanded for being un-Buddhist. The animals were
released but those hulky takins, instead of returning to their
Himalayan wilds, wandered into downtown Thimpu, falling asleep while
leaning on cars, knocking young children over and breaking plate
glass windows, I suppose in horror when they noticed the reflection
of their impossibly peculiar images.

>From Bhutan, I went back to India and Calcutta, a place that seems to
call me back. After the rigidly rock-bound Christianity of Armenia
and the all encompassing exuberant Buddhism of Bhutan it was a joy to
be in India’s most secular city (as well as its largest).


I spent a couple of late afternoon early December hours at the pool
in the palm fringed courtyard of the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Calcutta,
temperatures in the high 70s: why did I come to Calcutta? For the
weather! I went upstairs and flipped on the TV to the BBC World
Report in time to catch Asian weather forecasts. It was -27 in Ulan
Bator and I was headed towards Mongolia the next day. Getting there
from Kolkata was not quite the problem with the Mercator projection
as getting from Armenia to Bhutan, but it was daunting enough. The
main goal was to avoid flying on aging Soviet-built planes which have
had a recent tendency to drop from the sky like frozen songbirds.
This meant flying around the perimeter of the Asian land mass, from
Kolkata (as locals no know Calcutta() to Bangkok (over the great
river Deltas of Bangladesh and Burma, oops, Myanmar), and from there
via Hong Kong to Seoul because Korean Airlines has the bravery (and
the western built planes) to fly into Mongolia in winter. I had never
landed at Seoul’s new Inchon Airport, placed near where MacArthur
landed to keep us being whipped in the Korean War. Later the place
was the venue of a monumentally horrible film, a money losing epic
the equal of Liz Taylor’s “Cleopatra” or that very odd “Ishtar.” The
new airport is startlingly good looking and it works. It’s 60 clicks
into the city and as I approached Seoul, the first time in over
thirty years, I felt as though I were thrust into a futuristic
computer game. The city now has something like 11 million people
though it has maintained its surrounding mountains in a mostly
pristine condition, the air isn’t rancid and what little old there is
in the city is being well protected from developers. It was also
quite chilly, a bit of a foretaste of the gelid world to which I was

It’s roughly four hours from Seoul to Mongolia, a flight path over
the old Russian base at Port Arthur, over parts of Manchuria (which
was called Manchuko when I was a kid), north of the beige smudge on
the horizon which is Beijing with its horrible air. Mongolia seemed
to go on forever and it almost does. Twice the size of Texas (and
then some), it has fewer people than Arkansas, maybe 500 miles of
paved roads, a huge part of the Gobi Desert but also startlingly lush
wood and lake lands abutting Siberia. It has those fabulously
two-hump Bactrian camels, still a few wild horses, thousands of packs
of wolves, world class trout fishing (though not in December) and
people who often look like the late actor Charles Bronson. It’s
language is so guttural that it makes the Dutch tongue sound
positively lanquid by comparison, it still has a big nomadic
population who live in gers, (no one knows the word “yurt” in
Mongolia), which are felt-covered. squat, rounded teepee-like
dwellings that can be moved about the countryside.

I have been in many ugly capital cities, Minsk, Managua, Oklahoma
City, Dar es Salaam and Kuwait all come to mind, but no place quite
as ugly as Ulan Bator. The city is a victim of its times, made uglier
by the covering of frozen, discolored snow. The largely nomadic
people had no need of a real permanent seat of government until just
over a hundred years ago and when the urge to urbanize hit all the
wrong things happened. First of all, the Mongolians (their prejudice
is against the Chinese in a very big way), decided to play footsy
with their other huge neighbor, Russia, a Russia just entering its
“socialist realist” phase in city planning and town building, a form
which doesn’t seem “social” at all but is definitely realistic in the
sense of a boil or an ingrown toenail. This accounts for the
damendest Stalinist-era buildings, so pompous with their
neo-neo-classical columns and spires and their often
Caribbean-colored tints, set about huge open spaces, (and remember
the wind blows ala Casper, Wyoming the possible home of our Vice
President), as alienating as those super wide streets in our Great
Plains towns. The next phase of development I suppose could be called
Brezhnevian: dismal, tall, tenement apartments by the literal scores,
some fifteen stories high with broken lifts, buildings which
practically shed their tiles and balconies before you eyes and which
surround the city center like a hideous girdle. Voila: bring on
privatization and the newest architecture shows pervasive influences
of the Las Vegas strip in its utter melagomanical whimsy. Surround
the city by splendid mountains, but mountains which cause temperature
inversions and hold the pollutants from every cook stove in every one
of the 20,000 gers close to the ground. I know West Texans who love
Lubbock and there’s little doubt that a great many Mongolians adore
Ulan Bator.

The country is as thrilling as the city is visually deadening,
immense open spaces (which must look surreal to visitors from
overpopulated parts of Asia, meaning most of that continent),
surprising forests on the lee side of hills where the wind can’t
shred them, high steppe land, high desert not quite like anything we
have in our country but not totally unlike parts of Northern New
Mexico. I drive east with my pretty guide Navsha and my driver Jack
(whose full name is Sukhusren Banzragchsuren, no typo, all “r’s” to
be decisively rolled) first on the highway towards China (just as the
Trans Siberian passenger train from Beijing passes on the parallel
rail line, bound for Irkutsk and Moscow), then on country roads into
a land of Garden-of-the-Gods-like rock formations and pretty forests.
We stop at what is purported to be a typical ger to visit a family,
an ancient matriarch, her son and his wife, their five year old. The
inside of a ger is cozy, possibly three hundred square feet of living
space, all arranged around the central cook stove. This is the home
of shepherds and outside in the near hills there’s a flock of two or
three hundred of the critters, lambs grown to mutton on the hoof in
winter. Nothing would do but that we would all have tea: wife
bringing in a sizable chunk of ice cut from a nearby stream (rather
coated with dirt), placing it in a huge wok-like pan on the stove and
setting the fire to high. When the water boils (oh please let it boil
a long time), some grasses are added, a sort of herbal tea I suppose,
lamb’s milk and yak ghee and lots and lots of sugar. All of us then
sit around in a circle and drink amid great smiles and an exchange of
family photos: I cannot quite remember what the brew tasted like
because I endeavored to get it from my lips as quickly as possible
down my throat. Driver Jack told taught me an essential Mongolian
sentence for anyone visiting a family in a ger: “Do please hold off
your dogs.” I couldn’t begin to spell this even phonetically. This
was a day I will savor forever.

After a day in the country we return to the urban charms. Nothing
would do but attendance at the state opera house for something which
turns out to be a ballet. “Navsha, please tell me story of what I am
about to see.”

“Well, Fred, it is historic.”

So much for that. Anything that happened a nano-second ago is
historic when you think about it. The ballet, all gongs and cymbals
and triangles and horns turns out to be a Mongolian take on the Romeo
and Juliet story, very nicely danced in gorgeous silken costumes.
Then, to avoid the old mutton smells which pervade almost every
Mongolian kitchen I encounter, my travel agent, a terrific guy from
Havana who met his Mongolian wife while studying at Moscow
University, and who takes me to the best restaurant in town, his El
Latino, surely the most extraordinary Cuban restaurant in all

A second day’s ramble, (four wheels a must, please note), started out
on the snow covered road towards Siberia, veering then westwards into
the high Gobi desert, vistas stretching easily forty miles on the
azure-clear day, reminding me of that beautiful lonely highway across
Nevada from Ely towards Eureka and Austin and Carson City. Our goal
was to see the last wild horses in Asia, saved from extinction at the
turn of the last century by a Polish naturalist called Przewalski for
whom they are now named, unique zebra-sized, palamino-colored beasts.
They exist in captivity (the useful fact of the day?), only in
Poland, Austria and Uruguay, but in the wild only here in this
horse-obsessed nation. We managed to see a small herd of perhaps ten.
In Mongolia’s glory days of Ghengis Khan and his grandson Kublai,
when Mongolia achieved the greatest empire ever known before or since
(from Korea to Hungary, they burned Krakow and brought the black
death to Europe), part of the conqueror’s strategy was to equip each
soldier with five horses for their journeys. I sense that not only do
Mongolians like horses, they have an excessive compulsion to
understand and love them. Alas, my equine IQ is probably typical of a
guy living on the 7th floor of a center city building, though the day
was exhilarating.


It’s close to time to come home. After the gustatory privations of
Bhutan and Mongolia, I have this righteous urge to eat some good
food. It’s time to go to my favorite city in North America and I head
for Montreal across the Pacific via Vancouver. My son, Tony, joins me
for a few days of foie gras and ice wine, of fresh greens and smelly
cheeses, of sorbets and soufflés. Now, alas, I have to pay for my
deadly sins, mostly lust and gluttony. I am not longer a prisoner of
my bowels.

Little Rock native Fred Poe founded Poe Travel in 1961 and has done a
“fair bit” of traveling. He is a past contributor to the Arkansas