Category Archives: Travel

Bosnia…How I came to Love It [part 1]

I had stayed the night in a smelly, dingy hostel in Split, Croatia. There

Walking to the Zagreb train station.
Walking to the Zagreb train station.

was something about the smell in there that reminded a person of fresh compost, and it was also unusually warm for November, making it a miserable night. But morning came, as it has every day since the beginning of the world. I washed my face and walked the 30 minutes to the train station, looking for a train bound for Bosnia.IMG_2832

It was one of those normal old style trains that had numerous compartments in each car, each one having 6 seats, with an unbelievably small table on the end and a tiny trash can the size of a brass matchbox. There were about a dozen cars mostly of an Eskimo blue color with old diesel engines. I chose a seat and leaned back. I was profoundly excited to be going to Bosnia. I was also scared. I let my mind wander.

I thought back to 12 years earlier when I was a small Amish kid with long black hair and a tattered straw hat. I didn’t think I was so small then. It was a sunny fall day. I had just come back from the one room schoolhouse where I had already put up with six years of schooling. More than enough to know exactly everything I needed to know to make it through life. And then some. If I had my way, I wouldn’t spend another day in that room. I was busy picking red tomatoes when I heard the whining of an automobile coming down the road. The old red Isuzu pickup slowed down as it made a right hand turn into our gravel driveway, kicking up a cloud of dust before it skidded to a halt in front of the old water pump. I gazed in from the tomato field, curious who it might be. Then I doubled over laughing. The driver crawled across the seat, rolled down the passenger window, and stuck out his upper body. He stretched his hands toward the ground and slithered out like a snake. The show was over. I went back to work.

At the dinner table that evening, as we were all enjoying some of my mother’s fine southern-dutch cooking  while the conversation centered on the man who crawled out of his little truck head first. ” I guess he was an Arab?” I asked rhetorically. My dad paused, and a thoughtful expression illuminated his face. “No,” he replied, “the Arab  said he was a Bosnian.” We all furrowed our faces. Everyone tried to remember if they knew what that was. Finally someone voiced the unspoken question. “Whats the difference?” We all looked at Dad. He is wise. If any one knows, he would. But he shook his head. “I don’t know.” With our limited knowledge of the outside world, we called every foreigner an Arab.

The Bosnian came back. I met him. He started coming nearly every day. He would frequently bring his eight year old son along who romped about the large green yard with us and took horse-drawn wagon rides.  Usually he would bring his wife Mirsada along. She was warm and friendly. They bought large quantities of fresh vegetables that he took along back to Lexington to sell to his fellow immigrants. We got to know them and slowly their stories surfaced. Adnan showed his arms that he carefully kept sleeved. With deep fascination I noted the dozens of scars running on each arm from his wrist to his elbow where his arm had been opened with a knife. Again and again. And again. The he lifted his shirt. His stomach and chest were nothing but a mass of scars where he had been sliced open scores of times. It was horrible. And compelling. He had been a soldier and was captured. He was tortured beyond the realm of reality, but added proudly, that he didn’t give any information. Then they brought his wife and began torturing her in front of him. They slit her arms open. They did other things. Adnan screamed. He chewed his tongue. He kicked. He threw himself violently against his chains. But when the burly torturer gouged a piece of Mirsada’s cheek out with tongs, he was ready to speak. So now he had switched sides. As soon as the war ended he fled with his family, wandering about Europe for several years before settling in Lexington Kentucky.

Year after year they came. They brought all kinds of tasty foods. I spent so much time with them I even learned the basics of the Bosnian language. It  became a heritage which I almost adopted. Consequently, when I was in Europe years later with a spare week on my hand, the choice was easy. I would go to Bosnia.

I was jolted back to reality when the door to the compartment opened and two older ladies entered. We exchanged several pleasantries till I had to admit I spoke English. They nodded and smiled. But we spent several hours together, them knitting, and me

Between Zagreb and Sarajevo
Between Zagreb and Sarajevo

watching the Croatian countryside slide by.  The train came to a halt as when we reached the Bosnian border. Agents came through checking every one’s ID. The old ladies gave their ID cards  which were returned while I gave my passport. The agent frowned and said ‘Wait here.” I felt quite lost without my passport, not having seen where the agent disappeared to. Ten minutes later the train hadn’t moved yet. People began grumbling. People asked why. Slowly at first then with momentum news went up and down the train. “There’s an American on board and we think there is something wrong.”  People all across the train left their seats and headed for my car. They crowded into the aisle and tried to get a glimpse.  A dark-haired talkative man elbowed his way to the door of my compartment and addressed me. “You American?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Why you here?

“I am a tourist.”

People kept crowding , trying to get a peek. Someone kept feeding them misinformation. More people shoved in. The questioning continued.

“You running from  INTERPOL?”

“No.”

I don’t believe you.”

Rapid conversation in Bosnian ensued among the crowd. I started to think they might throw me out the window just to get the train moving. Briefly I imagined what it would feel like if my body went crashing through the glass. I also imagined how it would feel if the train just left while my passport is outside.  I stared out that window, ignoring the man offering me insults, and the curious  bystanders. Then the uniformed agent entered the car, elbowing his way through the crowd,  returned my passport, smiled, and hurried off. Well, he tried to.  My interrogator caught his sleeve and asked if I was a fugitive. The agent gave him a withering look and said no.

Thedark-haired man  passed the withering look on to me then

Northern Bosnia on a dreary November day
Northern Bosnia on a dreary November day

deflated, and chagrined sauntered off. Unfortunately [for his pride] he was wrong and his crowd of supporters lost interest.  They were after all only looking for a diversion and all moved back to their seats as the train started moving, belching black smoke into the gray November sky. I leaned back and sighed with relief.  watched the remote country side slide by.  Small house dotted the landscape. Many of the homesteads had a horse or two cows near a small barn. Several pigs or sheep running around while a  chickens pecked in the dirt. Farmers pushed wheelbarrows. Ladies were hanging out laundry. Life was slow. No one hurried. Except me. I hurried on, relentlessly carried away by the train.

The elderly ladies got off innorthern Bosnia. And at the same time a smiling young man got on. We exchanged greetings in Bosnian but when he learned I was from America his eyes shone. His English was good and he asked all about my travels and where I would go in Bosnia. Then he told me all about the foods I  have to try. When evening had come and the train pulled into Sarajevo he got off after bidding me a hearty ‘doviđenja’.

Gazing out the train window.
Gazing out the train window.

The train pulled away from Sarajevo after what seemed like a long time. Almost as if it needed a lot of time to rest because it was an antique. But we headed off in the direction of Mostar. I had the compartment to myself and opened the window. I stuck my head out. The brisk fall breeze ruffled my hair. I looked up as we snaked through the mountains. The stars were so close I could almost touch them. They twinkled and winked at me. The full moon reflected off the sheer stone mountain and the blue river winding through the valley below. In that moment God from heaven reached down and touched my heart. Very clearly he said, ” I am with you, even here.” Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought   back to the time I was 12 years old, picking tomatoes and saw the first Bosnian. I didn’t know what a Bosnian was. Now I did. Now I was alone in the war ravaged country of Bosnia and did not know a single person here. I briefly wondered why I was here. But it didn’t matter. A peace deeper than I had even known filled every corner of my beating heart.

The trained screeched to a stop and several people got on. One of them chose my compartment. He was an older man, sturdily built with shoulder length graying hair. He was a man  of few words, and promptly pulled the curtains on either side of the door, while he stood in the door, effectively blocking out any new passengers. We rode the next few hours in companionable silence.

I knew we were getting close to  Mostar. But I was worried. The train paused for barely a moment at stations, and there were no announcements made prior to stopping. I knew that I would not be able to read the sign and get off in time. As if knowing my dilemma, the man gestured that he will tell me when we get to Mostar. I smiled. But my thoughts raced on. Would he tell me to get off in hick town to rob me? I vowed to be alert and careful.

Finally my fellow passenger said, “Next stop, Mostar.” We both got up and went to the door. Mostar it was. I  took a deep breath as my feet hit Bosnian soil for the first time. Something about it felt right. I found my way out of the train station and oriented my self. I had a small map, but there were no road signs. I began walking in what seemed like the right direction. But I stopped – shocked- as I saw house after house that was shelled out. Occasionally there was a street light and I could clearly see bullet holes everywhere in the clay houses. A person would have been hard pressed to find an area the size of a brick without a bullet hole. That’s when I really began to wonder why I was wandering down this street at 22:00, so far away from where I belonged. Or maybe I belonged here. It was hard to

Ürümqi

There was that time in Urumqi. I am not even sure why I went. Deep down I just felt like I had to. Perhaps it was because I had never met anyone who had laid eyes on the place. And that alone made it seem far distant, which in turn, makes it intriguing. Or maybe it’s because Urumqi has earned a place in the Guinness book of World Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world. Regardless I went.

“Urumqi skyline on a hazy winter day.”
“Snowy Urumqi”

I knew it was one of the more repressed places in China and yet I wasn’t quite prepared for how stifling it was.  Armed policemen with shields, and soldiers with machine guns stood on every corner. In fact, there was a manned tank sitting  right outside the hostel I stayed in. An armed policeman assisted by a legion of  thick-haired cats even patrolled the hostel day and night. Cats. I mean lots of them! They swarmed and crawled all over the guests leaving behind a trail of silvery hairs on the unsuspecting  folks.

“Traffic crawled day and night in the slippery streets”

When I landed, I had quite a fiasco getting through customs. Not that the guards were belligerent or anything. Rather they were awed. I happened to be the first person on their shift to come through with a  10 year civilian visa. Respectfully they chided me, saying this is not possible. Isn’t it supposed to be a diplomatic visa? No, I insisted, and after some detaining and phone calls they let me in.

The ride to the city was fun too. I approached the only bus I could find at the airport, and was warmly greeted by an elderly lady. She couldn’t speak a stitch of English, nor I of Mandarin.. We agreed over a map about where I would go and she positioned me on the front seat of the bus, after she rudely hoisted someone else out of this seat.

“Inside Urumqi’s best hostel.”

When we got into the city, I was fortunate enough to find the hostel. After I climbed the second flight of forsaken stairs I suddenly popped into the reception, and an elderly man in a military suit sitting behind a stern wooden desk jumped up. He crossed his arms, shook his head and in a deep gravelly voice said,”No,no,no.” I hesitated. If this wasn’t the hostel, where would it be? I mustered some broken English, and rolled my R’s heavily,” I have reservation.” The frown melted and he welcomed me in. For the paltry sum of 5USD per night I was assigned a bed in an 8 bed dorm.

I was dead tired after a red eye flight, from Moscow with a long layover in Kazakhstan. I pretty much climbed into bed, and snored even though it was only 3 in the afternoon. The mattress was actually a thick blanket of sorts, while the pillow was lumpy and stuffed full of straw.  When I awoke it was dark outside. But I didn’t even notice. I was busy rubbing my eyes in astonishment. Scarcely a foot away, a chubby young Asian face was positioned, staunchly gazing at me without blinking. It was a bit weird but before I could think about it he asked where I was from. The guy almost fainted. He was like speechless. “Americaaa…” he whispered, his shaky voice trailing off. Then he smiled. “Sleep!” he said and melted away in the darkness.

“One of the streets I walked while foraging for food”

But I couldn’t sleep. I was famished. I decided to run out and look for some food since it was only 9PM. When I stepped into the frigid winter air I was startled to find a young caucasian guy standing outside. I didn’t want to get my hopes up but cautiously asked, “Speak English?” He chuckled mildly,”Yeah,” and rather bitterly added, “that’s all I speak!” I asked him about food, and he warned me that the restaurants are scarce and they all close early. “Doesn’t hurt to try though, ” he added.

So I started trudging. It was cold. A fine snow whistled around me with a sharp wind straight out of Siberia and the temperature hovered around 0 Fahrenheit. The tile sidewalks were treacherously slippery. I discovered that I had to just drag my feet,  because lifting them and placing them in front of each other just made me fall over. I slogged though the unfriendly forsaken streets for about an hour without finding a single place that was open or sold food. I was so hungry that I began thinking I might faint if I didn’t find something very soon. But lucky me, I found a vendor with a tiny room that was still open. It was an old lady who had hung a heavy blanket across the open doorway to keep out the wind while she shivered inside. She only sold fruit and juice, so I picked out several orange juices and apples, and happily paid her. I rushed out into the darkness, found a nearby park bench that I relieved of its snow, and with shaking fingers lifted the orange juice to my lips. It tasted like it had been made from rotten oranges, but I didn’t care. I enjoyed one of the best picnics of my life on that frozen steel park bench. An occasional person would walk by. Without fail they would stop short and stare, but usually went on shrugging their shoulders. The foreigners are strange after all, they said to themselves.

“Urumqi. Wierd. Wild. Wonderful.”

I became the best friend of the young man who stared me down while I slept. His name was Victor. We would sit in tiny groups at the dirty table and pet the cats while we discussed where to go next, or what adventures to pursue.  Victor always made sure to sit beside me and put his arm around me so everyone would know we are friends. Don’t interfere.

“Victor,Joe,Poonja and myself”

Joe, Poonja and myself wanted to go to the Turkish bazaar. We were told it was the biggest attraction in Urumqi. We hailed a cheap taxi, and Joe sat up front to talk with the driver since he knew a few words of Mandarin. The bazaar wasn’t actually that great,but it was famous because of the hundreds of people who were killed there several months ago by radical Uighurs. It was huge, with loads of security, but in the end it seemed like 300 stores all selling the same thing.

In the evening we bundled up to go look for a restaurant that Joe had heard about. We walked till we were nearly frozen but couldn’t find it. Finally we agreed to take the first restaurant that we find, but even so we were chased out of the next few. They didn’t want to deal with foreigners. Restaurant three was the charm. It was overstaffed and they were so pleasant. 4 waiters stood as close to us as they could without being completely obnoxious. Never mind that only one of them spoke broken English. We ate some incredibly smelly stuffed cooked pig intestines. Let’s just say I didn’t sleep well.

“Walking in the park”

Urumqi has a lot of security detail. Getting into the city bus or the supermarket requires passing through a full body scanner. This city boasts beautiful parks, but intense security with dozens of armed police and soldiers inside. First I wondered how you can live like this. Then it became normal.

“Night lights of Urumqi”

Urumqi was quite an experience. It was thrilling. But it felt a bit dangerous. It’s a dead city in the winter, and would not recommend going then. It’s vibrant and amazing. I look forward to visiting it in the summer. Some day. Soon.