Lynne Crandall | for NOISE
Paul Sirmeyer may be the next Indiana Jones if his trip to Beijing and
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, are any indication. He spent three weeks there last
summer going to clubs and spending eight-hour days riding horses in
Mongolia with stand-up saddles designed by the great ruler Genghis Khan.
We sat down with Paul, who works at the Travelers Club in Okemos in
between his college classes, to talk about his experiences in Asia and
whether he'd return.
Q. What about this trip
to Beijing and Ulaanbaatar interested you?
A. I'm studying anthropology and art history at Lansing Community
College and I had just returned from a trip to London, Paris, and Cardiff,
Wales when I spotted a newspaper on the ground at LCC with a story that
Professor Keri Dutkiewitcz and six other professors and one student were
organizing a trip to set up a student study program. I was really
interested in going along. Since then LCC has become one of few community
college programs to offer a study program in Mongolia.
Q. For someone 19 years
old, you've covered a lot of territory. Where do you get your wanderlust?
A. Studying different cultures is a passion of mine. I'd really like to be Indiana Jones, traveling around collecting artifacts and art. That would be very cool. My mother is a French woman born in Paris. She was the daughter of an assistant to a sea captain, so they lived all over. She lived in Northern Ireland and Malta before coming to the U.S. and finally ending up in East Lansing - sort of a restless spirit.
Q. What was your first
impression of that part of the world?
A. We landed in Beijing, China, after an 18-hour flight and a lot of
whiskey. When I got there I wasn't prepared for it. I thought, "Oh my
God, I can't read any of the signs." There was a big language barrier
and everything was gigantic, all the buildings and gas stations were huge.
There were crowds of people in huge shopping malls that seemed to go on
Q. What was your
impression of the Chinese culture?
A. There is a battle between traditional and modern China. Consumerism
is taking over and there is a big push for Westernization. The traditional
Chinese neighborhoods, called hutongs, are disappearing rapidly. They have
cobblestones and poor sewage and they are being destroyed to build new
buildings. This is emphasizing the large differences between the peasants
and the urban dwellers, two very different worlds. Despite the chaotic
nature of the city, it was incredibly beautiful and really looked like the
Chinese watercolor paintings that show the delicate beauty of the Chinese
Q. What was the
attitude toward you as foreign visitors?
A. We met kids in China that were our age, a guy named Lu and Chung
Lao. Lu took us to clubs and paid our admission and bought us beer - he
was 19 and spoke English badly but after we spent a couple days with him,
his English got better. We met him in a restaurant with an American girl
who was 22 and working in China teaching English since she ran out of
money while she was traveling.
Q. What was the club
scene like in Beijing?
A. Lu took us to a bar that looked like a dive with dimly lit stairs.
That's where we met Chung Lao who didn't speak English but he could
communicate with hand gestures. The club turned out to be a jazz bar with
open mics and everyone would go up and play jazz while people at the
tables were sitting in candlelight. Then Chung Lao brought a guitar over
and handed it to me and we sat in a circle with several of his friends and
we all jammed with our guitars. There was another club we went to later
called "Melt Banana."
Q. What about the
safety issues that many American's worry about?
A. An act against a tourist is considered a crime and taken seriously.
A taxi driver took us to the wrong location and demanded that we pay
anyway, so I grabbed his ID card and wouldn't give it back to him until he
consented to take us to the right club. So he took us and charged what was
Q. How was the trip to
Mongolia from Beijing?
A. We took the train locals refer to as the "Vodka Train" for
a 36-hour trip and met a number of nomadic people who raise sheep and sell
cashmere. The train goes on to Russia and becomes the famous Tran-Siberian
Railway; the stop after Ulaanbaatar is in Russia.
Q. How did you find the
A. The people were very shy at first and then when they opened up to
you, they were very warm.
Professor Kari Dutkiewitcz knew a family of nomads that we stayed with
in the Near Gobi desert, which is also called the Gobi Els, which means
sand. They live in Gurs, which is the Mongolian word for yurt, a round,
felt tent. They showed us how they make homemade goat yogurt and hard
cheese and we had fermented mare's milk, which was very tasty. We also had
lots of homemade vodka.
Q. What did you do for
recreation out in the dessert?
A. We went horseback riding for eight hours at a time. The famous
ruler, Genghis Khan (Mongolian Emperor in the 13th century), thought that
sitting in a saddle was a sign of laziness, so you stand in the saddle but
it is actually a lot easier. The Mongolians are born on their horses and
they sleep on horses. They command their horses with a high-pitched
whistle and they sing to their horses to calm them and so they will know
their master's voice. But the eight hours of riding was exhausting.
Q. What was your
impression of life in the desert?
A. I realized their lives were simple but they were very happy. It was
incredible to see them living such simple lives. When I returned home, I
realized how much junk I have.
Q. Would you go back to
A. Yes, it was an incredible country. When you are riding on horseback,
the Gobi Desert is behind you and it starts with sand dunes, then it
becomes the desert, and then in front are the mountains and you can see
about 100 miles; there are condors and eagles, and it is all surrounded by
clouds. It's the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
Q. Would you go back to
A. Yes, I plan on going back to teach English next summer.
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