Dear reader! Have you heard of the Heroes’ Square in China? No? How about Vũng Tàu in Vietnam – famous for its American naval base – in the hidden corner of which lies the Buddhist stupa of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma? Haven’t heard of this either? And what about the Hungarian orphanage in Cambodia, whose buildings are crumbling but which is still in operation to this day? Well, if your answer is “no” again, come with me through these next few paragraphs to learn more about my 60-day journey travelling from Moscow to Bangkok by land, discovering and exploring Hungarian buildings, sculptures and people in Asia.
As a single person in his late twenties, I have always been independent and have always been attracted to delving into the unknown, stepping out of my comfort zone- at least temporarily-, wandering wherever my intuition takes me without obligations; I’ve likewise always been interested in coming to understand cultural differences which I experience as novelties, be that on any continent and in any season. The fact that I also work as a journalist only serves to intensify these feelings. The alignment of these two factors was the reason I wanted to start this land journey, originally to the suburbs of Shanghai, China, to Fudan University, where my younger sister was studying at the time.
To reach my goal, I first flew to the Russian capital, Moscow, which is the departure point for the famous Trans-Siberian Express. The first trip of my only three-day visit led me to the gigantic Red Square, which has regularly hosted (and hosts) Russian military parades throughout its history as a show of force. Relatively few know, but Red Square is home not just to the famous St. Basil’s cathedral, known for its characteristic towers and ornate colors, but also to the State Historical Museum (which can be a bit boring due to its complete lack of English-language signage), as well as Lenin’s slightly bizarre glass tomb; you can also take a trip to the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, where, after an hour-and-a-half wait, you can see the remains of Stalin, Gagarin, and the Hungarian Jenő Landler, people’s commissar of internal affairs and commander-in-chief of the Red Army of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919.
I started my journey from the Russian capital to Asia, beginning with the Trans-Siberian Express (… whose name is officially the “Trans-Mongolian Express” because it passes through Mongolia and its destination is Beijing, not Vladivostok, yet everybody still calls it permanently by the other name). I recommend the train that I traveled on for nearly seven days primarily for the experiences I had encountering people of similar interests; with each day that passed, the company of travelers began to transform more and more into a sort of camp community, sharing a common fate and destination. I got to know a lot of people who came to escape the ‘boring sights’ of Western European civilization and chose Siberia as an unusual challenge that would take them out of their comfort zone. But, of course, you have to be prepared for the lack of hygiene and showering in second class, as well as temporary time zone confusion that makes you feel like time has slipped out from under your feet: at several points throughout my journey, what I had thought to be 4 the afternoon at the start of our journey was, in fact, eight in the evening, then ten, then later midnight. It also did not help that my phone was running on Budapest time, the dining car on the train displayed Moscow time, and the conductor of the train would announce Chinese time. Despite these difficulties, steaming through Siberia was an incredibly interesting experience, after which the traveler undoubtedly feels amazing being able to recount the journey he experienced every time he runs his fingers across a globe. Not to mention that such an experience makes immensely large distances a bit more tangible.
9289 kilometers later I found myself in a radically different world: in China, which we could almost consider a continent – not just in its size, but in its diversity. To keep track of all the cultural differences within the country would be almost impossible, and I have not even mentioned the languages; thousands of dialects. China, with one and a half billion inhabitants, is an impressively vast array for a European man, and the astonishingly high population affects everything, whether it be traffic, market economy, government or gastronomy. My first encounter with something Hungarian was in the basement of the Réel plaza in Shanghai, where they prepare chimney cakes under the name Kürtös, all of which are prepared in an unusual way to our standards, using pork- and beef-shavings, but I wouldn’t necessarily call their cheese-bacon version ordinary either. It is worth tasting, but I do not think we will get used to the cold, salty cake any time soon. Shanghai has a number of other Hungarian connections, such as the still highly regarded buildings (Park Hotel, Shanghai Cinema) of architect László Hudec, who fled to the city from Siberia as a POW, or the statue of Petőfi Sándor in the downtown Lu Xun Park (Petőfi is highly respected in China; his poem Freedom and Love can even be found in metro stations translated into Mandarin). In fact, based on a 2006 article of the Shanghai Courier, I managed to come across the address of the mysterious Heroes’ Square in the city, but unfortunately, I had to face the fact that today a Japanese garden stands in its place (however, there is also a Heroes Square’ replica in Chengdu, Sichuan).
Walking around the country, one of the biggest surprises I found was in the city of Guilin. While staring at a bridge pillar similar to Paris’s Champs-Élysées, I realized that I had collided with the Chain Bridge, and in the background, a red version of the Elizabeth Bridge. From this completely surreal experience, I later learned that when the Mayor of the city visited Budapest in the mid-2000s, he decided to build two of our sightseeing attractions in Guilin.
Following the cities that lay in the estuary of the Pearl River Delta (Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Macao, Kanton) I headed in the direction of Yuanyang, a region spread out over the foothills of the Himalayas, at a height of 2,500 meters, where I descended the rice fields situated there towards Vietnam to meet Phung Tran Quang, nicknamed “Attila”, in the capital – Hanoi. Quang had been a graduate student at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University in the sixties. Attila invited me to a dinner at a lakeside restaurant, where he brought with himself eight retirement-aged friends, much to my surprise. As he later explained (in Hungarian!), decades ago, they themselves had all studied in Hungary and spent their summer holidays on the shores of Lake Balaton. For the rest of the evening, I listened to songs from Zsuzsa Koncz, Pál Szécsi, and Kati Kovács, which they sang with teary eyes. In the early sixties, when Hungary and Vietnam established diplomatic relations, more and more young Vietnamese arrived in Hungary, mainly for education. At that time, one of the most valuable exports in Hungary was its reputable education system, so the government had devoted considerable resources to the recruitment of talented university students from abroad (mainly from socialist or neutral countries). If someone returned to his or her homeland with a Hungarian diploma, they were practically guaranteed a good career, and doors to career advancement would open before them. With this in mind, it is by no means surprising that those fresh graduates who had returned to their country are now among the political, economic elite of Vietnam. There is a community of thousands of people living in the country today, whose members spent their youth in Hungary, and for this reason speak Hungarian on a native level; and there are even many translators amongst them, thanks to whom there are quite a few Hungarian poems in the Vietnamese language. In Hanoi, too, it was an honor to have Nguyen Quang A, one of the most popular opposition civil rights activists in the country – with whom President Barack Obama himself requested to meet during his Vietnam visit – gave an interview in Hungarian on his experiences in Budapest, which you can read here:
A visit to the Thai Binh province in North Vietnam was next in line on my trip; this is where the famous Hungarian photographer Robert Capa (or Endre Friedmann) was killed in 1954, as Vietnamese nationalists fought from independence from French colonial rule. After hours of searching, people in a local coffee shop pointed me in the right direction, and I found myself standing in the middle of a suburban rice paddy. Using a printed copy of a photo from Getty Images, and with the help of the silhouettes of the buildings seen in the photo, I finally found the spot where Capa had died after stepping on a landmine. In honor of the photographer, who was later reburied in New Hampshire, I placed two yellow daisies and then sang the Hungarian anthem with wide-eyed locals looking on.
Traveling further, I spent just one day in Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City) in the south, near the Mekong Delta; before going back to the “concrete jungle”, however, I stopped at the beach in Vung Tau, as I had heard that it was here that I could find famed Hungarian linguist and traveler Csoma Sándor Kőrösi’s Buddhist stupa, a site which people are almost criminally unaware of. I myself had never heard of the site before a friend of mine who lives in Vietnam brought it to my attention before my departure. The chapel-like structure, however, was not as easy to find as one would think, considering that besides the name of the exact hill, the only other thing I knew about the site’s location was the vague memory of a street name. Well, what happened was exactly what could be expected, that is, I only found the monastery after profusely walking around, with much crossing and climbing, located in a valley that is now private property, founded in 1972 by the Hungarian Buddhist Institute.
Leaving Vietnam, I headed west to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where Csaba Lukács, a journalist, told me that I would experience something unusual if I were to visit the village of Baku, 30 kilometers from there. To ensure my success in this endeavor, he put me in contact with LyCchay Cheabb, who had previously worked as an agricultural engineer at the College of Keszthely (and therefore spoke both Cambodian and Hungarian), meaning that I wouldn’t run into any linguistic difficulties. After a half-hour trip, at the end of the one-street settlement, I found the Center Amitie Khmero Franco Hong Roise, the Khmer-French-Hungarian Friendship Center, which was built in 1979 as an orphanage that was necessary after the slaughter orchestrated by Pol Pot. The Hungarian state founded the institution after four years of Khmer Rouge terror over the population, so that children left without parents could have a place to live. The orphanage is still in operation today, although it has been left to decay due to lack of upkeep. Education does get some funding after the needs of the residents are met to make sure they aren’t starving, but teaching English is a luxury to them, and they have to save money, because who knows how long they will receive support for. The roof of the building is still covered by the Békéscsaba Brick and Tile Industry Company’s materials, which have been renovated over time, thanks to the Hungarian Baptist Charity Service, which has two flags in front of its main building: those of Cambodia and of Hungary.
Fate so had it that what was originally planned as a simple visit to Shanghai ended up lasting for more than two months, as a 22,000-kilometer tour that aimed not only to see the world but also to search out objects and individuals in the Far East that have connections to Hungary. The idea was successful, and my adventures were ultimately turned into a two-month documentary series titled Hungaricums Around the World, which ran for two months beginning in January 2018 and which can be found online on SuperTV2’s website.
By Balázs Horváth
Translated by Gergely Edward Nagy
Edited by Tom Szigeti
Photos by Balázs Horváth (Instagram.com/horvathbalazs)