Beijing- China Air’s first class cabin was a welcome change from the economy class austerity I’d grown accustomed to crisscrossing the country for my work. Large comfortable chairs, private video screens, ample space, and dainty Chinese flight attendants with demure smiles and faint, childlike voices made a first impression which stood in harsh contrast to terse, peanut-hoarding American flight attendants. When the plane landed, two police vans with flashing blue lights pulled up beside the plane. I watched from my window as technicians attached an air tight covering from the white van to the deboarding steps and then to the door of the plane. At the time, Asia was still in the grips of Avian Flu panic and China was taking no chances. If someone on the plane was even suspected of being ill they’d taken off the plane and straight into quarantine. How and when they’d be released was still an open question but they’d never set foot on Chinese soil. Technicians dressed in white biohazard suits with gloves, goggles, and surgical masks boarded the plane and went slowly through the cabin pointing a thermometer that looked like a ray gun at each passenger’s forehead. They deliberately examined the readings, sometimes ominously conferring, before moving on. I stifled the urge to clear my throat, suddenly very aware that I was in an authoritarian country.
Highway E 11 cuts 79 miles through the great Rub’ al Khali desert between the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Fight! photographer, Paul Thatcher, was piloting a tiny blue rental car as we sped down the busiest highway in the Arab world on the way to Dubai. We were in the UAE to cover the UFC debut in Abu Dhabi later in the week and were taking the day to see the sites. We were in the middle of one of the biggest deserts in the world and it seemed like one giant construction site with steel girders, giant cranes, and trailers blanketing the landscape. On the side of the road, between the billboards previewing future projects, were giant portraits of the prominent Sheiks who ruled the society. Greatest of these Sheiks was the late Sheik Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. It was Sheik Zayed, or Father Zayed, as he is sometimes referred to, who realized that the ocean of oil under the sand would eventually run out. To prepare for that black day, Zayed set the emirates on a course of massive reinvestment. Six years after the death of the sagacious Sheik Zayed, the UAE had the highest per capita income in the world and was witnessing one of the largest investment booms of modern history. Interestingly, Zayed was the father of Sheik Mohamed Zayed, the Art of War Fighting Championships’ benefactor.
When the Bolsheviks addressed Karl Marx’s observation that the forces of industrial capitalism exploit the common man and alienate him from himself, by instituting an even more impersonal and cold blooded hierarchy of commissars, functionaries, bureaucrats, thugs, torturers and assassins, it was, in retrospect, a poor idea. It took the lion’s share of the twentieth century to determine exactly how poor. But when The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 allowing all the people who wanted to get out of the Soviet Union to do so, it was one of the rare instances when just about everybody in the world agreed that it was a good thing for it to happen. What followed was one of the great mass migrations in history as people voted with their feet and flooded West causing the Soviet Union to crumble into its constituent pieces.
When I visited Moscow the city was still struggling twenty years later to reconcile forces of capitalism and the disadvantageous legacy of the old Communist system. The signs were all around. In Red Square in the city’s center, foreign tourists and the young people of the new Russia, many of whom were born after the fall of the Soviet Union, enjoyed one of Moscow’s few enjoyable public places. Russian girls in bikinis roller-skated past grim-faced citizens from earlier times who seemed a bit puzzled by it all, while couples lazily whiled away the time strolling between fountains, park benches, hot dog stands and stoic soldiers with their wide-brimmed caps and assault rifles guarding the government buildings.
One of the attractions in Red Square was the mausoleum containing the corpse of Vladimir Lenin, who died in 1924. Attendance was down since it was no longer an official state policy to revere Lenin, but the crowds could still be healthy. Four days a week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., curious spectators somberly filed past the body. Photography was prohibited, as was talking, smoking, keeping one’s hands in pockets, the wearing of hats or any other display deemed insubordinate in the presence of the body of the man who predicted the end of the capitalist system. Lenin’s body appeared exactly as it did on the day of his death 86 years ago and has been perfectly preserved by secret embalming techniques, having survived the Communist Revolution by a generation.