Below is far more than you would ever want to know about my train journey from Beijing to Moscow. The few highlights, which you will have to weed out for yourselves, include the time I was kicked off the train Wednesday evening, everything about the Japanese men, and what I think is a rather good defense of humanity I put together on Sept. 11.
Planes are perpetually delayed, cars are unpredictable, and even boats will give you an ETA spanning a few hours. How incredible it is then that I can get on a train Wednesday morning at 8:05 in Beijing knowing that I will arrive in Moscow at precisely 1:58 in the afternoon the following Monday. I had arrived in Beijing the prior Sunday knowing full well that it was going to be a tall order to work out my Russian transit visa before the Wednesday morning departure. Accordingly, my time in China was not as much a survey of imperial palaces and temples but rather an in-depth study of the Dongzhimen neighborhood where the Russian embassy was located. After $350, much time, and a level of logistical aptitude that is quite rare for me, I nearly blew the entire journey by losing my wallet at a club around 5:30 Wednesday morning and proceeding to make the 8:05 train by about 7 minutes. I entered the station in a state of general exhaustion with my backpack, Oscar, foodstuffs and water jug in tow. Wearily, I made my way to platform 4. The site of the train, however, instantly stimulated me back into consciousness. An elegant stream of emerald and yellow stood stoically at the platform, occasionally letting off those random steam valves that all train seem to have. A conductor stood at each platform, sharply dressed in a grey suit and oversized conductors hat. I felt like I was on my way to Hogwarts. I nestled into my cabin and dozed off as the train lurched forward, 8:05 on the dot.
I awoke in mid afternoon to the soaring peaks that are so iconic north of Beijing. The train was gliding effortlessly though tunnels, emerging from sheer 500m rock faces on the other side. I wandered about the cabin to meet my neighbors and returned to my bunk soon thereafter, disappointed that I did not find the love of my life or a new best friend. Oh well, there is always Oscar.
Wednesday afternoon continued in much of the same fashion. Pour a cup of tea, write a few lines, doze off, pick up a book, look out the window. My dinner ticket read 5:30, so after missing lunch I was very prompt about making my way back to the restaurant car in a timely manner. I was seated with an older English woman, and elegant Chinese lady who was likely in her mid 30s, and a Japanese girl who appeared to be in her early 20s. The English lady remarked that we had such a international table. I believe I then grunted. There was something off about her – she reminded me of one of those aristocratic types who had a mental breakdown in her late 60s and is trying life on her own again. I’m probably being too harsh. In all likelihood she was just having a bad hair day and I wasn’t in the mood for “let’s all say where we’re from” small talk. However, when she left the table I noticed she was wearing odd fitting corduroy sweatpants, which revived my original hypothesis that she was loony.
A waitress brought out celery salad with two chicken wings and a bowl of rice. The chicken is served in that nondescript brown gelatinous sauce which is perpetually immobile until you have it between your chopsticks, at which point it undergoes some physical transformation phenomena, transforms itself to liquid and falls back to the plate. The Japanese girl, Noel, and I got to talking and I was pleasantly surprised by how conversational and good natured she was. We talked about Beijing, her trip to Nepal, the pros and cons of ramen vs. soba vs. udon, and education. The Chinese woman looked on approvingly, but didn’t say a word as she finished her Coke and left the table. Noel and I left to exchange some photos from Beijing and then I returned to Car 7 Cabin III Berth 9 for some much needed WRODAN (Writing, Reading, Observing out the window, Drinking tea and Napping). The view was no longer filled with the soaring peaks of mountains but had flattened out and begun to look like Mongolia. The sun set as I smeared peanut butter onto a piece of bread and passed the halfway point of the novel I was reading.
Wednesday evening nearing midnight at the China Mongolia border. Temperature has dipped to 0 and a few of those portable military lamps provide the only light outside of our train, which has already accumulated a thin layer of icy dew from the moist air outside. Grif is in an odd state of groggy/tired/drunkishness and is not in the mood to have to cross a border.
Four armed Chinese soldiers board the train and enter each cabin. After searching all of my belongings, one of the soldiers gives an odd eye to Oscar and proceeds to lift him by his haunches and squeeze/grope/molest him for the better part of 5 minutes. Seemingly unsatisfied he hesitantly leaves. I breathe a sigh of relief. (With his removable bottle cap nose even I began to think that Oscar was filled with cocaine).
Minutes later, a different guard comes into my cabin and asks me to exit the train with all of my belongings. At no point is it made clear as to whether this is a temporary or permanent dismissal from the train. I grab my bags, and to humor him, do not take Oscar since, clearly, he asked only for my luggage not for my accompanying passengers. Not amused, he points to the dog and issues some form of guttural noise that would have seemed for natural coming from a hedgehog. I oblige, grabbing Oscar by his from right paw (the one with the metal sticking out of it) and exit the train onto the platform. I am told to enter the Customs office, which appears to be a mid-century terminal of glass and steel with primarily Classical proportions. Inside, it appears not unlike the security checkpoint inside a non-hub city airport in the middle of the night (read: the infrastructure is there but not the people). Amidst tables and x-ray machines and empty queues, Oscar and I are directed to the center of the room. There are 9 uniformed soldiers standing attention and no other civilians. A disheveled, clearly just awakened, x-ray operator (I didn’t know that there was an entire field of study dedicated to this) stumbles from a side room, still cloaked in his pajamas, a fresh cigarette already lit and pushed to the side of his mouth. Droopily (that’s a word, right?), he situates himself by the x-ray machine, flips some switches, and the center terminal of the room powers up. The soldiers seem mildly impressed by this exhibition of raw power, though to express any sort of awe would be to contradict the primary tenant of their duty, which is, of course, to appear as if they don’t give a shit about anything. I am then instructed, by pointing finger rather than speech, to put my luggage + accompanying passengers on the x-ray belt. The belt starts running and most, though not all, of the soldiers and myself scurry to the computer screen. There are about 8 sets of eyes on the monitor when Oscar goes through the machine, and 8 sets of eyes that look at the screen, nod in agreement, and conclude that yes, it is, in fact, just a stuffed dog.
Returning to the train, I found that I had a bunkmate. He was a trim Chinese man who smiled at me, excitedly waved his arms, and said “No English! No English!” Fair enough. We sat silently waiting for the train to make its way onto the Mongolian side of the border.
Today I would like to talk about Sam. I met Sam late last night when we were waiting to clear Mongolian customs. He is a 66 year old from Orlando who now works as an Amtrak train conductor between DC and New York. After graduating from Moorehouse in 1966, Sam wanted desperately to work with trains but was unable to due to the segregation and still ran rampant within the railroad industry. He went to work for the Department of Labor for 17 years before ultimately moving over to Amtrak. His purple skull cap and full bodied laugh seemed completely out of place in his cabin of rather ocnservative and stuck up Aussies. Needless to say, I was curious how and Amtrak conductor found his way onto a largely Australian tour in the middle of Mongolia. He explained that, apart from his occasional visits to Haiti and his tour of duty in Vietnam, Sam hadn’t travelled abroad until a few years ago. Nearing retirement, he know that he only had a few years left to be able to afford the travelling that he always dreamed of. Over the past few years, Sam has arranged trips to London, Paris, Budapest, Vienna, and last year, Switzerland. This is the longest and most expensive trip he has planned and he thinks it may be his last. Growing up during the Cold War, Sam wanted to come see Moscow and “St. Pete” to make peace with a nation he had been taught to hate and fear as a child.
What I love about Sam is that he wouldn’t let anything go unchallenged. When a tourmate made a snide remark about the Aborigines all being alcoholics, Sam politely asked the gentleman if he had met every single Aborigine. When an older woman referred to somebody as a whore, Sam boisterously claimed, “We’re all prostitutes, we all got a price.” I beg you to imagine the look on the woman’s face when same pointed to her and asked “Tell me, what is better than one life-long orgasm. That’s all we really want.” He once sent National Geographic a letter telling them that they were racists. (In one particular issue I introduced him to Oscar, explaining that having a large stuffed dog helps break the ice and meet new people and Sam excitedly responded that he had something like that. He reached into his suitcase and pulled from the top and black t-shirt that in large white block letters read “UPPITY NEGRO.”
Only three days into a three week trip and I could tell that there was growing animosity between Sam’s group and Sam.
While he certainly pushed the boundaries of comfort and acceptability, nobody could fault Sam for his positive demeanor and outlook on the trip. He skipped the outing to the Great Wall because he just wanted to “hang in the hutongs will the real Chinese people.” When I asked what he was most excited for on the trip, he said I just wanted a “big ol’ babushka to serve him smoked fish by Lake Baikal.” He carried his homemade seasoning with him everywhere and was eager to share and try new foods. In his knapsack, he kept a map of the world that only indicated cities, mountains, and lakes. “I don’t like the ones with country borders because then it’s just an excuse for us to go to war with each other,” he explained. He was genuinely curious what the difference between a yurt and a ger was, and whenever any one spoke to him he would look at them over his bifocals and with a broad smile on his face. You always had his complete attention.
Listening to him talk about his life made me appreciate his demeanor even more. In WWII, his dad served in a segregated unit overseas. At meal time, German POWs would eat with the white American soldiers in restaurants while black soldiers, like Sam’s dad, had to eat out of the back door of the kitchen. In Vietnam, Sam was not only ostracized by the white soldiers for being black but also by the black soldiers for being gay. He kept up a marriage in the US for fear of what would happen if he was outed while in the military. He basically forced his way into the railroad, an industry he described as the most “racist, homophobic, misogynistic old boys club left.”
Despite all of this, Sam met me with absolutely no judgement or preconceived notions of what he expected from me. I saw this time and time again. With every new person he met there was a completely blank slate. Even with continued oppression on two front, every human being gets a fair shake when they meet Sam and I admire him greatly for that.
These days, Same spends 5 days a week in New York on Amtrak and heads down to the same Whole Foods that I shop at in Chelsea. He doesn’t drink and values his right to healthy food, he explained as he reached into his knapsack for a ziplock of cashews and craisins. He describes his diet as vegan plus, though I’m not exactly sure what the “plus” means as we ate eggs, butter, and pickled pigs feet, courtesy of my Chinese bunkmate, during our time together on the train.
Twenty minutes east of Ulaan Baatar, Sam, Oscar and I got up to look out the window. My memory of Sam will always be the complete serenity on his face as he peered out the open window, late afternoon sun reflecting on his glasses and he took in the vast Mongolian landscape. Then one of the old English women in the berth behind us asked Sam to move because he was blocking her view.
Alone in my cabin again, I awake at the glorious hour of eleven o’clock and am greeted by stunning views of Lake Baikal to one side and a seemingly infinite forest of birch to the other. Pulling out of the Russian border last night, I stuck my head out the window and took in a huge wiff of autumn. I could see my breath for the first time since March and was pleased to see that the leaves were already bright shades of yellow and orange as we entered Siberia proper. I rose from my bunk in the bitter cold (I insist on sleeping with my window open because a) the cabins are quite warm otherwise b) I like the cold c) I can hear the click clack of the railroad cars as I doze off), stretch a bit, and pour myself some tea. I spent a good 30 minutes in the Wu Yu Teah Shop in Beijing deciding what was best for this trip. I thought green would get a little dull over 6 days and thought I quite fancied Lapsang Suchong or Russian Breakfast, I thought that the afternoons would be a little too warm for it. I eventually settled on a box of jasmine tea which I am quite happy with. It is full bodied and strong in the morning and refreshing after it has cooled a bit and the early afternoon sun is radiating through the window of my berth. But I digress.
After thirty minutes of WRODAN, I fancied a little exploration. This means walking as far as possible to the front and back of the train until a) I get to the end or b) I get yelled at. In the front, I made it to the locomotive before getting yelled at, so I turned and headed back. As I made my way through the train, the same thought kept coming back into my head. This train looks identical to the train level in Nintendo 64’s 007 Golden Eye. Like identical. Down to the color of the carpeting in first class. The only difference I noticed was that the brake lines I am supposed to shoot in each car are actually hot water boilers. Oh and also there aren’t tons of guys wielding RCP-90s shooting at me and Natalya isn’t being held hostage by Xenia and Ourumov. But other than that, it’s identical.
This whole thing where they switch the restaurant car at each border is a complete midfuck. You have no idea anything is happening and then when you go back for breakfast the restaurant carriage is not where you left it. So you keep walking and eventually come across a door marked as PECTOPAH. After having dinner two nights ago in a cafeteriaesque Chinese dining car, and breakfast yesterday in a Mongolian carriage decorated in high gloss carved wood, I opened the door this morning and walked into a scene from Boogie Nights. The restaurant was a dimly lit car with the blinds drawn. There were lime green leather bucket seats surrounding wood laminate tables. If the polished metal poles randomly placed throughout the car were not stripper poles than I am completely unclear as to what their purpose was. A decently sexy blonde Russian girl approached me and asked me if there was something that I would like. I fumbled for words and eventually managed to say breakfast.
After settling the bill, I continued my investigation to the rear of the train. Two more cars and I reached the end! I admired the view back for between 2-3 seconds before being yelled at by a Russian conductress.
Walking back, the train slowed to a halt at the lakeside town of Dzida for a two minute stop. With Sam in mind, I jumped from the train in search of a babushka with smoked fish. They were easy to come by, so I happily bought two whole fish and jumped back aboard. Oscar will be some happy. I came across Noel on my way back to my car, and she asked if I wanted me meet her new friends. We went to the cabin next to hers, opened the door, and were greeted enthusiastically by four Japanese men drinking moonshine and eating soba. They introduced themselves as Toshi 1, Toshi 2, Ken, and Hiroshi. They told me they were each 17 years old. We sat for an hour blazing through bowls of instant noodles, my smoked fish, and glasses of moonshine. I promised I would return later in the evening for more drinking. In the town of Irkutsk, we had a 20 minute stop where Oscar and I jumped off in search of Roubles. With all my bankcards in some unknown location in Beijing, I was relegated to the street where a nice young man selling SIM cards happily exchanged 1000 roubles for $40. Upon looking at exchange rates a few days later I understand now why he was so happy.
Evening came and I engaged in more WRODAN before a quick dinner in the restaurant car. Walking back to my bunk, I counted 46 doors that I had to walk through. (Going between two card requires the opening a closing of an exhaustive six doors). Inexcusable. I’m thinking of putting some flyers together insisting that at least half of these doors are removed OR ELSE. But I can deal with that tomorrow.
*One other thing that happened today. I’ve been reading Tiziano Terzani’s Goodnight, Mr. Lenin along this trip. The book chronicles his journey from the Amur River in northeast Russia through Central Asia and the Caucus on his way to Moscow just as the USSR was crumbling apart. I’ve been reading the book backwards so that our trip itineraries more or less match. After reading backwards from Georgia to Kazakhstan in the bus, I put the book aside and decided to wait on the first few chapters (Sibera) until the train ride. Today Terzani and my paths crossed at Lake Baikal! The date of his chapter was September 4, a mere 5 days (and 20 years) before me. The last chapter, on arriving in Moscow, I will read on Monday.
I wish that I could say that today was a productive day. I wish I could say that I dug dep into a new book after completing Zen and the At of Motorcycle Maintenance yesterday. I wish I could say that I sat in awe of follage, which has already encapsulated the Russian forests into a firestorm of reds and yellows and oranges. (Is it too soon to talk about Russian forest fires?) I wish I could say I chronicled my trip in beautiful prose or spent quality time meeting people on the train or sucked in the culture during the 19 minute stop in Novosibirsk. Alas, I did none of these things. I woke up and innocently when in search of a shower but was pulled into the Japanese men’s room by Ken and Toshi 2. Before I could say hello, a warm glass of shoju and a box of chocolate were in my hand. And so the day proceeded. Toshi 1 returned from the bathroom and insisted I go and get Oscar. I obliged and returned to a warm bowl of ramen, sheets of nori, and a full glass of plum wine. Noel eventually joined us, as did a Scotsman and an American from South Dakota. We gluttonized our way through both food and drink, stopping to reload at the Taiga station, at which Ken insisted on bringing Oscar and returned with muffins and beer. After agreeing to join the Toshi’s, Ken, and Hiroshi in Bangkok next month, I thought it would behoove me to take a leave of their cabin before I made any more outlandish promises. As one could predict, day turned to night, I engaged in some WRODAN and then sat at an awkward angle in a state of general disrepair, cursing the hotdog filled doughnut I had for dinner and the piranha that seemed to now be chomping from within my stomach. I looked across my cabin and Oscar was upside down on the other bunk, doing a headstand in the corner.
September 11, Lake Baikal, Russia
I awoke with the sun around 4:30 this morning and figured that today, a natural day for reflection, would be as good a day as any to look back on this trip from its origin. On July 23, I left London in an American school bus bound for Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. 10,000 miles, 25 countries, 922 hours, and 5 blown tires later, we arrived on August 30. After bidding my team farewell, I headed south to Beijing and am now slowly making my way back to Western Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
After shaking off the covers and exposing myself once again to the chilled Siberian air, I did my stretches, fixed myself a pot of tea and a bowl of noodles (bonus point to me for buying a hard boiled egg at the station in Novosibirsk to liven up my breakfast), made up my bed, and now I sit at my desk-cum-kitchen table, the early morning sunlight casting a deep shadow across my cabin as my pen moves across the page.
Many people talk about how small the world is. It’s not. It’s enormous. Six and a half billion people inhabiting an intergalactic rock whose magnitude is beyond comprehension for any of us. We are separated by oceans that are larger than the lands we inhabit and not one of us will ever be able to truly engage with more than a minascule fraction of the cities, towns, and villages that dot our planet.
It this leaves you with an empty feeling in your stomach or a knot in your throat or any other malady elsewhere in your body please do not despair. There is good news coming. That Earth exhibits significant mass is hardly groundbreaking and was by no means the upshot of my terrestrial journey across Eurasia and back.
No, the major takeaway from this trip so far – and I’m happy to report that it validates the optimistic hypothesis I began with – is that while we may never meet or see the vast majority of people and sights this planet has to offer, we can take comfort knowing that humankind is similar in far more ways than we are different. Furthermore, our differences (religion, ethnicity, taste for cuisine, the arts, etc.) are largely superficial while our similarities (what makes us laugh and cry, fundamental values, interpersonal relationships) are the building blocks of what humanity. I do not mean to say that religion is a superficial concept, only that our customs for practicing religion, from the names we assign to God(s), our houses of worship, and our holiday rituals are only skin deep. The root of WHY we worship – spiritual guidance, belief in greater power, the afterlife – these fundamental tenants remain unchanged from St. Pauls’ to Hagia Sofia to the last remaining synagogue in Bukhara. Similarly, while our dress and culinary delicacies, and appreciate for the arts differ based on where we happen to have been born, there is a universal respect for Quality that underpins and unites what appear on surface level to be different tastes.
There were certain events that made me come to this conclusion. More often than not, these events were not grandiose gestures of human kinship but small subconscious actions that wove a quilt of human camaraderie across my travels.
On the Uzbek/Kazakh border I witnessed a border guard try for 20 minutes to fit a wholesale box of diapers into the trunk of his car. While checking my passport ten minutes prior, he had seemed like a menacing bastion of authority, his uniform blocking any sort of compassion or reliability I may have otherwise had for him. But there he was, hunched over in the same starched uniform, no longer an obstacle I needed to pass through but just a father recreating a scene I’ve seen time and time again at Stop & Shop in Westport, Connecticut. There was a docile frustration on his face as he tried every possible maneuver to fit this massive box of diapers in his trunk that cut through the superficial differences between us. I no longer labeled him as ‘Kazakh Border Guard No. 3″ but rather as a father and a husband who was having a difficult time helping his wife out with the groceries.
And then there was the Mongolian tattoo artist I paid a visit to. In 6 inch patent leather combat boots, fishnets, a corset, and not speaking a word of English, I mistakenly viewed her as someone with whom I had nothing in common. I had to laugh five minutes later when she was sitting at a computer updating her Facebook statues and looking at a pair of pants on Zara’s website. She could have been my sister.
The examples go on and on. The guard on the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border playing minesweeper on his computer but quickly hiding the window when his boss entered the room, the prostitute in Turkmenistan who drops a dumpling on the ground and quickly dusts it off and blows on it before popping it into her mouth, the nervous smile of an Uzbek boy as he waits to see if we enjoy the watermelon he bought us (we did), the primal serenity on the face of the Istanbuli car mechanic who lights his first cigarette after sundown during Ramadan, the four 60 year old Japanese men on the train who tease and poke fun at each other in the same way my own father and his friends do, and the DJs in London, Sarajevo, Istanbul, Baku, Almaty and Beijing who all play the exact same songs while girls dance in the same black dresses and high heels and guys stand aside with the same “I want to appear as if I don’t give a damn but I’m actually having a really fun time” looks on their faces.
To me, these subconscious moments provide more insight into people’s true persona than any list of attributes ever could. Title, ranks, and words that claim to make up our “identity” just isolate us from one another, sweeping over the intangible similarities in all humankind with useless jargon that gives us an excuse to hate and fight one another. Time and time again my mind raced back to the famous 1914 Christmas Truce during World War One, in which German and English soldiers came out from the trenches to exchange gifts and play a game of soccer.
While we are told that “they don’t understand us” and we are told that “they hate us” let me assure you that “they” are more similar to “us” than you could ever imagine and, by and large, “they” hate you no more than you hate them. Whether it be the North Korean waitresses at Pyongyang restaurant in Ulaan Baatar or the group of Iranian men we spent hours with at the Turkey/Georgia border or the plethora of stories I could lay on your from my prior travels to Cuba and Syria/Lebanon/Palestine, at the root of every interaction is not a nationalistic hatred but a genuine desire to find common ground. When you wipe away politics and color and creed, you are left with an undercurrent of two human beings seeking to relate, like two streams flowing from a common source.
Of course there are some bad people out there, but are just as present “here” as they are “there.” What a shame it would be if these few rotten tomatoes spoiled an infinite harvest of love and compassion and friendship for the rest of us. The world may indeed be quite large, but it will never seem lonely when you can overcome this hurdle that we are all different and not to be trusted.
Not having faith/trust in humankind is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you ask a question of a stranger while clutching your purse and constantly looking over your shoulder, you are bound to be greeted just as coldly. But if you can lower your guard, rid yourself of whatever preconceived notions may exist and greet this person as if they were your brother or sister, I think you’ll find a complementary greeting returned. Sure there is some nominal risk to this method of interaction, but I will stick to it time and time again.
Personally, I am sick of being told that we are so different from other groups of people, and I am tired of hearing that these differences cannot be overcome. I am positively done hearing that events which occurred exactly ten years ago have changed the world in such a way that it’s no longer safe to go out there.
So I leave you with a test. Go somewhere you’ve never been that scares you. Could be across the world or across town. Get yourself lost, pick the first stranger you see, look beyond the superficial differences setting you apart, and ask him or her for directions home. I think you’ll be surprised what you see.
Rain. Feels a bit like the last day of school before summer. Or the last day of summer before school. I’m not really sure which. I finished up the dregs of my Beijing grocery store shopping spree for breakfast. I felt a lump in Oscar’s throat – Noel had left a note inside of his fur. We are now entering Moscow from the east. We pass uniquely Russian apartment buildings and non-descript multi-use train platforms. The sky is still of a color and viscosity that would make any town look ugly. There are more trees than I expected, though, and from what I can gather from the signs plastered on each highway overpass we underpass, Avril Levine will be performing here soon. Good for her. Didn’t know she was keeping up with that whole music thing.
So what do I gain by arriving here by train rather than plane? (And my substantial, I mean something in excess of the romantic appeal of being able to say I’ve take the Trans-Siberian Railroad) What can justify the additional 128 hours it took to arrive here? Surely I could have made friends on the flight, and, frankly, the views of Lake Baikal were likely stunning from above. Yet as we pull into Yaroslavskij Station, our emerald and yellow train elegantly snaking through the monotony of grey and blue Moscow commuter trains, I feel completely satisfied with my transport decision.
Like I’ve mentioned over and over on this trip, travelling by land allows us to arrive at our destination with context. The face of a Chinese man and a Russian man appear to come from distinct planets when you travel by plane. Only by stopping in Ulaan Baatar, Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, and Yekanterinburg along the way does one begin to understand the continuity of the world we live in. Travelling this way makes the arbitrary borders we fortify ourselves with laughably irrelevant in the greater context of mankind. This nationalistic misunderstanding is further magnified when flying from hub to hub and bypassing the ethnic meshing that occurs in between.
Additionally, the railroad allowed for a greater appreciation of the land I crossed. What is stunning about the Siberian wilderness is not a particular tree or one patch of forest, but rather the vastness of it, something that can only be experienced by land.
We come to a halt at 1:55:28PM, two minutes and thirty-two seconds prior to our estimated arrival time.