12-Sept-90: On the train, finally. I guess this is Inner Mongolia, a semi-desert with treeless, nearly shrubless mountains in the distance to the right, and endless flatlands to the left. Just got up from a long nap, Tobey and our two cabinmates are still sleeping, and I don’t really have any idea where I am, so I’m a bit disoriented. It’s a fairly clean train, even though they don’t replace a soiled tablecloth between every patron in the dining car – it’s a fairly clean train except for the privies. There are jokes about a railroad toilet being simply a hole in the train car with a seat over it – well, it’s true in this case – when you push down the flush pedal a couple little trickles of water run down, and a flap opens, through which I can see the bed of the mighty Trans-Mongolian Railroad. And I can’t understand how a toilet that doesn’t even hold any human wastes can stink so bad.
But enough about the inconveniences. We’re sharing a cabin with two Polish models, so I can’t complain too much.
I wrote that in my journal the first day on the Trans-Mongolian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. That day had begun with our last breakfast in a posh restaurant (again, one of the restaurants in the hotel), followed by a taxi ride to the station. It was yet another hurried departure.
By the time we got to the station, the train had arrived. In front of the forest-green passenger cars, hundreds of people were waiting to board, almost all of them Chinese. The Polish models, strikingly pretty and well-dressed, stood out like movie stars. As luck would have it, not only did Tobey and I have no problem getting a cabin together, but the two models were assigned to be our cabinmates.
A little while after we boarded, the train started moving. Just as on the flight from San Francisco, I felt this moment had an enormous significance – the start of the great Beijing-Leningrad train trip – that my fatigue prevented me from appreciating.
By western standards, and compared to the hotel in Beijing, the train was a bit old and dingy. It was quite comfortable in spite of this, or perhaps because of this – as if we were guests in the home of poor but hospitable relatives. Everything that needed to be kept clean was kept clean: the bed sheets were fresh; the countertops in the cabins had just been wiped. Cabin windows were large and easily opened, so the cabin, though compact, never felt stuffy. The window panes weren’t washed, though. It was the passenger’s responsibility, during stops, to reach up from the outside and wipe the windows to keep them clear and amenable to photography.
Cabins in this solidly-built train were efficiently laid out, with spacious luggage compartments under the bottom bunk beds and above the doorway. We were in “hard” class cabins, with four beds per cabin – two sets of bunk beds with a narrow aisle between them. Soft class cabins had only two beds, and old faux-wood paneling instead of drab gray Formica-like walls; otherwise they appeared identical to hard class. I later decided I preferred hard class to soft; since you didn’t get to meet any new roommates in the two-bed cabins.
Outside the cabins was an aisle with a row of windows. Usually one or two of the windows were open, and there would often be a few people in the aisle, visiting and smoking out the window. Down at one end of each car was a washroom and toilet, but no shower or bath.
I was happily surprised at how quickly this unfamiliar, foreign, austere train felt like home. Even the rest room situation wasn’t as bad as I’d written in my journal. I found that if I searched the other train cars, I could usually find a reasonably stinkless bathroom somewhere.
I slept for awhile the first morning, then looked at the scenery. The train headed towards Badaling, paralleling the highway to the Great Wall we had been on three days before. After crossing the mountains and getting our last views of the Great Wall, we emerged onto the plains bordering Inner Mongolia. It was very dry, scrubby land, yet still intensively cultivated. The sun was bright; it looked hot outside. I noticed what looked like reforestation projects – thin, vulnerable-looking seedlings on the otherwise treeless ground.
After awhile the scenery lost its novelty for me. I found other things to do: playing guitar, writing postcards, cultivating a crush on our cabinmate Barbara. There was just enough to do to keep me from feeling like I had time on my hands. After the hectic days in China, the first couple days on the train were like lazy Sundays.
Early in the afternoon Tobey and I went to the dining car for lunch. There we briefly met the first group of native English speakers on the train besides ourselves: a middle-aged Australian named David and an English couple. We introduced ourselves, exchanged some small talk, and then got a separate table of our own. Eventually we would get to know them, and the other native English speakers on the train, quite well.
After getting settled in our cabins, Tobey and I visited with our cabinmates. Barbara, the one who spoke English, had dark hair and eyes, prominent Slavic cheekbones, and full lips. Grace, in contrast to her sensuous-featured companion, was fine-boned, blonde, and very slender.
In addition to being models, they were businesswomen. This was the reason for their travel: they were planning to import goods from Poland to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and this trip was to scope out their market. This I found interesting; I had never thought of Mongolia as a particularly ripe business climate. I also would have never thought it possible; the Soviet Union and its satellites had always seemed to me countries where private citizens just didn’t do business. It had never occurred to me that people in these nations, isolated from the Western economic world, do business with people in other Soviet satellite countries.
Barbara explained how it worked. In the socialist economies, there were complex systems of rules and regulations governing what you could trade. A businessperson has to learn, as she and Grace had, not only what the rules are, but which of the rules you could work with, work around, or simply ignore.
Barbara had savvy, as well as a cynicism that I would see in a lot of citizens of the Eastern bloc. Cynicism, but not despair. “Thank God for Gorbachev,” she said at one point. Yet, later when I mentioned that Russian is a beautiful sounding language, she snarled. No language used by the lifelong oppressors of her and her people could possibly be beautiful to Barbara.
Tobey mentioned I play the guitar, so Barbara requested I bring it out. I warmed up with a few chord progressions from American popular songs. Then, on a hunch, I started playing the opening chords to “Bamboleo.” This was a song by the Gipsy Kings, a band of French gypsies, or “Gipsies,” who played a sort of flamenco/rock hybrid. They were wildly popular in Europe but virtually unknown in America. I’d bought their first album without having heard their music, based only on a critic’s laudatory review in a magazine. I had a hunch that Barbara – European, worldly, and almost Gypsy-looking herself – would be a fan of theirs.
Sure enough, as soon as I sang the chorus of “Bamboleo,” Barbara sang along. It actually was a favorite of hers. Neither of us knew the words to the song other than part of the chorus, though – mainly because the words are in a Gypsy patois of French, Spanish, and Provencal. Still, I was surprised and pleased that a taste which I shared with none of my musical friends in Portland, I could share with a Polish woman in Inner Mongolia.
That evening, Tobey and I had dinner in the dining car, then went to bed. The sheets weren’t new and crisp like in a motel; they were old and soft. I slept like a baby – for a while.
In the middle of the night, we were roused from our sleep by some people in uniforms. The train had stopped; we were at the border between China and the People’s Republic of Mongolia. After handing over our passports, we were instructed by one of the uniformed officials to get out of the train and follow one of them.
By design or chance – I can’t remember which – a number of us native English speakers, including David, found ourselves walking in the same group. It was a chilly night; we were led outside the station. We had no idea what was going on; nor did we have any idea if anybody else had any idea. The only thing we could do was follow, make jokes about the situation, and have faith that everything was going as planned and we’d eventually be back on the train with our passports. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere; there appeared to be no lights outside of the station. We walked for about twenty minutes to the other end of the station. David was still in his bed slippers.
We finally stopped, on the platform outside the main lobby. There we had to wait another ten or fifteen minutes in the cold. Inside the station was a bar with bad disco music playing. I stayed outside. A tall man about my age came up and said, in some sort of British Commonwealth accent, “You’re from Oregon, aren’t you?”
I answered yes. He paused, then asked, “Don’t you wonder how I knew you were from Oregon?”
“Weren’t you in the group at breakfast this morning, with David?” I replied.
Where I’d really met him was not on the train at all, but on the Great Wall. His name was Colin, and he was the one who had said “Don’t let her beat you to the top!” And minutes before that, when I had run past a woman who’d said she was from New Zealand, and I’d blurted out “Wow!” – that was his girlfriend, Sharon. I wouldn’t have ever guessed that was he. And if I hadn’t mistakenly recognized him from that morning, he would probably have fooled me with his false clairvoyance. Poor guy – I unknowingly spoiled his very first practical joke on me.
Nonetheless, I was impressed that Colin remembered me from that far back – though I knew that English-speaking Caucasians in these parts were rare enough that they tended to remember each other. Colin and I talked about where we were from and where we’d just been. A little later Sharon joined us, then Tobey emerged from the disco to join our conversation. Talking with Colin and Sharon, I found them surprisingly easy to connect with, considering they were literally from the opposite side of the world as me.
Finally, we got to re-board the train and get our passports back. I went back to sleep, a little less soundly then before.
I later found out, from the Trans-Siberian Handbook, what the delay had been. Russian trains run on a slightly different gauge than the rest of the world. This was deliberate; in the nineteenth century, Russia’s xenophobic government wanted to make the country impossible to invade by train. Mongolia, an eager recipient of Russian aid, had railroads built the same odd gauge as Russia’s. As a result, here at Erenhot, the border station, they had to lift up the train cars and roll different sets of wheels underneath them, to accommodate the different tracks.
I took my time getting up the next morning. After the long interruption I’d slept soundly – an unknown amount of hours, but certainly long enough. I looked outside; it was raining. Overnight, the land had flattened out to a featureless sea of grass. The Gobi Desert: I remembered it from a map. Despite the absence of trees, hills, or habitation, the rain and the blanket of grass made the term “desert” not quite fit. No sagebrush or prickly shrubs – just wet grass.
Without a bright sunlit vista to motivate me to start my day, I stayed in the cabin and played guitar awhile. I kept looking out the window, enthralled, at the Mongolian vastness. For a lover of wide-open spaces, this was paradise. Even in the gray overcast. After China, the last thing I expected to find in the interior of Asia was this emptiness.
Finally, Tobey and I went to breakfast. We met up with our new friends Colin and Sharon, whose cabin was nearby. On the way to the restaurant car a man, presumably Mongolian, offered to change a couple dollars of mine for some Mongolian money. Since I assumed I needed Mongolian money to pay for breakfast, I took him up on it.
Somewhere during the trip I lost my one piece of Mongolian money, which I really regret now. It was quite a souvenir – a bill with some stern-looking Mongolian guy on the front; the currency of one of the most obscure nations I’d visit. And, it had the additional quality of being the most worthless currency on the whole trip. I couldn’t use it as money. The waiter wouldn’t take it as payment for my breakfast. He’d take dollars, Russian rubles, even yuan, but not Mongolian money. In Mongolia!
I was beginning to piece together an understanding of Eastern bloc currency economics by now. It was nothing like economics in the Western world. Having previously known only dollars and Canadian dollars, I had a pretty fixed view that money is money – you can use it to buy whatever anyone’s selling, or you can convert it to another country’s currency and buy whatever that country is selling. Like it says on a dollar bill, it’s legal tender for all debts, public and private. It’s an abstraction, anyway, especially in the age of credit cards and electronic funds transfer. I don’t even have to hand someone actual currency; I could just charge it, and the bank would take care of the numbers.
Not so in the rest of the world. In the non-Western countries, you had to consider not only how much something cost, but how much the currency itself is worth. Not simply the exchange rate, but the measure of how much people wanted either to hoard a certain currency or to dump it. Like at the Great Wall, where the T-shirt vendor nimbly exchanged his eighteen dollars of lousy currency for eighteen dollars of good currency.
I’d been used to a one-dimensional scale of currency exchange rate: 1 dollar = 5.2 francs. Here, it was sort of a two-dimensional scale: exchange rate measured against hoardability worth. And every currency in the Socialist world had a place on the hoardability scale.
At the top were the non-socialist currencies – the “hard” currencies such as dollars, Deutschemarks, and yen. Eastern bloc money generally could not be converted to hard currencies, or only at a great loss; thus, they were called “soft” currencies. If you lived Mongolia or any of the Socialist countries which imported almost no goods from western nations, you needed to procure some hard currency, through tourists or the black market, to buy western goods. However, once you had the hard currency, which could be converted to any other hard currency, you could buy anything from anywhere in the western world that a tourist or smuggler was willing to sell you. In effect, you had the whole world to shop from.
Second from the top was rubles, the king of the soft currencies: valued anywhere in the USSR and the Soviet satellites, shunned everywhere else. Near the middle of the scale was Chinese FEC currency, followed by its disreputable brother currency, renminbi. The two yuans – same currency, different hoardability.
At the bottom of the scale was Mongolian money; the money that wasn’t any good even in Mongolia. I wondered if there was anything of any value that one could buy in Mongolia with local currency. I don’t remember what the currency is called, since I only saw it once.
Breakfast, for which I paid dollars, was a standard eggs and bread meal. This was the same breakfast that I would get in Russia. The only thing that made it Mongolian, I guess, was that the two waiters apparently were Mongolian. One was a tall, muscular young man who dressed in a short-sleeved, casual Western-looking shirt. He was a quick and courteous server, even if he did refuse my Mongolian money.
The other waiter was lousy. Repeatedly, we would see him standing near the kitchen entrance, smoking, as we stared at him to try to get attention and service. I wouldn’t have tipped him even if tipping were customary here, which it wasn’t. (A Russian influence, maybe.) But he was the better dressed of the two. He wore a long black waiter’s jacket with matching slacks, a powder blue open-collared tuxedo shirt, and a smart black money pouch with a familiar-looking rabbit logo. Beneath the rabbit the pouch said RLAYBOY.
I’d seen the name “Ulan Bator” on a globe once: a spot in the middle of a remote country in the middle of Asia. The name stuck with me as a potential “Trivial Pursuit” item. Now, after a day of rolling through a barely inhabited prairie, we began to approach the real city that dot on the globe represented – Ulan Bator, the capitol of the People’s Republic of Mongolia.
During the day, the scenery had gone from flat to slightly hilly. The rain had stopped, and the aridity of the prairie – its usual state – was starting to show. Gradually leaving the Gobi Desert, we were seeing occasional evidence of habitation: a herd of cattle or sheep, headed up by a Mongolian cowboy. Or a yurt – one of the felt-covered round tents used by Mongolian nomads since ancient times. I would look through the window, fascinated; these are the homes of real nomads. It seemed to me less and less plausible that Barbara and Grace would make their killing here.
When we crossed over a low ridge and started descending into a shallow valley, I began to see the outskirts of Ulan Bator. The last thing I expected to see in this semi-desert was a sprawling city like this. Las Vegas of the grasslands.
We approached the station. It had the same small-town courthouse look of the Shanghai airport, with the name of the city engraved in big Cyrillic letters: (ULAANBAATAR). The city must be Soviet-financed, I thought; that’s about the only thing that made the city’s existence make sense. (Actually, it was both Soviet and Chinese assistance that created the oxymoron of urban, industrial Mongolia.)
This was a thirty-minute stop, so we got out of the train. I had Tobey take a picture of me against the Ulan Bator sign to prove I’d been there. Near the platform, a Mongolian man was selling barbecue on a spit from a open-air grill. Although it smelled good, I was apprehensive about buying meat under these circumstances. For one thing, I had no idea what animal the meat was. But it was obviously well cooked, and my desire to have a genuinely Mongolian experience during my only thirty stationary minutes in Mongolia won over my fears. The vendor was asking a dollar for three sticks of meat. Having just eaten, I gave him a dollar and asked for only two sticks. Confused, but not protesting, he gave me two. It wasn’t bad – it tasted closer to seasoned mutton than anything else.
Another vendor man was calling out, in heavily accented English, “Postcards!” I gave him a dollar, and he gave me an envelope, covered with Mongolian stamps, containing cards. He left suddenly after he gave me the envelope, and I opened it up and it was full of nothing but blank cardboard. That Mongol swindled me! But at least I still had the stamps. Then I got to thinking, I didn’t understand his English very well; maybe he’d said “post stamps.” But then, why would he include the pieces of cardboard? I was getting used to unanswered questions like this.
We got back on the train before the half hour was up, and we started rolling again. On the way out of town I saw something that would be a recurring sight throughout the eastern bloc: a cluster of thirty or forty huge, identical concrete apartment blocks scattered over empty land. The impression I got was that these mammoth hulks were tossed up in a hurry, as if some housing minister in downtown Ulan Bator, or in Moscow, had suddenly become aware of a severe housing shortage: “Oh no – this is horrible! We’d better build fifty of the really huge ones, immediately!” It made sense anywhere but Ulan Bator. I couldn’t imagine enough people migrating in from the countryside to come close to filling these new buildings.
The Trans-Mongolian part of the trip, from Beijing to Irkutsk, took two and a half days and two nights – straight through, with stops in towns of five minutes to half an hour. The leisurely pace of life on the train had picked up a bit. I was doing more reading, writing, talking with Tobey, singing songs, and playing guitar. While rolling through Mongolia and Siberia I worked out the lead guitar part to the Grateful Dead song “China Cat Sunflower.” And Tobey and I, having said goodbye to our cabinmates in Ulan Bator, were meeting new friends.
Among the fifteen or so native English speakers on the train, a social network had been forming; soon, we had all met one another. We would meet in the dining car for meals, visit each other’s cabins, and gather evenings for drinking and singing parties. During the stops in towns, we would enjoy our brief moments of freedom and open-air activity together.
We also discovered that we were almost all on the same itinerary: the Trans-Mongolian stretch, then a day and a half in Irkutsk, three days on the train to Moscow, two and a half days in Moscow, a night train to Leningrad followed by two or three days there, then off our separate ways. David, the Australian we’d met the first day, was a business consultant and seminar lecturer from Sydney. Well-spoken and observant, with a smile that could open a thousand doors, David struck me early on as someone whom, if we hung around with, we’d be fairly certain to have interesting times. Though charming and witty himself, he always displayed a sincere interest in what you had to say. He was a natural salesman, in the good sense of the word.
David showed me his business card once. On the back of it was his photo, showing him in a suit, in front of a wall map of southeast Australia. It was the first portrait I’d ever seen on a business card. As he explained, he had no slogan, logo, or product to display on his card – only a picture of himself, since that was what he was selling. Which he was quite good at.
I think it was David that told us that there was another American woman on the train who had just come from teaching English in Japan. Sometime later we met her. Her name was Michele; she was from Sanford, Michigan. Her brother Jeff had flown over from there to travel with her.
Michele was intelligent, open-minded, and eager to bridge any cultural barrier she encountered, especially after her profound experience in Japan. At the same time she seemed like a grown-up kid from the American heartland. Her zeal for doing things in a group – meals, excursions, singing “We all live in a Trans-Siberian train” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine” – reminded me of a high school cheerleader.
If Michele was the cheerleader, Jeff was the football captain. Jeff was the one that reminded Tobey and me what Americans are really like. Jeff’s loyalty to standard American viewpoints, fascination with military machinery and sports, automatic suspicion of all things Soviet, and stories of someone finding a fried rat found in Kentucky Fried Chicken (recounted at the dinner table as a true story) reminded us how far away from America we were. The cathedrals, cottages, vast landscapes, and people in Russia didn’t move him; finding the McDonald’s in Moscow did.
Later on we met Jim and Jocelyn, two workmates from a Singapore-based oil well company. Jim was from Texas, Jocelyn was a Singaporean native. Although this trip was just for fun, Jim’s work had taken him to oil wells all over the world. His passport was the most impressive I’d ever seen; it contained two sets of expansion pages pasted in to accommodate his overflowing amount of visas. Although clearly the most well-traveled of us, Jim was also the most down-to-earth. Easy-going and friendly, firm in his positive outlook, with a slight Texas drawl, he seemed as representative an American as Jeff, but in a completely different way.
We also met Grania, an Irish woman, and her husband Keith, a Hong Kong Chinese businessman. While Hong Kong residents were dreading 1997, the year the colony would return to Chinese control, Keith and Grania were welcoming it; property values even then were falling to where they could buy real estate.
Traveling with them was the youngest Trans-Siberian passenger, Grania’s son Ian. Just old enough to walk from one table in the dining car to another, Ian was undoubtedly the most popular passenger too. Russian women, Chinese families, international travelers, everyone would coo at Ian. With babies, there are no cultural barriers.
Tobey and I spent more time with Colin and Sharon than with anyone else. Perhaps more than anything, the combination of similarities and dramatic differences in our perspectives kept us fascinated with one another. We were all university graduates in our mid 20’s, a few years into our respective professional careers (Colin a surveyor, Sharon a systems analyst). We’d all decided to do some adventuring before we got too settled in our fields. Colin and Sharon were planning on marrying one of these years, but in no hurry to become staid suburbanites. For both Sharon and Tobey, motherhood was a goal for the foreseeable but not especially close future.
Even geographically, we had parallel backgrounds. Colin and Sharon were from an economically depressed, backwater nation in the South Pacific, overshadowed by its huge neighbor Australia. Tobey and I were from an economically depressed, backwater state in the US, overshadowed by its neighbor huge California.
However, Colin and Sharon’s nation accepted and was doing something about its provinciality. People their age in New Zealand were encouraged to travel and work abroad, to strengthen ties with the rest of the world and counterbalance New Zealand’s geographical isolation. Colin and Sharon, in fact were on their way to get jobs in London. I envied this; it was certainly not uniformly encouraged in the United States.
Some cultural differences caught me by surprise. One time I had just run out of Russian bread, and I mentioned to Colin that it’s time to break into the graham crackers. “The what?” asked Colin.
“The graham crackers.”
Could it be, I wondered, that Colin had never even heard of graham crackers? I’d always assumed that everybody in the world had grown up on graham crackers and milk. I gave Colin one, and experienced the strange thrill of watching a grown adult taste his first graham cracker. “It’s kind of sweet,” he said observantly.
Colin and I sang together too. He had an excellent tenor voice and knew how to harmonize, so we did a lot of duets in our cabin. The songs we sang drew from the body of American, English, Canadian, and Australian pop music we’d both grown up with, although the radio music Colin remembered was more Australian-heavy. Thus, Colin was an authority on old Bee Gees ballads. He led me through a few I hadn’t heard in years, such as “Words” and “Too Much Heaven.” I remembered just enough melody and chords to these heartbroken favorites to strum along and join with Colin in warbling, falsetto Bee Gees harmonies. We also sang some songs by Split Enz, the only New Zealand band I’d heard. Colin and Sharon were delighted I could play their music. Obscure arcana for me; meat-and-potatoes music for them.
Still, we were drawn to some of the same semi-eclectic pop music. At one point Colin and I started singing Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” and we ended up singing nearly every song on that album – complete with Van’s original yelps, scat passages, and mumbled lyrics. This was an album we’d both listened to quite closely.
Late in the afternoon, I gazed out the window at the passing countryside. The rolling hills were beginning to cast shadows, and to me it looked more like eastern Oregon than any place in the Orient. I fantasized about buying some of this vast land. I could start a dude ranch here. My friends could visit me on my spread if they happened find themselves in Mongolia. I suspected, though, that under Mongolia’s economic system, land like this was extremely cheap, but impossible for me to buy.
We crossed from Mongolia to the Soviet Union that
night. It was another middle-of-the-night
crossing that we had to be awakened for.
Surprisingly, this one took less time than the entry into Mongolia. Contrary to what I’d expected, there were no
searches for drugs, Western pornographic literature, or suspiciously large
numbers of Levis. And we didn’t have to
leave our cabin this time.
The next morning we were in another world. I looked out the cabin window; the scenery had changed overnight from dry, grassy, rolling Mongolian steppe to the wet, woodsy bluffs of southeastern Siberia. The weather had also changed back to rainy.
This was familiar-looking country: wet, sloppy Oregonian terrain. Thick, damp undergrowth crept almost up to the tracks. I was looking out at an upward slope, covered with birch forests, which led up to a fog-shrouded ridge.
Occasionally I would see dachas – small, rustic wooden cottages, with brightly colored shutters. However the lives of these rural Russians, they had to be made brighter by these pastel-framed windows.
I checked the local time and compared it against the timetable in the Trans-Siberian Handbook, a book I’d picked up in Portland. The Handbook listed both local time and Moscow time, since clocks on the train showed only Moscow time, no matter how many time zones away from Moscow you were. According to the Handbook, we’d be rounding the shore of Lake Baykal, which would be on the other side of the train from me, right now.
I’d been looking forward to seeing Lake Baykal. Of the world’s freshwater lakes, Baykal is the deepest, at over 6000 feet, and most voluminous, with more water than all the Great Lakes combined. To the Russians it’s a national treasure, I’d read, and to the native Buryats it’s sacred.
The water of Baykal filled an enormous, ancient rift in the earth’s crust. As the lake bottom has filled with silt, the rift has continued to open up, swallowing the sediment and keeping Baykal full. Thus, while other lakes turned into marshes after a few thousand years, Baykal had been around for twenty million years, evolving countless unique species and accumulating a layer of sediment four miles deep.
I picked up my camera, opened the cabin door and took a look out the opposite window. Here was the lake before me – I was looking at one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. Considering this, it looked rather unassuming – gray water against gray sky. The lake was choppy and lined by a rocky, narrow beach, above which were forested slopes. Despite its size and geological significance, Baykal seemed to endure rather than dominate the harsh Siberian environment.
The train wasn’t stopping. To get a closer look at Baykal, we’d have to come back from Irkutsk the next day.
As I gazed serenely at the lake, a young Russian man in a handsome leather jacket and jeans greeted me. I hadn’t seen him before on the train. If I had I would have remembered him; he looked more American and teenage-fashion-conscious than any other Russian on board.
“You want to change money?” he asked.
Of course not, I said to myself. Every USSR travel book I’d read stated clearly: never change money with a private citizen, only with an official clerk. No matter how good a deal you get through unofficial channels, you risk getting into worse trouble than you can imagine. The only time I’d heard differently was from an ex-neighbor’s boyfriend back in Portland, who had just gotten back from Leningrad. He and his friends had changed money countless times on the on the black market, and no one seemed to care. But he’d seemed young and foolhardy to me.
“Thirteen rubles to the dollar,” the young Russian said.
Good God! The official rate was 1.8 dollars to the ruble! But what was I thinking, considering doing business with this Russian teenage criminal? I answered no.
“Nice shoes – New Balance. How much do you want for them?” he offered.
“They’re not for sale.” Certainly not, mister; these were the shoes I picked out specifically to walk around the world in. How did he know about New Balance, anyway? Nike or Reebok, sure – but even in the United States, the New Balance brand was hardly recognized.
Not surprisingly, he also asked me if I had any jeans to sell. I said no, and walked back into my cabin. Taking a look inside from the doorway, he asked me how much I wanted for my guitar. No deal, thanks.
After making offers for a few more of my belongings, he left. Tobey had just left to have breakfast with Colin, Sharon, and David, so I went to join them. On the way to the restaurant car, another young, American-clad Russian stopped me.
“Soviet military watch?” he asked.
“Uh, no thank you.”
“Where are you from?” he ventured.
“Ah, America. Great country. Lot of business there. You like to do business?” Not with you, buddy. (I later learned that the Russian language has no word for “business,” and uses the English word “business” to mean “black market.”)
I finally made it, accosted no more, to the restaurant car. Talking with Tobey, David, Colin, and Sharon, I found out there were four of these young Russian moneychangers lurking about the train cars. We decided they must have all got on at the six A.M. stop in Ulan Ude, near the junction of the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian lines. I also discovered I was the only one in the group here at breakfast who hadn’t changed dollars to rubles from one of them.
I began to change my perspective. Legitimately, I could get a little over five rubles to the dollar. (Russia had finally dropped its preposterous 1.8 dollars per ruble rate at the beginning of the year, and allowed the ruble to “float,” to a rate a little bit closer to the real value of the ruble.) The “legitimate” rate was of no relevance to us, though, as no one had yet found a place on the train to change money legally. And offers from the Ulan Ude gang were up to 15 rubles to the dollar.
I was the last holdout. After the Mongolian breakfast incident, I wasn’t going to buy rubles until I was you could at least pay for a meal with Russian money. After we got the bill, my friends paid the indicated amount in rubles – less than a dollar’s worth, for all of us – and the waiter accepted them.
I sought out the “businessmen” after breakfast; they were smoking in the little area between the restaurant car and the next car back. (I was glad they confined their smoking to here; still, the smoke in this little chambers was so thick that the door three feet away was enshrouded in haze.) Five dollars got me enough rubles to last the next several days.
We didn’t see the four young men after we arrived in Irkutsk. This must be their livelihood, I concluded: getting on at Ulan Ude, doing business with foreign tourists, getting off at Irkutsk, and probably repeating the route going the other way.
I had bought a book about Irkutsk, the largest city in eastern Siberia, before the trip. It was written, published, and translated to English in Russia. Although a well written and well translated guidebook, what most fascinated me about it was its quaintness. Pallid color photographs, reminiscent of 1950’s National Geographics, showed the sights of Irkutsk, such as the Ho Chi Minh Teacher-Training Institute of Foreign Languages. The Soviet influences in this otherwise objective volume were sparing but unmistakable. A brief history of Irkutsk mentions the early fur trade, the fire of 1879, and “the transfer of power into working people’s hands.”
Because of the book, I was able to actually recognize a building in Irkutsk as we approached the city. Looking across the wide Angara River, I saw the Intourist Hotel, rising large and blocklike from the cement riverbank, looking just like it did on page 33.
We soon crossed the river and arrived at the Irkutsk station. As we exited the train, a young red-haired Russian man in a blazer met us. After gathering us English-speaking tourists together, he announced that he was from Intourist, the state tourism agency. Then he called a roll of our names, informed us of what bus to take to the hotel, and offered to answer any questions we might have. Although his English was excellent, his manner was a bit stiff, like an uninvited party guest trying to mingle. He seemed to want to assume the role of a tour guide, even though we had been getting along perfectly well without one. (Perhaps that was only hindsight on my part – later events showed me how nervous the Soviets were about letting foreign tourists go around by themselves).
A few blocks from the station, we boarded the hotel bus. Looking out the window, waiting for the bus to start moving, I was struck by how different things looked since the day before. For a week I’d seen Chinese everywhere; now, the next morning, everyone was European – blonde, broad-cheekboned Slavic people. And we were still in Eastern Asia.
Also, there were signs written in alphabetic characters everywhere, rather than Chinese ideograms. I could read again! Granted, the letters were different – I hadn’t quite learned all of the sounds of the Cyrillic letters yet – but I could begin to sound words out.
Probably the first Russian word I learned after arriving in Siberia was (Mo-rohzh-no-yeh) – ice cream. It was on a sign on a building across the street from the bus. Outside of the building, several people were queued up to buy ice cream cones. (Traveling with Australians and New Zealanders, I got into the habit of saying “queue up” instead of “line up.”) We watched a few of these Irkutsk locals buy and eat their ice cream. Then, it occurred to us that perhaps we could partake of this rather than just observing. After confirming with the driver that we had enough time, we stepped out and got in line.
For about a ruble – seven cents or so – we got some of the best and richest ice cream we’d ever had. It was dramatically creamier than any American ice cream; it tasted like its percentage of butter fat would be illegal in the United States. The quest for became a continuing activity in the trip.
We re-boarded the bus and were taken to the hotel, which proved more interesting inside than outside. Directly ahead as we walked in, a huge “Plan of the City” took up a large part of one wall. The streets on this map were made of wood and buffed metal strips. It was all written in English. Street names in big capital letters crowded the map at all angles an a sprawling, 1930’s-futuristic look. Judging by the map, Irkutsk looked like it would be a quaintly exciting sort of place.
In the corner of the lobby was a TV showing a Russian rock video. It showed a band in a rock concert setting, with dry ice mist and flashing colored spotlights. The lead singer was an thuggish looking man with a big nose and long, curly black hair. He was dressed in black jumpsuit, highlighted by a sorcerer’s cape with great big sequined stars – looking like a cross between Alice Cooper and a circus clown, or a satanic Liberace. He snarled into the microphone, coarsening each gnashing Russian consonant as he sang. “Musik! Musik! Musik!” went the chorus. The camera zoomed in and out and in and out on him, like a 60’s psychedelic video. By the appearance of the video, I would have expected the band to be playing some sort of heavy metal music. Instead, they were playing something that sounded like rockabilly on Sears Roebuck equipment.
I’d never fully realized that even anarchic rock-’n’-roll followed certain stylistic conventions, until I saw this band completely ignore them. The result was a ridiculous hodgepodge of various aural and visual rock images from the past thirty years. Here was a band obviously dedicated to rock’s excess, yet I was suddenly aware that even excess could be done completely aesthetically wrong – at least, from the aesthetic perspective of an American rock fan. “Spinal Tap” had nothing on these guys.
We checked in at the desk, and were given a room card and set of keys. As was the procedure in Russia, when we left the hotel, we were to drop our keys into a little box next to the front door. When we returned, we would show our room cards to the front desk people, and they would give us the keys back. I guessed this made the hotel management feel a more secure. Certainly more so than it made me feel: what’s to prevent someone, I wondered, from casually reaching into the drop box, picking up my keys, and entering my room? But the first time that I forgot to drop the keys in the box as I was leaving, no one seemed to notice. So, I decided from then on to forget to drop the keys more often.
At the end of a stairwell leading to our room was another American cultural import: an ecology poster. It was written in Russian and English, about the pollution of Lake Baykal. Halfway across the world from the Pacific Northwest, I read the slogan “Think globally, act locally.”
Our room was a far cry from the one in Beijing; it seemed more like a college dorm room. There were two short, boxy twin beds and a set of unimaginative but sturdy dressers and night stands. The bed frames and furniture were all made of a light-colored wood, evidently not a scarce material in Siberia.
In the bathroom was a tub with a shower head high above, but no shower curtain, but that was okay since the walls and floor were tile, and the floor sloped down to a drain in the floor. (It’ll be fun to use the entire room as a shower stall, I thought, as long as I remember not to leave any reading material in the bathroom.)
There were a few serious but amusing omissions. They forgot towels. Also, a couple light bulbs were missing. Tobey called down to the front desk; no towels or light bulbs were available. Well, we knew this would be an adventure.
I took a drink from the faucet. I’d read that Irkutsk’s tap water came straight out of the Angara, the outflow of Lake Baykal. Sure enough, it tasted as pure and sweet as any I’d had in Oregon.
That evening, after we’d had our first bath in three days, the six of us English speakers in our 20’s – Colin and Sharon, Jeff and Michele, Tobey and I – decided to check out the night life of Irkutsk. We met at the lobby, then walked out of the hotel and down the street. It was about ten o’clock, and there was almost no traffic outside the hotel.
We passed an old theater building, which had posters for various American movies such as E.T. The posters had familiar pictures, but with Russian writing. The next poster over advertised some sort of festival of rock music films and/or videos. I sounded out the American and English names written in Cyrillic letters: Michael Jackson, the Beatles. Irkutsk wasn’t as culturally isolated as I thought; maybe we’d hear some better music tonight than the video in the hotel lobby.
We were seeking, if not live music, at least a place to get a drink. No place caught our eye, though; there just didn’t seem to be anything happening in this part of Irkutsk on a Friday night. Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected much from Eastern Siberia. But this was Eastern Siberia’s metropolis, so there must have been something.
Finally, we found a little cafe/bakery, the Kafe Karlson. We went inside and found it to be a clean, bright, cozy place with Bavarian decor, more attractive than most places we would visit in Russia. Despite that, there was only one other party there besides us. We walked over to a display case, behind which stood a young, blonde waitress who didn’t speak any English. This added a touch of foreign mystique – we seemed to have gone far enough off the beaten track to find a “real” Irkutian haunt. I got the impression that groups of wandering foreigners didn’t show up at the Kafe Karlson very often.
In the display case were various baked desserts, and several glasses of apparently chocolate drink. We ordered six glasses of the drink. It was something like an unfrozen milk shake – delicious and very rich, just like the ice cream we’d had earlier.
The display case also had a large pastry cake. Enticing though it was, it looked like about twice as much as the six of us could eat, and probably cost more than we wanted to spend. Then we remembered – we were carrying rubles, at fifteen to the dollar! Nothing we could eat was out of our price range.
We pre-paid, and the waitress brought the cake out. It consisted of several layers of flaky pastry separated by a butter-and-powdered-sugar frosting. The thickness and toughness of the pastry layers made it challenging to cut into it with our forks; as we did, frosting would extrude out the side between the layers. This was no Hostess Twinkie. When we finally sawed off individual bites, we found it tasted even richer than the chocolate drink. Soon we reduced this lovely, extravagant dessert to a rubble of loose flakes and lumps of sweetened butter, and there was still half left. I was right – that was as much as we could eat. We left, and I felt like we’d just laid waste to a day’s work of the baker.
Since the Karlson had no alcohol and we were still in the mood for a drink, we looked for someone to ask where the nearest tavern was. We soon caught the attention of a middle-aged woman. Sharon, taking her best shot at her first-year college Russian, asked if there are any bars up the street. The woman answered in much quicker Russian than Sharon could follow, but supplied us with plenty of gestures. There are no bars in that direction, she indicated (glass-hoisting gestures); rather, that’s the way to the church (exaggerated prayer and genuflection motions).
Instead of proceeding straight, then, we took a right turn. The Russian woman, evidently overjoyed to find a nice young Western woman who knew her native tongue, and clearly quite drunk, followed us and continued her rapid-fire Russian at Sharon. Soon, Sharon gave up trying to understand or respond to her. Still, the woman hung on to Sharon’s arm as if Sharon were a long-lost daughter, and continued to ramble effusively – an amusement to the rest of us but a burden to Sharon. After a few minutes, the Russian woman finally disengaged from Sharon and ambled off.
The street the woman had sent us down didn’t seem to lead to any bars. We found, instead, a small park with a statue of Lenin. Somehow, the statue seemed out of place. Lenin’s monumental image, to me, evoked an entirely different place than a city in which a group of young Westerners could wander unescorted and look for fun on a Friday night. As Gorbachev’s government was openly discussing the failures of the Socialist system, Lenin was becoming politically irrelevant. Within a couple years, this statue would very likely be toppled. As we stood before the monument – this newly anomalous cultural artifact in the middle of a grassy square – I thought about climbing it. But a sense of residual reverence for this traditional national hero – and a sense of fear that I might still get in trouble for not paying due respect – kept me at a humble distance. We went back to the hotel after that, giving up on our search for booze.
We had set aside the next day to see Lake Baykal. The legend we’d read was that if you put your hand in the lake, one year would be added to your life; if you stuck your feet in, five years would be added; and if you actually swam in it, twenty-five years. I wanted to swim. Not just for the promise of years, but to become one with this great, mysterious lake. Admittedly, September didn’t seem to be the optimal time to bathe in this Siberian sea; still, I considered swimming to be the only way to “do” Lake Baykal.
At first, we were going to take the Baykal bus tour offered by the hotel, for about $20.00 a person. However, a Texan couple we met at breakfast told us about a more economical way to get there: take a taxi to the dock and ride the local hydrofoil up the Angara river to the lake. This was not only more adventurous and scenic, it was also an amenity used by the locals, and priced accordingly – five rubles (35 cents). We opted for the hydrofoil.
I was starting to notice a pattern in Russia. Everything was either dirt cheap or alarmingly expensive. Twenty dollars or 35 cents; there was no in-between. On the one hand, the absurdly favorable exchange rate gave us foreign tourists the ultra-cheap prices. The Soviet state and its monopoly on tourism services, on the other hand, made up for that by gouging the traveler for any tourist-only necessities.
Another example of this was the hotels. In order to get a Soviet visa, a prospective visitor had to submit a pre-planned itinerary along with hotel reservations. The reservations could only be arranged through Intourist, which required payment in full for the rooms, in western currency, in advance. Intourist charged us US$140.00 a night for our hotel rooms.
Admittedly, these prices fluctuated wildly depending on where you make your arrangements from. Tobey had booked the train tickets and hotel reservations from Tokyo, through a Hong Kong travel agency, probably paying one of the highest premiums there is. And there were undoubtedly loopholes – we met at least one non-Russian traveler who was actually, somehow, booking his hotel rooms as he went.
But once we were in the country, and could find services run for locals instead of tourists, we were filthy rich. Here in Irkutsk we found out that an airline ticket to Moscow, paid for in rubles, cost the equivalent of eight dollars.
The six of us from the night before – Tobey and I, Colin and Sharon, Michele and Jeff – left the hotel. Surprisingly, there were no cabs outside of the hotel, so we walked down Yuri Gagarin Boulevard and stuck our thumbs out. This tree-lined street along the riverbank on the cloudy, smogless day was prettier than the pictures in the book.
An old military truck stopped and picked us up. We rode in the back with a couple Soviet soldiers who were talking and laughing, obviously amused with themselves for picking up these Western tourists. Whatever their military mission was, they didn’t seem to be taking it too seriously. They let us out at the dock.
We bought our tickets, boarded the hydrofoil, and sped up the Angara. The boat ride was choppy, but comfortable when we got up speed. It had become overcast, windy, and intermittently rainy. Once we got out of Irkutsk, the cement riverbanks gave way to forests that lined the shore almost up to the waterline. The river gradually widened before it opened up into the lake.
Baykal seemed in several ways like an ocean bay. The wind stirred up swells and whitecaps. In the rain and mist, we couldn’t see the far shores of the lake; this gave the illusion of endlessness. We passed a factory, and ships nearby large enough to be ocean vessels. I was reminded of the poster at the hotel, and the threat posed, despite the lake’s renowned purity, by Baykal’s huge pulp mills.
The hydrofoil docked and we got out. Pelted by the wind-driven rain, we walked down the road along the shore. It looked and felt like a cold day on the Oregon coast. Cottages lined the edge of the lake, as well as shops and a couple restaurants. There was a rustic, slightly run-down feel to the area that reminded me of depressed coastal timber towns back home. Some distance down the road, Colin and I decided to perform the life-extension ritual. We went down to the water and stuck our hands in. It was bitter cold – getting those extra years would certainly be work. It felt even more chilling when I pulled my hand back out into the wind and felt the wind chill.
I cupped my hands and drank the water. It was exhilarating to drink from what looked and felt exactly like the sea, but was actually very pure freshwater.
I looked at Colin and thought, if you’re going to do it, I’m going to do it. He was probably thinking the same thing. So, we took off our shoes and socks, pulled up the cuffs of our pants, and stepped into the lake. It was numbingly cold. No way was I going to swim. I stepped back out and thought, if it weren’t for this second freezing sensation when I stepped out, I might jump in. But not today.
Nobody else joined Colin and me in the lake. Oh well; their loss.
We were hungry by then, and a distance up the road we found a little restaurant. Inside was a wedding party. We thought they might have the whole place reserved, since they occupied most of the small dining room. About that time, a young, rather comical-looking Russian man just inside told us, in good English, that we could just come in and order a meal. So we did.
The wedding party was just finishing up. The bride and groom came to our table and, although they spoke no English, we all drank a toast. Afterwards, to our surprise and delight, they presented to us a bottle of vodka. Tobey, in return, made them each a dollar-bill ring – an origami trick she had learned from her dad. They examined it with fascination and appreciation.
By the time we finished lunch, it was time to think about getting back to the hotel. This was when we learned, three hours before we had to be in Irkutsk and back aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad, how much the Soviet Union frowned upon unescorted foreign tourists.
First, we went back to the hydrofoil. The conductor wouldn’t let us on because we hadn’t bought return tickets back in Irkutsk. But we’ll just buy them here, we said. “Can’t do it,” he said. “Not allowed.”
There were several tour busses in the parking lot next to the dock. We talked to the only driver there, and he told us we couldn’t ride on one of these busses unless we were in a tour group, no matter how empty the busses were. I was getting worried and irritated. “Offer him dollars!” I whispered insistently to Tobey and Colin, but they didn’t want to do that just yet. Even once we did, the driver ignored our offers, surprisingly.
“Damn! We’ll miss our train, and have to take that flight to Moscow for eight dollars!” said Jeff gleefully. “We won’t have to take that slow, boring train!” Poor Jeff – we tried to ignore him.
Nearby, we found a bus depot; a large open building with posted schedules and Russians waiting inside. The schedule said the next local bus was at 4:45. This would get us back in plenty of time for the 7:15 train departure. Yes! However, a Russian man who spoke English overheard us and told us that the 4:45 was already full. The next bus was at 6:30. That one would most likely get us back to town just in time to miss the train to Moscow.
It was looking grim now. We were in the process of becoming stranded at Lake Baykal. Was there anything left that we could do?
The Russian man had a suggestion: Go down to the Baykal hotel – about two kilometers down the road – and hire a charter bus from there. “Thank you, thank you,” we gushed. If it’s only two kilometers, we could walk it. We started down the road again, ecstatic (except for Jeff).
A tiny brown Soviet-made car passed by from behind as we were walking, then passed by the other way, then came up again from behind and pulled over next to us. It was the young man we had met in the restaurant, driving with a friend. He asked where we were going and if we needed a ride. We said yes, but we had no idea how the six of us were going to fit in the back seat of this minuscule car. He was more than willing to make two trips, he said. Great! Colin, Jeff, and I decided to be chivalrous and let the women go first. Tobey, Sharon and Michele managed to squeeze into the back, and the car drove off.
Immediately, we men realized what a stupid idea this chivalry bit was. Colin was almost my size (I’m six foot four, and weighed 195 pounds then); Jeff was almost my height and had a classic football player build. If the women could barely squeeze in the back seat, there’s no way we were going to fit!
The car came back, after a little longer of a delay than we expected. Colin and Jeff got in and squeezed as far to the left as possible. This left about eight inches on Jeff’s right. I crammed myself in, and we arranged ourselves in a position wherein Jeff was halfway on the seat and halfway on my lap, and slouched over to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling.
Along the way, we talked with the driver. He had just finished up his time with the Soviet army and was now going to college in Irkutsk. He was quite fortunate to have this car to use. It was a 1955 model; bought originally by his grandfather.
It took almost ten minutes to get to the Baykal Hotel. This was no two kilometers; it was more like seven or eight, so we were very glad to get this ride. At the same time we drove up the side road of the hotel, a tour bus was driving out. The bus stopped; Tobey ran out and flagged us down. Each of the six of us gave the driver of the car a dollar, and he thanked us.
The bus headed towards Irkutsk, carrying only the six of us, the driver, and a Russian woman seated opposite the driver. She announced she would be our tour guide. We casually agreed on ten dollars to take all of us back to Irkutsk.
We were saved! Finally! It looked like we would get back with about forty minutes left to get our stuff from the Intourist hotel baggage storage, take a shuttle to the train station, and board the train. Any less slack time would have been uncomfortable.
The drive on the hilly, woodsy roads around Lake Baykal were quite a contrast to the trip up the river. I noticed a housing development behind some trees at one point. These were single-family units, instead of monolithic apartment blocks; not too much different than a suburban tract in Oregon. Our “tour guide” said nothing to us on the drive back; she talked only with the driver, in Russian.
The bus pulled up at in front of the Intourist Hotel. “Twenty dollars,” the woman announced. We were stunned. (This was a difference of $1.67 apiece that we were panicking over. But, in relative terms, it was a fortune.)
Colin was on the ball. After a few seconds of silence, he said, “That’s a lot of money. We know that’s a lot of money.” Stranded or not, we weren’t giving him a month’s salary for an hour’s work.
Colin wouldn’t budge. The driver threw his hand down in a gesture of disgusted acquiescence and muttered something in Russian, and the woman announced that ten dollars it would be. Within half an hour we were back on the Trans-Siberian.
It was around dinnertime when we boarded the train, so we went to the car. (The Russian word for “restaurant” is , transliterated as “restoran” and spelled entirely in Cyrillic letters that look identical to letters in the Roman alphabet, but aren’t those letters. Jim pronounced it “pectopah” until we realized he wasn’t joking, at which point we corrected his misunderstanding.)
As usual, there was bread on the table, wheat and dark rye, and menus. We went through the usual routine with the menus, which was this: The menu had a couple hundred items on it, each one written in both Russian and English. However, only about a tenth of them had prices penciled in beside them – which meant that the item, theoretically, was available. The waitress would come over; an elderly, robust, sweet but temperamental woman. One of us, such as David, would request one of the priced dishes.
“No. No. Out of that,” she would respond.
David would then look at the menu again, and request something else.
“No. Out of that.”
David would point to one more item. “No, no,” says the waitress, smiling this time.
“Well, what do you have, then?”
“Chicken.” The answer would always be either “chicken” – creamed chicken over rice – or “stroganoff” – beef stroganoff over rice. They’d alternate between them every dinner. You’d think we’d have figured it out by now, but it took us about three dinners before we did.
It hit the spot, though. Every dinner – and every lunch as well – would start with the bread, which there was never a shortage of. Following that we’d be served soup: usually borscht, Russia’s ubiquitous beet soup, topped with a dollop of sour cream. Then we’d get our chicken or stroganoff. Simple, but hearty. I only got sick once. That was the day I was eating lunch and unmistakably noticed last night’s chicken in today’s borscht.
The train on the Trans-Siberian line was almost identical to the Trans-Mongolian train, but with some differences. In regards to bathrooms, I discovered I should have counted my blessings in China. There, washrooms and toilets were separate rooms. Here, there were two tiny combination washroom/bathrooms per car.
Each car on the Trans-Siberian had a provodnik – a conductor, who was always a feisty middle-aged or elderly woman. Provodniks wore light blue aproned dresses that were distinctive but didn’t seem to fit the term “uniform.” Yet, they commanded more authority than any navy-blazered man on Amtrak. Russia, it seemed, had mother figures in charge of passenger trains, instead of father figures.
Once when we ran into David, he told us he had just been having an interesting conversation with one of the provodniks. Even though she spoke no English and he spoke no Russian. Well, if anyone could, it would have to have been David.
Whoever was in charge of assigning cabins on the Irkutsk-Moscow stretch was thoughtful enough to put Colin & Sharon in the same cabin as Tobey and me. Or maybe we were just lucky. The Baykal incident had firmly established the six of us – us four cabinmates, Michele, and Jeff – as a group. Afternoons, we would usually get together and talk, comparing experiences of being young adults in Oregon, Michigan, and “N-Zed.”
Quite a lot of the discussions, however, would be Tobey and Michele comparing their experiences in Japan and impressions of Japanese society. This seemed an inexhaustible subject. They’d found so many things in Japan would seem perfectly familiar at first, only to find a completely baffling Japanese twist to it. Automatic teller machines everywhere, yet they were shut off after banking hours. An obsession with gadgets, but applied to things like toilets (equipped with automatic washer-blowdryer attachments!) Painstaking propriety, yet often masking incomprehensible obscure taboos and inability to deal with awkward situations. A love of American popular culture, expressed as “Lets Join Us.” Tobey and Michele talked more and more animatedly; one impression following immediately after another. While fully admitting their own cultural bias, they had to ask: how could people so weird be taking over the world?
The other four of us would just listen with fascination and ask questions. I felt like I learned more about life in Japan from riding the Trans-Siberian than about life in Russia.
I got into a debate over Japan with Tobey: Who had it worse, the Japanese middle-class man or woman? I’d read articles, mostly written by men, about the Japanese salaryman – overworked and stressed to the point of physical exhaustion, indentured to his company for life, enjoying virtually no social life other than going out after work with coworkers to bars, strip joints, and sex clubs and getting stumbling drunk. His wife, Tobey countered, is a slave to the kitchen, family, and husband. When he gets home, she’s absolutely expected to have dinner on the table and a hot bath drawn for him, even when he’s been out at the sex clubs. And she’s not even allowed the release of getting drunk and carousing. I conceded to Tobey on this point.
The second day out of Irkutsk I started to come down with a cold, which I denied that the lake experience played a part in. I spent a more time than usual in our cabin, resting up and looking at the scenery. The terrain was looking a lot like New England – farms amid groves of hardwood trees, on rolling hills. This wasn’t the harsh wilderness of impenetrable evergreens I’d imagined Siberia to be. Then again, we were traveling along the southern edge of Siberia.
Where were we, anyway? The Trans-Siberian Handbook gave me some city names, but didn’t show me where in the Russian landmass they were. I consulted my map of Russia, an insert from a recent National Geographic. I found Achinsk, the last city we’d stopped at. It was the first time I’d used a National Geographic map to orient myself. I felt worldly. This was as cool as the time I’d used a New Yorker to plan my evening in Manhattan.
One morning, when I was playing guitar in my cabin with Tobey, an apparently Russian man came by and watched me from just outside the cabin door. Thin, sinewy, and in his thirties, he looked like he hadn’t had an easy life so far. But he had a fascinated, contented smile as he watched me play.
I motioned for him to come in, and he did. A couple songs later he deferentially gestured to me that he’d like to play my guitar. I gave it to him, and he played a lovely Russian folk song. He sang in a strained but passionate voice; I imagined a Russian Bob Dylan. Even though I couldn’t understand the words, his singing was deeply expressive.
He played two more beautiful Russian songs. Here my tiny stereo cassette player with a build-in microphone found a use. I’d bought it before the trip for just this sort of occasion. His last song, the most moving and the most catchy, I asked him to play again, pointing to the cassette recorder. With a copy on tape, I was able to learn the chords and melody so that I could play and hum it myself.
We asked his name, but what he said was long and hard to pronounce, and we weren’t sure if it was his first or last name, so we forgot it. I remember where he was from, though: L’vov, in the Ukraine. I took out the National Geographic USSR map, and we showed each other our routes and destinations on it.
He then started finger-picking a non-Russian-sounding song in the key of A minor. After a few chord changes I recognized it: the Eagles’ “Hotel California”! Tobey and I sang the fragments of verses that we knew, as he beamed with pleasure that we were able to recognize and pick up on it. He played along and muttered the words of the chorus phonetically.
Later in the day he came back with something he wanted to show me: a set of pirated Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath cassette tapes. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with his collection as he was; I would have been more impressed with more authentic Russian music. But I did appreciate that it must have taken some hard work to score these in the Ukraine.
As a gift he gave me some sheets of Russian verse, handwritten on notebook paper. The writing was flowing Cyrillic calligraphy carefully rendered in ball-point. One name at the top of one of the pages caught my eye. I sounded the letters out and recognized the name: “Yev-ge-ny – Yevtushenko!” He smiled, evidently pleased at both my recognition of the famous Russian poet and my command of Russian phonics.
Later that evening we ran into him again under quite different circumstances. The six of us were having a party in our cabin, singing American songs, eating crackers, and drinking from the bottle of vodka given to us by the bride and groom at Lake Baykal. This time, we were feeling comfortable and rather culturally insular. After a long day in Siberia, we felt more like singing songs from home, with each other, than having more foreign experiences. We sang “American Pie,” all seven long verses – our generation’s invocation of the spirit of home.
The Ukrainian man showed up at the door, this time with his friends: a couple Slavic guys and three swarthy men from Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijanis – I learned their nationality later when they asked me to take a picture and send it to them – were well-known to Tobey and Michele for leering at them whenever they walked down the corridor.
Apparently they’d been looking for a party. The Ukrainian and a couple of his friends took the last few spaces to sit on the beds; the rest of them stood in the doorway. Visibly drunk, the Ukrainian started reaching for my guitar. “Keep playing, Dietrich,” Tobey and Michele said. This was exactly what we were not in the mood for.
I finally gave him my guitar. He started one song, then lost track of the chords and started plinking around at no song in particular, getting frustrated at his impaired picking ability. He started another song; the same thing happened. Drunken, sloppy guitar playing is pretty much the same around the world, I concluded. So I took my guitar back, against a little physical resistance from him.
I played a couple songs; he started grabbing at my guitar while I was in the middle of one. I pulled away, irritated. I was willing to be undeservedly generous with my guitar when I wasn’t playing. But when he screwed with my song, he was pushing me quickly to my limit.
Soon he grasped the neck above where I was fretting, muffling the strings and stopping the song. “No! Get your hands off my guitar!” I yelled at him, as if scolding a dog. He flinched back and gave me a remorseful, pathetic look. Soon he was pawing tentatively at my guitar again, however. I just drew the instrument back when he did. We started talking about how we could get rid of him.
About this time, we ran out of the vodka the Lake Baykal newlyweds had given us. Our uninvited guests weren’t offering any booze, so the only way we could continue drinking was to break into our Chinese whiskey. Someone had bought this whiskey in Beijing, tasted it, and quickly put it away. I never tried it myself, since everyone said it tasted like nail polish remover. But it was the only alcohol left now.
We took drinks of it from the bottle, as big of swallows as we could stand. The Ukrainian watched us taking shots and grimacing with disgust. “Give me the bottle,” he gestured. He had a cocky expression that seemed to say: “You Americans are no match for bad whiskey; I’ll show you how a Russian drinks.” He took the bottle, tipped it back, and chugged about a third of it in one shot. Quickly setting the bottle down, he grabbed one of our crackers, held it to his nose and sniffed it aggressively. His cohorts looked on, amazed.
It wasn’t until after the trip that I learned what the sniffing was all about. After a strong drink, a Russian customarily takes a bite of solid food instead of a liquid chaser. An ordinary Russian does, that is. But a real Russian man will take a piece of solid food, hold it above his lips, and stoically resist the temptation to eat it. He’ll just sniff it. There’s a heroic symbolism to it too; a legend of some Russian war hero who saved his comrades in arms by not eating their rations after his drinks. Something like that.
So I thought, maybe he’ll pass out now and stop being such a nuisance. Sure enough, ten minutes later, he slumped over against his Russian friend. His friend cradled him in his arms, patting his cheeks to try to make him come to. The proverb came to mind that there’s no greater love than one Irish drunk for another; this would certainly apply to Russian drunks too. His other friends, who had been watching his imbibing bravado with amazement if not respect, now looked over him with concern and pity.
Soon they got him semi-conscious enough to walk while supported, and they brought him back to his cabin. The Azerbaijanis left too; the life of their party had fallen. Finally we were rid of the drunken Ukrainian. We hadn’t had to do anything; he’d done himself in.
I saw the Ukrainian guy a few times during the next couple days. We would nod hello, but he kept a pretty low profile.
After two days of rolling through flat Siberian steppe, we started climbing again. The train was ascending the Ural Mountains, which marked the boundary between Asia and Europe. We were now leaving Siberia; after crossing the great divide we would be in European Russia.
According to all our travel guidebooks, there was a huge obelisk which marked the dividing line between the continents. As we climbed the foothills, we all gathered together near an open window, and counted the kilometer posts. The obelisk would be at 1777, and the numbers were getting surprisingly close to that; surprisingly since we’d barely started climbing the foothills. We were seeing alpine evergreen forests, sure; but the mountains weren’t looking any more mountainous. The train chugged up the incline, and we got our cameras ready.
The track leveled off, and the train, since it was no longer going uphill, sped up just before whizzing past the obelisk. What a disappointment! They didn’t make a short ceremonial stop, or even slow down for pictures; they actually sped up! Out of the four or five of us that tried to take a picture of the obelisk, only one of us got a photo that looked like anything, and it was blurry. And as for the mighty Ural Mountains – those “foothills” we had climbed were the mountains. This was the wimpiest world-famous mountain range I’d been to; these wouldn’t even rate as coast range hills in Oregon.
We heard a rumor that the waitress had cognac. This sounded tempting, especially the prospect of scoring this forbidden substance. (Gorbachev, in his questionable effective crusade to stem alcoholism in the Soviet Union, had outlawed the serving of alcohol on the trains.) It seemed surprising that our waitress, a respectable-seeming woman, would be holding contraband, but that’s what we’d heard. I could use the Camel cigarettes from Berkeley to bargain with, I imagined. We could be black marketeers ourselves. Or, thinking of it another way, we could play the ordinary Soviet citizen’s game, of using elaborate black market deals to illegally acquire an ordinary household item.
I went with my cabinmates to the dining car; we sat down and were served our meal of either chicken or stroganoff. I, the man with the cigarettes, was to make the first offer. The waitress came to our table and cleared off the dishes. I waited for the crucial moment. With studied nonchalance, I drew the pack out of my pocket and said, “Say – I heard . . .” – just as she turned away and carried the dishes back to the kitchen.
Colin, Sharon, and Tobey laughed. I looked ridiculous. I never begin a sentence with “Say.” My attempt to be “streetwise” was as bad as my timing. The only way I was going to pull a successful Russian black market operation, I decided, was just to be myself. So, when the waitress came around again, I stopped her and said, “Um . . . we heard you had some, ah, konyak . . .” , “konyak”, was not a difficult translation.
“No. No konyak.”
I took out the pack of Camels.
“Oh! Konyak!” She laughed heartily, then disappeared into the kitchen and brought out a bottle. She poured some in each of our glasses. It wasn’t bad.
David then came in and sat down at the table across from us. He saw us drinking our bootleg hooch, and we told him the story. When the waitress came by his table, he then asked her sweetly for some cognac. She promptly brought out another bottle for him – no cigarettes required. That damn David.
The thick evergreen forests continued as we rolled on westward into European Russia. We saw more dachas. This looked like the Russia I’d envisioned. In fact, this was much more how I’d pictured Siberia than what Siberia itself had looked like.
The morning before our arrival in Moscow, Tobey, Michele, and I met an earnest young Russian Jewish man named Adi. He appeared about the same age as me, physically, but looked like he’d lived through more than someone twice my age. He seemed to choose his words more carefully than someone who speaks English as well as he would need to.
He’d just gotten out of prison, he explained. Seven years he had spent in a prison camp in Perm, a prison compound east of Moscow. “What were you in for?” Michele asked.
“I was a political prisoner,” he said. It was simply for applying for an emigration visa that they had jailed him for seven years. Now, thanks to Gorbachev’s reforms, he was not only released from prison but allowed to apply to emigrate. He was now on his way from Perm to Moscow to move to Israel and live with relatives.
He effusively thanked America for helping get him out of prison. One American senator in particular had worked on his behalf; Adi owed his freedom to him. He praised President Bush for his work against the Soviet system. Everything Adi said was spoken with unbroken eye contact, utter earnestness, and a passionate sense of fellowship with us. He conveyed profound gratitude that we listened to him, or that we were with him at all. It was almost uncomfortable.
Something I was carrying had a hammer and sickle insignia on it. Adi pointed to it and said “Ooh! Swastika!” in deadly serious humor.
We walked away somewhat stunned. He’d definitely shown us a different side of Russia, and of the Russians. Meeting him was quite a different Russian experience than wading in Lake Baykal, scoring cognac, and the other silly things we’d been doing. The gravity of his story was hard to imagine. Talking about it afterward, we found each of us had wondered – just a little bit – if his story was even true. It’s an extreme story, yet we all knew that such things happened. How could we conscionably suspect this man of being a fraud – unless he was? Michele was suspicious; she had heard him mutter a prayer to Christ at one point.
I ran into Adi one more time as the train approached Moscow. He wrote down the address where he would be staying in Israel and gave it to me. Thanking me once again, he shook my hand, clasping it tightly with his other hand. I had given him so much just by listening to him, I felt embarrassed.
Then he gave me a gift which he told me to keep hidden until I was out of the Soviet Union. It was a small, paperbound Bible in two languages, Russian and Hebrew. At the point he presented it to me, I felt afraid to carry this dangerous contraband in the USSR, but I couldn’t bear to refuse it or to get rid of it afterwards. They hadn’t checked my luggage coming into Russia, so I figured they probably wouldn’t check much of it going out. I kept it.
Later, I opened the Bible to the Russian language section. I sounded out the title – , Noviy Zavyet. “Noviy” sounded like Russian for “new.” And the titles of the books within – 1-e Korinfiyans, Efesyanam, 2-e Petra, Marka. 1st Corinthians, Ephesians, 2nd Peter, Mark – this was the New Testament! No wonder he he’d prayed to Christ. It all sounded like a hoax now, or – more likely – something entirely plausible: he was Jewish by ethnicity but he followed Jesus. Soviets had been long been oppressing Jews as a people rather than as a religion. I never found out what his whole story was, or if he got to Israel, but it seemed to all make sense.
That afternoon we came into a heavily populated area – the outskirts of Moscow. The familiar hulking, cookie-cutter apartment buildings came into view. But among them was a great gilded dome of a cathedral. I started seeing other majestic pre-Revolutionary buildings as well. After three days in Russia, this was the first city we visited that gave a sense of Russian, rather than Soviet, history and culture. The train rolled into Yaroslavl Station. My mood of being in historic Russia was dashed; this station looked no different than any train station anywhere.
After we stopped and got out, one of the provodniks got my attention. She was the shortest of the provodniks, about four and a half feet tall, but just as bossy as the others. She pointed to the large metal sign on the side of the train, about seven feet up, which said ROSSIYA – MOSCOW-VLADIVOSTOK. I gathered from her gestures – and from the fact that she had picked me, the tallest person in the area – that she needed me to reach up and take the sign down. I did, thus officially marking the end of the Vladivostok to Moscow Trans-Siberian line.
All text and images ©2002-2004 by Dietrich Neuman.