Trans-Siberia Railroad

June Calender

© Copyright 2017 by June Calender

Honorable Mention--2017 Travel Nonfiction
Yurts seen from the train.

The Orient Express did not appeal to me. Book and movie made it sound too “jolly good” — tea and sherry with Lady La-de-da and Sir Secret Agent. I read that it was impossibly expensive and, by the end of the 20th century slow and grungy. But the Trans-Siberia Railroad—ah, that was a rail adventure of a different sort. Ten days long, eight or nine time zones, wilderness— gritty, only for the hardy who could endure monotonous forest and tundra.

I discovered, one could get a tiny taste of the famous route without ever getting to Russia. When I planned a trip to Mongolia which I’d long dreamed about, I found I could opt for a pre-Mongolia extension on the Trans-Siberia Railroad starting in Beijing, taking us to Ulan Bator in about 36 hours.  

I shelved my deep dislike of China’s human rights infringement in their treatment of Tibetans and flew to Beijing—a flight that would equal my rail trip, or seem to, thanks to the United Airlines’ delays in both La Guardia and O’Hare. After boarding,  we sat for another hour waiting for a restroom lock to be fixed. During most of that time, and for the first hour of flight, a Little Prince—the precious only son of a Chinese couple in the row behind me—steadily kicked the back of my seat, aiming perfectly for my kidneys.

Ah, well, Beijing! Someone had quipped, “You might not like their government but you’ll never have a bad meal in China.” Ha, I said. On a trip to Tibet the food in Chinese hotels was so abysmal that our experienced American guide had packed spaghetti, Ragu sauce and parmesan cheese and finagled permission to cook it for our small group to avoid a horrid meal in the hotel. The problem in Beijing, I realized after a dinner in a “very good” restaurant, was that the cooking was Cantonese. I prefer Szechwan cooking. It’s the difference between New England boiled beef and potatoes and Tex-Mex in New Mexico.

To the train. We boarded about 10 a.m. in the madness of Beijing’s equivalent of Grand Central Station (with double the population). My roommate, Kay, and I, as well as Steve (the Canadian guide) and Arthur, a retired professor of drama from Charleston, South Carolina were given two-person roomettes in the first class car. 

The couple of hours we rolled through the mountainous area north of Beijing we had frequent glimpses of the Great Wall undulating like a brick python over the mountaneous terrain. We had eaten late and hearty breakfasts so skipped lunch. The scenery gradually changed to the Gobi dessert, the area called “Inner” (meaning inside China) Mongolia, We watched from our roomette and from the hallway where Steve and Arthur stood, mostly bird spotting. We walked the length of the train—only four cars behind us.  And became bored enough that Kay produced a pack of cards and was disappointed I couldn’t play bridge. Neither could Steve. So we four played hearts until dinner time. I have fortunately forgotten what was served; but we were confused and bemused to noticed that the waiters seem to be free to charge varying prices for the same dishes.

We were far enough north—it was the first of July—that sunset was not until nearly 10:00. We had covered the personal data that strangers who will travel together for several days share—we were all  seasoned travelers so we had our personal revelations down pat. I liked Kay, a former executive of the Girl Guides organization in Canada, and Arthur and I had university theatre in common. Steven had been all around the world; he spoke of a fiancé he would marry at Christmas time and told us about Ethiopia.

When the darkening sky gave us permission to say it was bedtime, I offered to sleep in the upper pull-down bunk. We took turns in the bathroom at the end of the car (clean this early in the trip. We were glad we wouldn’t be around long enough to know if it deteriorated). I was soon asleep. Shortly before midnight the train stopped with a jerk which was followed by voices in the hallway and metallic clanking. Steve had said we would cross the border during the night. First Chinese and then Mongolian border officials came, turning on lights, inspecting our passports. Steve said we would be there for some time. “It’ll be noisy but you won’t feel anything.” The cars would be locked; we could not get out; this was not a station.

We barely saw anything except that we were in a huge rail shed. The gauge of the  railroad in Mongolia is narrower than that of China and Russia. Each car of the train, starting with the engine, was uncoupled and picked up by some device above—I pictured a huge claw-like mechanism that lifted the cars, one by one off their undercarriage and moved them to an undercarriage on a parallel track, all accompanied by clanking of unfastening and refastening and locking them in place. Sleep was impossible but we were talked out, so Kay and I lay in our reasonably comfortable berths and listened to a travel experience we had not anticipated but would never forget. 

When we realized the train was beginning to move out of the shed and into Mongolia proper we said goodnight again. The following day was mostly Gobi, sand and shrubs, rare stations at which we did not stop, hawks in the air, breakfast with awful coffee and more Hearts. We saw an occasional “ger”. Steve told us the word “yurt” was Russian and is despised, as were the Russians when they controlled the country. Eventually the desert turned to rolling green hills—beautiful empty countryside! We approached Ulan Bator and agreed we were not up for the real Trans-Siberia experience. We would not forget this prelude. If we were to go on to Moscow we would need a library of books, tapes to listen to, some puzzles and much vodka.

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