A journey on the Transmongolian Railway

Life on a train

Tickets can be purchased at local train stations, or you can get them sent to you by numerous travel agencies that organise this kind of epic journeys. It’s cheaper to buy your tickets locally, when you are already in the country. It also provides you with the unforgettable experience of dealing with railways clerks in Russia, Mongolia and China. Look confident, smile, deep breath, Good morning, I am your everyday idiot, I would like to force you to speak a language which is supposed to be global. I am sure you can speak English. I am afraid, my dear idiot, no English is spoken here.

No Italian, French, German. Europe is so close, but also so incredibly far. Suddenly you realise you are in trouble. Your backpack lays now on the ground, you start sweating as you are already getting closer to that other world. It doesn’t matter if your accent makes you sound like Donald Duck when you say “My Russian is very poor, but I would like to purchase a ticket to Perm”. Your ticket is your personal slap to the arrogant predominance of the English language. It’s not important if your underarm pits smell like a ditch after this linguistic effort. Their emotionless faces, laughing at each of my “I don’t understand”, their drawings which allowed me to understand the location of the correct train tracks when language failed: this is what remains. Those tickets have become similar to religious relics.I like to toil with the idea that something could go wrong. Picture this. Location: Moscow. Main characters: that train clerk, and her husband. Another one came at the train station today. She had one of those gargantual backpacks. She said something like: “I dan’t spoke Russia, but I wanteedddd ta go to Pirm”. She looked like an adventurer, and instead of sending her to Perm, I thought to give her a ticket to the Kamchatka peninsula. It must be priceless to see her face when she gets there.

Time slips away from your hands even before getting on the trains. Departure and arrival times in each train station in Russia, up to the Mongolian borders, are indicated as if you were in Moscow. Let’s say you are in Novosibirsk, or in Perm. The time ticking on the train station walls is shown as Moscow time. Let’s say it doesn’t make it easier for you. Get used to count and re-count again all those hours, between where you find yourself and Russia’s capital city. How many hours between here and there? And above all where exactly am I now? Same applies on your travelling documents: your tickets are all showing Moscow time. It’s still a mistery to me how I managed to take all my connections.

Time starts melting when you are on the train. Two, three days pass without any real stop somewhere and you soon realise that everything is a lot easier on the train than on the ground. Your actions are driven by human biological needs: sleeping, meeting new passengers, shaiking hands, eating, sharing your meals, trying to figure out what language those two are speaking: each action is more immediate and natural. Nobody cares if you look like a mad hatter when your provonidza wakes you up in the morning, when she shouts sharp and invincible that we are somewhere between Russia and China.

Three classes are available on the train.
First class: you and another person. Two beds, two little tables, two heads. I used to go walking around the first class to stretch my legs and be nosy. I saw a couple fiercely arguing, two enormous Mongolians playing cards and laughing hard, two Buddhist monks listening to their I-Pods, two serious business ladies, usual red lipstick, usual fake Rolex. I met Andreij from Siberia, while I was walking in first class. I learnt straight away about his obsession for tennis, and for ultranationalistic European parties. He also proceeded quite immediately to let me know that his ladies wouldn’t travel on their own, unlike me. After a few hundreds of kilometres, I managed to free myself from his monologue. The monocromatic taiga landscape outside my window is far more interesting.
Third class. There are loads of people. Accordingly to your social awareness, there are either too many and enough fellow passengers. I heard so many different tales about third class: shared bottles, sleepless nights, feet smelling as strongly as camembert cheese, kids running around half naked after having been washed in little portable sinks. I wasn’t offered any strange beverages, nor I saw anything quite as extraordinary. The only thought provoked by this train class is that I had never known that a pair of runners could smell so violently. I travelled 8000 kilometres in second class. 4 beds are available but I got lucky as I spent most of those long hours with another one or two people. There is room for everything: your backpacks fit either under your bed, or on top of it. You can hang your towels to dry. Clean and hopefully sanitisied bedlinen is provided by provonidzas every time you get on the train to travel towards a new destination.

Average temperatures are between 20C and 25C: people walk around wearing light t-shirts and tracksuits, no need for socks either. Almost everybody wears slippers: mine are the best of the train I reckon: they are outrageously pink, with my name embroidered on them. Dimitri, 40-year-old from Estonia likes to wear them. At each stop, passengers look like they are going to spend the day at the beach: shorts, flip flops, white strapless tops. Dressed in such manner, they are even more visible to the colourful multitude of sellers and bargainers that are found at each stop: buy buy buy buy buy buy buy. Sometimes, their persuasive art of marketing works, and you buy rice and potatoes-based dishes, vegetables you have never seen before. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly the scientific name of what you eat. The most important thing is that what you buy is cooked. You cannot chance the future of your stomach by eating raw food. Sometimes, though, they ask you to buy stones. Not precious stones. Stones. Sometimes, then, they ask you to buy a fat goose, hanging from my neck, or some of this cheese as bronzed as copper. You thank them and proceed to explain that you cannot digest goose, and copper is better off to be found in chemistry manuals. Stones, then, are so pretty when you skip them on lakes. The idea of snacking on them doesn’t appeal to you at all.

How did you manage to wash yourself on the train? must be one of the most recurrent questions I am asked when I talk about this trip. The best answer must be I managed. On each vagon there are 2 bathrooms/toilets. On the floor there is a hole, similar to the one you have in your shower. Pity there is no shower. In order to avoid this tiny nuisance, before leaving for this epic travel you go to your hardware shop, and you make sure to buy a piece of plastic tube, average length, average diameter. It’s even better if you buy one in rubber, which will easily adapt to these foreign sinks. It’s not simple to attach it to the water, but when you manage it, you know you have a future as King (or Queen) of Plumbers. While I am travelling in second class, I meet a respectful portion of Europeans: correct and keen on leaving no rubbish and to take away with them a crazy amount of pictures. We spend hours, days maybe, eyes wide open, staring outside of the train windows famished of new faces, of crooked houses, of man-less landscapes. We play cards, we drink tea and terrible coffee, we talk about Amsterdam, London and Berlin.

I meet Mira there, who doesn’t come from Europe. She is a pharmacist on Lake Baikal and cannot figure out why I want to travel across her land. On Lake Baikal there is nothing to see. On Lake Baikal you can see the Lake Baikal only. She dreams of leaving those waters, the deepest lake in the whole world. We tell each other about our lives, in a way that is instinctive. We know we will never see each other again when the train stops. I also meet Dimitri. He liked my pink slippers. He doesn’t really mind about their feminine colour. He says that I should consider travelling to Estonia in order to fully understand Russia. Strangely enough, a thousand kilometres are not enough for me to comprehend his dealings in Mongolia, his last destination. I meet a nameless lady, she doesn’t say anything to me for at least a couple of thousand of kilometres. Then, she offers some smoked fish, as dark as tarmac, and some vodka-flavoured chocolate. I tried the fish and I am still alive and kicking. It must have been fresh at some stage. I wish I could say the same for the chocolate, I think that the main ingredient must have been petrol. Lady Nameless must have forgotten that they were used to refill her tractor at the end of Siberia. I didn’t write anything at all while I was crossing the world but I took roughly 1,200 photos. Fields, cities, still taiga plains, seldom graveyards, rain running down on the windows, the Gobi desert running after a red, dry wind.
Being nowhere made me feel safe.

 Москва́ – Moscow   Siberia 

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