Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Trans-Sexual, I Mean Trans-Siberian, Experience

Lest the title of the last post lead you astray, that one small herd of yaks that I saw were the only ones. Mostly it was sheep, horses, and cows.

Also, something should be said about the changeable weather. I week ago in Mongolia it had been 35 and windy and snowing. Now you only need a t-shirt when you go to bed, except 10 minutes later when you need a sweatshirt. Then in the morning it reverses itself, and then back again, and so on.

And a final comment about Mongolian solidarity. The country is indeed very poor, but one really gets the feeling that you can always stop off at a ger and they'll take care of you. There's no begging and everything seems secure. After all, GNP isn't everything; a hundred years ago the US per capita income was probably a tenth of what it is today, yet everyone was pretty happy...

Anyhow, it was our last morning in Mongolia. First, we headed a couple of blocks over to the country's biggest monastery. As I mentioned, Mongolia's Buddhism was learned from the Tibetans, but one gets the feeling that they never took it nearly as seriously as their teachers. On the other hand, it DID do a lot to lessen their bloodthirsty barbarian image.

Then it was a quick trot over to the large and strange State Department Store. I had hoped for some souvenir shopping, but none was to be had. A quick lunch at the California Restaurant: one more greek salad and cheese potatoes. And then a cab to the train station, Sumi helped lug my luggage onto Wagon 11, and she was off and soon so was I.

But first I waited for my 3 cabinmates to arrive. After all, that German couple had tried for tickets this morning and had been told they were all sold out. But 1:50 came and went, the train started rolling, and I was still all alone. Maybe twirling those prayer wheels yesterday had worked? I doubted it. Still, I took what I could get while I could get it.

A half hour later my prodivitsa (a sort of stewardess/janitoress who does all the stewarding and janitoring) came by with my inflight snack of a bottle of water and some Mongolian potato puffs. But then I was alone.

Mongolia started rolling away past my window again. Again it looked like eastern Wyoming. Or maybe central Nevada. Or maybe eastern New Mexico. Hell, it looked like anywhere in the arid American West: flat to rolling to low hills, sometimes a little greener, but usually brown, brown, brown. I thought that it might look a lot nicer after the rainy season, but then I realized that that was now.

At seven pm we pulled into MongoliĆ”'s third largest city (population 70,000) and all bedlam broke loose. A number of giant suitcases and a young Mongolizn lady with her two year old daughter ended up in my compartment. I thought that she would be my new traveling companion, but when the train lurched forward she freaked, grabbed the child, and tried to get off the train. Which was difficult considering the Mongolian horde that was in the corridor.

I know that she succeeded in getting off, because I saw her on the platform weeping and waving with all the other Mongolian relatives. In her stead was her young husband, who it turned out was a student going back for another year to study in Ekaterinburg, Russia. He somehow pushed and jammed all of his stuff under seats and into holes.

We got to the border around 8:30, and the Mongolian formalities proceeded apace. And now we would wait...

Having never been erudite enough to have read a Russian novel, I had decided to bring along The Brothers Karamazov. I pulled it out and started reading: It was a dark and stormy soul.

After a couple of hours we headed out from Mongolia and towards the Russian border. I was half afraid that the Russians would find something wrong with my visa, pull me off the train, and take me to some secret prison where I would be brutally tortured. Then I remembered that that sort of thing only happens in America.

Actually, Russian entry was pretty straightforward, although it was kind of weird to once more be having Caucasians in authority. Then, it now being Russia, we waited some more. I did find out that once again the LP was wrong, and there was not a sign of any money changer anywhere. If it weren't for the kindness of some Russian mafia/backpackers (I wasn't quite sure which) who changed a fifty for me, I would have been totally screwed. As it was, I was stuck with a now worthless 10,000 togreg note, a fitting symmetrical irony to my Mongolian adventure.

Right on schedule at 10:02, however, we started up. Of course, that was 3:02 am my time, but from now on the train and me would surreally be on Moscow time.

I was eager to get to sleep, because I was eager to wake up early the next morning. For I knew that we would be passing by one of those exotic end of the world places that I had always wanted to see: The Deepest Lake In Thw World: Lake Baikal. Oh Boy!

Around 9 am I awoke to a rain splattered window and some dull grey water stretching out not all that far to meet a dull grey sky. Oh No! It looked like some lame lake in Canada, only without a craggy Canadian Shieldscape to ennoble it.

What a bringdown. About an hour or so later, as we continued to hug the nothing shoreline, the clouds started to lift a little, and I noticed that there were indeed hills surrounding it, although even there they were more like rounded Appalachian hills rather than magnificent peaks. As we rounded the southern edge the clouds lifted a little more, and I grumpily conceded that if they ever had a nice day it would probably be pretty neat.

But still no Lake Superior.

Anyhow, that's how it goes with longheld fantasies and the vagaries of weather. I could have stayed there for a week and been all rained in. Or it might have been a bright and sunny day...

A couple of hours later we passed our first Russian settlement. If I hadn't known better, the hundreds of tiny little shacks separated only by enough space for a tiny garden would have been more depressing than South African 'townshops'. But I did know better: These were the funky 'summber houses'of city dwellers.

And then the fabled Irkutsk appeared. I was kind of hoping that there would be a big pile of plastic triangular Risk pieces in the middle of town, but no such luck. Indeed, I knew from previous experience that outside of Moscow and St Petersburg, every Russian city was going to be intensely uninteresting. (I picture a young Soviet architect rushing into the office one morning: I've got it! We'll build a big rectangular concrete builiding! Just like all the others!')

Here my final two cabin-mates appeared: A young Mongolian IT worker with a job in Moscow and a 21 year old Syrian boy she was shepherding who spoke not a word of Russian or English.

And once the train started going again, I decided to finally walk its length. I found out that there were 18 spalny (2 berth) places, and 360 kupe (4 berth) ones. I also found out that, outside of a few westerners in spalny, there was me, a small sprinkling of Russians, and a whole, whole lot of Mongolians on this train.

Why they were here became apparent at the next stop. For each one of them had brought along suitcases full of cheap Chinese clothing, which they now brought out on the platform and hung out of the train windows, complete with mannikins. And waiting for them were middle-aged dilapidated Siberian women, who had all congregated for the Mongolian flea market. And there would be two or three twenty minute stops per day when the whole absurd scene would be repeated.

Meanwhile, I sat in my compartment reflecting on my relative good fortune in sharing my compartment with some of the few students on board, instead of all the, all right, grubby Mongolians who spent their whole lives taking this train to Moscow, unloading all their bad Chinese jeans and plastic purses, and then going back to UB for more.

I settled in and watched Siberia's fields and forests pass by in their version of fall foliage. This no longer looked like Wyoming, but rather like midlevel Canada, complete with birches and spruces, except here the trees were somewhat taller. The weather kept getting progressively clearer.

Maureen had expected that once I had all this time to myself on the train I would be overflowing with Profound Ideas. Here's what I was thinking: Russia might be undeniably wacky (for I had been here before), but for my purposes it still seemed somehow saner than the land of my birth. After all, like in the rest of the Not Over Developed World, these people all still have their dreams. We seem to be stuck with only nightmares any more.

I mean, if in 1944 you had shown the Nazis or the Communists a glimpse of the future, wherein CNN, the self-proclaimed 'World's Most Trusted News Source', was selling advertising for 'natural male enhancement' pills, they would have said: Even WE never thought that Liberal Democracy could get so depraved!

Yes, I know that I'm degraded, too: note the lame humor of today's blog post title. But nonetheless I still like to sit on Mongolian trains in Siberia, watching the scenery roll by, and not watching CNN and not having to deal with topics like gay marriage and torturing Arabs and natural male enhancement.

Since we had all missed out the night before at the border, we were all eager to get to sleep as the sun went down. And as the sun came up it was a beautiful blue sky fall day. The passing terrain still looked like Canada With Taller Trees, sometimese flat, sometimes rolling. I felt bad comparing everywhere with home--after all, China looks distinctly different, India looks distinctly different... But Canada with taller trees was what it was.

Okay, the towns weren't quite the same. Mostly they were pathetic agglomerations of bedraggled wooden structures. I kept fantasizing that a battalion of Up With People! kids armed with three tons of housepaint would do wonders for the atmospherics.

Talking with Raya, my new Mongolian girl friend, I found out that her parents were yak herders back at Terelj National Park. Stopping at each platform, I found that all the travel guides were wrong again: there were no nice ladies selling pierogies anywhere (maybe they all knew about the Mongolian train). There was one empty dining car on the train with one grumpy Russian waiter in it. The corridors reeked of ramen and Mongolian strange meat stew. My hunger was getting more desperate.

And as I walked around a train platform in the afternoon, my Profound Idea was that this would be a good day to watch a meaningless NFL game on tv.


At 10:04 AM, Blogger Volshebnik said...

Great blog! Funny to read foreigners' impressions about Russians (being one myself of course), I'll be waiting for more!

Good luck for this loooong train ride!

At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoying it, Michael.


Post a Comment

<< Home