A journey in five parts
By Rolf Potts
Part I. Horse races, open spaces and the fate of Genghis Khan’s balls
The horse, which had collapsed 300 meters short of the finish line, was in its final spasms of death when a khaki-vested American stumbled up and started snapping pictures. Bearded and rotund, with gray-flecked hair and a bulky rack of photographic equipment, he struck a vivid contrast to the Mongolians crowded in around him.
Once he’d fired through an entire roll of film, the man looked back at me sheepishly. “Sorry to be so vulgar,” he said, slurring his words a bit. “This just looks like something that needs to be photographed.”
“It’s your world,” I told him.
Ten meters beyond the restraining cord, a white-frocked pair of Mongolian veterinarians jogged up to assess the scene. The horse’s rider, an exhausted-looking 10-year-old with lather-slicked legs, stood by tearfully.
Beyond the dying horse, the broad, grassy plain hummed with other child riders spurring their horses toward the finish line. Thousands of Naadam Festival spectators crowded the final stretch for half a mile in both directions. Purple thunderheads rumbled above — lending a grand, vaguely sinister air to the scene. I watched as one of the veterinarians plunged a syringe into the horse’s throat.
“It’s my world,” the American went on, “but normally I wouldn’t do this. It’s all that Iraq in me that’s taking the photos.”
“Aaaaiiiiiraaak,” he said, drunkenly drawing out his vowels. “Arak. It’s the Mongolian national drink. Complete strangers have been coming up all day and pouring it down my throat. It’s like Mexicans with tequila, only arak is made from fermented mare’s milk, so it’s like getting drunk on yogurt.”
“Can’t say that sounds too appealing.”
“Well, Genghis Khan drank it every day, and he conquered the world.”
“Right. Kind of like Michael Jordan and Gatorade.”
The American smirked. “Sure,” he said. “But don’t say that too loud. People take Genghis Khan really seriously around here. They see him as kind of a combination between Jesus and Napoleon and Tarzan. He’s father of their country.”
“Sure,” I said. “The Mongolian George Washington.”
“Yeah, but Genghis Khan pretty much makes George Washington look like a wig-wearing sissy, doesn’t he?” The bearded American paused and leaned in confidentially. “But then, George Washington isn’t the one who got his balls cut off.”
For a moment, I forgot about the dying horse. “What do you mean Genghis Khan had his balls cut off?”
“I mean Genghis Khan had his balls cut right off. Common knowledge.”
“I’ve never heard that in my life. Who cut his balls off?”
“I think one of his concubines did it. Kind of a Lorena Bobbit thing. I don’t know the details; I just know that it’s a fact. If you don’t believe me, ask around. Someone here is bound to know the whole story.”
On the hoof-trampled plain in front of us, the horse had stopped its spasms. The veterinarians waved in a front-end loader, which rumbled up and unceremoniously plunked the dead horse into a big Russian garbage truck. Unable to resist, the bearded photographer loaded another roll of film and jogged off to capture the best angle.
After watching the garbage truck drive off with the stiffening horse in the back, it was several hours before I could shake the macabre image from my mind.
The mysterious question of Genghis Khan’s missing testicles, on the other hand, nagged me for weeks.
Though it makes for a wonderfully novel experience, traveling to Ulan Bator during the annual Naadam Festival is probably not the best way to experience Mongolia’s capital. Granted, the grand ceremonies, day-long wrestling matches and spectacular horse races are awe-inspiring sights, but — as with New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Pamplona during the Running of the Bulls — Naadam turns Ulan Bator into a cramped cosmopolis of careening tour buses and drunken amateur photographers. And, given the unfettered excitement Naddam inspires in Mongolians, interaction with locals is as futile as trying to engage an American on Super Bowl Sunday.
That I happened to be in Mongolia during Naadam is purely a coincidence. From the outset of my plans, Ulan Bator had simply been the first of a number of stops that my cousin Dan and I had planned to take along a classic 5,280-mile rail trip from Beijing to St. Petersburg. Dan had come all the way to China from Kansas (where both of us grew up) to join me for a journey we’d been planning for over a year.
Our initial 30-hour ride to Ulan Bator from Beijing featured endless glimpses of the exotic — from fog-shrouded vistas of the Great Wall, to camels a-trot in the Gobi, to a set of huge hydraulic cranes at the China-Mongolia border that lifted each train-car off the ground as the wheels were changed to fit the new track-gauge. None of this, however, prepared us for the eccentricities we found on the windy, Soviet-styled streets of Ulan Bator.
There, on the drab urban avenues of Mongolia’s capital, locals armed with Sony camcorders galloped on horseback through the festival crowds. Three dozen Scottish boy scouts, in town for a service project, posed in their kilts near the Mongolian Hunting Trophy Museum (which, according to a report in the tourist newspaper, features “amazing unbelievable big and nice trophies of ibex, elk and rose deer”). In the center of town, a half-dozen different documentary crews prowled Sukhbaatar Square, looking for something that looked Mongolian enough to put on film. Sneaker-shod locals rubbed shoulders with tourists bedecked in full Mongolian costumes.
Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s 100-person entourage (there as part of a state visit) crept from event to event in a heavily guarded motorcade, looking impressive and ridiculous at the same time. English-language newspapers advertised gay and lesbian peer education workshops, the eight-lane Mon-Kor bowling alley had just opened for business and — for the first time in festival history — the Naadam wrestlers were being tested for performance-enhancing drugs.
Aside from our tour guide and bus driver, the first true Mongolian I met in Ulan Bator was a man called Mr. Blue. Though I chatted with Mr. Blue on a couple of different occasions, the only vivid thing I remember from our conversations is his story about why camels’ penises point backward.
Middle-aged and dressed in J. Crew-style casuals, Mr. Blue originally approached Dan and me at Suhkbaatar Square, offering his services as a tour guide. Since we already had a guide, we declined. When I saw him the following day, we exchanged pleasantries — and this led to a conversation that rapidly moved to the topic of camel penises, a well-rehearsed shtick that is no doubt part of Mr. Blue’s daily routine.
Apparently, not long after the world was created, God (or, at least, the Mongolian equivalent deity) realized that it was too troublesome to rebuild animals every time they died. Seizing on a brainstorm, God decided to redesign animals so that they could reproduce themselves. In a moment of inspiration, God manufactured a number of sexual organs, and called the animals in to be fitted. One by one, the animals came to claim their new appendages, until every animal had a penis except the arrogant, dilly-dallying camel. When God called the camel in to claim the final penis, the camel decided he didn’t like the looks of it, and trotted off before God could attach it. Angered by the camel’s insolence, God threw the penis at the camel and it attached backward, as it remains to this day.
In retrospect, it’s a shame we never hired Mr. Blue as our guide the day of the horse races. After all, he — as an apparent expert on genital-related Mongolian mythology — might have elaborated a bit on Genghis Khan’s fate.
My time in Ulan Bator was not entirely dominated by phallocentric yarn-spinning. In fact, much of my time in Mongolia was spent in the countryside, where — because accommodations in the city had been long since booked for the festival — Dan and I stayed in a ger (a traditional Mongolian felt tent) campground with other members of our tour group.
Many travelers don’t care much for tour groups, because organized tours tend to “denarrate” one’s travel experience. “Denarration” (to borrow a word coined by Douglas Coupland) is when one’s experience ceases to contain elements of chance or drama or unexpected discovery. Thus, the problem some travelers have with tours is not that they aren’t interesting or educational or enjoyable — but that organized tours don’t leave one with much of a story to tell. Somehow, lighting your long-stem Mongolian tobacco pipe with a glowing brick of cow dung loses its verve when you arrived at the nomad’s tent in a Korean-made mini-bus.
This in mind, my most vivid memory of the tourist camp comes not from the horse rides or the lamb stews, but from the time Dan and I skipped out on the planned activities and hiked off into the smooth curves of the Mongolian landscape. Since there were no trees or fences or roads to guide (or impede) our way, we walked in a straight line toward the horizon for nearly two hours. Keeping a steady pace, we stopped only to examine the occasional dried cow skull or the odd piles of half-melted glass left behind by the nomads. Marmots peered out at us from the edge of their holes, wallowing in cuteness, as if impassively waiting for someone to saunter up and nominate them as Olympic mascots. We eventually halted our hike at the crest of a rounded ridge and took a seat to stare out at the sloping sea of grass.
Although most visitors to Mongolia rave about the humbling emptiness of the steppe, perhaps Kansans such as Dan and myself are best equipped to appreciate its beauty. As home to the largest contiguous stretch of virgin tall grass prairie left in North America, the aesthetic appeal of Kansas is like a simple folk tune that one learns to appreciate over the course of many seasons. Mongolia, on the other hand, has enough virgin grassland to swallow up the entire landmass of Kansas five times over. Taking in the Mongolian steppe is like looking at Kansas on steroids — a joyous Wagnerian symphony of blue sky, open spaces and grassy curves stretching out to everywhere.
Too often, as citizens of the 20th century, we draw our conclusions about the world by tracking the urban quirks and innovations that bring change to improbable places such as Mongolia. Visitors to central Asia early this century spoke of such change when the head monk of the Mongolian lamasery was said to have developed a taste for pornography, sunbathing and firing his American-made shotgun. Historians later trumpeted change in the 1920s, when the Communist Party seized control of a country that (as a subsistence-based nomad culture) had no workers to unite. The notion of change was reiterated by optimistic journalists in the 1950s, when Chinese-made textile mills and Russian-sponsored chemical factories gave Ulan Bator a sense of urban bustle. These days, urban crime, Internet cafes and sports utility vehicles on the streets of Ulan Bator tempt me to recast Mongolia as a California-in-the-making.
But one afternoon in the enormity of the Mongolian steppe tempered my urge to generalize. The grassy expanse beyond the urban limits of Ulan Bator hinted that — in the open spaces of the world — pre-history itself still holds a quiet upper hand on our noisy little parades of change.
While in Mongolia, I never did find out what happened to Genghis Khan’s balls.
To be honest, I really didn’t ask around much, since I feared broaching this topic with Mongolians might seem as crude and irrelevant as asking Christians how divinity affected the odor of Christ’s bowel movements.
Ultimately, my curiosity was sated in a distinctly denarrated manner — not by a wizened Mongolian hermit claiming to be descended from the Khan himself, or an Indiana Jones-style archaeologist leading an Ark of the Covenant-style quest for the dismembered gonads — but in a library, miles away from the Great Khan’s domain.
According to this legend, Genghis Khan was hunting one winter’s day when he killed a rabbit in the snow. Noticing the striking contrast of the rabbit’s blood on the snow’s surface, he decided that he wanted a woman so perfect and beautiful that her skin was as white as snow, and her cheeks as red as fresh blood. The kingdom was searched, and such a woman was found — the new bride of the prince of Ulankhota.
On threat of death, the prince handed his wife over to Mongolia’s great warrior, but she — still faithful to her true love — entered the Khan’s chambers with a knife hidden in the folds of her garment. When Genghis came to her that night, she responded to his advances by cutting off his genitals, then jumped to her death in a river. The Great Khan, it is said, fell unconscious from the shock, and never awakened.
Dan and I left Ulan Bator one day after the Naadam closing ceremonies. As our train pulled out of the city, Mongolia’s capital had already shifted down to a quiet, sleepy pace that — in comparison to the kinetic colors of Naadam — almost made it seem abandoned.
Within 12 hours of our departure from Ulan Bator, my cousin was still safely cruising into the heart of Siberia. I on the other hand — in a bizarre collusion of circumstances involving a Russian tank commander and two particularly unpleasant train provodnitsas — somehow managed to strand myself and two of my cabin-mates 250 miles from Ulan Bator at an obscure Russian border town called Naushki.
Such was the luck that greeted the next leg of my trans-Siberian odyssey.
Part II: Stranded in Siberia
For the first time in my life, I’d met someone who seemed genuinely excited that I was from Kansas.
“Kansas!” the Russian tank officer exclaimed. “Moskva!”
“Yes, I grew up in Kansas,” I said. “And I’m headed to Moscow.”
“Moskva!” he continued, acting as if I didn’t understand him. “Kansas!” He held out his hands and pressed his palms together. Unsure what to do, I smiled and mimicked his action, pressing my hands together.
Behind us, three old Soviet tanks sat, temporarily mothballed, in the rail yard of a Siberian-Mongolian border town called Naushki. Mark and James, my British cabinmates from the Trans-Siberian train, were clambering on the tanks — peering down the barrels and tugging on the hatches.
The Russian officer, who was trying to communicate something about Kansas with Lassie-like persistence, paid no heed to my companions’ informal tank-inspection. “Parlez-vous francais?” he asked, his palms still pressed together in front of him.
“Nyet,” I said. “Hanguk-mal haleyo?” The tank officer gave me a blank look. I expected as much: My fractured Korean language skills had yet to help me in any international situation.
“Hey James!” I called. James paused and looked down at me from the turret of the middle tank. “Don’t you speak French?”
James, a multilingual 19-year-old from Hong Kong, hopped down from the turret and exchanged a bit of French with the Russian. The Russian gestured at me and waited expectantly.
“I’m not sure exactly what he wants to know,” James said. “His French is quite basic. Literally, he’s asking if you’re from Moscow. He acts like it’s a city in Kansas.”
“Oh, Moscow,” I said, suddenly realizing the connection. “A little tiny Kansas farm town. God knows how he found out about it. But yeah: Moscow, Kansas.”
James looked at me uncertainly. “So, you’re saying you’re from Moscow, Kansas?”
“No — I’m not from there, but I know of it. They used to have a great eight-man football team. My uncle Ed coaches the eight-man squad in a town called LeRoy, and I still remember how Moscow beat LeRoy in the eight-man state championship game 20 years ago. It was a real heartbreaker I was just a little kid back then, but I really loved football.”
The Russian tank officer flashed the trademark grin of someone who is friendly and interested — but has no idea what the hell you’re babbling about. James raised an eyebrow and paused, as if trying to decide whether the saga of Uncle Ed’s 1979 football squad was really worth translating into French. Just then, Mark called to us from atop the tank.
“Hey!” he said, leaping down into the gravel at the edge of the tracks. “I just remembered that we’re not on Ulan Bator time any more. That means it’s 3:45; not 2:45. If the train leaves at 4:00 like the provodnitsa said, we’d better go back right now.”
Hastily bidding the Russian soldier farewell, James and I jogged after Mark as he led us out of the shunting yard.
We arrived at the main Naushki Station to find it completely, unambiguously empty.
Mark, James and I checked our watches in unison: Even with the hour time difference, it was still only 3:50. Mark broke our stunned silence by stating the obvious.
“The train’s gone.”
Since it had been my idea to hike out and look at the Soviet tanks while the train was stopped, I figured it was my job to assuage everyone’s fears. The only way to do this, of course, was to blatantly deny reality.
“We still have 10 minutes,” I said. “It can’t be gone. We’ll be fine.”
Mark and James didn’t say anything to this, and that said it all.
Barely 1,000 miles into my epic 5,280-mile train trip from Beijing to St. Petersburg, there was no real point in denying that I had somehow managed to get us left behind by the train itself.
Siberia, as Frederick Kempe observed in his eponymous 1992 book, has always been more a warning than a place.
Of all the locations in the world to be stranded, few places can match the desolation and hopelessness conjured by Russia’s enormous eastern reaches. European maps from Marco Polo’s day — which list Russia-proper as a “Region of Darkness” — reveal an apocalyptic bent to the earliest Western perceptions of Siberia. “Gog and Magog,” reads the Siberian portion of a 14th century Catalan map, “The Great Prince of these shall come forth with a great multitude in the day of the Antichrist.”
Though the biblical nomenclature never stuck, Siberia’s reputation hasn’t improved much in the last 600 or so years. To this day, Siberia is seen as little more than a blank space populated by exiles and Cossacks and criminals — a cold stretch of trackless forests, man-eating tigers and frozen tundra.
Mark, James and I were fully aware of this reputation when we found ourselves stranded on the Siberian frontier. Trying to stay calm, we went to the Naushki Station office for information on the next train.
The station officer was a kindly faced man with gray hair and a Soviet-style green cap. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand a single word we were saying, even after 10 minutes of pantomime. James tried French, Spanish, German, Mandarin and Cantonese on him — all to no avail. Half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully), I threw out a few phrases of Korean. The station officer grinned and spoke to us in very loud, slow Russian, repeating the same phrase again and again. The three of us stood befuddled.
“He’s trying to say that your train left at 3:15,” came a voice from behind us. Turning around, I saw a college-aged Mongolian girl walking up behind us. She couldn’t have been an inch over 4-foot-10, and she chomped her gum with an energetic confidence. “I’m Monika,” she said. “You all are trying to speak English, right?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” I said. “We were beginning to think nobody from this town would be able to help us.”
“Oh, I don’t live here,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I just come here sometimes to make money. It’s my job to be a person who does things for people. You know what I mean.”
Mark, James and I raised our eyebrows at each other.
“I take things to places for people,” she said, impatient with our cluelessness. “I forget it in English. You know: I take Chinese things from Mongolia to sell in Russia.”
“Oh, right,” Mark said. “You’re a businessperson. A trader.”
Monika chomped on her gum. “No, not exactly. Close, but not exactly.”
“You’re kind of like a courier,” I offered. “You’re a supplier.”
Monika brightened suddenly. “Smuggler!” she said. “I’m a smuggler. That’s my job.” Monika grinned proudly at her verbal precision.
Mark, James and I raised our eyebrows again. Obviously, Monika had no use for euphemistic English.
“We need to catch up with our train,” Mark said. “Are there any other trains this afternoon?”
“Not until tomorrow.”
Mark sighed. “Well, I guess we’ll have to wait here, then.”
“What, are you stupid? Nobody stays here. This is no-place. You can just hire a car to catch up with the train. No problem.”
“A car?” I said. “You mean there’s a highway out here?”
“Of course there’s a highway. Where do you think you are, anyway — the North Pole? You can be at Ulan Ude in a couple hours.”
“Is that soon enough to catch our train?”
“Sure, if you drive fast.” Monika abruptly turned and started to walk out of the station office.
“Wait,” I called after her. “We need you to help us hire a car!”
Monika turned and rolled her eyes. “That’s what I’m doing, stupid. The taxis are this way.” She paused and looked at us for a moment, kneading her gum between her incisors. “Unless you were really serious about staying the night in Naushki.”
All at once, the three of us lurched out after Monika.
Naushki is a Russian-Mongolian border town so functional and artless that it doesn’t even have its own history. Early written accounts of Siberia make no mention of the town because it was overshadowed by the bustling tea-caravan outpost in neighboring Kyakhta. Kyakhta’s prominence eventually faded when train transport rendered the classic China-Russia tea-route caravans obsolete, but Naushki — which took over as the train-stop — never managed to live up to Kyakhta’s memory.
Thirty years ago, a Soviet-era journalist named Leonid Shikarev wrote that “Siberia always inspires hope for the future.” Skeptics might attribute this notion to the fact that things in Siberia can’t get any worse than the present. My stroll through Naushki earlier that day, however, had revealed traces of the old Soviet optimism that seemed downright admirable, if unrealistic.
Since Naushki is the first Russian outpost on the north-bound route from Mongolia, Trans-Siberian passengers typically get a couple of hours to wander the town while the train is being inspected for contraband and stowaways. Assured by the carriage provodnitsa that the train wouldn’t leave Naushki until 4:00, I walked through the town at a leisurely pace, going where my curiosity took me.
At first glance, Naushki’s creosote-wood houses and dust-piled sidewalks made the place seem as dismal as a Nevada ghost town. But the more I walked, the more I noticed a kind of poignant optimism to Naushki. Three roads out from the train tracks, I found an old children’s playground that featured a sandbox designed to look like a tugboat, a big wooden Fabergi egg that kids could climb on, and a small stage for dramatic productions. Once painted in bright primary colors, the playground equipment had now faded to a dry wooden gray that matched the other buildings of Naushki. There were no kids there.
Looping back toward the train tracks, I found a white-washed, red-starred cement memorial to locals who had perished in World War II. The face of the monument was only half-full of names, as if Naushki was optimistically hoping to provide corpses for some future great cause. Bordering the train station, the concrete statues in Naushki’s civic park revealed a similar lack of history. Instead of lauding local heroes, the statues in the park depicted small children dancing, a wild moose, a mother nursing a child.
Once upon a time, Naushki was looking forward to something. Perhaps it still is. Perhaps — even though the statue-children are dancing on thin rebar legs and the moose’s face has fallen off — looking forward is all there is to do in Naushki.
By the time I’d re-traced my way past the park with Monika, however, the only thing I was looking forward to was getting out of Naushki. When we arrived at the parking lot, Monika presented us with two hired-driver options — Igan and Ivan. Igan looked like the Bounty paper towel lumberjack and drove a beat-up Lada hatchback. Ivan looked like a young Joseph Stalin and drove a tidy 4-door Lada. Both wanted 600 rubles (about $26) for the 180-mile ride to Ulan Ude.
Mark, James and I opted for Igan, purely on the basis that he in no way resembled Joseph Stalin.
We paid him half the money up front. Monika gave him detailed instructions in Russian as we piled into his car. When she’d finished with Igan, she came around to the passenger window and gave us a pep-talk.
“I just told him that you guys are in a real hurry, and you can’t stop for anything. He needs to get some gas here in Naushki, but after that, don’t let him stop the car. You have to be careful with these guys, because you know what they’ll try and do.”
“What,” I said, “they’ll try and cheat us?”
“No, I can’t think of the English word exactly. It’s worse than cheat.”
“Rob,” James offered. “They’ll try to rob us.”
“No, but close. It’s a very easy word. I really should remember it.”
Monika’s verbal lapses were making me uneasy, but — since she was our only asset at the time — I figured I’d better clarify. “Maybe they’ll do something like take us to the wrong place and ask for more money?”
“Kill!” Monika exclaimed. “Be careful or they’ll try and kill you.” Monika chomped her gum and grinned. “I don’t think Igan would do that; he seems very nice. Just don’t let him stop the car, and you’ll be safe.” Monika waved goodbye; Igan started the car.
We rode to the gas station in paranoid silence.
In 1890, Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter to his mother that the inhabitants of Siberia “will bash in the head of a beggar they meet or gouge out the eyes of their fellow deportee, but they won’t touch a traveler.”
As Igan took the nozzle and began to pump gas into his dented Lada, we could only hope that Chekhov’s 109-year-old observation still held true.
Part III: The Trans-Siberian Toilet War
Though I’d never be able to prove it in a court of law, I will forever suspect that the reason train No. 263 left me behind at the Naushki, Siberia, border post had a lot to do with toilet etiquette.
This is my only theory, aside from generic rancor, as to why the provodnitsa encouraged me to return to Naushki Station at 4:00 for a train that left at 3:15.
A “provodnitsa,” as Russian-rail veterans know, is the female attendant responsible for overseeing the passengers in a given train car. Formally, the duties of a provodnitsa include taking tickets, vacuuming the berths and attending to the upkeep of the toilets. On the surface, this seems like an innocuous job description — until one realizes that, in Siberia, these duties fall under an obsolete model of customer service.
Years ago in the United States, service industry workers wore lapel-buttons that read “The Customer is Always Right.” As far as I know, their employed-for-life Soviet counterparts were never required to display a customer service philosophy — but if they were, I’d suspect the buttons would have read “The Fact That You Exist Annoys the Hell Out of Me.”
Within the confines of train No. 263 to Irkutsk, this old Soviet style of service reigned. It didn’t help that the head provodnitsa, who had the demeanor of a pit bull, looked like a breasty, platinum-blond version of Boris Yeltsin. Nor did it help that the assistant provodnitsa looked like a female Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man with support stockings and a perpetually blank facial expression.
For the most part, the melancholy Madame Stay-Puft kept to herself, but La Femme Boris roved the corridors with a petty ruthlessness that would have made Nurse Ratched come off like Kathie Lee Gifford. I soon discovered that the meekest request to the head provodnitsa — a tea bag, or a roll of toilet paper — invariably resulted in a spittle-flecked Russian tirade so merciless that I eventually hid out in my cabin in an attempt to avoid her entirely.
The problem with this isolationist strategy, of course, is that sooner or later one has to go to the toilet.
A quick look at an Ulan Bator-Irkutsk train timetable reveals a glaring inconsistency in the schedule. Whereas, say, the 100 miles from Ulan Bator to Zuun Kharaa is listed at a fairly reasonable three hours — the tiny 14-mile stretch from Suhkbaatar, Mongolia, to Naushki, Russia, weighs in at no less than 16 hours and 13 minutes. This is because the train arrives in Suhkbaatar late at night, and the border customs station doesn’t open until mid-morning.
Unfortunately, my cabin-mates and I never bothered to check the timetable while we were waiting at the border. In what seemed like a good idea at the time, Dan, James, Mark and I numbed the boredom of Suhkbaatar by quaffing several bottles of Admiral Kolchak lager for breakfast. This was great fun, until we realized that the train toilets — which empty directly onto the tracks — are kept locked for sanitary reasons at all stops. We’d been allowed out of the train for pee breaks the night before, but — since we were in the middle of a tedious customs process — we had no such luck in the morning.
By noon, we were all prone in our berths, cradling our bladders in agony.
When the train finally lurched into motion after the 15-hour wait, we stampeded for the toilet. La Femme Boris was there waiting for us — along with half the other passengers in our car.
Since I don’t understand Russian, I’m not sure what the provodnitsa’s rationale was for barring us from the toilets for the 14-mile transit into Russia, but her eyes — which were lit with the righteous fire found only in true prophets and petty bureaucrats — said it all. My companions pleaded with her in English, but I beat a path back down to the other end of the rail car. There, the sad-faced Madame Stay-Puft stood — keys in hand — in front of the small private lavatory reserved for the provodnitsas.
“Toilette!” I implored, hoping she understood.
The assistant provodnitsa held a finger in front of her face. “Nyet!” she said somberly.
“Da! Da! Toilette!”
“Da!” I insisted, desperate.
Before Madame Stay-Puft could “nyet” me again, the lavatory door opened, and a startled-looking Russian man stepped out. Seizing the moment, I sprang into the toilet, pulled the door shut and locked the bolt. Madame Stay-Puft pounded on the lavatory door as I tremblingly dropped my pants and loosed the flood-gates — her protests fading from my consciousness with each second I stood over the rattling metal bowl.
Never before can I recall deriving such transcendent satisfaction from such a simple activity. If God is in the details, then my triumphant moment in the lavatory was communion itself: a prosaic psalm, humbly praising our Creator for dreaming up the urethra. Perhaps Madame Stay-Puft was livid when I emerged from the toilet, but I don’t recall: I had emptied my bladder and been filled with the Spirit. I walked back to my berth as blissful and impervious as Shadrach in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace.
I noticed a stark contrast in my train cabin upon return. Dan and James occupied the bottom bunks, miserably coiled into fetal positions. Mark, on the other hand, gave me a wink and grinned from the top bunk, nonchalantly swinging his legs back and forth.
The Admiral Kolchak bottles, I noticed, were no longer empty.
After completing the paperwork formalities at the Naushki stop, our train car emptied out in a matter of seconds. Mark and I lolled in the cabin, giggling at the sight of Dan, James, and the rest of the train passengers sprinting for the Naushki Station toilets. After a few minutes of congratulating each other on winning the Trans-Siberian Toilet Battle of 1999, Mark and I were interrupted by Madame Stay-Puft. Standing imposingly outside our door, she gestured at us to leave.
“No worries,” Mark said to her. “We don’t need to use the toilet.” This gave us both a chuckle, but the assistant provodnitsa just scowled and kept gesturing. Still giddy, Mark and I got up to leave.
“Let’s just hope she doesn’t steal our supply of cold, delicious Admiral Kolchak while we’re gone,” I said, to Mark’s amusement, as we walked down the corridor.
La Femme Boris met us on the tracks as we climbed out of the train. “Back! Here!” she barked, holding up four fingers.
“What, four o’clock?” I said.
The head provodnitsa shoved her fingers under my nose and glared at me. “Here!” she repeated.
“I guess she wants us back at 4:00 then,” Mark said.
Exactly two hours later — not long after having inspected some old Soviet tanks with James — we returned to find the train gone. It was not a minute later than 3:50.
The Trans-Siberian Toilet Battle of 1999, it appeared, had suddenly escalated into a war.
By the time a small Mongolian woman named Monika had talked us into hiring a large Russian man named Igan to drive us to our Ulan Ude cutoff point, the train had been gone for nearly an hour and a half.
Mark, James and I sat in the Lada and pondered our odds as Igan filled the car with gas. I had the shotgun seat; the Brits shared the back.
“So are we in favor of this, then?” Mark said suddenly.
“What do you mean?” I said. “We’ve already paid half the money. He’s almost filled us up with gas. Of course we’re in favor of it.”
“I know,” Mark said. “I just have a bad feeling about this all of a sudden.”
“But Monika said she had a good feeling about this guy.”
“Monika had a good feeling, but this is Russia, not bloody Kansas. For all we know, she’s in on it.”
“In on what?”
“In on a bullet in your head and mine. Russians think Westerners are filthy rich. Think about it: This is Siberia. Nobody will miss us if he drives us over to his mates’ place and blows our brains out.”
“That will never happen, Mark.”
“Says who? We’re dealing with Russians here! I say we vote on whether to keep going with this guy.”
Mark, a normally confident 26-year-old graphic artist from England, was beginning to worry me. Somewhere, I had read that 38 percent of all Russians live below a poverty line of $20 a month. The figures for Siberian Russians had to be even more dire. If Igan wanted to, he could indeed kill us all and make a year’s profit. But by that same logic, our $26 fare would certainly fill his coffers handsomely — and murder is not something one does on a whim, even in Siberia.
“OK,” I said. “If you want to vote, I vote to have Igan drive us to Ulan Ude.”
“I vote to quit now and wait for the next train,” Mark said. “I’m willing to cover all the money we’ve already paid up front.”
“We’ll look like a bunch of freaks if we do that!” I protested.
“We’ll look like freaks with bullets in our heads.”
Mark and I turned to our tie-breaker, James — a 19-year-old Hong Kong native on his way to a London law school. James silently looked at us, obviously uncomfortable at being the swing voter. “Let’s just go,” he said finally. “I think we’ll be fine.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Mark grumbled.
Igan eventually returned to the car, and we left Naushki. For the first 20 minutes, nobody uttered a word. I was just getting comfortable with the silence when Mark piped up from the back seat.
“What did the driver just do?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “He threw something out the window.”
“I think it was a cigarette.”
“Yeah, it was probably a cigarette. So?”
“So, don’t you think that was a little strange? He hadn’t even smoked it.”
“Well, I also saw him take a 10-kopeck coin from the ashtray and throw it out the window. Maybe he’s just bored.”
“He could be bored, or maybe he’s nervous.”
“Nervous about what?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then why worry, Mark? Sheez.” I fell silent for a moment, knowing that I couldn’t even be sure if were headed in the right direction. All the road signs were lettered in Cyrillic; for all I knew Igan was driving us to Vladivostok to sell us into slavery.
“So, James,” I said, determined to defuse my own creeping paranoia. “What makes you want to study law?”
Fully aware of my clumsy play at changing the subject, James took a long moment before answering. “I’m not really sure,” he said finally. “I don’t know if law is what I want to do, to be quite honest.”
“Well, what’s your dream, then? Where do you see yourself in a perfect future?”
“I’m not sure, exactly, but I know I’d like to live in fantastic opulence.”
“What, like Hugh Hefner or something?” Across from me, Igan had just put a fresh cigarette in his mouth.
“Not at all,” James said. “I mean opulence like the gardens of Versaille or the Czarist Winter Palace at Peterhof. I’d want my riches to be excessive and Baroque.”
“It’d be impossible to zone a Versaille in the industrialized world,” I said. “As close as you could get to that these days would be to buy an island in the Caribbean.”
At this, Igan tossed his unlit cigarette out the window. Mark seemed about to snap. “I told you I had a bad feeling about this,” he said, his voice angry. “Could you two please cut out the chit-chat?”
“Why?” I said. “I assure you the driver has better things to do than to kill us.”
“I’ve only had this feeling two other times in my life, Rolf.”
“And what happened the two other times?”
Mark didn’t reply to this; James’ face went blank. It was a couple of beats before I registered what had happened.
Igan had just stopped the car.
Monika’s words rang in my head: “Just don’t let him stop the car, and you’ll be safe.” I imagined Igan pulling a Glock out from under the driver’s seat and blasting my brains all over the upholstery. No doubt Mark and James were thinking the exact same thing.
Before any of us could react, Igan slammed the Lada into reverse. Backing us into a ditch, he put the car into gear, pointed the front end 45-degrees from the road, and sent us bumping across a field of dirt. As Igan began to arc back to the left, I noticed a look of terror in his eyes. Then it dawned on me.
Igan was not going to kill us; Igan was taking us around a stretch of poorly marked road construction. Furthermore, Igan was afraid. What he was afraid of, I’m not exactly sure — but, knowing Monika, I strongly suspect he was told he wouldn’t get the other half of his money if he ever stopped the car.
Flooring the gas pedal across the dusty field, Igan’s face broke into relief as we bumped back onto the blacktop.
During his pioneering Arctic voyages of the early 1700s, Danish explorer Vitus Bering confessed that “you never feel safe when you have to navigate in waters that are completely blank.” Having seen Igan’s moment of panic, my companions and I emerged from the blankness: We finally had a human indicator by which to navigate our own emotions. The issue of Igan’s integrity was summarily dropped, Mark and I stopped making each other nervous and we actually began to enjoy the ride.
In a way, missing the train was a gift, since it allowed us to experience a part of Siberia few Westerners ever see. In the land beyond the tracks, Siberian life took on a sleepy pace amid dense taiga forests and along broad mountain basins. Dovetail-jointed log cabins sat at the roadside, their window-shutters freshly painted sky-blue. Long-haired girls in homemade dresses carried baskets across fields. Buryats — Siberia’s original, Asiatic inhabitants — roared past us on motorcycles. Concrete bunkers with heavy steel doors (Oil pipeline valve stations? Roadside emergency shelters? Nuclear war evacuation tunnels?) appeared at 6-mile intervals. Log-cabin villages with wooden-spired Orthodox churches appeared in the river valleys. A brightly painted Buryat Buddhist shrine, still under construction, sat by the roadside. Ducks and herons frolicked near the rivers; a lone elk jogged across a distant hill.
Igan said nothing the whole time, taking his eyes from the road only to toss cigarettes and kopeck coins out the window. We eventually deduced that he did this — perhaps in deference to local shamanist superstitions — only when he was passing another car or negotiating a dangerous mountain curve.
We arrived at Ulan Ude just after 7:00 that evening — nearly four hours after our train had abandoned us at Naushki. Hastily handing a relieved-looking Igan the rest of his money, we rushed into Ulan Ude Station to check the train schedule reader board. Train No. 263, I noticed, was due to arrive at 17:15 and depart at 17:30.
“Perfect!” I exclaimed. “17:15. That means the train should be here in just a few more minutes.”
Mark and James stared at me without a trace of enthusiasm. “17:15 means 5:15,” James said quietly. “Not 7:15. The train left nearly two hours ago.”
Crestfallen — trembling with adrenaline withdrawal — the three of us walked into downtown Ulan Ude to change dollars into rubles and find something to eat.
Ulan Ude, a Buryat regional capital of 400,000 souls, proved to be a colorful, bustling, ethnically diverse city. Vintage electric streetcars rattled down its avenues, Western-style supermarkets graced its downtown and a suburban airport promised a last-ditch fail-safe method of catching up with our train. Since there seemed to be no other immediate choices, my companions and I bought some food, scouted out some hotels and returned to Ulan Ude Station to inquire about the next train to Irkutsk.
James, our language specialist, immediately went to work at the station information booth. The clerk spoke only Russian, but was able to direct James to a German-speaking army officer.
“We need to find the next train to Irkutsk,” James said in German to the officer.
James frowned at the officer’s response and looked over at Mark and me. “He says train No. 263 will come soon. That doesn’t make any sense.”
James turned back to the officer and pointed to the reader board. “Train No. 263 left for Irkutsk hours ago,” he intoned in German.
The Russian army officer laughed and gave a brief reply. Suddenly grinning, James looked at us and translated: “All Russian train schedules run on Moscow time. Moscow is five time-zones behind us. Our train won’t be here for at least another hour and a half!”
Mark and I let out a whoop of relief that echoed off the insides of Ulan Ude Station.
Train No. 263 pulled into Ulan Ude just after 10:30 that night. Dan and a handful of Swiss, Kiwis and Canadians greeted our return with a hearty round of applause. Apparently, the provodnitsas had few fans — and our abandonment at Naushki had turned into quite a scandal among the non-Russian passengers. As we walked up the train car corridor, La Femme Boris and Madame Stay-Puft were conspicuously absent.
Sometime around midnight, I was strolling the corridor when La Femme Boris emerged from her berth and sternly waved me inside. Dispatching her glum-faced assistant to some unseen duty, the head provodnitsa handed me a cup of tea and glowered. Madame Stay-Puft returned with an English-speaking Russian passenger who announced she had been recruited as a translator.
“The provodnitsa says she is not responsible for what happened at Naushki,” the translator told me. “You should have known about the time-zone change. It’s your own fault the train left without you.”
This was an obvious red herring. Even with the change of time zone, the provodnitsa had clearly misled us. Having already planned for this scenario, however, I decided to forgo argument and play my trump card.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said to the translator. She passed this along to La Femme Boris, who spit out a furious Russian reply.
The translator turned back to me. “She insists that it was a time-zone problem. It’s entirely your own fault the train left without you and your friends.”
“But the train didn’t leave without us,” I said, putting on my best expression of befuddled innocence. “We’ve been on the train this whole time. Are you sure she checked the dining car?”
I waited just long enough to see a bewildered expression crease the head provodnitsa’s face as the Russian woman translated.
Then I sauntered back to my cabin and went to bed.
The train trip was not over — among other things, a mind-numbing 81-hour ride from Irkutsk to Moscow still lay ahead. But for that moment, I could revel in the fact that the Glorious Trans-Siberian Toilet War was officially over.
And I — in my own estimation, at least — had emerged triumphant.
Part IV: The great railway bizarre
The reason most travel accounts of the Trans-Siberian train are so predictable and lifeless is that they lose their edge in the attempt to be earnest.
While in the perfumed death-grip of such optimistic sincerity, many a scribe has misled his readers with dandied visions of trans-continental reverie. Some wayward writers have committed this error by weaving the view from their train window into moony reflections about how Russian literature changed their lives. Others have tried to capture the mood of the country itself by minutely analyzing everything from their new Russian acquaintances, to whimsical encounters with the dining-car staff, to any experience involving obligatory vodka-shots.
A few rail-diarists — the desperate — try to validate their long hours on the train by bringing in marginally relevant trivia from the sights outside: how Tomsk is full of radioactive waste; how Taishet was once a Stalin-era forwarding camp for Siberian exiles; how Perm is home to a bicycle factory; or how Krasnoyarsk churns out refrigerators and car tires.
All of this is fine. But it falls far short of the train experience itself.
This is because a train trip across Siberia takes a very, very long time, and largely transpires in a small berth that rattles a lot, features fake-wood paneling and empties into a corridor full of antsy people who haven’t bathed in days. If there is anything genuine to be communicated from this experience, it will certainly have very little to do with the novels of Boris Pasternak, the cook’s opinion of Yevgeni Primakov or the dreadfully inefficient see-saw factories of Zuevka. Rather, if there is any revelation to be gleaned from spending several days on a single train, it will come from the bizarre details that lurk beneath the mundaneity of the trip itself.
This is what I’d convinced myself, at least, when my cousin Dan and I boarded the Moscow-bound train at Irkutsk.
After all, 81 hours on a train is a long time, and I didn’t want 100 years of journalistic preconceptions to taint my experiences before they’d even happened.
In January of 1899, the first regular Trans-Siberian train service began to take passengers from European Russia to Irkutsk — “the Paris of Siberia” — a thriving university town that was home to all manner of exiles, from “Decembrist” nobles to Polish nationals to avowed anarchists. At the time, the completion of this railroad line was a triumph — since it aided settlement to the region, consolidated Russia’s eastern claims against China and Japan, and opened up Siberia’s rich natural resources (such as timber, gold and coal). Just 10 years earlier, transportation conditions to the Russian Far East were so abysmal that it was actually faster to get from Vladivostok to Moscow by going east via the United States than it was to travel west across Russia itself.
In the early days of the railroad, the Moscow-Irkutsk run often took over a week to complete; our 1999 timetable put the journey at three and a half days. Since we’d traveled the first two legs out of Beijing and Ulan Bator in second class, Dan and I decided — for reasons of both comfort and curiosity — to splurge on a first class upgrade for the Moscow-bound haul.
At first blush, the environment of the first class car seemed a mild disappointment — not because of the berths (which were clean and comfortable) or the provodnitsas (who were helpful and pleasant), but because of the company. When I’d first purchased the upgrade, I’d imagined my fellow first-class travelers as spy-novel grist: corpulent Russian mob-types with anorexic supermodel girlfriends; snooty French diplomats with snarling lapdogs; bespectacled English ethnologists with fascinating tales about the Finno-Urgic Udmurts of the Siberian plain. In reality, our first class car was mostly populated with elder-hostel tourists from places like Minneapolis and Tempe.
Over the course of the trip, of course, these folks would prove far more baffling and contradictory than a train-full of spies.
The first hint of my elderly train-mates’ dual nature came just five hours into the trip, when my neighbor from two doors down, a 72-year-old man from California, suddenly rushed past me in the corridor. Since he’d always made a point of chatting me up (he’d pegged me as “that Oregon boy” after a brief discussion about college; I’d already heard his Coos Bay coastal storm story twice), I peered over to watch as, ignoring me entirely, he took a hard right into a cabin full of his bridge-playing cohorts.
“This place is just like the Bermuda Triangle!” I heard him announce.
“What do you mean, the Bermuda Triangle?” came a voice from inside the cabin.
“I mean I just saw a Russian guy wearing a shirt that said ‘California.’”
“So why does that make this the Bermuda Triangle?”
“Well because that just seems kinda strange, a Russian wearing a shirt that says ‘California.’”
“I think you’re thinking about the ‘Twilight Zone,’” a third voice pointed out. “The Bermuda Triangle is where ships and airplanes disappear. ‘The Twilight Zone’ is where funny things happen.”
“I didn’t say it was funny to see a Russian wearing a ‘California’ shirt; I said it was strange.”
“‘The Twilight Zone’ isn’t funny-ha-ha; it’s funny-strange. The Bermuda Triangle isn’t funny at all; it’s where planes and ships disappear.”
A fourth voice piped in with a phony John Wayne drawl: “Yeah, and this game is gonna disappear if you don’t shut the door, shut your face and play your hand.”
“Ha-ha! That’s no joke. I swear, we have to wait 20 minutes every time you go down the hall to smell the roses.”
As the door slid shut and the corridor fell silent, I stood in amazement. My septuagenarian neighbors — who had always spoken to me with the friendly, half-interested cadence of people who’ve been making small-talk since the Great Depression — were babbling at each other like a bunch of bud-smoking, low-culture-referencing Gen-X channel surfers.
Inspired, I spent the rest of the trip subtly trying to engage my elderly acquaintances with good-natured sarcasm and reflexive irony, but it simply didn’t work. Regardless of what I said, they would always steer our conversation back to weather patterns, relatives who once lived near my hometown or the new-fangled wonders of Gore-Tex.
I spent my time in first class feeling like an anthropologist who can’t learn the primitive tribal customs because the natives think it’s more seemly to speak to him in Shakespearean English.
Not long into the trip, my cousin Dan and I fell into a listless First Class routine that revolved around reading, drinking tea, staring out the cabin window and aimlessly wandering the corridors. In time, I would take an adventure into the Third Class car, but I never considered that option until late in the trip.
Despite my best efforts to get caught up in the romance of the Trans-Siberian transit, I found that feelings of reverie only sustained themselves in very short doses. That left me with a lot of down-time. On an 81-hour trip, down-time adds up. Thus — aside from my geriatric neighbors and a few books — the closest thing I had to moment-by-moment entertainment came when Dan would fall asleep for 15 minutes, then wake up and tell me what he’d just dreamt.
“I was getting ready to climb Mount Everest with you and some hippie mountaineer,” Dan said after falling asleep and waking up midway through our second day on the train. “I was having trouble tightening my boots, because I was wearing those pantyhose-thin ‘Gold Toe’ socks. I was also worried because I’d forgotten to bring warm clothes, and the road we took up to base camp looked a lot like U.S. 59 as it goes through Garnett, Kansas.”
“An Everest dream,” I told him. “That must mean something.”
“Yeah, maybe. But Everest seemed to start at the upper limit of a hallway wall, and as you and the hippie were ice-axeing your way up the glacier, your safety ropes were coiled on this short, gray industrial carpeting. I thought to myself, ‘Shit, I’ve never used technical climbing equipment before, but Everest seems to be indoors. How hard can it be?’”
“Did you try it then?”
“I didn’t get the chance; I woke up before I could try. The last thing I remember is how commercially extreme you and the hippie looked as you climbed Mt. Everest in blowing snow and fluorescent lighting.”
“Nice,” I said. “Very weird. You should fall asleep more often.”
Dan and I occupied a berth that, while comfortable, was a far cry from the proposed first class cabins of the original train. During the Paris “Exhibition Universelle” of 1900, the Russian government promoted its recent Trans-Siberian engineering feat with an exhibit that promised libraries, music rooms, gymnasiums and marble-trimmed bathtubs in the first class cars. A century later, the closest first class came to a marble bathtub was an aluminum washbasin, and the nearest feature to a music room was a crackling cabin speaker that continuously played eclectica ranging from Stravinsky’s “Firebird” to “Shadow Dancing” by the Bee-Gees.
I spent much of my cabin-time looking out at the Siberian landscape. Beyond the train tracks, coniferous taiga forests clotted the flat landscape, and small stands of birch stood out like white matchsticks on the horizon. In the open spaces, rounded piles of hay sat in vivid blue-green fields; purple-dappled meadows draped the valleys. Country people haunted bogs and pastures: men in blue overalls clutching wooden pitchforks; girls in blue dresses picking vegetables; boys in blue hats wading waist-deep in muddy ditches. Trackside cemeteries sat behind sky-blue iron fences — their colorful garlands and bleached headstones fading back into the trees, giving the illusion that graves stretch under the taiga all the way up into the arctic.
These sights changed only slightly as the miles wore on. Sometimes, for variety, I would turn from the window and watch the landscape reflect off my cabin walls — jumping and jittering across the plastic woodgrain like a blurry 1940s movie newsreel.
The folks from the Elderhostel tour occasionally dropped by my cabin for a chat (“Now where did you say you boys were from?”), but they were most visible and boisterous just before the station stops. In anticipation of these brief platform-breaks, our neighbors would set aside their embroideries and bridge games and crowd their way toward the corridor exit. Listening to them chatter as they shuffled by my door was like flipping through UHF television channels:
“I didn’t know Cheryl Tiegs was 50.”
“Well preserved, isn’t she?”
“They’re selling jawbreakers on the platform. Ha-ha!”
“It was a man’s bathing suit that I inherited, and it was all wool.”
“You fill your pelvis up with air, then your stomach, then your throat. Breathe out for five minutes, then it’s gone.”
“Look at me: I decided I didn’t want to look like a tourist out there.”
“You need to watch out for gangrene. Ha-ha!”
“I smell fish. Let’s buy a fish.”
“Ha-ha! He said he was gonna guy a fish!”
“I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna buy a fish and give it to her!”
“If you give me a fish, I’ll give you a divorce.”
“If we get a divorce, I’m gonna make you keep the fish.”
“Look at him! That crazy sonuvabitch is really gonna go off and buy a fish! Ha-ha!”
At each station stop of over two minutes, the entire Elderhostel crew would dash out of the car the moment the provodnitsa let down the carriage steps, then hustle back a few moments later clutching sausages, handmade scarves, bottles of black-market vodka (“Look at what I got, ha-ha!”) and fresh vegetables. By comparison, Dan and I must have seemed like complete fuddy-duddies.
Not wanting to feel like a total layabout, I hiked down to the dining car each evening to have dinner with my old castaway buddies Mark and James, who were enduring this leg of the trip in second class. Admittedly, the camaraderie was more of a motivating factor than the food.
“This beefsteak tastes like a beef-flavored wash-cloth,” I complained over dinner our second night. Mark and James grimaced in sympathy, unenthusiastically chewing their own beefsteaks.
“That’s your mistake,” said a youngish Russian guy at the next table over. “You got beef. You should have gotten omul. Siberia is famous for it.”
“Omul? I didn’t see it on the menu.”
“It’s not on the menu, but this train always has it. It’s a fish, a cousin to salmon. You can only find it in Lake Baikal. It cries like a baby when the fishermen catch it. You eat it salted. It’s very good.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I said. “Your English sounds great, by the way — very natural.”
“Thanks,” the Russian said. “My name’s Aleksey. I studied in California; now I work for Gillette. You know: ‘The Best a Man Can Get.’ Today I’m taking the slow road to Novosibirsk. Are you also here for work?”
“No, just for fun.”
“Fun? On this train? I think maybe you’re a little crazy.”
“This is a classic trip,” I said. “An adventure.”
Aleksey scoffed. “This isn’t an adventure. You need to try something extreme — take a ride in a MiG fighter, or parachute from a helicopter or go rock climbing in Kamchatka. That’s what tourists do for fun in Russia these days. Train rides are old-fashioned.”
“The Trans-Siberian is like the Russian version of going across America in a convertible,” I insisted. “That’s an adventure. It’s not extreme, but it’s still an adventure.”
“It’s not really an adventure. The only way to get an adventure on this train is to go to third class.”
“Why? What’s in third class.”
Aleksey smiled at me. “Go there, and you’ll find out.”
The next morning, having nothing better to do, I did just that.
The first thing I remember about third class was the blast of fetid air as I walked in — a paint-blistering concoction of feet and armpits, alcohol and urine, cigarette-butts and butt-crack. Fifty-four people had been crammed into an open bunk-room; the whole carriage looked like something out of an absurd murder mystery: men in their pajamas, pressing transistor radios to their ears; small girls singing to themselves in sweet-high voices; small boys clutching packs of cigarettes; large women with stainless steel teeth; oily-faced teens in track suits; two enormous, unshaven men passed out on the same bed.
I breathed through my mouth as I made my way down the carriage, trying to act casual. When I got to the end of the carriage, I realized that I had no real third class visitation strategy. Halfway back across the carriage, a voice called to me in English.
“Hey you!” I looked over to see a balding, round-faced man of about 40 smiling at me. He was obviously very proud of his English skills, and he spoke rather loudly. “Where you from?” he shouted.
“The United States,” I said, thankful that, if nothing else, this interaction was validating my trip to third class. The man translated loudly: “Amerika!” A dozen or so people turned around to listen in.
“What you think of Beverly Hills?” the balding man asked, still smiling.
For some reason I couldn’t think of an intelligent-sounding way to answer this question. “Um, it’s very nice,” I said. “Lots of rich people live there.”
“What you think of China?”
“It’s a nice place. Lots of people.” Under normal circumstances, I’d have been boring these people to death, but after two days in steerage, I was something of a marquee player.
“What you think of Russia?”
“Very nice. Very interesting.” There were a few nods, a few sarcastic groans.
“What means ‘fuck you’?”
“That’s a bad word. You shouldn’t use it.” The balding man translated; the peanut gallery frowned and nodded.
“What you think of Russian women?”
Experience overseas had conditioned me to answer this kind of question in a bland, positive way that neither interests potential pimps nor irritates territorial-pissers. “Russian women are very nice and pretty,” I said.
For some reason, everyone thought this answer was really funny. Giggling, the balding man pointed to a girl of about 14, whose rear end was hanging out the bottom of an extremely short pair of pants. “What you think of that woman?” he yelled.
Not sure what the fuss was about, I decided to stay with my stock line. “She seems very nice and pretty.”
My translated answer resulted in pandemonium. The girl’s face went red, and her mother tried to wrestle her over to me. Old women screamed like teenagers, old men howled with laughter; a bottle of vodka appeared out of nowhere.
“You stay here!” the balding man shouted joyously, taking the vodka and looking around for a cup. “Maybe you kiss her later!” He immediately translated this witticism, much to the delight of the peanut gallery.
Standing there, peering around, I had no idea what was going on. I knew that I’d been in the third class carriage for about 10 minutes. I knew that this 10 minutes was already more interesting than the previous 24 hours put together.
I knew that I didn’t want to stay a moment longer.
Under the inspirational moral standard set by movies like “Titanic” and “Dead Poet’s Society,” I should have stuck around and tried to enjoy myself or learn something. The thing is, I didn’t want to seize the day or frolic in steerage. I didn’t want to get drunk on vodka or learn Russian profanities or suck face with a Slavic Lolita in ass-pants. The insipid calm of first class had irreversibly jaded me: I longed for eventlessness.
Making my excuses, I fled the third class carriage. Walking into the first class corridor, I wasn’t sure if I’d met Aleksey’s challenge of “adventure,” and I didn’t care. If two listless days in first class had taught me anything, it had taught me to crave more listlessness.
Returning to my cabin, I was encouraged to find my cousin bleary-eyed from sleep.
“Did you take another nap?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
“Did you dream?”
Dan furrowed his brow, thinking for a moment. “I dreamt of a koala bear.”
“Oh yeah? What’d it do?”
“It didn’t do anything. It was just sitting in a male zookeeper’s arms. It was wearing a little white tuxedo glove on its forepaw, which was ever so gently grasping the zookeeper’s arm-hair.”
“And that was it?”
My cousin shrugged. “That was it.”
For all practical purposes, my trip to Moscow ended not in Yaroslavl Station, but on my fourth morning on the train, when I woke up early to sit in the dining car and record the sights in my journal. “Water tower like a sentinel, trackside,” I wrote gazing outside. “Collapsed sawmill next to standing trees. Piles of iron: Where do these come from? Birch trees like matchsticks.”
Stopping for a moment, I flipped back several pages in my notebook. “Birch trees like white matchsticks on the horizon,” an earlier entry read. I flipped back a few more pages and found another birch tree-matchstick analogy, right next to an entry that compared water towers to sentinels. Putting my pen down, I reread my journal.
In three days, I’d made eight separate references to collapsed buildings and five references to faded or broken communist murals/symbols. I’d used the word “sentinel” four separate times to describe three separate things. For the last 3,000 journal miles, the taiga had never stopped being “endless,” the birch trees had consistently been “like matchsticks” and the decaying “vestiges of Soviet society” had never ceased to be ironical.
As I sat and reflected on my own redundancies, a foursome from the Elderhostel tour came in and sat at the far end of the dining car. They hadn’t noticed me in my booth, and were trapped in their own quirky, wonder-filled version of the train experience.
“Did you see that train-worker lady when we were coming here?” a voice said. “She looked real classy. Good bones and dark hair, like Jackie O.”
“Yeah, I saw her,” came a reply. “Too bad she doesn’t work in our car. They should switch those people around after a couple days.”
A third voice: “Hey, whatever happened to Jackie O. Junior?”
A fourth: “What do you mean, ‘Jackie O. Junior’?”
“Jackie O.’s daughter. Not the train lady; the real Jackie O. Whatever happened to her daughter?”
“Jackie O. had a daughter?”
“Of course she had a daughter. She had a daughter before she had a son, for chrissakes.”
“Her son, you dummy. JFK Junior!”
“Wait, are you trying to ask me about Carolyn Kennedy?”
“Yeah, that’s her. Carolyn Kennedy.”
“So where do you come off asking me about ‘Jackie O. Junior’? You’re the damned dummy!”
“Never you mind that. Whatever happened to Carolyn Kennedy?”
“I don’t know. Did you hear that something’d happened to her?”
“I didn’t mean it that way: I meant, whatever happened to her? Where is she? What’s she doing?”
Once my elderly train-mates had solved the mystery of Carolyn Kennedy and moved on to talking about the deficiencies of Russian tomato juice, I closed my notebook and put it into the bottom of my day pack.
A few days later, the mad nights of Moscow and St. Petersburg would hasten the return of my journal — but at that moment, even with Moscow 400 miles away, I realized it was no longer of any use.
Bidding the Elderhostel crew good morning, I walked back to my cabin to see if my cousin had dreamed anything new.
Part V: A sexy librarian named Natasha and other surprises of the New Russia
Natasha was pale and thin-lipped, with an unruly shock of brown hair that she’d unsuccessfully tried to tame with bobby pins. She worked as a librarian at St. Petersburg University, and at the time this seemed very exotic and sexy to me. Every time her friend Daniil would leave the balcony, I would kiss her, and she would kiss me back. Though we obviously weren’t destined to be lovers, it was a nice way to pass the time. It was nearly four o’clock in the morning, and neither of us was sober.
The problem with kissing Natasha was that, being a librarian, she was overflowing with interesting factoids and observations about the universe. Since she didn’t speak English, we had to stop kissing and summon Daniil every time a new epiphany struck her. Oiled, no doubt, by several hours of drinking and dancing, her epiphanies came at the rate of about one every 90 seconds.
“Daniil!” she called for the fifth time in 15 minutes. Daniil, a recent St. Petersburg University graduate, was hosting our after-hours party at his cozy, rundown, second-floor crash-pad near the popular Nevski Prospekt district. The ceilings of the old apartment were tall and grimy, empty beer bottles lined the table and an anti-hangover tea kettle boiled on the living room hot plate. The old Soviet-era wallpaper was covered with magic-markered graffiti, some of which was our own.
Daniil appeared in the door with his usual ironic grin, and Natasha spoke to him for a few moments. “Natsha wants to know who I remind you of,” he said to me. “What famous person do I resemble?”
I gave Daniil a close look. He was tall and baby-faced, with narrow shoulders and a curly mop of blond hair. “You look kind of like a young Judge Reinhold. He’s an American actor.”
Daniil translated, then laughed at Natasha’s response. “She says that you’re wrong. Apparently, I look like Von Kotzebue.”
“Who’s Von Kotzebue?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” he said. He clarified for a moment with Natasha. “Apparently, it’s not just Von Kotzebue, but August Freidrick Ferdinad Von Kotzebue. Natasha says he was an unimportant German playwright who worked in the Russian state service 200 years ago.” He paused, laughing as Natasha gave him the final details. “Natasha says his plays were superficial, he was assassinated as a reactionary.”
I shook my head in admiration. “I envy Natasha’s talent for making really weird allusions,” I said, “but I think it’s better to compare yourself to a movie star.”
Enthused, Daniil had me write down “Judge Reinhold” before going back inside his apartment.
Five minutes later, Natasha had another epiphany and called Daniil back out onto the balcony. “Natasha says we must buy American sausages,” he translated. “She says she has something very important to show you. A miracle.”
“What kind of miracle?”
“She won’t say,” Daniil said. “She says we have to get the American sausages first.”
Figuring it foolish to pass up any miraculous pre-dawn demonstration involving a professional librarian and processed meat, I gave my consent.
“And please have your cousin come with us,” Daniil added.
My cousin Dan — a 23-year-old ex-linebacker who’d recently graduated from a University of Kansas literature program — had been treated like a rock star ever since I let it slip to the Russians that he’d once had dinner with William S. Burroughs. Quiet and understated by nature, Dan insisted that he’d merely sat with Burroughs at a large gathering several years ago — but our Russian friends would have nothing of humility. Natasha had already demanded an autograph.
Once we’d corralled Dan, we headed down the stairs and onto the pre-dawn streets of St. Petersburg, ready for any miracles that came our way.
The final leg of my Beijing-St. Petersburg train journey had been simple: Dan and I boarded the midnight train at Moscow, curled into our upper berths like a couple of cosmonauts, and woke up in St. Petersburg. We walked out of the train station into a fantastic vision of stately old buildings, curving canals and sunshine.
It wasn’t until that evening that we realized our St. Petersburg arrival had coincided with the rocket-propelled-grenade assassination of local oil baron Pavel Kapysh. According to news reports, Kapysh’s armored Chevy Blazer had been blown to bits on the University Embankment in broad daylight. In a quirky, post-modern twist, a tourist had managed to capture the entire attack on videotape.
Before this incident, I’d almost forgotten Russia’s growing reputation as a place of near-anarchy.
As a tourist, it’s difficult to determine just how far corruption-tainted Russia has unraveled. Ironically, Moscow — a city which has come to represent the oligarchical excesses of the New Russia — was a beautiful place to spend a few days after my 81-hour train ride from Irkutsk. Thanks in part to renovations spearheaded by Yuri Luzhkov (the city’s free-spending maverick of a mayor), Moscow’s tourist areas looked clean, majestic, brand new. The park areas around the Kremlin were peaceful and romantic — a vision of old statues and young couples, war memorials and pizza stands. Old Arbat Street was brimming with street performers and international restaurants. Even the old underground Metro stations had a retro charm: Riding the steep, double-speed elevators down to catch my train, I couldn’t help but think that the rounded, Stalin-era, moderne design-flourishes made the place seem like the inside of a UFO.
Of course, I didn’t have to travel very far into Moscow’s dreary suburbs for the futuristic illusions to be shattered. Nor did I have to delve very far into the newspaper to realize that Russia was in trouble. The economy had collapsed over a year before and the national GDP was half of what it was in 1991; the life-expectancy of a Moscow male had actually gone down over the decade. IMF reserves were being stowed in offshore banks or disappearing entirely. Optimistic Western-led reforms had gone nowhere. War simmered in the Caucasus. Politically and economically, Russia’s future didn’t look so hot.
Interestingly, however, the demographic most commonly associated with any country’s future — the youth — seemed to be undergoing an eccentric renaissance when I was in Moscow. Nearly a decade after the advent of new freedoms, Russian youth culture was still blooming in every direction at once. Five decades of 20th-century fashion coexisted simultaneously: Teen boys in tie-dyed muscle shirts held hands with teen girls in fluorescent-orange miniskirts; felt-hatted rude-boys rubbed shoulders with nose-ringed riot-grrrls; James Dean leather jackets competed with Don Johnson summer suits; metalheads and motorheads shared beers with skinheads and Deadheads.
Amidst this vivid melange of youth culture, I found a curious absence of despair. Admittedly, three nights in Moscow discos and grunge bars hardly qualify me to analyze, but I found Russian teens and young adults to be no gloomier than their American counterparts. Furthermore, compared to the fashionable angst that seized American youth culture in the early ’90s, the Russian expression of pessimism I did see seemed downright optimistic.
Perhaps those that sing “No Future” the loudest are those who can be sure the lyric doesn’t apply to them.
Late in the night following my last full day in Moscow, I was returning to my homestay from a disco near Red Square, when I saw two teenaged boys standing under the Trinity Tower of the Kremlin, hollering their lungs out. As I got closer, I could make out what they were saying.
“Boris Yeltsin!” screamed the taller boy.
“Boris Yeltsin!” screamed the other one.
Taking turns, and yelling without discernible rhythm, the boys intoned their president’s name over and over again, stopping only to double over in laughter. Amused, I watched their spectacle as I walked by, wondering if they were trying to make a statement or if they were just entertaining themselves. I wondered if there’s any good way to discern those two activities.
I wondered if the boys knew where Boris Yeltsin was at that moment, or if they just imagined him (as I did) staggering like a zombie through the nether corridors of the Kremlin, taking deep pulls from a bottle and drunkenly demanding a heart transplant.
In the end, the only Russians I really interacted with for any period of time were Daniil and Natasha. Dan and I first met them at the Money Honey, a rockabilly club a couple of blocks over from Nevski Prospekt in St. Petersburg. The club was packed when we arrived at 8:00, and we were forced to share a table in the back with a half-dozen Russians. By traditional club standards, the Money Honey wasn’t much to look it: its interior bland; its clientele a bit frumpy, middle-class.
I was almost beginning to wonder what the sold-out appeal of the place was when a band took the stage and started to crank out Elvis covers. Suddenly, a room full of frumpy people rushed to the dance floor and (in the truest sense that I’ve ever witnessed personally) went ape-shit. Our table emptied in seconds, and the pale, thin-lipped woman to my right took me with her. My rockabilly swing-steps were decidedly clumsy, but so were everyone else’s: A roomful of people gyrated with uninhibited anti-hipster abandon, spastic and ecstatic. It was frightening and wonderful.
It wasn’t until after the first set that we all returned to the table and I found out who I was dancing with. “This is Natasha,” said the mop-haired guy who later introduced himself as Daniil. “She says she can’t decide whether or not you look intelligent. She wants to know if you read books.”
“Of course I read books,” I said.
“She says that when someone like you is left on his own, without a book, he will instantly become lost.”
“What does that mean?”
Daniil clarified for a moment. “She really wasn’t saying that,” he said. “She was quoting Dostoyevski. It was supposed to be a joke.”
“Sorry, I guess I didn’t get it.”
“Well she’s very serious about books. She’s a librarian. All the women at this table are librarians.”
I took a good look at Natasha and the other two women at the table. After having seen their antics on the dance floor, I could hardly envision any of them shelving books. “What are they,” I said jestfully. “Hell’s Librarians?”
Daniil translated, and Natasha grinned. “She likes the name Hell’s Librarians,” Daniil said. “It’s like Hells Angels. That’s a Hunter S. Thompson word, yes?”
“Well, he didn’t coin the term. He just wrote about them. They’re a motorcycle gang.”
“Yes, of course, but Natasha doesn’t ride motorcycles; she reads books. And Hunter S. Thompson is very popular in Russia. His Las Vegas book is a bestseller these days.
“Still? That’s a pretty old book.”
“Yes, but it was only recently translated into Russian. Many older American books are just now being translated into Russian. Have you heard of William S. Burroughs?”
“Of course. He lived the last years of his life not far from where I grew up. My cousin had dinner with him about three or four years ago.”
“I wish I could meet your cousin.”
“You’re sitting at the same table as him,” I said, pointing at Dan.
Daniil looked over at Dan in amazement, and said something in Russian to the librarians. Their chatter stopped, and they swerved in Dan’s direction. My taciturn cousin was the star of the table for the rest of the evening.
Many hours later, long after the Money Honey had closed, I stood outside a kiosk with Dan and Daniil as Natasha shopped for her miracle weiners.
“Do you know what this miracle is all about?” I asked Daniil.
Daniil shrugged. “Cheap happiness,” he said. He paused, then grinned. “Or maybe noble suffering.”
Seeing my lack of reaction, he went on. “That was another Dostoyevski joke,” he said. “Natasha does them better than me. He wrote ‘Crime and Punishment’ in this neighborhood, you know.”
“Seriously, or is that a joke too?”
“It’s true. I could show you his old apartment if you want. It’s very near to my street.”
“If Dostoyevski is your neighbor, why do you all get so excited about someone like William S. Burroughs?”
Daniil thought for a moment. “That’s a good question. I guess it’s because he’s not my neighbor.”
I decided it was now or never to ask a question that had been bugging me. “What do you think of the future here, Daniil?”
“In Russia?” Daniil sighed. “The future will be the future. I like right now. It’s 1999. In only a few years, that will sound very old: 1999. In a few years, nobody will think about right now. So I won’t think about the future. That’s fair, isn’t it?”
Natasha came out of the kiosk with a package of weiners and a sly smile. Daniil interpreted as she performed her miracle.
Natasha took out a weiner. “Does the worm have a soul?” she asked us, holding the weiner out in front of her.
“That’s not a worm,” I said.
“But does a worm have a soul?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s say it does.”
Natasha broke the weiner in half. “Now we have two worms. Where is the soul? Where did it go? Which side is the soul in?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, I’d say the soul divides as the worm does. You get two souls.”
Natasha smiled and tore the weiner into four pieces. “And if I divide these again?”
“Then you get four souls.”
“Then this is the miracle,” she said. “I have created three new souls.” She triumphantly held the ragged bits of weiner up for my inspection.
There are some times in life when you’re too tired and baffled and amused to do anything but laugh out loud. I will never be able to categorize that moment — standing in St. Petersburg at 5 a.m. with a Russian librarian who proved she was God by destroying a hot dog — but I think the real miracle was the silly set of odds that put me in that spot after 5,000 miles and two continents. The four of us giggled together like children in front of the kiosk.
I never got another chance to kiss Natasha. We ate the rest of the weiners on the way back to the apartment, and I fell asleep sitting in one of Daniil’s easy chairs almost as soon as we arrived. What was left of the party went on without me, but I don’t regret missing it.
After all, it was nearly dawn — and I’d traveled a long way to get there.
[This essay originally ran as five-part series in Salon, November 9-13, 1999]