Journey Through Trans-Siberian Railway
Guest post by Joel R. Putnam.
In Asia I have traveled through India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mainland China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian West Bank. The Border crossings were as diverse as the countries themselves. Sometimes on a wooden boat with a tiny little motor going across the Mae-Kong River, after getting stiffed for an unexpected two-day overstay in Thailand, and then finding, in Laos, that my credit and debit cards had been snatched from my money belt. Once is was a simple as finishing my congee, having my temperature taken, and getting off a ferry in Osaka, walking past concrete playgrounds, looking for something to eat.
But one border crossing that sticks out in my mind was crossing between Mongolia and Russia, aboard the Trans-Mongolian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The first step was my visa to Russia. Most countries these days make it very simple to get a tourist visa. Russia is not one of these countries. You need a lot of documents, including an invitation to Russia from a licensed tourist agency inside of Russia (thankfully available for purchase online– I recommend waytorussia.com). And if you look online, you will find lots of sources telling you that must get a visa to Russia while in your own country.
By the time I was going to go to Russia, I had been outside my native country for nearly a year. I was going to have to get my visa while in Asia. Word on the street was that the Russian Embassy in Mongolia was a no-go. So that meant Beijing. I am not Chinese. I had no Chinese work visa. Several websites told me there was no way I was getting a visa unless I was Chinese or had a Chinese work visa. Tourists outside the embassy said the same thing. The guard outside also said the same thing. The signs on the inside of the door, the embassy bulletin board, and pasted near the line also all said the same thing.
I cleared my throat, and approached the glass window, ignoring the sign above it saying the same thing one last time. “Hello. Um. I’m an American Citizen. I don’t have a Chinese work visa. Can I get a Russian visa?” The attendant looked at me as if I had just asked her if Russia existed. “…Yes.” One week later, I picked the thing up from the same spot. Russian visa, 30 days, for the usual fee for an American citizen.
Fast forward to the actual Russian border. We’d been on the warm train with its fake wood paneling for a few hours already, out of the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bataar. I was sharing a compartment of four green bunks with a quiet, heavy, blond man with a crew cut, and a Mongolian couple with bags and bags of the most plastic-looking fake leather jackets I’d ever seen. As we pulled up to the station at the border, the woman tapped my arm.
“Excuse me? Border say twenty kilos. We have many kilos.” I don’t know how things are in Asia, but in Latin America, this is a favorite tactic of drug smugglers. Put contraband in the pockets of something innocuous, like some jackets, and get them into tourists’ luggage. I told them I didn’t have any room in my backpack.
They asked our compartment mate, who looked at me uneasily, and also told them no. They started getting frantic, stuffing things every which way. Both man and woman asked me several more times. Then he gave me the finger, pretty much the same way a toddler would use a big word it didn’t quite understand. He didn’t quite do it right, and he obviously wasn’t 100% sure that it meant what he thought it meant. I hung out in the hallway. The couple moved compartments. I never saw them again.
As expected, we were stopped in the station from midnight until about 3am. A uniformed Russian military officer came and asked for our passports. She glanced at the title page, then flipped to find the visa, stamped the opposite page, and handed it all back without looking at me. I had legally entered Russia.
In Xian, China, I met a backpacker who had just taken the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Beijing. Excited, since I’d wanted to do the same thing the other way, I asked him what it had been like.
He snorted. “It was a long effing train trip.”
Now that I’ve done it too, I can say that’s a pretty accurate summary. One long effing train trip. Seven days, total, if you go from Vladivostok or Beijing to Moscow without stopping and getting off. Since most of the trains running along this railway don’t have showers, I don’t recommend that method.
I spent a week in Mongolia, partially thanks to an old high school exchange student friend of mine. Turned out he was the son of Mongolia’s Secretary of State. That was a bit of a surprise. I split my time between his Mongolia—private cars, body guards, hotel suites—and everyone else’s Mongolia—Gers (aka yurts), horseback riding across rolling green hills, and several varieties of goat meat and potatoes every day. And by several varieties, I mean two. Really one and a half. But the yogurt I got a couple times was excellent.
Shortly crossing into Russia, I tried buying some food on the train with the last of my Mongolian money. The attendant didn’t want to take it. When I asked what I could use the money for, he politely suggested, through an interpreter, that I use it as toilet paper.
I stopped in Irkutsk, Siberia, to travel to Lake Baikal, and onwards to Olkon Island. There I found a village made mostly of unpainted wood, aluminum, and mud puddles. I’ve traveled across every continent, extensively across the habited ones. This village remains the only place I’ve seen where you can walk into a store, buy something, and have the attendant figure out your total on an abacus.
I mountain biked across the roads by day and drank mulled wine, listening to Russian folk music by night. One of the funnier moments came when the accordionist played Summertime, and I turned out to be the only person (musicians included) who knew all the words. Several other tourists were astonished to find the Russians around them smiling at this. They claimed never to have seen Russians smile before.
I’ll dispute that. But it is remarkable that, when I maintain a cold, unsmiling expression in the streets of Russia, I blend in so well that locals ask me for directions in Russian. One Russian in Siberia took me to task for what they saw as the fake cheerfulness of Americans—how we always say “okay” or “good” when someone asks us how we are, no matter how we actually are doing.
When I felt like leaving Siberia, I bought a ticket to Moscow. There are three or four leaving Irkutsk every day, and the cheapest way to get a ticket is to buy it on the spot. Don’t let any travel agencies tell you otherwise. You’ll be on a train with four compartment-mates, a thin hallway, a train attendant, a samovar (hot water boiler), and a toilet at the end of the car that empties directly onto the track. Since you’ll be stuck in this position for multiple days, your experience is going to depend a great deal on the people you’re stuck with.
Thankfully, the people I was stuck with were fantastic people. In my compartment was a young Russian couple with their three-year-old son. In the next compartment was a hilarious pack of Portuguese travelers I’d met in Siberia. In the next cars were several European drivers returning home from the Mongol Rally—a race for charity where drivers take beat-up old cars from London, Milan, and Barcelona to Ulan Bataar. You’ll need lots of stories to spend all this time on a train, and people like these were full of them.
The time was spent with them, trying to wash myself with the toilet’s sink, earning the mild enmity of the portly train attendant, and eating more instant oatmeal and ramen with the hot water boiler than was entirely healthy.
Before the last night aboard, a few things started to build up. One of the Portuguese travelers became ill—throwing up just outside the toilet. The three year old in my compartment decided I could speak Russian, and kept trying to strike up conversation. I did my best, delighting him. Whatever my limited vocabulary got across led him to start his favorite game of grab-Joel’s-pant leg every time I walked by. This led to non-verbal conversations with the parents and swapping of food. Then a man came aboard joining us. I can only describe him as the long-lost Russian twin of the standard old drunk man in all those Charlie Chaplin movies. He had a handle of vodka stuffed under his pillow. Finally, I will mention that, in Russian culture, as a man, there is only one valid excuse for refusing a drink: you’re a recovering alcoholic. I didn’t use this in time.
All of these combined into a highly eventful night, but an even more interesting next morning. It’s a long story, and you can read it here.
Guest blogger Joel R. Putnam grew up 95% in the heart of the city of Seattle and 5% on his grandparents’ cattle ranch in Eastern Washington State along the Columbia River. After short student trips to Spain and Costa Rica, a couple improv acting classes, and, of course, high school, he left to study at the University of Chicago. There he picked up a double-major in Political Science and International Studies, speaking roles in over a dozen student theater productions, a study abroad experience in India as well as a part on an NBC-Universal show about his experiences there, and a 2008 Olga and Paul Menn Award for Fiction.After graduating with honors, he fulfilled his childhood dream of running away to see the world, traveling for over a year and a half across every continent, visiting more than 60 countries in the process. He now lives in New York City, where he’s seeing how far he can get as an actor and writer. Visit his travel blog at www.Jtrek.blogspot.com or www.constantaudition.blogspot.com (current blog about life as an aspiring actor and writer in New York.)
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