Asia, 1989. Part I: The Trans-Siberian Railway

Faithful TGW readers: I’m working on a very tight project deadline for the next two months, so for my Tuesday posts, I’m reaching back into the vault. For the next six weeks or so, I’ll be publishing my journal entries from a trip across Asia I took 20 years ago, after spending seven months living in Moscow. I wrote the journal by hand in a small leather-bound book, and my mother typed the whole thing up for posterity when I returned. I hope you find something of interest, even if it’s just a time-capsule curiosity.

April 2, 1989 – The first day of the 4-day train trip to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Bright sun, blinding snow and birch trees all around. Last night at l2:30 was the sad send-off at Yaroslavskii station in Moscow. It’s hard to leave, but especially to leave the Soviet Union, because it’s not always so easy to get back.

Glenn and I have a 2-bed sleeper. It’s a normal Russian train, with the compartment measuring about 6 x 6 x 8 feet. There’s a small table that folds out by the window, and Russian pop music that can’t be turned off.  We’ve got bags of food and bottles of water, one traveling bag each, and my little 7-ruble guitar from the airport beriozka. All my money is in a pouch given to me by Sid; American Express in Moscow couldn’t or wouldn’t give me travelers’ checks. It’s not a bad little compartment; a little stuffy, but well-lit and easy to sleep in with the rocking of the train.

Last night shortly after the train pulled out, two of the rail employees came to visit – not an uncommon thing from what I understand. An open door is an invitation to passers-by.  They sat and we poured them vodka, which they put away in amazing quantities. I was tired and thinking of the scene at the station, as well as fearful the two men might want to stay long, but they offered us candies, sat for a while, then left.  I slept well.

The endless fields of snow are amazingly bright in the sun. Unfortunately our window is fogged so it’s difficult to see out. A young Mongolian woman named Horry comes in and we talk for a while in English. She studied in Hungary and now works as a geneticist in Ulan-Bator. She has typical Mongolian features – high cheekbones, dark hair and eyes; very Asian. She is quiet and very amiable.  She gives us lesson #l in Mongolian:  Saim banu – hello, Uch la reh – excuse me, Bair lala – thank you, Bair tai – goodbye.

She has studied English only a year but already knows quite a few words. She says the Gobi Desert is beautiful to visit, but only accessible by air.  We give her a LIFE magazine to practice her English.

Two Soviets come in later, a Russian living in Ulan Bator and a young Moldavian.  They are impressed with our Russian and stay for a while, chatting about Moscow, American cars, different laws in the U.S. & USSR, and traveling.  The Moldavian has two gold teeth right in the front and is going to Irkutsk to visit relatives.  The Russian’s daughter is going to America for her folk troupe’s tour.

The train workers come back to look through some magazines and inquire if we have any pornography they can have.  Neither seems to expect that I might be offended.

April 3 – This morning I make the acquaintance of two Moldavians and a Ukrainian:  Fedya, Dorel & Vitya, as they play an incomprehensible Russian card game in their compartment. When attempts to explain the card game to us fail, Fedya turns to two of the Soviets’ favorite topics of conversation with Americans: the existence of unemployment in the U.S. (“I can’t imagine a person not working”) and the difficulties for Soviets in traveling anywhere abroad.

The train makes 15-minute stops every three hours or so, and whoever wants to can stand out on the platform for fresh air. There is little warning that the train is moving on; it lurches and moves slowly for 10 seconds or so while people jump on.

Glenn stayed up late last night with the train workers, managing to wangle another sleeping compartment from them. So we each have our own, a little confusing for all the people that we have told we are married.

In the afternoon, Horry comes in as I am playing my guitar. She wants to stay and listen, and calls to her sister to come, who calls to the two Moldavians to come. Unfortunately I can’t play most of their requests – Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Bee Gees – but it’s exciting when we hit on a song that Moldavians, Mongolians and Americans can all sing along to.

In Omsk we meet three teenagers on the platform who have never seen Americans before. They’re very excited, saying over and over to each other, “Can you believe it?” while one runs off to get us postcards of Siberia. Unfortunately he doesn’t return before the train pulls out.

The days are spent visiting with the Mongolians, Moldavians, a few Russians and some Norwegians who are also headed for Beijing; playing guitar; and reading War and Peace. I imagine approvingly how I must appear in this timeless scene:  reading Tolstoy while sipping endless cups of tea and occasionally glancing meaningfully through dirty windows at dazzling, virginal fields of white snow and birches. My daydream is frequently interrupted, however, by conductors looking for a bit more vodka, or one of the Soviets poking his head in to inquire about anything from New York’s crime rate to whether or not Michael Jackson drives. My attention span is further assaulted by periodic sudden realizations of how much we’ll see and do in the next three months. So instead of gazing out at the birch fields and contemplating Tolstoy’s genius, I find myself murmuring “Wow.  China.”

We have dinner with Horry and her sister Mishella. Chicken, Hungarian salami, cucumbers, peanuts. They teach us a phrase in Mongolian, “Sank you buru mach” that sounds, when said quickly, like “Thank you very much” but actually means “The good boy scratches his kidney.” Mishella works at the Hotel Ulan Bator, where we were told in Moscow that the cheapest rooms are U.S. $80 per person per night. She promises to try and arrange a discount. She laughs loudly, stuffs a hard-boiled egg in her mouth, and proclaims in Russian, “Do not be afraid.  I am with you!”

The Russian train workers have polished off the entire bottle of vodka Glenn brought and almost an entire bottle of Amaretto.  They drink until they are sick, then drink to cure their sickness.

April 4 – First thing this morning I go to the grimy little bathroom, stick my head in the sink and wash my hair in the cold water. A little precarious with the train rocking back and forth, but I feel like a new woman afterward.

The train is 5 hours behind schedule, setting our border customs check in the middle of the night.

Glenn and I have lunch in the dining car today: beef stroganoff, mashed potatoes, pickled cabbage and solyanka. All in all not bad, although the soup is abysmal, a miasma of grease, suspect meat & cabbage.

In the afternoon, Volodya, the Russian rooming with one of the three Moldavians, comes to invite Glenn and me to indulge in a few vodka rounds. The Moldavians, Volodya, the Mongolians, Glenn and I each take turns downing first vodka, then sweet Moldavian wine, then a mixture of both with Fanta. The idea of tasting such a thing twice is horrifying, so we all drink in great moderation.

In the evening, the Norwegians come to our compartment for food, drink, Norwegian and American folk music. They all speak English, and Glenn speaks Norwegian, so communicating is no problem. They all bought train tickets from a Norwegian company for travel from Oslo all the way to Beijing; once there they are all going separate ways. They are a lively bunch, very friendly and all apparently well-traveled. Sigmund they call the “typical Norwegian boy;” he brought the folk music. Marit is traveling on her own and has been to Disneyworld twice. Liv has a crewcut, a quiet demeanor, and two small bandaged spots on her ear that she explains, smiling: “Acupuncture.” The compartment is crowded and smoky, but the company is good.  They leave at 12:30 a.m. with promises of a goat cheese feast for us tomorrow night.

April 5 – This afternoon we pass Lake Baikal. It’s still entirely covered with ice this late in the winter. The Moldavians got off at Irkutsk this morning, before I woke up. Lots of reading and relaxing today, and some letter writing. The romance of the Trans-Mongolian is starting to wear a little thin. Poor Volodya seems bored to death and is becoming something of a nuisance. I spend a lot of time alone in my compartment listening to music and watching the scenery go by. I almost didn’t bring a Walkman, reasoning that I wanted my impressions of exotic places untainted by familiar music. Ever the fallen purist, I soon find my tapes a pleasant luxury. Having anticipated this weakness, however, I did think to bring one classical cassette to play while I perused War and Peace.

Border check in Naushki.  The border guards have taken our passports already but haven’t searched the wagons yet. Thank goodness I got my exit visa in time in Moscow – with one hour to spare before the issuing office closed, in a comedy of errors that bordered on tragedy.

We will probably wait at this checkpoint for two to three hours. From here it should only be another hour or so into Mongolia. Our route has been: Moscow – Yaroslavl – Kirov – Perm – Sverdlovsk – Omsk – Novosibirsk – Krasnoyarsk – Irkutsk – Ulan- Ude – Naushki – Ulan Bator – with lots of smaller cities in between.

A moment of genuine panic when the border officer tells me I need the customs declaration I filled out when I arrived in Moscow eight months ago, which is somewhere among the boxes of things in Joe’s apartment in Moscow. Luckily I have a receipt for 2800 of my 3600 dollars, but for a while I am afraid the customs authorities would take the rest.  Otherwise not a terribly thorough search.

Half an hour later at the Mongolian border, the process is repeated. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning – they bring a stepladder in, check the overhead compartment, check the linen holders under the beds…

9 responses to “Asia, 1989. Part I: The Trans-Siberian Railway”

  1. McGodfree says:

    I am so happy that you decided to post these entries.

    Besides sensing your youthful excitement regarding your journey, I love the hints of a bygone era — the lack of cell phones, the smoking everywhere, the Walkman and cassette tapes. I’m sure the TSE is still quite rustic by American standards, but this also reminds me of an Amtrak trip I took across the US at about the same time. The people you meet on a long train trip…

    The most interesting person I met — and there were a lot — was a guy who found out that his wife was having an affair so he emptied the bank account, took the deed to the house and bought an Amtrak ticket. His plan was to spend all of their money crisscrossing the country before returning home to file for divorce.

  2. Stella says:

    Hurrah for your devoted ma.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    It’s fun to read journal entries, especially those as descriptive as yours.

  4. LP says:

    1 – Thanks, Scoots. It is interesting to look back and realize how much has changed. I remember not wanting to take more than a couple of cassettes along, as they took too much room in my backpack – the only bag I took with me for what became a 3-month trip.

    Also, it’s incredible to realize that in those pre-email, pre-cellphone days, my parents had absolutely no clue where I was for days at a time. I’d call them once a week (it was too expensive to call more than that), and they never knew where the call would come from – Beijing? Hong Kong? Pakistan? New Delhi? I love that having all that freedom wasn’t a conscious choice, but just the reality of the situation.

    2 – I couldn’t believe it when she told me she was typing the whole thing in. Then she printed it off on my dad’s dot-matrix printer and sent it to the whole family.

  5. Scotty says:

    Any code words that found their way into your family archive?

  6. LP says:

    Ha! No… In fact, I knew I was writing this for public consumption, as I told my parents I would keep a journal in lieu of sending letters / postcards home. So, a few things were slightly sanitized — and shall remain so, since my parents read TGW!

  7. swells says:

    I loooooove train travel, long trips in a compartment with your maps and books and timetables chocolate and cheese and tomatoes and Swiss Army knife and journal all spread out on the table. I haven’t done it this exotically, though, and am writhing with delicious envy over this journal entry, so much more poetic than mine ever were.

  8. Natasha says:

    I’m loving this. Just started reading in between a bunch of things I have to do. Wanted to let you know how grateful I am for this post, also, I could not not comment on it today. Can’t wait to finish it.

  9. Natasha says:

    Thank you, thank you , thank you for letting us read this! It brought back memories: the hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, fried chicken wrapped in foil, and the tea v podstakannikah. The longest trip I took was to Odessa to sail to Turkey. My Mom and I shared a compartment with another mother and daughter, who were at least 250 pounds each and about each hour or so the mother said, “Nu chto, dochk, pogrem.” Don’t even know how to translate that. (So, daughter let’s pig out on some grub?) I forgot that the open door means, “Come in, we are having a party.” I too wrote a bunch of stuff about that trip in the form of poetry and even typed it all up myself a couple years ago. Unfortunately, my computer crashed and I lost most of it.

    “They drink until they are sick, then drink to cure their sickness.”
    So true, but sounds so odd in English:) At home we call it booze at night and a remedy in morning.