Adventure on the Trans-Siberian Railway

We had been warned.

Guidebooks, our travel agency, and fellow backpackers had all informed us that we’d meet roving salespeople on the extension of the Mongolian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway. These traders, they said, tried to bring more than their share of salable goods from China to Russia, via Mongolia. They would probably ask us to carry an extra suitcase through customs for them.

“Just say nyet,” everyone advised.

Nyet,” my husband had said, again and again, to the Mongolian woman in the Mickey Mouse t-shirt and her silent companion. But she just kept talking, and Erik squinted at her, trying hard to apply his four semesters of Russian to her hushed, rapid-fire speech.

Finally he’d turned to me, brow furrowed. “She says it’s already in here. And now they want to take it out.”

We had received no advice to prepare us for this situation -- smugglers asking to retrieve goods they had already stashed in our compartment. So we stood at an impasse, four people nose to nose in the tiny compartment.

***

When we'd boarded the green, round-topped train in Ulaanbaatar the day before, we hadn’t expected this leg of our trans-Siberian journey to be eventful. Train rides were supposed to be relaxing. My husband and I, twenty-four years old and married six months in the summer of 1998, had hatched the plan to travel from Beijing to Paris overland, inspired in part by the pajama parties on rails described in Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China. We pictured ourselves sharing snacks with our compartment-mates, who would preferably be Mongolian so we could practice the two phrases we’d learned during two weeks of trekking in the country (sain baina uu: hello; bayarlalaa: thank you). We imagined that after a day of cultural exchange, we’d climb into our bunks to read up on the natural wonders of our next destination, Lake Baikal, until we were rocked to sleep by the sway of the cars, listening to the chuggeta-chunk of train wheels like a mother’s heartbeat.

The Ulaanbaatar station, like most buildings in the Mongolian capital, is a pompous Soviet-era work of concrete, uncrowded and orderly. After handing our tickets to a solemn woman in a pencil skirt and military hat, we climbed the steps to find we’d been assigned to a four-bunk compartment by ourselves—a luxury usually, but not at all conducive to the kind of cultural exchange we sought. So we dropped our packs in the room and hung out instead in the narrow corridor, watching the concrete blocks of Ulaanbaatar give way to suburbs of round white gers, or yurts. Speakers in the hallway walls played a nightclub-inspired soundtrack up and down the carriage. “Ra-Ra-Rasputin” and Aqua's “Barbie Girl” repeated numerous times as the afternoon wore on.

Whenever a passenger who looked Mongolian walked by, we grinned and launched our best sain baina uu. But the Mongolians on this train were nothing like the friendly herdsmen who’d continually approached us on horseback out on the grassy rolling hills, pantomiming requests to take their pictures. These Mongolians wore Western clothes instead of the long, jewel-toned silk or wool dels we’d seen on herdsmen. And they didn’t speak to us.

The train was obviously still used by traders, as our guidebook had alleged; on my way to the samovar at the end of the car, where I would fill my big metal cup with instant coffee powder and water, I saw one fellow passenger in his compartment repacking piles of plastic-wrapped jackets into a huge duffel bag. Still, to our relief, no one asked us to carry anything through customs for them. Maybe Russian customs had relaxed, we thought, and traders no longer needed to worry about weight limits.

Once it began to get dark, Erik and I appreciated having our own private compartment. We slid the door closed and switched off the speaker set into the wall; with plenty of room to spread out, we left our bags on the lower bunks and climbed into the narrow top bunks. The rhythm of the train was as pacifying as we had imagined, and we were soon asleep.

Not for long, though. We had only slept a few hours when we woke to a rapping on our compartment door and opened it to find a Russian man in uniform who informed us that we were to take our bags and leave the train to go through customs. We blearily stepped into our shoes and shouldered our packs to head into the customs building, where we waited in line, feeling like wilting produce under the fluorescent lights of a state-owned grocery store.

Erik handed over his passport, which was bedraggled after riding in his back jeans pocket for two years of living in Beijing, where foreigners were required to keep their papers with them at all times. The Russian border agent, a thin man with a bushy brown mustache, eyed it as if it was a dead mouse dangling by its tail.

“This photo looks like you could just reach in and pull it out,” the agent said.

He had a point -- the passport had acquired moisture during rainy bike commutes and sweaty subway rides, and the plastic securing the photo was beginning to separate at the edge of the page.

The agent walked out of sight with Erik’s passport. There is no five-minute period longer than the one in which you’re standing at a border crossing far from home, with no passport.

He returned a few minutes later, the passport in one hand, a pair of tweezers in the other. The tweezers held Erik’s passport photo.

“I had to check if the seal was intact. It was,” he said, as if this would reassure us.

We could only stare miserably at Erik’s mutilated passport. I imagined a life as a couple stuck between countries. I surveyed the customs building—it didn't even have a snack bar.

“Just a moment,” the man said, and disappeared again. People shifted impatiently in the line behind us, and I thought longingly of our cozy train compartment. When he returned again, he was holding Erik's passport, this time with one finger on each side of the photo, tamping the layers back together. He patted it to demonstrate that it had been glued and then handed it back. Erik, open-mouthed and speechless, stood gaping at his passport, which now looked like a preschool craft project.

The border agent nodded in satisfaction—as if he had done us a big favor—and waved us along. “Go to an embassy and get a new passport as soon as you get off the train,” he ordered us, and we nodded like bobble heads as we grabbed our backpacks and quick-stepped out before he could change his mind and call us back.

     ***

That panic seemed like nothing more than a bad dream late the next morning, as we lingered in the sunny corridor outside our compartment. Yesterday’s grassy steppe backed by low mountains and endless sky had given way to trees. We were just thinking of checking out the Russian dining car that had been added to the train at the border when the two Mongolians stepped into our compartment, the woman in her black t-shirt with Mickey on the front, the man in a plain long-sleeved black shirt.

Sain baina uu!” I said, wondering if they might be looking for an English lesson or a game of cards.

Over the past two weeks, we had fallen in love with the Mongolian people. We couldn’t fathom how such gentle, happy folks claimed as their most famous citizen the brutal Genghis Khan, a warrior so bloodthirsty he wiped out eleven percent of the world’s population with his army and reportedly murdered his own brother. The Mongolians we'd met had shown us exuberant hospitality, sheltering us in their gers during rain showers and serving us bowls of airag, sour mare’s-milk yogurt, and shots of arkhi, milk vodka.

Now we hoped we could return the hospitality by welcoming these Mongolians into our compartment. We followed them in, smiling.

But the moment we stepped inside, the man slid the door shut and pulled down the bar that locked the compartment from the inside. As the bar scraped and clunked into place, the light dimmed—the woman had closed the window curtain. Then she began speaking intently to us in Russian, which only Erik could understand.

I heard a voice in my head, as if I were already telling the story to friends: “And that’s when we realized we were about to be robbed.”

What would they take? I was suddenly very conscious of the nylon money belt chafing my skin under my jeans waistband. Our passports and most of our cash were secured in our belts. Could we get away with giving them only the few U.S. dollars we’d left in our packs?

Then Erik told me the one phrase the woman kept repeating: “It’s already in here.”

What is already in here?” I asked, my voice rising in panic.

“I can't understand that part,” he said. “But whatever it is, they have to take it out now.”

“Oh my God,” I said. “They hid something in here to get it through customs. While we were in there last night, the authorities were searching this train, and there was something in here.”

Erik just nodded.

Meanwhile, the man and woman watched us, their bodies close, their eyes darting urgently between ours.

When the woman opened her mouth to begin again, I interrupted her. “OK,” I said. “OK.”

This needed no translation; the man sprang to action. He climbed onto our little table, turned on the radio set into the curved panel over the window, and kept turning the knob to the right until the dogged beat of “Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen,” drowned out everything but the rattling of the train. Then he removed the knob altogether and began unscrewing the bolts of the wall panel itself.

Hours passed, or at least it felt that way. In reality he might have struggled with the panel for five agonizing minutes. There was nothing for the woman to do but stand there with Erik and me. None of us sat down, so the three of us were still crowded awkwardly together like passengers in an elevator. No social protocol existed, I realized, for how to interact with a smuggler while waiting for her accomplice to reclaim illicit goods from your bedroom.

Her accomplice, meanwhile, was having a hard time removing the panel. Sweat dripped from his face and landed like raindrops on the table next to the tiny vase of fake flowers. At one point Erik half-raised his arms, as if ready to help the guy out; I jabbed him in the ribs with my elbow, and he dropped his arms. We held hands and watched silently while the man worked.

We wished ourselves a million miles away, and yet, at this moment, our fate seemed bundled with theirs—we all wanted this job finished quickly. And though my body remained still—petrified—my mind ran wild. I imagined police officers with German shepherds straining at their leashes breaking the compartment door open at any moment. Ransacking our room, dragging us off the train to an interrogation room in some old Soviet city that didn’t even appear on the map. Would they believe we had nothing to do with this? My heart pounded so loudly in my ears that I thought I really did hear knocking.

Finally, the big curved piece was off, and he handed it down to the woman, who laid it on one of the lower bunks. Behind it was a long piece of Styrofoam, and as he pulled that toward himself, tiny foam balls showered the table around his feet.

Removing the foam panel revealed an orderly row of cylinders the size and uniform shape of artificial fireplace logs. They were wrapped in something like brown plastic or waxed paper, so we couldn’t see what was inside. The woman started to hand her partner a white sack.

“No!” I hissed. I was convinced that she was holding our white laundry bag, and I didn’t want drugs going into our bag.

The woman paused—she didn’t seem to want to argue with me. I pointed to one of the pillows instead. She and the man exchanged a few words in Mongolian, then she removed two pillows from their cases and began loading the cylinders into them.

Once she was finished, the man started reassembling the wall. I didn’t quite feel relief, but I felt that relief might soon be possible—like realizing a root canal is half over. We might actually survive this horror show. The re-assembly was smoother than the disassembly, and within minutes, the man was standing on the floor again, sweeping Styrofoam balls off the table and into the pillowcase with his hand. He had turned down the radio.

Finally they picked up the empty white sack, preparing to leave, and only then did I realize that it had been theirs all along—it only looked like our own white laundry bag. I felt embarrassed by my mistake, and considered apologizing, but it was clear that our visitors weren’t interested in hanging around to chat.

The man scanned our compartment one last time, swept up a few more white balls with his hand, and opened the door a crack. He stuck his head out and peered up and down the corridor. Then the couple left, disappearing into the compartment next to ours.

I pushed our door shut, locked it, and collapsed against it, trembling.

At first I almost giggled, flush with adrenaline and the relief that accompanied the end of an ordeal. Erik wrapped his arms around me, and for the next several minutes we stood clutching one another as hard as we could, muttering, “Oh my God … oh my God.”

It took about fifteen minutes before we could really think, and then we began to talk seriously. What should we do now? Pack up our things and get off the train at the next station? What if these people were caught—would we be implicated? We had just witnessed a crime. What if they planned to kill us before the train reached our stop, to make sure we couldn’t turn them in? Or did that kind of thing happen only in movies? But having just lived through the kind of thing that happens only in movies, we were confused about what was realistic and what was silly.

Just then a knock came at the door. I clutched Erik’s hand so hard he winced, and I started shaking all over again. Erik gestured toward the door to silently ask if he should open it, and I shook my head, stifling a sob. The knock came again, and again. Finally, Erik cracked the door an inch, and there stood the woman in the Mickey Mouse shirt. She handed us our pillowcases, neatly folded.

Bayarlalaa,” I said weakly. Thank you. And she was gone.

Six more hours of the train ride stretched ahead of us. We no longer felt like visiting the dining hall—we were still too shaken—but we couldn’t concentrate on reading, either. We sat in our locked compartment, holding our guidebooks open on our laps, our eyes returning again and again to the wall that we’d seen opened like a surgical patient’s skull. We debated what those packages contained. Erik thought he had glimpsed leaves through the package, so he was convinced it was marijuana. I was sure the packaging had been completely opaque.

“It was probably heroin,” I said, as we circled back for the thirtieth time. It didn’t matter which of us was right. There was no way to prove each other right or wrong on that train, with no one we could ask and no literature available to research drug smuggling on the Trans-Siberian. But it passed the agonizing minutes as we sat and waited for something else to happen. Every so often, one of us would turn to the other and say, “Oh my God,” and we would sigh or shake our heads.

Eventually hunger compelled us to unlock our door. I emptied a packet of instant oatmeal into each of our big metal cups and padded down the corridor to the samovar at the end of the carriage. There sat the provodnitsa, the fleshy-armed Russian woman whose job it was to keep the hot water flowing and lock the toilets when we came into stations. She was drinking tea at her tiny table, and across from her sat the woman in the Mickey Mouse shirt. I looked at both women and gave the tiniest of smiles, but neither smiled back. They continued their conversation in Russian.

Bizarrely, I felt snubbed, considering what the smuggler and I had just been through. I supposed that she had to act like she had never seen me before, but still. I kept my eyes on my hands, as if it required great concentration to hold one cup, then the other, under the spigot. Then I walked back to our compartment as quickly as I could without sloshing two cups of steaming oatmeal, to tell Erik what I had seen.

Now we understood that more people might have been involved. The provodnitsa was friends with the smugglers. She must have known what was going on. Being given our own compartment with no roommates had seemed like a stroke of luck, or maybe a courtesy to the only Westerners in the carriage. Now it dawned on us that we were probably assigned alone to that compartment because there were already drugs hidden in there. We were the designated rubes. Was the company that sold us our tickets—a China-based tour company—in on it too?

“What about that border agent?” Erik asked, removing his glasses and lowering his head to his cup to let the steam hit his face. Then he quickly straightened up and replaced his glasses, looking newly alarmed. “Maybe that's why he pulled the picture out of my passport! Maybe he's planning on us getting detained somewhere.”

“Now you're just being paranoid,” I said. In all likelihood, our ordeal was over—we had only to survive the anxiety of sitting on the train for five more hours, then we could get off and never see the criminals again.

“Or,” I said, laughing with fake bravado, “maybe they're planning to shoot us just before we arrive, so there won't be any witnesses.” I couldn't help thinking that the woman's unfriendliness at the samovar was a bad sign.

The hours dragged. The woods outside our little window deepened. I slid open our door again, and what I saw made me cry out: “Baikal!”

Erik came as far as the doorway of the compartment to look. Every window from one end of the carriage to the other was filled with Lake Baikal, bluer than any water I had ever seen and scintillating like endless fish scales in the sun, blending into the sky at the horizon.

I stood against the window, reading aloud to Erik that two thirds of the plants and animals in this massive lake were found nowhere else.

“It’s the world’s deepest lake,” I told him, trying to rekindle the thrill of exploration we’d felt boarding the train a day before. “It has a fifth of the world’s fresh surface water.”

We would be walking on those banks tomorrow—assuming we made it off the train alive and were not detained by authorities. We had no idea whether our fears were far-fetched or reasonable, but at 3:30 p.m. Moscow Time, when the relentless disco on the speakers finally paused and Irkutsk Station was announced, we speed-walked toward the door, our tall, overstuffed backpacks bumping against the window curtains and each other. We each held a smaller bag in one hand.

Then, just as I reached the train door, inhaled my first breath of air, and placed my foot on the metal stairway, someone took my bag and put a hand on my arm. I sucked in air and flinched, certain that I was being arrested. But the tall, blond young man now holding my bags wore shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, not a uniform. And he was smiling up at me.

“You are Carrie and Erik?” he asked in a Northern European accent, as he helped me down the stairs. He named our tour company—he was there to drive us to our homestay, he explained. I giggled madly, unconcerned by how strange my reaction must have seemed. When we closed the car doors, Erik and I took deep breaths, releasing them only as we pulled away from the station and into traffic, separated forever from two Mongolian businesspeople and their provodnitsa friend.

                                                                                    ***

A few months later, I found an article describing the rapid spread of heroin use in Russia and showed it to Erik as support for my theory about the cargo. But Erik, having conducted his own research, countered that heroin was mostly grown in Afghanistan and would have come in through Central Asia, not Mongolia.

In the end we had to agree that we’d never know what manner of contraband we’d unwittingly harbored in our compartment. It could have been dinosaur bones or cigarettes or socks and underwear for all we knew.

“And we thought Mongolians were so nice,” Erik or I would always end up saying, when we narrated the incident for friends.

Sometimes I imagined the fierce heart of Genghis Khan beating in the smugglers’ chests, giving them the cruel willingness to off us if they suspected we might nark. Or maybe, I reasoned, they were just ordinary people pressed by financial need into an unsavory errand.

Then I thought of the woman standing at my compartment door, returning our neatly folded pillowcases. I remembered the man painstakingly sweeping up the little Styrofoam balls he’d dropped on our table. And I decided that, as smugglers went, these Mongolians were the nicest I’d ever met.


Carrie Kirby is a writer whose work has appeared in San Francisco magazine, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. A former newspaper staffer and world traveler, Carrie spent the past ten years having and nursing babies and blogging. Now that the whole family is done with diapers and naps, Carrie has taken the show on the road, exposing the kids to America’s varied beauty whether they like it or not. Carrie’s new blog, about going places without owning a vehicle, is CarFreeMom.com.

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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at [email protected]

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