Battling Cabin Crashers on the Trans-Mongolian Railway
The Trans-Mongolian Railway. Home for the next four days
Day 36: Mechanically speaking, the Russian train is superior to the UVZ. Mechanically speaking. Comfort is another matter. The UVZ was an '05, so it still had some of that new-car freshness. The train, I am guessing, is a '55, and its new-train freshness has been long since depleted. This isn't all bad. In between the cars, the vestibule spaces, where passengers wait to unload, have an extreme industrial theme, with a pervasive gun-metal grey color scheme and sharp corners that give a strong Soviet flavor. The cabins themselves have seen better times and the upholstery has swallowed its fill of dead skin and dust. Sitting down, I begin to fantasize about a long and intensive fumigation--three days of marination in chemicals and steam. But I'm not sure that would quite do it.
My window is double paned and the interior has been infected by moisture. Where it isn't misted over, there are streaks of dribbling water. The exterior is caked in brown Mongolian dust. The appeal of the Trans-Mongolian Railway is the view, of course--the Siberian expanse displayed in high definition in your own private cabin. The best views will all be terrible.
The train lurches forward. As the lurch presses into a gentle coast, there is a knock at my door. I open it. Two Mongolian women, both decently overweight, are standing expectantly holding a lot of baggage. The door is open a quarter way and the Mongolian woman nearest it reaches in and slides it the rest of the way, and the interior of my cabin is now in full view. On one bed, I have unfurled my sleeping bag. On the other, which faces it, I've dumped all my crap. These are my beds. I have paid for the entire compartment all the way to Moscow. I can get up and switch beds in the middle of the night if I want to, and I just might. I own them.
The train yard.
The Mongolian woman has more liberal views on bed ownership. She points at my sleeping bag, then the other bed and says something. I don't know quite what she's getting at, but I shake my head because the status quo seems just fine to me. She reaches in and pick up my sweater, lifts it over and drops it on the other bed. She points at the empty space has created and says something in Mongolian. I shake my head. "No," I say.
Guess I should get on board
She moves her body into the doorway and is on the verge of crossing the threshold. I take a step forward and throw up a block, now far closer to the overweight Mongolian woman than I have ever wished to be. She points at the bed again, I say no again. Then I say, "I bought both beds," in a loud voice, knowing that the words won't be understood, but the loudness will. Loudness is universal. So is shouting, and it might come next. She makes another move forward. I hold my ground, then grab the door and pull it. She still has shopping bags in her hand and cannot react in time. The advantage is mine. I muscle it shut and turn the lock.
Thirty seconds elapse and there is another knock at the door. I do not answer it.
An hour later, I have a look in the hallway. Things look safe. I stand and watch the inhabitants of the other cabins emerge from their doorways. In the cabin to my left is a Russian businessman with grey hair. I try to make friendly eye contact, but he avoids me. Next to him is an XL-sized Russian couple, probably in their forties. The wife has died blond hair and wears a fur coat, even on the train, which is tropically hot. The husband wears a handlebar mustache and is sporting black track pants with a silver stripe down the side. The elastic waistband accentuates the spill-over of his gut. He has changed into thong flip flops and is talking on a cellphone. We're only 45 minutes outside of the Ulaan Bataar, and already the gutteral and unpronounceable phonemes of Mongolia have given way to the fat, mashed-together consonants of Russian.
Trans-Mongolian Express bed linen. It's a keeper.
To my right is an elderly Swiss couple who are a model of gentleness and civility. The wife gives me coffee and two apples. They tell me they are getting off tomorrow in Irkutsk. This worries me, because the Swiss couple is the only bulwark against the pre-civilized Hobbesian chaos that is the Russian train.
By midnight, we hit the Russian border. There are trees outside now, whose grey branches are illuminated by moonlight. The Gobi Dessert and its legacy of parched earth are finally over. As I fall asleep, I can hear the Russian businessman snoring and I find the sound strangely comforting. We will arrive in Moscow in four days.