On the Trans-Smugglian!
As the Siberian landscape unrolls so does our dream…and most dreams rarely make sense. We find ourselves in the restaurant carriage of the Trans-Mongolian No.6 subjected to some loud Russian pop music further stimulated by the permanent disco lights above the bar. Meanwhile in our compartment, a team of Mongolian passengers are busy hiding box-loads of sausages, large bars of cheese, packets of rice and all sorts of other food stuffs under the seats. Altogether we will spend more than 100 hours in this train (five nights and four days) and cross one of the longest stretch of forrest in the world and the largest reservoir of fresh water before reaching the steppes of Mongolia.
We shared our compartment with a smart-looking Mongolian woman whose age was difficult to guess. She spoke some russian but hardly any english and looked more chinese than Mongolian. For the sake of this blog and to keep her identity anonymous, I will call her Madame Chang. When we first entered the compartment, I sensed a slight unease, but madame Chang soon relaxed and tried to establish contact and remarked on Yoel’s curly hair and his blue eyes. This was not going to be the last time, for some reasons a great majority of asian women cannot help but comment on his looks and often touch his hair. We asked her if we could use the two top bunks and the overhead baggage rack and once we were settled showed her some pictures of the family and managed to explain with our Pointing Book (a tiny travel book we bought before leaving that contains images) that we were on our way to Bali. I noticed that madame Chang was on good terms with the carriage attendants and that she winked easily at other Mongolian passengers. To start with I thought that winking might be a mongolian custom, but as we travelled on we realised that there was more to the winking. Being on the top bunks enabled us to see the landscape whizz by as we lied on our stomachs but it also allowed us to be perched like cats and witness what was going on in the carriage below.
In someways the first three days offered the greenest and least developed landscape of our journey. We were both surprised at how many birch trees there were. It is very calming to watch thousands of kilometres of forests and natural landscape little disturbed by human activities. Apart from the odd disused factories, the few settlements we saw seemed to blend in the landscape.
When we saw how many forests and wetlands we passed, it made us wonder about how much wildlife it must sustain. Of course the same journey would have looked and felt very different had we chosen to travel in December – which was our original plan!
Life on the Trans-Siberian was rather peaceful and it was easy to loose sense of time. We met other travellers, got off onto the platform every few hours to stretch our legs, buy some food or look at the old steam engines and simply kept occupied.
I am amazed at how patient, creative and good company Yoel was. Here is a shot of him playing with his sleeping sheet and the fresh air that came from our open window.
We passed lake Baikal and from then on the landscape started to change and so did the activities in our compartment. It turned out that Madame Chang was orchestrating some food smuggling and she got the whole carriage involved. Every compartments, it seemed got a little part to play. Stations after stations more boxes of food stuff got unpacked and distributed under the seats, in bags and hanging on every available hook. At some point, our sleeping birth got adorned with long sausages. We kindly communicated that we were vegetarians and ended up with boxes of blue cheese instead. We also had the company of a woman and her cute one year old girl who also were very central to the business unboxing.
As the border approached we were concerned that the ‘smugglers’ would get in trouble and did not take pictures not to make the matter worse. This is the only picture that captures some of the hustle and bustle.
We finally reached Naushki the Russian border point. Just before reaching the station we were asked to close all the blinds and to stay seated in our compartments. The train stopped, everything became quiet, we heard the dogs and waited for the uniformed officials. All in all the border control process took two hours and that seemed long especially because we both needed to go to the toilet. At a critical point we heard a women shout some Mongolian words out the window train and a blond Russian officer walked out from our coach rather quickly. I got up and looked in the corridor to see what was happening. A neighbouring Dutchman looked at me and shook his head saying “I think that’s it for them”. To everyone’s surprise, and as if it was a comedy show the blond officer came back with two large trays of eggs and gave them to Madame Chang as if her cargo of sausages and cheese was not complete enough. It turned out that she had convinced the Russian border control officer to collect her last ‘order’ from a woman who was on the outside of the station and passed them the eggs through the bars. We passed the Mongolian border and the officers looked under all the bunks and saw most of the food stuff that was loaded there but Madame Chang also managed to get away with it by passing few presents and bank notes around. There is just a trap door under the corridor carpet that they did not get check!
Another image remains in my mind of crossing the boarder. As we were waiting, a tough looking Russian officer opened one of the binds and looked at the colour of the sky for a long moment and this touched me. That last sunset in the Trans-Mongolian was indeed spectacular and as we started to move again Yoel managed to capture it beautifully.
We hardly were able to sleep on our last night on the train as our compartment had become the epicentre of activities related to the repackaging of all the goods before reaching Ulan Bator. The repetitive sound of the large packaging-tape becoming a mild form of torture which we associate with entering Mongolia by night.
Loic & Yoel