02 October 2009
Caroline, Queen of Siberia
My watch reads 8:23pm as our train pulls into the Ulaanbaatar platform. We’re standing in the blustery cold under nearly 2 inches of snow thanks to a fluke snowstorm that forced the temperature down 35 degrees in twelve hours. Matt is to my right attempting to dodge the sways and dips of a very drunk Mongolian man. To my left is a dapper American fellow named Chris. Chris is a missionary from the Mormon church, which I identify from the universal name tag that all missionaries seem to wear.
He asks me where I’m from which is followed up with: “so, have you heard about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints?” While I award an A for effort all I can think is, “does this really seem like the right moment to pitch the church? I’m wearing a 40-pound backpack on my back and a 20-pound pack on my front standing in two inches of snow on a train platform in Mongolia.” The whistle sounds and I excuse myself, apologizing for needing to hop aboard.
We are joined by Andy and Charlotte in our 4-person, 4-bed, microscopic cabin. It appears that - once again - all the foreigners have been placed in the same coach. We begin to chat our plan our coordinated attack on arranging our berths. “Okay, if you put your right foot here then I can put my left arm there and pull down this bunk. Good. Now, if you suspend your body from that rail I can do a front somersault vaulted twist into my bed. Ready, steady...”
Conversation on travel, work, school and home (they’re both UK residents and London-bound!) shifts abruptly as Caroline bursts into the cabin. We first met Caroline in Beijing, as she and her partner were on our group tour to the Great Wall. They miraculously reappeared on our train to Mongolia, where we brushed shoulders and spoke of our epic adventures. While we stayed in different places in Ulaanbaatar, both of us took overnight trips to the National Park (though we did not see each other). Then, while standing in the snow and chatting with the Mormon missionary, I caught her gaze across the platform.
Caroline seems to know everyone on the train, including the staff, border guards and customs officials. Austrian, she lives in London and “take one major trip every year.” You can hear her bubbly, enthusiastic laugh from six cabins down and whenever she shows up you can be sure there is some new train-wide news or gossip to be disseminated. She is the foreign traveler’s matriarch on our train journey through Siberia and thanks to her precise smoking schedule, I could set my watch by her movements.
She offers us Vodka all around which the four of us politely decline. This is followed by a number of hilarious anecdotes including a profile of her new Mongolian friend, her love of feeding dogs and how she made friends with our on-board cabin matron. The conversation carries on for several more highly entertaining hours before the four of us are sufficiently tired. Matt and Charlotte both accidentally stumble into the matron’s berth whilst looking for the bathroom and get a stern gaze for interrupting a frantically paced session of needlepointing. With that, we drift off to sleep...