05 October 2009
Stop. Go. No, Stop. No, Go. Wait, where Is The Engine Car?
We are awakened by the older cabin matron who jolts our door open, points to her watch, shouts “passport control” and slams the door shut again. It’s seven thirty. An hour later the train rolls into Mongolian border control and we are boarded by suited officials. Let the waiting game begin.
I run through the day in my head: “okay, so this many hours for this, another x number of hours for that, some time to eat and a decent night’s sleep.” DAY PLANNED!
DAY LOST. For whatever reason all sense of time and space seems to disappear on this epic adventure. We are all convinced this is in part due to the obscene amount of time we spend not moving in a state of perpetual “um, border control? wait, toilet? um, huh, what, where, who...” that really curtails any type of forward progress.
We are re-boarded and our passports are returned to us. I look at my watch. It has been TWO HOURS. The train rolls all of ten feet forward and we are boarded again - this time by Mongolian customs officials. The waiting game begins yet again. Caroline from down the hall stops in to tell us what’s going on. How she found out, I have no idea. “We’re going to be here for a while and you can get off and go to the bathroom. I’m gong to feed that dog over there.” I de-train and use the toilet not because I have to, but because I am bored. In fact, I haven’t needed the bathroom for what seems like days. Friends had told me horror stories of getting trapped at the border for ten and twelve hours with no access to toilets. In anticipation, I cut myself from all fluids an hour before we boarded the train. Maybe dehydration is part to blame for lack of mental prowess.
I re-board and another hour passes before we begin to screech slowly forward yet again. This time we carry on for a good thirty minutes crossing from Mongolia to Russia. We pass the electric fence (yes, electric fence) that runs the length of the border to stop all those pesky Mongolians from fleeing to the frigid, snow-covered, poverty-ridden Siberian side and pull into the Russian passport control and customs station, where we are boarded by at least twenty Russian soldiers that all look exactly like what you’d think a Russian soldier should look like.
They inspect our passports with excessive seriousness then instruct us to “leave cabin.” The four of us get up, unsure of where we’re going. A small gymnastic woman enters our cabin and proceeds to do an uneven bars routine while looking in every nook and cranny for who knows what. Drugs? Money? Mongolians? I de-train, [pretend to] use the bathroom, arrive back to find they’ve moved a bit further down the cabin and return to my flux state-of-being that is both unproductive and uninteresting.
I also notice that we are no longer attached to an engine car, which is just super. FOUR MORE HOURS PASS. The cabin matron has made yet another wardrobe change (she has a different outfit for each activity - collecting trash, punching tickets, doing needlepoint, screaming at me, etc). She is now vacuuming THE ENTIRE TRAIN with a dust buster, even coming into our room. She motions to our feet and points up. We lift and she sweeps under our feet. She then motions to our feet and points down, as if we would have stayed in that formation permanently otherwise.
We are shaken by an abrupt “push” forward as an engine is attached. We start moving ever so slowly forward. Caroline reappears to inform us of the party happening later in the evening. “Apparently there is actually a Russian on the train and he has invited all of us to a Vodka party later.” Everyone enters a “do your own thing” mood for a few hours until we’re reuniting to attend the party.
The four of us - Andy, Charlotte, Matt and I - pick out our outfits and get dressed as if we’re going for a night on the town. Having sat for nearly 36 hours, actually having something to do is rather exciting.
The real-life Russian never shows but sure enough we end up with 3 Aussies, 4 Americans, 2 Brits, 1 Austrian and 1 Belarussian all squeezed into the same cabin. All proceeds well until a few of the attendees decide they want to drink with the Russian Army, who have invited the whole lot of us to the dining car. Valuing my life as well as my unbroken bones, I pass and head to bed. WHAT. A. DAY.