It was 2006 and I was a year late; I had originally planned to take the Trans-
Siberian Railway across Russia and into China the year before but a few days of ‘work to
rule’ by the staff at the Winnipeg Passport office had put the brakes on that. Dave
Hansen, a long time friend from the agriculture industry had taken a job in China and had
offered to be my host if I were to visit. By 2005 Dave had been there long enough to get
the lay of the land; I had worked out a deal with On The Go Tours from London to
provide me with a trip on the Trans-Siberian—in return for a selection of travel stories in
major newspapers. As often happens in situations like this, the decision was made at the
last minute. All I would need was three days to get my paper work done. It turned out that
those were the three days that staff at the Winnipeg office was not working so my plans
had been postponed for a year. Gayle and Dave Hansen were still willing to host me, but
the deal with On The Go Tours was off: I was paying full fare, take it or leave it.
The package included a night at a Moscow hotel so that tourists would be at the
train station on time. Since I had worked in Russia a few years earlier I did not need to do
the traditional sightseeing stops like the Kremlin or St Basil’s Cathedral . . . I asked one
of the employees at the hotel what was close by and worth a visit, perhaps a market?
“There is a market just behind the hotel but no white people go there,” he said
earnestly, carrying on with some other suggestions I did not hear. I was already on my
way to the market—that was enough for me. I found the market just a block behind the
hotel but I also found it had a gate, which is unusual for a market. It was open and I
walked in. I was indeed the palest of people in the place, both customer and merchants.
The market catered to residents of the area who had originated from the Stans, a group of
countries, most with names I could not pronounce. They were all darker and swarthy,
sporting the blackest of beards and many had gold in their teeth.
A bakery caught my attention. Inside, the young lady selling bread spoke some
English—and soon I was in the bakery at the back of the shop where her father was hard
at work, taking large loaves of flatbread from the oven and replacing them with rounds of
“It is the best lavash, I have tasted,” I said of the sample he tore from a fresh loaf.
We spoke for a while, I took some pictures of the bakery and his daughter, and said it was
time for me to get back to the hotel.
“I will walk you to the gate,” he said. “People in here would slit your throat for
your camera, and now they have seen it.” I accepted his offer graciously. He walked me
to the gate and I thanked him for his time. The incident left me just a bit unnerved and I
thought I should best get started on my journal—after all the purpose of the trip was to
write a book and I had just gotten a pretty good start. I saw a small restaurant with a
courtyard across the street and decided it was time for lunch.
The place was empty, I had beat the lunch rush and sat down at a table. I was the
only customer but thought nothing of it, a waitress appeared and was ready to take my
order. I summoned all my Russian language skills and ordered shashlik (barbecue
skewers) and a pivo (beer). She spoke no English and after repeating the same question, I
finally understood she was asking ‘lamb or pork’. I drew a pig in my notebook and we
both laughed, she at my artwork, me at the situation and she was off to the kitchen.
It was not long before other patrons appeared, all delivered in large black cars and
wearing very expensive suits. They all seemed to know each other and the handshakes
and hugs were a bit more enthusiastic than the normal greeting; it dawned on me I had
stumbled upon a mafia meeting. The camera stayed in the bag—I thought it at risk here
as much as in the previous location, and not because these gentlemen needed a camera.
I finished my lunch and kept my head down as much as possible. I felt my own
business was top priority at this time and headed back to the hotel. I was looking forward
to boarding the train the next day.
Although my previous train travel was limited, I had just committed to 28 days on
board the Trans-Siberian Railway—not to be confused with that other famous train The
Orient Express which is known for its luxury.
I boarded the train and a rather stern looking uniformed lady, the provodnitsa,
showed me to my assigned cabin. I had no idea how important this lady would become to
my wellbeing for the next two weeks. She controlled life in our car: who got hot water,
who got electricity, and just about every other aspect of our existence including access to
the washroom. Since I was the first passenger in the cabin I had a choice of bunks and I
claimed a bottom one. It was not long before six Mongolian women appeared to claim the
other three, sleeping head to foot.
The train had not yet cleared the station yard when my cabin mates were busy
removing tiles from the ceiling and pulling down a stash of cardboard boxes filled with
every type of knock-off-fashion clothing available. We were facing a language barrier
and they were not offering an explanation at any rate. It was not long before I realized
that I was part of a travelling Walmart.
When the train pulled into a village at a platform crowded with locals, the
Mongolian rag merchants left the car and were in the midst of the crowd before the train
had come to a complete stop. I have never seen as much commerce conducted in 12
minutes in my life—and that includes the pit at the Chicago Board of Trade.
I tried to move to the platform and capture a few pictures, but the provodnitsa
stopped me from disembarking. Her exact words were: “You are not allowed to get off.”
As quickly as it started it was over and the ladies were back in our cabin counting
cash and preparing their goods for the next stop. One of them offered me some nylons
and when I politely refused, she made the point they were for the provodnitsa. Now I
understood, I bought a package and at the next opportunity presented them to the stern
faced, uniformed attendant. It turned out she could smile after all, pointing to the
electrical outlet beside my bunk and saying it would work now. She showed me to the
samovar and explained I would have access to hot water—but the real reward came the
next day when we stopped at another village.
When I attempted to take pictures of the flurry of sales, she said, “You can get off
to take your pictures. You have twelve minutes so don’t go far, but don’t worry we will
not leave without you.” The two bucks I spent on the nylons were an incredibly good
investment, and now that I understood the system she would not be without chocolate or
nylons for the remainder of this trip, just as the train would not leave without me.
More than a few books have been written about travelling the Trans-Siberian
Railway and I wanted to do something different. I decided I would write about each day
of my journey as seen through the eyes of someone I met that day. It provided a new
approach to my writing and also required that I meet someone new every day. There was
no shortage of characters on the train, but language can be a barrier. Some people do not
care to be interviewed; sometimes I just felt like being alone. Meals on the train are
acceptable but far from fine dining, and after a few days it leaves you with the feeling of
‘I don't want to go to the dining car’. I solved that by purchasing sausage, cheese and a
beer on the platform at some of the stops. And by now I was brave enough to enter the
station on occasion, knowing my new friend would look after me since she had a good
supply of nylons and chocolate.
One of the most interesting and knowledgeable people I have ever met stopped by
my cabin one day, asking more questions than I did: “Who is your favourite band? What
kind of music do you like? Where are you from?” and on and on.
I told him I was from a place he would not know, but he did not give up so I
relented and said “Winnipeg”.
“Bobby Hull,” he said smiling, “Popeye arms.” He gestured to his forearms and
laughed, knowing he had beat me at the little game. It was my turn and I asked where he
had obtained all this knowledge. (I had overheard him earlier, discussing Dutch soccer
with two young fellows from Holland—and they were ‘out-soccered.’)
“I sell magazines,” he said with that permanent smile. “I read them before I sell
them. You can learn so much from reading. It is a wonderful gift.” We had more than a
few conversations over the next week and he might be a part of the reason I am
assembling this volume of travel stories.
The days rolled by and the forest rolled by as one village blended into the next.
The vastness of the countryside became a reality. It is one thing to read that a country
stretches across 12 time zones; it is quite another to see it through the window of your
cabin. The isolation of some of the settlements, knowing that the train is still their only
connection to the rest of the world brings with it a certain respect for the people that live
there. They have learned to adapt and do what is necessary to survive.
At one of the most northerly points I asked about the strange haircuts of the dogs.
Patches of their fur was shaved down to the skin. It was explained to me that this was
done to prevent the animal from becoming someone’s fur hat . . . It was not only the
Mongolian ladies who taught me about fashion trends away from the runway.
By now the six rag merchants and I had established at least a working relationship
by pointing and making sounds that resembled a conversation. It had started with the
bottle-opener hanging on the outside of my camera bag and progressed to showing
pictures of our kids.
Two weeks had passed and I was about to disembark in Ulaanbaatar and spend a
week in Mongolia before heading off to China. The true Trans-Siberian Railway journey
runs from Moscow to Vladivostok but I was heading south to Beijing and a visit with
Gayle and Dave Hansen.
When you tell people you are going on the Trans-Siberian, you get one of two
responses: “Why, like are you nuts?” or “Wow, take lots of pictures, I want to hear about
Having completed the train ride, I can now relate to the polar opposite position of
these two reactions.
Next Stop—Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.