Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and China, late December, 2014.
Part 7: I’ve had Siberian Express dreams for years, taking a train across the vast stretch of Siberia, leaving Moscow headed constantly on, day and night, to distant places in Asia. December 2014 was our opportunity to make dreams real. Like much of travel everywhere, people were the best part.
People were the best part.
Although each party had their own cabin and while plenty of time was spent sprawled out reading or listening to music, most people seemed to venture out into the hallway to look out the larger windows, try to take photos through the glass which became a little dirtier each day, or just to give their companion some quiet time alone.
It was usually during those hallway times that we met others, fell into conversations, and sometimes met in the dining car for beers and conversation.
Eleanor and Pierre were from France where Pierre was managing the family farm in the Midi. Both were biologists who had worked on developing hybrid seeds, some of that work being done while serving as visiting professors at the University of Arizona at Tempe. Eleanor was Irish, Pierre French. Still young, physically fit, and involved in outdoor activities, they were interesting conversationalists. Memorable moment: as we were drinking beer and talking about immigration laws in various countries, Eleanor wondered what affect President Obama’s recent actions regarding immigration would have on her countrymen. “How will Obama’s actions affect all the Irish living in America with no paperwork? Will they be deported?” she asked.
Marc was French, too, but he has been living in Australia for the last thirty years. He was clearly well read and marched to his own drummer. He loved to travel but made a point to give wide berth to the normal tourist hot spots. Marc sought out the not just the less-traveled-road but really the much-less-traveled road. Like us, he got off the train in Irkutsk. Unlike us, he was headed first south, then north, and planned to stay nearly a week in smaller towns in December, in Siberia. Memorable moment: “I like to go where people have never seen a Frenchman, or an Australian. Then I know I’ve gone far enough.”
Then there was the Russian guy whose name I never got. An attorney, he was headed to Irkutsk to argue a case in court after a stay in Moscow. He loved his country but thought Russia would be better off if more Russians had a chance to talk with people from other places. Memorable moment: When asked about the Russian tendency to flood the sunny beaches of South Russia, Bulgaria and Western Europe, he vigorously explained the necessity. “It isn’t just for recreation,” he said. “For Siberians, time in bright sunlight and warm weather is a necessity of health. We stay heavily dressed for too long and place ourselves at risk if we don’t get sun.”
Sophie and John were Greeks from Athens. Sophie was her name, but John just asked for us to call him John, not believing we could ever pronounce his proper Greek name. Sophie was an archeologist and John owned some apartments and a restaurant. Both were incensed about the way other European nations treated Greece during the economic crisis and predicted a real change in the upcoming Greek elections (which was borne out by January 2015). Memorable moment: “Chancellor Merkel [of Germany] has no understanding of our country or our history yet she wants to tell us how we must act and what we must do. We are Greek. We will do it our way.”
Olivier, from Guatemala, was escorting his mother on their trip from Moscow to Beijing. We had several conversations about Guatemala as I have traveled the country extensively, and he was in the federal department of tourism, a good place to be for an avid traveler. Our conversations brought back so many memories from my frequent trips to Guatemala in the ’70s and ’80s. Memorable moment: “My job is to inspect the hotels and make certain they actually provide what they advertise. We hold them up to their own standards.”
Our waitress on the Russian train spoke no English but was always solicitous and kind. When I ordered pickled herring one evening, she cut up some smoked fish she had purchased from the track-side peddlers and added it to my plate. Through hand gestures she showed Chris which beer she thought was the best. Memorable moment: At our last lunch in the dining car, she brought a note to us which obviously was constructed with some labor as it was written in English. In the note she invited us to come to the dining car that evening and drink cognac with them. We smiled and said, “dah!” the Russian word for yes. We returned at what we thought would be the dinner hour (remember, each car’s electronic reader showed Moscow time even though we were five time zones east of there). The door was locked. We misjudged the time. I still regret not being able to respond to her hospitality.
They were not on the train, but they were people we met because we were on the train . . .
Liudmila and Nick from Irkutsk made our Siberian stop a wonderful experience. I’ve written about them and the entire 14 hours in Irkutsk, Siberia with far more information than here. What I do owe, however, is another expression of our gratitude for their time and generosity. Memorable moment: sitting in a log cabin on the edge of Lake Baikal, eating steamed, smoked fish, drinking vodka and talking about our lives.
Two guys in a bar. We mistook an empty table with a single, nearly empty beer glass as a vacant table and were just sitting down when two guys appeared and said, “Hey, that’s our table.” We apologized and turned to look for another table when they said, “Come on, join us.” We did. The younger guy was a Korean-Canadian from Manitoba who was selling very large, very heavy-duty Japanese mining equipment to British and Russian mining companies operating in Mongolia. The other was a native Mongolian who had gone to boarding school in South Africa, graduated from Haverford College near Philadelphia, and got his masters degree in business in Madrid. They were uproariously funny and gave us an insight into life as an ex-pat and a returning native in rapidly changing Mongolia. Memorable moment: discussing shopping and product availability, they told us the price of apples had skyrocketed because Mongolia imported Polish apples and Russia, unhappy with the European Union position on Ukraine, had prohibited the transportation of Polish apples across Russia. The Mongolian guy was married and had a baby. Diapers were a problem. “We spend $50 US a week on Pampers,” he said.
Keith Swenson, one of the two principal owners of Stone Horse Expeditions, has lead a remarkable life. An American by birth, Keith guided white water rafts and alpine climbing before a ten-year stint in Antarctica where he was involved in conservation, survival training and safety in a most inhospitable climate. He later based in New Zealand until moving to Oman to help create, then manage, a wildlife sanctuary. After conservation work in Sri Lanka and Laos, Keith moved to Mongolia to help work on the establishment of national parks and conservation efforts. His Stone Horse Expeditions offers horseback treks into the Mongolian mountains and the Gobi Desert. We used his services to arrange for a stay in a Mongolian herder’s ger which you can read about here. Memorable moment: When describing his efforts to maintain a wildlife sanctuary in Oman facing down cultural barriers, heavily armed poachers, and other obstacles he said, “When they discovered oil in the sanctuary I was worried, when they drilled and found silica sand more valuable than oil, I knew it was all over.”
Tom Tait lives in Henderson, Nevada, and when I told him we were going to Siberia, Tom said, “You must look up my friend Liudmila in Irkutsk! She’s a wonderful person and knows the area well.” For that thought, the subsequent email exchange, and Tom’s kind introduction which made our time in Siberia so much more interesting, my thanks!
NOTE: I’m still hesitant to stick my camera in someone’s face, so I have only a few photos of some of the people I’ve listed here.Without all of the photos, I’ve opted to show none. I wish I had the photos of these great people because each one of them enriched our lives in some way. Thank you all!
NOTE 2: The banner photo at the top is the Beijing Railway Station–our final stop after 5753 miles of train travel through three countries and five time zones.