The Forever Train
I left off last time having just spent the night in the streets of Moscow, and upon awaking, found a dead body a few benches down from mine. It looked as though the man had drunk himself to death in the night. Nothing really came of this though; I couldn’t do anything to help the situation and the park was coming alive with people collecting the recyclables strewn about everywhere — he’d be found again soon enough.
I had spent the night outside thanks to my flatmate Oscar, who had failed to meet me at the bar the night before, and who by happy coincidence possessed the only key to the apartment complex. Finally the morning matured enough that the complex opened, and I returned, with phone numbers of prostitutes and drug dealers alike on slips of paper in my pocket, to find Oscar, inside, sleeping peacefully. Needless to say I wanted a bit of an explanation, but my attempts to rouse him proved futile. Apparently he’d spent the night out partying and was now too wiped out to wake up, even for a second.
But such wasn’t the case. Oscar continued to sleep, all that day and part of the next, until after some thirty hours he finally awoke and told his story. He had been on his way to the Hungry Duck, the bar where we were to meet, when he was approached by a Russian going to the same place. They walked together and talked, and stopped off at a kiosk to get drinks for the walk, as might be expected. At some point though, Oscar noticed his motor skills failing. Suddenly there were three Russians walking with him, and he watched helplessly as one went through his wallet, the other two easily holding back his weak struggle. Then they left him, and his memory more or less cut out. He had been drugged. He spent the rest of the night labouring to haul himself back to the flat, often passing out in doorways or even in the sidewalk. It had been a rough night.
It was at about this point that I decided I should move on. While Moscow had many interesting and beautiful districts — most notably those districts possessing a pair of X chromosomes — I had had the misfortune of stumbling upon many of the darker aspects of the place. Besides, there was still a lot of ground to cover on the way to Delhi.
I managed to get tickets for the Trans-Siberian Railway to Irkutsk in Siberia, and after some last minute must-sees like Lenin’s eighty-one-year-old preserved corpse, I was off. Four days by train … four days that quickly turned into an eternity after the first stop, when every mother on board bought her child a multitude of loud, flashy singing teddy bears. It didn’t help that the door at the end of our carriage was very stiff, leading me to think that it was locked, leading me to spend three of the four days in the same spot.
Despite this, it was kind of peaceful knowing that I didn’t need to be anywhere or do anything besides watch five time zones lazily drift by. The scenery was serene; rural Russia is punctuated by picturesque little villages of old wooden houses with well-tended gardens, blue trimmed windows and narrow, unpaved paths separating the houses. The sun rose and set each day, as the sun is wont to do, producing some spectacular skies along the way. With the last sunrise came the blow of the train’s whistle. Irkutsk at last.
Now, I won’t say too much about the rest of my travels in Russia. This pains me, as Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal was amongst my favorite places on the entire trip, but I didn’t have any really monumental adventures there, save for an ill-fated attempt to set out cross-country with just some bread and a large block of cheese, and save for getting slapped in the face with a herring after losing a high stakes game of poker. As such, I feel I should skip ahead to more interesting times.
Mongolia. After nearly a month in Russia, it was a drastic change. The landscape of rolling steppe was spotted here and there with little white gers, the tents in which the country’s nomadic population make their homes. In Ulaanbataar, the capital city, chaos reigned. Children hung out the windows of public buses, shouting their destinations, while old men sat on the sidewalks with bathroom weigh scales, encouraging passersby to weigh themselves for a small fee. Amongst the madness, I ran into a like-minded traveler, and we decided to buy horses and try our luck crossing the country as the Hordes did centuries ago, and as many of the inhabitants still do. This would prove interesting.