There’s just something about vomiting Mongolian horse jerky into a Siberian toilet that makes you contemplate life’s big questions. Questions like: Why am I here? What is the meaning of all of this? Why would anyone in the whole wide world get themselves into this decidedly unglamorous and miserable experience by the consequence of their own free will?
The answer, so obvious when not crouched over a porcelain bowl, is that my misinformed, overly romantic perception of train travel gets me into trouble. Trains, I think (thought?), are far more of an “authentic” travel experience than death-trappy airplanes where you step into a tube and out into a new place, with very little comprehension of what lies in between. You get to meet locals! See the landscape! Understand the scale of the earth! This optimistic view, so full of confidence and exclamation points, led me to believe that the very best way to get from Asia to America would include chug-a-chugging over large swaths of the world’s surface. That’s how I’m here in Siberia, throwing up horse meat somewhere around the halfway point of a Trans-Mongolian train journey from Beijing to Moscow.
I’ve long clung to the idea that train travel is a fantastic mode of transportation, despite my relatively new relationship with the tracks. Most of the fascination is an imagined nostalgia; train travel represents my own nation’s exciting Wild West past, now paved over with 10-lane highways and highly-sanitary travel stops selling processed corn snacks and souvenirs harking back to a time of train travel, horses, and perilous showdowns between Americans–immigrant and native. Today, train travel is nothing but a fantasy for most Americans traveling domestically, as the cultural obsession with the road trip and the convenience of air travel have all but replaced the tracks completely. Train travel is novel, exotic, and ultimately alluring.
That the old tracks connecting Europe to the Siberian frontier still operate–for passengers, even!–stirs up some envy. It’s better for the imagination to step off a train into Siberia. Even in the developed areas, you feel much more connected to the past that you would otherwise to the Russian expansionist frontier, where exiles and indigenous groups laid out their own history. The Wild East, if you will, has been a bit better preserved; the train tracks connect the past with the present just as much as they connect the east with the west. That’s the reason the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian routes take the top spots on so many bucket lists.
Perhaps I should have listened to the Russians inside the Russian Embassy in Bangkok when I was securing my visa. As the only people who didn’t identify as Thai or Russian in the visa office, my partner Andy and I stirred up a good deal of suspicion from the others.
“Why are you here?” asked one Russian man bluntly, pointing at our eagle-adorned passports with fingernails dirty from motorbike trouble.
“We’re going to Russia on the Trans-Mongolian Railroad!” we proudly replied from under the stacks of our required visa paperwork.
The man leaned in, apparently unhappy with our chipper answer. “Why?” he asked again, as if probing us would reveal some darker, more lurid motivation.
“Because it sounds awesome,” I offered with a pep that seemed to grate on the nerves of all those around us. “We’re trying to make it back to America taking as few planes as possible, and the Trans-Siberian train routes have long been a dream of mine.”
Our interrogator remained unsatisfied. “But why do you want to go to Russia? Russia is terrible.”
“I’m trying so hard to stay in Thailand!” called out a very pretty, very pregnant Russian girl sitting next to her very handsome Thai partner. “You should stay here if you have a visa!”
“Americans,” growled the man under his breath. Later, having gotten over his misgivings, he gave us his email address to set up a rendezvous in Moscow.
It’s not Russia’s fault that all the time I’ve spent within the Federation thus far has involved sipping clear liquids, hugging toilet bowls (at least it’s not a squat potty), and one ill-fated attempt at blinis. I alone can take the blame for purchasing seemingly shelf-stable horse jerky and a hard, crumbly sheep milk cheese as ultra Mongolian-themed snacks for the two-night train ride between Ulan Bator, Mongolia and Irkutsk, Russia. Russia, thus far, has just provided the toilet and the impetus for adapting a very stealthy vomit management procedure so as to avoid upsetting the pair of beautiful Russian girls who share the bathroom with the room I’ve rented. At least I’m acquiring new skills.
I can’t blame anyone else on the shock I’ve felt at at the journey not going according to plan, either, as it was my own optimism that clouded my judgement and raised my expectations of this trip to something bordering on mythological. As the details of traveling and the realities of crossing borders and dealing with people have set in, I’m constantly reminded that these tracks aren’t imbued with magic. They’re utilitarian; they bring people and goods from one place to another, for a fee. The tracks don’t drown the snores of the Italian man sharing our compartment. They don’t ensure your accommodations on the stable ground will have adequate heat. They don’t guarantee anyone will buy your Mongolian tugruks from you in exchange for Russian rubles. They’re awfully inefficient when considering time and money spent to the distance covered.
The worst part is that this is a lesson I’ve learned before. Once upon a time, I designed a train trip from Chiang Mai all the way down the Malaysian peninsula to Singapore with stars in my eyes and a hope in my heart. The high spiked through the party train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and leveled slightly at the 200 baht instant noodles between Bangkok in Hat Yai. Nearly all of the school-girl-style train ride giddiness was gone when I ran into the bombed shells of two passenger vehicles outside a mall in southern Thailand. By the time our delayed train car pulled up to the Malaysian border to find the cars and engine waiting for us had departed for Kuala Lumpur hours ago, I was depleted of enthusiasm. Spending the night in an abandoned train car in a heavily-guarded immigration compound will do that to you.
I suppose a preference for the fonder memories is not necessarily a character flaw. Despite the trials of the Trans-Siberian thus far, I’m not worried or bothered about the long stretches of tracks waiting to be covered. Generally, I can handle the obstacles and with some time and creativity, perhaps I can spin them into stories worth retelling. Once my body finally becomes satisfied that the horse meat is gone for good and begins accepting some fuel, that is.