To get from Beijing to Mongolia, you have a few choices. A flight takes just over an hour. The Trans-Siberian Express, meanwhile, offers a rugged thirty-hour ride through cities, towns, barren landscapes, desert, and finally the capital of Chingghis Khan.
It's a famously hard ride. I pictured drunk Russians and fiery Mongols and live chickens and illegal cargo. Border police and bribes and human trafficking. Vodka and filterless smokes and mystery and intrigue.
So, dressed in a t-shirt with red hearts and the huge word "KITTENS," I climbed aboard, ready to head up the wild.
The train itself is a fantastic relic of the Soviet era.
It's staffed almost entirely by growing stocky Mongolian babushkas, uniformed in knee-high black boots and long, pressed jackets and skirts. Stewardesses of the SS, they should have carried riding crops to complete the picture. I tried to take a photo, but my camera was practically ripped from my hands. "No photo," she cried. This was about the only English I heard from their mouths. Instead, like a spiteful school-marm, every question was met with an exaggerated eye-roll, or perhaps just a scowl of horror. (I felt like a 12-year-old Andy facing Miss Duly again.)
"How do I flush the toilet?," I asked. A matron shoved me into the bathroom, and cruelly pointed at a diagram behind the toilet.
"Um…. But how do I flush?" She gave an exasperated, exaggerated gasp, looked at me, and pointed to a foot-pedal. It was hidden behind the bowl. It looked the same as everything else.
I had to bring her back to show me how to turn on the sink. And again to store my bag. And again to turn on the radio in my room. (The radio is a highly recommended stream of Russian pop, Christian rock, and, every now and then, Mongolian poetry read over Nino Rota's theme to The Godfather.)
The rooms, like the rest of the train, were unabashedly Soviet. Laminate faux-wood walls. Red diner booth benches to sleep on. Hooks and hidden drawers and switches that did nothing, with cyrillic lettering and complex maps all over.
I'd romantically hoped to share a room with a crowd of drunk Russians, filling the thirty hours with dirty jokes, smokes, vodka bottles, and дурак, a Russian dockworker card game Ankarino taught me years ago. But, even by myself, the room felt small. Sitting with Amanda and Lollion, two tiny girls, I felt trapped. Squeezing in with three manly hirsute strangers would have been a nightmare. I pictured that grand scene from A Night at the Opera, and escaped down the car, in search of a more spacious refuge.
Most of our first-class carriage was empty. Next door, a man sat upright and alone, staring out the window. He kept this posture for the entire waking ride. In the room beside his, two Mongolians lounged in their t-shirts and underwear, playing cards and laughing over an open bottle. The rest of the car was empty.
In the staff room, four matrons had squeezed in, gossiping away chirpily, draped across each other and sharing massages. I knocked and they all went silent. In unison, they glared up.
"где ресторан?," I nervously asked, and scurried off in the direction they all pointed.
The restaurant car, meanwhile, was a haven. The scowling all-Chinese staff perked up slightly when I ordered in their tongue. "我希望要二瓶啤酒," I called, and started drinking beer at 10am. Amanda was already halfway through a bottle of Great Wall red wine. "It's cocktail hour in LA," she offered. Jetlag was a good excuse. I didn't have a good excuse. I didn't have any excuse. But Amanda really shouldn't be drinking alone.
Beyond us in the rocky restaurant was a rough old Texan, with callused hands and one glass eye and a "waste management" logo on his shirt. This was John. He chain smoked cheap Chinese cigarettes, and held his bottle of beer tightly. He nodded hi. Rob, an effete bespectacled fellow from Ohio, fitting poorly in a too-tight GAP shirt and khakis, moved over to join us.
"I'm a lawyer," he shyly offered. He went silent, then dramatically threw out, "I do death sentence appeals."
"Yowza," I exclaimed, wide-eyed. Someone clapped him on the shoulder. John cheered out, lifting his beer. "One of the good guys!"
"Yep," Rob nodded, and leaned back proudly, his arm draped casually along the booth. He took a careful sip from the glass before him.
But this was the Trans-Siberian. We were somewhere between China and Mongolia. Everything was strange. Nothing was as it seemed.
John wasn't the hard-edged sewage worker I'd imagined. He was retired, gay, had taught history at high school level for 40 years. He’d just resigned from his week-long search for a small Chinese village, somewhere under the Great Wall, that he'd read about in a favorite series of New Yorker articles.
Rob, meanwhile, assumed we understood he fought death sentence appeals. All three of us gasped in a shared shock. "But what about the innocent," I gagged, realizing this man before me was a killer. "Like…" I searched for a name, for any name. "Like what about Tookie?"
"Tookie Williams? The gang leader? He deserved what he got! He should rot in hell. He claims to have written a children's book? Hah!" Rob snorted, and took a gulp of his drink. "He ran all gang operations from behind bars! He was criminal scum! He could have turned states evidence, and given names and evidence, but he refused. He deserved to die!"
I sat back, horrified. John and Amanda argued with the lawyer, giving facts and figures about the death penalty, and Rob questioned each of these. "What liberal source did those come from?" But as he backed deeper and deeper into his corner, and they pressed on, he finally squealed, "But that's just data!," and ran from the dining car. He spent the next twenty-seven hours sitting in his window, emptying two full bottles of vodka, alone.
But I, too, spent most of the next twenty-seven hours drinking. It was the easiest way to pass the time on the train. After the bottle of Great Wall, and the beers, Amanda and I cracked open the first bottle of baijiu. (An ugly Chinese liquor that tastes like rubbing alcohol and packs a serious punch, baijiu was a terrible idea. But it complemented the absurdity of this train. Thirty hours when we could have flown in one. Palling around with a quartet of grouchy babushkas, a food car of scowling cooks, and a baby killer. It all made no sense. And yet it was all perfect.)
I tipsily skimmed the one-page menu, and ordered the first item, sweet acid meat. It turned out to be sweet & sour pork. Lollion, my vegan friend, asked for the curious cabbage frieds, but the waitress said no. There was no cabbage. "Is there anything without meat?," she asked, but there was not. She snacked on crackers and packages of ramen instead.
Outside, the streets of Beijing had flown by long ago, followed by a sprawling suburbia, and now by beaten land and empty desert. Factory towns slipped past, micro-cities built up around a handful of warehouses, appearing from nothing and followed by nothing. I sat, and watched, and drank.
Late after the sun had set, as I was slipping into sleep, we suddenly lurched to a halt. My door slammed open, and a babushka shoved her head inside. "Use toilet now," she commanded in surprising English. "Toilet locked – four hours!" She slammed the door shut again and moved to the next room. I threw on my jeans, and climbed off the train in a pitch-black border town, where passengers filed into a small station.
Inside, two groggy men sat at old metal desks, lazily picking at a mountain of passports. Mongolians and Chinese, surrounded by dirty cardboard boxes, slept along the floor. A crowd of sleepy shoppers worked their way through a grocery store, browsing two aisles of Chinese soaps, rotting fruit, and hundreds of bottles of knock-off booze. Chingghis Vodka was available in five different spellings, so I skipped it, and bought another bottle of Great Wall. I sat on the floor, swigging from the bottle with my friends and an 18-year-old Mongol named TK. Slaughter Rob cracked open a bottle of vodka and held it out, desperate for some human contact. I felt alone for him. I accepted his offer.
Finally, several hours later, back on the train, we lurched forward, and back, and forward, and back, and then set off again, into Mongolia and towards UB. I slept poorly, waking to each lurch of the train, dreaming a baijiu-muddled nightmare about electric chairs and serial killers and Mongolian matrons.
The next morning, I discovered the Chinese restaurant had been left at the border, and replaced with a Russian ресторан. Tall stylish booths, and blue tablecloths, and a 14-page menu signaled the post-China stretch of the tracks.
I ordered vodka and cabbage.
Lollion sat with me, and we toasted to Mongolia. "You know, in just a few days," I offered, "We're going to see a Shaman."
"I know," she nervously giggled, and then cheered ever so slightly.