After about a week in Saint Petersburg we boarded our train for Moscow – Sonia seeing us off at the platform. She mentioned that she would contact friends of hers in Moscow who would help us there. When we arrived in the station in Moscow a few hours later Sonia’s friends were not only waiting at the station – they were waiting on the platform and got on the train to be sure they found us immediately. Zasha was there with her daughter, Galina, who spoke excellent English (but confessed that she was studying French, which she preferred). We asked them if they could help us find a hotel – and they immediately told us we were staying with them.
We had two days before our train to Beijing departed. During that time Galina graciously acted as our tour guide, showing us around her hometown and explaining much of ordinary life in Russia.
On the morning of our planned departure Zasha called the main train station to find out that our train would be delayed by 24 hours. We were told this was not uncommon in Russia. The following morning, after confirming that the train was scheduled to depart, we went to the government bread factory to complete our provisions for the trip. We bought three loaves of warm, freshly baked bread. This was obviously a fixture from the Soviet era – a large factory with a tiny shop in front. There was only one type of bread; round domes about the size of half of a soccer ball, brown and delicious. This was the only product the factory made. We paid the equivalent of 7 cents a loaf.
We got to the train station, found our train, and located our berth. We had two beds in a small berth which had four beds in it. When we got there our new room-mates – two Chinese men with a couple of their accomplices – had already started filling the room with bundles of their cargo. They closed and locked the door for about 20 minutes after which most of their bags and bundles were nowhere to be seen. They had obviously removed the panels of the walls then stashed everything in the wall spaces.
Late in the morning our train finally began our journey across the continent. The ride would last 6 days with only a couple short stops (about 20 minutes) every day. At every stop the Chinese, not just our room-mates but all other Chinese on the train (about a dozen of them), would hold various goods, mostly clothing, outside the windows where local people would come and bid for one thing or another. Old Babushkas buying baby clothes obviously either for grandchildren or for people they knew who might need such items. Younger women buying men’s socks for husbands or brothers. Scarves, underwear, sweaters… There was always a brisk business going on at the windows. It seemed pretty clear that the Russian economy was not providing enough clothing to the hinterlands.
When you are on a train ride for several days there is very little to do. You end up meeting every person on the train who you share a language with. The only exception was the Chinese who seemed to be purely focused on their track-side business and smuggling. I met two Japanese college students who had traveled west along the silk road and were now heading back east towards home. At one of the stops, on a lark, one of the Japanese sold a plain, grey t-shirt he had bought in Pakistan for 50 cents and tripled his money.
The English speaking group coalesced into nine people – a couple Aussies, three Kiwis, a Brit, a Hungarian who was studying in the UK, Frank and myself. We generally spent our evening talking, swapping food items for a little variety, and drinking the cheap vodka which was plentiful.
A couple people had a guidebook for the train line. Each stop was detailed but there was little to distinguish one from another except for the stop near Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal contains one fifth of the world’s fresh water. The book recounted a legend about this lake. According to the legend, if you put your hands in the lake you will live one more year longer. If you put your head in the lake you will live five years longer. If you put your entire body in to lake you will live twenty-five years longer.
So a group of us decided to form the Lake Baikal Swimming Club. The train was scheduled to stop for 20 minutes at a village on the lake. It was supposed to be a five minute walk from the station to the lake. So we figured that if we were prepared before the train stopped we would have time to run to the lake, jump in, and get back to the train on time. On the morning we were scheduled to stop near the lake we all got into swimming shorts, flip-flops or sandals, and waited for the train to stop. Once the train stopped we all ran off into the village towards the lake. People seeing us knew exactly what was going on and pointed the way through the village. We all jumped in – stopping only to drop a couple cameras on the shore – and got submerged. Triumphant, we got a couple pictures and then quickly ran back to the train.
As the sun was about to set that afternoon, we approached the Mongolian border leaving Russia. Stopped at the border crossing, a couple Russian soldiers worked their way through the train, checking passports. As Frank and I had been scheduled to depart Moscow a day earlier our Russian transit visas had expired the previous day. The soldiers motioned for us to follow them.
Leaving our bags on the train we followed the soldiers off the train and towards a large, military compound as the sun was setting. Imagine the way a Soviet era Army fort on the Mongolian border would be depicted in a Spielberg movie and you probably have a good idea what we were walking into. Add to this the fact that trains only pass through that area a few times a week. I had wild images of being told, through a few curt words, that we were being detained while watching the train depart with our bags.
We were guided through a wide corridor in a concrete building to a large, wood desk where an officer was seated. We handed over our passports which he looked through for a minute or so, perfunctorily stamped our exit permits, and sent us back to the train.
So the train trudged on through Mongolia – which, much like something once read, did look very much like driving through New Mexico. I had always wanted to see Mongolia as it once ruled most of the known world. But our schedule would not allow us to leave the train for more than a few minutes at each infrequent stop.
Eventually we reached the border with China where the rail gauge changes. At this point they had to change out the “bogies” – the wheel/axel/suspension assemblies which each car rides on – because the rails in China are narrower than the rails in Mongolia and Russia the “bogies” have to be changed on every car. This process takes a few hours and as Murphy would have it my bowels chose that point in time to require evacuation.
I found it necessary to broach this subject with one of the train attendants since using the facilities on the train would have dumped my efforts right on the tracks below. After a quick discussion between the train attendant and one of the local crew they told me I could use the facilities in the Chinese government office.
I made my way down the indicated corridor in the dark (did I mention that by this time it was near midnight?) of a deserted building and I entered the door marked “male” in Chinese. The light switch on the wall did nothing so I fished a book of matches out of my bag. Fuck, only four matches left. When I struck the first match the scene I beheld was something Dante could not have described properly. On either side of the wide, elongated room in front of me was a row of bays, each one housing a squat toilet with overflow running in gutters from each bay to a central trough where it all supposedly would empty into an undersized central drain hole. Maybe the participants were supposed to have a bucket of water to effect this process but I saw no evidence that this idea had ever been considered by many. Second match – I looked into a few bays trying to find one which would leave less excrement on my shoes than I needed to disgorge myself. Third match – making a snap decision on the closest bay since there seemed to be no optimal choice and my bowels weren’t going to wait much longer. Last match – can I get my trousers off in here (without soiling them on my surroundings) and over my shoulder fast enough while perching my feet on top of my shoes? Darkness.
Mission accomplished, I made my way back to the train happy that I had brought a roll of toilet paper since that innovation did not seem to have yet made it to the residents of my current location – the local custom apparently being to use your finger and smear it on the wall. The term “third world shithole” took on a whole new and vivid meaning for me after that.
On the final leg over the following couple days we could see parts of the Great Wall in the distance, sometime only a few hundred yards away. We were all looking forward to showers and a warm meal for a change.
When we arrived in Beijing, the nine English speaking passengers had decided to find a hotel with a suite big enough for us all to share. At that time there were plenty of hotels catering to backpackers with cheap and simple accommodations. The room was large enough with enough furniture for everybody to have a space, some on beds, some on sofas or upholstered chairs. Split nine ways it only cost each of us about $1.75 per night.
I had studied Mandarin in undergrad and also had backpacked through China 5 years previously so it turned out I was the only one of our group who could communicate in Chinese. Every evening our group would go out for dinner together at any one of the many cheap restaurants – usually seating us at a table on the sidewalk in front. I would handle ordering the food and drinks which would cost between $1.20 and $1.80 per head – including a bottle or two of beer for each of us. One evening we splurged, arranging for our favorite restaurant to prepare Peking Duck (requiring an advance order), which cost a bit more than $2 each.
I needed to change some traveler’s checks into Chinese cash so we went to a bank to arrange this service. This transaction was a convoluted process involving 5 different people at different desks around the bank office and took more than an hour to complete. At the bank I met another American who was there for the same service. During our conversation he related that he had been running a successful real estate business in Texas. One morning he was heading into the office and it hit him that he had no real reason to continue working his life away. He skipped the office, went to his lawyer’s office instead and started the process of selling his business and putting the proceeds – about $20 million – into a trust. That had been a few years before. He had been backpacking around Asia, living simple and cheap, paying everything with a credit card which the trust paid off every month. He said that when he and his Filipina traveling companion got tired of roughing it they would check in to a 5-star hotel for a week or two of comfortable living.
Frank and I had planned to take the train from Beijing to Hong Kong but when we went to buy tickets we found that there were none available for the next 3 days. So we got the tickets which were available and resigned ourselves to staying in Beijing for a few more days. We mentioned this to our group back at the hotel and one Aussie couple asked me to help them buy tickets on the same train to Hong Kong. Speaking Chinese was a requirement for buying a ticket – otherwise you had to go through a tour agency which would significantly add to the cost.
During the days our group broke up into smaller groups, each having different interests and sights to see. I skipped the major tourist attractions – the Great Wall and the Forbidden City – to rent a bicycle for the day for the equivalent of a dollar and just go where the crowds were and wander through the marketplaces. I had much more interest in just seeing how the average citizen, er, comrade lived. Cars were still an unusual luxury in Beijing and there were thousands of bicycles everywhere.
Chinese trains at the time had four seating classes; hard seats, soft seats, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers. We had opted for hard sleepers since the journey was only a couple days – too long to be sitting the whole way but not long enough to justify the cost for the soft sleepers.
On the morning of our train I flagged down a mini-van taxi in front of our hotel. The first order of business was to negotiate the service and the rate. Metered taxis did not yet exist – and if they did no driver would have one, preferring the chance to negotiate a better rate. I explained that we had a lot of luggage and had to go to the main train station and I said how much we would pay. We haggled a little on the price and came to an agreement.
The four of us piled in with all our luggage – barely leaving enough room to breathe – and rode to the station. Well, we had expected to get to the station but about 500 yards from the station the driver pulled over and told us we had arrived. He obviously wanted to drop us there now so he could get into the back of the long line of taxis slowly snaking up to the station. I told him we agreed to pay him to take us to the station, not for part of the way, and we wouldn’t pay him if he didn’t fulfill his end of the deal. He refused to drive any further so I warned him that we wouldn’t pay if we had to walk the rest of the way. He dug in his heels so I explained to my friends what was going on and told them to get out and go in different directions to the station – which we did. The driver was pissed but couldn’t figure which of us he should chase and we all got away clean.
We met up at the main entrance and then found our way to the train platform. We boarded the train and found our assigned bunks. The bunks were very basic with only enough room to lie down – sitting up was not an option. There was a curtain you could pull across the open space to afford a little privacy for changing clothes.
Our Australian friends had found a small, porcelain water fixture in the car and filled their canteens and drank from it. While the water may have been potable, the next morning they saw an aged Chinese man standing at the water fixture, using a dirty rag to wipe off his crotch and rinsing it in the small basin. They ended up discarding their canteens and buying bottled water at one of the stops.
We arrived in Shenzen and transferred to another train to take us to Hong Kong. Hong Kong was still a British colony but there were many more mainlanders there compared to my experience five years previous.
Most people who had any means had already left or had set up residences and passports elsewhere but would come back to run their businesses in Hong Kong. We met a few Hongkong Chinese who didn’t have enough of a fortune to get out but were well-to-do enough to be worried about how they could hold on to their living standard after the handover.
Hong Kong was still a first world city with goods and venues in all price ranges. Luckily for us there were accommodations available in our price range so we didn’t have to blow too much of our remaining cash there.
In 1949 Mao had purposely spared Hong Kong not just because he didn’t want to create friction with the UK – expecting he would get it in the long run anyway – but mostly because he wanted an international port he could use to smuggle hard currency, gold, and high value goods through when necessary.
From Hong Kong my friend Frank took a boat to Taiwan while I caught a flight for Bangkok. But that’s another story.