MARIES WORLD TOUR:
Mongolia to Berlin
By Marie Javins, GoNOMAD TRANSPORTS GUIDE
my friend from the States, had joined me for an Intrepid Travel trip through China.
(See Installment #3) We left the group behind, and took the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Beijing to Ulaan Bataar.
MAYONNAISE, MUTTON AND MONGOLIA
We stayed two nights in Ulaan Bataar with a sweet Mongolian older
couple, and then Alti, a rep from Mongolian Outback Tours drove us into
the stark Mongolian countryside to a "ger" homestay.
We stopped at a particularly cold, high, desolate point to walk clockwise circles around a pyramid-shaped oroo, or Shamanist pile of rocks. The surrounding craggy peaks were covered in snow. I could see my breath, but could see nothing out of my peripheral vision as I was bundled up and hooded.
On we went to our ger. The "family" turned out to be a middle-aged farmer couple whose children had flown the nest for the big city.
The couple vacated the ger, moving into a nearby small, concrete building for the night, along with Alti. Yancey and I were left alone with the woodstove in the ger.
Our ger consisted of five semi-white canvas walls, held together in a near-cylinder. Besides the woodstove in the center, there were two cots, a refrigerator, and a washbasin lining the sides. A small table in the center held some stale breadsticks that we were surreptitiously using as fuel. A dried bear paw in the corner had no significance, except as a show-and-tell piece.
"I kinda thought we'd be staying with the family," groused one of us, but it was what we both were thinking.
I made the first trip to the outhouse, which was fairly painless because the cold kept the stench at bay. It was a three-walled wooden shack with two holes cut in the floor, over pits. The fourth side faced the mountains, and was open.
"What would you like to do?" asked Alti, when I returned.
"Um, well, what can we do?"
"You can eat lunch, and you can ride horses."
The farmer man went off to find the horses. Yancey and I huddled around the woodstove, freezing and trying to decide if this experience was cool and exotic, or just miserable.
"I love this. It's like a wigwam. This is ger-reat!" said Yancey. And then lunch arrived.
Yancey and Alti had grisly, chewy, vague mutton. I was the lucky recipient of a ball of rice held together with mayonnaise and topped with daubs of ketchup. I tried to pawn it off on Yancey, but even he, championship eater of bugs, had limits. As soon as the cook left the ger, Yancey and I started feeding our food to the fire.
We grilled Alti about life in Mongolia.
"How has Mongolia changed since the fall of the Soviet Union?" I asked.
"It is more free, but the economy is not so good," said Alti. It was the same story the Russian sailors had given me about their lives in St. Petersburg.
"The young people are happy, and see opportunity. The old people miss the past."
He also pointed out that Mongolia had never been part of the Soviet Union -- it had been controlled by the Soviet Union, like Czechoslovakia.
Shortly after, we went for a walk -- straight to the nearby tourist ger camp, where I ate carrot soup and washed my hands in hot, running water.
We walked back to our ger, gingerly avoiding cow dung and the occasional cow carcass as we walked across the frozen ground.
The farmer never returned with the horses. Yancey had gone from thinking it was "ger-reat" to agreeing with me that this was cold and miserable. He was looking forward to getting on the homeward plane in the morning.
Yancey and I were finishing our trip together in the same way we'd started it; waiting on something that never came. In Shanghai, we'd spent an afternoon waiting for a bus. In our ger, we waited on horses.
THE TRANS-SIBERIAN HELLWAY
Yancey flew home from Ulaan Bataar. Alone, I caught the train north to Siberia, where it hooked up with the train from Vladivostock to became the official "Trans-Siberian Railway."
The guidebook described one of the highlights of the ride as "having nearly a week to do nothing." That would give me plenty of time to stare out the window at the landscape. It had changed dramatically overnight, and Mongolia's broad yellow-brown steppe had been replaced with leafless trees and small lakes. Decrepit wooden cabins, smoke rising from their chimneys, lined the paved road, which never strayed far from the rails. The sky was bright blue, with occasional wispy white clouds.
Ferocious winds kicked in late in the day, as we neared an amazingly giant, clear lake, which was probably Lake Baikal. I could hear the screeching of the wind, mixed with the pop sounds of "Tarzan is handsome, Tarzan is strong," coming from further down the railway car. It added a surreal element to a trip that amazed me already. Nothing about the trip felt real, especially since I was alone and there was no one to confirm that indeed I had gone by train and bus all the way from Indonesia to Siberia.
I stopped in Irkutsk for a few slow days, and then caught the train to Central Asia.
At 2 a.m., there was movement preceded by an announcement, so I followed the crowd to the platform. A dark westbound train waited there. The electricity always went off while the trains were parked. I was carrying loads of groceries for my three-day, four-night trip, and couldn't climb the short ladder to the train. The conductor, a ripe, enormous Uzbek fellow with bloodshot eyes, gave me a shove by lifting up my backpack, and me with it. He and his train conductor friends chuckled.
Squinting through the darkness, I managed to find my compartment. Unfortunately, it was full. Five pairs of eyes stared at me out of the darkness of the four-person cabin. I stopped and backed up, uncertainly. No one could get past me, or my luggage, in the hallway, so I went back in to let people pass. The five pairs of eyes glared at me again, so I retreated back into the passage and went to find the conductor.
He motioned me into an empty compartment. I set down my groceries and had a look around. It was filthy, and obviously both lower bunks were occupied. Number 3 was even broken, sagging at one hinge. I waited until the conductor came by, and held up five fingers and my ticket -- my berth was number five. He motioned me back to number 3. I used my flashlight to point to the garbage on it, and shook my head vehemently. He cleared it off, sweeping the trash up and dumping it onto a top berth.
Unhappy with this turn of events, I stripped the bedding off the vinyl berth. The mattress smelled worse than the conductor. What was I going to do? My cabin contained a family of two adults and three mono-browed little girls, who had probably slipped the conductor some rubles to be upgraded from steerage. And I was given a broken berth in a stinking compartment, most likely the conductor's own.
The conductor is king on the train, and there was nothing to be done and no higher authority to complain to, even if I could make it clear in Russian that the situation was unacceptable. I put my luggage under the bed, adjusted the berth so that it was less-apparently broken, put the smelly mattress back in place, and covered it with my Vietnamese silk sleepsheet. The conductor watched, joined by his friend the attendant.
The attendant was thinner, also Uzbek, and smelled even worse. His teeth were covered with gold and gleamed through the darkness. He said something to me, and I think he was trying to reassure me that all was well, which, of course, it wasn't.
After glaring at the two men, and sulking for a bit, I crawled into my sleepsheet and covered my head, feeling very sorry for myself indeed. The two smelly, probably drunk men -- whom I christened Stinky and Tubby -- were still staring at me. I had a sudden, uncontrollable impulse to flee to the Irkutsk airport, but then the train started up and I was doomed to Trans-Siberian purgatory.
In the morning, sleep, coffee, and cold water put me in a better mood. The sun was shining in Siberia and I decided that I was overreacting. I steeled myself to the three days ahead, mentally cautioning myself to be more flexible.
I took 'Wet Ones' to my compartment, and threw the filthy tablecloth up on the top bunk with the trash and pornography. Both Stinky and Tubby dropped by and stared at my housecleaning. Stinky was stinking less today, and had changed his shirt. He was now just your basic, unappealing, 30-year-old man with gold teeth. Tubby, on the other hand, was actually more appalling in daylight -- his clothing was too tight and covered in stains. He wheezed loudly as he breathed, which meant he could never sneak up on me.
The three little girls from my assigned compartment dropped by. They were curious -- who was this strange, foreign, blond woman traveling alone? I used my phrasebook and my bad drawing skills to demonstrate to them that I was traveling around the world. They were amazed at my story of ships and trains and probably thought me mad or a liar.
They chose questions from my phrasebook and were able to ask me such important questions as "do you like tennis?" and "where is the boat?" They also managed to tell me "you look like Madonna," which I took to mean that it was time to get my roots bleached. They were from Chita, Siberia, and were going to Tajikstan to visit Grandma.
The girls left, and Tubby plopped down across from me and started asking me questions in Russian.
Using the phrasebook, we were able to discern that I was from New York, where there is AIDS, and that he lived in Tashkent and was only 30 in spite of looking 50. The entire train staff was from Tashkent and was on a homebound run. Tubby was Muslim and wanted to know if there were mosques in America. He was pleased when I confirmed that there were.
Then things got hairy.
Tubby pointed to the word "massage" in the phrasebook, and then pointed to himself. I stared blankly... huh? He wanted to get... or give... a massage?? He then clearly said "sex," and pointed to himself and then to me. I pretended not to understand and tried to think of a way out of the conversation. He looked up "sex" in the phrase book and pointed it out. He brought out the dirty magazine to show me what he had in mind. I used my Hermann Hesse novel to cover my eyes and said "NO."
He changed the subject and asked me to give him my phrasebook. I tried to explain that I needed it and he gave up.
What in the hell was I doing here? I had prepared myself for inconvenience, but this could be dangerous. This man who wanted sex and a massage has access to me day and night, while I was sleeping or even in the toilet. And I was a skilled sleeper, meaning I could sleep through anything. This was usually an advantage, but in this case meant that I was unlikely to wake up at the earliest signs of a threatening situation.
Tubby wandered off, handing his dirty magazine to Stinky, who took it like a baton and sat down across from me. He tried to strike up a conversation but I just played dumb. I'd had enough of the boys' clever wit for the moment.
It didn't get any more obscure than this. Riding the Turk-Sib branch of the Trans-Siberian, the sole English speaker in twenty cars, hounded by cute children and smelly men.
For lack of anything better to do, I went to sleep early, at 10 p.m. It looked like broad daylight outside, and didn't get dark until I was asleep and unaware.
Here's the dirty little secret about the Trans-Siberian Railway -- it's dull. The flat
tree-covered scenery almost never changed, it was difficult to communicate with others, and after yesterday's encounter with Tubby, I didn't want to anyway.
Presumably it is not so bland on the Trans-Siberian normal line, where there are other tourists to talk to. I was off on a spur, going where few Westerners go, and if they do, they wisely take the plane.
The train is the lifeline of Eastern Russia and of large chunks of Central Asia. Whenever we stopped, various business transactions took place. Vendors patrolled the platform, looking for hungry buyers. Stinky and Tubby were up to some extracuriccular activities, and managed to load tires, sacks of onions, and about 500 flattened banana boxes into our compartment.
WEEKEND IN KAZAKHSTAN
I woke up to a grassy steppe landscape, and pleasant, warm weather. The little girls alternated keeping me company with Stinky and Tubby. The men would leave, the girls would race in and demand that I show them a card trick or teach them an English word. The girls would wander off, and the men would return. I communicated with the youngest one in Pokemon. I'd say "Pika, Pika" and she'd scream "-chu!"
This went on all day, and I was quite relieved when the train pulled into the Almaty train station. The girls waved goodbye. Tubby made himself scarce, and Stinky waved and sort-of smiled. He'd been all right, in the end.
Had it been worth it, to take the train for that long? In theory, I was supposed to meet locals. In reality, I thought, if you want to meet Russians, just take a cargo ship.
I negotiated a taxi fare like a hard-edged veteran of the road, and made my way to the center of beautiful, green, cosmopolitan Almaty. A weekend there helped me recover from the train ride, and on Monday, I made my way to Tashkent.
THE GOLDEN-TOOTHED ROAD TO SAMARKAND
Uzbekistan! Land of gold teeth, the Silk Route, and the monobrow!
I met with a travel agent, who told me I was mad to take the Moscow-bound train because it went through Turkmenistan, where the border guards would harass me, in addition to the usual generic harassment due to gender. He offered me an airplane ticket instead of a train ticket, and advised me to take the plane for my own safety. I agreed to put it to a vote and pointed out that if I were Michael Palin, I wouldn't have these problems.
He also warned me to avoid the policemen in Tashkent; they were known to shake down travelers. I promised to be careful and he put me in a taxi.
The taxi took me to "Tashkent's Broadway," the pedestrian street off Amir Timur Square. It was filled with sidewalk cafes, art sellers, shops, and other enterprising endeavors. My favorites were sidewalk karaoke machines, where locals unabashedly screeched along with their favorite songs, and the video game parlors -- a few televisions hooked up to Sony PlayStations, covered by a tent.
I saw a cheap Uzbek opera, and the next morning, was accosted by the police on my way to the bus station.
Several policemen ushered me into a room, where they took my passport and held it in exchange for my cooperation. One motioned to my bag.
"What?" I said.
He motioned again.
I thought, okay, I'm not getting off easy, and opened my bag, but refused to let him touch it. I made a production of it, removing each item slowly and saying the name clearly in English, as if I were talking to a child.
"Camera." I waved it around and put it back on my bag, held tightly in my lap.
"Phrasebook." I ruffled the pages of my Russian phrasebook.
"Hairbrush," I mimicked brushing my hair. That got a giggle or two.
Then I closed my bag.
They knew there was more.
"Customs document." Now they wanted the form I'd filled out at the border, the one that showed how much money I was carrying.
"Hotel," I said firmly. They looked crestfallen.
One of them pulled out a fake, photocopied US hundred-dollar bill and started waving it around.
"Dollars," he said, pointing to my bag.
He waved the fake money at me. "Dollars," he said. I looked at it with a disgusted face and said "photocopy, copy, criminal," waving it aside. They laughed.
I showed my local currency. "Dollars, in hotel," I claimed. Of course, this was a total lie. I had several hundred dollars in the bag I'd just pretended to show the contents of.
They put down my passport and wandered off. I lost no time in picking it up and running, not sure if I was free to go but taking no chances.
The next time I heard a policeman say "passport," I pretended not to hear and ran for the train, getting on just as the doors were shutting.
Later, sitting on a hard bed in a dreary room at Khiva's Hotel Arkonchi, I realized that the fake hundred-dollar bill was part of the scam. No doubt if I had produced my own hundred, they would've swapped it with the fake, expecting me to not notice until later. Swell place, this Uzbekistan.
"Tomorrow is another day," I thought, knowing that in the morning I'd wake up and realize that the entire country couldn't be blamed for the corruption of the Tashkent police force.
After a few days in Khiva, I caught a bus to Bukhara, discovering the hard way that Uzbekistan is not geared toward independent travelers. The hotel and local people could not believe that I wanted to take the public bus instead of a private taxi. Tourists just don't take public buses, I was told. It isn't comfortable, said the travel agents and hotel workers. Nevertheless, I convinced a Swiss couple to join me and we found a Bukhara-bound bus from nearby Urgench. The price difference was a savings of $58 each.
The Uzbeks on the bus were delighted to have tourists on board. They tore through my phrasebook, asking questions and smiling whenever we managed to communicate. We drove through a tiny corner of Turkmenistan, but it was uneventful. One of the swarthy passengers had an Abba tape, which he put on the bus stereo, and everyone had a great time over the nine-hour ride to Bukhara.
I found myself explaining that I had no husband or children, but I did have a plant, to the incongruous jubilant sounds of Sweden's most celebrated pop stars. It was great fun, but all three of us were relieved when the bus pulled over in darkness, to leave us by the side of the road in Bukhara.
I spent a few days at a homestay in Moscow. Lena, a nice, unemployed single mom, fed me apple tarts while Masha, her sweet, but defiant teenage daughter, chain-smoked. I trudged through the cold to visit Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral, and the Kremlin, and caught an overnight train to St. Petersburg.
After two days in St. Petersburg, I was tired. The youth hostel was disorganized,
chaotic, and had no hot water.
"That's why we won the Cold War," said a tourist from Illinois, lowering her voice.
"Oh, really?" I thought. "I was under the impression that 1) I didn't personally have anything to do with the Cold War and 2) The Soviet Union lost the Cold War
under the crushing economic weight of its own impossible infrastructure and military expenditures. I didn't realize it was from bad hotel service."
Instead of saying this aloud, however, I left. I'd had enough. I wanted a decent shower, and a good meal with vegetables. Europe was a short bus ride away, and I had a reserved seat.
I made my way west through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, throwing in a few days in nearby Helsinki and Gdansk for good measure. By the time I got to my self-prescribed rest stop in Berlin, I was numb to the thrill of sightseeing. I was more excited to see a clean toilet than a medieval city, and the thrill of lactose-free milk far outshone the thrill of quaint cobblestone streets.
I rented an apartment in Berlin, and spent a month resting up and preparing for Africa. Finally, on July 16, I boarded a cargo ship bound for Cape Town and settled in for fifteen days at sea.
For more on Maries continuing journey around the world without a plane, see mariesworldtour.com
Read more about Marie's World Tour:
Episode One: Across the USA by Rail and the Pacific by Freighter
Episode Two: Australia to Cambodia
Episode Three: Siem Reap to Beijing
Episode Four: Mongolia to Berlin
Episode Five: Cape Town to Nairobi
Episode Six: Nairobi to New York