Curious events on the Trans-Siberian Railroad
NAUSHKI, Russia — Lou fumbled with the Customs cards. With forehead wrinkled, he didn’t take his eyes off the green slips. “They’re in Russian,” he said.We were on the border between Russia and Mongolia. So it made sense that Cyrillic letters covered the cards. The problem was that neither of the three of us Lou, Jim, or I understood anything more than the most rudimentary Russian. A six-day train ride, and we timed it, to the minute, to cross the Russian border when they ran out of customs forms in English.I filled out the form the best I could, wondering exactly what I admitted. Wondering what a post-Soviet prison cell looked like.We were halfway along the Trans-Siberian Railroad: a strip of rail that connects Moscow with the eastern-most points of Asia. The route we took carried us from Beijing to Moscow, and the 8,000 kilometers of Siberian landscape in between. Three college friends crammed into a POW cell-sized cabin passing through eight time zones at the end of August a week before classes started for the fall. Did I mention we began in China exactly the opposite day/night schedule we were used to?The effort to join both ends of Russia was first undertaken by Tsar Alexander III in 1891. It was his goal to link the Pacific seaport of Vladivostok with Moscow, opening up the resources of the Russian interior. Before the railroad, only dirt roads saw traffic into Siberia, used mostly by convicts sent into exile and the soldiers whose job it was to keep them there. Shortly after the Trans-Siberian’s completion, two other railroads stemmed off the main route the Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian routes both providing access to Beijing. Now, a century later, all three routes still shuttle materials and people as well as people shuttling materials across Asia.Because of those people shuttling materials, I now wrote with a shakier hand as I filled out that Cyrillic customs declaration form.Hours earlier, our Mongolian hall-mate came to our cabin. It was at a time when I was lying on my bunk, letting the sway of the cabin and the rhythmic chuh-chunk of metal wheels on metal rails wash out into the background. He stood at our door with the smile that greeted me every time I passed him in the corridor. His mouthful of white teeth stood out from his dark complexion. It was the kind of smile that you welcomed in the hallway, and then patted your pockets for wallet and passport as you passed. He didn’t speak English, but he made it clear, non-verbally, that he wished to hide a cloth-wrapped package in my cabin.Before each border crossing, I would watch as this man and others passed across my open door with sacks of fabric and vegetables taking multiple trips to shuttle them between rooms. I only now realized, with his white smile filling our cabin entry, that he was a petty smuggler dodging duties to peddle his wares cheaper along the Trans-Siberian route. As he stuffed that package behind my backpack, it dawned on me that the Russian border would soon come up. He waved a little thank-you and disappeared down the corridor.At each stop since leaving China, he would jump out with armfuls of clothes leather jackets, cargo pants, Nike tear-away warm-ups and sell them to crowds of waiting Mongolians. The village could be nothing more than a water tower surrounded by a few cottages (most were), the railroad their only connection outside the endless Gobi Desert. But the residents dressed trendier than a Los Angeles junior high school student. That’s what happens when everything’s made in China.Our merchant had a hard enough time squeezing through the corridor with his clothing-filled arms. But while selling on the platform outside with pants and jackets draped over his arms, head and shoulders he efficiently exchanged money and displayed his goods to the energetic mob around him. Not a South Park T-shirt dropped, not a crumpled dollar bill bobbled (U.S. currency always preferred). When the time came, our Mongolian merchant would wrap up business and resume his position along the corridor windows. Back to his empty gaze and the content lethargy of a six-day captive, only wasting movements to greet me with his white-toothed smile. It was the stoic relaxation of someone who had made this trip many times before.Though I admired the man’s friendliness, I wasn’t about to risk jail time in a Russian gulag. This was Siberia after all. I returned the wrap without looking inside lickety-split. At each previous border crossing, our cabin searches became increasingly thorough. Sure enough, Russian border control didn’t break this trend. With an attention to detail unseen in previous checkpoints, three uniformed officers checked our forms and searched around our bags exactly where the Mongolian had hidden the package.Our new Mongolian duty-dodging friend did enter Russia without any problems. Lord knows how. Despite the Cyrillic customs cards, Lou, Jim and I did, as well. As the train wound through the maple forests of Siberian Russia, I was relieved that I wouldn’t spend the fall semester in some remote Siberian prison.I watched out the open window of my cabin, the wind sending a cool breeze into the room and onto my face. My eyes focused on the peeling, paper-like bark on the trunks. This vacation will turn out just fine, I thought. Then again, I hadn’t yet attempted to leave Russia.
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