Ulaanbaatar, May 28th—I’d been complaining to Tess and Vans about the Dutch. Too rude, too direct, too much pancake and waffle conceit. My tolerance was beyond its end.
Pursuant to the universal law of karma, I wound up needing to depend on a Dutch person for help at the train station. He did assist with affirming my views. Two trains were pulled into the station, neither with identifying information that was legible for me. What I needed was the 3:22, final destination Irkutsk. (I will be stepping off in Ulan-Ude, which is just after the border crossing into Russia. Also, since entries now concern Russia, default distance multipliers must be applied to adjectives. “Just after…” could constitute a geographic region the size of Western Europe.) One train had blue and red livery like a bellhop’s uniform in a Wes Anderson hotel. On the exterior of this train galloped a painted pair of white horses. “Иркутск” was written near the step-up entrance.
Two travelers, young like me, spoke English nearby. I shuttered at one’s accent, recognizing it as Dutch. “Excuse me,” I said, addressing both, “I’m looking for the 3:22 to Russia, do either of you happen to know which train it is?”
The Dutchman—beach sand blonde, 2-iron skinny—answered with discourtesy, like one would when propositioned with something preposterous. Pointing to the Cyrillic, and with no indication of humor or self-awareness said, “It says right there on the train.”
As perplexed as I, the man’s companion looked at him befuddled. Then, pointing to the same car, said, “Yes, it’s that one.”
I thank him and cease to acknowledge the Dutch person’s existence. I turn, walk away, and hear the companion say, “Not everyone can read Cyrillic.”
I am sharing a four-berth cabin with a Singaporean man in his forties. His front teeth are absent. For obvious reasons this is conspicuous. It is also discomfiting like he’s left his bathroom windows open to a busy street. Like me, it’s been a while since he’s met his a barber. Unlike me, his hair is thin with tips that are below his ears. I’m sure I’ve misheard his name, which he says is “Elvin.”
With such nearness, pleasantries are required. Different languages are no excuse (though here, Elvin is an English speaker). At a minimum, recognition and alms must be given to the privacy that’s been stolen. Elvin’s offering: cherry tomatoes from a plastic bag. Mine: dried fruits, apples, Snickers. He calls my raise with Oolong tea and a container of Chinese crisps. My Snickers are enough to win the pot, however, and pleasantries evolve. Earnest oversharing follows. Close quarters and sharing them with strangers with whom a word will likely never be spoken to again is a fruitful combination. Anonymity derived from transience.
Elvin had been fired. He speaks breathily and fast. I wonder if he was raised to exist in a perpetual state of mild exasperation, or whether the nearness and disturbance of his firing is a continuous trigger to his anxiety. “My company was very stupid and did not treat customers well when a new manager took over. Many customers left at once. People who made stupid policies got to stay, but they decided to let the people below them leave. One was me.”
So it goes.
“I asked my wife if I can leave to travel. She gave me three months to get this out of my system. But I think it will be long. I hope she does not leave me, or worse, get angry at me.”
Returning to Ulaanbaatar as fast as I did—I had just an hour to provision shop and shower and make the train—meant that I did not have time to settle. The mental rapidity of meeting logistical requirements is just now starting to downtempo.
On approach to Russia, the landscape is what I’ve grown accustomed to: efflorescent dirt blooming into ground-level ghost clouds, dehydrated grass, horizon falling vast space. Hills increase in number, as do trees. Mongolia’s line is coming up too soon for my liking. I am leaving the captivation of this untenanted place far before I am exhausted of it. There is a foot of land out there that may be untouched. The allure of these places never diminishes. Even if paved and every millimeter is saturated with mankind’s touch, allure seeps into history. History can be a strong enough magnet too. I’ll be back.
The sun plays peekaboo through bouldery mountains. A behemoth one that is entwined on the horizon makes it so that we will not see the sun again until Russia. Crepuscular blue occupies the few towns. The train is slow, and it is possible to make a swift count of the metal roofs and cloth gers aligned with the dirt roads. Possible but we do not. The Singaporean looks wistful out the window. I do as well. The paradox we battle is that we’ve found contentment in our seats while longing to be far beyond the glass. He says, “I wonder what worries people who live in these villages have.”
It is dark but starlit. We turn off the compartment lights to see the sky unadulterated. Parsed with stars, it is unimaginably clear. The Milky Way is a skirt hem through its core. No lightbulbs anywhere but this train. I wonder what sight it’d make from afar: a tendril of steel with fixed boxes of light carting upon black embankments, two hundred tired faces turned against glass that is stiff with their breath. Eyes squinting into blindness before turning to sleep. One after another those boxes would turn to black. The phantom in the landscape would go on, invisible over embankments, existing as movement and sound.
Russia: Naushki, May 29th — Entry procedure at 2 A.M is jarring. Even the faintest possibility of foreign detainment is poor comfort when trying to sleep. Being in Russia makes it more so. What Russian story ending with “…never heard from again” did not start with “They came in the night…”? That is this place now. These people invented it. While this particular visa officer is non-threatening (she is a plum personified), she manifests possibility, far fetched or real.
Before her company is with us, Elvin opens his passport and sees that his Russian visa expires today. His breath beating is anxious, like so many prey fish swarming in water. “Is it okay?” What he wants is an affirmation that this dating thing is an easy to overlook detail, so common that it is benign and, if seen, waved off. The best that I—someone who is both tired and convinced he is unequivocally fucked—can muster is a spiritless assurance about no way you’ll be asked to get off here since you still have all of today to rectify it. Was I him, my panic could fuel the locomotive to Moscow.
“Perhaps she will not notice,” he says.
This officer. She is quite, quite good. Remarkable eyesight and detail spotting ability. “Visa expires today. You cannot come to Russia,” she says right away upon receiving his passport.
“Oh gosh,” Elvin says. He pins his hair back and looks at me with hope like I can resolve the matter and be a familiar face at his side and help bear his penalty. “Oh gosh,” he says, “What should I do?”
I have my stamp. I’m diplomatically safe and a guest. I shrug.
The control officer asks, “How long do you plan to be in Russia?
“Oh gosh, a few weeks.”
“Provide your address for me. In Russia.”
He has to pull his hotel accommodation information from his phone. While he does that, she transcribes his passport information into a journalist’s notepad. She does the same for his contact information. “First thing in the morning,” she says, “Go to the immigration office and register for a visa extension. If you do not, you may be arrested.”
Diverging from bureaucratic rigidity always impresses me. I choose to not believe her mandate allows her to grant this sort of wiggle room and she simply opted for this one, very small kindness. Of the countries I’ve spent ample time in—China and the United States—I am shocked that it is Russia that has the lead in common sense.
Few disembark in Ulan-Ude. I do and Elvin does. There is little reason to in this small, far east city. Southeast of Lake Baikal, it has the feel of Russia so long as one expects Russia to look architecturally drab and coquettishly colorful. The feel is of a steel town prepped for pride month. Square buildings of cotton candy pink next to lego-square hotels made with yellow bricks.
It is just after 5am. Elvin is beside me, but my awareness of his company is elusive as neither he nor I speak. We are far too tired. The train station is at the base of a steep staircase. At the top is the street. Two drivers are parked and smoking. Neither makes a move to drum business. A bus passes, as do two sedans. One utilizes its replacement tire, which has seen fair wear. The train tracks are behind us, though we must cross them to enter the city. Ulan-Ude, flanked by two major rivers, has this third industrial one dividing it. We walk a mile to an underpass and then round back.
“This is me,” Elvin says after a few blocks.
My address is not correct. I buzz twenty bells before 6:30am. No one, despite all probable cause, responds to me irate or with a cleaver. I take a guess and march up a different block. It has a massive plaza in which sits an overlarge head of Lenin. On a lamp post, I see the smallest index card taped to it. It bears the hostel name and an arrow.