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A Trans-Siberian Journey

By Sylvia C. Whitman

Six days, 7865 kilometers, Peking to Moscow via Ulan Balor, Irkutsk, Novisibirsk and Omsk. Taking the Trans-Siberian railroad shouldn't be this easy. Just allow two weeks in Pecking: After making a reservation at the China International Travel Service (CITS), report to the Russian Embassy to apply for a free transit visa. A week later, pick it up and present it to the Mongolian Embassy, which in a single day will grant you a transit visa for $2, payable only in U.S. dollars. (As a penalty for not recognizing the People's Republic of Mongolia, Americans pay double) Then return to CITS, where you can now buy your ticket.

Day 1: China, Board, and recognize cabinmases: Dan and Francine, the hand-holding couple asking directions to the Mongolian Embassy, and Eddy, the German with the bell on his pack at the Russian Embassy, Farewell champagne toasts on platform 7 a.m. departure, Great Wall. Noodle soup with Chinese scientist in the dining car. Talk about China; big cheer from English students as we leave. Chinese home movies at Er Lian station: "Peasant Tourist Makes Visit to Scenic Spot."

Made in East Germany, the cars themselves are far more luxurious than the average Chinese train. The first morning the steward arranges lidded mugs on the table and huge bedrolls and backpillows on our four beds, which within a few hours are blackened with coal grit. We fill the thermos hooked under the table from a water boiler down the hall. In Russia, a local car, which we are forbidden to enter, hitches onto out tail. Other than that secret compartment, we may stroll the length of the train, peeping into second-class berths (fancy slipcovers) and first (two beds, an armchair, a hose shower, and a private toilet). Even in third class, however, there is toilet paper, a genuine luxury.

Day 2: Mongolia. Russian tanks, trucks; soldiers. Horsemen and gingerbread houses. Stand at window on, "yurt alert" (looking out for Mongolian round tents--yurts). Ulan Bator: Woman in traditional dress sees off granddaughter in cords with tape deck. Sunset across the grasslands.

The train crosses frontiers at night--to restrict our vision, we hear. We also hear stories about Chinese officials who confiscate calligraphies. Mongolians who open cameras and expose film, and Russians who dispute visas because passengers no longer resemble their passport photos. Collecting our passports, the medal-chested officers search our compartments with flashlights, not for contraband, but for bodies. They then dismiss us to change money, U.S. dollar standard, while workers change the dining car and the outside wheels to accommodate the narrower Mongolian track. In the deserted station, the passengers mingle, elated--and shivery. We are relieved by an easy passage through customs, but frightened by the barbed wire and guns.

Day 3: Siberia, USSR, Lake Baikal, one fifth of the world's fresh water. Bread and cheese, Woods, wooden houses; ruddy hardware men, kerchiefed, buxom women. Stand at window and remember India. Read prize-winning Chinese short stories, i.e., train ticket-seller turns over new leaf and saves future sister-in-law's life by having memorized connecting bus schedules. Francine shows off Nanjing University bug life preserved in naphthalene and film boxes.

The time difference between Peking and Moscow is five hours, and the schedule and the station clocks, the few which work, go by Moscow time. But at the Russian border, local time temporarily jumps ahead, increasing the time differential to six hours. Unfortunately, local time is a little out of synche with sun time, and the train is running slightly more than three hours late. The engineers are trimming our station breaks and accelerating. There are official clocks on board, no time zone markers. The dining car nevertheless closes according to local time. Confusion and hunger for days.

Day 4: Siberia, USSR Trees Read Aldous Huxley on peyote tripping. Three meals: bread and cheese, fried eggs, cucumber, chicken soup, borscht. Read 541-page novel with jacket review, "...a man's world, where hate can swell like biceps and frontiers beckon as seductively as a woman." Play "hearts" on blanket between top bunks.

Once the French tour group disembarks at Ulan Bator, we are fewer than 35, most of us transit passengers with too little money and foresight to book an Intourist guide and hotel room in Moscow. To be ignored in the USSR is a privilege, but an unsettling one. Outside the window, peasants with produce, families with hampers, and soldiers with duffles reinforce this sense of travelers' limbo. We are insubstantial, unaffiliated. The Russians, much to our disappointment, do not stamp our passports. When we finally leave the country, they collect our visa form and leave us no trace.

Day 5: Siberia, USSR. Troll women in scarves and boots refill water tanks on train. Read every page of Time (People first): Wash hair in second-class sinkroom with Eddy (black suds). Stand at window and sing first verses of camp songs.

A train is a community. At each stop, we dash down the platform to the food kiosk, hoping for anything other than pickles and kefir. The day of tomatoes, eight of us have to sprint for the last car, and all the passengers cheer. The Poles, embassy staff returning to Poland after three years in Peking, smoke heavily during the day and drink heavily at night. They sleep two to a berth, having wedged their luggage into the top bunks. The English, mostly students returning from a year in Peking, plug two-by-two into Walk-mans.

When not embracing. Dan and Francine play tarot or talk about China, about Francine's Chinese roommate, who would have nightmares when left alone overnight. Eddy tells me about West Germany, about the East German soldiers woken to drill for attack every night until they say, "I wish we could wipe them out so we could get some sleep." We place bets on whether the Chinese scientist traveling with his colleagues to a conference in Yugoslavia will change out of his pajamas before we reach Moscow.

Day 6: USSR. Sick of bread and cheese. Read Soviet anti-imperialist proposals for the Indian Ocean from magazine rack. Eddy smokes last of Great Wall grass. Stand at window and imagine cranberry juice, oatmeal raisin cookies, pizzaburgers, Pack, Exchange addresses. Check connecting schedules. Arrive in Moscow a little before 5 p.m., 10 minutes late.

To travel by train is to move not merely across space but in time, to sense the qualitative difference between trip and journey. In the last five of my seven months in Asia, I covered more than 16,000 km by train, bus and river boat--like many of my fellow travelers, not so concerned with getting someplace as with being somewhere. In that spirit, it does not matter that the Trans Siberian may not be the most snappy exit, it is the most fitting, Besides, it's not a bad deal for $140.

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