In a five foot wide train compartment it doesn’t take long to realize that your Chinese roommates are smugglers. Despite the complete language barrier, the fifteen boxes, two suitcases and eight duffel bags filled with cigarettes spoke for themselves. Not content to smuggle in these paltry sums, each stop added to the collection until we had cases of cigarettes hiding behind the coat hangers and window shades. Clearly in cahoots with the train operators, goods were hiding in every secret panel of our carriage. We were riding in the Chinese Smuggling Operation wagon of the Trans-Mongolian branch of the famous Trans-Siberian railway.
Due to these odd circumstances, we basically had the compartment to ourselves. Our male smuggler was in such good standing with the train operators that he apparanetly warrented his own secret compartment somewhere; we never saw him. His female companion slept 18 hours out of the day thus earning the nickname “The Sleepy Smuggler.”
Smuggling drama aside, you would expect a certain amount of boredom from five and a half days in a moving metal box. But having spent many hours on family road trips as a child I should have remembered, there’s so much to do when there’s nothing to do. The train was an epic journey disguised as pleasant convalescence. A mandatory bed rest where a quarter of the world zooms by your bed.
We read books. I learned to play bridge. We tried to list all of the countries in the world from memory. We checked off the days and hours, the stations and stops. In lieu of any actual responsibilities these felt like important routines.
We stretched our legs at stops and danced in the wagon corridor. We ate in the Mongolian food car and argued with the waitress in the Russian one. But most of all we just looked dreamily out the window as we passed Inner and Outer Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, Lake Baikal, the small settlements of Siberia and the Ural Mountains.
It’s not the kind of thing you want to do every week (like our smugglers) but it was amazing to have the chance to do it once. Another time around and our hygene may never recover.