You often see articles in newspaper travel supplements listing must-dos such as ’24 things to do in 24 hours in the 24 hour party city with 24 24-year-olds’ – well here is 120 hours on a train.
It started in a car park at Ulan Bator train station. We were leaving Mongolia and heading home via Moscow on a huge, dark, green, Soviet carriage – the Trans-Siberian express. We got on the train to cockney screams “Oi nah mate I ain’t payin nuffin”, mixed with a chorus of angry Mongolian squabbles. Two fellow passengers, who thought they would save their arms by getting a gang of locals to carry their packs, looked set to loose a lot of cash. Three Mongolians squeezed through the door of their tiny cabin leaving our cockney counterparts with little choice but to throw a few thousand of this ridiculous currency at their faces. The gang disembarked and went back to the car park to wait for their next victims.
The first few hours were pleasant enough. The four of us packed into a room the size of a portaloo and unfolded our beds from the shiny plastic walls. Our last views of Mongolia which looked exactly the same as our first views rolled by and the first beers cracked open.
The feeling that we were effectively serving a five day prison sentence crept in the next day. The biggest downer is waking up and not having anywhere to go but your bed. There is no point getting up because it is your only space, your only property. But eventually the limbs and joints tingle the stomach groans and you have to move, but where? A trip to the toilet and the hot water pot at the end of the corridor to make instant noodles became the day’s highlights. We ate and ate and pissed and shate just to have something to do. The sun setting was the most fantastic feeling of all. It signalled one less day in this cell and an acceptable time to unpack the vodka, which like every other product in Mongolia is called Genghis Kahn.
On the third night somewhere in Siberia three girls representing a fair cross-section of Russian females boarded our carriage. Their leader was big, blonde and bulky, her follower tiny and dark with knee high rainbow socks, the third petit and beautiful. Her grey eyes flashed around the cabin’s brown interior as we introduced her to the card game ‘Snap’. Her long fluorescent orange nails slammed down on any hand fortunate enough to get to the pack ahead of hers.
Three twenty minute stops were scheduled each day – a chance for air, exercise, stocking up on rations and looking at women more attractive than the infamous matrons who prowl each carriage’s corridor. If Russia produced more of these women the Soviet empire would never have collapsed. You might have purchased the cabin for the journey but the rest of the train is theirs. Any pissing out of the window when the toilet is occupied, spilling a hot drink or failing the difficult task of walking back to your cabin in a straight line after vodkas in the restaurant cart is firmly clamped down upon.
On our fourth night a rumour spread through the English speaking passengers that two American girls travelling in first class were having a party in their cabin. We grabbed our Mongolian hats, sharpened up on our travel stories and hurried over, but the girls were long past the age when you get away with being called a girl and their first class cabin was exactly the same size as our portaloo except there were two ground beds instead of two bunk beds.
Suddenly a huge Englishman burst in wearing full Mongolian dress and announced himself as Sir Anthony Doherty third Earl of Woeherty. Whether it was a cunning yet clichéd coup to upstage the stiff competition for the rumoured American girls or a proud statement of his family’s heritage I do not know, but he stank of vodka. ‘Sir Anthony’ had become a bleary mess by the end of the night and his cabin was near ours at the other end of the train. The big lad must have woken many a sleeping Russian as he crashed into every cabin door on the journey home. We finally reached our carriage but our way was blocked. There she stood in the dim light, a concrete shithouse of a woman which ‘Sir Anthony’ would have struggled to pass on a sober day – our matron.
“Niet, Niet, Niet,” she screamed as we tried to pass. “No, no, no!” She stared us down into the steel floor. Our Earl collapsed.
“I am Sir Anthony Doherty fifth Earl of Woeherty, please, please, please let me past.”
He stretched out his hands and bowed as if in prayer. Concrete block’s friend emerged from her shadow with a bucket. They feared Sir Anthony would not hold down his dinner and had no desire to clean up his vomit however aristocratic it may be. She was milder and after filling up her bucket with water and throwing it over his lordship allowed us on our way.
My cabin attendant whose name was never given was a different character entirely. He hoovered our few inches of carpet everyday, sold us beer on the cheap and never complained about infringements such as leaving instant noodle packages by the hot water pot. How many millions of miles must he have travelled over this same train line? He knew the route perfectly. To us Siberia was a forest and for the first two days little could be seen past the pine trees which lined the thousands of miles of track. But on our third day he came into our cabin locked his hands together and said “Europa, Asia”.
We looked out of the window and seconds later a white obelisk shot past marking were Asia meets Europe in a dark Siberian wood. It is no Istanbul just a piece of stone of human height.
After watching all of our pirate DVDs and reading most of Brothers Karamazov our 120 hours were up and Moscow’s suburbs eventually appeared on day five. It was a fine feeling to walk across the hard concrete platform and straight onto the city’s underground network.