Home | Stories Home
Vladimir J. Konečni
Train dining car, Wednesday, Sept. 24,1986, 4:30pm
Today began at 5:40am in Beijing. Washed myself briefly in the hotel communal bathroom, as unaccustomed as ever to the morning throat-clearing and spitting ritual of Chinese men. Had some bread, sausage, a bell pepper, and a large pear while pacing in my room and listening to the market across the street. Caught the #111 trolleybus, got off at the end of the line near the Chongwenmen Hotel, and trudged two blocks to the station. The "international wait-room" was full of foreigners, as might be expected. Nodded to the Chinese computer-science lecturer from Shanghai whom I had met a few days earlier at the Temple of Heaven. He and a departing cousin almost stuck out in this crowd.
An impassive attendant distributed bed linen, blankets, and towels on the train. As we began to roll, I copied the departure times posted in the corridor: Beijing, 7:40; Nankow, 8:44; Qinglongqiao, 9:38; Kangzhuang, 10:02; Zhangjaokou, 11:47; Datong, 14:25; Jining, 16:22; Erlian, 23:15 (no stops by the nomads' yurts in the Gobi desert north of Jining, heh, heh); Dzamin-Udz, 1:40 (Thursday, Mongolia); Sam-shanda, 5:53; Choyr, 9:55; Ulan Bator, 14:50; Zonhala, 18:12; Dar-han, 20:21; Suhe Bator, 22:05; Dozorne, 22:43 (USSR); Nanshki, 1:35 (Friday); Gusinoy Lake, 3:25; Ulan-udz, 6:46; Mysovaya, 9:10; Slyudyanka, 12:03; Irkutsk, 15:30 (Beijing time;14:30, local time; 9:30, Moscow time).
I share compartment #4, car #1, with a Pole and two Germans. The seats, classified as "hard" by travel agents, are actually not bad. Unnecessarily large cleaning crews are constantly at work. There are few activities in China that are not labor-intensive. Watching the Chinese engage in their tool-less, backbreaking, stubbornly purposeful toil makes one feel lazy, guilty, tired, or dizzy, depending on the circumstances.
Talked to Lisa, a redhead from San Francisco. Lisa says (a great song by Lou Reed and the Velvets) that she is worried. Mongolians require (a) much waiting in the courtyard of their embassy in Beijing, (b) questioning by (exclusively Russian) employees, and (c) producing exactly $18 in paper notes to issue a transit visa. Lisa does not have one.
The day wore on. The Pole, like me, will get off in Irkutsk, after 65 hours on the train: I, to fulfill a boyhood dream of sketching the white birches around Lake Baikal; he, to fly to Warsaw on a $20 black-market ticket. Some of the contents of his luggage are remarkable. The illegality of the ticket is innocuous by comparison.
One of the two Germans sells cars in Emmering, near Munich; the other is a student from Cologne, who spends most of his time with a girlfriend in another compartment. Both are going all the way to Moscow and beyond -- a week or so on the train. The Opel man insists on smoking his pipe with the window closed -- an irritation of some magnitude in an otherwise sociable environment.
As I write this, I am eating a bland dish and drinking a warm beer (5 yuan altogether). We are deep into Gobi. All is dry and red-the earth, the sky. Sunset in Inner Mongolia, on the left side of the train.
Compartment #4, Car #1, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2:10pm
Sitting alone and staring at Ulan Bator, the capital of the People's Republic. All signs are in Russian. On the station building: Уллан Баатар -- the Mongolian spelling of the city's name in Russian letters (the Russian spelling on the side of train cars is Улан Батор, equivalent, letter for letter, to the English version). Beyond the station, in the empty square, vast pictures of Gorbachev and the Mongolian leader (whoever that might be). The words below the pictures -- undoubtedly aphorisms from these men's speeches -- are in letters so large that I can read them from the train. The square must look inviting only to children with red paper flags, missing a morning of school when they are lined up here to greet visiting dignitaries.
It is 2:52pm and the train is gaining speed. Lisa stops by to return $40 I loaned her before the Mongolian border. She survived the crossing without a visa (red hair and freckles must be scarce in Mongolia; elegant cheekbones and shining black eyes are certainly not). Outside the town, in juxtaposition, one sees wooden huts (re: Turgenev's peasants minus Russian vegetation), aluminum yurts (re: progressive Mongolia), a grassless soccer field with netless goal-posts (re: vigorous, youthful Mongolia), and an unlit, unchildrened Ferris wheel so stationary that it must have never turned (re: Mongolia in its Sunday best).
My cell-mates returned just now. Time to stop. ("Time she stopped...time she stopped" Billie Whitelaw intones in Beckett's Rockaby, rocking and dying; why does this come to mind?)
Train dining car, later same day
I (Mongolian transit visa #64471) have just talked to M.-G. (#64465) again. We had black tea with lemon (35 kopecks).
Yesterday after sunset, all of crimson hit Gobi. (But this is not a travelogue à la Rebecca West; incidentally, was it a black lamb or a grey one & a falcon-of which color??) As it became dark, my face in the window, shaking irregularly, overpowered the desert. At long last, we arrived in Erlian, the last town before the border. The Chinese are old and wary: Mao had heard the tanks rumble into Budapest and so constructed train tracks with a gauge different from that of his northern neighbors. (The roads? Don't be silly.)
In Erlian, we all got off the train and the cars were lifted off the tracks to have their axles (wheels? whatever) changed. Two hours free to roam the station. Changed money. Talked about Papua New Guinea to some people. Lifted the camera to capture the clock-tower on the station building. Red-neon embroidery. Green-neon ERLIAN. The white-faced rectangular clock said 9:39pm.
As I lowered the camera, my eyes were drawn to the silhouette of a young woman doing calisthenics about 30 yards away. That was M.-G.*
Vladimir J. Konečni
* (Note: We were married on May 11, 1987, in California.)