Stranded in Siberia

At an obscure border town, our correspondent discovers the biggest obstacle in negotiating the next 4,000 miles: The train has left without him.

By Rolf Potts

Published November 10, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

For the first time in my life, I'd met someone who seemed genuinely excited that I was from Kansas.

"Kansas!" the Russian tank officer exclaimed. "Moskva!"

"Yes, I grew up in Kansas," I said. "And I'm headed to Moscow."

"Moskva!" he continued, acting as if I didn't understand him. "Kansas!" He held out his hands and pressed his palms together. Unsure what to do, I smiled and mimicked his action, pressing my hands together.

Behind us, three old Soviet tanks sat, temporarily mothballed, in the rail yard of a Siberian-Mongolian border town called Naushki. Mark and James, my British cabinmates from the Trans-Siberian train, were clambering on the tanks -- peering down the barrels and tugging on the hatches.

The Russian officer, who was trying to communicate something about Kansas with Lassie-like persistence, paid no heed to my companions' informal tank-inspection. "Parlez-vous francais?" he asked, his palms still pressed together in front of him.

"Nyet," I said. "Hanguk-mal haleyo?" The tank officer gave me a blank look. I expected as much: My fractured Korean language skills had yet to help me in any international situation.

"Hey James!" I called. James paused and looked down at me from the turret of the middle tank. "Don't you speak French?"

James, a multilingual 19-year-old from Hong Kong, hopped down from the turret and exchanged a bit of French with the Russian. The Russian gestured at me and waited expectantly.

"I'm not sure exactly what he wants to know," James said. "His French is quite basic. Literally, he's asking if you're from Moscow. He acts like it's a city in Kansas."

"Oh, Moscow," I said, suddenly realizing the connection. "A little tiny Kansas farm town. God knows how he found out about it. But yeah: Moscow, Kansas."

James looked at me uncertainly. "So, you're saying you're from Moscow, Kansas?"

"No -- I'm not from there, but I know of it. They used to have a great eight-man football team. My uncle Ed coaches the eight-man squad in a town called LeRoy, and I still remember how Moscow beat LeRoy in the eight-man state championship game 20 years ago. It was a real heartbreaker I was just a little kid back then, but I really loved football."

The Russian tank officer flashed the trademark grin of someone who is friendly and interested -- but has no idea what the hell you're babbling about. James raised an eyebrow and paused, as if trying to decide whether the saga of Uncle Ed's 1979 football squad was really worth translating into French. Just then, Mark called to us from atop the tank.

"Hey!" he said, leaping down into the gravel at the edge of the tracks. "I just remembered that we're not on Ulan Bator time any more. That means it's 3:45; not 2:45. If the train leaves at 4:00 like the provodnitsa said, we'd better go back right now."

Hastily bidding the Russian soldier farewell, James and I jogged after Mark as he led us out of the shunting yard.

We arrived at the main Naushki Station to find it completely, unambiguously empty.

Mark, James and I checked our watches in unison: Even with the hour time difference, it was still only 3:50. Mark broke our stunned silence by stating the obvious.

"The train's gone."

Since it had been my idea to hike out and look at the Soviet tanks while the train was stopped, I figured it was my job to assuage everyone's fears. The only way to do this, of course, was to blatantly deny reality.

"We still have 10 minutes," I said. "It can't be gone. We'll be fine."

Mark and James didn't say anything to this, and that said it all.

Barely 1,000 miles into my epic 5,280-mile train trip from Beijing to St. Petersburg, there was no real point in denying that I had somehow managed to get us left behind by the train itself.

Siberia, as Frederick Kempe observed in his eponymous 1992 book, has always been more a warning than a place.

Of all the locations in the world to be stranded, few places can match the desolation and hopelessness conjured by Russia's enormous eastern reaches. European maps from Marco Polo's day -- which list Russia-proper as a "Region of Darkness" -- reveal an apocalyptic bent to the earliest Western perceptions of Siberia. "Gog and Magog," reads the Siberian portion of a 14th century Catalan map, "The Great Prince of these shall come forth with a great multitude in the day of the Antichrist."

Though the biblical nomenclature never stuck, Siberia's reputation hasn't improved much in the last 600 or so years. To this day, Siberia is seen as little more than a blank space populated by exiles and Cossacks and criminals -- a cold stretch of trackless forests, man-eating tigers and frozen tundra.

Mark, James and I were fully aware of this reputation when we found ourselves stranded on the Siberian frontier. Trying to stay calm, we went to the Naushki Station office for information on the next train.

The station officer was a kindly faced man with gray hair and a Soviet-style green cap. Unfortunately, he didn't understand a single word we were saying, even after 10 minutes of pantomime. James tried French, Spanish, German, Mandarin and Cantonese on him -- all to no avail. Half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully), I threw out a few phrases of Korean. The station officer grinned and spoke to us in very loud, slow Russian, repeating the same phrase again and again. The three of us stood befuddled.

"He's trying to say that your train left at 3:15," came a voice from behind us. Turning around, I saw a college-aged Mongolian girl walking up behind us. She couldn't have been an inch over 4-foot-10, and she chomped her gum with an energetic confidence. "I'm Monika," she said. "You all are trying to speak English, right?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact," I said. "We were beginning to think nobody from this town would be able to help us."

"Oh, I don't live here," she said, rolling her eyes. "I just come here sometimes to make money. It's my job to be a person who does things for people. You know what I mean."

Mark, James and I raised our eyebrows at each other.

"I take things to places for people," she said, impatient with our cluelessness. "I forget it in English. You know: I take Chinese things from Mongolia to sell in Russia."

"Oh, right," Mark said. "You're a businessperson. A trader."

Monika chomped on her gum. "No, not exactly. Close, but not exactly."

"You're kind of like a courier," I offered. "You're a supplier."

Monika brightened suddenly. "Smuggler!" she said. "I'm a smuggler. That's my job." Monika grinned proudly at her verbal precision.

Mark, James and I raised our eyebrows again. Obviously, Monika had no use for euphemistic English.

"We need to catch up with our train," Mark said. "Are there any other trains this afternoon?"

"Not until tomorrow."

Mark sighed. "Well, I guess we'll have to wait here, then."

"What, are you stupid? Nobody stays here. This is no-place. You can just hire a car to catch up with the train. No problem."

"A car?" I said. "You mean there's a highway out here?"

"Of course there's a highway. Where do you think you are, anyway -- the North Pole? You can be at Ulan Ude in a couple hours."

"Is that soon enough to catch our train?"

"Sure, if you drive fast." Monika abruptly turned and started to walk out of the station office.

"Wait," I called after her. "We need you to help us hire a car!"

Monika turned and rolled her eyes. "That's what I'm doing, stupid. The taxis are this way." She paused and looked at us for a moment, kneading her gum between her incisors. "Unless you were really serious about staying the night in Naushki."

All at once, the three of us lurched out after Monika.

Naushki is a Russian-Mongolian border town so functional and artless that it doesn't even have its own history. Early written accounts of Siberia make no mention of the town because it was overshadowed by the bustling tea-caravan outpost in neighboring Kyakhta. Kyakhta's prominence eventually faded when train transport rendered the classic China-Russia tea-route caravans obsolete, but Naushki -- which took over as the train-stop -- never managed to live up to Kyakhta's memory.

Thirty years ago, a Soviet-era journalist named Leonid Shikarev wrote that "Siberia always inspires hope for the future." Skeptics might attribute this notion to the fact that things in Siberia can't get any worse than the present. My stroll through Naushki earlier that day, however, had revealed traces of the old Soviet optimism that seemed downright admirable, if unrealistic.

Since Naushki is the first Russian outpost on the north-bound route from Mongolia, Trans-Siberian passengers typically get a couple of hours to wander the town while the train is being inspected for contraband and stowaways. Assured by the carriage provodnitsa that the train wouldn't leave Naushki until 4:00, I walked through the town at a leisurely pace, going where my curiosity took me.

At first glance, Naushki's creosote-wood houses and dust-piled sidewalks made the place seem as dismal as a Nevada ghost town. But the more I walked, the more I noticed a kind of poignant optimism to Naushki. Three roads out from the train tracks, I found an old children's playground that featured a sandbox designed to look like a tugboat, a big wooden Fabergi egg that kids could climb on, and a small stage for dramatic productions. Once painted in bright primary colors, the playground equipment had now faded to a dry wooden gray that matched the other buildings of Naushki. There were no kids there.

Looping back toward the train tracks, I found a white-washed, red-starred cement memorial to locals who had perished in World War II. The face of the monument was only half-full of names, as if Naushki was optimistically hoping to provide corpses for some future great cause. Bordering the train station, the concrete statues in Naushki's civic park revealed a similar lack of history. Instead of lauding local heroes, the statues in the park depicted small children dancing, a wild moose, a mother nursing a child.

Once upon a time, Naushki was looking forward to something. Perhaps it still is. Perhaps -- even though the statue-children are dancing on thin rebar legs and the moose's face has fallen off -- looking forward is all there is to do in Naushki.

By the time I'd re-traced my way past the park with Monika, however, the only thing I was looking forward to was getting out of Naushki. When we arrived at the parking lot, Monika presented us with two hired-driver options -- Igan and Ivan. Igan looked like the Bounty paper towel lumberjack and drove a beat-up Lada hatchback. Ivan looked like a young Joseph Stalin and drove a tidy 4-door Lada. Both wanted 600 rubles (about $26) for the 180-mile ride to Ulan Ude.

Mark, James and I opted for Igan, purely on the basis that he in no way resembled Joseph Stalin.

We paid him half the money up front. Monika gave him detailed instructions in Russian as we piled into his car. When she'd finished with Igan, she came around to the passenger window and gave us a pep-talk.

"I just told him that you guys are in a real hurry, and you can't stop for anything. He needs to get some gas here in Naushki, but after that, don't let him stop the car. You have to be careful with these guys, because you know what they'll try and do."

"What," I said, "they'll try and cheat us?"

"No, I can't think of the English word exactly. It's worse than cheat."

"Rob," James offered. "They'll try to rob us."

"No, but close. It's a very easy word. I really should remember it."

Monika's verbal lapses were making me uneasy, but -- since she was our only asset at the time -- I figured I'd better clarify. "Maybe they'll do something like take us to the wrong place and ask for more money?"

"Kill!" Monika exclaimed. "Be careful or they'll try and kill you." Monika chomped her gum and grinned. "I don't think Igan would do that; he seems very nice. Just don't let him stop the car, and you'll be safe." Monika waved goodbye; Igan started the car.

We rode to the gas station in paranoid silence.

In 1890, Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter to his mother that the inhabitants of Siberia "will bash in the head of a beggar they meet or gouge out the eyes of their fellow deportee, but they won't touch a traveler."

As Igan took the nozzle and began to pump gas into his dented Lada, we could only hope that Chekhov's 109-year-old observation still held true.

Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Rolf Potts

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Russia Soviet Union Travel