Our group is back on the rails again but this time we are traveling the Trans-Mongolian railway from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia’s capital. We easily slip back into our train routine, quickly arranging our personal affects in our usual bunks and adjusting the window’s curtain to allow for optimal viewing. Our snacks are arranged neatly on the table and Bright Eyes is already playing from the ipod.
Cause what is simple in the moonlight, by the morning never is… What’s so simple in the moonlight, now is so complicated…
As we roll along the landscape opens up revealing mountains and a river running along the horizon – the Selenga maybe? We should arrive at the official border crossing shortly but even so, Russia feels decidedly behind me while Mongolia is still out of reach.
The many things I didn’t see while I was in Russia run through my mind: the community of nomadic reindeer herders, the wild beauty of Kamchatka, the drunken forests – entire forests populated by trees tilted every which way because the permafrost beneath them is melting. Nor did I have the chance to experience Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited place on earth, which endures temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit (inconceivable!).
Somewhere Between Here And There
It is an interesting sensation being between two places and never has one of my trips been so much about the “getting there” as this one. To my surprise, I’m finding our seemingly endless hours on the train, the actual travel, to be most enjoyable – it offers the opportunity to reflect on where I’ve been and to contemplate what is to come. Plus, there are snacks and friends involved.
Though painfully obvious, I can’t help but consider the parallel to one’s own life journey. Being in a suspended state, neither here nor there, is one that many of us find uncomfortable. So often we despair during our moments of transition while remaining fixated on our “destinations” – the next job, the next love, the elusive and amorphous “next phase” – only to find these events offer little in the way of contentment or security. At best, no sooner do I rejoice in a milestone than I think, “Okay…… Now what?”
Outside of the window this veritable no-man’s land is alive with color – the cool blue and greys of Russia give way to a more golden glow as we approach the border town. I wonder how many passengers are sleeping through this portion of our sojourn probably assuming the arrival in Mongolia is the real event. I make a mental note to surrender to the here and now more often – a note to actually enjoy the oft overlooked “spaces in between.”
Over the Borderline
We reach the Mongolian border and are stopped for several hours as our passports and cabins are inspected for…. I’m not sure what – the searches prove to be rather half-hearted and no one bothers to collect our customs forms. With a few hours to kill, our group wanders through the border town which consists of some old wooden houses, the train station, and what seems to be a Russian memorial to soldiers who passed away during “The Great Patriotic War” (WWII). We step out of the cold and into a small store where I pick out a honey cake to share during our Breaking Bad viewing “scheduled” for later that evening at “our place.” Tonight is a double feature which means we’ll be watching not one but two episodes! Exciting, I know.
After a restful night’s sleep on the train I awake to the sound of OCD Provodnitsa banging on our cabin door, a not-so-subtle hint to prepare for our arrival to Ulaan Baatar. While I’m still fumbling to get the contacts into my eyes she pulls open the door, barks something in Russian, and tugs at the sheets on my bunk. Yeah, yeah. I know she has clean up to do but we’re still in our bunks, lady! Suddenly I realize this is our last train ride with our Russian provodnitsas and, because I know some small part of me will miss their constant disapproval, I hurry to get her my bedsheets.
Finally dressed and packed up, I make my way into the hall. The clock at the end of the carriage says it’s around 6AM and the weather outside is -12 degrees Celsius. For all of my travels I’m ashamed to say I still can’t quite convert Celsius to Fahrenheit with much accuracy, but I do know, without a doubt, that -12 degrees is not enough degrees by either scale. Suddenly the idea of exploring UB, the world’s coldest capital city, is slightly less appealing.
Our group makes our way to the hotel and I steel myself for a long, cold day of exploring.