The trans-Siberian train is a dream trip for some, an escape across continents for others, and just a normal passenger train for the majority of people who make a living working abroad, as migrant workers, or by trade between China, Mongolia, and Russia. My motives fell somewhere between the first and second as I took the train the non-traditional route, westwards out of Beijing.
Now, coming from the west there are a few different routes: two from Vladostok on the Russian pacific, one that traverses all of Siberia north of Lake Baikal called BAM that cuts the transit time, the other south of the lake; and then two from Beijing, one via Mongolia and the other through Manchuria.
I was leaving Beijing and opted for Mongolian landscapes out my window. My destination: Irkutsk, Russia. Some say, as my mom told me, that Irkutsk is the Paris of Siberia. But when I got there the locals didn’t really care for this comparison. They were also much kinder to me than Parisians, and I speak French! I didn’t feel the similarities with Paris, though Irkutsk is beautiful and especially on a grey night with a light mist. Anyway, I digress.
I write from the netherworld of the in between. A state where I don’t really exist in the present – maybe only as an abstraction. I have yet to reach the great beyond, though I have commenced the journey. For some I just left, eulogies snuffed, so long, good riddance, for others they don’t even know when or if I will arrive, who cares, out of sight, whatever. And despite all that I must be in one of the most secure locations in the world, where my papers have been checked, stamped, tagged, and processed.
For them, the scary, evasive and all seeing they, my exact location couldn’t be more pinpointed on a checker-colored grid. They have searched my body and my possessions, the body I possess, for instruments of potential destruction like metal tweezers. They concluded that my boots were too dirty for their machines and had to send it through again. I’m not sure what they were looking to find there, but I denied every accusation. I checked every box with an enthusiastic ‘x’ under ‘no’. I swear I haven’t been to a farm, but I did cross a goat with a really nice beard. I never talk to strangers, let alone leave my baggage unattended with them. Even that old fat lady with the thick rimmed glasses sitting in a wheelchair abandoned at an empty gate with her back to the window, even her, I denied and cast aside her so-called friendly attempt to persuade my affection with her offer of a taffy. I would never take candy from strangers, that much I know, that much I’ve learned the hard way.
Why do they bother me with these questions here? Am I giving them impure ideas with this uneven beard? Don’t they know that I’ve grown up and made it this far, at least so far considering everything I’ve been through? Is this a Chicago O’Hare thing? I can never recall my time spent in the netherworld of connecting flights so I can’t compare.
It was the second time in a month, and I’m starting to guess that this is something I should be use to by now, that I found myself roaming the streets at the dead of night outside a train station. This time, though, I had no reason to be there, I was just hanging around; I had no accommodation for the night, and I wasn’t leaving the city in the morning.
This time it was in Amsterdam, home to one of the most beautiful train stations in Europe. But don’t let the grandiose building on the outside fool you, the interior is filled with the lowest of the down and outers in the world, I imagine. Amsterdam is notoriously unexpected – it’s not what you thought from the rumors you’ve heard: Though those rumours are also true.
With all too much time to kill until my train in the morning, I left Rome’s Termini station to find some place to take a piss. Little did I know that when I would return I would be locked out for three hours. I should have taken the hint from all the people lined around the outer walls, with their make shift bedding of cardboard mattresses and filthy blankets, that the metal and marble comforts of the station would be under the scrutiny of lock and key overnight.