This time our train attendant is more like what we’ve heard about: lazy and mean. She has short brown hair, the pores on her skin visible, the look in her eye derisive. She is thick in girth and squat in height. Because we don’t speak Russian she just talks louder and with more derision. She does not vacuum, there is no toilet paper, and the bathrooms are not clean. We dub her Helga.
On the train is a couple from France. We are tired of the train, and a little mean ourselves. He is just a little too friendly and keen. We try to avoid him and his long, enthusiastic accounts of his travels. We get off at Ulan Ude to stretch our legs, but we only have a few minutes. Fiona directs us to a different part of the platform. Our carriage has been attached to a different train. The whistle blows and we are on-board again. A few minutes later the French couple enters the carriage. The fellow is no longer his cheery self, but fuming. He just barely missed the train, as he did not know about the switch in cars. He is angry with Fiona for not warning him. She laughs privately, saying he has not paid for her expertise.
At the border town of Naushki we are able to get out and leave the station for a good long walk about the town. The train will be here for at least an hour as they will be inspecting it, and checking our passports before we leave the country and enter Mongolia. We tour the town, its park, its houses, its herds of sheep walking down the street. Its silence.
Loretta confides in me about her love life. Men adore her, yet she hasn’t met the right one. Her hair, usually braided, is in a very soft afro halo around her head. She wears lipstick and a tank top that shows off her body. Plump, curvy and brown, she is beautiful. She is a Samoan transplant to New Zealand and informs me that Margaret Mead had it all wrong. Samoans have morals, and did not hang out naked, having sex.
We meet a Buryat man when we visit the loo back at the station. Buryats are one of the indigenous people in Siberia. His smile could light a 100 watt bulb as he announces this to us. He confesses to us proudly that he is a descendant of Genghis Khan (there are many). He is proud not to be Russian. His name is Toomen. He is the friendliest person we’ve met since Sasha back in Irkutsk.
When we return to the train, the border officials in army uniforms come to take our passports. Helga has already barked at us to have them ready, and has told us that we have filled out or customs forms all wrong. She manages to insult us even though she doesn’t speak any English.
I am worried. It is the time of reckoning. Will I get booted off the train? It seems unlikely, seeing as I am leaving the country, but I have, of course, heard horror stories. My cousin warned me to get my passport validated back in St. Petersburg, but I had ignored her.
The border guards returned with our passports after about a half hour. Mine was returned with a smile, just like the others. I was relieved! Months of worry, from the moment I entered the Russian embassy back in Toronto, eased off my shoulders.
Travel on the Trans-Siberian Express
from St Petersburg to Beijing
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