En route in Mongolia
We are now more than 3,000 miles from our origin in Moscow–five time zones and one full week on our train, which frankly seems like at least a month. Time blends together at this point. It could be a day; it could be an eternity. It is now almost nine o’clock, and though the sun set almost an hour ago, there is a glow of red over the mountains. The last three or four hours of travel have been the most beautiful. Were it not for the clusters of weathered wood houses, you would think we were in Montana: towering blue mountains and vast plains with occasional herds of cattle. It is not that I dislike birches and huge conifers, which were the staple before we arrived in Ulan Ede. Every landscape we have seen so far has been beautiful. The steppes, however, are something special. We have climbed several thousand feet since we left Ulan Ede and still have more to go.
So the question of the day is this: what is it like to travel 3,000 miles with 16 people you had never met, only three of whom are Americans.
Well, if you are lucky, you make new friends. Let me tell you about Embry’s and my new best friends.
Our best friends are the young Italian couple who are on their honeymoon. He is a dental assistant, and she works for a company that makes gifts for hotels. They are smart, articulate and Pierre-Antonio is an avid NBA fan. He played point guard when he was in high school and college and knows far more about U.S. basketball players than I do.
Our best friends are also two English ladies about our age, who have travelled together many times. Both are retired school teachers in the UK. Jean’s husband is disabled and does not travel, and Sandra is a widow. They are they are energetic and adventuresome. There is nothing they won’t do, including dipping (their feet) in Lake Baikal, and their enthusiasm is contagious.
Our best friends also include Pat and Chris from Ireland. Both are in their fifties. Chris is a retired nurse, and Pat is the retired CEO of the Irish subsidiary of a major multinational service company. Chris says Pat may be “between careers” since he retired mainly for health-related reasons and is doing fine now. They are both sharp, savvy and sophisticated. Chris won the limerick contest this week hands down.
Our best friends are also the Spanish couple, a fifty-something mother and her twenty-something daughter. She does not speak English very well but her daughter does, and both are fun loving and always upbeat.
Our best friends certainly must include the four wild and crazy, middle-aged Israeli guys, who mostly don’t speak English but who dutifully try to take in what our guides are saying even if they do not understand it. Embry got into a heated discussion with one of them last night, who is a big Netanyahu fan and more or less held her own. Two of the group are world class cruising sailors, having sailed around the world together.
Our best friends are Joyce and Chris. They are not a couple but rather two singles, traveling independently, never having met before this trip. Chris, a Brit in his early sixties, is happily married, but his wife does not accompany him on many of his nostalgic train journeys. His wife still runs the marketing firm they started in England. He likes to say, “She makes the money, I spend it.” Joyce, an American a little younger than me, is an international development consultant, having worked for the Gates Foundation on issues related to finance in emerging nations. She is a Mennonite, and it turns out we have some friends in common from my retirement housing days when I had Mennonite clients. She climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last year.
Chris, as they say, is a piece of work. The best description of Chris is that he is a lovable teddy bear. The only thing he would rather do than buy drinks for a half dozen people is to buy drinks for a dozen. He has not seen anything in Russia he couldn’t find interesting or say something nice about.
Our best friends are also Teri and Robert. Teri is probably about ten years younger than her husband, Robert, who is 61. She is a retired teacher/trainer for IMB and a very smart techy. When I first met Robert, I thought he was a bit strange, and then on day two or three he suddenly appeared at our open compartment door and said, “The thing about people like me who have Asperger’s is that we want to be your friend but don’t know how.” Suddenly a light went on. From then on Robert became my best friend. We share a love for sports, but unlike him I can’t remember the score of virtually every game ever played in US professional sports, and I do not immediately know the square root of any number you might dream up.
And finally there is Katya, our thirty-something guide, who is, quite simply, the best in the business and everyone’s best friend.
So you what do we have in common? It takes a certain kind of person to take the Trans Siberian Railroad, and the threads that seem to tie us together are a sense of adventure, curiosity, a good deal of previous traveling experience, perhaps a small dose of hedonism, a lot of patience, and enthusiasm for life. Frankly, I have found our traveling companions to be inspiring. I have not heard a whimper or a complaint. Our new “best friends” all seem to respect the various cultures we are experiencing and appreciate what they see, eat, and drink regardless of whether they really like it or not. When asked about whether we are a “good” group or not, our guide, Katya, replied, “You or not a good group, you are a marvelous one.” I agree. Our English speaking contingent of the Siberian tour has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the Big Trip so far.
But it is not just us English speakers. The German and French speaking groups seem to be enjoying the experience as much as we are, and dinner gatherings in the dining car are chatter and laughter-filled with plenty of wine flowing alongside the delicious food. The dinner before last bordered on being out of control with live music by a wandering accordion player, lots of wild laughter, followed by boisterous singing and then dancing in the isles—all facilitated by the 16 bottles of champagne that Chris had purchased throughout the evening to share with everyone. Before the evening wound down around midnight, Germans, French, Spanish, Americans, Brits, and Russians were kissing, hugging and embracing each other like they were all first cousins at a family wedding. And just think, at one time or another our respective countries have been mortal enemies.
The most touching moment for me came when several middle aged German men embraced and kissed the four Israelis, any one of whom could easily have lost a relative in the Holocaust. You can only shake your head and wonder why we humans can’t hug and embrace all the time, not just on trains chugging across the isolated and lonely steppes of Central Asia in the middle of the night.