The Transsiberian Railway – Part IV: The Foreigner Prank

(Enroute from Beijing to Ulaanbataar: Northern China)

We’re just starting to realize that we’re going to be on this train for the next forever. Two continents, 12 regions, 87 cities and 9 time zones, to be exact.

My tolerance for sitting inside a moving box isn’t great… and Sal is afraid of trains.

So when the train stops for the second time, we want off.

We practically leap out of the door when it finally clunks to a stop.

I’m not the smartest tool in the box at any time, but I must have been extra-intelligent that day because I actually stopped to ask the provodnista how much time we had in station. At least, that’s what I thought I asked.

Nod. (like she understands) Nod, nod. Ten fingers thrust in my face. I thrust ten of my own fingers in her face, to make sure we’re on the same page. “Ten minutes?” Nod, nod.

So we’re off the train and we’re looking around, and all we see is train. This train must be four hundred thousand million meters long. I’m not even joking; it’s ridiculous.

So all we can see is this snake of a thing twisting off into the distance alongside a barren concrete platform. There’s a bench. Oh, two benches. And that’s it; if I didn’t know we were actually in a station, I wouldn’t have believed it. There’s not even a vending machine. Nothing.

And then all of the provodnistas (ladies who manage the carriages) step off the train. Now, assuming the train is four hundred thousand million meters long, there were probably at least sixty-five hundred thousand provodnistas. All wearing the same dark green uniform and funny Mongolian hats. Spaced out evenly along the length of the train – one provodnista for every carriage, so they’re standing about 50 feet apart. A few of the passengers have also stepped off the train, hanging around to have a smoke. And there’s another train parked across from ours… it’s pulling out of the station… just a lot of people are staring at us (to be fair, I’d probably stare at us too).

So what could we do? We don’t smoke, and we can’t actually go anywhere. It’s too cold just to stand around. So we decide to walk beside the train, down towards the dining car. It’s morning time, or early evening – well, it’s not dark out, and that means it’s probably time for a coffee. So we start to walk, getting glimpses of other train passengers through the frost lining the window panes.

We’re walking like we know what we’re doing. I’m wearing my sweat pants and have wrapped my coat around me because it’s freezing. I think Sal was in short-sleeves. But we’re walking confidently in the direction of coffee.

It’s been like 3 minutes since we pulled into the station, maybe 5. We keep seeing carriages, but we can’t see the dining car. In fact, we’re so focused on finding the dining car that we don’t notice how the people on the platform are disappearing. It’s not until we hear a loud hiss and an ear-splitting horn that we turn around and find the platform is completely empty.

We are the only people on the platform. How did that happen? Where is everybody?

The doors are closed. The steps have been pulled in. The provodnistas are nowhere to be seen. The train starts making departure noises.

We panic. What the hell is going on?!

We run to the first door. Pull on the handle. But guess what? It’s locked.

They’re all locked.

Nobody inside the train seems to take any notice. We’re running all the way back to where we think our cabin is, jumping up to ream on every door we pass on the way. The train continues to make hissing noises, and something splutters as the whole thing shivers and lurches.

I would have sworn on my old pet hamster that the train was going to leave right then. Abandon us somewhere in northern China.

We’re still running, and the air is so cold it hurts our lungs as we gasp for breath.

And then – and I swear to this day that she was smiling a little – our provodnista’s arm, then head appears as she opens the door to our carriage. We leap inside. Gasping for air, we can barely make out the words thank you, thank you! We find our cabin and we throw ourselves inside, exhausted.

I could swear it’s only been 5 minutes since we stepped off the train… didn’t she tell us we had 10 minutes?

And sure enough, once we’re safe inside our cabin… the platform populates again. Doors along the whole train open, provodnistas step off like clockwork, the hissing noises stop, and the train remains in the station for another thirty minutes.

Welcome to the Transsiberian, you stupid foreigners. ;)