This was 11 years, 5 months, 3 days ago

irkutsk to ulan bator, day 2.

(from a letter)

Today we crossed the border from Mongolia to China. The crossing took nine hours all in all: Six hours on the Russia side, three hours on the Mongolia side. The Russia side was a lot of waiting around, a lot of being unsure of what was going on. The Mongolia side was spent half in a card game with Jon and Eli, and half at a small (but surprisingly wonderful) restaurant with Aurelie and Philip.

It turns out that the two cars that started in Irkutsk are filled mostly with travelers. I hesitate to describe them with their nationality but that's really how introductions how done here: where are you from? And it all spirals out from there. I'm not complaining at all, but it's true that nationality or locale is the defining center out of which everything starts; I suppose that's not so surprising for a bunch of people who have met specifically because they're devoted to traveling on a slow and inefficient train. So here we go.

There's the French couple: the guy a guitar teacher from Lyon, and his Ukrainian-French wife who will soon be a teacher's assistant. There's the four people from the Basque country. There are the two Californians teaching in Dalian, China. The guy from Cologne, Germany, and another guy from Dusseldorf who studies product design. There's the two German girls, one of which is doing a doctorate on agricultural byproducts and bioengineering in Tanzania. There's the American refugee/immigration law expert working for a campaign manager in Colorado, having come back from Egypt. There's the Quebecois Harvard student studying 20th century intellectual history. There's the two English women, one of which works at SAP and travels often, the other one who quit her job at conservation to go teach in Vietnam, on her train journey there.

I am so eager, so so eager to meet people. It's surprising to me.

On the Mongolian side, I changed my currency from rubles to togrog. I watched them say "how much?", then type in on a calculator, '40', and that was the going rate for togrog per ruble. So I walked to one of the less equipped ones further away and typed in '45', and she shook her head and punched in '40', and I pointed over to other people and pushed '45', and she said '42', and I said '44', and she said '43', and I gave in. And then so we did the calculation. She handed me bills, then, but tried to give me less togrog than the calculation came out to, and I shook my head, and then she gave me a few extra, which still wasn't right. And then finally she caved in and gave me the right amount, with the air of rueful acknowledgement, like 'oh, okay, fine, whatever you want.' Needless to say (as you can probably tell) I walked away, feeling very pleased with myself.

After that A and P and I went to a small restaurant, that was quite cozy and homey, and the waitress smiled, and we picked out dishes that she liked, and they were wonderful, and delicious, and hot, and soupy, and just what I wanted. My box of instant doshirak (yes, korean) ramen sat unloved in the train compartment, and I am happy for that. We ate, and talked, and later went to the train, waited around on the tracks for our train to be attached to the end of another one. While we were there a dog came up to us, sat at our feet, watched a worker drain the gray-water tanks of the train. There was a wonderfully cool breeze, and the sky looked as if it was about to rain, or thunder, and the sun was setting and throwing every single high cloud into marvelous relief. For some reason that small period of waiting, that half an hour of sitting around and waiting for the train really stuck in my mind, just nothing but train tracks, a dog, many many clouds, a cool breeze, time to pass the day with, because we're going somewhere and waiting to do so. I'm here, waiting to go, wanting to be here so I can be there, okay with being both here and there. Transition, itinerant-ness, nomad-ness is my desire and I'm doing that whether moving or not.

(One thing that the ramen reminds me of: I was in Irkutsk, when I saw the most amazing sight: A bus pulled into the front of the train station, and as clear as day the bus said, in Korean, "Seoul Station", and so on, with a full list of stations (in Korea) the bus was running to. I almost rubbed my eyes, fulfilled the cliche gesture, but I was mindboggled. It turns out (and I'm assuming this, but I don't think I'm wrong) that many used buses from Korea are sold to countries, including Russia -- and clearly Irkutsk's bus company hasn't bothered to scrape the sign off the window. And since most, if not all Irktuskians can't read Korean, they probably ignore the sign and focus on the Russian signs. Meanwhile, the bus is this strange object, clearly for Russian use but bearing all the hallmarks of its former self -- and not only that, it's that everybody looks at the Korean and ignores it that is absolutely mind-blowing, language differences taken quite literally, unreadability turning those symbols into abstraction, maybe, maybe to a non-Korean reader it's so easy to gloss over those symbols, look at the Russian only. A bunch of lines at right angles to each other, and Russian. Which is even more amazing because those signs and words were designed to be so visually accessible, the first thing you see on a bus, to pop out at you and to let you know where it's going. And all the while I'm pondering this and getting the strange sense that this bus could be going anywhere, that I could get on it and fall asleep and arrive at Seoul Station, indeed....

This train, while a bit smellier and older than the previous one, is quite nicer, more train-like, more lullaby-like in the way it rocks me to sleep. Each train I take is successively nicer. The first train from St. Petersburg to Moscow was quite boring: I stepped into the compartment, and two half-naked Russian businessmen were sleeping; I climbed in and peeled off my shirt and and fell to sleep as well. Woke up in Moscow.

But this train, this one is full of errant laughter that floats down the aisle, and the sound of train tracks so well defined, and the smell of green coming in through the window, and there's faraway lightning and you can see that it's raining on the mountains over there, over there (gestures with arm). For a good hour I stood at the window looking out, out at the clouds and some mountains and the sky with such clouds, clouds, clouds. There was this one cloud far away that stretched out and down in such a way that it looked like another mountain in of itself; and if you pretended to follow its contour down to the side of the mountain/cloud, it looked as if the mountain narrowed and disappeared into the sea, and so all of a sudden it was as if the faraway ground was curving upwards and I was looking down from a high valley into a faraway sea, with islands, streaks of white foam, small fishing boats, water turning orange, reflecting the setting sun. Sea in the sky.

I am so eager to be here, I am so happy to be here. On one hand part of me is so in New York, so thinking about home and more, but as we slip into Mongolia and I hurl the window down and shove away the curtains and breathe this air in more and more of it slips away until I'm just at the window, breathing in, not thinking. I have my time, all of it, and it is so wonderful. I slide into presentness.

12:16 in the morning, on my way to Ulaanbaatar. July 29, 2010.