Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Steven Saum (Ukraine 1994-96)
An epic journey by rail answers the question: Where am I going?
Peter Hessler (China 1996-98)
The year was 1994, and I was traveling along the Trans-Siberian Railway. I had bought a one-way ticket from Moscow to Beijing. After passing through the western part of Siberia, the train would head south across Mongolia. Back then, the world seemed bigger: no cellphones, no online reservations. Things were heavier, too. In my backpack—Lowe Alpine, internal frame—I carried a tent, a sleeping bag, a camera, 20 rolls of film, a Sony Walkman, and a few precious cassettes (Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, the Beastie Boys). I lugged real books: brick-size guides to Russia and China, along with a copy of War and Peace that I’d selected in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, England, for its small type and minimal pages. But the lighting on the Trans-Siberian wasn’t as good as Blackwell’s. At night, I wondered if the combination of Tolstoy and the train would ruin my eyes.
Apart from the dim, flickering lamps, the carriages were more comfortable than I’d expected. In those days, few tourists took the Trans-Siberian, and the dozen or so Western backpackers had been assigned to four-berth compartments in a car occupied primarily by Chinese and Mongolian traders. Their luggage put War and Peace to shame. Mostly they hauled big bags full of Polish-made Marlboros, but other goods were more mysterious. One Mongolian had a canvas sack full of speedometers, and a Chinese trader carried dozens of digital clocks that spoke the time in Russian. Who in Beijing needed a Russian-speaking clock? Why speedometers on the steppes?
Another Chinese trader obsessively guarded a small bag. The Americans in his compartment didn’t know what was inside, but they saw the man hand over $1,200 to the Chinese conductor. Was it a bribe? Were drugs involved? The conductor, who spoke no English, didn’t seem worried; every day, he lounged shirtless at the car’s entrance, cigarette in hand. Nearby, a sign said “No Smoking” in Russian and English. At last, a European passenger confronted the conductor, miming her dissatisfaction and pointing angrily at the sign. The conductor’s response was also silent: He went inside his berth, produced a screwdriver, and removed the sign from the wall.
Earlier that summer, I had completed my second degree in English, at Oxford. Originally, I’d hoped to become a professor, but I became disillusioned with academic writing. After six years of university, I still felt as if I lacked even the most basic skills and experiences. I couldn’t speak a second language, and I’d seen almost nothing of the world.
My next step, I decided, would be in the wrong direction. Rather than fly home to Missouri, I would go east, by land. The schedule was as open as the Siberian plains: I hadn’t applied for any jobs, and I gave myself half a year to get home.
In Moscow, our progress was abruptly halted at Yaroslavsky station. The guidebooks advised travelers to purchase Trans-Siberian tickets in advance, through a travel agent, but we thought we could save money by going directly to a ticket window, handing over some cash, and saying, “Beijing.” We didn’t realize how crazy this was until we arrived in Moscow. There didn’t seem to be any centralized system for ticketing. For three tortuous days we went from one window to the next, at Yaroslavsky and other Moscow stations. Finally, we were directed to a nondescript building, where a clerk glanced at our passports and we handed over the equivalent of $230 each. That was all it took to hop a train to the other side of the world.
As we approached Mongolia, the trader with the mysterious bag carved a neat hole into the ceiling with a hacksaw. The conductor stood nearby, directing the project. At the border, our passports were marked with a red “CCCP”—almost three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they still hadn’t changed the exit stamps in Siberia. Russian soldiers wandered through the compartments, poking at bags. I pretended to read War and Peace. But the search was perfunctory; the soldiers didn’t notice that a section of the ceiling had been hacksawed and then replaced, and they paid no mind to the Polish Marlboros or the Russian clocks.
Only the Mongolian with the speedometers was hassled, until he handed over $50 in U.S. cash. And that was it: The next day, the Mongolian happily disembarked with all his gauges at Ulaanbaatar. Later, after we crossed the Chinese border, the trader with the hacksaw reopened the ceiling and removed his bag. We never learned what was inside.
The train stopped; the trip continued. I hadn’t planned on spending much time in China, which I knew mostly from drab images of citizens in blue Mao suits. But once I arrived, I felt an unexpected energy. People seemed motivated, and they figured out solutions; even without a word of Chinese, Ted and I were able to get around the country. We extended our stay to six weeks and then continued to Southeast Asia.
Even now, moments from that trip still seem as vivid as if they happened yesterday. We hitchhiked across Laos via some truckers, sleeping on the roof of their cab at night. In Hong Kong, we signed up as foreign extras at a local studio, appearing in a Cantonese film and a soap opera. Everywhere, I read War and Peace—until, with about 10 pages to go, I dropped the book into an open toilet on the slow boat from Macao to Guangzhou.
I fished the novel out, cleaned the cover, and finished it. Later, I traded with Ted, who’d been reading Anna Karenina. I didn’t tell him about the toilet until he was in the final pages.
In the end, Ted found his path. Nowadays, he’s a physician working with soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. My own trajectory was set by the train. After returning to the U.S., I wrote my first travel essay, telling the tale of the Trans-Siberian. I mailed it off to a random name on the masthead at the New York Times. To my surprise, the paper published it, and I briefly entertained the idea of traveling forever, sending off stories. Then I did something smarter: I applied to the Peace Corps and requested an assignment in China.
I ended up living there for more than a decade, writing about citizens who had transformed their lives in the post-Deng Xiaoping era. Every now and then, I remembered the Trans-Siberian, where I’d first glimpsed a certain Chinese combination of pragmatism, resourcefulness, and irreverence: the conductor with the screwdriver, the trader with the hacksaw. In Beijing I met a fellow writer and wanderer named Leslie Chang. Our twin daughters were born in another train town halfway around the world: Grand Junction, Colo. We named one daughter Ariel, after Shakespeare’s The Tempest—all those years spent studying English literature were not forgotten. Neither was War and Peace. Our other daughter is Natasha, a half-Chinese Coloradan with a name from a Russian novel. That old, stained book still sits on my shelf.