At the Russian Border
Marcia Krause Bilyk
At some god-awful hour of the night a clang of metal and backwards thrust of our sleeper car startled me awake. The train’s vibration stopped. All was quiet. Too tired to sit up and peek behind the window shade, I rolled onto my side in the narrow berth, pulled the blanket over my shoulder, and fell back asleep.
At sunrise, Alex our tall, lithesome Russian guide dropped from his overhead berth like an exotic cat from a tree. Raising the shade, he announced, “We’re at the border.”
Outside our window a uniformed official in a black, full length leather coat paced the platform while talking on his cell, his breath forming white vapor in the cold October air. I couldn’t read the station’s name displayed behind him in bold Cyrillic letters.
Months before, I’d sat at my computer in New Jersey planning this journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to St. Petersburg via Mongolia. Obtaining visas had been an anxiety-provoking process. Both China and Russia were known to reject applications for minor errors. Their forms were lengthy and exacting. I couriered our passports to New York and waited. Just days before our flight, they arrived with holographic-sealed visas. I could only hope everything was in order.
Cabin doors rolled open as passengers up and down the car’s corridor scrambled to disembark. We’d grown weary of the onboard, water-sloshed WC’s that stank of urine. There’d been a promise of washrooms at the station. I grabbed my travel kit, puff vest, and shoes from the heap of travel gear on the floor. I patted my money belt to assure myself my passport was there. I’d soon have to hand it over.
The Americans from the adjacent cabin, who’d spent the previous evening singing, swapping stories, and swilling pepper vodka, stood waiting at the exit for the conductor to unlock the door.
“You’re going to need rubles for the toilet,” said the ex-pat schoolteacher who’d stood next to me at the corridor windows the day before gazing at the rolling Mongolian steppes.
“I don’t have any.”
“No problem,” he said, offering me two coins. “It’s just pennies.”
The conductor extended his hand as I negotiated the metal steps to the gravel track bed below. Travel on a swaying train is similar to travel at sea. It disrupts your balance. Unlike previous stops, there were no local housewives on the platform eager to sell homemade dumplings and cookies from their shopping carts.
I followed the other passengers toward the white cinderblock structure with a blue WC sign. Before entering, I turned to look at the tracks. Our car stood by itself, bookended by empty space. The diesel engine, along with the dozen or so passenger cars that had snaked ahead of us on the 400-kilometer journey from Ulaanbaatar, was gone. It was their uncoupling I’d felt and heard. We’d been dropped, left to fend for ourselves at the border between Mongolia and Russia.
A stocky Slavic matron, bundled in a smock over layered sweaters, sat behind an imposing desk in the harshly lighted washroom. I dropped my coins into her palm in exchange for a length of coarse toilet paper. The few women ahead of me stretched, yawned, or checked their phones as we waited our turn.
The first stall was a “squat,” an in-ground ceramic basin flanked by ridged footholds. A guide in Thailand once explained them. You squat, aim, and shoot. I wasn’t in the mood. I opened doors until I spotted a Western toilet. In lieu of a seat, it had a cold ceramic rim on which to perch.
Alex was uncharacteristically solemn as he summoned our group of seven back to the train. “Make sure you have your passports ready,” he said. “No fooling around.”
My husband Ed and I sat in our assigned seats and waited. A woman stepped halfway into the cabin and thrust an electronic device within a few inches of my face.
“I hate having my picture taken,” I said as she disappeared.
“That was an infrared thermometer,” Alex said. “They’re checking to see if anyone has a fever.”
A fresh-faced Russian border guard in a belted jacket bearing a gold badge and shoulder insignia next presented himself with the conductor, who held a computer printout of names.
“He wants our passports,” Alex said. The guard stacked them, open and face down, on his forearm.
“What’s he going to do with them?”
“Match them against their database,” Alex said.
A twenty-something Mongolian woman, whose loose, jet-black hair fell well below her shoulders, entered and inquired in near pitch-perfect English if we had any items to declare to customs. Clueless as to what those might be, we followed Alex’s lead and shook our heads no. “Thank you very much,” she said.
After a brief hiatus, a female officer in a navy-blue uniform and garrison hat appeared with a second border guard. He handed her our passports as, one by one, she held each close to its owner’s face, comparing them with a raptor’s gaze. She then scanned the passports with a hand-held device similar to the ones deliverymen carry.
When they exited, we followed Alex into the corridor where several other passengers stood in silence: a Mongolian woman with her four-year-old daughter; two pierced and tatted European women, their arms entwined; two ex-pat American teachers; an aging Tartar, who reeked of garlic. We soon had to press against the wall to make way for a soldier in camo fatigues leading a German shepherd, its tail tucked between its legs. As the dog sniffed the wall heaters along the floor, I motioned with my iPhone, “Picture?” The soldier scowled no. I silently took one with my iPhone when his back was turned.
“Are they looking for drugs or bombs?” I whispered to Alex.
“Both,” he said.
Finally, a tall worker in canvas overalls entered and searched each cabin, including the ceiling panels and luggage storage cubicle above the door.
“We’ll be inspected again,” said Alex, “another four hours, on the other side of the border.”
Once our car was hooked to a departing train, our passports were returned to us. We were free to go. After the next border check and another overnight, we would exit the train in the Russian city of Irkutz. Here we would board a bus to Listvyanka, a village bordering Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest, deepest, and clearest freshwater lake.