Transsiberian, Day 15: 23 hours on a train through the Chinese border, and talking Trump with Mongolians

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

We wake up in the train to the sound of who I assume is Batsukh’s wife shouting in Mongolian, "WAKE UP!" She then digs under Calvin’s and Batsukh’s beds, both of which are packed with brown boxes labeled as Toffifay and other products. I don’t know if they’re smuggling ten kilos of Toffifay over the border from Mongolia or just reusing some boxes, but it seems like the most valuable thing you could bring over. Batsukh has a Ziploc bag of mini hotel shampoos that he keeps near his bedside shelf. Any time he leaves the room, I see that he hides it under his pillow. Am I missing something? Is shampoo a hot commodity in China?

Before I continue, I just want to say that despite all my jabs, Calvin is one of the best people to travel with. I feel our personalities mesh really well in the stress and joy that travel situations can bring, and even if I am in a crappy mood or tired or feeling snippy, he balances it out with shared frustration or humor and lightness. This is one of those moments...

Around 8am, we exit Mongolia and have to go through customs and border control. As soon as I wake up, I realize I need to go to the bathroom. I know that at border control, they lock the bathrooms. I tell Calvin I really have to go. “Is it number two?” “Yes…”

He talks to the conductor in Mandarin. The conductor leaves and Calvin says “I told him you had to use the bathroom, and I hope you don’t mind that I told him it was poop. I also said it was an emergency! The word for concern and emergency is pretty similar.” Also, any time a person walks by and looks into our cabin, Calvin tells me it’s because they know I have to poop and they want to see the poop girl. I am just laughing to myself at the whole situation. “Stop making me laugh it hurts.”

I lay in bed as we go through the exit process. Batsukh, through gestures, asks me if I have a hangover, since I am laying down in bed for so long. I laugh and say yes, since he’s probably the last person on the train who doesn’t know of my bowel situation.

Just before we begin entry into China, the conductor comes by and tells Calvin that the bathroom is now open. Hurrah! I go and return, and Calvin says that it was too quick. Well, I don’t want to hang out in a train’s squat toilet for more than I need to, that’s for sure.

 We have about thirty minutes before we enter the Chinese border, so we’re casually hanging out between the two rooms and in the hallway. A few young children run past, coming from the general direction of the toilet, and Calvin says “those kids just went into the bathroom and are scared of what they found!” That Calvin. He sure does love a long-running poop joke.

We enter China and go through customs and passport control. Calvin speaks Mandarin to the officer and by his mood, the conversation seems light. Apparently, while flipping through Calvin’s passport, their interest is piqued. I mean, the dude’s been to over 115 countries with one passport, so I don’t blame them. They see his visa for Uzbekistan, and then while flipping through mine, they see the same visa. Calvin chats with them, they take our passports as they usually do, and head off. Calvin said they asked why we went there, and he told them "for fun." Again, the tone of this conversation was light.

While we sit around in the cabin waiting to get our passports back, we have a gesture-filled conversation with Batsukh. First he tells us he is hungover from drinking last night. I believe it, since he wasn’t in our room when we all went to bed around midnight. He asks if Calvin is Korean, and we say we’re all American. “Ah, America! Barack Obama!”

Through no English and many repetitive hand gestures, tells us Trump is better than Hillary Clinton. But through a half hour long conversation of singular mispronounced words and gesturing, we discover he only thinks Trump speaks better than Clinton, but isn’t actually a better option. He repeatedly makes gestures with a stamp and his hand as he lists countries, and we think he means that he successfully got visas for those places, but then he says “USA, no.” He explains that with Hillary he wouldn’t be able to get a stamp, but with Trump, yes. Calvin corrects him and says no, Trump would not let you in, and it will be much harder to get a visa. Calvin also makes a gesture indicating a Trump and nuclear warfare. “Trump will *makes mushroom cloud gesture accompanied by explosion noises*” Batsukh laughs and says that Trump is good at money, but NATO, thumbs down. Then Batsukh makes a mushroom cloud gesture. We all laugh at our impending doom.

Eventually we get our passports back and we’re stamped and ready to go. I think back to what Lukas said about the border crossing into China. It was very thorough, but not that bad.

Later, when we get back to socializing in the other room, we learn that LaiYuen was pulled off the train for questioning when they saw her passport stamps from Turkey. She told them it was for tourism, and they were ok with it. However, LaiYuen the polyglot also informed us that when she was off the train, she overheard the officers talking on the walkies, discussing removing me and Calvin from the train for questioning due to our Uzbekistan visas. For whatever reason, they never did. Despite all of this, LaiYuen stood by the opinion that the border crossing wasn’t bad at all. Even when they remove you from the train, they are super friendly about it! She must have seen worse.

A few days ago, Calvin dropped his camera and broke the filter. He blamed it both on me, who was present the last time this happened in Central Asia, and also on the "heavier gravity" in this part of the world. Sure, dude. Today the conductor had some pliers to offer Calvin upon request, so Calvin attempted to remove the filter completely, with no luck. The only luck he had was shattering the filter more, leaving a gaping hole in the glass shards over the lens. Super safe.

Around eleven in the morning, the train breaks apart at a station to switch the wheels. Everyone exits the train and we are the last to get off. I was not paying attention or looking out the window, so when we get off the train and I realize it’s already on stilts and no longer attached to any other cars, I think “where have I been?”

We get off the train and watch the operators at work, with the machinery sliding over the car as the wheels slip out from underneath. We decide to walk around the area to kill time for the next half hour before the train is to re-board.

But we exit and there’s nothing around. We walk along a road bordered by a brick wall on one side and a series of apartments on the other, before giving up and turning back. We attempt to reenter the garage where the train car was sitting, but a man yells at us in Mandarin saying we needed to re-board at the station down the sidewalk. We walk along the sidewalk and there’s just a random small park and some office building, so we go into the office building and ask for help in Mandarin.

The guy we happen to ask is super helpful, stopping his workday to get his coat and come talk to the train staff for us. I think to myself that if this were me, alone, I would be so lost. It’s nice to be with a person who can speak the local language.

We go back to the garage and the guy speaks to a different staff member who basically tells us in Mandarin, “I don’t know who that guy was who said you couldn’t go in the garage. You can go in the garage.” Well, that was easy!

The train takes off, now heading in the opposite direction, since it does a sort of boomerang move after the wheels switch, and we’re back in the hangout room. I don’t mind the long hours on the train. I like staring out the window, half listening to the group’s conversations, writing in my blog, snacking on junk food. I never once am bored.

In the evening, Calvin suggests that we should learn some Mandarin. JC, LaiYuen and Calvin all help us with our pronunciation. I jot down the translations for greetings and “thank you,” “toilet,” and “emergency/help me.” Calvin also provides other phrases, at which LaiYuen laughs, so I know they aren’t useful. They are all juvenile things that utilize the vocabulary for "fart," "boobs," and "poop." I jot none of these down.

We play cards and chat until the train arrives in Hohhot, China at 9:30pm. We buy our tickets for the next train and hang out near a closed fast food place at the train station until our 11:30pm train boards.

We’ve all become experts at seeking out outlets. Calvin eyes one in the corner near this fast food joint and it’s a multi-plug, which is even better. As soon as he reaches it, he pulls the cord into sight and rapid-fire starts jamming in his octo-charger for the phones, his laptop cord, his camera charger, my tablet, and a slew of other plugs. We start plugging in all the phones in the octo-charger and a man comes out from the fast food place and says something to Calvin in Mandarin. Calvin continues his plugging process without looking at the man and snaps some Mandarin back at him, until the man disappears. I ask what happened. Calvin told the guy “I am a doctor and I need to get a message out there. You need to let me on my computer!” That’s one way of doing it.

David and JC attempt to get some McDonald’s from the one at the station, but since it’s so late, they only have the grilled chicken sandwich. Can you imagine going into a McDonald’s and them telling you they only have one menu item? Blasphemy.

I browse the souvenir shop and they have massively huge souvenir flasks (think ten inches tall) with a leather carrying strap with “Mongolia” imprinted on the side, filled with some sort of alcohol that is 40% abv, and they are seven dollars. If I wanted frivolity, I needn’t look any further.

I went to the bookstore to get mini packets of tissue. Here they use them not only as nose tissue but also toilet tissue. I grabbed a handful and tried to pay with a credit card, but the cashier spoke Mandarin and gestured that it was cash only.

As I haven’t done any currency conversions and there are no ATMS nearby, I give up. I go back to the group and LaiYuen tells me she has some cash. She gives me a five and two singles, and I return to the store to buy a large packet of tissue. The woman makes a "no" gesture with her arms, and I assume she’s closing up shop, as every other vendor seems to be. But then she points to the price, which is six, send I give her a five and a one. She still makes the "no" gesture. I am very confused. She pulls out her phone and I think she’s maybe texting someone to translate as she’s leaning the phone towards me, but she only texts someone, and then looks frustrated when they don’t respond and she puts it away.

I think that maybe the five I have is cents or something, but in bill form, but I have no idea. Then she takes the tissue packet and puts it on the counter, reaches into her pocket for a ten yen bill, puts it in the register, gets herself four yen in change, and hands me the tissue, essentially buying it for me out of her pocket. I am so confused. I give her the six again and she shakes her head. I walk away with a Mandarin "thank you."

I go back and explain it to the group, then ask LaiYuen to come back and translate the situation for me. I return now for a third time to this cashier, but this time with a translator. LaiYuen talks with her and the cashier opens the register and shows her bills and they chat more, and then we walk away. LaiYuen explains that I was right, the five was actually cents, and I only really had 2.50 in yen, not seven. And since I was buying toilet tissue, the woman thought I might need it for a sort of emergency situation (another one for the day I guess, ha), and she told LaiYuen "everyone needs a little help sometimes" and just decided to buy it for me. THIS WOMAN IS SO NICE.

We return to the table and I ask LaiYuen if I can borrow a ten yen bill to pay the woman back. I go back to the cashier and she refuses to take the money, repeatedly telling me "Boo yao" with a friendly smile. I tell this to LaiYuen who translates “no need, no need.” SO FRIENDLY.

Just as we pack up our stuff to board our next train, Taylan shares with a disbelieving voice that they got into Cambridge for their masters. We all give them a group hug and cheer them on, promising a celebration later.

We board the train, and after a couple of stops, the empty cot in one of our rooms gets filled by some young Chinese student. He is currently a student at Clemson in South Carolina, and he happily hangs out with us. Calvin has been excitedly waiting for a moment in the trip wherein we’d encounter a young Chinese person and could ask them about Tiananmen Square. Does he know what really happened? Or will he say the predictable “I heard something happened, but I really don’t know what.” He actually says the former, much to our surprise.

We chat with him and hang out and my tiredness is catching up with me as I drift in and out of sleep while we hang out in this train cabin. The thing that perks me awake is when someone asks him what he thinks of America and he says “I really love Papa John’s pizza.” What?! I jolt awake and we discuss it at lengths until the conversation topic changes and I drift to sleep again. I decide to go to sleep before everyone else, around 1am.

(96 hours since last shower)