The Slow Train to Beijing has arrived!!!

The Trans-Siberian Railway Experience.

We arrive at a crowded, blazing hot train platform in Moscow around 9pm.  Our Mission: The Trans-Siberian Railway to Beijing, China.  We are being seen off by our Russian friends, Elena and Vikie.  The unwashed train pulls in sluggishly to a stop at Platform #4. From the looks of this tired Little Engine That Could, I assess that we are in deep trouble. A crew of Chinese train personnel disembark and line up at the carriage entrances, not actually looking like a commercial for the Beijing Olympics. They are a daunting bunch, none of them looking particularly happy, or able or willing to speak English.  I plaster on my big Hollywood smile and American charm to absolutely no avail.
They take our tickets and we climb aboard.  Down a long, dimly lit hallway, we finally arrive at compartment Number 5. We have berth 17, 18, and 19.  There is room for one more in our compartment for four, berth Number 20.  Please God, no!  As we slide the door open, I know we are in for an adventure.  The cramped space with two upper beds and two lower beds might as well have flames shooting out of it.  My first attempt at opening the window fails miserably.  I mutter, “Oh, Shit…” under my breathe, so as not to have the kids hear…  not the “S” word, they’ve heard that plenty of times before, but the fact that I might be perceived as being negative from the “get-go” on the longest train trip in the world, that we are about to embark on.  A small fan attached to the wall above the window is on and blowing a scorching breeze through the cabin.  “Oh, a fan…  cool!”  A little part of me dies inside.

I go out into the hallway to see it there might be a tad more oxygen there and I come across the cabin attendant.  I mutter, in a hopeless attempt, “Air conditioning?” He just smiles and shakes his head no.  “American?” he asks. “Yes”, I smile, hoping that might be interesting to him.  He just chuckles and turns around and walks off.
My boys, Jackson, 14 and Buck, 8, seem to be more available to the adventure than I, so I attempt “rally mode” and suck it up to the best of my ability.  With sweat dripping down my face and our “way too much luggage” safely stored under our beds, we wave good-bye to our friends on the platform from the carriage entrance. With a cross between a war-time wave to soldiers off to war and the look of “they’re goners” on their faces, Elena and Vikie fade into the distance.  As I return to our berth, I’m emotional for some reason, maybe fearfull, over-heated or perhaps just exhaustion. For better or for worse, we’re off.  I find some comfort in the fact that no one has claimed the 4th bed in our compartment, at least not here at Moscow Station.
I lay on the bottom bunk in the blistering heat, knowing damn well that there is no way I’m going to be able to handle this for 6 night and 7 days. I begin plotting our exodus, perhaps in Omsk, where we were originally planning to visit a baby orphanage before some confusing Russian bureaucracy stood in the way.  In complete abandon, I fall into a bit of a zen state or heat coma, I’m not sure which.  Enthusiastically, Jackson says, “Let’s try and open the window” and my faint and hopeless response with ultimate despair, “ They don’t open”.  “Sure they do…” and he hits a latch on the window and down it goes.  “Thank you, Lord Jesus”, literally comes out of my mouth.
We have departed promptly at 9:51pm and now waddling down the tracks at 10:30pm, we leave the lights of Moscow behind us. With the excitement of a first train ride, the boys jump from top bunk to top bunk, looking out the window, wanting a snack, where’s the bathroom, pass me my iPod… while I try hard to lay quietly in the bottom berth, breathing deeply, trying to figure out how to best explain to the boys that our journey would abort within 24 hours somewhere in the middle of Siberia.
Having had a full day of activities in Moscow, around midnight we settled into our smaller than twin-size, hung from the wall, harder than concrete, sleeping berths.   When I say harder than concrete… there is no exaggeration.   My hips are literally aching. This is also confirmed the next morning, by two English lesbians a few cars down who are both complaining of the same issue. Thank god it was not just me and the on-set of old age. With our compartment door double locked, the boys in their beds, and the fan and window doing what it can do to blow what feels like napalm on us, we drift off to a “fit-ish” sleep.
Much to my surprise, like Christmas in July, I awake in the middle of the night to actually need the sheet and blanket crumpled at the foot of my bed.  Buck gets up to ask for help with his as well. Yes, there is a god! The elements are giving us a reprieve.
I lay in my concrete cot, a bit chilly, gazing out the window as anonymous towns as they pass us by.  The train’s haunting echoes go from being annoyingly head splitting, to surprisingly soothing.  They seem to whisper … “I think I can, I think I can….”.  I fall back into a chekovian slumber.
As if we’ve fallen from the sky in a shack on a bad witch, my boys and I awake to a Technicolor paradise.  Morning offers up a stunning array of Russian country-sides, so much so, that my two American kids even noticed.  “Look, Dad, isn’t it cool.”  “Yeah” replies the other.  “Cool” doesn’t do it justice.  Lush landscapes with an occasional unpainted wooden house with faded green and blue painted shutters.  In the yard of these homes is the occasional  women tending to her garden in what I can only describe as “Babooshka” skirt, sweater and scarf.   It seems staged for our benefit.  I marvel at the fact that these people actually live here in the countryside, tending a garden in the middle of Russia.  The simplicity of their lives is so massively appealing.  And, we are only one night and one early morning out of Moscow.
As with real live fairy tales, some harsh realities must rear their uglies… and this story is no exception.  With the need to pee, comes the realization that we are not in OZ at all, but on a long distance out-dated commuter train from Moscow to Beijing.  I enter the tyanet (toilet).  Yikes. Water (I think) on the floor, a beyond unpleasant stench, and a toilet that looks well used, to say the least.  I stand on the moist floor hoping beyond hope that the water does not reach my feet in flip-flops as I pee.  Wait, it gets better…  There is a pedal to flush the toilet on the floor.  I gently take my open toed foot and depress the lever to experience something that still has me amazed.  The flush opens up the toilet straight onto the tracks.  Yes, below me I actually see the tracks… My mind is reeling.  I’m peeing right on the Russian railroad tracks…  for real. Wow.  What about shitting?  Holy shit. Are Russian’s pissed off when they walk the tracks?  Do they not walk the tracks in Russia?  Then I begin thinking, “Is that how it is in America??” All those years, as a kids, flattening coins on the tracks by my house… was I wading in urine and shit.  No, it can’t be.  It’s America, right?  Each time I use the bathroom on this sojourn, my mind wanders between the Russian locals and my youth.
Returning to our compartment after a mind-blowing rest room experience, I spy that the natives are restless.  “What’s for breakfast?”
We take out the groceries that we have bought the night before at a Moscow Super Market.  Well, not really a Super Market.  More like a confusing local grocery mart where we haven’t a clue what we are buying.  Is it butter or some sort of cheese?  Is it water with or without gas?  Are those cookies or dog biscuits?  We are clueless Americans.
So this morning, we dig into a loaf of bread, some cheese spread (which we thought was margarine), and some sort of empanadas with mystery meat in them. I have to be honest, the empanadas (forgive me for not knowing the Russian name) are not a big hit.  American kids and adults like to identify their meat before ingesting it. Between the three of us we could not get a positive ID on it. Maybe lamb, beef, camel, dog… who knows.  I’m assuming that the six other meat pies that we bought, because they were  convenient and we thought would keep, will go into the trash.  I feel weird offering them to the Italians staying in our neighboring berth.
So the lazy days of train riding go by… Gazing out the window, reading, drawing, playing words games, arguing, chiding, dealing with a cough, constipation and only one major melt-down.. But the joy factor is off the carts.  My kids and I are really spending time together… we have no choice.   And guess what?  It’s really fun.  My teen can’t call his girlfriend or get on Facebook, my little one can’t sneak off to play with the kids next door or zone out on Power Rangers, and I can’t return emails or chat with LuAnne or Kristina for hours on end.  So, with nowhere to hide, we have the pleasure of getting to know each other better. I don’t want to sugar coat it.  It’s not Mayberry.  My older son still pulls an attitude when asked to write in his journal, my younger one is bored more times than not, and I have the hourly mood swing, but beside that we are definitely groovin’.
The greatest part is the mutual appreciation of the whole experience.  Even though we were warned about the dangers of the long train ride across the tundra: the thieves, the boredom, the dirty bathrooms, no air conditioning, and no one speaking English, we are having a great time.  The scenic aspect is off the chart.  I was under the impression that Siberia was a vast wasteland of endless dry fields and an occasional ice station.  That is so not the case.  It is lush and green this time of year, with so many different types of landscapes.  The swaying fields of green, gold and lavender, to small townships of rugged homes painted in blues and greens, to major industrial cities on rivers, to hills and rugged mountains.  I said to Jackson today that parts of it remind me of what “The Old West” must have looked like.
And then of course the people we have met on the train…. Well, I’ll start with the run in on the café car.  The two people working in the café car are characters.  Brilliant story… went in the first day for a coffee and an apple juice with Buck (Jack decided to take a nap) and the bill came, it was 250 Rubles.  The next day I go in, this time with Jackson, and order the same exact thing.  This time the bill comes at it’s 360 Rubles.  I ask the waitress why…  She says something in Russian, I reply, “That’s not working for me” and give her the international charades symbol for let me see the menu.  I show her the price in the menu and, get this, (wouldn’t even have believed if I saw it in a movie), she takes the sheet out of the menu, crosses the price off and say they no longer have it at that price. We have a multi-lingual argument and eventually I just laugh and give her 300 Rubles for having the balls of a bull and we go back to our cement cots, having done the dance.
With that being the only shady dealings, we have met some great people.  First our steward, a Chinese man who speaks no English, after “smiling him into submission” took a liking to the kids and me.  Now he let’s us charge our iPods and computer in his private cabin with an electrical outlet.  We are feeling a tad spoiled.
The Italians next door are super cool and the girl next door on the other side is from Mongolia.  She has fallen for Buck and spends a lot of time doting on him.  And there’s the Dutch family… the father has just turned 50, so he is taking his wife and kids on a camping trip to Ulan Bator, Mongolia.   Didn’t know there was camping there but apparently it’s very popular and you stay in Yerts.  The 15 year-old daughter seems to have eyes for Jackson.  He’s playing it cool though, see, he’s got a girl state-side waiting for him.
Then there’s the girl from Dublin, who’s in her late 20’s who’s traveling by herself from Dublin to Beijing then Thailand and on to New Zealand. There’s the very handsome Parisian aristocrat, Justin mid-thirties, who tells us his take on their President and Carla Bruni.  It’s like an international smorgasbord.  How thankful am I that English seems to be the international language. Phew!
The train is comforting to me. I feel safe… protected.  Twice or three times a day, we stop at a train station where vendors sell their wares… from those mystery meat pies (can’t recommend them), to ice cream, juices, water, yak yak (my kid’s new favorite dessert), and even sweaters and shoes.  It’s an adventure… not scary even with the language barrier.  I don’t care what anyone says, it’s all good. And the ace in my back pocket, I’ve learned the secret…a smile goes a long way.  I guess it’s a universal thing.
We have now left Russia and Siberia behind us, and have crossed over into Mongolia. We successfully made it through the passport check and border patrol.  How is it that as a grown man, the minute an immigration officer boards the train to check your papers, you feel like a helpless 6 year-old.  I guess that in the back of my mind, for reasons unknown, they can yank me off by your feet, never to be seen again.  That, by the way, was not our experience.
In the belly of Mongolia now, we are experiencing the Gobi Desert. Can you believe it?  The Lewis boys are smack dab in the middle of the freakin’ Gobi desert! As the heat begins to return to our cabin, we spy a family of camels in the distance in this barren, arid land of rolling hills.  Camels, holy cow!

I’m assuming when we arrive in Beijing mid-day tomorrow, our cabin will be piping hot, like it was when we began this journey 6 days ago in Moscow. Seems only fair….   We survived it, we didn’t abort half way, we’re richer for having done the dance, and thankful for the experience.
Check Russia off the list…. Time is moving so quickly as our slow train to China approaches The Great Wall….
Peace, from the Love Revolution.  jd, jackson and buck

18 comments

I am utterly speechless – I was completed transported to the train and your most amazing experience. What a brilliant travelogue – your writing is lyrical, funny, tender and honest – what a gift to read this!!!! ALL I CAN SAY IS WOW WOW WOW WOW – SO PROUD TO KNOW YOU AND THE BOYS! Peace and sending you a big smile! xoxo

how fantastic!!! so exciting reading this!! i almost felt like i was there, sharing the experience. your writing is really good, very descriptive jd. much love to u guys from marcy n the boys xoxox

I am so moved by this! Absolutely amazing! I am really happy and excited you three are experiencing this, and experiencing it together. I look forward to each new entry and try to visualize being there with you. Thank you for sharing this with all of us, and thank you for the work you are doing for our friends in need.

Wow! What can I say? The adventure of a lifetime continues for the Lewis boys. This has to be a testament of being able to do anyting you set your mind to and making memories of a lifetime. Each experience is something that you guys will always remember, cherish and look back on and smile about. It was so cool to experience just a fraction of what you guys are living. I am sure the range of emotions has been a roller coaster ride. But thru all this you are gaining knowledge, patience, a can do attitude and family bonding. Thanks for letting us share in some of this. Such an awesome ride and more to come. Hugs to all! xoxo

JD,
It all sounds so luscious and horrifying at the same time. However, I do wish that I was in that fourth bunk with a camera recording it all. I so admire what you are doing. Peace and keep smiling…you sure have a winning one.
Heidi

So vividly written – as though I am right there on the train traveling with you all. What an adventure and what powerful memories that will stay with you forever. Brave adventurers stay safe and well. And thank you for taking us along on your journey through your words. If you need a place to stay in Kigali, Rwanda, please contact me and I will make arrangements.

It just brings chills J.D., and you’ve written it so well, too. My heart is with all three of you. — Bert

The words from a little ditty my daddy sang came springing to mind ”
“Passengers will please refrain from flushing toilets while the train is standing in the station, I love you. God almighty, Aphrodite, goes to sleep without her nightie, if Sherman’s horse can take it why can’t you?” And having grown up with the Southern Railway tracks as one of our property boundaries and having played enlessly on and around the tracks, flattening pennies and threatening to tie my little brother to the tracks like the villain did in the old black and white westerns and gathering spikes and other railway treasures for my stash at home, the conditions were just what you would expect from your adventure. Fortunately now they do contain the soil on our trains…alas, a far cry from yours! 🙂 So glad to know that you did make the whole journey, that the you all survived with little or no permanent scars to each other, and that the journey of lifetime for you all has a part of it as the TransSiberian Railroad adventure…so f’ing cool!!! Our love and hugs and stuff for continued good days on the Love Revolution. XOXOXOBO

keine Atempause, Geschichte wird gemacht. Es geht voran.

Brave, Fearless, Alive..thats what you are!! I am so impressed and admire you and your family so much. Thank you for the inspiration to constantly push forward and the most important thing, to always find your “SMILE”.
I hope you have a book deal… You need to share this with everyone!!!!
Big hugs and Love to you and the boys!!!
xoxo
Mimi

Very Interesting JD, your writing is so vivid, I’m visualizing the train tracks and all!!? JD, I’m so proud of you and excited about the lives you are impacting….I’m impressed about how observant you are to the individuals you are meeting; remember, those meetings are divine! Your Maker (The Chess Master) is strategically placing you in their lives, make each move count!!! You are the Salt and Light of the Earth!!! Peace, Blessings and Love to you and the Gents! Mary and I love you Guys!!

Greetings Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan! Vicarious arm-chair traveler here. Today I awoke to read about your “little” train ride. I was so inspired I ordered a borscht to go from Sebastopol’s Russian restaurant, donned the babushka get-up I had bought in Samarkand, cranked up Fiddle on the Roof music and reread your “From here to eternity” posting. Thanks to your insight, wit and observations (most humorously delivered), I felt as if I too had crossed from Moscow to Beijing; the multiple time zones, mystery meat diagnoses and the “not-so-flush-a-matic” toilet experiences notwithstanding. Please keep your clever commentary flowing!! Do svidaniya, Gary
P.S. And to think on August 8, 2008, you and Marco and Kublai were sitting in my living room watching the Olympic opening ceremonies from Beijing and now you are there. Oh the sheer joy of new travel discoveries! The Forbidden City, Imperial Palace, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace, Beihai Stupa, Mao “in-a-box” and pandas all await you…..
P.P.S. Seriously, two quotes come to mind. As you boarded the train, “Alle Anfange sind schwer” (the first step is the hardest or all beginnings are difficult-said expression being drummed into my head by my German grandparents with the precision of a Wehrmacht marching band). As you exited the train, “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled”-(it sounds better in Arabic), as relayed by Ibn Battuta (not a German grandparent).
P.P.P.S. Is it still 12 ‘N 12 or is it now one down, Alex we’ll take 11 “To-Go”, thank you?

How amazing, awesome, scary and fun! You guys are having the experience of a lifetime. I so envy you. Keep on smiling, you handsome devil….the world will love you all…..

What an incredible story and adventure. You Lewis boys are my heros!!

We so enjoyed reading of your train traveling adventure.
It was so funny, that you have definitely got to publish this.
Very enjoyable to read and also very sincere and colorful.

Thank You!

Hi there, it’s the 50 year old dad here. We’ve just returned from Beijing yesterday and I hope you all had the same amazing time as we did. Great to have met people that are actually living their dream. Keep up the good work. By the way, my daughter is over it.

I have to say I have really “lived” those days in the train with you three … your describing and narrating ability is wonderful … I’m sure all of us who read this diary of yours enjoy it and feel just the same.
The story of being able to really see the tracks traveling under you in the WC, remind me of a country in South America where it’s just the same.
I know each one of you is carrying an “angel charm”, some “strange thinking” friend of yours sent for you to carry during your trip. Whenever you feel like letting your mind wonder on the marvelous meaning of what you’re doing, just hold your charm so very fast and close your eyes … I’m sure the positive energy those charms have been charged with, will definitely give you some sort of special peace of mind to help you charge your batteries and go on with the wonderful quest you have embarked on.
I’m sure your batteries are always in working condition but there’s a special magic in those charms … just let it work.
Following you in spirit …
Roberto.-

Love my shout out – I miss talking to you but so grateful I got to hear your voice tonight. Love you madly!

Leave a Reply