The trans-Mongolian train to Moscow from Peking departs at 7.40am every Wednesday and, despite the early hour, I had expected to encounter the usual strenuous competition to be first on board. I was ill-prepared, however, for the pandemonium at the narrow entrance to the platform from the main station concourse, which was besieged by a screeching, struggling mob. People were climbing over one another, tearing and heaving at bundles of luggage.
A diffident group of 10 or 12 other gwai los (foreign devils) formed on the fringes of this scrummage. But, one by one, we were sucked into the maelstrom, and eventually expelled on to the platform.
The fun was just beginning. The next challenge was to beat a path through the frantic baggage-loading at the carriage door and past the piles of stuff obstructing the corridor. The train ticket had stipulated a limit for luggage of 35kg per person, but somehow everyone was managing to get as much on board as they wanted. If I had expected that all would be well once I was safely in my compartment, I was soon to be disabused.
There are three ticket classes on the train to Moscow: de luxe, soft and hard. Soft and hard classes each comprise four-berth compartments; de luxe classes are two-berth. Having a hard class ticket, I thought I would be sharing with three others.
As I arrived at the door of the compartment I met the first of them, a Chinese man, stripped to the waist, manhandling several large bags into position on the floor and lower bunks. I climbed on to my upper bunk, and stowed my own shoulder-bag in the space above the door.
For the next half-hour I lay and watched in dismay as the pile of bags grew ever higher. My new travelling companion, who spoke some English, introduced himself as Li. He had two accomplices who dragged more bags down the corridor. The pile reached the level of the upper bunks. And finally, as we pulled out of the station, the last bag was lodged just under the roof.
What was going on here? I was, Li explained, sharing the place with 600 pairs of fake Adidas trainers and a few gross of tracksuit tops. He and his companions were planning to sell these at stations along the route through Siberia. Most of them would have gone, he reassured me, long before we reached the Russian capital.
It was a similar story the length of the train, with several other compartments also packed to the gunwales, with bags spilling into the corridor. Other English-speaking travellers told me that people had been bringing large quantities of goods to sell from the train for the past five or six months. Some trade regulation had been relaxed, enabling the Chinese to take goods into Russia without having to pay duty. By taking them on the train as personal luggage, they could avoid freight charges.
The scramble to cram as much as possible on to this train had been intensified by an official notice at the railway station, apparently stating that, as from next week, the baggage allowance would be strictly enforced.
Li explained he had acquired his training shoes for about dollars 5 a pair, and could sell them in Siberia for dollars 10. With the average urban Chinese income rather less than dollars 40 a month, it was easy to see what an attractive venture this was.
Although, from Peking as far as the Russian/Mongolian border, the train was merely a mobile shoe and clothing warehouse, this first part of the journey was not without interest and incident.
Erlian station on the Chinese/Mongolian border boasted one of the world's most forlorn discos, complete with revolving mirror ball and the chance to squander your remaining Chinese small change on warm, synthetic peach juice.
In the middle of the night, the Mongolian authorities came on board with their forms (in Mongolian) for completion. My efforts to make sense of mine instigated a game of charades, with two officials trying to explain, by mime and gesture, the various headings. Guesswork eventually prevailed.
By the time we got into Mongolia, we were five hours late, with the result that we went through all the border formalities in the middle of the following night. Those who had most merchandise were concerned that the Russians might yet confiscate it or refuse to allow it in. My worst fear was they might attempt to conduct a proper search of all baggage, which would have held us up for days.
No one need have worried: the surprisingly young Russian border guard, with a chest full of medals, contemplated the solid wall of bags in the doorway of my compartment, rolled his eyes heavenward, sighed and tipped his cap forward in resignation. A mere gesture towards a search was made by a small teenage soldier, equipped with a torch, who was briefly inserted into the compartment like a terrier into a fox's earth. As he was about to go on his way, the soldier with the medals turned to me and said, punctiliously, with a hint of a smile: 'I wish you a pleasant journey.'
If I had had any sleep during the past two nights, I certainly could not recall it, and even the adaptable Chinese looked pretty done-in. Nevertheless, they were clearly gearing themselves up for something, and before long we made our first stop inside Siberia.
At this first station, an eager crowd awaited our arrival. Given how late we were running, they had probably been there for most of the night. Aboard the train, the vendors had been busy arranging displays of their wares. Training shoes were displayed in the corridor windows, prices marked in roubles, while tracksuit tops were draped over the curtain rails. Money was handed up, feverishly counted, and the goods were passed down. More than a few seconds' delay prompted outraged shouts from the purchaser, and furious knocking on the window.
It was the same at every stop. On the third night, I really thought I was going to get some sleep; I was certainly tired enough. But I was wrong.
After a generous nightcap, I had settled down among the unsold trainers only to wake an hour or so later to learn that we had stopped at a place called Zima and to realise that the lights were on again. Cries of 'Adidas, Adidas' signalled that business was booming, even at this hour.
A few minutes later, the commotion changed. The word in the corridor was that compartment windows on the other side of the train were being smashed and bags hauled out. An agitated Li called to me to 'watch the window'.
Since the compartment was still layers deep in shoes, only the upper section of the window was actually visible. However, I shoved my hand down, found the blind catch and held it down. A moment or two later, a flurry of activity and confused shouting from further down the corridor had me straining towards the door again. Immediately, there was a noise at the window and, turning, I saw that someone had forced open the top section and slashed the blind. I caught a glimpse of some wild- eyed faces dodging about below, before I raised the alarm.
The three Adidas salesmen needed no second summons, but came charging in, lunging across the hill of bags. One was wielding a curtain rod which he proceeded to ram through the open window. A Russian in uniform clambered in and sprayed a canister through it.
Our window survived, but others had not been so fortunate. When we were under way again, I walked the length of the train and saw that it had been under sustained siege. Several groups of Chinese were trying to rig blankets up where their windows had been, in compartments now exposed to the distinctly chilly Siberian night. Glass crunched underfoot in the corridors. So much for brass fittings, antimacassars and six days rolling through the taiga in surroundings of faded grandeur. A Wild West stagecoach seemed nearer the mark.
I shall be indebted for ever to the Scottish couple (and thank God I brought that bottle of Johnny Walker with me) who, on the fourth night, offered me the floor of their de luxe compartment to make sleep possible. It proved an excellent conductor of every bump in the track, but anything was better than a night in the middle of a bustling market under threat of being showered with broken glass.
Next morning there was a new development. The crowds were out in strength and so, for the first time, were the police and military. As the train pulled in to Tyumen there were a few shouts of 'Adidas, Adidas', then an eerie murmuring. Police and soldiers were lined up along the platform between the crowd and the train, trying to prevent anyone getting close enough to buy. As a further discouragement, several keen-eyed alsatian dogs were brought down the corridors, as people nipped back into their compartments. Buyers and sellers were determined, however. While a policeman was waving his baton or shoving someone back on one side, someone else would quickly step in on the other.
Sverdlovsk, 300 kilometres on and a mere 1,800 from Moscow, is notable not least for being Boris Yeltsin's home town. In 1917, when the city was known as Ekaterinburg, it was the scene of the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family; and in 1960, Gary Powers, the U2 pilot, was shot down nearby. But, for me, this will always be the place where the events of the preceding days reached their climax.
Once again, there was a dense crowd waiting and a lot of police with batons lining the edge of the platform. Buying or attempting to buy something seemed to have become an arrestable offence, and a number of people who did try it were frog-marched away. The Chinese vendors resorted to donning the jackets or tracksuit tops they were trying to sell and going down to mingle with the crowd. A few struck surreptitious deals, but most were spotted and ordered back on board.
One man who had managed to buy a jacket, ignoring shouts to stop, seemed about to evade capture. As he passed out of sight along the platform, a policeman appeared, raising a pistol, and there were four sharp cracks. Though scarcely credible, it seemed as if someone had actually been shot for buying a piece of clothing. Moments later, however, the miscreant reappeared, being shoved back along the platform with a couple of smart kicks to the groin for encouragement. I was content never to know if the rounds had been aimed above his head, if the pistol had been loaded with blanks or if the policeman was just a poor shot.
The Chinese had the last word. Twice we tried to leave, and twice we ground to a juddering halt. Eager people came sprinting after us along the tracks and trade resumed, albeit briefly. Some entrepreneur had apparently felt restraint of trade was one emergency which called for a tug on the communication cord.
A few kilometres beyond Sverdlovsk, we left Asia and entered Europe. Not that there was any momentous geographical change. As a natural feature marking the boundary between two continents, the low hills of the Urals must be about as unimpressive as you can get. The significant difference, from that point on, was that trade dried up. Maybe because, within 1,000 or so kilometres of Moscow, people were more sophisticated; at any rate, they were not nearly so keen to buy fake brand-name sports goods.
Approaching Moscow's Yaroslavl station I was prepared for the worst: to wrestle through surging crowds and clamber over mountains of baggage. But our arrival was almost disappointingly low-key. There were no crowds on the platform and the Chinese seemed reluctant to leave the train. Unhindered, I made my way down the platform, trying to decide whether I had been very unlucky or extremely privileged to have been aboard the last train on the New Silk Road.
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