It’s been more than a year since I traveled on the Trans-Siberian Express, but I can still picture the faces of the people I encountered and feel the rhythm of the train as it bumped and swayed its way west through the mountains and meadows of summertime Siberia. In many ways, this was no ordinary vacation. It was my first time in the Soviet Union and Mongolia and it was a constant series of surprises. We flew from Moscow to Tashkent to Khabarovsk via Aeroflot before boarding the train for a three-day trip to Irkutsk (known as the Paris of Siberia). After that, we traveled Air Mongolia on a trip to Ulan Bator that included almost a week in the capital during Mongolia’s independence day festivities and two days in the Gobi Desert sleeping in a yurt. We flew back to Irkutsk for a few more days and then on to Leningrad, where we ended our stay.
But for me the train ride was the most memorable and satisfying part of all. It was like being invited to dinner at somebody’s home after you’ve been warned that the food will be good but your hosts will probably be crotchety and you’d better be on your best behavior. Then you get there and discover that if you simply show a little enthusiasm, you can be yourself, overstay your welcome and even get dessert.
The warnings I had gotten--from books or articles or people who had been there--said that photography on the train was strictly forbidden and the Soviets didn’t want to be disturbed. The articles advised leaving any cameras in your compartment whenever you ventured out in order to avoid the wrath of the ruling conductresses or the reluctant passengers. To a photographer, that’s hearing: “Feel free to go anywhere on the train, but you have to keep your eyes closed.”
After my first walk through a few of the railroad cars I knew that would never work. First, there were the faces: warm and interesting, peasant faces with eyes that betrayed their curiosity of strangers, especially a stranger wearing funky Western clothes, carrying cameras and grinning like a fool (Soviets exchange smiles with strangers with about the same ease as New Yorkers trapped in the subway at rush hour).
What I could see of the compartments, which slept four (unlike our car, which was the only first or “soft class” car--with two beds per compartment), revealed little “homes,” with each one taking on the warmth of a living room or bedroom for the duration of the trip. Flowers brought from home were set on the window-side tables that were also laden with homemade food and drink. Most Soviets didn’t eat in the diner as we did, but stayed in their cars or compartments. Many wore their pajamas as they sat and ate, read, knitted or played chess.
I seemed to be the only one constantly roaming up and down the aisles, but I felt as if I was in a small town and only had three days to explore it.
I was hoping to be invited in. It took some persistence, and many walks through the train with my cameras so people could get used to me. But eventually, armed with a few phonetically written Russian phrases, some lipsticks I could give away to soften the sometimes ornery conductresses, and a lot of motivation, the compartment doors started to open.
These photographs are the treasured results.
We never spoke much. I didn’t know their names, but the warmth was genuine, in both directions. So meet my friends. Their photographs prove my most important travel advice: Never listen to anybody’s warnings of doom or gloom. Discover on your own where welcome mats await you.