Notes from an author: Matthew Woodward on Siberia

Crossing one of the world’s remotest borders by train proves to be a challenging experience — not least when faced with a language barrier.

Friday, 22 May 2020,
By Matthew Woodward
Matthew Woodward

The Railway to Heaven: From the UK to Tibet on the longest and highest railways in the world is written by Matthew Woodward.

Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

After waiting around for several hours in a snug cafe at the Russian frontier station of Zabaikalsk, Sergei, the provodnik (guard) for my carriage appears from the icy platform and insists I get back on our train immediately. He’s changed into his full-dress uniform and is also now wearing punishingly strong aftershave. On the table in my compartment I find a small pile of forms to complete in preparation for the border. This all makes me wonder quite what sort of a crossing it’s going to be.

You have to be a relaxed kind of person to not feel a mild sense of anxiety at an international border. Of course, you know the purpose of your travel is legitimate and that your papers are in order, but at the back of your mind, there’s a lingering self-doubt that you might look a bit suspicious. In fact, you feel that you might look even more guilty by trying not to look guilty.

The Russian officer who visits my compartment takes a lot of time examining my passport. She looks closely at me for some time, saying absolutely nothing, as if waiting for me to crack under the pressure of the silence. She stares right into my very soul while tapping my passport in one hand and considering what to do with me. Conferring with a colleague, they talk about me at some length in the corridor. She returns and points at the photo page. 

“Wrong date,” she says. Does she think it’s a forgery? Perhaps I’m going nowhere today, stuck between the regions of Siberia and Manchuria in the depths of the winter.

“The Russian officer who visits my compartment takes a lot of time examining my passport. She looks closely at me for some time, saying absolutely nothing, as if waiting for me to crack under the pressure of the silence”

by Matthew Woodward

Sergei is conspicuous by his absence, and without his translation services, I speak slowly and slightly loudly. The officers look at each other like I’m talking gibberish and decide to seek advice from a higher authority on how to deal with the man in carriage four with a counterfeit passport. They return with reinforcements. Rather worryingly, some carry assault weapons and they also now have a large dog, which clearly isn’t a pet. The best English speaker in the unit translates my explanations.

They look at me like it can’t be true that I have a passport valid for more than 10 years, but eventually concede that it might be possible, just that they’ve never seen one before. It takes more than an hour to sort things out, but eventually, it’s stamped and returned. 

Five hours after we arrived at Zabaikalsk, the Vostok trundles out of the station, complete with its new narrower-gauge bogies (transport trailers). It’s getting dark and I turn the lights out so I can see better outside, to find out what happens where Russia meets China.

The Chinese like to make a statement with their borders: in the distance are the colourful bright lights of Manzhouli with its big business hotels, casinos and concrete follies. As my eyes adjust, I notice the cameras. Hundreds of them, pointing in all directions. Cameras looking at cameras. Even cameras angled to look directly into the carriages of our train. Soldiers are standing to attention in little sentry boxes. Then no buildings; just fences, more cameras and searchlights. This must be no man’s land. On the opposite line, a train arrives with a fresh delegation of officials who climb on board our train in small detachments. When the officer who appears at the door of my compartment sees my British passport, he briefly admires the Christmas decorations I’ve hung up before wishing me a “Happy New Year!” with a warm smile and a vigorous handshake.

Life would be rather dull if everything went smoothly all the time. And this is especially true when you’re travelling. I’ve taught myself to use the time to talk to people. Conversation with fellow passengers is an essential part of any rail adventure and there’s always a shared bond from the train border experience. You might only have a few words in common, but a smile (and sometimes a bottle of vodka) often reveals more of life than you might imagine. You meet incredible people on trains. Sometimes a little crazy, but always memorable.

Matthew Woodward is the author of The Railway to Heaven: From the UK to Tibet on the longest and highest railways in the world published by Lanna Hall, RRP £8.95 

Published in the May/June 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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