After months of travelling in Asia, we decided to return to the Western world in style - with a six-day trip aboard the Trans-Manchurian-Siberian Railway, the historic train that runs from Beijing to Moscow. However, once we were on board, the romance quickly faded and it was not long before we started to go a bit stir crazy.
It's depressingly hard for North American twentysomethings to go even a few days without e-mail, television and - most importantly - shopping. After several days in our tiny first-class car, we were antsy for a stop.
Our best efforts to translate the Cyrillic-alphabet train schedule told us we had a 24-minute stop coming at Ulan-Ude, capital of Russia's Buryat Autonomous Republic. When the train came to a stop there, we jumped off, dreaming of all the Western comforts we had missed during our travels in Asia, especially rich European cheeses. Not that we would have understood the Russian in any event, but we were so engrossed in our search that we didn't hear the announcement that the train would be leaving a few minutes ahead of schedule.
We strolled around the station, bought some cheese and other lunch goodies, and used the toilet facilities, which by this point were a welcome change from the train's cold, windy hole to the tracks. Feeling refreshed, we were gazing out at the town when the train started to roll away behind us. Panicked, we made a clichéd run for the caboose. It must have been a good show for those on board as we finally stopped, panting for air, while our train chugged off on its way to Moscow.
A station attendant whisked us into a small room, and we were joined by several surly police officers conversing in Russian. They had a cursory glance at our passports and visas, but their eyes seemed much more interested in our wallets. The officer who spoke the best broken English said that, for a small fee, they could find us a taxi driver to get us to the next station ahead of our train.
Hundreds of dollars later, the taxi driver, aides and police officers were paid off, and we were on the road. Thankfully, Visa really is accepted worldwide, even in the wilds of Siberia.
For five hours, we skidded down snowy mountain roads and through villages of wooden houses with frozen laundry hanging on their lines. A ratty tape of Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms provided the soundtrack for our tense ride.
When we finally spotted the blue waters of Lake Baikal, we also saw our train chugging along the lake's edge. We had caught up. We were going to make it. The moment of glee was interrupted by the loud pop of a blown tire. We stood shivering on the side of the highway, watching our train disappear from sight. Meanwhile, our driver changed the flat with the speed of a NASCAR crewman. We were back on the road in a few minutes.
An anxious half-hour later, we came to a screeching stop on a dirt road beside a big footbridge, an old freight train and some tracks. We quickly paid our driver and, once again, made a frantic run for it. From the bridge, we could see our train below and it was already blowing its whistle. We jumped aboard with mere seconds to spare.
Our carriage attendant crossed herself in relief when she saw us. For the rest of the day, we were minor celebrities. Other passengers would come by to laugh at us, saying kind-sounding Russian words, which likely translated to "welcome back, you lucky fools."
The moral of the story should be obvious: Asia should not leave Western travellers so cheese-deprived. Being in this state leaves us prone to large lapses in judgment.