First of all, happy New Year everyone! Thanks for all your sweet comments on my recent Travel Stories blog.
Let me start this year’s series with what I feel the most memorable travel story I’ve had so far.
I had never heard of the Trans-Siberian Railway until early 2016, when a former colleague told me he was planning to take the ride. He invited me and I said yes, despite me being a new Beijinger that time (I’d been in the city for barely a month!).
So many things had happened in the ten months leading up to the trip, making me exhausted but really looking forward to the train journey. Perhaps one fruitful task that I undertook was learning the Russian alphabet. I have a certain affinity with languages and my sharp pictographic memory helped me memorize the foreign alphabet in less than 3 hours. Yes, I can read simple Russian words (albeit slowly), but I guess it will take me some time to understand and speak the language.
In the office, I made sure that only a few people knew that I would be traveling. One of them was my supervisor, Laurie, who promised me a “care package” full of assorted cookies she made or bought at a local supermarket.
The day of my Trans-Siberian Railway journey had arrived. It was extra-special as our trip was just in time for the centenary of the whole line. Though our berth looked old but classy, it was more than enough to help me leave the grayness of Beijing. A few minutes from the southeastern end of the line turned into an hour, and still I was in Beijing, though that suburb had fewer skyscrapers. Then a couple of hours after, we were already traversing rural China: limestone mountains and gray asphalt roads and vast fields and towering telecom pylons — all illuminated by the autumn sun.
My colleague and I went to the Chinese canteen carriage to eat lunch and (we hoped) mingle with other passengers, but the latter didn’t happen because we were so drawn by the vastness of the countryside. Back at our berth, we noticed that our Western-looking “neighbors” were gazing at the train window, all of them awestruck by the change a few hours could make in the Chinese vista.
On the left of our berth was an old couple; next to them was a trio of young guys. We let the night pass without talking to them, however. Never had I been so tired before that trip: earlier in the day I’d been carrying a big backpack and an IKEA bag full of foodstuffs; towards the night our music was the train’s choo-choo.
The following morning was spectacular as the sun rose over the desolate Gobi Desert. When I went out of our berth to get hot water, I saw the old couple chit-chatting with the trio and overheard their conversation: the young guys were from Athens and they were traveling with a tour group bound for Ulaanbataar. The lady was so friendly that she waved hello to me. “Oh good morning, what a wonderful sight it is,” she said, while her partner was looking out of the window.
I joined their conversation, though I was still in my morning trance. “I’m Andy, by the way. I’m from the Philippines,” I told them.
“I’m Jinti and this is my husband Andy.”
“Ha! What a good name,” I joked. But truly I was unsure if I pronounced the lady’s name right.
“We’re from Scotland,” Jinti said. Then we continued our chat until the train arrived at Ulaanbaatar, where they replenished their provisions and the Greek guys alighted. Meanwhile, I was trying to look for a travel adaptor because I was brave enough to bring only Chinese plugs to power up. But no, my power banks almost got depleted on Day One alone.
Back on the train, my colleague and I and the Scottish couple talked about what had motivated us to take the trip. My colleague shared that he had been planning to do it, and his posting in Beijing made it possible. Jinti and Andy said they were on a vacation that had started in Australia a couple of months back. Their China trip was the penultimate part of their vacation, which would end in Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
I told them I had a fair share of misfortunes prior to the trip: I lost RMB 1,000 when we bought our train tickets, and the release of my London visa got delayed. They, too, had a hard time getting the required documents and tickets. Well, we all boarded the train anyway.
Since I had a cornucopia of foodstuffs, I shared the cookies made by my supervisor with the Scots. In return, they invited us for a night of whiskey at their berth. There they told us more about themselves: Andy was a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot and Jinti a teacher of Nia dance. They have three sons, all working for the British army. In Beijing, the couple stayed in a hutong house, which they found interesting and very Chinese. Jinti also joined a dance class on the Great Wall. My colleague and I told them we’re Filipino journalists that got an opportunity to work in China.
The night on the train was long but we were just getting started. As a history geek, I enjoyed listening to Andy’s RAF experience and knowledge of warfare. Jinti and I both have a love of languages and humanities. In fact, she, too, had studied the Russian alphabet a couple of days before. They also showed us their recent trip to Greece and Italy via their boat, the Selkie Dancer. Both countries were my dream destinations because of their rich ancient history. I’ve always been fascinated by their cultures ever since I encountered them in my encyclopedia back home.
Our stories continued day and night until Day Six on the train, the morning before we arrived at the western terminus of the line. There, Andy asked us what our next travel plans were. My colleague and I said we would stay in Moscow for two nights and explore the city center. Thereafter, we would fly to London via Brussels. The couple was visibly shocked because they, too, had the same itinerary. We parted ways at Yaroslavskaya railway station just after we bought our subway tickets.
We had endured six days of train travel and I couldn’t be happier that we were in Moscow. After we settled in our hotel, my colleague and I explored the city, which was freezing then considering it was early autumn. From the Red Square to Saint Basil’s Cathedral, everything in Moscow looked surreal and mysterious and exciting for me.
On the second night when I was aimlessly wandering around the city, I saw familiar faces. Yes, I saw Jinti and Andy again! All of us were surprised, given the city center is undeniably huge – probably ten times the size of the Forbidden City. They asked how we were doing, and I told them I was enjoying Moscow. We took a selfie and sent that to my colleague.
“What a coincidence,” I thought. But that wasn’t the end of it.
The following morning was our flight to Brussels. For some reason, I didn’t see the couple at the airport though we knew they were going to Brussels too. No worries, I told myself. I had made good memories with them, enjoyed their stories, and planned to message them once we arrived in Brussels. I was ready in my seat, then familiar faces once more entered my vision. Yes, the lovely couple, whom I was with for the entire train trip and had a chance encounter with in the vastness of Moscow city center, was now on the same flight as ours. Not only that, they were seated just opposite us!
It’s not yet the end of this amazing experience! Watch out for the second part of this Travel Stories article, because I’ll share what happened after the meet-up on the plane.
Writer’s note: Jinti has also given a talk in her native Scotland about this experience. She held the talk “From Square to Square” in late November 2017. At the time of writing, I was contacting her to get pictures or videos (if any) from her talk.
Photos: Andy Penafuerte III