“I’ll be starting in Moscow,” I explained to the girl from Maine in the seat beside mine, “and from there I’ll take the Trans-Siberian Railway east across Russia to Lake Baikal.” The girl from Maine in the seat beside mine was headed for Israel for a year abroad, though she hardly seemed prepared. She had made my acquaintance by boarding the plane with four large bags and arranging herself awkwardly amongst them in her seat, next to mine. Shortly before takeoff, the man across the aisle was kind enough to inform her of the existence of overhead bins and the space under the seat in front, and together we helped her stow her belongings.
I have the great fortune of being able to begin this week’s column in the same way as I began last week’s column, as once again I found myself cold and alone in the streets of Moscow, only this time it was in the middle of the night. My companion Oscar, who happened to have the only key to the apartment complex in which we were staying, had failed to meet me as planned, and so I found myself wandering the large section of city between the bar where we were supposed to meet, and our apartment complex.
The first bright yellow and orange glimpses of autumn peeked out from the underbrush between the trunks of the pine forest outside. As the heaters pushed the morning chill from the car, we made our way over a pass on a bumpy dirt road. For a few moments, it seemed as if I was home again; the scene could have occurred on any of the frosty fall mornings of my childhood spent growing up in the Yukon. But as we descended around a corner, the distinct cylindrical profile of a nomadic Mongolian tent — called a <i>ger</i> in those parts — came into view, and the illusion quickly vanished.
The thin silver moon disappeared below the horizon, pulling with it the last hints of light from the barren Mongolian grasslands. Behind us, an unseen electric lamp cast a weak glow out of one of the ten or so rounded tents clustered together on the banks of the Zavkhan River. A jeep roared to life, blinding us in the flood of its headlights before they cut off abruptly, leaving us in darkness again. Over the din of the engine we heard our driver swearing in Mongolian, followed by the somewhat less harsh sound of a hammer panging on metal. The lights came back on.
After having given up on our horses mid-journey, my adventurous acquaintance Will and I found ourselves standing alone on a remote dirt road in the Mongolian countryside. As we weren’t sure how long we’d have to wait, be it minutes or days, we were quite relieved when an old Russian minivan shortly came chugging around from behind a hillside and into view.
So, now we're in Mongolia. It's late August 2005. After a few days in Ulaanbaatar, the capital and, well, the only real city in that country, I meet Will, a fellow traveler looking to buy a horse and head out into the vast Mongolian steppe, in search of adventure of some sort. Will was about twice my age and a hardened traveler. Some time ago, he had been a graduate student working on a PhD in history, until one day he realized he wasn't doing what he wanted in life. He discontinued his studies, broke up with his girlfriend and took what money he had to travel the world. When that ran out he found work as a chef on a sight-seeing vessel that operated off the British Columbian and Alaskan coasts; hardly work at all by the sound of it, until he had enough money to do it all over again. He's been living like that ever since.
I left off last time having just spent the night in the streets of Moscow, and upon awaking, found a dead body a few benches down from mine. It looked as though the man had drunk himself to death in the night. Nothing really came of this though; I couldn’t do anything to help the situation and the park was coming alive with people collecting the recyclables strewn about everywhere — he’d be found again soon enough.
By the end of last week's column I was cold, soaking wet, and alone in the streets of Moscow, faced with the prospect of spending my first night abroad desperately huddled up under some old cardboard in an entryway somewhere. But the good luck I'd had in navigating the public transportation system held up, and I didn't end up spending the night in the streets after all. Not that night, anyway.