The train was just like any other and the cabin pretty standard, but somehow, to both of us, it was the most exciting place in the world. Grinning so much that my cheeks ached, I had the distinct feeling that our journey was officially underway. Thom’s "end of the beginning idea" might sound a little melodramatic, but that’s just how it felt.
The Trans-Siberian (or Trans-Mongolian actually) was the only leg of the journey that we had really booked in advance and one of the very few parts that we had always been resolute about. I had personally been looking forward to it for months, if only because it would give an enforced opportunity to relax. No rushing around; no need to do anything during the days (indeed, not much opportunity); no Internet, so no chance to organise things; just time to kick back and relax.
One of the (many) unknowns about the train, for us, was who our roommates would be. Five days straight in a room with two strangers leaves all sorts of possibilities open. Our first companion arrived, and after a few tentative exchanges, we worked out that we both spoke English, and things were easy from then on. Her name was Zoe, she was from Australia, and like us, she was headed for Beijing via Ulan Bator.
Our next arrival was quiet little Mongolian girl. We said hellos and exchanged names (Aza was her name, I think), but the language barrier kept things at that to start with. A friend came into the cabin with her, and they set about sorting things out. Whilst we were happy to just sit back and stare out the window (the train wasn’t moving yet), they were keeping themselves busy. First, they flicked down these metal bars from the walls that they used as steps to gain better access to the storage compartment above (we were aware of neither the purpose of the bars nor the existence of such a compartment). They flicked a switch and lowered one of the overhead bunks, then lifted up the seats that we were on to reveal yet more storage and also our bed linens. This wasn’t their first time.
As the train jerked to a start, Thom and I cracked open a celebratory beer (a fond favourite brand we hadn’t seen since being in Kyrgyzstan) and revelled in the elation of having gotten this far. But our Mongolian companions were not done. They returned in numbers, piled into our tiny cabin, and closed the door with a (not entirely) reassuring grin.
The girl climbed onto her bed whilst a woman—we presumed her mother—passed up a screwdriver. Off came a hatch in the ceiling and down came some more packages. Yet more secret compartments we weren’t aware of! But hold on a second—why would you need a screwdriver to access a cupboard? Why were they bringing things out of the ceiling? They then proceeded to remove the main ceiling fitting and bring out more bags of stuff: deodorants, jeans, jumpers, etc. The three of us exchanged bewildered looks of amusement as thoughts of smuggling operations ran through our heads and our level of entertainment, already high from having just made it onto the train, reached a peak!
This was too good to miss, so Thom dug out the camera and started to film. There was the young girl up on her top bunk, the mother piling up parcels that filled the cabin, sprawling over the seats and our knees like a room filling with water, and various accomplices opening and closing the door to shift the goods elsewhere down the train. The mother didn’t appreciate us evidencing their acts and shook her head. We complied with the request, of course, but it only further sealed in our minds the idea that we were sharing a cabin with a quiet little Mongolian girl who was, in fact, the head of an international smuggling network.