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Thoughts on life by Teri McCarthy

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Part 7 of the TSR Saga: Surprised By Prayer

Posted by admin in July 2nd, 2009
Published in faith, prayer

The Trans-Siberian Railroad runs east and west/west and east across Russia. It’s the longest railroad in the world. It starts in Beijing or in Moscow—depending on which way you’re heading. It’s been running full steam (sorry) since 1916. Depending on who you talk to it takes anywhere from eight to twelve days to go from Beijing to Moscow. Why this discrepancy? Still a mystery to me.

In July of 1986 I boarded the Chinese TSR train in Beijing and headed toward Moscow with plans to eventually end up in Helsinki, Finland.

I first heard of the TSR train when I watched the old movie about Gladys Aylward (the British missionary to China) in The Inn of Sixth Happiness starring Ingrid Bergman (shout out—I highly recommend this movie). I thought this train would be a perfect way to pray over the nation and to see some of its countryside. A spark of an idea became a flame and soon I was obsessed with taking the TSR across the USSR.

In the mid 80s anyone who traveled in China knows that their trains were filthy—choke back vomit filthy. Eew…gross…what is that on the floor scary, icky, dirty. Seriously, children-urinating-in-the-aisle, livestock-in-cages, excuse-me-while-I-spit dirty. Cigarette smoke, sunflower seed shells, spittle, were all a part of the Chinese train adventure. Yet everyone I spoke with about the TSR told me that the Chinese TSR train was much cleaner than the Russian TSR train. All I could wonder was, “What on earth must the Russian train be like?!?”

I opted for the Chinese train.

The ability to speak a little Chinese has always come in handy for me. It can also be a bit of a curse. When the old Chinese grandmothers sitting on the bus with their tiny little feet (a result of once being bound), decide to discuss the enormity of my big old Westerner’s feet, it is difficult not to react. No one ever suspects that a big ol’ white woman from Kansas can speak Chinese. “Her feet a so big she godda buy a men shoe.” I wear a size eight folks! Kind of average for a woman in the US! But Chinese still regard small feet on women as a sign of grace and femininity. It is a little too much fun though to turn to little Chinese grandmothers on the bus and announce, in pretty clear Mandarin, “My feet are not too big for my height.” The look on their faces is always worth the pain of their comments. “Oh…she a speak a Chinese.” Then they usually huddle together and giggle. Good times.

When I boarded the TSR in Beijing I noticed that all foreign travelers were put in the same car to keep us separate from the comrades. In the “foreigners only” car were four Australians, a couple of Brits, and maybe a French guy (not real friendly). We were all from the free world and we could all speak English. I was the only American.

The compartments in the car were the cheapest class available—hard sleeper (both a description and its official name). It slept four, but the toilet was down at the end of the car and there were absolutely no bathing facilities. None. No showers. Nothing.

I was in a compartment with a married couple from Australia. They were great traveling companions. We shared food, stories and advice about traveling. Most of the foreign community on the train hated Americans. I am not exaggerating. They criticized (then) President Reagan and believed all Americans were pompous and ethnocentric. I took the blows and decided the best way to handle things was to just laugh with them and to have the best food supply possible—which I did. (Never met anyone who doesn’t like Snickers fun size).

For the first few hours on the train I didn’t speak to anyone other than my berth mates. No one knew that I had lived in China or that I knew the language. There just simply wasn’t any need to tell them. Besides, how was I to get a word in edge-wise with all the States’ bashing going on.

The first morning on the train, we had over-nighted from Beijing to Changchun which is a 17 hour trip, I started getting ready to meet my old teammate Jamie who still lived in Changchun. I had agreed to meet her at the Changchun train station. She needed some things from Beijing I had managed to get for her. Unknown to me, she had packed a box load of food and goodies for my week-long trip as well.

As we pulled into the station, the Aussies and the Brits were hanging out the windows getting a glimpse of Chinese life in the rural north. I hopped off the train as soon as it stopped. I saw a Chinese police officer harassing Jamie. She was thin and frail; a true Southern lady who was never aggressive. I ran over to Jamie and began to explain to the officer (in Chinese) that she was there to see me and tried to be “ke chi” (very polite).

Unknown to me, the entire foreign community traveling in my car, was hanging out the windows to hear and see the American speak Chinese. Even the conductor and train steward were having a good laugh. (The conductor was Chinese; the steward was Russian).

The bell rang telling me it was time to get back on the train. Jamie and I hugged. We cried. We made promises we both knew we couldn’t keep, but somehow they made us feel better. Jamie was the nicest person I had ever met; the absolute best teammate ever! She was gracious, kind, humble, smart and gentle—everything I was not and so wanted to be.

I got back on the train and hung out the windows with the rest of them. Jamie stood tearfully on the platform and waved me out of the station. I stepped back into my berth and shed a few tears of my own. But my little drama ended quickly as the Australians, the Brits and even the French dude crowded into my compartment to barrage me with questions, “You can speak Chinese?” “How did you learn Chinese?” “How long have you been here?” “Who was that back at the station?” “What did that policeman want?”

Then came the car’s conductor, a lovely tall Chinese fellow who spoke Russian and Chinese, but no English. The crowd made way for him to stick his head in the already crowded compartment, “Xiao jie,” he began, “ni hui shuo pu tong hua ma?” “Miss, do you speak Chinese?”

“A little,” I answered in Mandarin.

“Good!” he replied.

“Because I only speak Russian and Chinese and I have been assigned to this English-speaking car. Maybe you can help me occasionally?” he asked.

“Sure,” I replied in Chinese. “Just let me know what you need, but really my Chinese is not so good.”

He smiled. I smiled. He left and the entire crowd started “What did he want? What did he say?”

Well, the once scorned American became the bell of the ball all because communication is vital for every culture. I became the point man …uh…woman for the steward, the conductor and the rest of the foreign travelers. Hopefully, it gave some of them a better opinion of Americans. Okay, maybe not.

Our third day into the trip we stopped at the border towns between Russia and China. We had to take half a day there to change the wheels of the train—seriously—every wheel on the entire stinkin’ train had to be switched out because the rail size in China and the rail size in Russia are different. My friend Leslie, who knows a lot of stuff, says it was designed that way by Stalin who wanted to delay, if not thwart, foreign armies from invading the USSR using the rail system. Pretty brilliant idea now that I know that. But at the time I thought it was crazy.

The entire train had to go through a contraption that lifted each car into midair and changed its wheels. Unfortunately there was only one machine to do this, so it took half a day. Also, the Russians didn’t allow photos of the contraption, so no one could steal their technology. Oh…okay. Yeah, the whole world is wantin’ that thing.

While we were at the border town I noticed we picked up a few more passengers. There was a pretty good-sized Russian-speaking population just south of the Russian border in Chinese cities like Harbin and Qiqihar. Middle-class Russians fled from the Bolsheviks in the early 1900s and went to Europe, some to America and a few, those not so wealthy, headed for China. Unfortunately for them communism seemed to be their fate and by 1949, they were under communism once again. Which is really pretty sad when you think about it. As a result of that, among other things, there are Chinese/Russian blended families up around those borders. Harbin is like a small slice of Russia with its Orthodox cathedrals (many of which were converted into noodle factories after the communist took over), European style buildings and its dairy products—cheese, butter, sour cream—none of which are Chinese fare but can be found in abundance in these pockets of Russian communities along the border in China.

When we all boarded the train after the wheel change, we had picked up a new passenger in our compartment. She was beautiful. She was a Russian-Chinese mix, in her late twenties, with black hair, brown eyes, and the best features of both races. All of us were mesmerized by her. She also didn’t speak a word of English. So, we sat in our compartment and just smiled and stared at her. Then the conductor came and asked to see her ticket. He spoke Chinese to her, she answered and we all were thrilled that we had a common language to bombard her with questions.

“Ask her where she is from.” “Ask her her name.” Ask her what she was doing in China.” All the community of foreigners was barking out questions. If you haven’t been on a train for several days without TV, radio, showers or good food, it might be difficult for you to understand our boredom. She was different, exotic and we all were looking for something to entertain us.

After a few questions I found out that she was from a large city in the Ural Mountains. Her father was sent from China to Russia to study Russian and engineering in the mid 1950s. There he met and fell in love with her Russian mother. They married. The Russian university offered him a job and he decided not to return to China. Her Dad’s mother and father had never met any of their three grandchildren, she being the youngest. She was getting married and her parents thought it would be good to send her to China to meet her grandparents while she was free to do so. They loaded her down with gifts and photographs and food items and sent her for three months to live with her Chinese grandparents and to reconnect the two families.

Now she was returning home once again laden with heavy packages, overfilled suitcases, and loads and loads of fabric—mostly silk. Her grandparents also sent photographs, gifts and food items. None of us were traveling with much luggage, so we found places to stow her things all over the car.

We bought her tea, we exchanged coins with her (most folks like to do that), and we even taught her to play cards. After we all lost money we realized she already knew the game. (Okay, yeah, I know gambling is wrong, but when you play for kopeks it feels like Monopoly money and doesn’t seem wrong. Miebad?)

Finally, about half way into the trip we arrived in her town. It was time for her to leave us. We had enjoyed the time with her. She gave us Westerners a glimpse into a life we would never know and never be able to fully understand.

A few days earlier, I had decided to step out of the car and stretch my legs on one of our many brief stops. It is difficult for me to be on a train for days on end without touching the ground. I stepped off the train in this isolated station and immediately found two automatic weapons strategically pointing at each of my jaws. Two conductors saw what happened and literally lifted my petrified body (one on each arm) back onto the train. They made excuses for me to the soldiers explaining that I was a simpleton, perhaps a mental disease and quickly closed the door to the car. Then they scolded the tar out of me. “Don’t get off the train without checking with the steward first. We have strict rules here. You could have been arrested.” Whew. Close call.

We got into the Russian/Chinese girl’s hometown of Sverdlovsk late one night. She had way too many bundles and suitcases to manage everything by herself. There would be no one to meet her at the train station. It was pretty dark, and in Siberia in the summer time this meant it had to be one or two o’clock in the morning.

We all agreed she needed help getting her things from the train to the bus stop. We decided I would be the best candidate, not only did I look Russian, but I was the only one who could speak a common language with her.

I went to the steward and he asked the conductor and they immediately said no. Then she and I worked on them together explaining her problem. She could not unload the things and make trips back and forth to the bus station because any unattended items would be stolen. They acknowledged this truth. She didn’t have a telephone at home to call her family; they didn’t know which train she was coming in on. She was all alone with a whole lot of stuff and she needed help.

The steward and conductor whispered among themselves and then returned to us with this reply, “Okay. The American can go with you, but if she doesn’t make it back in time, we will leave without her.” Now, in the USSR without a visa, without permission, well, that could be very dangerous. They smiled. We nodded. And we started loading ourselves up like pack mules with all the help of the foreign community.

”How many minutes do I have here?” I asked.

“Ten to fifteen,” the conductor told me.

“Then let’s go!” I said to her and off we went.

The foreign community hung out the train windows and cheered us on as if we were in an Olympic event. Heavy laden, we waddled off the platform down through a tunnel that went under the railroad tracks and surfaced at the bus station. We hiked the long stairs back up to the street and finally reached her bus stop. I was exhausted from the load, but the constant pumping of adrenaline helped.

I got her settled at the bus stop and she found out that the bus would arrive in half an hour. There were policemen, or soldiers, I could never tell the difference in the Soviet Union, nearby. We hugged, we kissed, we cried as if we knew each other all of our lives. And then she urged me to run back to the train.

As I ran back through the tunnel I thought about the purpose of the trip. God had laid it upon my heart to travel by train “as the rising of the sun”—from the east to the west to pray over this great land and to pray for its people who were under such oppression and bondage. I rose every morning of that trip at about 5 or 5:30, before the rest of the car woke up, and I spent time praying over Russia, its people, the government, the persecuted Church. It was my duty, my calling and my sole purpose for taking that train.

Now I was on Soviet soil and though I had no idea where I was exactly, I stopped for a moment alone in that tunnel and I shouted out loud, “I claim this city for Jesus Christ!” And I ran off to catch my train. They were all waiting for me; shouting at me to run, the bell started ringing and the train was ready to leave the station. I jumped up the steps with a dozen hands pulling my arms out of their sockets. Once on board I was finally able to breathe. I was a lot more frightened than I allowed myself to admit.

Once the train started going there were again, lots of questions. “What did it look like?” “Would she be safe alone there until the bus arrived?” “Did she find her bus stop?” “Do you think she liked us?” Once the excitement was over, we all decided to get some sleep.

In 1993, years later, I was granted a Junior Fulbright scholarship to teach at a university in Russia. I had taught in Moscow for two years and I had a graduate degree in English, so these things helped me qualify for the Fulbright. The USAID trained us in Washington DC and it was at that time we were handed our assignments. Mine was to teach at the Ural State University of Technology in Yekaterinburg (alma mater of Boris Yeltsin). I was excited. I didn’t know exactly what to expect. So, I did a little research and I learned that the name of the city had just recently been changed due to the coup of 1991. The name of the city during the reign of the Soviet Union was Sverdlovsk—the very city where I had stood in the tunnel and cried out seven years earlier. What are the odds? I moved there in August of 1993. I’m not one to believe in “name it and claim it theology”, but I guess sometimes we really do get what we claim, or…pray for! Peace.

2 users Responded In This Post

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150. admin said,
July 4th, 2009 at 9:01 am

As Scott Golden pointed out: YES! This is a re-run, but an updated one. And I can’t believe six people responded on my “I’m so needy” day! Thanks guys. You’re too kind.

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151. Kazakhnomad said,
July 4th, 2009 at 9:40 am

Very cool story, I lived in Harbin in late 1980s and now live in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Claim it sister!!!

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