Murder on the Trans-Siberian Railway

I don’t know how many people would be excited about the prospect of a 26-hour train ride, but I know for sure that I am one of them. The train ride from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar was a selling point of the trip for me, conjuring up images of Gobi Desert vistas spinning past the windows and old train cars rumbling along the tracks.

Trains have a romantic quality, and the Trans-Siberian Railroad itself has a romantic ring. I imagined warm, wooden dining cars and Agatha Christie novels. I imagined James Bond, kicking bad guys down onto the railroad tracks. I remembered how in Diamonds Are Forever, Tiffany Case whipped up béarnaise sauce for him from her train car, and wondered if we’d have a little kitchenette. (Who boards a train with eggs and a stick of butter anyway? I guess that’s why Bond fell for her.)

I was not disappointed. There were 3 little soft sleeper rooms, each featuring a bunk bed, a little windowside table, and a shared bathroom that consisted of a shower nozzle and a sink. The main toilet, which resembled some kind of torture device, was down the narrow corridor and could only be used while the train was moving. We wondered if this was to avoid accumulating waste on the tracks by the train stations. (Possibly, but there may be a better reason…)

The train chugged out of Beijing’s rail station at exactly 11:22, and was extremely punctual throughout the journey. We hadn’t known what to expect as far as timing, and were pleasantly surprised at how closely it adhered to the schedule. Equipped with Starbucks lattes and a warm morning sun, we watched the towering buildings of Beijing scatter behind us, replaced with heaving mountains.

What a way to see a country, rather than simply flying over it in a plane!

We hadn’t been on board for ten minutes when, sitting our room, Rosie, Holly, and I decided it would be cool to make a movie on a train.

Based on my experience with movie ideas, I imagined we’d all smile at the thought and then retreat into our various rooms to read books.

“Let’s go tell the others,” said Holly.

OK, I thought. We’ll tell everyone else and they’ll laugh and we’ll all go into our rooms and read.

“Holy crap,” said Carl. “That’s a great idea.”

“I want to be a sheriff,” said Blair.

“It could be a murder mystery type movie.”

“Let me get my laptop.”

And this is how the six of us, cramped into Carl and Alicia’s cabin, began creating our silent film. When you have 26 hours on a train, why not make a film? Carl typed up scene ideas, and we talked through who our characters might be and what they were doing on the train. It was cool to see the story idea evolve from the original concept to what we ended up making.

The train schedule was posted in the corridor, so we could see when we’d be stopping and for how long. This helped us figure out when to shoot our platform scenes, the first of which happened less than an hour after we’d left Beijing.


Movie ideas coming together


Dining car laughs


Surprise! A new dining car! Still from our movie 🙂

Carl assigned us all roles – I was costume director – and we worked until 10pm, when the train reached the Mongolian border.

That’s over ten hours of shooting, writing, and revising scenes. I couldn’t believe how into it everyone was; no one sauntered off and lost interest. Carl’s visions for how to shoot scenes were super creative, with different angles and creepy effects and cool use of flash photography and headlamps to recreate crime scenes.

We were lagging a little by 10pm, which was fine, because immigration officers boarded the train and we suddenly found ourselves restricted to our own little cabins. Uniformed men and women boarded and barked out orders, asking to see passports and asking what we’d packed in our suitcases. Rosie and I sat in our little room, watching as the officials took our passports away.

“I feel like I’m in trouble for something,” Rosie said, “even though we haven’t done anything wrong.”

In addition to being trapped in our rooms, we weren’t allowed to use the toilet while the train was stopped, and this border stop was 3 hours long. Rosie had read somewhere that you could use a bathroom at the train station, but the train conductors weren’t letting anyone off. Later, we found out that if we’d gotten off, we’d have to wait out in the cold until they brought our passports back onto the train.

As the hours passed, some of us couldn’t hold it and had to resort to our Starbucks cups, which were then dumped down the drain in the shared bathrooms. Seconds later, officers were running down our hallway, pounding on the doors and shouting, “No! No, no, no!”

Through broken English, they explained that there were men working underneath the train cars.


Apparently, the 3-hour border change is so long because the tracks in Mongolia and China are different. Instead of changing trains, they jack the cars up to change the bogeys so the train can continue on the rail. We didn’t know this going in; it feels like you’re in the middle of a thunderstorm. The cars crash together and jerk around wildly, so it’s impossible to sleep. None of us knew what was going on; if I did, it would’ve been cool to try to catch a glimpse.

We made it on across the border and sleep was looking lovely until we reached the Mongolian side of immigration and had to stop again and have our passports taken and stamped.

I slept until 9am the following morning, but set an alarm so as not to sleep so late that we couldn’t finish the movie. I wasn’t sure anyone wanted to keep working on it, and I didn’t want to be a nag, so I ventured down to the dining car with Rosie, Blair, and Holly, and found a completely new dining car attached to our train! The Chinese one had been bright and relatively sparse; this one was ornate with carved wood and warm light. It also had a menu! (The Chinese dining car gave us free lunch and dinner tickets, but food was limited to rice and salty vegetables. At least here we could order breakfast.)

We ran into Carl getting back on the train at 10am after purchasing a bag of dumplings from some women on the train platform. He was as shocked as I was that everyone wanted to continue making our movie, so we continued on. (Not everyone was as excited as we were. I think the train officials were getting tired of us by the time we reached Ulaanbaatar.) During downtime, when others were filming their scenes, I looked out the windows and watched the landscape change from flat and brown to snowswept and galloped-on by the occasional shaggy horse.

It’s nice to see how much empty space is really out there, regardless of whether it’s the desolate Gobi Desert or the rolling mountains outside Beijing. Manila is a cramped city that’s always bustling, noisy, and hot. It was refreshing to pull down the train window and inhale the fresh, cold air and look outside and see a whole lot of nothing.

We rolled into the station at 2:35pm, right on schedule, with a completed movie under our belts and minutes of B-roll detailing the vast Gobi Desert outside our windows. I was eager to explore Ulaanbaatar, one of the coldest capital cities in the world, but we had an appointment to make at 4pm and not much time to get there.

The six of us piled into a crammed taxi that whisked us to the Best Western, a spacious and clean and comfortable hotel that was the complete foil to our tiny train cabins. From there, we set out on foot to find the office for Ger to Ger.


Toilet? Or torture device?


Glimpse of the railroad out the window


Carl and Alicia and the Gobi Desert

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