At 7am, a Mongolian driver picked us up.
We had been somewhat anxiously waiting, looking down the street into the early daylight. This was Siberia, after all, and while you can take the Germans out of Germany, you can’t take Germany out of us. Our country is infamous for punctuality. German trains run on time, and if they don’t it is a matter of national concern.
When I meet friends from other countries, they usually tell me that they tried to be extra-punctual for me, because… Germany. It makes the entire nation seem somewhat uptight, but what can I say: This is a country that likes things to be in order. At its worst, that means you have to fill in hundreds of boxes to file your tax returns, but at its best it means there is a certain reliability when it comes to things like public transport.
In fact, the system eliminates so much uncertainty that I am regularly plunged into uncertainty-induced anxiety when I am somewhere else. Like on that morning in Siberia.
Russia isn’t the most approachable country in the world. It takes a lot of work to get your visa, and some more planning to get around. What you heard is true: People really don’t smile. Things work a little differently there.
Upon first contact with Siberia, they were also confusing. In Irkutsk — the “capital of Eastern Siberia” — the buses ran seemingly without logic and we barely made it to the city center from the airport.
Luckily, a friendly native called Valera not only recognized our woes and told us how to navigate the public transport system, he even gave us his phone number “In case you need help in Siberia.” Turns out that this is the way people arrange things in this part of the world: Phone calls, contacts and even more phone calls. There is no system as such, just an ever-flowing stream of arrangements.
The next morning, we were to be picked up by a minibus — something I had arranged by e-mail a few weeks before. And as we stood there, afraid they would not find us or had forgotten us, the Mongolian driver sped down the road and honked. I needed not have worried.
The driver spoke not a word of English, but he knew exactly who we were and that he would take us and a few other souls on a long, bumpy trip to Olkhon Island.
Traveling always teaches you as much about yourself as it does about the places you visit. Russia held the mirror up to my face and said “Look, things have a way of working themselves out”. There was so much order in the disorder, so much grace in the informal arrangements that it hardly surprised me to see people getting their train tickets reimbursed for having missed a train.
You try that in Germany.