It takes a brave man to jump off a moving train for the sake of a sale, but the clothes hawkers had the easy courage of men who did this on the regular. I watched as they leapt off the front carriage as the train chugged into a station with no stop, bundles of cheap Chinese jeans and jackets on their arms, exchanged hurried words and cash with waiting Russians, and jumped back on the last carriage as the Trans-Siberian trundled steadily toward Moscow from Ulaanbaatar.
They were Mongolians, but they knew enough Russian and Chinese to barter in both languages—and to flirt. After the stop, one of them came into the dining carriage where the Russian waitress, happily plump, danced with him without music, one hand turning in his and the other keeping hold of her cigarette as she moved. “Beautiful!” he said in Russian. They sat down with me, and we established the boundaries of our languages; her expansive, laughing Russian, of which I could get no more than the glimmers and he understood easily but spoke brokenly, their song-and-movie-aided understanding of my English, and the pidgin Chinese he and I shared. (This was in 2006; since then my Chinese has expanded from pidgin into harsh-voiced crow.) “English gentleman!” she said, in English, and laughed. “Chinese gentleman!” she said of the Mongolian, which he didn’t correct, adding, in Russian, what I took from the loanwords to be “Confucian gentleman, correct? Chinese are Confucians, like English are Catholics.”