Arrivals and Departures Along the Trans-Siberian Railway

Since 2012, Jacob Aue Sobol has opened up a boldly contemporary Asia, taking us into Chinese, Russian, and Mongolian lives.

All photographs by Jacob Aue Sobol, China, Mongolia, and Russia, 2012
© the artist and courtesy Magnum Photos and Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Fierce eyed in their filmy black dresses and off-the-shoulder numbers, the girls of Ulaanbaatar were strutting down the corridors of the gleaming new Shangri-La Hotel last August as if in Bangkok or Shanghai. Some were carrying bags from the shiny Vuitton outlet down the street; others had no doubt been pastoralists on the grasslands just years before. Every time the branch train of the Trans-Siberian Railway stops in the Mongolian capital, fresh faces—new thoughts of faraway worlds—flood out to transform a world of horses and heart-stopping emptiness. “You know,” a Mongolian friend said to me just before heading to the bar Naadam, “Genghis Khan was the WTO of the thirteenth century.” What he didn’t need to say was that what used to be a trade of spices and tea is now very often one of promises and dreams.

As I sauntered among the Thai massage joints and “Vegas” nightclubs of Ulaanbaatar last summer, I might have been in the stark and sometimes unsettling world that Jacob Aue Sobol has made his own. Since 2012, on one month-long trip after another, the Danish wanderer has been opening up a boldly contemporary Asia, as he rides the Trans-Siberian and its branch lines, taking us into Chinese, Russian, and Mongolian lives. At every stage, we feel not just the textures of societies in transition, but something inward and very private on the far side of the tracks. The mixed feelings of a traveler slipping out after a quickie, the unease of arriving in a place that is itself on the move (or even, in Mongolia, on the hunt). The view not through the window of the celebrated train, but from within a shuttered room, looking back.

It’s easy—perhaps too easy—to say that the tourist wants to go somewhere while the traveler likes to linger. The tourist hopes to catch something through his lens, while the traveler seeks to surrender, even to be claimed by a surprise in very real life. Yet Sobol’s work goes even deeper than most travelers, by seeing what is left behind when the train pulls out, and by seeking out the shadows, the unintended consequences, of a journey that leads not just to discovery but confrontation. Though the title of his ongoing series is Arrivals and Departures, he clearly has little interest in the names and times listed on railway-station announcement boards. Destinations are less important to him than those feelings—of guilt, of disquiet, of wanderlust—that arise whenever a wayfarer draws close enough to a local to feel (or impart) real hurt. I think of Jackson Browne’s haunting line about running for a morning flight “through the whispered promises and the changing light / Of the bed where we both lie.” With the emphasis on “lie.”

As a traveler through the alleyways of contemporary urban Asia for the past thirty-two years, I’ve always sought out those scenes that can’t be caught on any screen. I’ve been interested in why, a few miles from the wind-whipped silences of Mongolia, a “Luxury Nail Spa” is opening amid crowds of Dubai-worthy glass towers, and why Mongolian Airlines is showing Two Night Stand, of all Hollywood comedies, as we fly into the land of Genghis Khan. But looking at Sobol’s work, I’m reminded of how we writers will always lag behind: it’s not so much that a picture is worth a thousand words as that it can grasp a thousand silences. The unspoken moment; the impenitent stare; every murmur or grunt or tremor that no words can begin to transcribe. In the age of the selfie, Sobol’s camera looks out—and finds a brazenness that conceals at least as much as reticence does.

In China, bullet trains are being built to travel over 300 miles per hour; coming in from the airport in Shanghai, I rode a Maglev train that whisks passengers past avenues of skyscrapers at 268 miles per hour. In Russia, the ghostly gray monuments of Leninism have given way, almost overnight, to over-the-top dance clubs and, in Moscow alone, eight separate Rolex outlets. Even in Mongolia, I found last summer, the memory of the worldly conquerors known as the Golden Horde is being trumped by the prospect of hoarded gold. Yes, Sobol’s inky black-and-whites take us past the glitter of the twenty-first-century Silk Road into more uncertain moments that recall the elemental, even predatory street poetry of Daido Moriyama or Jack Kerouac. This comes from having the patience to step off the train and walk slowly into the lives and bewildering landscapes all around.

These images stay with me in part because they give back so little, and what they do give back is not consoling. They’re antisnapshots of a kind about the displacing truth of travel—that places are often resistant to our gaze, and the deeper we enter them, the more we lose all sense of where we are. In this context, the stress on Trans-Siberian Railway falls emphatically on “Trans”—the sense of movement, of crossing frontiers, of stepping toward a human contact that will always remain out of reach. Less transcendence, you might say, than transgression. And—as in the most memorable trips—no answers, but questions that keep on turning inside of you, forever.

This article was originally published in Aperture, issue 222, “Odyssey,” Spring 2016.