International male model, heroin addict and self-confessed kink, Ivanov Vasiliev journeys on the trans-Mongolian express from his home in London to the heart of the Gobi Desert enroute for a high-fashion modelling shoot for a luxury jewellery company. On the train, he meets his doppelganger, Nikolas Martin—a younger, less tattooed, less jaded version of himself. Mutual attraction is undeniable.
As they arrive at the gates of Khara Khoto (‘The Black City’), said to be haunted by the spirits of the thousands who died there after the Han army took the city from the Mongols in the 13thcentury, they realise they are not welcome.
Journey to the East
‘Закричу, проиграю; промолчу, выиграю.’
– Vlad, 2018
The train—a patriotic red stripe—gave a mournful horn-blast, cogs and wheels mewling against the tracks as it pulled away from the undercover terminal and into an urban grey July day. Routine message, passed from station master to cabbie via a chunky intercom, indicated they were on schedule.
Passengers pocketed their tickets and wobbled along the narrow train car corridor to their compartments. Traders stowed their bundles and tourists focussed their camera lenses on the smog-blanketed city. One man, however, a striking blond, swayed not from the rock of the tracks but from internal affliction. The fibreglass walls of the toilet cubicle bore the brunt of repetitive open-palmed strikes against it but did nothing to contain a vicious slew of profanities.
Then, silence, and with a gasp of relief, the man gripped the stainless steel toilet rim and vomited a distinctive shade of electric green. He stayed, breathing hard, until a sharp rap on the cubicle door brought him to his feet. He flushed, ran his mouth under the cold tap and sucked on a breath mint.
The man turned heads as he exited the toilets. Passengers held their breaths as he passed and their eyes went dry from staring. The beauty of the man stirred something inside them—made them want to loosen their ties, or undo the top button of their blouses.
Later, when the reports made the news, they would whisper to their friends over coffee, to their spouses over Sunday roast, ‘Yes, I saw him’. ‘Yes, it was definitely him.’ ‘No, I don’t believe he would do such a thing.’
Dear Ivanov Vasiliev,
You have been invited to an exclusive location at the heart of the Gobi Desert as the prospective face of the biggest fashion campaign to hit the glamour world this year.
Khara Khoto (Mongolian: Khar Khot ‘Black City’) is an ancient Tangut city in inner Western Mongolia said to be haunted by the spirits of the ten or more thousand head of cattle, horses and citizens who were brutally killed when the Hun Chinese took the city from the Mongols in the 13th Century. Legend goes they surrounded the city’s walls, diverting the Ejin river, the city’s only water source, so that those inside were forced to drink each other’s blood to stay alive and were eventually mummified from thirst.
Of course, this is conjecture.
We look forward to your answer. It would be an honour to work with the most iconic face of the modern beauty world.
The Photoshoot Team
Vodka was cheaper than coffee. They served it in a disposable cup. That’s how Ivanov knew he was back in Russia. The eighty-proof alcohol singed his sinuses and the fallout dribbled through day-old stubble. That’s how he knew it had been a long time since he’d visited. He was out of practice. Still, the taste of vodka was better than the sour tang of vomit.
Six days. He’d have six days to re-acquaint himself with the беленькая vodka, since this was the Trans-Mongolian Railway–the most direct line of transport between Saint Petersburg and his destination: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. And since the message from his London agent, Bruno, had been clear–Heroin Chic is out; fail another blood test and say goodbye to representation–беленькая would have to suffice. For once, no amount of suggestive touches or sugary compliments from Ivanov could change Bruno’s mind.
Ivanov hoped six days would be enough.
With shaking hands, he read over the brief for the third time that morning. It was the strangest of his career, including the Burberry men’s cologne ad last Spring which had him spooning a taxidermy deer head on a fur rug in the middle of the woods. This one left with him no sense of aesthetic–nothing to bite his teeth into but the stress ulcer in his left cheek that wouldn’t go away. It came with an accompanying note, written in ink calligraphy on yellow parchment so brittle it threatened to crumble at the edges. A note translated from Mongolian into Russian by his agency reading:
‘The Black City’ belongs to the Tangut people. By accepting your offer of employment, you are also accepting Tangut conditions. Do not smoke, drink alcohol or consume illicit substances in or around the sacred city. Do not touch any remaining artefacts or relics inside the city walls. We will not take responsibility for consequences to those who do not follow these conditions.
Ivanov rolled his eyes—charming—and peeled off the aluminium seal on his second disposable shot. Like he needed more ultimatums to get clean.
He hoped the brief had come from one of the Big Five; Chanel, Louis Vuitton or the like. Chanel, especially, was notorious for its flamboyant, secretive campaigns. But something about this brief was too brief. There was something condescending in its tone.
He’d considered passing on the job. Inventing some unappealing bowel illness that would prevent him from turning up. Experience had taught him that sometimes it was better to play Russian Roulette with your dealer and blow your landlord, both of whom he owed an exorbitant amount of money, than see out a laced contract.
But this time he owed more money to more people than his usual tricks would cover.
So here he was.
The train slid into a sharp southerly turn, cresting a grassy hillock and soaking him in unfiltered morning light. The city skirts lifted to rolling yellow farmland cut short by harvest. Sweat stung his scalp, still raw from a white-blond bleach. It was blisteringly hot even for a European summer and his Iggy Pop tank stuck to his torso. The dry recirculating air-conditioner was making the claustrophobia of withdrawal worse.
Ivanov closed his eyes, counted to one-hundred, and chased the dragon in his mind—folded the foil, balanced the tar, flicked the lighter and sucked up the smoke with a straw. The mental reenactment of a ritual he’d carried out morning and night for just over a year was almost enough to smooth out his shakes and keep his mind off the spare baggie he’d sewn into the seam of his duffel. For emergencies only, he’d told himself. Because only a fool goes completely cold turkey on a train. But if he was being honest with himself, he’d put it there because the last time he’d tried to go cold, he’d ended up injuring the one and only person who’d thought of him as more than just a pretty face and a pleasing body.
Popping two horse-sized Nytol and his last two Gabapentins—the best over the counter sleep and anxiety tablets he could get his hands on at such short notice—he downed them with a third disposable беленькая. The crib-rock of the train did the rest.