Though I am very unhappy about interrupting the flow of my journey with an airline flight, the trip from Krasnoyarsk to Khabarovsk by plane goes smoothly with no dreaded airport delays. Khabarovsk is in the Far East of Russia and is located on the Amur River, which is actually the border between Russia and China in this area. As far as I know, the Ukhtomskiys did not travel to Khabarovsk but it was certainly a center of action and activity during the Civil War. In fact, most of the Russians who ended up emigrating to Harbin or other parts of China were from the Far East and Siberia. The Ukhtomskiys and families from the “European” part of Russia, who retreated with the White Guard troops to Siberia to avoid being arrested or murdered by the Bolsheviks, were in the minority in emigration in China. The Far East and the Maritime Province (Primoriye) were the last to finally fall to Bolshevik authority and the fighting here was as bitter and terrible as anywhere else in Russia.
I have only a few hours in Khabarovsk as my train for Harbin leaves the evening of the day I arrive. My tour guides meet me at the airport and give me a whirlwind tour of the city before dropping me off at the train station. I like the city enough that I wish I could spend more time here. The city center is a mixture of new construction and restored older buildings. As everywhere else, new churches dominate the skylines. And, as everywhere else, the Civil War monuments glorify the Red victors. As I try to take a photograph of one of these monuments, a street artist approaches Valentina (my tour guide) and myself and asks to draw her. She is not enthusiastic. He then asks if I am her mother and asks to draw me. I am not enthusiastic either. I take his card to be polite and we walk off to the broad staircase leading down to the Amur River.
Valentina tells me that the entire area bordering the river here has been renovated in recent years. It is beautiful and park-like and I can imagine that it is a popular place in warmer weather. The vast river stretches in either direction. It may be the largest river that I have ever seen. Valentina then tells me that it is so polluted that swimming has been banned for the last 10 years and fish caught here are not safe to eat. Perhaps further north, nearer its origins, the water may be cleaner but the combined industrial pollution from Russia and China (a double whammy) has so contaminated the water that the very nice beach we walk on is really good for nothing. Except as a place where one can stare out at the water in regret. Is this the inevitable future of the world, I wonder? I don’t know the success rate of cleaning up rivers that have been contaminated to this degree but the fact is that is no one is even making the attempt to clean it up anyway. The pollution is continuing at full speed. It is hard for me take this in as we walk along it. It is so immense and it would seem, looking at it, that it could feed the entire Far East with the quantity of fish that swim in it. Valentina tells me that there were many species that were unique to the Amur. But it is a poisoned river and that means this poison extends up the food chain. Any animals that consume the fish (if there are any left) are also poisoned. Or maybe entire food chains have died out…
It is ironic also because the air seems cleaner here than in the other cities I have visited. We visit another park where there are normally ponds and sculptures of various fantastic figures but the ponds have been drained in preparation for winter. Neptune pokes out of a dry pond-bed. I am shocked to learn that new apartments here are almost as expensive as in Moscow (according to Valentina). Not because this isn’t a nice place to live but I can’t imagine that salaries and wages here are as high as they are in Moscow.
We do one last loop around the city and drive across the Khabarovsk Bridge that spans the Amur. The surrounding areas and topography are flat and everything is yellow and brown in the cold dry autumn air.
Slow Train to China
My train departs at 9 p.m. I find the platform and walk on and on to find my car. It is, of course, the very last car of the train. This is because most of the rest of the train is going to Vladivostok. In Ussuriisk, my car will be uncoupled and attached to another train going west into China while the rest of it moves off east and south to Vladivostok.
As I wait to board, an Asian man approaches me in curiosity. He, like many people I have spoken with, is astonished that I am taking the train to Harbin. Why? Why not fly, he wonders? I tell him I am doing research but I can tell he doesn’t get it. He is also concerned that I am alone. It is dangerous, he cautions me. I could get robbed, or worse. I must be very careful. This is not a conversation I enjoy having as I stand alone on a dark railway platform but the die is cast, so to speak. I can only go forward. What awaits, awaits.
Then I am approached by a Russian man who asks me to carry a passport to someone waiting in Ussuriisk. I think not.
When I board, it appears to me that I am the only non-Chinese passenger. The attendants are Russian though. I chat with one of my compartment-mates, a young Chinese man who speaks Russian. He was approached by the Russian man outside to take the passport and agreed. He wonders out loud if perhaps he shouldn’t have. Most of the people on this train car are headed to Ussuriisk, he tells me. We will arrive there at 5 a.m. or so and stop over for three hours (this is why it takes so long to get to Harbin – without all the constant stops, we could get there in 12 hours or so but I am not slated to arrive until about 7 a.m., the day after tomorrow). He looks at my English-Mandarin phrase book with interest and then asks about pronunciation of the English word “red.” When Russians say it, it sounds like “ret” which sounds very different to him. We are then joined by a Korean young man who is very unfriendly and then a young Chinese woman. I am definitely the odd man out here, so to speak, since neither of them speak Russian. But it is all moot as everyone lies down and goes to sleep as soon as we depart.
I am awakened in the very early morning hours by a commotion outside the compartment. The door is opened and closed several times. I realize that I will probably not be getting any more sleep. I then hear the umistakeable sound of a drunken Russian voice. A man is yelling at someone – “This is Russia! This is Russia! Don’t give me any of your bah bah!”(this is followed by this person’s imitation of what he thinks Chinese sounds like). I find out later that the Korean guy somehow ran afoul of this idiot but, at the moment, I am confused as he (the Korean) re-enters the compartment, takes his bag and leaves. The Chinese fellow is also up and sitting on the young woman’s bunk and looking very nervous. She is either asleep or pretending to be. Suddenly, the door is slammed open and the xenophobic drunken Russian enters, rudely sits down on my bunk and demands to know where our friend is (the Korean guy). The young man stammers that he doesn’t know and that he is not his friend.
I have had enough at this point and sit up and ask the Russian why he is sitting on my bunk? I add that he is disturbing me. He looks at me blearily (he is in his twenties and would be nice-looking but booze and cigarettes are already blurring and distorting his features). He asks if I am the interpreter? I say that I am not an interpreter, that I am simply traveling and trying to get some sleep and repeat that he is disturbing me. My Chinese friend chimes in and says that he doesn’t know the Korean fellow and doesn’t know where he went. The drunken Russian mulls this over, then reaches over and pats him on the cheek (I wince when he does this because for all I know he is reaching out to hit him – the situation is so bizarre that I expect anything to happen). The Russian’s mood has mellowed, he now wants to be friends, even apologizes to the young man (but not to me, which actually really annoys me), gets up, and stumbles out. We are all relieved. The young man comments that the fellow is drunk. I say, drunk or not, he is a pig. I lock the door but we are now approaching Ussuriisk. Thankfully, it seems like almost everyone gets off the train. Later, I see only one other person in the car apart from myself and the young Chinese woman.
I am not really able to sleep anymore, however, and to top it off, as always in Russia, the bathrooms are locked while the train is at a station. We are not allowed to get off the train as we have moved away from the platform. I go to the attendant and persuade her to unlock one – I complain about the earlier ruckus and how I didn’t want to leave my compartment and she is sympathetic.
The young woman wakes up about 8:30 a.m. or so (we are still at the station) and asks why we are not moving. She seems to think that I am an authority and we communicate in sign language and her very few words of Russian and my phrasebook. We finally move off but stop very frequently (which means that the bathrooms are almost always locked). I am tired and not hungry but my compartment-mate insists that I share her fruit with her.
We finally arrive at Grodekovo. Here, the train has to be placed on narrower gauge tracks. Russia’s tracks are wider than China’s. This process takes about four to five hours. Plus, we have to go through Russian customs so we have to remove all of our baggage from the train. Then, after we finish here, we will board, travel for a half hour or so, take all our baggage and get off again to go through Chinese customs.
I stow my luggage at the station in Grodekovo and cross over the train tracks to Pogranichnaya. I am familiar with the name of this town as one of men who were put on trial with my grandfather, a fellow named Boris Shepunov, worked as a police investigator for the Japanese police here in the 1930’s. Back then, there were apparently no such elaborate requirements to cross the border here from China into Russia and back. The official history is that the Reds were victorious here as elsewhere and that by the 1930’s they were collectivizing land so I am unclear as to how the Japanese were able to operate here with impunity. They had occupied Manchuria in 1932 but, as far as I knew, any attempts to violate the border were met with resistance by the Soviet military. I get no answer to this question. (If anyone reading this can shed light on this, please feel free to comment).
This area was also one where Cossacks historically settled and there is a monument here to Gavriil Shevchenko, a Cossack who fought for the Reds. (The ones who fought for the Whites are charaterized as the “rich” Cossacks).
There is an outdoor market right near the train station but there is nothing of interest for me – cheap looking clothes, linens and other items. Eveything is made in China. I wander around and find the town war monuments but am tired and out of sorts and eventually go back to the station and read in the waiting room.
Two of the train cars from our train are being attached to a Chinese train here. The other car is a “luxury” class and there are four Dutchmen on it. We chat while waiting to go through customs. They were also traveling across Russia and are loaded down with cameras. I haven’t spoken English in a while and it seems odd to do so now. We are in agreement that Grodekovo/Pogranichnaya is not our idea of a happenin’ town. One of the Russian officials hears us speaking English and asks if I am the Dutchmen’s interpreter. I guess the only reason for a lone woman to be traveling in this area is if she is an interpreter.
As we wait, a train arrives from China. Russians who cross the border to buy Chinese goods are returning and have to go through customs. They have immense duffel bags filled to bursting with stuff. This goes on for a while. I see this stuff when I get to China – clothes, plastic goods, toys – piles of it lying on the sidewalks for sale, all poorly made and cheap looking. I envision it all discarded and cluttering our garbage dumps, floating in the ocean, miles and miles of brightly colored synthetic crap, drowning us all.
Finally, we are directed to customs. Once again, it is one of the easiest customs check I have ever had. A smiling official looks at my passport with interest, happily chats with me, and stamps my form without even glancing at my bags. The immigration booth is manned by a young man in training. I expect to have to show all of my hotel registration forms (I managed to get them in most places but forgot a couple so am wondering if I will have a problem). But the young man and his training officer don’t even mention these and simply stamp my passport. They are also both very pleasant, even waving goodbye to me as I walk out the door. I have no time to reflect on this momentous moment – I am now leaving Russia. The train is waiting and my Chinese friend waves at me from her car but as I get on I realize that this is not where I should be. She is going to Suifenhe, just across the border, and I am going on to Harbin. She is happy and cheerful now, feeling at home and wants me to join her. But I am directed back to my old car. This train car is filled with wooden benches and is manned by Chinese attendants. I have to make my way back to the “Russian” car.
When I get there, I see I am now the only passenger. (The Dutchmen also have their car to themselves). I realize when talking to the attendant that they probably never have passengers on this leg of the journey. She explains to me that once we pass through Chinese customs, we will stop for several hours at Suifenhe. I can either get off the train and see the town or stay on board. If I get off, I will not be able to re-board till they return as they are also all leaving. If I stay on, I will be locked in. She implies that there is not much for me to do in Suifenhe but it is up to me. I decide to stay on board since I am exhausted from no sleep. Once this is settled, she asks me curiously about my travels. We chat a bit. She says that Russian train personnel now get training in the Chinese language and schools are starting to teach Chinese and Japanese rather than French and German, especially in the Far East. After all, what good are those latter languages now? The future is Asia, she says.
Once we cross the border into China, the time is set back three hours. These constant time changes (there was a time difference between Krasnoyarsk and Khabarovsk as well) are wreaking havoc with my internal clock. As we travel, I peer at the landscape. Unfortunately the windows are very dirty so there is not much point in trying to take photographs. The area is hilly, brown and yellow. There are very few trees and all of them are bare or with dead leaves. We go through several tunnels bored into the hills. I see few settlements of any kind. At some point, we cross over into China and an armed Chinese soldier, dressed in camouflage, boards the train. I had just been taking photos through the window right before he boarded and I hide my camera. I remind myself that China is a police state whatever PR they like to spout and I should be more cautious. This point is driven home to me at customs.
When we arrive at the customs point, a uniformed military officer is standing at the door of the train and the expression on his face can only be described as a sneer. Welcome to China. I follow the attendant, up and down stairs lugging my bags. The Dutchmen and I are the only foreigners so the process is fast but very unpleasant. The immigration official assumes I am Russian and almost falls over backward when I hand him my passport. Perhaps this is a first for him because he discusses it excitedly with his colleague. A debate ensues as to where to place the stamp.
At customs, I have three, count ’em, three officials closely examining me and my passport. I am directed to open my backpack and purse and to remove everything. The customs official in charge is a tall, arrogant-looking man. He grabs my Kindle and motions for me to switch it on. He then press buttons randomly. I show him how it works and wonder if he is going to take it away but he sets it aside. He also closely examines my Blackberry. I have to unwrap everything but once I do they lose interest (I have my breakable souvenirs wrapped in paper). They giggle inanely at my underwear. Apparently, they are hoping for contraband but I disappoint them. Once finished, they simply turn away and direct their attention to the Dutchmen. The arrogance is insufferable.
I suppose there is nothing unusual in this (in fact, upon my return to the US of A, I get similar rude and unpleasant treatment at customs) but everything about it (the vaguely threatening attitude, the suspicious looks, and highhanded manner) reminds me of my visit to the Soviet Union in 1982 and also reminds me that I am entering a country where human rights are not really on anyone’s agenda. I know Russia’s track record on this is less than stellar but, for some reason, maybe because of the suspicious looks and almost universal sneers here (which were completely absent in Russia) I really don’t feel welcome in China at all.
As promised, the attendants leave me in the train car in Suifenhe and tell me not to worry when it is moved as it is going to be pushed onto some siding. I feel relieved to be alone finally and look foward to getting some uninterrupted sleep. It is all a bit surreal – I am completely alone in a railway car parked on some siding in a remote town in China. The oddness of it doesn’t stop me from going to sleep though.
I wake early as I want to see the approach to Harbin. In all the accounts I have read, Manchuria is described as a beautiful place with mountains, rivers, beautiful flora and dramatic landscapes but I am very disappointed in what I see. Perhaps all of that beauty is located on the other side of Harbin (to the west) because here, approaching from the east, is some of the most desolate and barren landscape that I have ever seen. As it is fall, it is possible that it is just the time of year that makes it look this barren. At any rate, it is a far cry from what I was expecting.
I wonder what awaits me in Harbin, my mother’s birthplace.