When we returned to rail travel on the morning of Tuesday 14 August, the carriages were more colourful, blue and red stripes instead of the dull matt green we had grown accustomed to. And the train differed from its predecessor in other respects, positive and negative. Strongly in its favour it had superior toilets. Unlike our first train too, which had been ‘inserted’ to mop up stragglers, mostly Russians heading for Vladivostok put out by their Korean guest’s slow exit from the country, this train was properly timetabled and equipped. Against it, our carriage, number two, was hermetically sealed and without air-conditioning: none of the windows, cabin or corridor, opened. Protests eventually led to the release by screwdriver of three corridor windows.
Siberia slid by, the only variation being the higher frequency of mongoloid features at the station halts. Lunch and the evening meal, however, were a cut above those we had experienced before. We jettisoned our remaining rubles on a bottle of vodka (for £2), which we shared with another family of four. We slept well.
On Wednesday 15 August at Chita, 6199 kilometres out of Moscow, the prospect of China became real with the switch from the Trans-Siberian to the Trans-Manchurian branch of the railway. Eva explained that leaving Russia, changing the bogies to accommodate the new gauge, and entering China, would take most of the day. ‘Dinner will not be before 11pm’, she predicted.
The initial border stop occurred after lunch. Our passports and customs forms were collected, although it felt, as always on the involvement of minor public officials, as if they had been confiscated. In the event the facilities were better than Eva remembered. We collected enough rubles to purchase cakes and a few bottles of beer. We sat, read, dozed and meandered in and out of the shade. Early attempts to visit the engine sheds to witness the bogie change were rebuffed. It seems that when soldiers are in the vicinity this is in itself sufficient to prevent photographs; Eva explained that nobody had been permitted to enter the sheds on the previous journey. When the soldiers suddenly and unaccountably vanished however, a small delegation including our group strode purposefully back down the track, and this time our presence was tolerated. It was an odd, primitive and hypnotic process. Each carriage was cranked up while the Russian bogies were displaced by their Chinese counterparts. It was not a process to be hurried, and it took four hours before we were permitted back on board.
Our passports and customs forms were returned. We were now treated to a series of routine, scrupulous and time-consuming searches of our carriages, carried out by a uniformed team led by a six-foot blond Russian woman in her twenties with an incongruously short skirt. Was this for drugs, a major problem in this part of the globe, or currency, or arms? It was reminiscent of the Keystone Cops. Nothing was left uncovered, even in our loo, which was examined and re-examined. Eva overheard members of the leader’s team complaining to each other about her excessive diligence. We waited in our sauna of a cabin with no option but patience.
The short, eerie passage through ‘no man’s land’ and into China took place at 8.30pm, Irkutsk time, which adjusted to 7.30pm Chinese time. Chinese officials now boarded the train, insistent but more circumspect than their Russian equivalents. A youngish man with serious spectacles entered our cabin to check our visas. Unaccountably, he proclaimed that I ‘looked like a professor’; there was nothing to suggest my occupation on my visa, as far as I was aware. He quizzed me and volunteered that he had studied English Literature in Beijing a decade ago and had dreamed of studying in London prior to joining the army. It was not too late, he added wistfully. He was the first of several, if the most loquacious: how many officials does it take to examine a passport and papers?
Eva was not so far out in her predictions about our evening meal. We disembarked for two hours at a station called Manzhouli, formerly known as Manchuria Station, 6661 kilometres from Moscow, and yet still 2323 kilometres short of Beijing. The departure time was to be 10.47pm, now and henceforth Beijing time. The station buildings housed a variety of stalls, selling an unlikely assortment of food, drinks and durables, as well as official currency exchange. Most surreal, however, were the currency touts, competing noisily with each other and the official exchange from within cages of wire mesh. We played safe, although I am not sure why.
But the real business for the group at Manzhouli was to be the evening meal. A picnic comprising bread, sausage, cheese and fruit was set up on a free table. Unfortunately the table turned out to be the emigration control desk, but the request that we move was quiet and courteous. The station windowsills provided a usable substitute.
When we awoke the next day, 16 August, the generally impoverished and austere Russian landscape had been replaced by expanses of cultivated land stretching to our horizons; and, it seemed, by smiling people cycling by. Our passing, hooting train elicited waves and smiles. It all smacked of a society moving, progressing, very much in contrast to the depressed, anomic, post-1989 society we had so recently left. It was an early impression, doubtless requiring many qualifications, but one I was never to abandon.
Just before breakfast we stopped at Argangxi, 40 kilometres distant from the ancient city of Qiqihar. Outside Qiqihar lies the ‘field of death’, a traditional site of Chinese execution of hunghutzes, or bandits. Eva, having read her guidebook, reminded us both of the Chinese propensity for decapitation, and that such action then usually required the severed head to be sewn back in place since it was commonly believed that entry to ‘Paradise’ was barred to mortals with parts of their bodies missing. The unfortunate hunghutzes, however, had their heads sewn back the wrong way round so as not to lower the moral tone of Paradise. The very punishment of decapitation was abandoned late and with some reluctance.
The countryside adjacent to the track and as far as the eye could see continued to defy description. It was the scale and intensity of the cultivation that beggared belief: literally hundreds of square kilometers of crops. And so the day drifted by, green and, like indigenous cyclists, forever waving. It was Harbin, a mere 1388 kilometres from Beijing, that afforded us our first opportunity for a breather, 15 minutes of immobility. Harbin had been a small fishing village on the River Sungari until the late 1890s, when the Russians had made it the headquarters of the railway building in Manchuria. Now few Russian remained and it is a substantial industrial centre. There followed hour-upon-hour of cutting relentlessly through shimmering green. Hundreds of kilometers went by as I read Stockman, my first academic acquaintance with this enormous, new and changing country.
The night was unpleasant. The cabin was like the infamous ‘black hole of Calcutta’, densely, oppressively hot and humid. We had been instructed to keep the cabin door shut, against the risk of theft or worse. In the event Annette and I had to escape periodically into the corridor for air. We both lost consciousness in a momentary loss of concentration: the door, by happenstance, was shut, locked and the handles, as usual, tied together. We survived, and Beijing drew inexorably closer.
We felt we had been micro-waved by the time Eva knocked on our cabin door at 4am. Was our arrival in Beijing imminent? No. We were on schedule, but it was the use of toilet facilities that was urgent, unless visitors/invaders from other carriages establish permanent occupancy. At 5.30am or thereabouts we were tipped onto the platform, quitting our travel by rail for the last time. Independently of any reservations about pressure-cookers and so on, I think we all paused for a quiet moment or two.
A hotel representative, Jason (in Anglicized form), met us and we traipsed after him to a mercifully air-conditioned coach. The subsequent drive was a longish one and took us through Beijing’s ‘red light district’, which Jason took pains to point out. As we approached the hotel he added that we would unquestionably receive telephone calls to our rooms offering massages. We should not be deceived: these were sex workers touting for business. Eventually we reached the Rainbow Hotel. But our travails were not over: the rooms booked for us were not available until 1-1.30pm. We breakfasted, which proved a wonderful compensation: the highlights, bacon and bottomless coffee. Every time I drained my coffee a sweet vision in red, hovering close, refilled it. A consensus slowly and organically evolved that the group’s tour to Tiananmen Square be re-scheduled from afternoon to morning, a thoroughly sensible re-adjustment given the continuing inaccessibility of our rooms. Jason was to be our guide.
Tiananmen Square made Moscow’s Red Square look puny; but like the latter it resonates with an admix of past, present and future. It is bounded by the Great Hall of the People to its west, the Museum of Chinese History to its east, the Imperial Palace to its north, and, through and around the Qianmen Gate, the throb of everyday life and shopping to its south. It was here, although in a Square a quarter of its present expanse, that Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949; and of course it was here also that the notorious democratic rallies of the summer of 1989 occurred. Watching his words, Jason told us his friend’s brother was among those killed in the army’s crushing of the students: ‘he can’t let it go’.
Having seen Lenin, now it was Mao’s turn. And Mao seemed in higher demand. If 1989 was the real and symbolic termination of Soviet bloc supremacy, it was a temporary blip for the increasingly flexible Communist Party of China. The queue we joined was long but fast moving and heavily and efficiently policed by means of loudspeakers. Bunches of artificial flowers were available for purchase from kiosks prior to entering the mausoleum. Edging through a front hall, where the flowers were laid none-too-reverently on trolleys, presumably for re-cycling (a nice little earner for the Party), we were met once again with harsh and unforgiving light: and there he was, another icon to the praxis of Marxism (an icon, I had read, is designed to induce the right thoughts and feelings).
We trekked back to the coach and were driven to the Temple of Heaven. Built in 1420, the Temple served as a place of ritual for the Ming emperors. The details of the rituals themselves Annette and I were content to skip, and I noticed that we were not the only ones to slip discretely out of earshot. The architecture was classical and, to me, more interesting than pleasing. Taken in the round the Temple complex was an eloquent expression of imperial autocracy, and one less ‘long gone’ than one might imagine. Sheer tiredness took the edge off my engagement.