Blog number four: from Irkutsk onwards:
Tuesday 14 August
Breakfast, ironically, was in the bar I had vacated about 1am, whence a minibus transported us back to Irkutsk Station. Eva seemed reluctant to talk over plans for the day. Maybe this reflected local uncertainty, but on the other hand … We had learned to be wary. The uncertainty was succeeded by muddle and haste: Eva had not understood our cabin allocations. This time, the ‘22’ occupied carriage two.
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 ‘constructed’ to mop up stragglers, mostly Russians heading for Vladivostok who had been ‘put out’ by their Korean guest’s slow exit from the country, this train was properly timetabled and equipped. Against it, carriage 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 once more, 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. During the latter we sat with Chris, a lawyer, and his teenage son, Edward, who generously poured us glasses of their champagne. The 16-year old Edward was apparently the only member of their family willing to travel with Chris on his long train journeys, and he had been delegated to keep an eye on his dad. It seemed to be a warm and witty companionship. They occupied the cabin next to ours. When they retired we jettisoned our remaining rubles on a bottle of vodka (for £2), which we shared with another family of four. Sean turned out to be a – somewhat jaded – engineer in the aerospace industry, his wife a teaching assistant; Kate, in appearance much like her mother and through adolescence a rebellious handful, or so her mother whispered to me, is now manager of a local building society, and Jo, as like her father as Kate is her mother, is studying history at the University of Manchester. They were amiable, diligent Christians and had no obvious antipathy to alcohol. We slept well.
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. Annette somehow contrived to be awake at this nightly moment of transition. After breakfast Eva provided us with the customs forms required to exit Russia. She 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 Ken, Nigel, Annette and I, plus Stu (perhaps the one genuine enthusiast and ‘spotter’ among us) stride purposefully back down the track, and this time our presence was tolerated. It proved 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 a full four hours before we were permitted back on board.
Our passports and customs forms were returned. We were now treated to any number of routine but 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 for 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 welcoming and circumspect than their Russian equivalents. A youngish man with serious spectacles entered our cabin to check our visas and us. 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 (anyway, do I?). He quizzed me and volunteered that he had studies 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, an extraordinary 6661 kilometres from Moscow, and yet still 2323 kilometres away from 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 unexpected and 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 quite and courteous. The station windowsills provided a usable substitute. Sam asked me what sociology was about, but I only half engaged, fatigue by then coming over me. We re-boarded the train and left, me with my nose stuck in Stockman once more, that is, until I faded out. Approximately eight hours waiting in and around stationary trains had made for a long and improvised day.
Thursday 16 August
When we awoke 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 was always to elicit waves and smiles. It all smacked of a society moving, progressing, very much in contrast to the depressed, anomic society we had so recently left. It was an early impression, doubtless requiring many qualifications, which I was never to abandon.
Just before breakfast we stopped at Argangxi, some 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 t 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 kilometres of crops. And so the day drifted by, green and, like its indigenous cyclists, forever waving. It was Harbin, a mere 1388 kilometres from Beijing, that afforded us our first opportunity for a breather, a full 15 minutes of immobility. Annette and Steff hunted down and haggled for some fruit, which we wolfed without ceremony. Of Harbin itself we saw little. It 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 my 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.