First things first. I have finally crossed the border. I am in Russia. After almost four months on the road (yes, I am counting my three week sojourn in New Zealand), and far longer than that talking about it. The Russian Far East has opened up and swallowed me. So now you know that this story has a happy ending.
It is a bit like a Mastercard ad.
I get on the train in Harbin. A few troubles finding the right carriage (it is actually two trains linked together), but eventually I sidle into a room (four bunks to a room, 11 rooms to a carriage) with three cute young Russian chicks (my mother would want me to replace that chicks with women, I know). No problem.
There is an endless supply of tea, and the bread and sausage I bought (and brought) are both delicious. No problem.
The weather is perfecto – sunny, warm, unlimited visibility and a whole panoply of sights goes past me as I lie on my bunk. No problem.
We race through China all night to the border town of Suifenhe. Now the problems begin.
The endless Chinese and Russian immigration and customs officals are okay, all things considered. But it takes forever. Like about 6 hours, during which the train moves for 5 minutes (to go from one customs zone across the ‘border’ to the other).
Then we spend another 3 hours watching them change the wheels on the carriages (China and Russia do not use the same gauge railway – although the difference looked pretty small to me).
Then they tell me there is a 3 hour time difference. China refuses to have more than one time zone. Russia has eleven. If you go straight up (which we basically did) from China into Russia, you usually still need to change your watch.
So the whole day has gone by, and nothing has happened.
Around 9pm we reach Ussuriysk. An okay sort of town, by the look of it. The three devushki get out. But not before one of them tells me that the train does not get to Vladivostok until the next day. It does not look so far on the map, so I go and ask the provodnitsa (train carriage supervisor person). She says we will be in Vladivostok at 5 the next morning because we stop for a while just outside Ussuryisk. There are 8 of us on the train. The rest are Chinese. I speak the best Russian of all of us (which is saying something).
But fair enough. The train stops here for a bit. Sleep comes quickly to me – speaking Russian makes me tired, I think.
Morning comes. Then the provodnitsa appears and explains that actually the train tracks have been washed away in rains and the train does not go to Vladivostok at all. In fact, it can not go to Vladivostok. We have to get out, and take a bus to a place called Yugolnaya where we can catch a bus into Vladivostok.
The Chinese people do not undertstand her. She gets upset at them (at one point saying that she has worked on the railway for 7 years and never encountered such rude passengers!). They get upset at her. One of them even hits her (just out of frustration, pushing away her arm). Another shuts her in one of the rooms to try to stop her endlessly repeating the same information. Both say sorry almost straight away.
But it was a bit odd to be standing on a train on a siding not far from nowhere early on a Friday morning, watching a fight between seven Chinese tourists and a Russian train supervisor who do not have a language in common.
Eventually things were explained. So we go to the bus station (parenthetically, the Chinese people have an absurdly absurd amount of baggage and are unable to carry it in just one go).
At the bus station they tell us that we can not catch a bus without paying. I argue that we have already paid to go to Vladivostok. My logic is obviously compelling because then we go back to the train station (on a bus – why can it not take us?), and manage to get on a train that is going (so it says) to Vladivostok.
In fact, when we get to Yugolnaya, the train stops and everyone who is bound for Vladivostok has to get out and take to the buses anyway. Sigh.
Six million people already and more coming all the time. The bus rides are somewhat packed. Ridiculously dangerously so. At least they are cheap.
Then I end up in the wrong part of Vladivostok anyway. So I have to grab another jam packed bus (in which people make rude comments about my backpack – what can I do?).
Eventually, however, I survive the journey to downtown Vladivostok. As I write this from my hotel (no, it is not cheap, sadly), I look out the window at a perfect afternoon on the Gulf of Amur.
I think I might just pop down to the beach.