Sweet and sour takeway
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
36Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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He stops in front of a slightly dishevelled greybeard sitting on a store step sipping from a hip flask-shaped bottle of vodka.
No words pass. They look into each other's eyes, quietly, before the beggar reaches into his chest pocket, pulls out a 10 rouble note, and passes it to the old grey.
Greybeard attempts to return it, but Knuckles just smiles, nods his head and drifts away.
I spent a long time sitting there, looking at that money.
I had only been on a train for a night and a day, on the way from Harbin in China, to Vladivostok in Russia, and didn't think I looked that rough
But I could not help wondering how this rare act of curious charity had so sweetened a sourness that had been left by my final taste of Chinese fare.
Russia's rail gauge is wider than China's, and one gets dumped on the street outside the station of the one-track border town of Pogranichnyy while the carriages go off somewhere to be lifted by crane from their Chinese wheel bases and placed on to broader axles.
Three hours in the sun. And a deli that carried a range from local smoked salmon and fresh Ementaller cheese to two dozen labels of vodka and fridges of beer.
So, when in Rome, or otherwise ...
Hours earlier, the train had ambled into the Chinese border town of Suifenhe.
Tanya, the carriage attendant had supplied all the immigration paperwork shortly before two ramrods clomped down the passage and signalled that it would amuse them to take a peek inside my bags.
Open up, and he pulls everything out. Rumpled shirt after rumpled short. Scratching through crinkled bags of bits and bobs, tossing all in unruly fashion the length of the bunk.
Not just knives, but souvenirs from Xinjiang, in far-west China. Hand-made Uighur knives. Nothing major, 12cm blades. But beautifully honed, and delicately finished.
Ramrod makes a big song and dance, in a language which of course I don't understand, but in whose cadence and tone I am attaining a fine fluency.
"You have just lost your knives."
What, you're crazy! I am leaving China. That is Russia over there.
I indicate that I cut food with the knives, and then stuff the food into my mouth.
Po-face ramrod is unamused, and unmoved.
I had carefully selected one of the knives, and been given the other as a gift, and felt somewhat attached to them, so huffed and puffed a bit. Po-rod indicates that I could stab somebody with them.
Idiot. He had come across my regular kitchen knife in my bag, which I point to. He then indicates I can only have one.
So I can't stab somebody with the kitchen knife?
Allow me to change the kitchen knife for the Uighur handmade model.
Not on your nelly.
He turns and marches off, leaving my belongings now strewn around the compartment.
"I am leaving China. It is not possible for me to stab any Chinese person from this point onward."
He would not hear of it.
Thanks for the lemon, pal.
Somebody sticking to the letter of the law, one suspects, rather than the intent of the law, prancing for his underling alongside.
And it's hard to believe the knives will be tied together with a little tag and placed in a little 'confiscated' box. Suifenhe is pretty much at the end of the world, where people know a good utensil when they see one.
The knives had travelled across the entire width of the country, passed about a dozen other police searches, and probably 20 x-ray machines.
If any Chinese official would like to return them to me, in an act of Olympic generosity, the 'incident' occurred at 9am, September 4, on the N25 between Harbin and Vladivostok, carriage 21, cabin III. I was the only passenger.
There are thousands of these knives in Xinjiang, it is a village industry
But then of course, Xinjiang is semi-autonomous. How short-sighted of me.
Then, only hours later, a beggar says don't worry pal.
Fortunately po-rod's spoilsport behaviour in no way negated how kind the non-uniforms had been in the ride across their country. So many people had gone far beyond the call to help, spent ages trying to interpret my sign language, had walked blocks and blocks out of their way to show me where I wanted to go.
The final leg of the journey kicked off in Beijing, days earlier, in a case of 'what a difference a train makes'.
Arrive at Beijing station, ornately lit up like a christmas tree. Late purple dusk. Throngs of people sit on the outside concourse.
Sounds like India.
It couldn't have been more different.
Everybody sits in little, ordered groups. Everybody is well-attired, accompanied by their black, wheeled suitcases.
Giant neon info boards flicker outside the station doors.
The quiet hum of modern, semi-electrified traffic fills the background.
Enter Delhi, where rickshaws are hollering, saris swirl through the smog and smoke, holy men, semi-naked men, dotted and painted faces, and bundle after bundle after bundle fill the view. Everything seems to move in an ordered chaos.
People enter and exit doors that say 'Entry only'. The aromas of Indian delicacies waft along the platforms. Stall after stall after barrow after walking salesmen with buckets and trays.
Drift around, be where you want to be, nobody cares who you are, where you are, and why you might be anywhere in that station.
Enter the front door of Beijing station by ticket only, and of course play the x-ray game.
Inside everything is pristine. No stragglers. Only instructions to move to the 'waiting hall'.
Passengers are in effect herded into predetermined holding pens. There is nothing for sale, no food, snacks or water.
Wait in the pen for an hour.
Then the gates are opened, and peak-cap guides his flock to the train.
On the platforms there is nothing. Nothing.
No fair-thee-well wishers. No snack stations. No bathrooms. No water facilities.
Only 10 minutes of uniforms reading your ticket and pointing you in the direction of your cabin.
Enter the cabin, and it's like a 3-star joint.
Plush duvets, ironed sheets. Personalised TVs. Personalised headsets. Ten channels. AC controls.
And this is only 2nd class.
Two other passengers enter the 4-bunk zone.
A 12-hour journey to Harbin, home to the great ice-sculpture shows, and neither of the two accompanying passengers says one word to me, or each other. Not hullo, excuse me, or goodbye.
Sit in an Indian train and be bombarded with questions, requests for you to part with your money for innumerable reasons, shove and push and shout at people who are also shouting, and most people are laughing while they are shouting, and selling and hustling.
Harbin is China meets Russia. Rescued from the Japanese by the Russians, and returned to Beijing under friendship agreements. Early 20th century Russian architecture strikes a strange balance with the burgeoning glass and chrome now becoming the hallmark of China's urban resurrection.
Large signs declare 'Russian Goods and Chopstick Shop'.
This is the land of the Manchurian tiger.
The local park offers a tiger safari.
Arrive at the gate, and board a mini-bus with heavy window grating.
Drive 300m into a 5m-high fenced area, about 3 acres. Tigers sit under the trees in the shade, or loll under man-made shade shelters. Through an electronic gate into the next enclosure, of similar size. More tigers doing the same thing. "Keep the windows closed," even with the heavy grilling.
Five more enclosures. U-turns so the people on the left and right of the bus get equal viewing times. Around 20 seconds per sighting.
Bonus. There's a yard with a few African lions. Click, click, click.
After 20 minutes, and seeing 40 or 50 tigers in the non-wild, the bus returns to the admin block.
A walking tour takes one past small concrete pens holding tigers, then singly, a white tiger, lion, lioness, leopard, some cheetahs and a jaguar.
Except for one bull of a lion, the big tigers do seem to be 'king of the cats'.
Drift through town. The local delicacy is squid kebab. Roadside stall after stall has lines of big 12" squid (calamari) sizzling away on their wooden skewers.
A Wal-Mart drifts into view. God save China from this imperialism, although they have certainly learnt their capitalism from the Wal-Marters of the world.
Pop in to grab a morsel, and find a shopping cart escalator ... a downhill airport-style travellator without steps. Grooved wheels lock into the grooves of the moving floor. Slower than walking pace, past bins of knick-knacks. The hand automatically reaches out to pick up a delicacy.
And so onwards, past the border blow-hard, into Russia.
Out at the border station, and an Olga, if I have ever seen an Olga, approaches. Thickset, with ill-fitting medi-smock covering an underlying crimp dress, its hem creeping out. A live model for caricatures of 1960's Soviet Olympic team medical officers.
She holds a kind of ray gun in her hand, gestures at each passenger's forearm, and zaps them with a laser beam.
What's that for, honey, with a strong attempt at rrrrolling my rrrrr's.
Odd, why the hell don't they use such nice, non-intrusive machines in hospitals, then, one might ponder.
Walk along the platform and towards the immigration desk. A non-uniform looms: "Vot ees yorrr meeshun in Rrrushia?"
Out, into the street, meet the beggar, and an hour later return the favour and give him 10 yuan.
Oy, he calls out, it's Chinese money. I smile, and wave three fingers at him. His investment had paid off, as the note is worth three time the 10 rouble note.
Into Vladivostok, a cross between East London of the 1970s and Oslo.
A proper harbour city. Huge, perfect harbour bay, and home to the Pacific Fleet that ranges from the publicized rust-buckets to serious state of the art killing/hunting machines.
The older ones in the back rows, the more modern up front. All intermingled with passenger liners and tugs.
The streets of the rugged city are wide, and slow with traffic. Interspersed with the cowboy racer.
This is also 4x4 city. But no Ladas. Only fancy Japanese vehicles.
Sailors saunter between the general population, still wearing their iconic blue and white horizontally striped T-shirt, or vest, below the white shirt of their uniform. The top button is undone, revealing the stripes.
Hats are cocked at jaunty angles.
There is none of the grim, grim of the Chinese soldier. And yet Russia is in a state of conflict on a number of fronts.
Senior officers' caps are somewhat bizarrely broadly brimmed, almost in competition with mini sombreros.
For shade? In this part of the world?
And they can't be very functional on deck in any kind of blow.
Drag a few roubles out of an ATM machine, and the security guard in front of the bank whispers to me "secret service", and gestures to a nondescript panel van.
Next, in a flash, four thickset, squat bundles of muscle, with black elbow guards, black knee guards, black mitts, boots, black shorts and T-shirts whip themselves out of the van's door. Two carry a large trunk, two carry futuristic-looking machine guns, tucked comfortably and professionally under their forearms.
Look the other way, walk the other way.
Like some extreme XXX movie without the cameras and lights.
I tame a few Russians at the Texas Hold'em poker table in the hotel's casino, then get tamed when I get bored of playing the waiting game.
And it's time to board the Trans-Siberia.
See ya in Moscow.