Day 10: Manzhouli to Zabaikalsk , Into Russia

A green gate and a bilingual Stop sign stop us from covering the last short stretch of road into Russia.
Between borders.

At 5:20am I am up and soon on my way to the bus terminal.

It is a clear but chilly morning. It feels like it will warm up, but I want to be at the terminal in plenty of time for my 7:20am departure to Zabaikalsk.

I’m not expecting anything to go wrong, but the details of my first border crossing are weighing heavily on my mind.

A 1000 Ruble ‘tip’ guarantees safe passage for the Troll and her baggage. These are then loaded awkwardly into the back seat of the tour bus. And then we’re off.

The border crossing necessitates presenting our passports no less than four times.

Firstly we have to prove who we are to the Chinese authorities. Then we have to prove that we have the Chinese departure stamp. Then we have to prove who we are to the Russian authorities. And then we have to prove that we have the Russian arrival stamp.

This is intermingled with a fair amount of waiting around, which doesn’t help my anxiety.

I had secured my Russian visa before I’d left New Zealand. It had required obtaining an ‘invitation’ from a local company, a weird concept for me. I’d followed the lead of other cycle tourists and paid the local cycle touring club 30 euro to vouch for me.

The inviting company was based in Moscow, and so my application itinerary dutifully listed a hotel in that city. But, with only 30 days on my visa, I never intended to go to Moscow. In fact, at the Russian embassy in New Zealand, a friendly man had asked me if I was going to visit Lake Baikal, which I was. But, worried that it was some sort of a trick, I’d responded that no, I was definitely going to Moscow.

And now, here I am, crossing the border into Russia, with a touring bicycle. I’ve just used my phone to purchase a £35 train ticket from Zabaikalsk to Irkutsk, but I don’t have the confirmation from Real Russia yet. And so I actually could be heading to Moscow. I’m just not a very good liar.

I reach the front of the queue, and then watch in despair as the Russian customs officer wanders off with my passport. I’m left with the remaining officer, a robust lady, to enjoy an awkward pause.

Finally, after a nail-biting 10 minute wait and some friendly jabs from another passenger, they stamp me through into Russia. Phew!

Outside the dreary customs office, my seat mates and I enjoy a friendly but halting conversation.

A nice lady named Toma buys the rest of us, Micha, Banjita and I, some sort of deep fried mince and onion thing. It is delicious.

At Zabaikalsk we part ways, and I remain on the bus to be driven to the railway station. One other passenger remains on board, a young Russian man. Staid and quiet, he reminds me of my friend Simon.

It can’t be far to the station, or can it?

The driver is making a large number of undocumented stops. At each stop he retrieves another parcel from behind, or under, a seat, to deliver it to another one of the many import/export operations, operating in the back alleys of Zabaikalsk.

At one such stop, men working in a dingy yard sort Chinese made clothing into piles. They toss the branded clothing around as if it is worth nothing, which I assume is the case. I’ll definitely think twice before handing over large denominations for label brands again.

Eventually, I too am delivered, to a carpark opposite the station.

I’d read that Zabaikalsk was not a place where one would want to linger, but now that we’ve escaped the rabbit warren of commerce, it actually seems quite likeable. There’s no-one about, but, unlike Manzhouli, it feels like a small and friendly community, one filled with civic pride.

The carpark contains a strip of leafy trees, and I set the Troll up under one of these, attaching each pannier to the correct mounting point.

Unfortunately the overbridge, which separates me from the station, has not been built with Accessibility In Mind. I lift the panniers off again and make several trips back and forth, before depositing everything outside the station.

To my dismay, there is no Wi-Fi or 3G coverage at the station.

The ticket I bought at customs either is, or isn’t, floating around in the mail server aether.

I try to communicate with the teller at the station, hoping to confirm my booking there. But there is only a lot of incomprehensible head shaking and nyents. She shows me the computer screen which just lists the train times. I’m none the wiser about what it is that I am, or am not, able to do.

I decide that nothing is going to be achieved by just waiting around, and that a ride into ‘town’ is my best bet, to try and find some semblance of coverage.

After discovering that the purposeful paths around the station do not actually lead to town, I manage to cross the railway tracks and find a dirt road. It runs out of town via a small and rustic neighbourhood.

As luck would have it, there is a truck-stop at the end of the road.

It has Wi-Fi and cheap Russian prices. NZD 10 buys me a big plate of roast chicken & yummy stodgy rice, 3L of water, a chocolate bar and two cups of coffee.

While stuffing my face, I send a cry for help to the Real Russia booking service. Eventually, I receive the e-ticket.

A 5 day ride to Chita is thereby narrowly averted, and I cruise back to the station. I stop only once, when a pair of local policemen pull me over to see what I am doing there. After checking my passport, they deem me low risk and send me on my way.

On the station platform, I set about dismantling the Troll.

I think I have hours until my train leaves, but I don’t entirely trust the time zones here. As it happens I am waiting quite a while, but with my bike in pieces, I’m not going anywhere.

When I finally go to board the train, two solid female wardens intercept me and pull out their measuring tapes. They conclude, somewhat ironically, that my steed is oversized.

Out of nowhere, two valiant young men, Denis & Dimosha, leap to my rescue. They yank at the Troll’s fragile components and tape her wheels to her frame, in a no-holds-barred attempt to get her dimensions down to something acceptable.

They seem pretty successful, but the wardens aren’t having a bar of it. After surveying and remeasuring the compact package, one of them marches me down to the ticket counter. I have to pay a measly 110 ruble (NZD 2.50) fine, for a large and/or heavy object.

Having legitimatised my luggage, the lads help me onto the train with it.

They heave the Troll into the luggage space above the adjacent bunks, taping her to the ceiling air vent. There she teeters, precariously, above the people seated at the table below.

My own bunk, is, thankfully, located well away from this ticking time bomb, in the hall.

In a show of appreciation, I sit down with Denis & Dimosha in their berth, sharing my cookies and chocolate.

Dimosha is the more confident and chatty of the two. I learn that, while he has a background in insurance, he is also a trained sniper!

I’d like to buy them both a drink, but when my request for vodka is translated to the staunch, matron-like attendant, she scolds them. Then, two flak-jacket wearing policemen walk in and scold them again. Watch your mouth, or I’ll send you and your snot nosed friend straight to the Siberian gulags. The exact translation is unclear, but they’re clearly not here to make friends.

The boys beat a quick retreat to the non-alcoholic safety of their carriage. I settle for a cup of tea, the enterprising matron convincing me to complement this with a glass mug and teaspoon celebrating famous Russian destinations.

The guys get comfortable for the long ride ahead.

In full public view, they change out of their neatly pressed shirts and jeans, into different shirts and shorts.

Dimosha shows me a black mark on his jeans, apparently from the Troll’s oily chain. Tidy appearances are clearly important here, and I feel terrible, but I’m unsure what to do and whether he expects me to reimburse him for a new pair. I apologise profusely, but, fearing tourist prices, I leave my wallet in my pocket.

At the ends of the carriages, tough guys and skinny girls flirt over cigarettes and loud chatter.

I join them briefly and talk to one of the girls. She is slim and has that classic Russian ‘look’. It seems that this owes itself, in large part, to the popularity of cigarettes here.

She tells me that she is from a town beyond Irkutsk. She loves it there, but the winters are inhospitable. She says that the family basically hibernates during this time, with lots of vodka.

It seems likely that her physical beauty will be short lived, but her tough Russian survival instincts will endure.

As night falls, everyone retires to bed. But, when the train makes a midnight stop, I’m alarmed to wake and find that my carriage is empty! Thankfully, a nervous glance out the window reveals that the entire train is just getting their nicotine fix, on the platform.