This was not easy.
It started with a nice surprise… When we booked our ticket we were told we were in the compartment next to the Providnitsas which had 2 beds. We were actually in a 4 bed cabin to ourselves. For 2 nights and 3 days!
So we got on the train, settled in and we were off! Whoop! Away from Russia! Towards China! For 2 hours until we reached some back of beyond town where the carriage was separated from the rest of the train that was going somewhere else, and we were put into a siding. All night. It was actually not too bad, bit wierd not to have the clacking, rumbling and juddering of the train, but we slept well.
In the morning the carriage was attached to the new engine and again we were off! “To China!” We cried. The train stopped 2 hours later at the border town, Ussurisk where we got off the train with all our stuff, optimistically headed for the cutoms office and were promptly told to wait upstairs. OK no probs, we read about this in the book – just a relatively short wait of 3 hours or so. Time ticked on. 3 hours came and I headed downstairs to see if the office was open. It wasn’t. OK more waiting. Hmm this was taking a long time. Stef went to find something out and came back very angry indeed. The woman in the customer facing position who was there for god knows what reason cos it wasn’t customer service had turned her back on him mid sentance and walked off. An hour later (T+4 hours) I made an attempt on information and managed to get out of a different woman that the wait was 7 hours. Yes 7 HOURS in a waiting room. With no coffee.
Finally! 3.30 dragged around and we joined the scrum of Chinese tradesmen and Russian shoppers in the customs office. Oh My God, I’ve never seen so many boxes and bags and baskets of stuff!! The chinese were very nice and pointed us through to the little glass booth where the scary Russian woman with an iron hairdo held the power to keep me in Russia. God please no! Let me leave! I wanna go to China!
The woman in the little glass booth looked at me very suspiciously when I handed over my passport and kept me waiting for a loooooong time. Oh God they were going to keep me! But no, finally I was through and Stef approached the glass booth and the iron haired woman. And stood there, and stood there and then was taken away! Eeeeek!!! About 5 million years later he was brought back and we were both free!
Back to our train. All the stuff back on and we were off. No cheering this time – we still had the China border to get through and we spent the next 2 hours bracing ourselves for more hellish customs officials. We also glued our noses to the window and watched no-man’s land roll by celebrating all the while. We saw the double row of razor wire keeping 2 of the world’s great nations seperate.
The train arrived in the Chinese border town of Suifenhe and we got back off the train with all our bags and crowded into… a customs office where the officials smiled!!!! They were fascinated by my new-fangled biometric passport and had a good laugh at our photos, marvelled at Stef’s camera and spoke excellent english. WTF??? Where were we? Where were the surly grunts? The glares? The snarls and “Nyets”?
Then it hit us – WE WERE IN FREAKING CHINA.
And it is awsome!
The train needed its bogies changing so we all got off the train again, travelling light this time and hit Suifenhe for a few hours, or rather wandered wide eyed, gazing at the neon, the strange writing and dazedly reminding each other every few minutes that we are in CHINA!!!!
Then it was a 12 hour journey to Harbin, the arrival totally caught us out cos we were now working on China time and the stupid Russian train was still on Moscow time. Apparently it caught out the providnista too as she only gave us a 5 minute warning instead of the usual hour.
5 minutes from asleep to dressed, off the train and in a real Chinese town.
The pace hasn’t slowed even a bit…