Eternity is just what it felt like, too, but I am in Vladivostok right now. But only for two more hours, then I am off, finally, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing 9200+ km from the furthest east I have ever been to Moscow. In a sense, the journey that I had anticipated this summer is only just beginning. Only right that just before beginning it, I would choose its end, too. Because I am running out of time on my visa, and out of time before returning to Scotland, I will be leaving straight from Moscow, flying back to Germany on the 16th, the last day on my visa. So much for taking the land route all the way back, but in the end, I felt this was the only reasonable option.
But how did I get here? Every time I write, I talk about how my plans have changed. But what you don't know about yet are all the plans in between that change between the updates! A short history:
At first, I had wanted to leave Beijing on the 20th, spending a week in Mongolia, and then continue on the Trans-Mongolian to Irkutsk, and on to Moscow, St Petersburg, Helsinki, and back by boat.
When I realised how much I liked the Olympics, I stayed longer - and when a week had passed, I had missed my chance to get a transit visa (and most likely would not have gotten a ticket either) and so rested in Beijing for a few more days.
Another three days later, I had my bags ready and packed and went off to the station to catch the Trans-Manchurian, still to Irkutsk, but going around instead of through Mongolia - but no more tickets.
The next day I contemplated going to Haerbin to take it from there, but no convenient trains. I checked back into the hostel for the third time, for one more night. I slept the night in a different person's bed, because said person had taken the one allocated to me, as she had had a bit too much alcohol, and a bottom bed is much more convenient if your stomach feels a little bad... But at least I had a ticket!
The next morning I left, 11 in the morning, on a hard seat. That was what I had written about. Lowest class, where the lights don't go out at night and there are only seats, but I thought what wouldn't kill me would just make me tougher. Come 1am, I am having doubts about my plan of walking across the border. Come 2am, my decision seems a bit more firm. Come 5am, I smell the fresh morning air of Haerbin, cutting my trip short by half a day.
A few words on Haerbin and the madness of crossing such border shall follow soon. From here on I had just one plan - get to Russia. Some research later I bought a ticket out the next evening - sleeper to the border, then somehow getting busses etc to Vladivostok, to arrive in the afternoon, and leave in the evening. One more change of plans later, I stayed here for a night, and am off again tonight.
Now I cannot really afford more changes of more plans. My way back is paved. Two days in Irkutsk, and whatever is left in Moscow, and then looking back and on to St Andrews for another year. This trip will have given me many, many things to think about and to consider, and my slightly-earlier-than-planned departure will enable me to have that time before another new beginning.
Or, to quote Hermann Hesse,
Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne,
Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.
Haerbin! What a mad city! If I thought I had seen bad driving, I had not yet seen Haerbin. I arrived and was shouted at by a large crowd of people offering me taxis and other services, all assuming I speak fluent Russian. A taste of things to come! Decisions to make - how much of my last RMB to take out, whether to stay for a night or not, and whether to stay in a central hotel, or in the cheap youth hostel a 40min bus ride away. I decided to stay in the hostel, and although it was hard to find and had a midnight-curfew, I met a girl from South Korea there, who works in China at the moment, and is travelling this area, and we went exploring together. Lots of sights, activities and touristy business later, I was on my way again to the train station to embark on my journey. A fantastic sleeper train, only four beds per carriage (but not soft sleeper!), and great company. I arrived in the border town, collected my belongings, realised I had forgotten my money belt underneath my pillow (silly, silly me...), ran back to get it (no problem at all) and made my way to the border. On the way I asked where it was, and was directed to a bus station. Apparently I could go to Vladivostok or 186RMB ! I happily agreed, and had time to kill, so headed to the shops.
While buying a Buddha statue for a friend, I talked to the seller, who was lovely, but would not accept my Euros. So off to the bank again, then off to his friend for money exchange. I didn't trust the deal and checked the exchange rate on the net first. Then we returned, and his friend gave me a better-than-actual rate! Dodgy, dodgy, I thought, but I checked several ways the notes were real and current (asked Russians, used them etc) and all is well! Off on the bus, with lots of confusion about my bag having to be checked in, me having to pay extra money, and it finally happening - someone properly cheating me. I had five minutes to pay the extra for my bag and get on the bus because everyone had kept sending me different places (I had actually been there in time!) and he had a rigged calculator that would always show one particular number. Why my brain could not do a simple division by 35 or think of 100 RMB equalling about 360 Roubles I don't know, but I was suspicious. At first he gave me back way too little money, then I corrected him and accused him of cheating me, and he gave me more. Why I lost all apprehension after that instead of realising that he was still just giving me half, I don't know... I lost about 8 Euros. It could have been much worse, but hey, what a great way to start my travel into Russia!
To my worry, I did not re-see my bag until the Russian Immigrations section, by which point I had talked to a Russian who spoke some Chinese, bought a bottle of Absinthe duty-free for should it get tougher, and amused myself over the tons of bags the Russians were carrying. Leaving China felt weird, and I was a little sad - until next year! Of course the Russian immigration officer found some problem with my passport that wasn't actually one, but it did mean more waiting. Another bus later, many Russians got off, taking their bags with them. There were now enough seats in the bus again, nobody had to stand, as the entire back rows before had been filled with them. What is in them? Clothes, shoes, fake goods. Quality and price are much better in China than in Russia, where they can be resold again with a hefty profit. How much are they taking? The maximum each, 35kg. Pictures to follow, it is bizarre and absurd.
Then the bus driver asked me to pay extra. Several people confirmed I would have to pay, and they had either already paid or would pay somehow. Turns out it wasn't just 186 RMB all the way then. Still quite cheap though, but by now it was so late there'd be no hope of catching the train in Vladivostok. At about 1.30am we arrived, in a small side street, somewhere in Vladivostok, somewhere in Russia.
The internet cafe will be shut down now, so I'll leave it at this cliff-hanger - more to follow from Irkutsk in four days!
From Russia with Love, (how long I waited to be able to use that line :D ! )