Last night on Thursday 4th May at 18:21 we crossed the Russian-Chinese border into the province of Inner Mongolia. From the freezing, windy, dusty town of Zabaikalsk to the freezing, windy town of Manzhouli. There’s a huge gate-like building going over the train tracks on the chinese side, and simply a metal fence either side of the tracks to symbolise the border. Manzhouli greeted us with what looked like a theme-park town, completely deserted. We looked on nervously with the two french backpackers sharing our kupe, equally worried. Due to changing their tickets last second (it was decided that the full 6/7 days from Moscow was too long without a shower) they had to get off at this town and stay one night before heading on to Beijing the next day.
About 25 mins later a real living city thankfully appeared and we reached the main station. After just under a hour sitting on the train having our passports checked, our provodnitsa let us off, “четыре часа/chiteri chas!” (4 hours) in which to amuse ourselves from about 8pm til one minute to midnight. Leaving bags on the train, we follow the french couple in the distance. Why, we thought, aren’t they going out through the main doors? All locked. We followed their footsteps and finally found a door which opened. Inside, we found a massive international waiting room full of luggage x-rays and metal gates but no people anywhere. Hmm. We headed to the main doors and suddenly a guard appeared. He checked our tickets without saying a word and opened the door for us. The square in front of the station had several groups of people dancing or exercising in unison. To the left, shops and restaurants. We saw our kupe buddies surrounded by taxis.
After refusing many taxis ourselves and wandering around thinking which of these restaurants is good or not – we simply dived into one. With pictures of the food on the wall and other chinese eating inside, it must be good. After being spoken at and us looking a bit blank, we muttered “yingwen?” (english?) and a teenage girl was pushed towards us – “Can I help?”. With a mix of english and chinese we order noodles and vegetables. The broth was clearly meat-based but it was delicious, and cost 8 yuan (90p).
After getting dark and it being cold, we went back to the international waiting room to sit down and waste 3 hours reading. The same guard fetched another guard who took our passports and tickets away. Ten minutes later we receive them back and he said “25 minutes”. We didn’t know what for, but sat down on the comfy chairs in the warm. After this time had passed we were ferried through the metal detectors and our bags through the x-ray machines. We sat down on the comfy chairs at the other end. The guards didn’t seem to like it, they wanted us back on the train. However, there lay the wrath of our provodnitsa and a lack of usable toilets. We headed towards the doors for the platform then cheekily sat down again when he turned around… we got 30 minutes extra inside before being spotted and shooed out the building. Our provodnitsa shook her fist at Mischa and reluctantly opened the train door, 2 hours early. Eventually she smiled and let us pass her.
The next day no one joined us in our kupe and we saw only two others in our carriage. Again, we’re travelling at the wrong time of year. After hours of flat land, identical apartment blocks side by side and waterlogged rice fields, we reached Harbin. It was sad to leave the train, our temporary home and the comfort of knowing how it works and what to do. Even sad to leave our provodnitsa with the biggest smile she’d shown us so far. Maybe she was happy we were leaving.
Outside the train station none of our presaved maps were working, except for a screenshot of the hostel in relation to the train station. Google can’t download offline maps for China however Harbin had cached on Mischa’s phone and the blue location dot seemed to work – until we realised it was consistently out by a block almost. After pushing through the insistent drivers shouting taxi and hello in Russian (one guy even half push me on my shoulder after I said no) a kind looking man asked us if we were lost and guided us in the right direction. He even walked us a little bit of the way. It ended up being the bus station but at least this told us where we were on the map and the normally 15 minute walk took us about 30 minutes. Good exercise? It’s very polluted, you could feel it in your throat. Our hostel is cosy with friendly staff, and not bad for £10 a night for a private room. We even have a window (the view is concrete).
A walk in the rain with clearer air took us to a nice food place on the recommendation of the hostel staff. We asked for cheap, and although cheaper than the UK it was not as cheap as the place in Manzhouli. For two dishes, two rice and a beer for 68 yuan (£7.61) we ate well. We thought we’d done well vegetarian wise too, a dish of scrambled tofu with only a few sprinkles of beef bits on top and a plate full of sliced aubergines in a tasty sauce. Turns out the latter had pork inside the folded aubergine slices – not shown in picture or appeared on google translate. Oh well, it was yummy but we’ll keep trying.
A short trip to the supermarket to get water was interesting. Mischa was too tall for parts of it, a female employee laughed then video chatted to a male friend and followed us round the shop blatantly pointing the camera at us. It was funny at first, then just a bit frustrating seeing her down every aisle I wanted to go down.
Our 25th hour in China was spent catching up with vital information from home – watching the Robot Wars finale. I’ll always be an Apollo fan.
PS: The internet here is not so good, our photos and blog posts may be delayed! Let’s hope it’s just the hostel and not country-wide…