Part Four. Without a Passport
In the wild Transbaikalian steppes,
Where they mine for gold in the hills,
A vagrant was carrying a backpack,
Cursing his unlucky fate.
Russian folk song
September 21-23. 10$+37Y. Beijing and vicinity. The city is huge, but relatively quiet and comfortable, and spending night in one of its many parks is not a problem. (Please remember that it was in 1993. - V.D.) Forbidden City is very expensive to visit, but its wall misses many bricks, and isn't too difficult to climb. I managed to get for free everywhere, except for the History Museum, but this one was cheap. Climbing over fences and walls, I damaged my plastic raincoat and broke the zipper of the coat I'd found in Yunnan, but the weather was warm and sunny most of time. I also lost the last two teeth in my comb. The zoo is worth visit, although sometimes you seem to be one of the exhibits. There is also an ancient observatory in Beijing. Local food is relatively expensive, probably because there is more meat in most meals (Mongolian influence, I suppose).
Getting a "temporary certificate for returning to motherland" from Russian embassy took two days, because first I had to obtain a "stolen passport report" from police, and it took three hours of waiting in line - so many foreigners fell victims to pickpockets in Beijing. Interestingly, I learned that with my old passport, I wouldn't be able to return to Russia, because I'd been supposed to register it at a police station within ten days from my arrival to China. The embassy workers also told me that there was a coup going on in Moscow (the 1993 shoot-out between Yeltsin's troops and the Supreme Soviet - V.D.), and that the price of a train ticket from China/Russian border to Moscow was $20. That meant I'd have to hitchhike all the way to Moscow, either by cars or by freight trains. I was looking at three more weeks of travel, if not more.
Walking along a street in Muslim quarter, I saw a snake charmer, surrounded by a huge crowd. His cobra was of South Chinese subspecies, which can spit, so I knew something was wrong. I grabbed the snake and showed to the crowd that its teeth had been removed. While everybody was trying to catch the charmer and give him what he deserved, I quietly took his money collecting bowl. Debit 19.5Y.
There are some large old parks around the city, and one of them is the last place to see Pere David's deer in more or less natural setting. (This species has since been reintroduced into some Nature reserves - V.D.) But the most impressive thing to see is the Great Wall. You can use it as a road, to hike away from small touristic areas. After only an hour's walk, I found myself in an oak forest with no people in sight. The forest was inhabited by rare squirrels and pheasants, and on my way back I saw Chinese desert cat, a species previously recorded only much further South.
I joined a group of Czech tourists for a bus trip to Datong caves in Shanxi province. They had a radio, and we tried to find out what was going on in Moscow, but Russian stations we were able to find had only good news, and all Chinese stations - only bad ones. BBC was only available in Hong Kong edition, and was totally focused on regional affairs. I decided to skip other parts of Shanxi and the areas further West, and to get home as soon as possible.
September 24. 10$+5Y. Lion's Head, the Eastern part of the Great Wall at the coast of Yellow Sea. Thousands of Arctic waders, Siberian ducks and Mongolian gulls moved South along the beaches. The water in the sea was still warm.
The land beyond this point is already in Manchuria. The palace of Manchu emperors can still be seen in Shenyang (called Mukden in Manchu), and contains a nice collection of historical artifacts, including huge stone bears. Bear is the totem of all Tungus-related tribes, but the Manchu were the only ones to create such a sophisticated culture. Shenyang is the only city except Nanjing where most English signs have no errors. (Again, remember it was 1993! - V.D.)
September 25. 60Y. I converted all dollars into yuans, because I wasn't sure it would be possible further North. Traveling was rapidly becoming expensive. I could no more get fed and transported in exchange for English lessons, political conversations, or simply a smile. Here people were used to Russians (there were lots of so-called shuttles, the cross-border traders), and didn't like them.
In Tonghua, Jilin province, I witnessed a public execution. A guy was shot for killing his wife. The crowd was not as enthusiastic about the spectacle as you'd expect. There were still some signs in Manchu language in Tonghua, but other Manchurian cities looked completely identical to Chinese ones. Doors were decorated with pictures of sword-armed guardian spirits, some of them in ancient clothes, some in Soviet-style People Liberation Army uniforms.
200-km train ride from Tonghua to Erdao Baihe took ten hours; the train had a steam engine. No more "corn deserts" and barren rocky hills - the mountains were mostly forested here, and the fall colors looked great. Instead of round faces, brick houses and mini-tractors, there were pentagonal faces, adobe houses, and ox-driven ploughs, because the entire area was populated by Koreans. Late at night, I started a 50-km hike to Paektusan Volcano (2,760 m), the highest peak of Korea and Manchuria.
September 26. 23Y. At midnight I made it to a tiny village. Some residents were not asleep, and immediately a crowd formed. After a few minutes I realized that they were speaking Tazy, the Southern dialect of Ude language. During my explorations of Ussuriland I'd picked up half a dozen Ude words, and they made quite an impression. I was invited to dinner, spent the night there, and next morning they gave me precious gifts: a blue plastic raincoat, a brand-new comb, a pair of socks, and a bag of apple-like pears.
The day was sunny, the air was cold and very clear, and I enjoyed hiking through beautiful mixed forest towards the white cone of the volcano. Red deer bugled in river valleys, and each leaf on the trees seemed to be illuminated from inside. Above 1,000 m the road entered blue fir forest, from which yellow larches stuck out like huge flames. The timberline was at 2,000 m. Dark-red alpine tundras were covered with thin layer of fresh snow. At 3 pm I reached the summit, one of many rocky outcrops surrounding large black crater lake. To the North were the golden plains of Manchuria, to the South - the blue hills of Korea. Pikas, finches, accentors, and other northern animals lived among the rocks. A tiny creek flowing out of the lake was Sungari (Songhua Jiang), the largest tributary of Amur. At sunset I followed it back to timberline, and spent the night at an abandoned meteorological station.
September 27. 23Y. The weather was still good, but not as shiny as the day before. At a small lake I saw a group of geese. They didn't fly away, but kept swimming near the far side of the lake. I looked at the rocks overhead, and spotted a tiny black dot on top of one of them. I started throwing flat stones at the water surface, until the geese took off and began to climb. Immediately the black dot left its rock, made a wide circle, and dropped down like an air-to-surface missile. The geese tried to avoid it, but it was too late. With a loud thump, the falcon hit one of them, and a second later was proudly perching on top of the dead bird less than fifty meters from where I was standing. I cut off the goose's legs, and left the rest of it to the falcon. By the time I finished cooking and eating my share, the falcon had already left.
I hiked down to Baihe, which looked exactly like a Siberian village, and was invited to stay with a Korean family. The Chinese consider the Koreans to be alcoholics, because they drink almost as much as Russians do. I liked the English expression that Lonely Planet's guidebook used: "Koreans can drink you under the table". Judging by the taste of local vodka, it was made of old tires. But local beer was good. The Koreans consider the Chinese to be dirty pigs. The main reason is that in Korean houses, the heating system is under the floor, so the floor is usually warm, and they sleep, cook, eat, and drink on it; while the Chinese often don't mind throwing garbage on the floor of their houses: if you sleep on the floor in a train car, you risk being buried alive.
Korean churches look exactly like Buddhist temples, but their roofs are decorated with wooden sheep and pigeons instead of dragons, eagles, and monsters.
September 28. 22Y. I was very close to Russian border, and could get to Vladivostok in a few hours. But I decided it would be cheaper and faster to move West through China than through Russia. I got on a bus to Antu. The bus had a plastic can instead of a gas tank, so we had to stop at every gas station. Gas stations were actually rooms on the first floors of apartment buildings, where we were handed fuel pipes through the windows. Then I took a train to Changchun, and visited the palace of Pu I, the last Emperor of China and then Manchuria.
September 29. 10Y. In Harbin, Sungari River is already 100 m wide and very deep. This is the Northern edge of the great corn field that stretches from here to Yangtze river 1,500 km to the South. Most of Heilongjiang province is either a forest or a swamp. One of the largest marshes is called Sunlao. The railroad crosses it along a 100 km-long dike. Local people live in pathetic huts made of dirt and dry reeds. I don't know how they survive the winter. Here it gets as cold as in Siberia, and as windy as in Mongolia. The marshes freeze all the way to the bottom, so the residents have to spend the winter months eating nothing but waterbirds killed during fall migration. The capital of the marsh country is Qiqihar, a surprisingly modern city. The Manchu were generally taller than the Chinese, so I din't attract that much attention. It was more easy to find a Russian-speaking person there than an English-speaking one.
Not far from the city, in the very heart of the marshes, is a very wet place called Zhalong. It is a bird preserve. Local people speak Hezhen language, which is close to Nanai and other dialects of Amur Valley. Some of Hezhen words are the same as in Ude, so I had free lunch and got myself a boat to explore the marshes. Sunlit reeds looked beautiful, and the lakes were dotted with thousands of geese, ducks, grebes, phalaropes, and herons. Most cranes had already left, but there were still a few large flocks of red-crowned, white-necked, Siberian, common, and hooded cranes present. Some could be approached surprisingly close; unfortunately, I had no film left in my camera. Zhalong is the only place in the World where seven crane species can be seen together, although only five show up regularly. At night hundreds of short-eared owls hunted muskrats in the marshes.
September 30. 5Y. The morning was very cold and windy, and the marshes started freezing over. The sky was dark with huge flocks of birds moving south. By noon, there were only a few marsh harriers, herons, and swan geese left. Then the clouds moved in from the Northwest, and it was so cold that I had to leave the marshes and get back on a train. Cold fronts move across Manchuria every few days in late fall, until the entire country becomes deeply frozen. Because of cold weather, in October most birds migrate south along the longer coastal flyway.
October 01. 2Y. The front had passed, and it was sunny again, but still very cold. I got off the train at a small station called Orochenshan, on the Western side of Hinggan mountains in Inner Mongolia, planning to hike back across the ridge, and get on the train again. The western slopes were mostly rocky grassland and birch groves, but at the summit I entered larch forest. At a small Evenk village my knowledge of three Evenk words earned me a portion of snow deer liver with tree fungae. On the Eastern side of the mountains the forest was very beautiful, with pines and golden-brown Mongolian oaks.
Wrapping myself in what was left of my sleeping bag, I hiked to within 20 km of the next railway station, and then got a lift from a truck driver carrying some electric equipment from Russia to Qiqihar. There were five trucks in the caravan, but only in the last one there was some space between the boxes and the trunk cover. We were just five kilometers from the station when the caravan stopped: the road was blocked by a fallen tree. Four men with guns ran towards the trucks, and started searching the passengers and unloading the trunks. I found a jack in my trunk, and as soon as one of the bandits looked inside, I hit him with it, took his rifle and a handful of cartridges from his pocket, and ran into the forest. The other three saw me and followed, shouting and firing into the air. The forest was nothing more than a narrow belt between the road and the railway, and I would be in trouble, because one of the bandits had an AK-74. But they were very stupid, and tried to form a chain and comb the forest, so all I had to do was hide behind a stump and wait for them to come to me one by one. By the time I got back to the road, all drivers and passengers had fled. I felt a great temptation to keep the AK-74, but I had a border to cross, so it would be too risky. I took only a bag of apples from one of the trucks, and some money from one of the bandits. (A few weeks later, a gang of about 40 highway robbers was arrested nearby and executed. Apparently I was lucky to encounter only a small part of it - V.D.)
The day ended with a beautiful sunset in the grasslands. After a few hours of crossing the golden sea of tall grass, dotted with tents of Mongolian nomads, herds of horses, and purple steppe lakes, I suddenly saw a railway station built as an exact copy of the stations in Moscow. It was Manzhouli, the last Chinese town.
October 02. 210Y. A group of local students gave me a present: a large thermos bottle. I put this diary and all the film inside it, and threw away my backpack which was falling apart anyway. (I still use this bottle today - V.D.) Then I caught a tourist from Sweden who had just arrived from Russia, and exchanged 188Y for 22$ - a very good rate.
The 4 km train ride to Zabaikalsk, the first Russian station, cost 4$ (I got in through the window, as usual), and took five hours. Nothing had changed in Transbaikalia since my last visit in 1991. There was nothing to eat in roadside stores, except for canned Cucumaria sea cucumbers. After a wrestling match at a ticket office, I got on a train to Chita on the Transsiberian.
A few hours in Russia was just enough time to make me realize how much I loved China, its ever-smiling people, wonderful Nature, splendid cultural heritage, captivating diversity, and most of all - its warm climate. Now, I was back in the world of dirty snow, permanently drunken people, and empty stores.
October 03-07. 15 rubles. It was a good thing I had money for subway, because my boots had just fallen apart, and I knew that hiking almost barefoot from the train station to my home halfway across Moscow would be difficult. I spent the four days of travel on a bunk, looking at the beautiful fall colors of Lake Baikal shores and Ural Mountains, while other passengers fed me bread and canned anchovies. In Chita, I bought two rasks and stored them in my inside pocket - just in case.
I had nothing to do, so I translated to English one of my favorite Russian songs (by L. Derbenev).
Временно все в этом мире бушующем,
Есть только миг - за него и держись,
Есть только миг между прошлым и будущим -
Именно он называется жизнь.
Вечный покой сердце вряд ли обрадует,
Вечный покой для седых пирамид,
А для звезды, что сорвалась и падает,
Есть только миг - ослепительный миг.
Пусть этот мир вдаль летит сквозь столетия,
Мне не всегда по пути будет с ним:
Все, чем дышу, чем рискую на свете я -
Мигом одним, только мигом одним.
Nothing`s forever in this world of storms and tides,
Only an instant is all we have got,
Only an instant between past and future times,
Life is an instant, containing my thought.
Calmful stagnation will not please my heart at all,
Only for Pyramids it is all right,
But for a star that took off in its flight to fall
There`s an instant, an instant of light.
Let all this world fly away trough the centuries,
I am hitchhiking on it not for long:
All that I have, that I risk in adventures -
Is just an instant, an instant alone.