My Life 5.2

 Watching for the Chinese --The Far East



 As I walked down the street, I smelt the blossom on the breeze and saw the sunlight glinting on the leaves. There was a market, and I strolled through the people who were busy haggling. I was wearing a suit, and the sun was warm on my back. People smiled and nodded and I smiled back. I had been in the Far East for four days now. Relatively new Japanese cars lined the streets, outnumbering the Ladas. It was a lovely day. When I got back to the hotel, I found the cleaning lady had washed my shirts. They had no way of drying them, so I hung them in my bathroom, and gave her a dollar.

 The hotel was all black-painted wood, much like one I had stayed at in Salo, Finland, years before. I found it was built by the same company. It wasn’t bad. I had got a blue stain on my jumper from sitting outside on a rainbow-painted bench. The paint hadn’t dried, just formed blisters that burst when you leaned on them, but at least they’d tried.

 There was a bar and a disco in the basement of the hotel. We went in there for a drink on Friday night. Young women came up and asked us (the men) to dance, and we all got talking. It turned out they were prostitutes. They were also schoolteachers. They weren’t necessarily looking for ‘business’. It turned out they were desperate to talk to someone from the West, something new to relieve the boredom. They spoke excellent English, and like many Russians, were very well educated.

 On the top floor was a quite passable Japanese restaurant. In the main restaurant they had no milk and a suspect kind of fruit juice. But the Japanese restaurant was much better and they said supplies were flown in daily. And Japanese people ate there. The best hotel in town was said to be the Japanese residential hotel, filled with Japanese businessmen. The next most populous among the visitors to the town were the Chinese. I was told they used to bunk three to a room in the cheapest hotels to save money.

 When we’d arrived at the airport, there had been a dozen of airplanes, engine covers on, lined up in a row. They were short of fuel, apparently.


We were three days late arriving. We’d originally tried to leave Moscow on Thursday evening, all seven of us. We had tickets, we’d booked. Domodedovo airport was only for internal travel, or more correctly at this time, the former Soviet Union. Consequently, facilities were nothing like the International airport, Sheremetyevo II. We foreigners had a separate entrance, quite nice, then we descended some steps which led down directly onto the airport concrete. Across the expanse a bus was parked, with a driver sitting in it. Vladimir, the Russian member of our party, sighed and asked someone to produce a dollar. He waved the note and the bus started up immediately and collected us. We were deposited at a waiting room for ‘International travelers’ – i.e. foreigners - ‘not one of ours’ in Russian. An ‘Air Mongolia’ plane taxied by, a row of strange Mongolian faces peering out of the windows.

 Our plane was not coming, they told us. But there might be another flight leaving later and we could wait if we wanted. I was told later that Moscow-based Aeroflot was blocking landing permission to some of the Regional Aeroflots (Aeroflot had split up into separate operations), so it could fill its own flights.

 We went to get something to eat. We walked across the airfield and into the passenger lounge. ‘Watch yourself,’ Vlad advised us. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘there are Chechens and Georgians here, just be careful.’ Having no idea just how we were supposed to be ‘careful,’ we walked through crowds of people in a vast hall, their belongings piled high. Perhaps to avoid theft, they carried them on board, piling them against the emergency doors – TV’s, microwaves, etc. In trepidation, we walked through the hall, looking left and right, trying to be inconspicuous. All we got were a few disinterested glances. We reached the restaurant in safety. We sat down at a table. Looking around, we could see several people eating, enjoying what seemed to be reasonable food. Bob, an American, signalled to a waitress. She was angry. ‘Closed!’ she yelled. ‘This table closed.’ Bob asked which tables were ‘open’. Her mouth opened again. ‘All,’ she yelled. ‘All closed!’ Vlad sighed and nodded to Bob. Bob pulled out a dollar and placed it on the table. The waitress disappeared, returning quickly with cutlery and napkins which she laid out on the table. Pocketing the dollar, she said ‘Now, what would you like to eat?’

 We got back to the desk in the international travellers lounge. Actually it was a table, placed part-way across the corridor which led to the departure gate. At the table sat two formidable middle-aged women in cardigans, shuffling tickets and talking on the phone. Bob argued with them. Yes, there was a flight leaving that evening. Yes, we might get on, we would have to wait and see. People arrived, and were allowed past. We stood there. Vlad pulled Bob to one side and began to talk to him earnestly. I heard Bob say ‘OK, you try then.’ Vlad took the tickets, and leaned over the desk, smiling at the two ladies. His eyes twinkled, he muttered words to them that got them smiling like young girls, almost giggling. He made a proposal. They nodded, then looked a little downcast. They spoke to him in a kindly, but definite tone.

 ‘What’s up? Any luck?’ I asked him. ‘Well, yes and no,’ he replied. ‘Yes, they said they would have let us on before if we had given them a small present - about ten dollars probably,’ he added. ‘But no, it really is too late now – they checked.’ ‘Why didn’t they take the money and then tell you after?’ I was curious. Vlad looked shocked. ‘That would be dishonest,’ he said. ‘They are not thieves.’


So had to get taxis back to our Moscow hotel. It was after midnight, so this involved finding a ‘fixer’ in the airport, and us riding in an airport bus which went out through a security gate into a sidestreet, where we were dumped. We stood, seven of us, including two young women, with our suitcases around us on the pavement, under a dim streetlight. People moved in the darkness across the street in the bushes. After a nervous wait, our two taxis turned up, warm and welcomed. When you find yourself in danger, you know it, but often you don’t know you are getting there until it’s too late.


On Saturday, we had an uneventful check-in and the same performance with the airport bus. The plane was on time, we were told, and we went through the gate. The seven of us were led across the concrete where a number of planes were parked. Crocodiles of people followed stern officials who often shouted at them and waved tickets around in the air. We got on to a plane full of people. The front two rows were empty, and we were ushered into them. Vlad chose to sit further back as he had a ‘Rouble’ ticket. I was settling down for the seven hour flight. There are few places where you can fly for seven hours due east and still land in the same country!  Then I became aware of a commotion behind me, and the stewardess bustled past. Voices were raised in the cockpit. Vlad slipped into the seat next to me. ‘What is it?’ I asked him. ‘Well, I just said to the guy next to me. ‘So, you’re going to Khabarovsk?’ and he said ‘no, we’re going to Magadan.’ So I called the stewardess.’

After about twenty minutes, everyone but us got off the plane. I thought ‘Oh no! They’ll never fly this to Khabarovsk with just us aboard.’ But another half-hour later a different two hundred people scrambled onto the plane. Two hours later, we finally took off.


Khabarovsk is the transport and communications administrative centre for the Far East. It sits on the Amur River flowing out of China, and it is on the ‘corner’ where the trans-Siberian Railway turns south for Vladivostok, skirting the Chinese border thirty miles away.  The town flows down a hillside to the broad river. On the east bank is a promenade, with flower beds and whitewashed ice-cream kiosk, looking like those old English seaside resorts. I strolled there one weekend, watching the parents with children running up and down, out for a Sunday walk. There is a large, flat island just offshore. I could see a boat making its way against the current. I walked back to meet it. It was crammed with people, all standing, packed together. When it landed, they streamed off. Every single one of them had a basket on their back and carried a large bag in each hand. I leaned forward. Potatoes! The bags and baskets were full of potatoes. The people streamed off up the three main roads that ran up the hillside in different directions.

 One evening, Vlad and I walked by the river. There was a small stone tower, and a light was burning inside. We peered in. A cheery workman looked up. Vlad spoke to him, and he invited us in. As we sat and drank tea, gazing out at the broad river as the sun finally disappeared, he told us he was renovating the tower, which had been a watchtower to spot any Chinese invasion coming down the river. We looked hard, but couldn’t see anything untoward. Probably all tucked up three to a room in the hotels I thought.


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