viernes, 31 de diciembre de 2010

The Trans-Manchurian Railway Part2: Russia

From Zabaikalsk, the Trans-Manchurian winds further northwards to join up with the Trans-Siberian railway at Chita. The two routes are often confused, as is the trans-Mongolian railway, which travels straight across Mongolia rather than detouring around it via Manchuria. The Mongolian route is quicker but it also entails having to get hold of another costly visa. The original trans-Siberian route, on the other hand, will never take you to Beijing at all and carries off instead to the pacific port of Vladivostok. The 9288.2 kilometres from Moscow to the Pacific is the actual Trans-Siberian railway and it never leaves Russia.

Nonetheless, the area in which Vladivostok is located was once known as Outer Manchuria and it is only in relatively recent times that China has given up all claims to it. The land was seized in a series of massive land grabs in 1858 and 1860 by Nikolay Muraviev, on behalf of but initially without the authority of the Imperial Russian crown. The two successive bloodless expansions earned Russia 910 000 square kilometres of new land. Not bad for a guy commanding a few thousand men, mostly ex-serfs.

The Russian success in the 19th century is in complete contrast with the first clashes that took place over two centuries before, when the imperial armies of the middle kingdom easily routed the Russian adventurers who had straggled across the Siberian plains. The Russian manifest destiny was, thus, in a sense complete at a much later stage than it first began. At a time when the English were only beginning their colonization of Northern America, Russian pioneers had already made it across some of the most inhospitable territory in the world. Whizzing past in a train in mid-summer doesn’t quite give an impression of what the adventure must have entailed. But I bet over-wintering in Zabaikalsk would, brr.   

The landscape across the border does not alter dramatically, but becomes even more open as it embraces ever wider and ever emptier grasslands. The landscape within the train, however, changes, though at first imperceptibly, as the Chinese retreat to their compartments to enjoy surprisingly elaborate feasts, which they pull out from who knows where.  Furtive glimpses piece together familiar scenes of loud toasting and cheerfully messy eating, just as they would in any Beijing restaurant. No one seems unencumbered by the lack of space and multiple cooking smells wafts across the carriages. The food must have run out after a few days, though, as the bathroom sink soon started clogging up with the remains of instant noodle.  

The food compartment, which was habitually full on the other side of the border is now virtually empty. The fare on offer is borscht and smoked salmon with no Kung Pao chicken in sight. The Chinese passengers, consequently, shun the place while us westerners who would be quite happy with the food are driven away by the high prizes and the small size of the dishes.  The new diet is bread, sausage and cheese, which are obtained from bent over old ladies flogging them on the station platform. Stocking up on plenty of snacks is advised though.

Not long after joining up with the trans-Siberian, the train skirts past what is arguably the most striking attraction along the six-day journey, the Lake Baikal. The cities Ulan Ude and Irkutsk are situated at either ends of this immense lake and both retain an atmosphere of outposts, staked out by pioneers across an untamed and forbidding land. Even today, the sense of isolation is unmistakable as immense forests envelope the towns from the north. Picturesque Russian cottages dot the outskirts according to the regular pattern of any respectable suburbia, and in between run unpaved dust lanes beckoning of what must become a navigable nightmare in winter.

Ulan Ude holds on to a Mongolian legacy and bears in its promotion of that heritage witness to the fact that the area was not empty before the arrival of the Europeans. Irkutsk, on the other hand, appears as the very essence of a Russian frontier town, especially as the cottages is all that can be glimpsed from the train, though the city centre is supposedly lovely and chock full of Russian onion domes. 

The lake in between can hold the traveller’s fascination for hours, although this is perhaps because the landscape has been desolate for days up to this point and the mind is hungry of any sensory input. Russians are a folk that bravely and proudly sport speedos, often over which are hung sagging bellies. However, that is not say that as a people they are especially unfit, quite on the contrary. The lake is magnet for all sorts of swimmers. All across it, there is an unusual sense of life as cars and caravans and endless suntanned faces dot the shores and efface the ancient mystique of the place.   

Beyond this point, the far east becomes Siberia and the pine forests grow thicker. The glimpses of the cities we pass suggest industrial decay; Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, and as each stop flows into the other, there is a slight sense that Europe is slowly edging closer. 

The provodniks proudly pull out bedraggled sleeveless shirts and ill-fitting shorts as they cling to empty cans of beer and acclimatize to the heat. As far as I could see, there were no I-love-momma tattoos to complete the picture, unfortunately. However, a little provodnik intrigue was uncovered when the most sourly of our carriage’s duo of provodniks was surprised with a provodnitsa on his lap. His colleague had warmed up to us ever since we offered him a bottle of vodka at the border. However, the effect of this did not go much beyond him pointing excitedly every time we returned from a stroll across the platform during stops. The second of the carriage’s toilets remained locked for exclusive provodnik use. The Chinese passengers would all squat in circles on the platform during stops but otherwise remained completely indifferent to their exotic surroundings. 

The last Siberian pit stop is Ekaterinburg, the place where the last czar and his family were executed by orders of Lenin. I don’t know whether there was any symbolic intent in sending them off to Siberia to be eliminated, but if it was, the effort seems a bit of a half measure as the city is only just across the Urals. In its position as a spearhead into Asia, however, the town must have been important as a starting point for eastern exploration and conquest.

On the other hand, the edge of Europe at which foot the town lies is a huge disappointment.  Instead of rising up majestically at the intersection of two continents, the Ural ”mountains” barely qualify as hills, at least at the junction at which the train passes. If you didn’t think the geographical distinction between Asia and Europe was arbitrary before, you certainly will climbing these paltry stumps, masquerading as mountains. 

Nothing much changes as you enter European Russia, except the vague sense that you are now entering a heartland. That is despite the fact that we are still yet to pass the vaguely oriental sounding Kazan before entering medieval Russia. The capital of the old mogul khanate proved to be the last and only true obstacle to Russian expansion eastwards and when it fell the far east was Russian. Once along the towns of Nizhniy Novgorod and Vladimir, however, the onion domes become truly Russian of old. That is till we finally, all of sudden, reach the heart of the heart, Moscow.    

jueves, 9 de diciembre de 2010

The Trans-Manchurian Railway Part1: China

First a slight note of caution: Expect initial mayhem!
If you are planning to take the trans-Manchurian railway from Beijing to Moscow in the middle summer, be prepared to break a sweat, in fact you may have to endure a torrent of it. 

This is not only because Beijing is baking hot in July and you probably have been trudging through parks and temples all day while lining your back with glistening reams of sweat under a stuffy overcast sky, lovely though those parks may have been. It is also because you will first have to navigate through a Chinese central train station. This is not the new sleek southern train station, designed to look like an airport, currently floating on top of a quiet southern Beijing suburb. This is the old central train station of Beijing, a structure of the old communist school albeit, of course, with Chinese characteristics. It is conveniently located in the centre of town but at the same time bursting at the seams with travelling Chinese.

As anyone who has witnessed a traditional Chinese train station can testify, navigating through will invariably entail a certain measure of shoving, pushing and intermittent rushing. At least you can be thankful that you already have your ticket in hand and will not have to face the anarchic conditions of the ticket queue.

As with all train stations, you emit a sigh of relief as you confirm finally that you are in the right waiting hall and that your destination, Moscow, is clearly marked above a clearly defined gate. You may even be able to sit down at this point or nip off to a shop and buy a bottle of water. 

Once the wait is over, however, the mad dash continues as you struggle along a current of Chinese travellers, deadly intent on getting on a train as fast as humanely possible. The frenzy of it all may seem mystifyingly pointless to an outsider clutching his reserved ticket. However, as rural China has shown me quite vividly on several occasions, an unwillingness to break a few arms and legs can indeed cost you a ride on an overcrowded bus. The principle is pretty much the same in Beijing; the transport services have improved massively over such a short span of time that the collective instinct for survival hasn’t quite caught up yet.

A little bit more breathing space opens up as you hit the platform where you are greeted gruffly by the envoys of Mother Russia, in perms and moustaches. I don’t know whether the selection process for provodniks and provodnitsas, Russian train stewards, is specifically designed to produce a team that oozes a nostalgic whiff of Soviet Russia, but if it is they are certainly succeeding. Scowling looks is the most you will get out of them at this point. On entering the train, on the other hand, now, this is where the real sweat breaks: The train has no air condition as long as it is not in motion.

All the bags can and eventually will be crammed in under bunks once an economical system for doing so has been worked out between complete strangers, with plenty of language barriers to work out between them. However, the task is near impossible as long as all four passengers are inside the compartment simultaneously; the provodniks will mercilessly hound anyone caught blocking the aisles. Even more extensive re-organization can unexpectedly occur.  In our own experience, at the point were we had finally established workable communication, our Chinese co-passengers were all of a sudden removed, and two white faces emerge in their stead. I guess the provodniks got impatient.

Once the train starts moving and the air condition kicks in, you will be able to breathe again, but at that point you will also be able to wring your shirt into a pool of sweat. Now, I wouldn’t say begging the hostel to be able to nip back in long after check-out for a quick shower before heading off was a complete waste of time. Personally, I will just say this: relief was all too much of a fleeting experience. However, that is forgotten as the evening draws to a close and our breathing gradually recedes from frantic levels to calm and eventual sleep.

As the new day emerges, we have already crossed the symbolic frontier of the great wall and are already well on our way into the nomadic heartland of Manchuria. Now, I wouldn’t want to incur the wrath of the Chinese by suggesting that these northern lands are any less China than south of the wall. However, it remains inescapable that these endless plains was once beyond the confines of the Middle Kingdom and on it roamed for centuries the Jurchen and other such tribes. 

The northeast is most importantly the home of the Manchus, whose ancient capital Shenyang we pass on our northward journey, and whose leaders contributed decisively in enlarging China to its present size through the conquest of the lands of Mongolians, the Han, the Tibetans the Uygurs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

The northeast is also the Chinese name of choice for the region, largely because the Japanese used the idea of a separate non-Chinese Manchu identity to establish the puppet state of Manchkuo. The Japanese presence also contributed to the northeast becoming China’s oldest industrial area, which today has left it with the rather dubious title of rust belt of China. The glimpses caught from our train leave memories of a very green and flat landscape, but also, as the epithet would imply, rust and decay and seemingly abandoned factories and rather sorry excuses for housing blocks strewn across the plains. On the way, we also skirt by the provincial capital of Haerbin whose onion domed cathedral reminds us that the claws of Russia once stretched slightly further than they do currently. 

The name Manchuria, however, has curiously stuck in one border town, which was to be our last snapshot of China before entering Russia. In Chinese, it is simply named Manzhouli or as we would translate it in English and the provodniks in Russian: Manchuria.    

Despite the seeming stagnation of the areas we passed on our way up, Manzhouli shows visible signs of a breakneck construction on a scale comparable to its small size but still vaguely reminiscent of coastal China. Choice of colour suggests the intended use of these buildings as either a casino or a brothel, but the impression is still favourable compared with the backwater encountered on the other side of the border.

Border control also offer a fascinating contrast between the two countries: The Chinese is a sloppy 18 year old primarily interested in a commenting the merits of the various pirated DVDs he comes across in our luggage and chatting about our favourite destinations in his beloved China. The Russian, on the other hand, is clinically armed with a surgery mask and gloves and will shriek Narcomanie (i.e. drugs) and threaten confiscation as soon as she sets eyes on a few cough drops.  The whole routine takes several hours on one side and half a day on the other, leaving plenty of time to explore the non-paved empty roads of Zabaykalsk. The town features a kiosk and, perhaps most strikingly, buildings that seem to have been abandoned half way into construction, by the looks of them, some time in the sixties. We spend the rest of the time in the waiting hall at the train station, munching on Russian cheese and sausage and watching Russian day-time television.

But that’s Russia and a whole other story, coming up next.