Manzhouli: City of the Plain
I stepped off the train before it switched guages and half of it continued on into Russia. The station was small, and I remember walking with some trepidation towards the terminal. Being on the train is easy: you know where your seat is, you know where your food is coming from, and the world seems to do all the work by moving steadily past your window. Once off the train with my backpack over my shoulder, I renewed the primal quest to find food and shelter.
Not knowing the layout of the town, I had to hail a cab and try my luck with the hotels. Back home in Shenyang, I knew that a cab ride from the train station to my apartment cost exactly 11 RMB, but here I had no idea... but I was pretty sure the cabbie was ripping me off. When I got to the hotel, the driver followed me inside in a display of friendliness. I asked the clerk how much a cab ride to the train station was, and she quoted me a price that was half of what he had just charged charged. I looked at the driver and smirked; he was obviously embarassed. I booked myself a room with twin queen-size beds for about $6 per night. I could have haggled for a lower price, I'm sure, but at some point I figured the money paid for not arguing was worth more than the stress of saving a few cents.
I dropped off my bag and went out to find a place to eat. The town was full of Russian vehicles (and the occasional donkey cart). It borders Russia, so the town was full of Russian smugglers, mostly in the trading bazaars near the checkpoints. I was used to chaotic nature of these markets, but I had to laugh because the only difference seemed that instead of little red books and Mao paraphenalia, the sellers' blankets and shelves there were covered with lighters, pamphlets, and tchotchkees praising Stalin, which in my mind all fell under the same rubrik of "Communist Crap."
My friend Susanne had told me one could bribe the border guards with cigarrettes and romp around in Russia for an afternoon. The guards don't have to worry about you taking compromising photos or not coming back... there isn't a bush to pee behind for miles, much less anything Kodak worthy. I bribed my way past the first checkpoint, but once we pulled up to the second, a guard shoved me back in the car and sent us off in a flurry of words. I wanted my bribe money back, but I guess it was still worth it for the story. I only wish I knew whether I had actually been inside Russia or not. What difference is a few feet?