The day started innocently enough. I had only 200 plus km to go for Hunchun, the border town in China. Navo Tours had made arrangements in that town to load the car on a truck to be taken across the Chinese to the Russian border in Kraskino. When I was planning the route Navo Tours had told me that the Kraskino border is not frequented by tourists to Russia. Bu they also told me that if I wanted to go to Vladivostok my option was limited to the Hunchun-Kraskino crossing. I could not find any material on the Internet which prohibited the movement of tourists through Kraskino either. Therefore, the planning went on with the Hunchun-Kraskino crossing. All was fine till we reached Hunchun.
The driver of the truck that was to take the car to the Russian border came over to the hotel we were staying in Hunchun. He took a look at the car and expressed doubts if the car would be permitted to be offloaded on the Russian side. He asked if I had made any high level arrangements in Kraskino for permission to take the car in through the border in Russia. I had not made any such arrangements, for I had expected to meet up with a customs agent at the border and get the necessary formalities done. Apparently, the Kraskino border is meant for public transport, namely, trucks and buses. The apprehension was that the Customs may not know what to do with the self-driving car!
I reached out to Andrey, my contact in Vladivostok. He confirmed that his friends have information that there should be no problem at the border. However, he did not have any contacts at the border. Next I tapped Ali, my boss, who has friends all over the globe! Once he meets someone that person is a friend for life!! That’s his nature. And always remains in touch. When I sent him a WhatsApp message explaining my predicament he got his network going. What stood out as a miracle is that he contacted me over a WhatsApp call! Till that moment only WhatsApp text messages worked in China. That only proved to me that nothing is impossible for HIM. What has to happen, HE will make happen.
Ali’s Logistics Manager from Kazakhstan, Lyazzat, contacted me to tell me that she is trying to source a Custom broker at the border. The time difference between China and Russia was the main problem. Russia, at Kraskino and Vladivostok, is two hours ahead of the Chinese time. I sent her all documents that she asked for over WhatsApp and late at night she gave me a thumbs up that he was successful in sourcing a broker at the border who would do the work for me. How much it would cost and how long it would take was not something she had information about.
Closer to 5 pm, once I had some assurance that I could try out the Kraskino border, Andy and I drove to the truck yard where I was to load the car. I found that it was not a car carrier, as I had expected, but a regular multi axle truck that carried heavy freight. The truck parked against a ramp and I was asked to drive on to the truck. I had my doubts about how the car would be unloaded on the Russian side if it did not have mobile ramps. Before loading the car I asked Andy to clarify that. Then the bomb struck. I was to make arrangements for the unloading on the Russian side. I said I would have none of that because my arrangement with Navo Tours was to get the car across to the Russian border on the ground and not atop a truck. Andy told me that the Chinese drivers were certain that my car would be ‘rejected’ by the Russian Customs. I told Andy that in that case we may have to explore the option of going through another border. That was immediately deemed impossible by Navo Tours since the paperwork would have to start all over again from the Ruili border and the number of days it would take, even if it had to be done, could not be fathomed. I was also concerned about the fact that the temporary Chinese driving license would expire on 3 June. Here I was, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
I insisted that Navo Tours should make arrangements for offloading the car on the Russian side, failing which I would not put the car on that truck. Parleys went on between the Navo office in Chengdu, Andy and the truck owners. Finally, after more than 90 minutes of tensed discussion the truck driver agreed to take the car across the Russian border to a small town where he would find an unloading arrangement. Navo agreed to pay for the offloading, naturally. However, I was warned that the truck would charge Yuan 1200 per day in case of any delay on the Russian side. I had to underwrite that risk, without any other option.
Before 7 pm the car was driven over the ramp on to the truck and securely fastened by the driver and his colleagues. The truck was left in the yard in a protected area after the loading was done. Andy and I have planned to go to the yard by 8 am tomorrow, because the Chinese Customs opened at 8.30 am. The next day, I knew, would be filled with tension and apprehension. But, at this stage, I had no other alternative than to try my luck at Kraskino. I could not even imagine the worst case scenario. In case I am refused entry into Russia I cannot even go back to China because I don’t have paperwork or multiple entry visa for China. So it’s Kraskino or No Man’s Land! I was reminded of the Tom Hanks and the role he played of the potential immigrant who lived many days in the airport lounge! Another worry was the hotel bookings I had made along the route. Many would lapse and I would lose money on most of them. The next few hours would prove crucial for the Trans-Siberian Expedition that was to begin from Vladivostok on 4 June.
With all the above occupying the mind and body since the time we arrived into Hunchun, there was hardly any time or the inclination to take a tour of the city. Later in the day Andy arranged for Russian Rouble through a money changer. According to the driver of the truck that would come in handy because of certain expected payouts at the borders!