Day 21 - 2 June Hunchun to Vladivostok
I would be lying if I said that I had a comfortable sleep. The border crossing was a lot on the mind and it shaped the disturbances that woke me up earlier than I had planned to. That helped in a way too; I finished all left over documentation. Andy and I had planned to be at the track yard by 8 am after breakfast at the hotel. Appetite was affected too. Just a boiled egg and two toasts were washed down with a cup of coffee. When we reached the truck yard by taxi I was happy to note that the engine of the truck was running and it looked as if the driver was waiting for us alone to start out for the Chinese border post. Little did I know that there were some more formalities to be completed before we could be on our way. First was fueling of the truck. Fortunately, a bowser pulled up at the appointed location and the work was done soon. Then came the delay for documentation. The driver vanished and we didn’t know where he had gone and for what. After what seemed an eternity he surfaced with three sheets of paper. He started an animated conversation with Andy; naturally I did not exist for them. The truck pulled out of the yard and started crawling at less than snail’s pace. After a while of tolerating this I asked Andy what the matter was. He said that the driver had to go to another location for Customs documentation papers! That exasperated me for I knew that I would need additional time on the Russian side to clear papers and reach Vladivostok before nightfall.
Then Andy got a call from Tracy of Navo Tours, who suggested that I do not attempt the crossing till such time the arrangements on the Russian side were firmly done. She felt that it is better to be stuck in China than in No Man’s Land. Which was sound advice. But I felt that this situation should have been anticipated by Navo Tours and intimated in advance. If that had been so I would have had two options. One was to firm up a broker to do the facilitation at Kraskino and the other was to change the route to some other border. I was more than a bit upset about it at that time. But in retrospect, it showed up as the right advice. Andy could not make international calls from his phone and I did not have one. Andy had told me in Ruili that even if I took a Chinese sim I would not be able to place international calls from it. I saw no point in such an arrangement. But today I had to make international calls of help to Kazakhstan and India. Andy told me that I would not be able to find a public call booth to make the calls! In the end, we took a taxi back to the city.
We landed up in a mobile phone store and sought assistance. The person at the counter mentioned that he would be able to give me a sim card and an international call attachment, which he did for Yuan 100 and in less than 10 minutes. I felt that Andy had not advised me correctly in Ruili, and I got more peeved at the time. In the meanwhile I used the Wi-Fi connection in the store and made desperate pleas of help to Lyazzat in Kazakhstan and Ali in India. The store personnel were explained the predicament I was in by Andy. They did not rush us at all. Finally, I had the contact of Anatoly in Vladivostok who agreed to facilitate the border clearance for USD 670. A high price to pay, but I had to agree. The alternative was that Navo Tours would have to redo the paperwork for another border that would delay the entire expedition by at least a week, or even more. Anatoly initially alarmed me by suggesting that he would take me to Russia through a village border post that lay 300 km north of Kraskino. I would have nothing of that. It had to be Kraskino or else I would wait out the revised paperwork in China. The situation, most of the time, looked hopeless and beyond any redemption. The truck driver said that he would not go to the border after 1.30 pm. Which meant I had to take a call by 1 pm. At the stroke of that hour Anatoly confirmed that he would reach Kraskino by 5 pm. It was music and God’s chimes in my ears.
Andy and I rushed to the truck. The paperwork for the truck had been done by that time. It was nearly 10 km to the Hunchun border post. It took quite some time because of the poor roads. Once we reached the post all work was done fast by the agent who was there on behalf of Navo Tours. A cursory examination of the stuff in the car was done, lot of photographs clicked by the officials of the car and we were asked to go on to the Russian border.
It was 2.15 pm on the Chinese side and 4.15 pm on the Russian side with the change in time zone. Anatoly had told me that he would be at Kraskino at 5 pm. And there was about 45 minutes to go for that. My understanding was that it was 18 km to the Russian border post. We reached the Russian side in less than 5 minutes. I requested the driver to wait for Anatoly. He refused and went through the guard post to the cargo reception bay, where we were immediately surrounded by a few beefy Russian women guards. I was very apprehensive for I knew that none of them knew English. After a few questions a young man was produced before me to seek details in English. I explained the purpose of the border crossing and was asked about the countries I had visited in the past. In the meanwhile, I was asked for the Customs Declaration. I innocently said that I would fill out any form that they wanted me to. As all this was going on a senior officer appeared on the scene and instructed that the truck be placed in the examination bay and necessary physical checks carried out. In between answering questions I had to take out every little piece of luggage and explain what each contained. They were, naturally, concerned about illegal narcotics trade across the border. A dog was also pressed into service. It is impossible to explain what was going on in my mind and I had to face that alone. I was all the more tense because I had been told that the border is only meant for movement of Chinese and Russians across the post.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity we were given the go ahead to move through the post after Immigration and Customs formalities were completed. The truck was the last vehicle to pass the Russian border post that day. It was past the closing time of 6 pm. When I got the stamped passport back my joy knew no bounds and my heart was full of thanks to the Almighty and to those who had been ardently praying for the success of this expedition. In light rain we drove past the border controls to the small hamlet of Kraskino. The road was not in such great condition. As we neared the hamlet one of the Customs officials waved us down and asked us to wait for Anatoly! In a few minutes a few more officials joined at the site and in a short while Anatoly and his friend arrived with a hoist truck.
The car aroused a lot of interest among those who had gathered there. I answered many questions that were translated by Anatoly. The hoist truck did a quick and efficient job and the Champion was on the road, once again. I presented my books to a few who were there and took photographs before Anatoly and his friend piloted me on to the road to Vladivostok. Anatoly said that we would be in the city by 11 pm. In light rains and over some dodgy roads we did fair time to reach the hotel I was booked to stay in 30 minutes beyond the target time.
I had requested for secure paid parking within the premises of the hotel. Once the bags were in the room and I had said my farewells to Anatoly and his friend I took time to get back to the social network, from which I had been cut off for nearly 10 days. The genuine concern and good wishes of those following the expedition were the last thoughts in my mind before drifting off to sleep.