A Glimpse of China, and the FSB

Zabaikalsk | 27.11.2012 | Issue 5022

About 70 percent of Russia's trade with China crosses the border at Zabaikalsk.

The village is unprepossessing and small. But from the train station you can see the huge gates that trains must pass through on entering China. You can also just make out the high-rise buildings of Manzhouli, the Chinese city located 9 kilometers away.

According to locals, Manzhouli was about the size of Zabaikalsk 20 years ago. Now, while Zabaikalsk has a population of about 15,000, Manzhouli is a bustling metropolis of almost half a million people with shopping centers, an indoor skiing facility, 3D cinemas, bowling alleys, swimming pools and singing fountains.

I arrived on an overnight train from Chita. Around me in the platzkart carriage were three women. They went to bed as soon as the train pulled out of the station, but woke up at 2 a.m. to begin a meal of cold sausages.

The temperature had been falling slowly over the last two days and it was minus 26 Celsius when I stepped out of the train in Zabaikalsk. Most of the passengers headed straight for the waiting buses to take them the final leg into China.

People from Zabaikalsky region, and beyond, flock to Manzhouli for shopping — anything from clothes to furniture is cheaper — and entertainment. Companies in Chita even offer special package tours.

To enter China, Russians need either a visa, or to be included on a list of no less than five people put together by travel agencies: the Sino-Russian version of a visa-free regime. Russians returning from Manzhouli are allowed to bring back up to 50 kilograms of goods through customs.

Unbeknown to me, Zabaikalsk is located in a special "border zone" where non-Russians are permitted for transit purposes, but otherwise forbidden.

The car I was in was tailed as we drove around the town in the morning. And as I was sitting down to my first real Chinese meal of the trip so far, two border guards appeared and asked for my documents.

They escorted me out of the restaurant and into their green van, parked alongside two other vehicles. They explained that I was in the area illegally, and fined me 300 rubles ($10).

While they were filling out the forms, a cheerful major sitting in the front seat told me it was his dream to visit Scotland, particularly Edinburgh and Stirling.

He was a great admirer of the famous fighter for Scottish freedom, William Wallace, he said, and wanted to know my opinion about the viability of Scottish independence.

Then I was interviewed by a black-coated FSB officer who had scars around his mouth. He looked at the photographs on my camera and asked me a range of questions: from where I had learned Russian, to which university I had attended, and the details of my employment history. They let me go after about 40 minutes.

Deciding that I had had enough excitement for one day, I spent the last few hours of my stay in Zabaikalsk in the railway station waiting room, where signs were in English, Chinese and Russian.

I watched as it filled up with Russians returning from Manzhouli, struggling under the weight of bulging bags. Just like me, they were all headed for the overnight train back to Chita.

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