Train | 30.11.2012 | Issue 5025

At 6:50 a.m. there was a loud banging on my door. I was instantly awake. But it was one of the hotel cleaners. She said that I needed to show my passport at reception before I checked out.

At midday I got a phone call from the cheery translator. The Federal Migration Service had make a decision, he said, and would like to see me. He picked me up five minutes later — alone this time, without his shorter companion.

We sat down, like the day before, at the school desk. After a couple of minutes, the deputy director of the immigration control department joined us.

As I only had a work permit for Moscow and was officially on vacation from The Moscow Times but had been describing myself as a journalist and publishing material, the deputy director told me, I was guilty of working in the Zaibaikalsky region without the required authorization.

They had collected statements from some of the people I had met over the last 10 days, all affirming that I had introduced myself as from The Moscow Times. And they had printed out this blog as evidence.

The offense, coupled with the fine I had received for visiting the prohibited border zone two days previously, was enough for them to have me expelled from Russia and barred for three years, the deputy director said. The translator nodded along in solemn agreement.

They had, however, decided not to take that step, he went on, and had passed the case to Moscow. "Do you understand?" he asked — as if to make sure that his magnanimity was being appreciated.

I requested a few clarifications, but didn't really try to argue. I was to be able to continue my journey, but only as a tourist.

We'll be very interested to read your impressions of your trip if you write them up afterward, he concluded. The translator smiled at this rhetorical flourish.

The translator then accompanied me outside and shook my hand as we stood by the side of the road. "I hope you'll be OK," he said in parting. And then he walked off in the opposite direction from the building from which we had just emerged.

Later that afternoon, before I was due to get on the train to Blagoveshchensk, a Chita journalist, who, along with her husband, had been very kind to me during my stay, drove me out to a small Buddhist Datsan on the outskirts of the city.

Their small daughter took great delight in furiously spinning the prayer wheels as we walked clockwise around the temple.

It had been built by local Buryats — the republic of Buryatia adjoins the Zabaikalsk region. But even Orthodox Christians visit the place to leave an offering of a few kopeks or circle the temple.

In one of the small huts scattered around the temple's premises was an astrologer, and the journalist pushed me inside, insisting that the sleepy looking lama bless the rest of my journey.

He seemed slightly taken aback. But, once he got into his stride, he said firmly that confidence was the most important thing. If we have good intentions we will meet good people.

However this is Russia, he added, and looked at me knowingly. Don't trust people instantly, he said, don't open your soul to strangers.

He then quizzed me on British universities — he had three children, he explained, for whom he wanted good educations. One was already studying chemistry in Ulan-Ude. "Could I get your phone number?" he asked suddenly.

He then read some prayers while the incense swirled. He rang a bell and gave me a bronze cup of water, telling me to go outside and throw the contents at the sun. Then he sent me on my way.

I boarded the half-empty train to Blagoveshchensk a few hours later. When I woke up the next day, some 16 hours into the 40-hour journey, I checked my phone. The Moscow Times was ordering me back to Moscow.

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