Dana E. Abizaid
October 20, 2004
Published in The Salem News.

When Russian music began pouring from the speakers in the train's cabins, we knew we were finally approaching a strange but unique city on the border of China and Russia.

Having left Beijing 32 hours prior, the music signaling the last stop came as a relief. The Chinese train had journeyed through large towns bright with neon lights and small villages with trash strewn in makeshift piles by the tracks where villagers on donkey carts waited patiently for the train to pass before continuing along a dirt path to a field or market.

But the closer the train got to the border town of Manzhouli, located in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the more expansive and beautiful the landscape became.

Dotted with distant hills, small Mongolian yurts (circular tent homes), and low flying hawks, the northern Chinese steppe (open grasslands) seems to beckon the lonely, the dispossessed, or the pensive seeking answers to the unanswerable. This land is referred to as "big sky country," but words do not adequately describe the awe and humility one feels in the middle of this vast landscape. Rather than watching television, playing handheld video games, or listening to a Walkman aboard the rocking train, it was enough to pass the long hours looking out the window into this imposing emptiness. While the impressive view mingled with my imagination and inspired visions and feelings reminiscent of trips to the Grand Canyon, the Alps, and the California coast, I found myself again humbled by nature's raw power.

After reaching the border town at dusk, my companions and I immediately jumped into a taxi and asked in both Russian and Chinese to be taken to the Russian hotel. Ostensibly, the Russian hotel is the place that most Russians shuffling back and forth across the border in pursuit of illicit trade, spend their nights.

An odd mixture of Chinese and Russian culture flows through the hotel's lobby and one isn't certain in what language to address the staff or the gaggle of European, Asian, and Eurasian peoples lugging large cardboard boxes, suitcases, and gym bags full of items for trade. That this is a town of transients seeking quick business deals and casual encounters is certain, however. One is reminded of the small towns on the California/Nevada border where neon lights promising riches, cheap alcohol, and a night in a house of ill-repute have attracted the adventurous and curious for decades.

Despite having read the warning provided by the hotel against Chinese swindlers speaking fluent Russian trying to cheat foreigners, it was imperative to interact with the locals and find transportation out of the city and into the steppe. A few questions on the street led to a meeting in the back room of a small, nondescript hotel kitchen with a man and his Buryat family.

Since Buryats are Asians from Siberia who traditionally live in yurts in the steppe, the prospect of hitching a ride initially seemed promising. Although the conversation was friendly, the father was finally reluctant to offer a ride, appearing suspicious over the fact a foreigner would be interested in visiting his homeland. Explanations about my interest in history, culture, and journalism didn't persuade him. Ultimately, a taxi trip to the steppe presented itself as the only viable option.

The following day's journey took us 40 kilometers out of Manzhouli to a lake situated in the middle of the steppe like a large puddle in a flat barren field. The view of Lake Dalai Hu was magnificent as our taxi descended down a rolling hill. Its calm blue water seemed to kiss the sky and clouds in the distance.

It being October and off season, the area was deserted except for a family that was making some fall repairs on their home about half a kilometer from the shore. As we approached the house a few men worked laying bricks, while three others were slaughtering a sheep for the midday meal. Their furiously barking mutt took a passing interest in us after each unsuccessful attempt to try and steal a piece of fresh mutton from the sheep's carcass.

After exchanging pleasantries and getting a tour of the family's small house and garden, we ventured back toward the city. Our taxi driver informed us that due to the weather, almost all transportation to the yurts in the middle of the steppe ceases in late summer. A trip there would have to wait to the spring. Undeterred, we set off for the Siberian border.

The Chinese/Russian border is heavily fortified, but for 20 RMB (two dollars) one can pass the Chinese checkpoint and waltz up within a few inches of Russia. The Chinese authorities, apparently much wiser in the art of capitalism than their Russian counterparts who discarded Communism for the free market 13 years ago, have turned a relatively uninteresting border crossing into a tourist attraction. Although comfortable on the Chinese side, the visitor is reminded of the gravity attached to regional security in this part of the world by the presence of heavily armed Russian soldiers a few meters away behind tangled barbed wire.

Most assuredly, I thought, a Russian soldier would not shoot a wayward tourist who eluded the lone unarmed Chinese guard in order to place his foot on Russian soil. But just in case, the Russians have constructed an ominous tower where border guards leer at the tourists on the Chinese side who innocently snap pictures of the soldiers and their native Siberia. In any case, it is a surreal experience that any sane American would never have dreamed of witnessing a short 20 years ago.

Back in town, it was time to experience Russian nightlife — with a Chinese twist.

Manzhouli is small enough that the newcomer doesn't fear getting too lost while he blindly searches for entertainment. Luckily, we stumbled upon a lively Russian restaurant only a few blocks from our hotel.

Anyone who has traveled in Russia or the former Soviet Union can surely attest to the bizarre quality of Russian cafes where the music is always too loud and the only thing more alluring than the cheap alcohol and Russian cuisine is the prospect of dancing with the middle-aged Russian women who enthusiastically arrive on the dance floor after a few vodka shots. In this atmosphere, I have always found it favorable to free myself of inhibitions and take part in the festivities. While the Russian pop music pumped from the speakers surrounding the dance floor, I had trouble believing this was all happening in China.

At journey's end I was reluctant to leave this odd paradise. Although pleased with Manzhouli, however, I found myself staring longingly out the train window on the tracks back to Beijing. With the blare of Russian music and the dull thud of vodka still pounding in my head, I yearned for a longer, more fulfilling trip into the steppe. As the grasslands rolled by I determined to head to Mongolia after the snows thawed the following spring.