Daniel Craig, the current double-0h-seven Bond, escorted Queen Elizabeth to tape a clip for the London Olympic opening, and a properly suited double jumped into the center of the ceremonial opening. Just when we thought the English gave up drama after Shakespeare! The James Bond of my era (Sean Connery) came to mind as we turned tourist into the tri-border gates of China, Mongolia, and Russia. Ian Fleming took the three governments, or rogue sections within them, as the villains against Her Majesty’s service. We balanced it off with Le Carre’s Smiley who always knew there was a mole feeding M1 intelligence to the Reds!
When I went to the United States in the '60s, I resolved to spend my first summer in the West Coast, the second in the Midwest, and the third in the East Coast. I did. I also planned on returning to Pea Eye through Europe to the Far East to complete a round-the-world trip. I didn’t. It was 15 years later, when we finally did an 80-day journey from Chicago to Manila via Mumbai, Colombo and Singapore, to finally accomplish our intent.
Plan A was to fly to London, take the rail to Paris, go Europass around circling to St. Petersburg, proceed to Moscow and catch the trans-Siberian line to Vladivostok; then seek passage to Yokohama, and on to Manila.
But this was the '60s, and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing running from yard cross burnings and ferocious German dogs of Confederacy diehards, for some, and for others, burning their draft cards and hieing it to Canada after the acceleration of military action in Vietnam. We discovered later of the deceptive basis of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution but that came too late.
The parliament of the street took precedence over classroom learning so we took longer to finish our master’s degree past the three years we originally allotted for it.
We also married a German-Welsh-Scot lassie from outside of Chicago. That pretty much dictated Plan B. I went back to Pea Eye on the cheapest route to prepare for my bride to join me in three months.
So, coming to the Russian border on the summer of our sunset has a personal effect on our sentiments. Not quite through Russia and Siberia as we originally intended but we got close enough. After a day in Manzhouli, a Russian city for all purposes save the Chinese proprietors and the additional Zhongwen signage, we already felt ourselves to be on Russian soil.
I was in Heihe, Heilongjiang by the Amur a year earlier, another haven for Russian shoppers, but I could not cross the river for lack of a visa, so this time I went to the Russian Consulate in Shenyang to apply for one, hoping to hop from Manzhouli to Ulan Ude near Lake Baikal for a couple days before heading south to Mongolia’s Ulan Batur. There was need for an invitation from a Russian entity, or a warranty from a licensed tour office in China. That entailed a fee, plus the visa costs of $145, a reciprocal price to what the U.S. charges visa applicants. I wonder if my Saipan driver’s license would spell a visa difference since we treat Russian tourist on a preferential basis?
Not to be too Ilocano cheap, though we were, we skipped plans to cross over and resolved to, at least, stand at the border. I did. It was an experience and a half.
I saw one-up-manship (yup, has to be a macho thing) in the imposing Guo Hua, the people’s gate, which dwarfed the Russian counterpart by more than half. The China side still kept its old "Chinatown" gate-usually found in Guogong palaces-but the new seven-story structure out-Russkie the Bolshevik Cossacks’ own propensity toward edifice complex.
It was a tourist trap, of course. On this visit, the two elevators were inoperable in the middle of a busy summer season. Tourists, including elders, walked the seven landings, with two gift shops waiting on each floor. The seventh floor served as a ceiling for the ground floors split by the China-Russia rails, and offering a panoramic view of the border of the three countries. It is worth the walk if one holds on to one’s wallet!
A decade ago, Mongolia and Russia were ahead in the industrialization game-public works, construction, and real estate. Now China has superseded both, and the Chinese do not hesitate to display the difference. China built international trade centers in its side replete with Russian signage, and cheap goods for the Russian consumer.
Being the second half of the old Mongol empire, I thought the Mongolian theme would be played up in Nei Menggu. Not so. Russian knick-knacks labeled "Made in Russia" (fake) are sold to gullible Chinese tourists.
The Manzhouli-Moscow train are two different rail sizes so Chinese mechanics equip their international run to access both systems. I could not fathom the mechanics required but to know that the engineering of both sides are employed to accommodate the need is a good sign of good neighbor relations.
The barbwires are something else, but then, after our rail trip from Houston to L.A. earlier, the fence along the Mexican border is nothing to brag about either.
"Laying one’s life through the barbwires of history," was a metaphor we borrowed from the WWII U.S. Marines in Tarawa. Viewing both Mongolia and Russia from the sparkling steel barbwires of Manzhouli, China, is not very assuring of good neighborly relations!
Still, London found cause to deploy ground-to-air missiles at the London Olympics 2012. I wonder who they thought might intrude. Must be the Americans!
Welcome to the 21st century.