We woke up in the early morning to prepare for the border crossing.
Zabaykalsk (Забайкальск), the town on the other side of the border, is just roughly 10km away from Manzhouli. However, according to the information on the internet the border crossing could take up to 4 hours due to the thorough customs inspection on the Russian side.
Because clothing in China are way cheaper, Chinese merchants would employ people to bring clothes across the border so that they could avoid the import tax at the same time earning profits by selling them in Russia. In view of that, the Russian customs have implemented a new regulation stating that no one should bring more than one garment of the same style into Russia.
It is unimaginable for us living in Hong Kong because we emphasis so much on efficiency and so it is not possible to check everything of everyone at the border. Even the powdered milk restriction imposed earlier in Hong Kong is not strictly enforced since the customs usually only conduct sampling inspections. However, the Russians here are really serious about it and they would check every single one and every single garment. Therefore, it is not surprising that it takes up to hours for busload of parallel traders to clear the customs.
Even though our train would depart from Zabaykalsk at 13.46 Moscow Time, which was 9 hours after the departure time of our cross-border bus, we still believed it was a wise decision. Just in case anything happens, you know.
Surprisingly, there were less than 10 people on then bus, probably because it was the last day of 2016. All were Russians, excluding us three and the driver. The bus soon arrived at the Chinese checkpoint. We had to alight and go through the immigration in person, much like what we usually do when crossing the land border between Hong Kong and mainland China. Everything was smooth and all the passengers went through very quickly, until they saw us.
Apparently, there weren’t many tourists crossing the border so they were very curious when they saw one, no, three. My friends are holding Hong Kong passport, which essentially means that they do not use passport to get in and out of China as they are issued a separate travel permit instead. Yet, the immigrations still told them to show their passports, perhaps due to their curiosity. For me, a holder of Singapore passport, they flipped through every single page to try to look for a visa, which is non-existence because there is a visa-free regime for Singaporeans. They were surprised and spent some time discussing with their colleagues. They were also surprised that I can speak Chinese, and asked me if I can speak Chinese, in Chinese. Ok. Eventually we got through the immigration. The driver had already come up to the counters to check what was happening because we are taking abnormally long.
After hopping back on the bus, we were driven through two gates situating right a the border line where our passports were checked again and again. Then, we arrived at the Russian checkpoint.
Again, we were abnormalities to the Russian immigrations. Being asked where we were heading, we replied “Владивосток (Vladivostok)!” But due to the lady’s ignorance, or more liekly our bad pronunciation, she seemed confused until we showed them our train tickets. I’m probably one of the very few Singaporeans who passed through this checkpoint, and so when I handed in my passport, the lady made some calls to ask for permission for clearing a Singaporean holding a tourist visa.
We were finally in Russia! Not yet. Turned out a few of the Russian passengers were paid to bring clothes over from China and they had to lay out everything in their bags for the customs to check one by one to look for possible clothes of the same design. It took us around 20 minutes to wait before we could get going again. I couldn’t imagine if we came during the peak season in summer in which the bus would be filled with parallel traders. Maybe we would be spending our time at the cafeteria inside the checkpoint, which was likely to be set up for people waiting for the lengthly inspections.
After the bus left the checkpoint, it stopped next to a small pavilion at the roadside. A Russian lady boarded the bus and collected ₽250 from us. Every foreigner has to purchase an insurance that is valid for 10 days if you enter Russia here, regardless of whether or not you have bought your own prior to the trip.
The bus did not have a fixed route. It was more like a shared taxi in which the driver would send you to anywhere you want within the town. The Russians clearly took advantage of it and asked the driver to bring them to different warehouses owned by the Chinese to drop off their clothes. Thus, we spent another hour on the bus getting from one warehouse to another. Those warehouses are not what you think of, big rectangular structures like IKEA. Indeed, they were just shelters built in the middle of nowhere, some of which were even not connected by proper roads so it was a bumpy ride. Even the bus driver was getting impatient with the Russians and started to yell at them to urge them to leave as they were taking their time dealing with the Chinese merchants inside the warehouses.
After being dropped off at the train station, our first mission was to look for food because it was already afternoon and our stomachs were growling. Sadly, Zabaykalsk is a very small town and there isn’t many restaurants, and all those near the station were closed. We could only buy some bread from the grocery stores.
There weren’t much to explore in Zabaykalsk. We spent the rest of the few hours before departure time of our train in the waiting room of the station. The channel that the television was on was playing Самогонщики (Moonshiners), a Soviet comedy film produced in the 60s, on loop.
We finally hopped on the train to Чита (Chita) in the evening, and spent the New Year’s Eve of 2017 sleeping on the train.