Being lucky is not having everything going smooth, but having a way for everything not going smooth.
31.12.13 - 6.1.14
From Suifenhe to Vladivostok, December 31st 2013
It was my passion for nature that led me to Kuala Gandah. It was there in Kuala Gandah where I met Andrey and his family. Had I not gone to Kuala Gandah, the story of Sonja would never be.
Andrey patiently, attentively, provided me with all the information I needed through endless emails. Fortunate, isn't just enough to describe. Andrey spoke excellent English. He knew Indonesia maybe even more than I do. He travels even more adventurous than I do. Hence, his information and advices were exactly what I needed. Well, I didn't really realize how fortunate I was until I consulted about Harbin with my Mandarin teacher who claimed to be a local Harbinger. It was then when I learned that talking to a Russian about Russia, or to a Chinese about China, is just like talking to a foreigner if you don't share the same values.
One of the valuable information Andrey had shared with me was Primorye ATP, a bus company that operates between Harbin and Vladivostok. There's no English version of the website, but there's Google. I sent an email inquiry. Andrey told me to allow one week for the reply, but I got the reply within less than 24 hours. It was written in two languages: Russian and then English on below. In that single day we had already exchanged several emails. The same as Andrey, the email sender attentively answered each of my questions and added advices about traveling options from Mudanjiang to Suifenhe, including information about trains despite being a bus company.
Finally I reserved a seat for Suifenhe - Vladivostok and Vladivostok - Harbin. I was given Primorye ATP's address in Vladivostok and was told to get my ticket for Harbin there. Oh yeah, after a few more emails, there was no more English translation on the bottom. So I had to turn to Google. When Google didn't seem to be doing well, I turned to Andrey. Being lucky is not having everything going smooth, but having a way for everything not going smooth. Don't you think so? The funny thing was when I wrote that I would like to reconfirm something in case Google's translation is incorrect. The reply confirmed that my understanding was correct and thanked Google for bridging our conversation. Apparently, they, too, had been answering my emails through Google.
That's not all what Primorye ATP did for me. The director himself wrote me a confirmation letter (not visa support) which I could bring to the embassy for visa application. It was to explain how I would enter and exit Russia since I had no flight ticket.
Last winter in Beijing, I was told that is a symbol of luck. Usually it's made of thread and can be found in various sizes. But this one is made of a clock and a thermometer. It stood in front of the international bus terminal in Suifenhe. I captured this from my bus window and actually didn't realize the thermometer until I viewed the picture on my computer. Minus eighteen something Celsius... aha.
We are approaching the Chinese immigration office. I was delighted to see my home country's flag waving among several other countries'. However, I was the only non-Chinese and non-Russian in the bus. Along the border, the bus stopped several times and a man in uniform would get on. Every time the driver would tell the man in uniform: "There's an Indonesian back there."
I didn't understand the language, but the word "Indonesia" was obvious. Then the man in uniform would look surprised and walk straight towards me while all the other passengers turned their head in chorus towards me: There's an Indonesian!
Technically in Russia, but not yet officially.
I feared the immigration process would be even fussier than what I had gone through at the Chinese immigration. No, not at all.
Some passengers got off after the Russian immigration exit.
And then... all passengers got off. But, the driver signaled me to get back on the bus. "Houskvousk rousk vousk...!" That's how it got into my ears.
I was the only passenger left in the bus.
After driving for awhile, he turned his head to me. Another "Houskvousk rousk vousk...!" But this time while gesturing a phone call.
"Excuse me. I don't understand."
"Houskvousk rousk vousk...! Telefon!"
"Call? Whom should I call?"
"Houskvousk rousk vousk...!"
I gave up and returned to my seat. Whatsoever. I've made a reservation until Vladivostok, haven't I?
Uhm, it looks very different than China, I said to myself. And suddenly the bus stopped. Nothing but snow was in sight.
Now the driver got up from his seat and walked to me. "Houskvousk rousk vousk...! Telefon! Telefon!"
"Call whom?!?" I was getting furious AND scared. Is he going to let me down here in the middle of nowhere?? If he does this to me in China, I might still be able to work it out for I speak the language a bit and am familiar with the place. But here?!? I have never been to Russia. I don't speak a word of it. I don't know Andrey's current number. Well, XL has ceased to operate after we crossed the border anyway. I don't have a Russian SIM Card. And what will my friends say? I told you, I told you! You shouldn't have traveled alone... bla, bla, bla. All these things ran fast in my head like a cassette being fast-forwarded.
In my ears the driver's tone rose. "HOUSKVOUSK ROUSK VOUSK...! TELEFON!" And then he raised his arms up, moved his head sideways, rolled his eyebrows up, "Vladivostok? Houskvousk rousk vousk...! Vladivostok? Telefon! Houskvousk rousk vousk...!"
I reached out for the confirmation letter from Primorye ATP. "Do you mean I should call this number?"
The driver took the letter with him to his seat. From a shelf above his head he reached out for a pair of reading glasses. "Ah... ahagh ahagh ahagh." He nodded his head repeatedly. He got up and returned the letter to me. "Ahagh ahagh Vladivostok, ahagh." He drove on.
For me it was like watching a drama on stage. The curtains closed but I was left wondering what the story was actually about.
We entered what seemed to be a town. Is this Vladivostok already? It doesn't look like the articles I have read. Suddenly the bus stopped again. So did my heartbeat.
The driver got up from his seat and got off the bus. There were some men outside. One of them, the youngest one, looked very Chinese. The driver opened the luggage cabin. "Look closely!" I told myself. "Make sure he doesn't take out your suitcase." I kept an eye, making sure there was nothing blue coming out of the cabin.
No, there was nothing blue. All were brown. The driver unloaded one box after another into a white car. The Chinese guy gave him something. Maybe money. They shook hands intensely. "Houskvousk rousk vousk...!" said the Chinese guy. "Houskvousk rousk vousk...!" replied my driver with a big grin on his face. He closed the cabin. I sat back with relief.
My driver was indeed a man full of surprises. Suddenly he was already standing next to me with a plastic bag full of steamed buns. "Houskvousk rousk vousk...!" He pointed into the plastic bag.
The inside was sweet and a bit salty. I couldn't figure out what it was. I was just too happy with it for I hadn't eaten anything except oat biscuits.
Is that the sea or the river? It was like the world around me had come to a standstill.
And at last... this must be Vladivostok. As if reading my mind, the driver turned his head to me. "Houskvousk rousk vousk...! Vladivostok, Vladivostok!" He pointed his finger downwards.
At what seemed to be a bus terminal he signaled me to get off. He opened the luggage cabin, I got my suitcase out, he locked the cabin and got back into the bus. I ran after him waving my hands at him through the window. I moved my fingers signaling payment, because the ticket lady in Suifenhe said I would have to pay again when I arrive in Russia. I did remember that I had been told in email that I should make my payment at Primorye ATP's office when I pay for Vladivostok - Harbin. But... maybe that was my misunderstanding. How can you get on a bus so far and not pay after getting off? Isn't Primorye ATP not worried I don't show up at their office?
Through the window, my driver pointed outside. I looked around in case there was something like an office where maybe I could make my payment. There was nothing. My driver and my bus had already disappeared as well.
I saw a car with a yellow and black checkered pyramid on top. That must be a taxi. So I showed the driver a piece of paper with the address of my hotel, Zemchuzhina. He nodded. "Houskvousk rousk vousk, five vousk housk."
"Five? Five what?"
The driver picked up a five hundred bill from next to his seat. Oh, five hundred roubles.
Inside the car I looked at that bill wondering if he purposely keeps it there as a prop for any foreigner to whatever direction.
It was quite a long ride anyway. "Japanese?" he asked me.
""Houskvousk rousk vousk?"
"Excuse me, I don't understand."
"Indonesia?" He dropped into silence until we arrived at my hotel.
Like the gentlemen in movies, he opened the door for me and carried my suitcase to the door. I was certain I was no longer in China.
"Thank you. Thank you very much."
"Welcome." But his smile said "Enjoy my country."
Nothing can welcome me more than coffee and a bottle of water.
Ooops, and one more thing: Facebook. I started spamming friends with my photos. Yay, I'm reconnected to the world!