As I took my place near the back of the bus I noticed that most of my window had dislodged from its seal. I knew instantly that the ride to the Chinese border was not going to be the road I had hoped for. I’d imagined that with the World’s greatest emerging economy on their doorstep, Vladivostok (and the rusting fleet in its harbour) would do anything to join the Chinese gravy train. Instead, the five hour drive was plagued with holes, bumps and whole sections without a thought to a permanent surface.
After the treatment to get there, the Russian border post was no surprise. An ugly afterthought of a building; full of wasted space and awash with dust and decay. I watched as my passport was thumbed through by each bored immigration officer, phone calls were made, much paper shuffling was done.
As we crossed the mile or so of no-mans-land I expected further delays, further irregularities to be discovered and laboured over and a further possibility I’d have to spend the night in whatever the tin-pot Chinese border town had to offer. I really couldn’t have been more wrong.
As we crested the hill, I, and the majority of our Russian passengers, became audibly struck. This was no border-town backwater; this was a fully functioning commercial city. First we saw high rise apartments emerge from the surrounding forest, then pristine parks with manicured lawns, fountains and plazas, landscaped gardens, large hotels and banks covered with huge Chinese characters denoting businesses that teemed from their lower levels. It was on another scale to everything in Asiatic Russia, and it was all sparkling and new.
After a speedy crossing at the Chinese side I found myself standing in the centre of one of the city’s huge plazas, towered over by concrete and glass, trying to not sound like an awestruck troglodyte. My guide to this city was Jo, a Chinese labourer in Vladivostok; he’d had the pleasure of 5 hours of my broken attempts at Mandarin from my new phrasebook.
“This city is incredible Jo, how many people live here?”
“I’m not sure, I think less than 2 million, it is a very quiet and small place” – I thought he was joking but he continued – “In my city of Harbin (a little to the north) we have 5 million and the buildings are twice as high and numerous, but even we are nothing in China”.
I was expecting a booming nation but I couldn’t comprehend the scale of China. Jo took me to a supermarket inside one of the largest towers. Over 5 floors were devoted to every brand; every type and every variety, from local pig’s ears and chicken feet to walls of American soft drinks and processed food. As the Chinese crossed the shop they seemed to throw goods into their trolley in an impulse, they didn’t seem to be looking for anything or working to a list, merely satisfying a need to consume or simply passing the time.
Next we took one of the city’s numerous shiny red taxis to a canteen-style restaurant that Jo preferred. He picked an array of amazing dishes for me to try until our table was covered with overloaded plates. I noticed that all tables across the wide expanse of the restaurant were similarly burdened, even if they only had a single occupant. After a long day I was ready to demolish these culinary glories, but had barely begun when Jo got up, “We should leave the rest, it would not look good to leave empty plates”. When I explained that that was my precise intention Jo seemed embarrassed, “In Russia yes, and in the West yes, but in China it is only the weak and poor who would do this, if you are still hungry we could get some more somewhere else?”
“No, no it’s OK”. I looked around again and noticed a lot of remaining food at abandoned tables. Our waste of food was paid for with banknotes with a large picture of Chairman Mao on each one.
In subsequent days I’ve come to see more of China and how this huge and diverse nation steamrolls forward. Rather than be dazzled by Chinese scale, I see the answer in every face on every busy street. With the heartbeat of every Chinese person is the knowledge that they are 1 in 1.3 billion, the moment they stop competing – whether this be in education, business, behind the wheel or in a restaurant – is the moment they are overtaken and fall towards insignificance. The border city is called Suifenhe and today it is impressive but anonymous. As my first Chinese friend put it, “today this city is nothing, but tomorrow it may be New York or London. Every person in China now thinks like this”.