By Tom Bell
The road to China is as flat and endless as a Texas highway. To the west, snow-covered wheat fields extend to the horizon. To the southeast, on the other side of the Amur River, we can see low, rounded mountains — Chinese territory. We’ve been driving southwest from Khabarovsk for about five hours. In the past hour, two squads of Russian boarder guards armed with machine guns have stopped us to search our car and examine our documents. Our car bucks like a mule as our Texas highway turns to dirt. A few hundred yards away, a Russian army helicopter hovers low to the ground.
“It seems we’re at the edge of the world,” I tell my traveling companion Odajima Toshiro, a 43-year-old reporter for the Japanese newspaper, The Hokkaido Shimbun Press.
“This is not the edge of the world,” Odajima says. “This is the middle of everything.”
Since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, this region along the Amur River has been one of the most heavily militarized areas in the world. In the late 1960s, not far from here on an island in the Ussuri River, Chinese and Soviet soldiers fought each other in a small battle that left dozens dead. Both forces withdrew from the island, which today belongs to no one. But the cold war between Russia and China is over. Russia now sends military equipment across the boarder in exchange for hard currency. And Chinese merchants, by the thousands, are crossing the border to sell candy, wine, beer, cookware, neon-colored down jackets, fake Adidas sneakers, grey Chinese army coats. You see the Chinese everywhere in Khabarovsk, groaning under their unimaginably large bundles of trading goods.
The Amur River, a ribbon of ice one and a half miles wide and 1,800 miles long, forms the border between Russia and China for much of its course. In the summer, cargo boats cross the river. In winter, trucks drive across on the ice. At the end of one of these frozen highways, near the village of Leninskoya, stands a small Russian customs office. Metal containers, filled with cement manufactured at a local factory are stacked in the yard. The cement — something Russia has a surplus of — will be exported.
About 40 Chinese merchants, their pockets swollen with cash, are waiting to go through customs. They’re heading back home. Their canvass bags, once filled with goods, are empty now. There’s not much to buy in Russia, so the merchants have little to declare, except for some toys and souvenirs. In Khabarovsk, the Chinese cover their faces when I photograph them. But they are relaxed here and even smile for my camera. I try to talk to them, but it’s impossible without an interpreter. Finally, I try a word they might know:
“Nixon,” I say.
“Mao Tse-tung,” replies a man in a grey coat and black fedora.
Custom officials here say trade through this border point, the third busiest in the Far East, has been doubling every year since the mid-1980s. Last winter, 50,000 tons of goods were driven across the ice. This winter, more than 100,000 tons will cross, custom officials predict. So many people want to cross — about 7,500 last year — that the Russian government is building a dock for a ferry boat. In winter, there’s a bus. It leaves for China every afternoon.
Odajima and I had hoped to see the Chinese customs office on the other side of the river, but the Russian border guards won’t let us walk on the ice. I try taking photographs of trucks parked on the ice, but the guards apprehend me, saying it’s illegal to photograph the border. My captors take me to their chief, a beefy, grim-looking man. The chief announces that I’m the first American to visit this border point. He shakes my hand and smiles. Half criminal, half celebrity, I’m allowed to go free. I bid the guards good-bye and head back to the river bank. I’m just in time to watch the bus drive to China. The bus heads up-river. I watch it for about 10 minutes, until I can’t see it any more.