When I rang Cheng Baodong on his mobile phone to tell him I’d arrived in the border town of Suifenhe, I was treated to a torrent of words which were entirely strange to me. I knew they weren’t Chinese; but they sounded Chinese. I handed my phone to a pretty, chain-smoking Russian girl who I’d met on the bus from Vladivostok, a professional translator heading for Shanghai, and she told Cheng, in Mandarin, where I was. He duly arrived at the bus station with two officials from the local forestry department and signaled his presence by waving a large paperback above his head. It was called ‘Teach Yourself Basic English,’ something he had yet to do.
Although Cheng’s English was rudimentary, it soon became clear that he had a considerable interest in the subject of love.
“Do you weely wuv your wife?” he asked as I was taking photographs of the wagons loaded with Russian timber at the train station in Suifenhe. The winter sun shone frigidly out of a brilliant blue sky.
“What did you say?”
“Do you weely, weely wuv your wife?” he said again, louder this time.
He repeated himself, looking at me imploringly through his thick-rimmed, Elvis-Costello-style spectacles.
“Oh, yes,” I eventually replied. “Yes, of course I do.”
“Ah, that’s velly good,” he said, sighing with satisfaction.
A few days later, on the night sleeper from Suifenhe to Harbin, I was woken by the sound of Cheng talking on his mobile phone. He concluded the conversation in English: “Good night, dalling. I ruv you! Night, dalling! Ruv you! Ruv you, dalling!”
I wondered what the girlfriend made of all this, and got my answer a few days later in a café in Dezhou, an industrial city half-a-day’s train ride to the west of Beijing.
“What you want eat?” asked Cheng as he studied the menu.
“I don’t mind,” I said, “as long as we order enough food for just two.” I had become disheartened by the amount of food we seemed to leave at every meal.
Once again we were served enough for four or five people.
Soon after the food arrived, Cheng’s mobile rang. At first he continued to eat with his chopsticks, the phone jammed between his right ear and shoulder as he listened to the caller. He made an occasional, angry interjection; then his eyes began to bulge. He carefully placed his chopsticks side by side, held them horizontally and snapped them in two. This was followed by a torrent of speech, as though the wall of a dam had finally burst, and he threw the broken chopsticks over his shoulder. He picked up another pair, snapped them in two and tossed them in the same direction. I looked around at the other diners, mostly workers judging from their drab Mao-style clothes. None was taking the slightest interest. Another pair of chopsticks was given the same treatment. Finally, Cheng took the mobile away from his ear and stared at it with an expression of horror and disgust – as though he suspected a scorpion was about to jump out of the receiver. He eventually delivered another torrent of abuse; at least, I assume it was abuse. Then he placed it on the table and glowered.
“My girlfriend,” he said by way of explanation. The waiter brought him another pair of chopsticks, as though this sort of thing happened all the time, and between us we almost finished the meal.
Looking back on my time in China, and considering the problems I had in making myself understood to Cheng, and vice versa, I’m astonished I managed to get enough of a story about illegal logging to write a magazine article. But the daily frustrations pale in the memory. When I think of China now I think of the remarkable food, the laughter, the cheery rudeness in the trains and some of the worst lavatories I have ever seen.
On our first morning in Suifenhe, Cheng arranged a lunchtime meeting with one of the town’s most prominent importers of Russian timber. I took an immediate liking to Baokui Yang, who tumbled out of a black limo with four other men, including the two forestry officials I’d met at the bus station. They all wore black leather jackets. There was much handshaking and grinning, though no proper introductions – Cheng being lost for words – and we followed Mr Yang into a private room at the restaurant. As soon as we sat down a succession of serious-looking waitresses arrived with the food.
Illegal logging being a sensitive issue, and eager not to confuse Cheng, I began by asking Mr Yang the most anodyne questions. He explained that he imported around 400,000 cubic metres of timber each year from Amur State, much of it coming to Suifenhe by train. This was an enormous quantity, but that didn’t sink into later. Right now, I was so overcome by the sights and smells that I temporarily lost interest in my journalistic assignment.
We began with a soup which gave off a peppery odour and tingled the tongue.
“This is delicious,” I said to Cheng. “What is it?”
It wasn’t vegetable soup, as I’d initially assumed, but a soup whose main occupant, a black-skinned sea slug, suddenly made its presence known by floating to the surface. The slug tasted as boring as it looked unpleasant, a sort of wrinkled dead man’s finger with a rubbery texture, and it was hard to see what it contributed to the dish.
“And these?” I asked, pointing with my chopsticks to a clatter of crustaceans with intricate mandibles and a chaos of pink legs.
They might have been langoustines, or crayfish, and there were other crustaceans that looked like spider crabs, and there were boiled eels and fish with mouths like Donatella Versace and all manner of meat dishes, as well as gelatinous duck embryos and deep-fried duck’s feet, and more types of vegetable than I had ever seen on one table. It was a meal that demanded the attention of all the senses, bewildering in its variety of smells, textures, tastes and colours.
We drank beer and wine, the latter not being a real wine at all but a powerful spirit made from rice and served in earthenware bottles which you open by breaking them at the neck. Every now and again, Mr Yang or one of his companions would make a toast – ‘bottom up!’ being the only words of English they knew – and we would down our glasses in one. Plenty of smoking took place between mouthfuls, and on one occasion an official from the forestry department spat over his shoulder on to the floor.
We began the meal at a cracking pace, but once we were a few crustaceans beyond the sea slugs we settled into a steady gastronomic jog, leaving sufficient time for me to have a decent conversation with Mr Yang.
Suifenhe was almost unrecognisable from the place where he grew up, he said. In those days, the town was very poor, and so was his family, with most people eking out a living from the land. In the early 1980s, there were around 10,000 people in Suifenhe. Now, there were 100,000 or more. Over half were permanent residents; the rest were temporary workers and their families, drawn from across northern China by the promise of work, of which there was no shortage as Suifenhe was now a major trading centre, with Russian timber replacing opium as the main commodity.
Listening to Mr Yang talk about his childhood, I could easily imagine the scruffily-clad children making their cheerless way through the dirt-track town, from school to home, or out to the fields to work. Yet even in those days Suifenhe was more than just a village, if the city’s official website is to be believed. There was, for example, ‘The Waiting Hall of the Railway Station,’ an early 20th century Russian building; and another architectural gem from the same era, ‘Big White Building’, which was used as a dormitory for Russian railway workers.
The railway station and its unremarkable waiting room are still there, but the past has largely been obliterated by the present. I am not sure what I was expecting when I crossed the border from the Russia; something similar, I suppose, to Ussuriysk, the last settlement before you reach the border, a dilapidated town drained of colour. The bus had snaked for several miles through hilly no-man’s land, then all the sudden we came out of the sappy-smelling pine to catch sight of a huge building with a central dome, its great expanses of steel and glass sparkling beneath the blue sky. This was the new customs and border post. As a statement of national confidence – you, the visitor, it seemed to say, are coming to a country worth coming to – it couldn’t have been bettered.
The same exuberant, post-modernist architecture had transformed the city’s skyline over the past decade. The juxtaposition of different styles, and the strange blend of Western and Oriental, classical and modern, sometimes jars, but it lends places like Suifenhe an air of playfulness. It reminded me of a department store in Tokyo which celebrated Christmas not just by playing ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Silent Night’ on the elevators, but by erecting a huge effigy of Father Christmas, crucified on a cross.
As we were leaving the restaurant, one of Mr Yang’s associates offered me a cigarette, which I declined. He’d been hoping he could use his lighter. He showed me anyway. There was a hologram on one side. If you tilted it one way, you could see a curvaceous blond in green sequins; tilt it the other, and her breasts popped out. Once the laughter died down, there was an earnest conversation with Cheng. I assumed it was about the bill, which I offered to pay.
“They say they find you pretty girl for afternoon,” said Cheng.
“But what would I tell my wife?” I said. This was said for his benefit, but he immediately turned to the others and translated.
“They say, no need tell wife.”
I don’t think it was a serious offer, like the ones I’d received in Vladivostok before I took the bus to China. On the two nights I was there, around midnight, the telephone rang and a husky voice asked: “You like nice Russian girl tonight?” I am pretty sure it was one of the girls on reception. On my first night in Suifenhe, at around midnight, the telephone rang and a high-pitched voice asked: “You like nice Lussian girl tonight?” So there was more to cross-border trade than timber and opium.