Almost in China
Khabarovsk is very close to the Chinese border and, according to the Planet, its possible to take a day trip, by boat, across the border. If you manage to go there and back again within one day, you don't even need a visa. Unfortunately, that changed in the last couple of years. Now, only Russians (and Chinese, going to Russia and back) don't need a visa. Foreigners do need one, even for a day trip.
I decided that I still wanted to see China, and luckily, a taxi service from the Intourist hotel (filled with Japanese, Chinese and Koreans) allowed for a two-hour trip to the border and back. Not a very interesting trip, although I did come across Butterflies the size of sparrows, but still fun, for being on the far side of China.
The border crossing is quite regular, manned by several soldiers, who needed to be bribed with cigarettes for me to take pictures (but not of them). At the Amur river, separating China and Russia, three men where swimming. One, covered in scars from fighting in Chechnya, tried to talk to me in all the languages he knew. Knowing no more than 5 words from each of the 10 languages or so he tried.
So I had decided to keep on moving, leaving today preferably for Ulan Ude, but settling for Irkutsk or any place near by. For a change, the people at the Intourist where very helpful, although speaking only French and Russian, but no flights where available to almost any destination and the trains where quite full as well.
After some checking, double checking and even triple checking, an empty seat was found. I was to take the train, second class, to Ulan Ude. A 52 hour train ride, parallel to the Chinese border over some 3000 kilometers. Again I was lucky: Only the day before the policy to have foreigners pay up to 5 times as much for train rides as locals had been abolished. I was to travel for next to nothing!
At the train station, waiting for the train to arrive, munching on some bread and cheese I had bought, a very blond fellow, backpacked and all, came out of the train station, looking somewhat bewildered. I immediately understood how easy it is to spot a tourist and minutes later Charles and me where chatting away about traveling through Russia. Charles spoke perfect Russian and was traveling through Russia, prior to taking a temporary job at KPMG in Moscow. I convinced him of Khabarovsk being a very boring town and he decided to get a train onwards as soon as possible. Getting a ticket for the train I was on seemed impossible and we decided to meet, in Ulan Ude, the day after my arrival.
A few moments later, I boarded the train. I shared my cabin with a mom, two curvy teenaged girls and a dog. None spoke anything but Russian, so I ended up, talking to the dog.