Friday September 14, 2012
Old Russia and a new China
By WONG SAI WAN
The two old ideological allies have changed much in the past decade but as much as things change much remains the same.
MY first ever working trip to Russia and China took place in 1999 and it was to cover the official visit of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was then the prime minister, to the Russian republic of Buryatia.
It was also the first time I ever flew in a private jet – an old executive government jet, I think it was an old Fokker 28 aircraft – and because it was a smaller jet, it needed a refuel stop in Beijing for about three hours before we took off again for Ulan-Ude the capital of Buryatia.
Also on board the flight was Datuk Zakaria Wahab, who was then the press secretrary to Dr Mahathir, Datuk Aziz Ishak of Utusan Malaysia and Datuk Salman Ahmad, who was then the principal secretary of the External Affairs of the Foreign Ministry.
More than a decade later, much has changed for all of us on board that flight. Zakaria is now a Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Bernama. Aziz is now the Group Editor at Utusan while Salman is now the High Commissioner to Australia.
On Sept 3 – just slightly more than 13 years later – I made a similar trip but this time to Vladivostok for the Asia-Pacific Economic Summit (Apec), but this time on commercial flights.
Many people thought that when I said that I was going to Russia for Apec, I was automatically Europe-bound.
For those weak in geography, Vladivostok is on the eastern tip of Russia. It is nearer to Malaysia than to Moscow. It is just north of the Korean peninsula and east of the Chinese winter city of Harbin.
So in the end, I flew to Vladivostok via Seoul. The outward trip was simple enough as it required just a two-hour transit at the Incheon international airport which is like a huge shopping mall.
Touching down at the Vladivostok airport was also a pleasant surprise as it was a spanking new one, purpose built for Apec.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government spent some US$21bil (RM65bil) on infrastructure improvements in Vladivostok for Apec compared to US$17bil (RM52.7bil) for the just-completed London Olympics.
For the people of Vladivostok, they got three new suspension bridges, including the world’s longest suspension bridge connecting the city to the Russky Island where they built a completely new university campus for the Far East Federal University (FEFU) which incidentally was started in 1999.
It was in this new campus that I spent my eight days in Vladivostok, except on Monday when we moved to a hotel in town.
In just three hours we had covered the Central Business District – a hilly one with one road downhill towards the Bay of Golden Horn on the west side and the Pacific Ocean/Bearing Sea on the east.
Over the past century, this city has been home of the naval Pacific fleet of the Imperial Russia empire, the Soviet Union and now the Republic of Russia.
Almost all cars in this Eastern Russian city are Japanese. Since “perestroika” (restructuring), “glasnost” (openness) and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Vladivostok is the port to bring Japanese cars into Russia before they are shipped across the Asian continent into Europe and into Moscow.
This year, the Russian government stopped this lucrative import trade but it seems some vehicles still get in somehow.
It was on my last 15 hours in Vladivostok I realised that despite the huge sum of money Putin had spent, Vladivostok still needed a lot more help and development if it was going to be a shining star of the new Russian economic might.
For years, it has been a naval town and once the cold war ended Vladivostok lost its main economic activity. I suspect that Putin is trying to turn it into a university town like Cambridge or Boston, thus the massive campus on Russky Island.
He is planning for a student population of over 50,000 and this means at least another 10,000 jobs. Putin wants to turn the FEFU into the best university in this part of the Apec region.
On my return journey, my “unofficial taxi” took me back to the brand new airport which I later found out was called Terminal B and was charged 1,500 rubles (RM150).
After I got into the airport building, I found that I was alone. It seems there was no flight there that night.
I had to pay another 200 rubles to another “unofficial taxi” to go to Terminal A – the old airport which is the size of a double-storey old bungalow that was built in the 1960 Soviet era but even the airport in Ulan-Ude all those years ago was bigger.
I had to fly to Beijing to catch a connecting flight home and after taking off from Vladivostok at 2am, I arrived at the Chinese capital at 1.30am. My connecting flight on MAS was not until 9am.
My former colleague Lam Li, who resides and works in Beijing, picked me up and took me to a 24-hour dim sum outlet “for a proper meal”. This was my third taxi ride in a second country within four hours. It was also during this ride that I dropped my phone in the taxi.
I only realised this while Lam and I grumbled about how taxi drivers in Beijing had changed.
From being labelled as the most honest in the world, Beijing taxi men are now beginning to behave like their counterparts from all over the world – rude and dishonest.
We tried all sorts of means to get in touch with the driver but to no avail. I then gave up and we left for Lam’s place not far from the airport in my fourth taxi ride in five hours. After a short nap, I left for the airport in my fifth cab.
On touching down at KLIA, I switched on my tablet in my sixth taxi ride to look at my email and there was one from Lam stating that my phone had been found. Another driver who took over the taxi had found my phone. He even called several numbers from my list of contacts to ask them to tell me that it had been found.
I have since learnt that his surname was Fan and deserves all the praises my friends and I have given him. Fan has renewed my faith in the Chinese economic might and that it did not turn everyone into capitalistic monsters.
This is something President Putin should bear in mind in his effort to turn the folk at Vladivostok into an economic success.
Executive editor Wong Sai Wan is glad he does not have to key in every number again into a new phone – all thanks to Mr Fan.