Olaf Olafsson, an Icelandic author living in New York, is the author of three previous novels: The Journey Home, Absolution, and Walking Into the Night, as well as a story collection, Valentines. He is also the Executive Vice President of Time Warner, and he lives in New York City with his wife and three children.

Part Two: A Bird in the Hand

Big Shot

YY strides into the office. He has a flip flop on one foot and a squeaky crepe-soled shoe on the other, but he’s wearing a light three-piece herringbone suit with its standard silver sheen.  I do notice, however, that his toenails could do with a serious pedicure.  It’s best not to look down.

This strange attire doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest.  He tells me his doctor’s put him on a diet since his foot started acting up: no red meat and plenty of greens.  I can only surmise that due to his standard meaty-fare with creamy excess he’s developed gout in one of his feet.

Still, the first thing he says is:

“Maac, today we have lunch.  We meet Shenyang* Big Shot.  He like seafood.  We go to floating palace restaurant.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that YY enjoys talking in riddles.

YY Stratagem Number 1: Only ever give them enough to get their curiosity piqued.

YY’s secretary notes the lunch in her diary.  Shirley Luk is as meticulous and efficient as they come—everything has a paperclip, every file is marked according to date and priority with a typed strip of paper, every scrap of colored paper is recycled, each and every pen accounted for.

Shirley takes care of all YY’s English correspondence.  Shirley’s one of the few secretaries I know who can translate from Mandarin directly into English shorthand. She never wears even a little make up, not a dab; only, she adores her fingernails and manicures them every lunch break after eating her ritual peanut butter and blueberry jelly sandwich.  She paints her nails in bright colors: puce, hot pink, neon green and chartreuse.  Sometimes she adds a gold star or a rhinestone to her pinkie-nail.

I can’t help but thinking she should send YY to visit her manicurist—for his toes.

Along time ago YY knew Shirley’s father, some old-time mogul from Tianjin, at least that’s what Frank tells me, a couple of weeks earlier on a Sunday trip to Lamma Island**.  The trip is something related to Hong Kong University, on a beach, with a bonfire and a live Cantonese punk band called KooKoo.  Frank is staggeringly drunk and slobbers over some Australian girl, who, by the end of the night has finally had enough and tosses her beer in his face.  Frank still has to learn not to pinch women’s buttocks.

When he calms down, we sit on a rock overlooking the dimly lit power plant that reminds me of something straight out of a Ridley Scott flick. Frank, now slightly sobered-up, starts rolling a joint.

“You know Shirley is married to Richard, right?” he says taking his first toke.  “Well, YY forced him to marry her.”

“How could he force him?”

“Richard’s father worked with YY’s Dad in Shanghai.  YY took Richard under his wing when he’d just turned twenty.  They’re all beholden to each other.  Part of the deal was that Richard had to marry Shirley.  I mean look at her?  Who’d want to marry that?”

“Well, she isn’t much to look at, but she’s sharp as they come and she’s got great fingernails,” I say.

“So why is she just a secretary, married to some souped-up-clerk-come-plastic-bag-factory manager?”

Richard Kwo was recently appointed manager of YY’s polyethylene bag factory in the New Territories.  I know Polycore Enterprises ships container loads of these bags to China, though honestly I haven’t a clue what they’re being used for when they get there. There’s a rumor going around the office that YY is doing business with some shady Australian silicone-chip-smuggling-ring.  Frank reckons somehow the bags are collateral.  Though what would Frank know?  He’s a local sales clerk.  Deals in babies’ nappies and baby food.  It suits him down to the bone.

“It’s the first trick in the book,” says Frank, passing me the joint.

And here it comes: YY Stratagem Number 2, in Frank’s words:

Tie someone to you—through family, money, or some other underhanded method—and if you play them right, you have them in the palm of your hand for life. Everyone who has any decent position in YY’s empire is tied to him in some fashion.  Shirley’s Dad was beholden to YY, as was Richard’s.  Shirley desperately needed a husband, but that husband had to be someone who YY could control.  All makes sense, doesn’t it?”

I’m starting to think about my own position here at the Company.

“You never wondered why the evening entertainment when doing business in this neck of the woods is often more important than the signing of the deal itself?” asks Frank.

“I’m listening.”

“This is how they do it if there’s no family connection, even with laowais*** like you. First they get you plied with Maotai****, VSOP or whatever other snakebite’s handy, then they see if they can get you to reveal one of your secrets.  Something about your ‘bit on the side,’ your illegitimate son, or that rainy day cash you have stashed tax-free in the Caiman Islands.  If that doesn’t work, they’ll drag you to the strip club or the karaoke bar and get girls to sit on your lap.  They’ll take snapshots of you with the hostess dancing cheek to cheek.  Even better, pay a hooker for you—especially if they know you’re married.  Before you know it, you’re chained at the wrist.”

I think about some of those late night/early morning business parties.  Most of the time I don’t even remember what happened the day after.  When I really start reflecting upon it, here in the Company most of us who do the legwork are bachelors so there’s not much customers or buyers can hold over us. I know there’s another YY stratagem at work here.

“What about the straight-out bribe?”

One of YY’s accountants comes to mind, Little Foo, he’s called.  Most of us call him ‘Little Fool.’  Maybe he isn’t such a fool after all.  Yesterday I saw he had a spanking new Breitling watch.  I make a mental note to keep an eye on him.

“Sure,” says Frank. “Course that can get you into jail.  Generally they’ll be subtler. During the course of the night they’ll hand you what looks like a sealed pack of cigarettes.  When you get home, you find someone’s slipped two thousand dollars in there.  What are you going to do? Give it back?

“Ever notice how YY doesn’t drink, and never attends any of those parties?  How he always sends you along instead?  Certainly not generosity, Marc,”  Frank sniggers.

“So how do you avoid it, without offending someone?”

“You don’t,” says Frank.  “If you’re middle-management or lower, you haven’t a choice.  That’s why it’s generally better to be in sales than in purchasing. You need to have a heart of stone to be in purchasing.”

And Frank goes on. This time he gives me YY Stratagem Number 2, in detail:

As far as I’ve observed, YY has three golden rules:  One: Connect everything and everyone as deeply as possibly, but connect them through you.  Two: Always make sure you are the most important link in the chain. And, three: Make sure they are always a hungry for more. In other words, always keep something they really want just within a hair out of reach. After many years, you’ll be forced to give them that carrot you’ve dangled, by that time though, you need to ensure there’s something else they want. And they always do.”

I can see Frank is going to make it far in the Company.


Bigger Fish to Fry

YY barges into the restaurant, ignores the hostess and plunks himself down on the biggest table—surely one for ten, rather than three.  He clicks his fingers and two waiters come running, each hand him a menu and he rattles a detailed order off in Mandarin without consulting what I might like to eat.  A few minutes later, a grey-haired Chinese man appears with two attractive ladies trailing behind.  One carries his briefcase; the other carries his mobile phone (a giant thing the size of a small loaf of bread; remember this is the early nineties).  He sits down next to YY and greets him in Shanghainese—nong hao rather that the Mandarin ni hao—which sends YY into spasms of laughter. (I know this guy is from North China, Shenyang, so the badly pronounced Shanghainese greeting is nothing more than a politeness, an effort to put YY at ease.)

YY points at me, then says, “Maac,” and rattles something off in Mandarin.

I’ve been told that YY’s Mandarin is—well, not poor—but heavily-Shanghai-accented.  Frank tells me that at times YY can barely be understood.  Be that as it may, I’ve never seen anyone acting offended in the slightest, from the lowliest busboy to the Vice-Secretary of the Communist Party.  I guess it pays to be a billionaire.

The man, whom I’ve now discovered is called Mister Sheng, seems to favor the same shiny silver suits that YY does.  In fact, from a distance, you’d be sure the two of them had the same tailor, only I know by his posture and bearing that Sheng is a Chinese government official, so it’s unlikely that he has his suits tailored in Hong Kong—far too expensive.  Or is it?

After pleasantries, we dig into endless platters that keep appearing on the spinning Lazy Susan:  whelks sautéed in vinegar and liquor and sprinkled with chives, mussels on the half shell with some kind of vermicelli noodles, scallops the size of my fist and a whole red lobster each.  The girls tuck in vigorously, slipping me a glance every once in while, then tittering under breaths.  YY and the man are gabbling away about some big business deal. Not a single word is translated for a least half an hour, until:

“Maac,” says YY.  “Tomorrow you go Shenyang.  You help Mister Sheng sell aircraft parts to Big Shot American buyers.  This is big business.” Mister Sheng smiles, but his mouth is full of lobster.  Unpleasant, but surely well intended.

I’m moderately stunned, but not really.  I’ve started to learn to expect snap decisions from YY.

“Then after Shenyang, two days, you go to our Beijing office to start some paper sales.”

Talk about getting tossed into the South China Sea without a rubber ring isn’t even in it.  For the last three weeks, I’ve been working with the marketing department on a new brochure, answering some correspondence with potential customers of China-made leather wallets and briefcases.  Now I am suddenly promoted to aircraft-component-salesman-numero-uno, and paper?  Of course, I didn’t breathe a word.

A City that Never Sleeps—Not Really

A Mister Jin meets me at the gate at Shenyang Airport.  He’s holding a great big white placard that looks like it may well have been used for resting teacups on it at some stage.  It reads in big capital letters:


The K is written backwards.  I raise my hand and move my trolley towards him.  He smiles a full set of gold teeth.  I think about telling him that I spell my name with a C, and besides, the K is backwards, but after due consideration, I realize it isn’t worth the effort.

In the car, a twenty-year-old van which rattles so much I think the steering wheel is going to come off in Jin’s hands, he asks me, “So, you big aircraft parts salesman, eh?  Mister YY tell me you are top ace.”

“Top ace?”

“Top ace,” he repeats, then throws me one of his golden smiles and gives me a thumbs-up.

“Hold the steering wheel, please!” I shout, as Jin just about misses a bicyclist on the side of the road.

“No worry,” he chuckles.  “Bicycle move.  He doesn’t want be killed.”

“Neither do I,” I say, which, of course, sends Jin into rippling laughter.  Jin seems to laugh at just about anything out of the ordinary—or, out of the ordinary to him.  This includes more things he’s only ever heard of about laowais, or perhaps he’s caught a glimpse of on TV.

Jin likes to talk about sex, or rather with whom and in which fashion I enjoy sex.  He begins this deviousness slowly in the car, first asking about whether I’m married.  I say no.  He asks if I like Chinese women.  I say sure.  He asks if all western women have big breasts, not like Chinese women who are flat as ‘runaways.’


“You know airplane runaways,” he says.

I put my two hands together and make a motion like a plane taking off.  This sends Jin into raptures, and I have to remind him to keep his eyes on the road again.

It’s about nine pm when we arrive, and I could kill for a drink. After check in I ask Jin if he’ll join me, but he declines saying he has to get home to the wife who’s already angry with him.

“Why’s she angry at you?” I ask, certain I’m opening a can of worms.

He giggles.

“What?” I shake my head.

“Too much sex,” he says.

“She’s demanding, eh?”

“No,” he says.  “She doesn’t like it.”  Then he moves in a little closer and whispers, “I lie.  I no go home now; I go to see my other lady.  She never say no.”

I’m looking at Jin, this skinny chap, possibly in his early fifties, a full set of gold teeth and thick fop of greasy black hair.  You can see the dandruff flakes from ten strides away.  His collar looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks, and there’s some kind of yellowish stain on the sleeve of his beige jacket.  It’s hard to believe how this guy could afford a second wife.

“How do you do it, Jin?” I ask smiling.

He puffs out his chest and says, “Superman,” then strides off into the hotel parking lot chuckling to himself.

There is a bar here and believe it or not, a lounge pianist too.  The guy seems only to know one single song: Bridge Over Troubled Water.  He plays it over and over again.  There’s one man, a foreigner sitting at the bar milking a beer.  I pull out the bar chair next to him.

“Mind if I join you?” I ask.

“Would you?” the man says in an Oxford English accent.  “Anything to break this damned monotony.  I’ve been listening to that fucking piano player for two weeks now.  I’m about ready to snap his bowtied neck.  Listen, I’m in a good mood, let me buy you one.  Just did the deal of a lifetime.”

“What’s that?”

“Just sold Shenyang Light Industry five complete shoe making lines.  Biggest deal I ever scored.  Bloody cost me my liver though.”

I take a sip of the lukewarm draft beer and raise my eyebrows.  “Your liver?”

“Bloody ganbei***** every single night.  I’ve got Maotai and cheap Tsingtao white wine flowing out of my ears.  Can’t you see it,” he laughs.

“Ah, the karaoke bars,” I say, thinking I know exactly what he’s talking about.

“Karaoke bars?  Here?  Impossible,” he says. “This town has about as much nightlife as my scrawny British arse.  Not a blimp, in two whole weeks.  Can’t eat the goddamned food.  No, mate, after nine o’clock the whole town just goes to sleep.  What do you think this is?  Hong Kong?”

“Just came today.  From Hong Kong.”

“Ah, that explains everything, the boyish eyes, the nicely pressed suit.  Outside of Beijing and Shanghai you won’t even find a girl in a tight dress.  Nada.”

“So what do you do for, er—entertainment?”

He laughs.  “You’re looking at it.”

“Guy who picked me up at the airport told me he has a girl on the side.  I guessed she must be a karaoke girl or a bar girl or something like that.”

“There are places, for locals. But listen. This is deep Communist China.  You know this place was once Mao’s largest munitions’ dump? Couple of years ago, I knew one lad who was kicked out of the country for pinching some waitress’ arse.  They blacklisted him.  In the old days, foreigners were arrested for less than that.

“Now Beijing, on the other hand,” he says, “is the only civilized city in the whole country. There are more Mongolian hookers working the Holiday Inn Hotel than there are in all of Ulan Bator.  Anyway, I’d better call it a night.  Got to work on the payment terms with those buggers tomorrow.  If you’re feeling up for it, meet me at the bar here around, say—seven.  I’ll take you to the most interesting restaurant you’ve ever seen.”

Winging It

The Shenyang Aircraft Factory, formerly the bus factory, formerly the ammunition factory, has laid on the works for my arrival.  The Swiss flag is flying at full mast and a gigantic banner hangs over the entrance, and says:


Mister Sheng, whom I met in Hong Kong, greets me in the lobby, along with the factory’s General Manager and a whole retinue of unnamed others who follow us from workshop to workshop, including some guy with a video camera who I’m later told works for the local TV station.

A small guy shuffles up to me and gives me his hand, “I am your official translator,” he says.  “My name is Zhu, but you can call me JohnsonJohnson.”  I look around for Jin, who dropped me off, but he’s nowhere to be seen.  Suddenly I catch a glimpse of him in someone’s office sipping a cup of tea.

“Nice to meet you…JohnsonJohnson.  How did you get a name like JohnsonJohnson?”

“My English teacher gave it to me,” he says proudly.  I don’t dare tell him that she probably meant John, not the shampoo.

Mister Sheng and the General Manager motion me to follow them through the workshops.  There’s the turning shop with at least fifty lathes producing sprockets, engine parts, and long threaded spokes of aluminum.  Surprisingly it’s as clean as a whistle.  JohnsonJohnson later tells me that the whole factory has been on non-stop clean up for the last three weeks.  Apparently, Mister Sheng even flew in some sanitation consultant from Singapore.

We move into the stamping workshop that appears to be producing segments of aircrafts’ wings.  The gigantic presses are mostly operated by young women wearing what look like 19th century bed caps.  I cringe watching them deftly moving their fingers in and out of the monstrous presses. They have no eye or ear protection.  I know I’ll have to try and resolve this.

JohnsonJohnson nuzzles in every once in a while and explains technical terms to me like, ‘that is a special alloy steel imported from Germany;’ or, ‘notice the precision;’ or he pulls down a clipboard hanging above the machine and points out that the quality control in his factory is absolutely excellent.

In each workshop there is a chalkboard indicating targets to be met, and it looks to me like they all read zero defects in the last ten days, which, of course, is an impossibility.  Each workshop appears to have its own slogan written both in Chinese and English.

One reads:


Another reads:


After the factory tour, we sit down in the meeting room, me on one side, five of the factory staff plus Mister Sheng on the other.  JohnsonJohnson translates for the General Manager, but first Mister Sheng gives us all his long speech—and, believe it or not, I finally find out that he is the mayor of Shenyang, and that he has all his hopes pinned on this new business.

He rests assured that I am ready for the delegation of American buyers who are set to arrive tomorrow.  After all, he says, what more could a factory want other than a Swiss salesman? the very embodiment of quality and efficiency.  (JohnsonJohnson translates very as ‘veritable,’ once again, well intended.)

This speech is followed by the General Manager, who basically says exactly the same thing in different words, throwing in a few metaphors and some kind of an allusion to an ancient Chinese folktale about bears and birds.

I want to ask, who is this delegation from America?  What the hell am I supposed to be selling?  Why in God’s name am I here in the middle of nowhere?  But I simply smile, cringe a little inside and decide I have only one choice: stick to YY Stratagem Number 3: When in doubt, play it by ear.

(To be continued…)


*Shenyang is the capital of Liaoning Province in Northeast China. The city served briefly as the capital of China in the 17th century and has been a center for heavy industry since the late 1800s.

**A picturesque island Southwest of Hong Kong proper once known for its wild weekend party-scene.

***A Chinese liquor that is extremely popular at Chinese business banquets.  Distilled from fermented sorghum, it and packs a quite a pungent punch at over 50 proof.  Drinking copious amounts ensures a serious hangover and a sweetish, slightly sickly fragrance exudes from the pores the morning after.

****Colloquial Mandarin Chinese term meaning foreigner, literally: ‘old foreigner.’  It has come to be considered a pejorative term by expatriates living in China in the same fashion that ‘gringo’ is considered such in Mexico.

*****Literally, ‘Bottoms up’—a very popular custom at Chinese business banquets, normally involving never-ending bottles of liquor or wine until someone ends up under the table, collapses from alcohol poisoning or throws up over his host.

Part One: Pidgin Power



Hong Kong is a Many-Splendored Thing**

Hong Kong.  It must be 1991 or 92.

Sixteen hours.  I arrive with terminal jet lag.  The ground is still moving. In 20 years, Hong Kong’s become some kind of Fellini movie, only there are no Italians—at least not here in Causeway Bay.

Ich bin ein Berliner

It’s the early 90s and the Berlin Wall is being sold off in numbered chunks.  One piece now takes centre stage in Singapore’s Bedok Reservoir Park.  Another, I’ve been told, is somewhere out there floating in space.  Apparently, Ripley’s Believe it or Not currently possesses the largest unbridled Berlin Wall brick collection on the planet.

East Germany lies in tatters but is slowly waking from its Rip Van Winkle Marxist dream.  The Kraftwerk song “Autobahn” is playing on the radio and seems strangely befitting as we cross into former DDR.  My cousin Miriam, who lives in West Berlin, tells me that all sorts of crazies are rolling across the borders for the first time.  Many of them arrive with jars of pickles and homemade cheese, set themselves down on West German lawns and gawk at the nattily dressed; at least, so Miriam’s story goes.  Across the once-border in the newly reunified German states, the landscape seems unreal, the buildings straight out of some cubist’s sketchbook, the people world-weary.  Miriam and I roar through village after village all the way to the Polish border. Many of them are deserted. It’s almost as if they never really existed.  To the rest of the civilized world, they haven’t—not really.

“Now the Ossies [as their West German cousins call them: a word meaning ‘Easties’] whiz into the West in their dented Trabants and Ladas, oblivious of oncoming traffic.  I mean, they were cooped up like battery chickens for over 28 years.

“Can you believe it?” says Miriam. “These people have never even heard of Michael Jackson, Star Trek or Colonel Sanders.”  You can tell Miriam’s been living away from home for too many years.

According to the Berliner Tagblatt, twenty-two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, over 62 percent of former East Germans still don’t really feel they belong in their reunified nation, and over one tenth would actually prefer a return to the old DDR.

While the rest of us were splurging on our diet of Doctor Who and All in the Family reruns, East Germans were wondering how they might navigate the sewers, attach themselves to the chassis of a visiting Uncle’s car, or just leggit across the death strip. Booby trapped with land mines and trip-wires, armed guards posted on over 300 watchtowers down the length of the wall, escape seemed futile at best; yet, over the course of those 28 years, thousands scale that wall or dig tunnels beneath.  5000 make it to freedom. 200 or so are shot stone cold dead trying.  Heinz and Karl were not among them.

Truth be told, it seemed to me that Heinz and Karl belonged to that 11 percent that wished for the return of Khrushchev.  I guess back in the Soviet days, a Moscow-trained engineer was part of the Soviet gentry of the DDR.  As Heinz later tells me: “In the good old days, an engineer could go anywhere in the Communist Bloc, get drunk on Ukrainian champagne at state functions, and had the pick of the blondest devushkas.”

In a few days I’m to meet up with Heinz and Karl in Moscow, then head out into wildest Siberia to seal the deal of a lifetime.

Caviar, Caviar

We arrive in Moscow a few days early.  My business partner Dieter has bright ideas about how we’re going to make a bit of quick cash on the slide.  Some months earlier, he had managed to flog a container of Heineken beer to some dubious Moscow businessman named Misha.  He hadn’t exactly made a killing, but it was enough for a first down payment on his spanking-new baby blue Jaguar.

Dieter and I share a room in the exorbitant Palace Hotel just down the road from the GUM department store, where another of Dither’s business partners is selling second hand clothes he imports en-masse from Guangzhou, China.

Misha arrives in a black Mercedes limousine with tinted windows complete with two bodyguards and a driver who dons Ray Bans night and day.  In the car, Misha kisses Dieter on both cheeks then passes us snifters of a one-hundred-year-old Armagnac and a couple of Davidoff cigars.  He reminds us that on no uncertain terms should we discuss politics here in Moscow.  It’s a sure way to sour a deal.

“And for God’s sake, don’t mention Gorbachev. I spit on the Nobel Peace Prize.” he says.

According to the Western media, Gorbachev was Russia’s Saint George who slayed the dragon, he who released the people from the tyrannical manacles of Soviet oppression and the shadow of Khrushchev; but according to Misha, Gorbachev was a traitor, a conspirator of the great American spin-doctors.

“You know five minutes after winning the Nobel Prize, Gorbachev had Pugo shot,” he says.  “Akhromeyev hung himself in his office.  And I don’t believe what they say. It was no suicide.”

I’m still not sure if it’s Misha’s intention to impress (Dieter insisted we stay in the most expensive hotel in Moscow so Misha would know we meant business), or if this is his house-restaurant.  Needless to say, all they serve here is Beluga caviar: boatloads of it.  And it doesn’t come on cute little blinis with chives and sour cream.  No, here caviar is the only course, and you gobble it straight from your gold-inlaid Rosenthal soup bowl with a large silver tablespoon.  On the side, you sip—or in Dieter’s case, guzzle—a glass of Moet Chandon, which you refill directly from the spout of a faux-Grecian fountain (complete with Aphrodite on the half-shell). In actual fact, your Uzbek waiter makes sure your crystal flute is always brimming and bubbling.

Misha pays in US dollars, in advance: counting a couple of thousand from a wad that he rustles out of thin air. One of his bodyguards tosses the Uzbek waiter a 100-dollar bill. We stuff our faces with fish eggs and champagne as Misha leans in with his proposition.

Dieter’s eyes are quite literally fishlike—and believe me, not from all the caviar.

The day before Dieter and I had taken a stroll along the Red Square where hundreds of babushkas in tattered scarves and threadbare shawls were clamoring outside storefronts.  Old men and little girls lined the avenues touting second-hand transistor radios, bits of silver, old boots and chipped teacups.  Smuggled cigarettes could be purchased in foreign currency down some shady alley that led into the back streets of oblivion.

“So,” Misha whispers. “Eight million dollars.  I need you to help me with eight million dollars.”  He doles himself a heaping spoon of Beluga.

Dieter glances over.  He’s doing that thing with his eyebrows.  I know his heart is racing.  I wonder if Misha wants to sell or buy.

“Tell me about your eight million,” says Dieter.

“I need you to get it to freedom.  To Switzerland,” he says. “I have it in cash. In seven different denominations, but I really need it in Switzerland.”

At this stage, Dieter isn’t touching food or drink.  His ears seem to be flapping.

Misha sips his champagne.  “Twenty percent commission.  I’ll give you twenty percent,” he says, grinning.

Quick sum: Twenty percent is 1.6 million US dollars.  Enough for Dieter to buy himself a few Jags.  I’m thinking a chalet on some island off the coast of Brazil, blue parrots in the coconut trees.  Of course we know there’s a snag.  There always is.

“OK, so here is how it works,” he says.  “I can get it to you in cash. I don’t mind how you get it there, as long as 6.4 million arrive in a numbered bank account under my name. Simple.”

Easy peasy.

It’s tempting, but the thought of all that lies between Moscow and Zürich, sends a shiver down my spine.  Back at the hotel I spend half an hour staring at the little map of Europe in the back of my faux-leather agenda planner.  The shortest distance is: Moscow—Belarus—Poland—Czech Republic—Germany—Zürich.  I try to conceive how much we have to pay the border guards.  An image of the Berlin Wall creeps into my head.

Neither of us sleeps that night.

Next morning, Dieter says, “There are ways, you know.  If we can get into Poland, we can transfer the funds to an offshore account, Caiman Islands or something, then reroute back to Switzerland.”

“Sure.  Missing an arm,” I say.  I don’t think Dieter has ever seen The Godfather.

Big Balls

We’ve moved to another Moscow hotel, apparently booked by our East German friends, Karl and Heinz.  This one, the Cosmos, reeks of Chanel Number Five—or something approximating it.  After check in, Dieter proposes that we take the hotel management up on their complimentary drink.  We send our bags to the room and head to the bar; only, you can’t even get to the counter.  The whole place is swelling with women, and these are no apparatchiks—least not any longer—these are all run-of-the-mill Moscow hookers, hundreds of them, swarming around potbellied entrepreneurs like flies to sugar.  Before I manage to order our two vodka tonics, one of them already has her hand on my crotch.

“Big balls,” she says grinning.  “Hey, Big Balls, you buy me a drink?”

“No big balls, no drink.”

She grimaces, but soon has her sights on an Egyptian looking gentleman down the far end of the bar.

All night the telephone rings: It’s always the same thing: “You like try Russian girl? You want blowjob?  You need a good massage.” Finally, I unplug the phone.  At three in the morning, someone’s knocking at the door.  A peroxide blonde in a spotted leopard-cling-film-legging-thing leans against the doorframe.  “You know in Moscow you should not sleep,” she says.  “Your wife’s not here.  Maybe Sasha can be your wife for tonight.” I notice her bag is a Hermes.  She has a pair of Dior sunglasses perched on her head.  What is it about Russians and sunglasses?

“Who is it?” Dieter shouts from his bed.

“Hooker,” I say.

“What’s her name?”


“Tell her we are waiting for Marina.”

I do.  She grumbles, wobbles down the hall in her stilettos to the elevator.  She has seven more floors to try before she reaches the roof.

“There’s bound to be some horny Japanese on the next floor,” Dieter says before he starts snoring again.

Marina never arrives.


Six thirty and we’ve checked in to our flight to Tomsk.  We sit there in the waiting hall dozing on plastic bucket chairs dreaming about eight million dollars.  At least that’s what I’m sure Dieter is doing.  At the airport the infamous Karl and Heinz, who’ve just flown in from Berlin, have joined us.  They’re in great spirits.  You’d almost think they were going on holiday.  Still, they keep a distance—a professional one—sort of.

This is the deal: Karl and Heinz, soviet-educated engineers, former employees of one of the largest petrochemical processing plants in East Germany are old buddies of Vlad, the manager of Tomsk’s largest petrochemical facility. Dieter tells me that the Chinese are screaming for plastic, cheap plastic: “All those American toys,” he says.

Dieter has convinced me, and himself, having procured a manufacturing license from one of the world’s chemical giants, that we can produce plastic resin at this Tomsk facility for half the price of what it costs in the West.  We manufacture the stuff in Tomsk under license, package it with the chemical giant’s logo, then ship it by Trans-Siberian railroad to Beijing and to the rest of China.  Dieter has a buyer in Shanghai.  Karl and Heinz would be stationed in Tomsk during the implementation phase to make sure that quality is up to spec.  Sounds like a simple plan, right?

Simple as getting eight million dollars from Moscow to Zürich?

It takes us three days to reach Tomsk.  Mostly because there’s no gasoline.  We wait at the airport, check out the five shops selling Russian folk dolls, plastic Kremlins, plastic babushkas, probably all made from plastics supplied by the Tomsk Petrochemical Works.  Finally, we make it on board the Aeroflot Illyushin II-62, destination Tomsk.

Dieter, tickets in hand, struts into the plane and finds three Russian army officers sitting in his seat.

“Wrong seat,” he says pointing at his ticket.

The three officers look up.  They have eyes of steel, chiseled jaws and without even a flinch, bark: “Niet.”

Dieter smiles sheepishly, then sits down wherever he can find an empty seat.  Somehow all four of us manage to sit side by side.  Is that a chicken I hear clucking somewhere?

The Illyushin takes off with a bang.  Literally.  Apparently they use water ballast, and as they’re making their way into the stratosphere they shed their extra water-weight.  Feels like a rally of cannon barrage.  Dieter is one of the worst fliers I think I’ve ever met.  He’s brought along two bottles of Johnny Walker Black as a gift for Vlad.  By the end of the six-hour flight one of the bottles is down to its dregs.  And somehow, the airplane’s carpet is not affixed to the floor. Half of it ends up wrapped around Dieter’s ankles. Karl and Heinz slumber through entire thing; Dieter, on the other hand, can’t stop talking.  Anything I didn’t know about him before this, I do now, particularly things that weigh heavy on his conscience.

One thing’s for sure: He swears he will never take this flight again.

“Guess that’s the eight million dollars down the drain,” I say.

“I’m too old for this shit,” Dieter says, knocking back the bottle.

The service on the Aeroflot 101?  What service?  Although the stewardesses are straight out of Vogue they have the manners of a Kazakhstani pig farmer.  They toss you the sticky rolls and bottled water as if they couldn’t be shod of them quick enough, and they don’t speak a word of English—or more likely, don’t want to.

“Don’t they teach them to smile in flight school?” I ask Karl sometime during the flight.

“What flight school?” he says.

And the in-flight toilet?  I’ve seen cleaner toilets on London Transit.  I won’t go into the gory details.  Needless to say, don’t take your shoes off in an Aeroflot flight. Walking around in your socks is not recommended.

Sci-fi City

Tomsk: One of the oldest towns in Siberia.  In 1990, around half a million people live here in up to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.  Lucky for us, it’s summer and a cozy 65 degrees plus. If only it weren’t for the damn mosquitoes.  And the size of the buggers.  I kid you not: bigger than your average housefly.

“Stay away from the trees,” says Heinz.  “Or you’ll be bleeding like a pig. A white shirt is not recommended.”  Difficult to stay away from the trees here since 20 percent of the Siberian forest is actually situated in the Tomsk oblast.

Slap a mosquito in Tomsk in the summer wearing a white shirt, and by the time the evening is through it’ll look more like some pink/red Indonesian batik. The mozzies are little blood pellets.  Still, we we’re not headed out to the forest; at least, not yet.

We rattle into town, down this potholed avenue fringed by forest on each side, through Lenin Square, driving without paying any heed to which side of the road we’re on. The driver’s more focused on the oncoming trucks and the potholes. Dieter, having just recovered from his Aeroflot jaunt, cracks out his second bottle of whisky.  Strangely, despite all the alcohol in his bloodstream he as sober as a schoolmaster.  Must be his adrenalin.

The Tomsk Petrochemical Works is the largest factory I think I’ve ever seen.  It’s like some kind of Buck Rogers’ sci-fi city. Ming the Merciless might appear any moment, ray gun at the ready.  As we get in closer, we can see that the whole machination is crumbling around its ears.  Walls are half-collapsed, rust and holes creep down the giant pipe work suspended above our heads. By the time we’ve finished our factory tour, my new suit looks like I’ve lent it out to a cowhand.  You can smell the plant from miles away and the methanol fumes and the sweet sickly smell of plastics clings to everything: your clothes, your hair.  I’m starting to miss the Chanel Number Five reek of the Cosmos Hotel.

The meeting with Vlad starts and ends with Stolichnaya shots.  Karl and Heinz dig in, rattling away in fluent Russian.  After his two bottles of whiskey, the hue of Dieter’s skin resembles a fragile china doll.  Still, he knocks back the vodka like a true Cossack.  They offer up platters of something that looks like salami, only it has a sort of grey hue and pickles, plates and plates of pickles.  Larissa the translator tells us that Vlad has invited us to his country dacha for dinner.  She won’t be coming.  Heaven forbid. “This,” she says, “is a mans’ thing.”

My head starts reeling.  My stomach churns.


Tomsk Forest, 7.00 pm: Vlad’s Dacha.

Some giant of a man with biceps like a circus strongman is massaging half of a cow’s carcass over a giant vat.  The blood is running down his arms and into his sleeves.  Good for him, he’s wearing a black shirt.  Vlad says something about this being Boris’ best barbeque recipe.  On a table next to Boris, a dozen bottles of Stolichnaya glimmer in the forest twilight.  Once again, Karl and Heinz dig in, handing Dieter and me tumblers full to the rim. Nostrovia!

Vlad downs two more, then suddenly drops his trousers, tosses them to Boris, who reaches up from his bloody massage, folds them neatly and drapes them over the vodka table. Vlad chuckles like some kind of half-crazed troll, drops his underpants, removes his shirt and skips off into the underbrush.  If only I had a camera handy.  These were the days before mobile phone cameras. Karl and Heinz, normally the epitome of engineer-seriousness, follow suit and two more butts disappear into the underbrush.  Dieter gawks.  Is this some kind of bizarre Cossack coming-of-age ritual?

“I know, I know,” I tell Dieter.  “You’re getting too old for this shit.”

Minutes later, Karl, Heinz, Vlad, three unknown burly mafia-looking types with tattoos across their backs, Dieter and I, are sitting in Vlad’s sauna somewhere in the Siberian forest.  Vlad is swigging Stoli from the bottle.  One of the mafia-types pours a bottle of beer over the sauna stones.  Lager-haze burns my eyes.

As soon as I step out of the sauna, some old guy grabs me by the arm, spins me around and starts whipping me with birch leaves.  He chuckles like some kind of wild animal. Although I can’t understand him, I get that this is part of the ceremony.  At this stage I wouldn’t have been surprised had a vampire emerged from the shadows, but the old chap simply sits me down and pours me yet another vodka.

Half an hour later, we’re standing around an open fire, plate of meat in one hand, glass of vodka in another, and someone’s strumming the balalaika to the tune of Kalinka.  Where’s Dieter?  I drop my plate and go looking for him.  I find him out in the clearing trying to wrestle a goat.  By this time, he’s well and truly shitfaced.  He grabs the goat by the horns and starts tugging it back towards the fire.  As he nears, the music dies down.

“What are you planning to do with that thing?” I ask.

For a moment there’s a deathly silence, but then he reaches down to the goat’s udder, squeezes and is soon spraying us all with milk.  Vlad bursts into a hail of laughter; Karl and Heinz start doing a Cossack.  Me?  That’s about where everything goes black.  All I remember is that the next morning I wake up fully dressed in my bed back in the hotel.  I still have my tie and shoes on and someone’s knocking at the door.  My head feels like it had been through one of those ancient Siberian barbeque massages.

“Come on,” says Dieter. “They’re waiting to sign the contract. Vlad’s cracking open a bottle of his best.”


By Marc Vincenz


That thing under Mao’s lip?
You call it a wart,
she calls it a beauty mark.

The principal architect of a new China
had moles all over the place
hair-plucked with fine tweezers.

Mao spoke of guerrillas
as insurgent fish
in a sea of promise,

said that’s how Sun Tzu
taught him to beat
the man who ran off to Taiwan.

I think it has everything
to do with a mole.