"What are you in Russia for?"
"We are tourists, and we are on our way to visit a friend who lives in Tomsk."
"And you are in Tomtor? Are you kidding me?" the man shot me the dirtiest look. "Tomsk must be thousands of kilometers away to the west from here. Did you come on a boat of North Korean defectors? Are you going to walk all the way there?"
And with that, he shook his head derisively and left.
Despite this act of mercy, my heart was still pounding like a bell for minutes afterward. The man had cut too deep in for comfort. To our defence, it was not until the cruise ship had departed the port of Sinuiju when we realised that the posh-looking official types on the boat with us were actually refugees and political dissidents in disguise, eschewing defection to China and Southeast Asia in favour of reunion with long-lost family members in Russia and Kazakhstan, and that the kindly Malaysian man running the entire venture was a Christian missionary who had made this smuggling his life's work.
Then again, why would any leisure cruise ship land in such a place as Magadan? That must have raised a few eyebrows.
In any case, the story of us visiting our friend was obviously not going to convince anyone, despite it being true. We decided to pretend to be Russians and each adopt an alias. I decided to adopt a name that could pass me off as someone from the far eastern districts, and took the name Vassily Shatirev, after the Turkish poet. Timothy spoke a little German, and probably looked a little like one himself; he became Boris Gyurman, whose Great-great-grandfather had been invited from Prussia by Queen Catherine to settle by the Volga. Quite naturally, Sultan became the Kazakh Nursultan Abdullayev, which he then gleefully shortened to Sultan Abdullah.
And, with this, the adventure continues.