The article was first published on Lonely Planet China magazine, Issue 2021/08
This English version was translated from Chinese original with DeepL. I apologize for any mistakes made by this AI translation tool.
In the middle of the vast polar wasteland, a giant factory suddenly emerges, brown and black sulfur dioxide smoke rising from a forest of tall chimneys, like a surreal painting of the post-industrial era.
This is Nikel. Only seven kilometres from the Norwegian border, it was once one of the largest nickel mines in the world. This strategically important “Nickel City”, located right at the front line where the East meets the West, was naturally a heavily guarded “top secret border zone” throughout the Cold War, and was only declassified and opened to the outside world after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As a standard curiosity traveler, I am not interested in the “well-known” places, but rather in the foggy and strange destinations. So on the way from Murmansk to Norway, I took a detour to find out more.
Before we could drive into town, however, my companion noticed something different: “That car behind us, it seems to be following us all the time!” I looked in the rearview mirror and indeed a black car had been following far behind us. “Let’s test to see if he’s following us.” With that, I made a swerve and drove into a roadside gas station.
In my opinion, the “stalking” is just a companion’s cup of tea. After all, Nichol was no longer a restricted area. But then the car did follow me. I ordered a cup of coffee to make sure it wasn’t a coincidence, and spent time with the other guy. However, when I finished my cup of coffee, the other party not only didn’t leave, but didn’t even get out of the car the whole time, which was so unusual.
I walked past his car as if nothing had happened and saw that the only person in the car was a male driver in his 30s, dressed in civilian clothes, yet the dry look of his flat, short hair hinted that he might not be just somebody. He had his window open, as if he was staring at something. When he saw me pass by, he hastily pulled out his sunglasses and put them on. Now, I was finally sure: he was spying on us.
Yes, we were being followed by this mysterious man in this desolate border town. When we realized this, my companion and I immediately panicked – who was he, and what was his purpose? We knew nothing. The only good thing was that he didn’t seem to want to get us into trouble, or even let us know of his existence. Otherwise, he would have had too many opportunities to stop and even arrest us.
Blending in with the traffic at the gas station, I snuck out the back door, thinking I could lose him on that. I clearly underestimated his professionalism, however, and it wasn’t long before the familiar black sedan appeared again in the rearview mirror. We made our way to the river, whether it was to take pictures or to go into a restaurant for dinner, and each time the other man would expertly park not too far away, keeping a close eye on us but not so close as to disturb us.
When it was thoroughly confirmed that the other party was not hostile, I was emboldened. It just so happened that I was also entering the city at this point, so I simply played hide-and-seek with them on the crisscrossing road. A series of left turns, right turns, left turns again, and when I confirmed that he was no longer visible in the rearview mirror, I made a quick turn into a parking lot in a side alley.
We got out of the car, changed into a different color jacket, and blended in with the crowd on the street. Now it was our turn to “watch the show” in the shadows: one, two, three laps as he drove in circles around the small neighborhood, looking for us. But are we that easy to find?
After confirming that we had lost them, we had the presence of mind to briefly browse the town. The overall atmosphere of the small town felt like it was completely stuck in the Soviet era. Children were playing carefree, unaware that a “chase” was taking place. The square in front of the auditorium is a rusty statue of Lenin, and the new Greek goddess painted on the outside wall of the auditorium seems to be a desperate attempt to say goodbye to a bygone era, while the posters on the side still commemorate the victory of the Patriotic War with pictures of the triumphant return of the Soviet Red Army.
We wanted to visit the nickel mine, but after the “stalking incident” we decided not to take the risk again. To our surprise, the black car we thought we had lost showed up again on our way out of town! They continued to follow us until we were out of Nickel range, then turned around and left.
Why would they go to such lengths to follow ordinary tourists like us the entire time? I was puzzled for a while until I suddenly realized the possible reason: our car with Georgian license plates. As a hostile country with Russia, it would be surprising if a car with Georgian plates, waltzing into a sensitive border area.
So who exactly are they? We later got the answer from a Russian friend: the men in plain clothes and black cars who spy on foreigners in sensitive areas are usually from the Russian Federal Security Service. The post-Soviet successor of the infamous KGB.
We actually played hide-and-seek with the “KGB” in where used to be a top-secret restricted area.