Flying over Kuala Lumpur before sunrise, the city of 1.8 million looks dark and empty. I’m having a flashback, oddly, to another time, arriving before dawn in a small Russian city, dumped off an overnight bus on an overpass on its outskirts.

Surprisingly, the Russian soldier who gets off the bus at the same lonely point speaks good English, and he becomes my guide. He is walking to war… The town’s train station is a major gathering point for fresh conscripts to be sent to Chechnya.

The closer we get to the station, the more the streets fill with young men with rough crew-cuts and ill-fitting uniforms, walking to war in plastic sandals, their cheap regulation boots slug over their shoulders. They eye my leather hiking boots with avarice.

My guide is older than most, at 28 he is educated and has a career. Yet he seems untouched by what is country is making him do. He’s neither excited nor angry nor afraid – just stoic. He says he knew he would have to go. His best friend went before him and is already dead.

As the taxi drives through palm gardens and terraces of ferns, the humid Malaysian air warming bones chilled by a Melbourne winter, it’s a strange memory to recall this morning. But who ever can control their memories?