Any discussion of Harbin must be prefaced by the fact that I’ve had a bit of an obsession with seeing this city for myself for quite some time. I’ve even looked at jobs in the area, to which any questions on the job board have been met with responses from ex-pats like, “Why the hell do you want to move to that industrial iceblock?” It still holds some interest for me, but the mystique has definitely lessened. Even Anthony Bourdain admitted that the No Reservations filmed in Harbin was largely staged because nothing they tried to do worked. I can relate.
Harbin is described as a cold city with a warm heart. But given that we were traveling back south from a place where it was getting cold and snowy even in October, and people had REALLY warm hearts, we were a little heart leery. My kind of gut assessment of the city is that it’s low on foreigners (a positive in my travel book) and high on shopping, smoggy, congested, and for some reason, really, really hard to find food. It appears to be everywhere, but we couldn’t figure out how to order it, or what it was. There was a lot of resorting to dumplings.
The central square houses the St. Sophia Church, now a lovely architectural museum definitely worth checking out. Built over time during the 20s and 30s by Russians living in the area. Harbin’s claim to fame is the Russian influence in the architecture and a bit in the food.
We spent a lot of time walking. And that clearly wasn’t going to work. Harbin is a huge city. A city proper population of 3million, but with 10million frequently quoted for the larger city area. We walked and walked and walked looking mostly for food. When that failed, we started riding buses. When they didn’t go where we thought, we just stayed on the bus until it got back to where we started from. If you have time to kill, it’s actually a pretty great strategy. We got to see huge chunks of the city, and realized it doesn’t have a lot to offer in diversity. It’s a concrete jungle of the largest magnitude. Huge run down looking apartment buildings, each with a little balcony and a air unit, for as far as the eye can see. I was very curious to see the inside of one of these buildings, there are many things in China where the outside doesn’t at all match the inside.
We rode the 14 bus, the wrong way the first time, to a gorgeous temple.
More architecture from around the city:
We also took a long bus journey to the very, very south of the city to find the Germ and Warfare Museum. I can attest that the directions in Lonely Planet are both accurate, and fairly easy to follow. Even if we did spent the entire journey convinced we were going to end up in an industrial zone at the end of the earth. Again it gave some great views of the city, and proved the point that there probably isn’t any area worth living in outside of the central downtown.
The Germ and Warfare Museum was a little hard to stomach, but definitely worth seeing. It documents a time in photos, artifacts, and film of a time when Japan occupied the area and kidnapped thousands of Chinese citizens to perform experiments on. Most notably, dissecting them alive, or giving intentional frostbite, and then manipulating those body parts to see what happens. Apparently, it was also a time when Japan was developing biological weapons, and they would drop shells carrying contagious diseases on groups of people (protected by riot gear to ensure that they weren’t injured by shrapnel, but did indeed contract and die of the intended disease.)
I’m really glad I got to see Harbin, but I’m not sure I’ll jump at that teaching contract anytime soon. I’d be really curious to see it in winter, when temperatures are close to lethal, but the river can be walked across, and the ice festival is happening.
I fell in love with Mohe. The northernmost actual city, and an apparently new city at that, it has a disney-like charm and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met in the world. The downtown is just a large square, with a lovely public park on one side. It’s brimming with newness. New buildings, new shops, the very center of the city taken up by a monstrous shopping mall (where we found those lovely spicy noodles for 10yuan a bowl).
I’m curious about what brought on the boom of development in the city. If there’s something they have to sell to the region, besides the gallons of dried mushrooms we saw for sale in the street market. I’m really curious about who got hired to design the new development in the city. I’m telling you, it reeked of Disney.
Finding the hostel we had booked when we got back to Mohe was a feat in miscommunication. No one had heard of this place. We knew the general direction, but started to think maybe it just didn’t exist. We were told it was near some giant convention center. People kept assuming we were trying to find the hotel that was inside the convention center, at $160 (yes, US dollars) a night. The women who worked the reception desk called her husband, who spoke fluent, gorgeous, very business-like English. He was absolutely adamant that we didn’t want to stay in the hostel we had booked. We stood our ground, and finally the reception lady walked us partly way there, and then basically told us she expected to see us soon after we saw the conditions.
We get to BeiBei youth hostel (100 yuan for a double room), and even though we had a friend who speaks Chinese call the day before, they had no idea who we were. Using the very slow computer, we typed messages back and forth in google translate to attempt to get a room. They set us up on this lovely wood-heated bench in the lobby, and told us to wait. And wait. And when the lady walked out to the room with cleaning supplies, it was apparent we were going to have to wait a while more. At this point we hadn’t seen the rooms, and were started to get really, really suspicious.
And then we started to feel held hostage. We are waiting on this bench. Basically told not to move, while they are going about their day. Cooking dinner. Using the computer. Just when we were thinking about making a run for it and finding someplace else, we insist again on seeing the room before we’ll pay. It turned out they just hadn’t had guests in a while, and they didn’t want us to have to be in a cold room. It was a lovely space, with what I can only describe as a table bed, basically a brick box that you pile blankets on top of, and then stoke the fireplace underneath.
Outside of the planned, constructed, and almost oddly colorful downtown, lie the type of neighborhoods I more expected. There is a great village at the top of the stairs of a statue park. The whole time I was walking around I was thinking that this is a place I’d love to spend three or four months trying to learn some Mandarin and maybe teaching English if the opportunity arose. As I was walking around and taking pictures of the neighborhood, Pablo was taking a quick nap with our bags on a bench in the park. When he woke up, a giggly young woman was snapping photos of him with her phone.
The first leg of our trip took us 41 hours of straight travel north. First stop Jiagedaqi – close to 30 hours by sleeper car. Jiagedaqi is known for being a transportation hub, and that was our goal as well- to get tickets for 1opm that night to the small city of Mohe. We were inundated getting out of the station by people trying to talk to us, and at first I had my stonewall on thinking it was the classic travel woe of people selling taxis/hotels/cheap trinkets. In this case people were just curious about where we were from and what we could possibly be doing there. Not understanding that we didn’t understand, every time I would shrug, the same question would be shot at me in rapid fire Mandarin, twice as loud as the first time. After a couple of wrong windows, a wrong building, and a small hoard of people following us around, we got some tickets. Now to find a late dinner.
Our basic method for finding food the whole trip was to hunt for a busy looking place and pray for picture menus. Jiagedaqi seemed to be void of both things, until we stumbled on a great looking place, full of locals, down a dead side street. After emphatically pointing out items on a menu we couldn’t even being to read, the waitress finally dragged us back to the kitchen and let us pick out what looked good. We had a good laugh about the “Mons” beer, until we realized we were reading it upside down, and that it was actually “Snow.” At less than 3% alcohol, I was a little less surprised to see ten empty bottles on the neighboring table.
The countryside of northern China was not what I expected. One of the side-effects of food being practically a national sport, and offered at endless restaurants on every street, everywhere, is that it needs to be grown. For forty hours of riding, it was the same scene, every square inch of land not taken up by an abode, was being farmed on. Right up the embankments to the railroad tracks in a lot of places. Dry dirt, low houses, corn, and railroad tracks.
We didn’t manage to get a sleeper car for the ten hours train from Jiagedaqi to Mohe. That ride was half as long as twice as miserable. It only cost something like 28 yuan, but it was definitely an instance of you get what you pay for. Wooden benches intended for three people sitting upright on each. The train left after 10pm and was slated to get to Mohe around 9am the next morning. We were immediately the center of a barrage of questions, with people hanging over the benches trying to talk to us. We passed the translation book around, and once we were identified by our respective countries, and where we were headed, it died down a bit. But the lights never went off. An overnight train, and the lights never get turned off, or even turned down. Once a few people got off at various stops, folks just started stretching out on the benches and attempting to find any form of comfort possible. One guy hit his buddy playfully over the head and pointed at his bag so that he’d move it so I could stretch my legs out and lie down. There’s nothing to do but try to sleep, and wait. And then the train gets full again around 6am, and the staring and questions start all over again. And then there’s the toilets. Each train car has a “toilet” that just empties out over the tracks – which is why you can’t use them when they are stopped at stations. By the end of the trip, the little ‘gifts’ that had been left and not flushed down where enough to make anyone hold it to Harbin.
We arrived at Mohe early in the morning, completely frazzled, and got railroaded by a well-dressed woman with a taxi. We were hungry, exhausted, probably stank, and had no interest in being swindled, harassed, or asked anymore questions. But this woman would not let go. When we realized there were no trains to the next town we were attempting to get to (our final northern destination), we attempted to bargin with her about a price. But the thing is, we’re not interested in taxis. That expensive, protected mode of transportation where you get whisked privately off to your next destination. We’re interested in trains, and buses, and locals, and the cute kids, and the old drunk guys. Instead, we arranged for her to take us into town (Mohe being the one city we visited where the train station is not accessible to the downtown). I had a sinking feeling when she motioned for us to put our backpacks in the trunk.
She drove us in town, and ignored all of our motions to be let out at any one point that looked decent enough for finding anything to stuff into our impatient pie holes. Then stopped in front of a string of banks, and would not let us have our bags. She was smiling the whole time, and not the worst of intentioned taxi drivers, but we wanted to eat, and get away from her as quickly as possible. She came back with an innocent looking, unsuspecting, bank employee who spoke some English. After ten minutes of haggling about the price to get to the Northern Village, we finally just asked if there was a bus, at which point taxi-lady’s face fell to the ground. Yes, there is a bus – for 24 yuan, as opposed to 250, which leaves from right over there at 3pm. Perfect, thanks, now let us have our damn bags.
After a lovely bowl of super spicy noodles with some really tasty long bean, Mohe all of a sudden started looking like a pretty neat town. I think I’ll save Mohe for it’s own post. The goal here was to get north. Endlessly north. To the enthusiastically named Arctic North Pole Village, where the passport inspectors and border control wore jackets with Santa on them. Fortunately, that was the last of the cheesy references to such things.
To be honest, after the days of riding trains, to get on a bus where people were talking as loudly as you humanly can without actually yelling, to getting breathed on heavily by a man who smelled like stale rice whiskey, I was not impressed by this shanty of a town that Pablo had dragged me to. This one-eyed-dog, shit town is what I flew half-way around the world to see?
But as with most things, outward appearances can be deceiving. The shack of a hostel from the outside, was a lovely place on the inside. I was expecting to need my own sleeping bag and to have cold showers on this Russian border town, but this was probably the nicest place we stayed the whole trip. It was quiet and had hot water — it’s one quirk being that the ensuite bathroom was walled in frosted glass. Which got awkward. And then turned into funny dances and fake mooning. And then got awkward again.
This town is not for the faint of heart western traveler. We had heard so many great things about this town from Chinese folks, but it’s charm hadn’t hit me yet. I didn’t get it. Although it’s a huge destination for Chinese tourists, there is almost no tourism from other places. Which is something Pablo and I look for when we travel, but this town could have been really miserable for us if we hadn’t met Joy on the bus. There was pretty much no way at all for a non-Chinese speaker to communicate with anyone here. Our translation book failed to reach any of the nuances we needed, and over and over in the trip proved to be useless about food. I have no idea what we would have eaten if Joy hadn’t come along and been one of those gung-ho friend-collector and experienced travelers that are the dream of every trip.
North Pole Village ended really being the highlight of the whole trip. Once you get into it, it’s a gorgeous little town, that I’m really glad we visited on the off season. It appears to be an obnoxious collection of tourist attractions and stores along the river in the busy season. It was just calm, relaxed, and we were able to get in deep enough to make connections that we’re sad we might never see again. Most notably, the hilarious, full-of-smiles lady who fed us the whole time we were there. She said she’d never had foreigners in her restaurant before, and we tried a little of everything over the next few days.
The northern village hugely resembled the woods of my home in Maine: Pine and birch forests lined with wooden walkways, low mountains, famous for potatoes and a great walk along the Black Dragon River.
This is my third trip to Beijing, and it feels a little like coming home. The subway card that I’ve been carrying in my wallet since 2010 still works. My travel companion, Pablo, pointed out I was wearing the same shirt I had on when I met him in Beijing the last time when we were on our way to Mongolia. And the beer is still warm and skunky.
Our plan is to catch up in Beijing and then ride trains to the absolute northern most point in China, which is located in a little village north of the small city of Mohe (pronounced more like Moha).
The first couple of nights we stayed at the Fly By Knight in off the Dongsi Station. Lovely place, although I think overpriced for a hostel. It was nice to stay out of the Qianmen area for a bit, which has gotten so overtly touristy. Although, the locals have a bit of a different take on the overbuilt, brand name, “built new to look old” development. Towards the end of the trip we were traveling with a woman from QiQihaar who had never been to Beijing before, and she loved Qianmen stating that it is so “cultural”. After Dongsi, we did move to Qianmen to try to meet some fellow travelers, and stayed at Leo Courtyard Hostel. I definitely do not recommend it, although the courtyard of the old building is nice, the rooms are cheap, windowless Russian Army barracks.
We’ve both been to the Lama Temple before, but with that obsession with temples of mine, I wanted to go again.
This little lady is 26 meters high, and is carved from a single sandalwood tree.
Walking distance from the Lama Temple, is a less visited Confucian Temple. By definition, the art is less concerned with giant statues as it is with texts engraved in rock and the relics of things used in ritual.
The Summer Palace
The summer palace in the way northwest part of the city is another place I’ve visited before, but Pablo had never seen it. It’s definitely worth visiting, but not on a day like this where the pollution is so bad you can hardly see 20 feet in front of you. Compare these photos to the ones I took back in 2009 on clear day.
Bell and Drum Tower
This is a part of town I’d never visited before, and is a great area to find something to eat.
I don’t know if was a product of the pollution, or the fact that we sure as hell ain’t getting any younger, but we definitely did not have the stamina for walking endless distances and seeing all the sites. Besides Pablo is a Spaniard living in Scotland, he requires Siestas at regular intervals.
Beijing is a city that changes relentlessly, while somehow staying the same.
Last year when I went to Beijing with another English teacher from Korea, we didn’t make it to the Temple of Heaven Park until really late. This whole last year I’ve been thinking that I want to see the inside of that temple. So when Pablo and I met up in Beijing with only a couple of days to spare before the train to UB, that’s what we did.
Night time is much better. At night the park was filled with locals dancing, singing, playing hacky sack, drinking, chatting, wandering. During the day it is full of conspicuous foriegners with sunburns and locals trying to sell you everything from cheap plastic toys, to wooden puzzles of the temple, to expensive bottles of water. After seeing so many elaboratly painted temples, not much is that impressive anymore, so seeing the inside of the temple didn’t compare to the glory of last years lights and vibrancy.
After meeting in Beijing in the tourist hell that is Qianmen, my Spanish friend Pablo and I took the thirty-hour leg of the trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Ulaan Bataar. A common enough way to get into Mongolia.
I had no problem with the length of the train ride. It’s the four hours the bathrooms were closed while they changed train tracks and went through two different border patrols. Luckily we jumped off the train or we would have been stuck for two hours while the train honked horns and slammed onto a different rail gauge over and over again. The second two hours were getting through the Mongolian border where police kept checking all the bunks, pacing the halls, (this is one in the morning mind you), and of course ALL THE BATHROOMS ARE LOCKED. I was dying. And Aunt Flow was making a grand appearance. And after taking my passport for at least two hours – they didn’t stamp it. We’ll see what happens when I try to get out of the country.
From a rainy but beautiful and cool Qingdao, I took an easy express train inland to Ji’nan. This was my favorite of the cities I visited in China. The least touristy, the most friendly, a little off the beaten path, but I felt well worth the couple days I spent there. It is the actual capital of Shandong province, even though Qingdao is a much more modern, and I believe, much bigger city.
I started the day with some great street food. They make amazing breads heated on a griddle, sliced in half when they start to puff up, and this stand was putting shredded potato, carrot, cabbage, a cut up hotdog of specious origin, and an egg inside. A man waved me over to use his little stool so I wouldn’t have to sit on the curb and was fine trying to talk to me and laughing even though I didn’t buy any of his intestine on a stick.
From there I checked into a Lonely Planet recommended hotel behind a gorgeous neighborhood park. The name of the hotel has changed, and I forgot to make a note of the new name (it starts with a Z), but the rates are the same. I had to haggle with her a bit, but it was well worth it and comfy.
From there I headed out to the Muslim quarter where there is an old Chinese style Mosque as well as some smaller Persian style ones tucked into the streets. It was really a gorgeous little refuge. The folks there were extremely welcoming and had no problem with a western woman hanging around and even let me stay and watch the five o’clock prayers. I was trying to stay out of the way and be respectful, but it turned out I was sitting on the steps of Imam’s quarters and was quite embarrassed when he came regally down the steps when the bells started. He just laughed and motioned for me to stay where I was. The singing was stunning.
Chinese Muslims are known for being the most liberal. The kebab street lined with meat shops and stacks and stacks of beer would prove this. Women sitting down and throwing off their head scarves while everyone passes around the Tsingtao. I’m sure that’s not everyone, but it’s quite a large street. The young men I bought some kebabs from and shared a beer with were Buddhists, and my hosts was more than happy to show off his extensive tattoo, as well as the three scars from knife fights he has on the other side.
They taught me the numbers and hand signals for one through ten which proved extremely useful the rest of the trip.
Jin’an is famous for its natural springs, which are lovely, and really just large parks you have to pay to get into.
Thousand Buddha Mountain
This is a lovely park, but I was just too tired from all the walking of the last two weeks to take full advantage of it. I did wander a bit, and stayed on the low level instead of climbing the stairs. I’m not a huge fan of the chubby Buddha who is the focus of this park. It seems he misses the point of the middle way somehow.
The highlight for me was the Ten Thousands Buddha Cave. It’s a mite bit constructed, but it was chilly, out of the sun and had some beautiful as well as creepy examples of Buddhist art.