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.
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