Posted from Dalian, China.
So when I last left you, I had just passed out briefly on the bus to Harbin, China before the first set of pot holes resulting in jaw-jarring jolts staggered me awake… good ol’ Russian roads. The bus itself was cramped (as usual) and smelled of cleaning fluid/various human odors. Think a Chinese tour bus if you took a very cheap tour (and I mean cheap) There were a group of around fifteen or so young Russian girls in the back of the bus who seemed to erupt in a chorus of giggles every five minutes and a Chinese man behind me who seemed to suffer from sleep apnea, which resulted in bouts of extreme snoring. I was in and out of sleep (briefly) as we trundled along, but soon we reached the Russian-Chinese border.
I found out from English speakers I met at one of the bus’s quick stops (a couple of Swiss, a couple Americans and some English-speaking Russians) the protocol for the border was to take your bags (everything) off the bus, stand in an obscenely long line, get everything checked through a scanner, get back on the bus, cross the border and repeat the entire process on the Chinese side. The Russian side was significantly more run down. The line took much longer to get through and was manned by some pretty shady-looking, bored Russian contract soldiers. On the Chinese side however, the building was much better maintained and manned by some smart-looking Chinese officials in very clean, crisp uniforms. Needless to say, it was not a morning to be running on only a few hours of sleep. I met a couple of English-speaking Russians (during the wait in between the border stops) who took a shine to me and shared some of their food with me (I hadn’t packed anything and was starving) but the majority of the morning was downright tedious. Also, for some reason the passport control officers (on both sides of the border) examined my passport with insane suspicion. They thumbed through every single page at least twice and checked it under a black-light numerous times. I suppose it is not every day a Canadian comes through.
Most of the Russians occupying the bus exited at the border. Apparently, they do not need a Visa to China if they are just shopping at the border city on the Chinese side. So the bus was less packed on the way to Harbin and I had two seats to myself. We passed through the border town quickly which was rife with shopping centers built from Stalinist concrete with a mix of Chinese characters added. I decided to sit near the group of English speakers I had met and inquired about their travels. It turns out they were non-denominational missionaries from all different countries. They too offered me some of their food (sandwiches and apples) so I felt obliged to listen about their “plan from God” which was to spread His word even in places such as China. They were rather nice folks and were not too preachy, but soon my lack of sleep was catching up with me.
I immediately noticed that the roads in China were much better maintained. The architecture in general was less shabby and the plains were much more wide open with designated plots for farming with the occasional mining/resource concern mixed in. In the distance there were towering mountains while the entire scene had a thin layer of snow covering it. The sun was shining bright and the bus warmed significantly which led to a fast asleep Jake in a very short time. I woke up outside a city and noticed a “Welcome to Harbin” sign which shook the sleep my from mind immediately. When the bus stopped a short while later, I had no idea where I was and the missionaries weren’t much help as they just bid me “good-bye” and grabbed the nearest taxi. I hadn’t a Chinese Sim card and no Chinese currency (I didn’t see an exchange at the border) and I couldn’t find an ATM to save my life. It was pretty chilly, so I just hiked up my rucksack and started walking in (what I thought) was the general direction of town.
It was getting darker and really cold, so I found what looked like a somewhat upper class hotel and went inside hoping somebody would speak English. Alas they did not, so I remembered my guidebook I “borrowed” from the hostel in Portugal and found my street and pointed to it. I remembered I wrote down the number to my hostel and showed it to their reception where they quickly understood and called my hostel and handed me the phone. My hostel owner explained that they (the hotel I was in) would write down the hostel address and I was to just show it to a taxi driver. Since I had no Yuan (the Chinese currency), through my experience in “charades” I somehow informed my taxi driver that I needed an ATM before I could pay him. We eventually found one (The Chinese Construction bank… it seems all banks are named after industries. The Construction bank, Agricultural bank, Communications bank, Merchants bank, People’s bank and ultimately, the Bank of China) I paid him (with a generous tip) and checked into my hostel.
My hostel was located in an old synagogue in town. Apparently, Harbin contained a large Jewish population during the times when the Russians owned this particular territory and there were a large amount of former Jewish centers (schools, shops etc) in town. However, now (in Atheist China) there are none. Still, it was a great building with an excellent character and I was quite pleased with it. After acquiring a Chinese Sim card and something to eat (the place I chose had big pictures of food, so I just pointed at what looked good) I met my dorm mates who were two Chinese guys (Sam and Lee, aged 23) from the south of China who were in town for their vacation. That night we watched the lunar eclipse together and since we were all exhausted from our day, fell asleep quite early. The mattress on my bed was razor thin, so I slept on my comforter provided (it was thicker than the mattress) to get some comfort. Even then, I woke with half my body seemingly paralyzed.
The next morning after a coffee and reading the (hilariously censored) English-version of the China Daily, I visited the largest Confucian temple in the north of China. Nobody was there and it was a quite peaceful and relaxing sanctuary in what was a rather noisy (and dirty) northern city. I then walked around the older Russian quarter part of the city, where a majority of the buildings have stood since the 19th century when the Russians claimed Harbin as their own. After, I strolled along the frozen river that borders the town and walked through a nearby park aptly named “Stalin Park” passing various monuments to past events/leading communists. I also strolled down the main shopping avenue (lots of Russian and Western stores) where many ice-sculptures were in the process of being built for the upcoming Winter Festival that is celebrated by most of China, but is most notable in Harbin. Most everywhere I took a taxi due to the fact they are very cheap. This being said, I finally understand why Asians are the craziest drivers on the planet. In China, they drive like you are playing a game of Grand Theft Auto. They never drive within the lines of the road, they change lines -constantly- without ever indicating, let alone checking their blind-spot, they use their horn every few seconds (seriously, horns are always blaring) and run red-lights repeatedly. On top of all this, the speed in which they drive is akin to a bat out of hell that is on fire. Numerous times I found myself laughing at the entire process because it was either that or be deathly terrified.
That night after booking my ticket out of town, I dined with my two new friends. For a pittance, we had a banquet of a Chinese meal (dumplings, chicken, tofu, beef, vegetables and drinks) that we shared over a great conversation. That night, we just hung out and chatted and inquired about each other’s lives and what we thought of our country’s, governments and way of life. The next day, after checking out I finally exchanged the last of my Russian roubles and took some various pictures of the city. I did my best to find people on couch-surfing for Dalian (my next destination) but nobody (out of the eight I asked) was able to host me and I only had two replies on “Yes, we can meet for dinner.” A real contrast from the warm response I received in Russia. However, I do believe that it is due to the time of year. That night, before heading to the train station, I had dinner with my Chinese friends at a very hole-in-the-wall style restaurant where the owner was pleased as punch that his food was good enough to be enjoyed by a foreigner (it was amazing actually!) My friends helped me navigate the cavernous train-station in order to get me to my gate/platform before we said good-bye and good luck.
I just finished my second afternoon here in Dalian where I just finished quite the hike along the southern coast from the city. Also, the Chinese train system that I took to get here is a little different than that of Russia.. however, since I have a little light left on my last day in town, I’ll save that story for next time. I am off to the border city of Dandong tomorrow which is located about four kilometers from North Korea. I hope to snap a few pictures of the reclusive, pariah-regime and yell “Democracy Rules Losers!” a few times before catching an overnight train to Beijing. Next post will more than likely be from there… as long as the Public Security Bureau does not have any qualms with my pro-western message. Until then.
(Editors note: Maybe that is not such a good idea… the way my google-mail access has been lately (sporadic at best), I’m quite sure I’m under some sort of monitor.)
(Cont. Note: I put back in my yelled quote of ‘Democracy Rules Losers!’: Dear Chinese Government, if you’re reading this – Suck a fat one losers! Ha-ha!)