Dasvidaniya (See You Tomorrow)
Since before we arrived, Katherine and her friend, Bonny, an exchange student from Costa Rica, wanted to visit Harbin. And, after doing a bit of reading, I decided I was pretty keen to visit Harbin too, although not for the Subway and Starbucks they were intending to beeline, but for its unique history and architecture.
The largest city in the north-east of China, Harbin was settled in the late 19th century as a camp for Russians building the Trans-Siberian Railway and, by the 1920s, the Russian population had grown to 120,000, creating a full-blown ‘community in exile’. Today, Harbin is known for the Russian influence on its architecture, food and culture…and for its bitter winters, which have recorded temperatures as low as -38°.
An early weather check showed cause for concern, although not for one of its famed low temperatures.
We had already forked out for 2-hour tickets on the fast train, however, so elected to take on the tornado. I mention the 2-hour tickets, because there are trains to Harbin that allow you to stand over 7 hours, should that better suit your budget. It bears repeating that, without Katherine, things could have been exceptionally difficult.
Jiamusi train station is cavernous and spotless. As noticed by Mum, nobody is eating, and you can see your face in the floor. It is also patriotic and secretive with its processes. Had we not claimed foreigner privileges, even with our exchange-student weaponry, we would have missed our train.
Early on in our journey, the passenger in front of me slammed down the shade over the long window that serviced both sets of seats. This was mortifying, given I planned to look out of it the whole way so, after 10 minutes of solid angst, I very-daringly slid it back up. A couple of those moves and I’ll be ready for a full-blown queue jump, I reckon.
Had I not made a move, I would have missed not understanding the countryside, which is made up of corn fields, scarred with the silvery streaks of frozen streams, and intermittent villages of blue-and-red-roofed houses, most of which look abandoned, but for the occasional spire of smoke. There are so few trees, I have no idea where the wood to burn comes from.
I say not understanding the countryside, because I have no idea how farming communities survive during the winter, when the ground and water are surely frozen, if not covered in snow. Occasionally, I would see a farmer in the middle of a field, a solitary spot with what appeared like kilometres all around, and wonder at his life and work.
Occasionally, a splash of colour jumps out, in the form of mounds that are covered in what look like brightly-coloured wreaths. I wanted to capture one, and had my phone poised in anticipation, but the train moves so quickly, my victory photos ended up being more of the same, endless brown fields.
Our arrival in Harbin was heralded by an even more cavernous, spotless train station, which hides its taxis deep underground. Don’t ask me about the queue we joined to pick up our return tickets. I’m still too traumatised.
Our first stop was to Gogol Bookstore, named, presumably, after Russian playwright and novelist Nikolai Gogol, and known as one of the most-beautiful bookstores in China. It was beautiful, to be sure, but will be remembered for the appearance of one of my favourite paintings, Fragonard’s ‘The Reader’, and the sheer number of people actually reading. They were sitting at tables, curled up in armchairs and leaning against walls…all with books in hand.
Zhongyang Street, better known as Central Street, was our second port of call. At 1450m, it is one of the longest pedestrian streets in Asia and, as we soon saw, really is the heart of the city. Day trips to Zhongyang Street are evidently popular, with a constant stream of people shopping and eating street food to the strains of piped Russian music. There are coloured bulbs strung through the trees that line either side of the street, which must be a beautiful sight when the sun goes down (at 3.30pm).
We parted ways at this point, with mum and I heading to an over-priced kitsch Russian restaurant, bound for borscht, and Kitty and Bonny for a foot-long and shopping at H&M. It sounds simple enough, but that decision set off a chain reaction of disappointment. Average not-borscht and make-your-own wine (I don’t know) = a squatting toilet. No Mandarin = not being able to question the inaccurate price for our ‘consumption’, which I later discovered included paying for the moist towels. And being parted from the almost-locals = spending the next hour trying to tap into free, fast-food wifi, so we could find them again. All of which = missing Saint Sophia Cathedral and the Opera House.
Oh, well, c’est la vie. As I said to mum, as I tried not to be a miserable shit, it’s outrageous to feel sad about sitting in a Russian restaurant in north-eastern China, eating overpriced (but still comparatively cheap) caviar and mushroom soup, being entertained by a jazz singer beside a white baby grand.
And the missed-outs were replaced by highlights that were memorable for reasons of their own. I mean, if I hadn’t almost peed on my own shoes, I also wouldn’t have laughed out loud when I saw this vase of flowers beside the sink:
And what does another cathedral (*sob*) have on this red-carpet fashion show opposite McDonalds, with the models wearing clothing that still had the tags attached (are the photographers part of the show, do you think?):
And if I hadn’t still been hungry after lunch, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to munch on scorpions and cockroaches (jokes, my mum wouldn’t let me – you have to imagine me saying that with the sulky voice of a 10-year-old):
Back at Harbin station for our return journey, I snapped a photo of the sheer number of waiting passengers, and managed to capture the faces of these three, who have spotted us. Soon, much of the crowd will be wearing similar expressions:
Later, Kitty and Bonny transferred us to a pre-negotiated taxi, en route to their local pool joint, and Mum and I soon found ourselves standing before our favourite jianbing (wrap) stand (thanks, J). Made to order, they take some time to prepare, which gave us time to chat to a couple of schoolgirls who approached us with a hesitant, ‘where are you from?’.
Keeping one eye on our jianbing, I noticed the cook adding new ingredients with particular care, including a pale sausage and some red strips that I haven’t yet identified. Her partner, normally the support act, had been charged with the task of deep frying a fresh batch of wontons, which he burned, resulting in a quiet but firm scolding.
As it neared completion, marked by her search for the best of a darkened batch of wontons, I asked the schoolgirls to translate ‘see you tomorrow’ for me, prompting a couple of huge smiles. Then, a few whispers later, as she handed me the bag and we both held it momentarily, she replied, haltingly,
‘Thank you…come here…see you tomorrow.’
I almost cried.