13
Feb
14

Harbinski!

I haven’t blogged in ages, and there’s no real excuse for that. But for now, I’m reviving this blog to detail our trip to Harbin. I’m posting most of these photos on Facebook, so if we’re Facebook friends, you’ll see all the stuff I describe here in more detail than I can describe.

But in general, I can say this much about Harbin. Yes, it’s incredibly cold. The temperatures hovered between the mid-single digits to -20 degrees at night. Fortunately, we came prepared for that: thermals, multiple layers, thick mittens, and little heat patches that go inside mittens, boots and camera bags (so cameras don’t die in the cold). As I related on Facebook, it’s about like the height of Wisconsin winters, except that here we’re spending hours outside, whereas in Wisconsin, we only stay outside as long as it took to walk wherever we were going. I took a lot of photos, but I probably would’ve taken more if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had to take my hand out of my glove do it. This also made the cell phone a more preferred mode of photography, since it could be used far more quickly than my actual digital camera. In that cold, it doesn’t take long for your fingers to get frigid and numb, and even with the heat patches, it takes a while for the hand to warm up.

Also, as a general matter, Allison was right that being foreign gets you a lot more attention in Harbin than it does in Beijing. Beijingers are used to foreigners in their midst. Harbiners, as a general rule, aren’t as much. Some people will stare at you, especially children. Others will take pictures of you, with or without your consent. And often, they assume that if you’re vaguely white, that you must be Russian. We, or rather, Allison, heard people refer to us as Russians. (I “heard” them, but Allison actually understood what they were saying.) I did find this to be a little surprising, given that Harbin was, I thought, a prime tourist destination in China, particularly for its Ice Festival. Wouldn’t they be used to foreign tourists? We did see a few fellow foreigners, but less so than in Beijing. Some actually were Russian. But we ran into an older couple with Australian accents at the first Ice Festival event we saw, and below I mention a couple who were from Liverpool and Los Angeles. We didn’t see any non-Chinese at our hotel. Foreigners who can afford to come here might prefer to stay in the swankier, western-oriented hotels, like the Holiday Inn.

Friday, the 7th: Beijing train station, boarding our soft sleeper train. We shared our 4-person cabin with a nice gentleman who told us about his family, and didn’t understand why we don’t have children yet. He spoke a little English, and had traveled extensively to Europe, but hadn’t made it out to the US yet. He showed us pictures and a video of his son. And he insisted that we had a duty to have a child ASAP, even if this meant undermining our educational or career goals. He seemed puzzled by the idea that we might contemplate adoption, since orphaned children were other people’s problem. That might be noble, satisfying a social problem, but as I read him, he was saying family responsibilities were more important. As I’ve learned from Allison, it seems that many people in China have a far less robust notion of privacy, so they don’t think they’re prying if they ask you about sensitive matters like children or personal finances. But I think I would’ve happily traded another night in a train with a prying nosy fellow like this guy than what we actually had with the bus.

Saturday the 8th: We arrived in Harbin early in the morning. We immediately tried, and failed, to get return train tickets to Beijing. (It seems that you can’t really purchase round-trip train tickets in China. We tried. You have to purchase your return trip tickets immediately when you arrive at your destination. Since this is still the busy holiday travel season, these were tickets that probably should have been purchased weeks ago, but of course, you can only do it in person in Harbin. A catch 22, certainly.) So dejected, but not deterred, we decided we should check into our hotel, the Super 8 (yes, that Super 8), deciding we’d use the internet there to look into flights. We found that airfare would potentially cost thousands of dollars if we wanted to return Monday or Tuesday. Our choice was either taking the bus, or getting “standing-only” tickets for the train. We opted for the former. More on how that turned out later.

In the afternoon, we visited the St. Sophia Cathedral (圣索非亚教堂; Shèngsuǒfēiyàjiàotáng), the only Harbin church to survive the Cultural Revolution intact. It’s a Russian Orthodox church, but today it’s empty, housing a kind of “museum of architecture,” with photos and models of many of the Harbin buildings that were destroyed. Curiously, there was little-to-no mention of why they were all destroyed. Perhaps still a bit of a touchy subject? (There is, I later discovered, a functioning Russian Orthodox church in town, the Church of the Intersession. It used to be the Ukrainian Church, destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, but rebuilt later. This is interesting, because the only legal Christian religions in China are the government-run, popeless Patriotic Catholic Church and the government-run Protestant Church. Allison speculates that the government may just have Orthodox churches administered by the Patriotic Catholic Church).

We visited the famous cobblestone street, Zhongyang Dajie (中央大街; Zhōngyāngdàjiē; lit. Central Avenue), where much of the best surviving Russian architecture is. This seems to be the central area where much of the old architecture is preserved. It’s lined with restaurants, seemingly dozens of Russian stores selling hats, watches, Russian bread, furs, and other souvenirs. At the end of the street, there’s a Flood Control Monument, which is kind of a weird thing to have a monument for, especially one of this size. It also leads to Stalin (!) Park. There was a separate event, more like a carnival, with games and such on the ice of the river. (Sadly, Stalin Park merely consists of a riverwalk and park. There isn’t much there: no statues of Hitler’s best-known frenemy, no plaques to the glories of Stalin, nothing. I wonder if it’s merely called that to piss off the White Russians who had escaped to Harbin. Mao was a big fan of his too.) In any case, Zhongyang Dajie also is filled with people selling the fruit candy on a stick thing, Harbin sausages, and sparklers, since it’s still technically the Chinese New Year season. There were ice and snow sculptures lining the street as well, a preview of what we’d see later at the actual events we attended.

Afterword, we ate at Tatos, a Russian restaurant on Zhongyang Dajie, which certainly had the most cozy and inviting atmosphere we saw in Harbin, but also had an oddly restrictive menu that night, limited only to set menu options. I thought the food was okay, but given that it made Allison ill, it is probably not to be recommended.

Sunday the 9th: We had been told by a lady working at the St. Sophia Cathedral that there was “another church” (she struggled for the right word, settling on “church”) that foreigners like to see in Harbin, and that we should see it too. It seems she was referring to the Harbin Jewish New Synagogue (哈尔滨犹太新会堂; Hāěrbīnyóutàixīnhuìtáng), which as fortune had it, was barely a block away from our hotel. So after breakfast, this was our first destination.

This was by far a more interesting, and better kept, building than the St. Sophia Cathedral, as the photos I took should indicate. Naturally, it’s not exactly used for services anymore. There may be a handful of Orthodox and other Christians in Harbin, but the Jews mostly left the city in the 30’s and 40’s, fleeing to Shanghai, Tientsin, the Japanese city of Kobe, and what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, now Israel, so there aren’t any congregations here to serve. There is a single known Jew living permanently in Harbin today, and he didn’t arrive until 2002; he teaches at one of the local universities. The last of the original Harbin Jews left in the early 60’s according to some sources (or 1985, according to this article). The parents of Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli PM, were among the Harbin Jews. The exhibit neglected to mention that the reasons they left had to do with the rise of antisemitism on the part of the Russians still in Harbin at the time, and German-pressured Japanese authorities. The exhibit gives you the impression that there was never any antisemitism here. There is still the “old” synagogue, which is now a youth hostel, and an old Jewish school, which is now an ethnic Korean school, but we didn’t get to see those. This “new” synagogue was built in 1920, damaged by fire in 1931, and only restored in the last year, according to this article.

So what is it today? Well, it seems like an all-purposes museum to commemorate the Harbin Jewish community. And perhaps also to educate Chinese people about the Jews. Seriously. There are photographic displays of the Harbin Jewish community, in great detail, showing their scientific, artistic and economic accomplishments here. But oddly, there are also photos and exhibits about famous Jews generally, most of whom had nothing to do with Harbin. Particular attention was paid to the genius and accomplishments of Albert Einstein, whom I’m sure never even visited Harbin. Among the photos of “famous Jews” included Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, Baruch Spinoza, Leon Trotsky (!), Rosa Luxembourg (!), and Milton Friedman (!!!). This section sort of reminded me of the Adam Sandler Hanukkah song: hey, bet you didn’t know all these famous people were Jews!

I’m not sure if antisemitism is the right way to characterize this, but Allison suggests that among many Chinese people, there’s a kind of positive racism, where Jews are admired, if stereotyped, for being intellectual, economically productive and frugal. I recall an NPR story where a half-Chinese, half-Jewish fellow talked about his odd experiences in Shanghai as an expat. He was offered many lucrative jobs, because, as he was told by prospective employers, that since he’s part Chinese, he should work really hard, and since he’s part Jewish, he’ll be good at making money. (Perhaps the daughters of Amy Chua should consider coming to China?) There seemed to be an element of that sentiment in how this exhibit was set up, since there was a lot about the economic accomplishments of Jewish businesspeople in Harbin, with a bit of self-congratulation for the Chinese of Harbin being tolerant and free of antisemitism, offering a haven for Jews when Europe was rejecting them. I suppose there are far worse stereotypes one can have, but better still to not have any. In any case, this was among my favorite places in Harbin, if only because it played to my interests in history.

That interest, however, went essentially unfulfilled that afternoon, when we went to the Heilongjiang Provincial Museum (黑龙江省博物馆; Hēilóngjiāngshěngbówùguǎn) after enjoying some Korean cuisine for lunch. This was free for us, and certainly it’s true – you get what you pay for. As the Wiki Travel Guide indicates, it’s not well kept. There are some dinosaur bones, and two fully-constructed specimens, a mammoth skeleton, some stuffed animals, some art, some calligraphy, a few archaeological findings (very small trinket-type stuff, related to Buddhism), stuff about the logging industry in Heilongjiang, stuff about forests in Heilongjiang and… two live horses behind glass. I think one might have actually been a mule. But it was depressing, because they were obviously not well cared for, as they hadn’t been groomed in ages and may not have been well-fed. They were probably there for the Year of the Horse celebration. All in all, highly disappointing, because I had hoped to see some stuff on the history of the region: as the heart of Manchuria and the Manchu people, the Russian founding and era, and stuff from the Japanese Occupation-era (when it was the nominally independent Manchukuo, 1931-45). Of course, nothing on the year that the Soviets occupied the place and turned it over to the Communists in 1947, giving them their first major city and base from which to eventually defeat the KMT. This is one area of China that was never held by the KMT, which never got more than 35 miles away. And nothing on the Communist era, nor from the Cultural Revolution. There was also supposed to be an exhibit on the Hezhe (Nanai), a local ethnic group famous for its fishing prowess (and making clothing from fish, presumably like something out of Waterworld). And it wasn’t there. All this rich history, and nothing. I would’ve preferred the propagandized history to this; at least that would have been entertaining. Compared to the Xinjiang Provincial Museum in Urumqi that we saw six years ago, this was pathetic. Fail, Heilongjiang, serious fail.

So back to Zhongyang Dajie and the Flood Control Monument. Several blocks away was our ultimate destination: the Ice Festival in Zhaolin Park (冰雪游园会, 兆麟公园; Bīngxuě yóuyuánhuì, Zhàolíngōngyuán). We were a little confused at first, because we first thought that this was the one that was supposed to have full-sized versions of the Great Wall and other buildings, but these were smaller than that. The emphasis here was on smaller, more detailed ice sculptures, with very fine designs meant to be enjoyed up close, whereas the other festival that we saw on Monday night, “Ice and Snow World,” had the enormous buildings made of ice. There were some buildings of ice here too, to be sure: bridges, and even structures meant to be climbed on top of. But nothing on the order, in terms of size, of the Ice and Snow World. It was less expensive (200 RMB (~$33.33) vs. 300 RMB (~$50)), and it was also there that I discovered that my old Doc Martens boots having worn tread on the soles did not mesh well with moderately slippery surfaces like ice and packed snow. I fell many times, even down an ice staircase, but fortunately, no damage, other than to my pride. But lots of great pictures to be had here, including entrants in an international competition for ice sculptures. It seems that people from the Yakutsk area of Russia, the Sakha Republic, are particularly adapt at this, since many entrants came from here. (Thanks are due to Risk, since that’s why I know where that is.)

Dinner this night was at the Cafe Russia 1914, a small place just off Zhongyang Dajie, practically just a large living room. But the food was excellent, just the kind of thing one needs for cold weather. It was here that I finally got to sample the famous Harbin sausages… which tasted more like real sausage, as opposed to bizarre sweet sausages they serve in Beijing stir fry. The restaurant seemed like a large living room, with a lot of early 20th century Russian decorations. The guy who runs the restaurant is half-Chinese, half-Russian, and though he seemed tired when we arrived, he was pretty cool to us. The food was excellent, far better than Tatos.

Monday the 10th: After having the Super 8’s hearty Harbin breakfast, we went to the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair (太阳岛国际雪雕艺术博览会; Tàiyángdǎo guójì xuědiāoyìshù bólǎnhuì). I wasn’t quite prepared for how massive some of these snow structures get. It was, of course, quite cold, so after an hour and a half or so, Allison needed a timeout in one of the warming tents, where you can get crappy “hot chocolate” or sugary lattes for 20 RMB ($3.30) that they make from mixes. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves; suffice it to say that these may be the largest sculptures made of snow in the world, certainly that I’ve ever seen. Some were several stories high, and almost a football field in length. Others, sadly, were beginning to show the effects of wind erosion, which is why it’s probably better to see this stuff when it first opens in early January. Lunch was at Katusha’s, the third of the Russian restaurants recommended by the guidebooks. And this one was the best, all in all, though just marginally better than Cafe Russia 1914. The staff was actually Russian, and our waitress spoke fluent English with us. I suspect they get a lot of tourists, considering their location. Their borscht was the best of the three we had in Harbin, actually coming with sour cream, where the others did not. Something made me order Beef Stroganoff, and it was just what the doctor ordered, and Allison finally was able to satisfy her craving for salmon with a salmon tempura-type dish.

We had wanted to have Russian pastries or desserts, like the kind we could get back in DC at Cafe Assorti. Surprisingly, the Russian restaurants didn’t seem to have anything like that, though. We finally asked our waitress at Katusha’s where we could get some, and counter-intuitively, she recommended the Wal-Mart off the side of Zhongyang Dajie, not more than a block from the restaurant. Curious about Wal-Mart in China anyway, and with some time to kill before it got dark enough to enjoy the Ice & Snow World, we went. And this ended up as a disappointment, at least with respect to the Russian pastries we were looking for, since their bakery had mostly the kinds of pastries you can get at any Chinese bakery in Beijing. Still, now we can say that we’ve been to Wal-Mart in China, at least the Harbin location. It was like a hybrid between Wal-Mart as we know it in the US and Carrefour, with multiple floors of shopping. Like American Wal-Mart, we noticed that there was considerably more space to maneuver shopping carts and navigate around, so it’s probably a more comfortable shopping experience than Carrefour.

Finally, this was the night that we went to the biggest of the ice festivals, Ice and Snow World (冰雪大世界; bīngxuě dàshìjiè). Though since most of the displays are ice, it’s probably not very accurately named. It turns out that there’s a free bus you can take out there, if you pay them your 300 RMB, which will give you both your ticket to the event and a ride on the bus. Interestingly, though, they don’t give you a return trip back. You have to fend for a taxi with everyone else. I suspect that they bulk purchase tickets at a major discount, and with the difference being sufficient for them to run a bus. But after they drop you off, they don’t really have an incentive to drive you back to Zhongyang Dajie, since they’ve already made their money off you. Still, it’s worth it, as it at least saves you money from the taxi you’d have to take out there.

Allison and I at long last got to see the massive buildings constructed fully of ice, lit up with neon lights embedded inside. There’s the Colosseum, the Empire State Building, and of course, the Great Wall. But most of the structures seemed like unique designs. Fortunately, the ones that you can climb to the top of had some cloth laid out on the walkways, if a bit tattered, so I didn’t have to worry as much about slipping as I did the previous night. There was also a live DJ show with people dancing, something I caught on video. But the buildings and structures here were quite impressive, as promised.

Sadly, we probably spent too much time in one of the warming tents where I drank something called a “Snow Latte”, which was predictably mostly sugar and water. This was in the Nescafe tent, so you’d think they’d have real coffee there, even if only from their instant mix, but no. We did meet some fellow foreigners there, a Liverpudlian and his Los Angeleno girlfriend who both teach for EF, and who wanted tips for dining. They seemed pretty cool. But by the time Allison and I finally made our way to the taxis, and waited in line for one after fending off the black taxi folks, we arrived at Zhongyang Dajie just in time for most of the restaurants there to close. Seriously, at 9pm or even earlier, they were closing off. We originally wanted to go to a North Korean restaurant to see what that was like, but despite their door being unlocked, we were sent away. We tried a Spring Pancake place we had as our Plan B, but they were closed too, as was the original Korean place we went to for lunch the other day. Running out of options, we finally stumbled upon a cheap stir fry restaurant in the back of an arcade, with anime decorations in the front. It seemed to be oriented toward young people and perhaps families with small children. I was probably the oldest person in the place; even the manager couldn’t have been more than Allison’s age. The food was… tolerable. Barely. I would’ve been okay with the McDonald’s, KFC or Burger King on Zhongyang Dajie, but Allison would have none of that. The stir fry place we normally go to here in Beijing could teach this place a lesson or two.

Tuesday the 11th/Wednesday the 12th: We packed up our stuff, and checked out of the Super 8, having them store our luggage so that we could get lunch and some last-minute shopping before we headed out to the bus station. We decided to try the lunch at a small restaurant that we tried to eat at the previous night… a North Korean restaurant. Sure, we were curious; how would it differ from all the other Korean restaurants we’ve enjoyed?

Well… it seems, not that much. With one salient difference, I should mention. The menu had a whole section dedicated to … dog meat. I kid not. They have several ways in which dog meat is prepared, and it took some effort to put that fact out of our minds as we ordered from other sections of the menu. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of dog being eaten in North Korea, though I had thought that it was more because food any kind is scarce there, rather than because of cultural traditions, as in parts of the Chinese countryside.

The other surprise was our server. She was a young, attractive Korean woman, who looked like she could be an undergrad. She was dressed fashionably in western clothes and spoke in fluent English. Allison eventually conversed with her in Chinese, but I did ask her where she learned such excellent English. At first, I thought she said in “the militia,” which took me aback a little, but Allison later told me that I misheard her: she actually said “Malaysia,” which is where I guess she goes to college. She mentioned that her parents remembered us showing up last night as they were closing, and were happy that we returned anyway. As for what we did eat, there was something that I first thought was kimchi… which, it was, but it was served hot, with pork. Very tasty. There was also a mushroom soup, which was surprisingly good and savory, given that I’m not wild about mushrooms. There was also a cucumber-based salad thing, and a rice dish which turned out to be something we already knew well: a bibimbap. All this washed down, not with a North Korean beverage, but with Harbin’s own Harbin 1900 beer. So perhaps a bit anticlimactic as a culinary adventure, since we weren’t going to eat dog, but still an excellent meal. We normally just have the Korean BBQ when we go for Korean, so it was nice to have something a little different this time.

Okay… the bus home. Our grand conclusion, and what a conclusion it was. So we knew that there was going to be an 18-hour bus ride in our future. That we should be prepared to pack our own food, and take care of bathroom necessities beforehand, seemed obvious enough. It may not, like the Chinatown buses we’ve ridden before, have its own toilet on board. Certainly we weren’t expecting that it would have films or wifi or anything. (My hopes might have been unduly piqued by the fact that they were showing trailers for films a few years old in the bus station, like Captain America.) We expected to find a bus that may be a little uncomfortable, but which would have seats, hopefully with some ability to recline for a full-night’s sleep. What we found was something entirely different.

First of all, upon boarding, you’re expected to take your shoes off, and they hand you little plastic bags to put them in. And then you discover the seats… there are no “seats.” Rather, there are three rows of something resembling bunks, with two levels. Very small bunks. Coffins offer more space to move around. Sitting up, while not impossible, is uncomfortable, given the inclination of the bunk. You have a little bit of space around your feet, where you can store some very small items, including your shoes. Other passengers may store their shoes there too, so throughout the journey, I was having hands grabbing at my feet. My big backpack, which included my laptop, Nook, food supplies and other such stuff would not fit, so I had to wrap my legs around it; otherwise it might’ve fallen to the ground. It comes with a little tray where you can place food and beverages, but mine was covered with sunflower seed shells. There was black dirt on the sheet on my bunk. Clearly, there hadn’t been much cleaning between rides on this bus. There was a TV screen in front, but it was never used. Likewise, there was a little reading light, but neither mine nor anyone else’s worked. (A somewhat nicer version of the model bus we were on can be seen at the photo at this site: http://www.synotrip.com/china-travel/chinas-long-distance-buses). Allison noted that on this rundown bus, there were holes apparently patched back together with what looked like putty; hopefully it wasn’t literally just chewing gum.

Allison and I had purchased two tickets that were supposed to be right next to each other, #20 and #21. However, the actual numbers of each bunk were chaotically distributed throughout the bus. Mine was on the ground level, in the middle row, hers on the top, right row, several seats away, and unlike a train, getting up and moving between seats is discouraged. The driver, fortunately, arranged for someone to switch with Allison, so we could sit together. He probably picked up on the fact that I didn’t speak Chinese, and had to rely on Allison for any communication. We were grateful for that kindness. So I took the top bunk, Allison the ground bunk, in the middle row. (Incidentally, we did get a lot of people staring at us on the bus. They apparently don’t get many foreigners riding these. I wonder why.)

We did stop a few times during our 18-hour drive, both for toll booths and potty breaks, and fortunately, we made very good time, arriving around an hour early to our stop in Beijing. What I could see of the countryside before the sun set was pretty desolate looking, like a frozen wasteland, though in fairness, it is the dead of winter in Manchuria; there’s probably not a lot to see. (I listened to the Red Sparrows’ Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun and Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest as I attempted to read – very apt for the scenery.) Our first stop, two or three hours in, was just a potty break, though you could purchase beverages or snacks at this stop. The bathroom was about as good as the one at the bus station in Harbin, which is to say, pretty filthy. The second stop… oh my. This was intended, I think, for dinner, at around 8pm. A horrible looking dinner was being served, and I THINK it was free, to be included with the bus ride. A huge portion of white rice on a metal tray, with smaller servings of what looked like a spicy meat (chicken?), and a vegetable dish… it looked like tofu or turnips, a dull beige color, with some unidentifiable greens. Most unappetizing. Even if it was free, we decided not to have it. We had a huge lunch beforehand, and figured the fruit and pastries we brought would suffice. I wish I had it photographed, but like much of this portion of our trip, photographing would have been a bit socially awkward.

Allison wishes we had gotten a photo of the bathroom here though. It needed to be seen to be believed. It was outside, like a group outhouse. (This is in Jiling Province, only a few hours from Heilongjiang, at night, so it’s probably below zero temperatures. Which may have been a good thing; I shutter to think about how this must smell in warmer weather.) It was essentially just a big slab of concrete, with three rectangular holes in the ground. There were no panels separating the three main holes, so anyone walking in would see you as you did your business. Us men had it somewhat better if we just needed to take a leak: a separate tank thing leading down into the ground. There were icicles hanging from the inside. Children may have been afraid to use these, as Allison later heard a mother instruct her son to pee into a bottle as we were driving.

Bidding our fond farewell from this strange place, we piled back onto the bus, again removing our shoes. The bus stopped two more times. Once, at midnight, which I don’t remember well, because I had fallen asleep. And again, at 4am. I don’t think too many people got off the bus that time, but the drivers probably needed to stop to switch or use the restroom themselves. And finally, around 8am, about an hour ahead of schedule, we arrived at what seemed like a pretty random area in a Beijing neighborhood. It didn’t look like a bus station; it was more like a rundown neighborhood alley. In no mood to locate the nearest subway stop, Allison and I took our luggage, shambled down the street to a larger looking street, and after a few minutes, finally managed to grab a taxi that turned down a larger group from the bus.

I’m not sure what broader lessons this experience may teach us. One might be that socialized long-distance bus companies are probably not a great travel option, all things considered. (As far as we can tell, ours was run by the Heilongjiang Provincial government. To travel in such luxury, we spent around 700 RMB in total, perhaps $60 a person.) Certainly these guys could learn a thing or two from privatized bus services in the US. Even the Chinatown buses are oases of luxury compared to this, and they are dirt cheap as modes of travel, and probably safer. Allison worries that this experience only proves that she and I have gotten “soft,” or perhaps old. Had we been 20-year-old undergraduate college students, we might’ve seen this more as an adventure rather than an ordeal to be suffered through. Perhaps we’re too accustomed to Western standards of travel and luxury, making our complaints something like the “First World Problems.” I don’t think I agree, though, and not just because we aren’t in the first world. I do think there’s something to the idea that it’s simply not what we’re used to. But I don’t think that makes us “soft”; it’s just unfamiliar to us. We had expected one thing, and what we found was radically different. I do suspect that the quality of the bus service would be vastly superior had there been a free market in bus service here, and the Chinatown bus phenomenon in the U.S. shows how this could be so. As it is, there are very few incentives for the long-distance bus service of China to be any better than it is. It’s actually more expensive than the “hard-sleeper” train, and the only real advantage it offers is that it’s easier to get bus tickets than train tickets if it’s a busy travel season. Perhaps it’s easier to field new buses into service as demand peaks than it is with trains? So in a way, the crappiness of the bus is what’s unnatural here, since we’re used to travel options which generally are conditioned by market incentives to not suck.

That said, as modes of longer-distance travel go, the bus may not be too bad if you actually know in advance what you’re getting into. We had packed for train travel, which may not have been that different from a bus if it was, say, like a Chinatown bus back in the U.S., or even a Greyhound. But if you’re not very tall, and you bring your own sleeping bag, pillow, and only a very small backpack, say, just containing an e-reader and food and rubbish bag, it probably won’t be too bad for you. Oh, and shoes that are easy and quick to remove and put back on. Certainly the safety of such buses leaves something to be desired, not as safe as a train, but probably safer than if you were to drive a car yourself. (Not that foreigners can easily do so in China, but perhaps as compared to driving a car between Boston and Chicago.)

Still, the 18-hour timeframe is about the maximum that this model can plausibly work. We arrived early enough in Beijing to plausibly get brunch or even breakfast here in the city. You can have a large lunch, snacks that you bring yourself for dinner, and perhaps a little something if the 4am stop makes it impossible for you to get back to sleep. But if you were to go a farther distance, to Xinjiang or Tibet, god help you. I suspect that there may not even be a bus service that goes that far, at least, not without requiring you to change buses at some point.

Things we didn’t get to see: the Siberian Tiger Preserve and the Unit 731 Museum. Allison has already seen the latter. Since the Japanese destroyed the camp before their departure, all that’s left are empty concrete slabs, and the museum itself is a depressing experience. I perhaps would’ve liked to have gone anyway, though with mixed feelings about it. I understand, of course, that there are historical reasons for the hatred of the Japanese, and this camp is a big part of that, though I understand the full story of what happened there wasn’t discovered until the late 1980’s. I certainly was curious to see how thick the museum laid down the collective guilt thing. But with limited time, and Allison having already seen it, it was easy enough to leave it as a non-priority. And I think I would’ve liked to have seen the Siberian Tigers, but this is also a fairly grisly affair. You pay to get in and take the caged bus that drives around the tiger area, so you see them up close – they’ll even hop on top the bus. However, it seems that people will pay to feed the tigers. Depending on how much you want to pay, this could include bringing out live chickens, pheasants, ducks, goats or even a cow. And then, you get to watch the tigers rip them apart and eat them. Even if you aren’t interested, there could be others in your group who are, and that’s still something you could end up seeing whether you want to or not.

Also, while we were in Harbin, the New York Times ran a story (mirror here) about an exhibit at the train station in Harbin that commemorates and celebrates a young Korean national who, about a century ago, assassinated a Japanese politician right there in Harbin. It seems to be part of the broad anti-Japan campaign the Chinese government is mounting. Japan, of course, regards the guy as a terrorist, and the politician as a reformer. I’m not informed enough to know who’s ultimately right in that question, but such exercises in propaganda do fascinate me. Sadly, we arrived at the train station on Tuesday with very little time to search for the exhibit. There were no signs indicating where it was, and it looked like to get in to seek it out, we’d need train tickets, which we did not have. We’ll just have to rely on the Grey Lady’s account.

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11
Jul
08

Why Canadian-Style Health Care Frightens Me

So I’ve at least begun moving into my new apartment, and doing it mostly on one’s own can be a bit overwhelming, though naturally, far less stressful than moving out.

I’m going to have to speak with the people at the office here, because I’ve noticed some confusion over what my new address actually is. According to the Post Office’s webpage, my address is now:

Jason Walker
2929 Fish Hatchery Rd., #105
Fitchburg, WI 53713-3137

On the other hand, a woman at the office here the other day insisted the Zip Code was 53711, and sure enough, that seems to be the Zip Code on all the published material. Even more confusing, they list “Madison” as the city, and I specifically remember being told that even though we are in Fitchburg, the post office in Madison actually handles mail here, and therefore “Madison” should be listed at the city. But the official post office webpage spits out the above Fitchburg address, whether I specify 2929 Fish Hatchery as being either in Madison or Fitchburg.

27
Jun
08

The Rise and Decline of an International Jetsetting Philosopher

Written Yesterday in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport:

So I was still in Beijing at the beginning of the month, until the 9th. I then came to Chicago, and stayed with my future in-laws for a few days, before returning to Madison for apartment hunting for a few days. Then, back to Chicago for a day or two, before coming to Houston to see family and friends for a week. As I type this, I’m at the airport in Houston, waiting for a flight that will take me to Dallas/Ft. Worth, before depositing me back in Chicago. I’ll crash there tonight, and then it’s back to Madison for a night or two. Then, it’s to the Madison airport, where I’ll catch a flight to Portland for Rand Camp, where I’ll be staying for a week. Only then when I return to Madison, hopefully to finally move into my new apartment. But of course, even that’s temporary. About a month later, I’ll be off for Washington DC, for yet another conference.

Mind you, I’m not complaining. Not really, anyway, because doing so much traveling is satisfying in its own way, as I like being able to see so many people and places in such a short time. I’m only saying that I’ll be very much looking forward to returning to Madison after the trip to Portland so that I can actually move in, and I can stop being, well, sort of homeless, and having to get my mail all forwarded to my parents’ address in Texas.

I’ll also look forward to a return to life without all the useless security theatre that makes traveling by air, which should be a pleasant experience, much more of a hassle, and even sort of depressing, considering that when you travel by air, you realize just how much arbitrary power has been seized by the federal government in the name of homeland security. The courts have found that the federal government doesn’t even have to show from what law or other act of Congress authorizes it demand that passengers carry government-issued ID cards, and since no such law was as far as anyone can tell, ever passed, at best it exists in a kind of legal twilight zone, a practice that looks all the world like it’s unconstitutional, but without a specific law or act that can be brought to the courts to be fought as unconstitutional.

Well. I still maintain that traveling is fun. Government mischief hasn’t changed that just yet. Nonetheless, I long for the semblance of regularity and settlement I’ll enjoy in July.

14
Jun
08

One World, One Dream, and Buh-Bye!

After arriving back from Xinjiang, I regret to report that on the surface, at least, it may not sound like I was up to anything exciting in Beijing. That is, I didn’t have time to visit the Great Wall, or the Tibetan Exhibit that had been set up in the wake of the Tibetan protests (China’s exhibition of cultural artifacts designed to prove that China really wasn’t committing cultural genocide against the Tibetans, and more importantly, that Tibet Was Always, And Always Shall Be, Part Of China). Nor did I get to see the Underground City. Primarily, the last week I had in China was spent doing more banal things – packing up my apartment, helping Allison move and set up to take over my apartment. I had the last meetings with several of the students I was tutoring, and the last meetings with my bosses to insure that I was actually paid before I left the country.

We did, mind you, try to make it to the Tibetan Exhibit, but were turned away at the gate when they explained that they were going to close before we’d really get much of a view of the exhibit. So you might say that my trip in China ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Though that’s sort of misleading. For one thing, happily, I did get to try Peking Duck, at long last. And it was quite different than I expected. I’m not sure what – perhaps that it was going to be fried a certain way, but certainly I didn’t expect that it was going to come with a special sauce, and to be wrapped up in special pancake/tortilla-type bread, and wrapped up with onions and cucumbers. Still, it was phenomenally good. And for another thing, I did do some of the things I enjoyed most about Beijing one last time – pub quiz, for example, where even though we were robbed of first place on the flimsiest of bases, we still came in 2nd and enjoyed a free round of cocktails.

And most importantly, I spent far more time with Allison than I had gotten to spend most of the trip. Since she was living with a host family, most of the time, I’d have to say good-bye to her around 6pm every day, but since this time, she was moving into my apartment, we actually got to enjoy dinner and evening activities, as well as breakfast, together. That was by far much more rewarding than the Great Wall ever could’ve been.

Now, you might feel sorry for me, thinking that I missed the chance of a lifetime to see the Great Wall. But there, you’d be working from a faulty premise. That is, that this is the only time in my life that I would every have the opportunity to visit China and see the Great Wall. Allison herself has had a lot of well-wishers, family and friends alike, who’ve said things like, “Oh, this is perfect for you! Go and enjoy this while you’re young. It’s the chance of a lifetime, before you get older and have to settle down.” To which I think Allison and I both say, “Hogwash!”

You see, Allison plans on studying China professionally in some capacity, probably as a political scientist but possibly as a historian or an anthropologist. This, therefore, is only the first of many trips she’ll be taking to China throughout her life. And as I see it, this means that I will have ample opportunity, in the coming years, to join her during her future trips, and see all of the things that I didn’t get to see this time around. In other words, as if Allison herself wasn’t motive enough, I now have other incentives to return to China in the future. And in the future, as now, since I will be working as a philosopher, assuming I can arrange a fellowship, I can continue my own scholarship virtually anywhere in the world. I got lots of research completed during this particular trip, and I would no doubt continue the same thing in any future stay. Now, I’m not anticipating that I will be living in China for 5 or 6 month stints as I did this time, but I imagine that as a husband to someone in China on a scholars’ visa of sorts, and thus, with a spousal visa of my own, I shouldn’t have as many visa difficulties next time as I did this time. I should be able to come and go far more easily. Which is good, because as happy as I am to visit China and spend time with Allison there, I hope to never have to live there! The pollution alone is reason enough, but I can tell you that learning to say controversial words like “Dalai Lama,” “Rebiya Kadeer,” “Tienanmen Square Massacre,” in Pig Latin and under my breath was freaky, and not something that anyone should ever have to do.

Speaking of which, I think I know the reason why I had such a flurry of job opportunities toward the end of my stay. It seems that I’m hardly the only one that China is more or less expelling. Foreigners left and right are finding themselves without valid visas, as the country is suddenly clamping down on foreigners staying in Beijing during the Olympics. At the last I’ve heard, China is apparently no longer awarding ANY new visas, at least, not if you’d like to visit during the Olympics. A Chinese embassy official, for example, was quoted as saying that foreigners just shouldn’t come during the Olympics: they should come some other time. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, since I thought we wanted lots of foreigners to come and spend money – wasn’t that the whole point of bringing the Olympics to China? But the Chinese government seems worried that its stability may be put in jeopardy by its longer-term residents, which actually strikes me as the opposite of what’s true. If they don’t want protesters, they should emphasize people who have long-term commitments to stay there, who have an investment in behaving, as opposed to people who’s only goal is to draw attention to themselves as they get themselves deported. Ce la vie.

Regardless, I was told many times by the agencies I had been working for that they were suddenly facing major labor shortages as their English tutors and teachers were being deported en masse. Again, this should’ve been an obvious problem with the sudden restrictions on Chinese visas. I would’ve thought that the government would’ve wanted as many of its citizens, particularly those in the service industries, to polish their English skills as the Olympics came to the city, but perhaps its more worried that its English-speaking ex-pat population may be trying to subvert the population. Allison’s hypothesis, of course, is the most sensible and simple explanation: the government is run by a coterie of very, very paranoid people. The openness they’ve shown in the past decades is less a matter of them becoming more open-minded types, though there may be some of that, but more as a means to an end, as they build their “Harmonious Society” of “Market Socialism,” whatever that oxymoron of a slogan is supposed to mean. The end being, of course, more economic development and prosperity. All fine and good, highly respectable goals, but I suppose it all comes back to the human, all too human desire to have the honey without the sting.

I wish the government could be half as open-minded as the many Chinese people I met during my time there. I realize that Beijingers are not exactly representative of the whole nation, considering how many hundreds of millions of people still live as uneducated peasants in the countryside. But I think about all the cool people I met, like my landlord Mara, or her friend Sissi, or even my student Nicole, one year away from her college entrance exams. Some of my bosses – Shawn, for example, or Eaton (who gave me the recording job), or my co-worker Amy. These are some of the most sensible, intelligent and kindest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and I cannot get over how much better the Chinese government would be if these people ran things. And who knows? They are all young, and if they are any indication, the rising generation may complete the job that the lost generation of Tienanmen began in earnest in 1989. One can hope.

Anyway, enough rambling. I’ll have more to post soon, about my return to the US and subsequent house-hunting expedition in Madison, to begin tomorrow (Saturday).

12
Jun
08

The Perfume Bandit of the Chinese Western Frontier

The trip to Ürümqi, Xinjiang was a study in extremes. We met people who were incredibly cool, and certainly had great experiences that we’ll take with us for a lifetime. But we also had very ugly experiences with certain individuals, such that we’re even planning on writing the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide people to warn them about certain attractions.

As I write this, we are a mere two hours form perhaps the ugliest incident in the whole trip to China thus far. The victim, in this case, was Allison. As we arrived at the train station in Ürümqi for our return voyage, we were asked by the guards there to put all of our bags on the conveyor belt for X-ray scanning. Nothing too odd about that: we do that all the time in airports, after all. My bags got through without a hitch, but it was soon obvious to me that they were giving Allison grief for some reason.

What reason? It seems that Allison’s bottle of perfume was considered… contraband. For what possible reason would perfume be contraband? Other than the Elizabeth Arden Green Tea-scented perfume being a relatively expensive Bourgeois luxury, what could possibly be the problem? Well, that’s unclear. An English-speaking Uyghur guardwoman approached Allison and I, since the guards apparently didn’t speak any English and they didn’t realize that Allison actually already speaks pretty fluent Mandarin. She asked Allison, in English, if she was aware that perfume is 18% alcohol, and thus highly flammable?

Confused, Allison answered that this was a high-quality perfume, very unlikely to be flammable. As if in response, the male Chinese guard who seemed to be in charge took the perfume, and with a lighter, lit the burst of perfume spray that came forward, as if this proved something uniquely dangerous about perfume that wouldn’t likewise be true to the bottles of whiskey, vodka, moutai, and other hard liquors available for sale in the gift shops and convenience stores in the train station. (We later saw hard liquor for sale on the train itself as well as other train stations along the way to Beijing.)

We tried to argue over this issue with the guards. The perfume was expensive (around $50, I later learned), and a gift from her parents, and it was clearly safe. In retrospect, of course, mentioning that the perfume was expensive may not have been the wisest move. We even asked the guard if we could have some sort of receipt, or official write-up documenting that they had seized this perfume from us? No, of course not, don’t be silly. This is a police state!

Afterward, we could only speculate about this seemingly arbitrary search and seizure. Allison was, naturally, infuriated, and said this was like theft. I demurred: No, it’s not like theft, it is theft!

I mentioned the high grade alcoholic beverages already available for purchase inside that were presumably far more flammable and dangerous. But the other oddity was this: has there been a ban on all perfume in Chinese train stations? None was enforced against us in Beijing on our way to Ürümqi. And really, when you think about it, a lot of personal toiletries have alcohol, including the aftershave in my toiletry bag. And there was clearly no such global ban on such products, in the way that there’s a sort of ban on toiletries of a certain size on American flights. (Incidentally, I think that ban is idiotic and unjustifiable too, but that’s another story.)

We’ve thought of two explanations that make the most sense, and best fit our experience. They might both be true, to some degree, actually.

One: We were racially profiled on account of being American, or perhaps on account of Allison having features that many mistake for Middle Eastern or even Uyghur in nature. The seizure of the perfume was itself a kind of ex post facto justification for the extensive search taken of Allison’s bags, a kind of “See? We were justified in giving your bags a thorough search, because you were carrying around something dangerous!”

Two: Having spotted the expensive bottle of perfume, the guard boss guy might’ve decided that this perfume would’ve been a nice present for his wife, girlfriend, mother, etc. The stuff about perfume being flammable and dangerous was, again, an ex post facto sort of explanation. Even in a police state, it seems, the guards felt it necessary to at least offer one, even if it was an obviously false one, a kind of fig leaf for their thuggery.

It’s funny. We were just reading that as a matter of official policy, Chinese government officials have been told to try to emphasize allowing foreigners to have a good time in China, over traditional concerns over spurring sedition, the idea being that the Chinese government wants foreigners to get a positive impression of the country. Clearly, that policy shift hasn’t quite made its way out to Xinjiang.

So at this point, we’re out a $50 bottle of perfume. No apparent recourse, though it might be an interesting experiment to see what happens if we file an official complaint in Beijing or write letters to appropriate figures. The student I tutor, Nicole, has a mother who’s apparently a full-time Communist Party official, so conceivably we have contacts in high places. We could always bring up the matter with her. And of course, we’ll warn all potential travelers to China that the biggest thieves and pickpockets to watch out for aren’t on the streets or the bazaars, but rather in the security forces. For all of the warnings our Han friends in Beijing gave us about how dangerous the Uyghurs were, that, in the words of one woman, Uyghurs “don’t believe that theft is immoral” and their children are all pickpockets, we didn’t encounter any indications of street crime in Xinjiang. It was actually the biggest gang of all, the one with the most guns, that we actually had to worry about. Don’t bring anything to China you won’t mind guards seizing from you!

12
Jun
08

Orwell’s Museum

This museum is one of the few sites to see in Ürümqi itself, a massively rebuilt, modern museum dedicated to all-things Xinjiang – its ethnic diversity, its ancient history from the Paleolithic to the Silk Road to “Revolutionary” times, and is pretty comprehensive. Comprehensive, that is, within the strict limits permitted by Chinese censorship and control of information. There were, for example, no references to the various independent Uyghur political entities that existed, such as the Uyghur Empire, and the characterization of historical events was such that one would think that Xinjiang was “always” part of China, as if before the Qing Dynasty, people were already eagerly anticipating their absorption into the Chinese Empire. The references to peaceful cooperation between ethnic groups working toward the greater glory of China was, at best, condescending, and at worst, Orwellian.

Interestingly enough, I was reading José Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses on the train on my way back, and he made a point about this kind of thinking, albeit in reference to European nations. He writes:

As always happens, in this case a plain acceptance of facts gives us the key. What is it that is clearly seen when we study the evolution of any “modern nation,” France, Spain, Germany? Simply this: what at one period seemed to constitute nationality appears to be denied at a later date. First, the nation seems to be the tribe, and the no-nation the tribe beside it. Then the nation is made up of the two tribes, later it is a region, and later still a county, a duchy or a kingdom. Leon is a nation but Castile not; then it is Leon and Castile, but not Aragon. The presence of two principles is evident: one, variable and continually superseded- tribe, region, duchy, kingdom, with its language or dialect; the other, permanent, which leaps freely over all those boundaries and postulates as being in union precisely what the first considered as in radical opposition.

The philologues – this is my name for the people who today claim the title of “historians” – play a most delightful bit of foolery when, starting from what in our fleeting epoch, the last two or three centuries, the Western nations have been, they go on to suppose that Vercingetorix or the Cid Campeador was already struggling for a France to extend from Saint-Malo to Strasburg, or a Spain to reach from Finisterre to Gibraltar. These philologues – like the ingenuous playwright- almost always show their heroes starting out for the Thirty Years’ War. To explain to us how France and Spain were formed, they suppose that France and Spain pre-existed as unities in the depths of the French and Spanish soul. As if there were any French or any Spaniards before France and Spain came into being! As if the Frenchman and the Spaniard were not simply things that had to be hammered out in two thousand years of toil!

So while the gaps in its history were significant, the Xinjiang Museum is interesting if only for its omissions. What the Chinese government chose to leave out is at least as interesting, if not more so, than what it chose to allow. Just don’t use the resources of the Museum as your only or primary source of knowledge about the area.

Also worth seeing is its impressive collections of mummies, among them the Tarim Mummies, which include the now-infamous and controversial Loulan Beauty. Though given the controversy over whether the mummies conclusively illustrate that the Uyghur civilization was in Xinjiang longer than the Chinese, and whether it is, in fact, older than the Chinese civilization, it’s perhaps not surprising that directly next to the Loulan Beauty they have another mummy of a Chinese general. Though this seems to me to be a big mistake, if they want to emphasize their claim that the mummies contain a mixture of Turkic, European and Chinese genetic features, because while the Loulan Beauty dates from 2000 BC, the Chinese general positioned next her dates from AD 600.

In any event, a visit to this museum also illustrates that the Chinese government still holds a starkly condescending view of its non-Han minorities. One of the two major exhibits at the museum was of wax figures dressed in clothes “traditional” to the groups, with photos and artifacts of “traditional” homes, dances, lifestyles and so forth. It fit snuggly with what seems to be the major narrative that the government pushes about its ethnic minorities, particularly those in Xinjiang and Tibet, that they are unsophisticated, primitive peoples who benefit from the civilization brought in by ethnic Hans and the Chinese government in particular.

Imagine if there were a museum in the United States were non-white minorities were presented in just such a way, with African-Americans represented as banjo-playing cotton sharecroppers in the South wearing 19th century clothing, or Mexican-Americans represented as sombrero-wearing farm workers in California or the Rio Grande valley. Or Irish people shown as potato-farmers during the Potato Famine, with clothing consistent from that era. Or better still – Han Chinese people depicted as dressing in 19th century style, with long ponytails (queues) and silk robes, working on a farm in the countryside. That’s about what this is like – presented as fundamentally primitive, as if these people had never been educated or encountered anything resembling modernity. This is all, perhaps, what is to be expected in a museum in which these ethnic groups themselves had no part in planning or organizing. This is the Other as seen through Han eyes, presented to a mostly-Han audience. It’s a shame, because such a museum could conceivably be used to break down ethnic and cultural stereotypes, but instead it merely reinforces them.

Finally, there was one portion of the museum where none of the tags going with the displayed artifacts were in English. The rest of the museum presents things in Chinese, Uyghur, and English, but this portion was only in Chinese and Uyghur, so I had to rely on Allison to translate. This was the portion dedicated to Revolutionary History in Xinjiang, on the role that Chinese Communists played in the area from the 1930’s up through the triumph of Mao Zedong’s forces in 1949, up through the “positive” relations between the local peoples and the Beijing government in modern times. In what was effectively a shrine to Communist activity in the region, where even things like silverware, radios, newspapers, and so forth are preserved as artifacts of the era, should I be surprised that nothing there is translated into English? One oddity – a book given as a gift to a major Communist leader in Xinjiang, where the tag indicates it as a book written in Russian, but what is obvious to any English speaker as an American textbook on paleontology published in the ’00s. Curiouser and curiouser.

Well, more soon. Possibly the oddest experience of the entire trip – the encounter with the Perfume Bandit! The identity of the Perfume Bandit may shock you – unless, that is, you’ve ever been to China.

12
Jun
08

Publicity for the Fiancée

Actually, I just returned to the US two days ago. But I have a backlog of posts I’ve written for the blog that haven’t been, well, posted yet. So I should get those up over the next few days to week. Beginning with…

This is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time. It seems that the LaFollette School has taken notice of my fiancée, and published a cover story about her in the school newspaper, used a photo of her from the border of China and North Korea. I’ve provided the links here if you’d like to read all about her project.