Archive for February, 2014

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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