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Trip 20 -- Asia, Cold and Hot

Part 4: Winter wonderland (China)

I almost missed the bus to Suifenhe in China even though I knew I was standing next to it. At 7:20 a.m. -- twenty minutes before the scheduled departure -- I showed my ticket to the checker near the exit from the bus terminal to the boarding bays.

"You can go now, but the bus isn't there yet," she said. Ten minutes later I repeated the exercise.

"Not yet," she said. "It's cold out. I'll tell you when."

At around 7:40 a man entered from the bus parking lot and I knew he had to be our driver. He was muscular and had a swagger of confidence and he wasn't carrying any bags. "Go ahead now," said the checker.

The bus was right outside. There didn't seem to be anyone on it except for a woman sitting in the front row -- perhaps she was a conductor. I caught her eye and gave her my I'm-ready-to-board look, and she went back to her book.

Ten minutes later the driver came out, let himself onto the bus, closed the door, and waited. A few other people were standing next to me. Why weren't we boarding? We were already late. Two of them were trying to pronounce the name of the Chinese border town, written in Cyrillic on the bus's destination sign. "Sui-fen-khe. Suifenkhe." There's no pure "h" sound in Russian.

A bus pulled up behind the Suifenhe bus, and everyone else rushed over there. The Suifenhe driver continued to sit and wait. Curious, I walked back to see where the other bus was going. That's when the Suifenhe bus moved forward.

I thought he was pulling up to make room for the bus behind him, but then I saw the gate being opened for him to exit. I ran ahead, waving my ticket and running in front just before he made the turn onto the street. "What the hell?" I yelled.

He stopped and opened the door. The woman in front had an amused expression. "Why do you think I've been looking at you for twenty minutes?" I asked in English.

There were two other passengers in the back. When had they boarded? Had they had the good sense to go out early and wait, despite the ticket checker's suggestion to stay inside?

I took a row of seats near the front and looked out the dirty windows, sometimes nodding off as we passed vast fields of grass for the next two hours. We made quick progress, and I thought it likely I could get to Harbin by the early afternoon, especially when I realized that China was two hours behind Ussuriysk. From Suifenhe to Harbin was three hours by train.

We reached the Russian exit post at Pogranichny. Everyone got off the bus with their belongings and went through the migration checkpoint. The officers had no interest in my backpack, but they held my passport for a long time. It was seven years old and looking a bit worn; I'd never bothered with a cover for it and the front lettering had mostly come off. One supervisor was fixated on the stitching in the middle pages of the passport, and she ran her fingers over it for a while. Whatever problem she was having with it certainly wasn't being helped by her touching it.

They never asked questions, though, and after a few minutes they stamped it and returned it. I thought the scrutiny had held us up, and I gave the other passengers an apologetic look. But we still had to wait a couple of minutes for the bus to come through the checkpoint, after which we all got on for the last seven kilometers to the Chinese border. While the Russian building had been squat, the Chinese building was grand, with two tall towers, and we drove down several ramps to get to the entrance. It felt like the basement parking lot of an Atlantic City casino.

We disembarked again and went through a quarantine checkpoint and the immigration checkpoint. Here, too, the woman seemed unduly interested in my passport. Entering Russia at the Vladivostok airport had taken seconds -- what was going on in this remote land? A "How was your experience?" survey appeared on the screen in front of me, and I would have chosen "Checking took too long," but she still had my passport and I wasn't about to complain until I had it back. By the time that happened, the survey had disappeared.

I ignored the money changer (I had enough to get to Harbin left over from a previous trip) and the taxi touts and waited by the exit for the bus to take us into town. It eventually appeared but didn't stop. "Avtobus!" I yelled.

"Avtobus is finished," said one of the other passengers.

This was it? I guess technically we were in Suifenhe, but it was sort of like taking a bus from Boston to New York City and being let off in the far northern reaches of the Bronx. I realized I had to deal with the taxi touts after all, and I was annoyed that a few minutes had been wasted. I wanted to catch the earliest possible of the every-90-minutes trains to Harbin, the next of which was at 9:08 a.m. It was now 8:50.

Broken Russian is spoken in Suifenhe, and my taxi driver understood "vokzal" -- train station. I bargained him down from an ostentatiously inflated quote of 80 yuan to a merely ridiculously inflated price of 50 (about $7), and we were on our way. As we approached the station right at nine, he slowed down so he could type something into his phone and show it to me. "What country are you from?"

"Go!" I yelled. Don't make small talk when I'm running late for a train.

I had to wait for one person at the ticket window before I could make my inquiry. "Harbin!" I said. "Can I go now?"

"No," she said, and she pointed to her screen. The next train with an available seat was at 13:47, three trains and four and a half hours later.

I walked away without saying anything. The domestic bus terminal was next door. Maybe I could find a bus leaving sooner.

"Harbin?" I asked.

"Harbin!" she said, not looking at me. "Go take a train," I assume is what she said, and she gestured back toward the vokzal.

By the time I got back to the ticket window, with an appropriately contrite face, the 13:47 was, of course, sold out and I'd have to wait for the 15:10. I'd get to the city after dark, which always unsettles me.

Five hours to kill in Suifenhe. What to do? First, I thought, I'd better secure my ticket from Harbin to Beijing two days later. It was now Friday; I'd be flying out just after midnight Sunday night to join the Indonesia workshop on Monday and was eager to try a Chinese bullet train.

The ticket sellers didn't accept credit cards, so I approached an ATM and, in a moment of frustrated haste, took out way too much money. Part of the reason was anxiety -- I wasn't thinking completely straight after the chaos of the morning. Partly it was overcautious security -- I wanted to have enough for whatever transportation I would need, and tickets from Harbin to Beijing on the eight- and ten-hour trains ranged from the equivalent of $23 in second class to $154 in "superior" or "VIP" class. Partly it was that I grossly overestimated what things would cost; I'd been used to hanging out in Guangzhou and Shanghai, where prices at restaurants and bars were double what they turned out to be in Harbin. And maybe part of the reason was subconscious: This day had so far been trying, but generally I liked China and knew I'd use the cash on a future trip.

"Can I buy a ticket from Harbin to Beijing?" I asked at a different ticket window.

"Yes," said the man.

I showed him where I'd written down my desired train, my chosen class, and my attempt at the Chinese characters for "window seat."

"No," he said, and he showed me his screen. All the high-speed trains for that Sunday were sold out!

Well, this could be a real problem, I thought. Beijing was over a thousand kilometers away, and I had to be there by Sunday night. I did a basic Internet search for flights and found options for around $200. That wasn't too bad; when I got to my hotel in Harbin and had fast wi-fi I could book something. Maybe I could go in the early afternoon and get to spend a few hours in Beijing. Time for a duck, anyway.

I went out to explore Suifenhe. It was in the timber business -- I passed factories handling neatly cut planks, the same kind that weighed down the dozens of trucks I'd seen lined up on the Russian side as we approached China. Suifenhe sprawled more than it was supposed to. I expected a compact border town, but it was a long way from the station to the city center.

There were no benches in the train station, and I was ready to sit for a bit, so I entered a small restaurant on the road into town. The wooden chairs had happy faces carved out of their backs. There were vats of proper meals and many tempting varieties of savory pastries. I picked some deep-fried pork and one of the larger meat-and-vegetable-filled pastries.

The pork was barely warm and had an off taste. The pastry was cold, floppy, greasy, and almost devoid of filling. It was the worst food I've ever eaten. I took one bite, pushed the plate away, paid my eight yuan, and left.

There are many things I like about China, and there are many things I dislike. Usually the former outweigh the latter, but this day was bringing out everything that turns me off of the country. Long, uninteresting boulevards with uneven sidewalks. Indifferent people -- it was hard to get a smile returned. Taxi ripoffs. City buses that stopped running at 9 p.m. Restaurants that closed too early. Too many restaurants whose food was functional rather than a source of pride. And spitting.

Especially the spitting. It's hard to walk for a few minutes in China without hearing the unmistakable loud rip, like someone saying "Kholmsk" while inhaling. The sound grips the ears, and you involuntarily turn toward it to wait -- from as short as a quarter of a second to as long as seven -- for the corresponding discharge, which might be projected anywhere from straight down to at a 60-degree angle, and which might be just voluminous enough to cover the bristles of a toothbrush or contain enough to fill a balloon.

I trudged up the hilly, dull boulevard toward the city center. The temperature was below freezing, but the sun was shining in full force. I noticed pastel buildings and bilingual street signs, in Chinese and Russian. Finally I reached a massive skating rink -- no doubt in the summer it's a lovely lake. Kids were climbing up the sides and sledding down on inner tubes. I watched one mother sit behind her small child on a tube and inch their way forward until at last they succumbed to gravity.

A shopping mall was just opening for the day, even though it was almost noon. The stalls inside were small and the place didn't seem to cater to the general public -- specialties were frozen sea cucumbers and bricks of chaga, a kind of dark parasitic fungus found on birch bark. There were also Russian souvenirs, such as nesting dolls.

I walked down a side street and had the good fortune to peer into a large restaurant. The staff opened the door and it was a most welcoming hot-pot establishment. I sometimes find hot pot, fondue, and similar cook-it-yourself places mentally taxing, but I still had several hours before my train and there was lots of room to spread out. Several parties were already seated, with dozens of plates of meats, seafood, and vegetables.

The server showed me two broth options on a menu and, with the second one, made an "Aaash!" sound and gritted her teeth. That must mean spicy, I thought. "Yes! That one!"

Then we took a trip to a refrigerated row of shelves and I picked out marbled beef, shrimp, mushrooms, cubed tofu, and a kind of spinach. I went to the sauce buffet and mixed a few cocktails; I must say I came up with a great concoction of hot pepper, garlic, and a slightly sweet red sauce. I lingered for over an hour and washed this banquet down with warm Coke.

I was one of only three passengers in my car at the start of the train journey to Harbin, which was astonishing considering all the problems I'd had getting a ticket. I had an aisle seat but was able to sit at the window for the first two of the three hours, after which it filled up. We passed through some long tunnels and the video screen played footage of trains in Heilongjiang province through the ages. The Russian influence was alive and well, as evidenced by a Chinese version of "Under Moscow Nights" playing on the phone of a nearby passenger, the only tolerable song amidst a succession of otherwise obnoxious music steadily played on that phone and the one behind it.

Harbin is a good walking city in the immediate center. Outside of that it's a disaster, with sidewalks suddenly disappearing and median fences designed to keep you across a busy road from where you want to be. The Holiday Inn Express in Nangang looked to be a good choice until I realized that distances were greater than they seemed to be on the map and that Google Maps showed the hotel's proximity to subway stations that in actuality had yet to be built.

After confirming that there were still no tickets on a Sunday train to Beijing, I exited the station and was soon walking in traffic because of sidewalk construction on a busy road that seemed to be going in the right direction. It soon led me downhill toward tunnels and under overpasses with multiple "no pedestrians" signs. That's all I ever need by way of impetus to keep going. The dreaded stick figure with a red line through it doesn't say "No walking" as much as it says "We could have designed the road better, but we think that cars are more important than people, so we didn't bother." It is up to walkers to refute that nonsense.

I wasn't the only person on foot; I had enough company to feel confident that Harbin's populace agreed the lack of sidewalks was absurd. In time, the sidewalk resumed, and there were even pedestrian signals.

But the road didn't take me where I needed it to. Getting to the right side of the tracks was a long process, and it took an hour, including the need to overreach until I found a walkway over a busy highway and then backtrack, before I finally arrived at the hotel. I was given a welcome drink -- warm Coke.

The receptionist used her phone's translate function. "Two days" -- yes. "Your room has been upgraded" -- great! "Projection room." I hoped there was actual programming and I didn't have to provide my own as at The Millennials.

There was, but as far as I could tell it was all on-demand movies and series. Is that really what people want? An absence of regular broadcast television? When I can understand the language, I like putting on the local news and seeing what everyone with a normal signal gets to see. The programs and the commercials give me a sense of where I am. Even if I can't understand the language, I feel rooted in my location if I'm watching a program during its airtime. (The same is true at home. I don't have Netflix or save anything to watch later. If I've missed it, it's over, and I find something else.)

I scrolled through programs in Chinese and finally found something in English called "The Wrong Girl," an Australian series about a television journalist's quest for a fresh story. The dialogue was often predictable and some themes threadbare (why must someone always get pregnant in order to inject tension into a relationship?), but it was nice to listen to something I could understand.

And I returned to my quest to find a way to Beijing. Most of the fares I'd seen earlier turned out not to be bookable, and I couldn't find anything using frequent-flyer points. The only reasonable fare was on a China Southern flight for $216 that would arrive two hours and five minutes before my onward booking to Jakarta -- a bit tight for me, but at least it was an option. I usually book directly with the airline, but this time I used Orbitz for its 24-hour cancellation policy, which applied even for a booking within 48 hours of travel. If a train ticket opened up, I could change my plans.

It was important to have gotten that sorted out, but by now it was almost 10 p.m. and finding dinner could be a challenge. I figured my best chance would be the city center and I gave in and hailed a taxi. To my surprise he put the meter on, and to my further surprise it cost only nine yuan, a little over a dollar, for the ten-minute drive.

I walked up Zhongyuan Road, the main pedestrian thoroughfare. There were still a few sausage hawkers and a few people about, but finding a proper restaurant open was hard. Eventually I came to Modern, a large, airy German place -- not what I'd predicted for my first dinner in Harbin, but it seemed an institution beloved by the locals. I had some smoked pork neck and a wonderful salad of two kinds of pomelo and shrimp. And cool, dark beer. In the almost empty restaurant they had seated me near the door, which resulted in chills as people kept leaving it open. After I got up the third time and slammed it shut, they got the idea and moved me to a stool with a more hospitable climate.

In the morning I thought, what the heck, and I Googled something outrageous such as "getting train tickets in China when they're sold out." This led me to The Man in Seat Sixty-One (seat61.com), a site I've long used for train reference, which in turn led me to a booking service that showed ticket availability in real time. There were 15 standing-room tickets for the train departing at 10:51 a.m. and arriving just over ten hours later. It wasn't the fastest train, but the ride would be pretty, I thought, and for a 1:30 a.m. flight I trusted a Chinese train getting in at 9:08 p.m. more than I trusted a plane scheduled to arrive more than two hours later.

The way the booking service at China Highlights (chinahighlights.com) works is that you purchase a reservation based on the availability and then they book the ticket for you manually. By the time I made my request there were only ten standing-room tickets left, and the confirmation said they would get back to me "in two to twelve hours." By the time I'd showered, all the tickets were gone.

I came to Harbin for the ice sculptures, but as many of those are best seen at night, I did some more-traditional sightseeing first. I took a bus heading toward the city center, but it curled around and dropped me off at a metro station. The metro didn't go anywhere useful, it seemed, unless you were a student. Of the system's 21 stops, three were on a spur line, and the system didn't even serve the main train station. On the main line there were Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin University of Science and Technology, The First Affiliated Hospital of Harbin Medical University, and, some stops away, The Second Affiliated Hospital of Harbin Medical University.

I got off at Museum of Heilongjiang Province, which is as close to the train station as you can currently get on the metro. I found my way to the station and beyond, and I learned where I'd gone wrong the previous day: The street just next to the one that had taken me downhill would have brought me to the right place.

Near Zhongyang Road are two buildings that seem distinctly un-Chinese: the St. Sophia Cathedral and the New Synagogue. The latter is now a museum on the history of Harbin's 20,000 Jews from 1899 to the mid-1900s. They found refuge in Harbin from anti-Semitism in Europe, and, so the museum says, they were welcomed as equals and integrated well in the development of Harbin, which itself was established only in 1897. They built schools, performed music, established a soup kitchen (whose building still stands nearby), and were vital in redeveloping the city after the 1932 flood. During my time at the museum, I received a message from China Highlights that all the train tickets were sold out but they would keep trying.

Harbin has two main sites and one smaller site of winter sculpture. The snow sculptures are on Sun Island, which I reached by cable car rather than taking the long walk across the frozen Songhua River. Sun Island was a whole snow-sculpture city, with giant dragons, temples, animals, dioramas from this world and other worlds, and cut-out boxes for fun poses. One exhibit was a goofy peanut-shaped head licking from a spoon: the "cereal killer." There were also long sledding lanes and an indoor cafeteria, where I learned that the good folks at China Highlights had found me a train ticket after all: standing-room only for the ten-hour trip to Beijing.

As day turned to dusk, I made my way over to Ice and Snow World, the location of the grandest ice sculptures. As far as I could see were towering buildings of ice brilliantly and imaginatively lit up from within: a purple Colosseum; teal pagodas; an enormous temple of orange, red, and blue; a white castle; a tower 15 stories high whose colors changed continually. Here, too, people could skate or sled, or they could climb up some of the platforms and become part of the art. A map at the entrance pointed the way to everything, but I was content to get lost for a couple of hours, letting buildings catch my eye, and eventually I started recognizing things and realized I had seen it all. It was a fantastic frozen funfair.

Back in the main part of town, in a park, was a smaller, more intimate installation. Here the exhibits were much smaller but no less impressive, with carefully carved ornamentation: a red unicorn, a purple winged dragen, a red jellyfish, a yellow rocking horse, a teal lyre, and a green naked woman with unnaturally small breasts. Had too many hands rubbed them for good luck?

I collected my train ticket at the main station. It was getting late and I was hoping to have dinner at the Wuji Rib House about two miles away, near my hotel. The taxi drivers outside the station were taking a collective pride in trying to extort as much as they could out of me, so I hoofed it instead, proud that now I knew how to walk there. I arrived just before they took the last orders.

I'd never seen ribs like this. They were big, roughly cut, and oddly shaped; the experience was more like extracting lobster meat out of the nooks and crannies of the body. The server provided plastic gloves to give me a fighting chance at keeping clean. The sauce was tangy and the meat went well with cold beer. After dinner I popped into a hookah bar a couple blocks away; the place soon filled up with under-20s from an international school, and they were happy to include me until two of them got into some kind of drunk romantic argument, at which point the Holiday Inn Express beckoned.

For my ten hours of standing room, I was assigned to a specific car, but instead I joined the other standees and made straight for the dining car. Here we were allowed to sit for the whole ride as long as we ordered tea and meals. My table was crowded but the people were friendly, and I was lucky enough to be by the window. On arrival in Beijing, I lamented the lack of time for a duck dinner, but I gave a mental thumbs-up to the airport express train, which wasn't there on my previous visit to the city. In a half-hour I was at the terminal and on my way to Jakarta.

Go on to part 5: How to get home from Blok M (Indonesia)