I checked out a blog tonight I used to keep while Mark and I and taught Chinese college students English and writing way back in 07-08. Not sure what got into me. Must be feeling nostalgic.
The below description is a snap shot of the 7-year-ago me. I inhabited a different world. Mark, a fiance; Laila and Eli, years off; mother, alive (and if she had cancer yet none of us knew it); grandfather, alive; U.S. economy, just tanked. My mom’s cancer diagnosis about a year-and-a-half after this post led me back to Michigan, back to journalism. Laila born, mom died six months later. The economy led me to Oklahoma. Oklahoma gave us Eli.
It’s been a crazy trip, man.
I don’t think I’ve read this since I wrote it.
My frequent use of passive voice makes me cringe; please forgive me.
Here we go:
I am very behind with my bloggin’. Mostly because I can’t get to this blog every day. I try, but the programs I use don’t always work properly against the blocks in China.
My dad told me some of the…American Legion members check in periodically for updates. Hello to you from China. Also, my grandpa reads this. Hi Papa!
Anyhow, here is the long version of something I wrote the other day. I am leaving on a train to Shanghai in two hours! I’ll be gone for 7 to 10 days. The trip is pretty open- ended, but we are going to be visiting some truly historic cities in the south of China. We’ll have 20 hours on the train to plan it out. I’ll try to post from internet cafes, but without the right software, wordpress.com is blocked here! So here is something long to keep my now 5 readers busy!
I joined the swirling mass pushing onto the train at the Qinhuangdao Station in northeast China. The car was packed like ladies room at intermission, but five times worse. The seats were full, and people choked the aisles, as the railroad also sells standing tickets. The luggage racks looked like gigantic Jenga sets, ready to tip. Mark, my fiancé, and our friend Eric balanced our luggage and squeezed into our row. We faced three others, with an itty bitty table in between us all. I sat knee to knee with a young Chinese woman who peeled an orange and smiled at me when I pulled an orange out of my bag and began to do the
same. Eric pulled out a beer and we all took a sip. It would be a 12-hour ride. I sighed, Mark stewed and Eric drank. And then something wonderful happened. A conductor agreed to upgrade our seats to sleepers. We’d brought an English student with us to the station do some fast talking, and it had worked. We grabbed our stuff, paid for the new seats and left our cozy car behind. A few of those around us who had purchased standing tickets had big smiles on their faces. They got our hard seats.
The sleeper was crowded, but compared to the hard seat cars, it was high end luxury. Hard sleeper cars like ours are made of eight compartments. There are six beds to a compartment, stacked three high against one side of the train. Luggage is stacked above a small aisle. In the aisle fold-up seats and tiny tables connect to a wall, where people sat and looked out curtained windows at landscape of northeast China. The best beds are the bottom beds, where you can sit up, whereas the top two are a few inches too short for sitting. The
downfall of a bottom sleeper is that everyone sits on your bed until the lights go out. We ditched our stuff and headed to the café car for beer and Uno. Though soon well buzzed on beer called Snow, I still couldn’t sleep that night among the chorus of a crying children and snoring men. But I was warm and comfortable and thankful not to be cramped in a sitting position, or worse, standing.
Crack. A long-haired woman gnawed sunflower seeds at the window. Bleary-eyed men in long johns scratched and yawned. Others dined on noodle and boiled egg breakfasts. It was morning and we were in
Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province.
Harbin is about the size of metropolitan Chicago, with a population of 9.5 million. It’s nestled south of Siberia and east of Inner Mongolia a bit south of the center of China’s northernmost province. As such, it’s cold. Really cold. While we were there in early January, between -8F during the day and hovering around -20F at night. Harbin’s architecture reflects a blend of cultures, most notably, Russian. Onion domes and well-preserved facades mark the cobbled pedestrian shopping area of town along Zhongyan Lu, lined with quaint cafes and pricey boutiques. There are several cultural gems, and naturally, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut to dumb it all down (not that we didn’t tap all that). Outside of the gleaming tourist centers in the
sprawling metropolis are lots of run-down streets; the city has been likened to Detroit. Still, it is known as the Paris of the East, or the Moscow of the East, and perhaps most famous for the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, which was what we were there to see.
We Americans are all teachers at a university in Qinhuangdao, northeast China, and a student’s mom had volunteered to pick us up at the station, arrange a hostel and our return tickets. When we emerged from the station, a well-coiffed little lady popped out of the crowd and whisked us away. Her boots clacked on the pavement as she took me by the arm and started chatting to me in Chinese I didn’t understand. We headed under the street through and pedestrian tunnel and market. Though Eric speak fluent Chinese, it eased our minds to be lead by this kind, quick-moving local woman. China has no central bureau of tourism and very few English-language maps. It’s not at all impossible to get around on your own devices in the far corners of the Middle Kingdom, but without a Chinese speaker on your side, it isn’t a question of when you will get lost, confused, stressed or overcharged, but when.
We arrived at our hostel after a short, frigid walk. The hostel was dingy, but warm, a local place with no other foreigners staying there. Sheets were hanging in the hallway to dry, which I took as a good sign. I would leave a few days later with no bug bites, which is the mark of five-star hostel accommodation in my book.
St. Sophia Church
Our spunky Harbin mom provided us with a bus route to reach downtown, where she left us. We boarded a bus near the train station and exited near St. Sophia Church. The church-turned historical site looked like a Moscow postcard with its guilt crosses and onion domes. But the Chinglish at the ticket stand was classic Middle Kingdom: “Deformity People, with certificate, free; Old People, with certificate, free.” “Ah, dang I forgot my deformity certificate,” I lamented. We paid walked through the doors. The hollowed out church was in dyer need of restoration, and the exhibits just so-so, but we were easy to please. Shelter from the
-22C (-8F) cold was all it took to make us deliriously happy. Blown up black-and-white photos lined the walls, and the front of the place offered over-priced souvenirs. Information booths about Harbin were actually in English, which was thrilling. There, I learned the brick-and-wood church was built in 1907, and again in 1923 to accommodate the growing number of Harbin Orthodox, taking nine years to complete. It was built mostly in the Byzantine style, combined with Russian domes, Roman archways and various other architectural styles.
And so we got a little dose of local culture before braving the cold again.
Quaint streets of Harbin
Our faces went numb as we plodded down the cobbled pedestrian streets Harbin, along Zhongyan Lu. We hit up a café called USA Bucks for knock-off lattes and more Uno. Outside, ice carvings the size of economy cars dotted the street, announcing the festival. We later ventured to an Ice Bar for glasses of Russian vodka, served by Chinese wait staff in gigantic fur hats. Sitting on animal skins at an ice table, sipping my vodka, I decided I quite liked Harbin. For dinner, we ate at a place called The Russian Teahouse. My father, the king of
mashed potatoes, would not have approved, and being my father’s girl, I just can’t call a place with good. It had fake mashed ‘taters. I do admit, reluctantly, that the rest of the food was quite tasty, with offerings of stews, bread-stuffed meat, borscht and other Russian treats. I left a little hardier. Back at the hostel, we drank Harbin beer, played cards and rested up for a busy schedule of tourist attractions the next day.
Siberian Tiger Park
Siberian Tiger Park is a poor man’s Jurassic Park, and an alleged breeding and re-introduction training tiger farm. After wondering the streets of Harbin, and asking the coldest looking local we could find for directions (the coldest looking ones seemed to know best), we took a bus (#88 to #84, to end of route) out of town. A man with a pedi-cab, which is a teensy, three-wheeled vehicle, offered us a ride to the park for about $4, After pretending we were just going to walk there, we got the ride for 20Y ($2.75) -yes, we’re that cheap-and stuffed ourselves into his cab, which was heated with a tiny coal stove. He stoked his stove and we headed down the road, soon turning onto an ominously long driveway. The front of the park featured happy, cartoon-like tiger models beckoning tourists their way. At the ticket window, a price list of animals included chicken, duck, pheasant, sheep and cow. These animals were for sale for between 40Y ($5.50) and 1500Y ($206), to be thrown to the park tigers to eat as us tourists watched from the bus windows.
We boarded a small bus, and a tall, rusty chain-link gate opened slowly. Would we soon be having a Jurassic Park moment, should a snow storm blow in, should our beat-up little bus break down? Maybe the tigers were smarter than we thought, like those raptors. Maybe the tigers would go berserk and bum rush the bus. It was too late to turn back. We were in. The bus drove, much too wildly for my taste, around the different sections of the park, such as “African Lion Park,” and “Adult Tiger Breeding Park.” The ground was covered with snow and ice and I had a sneaking suspicion the driver had been hitting the bai jiu (Chinese spirits). A cig hanging from his mouth, the driver pulled up near a dozen tigers huddled together lazily. He honked the horn. He
opened the door and slammed it shut. Our jaws dropped. The Chinese folks on the bus squealed with delight born of a false sense of security. Or were we just wimpy Americans, used to safety precautions and signing waivers at the slightest hint of danger? The back windows of the bus could be slid open. Mark did so to take a “better” picture. I yelled at him, but no one else seemed to notice. The driver continued his wild tour of the park, the honking and the door slamming, to our dismay. Mark and Eric had just read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which goes into great detail as to describe how the tiger should be respected, how the tiger is the perfect killing machine, how the tiger can take off a man’s head with a swipe of its paw. And here we were, on a bus, taunting the animals, who looked hungry, and pissed off to begin with, and who cold blame them? Then a man purchased a chicken. The driver stopped the bus and radioed in the order. An SUV armored with steel fixtures over its windows, body and tires (by the way, where was our steel armor?) sped into the enclosure. The driver of the SUV opened the door and threw out a live chicken. The chicken fluttered to the top of the car. Within a half second a tiger pounced onto the SUV and had the chicken in its mouth. The chicken was doomed, the tiger satisfied, but the others got nothing. The driver followed the tiger with the live chicken in its mouth so we could watch it rip the thing apart, and a few rather gigantic tigers followed our bus hoping for seconds. I wondered how well-fed these animals were, anyway. Conditions certainly looked poor, by obvious virtue of African lions wondering around the desolate landscape in Siberian temperatures. We later saw a tiger licking a block of ice in a tub, apparently its frozen water supply. At the same time, I was thankful no one bought a sheep.We saw over about an hour hundreds of tigers and lions, both on the grounds and in small rows of outdoor cages. According to Chinese news reports, the population at the park should reach 1,000 by 2010, climbing from 8 in 1986. That was the year it opened, funded by the central government, at a time the sale of tiger parts was still legal. The park is millions of RMB in debt; its managers have called for the legalization of the sale of tiger parts, which was banned from use in traditional Chinese medicine in 1993. The park only makes enough to feed about 300 tigers each year, though it houses 700, and all of the revenue is from ticket sales. Managers are keeping tiger bodies in gigantic freezers hoping the government will lift the ban, while conservationists say a lift would eliminate the existing small wild
population of tigers. Mostly, the tigers at the “breeding” park looked sad, ate snow and huddled together. I would advise the weak of heart or animal lovers not to visit the park, and I would be quite surprised that there isn’t some trade going on with dead tiger parts on the sly. In the mean time, it’s doubtful these animals would eat at all, if no one came to see this bizarre spectacle.
The International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival
The crown jewel of Harbin in the throes of winter is its ice and snow festival, which will run for two months and began Jan. 5. The snow portion of the festival is in Sun Island Park, which is the attraction to see during the day.
After being scared out of our minds at Tiger Park, we were thankful to wonder peacefully among snow sculptures. Not only could you gaze upon snow art, you could pet a deer, sit on a yak, or ride a snow mobile, for a price. We warmed ourselves in a snow cabin and drank overpriced milk tea before taking in the frosty exhibits. The sculptures ranged from the size of a couch to a few football fields. A snow Arc de Triomphe welcomed visitors over the road to Sun Island. Sculptures of harmony among Chinese and French were common, as the area was near the French Embassy. We saw frolicking snow children, a snow village, and a gigantic snow Thinker. The most popular theme had to be big breasts, and yet the Chinese have so few of those. There were a various flower goddesses, all with long flowing snow hair, a minimum of a C-cup and notably hard nipples. Along those lines, the shining sculptural achievement this year had to be a gigantic snow montage that included a huge, bare-chested (ofcourse) mermaid, six-foot tall coral sculptures and underwater castle. It was at least 50 feet tall and 300 yards long. I’d never seen anything like it, and I doubt I will again.
The sun began to fade and we opted for a frosty walk to the ice festival, rather than a cab. I was getting hardier by the second in this city, and loving every minute of it. Ten minutes later, we purchased our tickets to the ice festival, and waited in a glass-walled café for the sun to go down. The impressive ice village sported a 2008 Olympic theme. In it, 3,500 ice sculptures covered an area of 400,000-thousand-square meters. The ice blocks have colored lights within, and the result is beautiful. The grounds feature ice roads, cars, an ice castle, church and Greek temple, igloos and an Olympic-themed tower, a skating rink and a huge snow Buddha for good measure. By far, my favorite part of the festival was an incredibly long, fast toboggan run. I wanted to take video of the run with my camera, but instead screamed and hung on for dear life. I wondered how, exactly, I would stop and soon had my answer. My sled flew up a curved wall of snow and I tumbled off my toboggan. Workers yanked me up before I could be hit by the next guy. After a day of outdoor antics, we were colder than ever, and stayed for only two hours before returning to the city center for dinner.
Our spunky Harbin mom returned with our train tickets the next morning. We drank more USAbucks, wondered around a few markets and ate Russian food before boarding the train that evening. On the train, I cracked sunflower seeds with my teeth and had a warm beer before crawling to my bunk. I went to sleep satisfied, with visions of men in long johns, ice sculptures and the Moscow of the East swirling in my head.