Let me start off by saying that I like Harbin a lot: it’s a nice, laid-back city, full of usually-friendly people* who communicate in a crystal-clear accent. It’s completely unlike any other place in China that I know of.
There’s no real history in Harbin. Before the end of the nineteenth century, it didn’t even exist except as scattered fishing villages along the Songhua river. Then the Russians decided to make the city the endpoint of the trans-Siberian railway, and everything exploded. Everywhere you go in downtown Harbin, you’ll see grand European-style buildings, faced in marble and liberal in their use of columns. In the Daoli district at the centre of the city, a block away from Blue’s Disco (which I’ll be writing about in a later post), is the beautiful St. Sofia Cathedral, and three blocks away is Zhongyang Dajie (Main Street), which is cobbled and lined with turn-of-the-century ex-mansions converted into shopping malls.
So yes, I do like Harbin – like it quite a lot, actually – but it’s sadly lacking in certain virtues, like Indian food, pizza, Mexican food, English-language bookstores, hot chocolate, any real history dating before 1898, or a nightlife that isn’t dominated by Russian smugglers and/or prostitutes. In these areas, it really can’t compare with Beijing.
Beijing is just…not China. It would be completely possible to live in, say, the Chaoyang district of Beijing and pretend that you were in a major American city with an unusually large Chinese population. When I first arrived in China, I was smugly disdainful of what I perceived as Beijing’s non-China-hood* and looked down upon the expats there for being insufficiently hardcore – come on; if I’d wanted good food, tolerable weather, and an efficient transportation system, I’d be living in San Francisco or New York – but after I’d spent a couple of months in Harbin, the prospect of finding the food/music/books I wanted became indescribably appealing.
And besides, I’d already made plans – both with Chinese friends in Beijing and foreign friends* in the Dongbei* area to meet up for National Day*, and I was really looking forward to it by the third week or so of September.
Then my school started dropping last-minute schedule changes, and right up until the last minute, it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to get down to Beijing for National Day as I’d planned: my school informed all teachers that we’d be working an eight-day week, Monday to Monday, which would have conflicted with the train schedule such that I’d only be able to get to Beijing for, at best, National Day evening. But even that was impossible, because there weren’t any train tickets anyway; I asked at the station and was told that they were sold-out through the next Monday.
Of course, this is what they always say, but when I went to the touts and the ticket agencies, which add a surcharge in exchange for actually getting you a ticket (which the train station is notoriously bad at), I heard the same story.
“There’s really no way?” I asked. “Really really?”
“Really,” they said. “You could try flying [if you want to pay four times the price of a train ticket and die in a ball of flame during takeoff].”*
Between the lack of tickets and the lack of any vacation time before the day itself arrived, it looked like my National Day plans just weren’t going to happen, and that I’d be spending my holiday in Harbin. This damn-near broke my heart.
One night, I met Kerry, another American teacher. He and I got to talking about our opinions of Harbin as compared to, say, cities with non-Chinese food* – it turned out that he’d been planning to go to Beijing too, and had somehow managed to score a ticket that’d get him there in time for National Day – and the subject of Bar Street in Beijing came up. I mentioned that my favourite place was called The Black Sun, and that the owner was a friend of mine.
“Tony! Oh my God! I just realized — Tony told me about you! He said that there was this guy called Brendan who spoke really good Chinese who was teaching in Harbin too, and that you’d be back for National Day, and that he’d introduce us! And…wow, and there was this guy called Alex who knew you too…”
After I heard that, I became determined to find a way of getting to Beijing. It couldn’t be that hard, I reasoned; I could probably just take a train to Shenyang or Changchun* and then catch another train to Beijing from there. Then James, a Chinese friend of mine, told me that there was a newly-built highway between Beijing and Harbin, and that I could probably get a ticket on a sleeper bus; I made inquiries and found that a bus would be (a) about 13 to 14 hours from Harbin to Beijing, (b) heated and have a toilet in back, and (c) cheaper than a train, with tickets easily available.
I can’t tell you how much my mood improved after the discovery that I could get to Beijing easily. I hummed and danced – literally – through my last couple days of classes, and then started packing.
There were some minor concerns about budget, since my school wouldn’t pay the teachers until classes resumed after the holiday, but hell; I had a thousand kuai in my pocket to cover the ticket and the hostel, and my ATM card would work in Beijing, so even if it was going to be expensive compared to Harbin, I could certainly treat myself a bit.
I had a bit of trouble finding where the bus station was; everyone told me that it was directly across from the train station, catacorner from the Kunlin Hotel, but when I went there all I saw was a massive construction site, cranes and diggers operating at full tilt, sealed off from the street by gappy walls of sheet metal. So I asked a passing cabbie where the bus station was, and he pointed.
“That’s a building site, isn’t it?”
“It’s a bus station, too.”
So I walked down the street again towards the scaffolding/station. A couple of guys hanging on the corner yelled “Hey! You speak Chinese?” as I walked past, and found my muttered response of “Why the hell would I be living in China if I didn’t?” absolutely hilarious.*
The mobs at the bus station were sedate by Chinese standards – perhaps because the station wasn’t yet much more than a ground floor and three walls – and I bought my bus ticket with absolutely no problem. Walking away from the teller window, I chanced to look at the departure time printed on the ticket: 3:00.
It was 2:40, and all my bags were at my apartment.
So I ran out of the bus station, passing the the two guys on the corner, who were eager for more conversation.
“Can’t talk,” I said. “My bus leaves at 3, and my baggage is at home.”
“Oh, shit! Hurry!”
They flagged down a passing cab for me by jumping in front of it,* explained the situation to the driver, and shouted “Quickquickquick!” as we drove off.
The driver, bless him, went above and beyond the usual cabbie disregard for traffic safety, maintaining an average speed of 50 kilometres per hour on city streets, weaving in and out of lanes, running red lights, swerving into oncoming traffic so that he could pass a produce truck, missing pedestrians by fractions of an inch and shouting obscenities at everything that lay between Ha’erbin Zhan and Lifang Wu Huayuanr. I ran into my apartment and ran out, carrying my unnecessarily-overpacked bag, and jumped into the passenger’s seat. He floored it, tearing off before I’d even shut the door, and defied death once again on the way back to the bus station, leaving me with a good 10 minutes before my bus left.
“Thank you so much,” I said as I got out, reaching into my pocket for cab fare.
“No time to pay!” he shouted. “Forget it! This one’s on me! Have fun in Beijing! Run!”
And I was off.
(to be continued)