Around the World in 50 days – Harbin, Part I

Arrival in Harbin

My arrival in Harbin is confusing. I don’t take in much as the train approaches – just an average-looking city with lots of traffic. Even going over the Sungari River somehow doesn’t make an impression. (The Sungari is now called the Songhua but I grew up hearing and reading Sungari).

Bridge over the river Sungari (Songhua)

When we arrive, as I descend from the train to the platform, I see the Dutchmen standing in a group. For a moment, we appear to be the only ones on the platform but then we are overwhelmed by a moving mass of humanity streaming across the platform to the stairs. I am nonplussed and disoriented. Suddenly, a porter approaches me. The Dutchmen wave the porters off but I need all the help I can get and let him take my bag. He sets off and I follow him. When we get to the stairs, he puts the bag on this head. He is not a large man but he does this easily. I feel like a bobbing cork in a sea. He is my lifeboat since I have no clue as to where I am heading. Outside the station, it is no less confusing. In fact, even more so. There are now masses of people, cars, bicycles, honking horns. There are so many people and they are all moving so quickly that I cannot even begin to think to stop and get my bearings. It is disappointing. I pictured arriving in Harbin and savoring the moment of seeing my mother’s birthplace for the first time.

Very quickly, we are stopped by a man who appears to be a taxi driver. For some reason, he and the porter both assume that I want to go to the airport. I have the name of my hotel handy (in Chinese) and this is a good thing since the taxi driver does not read English. Using my phrasebook and sign language (I fold my hands and lay my head on them to mime sleeping), I clarify the situation. He punches 80 into his calculator (Chinese currency is referred to as RMB – Renminbi). This is about $12, excessive I am sure, but I am not in the frame of mind to argue. But I have to pay my porter. He mimes how hard he has worked. I agree – in fact, he has gone way above the call of duty with finding me a taxi driver and helping with communication. I only have a couple of 100 RMB bills so I give him one and hope for the best. He takes the bill and counts out change – 90. I am too flustered to think about it at the moment but later I am stunned by his honesty. He could have given me any amount of change and I wouldn’t have argued.

We cross the street to the driver’s car – there is no cross walk and the cars don’t stop. Luckily they are not going fast here because the driver just walks in front of them assuming they will stop. I follow his lead and pray for the best. The drive to the hotel is equally gasp-producing on my part. For one thing, the taxi driver decides he wants to get to know me better and attempts to communicate, all while navigating through streets jam-packed with vehicles. He even drives the wrong way down a street (deliberately – to avoid another traffic-packed street), all the while chatting and gesticulating. At one point he appears to ask how old I am and shows me 46 on his calculator, pointing to himself.

Then he points to the paper with my hotel name (Friendship Palace) and makes a face and negative gesture. Great, I think. It is a bad hotel. But what can I do? I shrug. When we arrive, I see what he means. The entire hotel is blanketed with construction material and is being renovated. The area near the entrance is filled with construction vehicles and workers. I wonder if the hotel is closed. My taxi driver makes a call to the number listed for the hotel on my paper and has a lengthy conversation. He then motions for us to go inside. The lobby is deserted. The taxi driver has a heated conversation with a young  man standing at what used to be the reception desk. The young man seems bored and uninterested but makes a call. Suddenly, a bellhop shows up. The hotel is apparently open. I have no idea what to make of any of this but need to get my bags out of the car. We go back out and the driver gets them out of the trunk. I hand him 100.  I don’t expect change at this point but he makes a gesture. I wonder if he wants exact change and take out a bunch of bills. The driver takes a fifty, pauses, then snatches another 100 out of my hand , gets in the car and drives away. I feel like I am on candid camera. My hand is still outstretched as he is driving off – it all happens so quickly. I realize this is all my own fault. First rule of travel in new places is not to wave your money around. But disarmed as I was by the honesty or the porter, I let the driver under my radar.  Ah, the fickleness of men – from considering marriage (I assume that was why he was interested in my age and he  apparently decided I was too old) to ripping me off. Welcome to Harbin.

Friendship Palace under construction

I look at the bellhop to see what his take on this is. He is politely disinterested and waiting patiently for me. I follow him back in through the deserted lobby and down a hallway lined with shops to the “temporary” lobby. It is actually very nice inside but all the windows are covered on the outside and the lack of natural light ruins the effect. Then follows a long and annoying period of trying to get a clerk at the reception “table” to acknowledge me and check me in. No one speaks English or Russian and so I can’t ask about this re-modeling situation. It is very early in the morning and I have paid for an extra day due to the early check-in but the pretty and otherwise pleasant young woman at the desk refuses to give me a breakfast ticket for this morning. I am not hungry but it is the principle of the thing.  The I have to give them 400 RMB as a deposit for the room but, since the taxi driver took all my money, I can’t do that. I offer a credit card but they want cash. We settle on a $100 bill.

The exchange “desk” (at the same table) clerk refuses to take rubles – only dollars. I guess they don’t consider Russian money good enough for them. AND, they are “closed.” I have to wait till 9 a.m. Since all she has to do is reach into a drawer and hand me some RMB, I don’t see the point of being closed. “The customer is always right” is not a maxim that has taken hold in Harbin since most of the staff is fairly rude and dismissive of my foreignness and failure to speak Mandarin. I admit I am guilty on this count. Maybe on my next trip. Later, I come back down to inquire about a city tour and this turns out to be impossible also. I am told to check back the next day but I’ve had it at that point and wash my hands of the hotel staff.

But throughout the check-in process, the bellhop has waited patiently for me. I give him my last RMB note when we get to my room. The windows here are also covered up but I can see the silhouette of a man working outside, standing on the construction platform (I am on the 2nd floor). This is very creepy and although the room itself is quite nice, I consider finding another hotel. I call my local “emergency” travel contact and complain thoroughly about the situation. In the end, I decide not to move because the hotel is in a good location, right on the river, and I don’t want to waste any time. I only have three days here and there is much to do. Whether it is because they refused me breakfast or perhaps just to welcome me to Harbin, management sends me fruit plates for the next two days. I am still annoyed but I have to say that the grapes on this plate are the best grapes I have ever eaten in my life. Huge, purple, sweet and bursting with juice. The tangerines and apples aren’t bad either. I am slightly mollified.

A bit of history

In the main lobby of this hotel (the one that is not in use), a huge painting of St. Nicholas Cathedral hangs. St. Nicholas Cathedral was one of the Orthodox churches of Harbin torn down by the PRC government. I wonder about this and see a recurring pattern during my stay. Despite the fact that any history of the city that I read, whether in the museums or in tourist literature, completely ignores the Russian contribution to Harbin’s infrastructure and architecture, the powers-that-be are not shy about promoting Harbin as a tourist destination based on its “unique” architecture. I find it bizarre that they would hang a painting of a church that they themselves destroyed. But it doesn’t stop there. In some literature, the “European” or “cosmopolitan” history of the city are acknowledged but almost nowhere do I see “Russian” despite the fact that the Russian Orthodox churches that are still standing, one of which (St. Sophia’s), is a museum, are celebrated as an important part of Harbin history.

Painting of St. Nicholas Cathedral

Postcard showing St. Nicholas in the 1920's

Going even further, the current line is to condemn the exploitation of the Chinese people by the Russians when the city was built. Of course, nowhere is it mentioned that the Chinese people who live here now are all immigrants from the south. There was no one living here in the early 1900’s, when railroad construction began and the city was first laid out. This was Manchuria and the indigenous people were Manchus. The few people who actually lived in the general area all lived in tiny fishing villages along the river and those that came here from the south to work did so quite eagerly. This history of Harbin is one of business – the railroad, construction, trade, and commerce – and both Russians and Chinese made money here in the early 20th century (at least until the Japanese invasion in 1932). The Manchus are now an official minority in China. This re-writing of history, combined with the exploitation of Russian culture, with no credit given, really colors my view of China during my visit.

I think that the Harbin authorities have done an admirable job in preserving the early 20th century architecture that wasn’t destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. I do hope that they continue this preservation as the construction boom here, as elsewhere in China, is intense.  But it is a disservice to all people to skew the facts of history. This city would not be here if it weren’t for the Russians.

Harbin street

Square near Stalin Park

Big Brother

China’s success and growth in the last twenty years conveniently obscures an important little factoid – it is a police state with a totalitarian government. I have never seen more police anywhere in any city than in Harbin (and later, Beijing). They are around en masse everywhere where people gather. I feel extremely “safe” as petty or violent crime seems non-existent (except when stupid tourists wave their money around) but the police are not your friendly neighborhood community policing types. I get stared at a lot in general, which surprise me as I was told there are many Russian students living in Harbin (I see very few Russians or other Europeans). And the staring is not of the friendly variety, especially by the police. When they spot me strolling by, they literally glare as if they dare me to jaywalk or take a photo of something I shouldn’t. Nor do they drop their gaze when I meet theirs. It is disconcerting and unpleasant.

That being said, I have a number of very pleasant encounters: An elderly man intercepts me on a crowded street and sells me a Russian-language map of Harbin (I already bought an English-language one at the hotel). He naturally assumes that I am Russian and we chat for a while.

An interesting juxtaposition

I am supposed to meet up with an acquaintance of a Russian colleague of mine – a Chinese student whose speciality and interest is Russian language and culture.  It is suggested that she might show me around but it turns out she has moved to Beijing to study.  Nevertheless, when I call her, she , in turn, contacts one of her Harbin colleagues (who also speaks Russian) and he shows up at my hotel one day to show me around – just like that.

When I go down to breakfast (referred to as “Western” breakfast but mostly Chinese-style food), the hostess greets me every morning with a smile and hands me a knife and fork to forestall any foolish Western attempt to eat with chopsticks. Given that I was born and raised in San Francisco, and have been eating Chinese food pretty much since birth (my grandmother (also a Russian born in Harbin) would make her “real” version of dishes like sweet and sour pork, which was nothing like the goopy restaurant version), I am moderately capable with chopsticks, but the hostess is so gracious that I decide to play the role of clueless Westerner here.

The hotel is right on the Sungari River and this turns out to be a blessing when I need to take a break from dodging traffic and the overwhelming urban noise (honking, roaring truck engines, construction equipment). The promenade along the river is very attractive with lots of trees and, again, structures from the early 20th century. But this area is named “Stalin Park.” The name grates on me for reasons too obvious and numerous to go into here. I see people fishing on the river – I wonder about eating the fish here. Not long ago, there was a story about a terrible chemical spill into the river which killed fish and contaminated the water.

Boats on the river

The police presence in this particular area is overwhelming. There are a lot of people strolling, gathering, and socializing. It is all very peaceful and serene but there is a large police van parked with flashing lights. When I see it, I imagine something is going on – a demonstration or a rally perhaps? But no, the van is just parked there with the policemen standing around observing the masses. In the evening, I walk past a group gathered to dance ballroom-style in one of the small mini-parks on the promenade. It is quite charming. And yes, there is a policeman standing by in case anyone steps out of line.

When I stop at one of the cottage-like structures lining the promenade and read the sign, I am excited to read that the building was a station house along the wharf built by the  Chinese Eastern Railway in the “Russian architectural style.” Finally, an acknowledgement! As I am busy jotting this down, two policemen that had been sitting on the stairs of the building, get up and walk over to me. They peer at the sign, apparently curious as to what I am writing down so enthusiastically. The younger one stares and smiles at me but it is an aggressive, not a friendly, smile (it doesn’t help that he is missing half of his teeth). I finish taking notes and stroll off but I am irritated. It is as if everything I do is being observed under a microscope. Can I not enjoy the city without police interference? Apparently not. I am a stranger in a strange land and strangers are suspect here.

Old station house on promenade

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