Even with maps in three different languages, Harbin is not easy to navigate. From the time the city was built until the Communist revolution in China, street names were Russian. After that, they were Chinese of course, but they are now spelled a variety of different ways on the maps. I set out first for Zhongyang Street. This used to be Kitayaskaya Street (“Kitayskaya” means “Chinese” in Russian). The buildings on this street have survived all the destruction and re-construction of the last half century and this street is now considered a historical and architectural landmark. It is actually rather close to my hotel and the buildings do indeed date from the beginning of the 20th century. It is also closed off to traffic and this is a great relief.
Once again, I am struck by the youthfulness of the population here. Everyone walking along this pedestrian mall (which is a shopping and restaurant center), seems to be a student. It is very vibrant and bustling and spotlessly clean on this main street, but the side streets frequently have piles of garbage on them. Harbin is, indeed, a city of contrasts. There are streets of beautiful restored buildings like this, streets with ultra-modern high-rises with glass facades sparking in the sun, and streets with ramshackle dilapidated buildings that have that pungent reek of uncollected trash and rotting food. As I walk, I am approached by a young man, speaking fluent Russian, who politely asks where I am from and why I am visiting Harbin. Then he asks if I would like to buy a fur coat? Or any other clothing? I decline his offer but thank him for asking.
From here, I head two streets over to St. Sophia Cathedral. It is a spectacular example of Russian architecture and is now a museum. The fact that it is a museum disturbs me more than I expected it would. Of course, better a museum than being torn down completely but here I feel my first twinge of real resentment. Russian culture is being put on display in an inappropriate manner – disrespectfully. At the entrance, there is a museum shop. Despite this unease, I find the museum fascinating as it is an exhibit of photographs of old Harbin dating back to its very beginnings. There are quite a few photographs of the Russian community, even ones that appear to be from private collections but I have no way of asking where they come from. The stress, as always, is on how the Chinese people were oppressed in Harbin and there are references to “Western European” culture and architecture which are, of course, completely incorrect (last time I checked, Russia was in Eastern Europe).
Despite the fact that the interior of the church is completely gutted, the unmistakable feeling of being in an Orthodox church remains since the church has a huge cupola and one’s gaze is drawn upward to the huge chandelier that hangs there. I spend quite some time here and leave with a sense of heaviness.
I walk back down to the riverfront to reflect. Though it is much quieter and pleasant to walk here, I seem to attract more attention. There is lots of hawking and spitting as I go by. I read once that this is a way to show displeasure when seeing “barbarians” (non-Chinese). It happens often enough that I begin to get a complex. On the other hand, several people greet/acknowledge me; some in English: “Hello!” and some in Russian: “Khorosho” (“good” or “fine” depending on context) and “Dosvedaniye” (goodbye) as I walk on. Although this is more pleasant than hearing spitting as I walk by, I again feel like a zoo exhibit. Then I pass a young man playing a saxophone at the river’s edge. He is wearing white gloves. As I pass, he begins playing Podmoskovnyye vechera (Moscow Nights). This lightens my mood.
That evening, all the lights go out in the hotel. This is more eerie than it would be normally because I have the heavy curtains drawn as there are workers on the scaffolds outside all the time. There seems to be immediate panic outside and I hear the sound of people running by my room speaking loudly. I wonder if there is an emergency. Three minutes later, the lights come back on. Then they go off again. I decide to just go to sleep but the TV goes on automatically when the electricity comes back on five minutes later. I flip through the channels and there is not one foreign language station, not even Russian. Everything is in Chinese. I find this odd only because in Russia there are usually English language channels like CNN. In the larger cities, there is even more to choose from.
The next day, construction starts at 6:45 a.m. on the dot so it is a good thing I am an early riser. I read some of the “translations” of instructions in the room:
“Have the drink and foodstuff in mini-bar…settle account in lump in the total platform while checking out.”
“Please store the valuables of yourself in the safety box at the Front Desk.”
The room service menu includes an Exquisite Cold Dish called “self-control belly.” I don’t order room service while here (the breakfast buffet is huge and I find a wonderful bakery where I buy buns and rolls to snack on) but if I had, I definitely would have ordered this to see what it was.
Today, I head first for the area that used to be called Modiagau. The area across the Modiagau River was a Russian neighborhood in the 1920’s, but, as the homes where the Ukhtomskiy family lived in Harbin have long ago all been razed, I am left to seek out the remaining churches where they worshipped. The neighborhood church was St. Alexis. The funeral service for my great-aunt Maria, who died of typhoid fever in 1921, was held there. At the time, the Ukhtomskiys lived only a block or so away. They later moved to Noviy Gorod (New City), another section of Harbin. St. Alexis was reconstructed in the early 1930’s and that church still stands today. As always I walk, to get a feel for the city. It is a long way, and perilous. At certain places, it seem impossible to cross major roadways. There are no crosswalks nor underpasses. I eventually end up back at the railway station and there is an underpass there to get across the impossibly wide thoroughfare. It really looks like a bomb shelter – very dark and creepy but I follow the crowd and end up where I need to be – on the other side.
I reach Hongbo Square – a sort of central location with, yes, a huge shopping complex, and then head up “Guogel” Street (on my English language map) and Fendou Lu (on my Russian language map). Whatever the name, it leads me to St. Alexis Church. The Modiagau River itself is dry. I must be constantly vigilant crossing the streets. If a driver is making a right turn, he feels no need to stop for the red light – after all, he is turning off the street, why should he pay attention to a red light on it? I almost get run over this way.
There are piles of cabbage and leeks lying randomly on the streets. They are uncovered and appear to be lying directly on the concrete sidewalk. I think of the vegetables I had for breakfast. They included cabbage. Although I have no problem with seeing vegetables piled in carts in the countryside, seeing them lying directly on a city sidewalk with the constant traffic and dirty exhaust right there, dogs running by, feces everywhere and people (men and children) regularly peeing on the street, makes me a tad queasy.
I round a corner and see the church. It is of red brick and is in the middle of a large square. There is a stage nearby as if there is going to be some kind of a performance. It is now a Catholic church. It is a beautiful building but the interior no longer resembles that of an Orthodox Church. Inside, there are steps up from the door leading up to the main floor where there are pews. A young couple is there talking to a church official. They appear to be discussing plans for their wedding.
This neighborhood, of course, like all the old neighborhoods, is completely new, with highrise buildings and apartment houses. There is nothing left of the old city here except the church.
I head back down to the main street (Bolshoy Prospekt in old Harbin). It is now Dong Dazhijie and is insanely busy with traffic, constructions sites, and crowds of people selling items on the sidewalk. Sometimes the sidewalk is missing for long periods of time and I put my life in my hands walking along construction fencing. I am now headed for Pokrovsky Church. The old Russian cemetery used to surround it but now the church is in the middle of huge construction site. This is the church where funeral services were held for my great grandparents. I know all this because I have clippings from the newspaper of the time with their obituaries. Pokrovsky Church is also the only functioning Russian Orthodox Church in Harbin. I am amazed and pleased that it has been preserved. Apartments houses hem it in on one side and the construction site on the other. The only way to get to it is to walk down a narrow alley way. It is locked unfortunately. I touch the brick exterior and stand on the steps. Despite the strange and inappropriate environment that surrounds it now, its walls seem to exude history. This was one of the centers of Russian life in Harbin, where my grandmother and mother were both born and where the Ukhtomskiy family lived for many years in exile. My grandfather would have walked up these steps.
My last major stop of the day is the place which used to be the New (Russian) Cemetery. I am aware that cemetery was desecrated, the graves obliterated, the crosses and markers removed, and the entire area made into an amusement park. Both my great grandparents and my great-aunt were buried here but their graves are gone now as is any indication that they ever lived and died here. Supposedly, some graves were relocated to a cemetery outside of town at the behest of the remaining families. But there was no one left in Harbin to see about the Ukhtomskiys so I am denied the right to visit the graves of my ancestors.
I walk and walk down the street and finally reach the end of it. There is a large pedestrian area with what appears to be a rather new and beautiful Buddhist Temple. There are disabled people here begging for money – something I have not seen up to this point in China. As I approach the amusement park, I see a huge ferris wheel. The entrance to the amusement park is actually the bell tower of the church that once stood there. The cemetery Church is just inside, still standing, but forlorn. It is a pretty place, lined with trees but it is difficult for me to stomach. The church building itself is now part of the amusement park. There is a woman standing outside of it beckoning to people to come and buy tickets. For some reason, “haunted house” music is playing. This is really odd. When I was in Moscow’s Gorky Park in 2002, the haunted house exhibit had a facade made to look like Mount Rushmore. I was pretty insulted about that as an American. Here, I am more devastated than insulted. The woman capers around and puts on 3D glasses to entice me to come in. I can’t stand it and leave.
There is little wind today and by the 3 p.m. the air is hazy and smoggy. Back at the hotel, I encounter my first major bug. It is very large and like nothing I have ever seen. I imagine it crawling over my face at night and kill it with extreme prejudice. Later, I get a call from a young woman I was supposed to meet with. She has moved to Beijing but insists that her colleague will show me around. She is concerned because I don’t speak Chinese (she and I speak Russian). I tell her I don’t want to trouble him since I am getting along okay but she is adamant. True to form, he calls me almost immediately and we arrange to meet the following morning.
I decide to go out to dinner and head for a Russian restaurant (to complete my Russian Harbin experience). It is called Tatos and supposedly has been in business since 1901. The interior is very nice, “old world” with heavy furniture, upholstered in dark green material. The menu is huge. My waitress speaks to me in Russian. She is very pleasant and helpful but the food turns out to be pretty awful. I decide to have a beer (I have abstained from alcohol for most of the trip) and regret it as it is served warm. I order spinach soup and shashlik (barbecued skewered meat) as these seem easy enough to make but the soup is vile – made with scalded milk for some reason – and the meat is underdone.
It is almost dark outside when I leave and the hazy smoggy air, flashing billboards and masses of people make me think of Blade Runner (the movie). All that is missing are vehicles zipping through the air. Given China’s leaps ahead, this may not be too far off in the future. There is a great and undeniable energy here. I don’t think I have ever felt anything quite like it in all my travels.
It is very cold but there is a photography session going on in the middle of Zhongyang Steet. The young model is dressed in an evening dress that bares her arms and neck. I feel chilled just looking at her. She is smiling and posing for the camera against the backdrop of Russian-built buildings on what was formerly Kitayaskaya Street in the new Harbin.