My luck with the weather runs out during my last full day in Harbin. It is very cold and drizzly with the kind of damp chill that requires both a multitude of layers and waterproofing. Promptly at 10 a.m., I get a call from “Lyonya.” This is the young man who has agreed to show me around and he is downstairs in the lobby. “Lyonya” is his “Russian” name. He speaks Russian very well and tells me that he teaches it here in Harbin though he admits he has had no formal education in the language and learned it on his own when he lived in Russia for a year.
I explain that I missed an important landmark in my wanderings around Harbin – the Churin Department Store. This store was founded by Ivan Churin and his partners in the early 20th century. The building where the store is located was completed in 1918. The store has remained at the same location through all the changes of city administration, political leadership, and changes in ownership. Whoever the current owner is (the Chinese government or a private owner), they have kept the name (though the Russian sign is long gone of course) and there are even apparently other “Churin” stores in China. I want to buy some Churin bread which, as I understand it, is renowned for its tastiness.
Lyonya is not familiar with the store (he is from Shanghai himself and is not very familiar with Harbin yet) but we take a taxi (now that I have an interpreter, I can relax and don’t have to whip out my Mandarin phrasebook). The taxi driver knows exactly what we’re talking about and drives us to the area near Hongbo Square. I did walk right past the store at some point the day before. Over the years, two stories have been added but the building still retains the same general facade from 1918.
Inside, it is an obviously upscale department store and it does have everything – clothing, food, jewelry. I see a large bust of a person as we enter and wonder if this is Churin himself. We head for the bread and there it is, lying in piles on a large table. The loaf itself is round and huge (it is also heavy). The bread is “Russian-style” and is supposedly made from the same recipe from 100 years ago, baked in special brick ovens. Tourism guides recommend buying some “Russian-style” sausage as an accompaniment but I am not in the mood to fight the massive crowds at the meat counter and we depart with my bread in tow in a special burlap sack.
Lyonya’s colleague had suggested that I visit “Sunny Isle” across the Sungari River. This is an entertainment and recreational center of some kind. One way to get across is to take an aerial tram. The stop is right near my hotel so I drop off the bread (which Lyonya insists on carrying) and then we head for the tram. Lyonya was the one to suggest the tram but seems to lose enthusiasm when he sees it. He notes that since it is foggy today, it is not worthwhile and perhaps it would be better to take a ferryboat. I agree although I kind of want to add this to my list of modes of transportation. Luckily, I get the opportunity to ride an aerial tram later in Beijing.
The ferry-boat system is fairly efficient but tedious especially because the tiny plastic seats are hugely uncomfortable and we have to wait for some time as only one boat is operating. We are directed to sit down in the boat but when the actual operating boat returns, and everyone on it had disembarked, we have to leave the boat we are on, which turns out to be a “holding center” of sorts, and file on to this second boat. The whole process of waiting and boarding takes 30 minutes or so and I begin to feel for Lyonya in his light jacket but he assures me that he is fine. I am wearing a sweater, a second heavier wool sweater, a heavy waterproof jacket and a woolen scarf and I still feel the chill. The crossing itself takes only 10 minutes or so.
Sunny Isle is anything but today. Though the boat is full, this is obviously the off-season as there appear to be very few visitors on the “island” today. The gloomy weather probably contributes to this. Lyonya thinks it is most popular in summer and in winter, when it is snowing because the whole theme of Sunny Isle is “Russia.” This is apparently the place to go if one wants to experience Russian culture in Harbin now. The powers-that-be have made an attempt to remove all mention of Russia or Russian culture in Harbin proper, and have deemed this to be the center of Russian culture in Harbin. The problem is that this is all fake Russian culture whereas what is in Harbin is the real thing.
Here, there is a theater where Russian groups come to perform, buildings that appear to be restaurants and bars (now closed), and a “Russian Village.” This village, surrounded by a fence, requires an entry fee, and Lyonya seems to think that it won’t be worth it. Nevertheless, I want to see it.
We wander around a bit first but it seems pointless. It would be pleasant to walk here in warm weather as it is green and park-like but there is nothing going on here now. When I note this to Lyonya, he agrees it is probably packed in summer and adds that there are few places like this in China (meaning, large parks near by or in cities). I ask Lyonya about the popularity of Russian song and dance? He seems very lukewarm about it and suggests that tourists from elsewhere are the ones who frequent this place but I am not sure if he means Chinese tourists from elsewhere or foreign tourists. I tend to doubt there are many foreign tourists coming to Harbin. I find out later though that Chinese tourists make up 70% of all tourists visiting Beijing so the internal travel business is certainly booming in China, like everything else.
As we approach the Russian “village,” I notice two obviously Russian men sitting at a small table dressed in camouflage. The older one is wearing a military-style beret and sunglasses despite the rain and looks rather fierce. They are the “guards” and, in order to enter, we have to have our “passports” stamped (obtained when I buy the tickets). I say hello in Russian and the younger of the two, who is hunched over reading a book (it must be very unpleasant to sit outside all day in this kind of weather), looks up, astonished. He has a wonderful face – beautiful blue eyes and a smile that lights up his face when he sees me. Unlike his “stern” counterpart, he makes no effort to be guard-like. I thank them and we go in. There is no one in the village either and, truthfully, I don’t see what there is to do here. There are kiosks selling souvenirs or food items but there is nothing else to do except stroll around and look at the figurines and statues representing “Russians.” There is a small stage for performances.
In Russia, of course, I visited several outdoor museums that purported to show how Russians lived in pre-revolutionary Russia but all of these, without exception, were very educational and representative of the village culture. This “village” is a caricature. Now I know how people feel when their cultural heritage has been hijacked and put on display by someone in order that they make money off of it. To top it off, there are enclosures with (live) cats and dogs, shivering in the drizzle. They have some shelter but it is still out in the open air and I don’t see the point of having them there at all. The dogs look like lap-dogs so they aren’t meant to represent village dogs. They just look pathetic, sad, and lonely. The cats look annoyed and uncomfortable. There are some geese wandering around so at least that is authentic.
As we leave, I ask the “guards” who comes here? The older one says mostly Chinese tourists visit. They ask me where I am from and I explain. We chat a bit but soon other patrons show up and I move off. I wonder if the younger fellow is a student trying to earn some money. I can’t imagine that they get paid enough to live on at this job.
By the time we return to Harbin, the wind has risen and it is really very cold. Lyonya is now obviously uncomfortable and very obviously wants to go home. I thank him for showing me around and tell him I am ready to call it a day. I give him my card in case he ever makes his way to San Francisco.
Back at the hotel, I drink tea and munch on Churin bread (truly delicious!) while watching a cool film about a “fox demon” who has taken female form and is trying to steal another woman’s husband. Quite surprisingly, it has English subtitles so I am able to understand what is going on.