19.09.2018 - 23.09.2018
I took my regular 11 o'clock train to Harbin again. This time I was headed to the frozen north. The extreme top of China. The last stop before Russia. I had to switch trains from the west station to the central station and on the way there, I noticed a Carrefour. What luck! I got off the bus and went inside, where I couldn't pass on a giant bottle of fake wine. I never know what exactly is in these things, but it's always a riot to try them out anyway. I scanned the rest of the aisles looking for wheat-free snacks, but it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I ended up with a bunch of spicy hard boiled eggs and spicy tofu strips. Which are both awesome. I had stocked up on fruit, raisins, popcorn and peanuts already. I was now prepared for the long trip.
I took the bus the rest of the way to the central train station, which was beautiful, by the way, and immediately commandeered a place at a picnic table. A sweet milk salesperson befriended me and we drank my wine and chatted with her translation app until it was time for both of us to go. She was on her way home for the weekend in another part of the province. I got on my train shortly after she did and passed out on the top bunk right away.
Bright and early in the morning, I found myself in Mohe. I easily spotted the green coach that would take me to Beijicun, another two hours north, and there I was at the end of China, facing the big bad enemy. Wow! Large swaths of larch trees had already turned rusty orange, as far as the eye could see. I checked into the hostel, which was a nightmare. The bus dropped us off exactly in front of it and they tried to sell me a private room. I plopped down my Hostelling International card and said no way! The price went down from 100 yuan to 22.5 almost instantly. I set my things down and got changed.
Since I had no English map, I figured I'd just walk north until I got to the end of everything. That worked out just fine because I found the official end of China after about 30 minutes walking. Heilongjiang means Black Dragon River, how ominous! I took the obligatory photos, ate the rest of my snacks by the riverside and realized that was pretty much it for the rest of the trip.
In the evening, I had a crazy dinner with two nice ladies I met at the hostel, and who would carpool with me the day after. Deep fried river fish were the stars of the show as well as blistered green beans and blueberry baijiu.
We drove pretty much all day in our carpool, first stopping at an unfortunate reindeer petting zoo, where one of the males was clearly in heat or whatever it's called. I kept my distance from all of them, but the Chinese people did not. They were grabbing their antlers and stroking the animals' soaking wet coats, without any fear at all. Meanwhile later, when friendly puppies would follow us around, they'd run screaming.
There was also a teepee made out of birch bark, those ingenious Manchurians.
As we drove around it occurred to me that maybe all those orange hued conifers were actually dying! It started to really depress me and I wasn't as enthusiastic as the others about taking photos of the beautiful "fall" colours anymore.
The next stop was Beihongcun, the actual northernmost town in China, a little further north than the tourist trap I was staying in. A part of me wished I had thought ahead and brought my stuff with me to stay right there for a night or two. It was peaceful and ramshackle. One of the women bought a big loaf of bread that must've been made by a descendant of Russians because it tasted exactly like my Grandma's braided Easter bread.
We stopped at yet another most northern point,
and then made our way to the absolute highlight of the trip for me, Hei Long Jiang Di Yi Wan. Three oxbow bends in the river, that I had to climb about 900 steps to see properly. Really amazing sight.
We saw some horses running around loose on the road on the way there,
and we were forced to eat a crappy lunch at the bottom of the stairs before making our way up.
Later, there were a couple more stops at a bridge for no apparent reason,
and also at a stand of birch trees, also for no apparent reason it seemed like.
Then it was time to go all the way back to Beijicun. I was feeling a little nervous because I was the only one not getting dropped off in Mohe. I heard words like "foreigner" and "translate" go around between the passengers, so I thought I might be getting abandoned!
What actually happened was even more perplexing than that. We dropped everyone off at their hotels, and then the driver started calling a bunch of people. I started to think I was now getting kidnapped or robbed for sure. I quickly hooked up to some random wifi, and sent Jeremy my hostel name just in case.
It turned out the car had some broken part, so we had to get it checked out. It was good enough to get us back I guess, but next we drove down some small alley in a pitch black residential area.
"WHAT IS THIS?!" I said in Chinese, trying not to show pure anxiety and fear, but it clearly came out in my trembling and awkwardly loud voice. The driver explained with his translator that we were picking up his friend first and then going back home. OK??? OK... Who is this friend though? A Russian mafia member selling me into white slavery??? A Chinese gangster shaking me down for cash??? No, just a 20 something woman who smiled and gave me the most delicious banana in my life to eat on the long, silent, ride back. I went straight to bed not passing go, not taking a shower, and refused to get out in the morning, extremely exhausted. I haaaaaaaate Chinese tours.
The other woman in my room was also lazy the next day. Except she got up to run 10 km at 6 a.m. and then idled away the morning with me and my podcasts. We had lunch together, more river fish, and then walked to the last border patrol station in China.
She walked very quickly but I kept up even though my legs were aching from the day before. She didn't care. We had leftovers from lunch for dinner and more blueberry baijiu. It's a thing up there.
I whiled away the morning in bed again, but managed to check out at noon and I ate some lukewarm purple congee for lunch with marinated eggs. I took the bus back to Mohe again and luckily managed to switch to an earlier train. The last bus out made me four hours too early for the one I had booked. I just watched the orangey forests slide by until sunset.
A note about the orange trees: I found out that they are not dying after all. They are larch trees, one of a few coniferous trees that shed their needles in the fall. Never heard of them before, but apparently they exist in Canada too.