A Travellerspoint blog

September 2018

"I can (almost) see Russia from my hostel!"


View Jilin 2018-2019 & Greece trip, 2018 on baixing's travel map.

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.
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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.

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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.

Friday
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.
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There was also a teepee made out of birch bark, those ingenious Manchurians.

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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.
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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.
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We stopped at yet another most northern point,
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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.

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We saw some horses running around loose on the road on the way there,
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and we were forced to eat a crappy lunch at the bottom of the stairs before making our way up.
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Later, there were a couple more stops at a bridge for no apparent reason,
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and also at a stand of birch trees, also for no apparent reason it seemed like.
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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.

Saturday
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.

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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.

Sunday
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.

Posted by baixing 00:03 Archived in China Tagged beijicun mohe beihongcun Comments (1)

Lots and lots of volcanic rocks


View Jilin 2018-2019 & Greece trip, 2018 on baixing's travel map.

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On Thursday morning I took the exact same train as I did two weeks before to Harbin. Only this time, it was full, so I splashed out on a first class ticket. This meant I got a bigger seat and a little box of random snacks, together with a little box of coconut water. Not really worth it, but now I know what it's like living the high life in China.
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As soon as I arrived, I went to the bus station to try and get a ticket to Wudalianchi, but there was no hope until tomorrow. I tried the downtown station, also no hope. So, I gave up and mosied on over to my former residence in Harbin, North Hostel. They were not really surprised to see me. I told them last time I'd probably be stranded in Harbin again sometime, and here I was, stranded.

I checked in and went looking for a dumpling place people talked about on Trip Advisor, but it was only a chain. It started raining, so I had to stay once I found it. I went straight back home to the hostel after that and fell asleep.

I've been pretty lazy lately, maybe I'm still fighting off some illness. I even slept right through a rock band playing downstairs until 9 p..m. I woke up for the last song and by the time I got down, they were already bowing out and leaving the stage. Oh well. I had a little confusion about where my next hostel was exactly, but the lovely ladies at the front desk helped me figure that all out. There are two bus stations with very similar names. I needed to go to Wudalianchi FARM, not Wudalianchi proper. Needless to say, I did not have any trouble waking up early and catching the bus (#33) all the way back to Harbin West Station for my 8:30 a.m. departure time.

I was extra super rested, but then I slept most of the six hour trip all the way to Wudalianchi again. Who knew? It's like I had narcolepsy. I was regressing into my three year old self again. You know the one that fell asleep in a bucket of blocks in Germany and almost slammed straight into a pole sleepwalking in DC. Yeah, that one.

Liu Yu Fen, the hostel owner, had arranged a taxi to pick me up. I hesitate to call her place a hostel, because it's just a spare room in her apartment for rent for $12 a night. Anyway, she was very kind. I had some soju I bought in Harbin and a ton of ground cherries that I didn't eat on the bus, so, happy 37th birthday to me! I took yep, another nap, and then woke up to a simple dinner with Fen, then went right back to sleep again.
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In the morning, the same taxi driver picked me up to go to Lao Hei Shan. I had to pay $20 a day just for him to drive me around to different places because there was no bus. Another birthday luxury, or at least that's how I justified it.

He left me in the parking lot, gave me his card and told me to call him when I was done. It was an easy climb to the top, but once up there it was cold and extremely windy. You can't tell from the photos but it was. It was the 2nd dormant volcano I've ever climbed, but definitely the first huge volcanic crater I've ever seen.
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On the way down, there wa the "Sea of stones" which was formed when some chunks of basalt cooled faster than the rest of the laval and got pushed down the volcano in a crazy chaotic mess.
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Further afield, there was another mass of volcanic formations, but I had to get on a little buggy to get to it. I was lazy and didn't look at the signs. There were only two choices, but I got on the wrong one, the one that went back to the entrance. No problem, they laughed at me again and I made a round trip. I wandered around the boardwalks looking at more crazy formations the lava made when it bubbled up in various ways and cooled there forever.
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There were also a lot of beautiful cranes probably on their way south for winter. In addition to that, I saw a bunch of little dead fish, who knows what happened to them. I took the right buggy when I was done and Mr. Taxi came to pick me up quite promptly. Oh what a life of luxury I lead.

The luxurious feeling ended there, when he tried to tell me to go to something called "Crystal Caves". I had to argue with him until he took me to the "Stone Village" instead. I already knew about these crystal caves and they are ice carvings underground, refrigerated artificially. Lame.

Anyway, no one knows exactly how the "Stone Village" was created. The stones are more than 200,000 years old, so they didn't come from the last volcanic eruptions. Some people think they came from glaciers, but most people think they were broken apart and pushed around by earthquakes and volcanoes. Some crazy stuff happened here a long time ago, that's all I know. I tried to just imagine the sound of all these rocks breaking and smashing into each other as they got pushed down the hill. It must have been terrifying.
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Mr. Taxi was waiting for me at the exit, so he took me home and I immediately passed right out again.

Mr. Taxi picked me up in the morning at 8 a.m. again. We went out for breakfast and I had some sort of congee and a big bowl of scalded soy milk for 40 cents. I picked up some snacks and we headed out. Today would only be a half day of activities, I had exhausted the Lonely Planet list and I didn't really feel like trying anymore new things.

First we went to the "Third Lake". This whole area used to be one big lake, but the giant volcano filled in most of it and now there are five! Crazy. Again, it was really windy and cold. I was very happy I brought my raincoat with me. It kept me very comfortable both days. I walked up and down the edge of the lake and Mr. Taxi was there again waiting for me to go to the next place.
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We went to see three more little lakes, all with different personalities and more volcanic formations. There was a little boat ride back to the exit, but I'm not sure why. After this trip, I know a lot about volcanic rock. There are so many different kinds!
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Mr. Taxi brought me to a naturally carbonated spring, because I was out of ideas. I filled up my water bottle and strolled around on another board walk. It was obvious it was time to go home. I had exhausted Wudalianchi. I took another nap and then Fen had a late lunch for me and her friend. That was very kind. I was so full I couldn't go out again for dinner with Mr. Taxi like I planned.
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The night before, Fen had brought home a bucket of eels and plopped it down on the floor of her kitchen. It was so gross, I could hear them slurping and sliding around and burbling around in the bucket. I couldn't bear sitting in the kitchen. I tried to ignore it and often had to shut my door to keep the noise of them out of my head. It got worse though, I don't know why but she decided to put them in a plastic bag in the bucket! So now, they were still doing all that watery noise, but ALSO it crinkled the plastic bag they were wrapped in. It was dreadful.

In the morning I caught the bus at 5 a.m. back to Harbin, the eels were STILL wriggling around in the plastic bag. I was glad to see them go. I gave Fen a hug and Mr. Taxi picked me up right on time for the bus.
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In Harbin, the bus dropped me off at a seemingly random spot. It took me a long time to find the bus station. It was at least 1.5 km away from where he dropped us off. I was so angry, I was cursing out loud, not caring who heard. Eventually I found myself on my map and also found the bus station. I didn't make it home until 6 p.m. I am hopefully never taking that bus again, it goes on some weird farmer roads and it is insanely slow. Gah.

Posted by baixing 04:58 Archived in China Tagged heilongjiang wudalianchi Comments (2)

How to open a suitcase with a machete


View Jilin 2018-2019 & Greece trip, 2018 on baixing's travel map.

It was finally time for me to gather all of my worldly belongings. Will, my Cameroonian neighbour in Nanchang had just arrived back to town. I took the slow train there and had a good supply of NyQuil with me, so I survived in a drugged up daze. I had the top of three bunks and a rowdy drunk old man sitting underneath me, so it was not an ideal way to go.

The next day, I arrived on time and Leona was waiting for me at the exact same spot I met her at four years ago, when I lived in Changsha and couch surfed at her house the first time. We took the same old bus back to my old neighbourhood, but she had a new house. It was temporary because she was waiting for her new place to be built. She bought me some crayfish for a snack and I went to bed again, still exhausted.

In the morning, I went straight to Will's place, and all my stuff was still there in the exact same spot I had left it. One problem though, the zipper on my large pink American Tourister suitcase had become hopelessly stuck. Some sort of strange alien-like crystal had formed around the zipper pulls and they wouldn't budge.

I had brought the minimum amount of things with me because I figured I'd get along with all the rest of the things I left in Nanchang for the rest of the week. I wanted to carry as little as possible on the way back to Jilin, because I knew I'd have a heavy load. Leona felt bad for me in my stinky clothes, so she gave me one of her maternity dresses to wear, which resembled a tablecloth once I put it on.

So, there I was at Will's house, desperately yanking at the zipper on my bag, half naked in a black and white checked sheet, screaming for mercy from the heavens to let me at my clothes, just for the love of god, so I didn't have to go home in tattered rags.

We tried dousing the zipper in water, massaging it with oil and lubricating it with soap, nothing worked. Will even got out a huge cleaver and hacked at it for a while. Finally, we gave up and just went to the post office with it, resigned to send it along without even getting out any of the things I would need for the week. However, I knew they'd need to open it because of safety reasons. I was resigned to lugging it back unopened on the train and through the streets of Beijing, in order just to get it back home and open it there.

Just as I was feeling the most dejected, the woman at the post office produced an array of tools and started to work on it. She chiselled away at a bunch of black gunk, wedged under the zipper pull. She took some pliers and we yanked it open with brute force, the three of us together. Will and I instinctively hugged each other in pure jubilation. He had a suspicion that I had glued it shut myself, but now he knew the truth. Some other terrible affliction came over my suitcase, it was no racist suspicion on my part. I got a few things that I would need for the weekend out of it and sent the rest on its merry way, happy to be finished with the whole ordeal.

Will ordered lunch and I changed out of my tablecloth. The last part of my mission in Nanchang was to collect the last two weeks of unpaid wages from my former boss. She has owed them to me since December. I walked over and plopped myself down on her couch. She said she had forgotten all about it and she gave me the cash on the spot. Oh, I'm so glad you were protecting all this money for me for six long months and not thinking about it at all. I said goodbye and she said "See you!" to which I replied, "No, never," and left without another word.

I went back to say goodbye to Will, and shlepped a bag full of unmailable liquids and other things back on the bus to Leona's. I spent the rest of the weekend stress free with her two kids. We probably spent three hours playing with magnetic building shapes and a single rubber bouncy ball. We went to a park and had some Mongolian (Xinjian) food. Finally on Sunday morning, I went home to Jilin on the fast train.

Posted by baixing 01:54 Archived in China Tagged nanchang jiangxi Comments (2)

Harbin for a few days


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My schedule so far is only one day a week, so I headed to Harbin for a while. Thursday morning, I went to the railway station to pick up tickets to Harbin. There were no seats until 11 a.m. and I had forgotten my iPod charger, so I went back home to get it before I left.

The directions to the hostel were very clear and simple, so I got there on the bus with very minimal problems. I checked in and got a whole dorm to myself. Then I went and walked around in the "Russian" area. I went home a little underwhelmed because everything was tacky and brand new, aside from a few remaining heritage buildings saved by the government.
Heritage buildings
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The beginning of Zhong Yang Street
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A few preserved buildings
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This is Stalin Park
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In the morning, I went back and ambled around the park which is the site of the Ice Festival in winter, Zhaolin Park.
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The famous Russian church, St. Sophia's was also disappointing, but what can you do? It was closed for renovations.
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I went back to the hostel still a little underwhelmed by it all, so I decided to take it up a notch and venture out to the southern suburbs to see the former site of a germ warfare lab established by Japan in the 1930s. It took at least an hour to get there in sometimes atrocious traffic, but holy it was intense and worth the trip. There was a lot of information in English and it's always incredible to learn about underreported events in history.

The architecture of the entire place immediately plunged me into a state of deep depression, even before I took a step inside. What's left of the prison and labs are solemn and stark, with walkways to meander around the remains, similar to those at the Terracotta Warriors site in Xi'an.

I'm not a big fan of dark tourism, and it wasn't my intention to visit this place at all, but boredom and curiosity got the best of me, so I went anyway. Being entertained by other people's misery is immoral and distasteful, but I suppose a museum such as this one is essential for the preservation of history and the awareness of the public. I believe that a few of the exhibits pushed the shock factor a little too far, namely the statues and dioramas of various kinds of torture inflicted on the "maruta", human logs as the Japanese called them. But how else can you fill such a museum, besides displaying endless salvaged scientific implements and showing endless footage of witness testimony. What else is left but plastic reproductions of terrified people in gas chambers, or men tied up to trees with icicles dripping from frozen solid limbs, am I right? I dunno, I went back to the hostel thoroughly emotionally and physically exhausted and fell right asleep.
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A neighbourhood slightly to the east of me was also recommended in the Lonely Planet, but I disagreed. The Temple of Bliss was typical of every other gleaming new Buddhist site plunked down anywhere in China, and I took the wrong road to the Confucian temple, but I'm sure it was also more of the same.
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For some unexplained reason, the amusement park was also recommended, maybe because of its age? It was built sometime in the late 1950s and it's still going. I took a ride on the overpriced ferris wheel, because what else was I doing here for so many days? According to Wikipedia, it's the world's 20th tallest ferris wheel as of time of writing.
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I took a nap and then headed back to the old Russia area to pick up tickets for the chamber music concert that night. While waiting for the show to start, I happened upon a night market, where I chowed down on barbecued oysters, squid and beer for 35 yuan ($7).
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The concert was very cute and they sang a lot of classic Russian opera songs, including the one from Tetris. I couldn't control the giggles when they sang Edelweiss in English, their accents were adorable "blaaiiss my homerand folevuhh" but their vocal talent was amazing. I can't imagine spending a lifetime honing your singing voice, only to end up singing for tourists for pennies. It really is a little sad when talent is unnoticed and hidden like that. I guess there's not a whole lot of demand for European opera singers in China? I don't know.

The Synagogue where the concert took place
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On the last day, I took a little architectural tour of the other side of the railway station. There seemed to be more evidence of Russian architecture here than anywhere else. It really was amazing to think of the great influence Russia had here, when they occupied the area. There are huge buildings preserved in quite a wide radius of the town, huge department stores and old churches, hotels, offices and factories all have an "eclectic" Russian feel.
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After another nap, I headed to the pedestrian shopping street to snack on the famous Harbin ice cream, (that actually tastes like milk) as well as some sweet potato chips. On the way back, my bus got hit by a car, so we had to wait around for about half an hour while traffic was redirected and another bus came to pick us up. I went to sleep early again and woke up early to catch the train back to Jilin.

Posted by baixing 09:52 Archived in China Tagged harbin heilongjiang Comments (4)

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