Monday, 9 February 2009

Harbin a mice time

So blah blah blah: China is a bit different to England. It's immediately very different to Russia: where the border town on Mr Putin's side is quite possibly the most awful place on the entire planet. You basically have to sit in a concrete shack for five hours while your passport gets stamped and the train in prepped for the Chinese train tracks - there is nothing to do there whatsoever other than desperately try to spend your remaining roubles buying horrible snacks off a woman with a trolley laden with what were in essence lumps of cold lard. To add insult she - inevitably - hated us, probably because we wanted to buy things, though mostly because she was Russian and this is what Russians do. So you get into China for another five hour wait, but there are skyscrapers and electric lights and fireworks and giant statues of Chairman Mao, one of the most reprehensible human beings to ever walk the planet, and you think 'Yes. Civilisation.'

As you can imagine, there's a fair amount of culture shock, which I'm sure you can guess at easily enough, but to boil it down:

1. It is impossible to understand a word anybody is saying or anything written down anywhere, nobody understands you, and it's almost entirely pointless attempting to self-teach oneself any Chinese words, as the language is based on inflection to such an advanced extent that nobody has a clue what you're saying unless you nail it perfectly.

2. People stare at you almost constantly. It's genuinely very hard to work out why they might be doing so - the idea of the 'inscrutable Oriental' is clearly bollocks, as you see all manner of completely recognisable facial expressions elsewhere, but the default reaction to whitey is to stare with as blank a face as possible for as long as possible.

3. The driving here is genuinely unbelievable, short of enforcing an actual bounty on civilians for drivers, I can't actually imagine how it could be any more hazardous. Harbin, a city of four million people, has maybe ten traffic lights, all of which are ignored. Crossing the street involves vast quantities of faith, and preferably keeping a Chinese person between yourself and the oncoming traffic. Worryingly I'm quite good at it, which doesn't really say wonders for my life expectancy.

Anyway, it's quite different, let's leave it at that. The reason we were in yet another city you've never heard of was for the legendary Harbin Ice Festival, where vast sculptures of fantastical things are constructed from huge blocks of ice with electric lights frozen into them, a hangover from some old fishing tradition.
We were excited.
Then somewhat taken aback.
We arrived not to the Harbin Ice Festival, but to the Harbin Disney Ice Festival, proceedings hijacked by Mickey, Donald, and y'know... those other guys. I'm reasonably certain that this is the first year it's happened like this, or else it might have been mentioned in one of my gazillion guides to the Trans-Sib route; either that or Disney actively paid of Lonely Planet et al not to mention it so that they could better see the expression on our faces when we turned up.

Anyway. There was about five initial minutes of horror, mixed with amusement on my part, bemusement from Chiharu (who had come to Harbin too), and po-faced hippie grumbling from Louis and Joe. But as it turned out, it was mostly front loaded with Disney blah, and before long we were lolloping through a wonderland of large blocks of glowing ice that looked immensely impressive firsthand, kind of like the tackier portions of the video to Billy Jean on every single photo. They didn't look as bad on camera as the actual best bit of the festival, which was the international ice sculpture competitions - exquisite carvings of forest creatures and mythological beings... in real life lovely as the finest of Classical carvings... on my poor benighted little Olympus they look a bit like large jelly sweets. Anyway, the point is that when you pore lovingly over my pictures, you should be impressed, even if you are not impressed.

On day two Chiharu unreasonably went off to see friends in Shanghai, which was sort of a problem, as she can speak approximately four words of Chinese and read about two, meaning she was 100 per cent better at us at understanding what the hell was going on in restaurants which didn't have picture menus. Nonetheless, matters sort of came good when we that evening were herded into a random shack by an enterprising restaurateur, and actually managed to order food via the medium of the 'food' section in my Lonely Planet guide. Then - despite (though to a large extent BECAUSE) nobody understandood a word anybody else was saying - we managed to get into a hilariously elliptical argument over how the restaurant owner thought our hotel was too pricey... to give Louis credit, he attempted to draw a diagram on a napkin that explained the hotel had been booked as part of a Trans-Siberian semi-package trip and was actually quite good value for money. Sadly it was essentially as elusive as 'the most beautiful D in the world', something I attempted to draw while on an awful lot of mushrooms not so long ago, and failed in the attempt thereof quite miserably.

Final day and we had a choice between Harbin's other two attractions: a germ warfare museum and a Manchurian tiger sanctuary. Even my sense of humour wouldn't quite permit a Disney/grotesque human experimentation double whammy, so tigers it was. Yeah, Manchurian tigers are cool, they're big mofos who generally looked like they could have swatted our safari bus to pieces if they'd actually been bothered, but they're cats and it was a sunny day, so they decided to laze imposingly instead, which was good for all.

There are only 400 or so of the poor beggars left in the wild thanks to people being shit scared of them/some wearyingly predictable peasant belief that their meat'n'two veg = nature's Viagra, so the fact there appeared to be about double that number in the park was sort of heartening, assuming they're actually going to be rehabilitated... on a less delightful note, we got to witness a bit of cultural division as a succession of Chinese tourists fed live chickens to one group of adolescent tigers. This would have been kind of okay-ish (maybe), but the poor bugger was strapped to a bamboo pole and waggled above the tigers by whichever tourist had bought it... tigers were variously baited until eventually the tourist got bored and let them have it or the fact a tigers is basically a large furry tank that can jump meant one just grabbed it (in one case wrenching the pole into the enclosure, whuch amused us heartily). The worst thing is that every time a chicken clucked in, y'know, agony, all the Chinese tourists just laughed. I dunno, it was pretty grim, though the fact that we were basically standing there gawping prudishly at the Chinese tourists probably didn't make us significantly better.

Got back into town and had some noodles, a fact that will take on more significance later.

Boys went to use an internet cafe for a couple of hours and sort of grouse in a brotherly way about how they'd spent too much money (they're planning to work in Japan for a year at end of this trip), and I took a mooch about Harbin the town - actually some really pretty bits, especially when I tracked down its main old street, which is a blessedly pedestrianised relic of Russia's short colonial era. Wandered down to the massive frozen river at sunset and was really lovely, loads of bright eyed and bushy tailed townsfolk yomping about on the ice on iron sleds and old skool pony and carts - reminds me of paintings of the Victorian ice fairs when the Thames used to freeze over.

I was happy.

Then I started to feel a little peaky.

Then I met the boys and we went to get some food. They only wanted egg fried rice for whatever reason, and maybe hadn't grasped that there technically aren't any Chinese restaurants in China, meaning we went into four establishments, pointed at the symbols for egg-fried in my book, and were told they didn't sell it.

I rolled my eyes, and felt a bit more ill.

We finally went to noodle chain Mr Lees, which comprises about one third of all eating venues in Harbin, though often the branding is all inside the store with a deceptively trad exterior - kind of the equivalent of a Wimpey concealing itself as a charming country pub. I ate about a third of my watery noodles and felt yet more ill.

Then we got on our rather plush soft-sleeper train to Beijing. Each bed comes with a TV with ten channels, and the best thing about Chinese TV is there there's ALWAYS a film about some guy beating the shit out of some other guy one. So I watched one of those.

Then I vomited for about four hours. If you think large quantities of really mild noodles are a good thing to chuck up as these things go, you'd be wrong. It's horrible, like having a big ball of damp yarn yanked forcibly out of your gullet. I think I may now have a morbid fear of noodles, which could be problematic out here. At about 3am I managed to pass out. Naturally my last thoughts were of unbridled enthusiasm for our imminent arrival in China's capital.


Johanna said...

Ew. Well I guess it ain't real travelling without an encounter with Mr E. Coli.

I'm going to Japan in 12 days time, then Thailand. Are your Japan plans no longer happening?

Greg said...