After spending a solid 7 hours crammed in an overheated sardine tin (sorry I mean train), looking like classic Western tourists in our rucksacks with our maps and sweaty faces – definitely the only Westerners on the whole train – we finally arrive in Harbin, Heilongjiang – China’s most northern province. The bus journey from station to university was so bumpy I wondered if Fred Flintstone had been commissioned to make the wheels AND the road!
And the buses pathetic excuse for air conditioning was less effective than being coughed on by an asthmatic gerbil! The route took us through the pot-holed streets of Harbin, past blacksmiths and mechanics and over the wiggly tracks of railroads winding their way across the city, in and out of shanty towns with gardens of rubbish and plastic bags. With a distinct lack of anything resembling seat belts this made for an exciting ride!
First activity was…’nap time’, as sleeping on the train next to strange China men who needed to re-arrange their worms (yes, he was my bunk-buddy opposite me and kept a small jar of worms which he re-arranged every half hour or so and kept trying to give to me) proved not to be all that restful. Plus waking during the middle of the night for a much-needed, but quite distressing, toilet trip I come face to face with the train guard- who’d been staring at me from the foot of my bed on the ridiculously crowded train. Seeing people trying to sleep on hard seats did make me realise how lucky I was to have a bed!
Nap time was cut short by a piercing alarm, signalling it was time for the welcome feast, including everything from monk fish, to bean curd dishes, squid, duck, bean shoots, fungus, the hottest of hot hot pots, water chestnut soup, fried prawns and even chips! No cats, dogs or scorpions…I don’t think.
After such a filling feast we were then shown to the supermarket where essential toiletries, towels and emergency snacks were purchased. Word of warning: be carful when selecting skincare products such as face wash, ‘white foam’ face wash is in fact produced with a bleach-like substance to whiten the skin and some suntan lotion has bleaching agent in to make you go whiter in the sun…strange, but true! White skin is something which is highly sought after in China and seen as prestigious- it shows you don’t spend much time in the sun, unlike the peasant farm workers, homeless or beggars.
Today’s fun began in the canteen, where I decided to be a little adventurous and daring by trying something different for breakfast, in the form of fungus, as in the fungus that grows on trees. It was interesting, something I am glad I tried but would probably think twice about trying again, apparently it is very good for the brain so I am told, but the aftertaste, a somewhat cucumbery-salty…well, fungusy sort of taste with a hint of vinegar lingers for slightly longer than is comfortable.
It was after this that the problems of the day really began, arrving at the library and signing onto a computer proved somewhat of a challenge as EVERYTHING was in Chinese characters. Trying to check the ballance of my travellers’ currency card was in fact impossible, it would appear that China has blocked the website and therefore me trying to access it resulted in me getting locked out of my account!
Despite these banking issues I still showed my face at the Chinese-English students meeting who were all more than happy to meet us, and even escort us to the supermarket to help us buy calling cards to sort out our banking issues! After the majority of banking issues had been resolved, we skip accross the road and explore some Northern Chinese cuisine and discovered a deliciously cheap restaurant serving huge amounts of special fried rice from big wooden buckets, but this all makes sense now, as the meals served with this rice are about as spicy and filled with chillies as the traditional dishes of New Mexico! So hot in fact that it is advised to have a soft roll of toilet paper waiting for you in the fridge when you get home!!!
Whilst quenching the heat of our volcanically spiced dishes with bucket-loads of rice, behind us there is a war going on in an overcrowded fish tank full of large ghostly specimins where on occasion (after shouting to his colleage from accross the kitchen and whole restaurant) the chef would emerge and dip a net in, remove a fish, whack its head on the ground and drag it into the kitchen! To add to the excentricity of this experience, when paying for the meal I notice a large white plastic tub sat next to the tank. I thought this was empty, but on closer inspection I was met with 10 pairs of beady eyes peeping out of a bright green mass of 10 of the largest toads I have ever seen! After this we made a quick exit over to ‘A Bar’, that was the name of the bar, just ‘A Bar’, very creative we thought! Not bad prices for booze- #1.20 for a ’40’ (large beer).
The clubbing scene is definitely something to be experienced in China, partying (or as the Russians like to call it, ‘playing’) begins at around 8 or 9 in the evening, sometimes even earlier and the type of dancing you will witness is something reminiscent of your first school disco and often results in the dancers working up such a heat that the men will take their shirts off and prance around like gladiators while the girls dance slowly wiggling their bums at the wall! At 10.30pm sharp, the music stops and the dancefloor is cleared of dancers and replaced by two bar stools and a microphone…yup, you guessed it, it’s time for Karaokee, something which the Chinese are surprisingly good at (if you ever see a Beijing Opeara show you will understand what I mean)!
No matter what time you walk the streets in China they are always buzzing with watermelon and jewellery vendors, food and grass ornament stalls, and surprisingly a vast amount of stalls selling boxer shorts and socks- even my Chinese buddy does not understand why sock stalls seem to be so plentiful! Weaving in and out of the stalls and people will be small children in over-sized silk jackets munching on scorpion or squid on a stick!
We pass salon after salon with people emerging with the strangest of hair styles and the cheesiest of pop music blaring from inside. The hairdressing scene is almost more hard core than the clubbing scene here, with many salons open late into the night with loud music, buzzing social scene and drinks deals- buy a pint, get a free cut, who’d have thought!