Well today has certainly been surreal. I'm typing this from a tiny bed on a bus, whilst having my ears pulled affectionately by elderly peasants.
I SHOULD be on a train. It turns out though that the ticket I was issued was in fact due for the 1st Jan. It clearly says "8th" on the paper I handed over but meiyou! All that could be done was I call a “hotline” number. Realistically the chances of finding someone who spoke enough English, plus working out the Chinese phone system in half an hour before the train was due to depart was exceedingly unlikely. Standing outside the train station wondering what to do, a guy with a clichéd Hollywood Chinese beard muttered something at me in Mandarin. I shrugged and replied with something about trains to Harbin.
“Aah! HarRRbin!” He smiled and beckoned me to follow. What else did I have to lose? Sometimes you have to go with these things and be prepared to run at short notice. He led me to an underground carpark. Definitely one of those “be ready to leg it moments” deep below ground was a waiting room where a guy behind a counter motioned for me to pay 300 yuan (about £30) Realising I didn’t have the cash I mimed an ATM and he ordered my original captor to follow me.
20 minutes later and I was sitting uncomfortably in a waiting room, today’s entertainment.
An old guy motioned to a huge map repeatedly and kept indicating an area just over the Russian border where three red dots had been drawn in felt pen and giggled.
Slightly anxious as my Russian visa ran out approximately a year ago I was reassured by a young guy that I was going to Harbin. He giggled as well which worried me. They then had a lengthy discussion on why I have a broken nose. I only know this because my original captor at one point decided to demonstrate something to the group by tugging mine and then miming walking into a wall. It was decided that I’d walked into a wall as a young child.
. Attention turned to my ears. These are too big apparently. Finally after analysing my skin tone (and me repeatedly removing the old guy’s wife’s hands from my thigh) someone decided it was tea-time. We all settled down to drink green tea, slightly interrupted when one guy decided it would be a hilarious joke to pretend to rob me. I laughed uncomfortably and resolved to track down the train ticket company and beat the hell out of the CEO of it. After another hour in which a major discussion took place over where I was from (Sweden was mentioned but eventually someone zipped open my coat pocket and removed my passport and discovered I was British)
“Erm yeah. Can I have my passport back? Thanks”
Suddenly everyone was on the move and I was ordered to follow a woman with an identical hairstyle to Little Britain’s Bubbles DeVere. I followed Bubbles and we reached a tiny white transit minibus. Either this was a feeder bus like in Thailand or I was being majorly scammed. We hit the traffic and eventually pulled in near Beijing South Railway Station. Again Bubbles beckoned me and as a group we went shopping as the coach was apparently not due until 16:00.
Finding a café after some serious purchasing (them not me, the bus was costing me a day’s budget) we sat down for some tea and a debate ensued about the size of my nose. Someone produced a tape measure and it was measured. It was when a comment was made, everyone laughed and Bubbles winked at me while waving the tape measure that I had to leave for some (Beijing style) “fresh” air.
It’s now dusk, passing through the inner suburbs and I’m in the top seat row of a sleeper bus. I’m confident now that it is going to Harbin. I have no idea what time it gets there or even how I will recognise it though.
This afternoon has been a real experience in getting to know the Chinese as people, not just anonymous faces scurrying around the subway. Yes I’ve been the subject of (affectionate) jokes regarding the size of my nose and ears but they somehow seem “different” now.
Less serious and formal. Interestingly I noticed while we were shopping Bubbles became temporarily “Subway Chinese” again adopting a grim expression. From what I could tell most of the group were unknown to each other yet once introduced they immediately stopped treading on each other and actually did things like hold doors open!
China really isn’t good on “Western manners” Queues are noticeable by the frustrated American at the rear while the locals surge forward using arms, bags, even a large framed picture of Chairman Mao in once case I observed at Wangfujing Subway Station. It’s not personal, it’s just “Chinese”!
If the person in front of you is taking too long it’s perfectly acceptable to wrench him backwards by the hair and take his place. Pretty much it’s every han for himself.
Back to now I’m beginning to tire of having my ears played with. They aren’t THAT unusual!
I almost offended the elderly guy earlier I think. He decided to start stroking my face and repeating “bao”
It seems “bao” means “unshaven” from what I could gather from the following mass discussion on my hairy chin.
His wife is sat a few rows from me now, smiling through terrible teeth. I’m slightly worried about what the pair of them have in mind for me if/when we get to Harbin….
Edit: It’s 18:30. We’ve been travelling about 2.5 hours. We’ve stopped at a tiny service station with squat toilets in the middle of nowhere. That was the quickest pee of my life. The idea of being left behind on a rural Chinese highway fills me with horror!
It’s noticeably colder than Beijing wherever we are now. It’s also dark but squinting through the window we don’t seem to have reached the snow line yet. The next time we stop I’m staying on the bus. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about…
11:30am and I’ve arrived.
If you haven’t experienced -28c temperatures before then it’s a shock. The cold seeps through your gloves and into your bones. Harbin itself seems a lot more aggressive than Beijing with touts actually physically accosting you at the train station and trying to take your luggage.
It took a while to find the hostel in the taxi, it’s miles from town and it appears to inspired by the traditional YHA with long sterile corridors and bad wifi.
It seemed the receptionist had never met a foreigner before from her stunned reaction but there seems to be a couple of (unfriendly) Northern sounding Brits in my huge dorm room. There doesn’t appear to be a bathroom in the entire place, just a traditional squat toilet. First impressions of this place and of Harbin aren’t particularly positive. I’m already missing the comforts of Beijing.
I originally wrote 'Every Han for Himself' for the now closed Travelpod site. In January 2014 I was lucky enough to able to tick off a long held bucket list ambition by visiting both Beijing and the Harbin Ice Festival.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.