03Mar2013

Our China Odyssey Part 2: Shenzhen to Harbin

A hand peeks out of a heap of bags on a crowded Chinese train.

Our unplanned day in Shenzhen passes in what I guess you could call serendipity.

We weren’t hugely whelmed by 798 Art District in Beijing, so we catch the metro in the direction of Shenzhen’s modern art district to see if that pulls our chain.

“Ooh!” I say, looking at the green line unfolding before us. “Next stop is Science Museum! Shall we go to the science museum instead?”

Zac is a science museum geek. He umms and ahs for about 30 seconds, and off we hop, in search of the science museum.

Which is, weirdly, neither visible, nor signed.

We wander around for a bit, asking people where the museum is (neither of us can remember the Chinese for “science”). People are either mystified, or direct us into the metro.

Weird, I think.

But I’m not giving up. It HAS to be here somewhere.

A soldier on a bicycle proceeds to lead us, pedalling at walking pace and gesturing kindly, through a maze of what feels like university campus and a little park to…

So we head to an official looking building, and ask a soldier. “Wait!” he says.

And along comes another soldier on a bicycle, who proceeds to lead us, pedalling at walking pace and gesturing kindly, through a maze of what feels like university campus and a little park to…

… Well, not the Shenzhen science museum, actually. (It turns out that was knocked down about five years after they named a station for it, and is due to reopen in a new location this year).

It’s the Shenzhen Museum!

Which is, amazingly, hosting an absolutely wonderful exhibition of Georges Braque! Jewellery, sculptures, ceramics, lithographs, as well as paintings – lovely, sensuous jewel-like pieces that really transform my perspective on him.

Zac’s never seen a Braque, or even heard of him, and we gawp and goggle at these beautiful, beautiful things.

And, as we tootle back across Shenzhen to make our hellish train ride north, our ultimate destination still TBC, we feel this city merits more than a day.

If your concept of personal space precludes having your breasts pressed forcibly against a stranger’s back by the combined bodyweight of a mass of other strangers, then Chinese transportation at peak times is probably not for you.

There are certain times when travelling in China that people begin to seem less like human beings and more like a child’s stacking toy, or a vaguely squashy jigsaw.

And catching the train from Shenzhen, the shopping capital of China, as the nation gears up for its great migration, is one of those times. Our waiting room is a morass of bags, boxes, bundles, binbags, suitcases, all of them packed with consumer goods heading from the plentiful south to the scantier north.

The tannoy calls our train, the crowd surges forward, and I sling our 35kg (80lb) of crap around my person, chuck our emergency snacks at Zac, grab passports and tickets, rather belatedly realise that there may not physically be space on the train for all this stuff, and push our way into the rear of the mass of bodies surging towards the gate.

The Chinese don’t do queues. It’s not part of the culture. Be it a bus, a train or a lift, you just join in the surge. It’s not a bad-tempered surge. It’s not aggressive. It’s just – well, a surge.

Though, if your concept of personal space precludes having your breasts pressed forcibly against a stranger’s back by the combined bodyweight of a bunch of other strangers, then Chinese transportation at peak times is probably not for you.

After a gadzillion and one Indonesian ferries, not to mention the odd Lao bus, Zac and I are pretty much immune. That said, this is not how to take a train in China.

Swept along in the tail of the surge, we burst through the departure gates, into the blissfully uncompressed hallway, and stream down to the platform, Zac muttering darkly that “this train will be hell”.

This is a slow train, not one of the ninja bullet trains, which means the soft seats are just like second class on a British train rather than something out of sci-fi, and it’s precisely this familiarity that makes the crowds and the chaos seem so alien.

Because this is NOT a third world train. Urban China is not third world (though, lord knows, rural China often is).

With its malls, its fast subways, its recycling bins on every corner, Shenzhen feels far, far wealthier than, say, Athens or Sofia.

I look down the train. The aisles are solid with standing passengers. How far, I wonder, do they have to go? This train rolls north for thousands of kilometres. Are they hoping to pick up a seat a bit later down the way? Or are they going to stand for 30+ hours?

We squeeze and scramble our way through the entrance, already piled high with bags, with passengers who have bought standing tickets sitting on them, where they can, and wedged between them, where they can’t.

Two people are perched on the sink, three are wedged around the hot water machine and one woman is almost entirely submerged in a heap of bags. There’s that horrible, fetid wet dog smell of too many bodies in too small a space – I’m rather glad people are smoking, even though the Chinese don’t seem to get BO.

There’s a sort of ritual to the human jigsaw. You give way to whoever can move faster than you, which, with my 35kg of badly distributed weight, is almost everyone under 70. When the flow of people is blocked by someone manoeuvring a bag, that’s your chance to find a space for your bags.

I am, of course, too slow.

We dump our bags on our seats, squeeze in to stand beside them and let the Chinese do their thing, working miracles of visual-spatial reasoning, compressing bags into the tiniest of spaces, manoeuvring suitcases to the perfect angle to slot just another small package in. The guys routinely stand to help women and the elderly with their bags.

Once we’ve been rolling for half an hour or so, the throng has cleared enough for me to move out from the seat, wedge our biggest bags under a couple of seats and actually sit down. The rest of our stuff joins our fellow travellers’ gear under the table, and we shuffle things around to create legroom.

I look down the train. The aisles are solid with standing passengers. How far, I wonder, do they have to go? This train rolls north for thousands of kilometres. Are they hoping to pick up a seat a bit later down the way?

Or are they going to stand for 30+ hours?

It’s evening already, but we’re not going to sleep yet. I’ve accepted our body clocks will just be shot. More pressing, though, is the question of our destination. “I think we need to make a decision,” I say to Zac. “I think we just need to pick a place to live.”

We settle in. It’s evening already, but we’re not going to sleep yet. I’ve accepted our body clocks will just be shot. More pressing, though, is the question of our destination.

“I think we need to make a decision,” I say to Zac. “I think we just need to pick a place to live.”

He nods. “We can’t go travelling around northern China with New Year coming up.”

“No,” I say. “We can’t. If we go to somewhere to look at it and don’t like it, we may just get stuck there. We need to make a call.”

We’ve lost so much time on the visas that sitting in a ski resort for winter is now out of the question, particularly given we don’t even know whether the main ski places in that part of China, Yabuli and Beidahu, even have towns attached, let alone towns of a size to support a middle school for Zac.

“Look, Zac,” I say. “It’s going to be Jilin or Harbin.”

In both Jilin and Harbin, the Chinese is well-accented. Both cities have reasonable access to the ski slopes, though Jilin is only forty minutes away from Beidahu, while Harbin is three hours from Yabuli. And Harbin, of course, is famous for its ice festival (and, if you’re a history geek like me, Japanese atrocities and White Russian emigres).

I pass Zac our guidebook. He reads both sections carefully, several times.

Harbin, like Kunming, is not a big city by Chinese standards – it’s roughly the size of London. But, like Kunming, it’s the capital of a largish province, Heilongjiang. By largish, I mean, in a Chinese context, roughly twice the size of the UK.

“I think it’s got to be Harbin,” Zac says. “Jilin’s going to be too small and too Chinese. And there’s more to do in Harbin. Plus there might be pizza delivery.”

Much as we love Chinese food, in all its myriad variety, the prospect of eating exclusively Chinese food for the next three months or so is not one I’m entirely enthusiastic about.

We’re headed north, rather than going with the ease of Beijing or Shanghai, not just for the skiing and the good accents, but because we’ll actually need to speak Chinese there – plenty of expats spend years in Beijing and Shanghai without ever progressing beyond taxis and shopping, and some don’t even get that far. But, that said, I know exactly what Zac means by “too small and too Chinese”.

“I think delivery’s pushing it,” I say. There used to be a pizza delivery service in Kunming, but the company went under just before we arrived, which is why pizza delivery is now Zac’s de facto standard of extremely-liveable-Chinese-city. “But there’ll probably be pizza somewhere.”

Harbin, like Kunming, is not a big city by Chinese standards, by which I mean that it’s roughly the size of London. But it’s the capital of a largish province, Heilongjiang, aka an area roughly double that of the entire United Kingdom.

So I’m figuring that, like Kunming, Harbin will have a tonne of comforts – malls with bakeries and magical butt-slimming jeans, at least one supermarket with exotica such as breakfast cereal, butter, cheese and tampons, and maybe, just maybe, the odd English language movie once in a while.

The sort of thing, let’s face it, that you need, when spending winter in a city where temperatures routinely drop below -30C, particularly after endeavouring to go shopping in Kathmandu.

“Harbin it is,” says Zac, snapping the book shut with a note of decision.

I’m enthusiastic about living in Harbin. I’ve always wanted to see the ice sculptures: they were up there with Everest for many years on my list of unimaginably exotic places I’d like to see one day but probably won’t.

“OK!” I say. “We’ll get a flat sorted, get a school sorted, and then go skiing!”

I am not yet ready to break down any of these endeavours into the steps required to achieve them.

“I miss you!” the kid sings to me in Chinese, slightly awkwardly, as the others look on. At the end everyone applauds. Lord love the Chinese, they certainly aren’t backwards about coming forwards.

By about 20 hours in, of fitful napping and reading, taking turns on the Kobo, admiring bursts of pre-New Year fireworks out of the window, I’m beginning to rather enjoy the camaraderie of the train ride, and the endless compliments on our Harbin-appropriate clothing, AKA the down jackets that we bought for Everest Base Camp.

Many of the people on this train are headed far beyond Harbin, into the deep, deep north. One girl will be reunited with her four-year-old son, who’s living with her parents while she earns a living in Shenzhen.

One guy’s a professional singer. He wants an American girlfriend, but an English one will do.

What would I like him to sing to me?

He’s kind of hot, actually, but dear god, he’s 25.

I ask him to choose. It’s the winning song from Voice of China, the nation’s answer to Pop Idol.

“I miss you!” the kid sings to me in Chinese, slightly awkwardly, as the others look on. At the end everyone applauds. Lord love the Chinese, they certainly aren’t backwards about coming forwards.

“Do they teach socialist economics or Western economics in China?” I ask, struggling to work out how Socialist Economics, even Socialist-in-the-Chinese-Manner Economics, could possibly help him fiddle LIBOR rates, or whatever he’ll be required to do.

Another young guy is about to give up work and start a masters in economics so he can work in international finance – and speaks English!

“Do they teach socialist economics or Western economics in China?” I ask, struggling to work out how Socialist Economics, even Socialist-in-the-Chinese-Manner Economics, could possibly help him fiddle LIBOR rates, or whatever he’ll be required to do.

“They teach both, but as two separate approaches,” he says.

How very Chinese.

We could, he tells us, stay on this train and head all the way past Tianjin to Changchun, a city that’s just two hours short of Harbin on a fast train.

“Zac!” I say. “Did you hear that? If we stay on this train, we can get to two hours from Harbin! There’s no WAY we’re getting stranded if we stay on this train.”

“I am NOT staying on this train,” he says. “I want to sleep in a bed.”

Neither of us are particularly bothered about sleep, particularly since one of the best ways to pass a hellish train ride is sleeping, though we do get into our pyjamas as a general nod to night-time.

At Tianjin, I dump Zac with the bags at the bottom of some steps, wander through a light, soft snowfall to the ticket office, discover there’s a 5am train with seats on it, all the way to Harbin, and no other option because everything else is booked.

Whew!

I buy tickets, ask about a station hotel, find the station hotel, book a room, collect Zac and the bags, run to the shop and buy some food, and we wash, eat, charge devices and get online.

Neither of us are particularly bothered about sleep, particularly since one of the best ways to pass a hellish train ride is sleeping, though we do get into our pyjamas as a general nod to night-time.

All eight hotels that I try in Harbin are fully booked. Bugger.

At 4am my alarm goes, I change out of my pyjamas and into my last non-stinky top, pack us back up and head round the corner to the waiting room.

Harbin, I begin to feel, is going to prove considerably more difficult than Kunming. Flat-hunting, for example, might not be the merry bagatelle in -30 that it is in temperatures 50 degrees above that.

The train is late – the first time I’ve ever known a train run late in China. But it’s less clogged than the ones coming out of Shenzhen.

Thank god, I think. There aren’t TOO many people pouring into town.

I’m figuring if the station hotel(s) is/are full I’ll throw myself on the mercies of the touts (I am learning more and more about accommodation in China every day).

If there aren’t any touts? We have -30 rated sleeping bags, after all. Which we may well need since you can’t get into a Chinese station waiting room without showing a valid ticket.

Tonight is our three year travelversary. Whoopdedoo!

My grand plan of school and skiing seems to be dogged by misadventure. I have met a few people who have got kids into Chinese schools. But these have been primary-aged children, and in the south. And they do things differently here.

Harbin, I begin to feel, as the train trundles in, and we begin to load up, our latest round of new friends assisting us with bags and complimenting me on my strength, is going to prove considerably more difficult than Kunming.

Flat-hunting, for example, might not be the merry bagatelle in -30 that it is in temperatures 50 degrees above that. Yeah, I’m slow like that.

And, oh god, I really need to make some money. Aaarrrggghhhhh….

Here we are in a city of 10 million people, in its peak tourist season. We have nowhere to stay, we know no one, I’m carrying 35kg of crap, I’m running low on cash, Chinese New Year is about to hit and I need to find us a flat, sharpish. In Chinese.

The train trundles for half an hour through high rise after high rise, grimy with grubby snow, pulls to a stop and I look out at yet another Chinese station platform.

This is Harbin. We’re here.

It’s after 10pm, it’s -30, we’ve just spent two days and a night on trains, four days in total in transit from Hong Kong, and here we are in a city of 10 million people, in its peak tourist season.

We have nowhere to stay, we know no one, I’m carrying 35kg of crap, I’m running low on cash, Chinese New Year is about to hit and I need to find us a flat, sharpish. In Chinese.

Oh Jesus.

Sometimes, I think, it would be nice to have another adult along, so I could blame him for things.

12 Comments

  1. Catherine Hartmann says:

    These are the sorts of posts that make me glad I am reading about travelling instead of actually travelling myself :-) Can’t wait to hear what happens next.

  2. Theodora says:

    Definitely more fun to read about than to live, this little period of our lives… Although, you know, it’s had its ups as well as its downs…

  3. Catherine Hartmann says:

    Yeah I like the ups. I realise from your posts that I am WAY too high maintenance to travel like you although I wish I wasn’t. Your adventures seem (for the most part) really cool. I love to travel too but with military planning and at a level of comfort that means we can only afford to be away for max 5 weeks at a time.

    Actually the whole Everest trek series “almost” made me feel that I could do something like that. Then I remembered all the home comforts I need, but it was a nice feeling for a little bit. Hope you have some more cool adventures coming up that don’t just involve nightmares for you.

    • Theodora says:

      I think you might find Everest bearable if you did the luxury lodge route. They’re not terribly luxe, but they’re less basic than the other lodges. Or you could do some of it, so you get the views and the valleys, but don’t get to the brutally cold bit, where the accommodation becomes basic.

      It’s very doable. And, yes, we do have some cool adventures coming up. Bit more nightmare to go though…

  4. Ah, this post brins me back to the freezing temps of Harbin in late February, to the wonderment of just how a city so large and sprawling could be considered mid-sized (it’s larger than Chicago, where I’m from, by three times!) and why it is that everyone is OK with just pushing. I got kicked in the head when we had just bounced onto the runway by people already trying to be the first to get off the plane!

    • Theodora says:

      Yeah, we’re by now weirdly immune to the whole Chinese pushing thing. I’ve seen hideous things done to animals, really bizarre religious rituals and let’s not even go there with the position of women, so a bit of shoving is just, “OK! That’s your culture.”

      But the scale of Chinese cities never ceases to amaze me. I’m from London, which always used to be a big city. And Harbin’s the same size, which I believe makes it Tier 2 in China…

  5. I’m trully amazed, more like numb. Not about the trains, crowded stations, ticket hunting and smelly socks. That’s familiar; I’ve spent 3 days on a train seat, crossed the Atlantic on a sailboat, slept in ditches, beaches and more flophouses than I care to remember. I’m amazed because you did all this to arrive where it’s -30º C. My hat goes off to you – that’s because it’s 15º C here.

    • Theodora says:

      But it’s beautiful, Horatio! Honestly, it’s beautiful! Also, we’ve done 20+ below before, which means I had a reasonable idea of what we were getting into, otherwise, holy cow, lord knows I wouldn’t have done it either.

  6. Wow, I envy your bravery. Just the thought of taking such a leap of faith into the Chinese unknown makes me panic. Good luck on finally getting the school situation sorted!

    • Theodora says:

      And, insha’allah, we have! I think that’s actually the last piece of the jigsaw, so, assuming no change on Monday, we actually have this slice of life in China sorted.

  7. dave says:

    Jeez woman, I so admire and envy you.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanking you! I appreciate both the admiration and the envy, although I’m not entirely sure this sequence is 100% enviable….

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