06Mar2013

Finding Home in Harbin?

Zac's man cave. At home in Harbin.

It’s all too predictable that, after a 5000k trip that’s taken us south from Beijing, around -10°C (14°F), to Hong Kong and Shenzhen, in the balmy 20s (70s), then back north to -30° (-22°) Harbin, just a stone’s throw on the global scale from Siberia, I come down with a cold.

Now, I’m sure there are many worse situations in which to come down with a cold than while desperately flat-hunting in -30, with nowhere to stay, Chinese New Year coming up and an urgent need to earn some money and chase some invoices.

If you’ve been in a worse one, I’d love to hear about it.

On the grand scheme of things, it’s not a particularly bad cold. (It’s nothing on the one I had in Bulgaria – you’ll find that in 2011-2012 global colds review – or, for that matter, as debilitating as the corker I whined about in Pokhara.)

Just a sense of malaise, an unpleasant, scratchy sore throat, and something that’s building into the kind of rich, chesty, bubbling, roaring cough more often associated with permanent residents of the New York subway than fragrant souls like me.

Because, lord knows, both Zac and I are fragrant right now.

But it’s really not conducive.

I should probably find a pharmacy and score some of the Canton earthworm tablets that sorted me out so wonderfully in Beijing, along with this stuff.

Chinese medicine, whatever the hell they put in it – which isn’t, I should add, the hippie hearts and flowers nonsense you’ll find peddled by “TCM” practitioners to gullible Westerners: my earthworm tablets included human placenta and three types of deactivated bacteria – works.

But finding the right medicines involves a major vocabulary challenge and, oh Jesus, we need to find somewhere to sleep.

The door opens onto a narrow hallway, its tiles, like all floor tiles in Harbin, apparently grouted black with the coal dirt that comes in with the snow, and a super-heated steam of body smells – not body odour, for I have yet to meet a Chinese person with BO – rushes out. Oh god.

We head back to the station, where I hurl myself at the touts. One has a room for 80 kuai! Excellent. I don’t even bother to haggle the lucky number out of the equation.

Right now, I just want a place where we can rest our heads before I return to the house-hunting fray.

And that place can’t be expensive as it looks like I’m going to need to pay four months’ rent, plus deposit, plus agent’s fees, plus broadband, in cash, upfront, as soon as we find somewhere.

Which is problematic not only because I can only take out 2500 kuai every 24 hours, but also because, unless some people pay me, I’m actually going to run out of money. Things are going wrong. So things are being expensive. And because things are going wrong, I’m not earning.

Aaarrggghhhh….

The tout leads us down an anonymous main drag, and across the road to a rank of little basement gateways with red neon signs in Chinese characters. This is going to be our first really cheap Chinese hotel.

And, no 80 kuai (£8) isn’t cheap in China. But it is cheap for Harbin at peak season.

The door opens onto a narrow hallway, its tiles, like all floor tiles in Harbin, apparently grouted black with the coal dirt that comes in with the snow, and a super-heated steam of body smells – not body odour, for I have yet to meet a Chinese person with BO – rushes out. Oh god.

In a tiny, narrow cubicle to the left of the door, a man is sat on his bed, a mattress folded out onto a concrete platform that takes up 60% of the room, the remainder being occupied, rather incongruously, by a computer of quite spectacular vintage.

He’s in his vest, but I’m not surprised he has his door open, because his room is a windowless cell. It feels like a prison. Or, rather, like a migrant workers’ hostel I ill-advisedly landed up in while ill-advisedly hitching solo around South Africa.

We think we’ve been asking about wifi. But because the person who taught us the word for wifi has an absolutely honking Beijing accent, and so pronounces “wang” as “waaaaaarrggghhh”, we have been saying “wan’r” instead of “wang”.

Zac and I have been asking about wifi.

Well, we think we’ve been asking about wifi.

But because the person who taught us the word for wifi has an absolutely honking Beijing accent, and so pronounces “wang” as “waaaaaarrggghhh”, we have been saying “wan’r” instead of “wang”. Further, though I recognise the word for laptop when I hear it, I can’t actually remember it, so I’ve been saying we have desktop computers, which, clearly, we don’t.

What we appear to have communicated is that we want to play on a desktop computer.

“Look! Look!” says the lady, grabbing Zac. “There’s a computer! See!”

She seems a little disappointed that Zac is not entirely whelmed.

“Oh my GOD,” says Zac to me. “It takes floppy discs!”

That means, I realise, it’s most likely older than him. Wow.

As I endeavour to make our abode, which comprises an L-shaped sleeping platform, a table with a computer on it, a bin, a window and about 20 square centimetres of floor space, remotely habitable, my spawn wails: “How CAN you have a computer with no internet?”

“Maybe they watch movies on it,” I say.

“On FLOPPY DISCS?” asks Zac, dubiously.

I try to take a photo. My entire camera steams up with the body heat.

Zac wakes me at 4am to inform me that there are rats under his bed. “There’s not a lot I can do about it now,” I say, maternally, though even I can hear the scrabbling.

As an accommodation experience, this place is definitely different. (Skint and desperate in Harbin? Turn right down the road from the station, and look for a strip of red-lit basements that aren’t restaurants, about 300m down, on the other side of the road from the station.)

Now, I’ve stayed in many worse places than this: a brothel in Mali, a cheap hotel in rural Morocco, the floor of the village office in Halmahera, Indonesia, etcetera, etcetera.

Everyone’s lovely and friendly, which you have to be when you live in a cubicle, for, at least as I read it, the single men are all migrant workers at places which don’t provide dormitories for their slaves, though the high-street-fashionable woman with well-groomed four-year-old in tow appears to be breaking her journey home to see family for New Year.

If I spoke Chinese, it would be a fascinating insight into Chinese life. But I don’t.

On the plus side, the sheets and bedding are not visibly dirty, there are no bugs and the squat toilet is clean has only one recent “present” in it, which our hostess rapidly flushes away.

Harbin travel tip! Renting a room in one of these places and then leaving your luggage there is cheaper than the left-luggage office at the station.

We find a local place to eat at, one that’s offering more than rice, and I drop off quite easily, thanks to my cold which is now at the feverish stage and a couple of beers to mitigate our surroundings a little.

Zac wakes me at 4am to inform me that there are rats under his bed. “There’s not a lot I can do about it now,” I say, maternally, though even I can hear the scrabbling. “If we can’t find a flat tomorrow, I’ll stop flat-hunting and look for somewhere we can safely spend a week.”

Though, with Chinese New Year coming up, and estate agents, like everyone else, downing tools for the great Spring Festival holiday, not to mention the work that needs to be done, I’d rather find one sooner than that. We’ve been ricocheting around China quite long enough, thank you.

I’d really like to go to bed for a couple of days and sleep off my cold, then get some work done. Or, to further refine this, I’d rather not have the cold, I’d rather not have the work to do, and I’d just like to be looking at Harbin.

Again, we set up camp in Bomele, in the nice armchairs by the window.

“Cold lemon juice and an American coffee with milk?” asks the girl. We’re regulars! Already!

I’d really like, right now, to go and see the ice festival, the main point about Harbin for most visitors and something that’s been on my bucket list since I first heard about it, or at least check out the frozen river.

Well, actually, I’d really like to go to bed for a couple of days and sleep off my cold, then get some work done.

Or, to further refine this, I’d rather not have the cold, I’d rather not have the work to do, and I’d just like to be looking at Harbin. (This is, gentle reader, one of the ongoing hassles of life as a digital nomad.)

Anyway, I’d really rather not be flat-hunting.

I’ve found all the various places we’ve put down roots in over the last three years or so, our little house in the rice fields in Ubud, Bali, our 32nd floor flat in Kunming, China, our enormous bloody house with its Bedouin arisha in Dahab, Egypt, all in the space of a day’s looking.

Now, I’d expected Harbin to be more difficult linguistically and culturally than any of these. Ubud and Dahab are backpacker/longterm traveler/expat/tourist towns, so easy as hell. I wouldn’t say Kunming is set up for tourists, exactly, but it does have an expat scene and a strip of bars and restaurants with English menus, wifi and similar, and quite a lot of laowai come there to study languages, so there’s a reasonable short-let infrastructure and English-speaking middlemen and brokers in place.

But Harbin is proving a LOT more difficult than anticipated.

This is not, frankly, how travel is supposed to be. We’ve been in a downward spiral, a hellish concatenation of bureaucracy and transport hassles, ever since we got stuck in Lukla, over a month ago.

We’ve missed the end of the Chinese school term. I’m nowhere on researching schools. I’m short on cash.

Every single step of this run at China is proving infinitely more difficult than the last. And I’m not particularly well-prepared, because, well, ya know, we’ve been to China before, and it was easy.

“Hello!” I say. “It’s Theodora. The English person.” “Hello,” he says. “I. Have. Flat. You. Can. See. Is. Two. Room. Flat. Rent. 1800. Kuai. One. Month. You. Can. Rent. Four. Months. You. Understand. Question?” GO MR YE!

Mr Ye has another option for us, apparently. I pass the intervening time looking on Ganji for acommodation that doesn’t require a year’s contract and six months’ rent upfront, is central, and isn’t studio apartments, spare rooms or love hotels.

I find pretty much diddly squat, though I do at least manage to chase some invoices, field some emails and do a small job that absolutely has to be done today.

It’s rising teatime, and Mr Ye still hasn’t called.

I brace myself, then pick up the phone. YES! I can do this!

I’ve explained to Mr Ye last night that “If. You. Talk. Slow. Like. This. Use. Easy. Words. I. Can. Understand. My. Chinese. Not. Too. Good.”

And, in fact, we’ve been communicating OK, face to face. He’s a bright guy. He’s not spent much time with laowai, but he does understand that Chinese is difficult for us and he needs to slow it down.

Still, the telephone is a new level of difficulty, because with the visual cues and hand gestures left out, it’s pure Chinese and, further, I don’t have a Chinese name yet.

“Hello!” I say. “It’s Theodora. English person.”

“Hello,” he says. “I. Have. Flat. You. Can. See. Is. Two. Room. Flat. Rent. 1800. Kuai. One. Month. You. Can. Rent. Four. Months. You. Understand. Question?”

GO MR YE! The man’s a genius! (The vast majority of Chinese don’t yet travel internationally, so to hit someone who can manage the conversational style of ye 1950s Briton abroad, AKA understand that people don’t speak the language but if you speak VERY slowly and VERY loudly they might cope, is brilliant. I always used to mock my dad for this, but actually he had a point.)

“YES!” I say. “I understand! 1800 kuai one month! We want look! Want look now! How much time from here?”

“Ten. Minutes.”

“GOOD!” I say. I’m super-excited.

“Where. Are. You?” he asks.

“In coffee shop,” I say. I can remember the word for “same” but can’t remember the correct word order for a Chinese sentence using comparatives, so bottle “same” and paraphrase. “Yesterday of coffee shop. You come here yesterday. On Zhongyang Dajie.”

At which point Mr Ye, sadly, forgets he’s talking to a cretin. “^&(^(&coffee-shop, Bomele ^&(*&^(*&^(*^20 minutes &^(*&^(*&^ZhongyangDajie(*.”

“You come this coffee shop in twenty minutes?” I say. “Take us look flat? OK?”

“OK!” he says.

Holy cow! I’ve managed a phone conversation in Chinese.

Kinda.

Though I can’t help thinking that I have a long way to go before I can cope with school admissions.

“Sixth floor!” says Mr Ye, brightly, who, in the manner of Harbiners, not only goes out without hat and gloves in temperatures of -30 but can spring up endless flights of stairs with the vigour of someone half his age.

We walk a little under ten minutes, in fact, from Zhongyang Dajie, past a buzz of local restaurants, malls and supermarkets, through a heavy-duty metal door in the base of the building and up, and up, and up some grimy steps.

“Sixth floor!” says Mr Ye, brightly, who, in the manner of Harbiners, not only goes out without hat and gloves in temperatures of -30 but can spring up endless flights of stairs with the vigour of someone half his age.

Jesus, I think. It hasn’t taken long for my Everest Base Camp fitness to disappear.

The door is grey-painted steel, marginally softened by red and gold Chinese New Year decorations, but hardened by a substantial lock with a dial that you have to twist a few times before you slide a lever to open the keyhole, an effect that is quite remarkably reminiscent of the peephole at a maximum security prison, perhaps one with several hundred freedom fighters on hunger strike.

There’s a small, tiled entry-way cum living area, our “methodist”, with a sofa, a fridge and a rack for exchanging outdoor and indoor shoes.

Off this are two big rooms with wooden floors: one has a desk, a bed and some wardrobes, one has a bed, a sofa, a telly, a KTV set, plus speakers, and more wardrobes. There’s a long, thin kitchen, with a counter one can eat at, leading onto a glazed balcony, with a small bathroom off the kitchen.

And, umm, that’s it.

“Ooh!” says Zac, plumping himself onto the sofa. “A man cave! Mah man cave!”

He’s wanted a man cave since we stayed in what he branded a mancave in Tyre, Lebanon. And he appears to have decided this is it.

I look at “my” room. Actually, if I arrange things, I’ll have a reasonable amount of workspace. It’s not going to be as nice as Dahab, where I had my own little office, but it’s workable. It’s a nice, big, bright room.

We could, I think, be happy here. And that’s what it comes down to, with a house. Happiness.

Given I am very far from being a domestic goddess, when I tell you that I am seriously contemplating scrubbing the kitchen ceiling, that should give you an idea of how dusty and grimy it is.

I am not, however, happy with the bathroom. It has a washing machine in it, taking up most of the space, and is festooned with cables almost in the manner of ye classic Latin American death shower, the type that so alarmed me when we first went to Guatemala that I actually called reception to send a “caballero” to look at it.

Nor does the boiler appear to work. Plus some of the kitchen cupboard doors are busted.

The place has clearly not been inhabited for some time, and is in need of a good clean. And, given I am very far from being a domestic goddess, when I tell you that I am seriously contemplating scrubbing the ceiling, that should give you an idea of how dusty and grimy it is.

It’s a good location, though. I like the street.

I weigh it up. “Can we stay tonight?” I ask Mr Ye.

We can!

Zac and I discuss. The first one we saw, he thinks, had a bigger living room. But this one will actually take us for four months, and he does like his man cave, which has a lockable door!

Also, neither of us are keen to return to our current abode. We decide we’ll take it if we can get the bathroom sorted.

Our utilities, including Soviet-style heating that is permanently on max throughout winter, will cost 5 kuai (50p, or 80 cents) a month, an economic curio that seems particularly insane given flats in the block are sold on the open market for about ten times the price they went for at the beginning of the century, let alone when they were built.

One can live for an extremely long time in China on 2500 kuai. A bowl of home-made noodle soup in a local eatery costs around 8 kuai; street snacks are in the 3-5 kuai range; a bus fare is 1-2 kuai. It is not, however, an experiment that I’m keen to conduct.

I try and explain about the washing machine and the cables. Mr Ye doesn’t seem to see the problem. The boiler, which handily appears to be “hot-water-machine” in Chinese, is a mystery to both of us.

“You call your friend?” he says.

I call poor Huaze, and ask her to explain about the washing machine and the boiler, and confirm that we can put down 4000 kuai plus Mr Ye’s 900 kuai broker fee now, plus the 5 kuai per month fee for utilities.

The rest of the money is to come before the end of the month.

When, I sincerely hope, some of my lovely clients will have paid me. (Still want to be a freelance writer? Read this.)

For after tomorrow, the issue’s not just going to be that I can only take out 2500 kuai per day. It’s going to be that there aren’t any more 2500 kuais to take out.

Because, rather than spending the month of January installed in a flat in Harbin and focused on rebuilding finances, with Zac in Chinese school, and then going skiing, I’ve been haemorrhaging money on visas, flights, trains, more visas, more trains and unplanned, last-minute hotel rooms, not to mention treats to make said richocheting around China tolerable for both of us, and now I’ve got to pay four months rent plus everything else upfront.

One can live, incidentally, for an extremely long time in China on 2500 kuai. A bowl of home-made noodle soup in a local eatery costs around 8 kuai; street snacks are in the 3-5 kuai range; a bus fare is 1 kuai; 2500 kuai is close to the average per capita monthly income.

It is not, however, an experiment that I’m keen to conduct. Particularly not with the delights of Harbin in the winter to explore.

Off we trot, back to Mr Ye’s office. It’s already dark, but apparently we can move in tonight. We need to do a rental contract. In Chinese. And the landlord will come and meet us.

Mr Ye calls the landlord. They’ll do it!

There’s no bedding, but we have sleeping bags. And we’ll have to arrange our own broadband and wifi.

Oh god. That’s going to be a challenge and a half, from working out what contracts are on offer and which company to go with, to finding the local office or the right phone number, to actually having the bloody conversation in Chinese.

Never mind. I can work in Bomele until I’m ready to face that.

Because I really do need to do some work.

So off we trot, back to Mr Ye’s office. It’s already dark, but apparently we can move in tonight. We need to do a rental contract. In Chinese. And the landlord will come and meet us.

Wow. That’s Chinese efficiency. And, further, Chinese kindness.

14 Comments

  1. polly says:

    daft question I’m sure, but what kind of sleeping bags do you have? i found some that pack lovely and small which is priority no. 1, but they are mummies and i’m very traditional in that i like the larger bottoms – feel claustrophobic… suggestions?

    and congrats on the flat. yay!

    • Theodora says:

      We have Nepali fake North Face sleeping bags, rated to -20, down-filled, that we bought for Everest Base Camp. They’re heavy and pretty bulky, so I wouldn’t recommend them unless you’re going to be sleeping in sub-zero temperatures for a lot of the time.

  2. Joanna says:

    Omg, your flat still sounds way better than ours here. If you ever feel depressed in yours let me know and I’ll send you photos of mine – guaranteed to make you feel better.

    • Theodora says:

      I actually quite like it. I’m surprised how much I miss having an oven, though. It never bothered me in Bali, and I didn’t use the one we had in Egypt, but cold weather leaves you longing for roast chicken and roast potatoes…

      • Ainlay says:

        Don’t know if you are going to see this but anything you want to roast you can do on burners with a dutch oven. In a pinch you can even use a wok, just on really low heat with the top tightly closed. Or make a lovely roasted potato galette in a frying pan with a top (you can flip and replace to toast the top).

        • Theodora says:

          WOW! You are a genius, Ainlay! Thank you. Adding a Dutch oven to my Walmart (Wan-er-ma) shopping list. Now the boy’s in school he deserves roast chicken and roast potatoes. Going to endeavour to make it happen!

  3. “Concatenation”? Whoah!

  4. Catherine Hartmann says:

    Have a cold myself right now so totally sympathise with you. The thought of having to do any of the things mentions just makes me want to put my head on a cushion.

    Well done for getting a flat sorted! Hopefully next post is you earning oodles of cash to top up your account and then going to the ice festival.

  5. David B says:

    Hey excellent, you’ve got somewhere to live.

    Also, I no longer have to travel; I just read your blog and let you take the risks!!!!

  6. Nonplussed says:

    I do admire your Micawberish resolve. There’s something of the Edith Cavell about you.

    • Theodora says:

      Umm, yes, Micawberish would cover me, unfortunately. In my defence, I must say that we had previously been to China and had found most things easy. Manchuria? A whole new kettle of fish.

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