In Which We Hit the Road Again
It’s a wrench leaving Harbin, more than I’d thought it would be, and in the week running up to leaving I’m almost in denial.
I leave it to almost the last second to confirm with everyone from the landlord to Zac’s school that we’re going to be off again.
Not least because I’m not entirely sure we’re doing the right thing, abandoning friendships half-formed, school mid-term, projects half-completed, in lieu of heading overland to Mongolia…
Harbin’s LOVELY in the summer. We want to see it through.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t want to see Mongolia. We do.
And, further, we have an immovable deadline, in the shape of a long-arranged family reunion in the UK, that means that now is pretty much our window.
But, even as we’re quite literally counting the days (six more 5.30am wakeups… three more 5.30am wakeups…. two more 5.30am wakeups), there’s a real sense of loss.
Zac doesn’t want to continue Chinese school. But he also doesn’t want to leave Harbin. And, in some ways, it feels more of a wrench leaving here than it did Ubud or Dahab, because with Ubud and Dahab we’ve always known we’ll be back, and with Harbin…
… Well, with Harbin, as I find myself saying consolingly to Zac, “It’s only an overnight train from Beijing! We can go next time we’re in Beijing!”
Ahead of the last day of school, we pop to the chocolate shop on Zhongyang Dajie, our go-to joint for liqueur chocolates and Whittaker’s for Zac’s Easter “egg” hunt, as well as movie evenings.
We buy selection boxes for the terrifying Mrs He and the only-terrifying-to-Zac Mrs Jiang, Zac’s class teacher, as well as bag after bag of bonbons for his class of 40-odd.
The flat is in that state which happens when you pack down after a period of stasis for another period of travel, exacerbated, in this instance, by the fact that we arrived in temperatures of -30 after doing Everest Base Camp and we’re leaving in temperatures more than 50 degrees above that.
We’re leaving a lot of stuff behind – books, bedlinen, kitchen gear – for whoever comes after us.
And then there’s the clothes to be got rid of, the fleeces that won’t do another winter, the ballooning down pants we bought in Kathmandu that might make some ragpicker’s child very happy, the PJs that are past their expiration date, the vests that are no longer black enough to be worn for anything other than warmth.
And the piles of paper we’ve managed to acquire…
And, even as we throw out, there’s shopping to be done, because we’re not just changing place, we’re changing seasons.
Zac has a quiet, secret cry the night before he leaves his school.
And, as I head into the classroom, laden with chocolate, I almost cry, too.
Because, much to both of our surprise – Zac sits there, quietly overwhelmed – many of his peers have come through with handmade cards and little gifts.
A toy panda. A notebook, from the little girl who had the crush on him, with what looks like it started as a heart faux-casually transformed into a smiley. Puppets. Little toys. Messages in Chinese and English.
I don’t think either of us had any idea that he’d made connections on that level, and it rocks both of us.
We’ve been guests here, made quite incredibly welcome.
At CFL, in the afternoon, the twenty-somethings come through with letters, and pose for photos.
And after class, in the bright sunshine, we head to the botanical gardens, buried deep under snow when we arrived, and now a riot of tulips, windmills, animatronic dinosaurs, bumper boats and metal cableways leading across shallow ponds. It’s fab.
We’ve agonised for some time about where to take our landlords for dinner. They’ve bought us several dinners now and I’ve insisted that I have to “invite” them for once (it’s tough paying for anything in China, when you’re a guest).
I’ve wanted to do Western food, but Western options in Harbin are limited.
Russian food is difficult for Chinese people, not only because the standard Western dining pattern of one meal on one plate for each person is utterly alien to the Chinese way of eating, where mountains of food are ordered and shared communally, and there must always, always be some left over, but because it requires a facility with knife and fork.
And while most educated urban Chinese will have the basic facility with a knife and fork that most educated urban English people have with chopsticks (we’ll be happy enough shovelling rice into our mouths and picking up large bits of meat, or negotiating a noodle soup, but serving fish, helping ourselves to oysters, filling and rolling pancakes or navigating a communal hotpot will likely be beyond us), there’s a similar anxiety around the knife and fork that there is with chopsticks.
We settle, after advice from a friend, on Pizza Hut, a very far from optimal option all round, but one that does, at least, offer communal eating and avoid any significant utensil challenges.
So I’m kind of pleased, in fact, when our landlord throws all this out of the window and suggests we go for barbecue again, but at a better barbecue joint. And, in a mix of Chinese and English, a good time is had by all.
Three generations show up to see us off in the morning: the grandparents, whose flat this always was, the three-year-old son, who lives with the grandparents while his parents work, as well as our landlords and the family’s younger son.
I’m not expecting this, though I’ve been cleaning dutifully (dear lord, if I’d cleaned a fraction as much over the course of our tenancy as I did at the beginning and the end, our quality of life would have been a whole lot higher).
Much tutting over Zac’s skinny frame. “Too thin!”
“I don’t want to be fat!”
Insistence that we must come back, that we have friends in China.
And… Oh my god! They want to drive us to the station. That’s forty-five minutes across town.
As we lumber down the stairs, belongings duly transformed into my old backpack with down sleeping bags hanging off the sides – like I say, we’re headed to Mongolia, where these things come in handy – Zac’s old backpack (yes, still this one!), one tote and a camera bag, I feel that slight sense of nerves, of vertigo that comes with takeoff.
I’ve walked up and down these steps many hundreds of times this year. I’ll never walk up them again. I’ll never chat to the lady in the supermarket about nice pieces of pork, or Zac’s school progress. I never will make it to that coffee shop in the converted synagogue round the corner.
We have no reservations, no tickets, no visas, just a general plan to train across northern China into Mongolia, and flights into London weeks away. We’re off.
And it’s slightly scary. I’m knotted with it, in fact.