off like a prom dress
not your usual vacation

better late than never

BlueGirlofHappiness Got here, finally, after a long, long day. The initial flight went really smoothly: quick check-in with Elliott, on-time departure, uneventful flight. We were even a little early arriving in Beijing. The international arrivals terminal seemed spookily empty when we got in around five. I would have expected Beijing to be a transfer point like NYC is, but apparently not. It's a beautiful airport: modern and well-run. We got through immigration, the health check, picking up our luggage, and waltzed through customs in the nothing-to-declare lane, got checked in again for the flight the Harbin—and that's where we hit our snag. Apparently the weather was spectacularly bad in Harbin, with amazing thunderstorms and we were delayed for two hours. The Chicago contingent actually had to turn back and sit on the runway in Beijing, so they got in not much earlier than we did, which was about 12:30 PM local (It's handy that China is 12 hours ahead of us--and odd that the whole country is in one time zone.)

Haven't actually seen much of the country yet, but the folks who picked us up at the airport with Marcy have been exquisitely nice, and our rooms, though basic, are also very pleasant: kitchen, bath, living room, bedroom. AC and western plumbing with some slight differences. Didn't actually get to bed until around 3 AM, and then woke up about 8:30 this morning, eager to get going. I'm going up to Marcy's room for caffeine shortly.

Don't know if I'll have internet access, or if I'll be able to get to Typepad, and Facebook is apparently totally blocked, so I'm dropping everything into Wordpad for the moment.


Walked around campus a bit, which includes the stores stores and banks, on our way over to the dining hall. Lunch, which consisted of a huge pork and cabbage bun and a bottle of juice (fruit juice that treats tomato like a fruit—which didn't quite work for me) and bits of Marcy's eggplant with onion, and a bean sprout salad, cost about $1.50. Lots of bread in the offerings. Marcy was right. Outside, we were approached by an old man in a blue Mao suit and conical hat, flapping a clacker and begging, but most of my attention was on the people I was with. Sigh. One of the reasons I like traveling alone, though not knowing the language here would make it very difficult.

Afterwards, we trooped over to the main shopping area on campus and wandered in. It reminded me of a cross between Pearl River and Mitsuwa Market. Picked up some extremely fragrant loose black tea (wish I'd brought a strainer; didn't even think of it), packets of sugar which are apparently intended for kids but look like restaurant packets, milk-in-a-box as opposed to milk-in-a-bag, a package of moon pies, a big bottle of water, a kettle, hangars, and a powerstrip. Total: $35. Noticed the abundance of yogurt, lovely baked goods, and the usual inscrutable packages of things I've seen in the Chinese grocery store at home. I'd still like someone who could interpret to walk me through the store and tell me what everything is.

Off to dinner with some of Marcy's friends from the faculty. No internet access until, possibly, tomorrow.

Later still:

It's going to be really hard to eat Stateside Chinese food ever again.

Dinner was, in a word, marvelous. Three of HIT's faculty, Yurong and her husband Jiaqi (who is an aerospace engineer) and another faculty member who is a biochemist and whose name I didn't catch, took us to dinner at one of the other HIT campuses at what looked like another slightly more upscale dining hall at first, but which turned out to have special party rooms upstairs. The larger one was decked out for an upcoming wedding reception. Off of this was a smaller room with one large round table and a lazy susan in the middle, with three waitresses dressed in uniforms of traditional patterned black silk and white gloves. Hurong's husband ordered for us and dinner turned into a feast: crunchy greens I can't identify and some tangy dressing; crunchy fried strips of mushroom and veggies; Mongolian hotpot with lamb and veggies; half a crunchy fish with the head on (lots of crunchiness in the dinner), two really scrumptious eggplant dishes, one with potatoes; several thin pan-fried pancakes; a couple of tofu dishes; and half a pressed chicken with the skin, head and comb still on (hmmmmmm). The chicken had not only been pressed flat, but also marinated, I suspect in vinegar, to soften the bones, then cut into cross sections so you got an MRI-like view without the viscera. Not my favorite, but then, I'm not a huge fan of chicken. The dishes went round on the lazy susan and you picked bits from plates as they went by. The chopsticks were beautiful too: long and black with square gold tips on them. I'm glad I've had so much practice with sushi and Japanese food before I got here.

Even more interesting than dinner though was the walk over through the streets of Harbin. If you're interested in travel and have seen pictures of a lot of places, even somewhere you've never been looks oddly familiar the first time you see it in person. The streets around Harbin are like that. Low-rise slightly shabby buildings, densely packed, the streets full of furiously zipping cars that don't pay much attention to the traffic signs or laws, sidewalks full of vendors with fruit and veggies and charcoal boxes grilling skewers of chicken and mystery meat, paved with somewhat rocky paving stones, or just nonexistent where they cross the railroad tracks. Again, I was a bit hindered in my observation by being with a group and there were dozens of places I wanted to stop and take pictures. Crossing the street was an adventure all by itself. Parisians zipping around the Arc de Triomphe have nothing on Chinese drivers, who stop for nothing. The only strategy seems to be wait for a light, go in a group, and run like hell.

The campus we went to was at one time the zoo, and when it was taken over by HIT, they agreed with the city to open it as a park after the workday was over, so it was full of people strolling, roller blading, playing badminton (killer badminton, I might add; how do the Chinese make such sedate racket and paddle sports look so vicious?) and a version of hackysack in which the hacky sack is a flat disk-like object with feathers attached. Marcy said one of her students last year told her they'd made them with chicken feet in the country, hence the feathers. Right in the middle of the park is a huge open storm drain that Hurong said was called something that translated into "still river"--a pretty term for a prosaic piece of infrastructure. The storm drain (lined with concrete) has a couple of pretty pedestrian bridges over it, guarded by Foo dogs or lions. I still have a hard time telling them apart, but see the picture. You tell me. The park/campus has a long allee of weeping willows that is just gorgeous too.

On the way back, the park was even more full, and there was music everywhere, most of it live: a large group of people dancing to solo wooden flute and singing, lots of dancing or exercising or Tai Chi variants, couples strolling. People just organize themselves into activity groups and meet in the park. As we were walking over, we passed through a group of women gearing up for some kind of dance or exercise activity, one of whom was barking orders like a drill sergeant and giving someone a good chewing out.

Elliott and Jan had disappeared for most of the day with one of the students and Elliott missed dinner, which is a shame. We've really got to get cell phones so we can all call each other.


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Hey chickie - this sounds really pleasant, which the exception of the drivers.
Glad to hear it. Food sounds delightful, and I expect to see many photos when you get back.
BTW, Farhana is bitching away like Talulah Bankhead on speed, and my cats are mostly hiding.

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