mahjong, mahjong and other food-related news
one last story

trainspotting in China

ChinaMoiBridge Hey, sorry for the radio silence over the last week. Once classes were out, it was, if anything, far crazier than it was while classes were on. Most of this post got written while sitting either in the airport or on the plane on the way home, and there's still more to come, when I have a brain again.

I should mention that the cooking classes went great and seemed to be a big hit. Marcy took in various take-out menus beforehand to see what looked unfamiliar, and we cooked some of it for them: quiche, risotto, potato salad, coleslaw, French toast (the pancakes didn't quite work because we had a hellaciously hot hotplate and no flat pans), salsa and chips. Her classes practiced ordering and tipping and making change with our American and Canadian money. You never think that's something you need to worry about until you've got a pocket full of Mao and other mysterious currency that looks like play money. And the Chinese do not expect tips for service. Of any kind.

On Friday of last week, we had the speech contest and the graduation/closing ceremony and went out to dinner (as usual) with a bunch of the faculty. I know I've said this before but it bears repeating: I have never been treated so well in a foreign country as I have been in China. We've had a certain advantage in that we're able to meet people easily through the program, but even people on the street, the trains, everywhere, are extraordinarily kind and hospitable. We haven't paid for anything when we've been taken out, and even when we've asked people to take us places they won't let us pay for taxis. They go out of their way to be helpful and kind. Hospitality is deeply important in this country.

OrangeThingies The only exception to this rule was the trip we took to Wudalianchi on Saturday and Sunday. We asked Fanlin and Chen Hui to come with us and paid for their train fare and accommodations, though they made all the arrangements for us, so it seemed only fair. Boy, was that an Adventure™! Up at 6 am to catch the 8:40 am train for a six hour journey. We took cabs to the station and then rendezvoused on the steps. While we were head-counting, a group of women came up and stood right behind us, just watching us curiously. And when I say right behind us, I mean practically kissing distance, which was my first real experience of the much smaller Chinese sense of personal space. In America it would be an intimidation tactic. Here, it was just curiosity. We said hello, they smiled and asked where we were from and had a good laugh when Jan insisted that everyone was American but her (Jan's from Winnipeg). Their little boy very shyly said hello in English. And then they asked if we could take their picture with us. They don't care if they don't have copies; they seem to just want a record somewhere that they've met foreigners. This sort of surprised me as there seem to be a lot of Russians around Harbin. I would have thought they'd be more used to them, but apparently not. I suspect the Russians don't show up at the train station much, but fly in and out. And on the street outside the station a woman was selling these orange thingies that look like squash. Inside are large bright red seeds that you eat. Marcy bought one to share on the train.

So the dash for the train was a National Geographic Moment in a vast sea of humanity in a train station somewhat smaller than Penn station, but not much. Even on Thanksgiving, Penn Station isn't, somehow, crowded like this was. Again, I think it's the sense of personal space and the idea that jostling for your place in line isn't impolite, it's just what one does. But we made it on okay, and stashed our stuff and squashed into the seats, all ten of us, six on one side of the aisle, four on the other at the end of the car.

TrainPlatform There are apparently three types of trains in China and they're color coded. The red are the newest, some of them double deckers and sleepers, which come in hard and soft varieties (which apparently really means you have a choice of having 3 roommates or 5); the blue are next youngest and a little faster; and the green are the oldest and slowest, the milk trains, basically. Guess which one we rode on? They remind me of the older trains I rode in England in the 80s, but with far harder and more uncomfortable seats. Food service comes around in little carts somewhat smaller than the ones on the airlines, full of packaged food, hot soup (which seems slightly insane on a rocking train) and various drinks. At each station, similar but larger carts roam the platforms and you call them over from the train window. There's no AC, but there are oscillating fans on the roof of the car and all the windows open. Hey, what more do you want?

Wudalianchi is north of Harbin, up toward the Russian border, and the countryside between there and Harbin is just about pancake flat with large fields of corn, soybeans and occasionally rice. Peter Heller describes the scenery in China as "a peasant, a field, a road, a village; a peasant, a field, a road, a village" ad infinitum, and that's not far from true. In our case it was more like a field, a goat, a peasant, a village, a station, with the occasional river and fishermen thrown in. the farmhouses here are low and long, like shotgun houses, holding multi-generational families (one of the faculty here at HIT is from a farming family; they decided to educate her because she was small and not much use on the farm; she's really brilliant, but apparently her sister is even smarter, and still farming). And farm work, no matter where you're doing it, is farm work, so you see the usual things like tractors, combines (though these are smaller than what you see in the US), goats, ducks, donkeys and cows. The latitude means the forest, such as it is, is partially birch trees, partially pine, but it's not in any way wild like our forests. The trees are trimmed and the ground beneath free of brush and scrub. There is no waste land in China. Every inch is cultivated with something, whether tree farm or kitchen garden. Even the long acres beside the tracks are munched on by cows or goats or planted with kitchen gardens that include lots of sunflowers. Occasionally under the trees are what looked like gravestones.

TrackFlowers The villages have smaller houses and the medium-sized towns also have somewhat shabby looking apartment blocks. But everyone still has a kitchen garden, including the apartment blocks. Sunflowers, pole beans, clematis, cabbages were all easily identifiable. Oddly enough, I didn't see tomato plants, but I may just not have looked closely enough. The tomatoes here really are a fruit and they're treated like one. There's a lot of sugar in the varieties grown here and they appear at breakfast regularly, as they do in England, but not as a savory dish. The juice mixes with tomato in them are sweet, not savory too. And there are flowers planted everywhere along the tracks, flowers along fences, flowers along the roads, mostly cosmas and black-eyed susans.

All the stations are neat and tidy, painted white with red roofs and trim, and each one had a different animal sculpture in the courtyard.  At one station, we were leafleted not once but twice by Jehovah's Witnesses: once from the platfrom by a young woman, once from the train itself by a bent-backed old woman. They were immediately recognizable to me from the graphics and totally cracked me up. And inside the train, well, let's just say it's crowded. People both stand and sit, and if you haven't reserved a seat, good luck to you. Even if you have reserved a seat, don't leave it or it'll be occupied when you get back, unless you leave a bag in it, and maybe even then. Since we were mostly sitting together (one seat was two rows up, but we lost that one pretty early), this wasn't much of a problem. Fanlin and Maurice took turns standing near us and we shifted around a bit to give everyone a shot at the window, out which Jan and I were taking copious pictures--so much so that I killed my battery before we arrived at our destination.

Once we arrived at Beian, Fanlin found our tour bus and off we went for another hour to Wudalianchi. The big attraction in this area is a still-active volcano and a number of springs and lakes. The landscape is still flat and then out of it rise these volcanic cones, the youngest of which La's erupted about 300 years ago. It was arbitrarily decided that we were going to climb it instead of going to our hotel first, which actually turned out to be a good thing, even though we were all tired and hot. Did I mention the trains aren't air-conditioned? No? They're not. Early on, I settled into the "adventure not vacation" mindset and resigned myself to being hot and sweaty and whatever else came along. I can do all that outdoorsy stuff thanks to 18 years of Northern Michigan life that included playing in the woods, fishing, digging worms, swimming in cold lakes, sleeping outdoors, and snowmobile safaris in the dead of winter, but it takes an act of will to get into that mindset. But hey. it was China! It's all good. More or less.

It was at this point, when I had gone into Adventure!™ mode, that I finally had my first intro to the dreaded squatty potty, in which I was sure I'd end up on my ass, squats having never been my strong suit. In a bus station, no less. Remember that bathroom in the early scenes of Trainspotting? "The Worst Toilet in Edinburgh?" The one Ewan McGregor goes surrealistically diving into to retrieve his lost suppository? Okay, not quite that bad, but definitely the culmination of many of my own personal bathroom neuroses, which is probably TMI: a shared M/F entrance with shared sinks but separate facilities; no stall doors; and of course, the whole squatting while keeping one's clothing out of the somewhat awash floor or landing on one's arse. Suffice to say there was a lack of disasters and much relief when it was over. And heroic efforts to hold it for the rest of the weekend. LOL

Lava2 The volcano was fantastic. The landscape around it is covered with what I think is called pillow lava, which looks like it's just blooped up where it is or rolled slowly downhill in a molten stream and set hard like big marshmallows, cracking as it cooled. Closer to the cone, it's sharper and rockier and there are acres and acres of stony lunar landscape. Lichen is just beginning to get a foothold and there is the occasional sapling growing up in the gaps, and here and there stands of wild thyme and sprigs of grass. Though the pumice is relatively soft as rocks go, it's still going to take thousands of years to break this down into soil. And yet it's started to do just that on one side of the cone, which is heavily forested. The side facing the prevailing winds though is almost bare in comparison. We walked up the forest side, on a well-defined stone trail or boardwalk and a bazillion flights of stairs, in the late afternoon sun. Who knew that the trek up 15 flights to my room in Harbin was going to be training for climbing 1,800 feet of mountain? Well, more like 1,500 in my case. I hit the lower rim of the cone and decided I'd been macho enough for the day and let the rest of my cohort trek up the extra 300 feet to the upper rim.

I stopped to rest a couple of places along the way and got amazing amounts of encouragement from complete strangers. It felt like running the marathon, with people cheering on the sidelines. I chatted with a few people who spoke English and cracked jokes with Peter about the march up Mt. Doom. "Are we there yet, Mr. Frodo?" "No, Sam, not yet. We must keep on." Unfortunately,it turned out we were holding everyone else up and the way down was hell's own staircase, very uneven and without handrails, especially in bifocals and in a hurry. My legs were trembling with fatigue by the time I hit the bottom. I had visions of a nice cool hotel room, a shower, and dinner, but that was not to be.

Our next stop was the volcanic lake. We arrived just around sunset and it was indeed very beautiful. My camera was already dead by then, so you'll have to check my Flickr account for photos from Elliott that I asked him to take for me. Lining the road were a number of food and tchotchke shops with more things than you want to imagine, including tiny shrimp and fishies, freshly grilled on sticks. The waterbabies, Marcy and Jan, waded in after Fanlin to let the fish nibble their toes and wound up splashing each other until both were soaking wet. Kids.

Our next stop was, finally, dinner, at a little hole in the wall on a back street, with some less than fantastic food. When you've eaten really incredible Chinese food, it's hard to be forgiving of the less than stellar, which this was. No air conditioning, either. The hotel and the shower was looking better and better.

Wudalianchi has the look and feel of a frontier town and/or a newly sprung up tourist town. The streets are wide and clean and new, planted with flowers and grass along the broad sidewalks and boardwalks that cover the rocky bits. The streelights are fancy and there is neon everywhere. Many of the stores have signs in Russian and many seem to sell tourist tchotchkes. But things still look a bit unfinished and the town is not very densely built up yet. Several new and very nice hotels are under construction. As we were waiting to pull into our hotel parking lot, or one of the hotel's parking lots, fireworks went off, just like at Disneyland.

FleabagRoom But our hotel was not one of the new ones. It was, however, "foreigner approved" by the Heihe Police Station. If Leslie or Rob or Brian are reading this, it reminded me distinctly of the Hotel Iroquois we stayed at on our trip to New York in grad school over Christmas that one year. Fleabag, without the fleas, thankfully. Susan and I shared a room with two rock-hard single beds bearing only a mattress cover and a spread, in a room with no air conditioning. I don't mind fleabag all that much, especially not on an Adventure!™, but there was no way the fuyuan (a word that covers maid, waitress, service person) was gettin' a tip in this one. On the other hand, it was one of the best showers I've had since I hit China and aside from the western commode, more like a Chinese bathroom than we had in the dorm. In the standard Chinese bathroom, pretty much the whole room is the shower stall, with the drain in the floor and no delineation of where you should stand aside from where the shower head is pointed. In this one, the water pressure and temperature were both great, so we got a good shower. The glasses were dirty, but they left us toiletries, including a very generous sliver of soap. And to be fair, we got the cheapo package deal. Even in China, ya get what ya pay for.

Though there wasn't any AC, the room cooled off nicely in the night and Susan and I both had a good sleep thanks to our climb up the mountain, which was a good thing, since reveille was at 6 AM and breakfast, at a different hotel, shortly thereafter. By this time, I was starting to feel a bit queasy for the first time in China, whether from our less than fabulous dinner or from the heat, I'm still not sure, so I picked at breakfast and had some congee (rice porridge) and bread and bought a bottle of water. I think I drank about 4 gallons of water during those two days and sweated 98% of it out.

Spring9 Our first stop on Sunday was the Most Famous Spring, complete with dragon gates. It was hard to tell how new this was as an attraction because the structures were a weird mix of new and old, including a guy with a trained monkey for you to pose with. The gates and walkway were clearly new as was, I think, the pagoda at the end of the walkway. But the springhouse and its complex were clearly older and not well-cared for, with grass growing out of the roof tiles. The spring water contains a lot of CO2 and magnesium so I decided to pass on it, but Peter and Mary and Mike filled their bottles at the taps. Other folks were going away with 3 liter jerry cans, although Maurice told us later that once the water turns cloudy it's not fit to drink.

Spring16 A brook runs out of the spring and stepping stones across it take you to a little falls and the lake it empties into, which is also quite pretty. I was taking a picture across it when a voice behind me said "Can I help you?" in quite good English, and turned around to discover a nice young college student named Tianyao Sun (I'm reversing the Chinese order of names here) there with her family, offering to take my picture. We chatted for a bit and she told me she was from Henan Province and a little about the Shaolin temple that's there, which she said I should see (and I'd like to). She was interested in coming to the US and studying forensics "like on 'CSI'" she said and it was all I could do not to laugh, having just spent a couple of weeks showing episodes of CSI and talking about it. We exchanged emails and I'm going to write her when I get back. Her parents didn't speak any English, but were just, well, sweet, the way the Chinese all seem to be, or at least the ones I've met.

The next stop was a tromp through a nice wetland area that abutted another huge lava field. Marcy and I were both surprised at how familiar the foliage looked, having spent time tramping through the North Woods at various times. Aside from the lava, it was almost disturbingly familiar, but we had a nice walk on another well-maintained boardwalk over interesting landscape and spent some time chatting with each other too. We've got a lot to catch up on and it's really been great to reconnect again. There was a also a little underwater lake along the way too, which Fanlin immediately waded into and splashed himself with.

The final stop was the ice cave, which was refreshing after the heat of tramping around half the day. The descent was a bit scary though: more stone steps, these a little slippery, and no handrails. The cave didn't have any spectacular stalactites or -mites, but had a lot of hoarfrost on the roof and there was still geological research going on in it in a roped-off area.

Back to the hotel for a quick lunch, most of which I skipped this time because I was really starting to feel queasy and then back to the train station for the trip home.

We weren't all seated together this time, which actually made the trip home more interesting in many ways. Somehow Chen Hui and I ended up with the two tickets in the other car and I forged ahead looking for my seat. On Chinese trains, your seat is taken until you get there and prove you've got a ticket for it, so mine was occupied when I arrived. It's moments like this where it really sucks to be both illiterate and unable to speak the language. But once again, depending on the kindness of strangers turned out to not be a stupid strategy. I looked a little lost, showed my ticket to the woman in one of the seats who held out her hand for it and she shooed out the person who was occupying my seat, and put my bag in the rack, too. And no one seemed the least bit resentful. On the contrary, everyone seemed friendly and curious and I wanted really badly to be able to talk to them, Dammit. I'm going to have to learn at some rudimentary Chinese. I'd settled in with a book when Chen Hui appeared and said he was trading for some tickets in the other car. He eventually came back with them and we settled back with the gang a couple of rows away on opposites sides of the aisle. Chen Hui and I had a great conversation for most of the ride back, talking about science fiction movies, vampires, myth, and computer graphics. I told him about TED talks and promised to send him a copy of "Blade Runner," which he hasn't seen, and which I don't think he can download anywhere.

And our talk was punctuated with questions about both of us from our fellow riders. One woman who looked like she was probably a farm woman, asked how old I was; she turned out to be two years old than me, but looked more like five. She had a very sunny and curious disposition though and laughed a lot. I liked her immediately. She and her husband got off about halfway through our trip. Across the aisle with Maurice was a younger couple who watched our conversation like it was a spectator sport. He had the darkest, most intense eyes I've ever seen and it was a little uncomfortable to be watched by him, but there was nothing malicious about it. His wife was very beautiful too, and carefully made up, unlike the rest of us on the train.

About three quarters of the way through the trip, some poor woman sat herself on the floor in obvious distress and ended up being moved into a seat. It looked to me like she was in a lot of pain, maybe having a heart attack. Half a dozen people offered her phials of some kind of Chinese medicine or other, each of them different, and a younger man who I don't think was related to her, lifted her off the floor and got her a seat by the window, then went to call the conductor. I think a number of other people felt faint on the train, though it didn't seem that hot. The roof of each car has a number of oscillating fans like the old subway cars from the 40s did, and they move the air pretty well. The one near the woman's row wasn't working though. When the conductor arrived, he reached up and smacked it hard and it started working again, which cracked both Chen Hui and I up.

And the final lap of the Adventure!™ was taking the city bus from the station to the campus. It was pretty much impossible to get a taxi, so we waited for the number 11, which goes right by the front gate. Harbin buses don't run all night and no one was sure whether this was the last one or not, so when it arrived, the crowd rushed it like it was the last chopper out of Saigon. Jan got caught in the crush and was ready to push her way on, but there was no way in hell I was getting into that. So we waited a bit and pushed our way to the back then did the sardine act for about 10 minutes before getting off. You don't ring for a stop on a Harbin bus. They make every stop along the way and you get off wherever you like. And the cost? One yuan; about 16 cents. This one even had announcements in English.

All in all, it was a fun if somewhat grueling weekend. I'm really glad we went because I've always wanted to see a volcano and it was a truly great trip with Fanlin and Chen Hui. But never had a dorm room looked so good. . .


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I got as far as you part about the squat toilet, so I'll have to read the rest later. Interesting story so far. Glad the trip has been a good one. BTW, I met my first squat toilet in Italy. ;-)

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