Dongbei 7/4/06 11:30pm. The phone in my hotel rings (I've just checked in). Expecting my wife, I answer with an enthusiastic "Hi!", but the female voice on the other end is definitely not Sue. She is speaking very quickly in Mandarin. I tell her "ting, shou mandianr, wo ting de dong" (speak slower and I'll understand). She keeps repeating the word "message" so I ask her to tell me the message. And then, finally, it dawns on me. I answer: "Xie xie, bu message" (Thank you, no massage). They waste no time in Manchuria. 7/5. Harbin is a very broad city, with wide avenues and a cobblestone-lined main street (Zhongyang Dajie) that is off-limits to vehicles. As a late 19th century Russian foothold in the Dongbei (literally means north east) region of China (otherwise known as Manchuria), Harbin has some architecture that harkens back to Tsarist times. With the current trend in Chinese cities being to raze old buildings and erect modern monstrosities, Harbin is a visual relief with unusual character. Stores are everywhere, most of them non-western, desperately trying to imitate western consumer advertising. For a lazy Tuesday, either many people don't work or there are an awful lot of Chinese tourists. Many women walk hand-in-hand. The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Sofia is somewhat restored and converted into a museum with mostly poor quality photographs of turn-of-the-century life in Harbin. Chinese tourists inside pose in front of paintings, mimicking the actions of the subjects on canvas. In general, Chinese fascination with documenting images of themselves in front of as many landmarks or panoramic scenes as possible (irrespective of beauty, composition or lighting) is remarkable. The Chinese seem self-obsessed with having a portfolio of their images, recording even the most mundane circumstances. Some art students are scattered about the perimeter of the Church, sketching and struggling with the geometry of the cupolas and spires. Canned music blares from loudspeakers. Children feed pigeons. I slowly wander to Stalin Park, on the banks of the Songhua River. The Songhua is a mammoth affair, flowing 1800 km, and is the largest tributary of the Amur/Heilong River. The banners around the park proudly proclaim this week as Korea/Harbin week. There seem to be special activities, almost all of them involving some sort of consumerism. Furthering the Chinese obsession with photo documentation, one couple has brought with them a tripod. They shoot self-couple portraits, then hurry to the camera to inspect their digital images. Invariably, arguments ensue and another photo is taken. Many people stop to admire the flood control monument in Stalin Park - and of course many photographs are taken in front of this enormous statue. My stomach is growling and I can put off lunch no longer. Ordering food is an experience. You'd think that my 30 hours of Mandarin lessons would have prepared me for the intimidating Chinese waitress. Under the Putonghua microscope, I find myself reverting to child-like sentence structure, stammering unintelligible words in the wrong tones. Eventually my order is finalized by me humbly pointing to other dishes I see on neighboring tables. I don't think the trend of banning smoking in restaurants is going to catch on in Harbin as many of the patrons are puffing in-between bites. Need a napkin? Bring your own. If you're lucky you might be given a one-ply folded triangle, good for one swipe across your greasy face. A bit later a remarkable discovery is made. Espresso shangdian! There is actually a shop in Harbin making Illy espresso. The unsure barrista preheats the cup with steamed water, then proceeds to draw me a rather long espresso. I'm just relieved to be drinking good coffee and thank him profusely. The espresso costs 20 Yuan (about $2.25). My entire lunch was 11 Yuan. Towards the end of the afternoon, I spend over an hour with several families in a communal courtyard. Many pictures are taken and plenty of fractured Mandarin is spoken. They are wonderfully friendly people. A man brings down a button of Chairman Mao and says "Mao Tse Tung hen hao (very good)". My impression is that while many Chinese now fully recognize the utter disasters of both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao is forever absolved for any blame. He is the revered father of China. The Chinese seems to have the worker ant mentality and will go to great sacrifice to benefit the common good. And I would suspect that the average person views these periods of self-destruction as necessary for the overall advancement of China. After dinner, I decide I need to walk off my big plate of dumplings. Nighttime is one big party in Harbin. Loads of people milling around, men toting big purses (I assume the bigger, the richer). Crossing the streets is a game of Super Frogger, not just for the pedestrians but also for the cars. No one obeys the traffic lights. Why they are even there I have no idea. The police are on-scene but pay no heed. Mothers think nothing of thrusting their precious child into the throes of oncoming traffic. By now my Harbin sea legs are firmly attached, and I boldly enter intersections without a second thought. But even for an experienced j-walker, my heart skips a beat or two as zooming taxis bear down on me. Street crossing in Harbin is best described in one word. Mayhem. In Stalin Sq I meet an earnest young policeman who speaks excellent English. He is there with his adorable daughter of 5 and his pretty wife. The three of them are wearing matching outfits bought in Hainan. They are very proud of the coordinated look. He is about to be transferred to Liberia to serve as a member of the UN civilian peace-keeping force and is extremely excited about the opportunity. When I asked about his wife and child and won't he miss them (and vice-versa), he merely replies that this is an excellent career advancement move. More of the sacrifice for the common good mentality, it seems. 7/6. While walking to the train station the next morning, a small boy drawing on a wall grabs my attention. His grandfather appears and starts happily conversing with me. I understand (and this is a generous estimate) about every seventh word. Luckily, a woman named Gao materializes and offers to help translate. Gao tells me that she is recent college graduate and will be looking for a job teaching middle school history. The three of us chat away and the grandfather invites us to his home. I accept his invitation, but connivingly make a detour to the train depot so that Gao can assist with my Jilin train ticket purchase at the always stressful Chinese railway station. After a lengthy wait in the train terminal, we board a bus and head to his home. The man's poor wife is rather startled when we all traipse in, but she quickly recovers and soon we are sitting comfortably, sipping tea and eating watermelon. I am shown the prized postcard and stamp collection, and dutifully make glowing remarks. An attempt at politics is raised. The man proudly shows his poster collection of Mao, Chou En Lai and Deng Xiao Ping. He points to a poster on a wall which appears to be a music poster from the 1930's publicizing Wladislaw Bronstein (playing a violin) as a Columbia Records artist. The man thinks that this is Beethoven and is greatly disappointed when I say otherwise. After an hour or so, I feel it's time to leave. And poor Gao will not leave until I do, so I murmur profound thanks to my new friends and head back out to the streets. You see pushcarts throughout Harbin. Some are human propelled, others are bicycle add-ons. Regardless, they all come equipped with joint compound buckets and a big stick, to be used by the driver not so much as a horn, but rather as an announcement of their presence. The drivers will beat the buckets to their own particular rhythm. Sometimes another pushcart will emerge and a slightly different tempo will be produced, eventually morphing into a syncopated tune between the drivers. For some odd reason, I am drawn to the Pizza Hut near Stalin Park for lunch. I have had no Western food in a restaurant since leaving New York six weeks ago. Upon entering, I immediately regret the decision as I notice a sign that says, "Please wait to be seated". Next thing I know they'll ask if I made a reservation! The pizza I end up ordering costs twice as much as all the food and beer I consumed yesterday, and, not surprisingly, is half as good. Never again, I vow silently. After a wasted hour traversing the Songhua River, I hurry back to familiar territory and visit two women in the qiaokeli shangdian (how bad can a Chinese city be that has a dedicated store for chocolate). They ask me all the usual questions and I give them my answers, almost by rote. I tell them that tomorrow I will be going to Jilin and ask if it's a nice place. "Too far away" they say (it's a five hour train journey that costs about $3). They seem honored when I take their photograph and address me as their dear friend. I leave with my spirits rejuvenated and a bar of 77% dark chocolate. I head to the vegetable market which proves to be rich in character and interesting faces. After about a half hour I am steered away by a guy who seems to be in charge. He appears to have the respect of the vendors and motions for me to follow him, which I do, somewhat gingerly. He leads me in to what looks like a store, but then opens a door to a bedroom. He sits on the bed and turns on a TV and indicates for me to sit down. I remain outside the threshold, contemplating his motives and my options. None of the scenarios I can conceive are particularly attractive so I gracefully withdraw, explaining that I need to continue shooting as the light is quickly fading. Later, after a reassuringly local meal of dumplings and cabbage, I'm back in Stalin Park. Sitting in the big square, I let China come to me, and predictably it does not take long. A woman sits down with her five year old daughter and implores her daughter to say in English, "Welcome to Harbin". The mother speaks a bit of English and looks to practice on me. I make the obligatory exclamations about how well she speaks, and she blushes, insisting that she can hardly say a word. We talk about her life in a mixture of our languages (Chinglish). I ask her about the one child policy. I can see some conflict in her eyes, but she responds almost immediately with the party line that she wants China to be stronger, to be number one. Again, the worker ant mentality surfaces. 7/7. The confusion at the Chinese railway station does not restrict itself to the ticket purchase. The challenge now is to decipher the big board and figure out which train goes to Jilin. As usual, some friendly folks practicing their English come to my rescue and soon I am on the train, seated opposite a young Chinese woman. We lurch forward and I dive into a book. After a few minutes, I am interrupted by the woman, who says in the most American, mid-western voice, "Excuse me, but I don't have anything to read. Do you have any more books?" Her name is Deedee, and to my astonishment she is a 14 year old high school student from Decatur, Illinois. Her parents left China in 1995 and she is back home visiting relatives during summer vacation. She is chaperoned by her uncle for the five hour train journey from Harbin to Jilin. I have just finished River Town, a wonderful account of a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English at a Teacher's College in Fuling, so I happily give her the book, alleviating my pack of a few ounces of weight. We talk easily about many things, especially about what it was like for her and her parents to adapt to American life, but I have to force myself to remember that she is only 14 (when I casually made reference to China and its deviation from Marxist principals, she looked up and said, "What's Marx?"). Thankfully, the ride was made much shorter with this jewel of a travel companion. Now if I can only get her to help me buy my overnight train ticket to Dalian..... Jilin is a wide, sprawling city, with little in the way of character. I stand corrected. It has zero character. The familiar waters of the Songhua lap outside my hotel. The traffic circle directly in front of the Jilin Bridge is twice the size of the circle surrounding the Arc De Triomphe, and has half (and that's a ridiculously generous estimate) the traffic. The avenues in Jilin are enormously wide. Some wider than the biggest interstate highway in America. It's just absurd. My main purpose for visiting Jilin is to get to Changbai Shan (chang for always, bai for white, shan for mountain), by all accounts a breathtaking national park with an impressive volcanic lake sublimely titled Heaven Lake. On my way to the CITS travel office to arrange transportation to Changbai Shan, I am waylaid by a local artist who invites me up to his studio. Inside there are young students being taught basic techniques of perspective and portraiture. I take many photographs of the man and his work. He's a gentle, sweet and talented artist. He gives me an ink drawing despite my protests that it will be destroyed in my backpack, and refers to me as a true friend. The rest of the day results in an endless and wasted search for interesting locations and photo opportunities. I am struck by how many of the men of Jilin strut around town with their t-shirts rolled up to their chest. This display of machismo lacks a certain credibility as their soft midriffs are woefully in need of a six-pack. Many of the women wear shirts with English words/phrases emblazoned across the chest ("Sexy Girl", etc.). I spend much of the afternoon in my hotel room, writing emails, reading and listening to the thunder (but curiously no rain). More dumplings for dinner. 7/9. In the morning, a surprising discovery of a vegetable market yields a few good portraits. I leave Jilin with the belief that it hasn't been a complete waste of time. After our tour van has been packed to the gills, it's on to Changbai Shan. There are eight passengers plus our guide and driver. Sitting next to me is a Shanghai couple: Abignail and his wife, Diana Fu (their 10 month old daughter was left behind with grandparents). Behind me is a single woman from Harbin (an optometrist I later discover) along with a family of four from Tian Jin (grandfather, father, mother and seven year old son). Abignail (he takes his name from Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of Frank Abignail Jr in Catch Me if you Can) and his wife speak reasonable English and we spend a good portion of the seven hour journey conversing and correcting each other's linguistic mistakes. They are an entertaining pair. Abignail has open distaste for the government and insists that he and Diana Fu are having another child (current penalty is $100,000 rmb or $12,000 US, a small fortune). They bring odd snacks onto the bus which are divvied out equally to all the occupants (I did eat the milk and herb ball but gracefully declined the duck gizzard). The ride is long and bumpy. Single lanes for each direction and our driver makes frequent and terrifyingly dangerous passes of slow moving vehicles. After observing a few close calls, I decide to cease looking at the road and put my faith in the Chinese road lords. There are several reeking stops at the ce suo (wc) and many toll booths. Upon approaching each toll gate, the toll attendant offers your vehicle a respectful military salute. 7/10 Changbai Shan. The early morning sun jolts me awake. Though Changbai Shan is an astounding marvel under sunny skies, often it is socked in cloud. The hotel is jumping at 6am as the tourist busloads of Chinese and S Koreans are eager to make their pilgrimage to this sacred spot. I am unable to differentiate the physical characteristics that separate the Chinese from the S Koreans, however a fair qualification can be determined by the brand and quality of the digital equipment that they carry. Sadly, the skies are thickening noticeably as we leave the hotel at 7:30am. The tourist route to Shangbai Chan involves several obligatory stops (a virgin forest, a waterfall and a thermal bathing spring). I discover that the S Koreans have much in common with their Chinese cousins, as endless portraits are taken at any (and every) opportunity. Changbai Shan is easily climbable (about two hours of heavy exertion will get you to the lake itself). With steady rain falling, I opt for the 4wd jeep to the summit (about 500 meters above the lake). The summit is surreal. Hundreds of tourists, outfitted in plastic yellow rain slickers, are armed with video cam-corders and digital cameras, perched over the rocks hoping to get a glimpse of the Tianchi (Heaven Lake). Instead, they are treated to a view of intense whiteness, with the visibility perhaps as good as 20'. Changbai Shan remains a milky mystery, swirling in the mist. The day is rounded out by a five hour drive to Dun Hua and a surprisingly fruitful photo opportunity at the local wet market at dusk. After dinner, I am allowed to be humiliated at cards by Abignail, Diana Fu and the optometrist, while being watched by Gong, our tour guide. Gong is a woman in her early 20's, sadly living in the wrong decade, as she would have made an excellent party secretary, ensuring all planned details are followed precisely and that no deviations from the schedule of events are to be permitted. 7/11 Travel day. Most of the day (and all night) is spent first in the van (Dun Hua back to the excitement of Jilin) and then on the train (Jilin to Dalian). I have high hopes for Dalian (formerly Port Arthur), a booming seaside city near the Korean Sea. The 13 hour train ride is mostly uneventful. I manage to sleep for a good stretch. My bunk-mate below is reading Wuthering Heights. 7/12 Dalian. The first of three days in this consumer-driven town is a good one. My hotel is hosting a WTO meeting, and many weiguoren (foreigner) sightings are made. I follow my general pattern of haphazard wandering, learning the layout of the city. Dalian is a bustling place, much different from Harbin or Jilin. The center is dominated by two main squares, Zhongshan and Friendship (in actuality, they are circles), with tall, glitzy skyscrapers hugging their perimeters. Dotted around the urban landscape are a plethora of green parks and open plazas. Despite all the new construction, plenty of period buildings remain. Somehow, all of this fusion works. Unlike Jilin, the city planners seem to have gotten it right here. Crystal comes to my rescue at lunch, and orders for me a delicious soup of cabbage, leeks and pork hocks. Crystal was given her name by her English teacher because she is so transparent (she announces this with pride). Crystal is in the import/export business. When I ask what she buys and sells, she evasively responds "anything". After lunch, as I accompany her to the mall (where she will be getting a manicure) she quietly tells me that she exports guns. Later in the afternoon, I strike up a conversation with a man who speaks surprisingly good English. Charlie is a 32 year old engineer, married with no children, but one, and just one, coming soon. For a Chinese citizen, Charlie has seen much of the world. He spent two years in Johannesburg and has also visited the US, England, France, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Japan. Charlie is very interested in my perceptions of China. Our rapport is immediate and as the time streaks by and the afternoon light fades to dusk, we decide to get a Korean BBQ (Charlie's wife is with her parents for the evening so he is on "holiday"). I find myself quickly shedding my learned and polite praise of China (our beer with dinner expedites this process) and we openly discuss China's past, present and future. I soften some of my blows aimed at his country with my own harsh criticism of USA policies (and especially Mr. Bush). Later we talk about Mao and Deng Xiao Ping. I am frustrated to see that this smart, well educated and well traveled professional reveres Mao like any of the less educated, small-town locals I have met in the last week. Despite the fact that Charlie agrees that the GLF and the Cultural Revolution set China back at least 30 years, his justification is that Mao was getting old and simply made some mistakes. He refers to the 1989 Tiananmen Square episode as an "accident". I sharply respond that it wasn't an accident, it was a massacre. We ride together on a roller-coaster of polite disagreements, every now and then reaching common-ground philosophical conclusions. But we leave as warm friends, earnestly wishing each other well and promising to stay in touch. 7/13. The morning sun blazes overhead and I grab a bus for the Polar Aquarium and Tiger Beach Park. Predictably, the park is a commercial eyesore so I decide to retrace the steps of the #30 bus on foot and wind my way through the outskirts of Dalian back to Zhongshan Square. It's an interesting walk and I meet and photograph many people. Though only about 10 kilometers in distance, by the time I get back to the city center it's close to dinner time. I decide to give my Mandarin a rest for the night and eat at an Indian restaurant on the 38th floor of a local hotel. It's only after sitting down that I realize that my mind is not playing tricks on me and that the restaurant is actually spinning. The view is rather good (as is the curry and the ice cold beer) and I head to Zhongshan Square to witness the evening's activities. Zhongshan comes alive at night as many locals throng to this central spot to talk, play badminton, kick a hackeysack (with a badminton birdie) sing/play music and dance. The dancing immediately draws my attention. There are at least 100 people (of all sexes and ages) lined up in six or so rows, performing choreographed and intricate dance numbers to music blaring from a boom box. Their steps involve synchronized spins, kicks, arm waves and hand claps. It is quite a sight to see so many people so perfectly in step with each other. The dancing, I believe, is really a microcosm for China. Individual actions are only but a small element of an overall group expression. My hotel room in Dalian is fitted with a number of amenities. I have a refrigerator, a TV with BBC News and HBO, I have special slippers to be used in the ocean "Enjoy on the sea no worry under the feet", but the most impressive amenity is the four-pack of condoms proudly on display by the bathroom sink. The caption on the back says it all "The process of the usage does to experience personally very comfortable unimpeded, stir up the love, increase the emotion." 7/14. My last full day in Dongbei. Today my companion is James, a 26 year old pilot for China Southern Airlines, who makes my acquaintance at Jinsha Beach. James is on holiday (he travels to North Korea next week) and eager to bone up on his English. We decide to explore the outskirts of Dalian together. James went to civil aviation school in China but did his flight training in Perth, Australia. His girlfriend is a stewardess, also for China Southern. He proves to be a valuable companion, helping in the translations as I scour the neighborhoods for willing photographic subjects. Like most Chinese, he is eager to know what comparative prices and salaries are in the US. James has little to say about politics, but is not a devout worshipper of Chairman Mao (finally!). He is young and ambitious, and likes the direction his country is heading. We spend a whopping seven hours together and the day flies by. James represents all the strangers who have shown such kindness to me on this trip, who have opened up their hearts and their homes, and have fed me and corrected my absurdly awful Mandarin. James is a perfect example of why traveling in China is easy for a weiguoren on their own. So I offer my thanks to all those who helped me blindly find my way around this mysterious and beautiful region, to Gao and the chocolate ladies in Harbin, to DeeDee on the train, to the artist in Jilin who thought nothing of giving me one of his ink drawings, to Abignail and Diana Fu who stood-in for my Mandarin teacher back in HK and gently corrected my numerous Mandarin mispronunciations, to Charlie and James who made sure I was never lonely in Dalian, but most especially to all the faces of Manchuria who allowed me to document themselves and their surroundings. I am forever grateful.