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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Golden boy

How is it that smoke always seems to know where I am sitting? This is just a question that is leading to nothing other than another complaint about people smoking and spitting in internet bars. At least the spit has yet to find me.

Harbin. That's where I am now. It is autumn here, with shallow blue skies that look painted onto a high roof. Wispy, wimpy gray and white clouds get painted on, too. It is cool, and at night chilly. People are wearing jackets and some have fur hats. They sit huddled with hands in pockets and as much as the architecture, this pose, the huddling, and the edge to the air make me feel like I am in Europe.

The word that comes to mind when I try to describe Harbin is "graceful." It is a graceful city, with plenty of Russian architecture and with tasteful highrises. There is less emphasis on neon (except around the train station) and more on subtle lighting from the bases of buildings. ZhongYang DaJie is straight from Prague, with all the cobblestones and the couples walking past the shops and cafes and western fast food joints. [Yes, that's the same link twice, but the pictures and commentary are good, and be sure to scroll down for the picture of the ice column/kiosk.--ed.] The buildings no more than three stories high, curving and arching, demanding respect.

While the city is not laid out in any specific or clear way, the odd angles of the streets create a multitude of small irregular open spaces at intersections, open spaces which have been filled with grass and benches and sculptures and beds of flowers. There are rollerbladers scooting around and men sitting and doing nothing (but of course this is everywhere in China, so nothing new with this one). There is plentiful green and flowers still bright and alive.

While ZhongYang DaJie is the main tourist street, there is also a street that holds a number of traditional Chinese temples. The one temple that is not on this street, the Confucian Temple, is the best of the lot. The grass is overgrown and there are stone benches and tables scattered throughout the wide and long layout. With the cool air and the few people strolling around with their hands behind their backs in a contemplative manner, it is a true escape. There is also a museum housed in a few of the buildings, a collection of items used by the minority peoples living in the north...basically a collection of things you might see being used by eskimos.

There are a scattering of old-fashioned cars around, with names like "Old Saloon." There are a few Russian Orthodox churches with pigeons flying around the roof, and down onto the square where Chinese people taking pictures with their cell phones is the only reminder that you are not in Vilnius or St. Petersburg or Moscow. I also saw a Catholic Church, or perhaps it was just a gathering place for Catholics, built in 1936.

The most interesting part of the city, besides the area around the train station and the usual hectic ebb and flow of people there (and a few very aggressive kid beggars sporting mismatched three piece suits and horrible senses of humor) is around JingYu Street, which runs parallel to the SongHua River. The street itself is something of a shopping street, and the buildings are interesting enough, but it is in the smaller streets running off that the real fun begins. First, the mix of buildings. A few one-story Chinese buildings with stacks and stacks of packratted junk piled as high as the roof next to a Russian style building with a decaying peach colored facade. Next to this an early-1900s style warehouse building with built with black bricks that look as if maybe they were once gray and then washed over with a blow torch. Across from these, surrounding a facing park, a small new building that looks like a miniature Orthodox church and a low and long building that may or may not be a museum.

Damnit, this guy is smoking again. I would really like to take the lit cigarette and deposit it down his throat. Is this a bad thought to have? [Depends on if they are filtered or not. You don't want to hurt the guy.--ed.]

On another street, deep red and black bricked warehouse buildings. On the street rows of watermelon for sale, and a woman wearing a red shirt sitting amidst a huge pile of shucked and unshucked corn, busy at work. A chicken walking across the street. A large group of children pouring out of school and meeting with their waiting parents.

Back out on the main street and on the opposite side a long row of new condominium-type apartments running into the distance. At the next street and to the right a market. A man selling corn bread (not very tasty) and vegetarian baozi, but instead of the veggies being inside a steamed bun, inside corn bread (also not very tasty). A few muslims from Xinjiang Province. A few very pale faces that make me suspect a Russian father and Chinese mother. It seemed on this street there must have been people of at least 15 ethnicities, with different color skin and different shaped and colored eyes. All mixed in with bright piles of fruit and living fish and fried foods, etc. And with this (and something that has really added to the autumn feel here) the smell of corn being roasted over small tin pots (this is something seen and smelled on many of the city sidewalks).

Not all has been great pleasantness here. I went to the PSB yesterday to extend my visa and was told that they would need at five days to process it. They suggested I do it in Manzhouli, the town near the Russian border I had already bought a ticket to go to. The thought of being stuck in what must be a much colder place than this, and at the mercy of the people in charge of processing my extenstion, combined with the cost and time involved in going up and coming back from Manzhouli gave me second thoughts about the whole thing. I decided, after calling Beijing and finding out they would need one or two days to process the extension (depending on how much money I want to pay) I decided that it is time to go to Beijing. (I should note here that I probably should have been more ready to deal with the lady at the PSB, perhaps having brought some cookies and some extra money in an effort to persuade her that things could be done faster.)

So, I am in Harbin for one more day, a day in which I plan to just keep walking as I did today. Given the pleasant weather of the past two days, and the two stunning sunsets (one of which is the ill-advised source of title for this post, as it turned the sky and everyone around--including the couple making out on the bench just across the way from me--to gold), walking seems like a good idea.

On a side note...I have mentioned too many times, I suppose, that people always stare at me. It has been less noticeable here, and people, despite my recent complaints about the guy next to me who is putting yet another cigarette into his mouth and is reaching for his lighter and maybe now I should put this one up his nose or right onto his nipple in an attempt to discourage him from killing the people around him, seem to smoke less. What I may not have mentioned is the way that, when I am walking around with a Chinese person, everyone stares at that person rather than at me. Today I was walking with a very effeminate guy wearing a striped cap and what seemed to be a tasteful and subtle layer of blush, as well as a shimmering faux gold earring (the guy, I should add, studied to be a hairdresser, so all stereotypes aside, you can draw your own conclusions here). I had taken his portrait awhile before and the guy must have been really flattered because a few minutes later he found me on another street and invited me to go to some show of dancing dogs. I declined the show and explained I was looking for the temple area and so he offered to accompany me. As we walked I can not tell you how many people stared at him - especially older guys, and these young guys sporting military pants and no shirts who stopped mid-run, turned around and jogged backwards to watch us. Odd.

Speaking of military: There is a very noticeable presence here.

Now, to eat. I have seen a few places with dog on the menu and I am really tempted...and then back to my 40 RMB single room (yeah, I got a very good deal here, even though the bed takes up the entire room, the water has to be heated for about twenty minutes before being used and white people probably aren't supposed to be staying there...).


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