Sunday, December 30, 2007

Harbin for Christmas

It seemed that all Hohhot had to offer us for Christmas was an (even more than usually) overpriced dinner at any of the nice hotels at which we have taken to dining somewhat regularly. So in the interest of breaking from our routine a bit, and in hopes of surrounding ourselves with more friends for the holiday, we planned a trip to Harbin for the week. The Sunday night before Christmas, after Alison finished her last day in over three weeks of consecutive working days, she, Phil, and I hopped on an overnight train to Beijing.

We were in a soft sleeper on the train (see Somewhere and Back Again if you don't know what that means); after boarding, Phil and I went looking for some provisions. During this time the fourth (and female) occupant of our room arrived. Alison reports that this woman seemed relieved to find that at least one of her neighbours for the night was also a woman. I imagine she was not as pleased to see me and Phil arrive with ten bottles of beer.

Anyway, the train ride passed more or less uneventfully. The absence of a power outlet in our room meant our viewing of The Meaning of Life was cut short. On arrival in Beijing we made our way to the airport and were in Harbin sometime in the early afternoon. Erik and Joe from Changchun had arrived by train shortly before us. (Apparently due to their delay in booking their tickets they got to enjoy the train's standing room for the three-hour ride.)

Before meeting up with Joe and Erik, we checked into our hotel and went for some lunch at a nearby pizza place we found. We were attracted by its large sign, which turned out to be the only big thing about it. Inside it consisted essentially of a counter on which stood a single toaster oven.

Moving on, we met up with Joe and Erik, who were staying in the apartment building where live Harry and Stuartina, who are the only people in the entourage to be residents of Harbin. We went for a scrumptious Christmas Eve dinner at a Arabian restaurant run by a Syrian fellow who spoke decent Chinese but less English. An interesting feature of this place was the page on the menu for various flavours of tobacco, served in a hookah. We elected to try the strawberry one. Alison observed it was like a dessert, but without the calories.

Oh, but before dinner, I neglected to mention, we went to have a gander at the St. Sophia Roman Orthodox Church, which is now an architectural art museum. It was certainly made all the more beautiful by the presence of a giant inflatable Santa Claus in front of it.

The rest of the night was taken up with a visit to a club called Box; after a few months in Hohhot it was novel to go anywhere that stayed open past 1am and had people awake at that hour to boot. I noticed that this place also had hookahs available.

Joe at Christmas dinner
Christmas Day—my first ever away from my family—was nice enough. Alison and I paid brief homage to the present tradition, and her gift to me of a bottle of Bailey's allowed us to keep up the habit from the last few years of starting drinking before noon to celebrate our Lord's birth. We enjoyed a Russian Christmas dinner of sorts along with Joe, Erik, and Phil.

Boxing Day we strolled around Harbin a bit. The city puts on an ice sculpture festival, which had not begun, if my facts are straight. But I suppose it takes a while to put it together so there still were plenty of sculptures about. Quite a few were along a busy walking street in the town, and there were many more in a park which you could enter for 50元. Erik was quite vocal about how much of a rip-off that was (he spoke from some prior experience, apparently) so we didn't venture in there. The picture here is of a Chinese chess board in ice sculpture form. I think the pieces were moveable but the whole thing was fenced off.

Oh, and that day Alison and I decided to change accommodations and stay in one of the apartments in the building where Erik and Joe were. Let me list some of our reasons, and by reasons I mean complaints against the hotel where we had been staying (the Zhengming Jinjiang, in case any of you are planning a trip to Harbin and want to know where to avoid):
  • Our main reason for picking the hotel was that we'd called in advance to find if it had a pool, which it did. Phil was the first to go and try to use it, and they told him it was closed; he fortunately managed to convince them to open it.
  • Even with the pool open, it still had a stupidly early closing time. The rest of us did meet up with Phil in time to have a brief dip though, but not before encountering some more (sadly not atypical) stickling: Chinese pools have a very stubborn insistence on bathing caps.1 But apparently the people enforcing this rule don't have a clue as to the reason for its existence: They refused to let Erik, who's bald, enter the pool without a cap, even after much explanation and pleading on our part (followed by Alison informing them a number of times that they're crazy). Oh, but he could buy a cap from them, for something like 45元 (about ten times the price of one in a store).
  • The presence of English-speaking staff was extremely limited. This place claimed to be four-star! All the nice hotels we've visited in Hohhot (for dining purposes, typically) have staff who speak English almost to a fault.
  • When we checked in, our room wasn't clean, and we were told it would be forty minutes. We gave it about an hour and when we finally went to the room the beds were made but the bathroom was in disarray, the garbage can filled with remnants of strange take-out food from the previous guests. Even when we got back late on the first night, no one had finished tidying up the room. At least I did manage to coerce a small discount from them on these grounds, for our second night.

Hmm. I suppose I really shouldn't make such a habit of listing things that bug me. I really enjoyed the trip, and the night out on Boxing Day was no exception, despite the fact that Alison and I were starting to get sick by that point. Here you see Harry partway through the night; he was friends with someone at the bar and supplied us with much vodka at a ridiculously low price.

Harbin is a pretty Russian-influenced place. In Hohhot we've grown used to having signs in Mongolian as well as Chinese; in Harbin it's similar, but with Russian of course. One large remnant of this influence is Stalin Park. (Actually, there were/are plenty of other tributes to Stalin throughout China; Changchun's "People's Square" used to be called "Stalin Square," as Joe is a fan of recalling.) Joe was keen on visiting the park, but he was sorely disappointed when we found that the statue of his (apparently) favourite tyrant had been replaced by the one seen here of (Alison surmises) Bambi and his dad.

The only unfortunate factor in the trip was that more of our friends from Changchun didn't join us. I swear people in that city are like the lotus-eaters from Greek mythology, save for the fact that Alison and I are hard-pressed to see what the analogy to the "lotus plant" is in this likening. On the contrary, it seems those that didn't come stayed at home out of fear of the guilt they would have felt for leaving town and having fun!

1Heavens forfend a stray hair possibly getting in the water which is no doubt sullied in any manner of other ways, including but not limited to the habit people here have of noisily hocking a loogie whenever the mood strikes them regardless of where or in what company they may find themselves.


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