Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Harbin, at Last

For those that have been following my blog, it has been awhile since I’ve posted an update. I got back from Harbin a little over a month ago, and that week after returning I did have some time, but just got lazy about posting and updating. The following week however, the new semester started and since then I have been fairly busy.

But I do need to update this before I forget. On a side note, I never did finish posting about last summer’s travels with my uncle, aunt, and cousins. The difference between that and this, however, is that at that time I did Write the posts, I just didn’t take the time to edit them and upload and insert the pictures. BUT, those writings are saved, not merely lost to the abyss that is my memory. The Harbin trip however, is now a month gone, and I need to get it on paper, or on disk as it were, before the memories finally blend together into an ambiguous memory blob.

So the flight was scheduled for Saturday, February 13 to go to Harbin. That day was actually itself Chinese New Year’s Eve, so we’d be arriving just in time. We bought the plane tickets well in advance, back at the end of November in fact, so that we’d have it squared away. Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year as many of you may know it, is the largest movement of people on the planet. Some millions of Chinese people head home for Spring Festival. It’s their BIG holiday, like Christmas to us in the West. The tickets to Harbin from Hangzhou ran a little on the expensive side for domestic flights in China, 3800 RMB for two tickets (about $560), but it was what it was and in buying them nearly 3 months early, we wouldn't have to worry about it later.

Flash forward to February 9, four days before our scheduled flight, and Jean suggested to check and confirm the flight. After a discovering that our tickets were for a flight two days later, we scrambled to call the airline and find out what happened. As it turns out, that Saturday flight had been canceled and we were bumped to a Monday flight. What's more, this had happened back in the middle of January and no one had ever contacted us, either by e-mail or phone (the two contact methods available). The airline wouldn't refund the tickets because they weren't bought directly through them, so we contacted the online vendor through whom we purchased the tickets. The woman that Jean talked to said that if the flight had indeed been cancelled without notifying us that they would refund our tickets. The only problem was that the seller said their accountant had already taken leave and wouldn't be able to process the refund until after the holiday. In the meantime we searched for some other tickets to fly up to Harbin on the 13th. We did find some tickets, and despite the time being so short, the tickets were actually a great deal cheaper, 2800 RMB (about $415) for the pair. This was actually good news provided we could get the refund on the first set of tickets, because we'd save money. Fortunately, the return flight tickets had no such problems.

So Friday, February 12 I left for Hangzhou and the next morning Jean and I made our way to the Hangzhou airport. We arrived that afternoon in Harbin without incident. We hitched a cab to Jean's parents and arrived some 45 or so minutes later. I met her mom for the second time and her father for the first. Her mother had bought some pajamas for both Jean and I so we could wear something warm and comfortable around the apartment.

That night we all ate dinner together. Her father and I were the first ones to sit down and he offered me a glass of bai jiu (literally “white liquor”, pronounced “bye joe”). There are other variants of this stuff with SUPER high percentages of alcohol (70%), but luckily this variety was only 35%, not dissimilar to the alcohol content in vodka or rum. As it was served in a shot glass, I mistakenly thought that we were to begin with a shot, so I downed it one gulp, as did her father right after me. Walking into the dining room at that moment, Jean scoldingly informed me that it was to be sipped at, not shot. She asked her dad why he drank it like that, and he said he did it because I did it. I was actually kind of relieved to hear that it was to be sipped, especially seeing how quickly her father refilled our glasses. After that I sipped at it, drinking when her father drank. Near the end of dinner I had finished off my third glass and her father went to re-fill it yet again, at which point I had to decline. In all our subsequent meals (except breakfast) I drank with her father, but had to limit myself to only one or two shot glasses of the stuff, while he usually drank a little bit more. Bai jiu isn't the harshest or most terrible liquor in the world, but I'm not a big drinker to begin with, so it was something I had to adjust to. The Chinese, however, are generally big drinkers.

On a side note, Jean's mother was such a generous cook; she had prepared so much food, and Jean and I ate so much at every meal that at no point during this trip did we ever feel even remotely hungry. Whenever the next meal time would approach, both Jean and I still were still kind of full, didn't really feel like eating, but did anyway. I think finally the 5th or 6th day we were there we (Jean and I) finally ended up skipping one meal, because we both had no room for food, and were fairly tired.

After dinner the first night I hooked up the Wii to their TV, and we all played it for a little while. Jean's mom seemed to enjoy it, but I'm not sure her father has as good a time. After that we tuned to the TV to the “Spring Festival Celebration Gala,” an event held and televised every New Year's Eve, and is also a sort of modern tradition in China. It's a show where they hold skits, sing songs, and put on dances, and is watched by almost all the Chinese on New Year's Eve. As a result, the live viewing audience for this program is higher than for any other event on television in the world, including the Super Bowl. As the time grew later, we all made dumplings to be cooked and eaten. Eating dumplings (also known in the states as pot stickers) on Chinese New Year's is a tradition, meant to bring good fortune, and are eaten often throughout the holiday. At about 11:30 Jean's parents said they were tired and were going to turn in. Jean asked me what I wanted to do, and although I was tired, I felt we were too close to midnight to go to sleep. So, we stayed up and rang in the new year, followed by a steady cacophony of fireworks going off (maybe at least 15 minutes straight).

The next day Jean and I went to downtown Harbin, saw the completely frozen solid river, did a bit of shopping, and ate some “bing tang hu lu”, something lik candied apples except there are a variety of fruits (grapes, bananas, strawberries, or most traditionally, Chinese hawthorn), and they are cut into small pieces and skewered. Also, they're not coated with caramel, but some other sugar-based liquid that hardens around the fruits shortly (like 10 seconds) after being heated and poured.

Here with a strawberry and a banana "Bing Tang Hu Lu"
We walked along one of Harbin's most famous (and touristy) streets, Zhong Yang Avenue, and saw some ice carvings there, as well as a “hedge” maze made using blocks of ice instead of hedges.

I was fascinated by the ice blocks since they were so clear and so hard and so DRY. It's not as if I've never seen ice before, but whenever I see ice it has already begun melting, so at least the exterior is already or beginning to get wet. So, call me a bumpkin, but seeing such dry ice was a little unusual to me, as if it was just the solid form of any chemical we'd use in a chemistry lab.

While out Jean and I also made our way to a Wal-Mart so that I could get supplies to make spaghetti as Jean had suggested to her parents previously. I didn't make it that night, but we wanted to have the stuff ready.

When we got home we got we ended up watching the beginnings of the Winter Olympics, something we did quite a lot of during our stay, because it happened to coincide.

The next day we spent most of the day warm inside at home, but that evening Jean and I left to go see the Harbin Snow and Ice World, a park where they had dozens of enormous and elaborate ice buildings, ice sculptures, and snow sculptures. It was quite impressive and my words will do it no justice, so here are some of the pictures. There would've been more pictures but both Jean's camera's battery and mine ended up dying on us while there.

The structure behind me here is made entirely of ice blocks.

An ice terra cotta warrior

An ice sphinx and a beautiful girl.

These were two GIGANTIC snow sculptures

On the giant icy chess board

Mutual Photos through a Block of Ice

This one we saw on the side of the road in downtown Harbin.

The day after that the four of us went out to a restaurant for lunch as we were going to meet with some of Jean's mother's aunts. All total there were 9 people, Jean's mom, Jean's father, Jean's mother's eldest aunt (on her father's side) with her daughter (40s) and granddaughter (perhaps 13), another of Jean's mother's aunts (again on her father's side) with her husband, and then Jean and I.

An interesting point to note about Chinese is that while it is slightly complicated to explain these relationships in English (due to the ambiguity of the words “aunt” and “uncle”), in Chinese there is a different word to describe a variety of different relationships. There's a word for aunt who is your father's sister (gugu), a different word for an aunt who is your father's younger brother's wife (shenshen), and yet a different word for an aunt who is your father's OLDest brother's wife (dama), let alone the terms for your mother's sisters (ayi). While difficult to learn all these different terms, the nature of one's familial relationships is far clearer based on their addresses alone.

At the meal, I of course had to use Chinese to try and communicate (with Jean translating when things got hairy), but I have to say it was so much more difficult for me to communicate then than even just at home with Jean's parents. Part of it could've been I was not as sharp that day, part of it could've been the vocabulary they were using, and part still could have been their accents and pronunciation. I have found that in China I have a FAR easier time speaking with younger people, under the age of about 40, than those over, especially so in the South (where I live). There are exceptions of course, Jean's mother thankfully being a notable one, and I am NOT saying that it is because they are older, but the fact remains that by and large pronunciation of the younger generations is a great deal more uniform and proper than the older generations. If I had to hypothesize as to why, I'd most likely go with the availability of television from childhood. It would make sense that uniform national programming serves not only to homogenize a nation's culture, but also a nation's speech.

During the meal Jean mentioned that she and I were considering going skiing, and as it turned out, Jean's mother's cousin (the 40-something year old woman) was a tour guide. It so happened that she was arranging a group to go skiing the next day, and it was easy enough for us to join them. Jean also invited her best friend (a middle school classmate of hers) and her friend's friend.

The next day we woke up early to meet Jean's mom's cousin's tour group. We met them at a hotel, boarded a large van (or small bus?), and set off. The ride was three and a half hours to the mountainside and the first place we stopped was a restaurant, as it was lunchtime, and it was included in the tour fare.

After that we were taken to a ski resort where we didn't actually go skiing, but instead rode a cart down a metal track. They called it a luge, but really... if Uncle Jack or Aunt Mary are reading this, it was essentially exactly the same thing we rode to come down from the great wall except longer.

After that diversion the tour group finally headed to a different place to go skiing. Jean, despite having grown up in the far North had never actually gone skiing, so it was her first time. The slope we were on was quite a gentle grade, but despite this, poor Jean, she was quite nervous and once she started sliding, she didn't know how to stop, save for simply falling... which is what she did... quite often. This was before she finally decided to give up entirely.

As for me, the slope was too gentle. I didn't fall one time. And believe me, I'm not saying I'm just so good that I didn't fall. I've only ever been skiing twice before in my life, so I'm no pro... which is in fact how I know that it was too easy. Unfortunately, the place we were at, there was only this slope to play on. Additionally, we were only there for about two hours before we had to leave, at which time we hopped back into the van/bus and spent the next four hours going back to Harbin.

(The next week after we returned, Jean's company went on a ski trip to a mountain town in Zhejiang province, the province where we live. This time, I'm told, she did much better.)
Jean skiing in Anji

The next day we rested a bit, mostly stayed home watching the Olympics, playing cards or mahjong, and playing Wii.

The following day Jean and I decided to go skating and so Jean's mom went with us to show us where a park was where we could skate. The park was along the river and the ice-skating circle was actually on the river itself! We arrived there at maybe 10 o'clock and we were the only ones there, and skated for about 30 minutes before heading home.

The next day Jean went out shopping with her best friend, while I stayed home, watched the Olympics with her parents, nursed a slight cold, and, in the late afternoon, began preparing the pasta.

Jean's parents hadn't eaten Italian pasta before, so mine was their first, and they said it was alright, but it didn't really suit their tastes. I've found there're quite a few Chinese for whom this is the case. Luckily Jean likes it :D

The next day we boarded a cab, headed for the Harbin airport and (after a flight delay, which seems to be the norm for me in China) began the journey home.

Overall, my impression of Harbin was that it is culturally quite an interesting city, being both Chinese, but also having architectural influence from neighboring Russia. Quite a few buildings were not Chinese in style, but rather 19th century Russian, which was quite a departure from the rest of China that I've seen.

I have to say, finally, that while it was really fun to visit... I just don't know if I could handle winters like that. With daytime highs between -5 and zero degrees Fahrenheit, and lows even colder, it was always a big todo just to go out and fetch a simple something. Inside the house it was quite comfortable and warm, but after about 2 minutes outside, my face and ears would begin to hurt. I'm a southern kid, and I'm simply not cut out for that kind of weather. It never snowed very heavily while I was there, so I didn't have a chance to build my as yet unbuilt first snowman. Also, Jean's parents were quite inviting and very gracious and hospitable and I hope I'll soon have the chance to return their hospitality.

Oh, and there was some good news both during and after the trip. A few days after we got back we contacted the ticket seller again and they did indeed refund our tickets. But more importantly, while in Harbin, Jean at one point received a phone call saying that she received a packet from the U.S. Embassy; this turned out to be her visa approval! So after we go down to Guangzhou again to fetch and affix her visa, she'll officially be headed stateside!

And FYI for those that don't know yet, the tickets going back are purchased, and we'll be arriving June 29.

1 comment:

  1. wowow. what an adventure. those ice buildings especially were "out of this world!" Nice pics and a nice recount of your stay there. Something u will always remember ALL your life.
    cannot wait for u to be home! Take care. Stay warm. Stay safe.
    We are getting ready to celebrate Easter here. Happy Easter to you.