A breakneck, 40-minute 高铁 ride from Shanghai brought me to Hangzhou, the capital of 浙江省 (Zhejiang Province). Hangzhou is famous primarily for two things, 浙江大学 (Zhejiang University), the third best university in China behind PKU and Tsinghua, and 西湖, its legendary West Lake, said to be the most beautiful body of water in all of China. People come here to enjoy the cool breeze and gorgeous views, and to reduce their walking speed by at least 80%. 不瞒你说 (“I swear I’m telling the truth” (no good translation)), people in Hangzhou must have moved, on average, 10 miles per hour slower than those in Beijing; perhaps it was just Hangzhou’s extremely relaxing nature.
Arrived at Lotus Glade 52, a hotel complex on the west bank of West Lake. Beautiful white cabin in the woods surrounded by the kind of lush green foliage that makes you feel as if you’re in the middle of nowhere. Headed to 武林路, a bustling street on the other side of the lake, for lunch. Overrated “best burger in China” at Triple O’s, followed by an underrated “Cranberry Chicken Sandwich” at Maan Coffee, a two-story, open wooden structure with trees growing inside and numerous colorful chandeliers hanging from branches… impressive. Back to the hotel to rest; apparently still on Harbin time.
If Harbin was characterized by its impressive sights, Hangzhou was represented by relaxation. Woke up late in the day, quick revisit to Maan Coffee, and off to the Zhejiang Provincial Museum. More like the Zhejiang Porcelain Museum, it consisted entirely of Zhejiang’s ceramic history. 3 floors of china. Literally. The exhibit ranged from porcelain organized by material: clay, celadon, and lacquer to porcelain by color and thus by time period: yellow in the early Tang dynasty, blue and white during the Mongol occupation, black during the Neolithic Era, and white under the Song Dynasty.
Back outside to enjoy the high of 60 and clear skies. Rowboats neared the shore to invite couples for afternoon sojourns across 西湖. Hundreds of people walked the path that divides the lake almost symmetrically. I strolled back to the hotel along the western rim of the lake. 4 kilometers. 2 hours. Slow. Out to dinner with a friend of a friend, the owner of a Japanese restaurant and his 夫人 (companion of a lord… “wife”). Having studied in Japan as undergraduates, my host and his friend (co-owner of the restaurant) spoke Japanese and seemed to have a lost appreciation for the neighboring country’s culture (or at least their cuisine). Delicious barbecued cow neck, cow tongue, and cow ribs with homemade vinegar and peanut sauces and sides of fresh salmon, potato cake, sushi, and shrimp tempura. Left the restaurant for a long, cold walk in warm company to the north side of West Lake and back. On the way, we came across Asia’s largest Apple Store, three days from its grand opening, as well as a man on the outside steps of a “Bank of China” convulsing, screaming, flailing, and jumping up and down with eyes rolled back in his head; described by the woman I was with as being 精神病 or “mentally insane”… we hurried back to the car.
Up late the next morning. Frantic emailing and catching up on college application correspondence. Taking a cab two minutes to an intersection I thought was twenty away, I made up the excuse that I had just donated 10 kuai to the taxi driver and his family to make myself feel better about such an oversight. I soon discovered the home of famous Chinese painter and “catalyzer of modern art in China,” Lin Feng-Mian (林风眠), who founded the first National University of Fine Arts. The museum was filled with Lin’s old sweaters (made in China of course), repeated pictures of his Russian wife, his bed, a digital photograph of the Mona Lisa–“Lin’s favorite painting”–and his lifetime portfolio of artwork hung on the walls, only a handful of which were not poorly printed off of a low-resolution laptop. It’s safe to say that the museum was an under-representation of an impressive man.
Back to Lotus Glade 52 for 鱼香茄子 (delicious garlicky eggplant with a fish-punctuated sauce), green tea cakes, and fried dumplings before departing on an ambitious walk through the middle of West Lake, underdressed for the rapidly dropping temperatures. Hangzhou to the East, a setting sun and passing rowboats to the West, and a seemingly unreachable Lei Feng Pagoda far ahead on the South bank. Arriving at the base of the pagoda after a two-hour walk drifting in and out of Hangzhou-speed (practically crawling) at 5:31pm. While I was disappointed to find that admission had closed at 5:30pm, I ended up enjoying the journey more than the destination anyway. Hailed a “luxury cab” (the only taxi in sight… ten kuai more than the “common cabs”) and drove off towards 知味观, a local flavor cafeteria recommended by last night’s dinner buddies.
On the way, I talked with the driver about common Chinese resentment of 小日本, the derogatory term meaning “Little Japan,” to which he gave the following explanation: “the Japanese like to think they’re really big, but they’re actually really small. They’re on a small island, with little influence, so we call them ‘Small Japan.’ They hate that.” It was interesting to experience the prejudice of some Chinese against Japan after having visited the Nanjing Massacre Museum. Also learned from the driver, a native of 山东, that many people from 山东，陕西，安徽，and 江苏 migrate to Hangzhou for relaxation and work opportunity as it is a quickly developing area that maintains a relaxing environment. Arrived at the cafeteria feeling very white in a sea of Chinese. Two orders of fried dumplings, pyramid dumplings, meat noodles, dragon dumplings, and honey lotus root. On the way back, I noticed it had become noticeably more difficult to hail a cab as I traveled farther south; although, the base-prices of taxis do drop significantly the farther south one travels as well. Beijing: 16¥. Nanjing: 13¥. Shanghai: 11¥. Hangzhou: 10¥. Xiamen: 8¥. Hong Kong: back up to 10¥, but it’s not really even China. And finally Kunming: usually 8¥ but in one circumstance as low as 5¥! Excluding Harbin (far north) and Hong Kong (far south) for their respective low and high cab ride base fares, the model fits quite nicely.
4am. Early rise, pack, and departure from Hangzhou South Station. Seven-and-a-half-hour “slow-train” ride to Xiamen. On the drive to the station, I talked with the taxi driver about the Hangzhou dialect, English vocabulary, and the Chinese tradition of abandoning one’s current place of residence to revisit the homeland each New Year. Since Hangzhou is a common place for the emigrants of surrounding provinces, it usually becomes a ghost town (死城) for the month of February. Left the cheerful driver a 20¥ tip to 补上 (make up for) the foreigners before me who had failed to pay the full fare—Happy New Year. On the ride down to Xiamen, there was a noticeable lack of nuclear power facilities, and a refreshing presence of palm trees, tall mountains, and lush tropical foliage. Passed over a river between Fuzhou (apparently transliterated as “Fuchow” in English) and Xiamen with an old man sitting high up on a stilt in the middle of the current with a fishing net on a long pole. Wondered what his plan for making it to shore was. Threaded tunnels through mighty mountains. I noticed structurally fortifying hobbit-hole-like concrete frameworks lining the face of every massive precipice, longing to ditch the train and explore the vast hinterlands behind the colossuses. But alas, Xiamen was nearing and new marvels were emerging. Quarries, temples, uncultivated farmland, and children dancing in circles on the muddy bank of a placid river. Estuaries adjoined like provincial borders in random incongruence, each centered around a solar-powered water mill. Off in the distance, a man in an orange jumpsuit embarked on the impossible task of tilling acres of dirt earth, deep at the bottom of a long-emptied water repository.
Last night, I was invited to attend a lecture by Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times on “The Rise of Christianity in China.” Sporting a catholic (pun intended) array of seemingly endless awards and honors, Mr. Anderlini’s introduction, delivered so elegantly by Mrs. Elisabeth Koch, treasurer of the Beijing International Society, was impressive to say the least. Though admittedly uninterested at first mention of a lecture on Christianity (I seemed to recall 13 years of Catholic education as being sufficient), I thought if nothing else, it would be a good excuse to get out on a nice 25ppm night (clear-ish skies, full moon, 5 or 6 stars). Before heading over to the remarkably opulent, surprisingly cozy Embassy of the Czech Republic, we stopped off at the Chaoyang Starbucks (arrived in the area 90 minutes early + the windchill was 15 degrees) and talked over college plans, Spring Festival adventures, methods of learning Chinese, etc.
Finally entered the Czech Embassy. Up until the event began, we were met by a group of two Irish men, one a missionary, one a businessman, a Frenchman who had lived in Beijing since 1996 but somehow managed to not pick up any Chinese, and an English fellow on a two-year semi-legal work contract with Mercedes Benz. We also met with Elisabeth and Albert, for whom we’re babysitting this Saturday, and a couple of 北大 students from Edinburgh.
Mr. Anderlini was born in Kuwait but grew up in New Zealand. He delivered his speech in English of course and grew more comfortable with the audience of about 50 as the lecture went on.
Only once I realized that I was listening more interestedly and intently than practically any lecture I had sat before (about 10 minutes in) did I start taking notes, so I don’t have the full picture of his lecture, but rather some sparse facts and random topics that caught my ear. First mentioned by Anderlini, after he explained the initial advent of Christianity to China via Robert Morrison and before him, Matteo Ricci, were the modern adaptations of Christianity in China. Among the most radical of these adaptations was “The Church of Almighty God” also known as “Eastern Lightning”, the “Church of the Gospel’s Kingdom”, or “a terrorist organization.” (Visit their YouTube page) This sect, similar to the Mayans, predicted coming of a great rapture that of course failed to materialize in late 2012. However, unlike the Mayans, Eastern Lightning, a “millennial Chinese Christian sect” fundamentally and combatively opposed to the “Great Red Dragon” (Chinese government), has been widely called out by human rights organizations and even Chinese authority (a, shall we say, “less reputable” human rights organization) as an institution centered around the use of brainwashing, kidnapping, torture and even murder (as in the case of the Zhaoyang McDonalds murder last year in which members of Eastern Lightning beat a woman to death, as they suspected her of being a demon, and were eventually imprisoned and some executed by the state) to “recruit” new converts… at which point I immediately began looking more favorably upon the sometimes-irksome doorbell-ringing tactics of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Next, Anderlini moved on to the origins of Chinese-interpreted Christianity, talking about the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (太平天国), a rebel state in the mid 1800s led by four-time imperial-exam failure and conveniently self-proclaimed “younger brother of Jesus,” Hong Xiuquan. After establishing his heavenly kingdom in Nanjing, Hong Xiuquan’s institution developed its own currency, wild, demonic adaptation of Christianity, and strict separation of genders and forbiddance of gender interactions (perhaps to increase the supply of women in the demanding market of concubine hoarding — most members of clerical nobility kept hundreds of personal concubines. Strikingly, yet not surprisingly hypocritical). However, following the bloodiest civil war in history, between the “Kingdom” and the State, in which between 20 and 30 million perished, Hong Xiuquan’s Kingdom was defeated and disestablished. Bearing similar beginnings to the modern sect Eastern Lightning, in which it is believed that an old woman “born to an ordinary family in the northern part of China” (currently living in Henan) is the second Jesus Christ, the Taiping Rebellion and Heavenly Kingdom set a precedent for pushing the envelope of government tolerance in China that would later grow to be a much more prevalent issue.
Currently, there are more Chinese Christians than Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members (100 million vs. 87 million). China, a proclaimed “secular” nation, is soon to be the most Christian nation in the world, as well as the most ideologically ironic. With Protestantism growing faster than Buddhism, the government is inevitably beginning to feel threatened. The modern party, in opposition to the non-party-affiliated religious germinations happening with increasing rapidity all across the country, has begun recycling old, anti-Nationalist, Communist propaganda with the aim of “filling societal vacuums of morality created by the instability of religious uprisings.” This propaganda, beyond contradictory, highlights the communist rule of an autocratic elite accumulating wealth while aiming to fill a national void of traditional values. It includes depictions of Wang Jinxi (also known in 1960s China as “Iron Man”), a “national labor model,” and Lei Feng, a “selfless follower of Mao” and posthumous icon for model citizenship and party support.
But why is Protestantism so popular in China? According to Anderlini, China’s relationship with religion is one of supply and demand. Like any adaptation of Western culture into Chinese society, Protestantism appeals to the market of Chinese looking to feel more international, more globally connected. Unlike Catholicism, which is based more on clerical authority, in Protestantism, anyone anywhere can start a church. As Anderlini put it, pointing to audience members at random, “You, you, you and me. There’s a Church.” Although these differences between the denominations are important, the Chinese have come up with even more imaginative reasoning for siding with Protestantism over Catholicism, such as “sobriety and celibacy just aren’t ‘Chinese.’”
Since Chinese Protestants can literally found churches from anyone’s basement, the government widely regards non-state-recognized groups of the denomination as terrorist cells. No official religious establishment or place of worship in China is without a multitude of cameras, typically facing not only the entrance (to monitor the types of people in the congregation), but also the pulpit, recording and relaying a live-stream straight to the local police station for translation and review. Beginning in Zhejiang in 1950, a government pilot program designed to rein in religion in China drove Christianity underground. Last April, again in Zhejiang, the Chinese government continued its 50s campaign to curtail the propagation of traditional Christianity and pilot their new pseudo-Christian sect in Wenzhou, considered the “Jerusalem of the East.” While the local government ascribes the demolition of Wenzhou’s most famous Protestant Cathedral to the violation of building codes and laws, the latent aim of the campaign is scheming: to cite the local and provincial reactions to the religious trial-run before launching it on a national level.
As quoted in Mr. Anderlini’s lecture, a Chinese proponent of religious freedom of expression and underground religious activist explained, “China has become wealthier but lacks sustenance of the soul. We have food to eat and clothes to wear but we want dignity… cultural and spiritual nourishment.” (Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs: physiological needs are fundamental to human survival, but once these criteria are met, humans crave “self-transcendence”).
Inserting a few anecdotes throughout the lecture, Mr. Anderlini cited his favorite example of convoluted religious modernization: the chain-smoking, film-script-writing, fortune-telling, “morally devoid,” construction tycoon Buddhist master who runs his wife’s most frequented place of worship. Upon first meeting the Buddhist, Mr. Anderlini recalls having his mind “read” and being given strict financial advise to immediately begin mass-purchasing start-up “bullshit” stocks. The overseer of an operation that erected the largest Sleeping Buddha in Southern China, the master invited Mr. Anderlini and his wife to attend the site’s formal inauguration, hosting a crowd which, as we were informed, was teeming with government spies. The ceremony kicked off with a traditional ode to the sovereignty of the CCP. Wait what? Does it seem strange for a Buddhist (mostly independent, bordering separatist in some cases) monument to be interrelated with the ruling power? Not exactly. As we learned from Mr. Anderlini’s exquisite explanation describing the underlying interconnection of Chinese “church and state,” religious (Buddhist specifically) practice is not only publicly bowing to the man, but has been a support for the establishment for the last 700 years, particularly in cases of fighting the influence of Western cultural and religious influx. Through the vehicle of government-run, “controllable” Buddhism, the Communist Party’s response to the unprecedented rise of Christianity in China is simple: do what we tell you; practice Confucianism, Daoism, ‘obedient Buddhism,’ or even Christianity (Chinese Christianity, that is… another semblance of the State Administration for Religious Affairs); but by god you will obey.
Amity Foundation, a government-approved NGO and unrivaled charity giant, is a volunteer organization founded in 1985 by Christiansand fronts one of the largest bible production factories in the world, located in Nanjing. Mass-producing millions of Bibles per year, Amity works in complete concert with national and local governments, using donations to fund nation-wide relief projects for the poor or environmentally-affected. In the U.S., as the religious situation in China is severely misinterpreted, many are still under the false impression that, similar to the case in North Korea, the Bible is still banned from China, and take it upon themselves to smuggle Bibles (almost certainly made in Nanjing, then exported to foreign countries where they were picked up by these champions of Western ignorance) back into “heathen” China. From Hong Xiuquan to Eastern Lightning, the Chinese government has long known that it cannot curb the spring of these restive religious factions taking root in China’s rural boondocks. After all, it’s nearly impossible to control the beliefs of an entire people (unless of course you’re Falungong; then they just “torture the dogma out of you”). While proselytizing is officially illegal in China, Amity’s missionaries “don’t come with bread and bible in hand,” but rather with good works and demonstration of religious values through positive action. Religious proclamation may be illegal, but this only means that missionaries and volunteers cannot explain their faith outright; if asked by locals, Amity volunteers may avow their religious identities.
While president Xi Jinping has formally citied the “organization of Christianity as undermining the Communist Party in the fall of Soviet Union,” the government knows it will never be able to exercise total supremacy over China’s 100,000,000 Christians. However, inability to monopolize has never stopped the imperial giant from navigating alternate, more surreptitious routes to benefit from its opponents. What the party really wants is both simple and brilliant: a Chinese, communist theology; force Christianity to do the bidding of the state.
What does the Chinese government really fear about Christianity? Is it the multicolored robes? The incense? The ashes on the forehead? What it truly fears are the types of people converting to Christianity. The government abhors any organization that doesn’t answer directly to the state. In the 1980s following China’s lifting of the ban on religion, eighty percent of converts to Christianity were old, poor, rural, and female. However, new converts to the faith are exactly the people the ruling faction needs to stay in power: young, politically inclined, and able to be manipulated. Each convert to Christianity is but another lost convert to the national agenda.
Now portraying the early Chinese Christians as anti-feudalist predecessors of the Communists, commending the efforts of Hong Xiuquan’s revolution in Nanjing’s Taiping Rebellion museum, the government is aiming to take religion out of the equation and shed the history of religious uprising in China in a completely new light to the common people. Mentioning religion (the foundation of Hong’s Kingdom) but once in its entire exhibit, the Taiping Rebellion museum stands an emblem to a government’s near-infinite capacity for historical and contextual manipulation.
The comparative versatility of Protestantism, as noted earlier in the report, allows for a myriad of heterodox interpretations of Christian doctrine. These range from radical reconstruction of the Stations of the Cross (in which some churches adopt a traditional Chinese precept of pragmatism and explain the rolling away of Jesus’ tombstone as the effect of an earthquake, or Mary Magdalene’s vision of the risen Jesus as a “menstrual hallucination”) to pictures of Communist God and Jesus surrounded by Chinese cherubs. From portraits of Macanese Mary and Jesus to Last Supper depictions of Jesus and Xinjiang-looking Judas breaking bread around a lazy Susan with chopsticks. Really.
While it is improbable that China will suppress its religious epidemic, Beijing aims to slow the rate of conversion to traditional Christianity and convert more to the government-organized sect through the incarceration of the openly religious and the demolition of prominent sites. In some cases, however, this tactic has an opposite effect. Some more radical groups actually welcome persecution by the state, viewing it as strengthening, inciting, and even martyr-like.
My thoughts on some parts of the lecture? Mr. Anderlini mentioned the Chinese government’s unveiling their own adaptation of Christianity and even touched in part on Chinese missionaries being sent out to countries in Africa. While it’s certainly always had the win of global influence in mind, China has never been the type to roll out military or “hard” power expansionist tactics in order to grow their international sway. This new government-based idea of employing Christianity and deploying missionaries seems like a fantastic opportunity to enact “soft power,” embedding new ideologies in the infrastructure of structurally vulnerable or religiously developing countries.
In conclusion, Anderlini spoke of the McKinsey Reports, a plan proposed to the Chinese government regarding the long-term stability of the CCP. The plan suggested the legalization of drugs, prostitution, and institutional religion as ways to “keep the general public in the dark, happy, and distracted” while the government acts. The reports prompted officials to begin thinking about the political socialization and development of a new generation of Chinese. They realized that people without religion begin acting more politically and involve themselves more in social activism. Anderlini concluded his lecture, “But as far as China (nominally atheist) ever declaring Christianity an official religion? Never. Religion in China will forever be tied to too much imperial and historical baggage.”
Departed from Beijing University’s Global Village at about 6pm. Made my way to the Beijing Railway Station, 取票’d (picked up the tickets), and filled gate A8’s last two remaining seats among a group of six or seven men from 山东 (Shandong). As their lack of annunciation and thick dialect made them terribly difficult to understand, I was forced to hire a young Chinese woman to translate to Mandarin (普通话) for me. The main Shan Dong-er, a 52-year-old man sporting a crisp red-star hat was waiting for his 11pm train back home for the Spring Festival and 提’d (brought to the conversation) mild topics such as America’s affinity for starting wars and Obama’s malevolent disposition.
Boarded my first night train (夜车). Front car seats. Paired in a quad-bunk room with a 20-year-old couple from 太原, 山西, we shared photos, stories of our college experiences, plans for the Spring Festival (they were on their way to Harbin to see the Snow and Ice World for the first time), and a 山西特色 (a specialty from their hometown)–delicious sweet sugar-coated nuts and beans. Bunk 28. I stayed awake until about 9pm and made a decent impression in “Warped Passages,” a new astrophysics book by Lisa Randall, before succumbing to the gentle roar of friction as it clutched the steaming rails of our icy locomotive. Woke up intermittently in the night to the strobing lights of other trains speeding back towards Beijing. Murky darkness ruptured by a blaze of fleeting light, thunderous overtones of aerodynamics prevailing over blustering arctic winds, and the treble-less melody brought back memories of Interstellar, its Endurance piercing the event horizon and entering Gargantua.
6am. A crewmember opened our door, turned on the lights, and asked for our tickets, saying we would arrive in about 40 minutes. The sun rose in fiery brilliance, light from the scarlet star and purple sky dispersing and refracting as it collided with our window, varnished by a thick sheet of ice. Stories of temperatures in Harbin reaching 40 below zero circulated the train, prompting us to add a few layers to our outfits, now nearing unable-to-walk-properly levels of thickness. I had a long stare out of the Western window—Siberian-like tundra, gusts of snow and smoke rising from towns buried deep within the hinterlands of Northern China—and thought of my high school classmates, their migrations back to St. Louis for Christmas break, and their families awaiting their return, before stepping off of Car 2 into Harbin Central Train Station’s outdoor terminal. Harbin, first impressions: 0-30 seconds: Hmm, it’s not that cold; must be overrated. 30-60 seconds: I didn’t know it was possible to choke on air. 60-90 seconds: The inside of my nose is officially frozen…
Baroque architecture, plumes of smoke rising from every pair of lungs fighting for breath, and hoards of taxi drivers waiting to rip off foreigners desperate to escape the cold. Harbin, once a multi-ethnic fishing town, was eventually discovered and developed by south-eastern Russians as a midpoint market town for commerce between northern China and Russia; a massive rail system, European-looking buildings, and a large Jewish community. If you’re suffering from a severe case of lethargy, Harbin is not the place for you. As it turns out, negative temperatures and pounds of dense clothing can drain every ounce of tourist out of you, no matter how 3rd generation-American you are.
Relishing the warmth of a heated taxi, I made my way to the Bremen Inn, inches from 中央大街, Harbin’s Main Street, where the cherry-wooden furniture and odd staff uniforms are exactly what you would expect from any Chinese wannabe ski resort transported into an urban setting. Headed quickly to a disappointing breakfast consisting of numbered eggs (I have no idea), bread, and an eggplant-animal-heart dish, and then immediately to a much-needed 3-hour nap in the “Lover’s Suite” (cheapest accommodation on the menu). After a bit of investigation, I am now almost positive that the only difference between the regular room and the Lovers’ Suite is that the latter comes with two fake rose pedals, is about 180RMB (≈30USD) cheaper, and makes you feel slightly more uncomfortable when the staff sees your receipt. Fair trade, I’d say.
Woke up for an afternoon stroll down 中央大街. Layered up, back into the fray. Cobblestone roads, 热闹 crowds, Euro-esque colonial buildings, and several ice and snow sculptures lining the sidewalks, the street’s vivid energy pervaded its artful environs. Sculptures ranged from giant snow cherubs to a Coca-Cola bear made of ice (Coca-Cola has a factory in Harbin). Candied hawthorn-pineapple-grape-strawberry stick in hand, I observed a slower pace of life than dominates Beijing, and admired the lovely European statues of angels and classical figures, of course backed by stately architectural street corners.
Lunch at the Russian Café, the former home of a wealthy Russian woman, a hole in the wall that doubled as the “Museum of Russian History in Harbin.” Its inside sported black-and-white photos of early 20th century Harbin, recognized Russian inhabitants of the town, and several cases of Russian-influenced china (not the country, the ceramic), grandfather clocks, and portraits. Despite a food safety rating of C (a red, frowning face on a placard hidden behind a few struggling ferns), the delicious Russian meatballs and black-pepper mashed potatoes tasted exactly as what I expected Russian food to taste like. On my way out after a satisfying meal, I befriended a local Harbiner, who happened to be a tour guide—deus ex machina—, under the impression that I was French until the end of our conversation. When I asked directions to the Cathedral of Saint Sofia, the largest cathedral in Southeast Asia, she (suspiciously?) asked why I was interested in going to a cathedral, but nevertheless told me where it was, just a few blocks away.
Just enough blocks to completely lose feeling in my extremities… Finally made it to 索菲亚’s 教堂, a compact, yet impressively majestic dome-topped church, and, with a 50% student discount, entered the warm museum for just 20 RMB. Harbin’s notably excellent indoor heating offered a heavenly toe-thawing retreat. The inside of the cathedral stands elegant in its age, with fading walls and elderly chandeliers. Its peeling pastel paint gives way to a busy museum of photographs—documentation of Russia’s introduction to Harbin in the late 19th century through the railway connecting Vladivostok to China’s northernmost province. Leasing about 50,000 hectares of land from the Chinese, Russia soon established its influence in the previously agricultural village, turning its fields to young urbanity, and its dirt roads to horse-carriage-carrying stone. Surrounding St. Sofia circles a rotunda of the railway, a bringer of Russian civilians to the town. Influenced by Russian life and architecture, the town has taken on the Russian language (seen on most street signs accompanying Chinese, spoken fluently by several Chinese locals, and suspected in most Western-looking foreigners (i.e. me)), food (my lunch), customs, and (as mentioned) architectural style.
Reading all the photo captions made me more aware of my Chinese lingual progress this past semester. Excited to have juxtaposed the pictures of early-20th century Harbin with my experience of it that day, I eagerly looked up land, contract, and political language in my Chinese dictionary apps to better interpret photo captions. Exhausted by the cold (and probably also end of school), I left the cathedral around 3:30pm to find the sun almost at its setting conclusion. Trotting back to the main street before numbness returned to my toes, I found a Starbucks on the main road (one of many Western shops, mixed with Russian and 风味 (local flavor) restaurants) and enjoyed hot drinks and pastries. Also indulged in a locally popular “vanilla cream lolly”… essentially a stick of butter.
Back to the room by 5pm; felt like midnight. Seeking options to view the internationally renowned Ice and Snow Festival, I found a hotel employee at her desk selling tickets. After asking if there was any discount for students, she hesitated before saying that most foreign students are exempt from such discounts, but once I argued I was studying in China, she made a call and confirmed that it would be all right. Result: half-priced tickets… again!!
Alarm at 7. Woke up at 10. Eyes drooping, but prepared for lights and white. Documented the layering of my outfit and mentally prepared for the day’s high of -13°C. Again on 中央大街, the ice sculptures of dancers, ribbons, decorative ornaments, and a massive snow tree (~30 feet high) glistened in early sun and leaked their glowing translucence, just to be frozen over again by icy wind. Asking around for directions to bus route 29’s bus stop (the line circling to the festival and back), I finally encountered an elderly woman and her granddaughter, walking home from the last day of school. The grandmother told me her apartment was right next to the bus stop at the end of the street so she would accompany me there. In a serendipitous connection, I learned from her about Harbin, the more locally popular sights (Ice and Snow World gets repetitive after a while to those who’ve seen it 20+ times), best eateries, and her own life in Harbin. About a mile later, we arrived at the main bus stop center, and although in the vicinity, she persisted in asking several nearby officials to make sure I knew precisely where to stand for the bus before taking her six-year old up for an afternoon with grandma.
Soon swiveling around the corner came bus 29, a charging double-decker. The first in line, I skipped up to the second deck, and enjoyed an outstanding viewing ground for the drive to Sun Island.
Rode for 30 minutes and crossed the frozen, unwieldy Songhua River (松花河), littered with tire tracks, daring pedestrians, and even more audacious locals, out for a drive on the precarious ice. Made it to the Sun Island bus stop, sweaty from the bus ride. 2-mile walk down a snow-packed, deserted road to the entrance of the “27th International Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival.” Strange North Korean/Chernobyl-esque feeling of traversing tracts of land, once lively, now marooned. Passed a colossal, abandoned launch facility, its massive cylindrical concrete frame nearly hidden by the haze of blowing snow (was curious as to the nature of its projectiles).
While the Festival, located in the middle of Sun Island Park, boasted fantastic, larger-than-life snow sculptures, it was relatively poorly attended, perhaps because I arrived in the interim between its opening celebration and main, Chinese New Year Vacation attendance period. I enjoyed snow sculptures of famous Disney characters, Despicable Me minions, angels, eagles, spectacular interpretive contemporary art, and breathtaking renditions of classical pieces with modern twists—one sculpture entitled “Genesis”, nearly 10×25 meters in size, depicted Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of God reaching for the hand of Adam, only to replace Adam with a hazmat mask-wearing robot, supposedly indicating that artificial intelligence would inevitably surpass human capability. Further into the park. Newton, Adam and Eve, cruise ships, firemen, packs of wolves, a huge, 50 meter-long slide, and a life-size replica of the Kremlin. All made of snow. I ran though man-made snowstorms, dashed under ice-bridges, and navigated forests of crystallized trees. While the park no-doubt maintained a magical atmosphere, often manifested was an underlying feel of depression. Other than being located on the rather forsaken-feeling side of Harbin, the festival held more than a few malnourished animals, sleigh dogs and reindeer in particular, as well as multiple rusting ice-bicycles, abandoned food stands, music left on from the opening ceremony weeks before still echoing from speakers clinging to an empty stage, and one small boy having the time of his life, the only attendee of a go-kart race on ice, careening around its barren track.
Back to Bremen Inn for a quick thaw. Hit the Russian Café for lunch. Recognized by the staff as the westerners from the day before, I soon befriended two waiters, one from Inner Mongolia and one a native of Harbin. Telling them of my experience at Beida and the process of learning Chinese, I was flattered–and somewhat surprised–to have been recognized from CCTV by the girl running the cash register. In an amicable gesture, the restaurant staff prepared for me a free bag of cookies and a refill of hot water for the nighttime (really afternoon, without the sun) journey back to Sun Island.
Clutching my steaming canteen, I soaked up the last ounces of heat I could before taking on Harbin’s legendary nighttime temperatures. 冰雪大世界. Welcome to the Ice and Snow World. After months of preparation, packing in clothes, and packing on pounds, I had arrived. 4pm; deep-black sky. Danced for a few minutes in awe at my arrival before embarking on a path to conquer the enormous ice kingdom.
Planned a counter-clockwise route through the park, first venturing towards the tallest climbable ice-castle in the park and winding my way up to the top. Atop the massive frosted structure, wind smashing into my face, I looked out over the black north side of Sun Island, roaring with mystery and frozen desolation, and imagined where I’d be without one of the infinite multiplicity of factors that led to my being there. Moved on to an ice maze. Four-foot walls made of solid ice, each frozen around a burning neon light that illuminated its fractures with brilliant colors. Slick enough to skate in tractive boots. Next, to a giant fish made of metal beams. Entering at the tail end of the fish, I assimilated into the line that formed inside its belly. 30 minutes of numbness. Huddled together with fish-slide-awaiting Chinese, I received more than a few mumbles and looks from locals telling their friends that white people were in fact present in China. Ascended the ice steps up to the mouth of the ice slide that extended out of the mouth of the fish. While the unfortunate family in front of me, who had decided to wear rubber-exterior pants, stuck to the ice slide and ended up walking their way down, I had gone with the classic, made-in-China nylon pants, affording me a speedy delivery out of the giant red fish’s mouth and back into the blizzard. Ran past a Mongolian yurt restaurant and over to a log cabin to defrost. Ordered a cup of hot tea. I have never come so close to pouring a beverage on my body for warmth. The old woman who owned the cabin walked outside in a T-shirt and jeans to pour a tin of hot water in the forest, unfazed by the presumably immediate frostbite she incurred. Out again and over to another ice castle, the “Fairy Princess Castle,”—just my type—and up to its icy peak. Meandering around the snow-dusted ground, I came across an ice replica of the Greek Parthenon, a full-sized ice locomotive, a museum dedicated to Heineken beer (made entirely of ice of course), and a 50×50 foot snow sculpture of three rams (yes, the animal–a reference to the Chinese New Year of the Ram). Over to a fenced-off courtyard that held the ice sculpting festival champions’ works. One in particular, sculpted by the Latvian team, depicted a child in its mother’s womb wearing a gas mask. The Chinese placard explained its symbolism: a mother’s contamination of the health of her unborn children through substance abuse. Observing several other international carved ice pieces, I came to the city’s central ice spire, bursting with neon color, anchored to the ground by thick wire tethers. Adjacent to the spire was a stage being conducted by the booming voice of a Chinese DJ, surrounded by a crowd of hundreds dancing in circles in the falling snow. At stage right sat the world’s largest snow Buddha, a little over 82 feet (25 meters) tall, illuminated in yellow brilliance, overseeing his wintery domain. At stage left, the 2015 Harbin art exhibition housed two floors of comfortable temperatures and a slightly less comfortable fashion show that started just in time for me to leave. A final stroll as close to the Songhua as I could travel took me past dark, snowy woods, even more abandoned ice go-kart rinks (although this festival was better attended), and an avenue of fire-lit Chinese lanterns before returning to the Bremen for the speed-packing that would soon be so familiar.
Four in the morning. Departure day. After a few hours of rest, I strolled towards the Bremen Inn front desk, suitcase rolling behind me, eyes rolling back into bed. The lack of managerial presence surprised me, but given the time, it shouldn’t have. Harbin: where an open front door, and empty front desk, and an easily accessible cash register requires a security team of one: a sleeping, barefoot, mid-twenties Harbin-er in a Russian maid’s jumper. I reached towards the bell on the unattended front desk.—how many deuses can one machina have? “要退房吗?” I jumped, swinging around and squinting into the dark corner of the room. “Checking out?” a voice said again in groggy, North-Eastern Chinese as the Hotel sentinel rose from her slumber on an adjacent couch and took my room key.
“Are there taxis available outside at four in the morning?”
“If I can’t find a taxi, can I come back here and get some help?”
Throwing open a loosely hinged front door, out I stepped into the subfreezing gusts of Harbin, expecting to see the tranquil tributary of Daoli District’s “Central Big Street” uninhabited. Instead, waves of public service street sweepers in reflective neon yellow jumpsuits patrolled the gutters with bamboo fitted shafts sweeping molecules into empty dust receptacles, clearly underpaid for the temperatures they were being forced to endure. Truly the most fascinating city in China.
Fortunately, across the street was parked a cab still humming from its last expedition. Arriving just in time to catch the driver entering REM levels of slumber, I knocked on the passenger window until the familiar feel of numbness returned to my knuckles, before the driver was shaken from his dormancy.
The driver propped himself up, burying his head in his hands and rubbing the comfort off of his face. And what to his wondering eyes did appear, but a persistent “western bastard” (美国佬儿) freezing outside his bedroom window. He waved me off and rolled back over, preparing to embrace sweet serenity once more. Apparently he had forgotten the meaning of persistence. Hurdled back to the icy perdition outside by another, more forceful knock, he let out a sharp cry and flung himself to the window.
A few miserably long minutes of begging and denial brought me to the cold reality that he was, in fact, unavailable. At the next intersection, however, I was met by a taxi almost immediately upon arrival, loaded my case into his radiating trunk/engine-housing compartment and sped off into the dark side streets of Western Harbin.
Though I was informed by the Bremen staff-of-one that the drive to Harbin West Station would take approximately forty minutes, she had obviously never met 杨师傅. With die-hard, half-conscious determination, the driver made the trip to West Station an exceptional sojourn, doubling the speed limit down backlit construction paths, barreling up one-way roads on bald tires, and even running every red light! Arriving curbside at Harbin West Railway Station in 16 minutes, I walked into the extravagant entrance hall at 4:20am, the only presence of life in its massive underground halls. Making my way through security, again woken up by my rolling luggage (given the number of people I had woken up between 3 and 5 AM that day already, I was starting to feel like I was making a name for myself among Harbin’s night-shift workforce), I found my seat beside gate A8 a mere two hours before the train’s scheduled departure. First one here!
The train woke from slumber and ignited in locomotion. 13 below. The sun shimmered over a frozen horizon and set out to conquer the gelid reigns of night. Flecks of light emerged across fields of darkness. A lone farmer carrying a kerosene lantern meandered a winding dirt road in a distant field. Frosted pastures acquiesced to dawn’s imbuing rays and smoke began to rise from the flues of local dwellings, soundless, nestled under blankets of snow.