Sunday, February 26, 2012

Winter Wonderland

The first leg of my holiday adventures began on a 22 hour train ride up north to Harbin, China.

The red circle is where Harbin is in the country.
Harbin has had a ton of Russian influence, and initially became a large city because Russia built a leg of the Trans-Siberian railway that went through Harbin to Vladivostok. Harbin was also occupied by the Japanese during their occupation of Manchuria, and by some accounts suffered some of the worst atrocities in Manchuria. There was a war museum outside the city, where there had been a Japanese "medical testing" facility. Unfortunately, it was closed while we were there, so we were unable to visit.

Because of their mixed history with foreign influence, we had some unsettling encounters with some of the people who lived in Harbin. Overall, I'd say there weren't really very friendly to us.

Aaron's student David is from Harbin and was our tour guide through the city. David is one of the kindest people I've ever met. He sacrificed the first four days of his own holiday break to show us around his city and make sure that we were comfortable and able to see everything we wanted to before we had to leave. It was great to have him around, and he was able to explain some things to us about why people weren't very nice. Apparently, Harbin has a pretty bad history with Russia that they're not forgetting anytime soon. David explained to us that, if we were white in Harbin, they pretty much assumed that we were Russian. Although, the few times where people realized we were American, there wasn't really a difference in the way we were treated, either.

Anyhow, despite this, our trip to Harbin was AMAZING. The city is absolutely beautiful and the snow and ice sculptures are unbelievable. The crazy arctic temperatures were definitely worth everything that I was able to see in the city.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the trip started with a 22 hour train ride from Shijiazhuang to Harbin. Since it was the beginning of the holiday break, traveling in China was difficult. China doesn't exactly do planning ahead, and you can only buy train tickets 10 days in advance. We bought our tickets the day after they went on sale, and by that time, there already weren't any sleepers available. We really, really wanted to go to Harbin, so we decided that taking an overnight train on just a seat was a truly Chinese experience, and we were going to just do it. They only had bench seats available, which means that there are no arm rests or anything in between the seats. Just a padded bench that you sit on with the other people in your row.

Another thing about Chinese trains, especially T and K trains, is that there is the option available to buy "standing" tickets. However, there isn't always a special compartment for those standers. No, no. They just take their huge bags and stand in the aisle, around the bathroom, on the counter by the sink, or anywhere else they can find a place - including your seat if you get up to use the restroom.

To fully grasp what was going through my mind on this train ride, I made a journal that I tried to update as much as possible with whatever sane or insane thoughts that were going through my brain at the time.

22 Hours on the Train Ride From Hell

11:30am: I've been on this train for all of 10 minutes and already feel like I've lost my sanity. On my side of the train, there are a bunch of college students heading home to who knows where. They are also apparently opposed to actually purchasing train tickets. When I arrived at the train, the man checking tickets actually held the crowd back for the four of us (Iraise, Lauren, Emily, and myself) while mumbling something about Harbin and mei guo ren (Americans). I don't know exactly what he was saying, but I imagine it was something that involved lots of pity and surprise. "These poor American girls have no idea what they're in for. Harbin? Oh, no." I understood once I arrived at my seat and there were three girls already shoved on the two-person bench seat that was supposed to be seating me and one other person. In a haze of disbelief that this was really my life, I weakly held my ticket out and pointed to the 113 on my ticket. My. Seat. Instead of getting up, as that would be far too logical, one girl climbed into the other girl's lap, while the third stood at the end of the table, effectively blocking my leg room. I would like to add that my train car has 118 seats and a capacity of 118 people. There are, additionally, roughly 50-60 people standing in the aisle with their luggage. These girls and the two people across from me had already covered the table with their crap - mostly candy, sunflower seeds that they will eventually spit on the floor, and an odd assortment of fluffy winter gear with cartoon characters on it. Add to this that I probably have bronchitis and need to eat something so I can take the prednisone Iraise got me from a Chinese hospital last night, and I am not a happy camper. I grumbled something about, "I paid for this seat, and I WILL USE IT." while i kicked the girl out of my way and edged my backpack and bag of food under the table, my legs on either side of it. I used this same tactic to get the writing space on the table I'm currently using, except elbows were involved.

11:45am: The girls next to me were just trying to take my picture. They are already roughly six inches from my face. China.

12:00pm: Took the first dose of my sketchily-obtained medicine. Immediately after, a group of men began smoking between the cars, about five feet away from me, and directly under the "No Smoking" sign. No one else seems to care. I can feel my lungs crying.

12:30pm: The girl in front of me seems to feel as though her status as a stander entitles her to my leg room. I've settled for instead resting my feet directly on top of hers. If she won't give me the foot room in front of my seat, she can be my footrest. I also caused a commotion when a stander behind me decided to loop her arm around the top of my seat, blocking me from being able to use my own head rest. I patted her arm, said excuse me, and then lifted it off of my seat. My. Seat. You are not my problem.

1:20pm: Currently being squeezed out of my seat as the two girls in the ONE seat next to me try (and fail) to sleep sitting on laps. I am pressing as much of my weight as possible against them just to get a corner of the table. I hope they find it annoying. I am not tired. I am also not ready to use up the battery life of my electronics. I will continue this game.

1:30pm: As they are college students and know a few words of English, I have resorted to adding grunts of "rude", "move", or "are you serious?" with my elbow jabs. Again, not my problem that you didn't buy a seat.

2:00pm: The girl across the table from me is now playing music out loud on her phone. I have resorted to earplugs.

2:45pm: First attempt at a nap = epic failure. Now, the girl next to me started playing what is quite possibly the worst song in the world, on blast, from her cell phone, right next to my ear. Trying to decide on an equally annoying and obnoxious activity that I can engage in; strongly considering playing "Big Pimpin" out loud on my iPad. I think one of them can possibly read my mind, she got them to stop right before I reached my breaking point. That, or she understands the word fuck.

3:00pm: Prednisone is working. This is the best my lungs have felt since early November.

4:00pm: I don't think anyone in China knows how to chew with their mouth closed.

4:05pm: This train is staging a competition for who can be the most obnoxious individual. That's the only explanation that makes sense.

4:15pm: Used a squatter on a movie train. Wearing a surgical mask was necessary. A small part of me wants to push the two girls next to me off the moving train. They seem to think that they can sit partly in my seat.

4:20pm: The girl standing in the aisle is wearing a shirt that says, "Barack Obamd: skyline Friendly organizations in Peace." Ladies and Gentlemen, meet our new president, Barack Obamd.

4:21pm: Someone is playing a recorder.

4:22pm: What's that old torture device called where they tie each of your limbs to a different horse and then all four run in a different direction? Something and quartered. Drawn and quartered. I'm not entirely convinced that it would be inhumane to draw and quarter the inventor of the QQ instant message noise or the man currently playing music on a loudspeaker in the car of my train. I want to go boil water for my instant noodles. Not sure what will happen to my seat if I move. Still holding out on using electronics. Will need them for the last leg of the journey. Even earplugs won't drown out the sound of the girl next to me eating a meat stick.

5:40pm: Still playing music on his loudspeaker, except now there is singing. Including the girls next to me. It sounds like some sort of nationalistic war fight song recorded over the music for Celine Dion's song for The Titanic.

5:45pm: There is a man across from Lauren who has consumed an entire grocery bag full of pre-packaged chicken feet. He's currently passed out on the table. I don't know how he can eat all of that and not die.

6:30pm: The two standers have left, FINALLY, leaving me with only one other person on my two-person bench. Great success!

6:50pm: The train has cleared! There are now only about 10-20 standers. We are less oxygen-deprived now. Dinner time!

2:40am: I've surprisingly been sleeping on and off since roughly 8:30pm. I must sleep in two hour shifts. Have to stand up and walk around because my butt, back, and spine hurt so bad. Someone behind me is gnawing on a full melon. The only way sleep is possible is in my wolf hat and earplugs. I feel homeless.

5:30am: Everyone around me is eating instant noodle bowls for breakfast.

5:50am: The music has started again. The concept of courtesy doesn't exist here.

8:00am: Woke up. Starving. Nothing edible on this train. All I have left is a noodle bowl. My body is anti-sodium right now. I need water. Where is the annoying water cart man who came around every hour on the hour except when I need him?

8:10am: Surprised at how well I maintained my sanity on this train. Just a little under two hours left and I haven't used any electronics, despite bringing my laptop, iPad, and iPod. Lauren and I started shutting the door on the chain smokers. It really doesn't help much. I want to take my prednisone, but I need food. People took pictures of me sleeping. And eating. And blowing my nose.

9:05am: Arrival in Harbin!! 40 minutes early.

AND, here are the pictures:

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