Wednesday, August 03, 2011

To Harbin and back

I spent the middle of this trip traveling to and from Harbin. It's a fifteen-hundred kilometre trip that I made by train.

The Z1 train going to Harbin was surprisingly comfortable. The 40-dollar soft  seat ticket got me an actual soft seat, comparable to the sort of seat you might get on a train in Korea or elsewhere.

Actually, I would describe this train as more or less comparable to the Korean Mugunghwa trains, the lowest class. The ten-hour trip was overnight but my car was quieter than most Mugunghwa trains I've been on.

Harbin itself was one of those places I know well from having planned to go there about a half dozen times. It's most famous for its ice festival in the winter but a trip in the summer is well worth it.

From the moment I entered the Friendship Hotel in Harbin, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. Communist countries love the word friendship and this hotel claimed to have hosted Soviet leaders in the past.

It was a grand but worn hotel, so the four-star experience was mine for fifty dollars. The hotel, maybe by design was next to the Songhua river and Stalin Park, which runs next to it.

The air was much cooler and cleaner in Harbin owing to its location by the Russian border. Between the hotel and the weather alone the trip was worth it, considering that daytime highs in Beijing had been about 35 degrees. Harbin is also home to a collection of Russian architecture in varying states of repair and cheesy restoration.

Stalin Park meets the European-inspired Zhongyang Dajie (Central Avenue) at a very socialist and rather dramatic monument to flood control. I've never seen anything of the sort outside of a place on the outskirts of Budapest that collects old Soviet sculptures and statues and charges tourists for the right to stare at them.

Most of the Russian architecture in Harbin was the work of Jews who numbered in the tens of thousands there at one point. Its condition ranged from the good to The ostentatious to the beautiful.

Harbin is not an especially wealthy city by Chinese standards and development would likely threaten many of these buildings with either demolition or Las Vegas-style eternal life.

I would prefer it if Harbin and Heilongjang province became a sanctuary for architecture and nature respectively instead of being turned into another monstrous Chinese city, but I really have no knowledge of the forces at work in the city or the region.

I took the dingy T72 train back to Beijing, which charged the same despite taking sixteen hours and being far less clean or comfortable. Arriving at Beijing station made the trip somewhat more worth it.

I suspect that I'm the only one who loves that horribly undersized building and its peculiar shape, not to mention the fact that it has train service to Vietnam, Mongolia, North Korea and even Moscow.

I walked through the station's square at midnight on my way back after a late-night snack. There were people arriving and leaving, and there were also those hard on their luck roaming the area, but most numerous were those passengers who had camped out on the filthy, garbage-strewn ground on mats or their own luggage, waiting for their own train.

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