I now understand why my friends and relations laughed loudly in my face when I said that I was going to Harbin for five days. In much the same way that casinos eschew clocks, so you have no way of knowing how long you’ve been standing and staring glazedly at the tumbling images, Harbin eschews thermometers. This morning, however, I found one: it is, in degrees centigrade, 30 below, and I don’t think that counts the wind.
I have now looked more carefully through the list of potential local attractions, and there are several sights I can live without seeing: the Siberian Tiger Park, with its fenced-in cats and its tourists throwing live chickens out the windows of their buses; the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base (a place I might have gone if I hadn’t spent quite so much time in Nanjing recently); the Children’s Funland Railway. At the hotel’s tour desk, I make a less than full-hearted attempt to move my return to Beijing up a day, but this appears to be impossible. The lobby continues to stink of kerosene, and I will not mention this again, though it never changes.
Out to a bakery that is also a café known as EIFE; I do not understand the name or the capitalization, nor do I care, because the space is warm and small and very comfortable, and the coffee is quite good, and the little pastries are very nice. I consider dropping my hotel room and living here instead. I have four or five coffees and read more Millhauser.
Then again to the Ice Festival (my entry ticket calls it the Harbin Ice-Lantern Garden Party) for some daylight pictures, and now I like things even more—the colored lights faded, the sunlight gleaming, the echoes and prisms and clarity.
From there to the Church of St. Sophia: Russian-built in 1907, trashed by the Red Guards, very carefully half-restored. The huge dark-green dome sets off the old red brickwork and the restored mosaics nicely; the bright-gold baroque crosses are the axles around which the pigeons wheel. Inside, there are chandeliers high up in airy spaces, heavily barred windows, a few less than deft paintings, and a museum of sorts holding a photographic record of the city from the 1890s to the 1940s or so. The only bit in English is an odd two-part introduction discussing the manner in which thinking of the past may make us feel uneasy and uncomfortable, but if we love Harbin we will do it anyway. There are so many things that this could be referring to, and it is surely right, in its way.
Then out to the Temple of Bliss, a nice square low building with wide upturned eaves, and, inside, a statue of He Who Is Not Yet Come. Adjacent is a courtyard holding the plain and new-looking Seven-Tiered Pagoda, in front of which is a monstrously huge gold Buddha statue, which, if viewed from a certain angle through thick trees, has a curious halo made by a distant Ferris wheel.
Beyond this courtyard is the Temple of Universal Light, which is only open to the public on two specific days each month, of which today is not one. Around me there are monks moving, preparing for activities that will begin the moment we tourists leave; none of them seems to feel the cold. I spend 20 minutes shivering and waiting for the smoke from a nearby factory to exit its square brick smokestack in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. (It finally does, and more than once, but my photos won’t catch enough of the late-afternoon spectrum, and I will be somewhat disappointed.)
To the train station for another try at pulling my return toward me, and again no dice—there simply are no tickets. So then to the Portman Bar, solid and brick and fine, the interior decorated perhaps a touch above its pay grade, but the food is strong: a vast platter edged with nicely swirled mashed potatoes, and heaped with a mass of more mashed potatoes, ham, chicken, dill pickles, and sautéed onions, all covered with melted cheese. (Dill pickles: I know. But still good!)
Throughout there is live music, a guy on an out-of-tune piano accompanying a stunning Chinese woman on violin. The music is unfortunate, but then comes the coffee: a bifurcated beaker with water in the lower bulb and coffee grains loose in the chamber above, a Bunsen burner lit beneath, and the heated water forced upward, the flame then extinguished, and the coffee seeping, filtered, back down: very nice.
The violinist gives me a pleasant smile as I leave. Back at the hotel, Arrangement Lady calls. I just hang up, which seems to work, though hours later I again hear her arranging someone nearby.
A day mainly wasted trying to set up tomorrow’s agenda. According to the photographs on the brochures at the hotel’s tour desk, there’s good skiing three hours away at Yabuli, and crap skiing 45 minutes away at Yuquan, where one might also “hunt” birds tied (yes, literally) to the ground, paying a rental fee for the gun plus a bullet fee per shot fired plus a game fee per bird taken. However, all available tours are designed to please tourists from Hong Kong and Taiwan who have never seen snow before, and want only to touch it, not necessarily to fall down hills of it; these tours include, at most, two hours of skiing, and then several hours of seeing things I’m not completely sure need seeing.
The girl smiles and tells me to let her know if I change my mind. I head out and up the street to an actual tour agency, and the scene is exactly the same: two hours of snow and then et cetera with et cetera. But I do get a bit more news: there is something between Yabuli and Yuquan in all senses, Ji Hua, an hour and a half away and rumored not to be embarrassing. But the tour agent doesn’t know how to get me there without charging me inappropriate amounts of money.
So: EIFE, to regroup. A couple of coffees, a couple of pastries, a couple of Su Tong novellas. Then back out into the cold—only 25 below today—and a bit of walking around. The purchase of ski gloves on a basis of blind hope. A bland dinner. Then more walking around, more coffee, more hotel room, more reading, and Arrangement Lady calls again.
That is enough. I put my coat and scarf and hat and boots back on. It is time for Beibei Hanbing Dishigao: the North-North Dry-Ice Disco.
I have been looking forward to this place for some time, and find it underground, beneath a shopping center near the train station. Down the cement steps and through a curtain of thick hanging plastic strips and into a dark hallway. At the entrance, I’m stopped by two guys who would very much like to be thugs, but aren’t, quite. The 20 RMB cover charge includes roller-skate rental fees.
The entrance ticket shows two men dancing together, both of them in tights, one of them profoundly encephalitic. It is very, very dark inside, and there is no dry ice to speak of.
What can be seen if one walks slowly around and squints? Along one wall are 8 or 10 booths, all of them occupied, but thinly; along the adjacent wall there is nothing but a few old Japanese video games blinking in the corner. Continuing around, one comes to the roller-skate counter, and catty-corner to that is a sad, dark bar, ’70s-ish in most senses, with wide vertical bars of black light. The only other light is from the strings of Christmas lights along the very low ceiling.
The vast central area is broken up by perhaps a dozen thick rectangular pillars, their sides glittery with silver floral patterns; by a line of plastic cubes about 2 feet square, meant to be sat on, with Christmas lights inside; by the stage, a few feet away, perhaps 6 square yards of plastic blocks a foot high with still more Christmas lights; and by the adjacent DJ booth. On the stage, people are singing barely audible karaoke, alternating between hip-hop and ballads. There is elsewhere a television showing a karaoke song complete with bouncing colored dot, but it is not for the same song that is being played by the DJ.
And around and around in this near-darkness, people skate. The DJ, the karaoke singers, the bartender, the patrons: they all wear skates, except two girls dancing together in a corner. There are also wallflowers, of course, sitting or standing. Nearly everyone here is in their 20s, give or take, and is dressed neither up nor down. All of the patrons appear to be having a quietly good time as they sing and drink and skate in circles, except for the wallflowers, and the cleaning ladies, who carry old straw brooms and plastic buckets and make their own much slower circles.
Another ballad comes on, and the huge guy in very shiny black dress shoes sitting with his girlfriend beside me starts to sing, quietly. Not to her, not to me. To himself. His shoes are the shiniest I’ve ever seen.
When I leave, one of the heavies at the door thanks me for coming. He really seems to mean it. Then, in the cab, conversation ensues, and when the driver hears what I’d hoped to do tomorrow, he makes a phone call, then says that his colleague, the man who drives the day shift in this same taxi, can take me to Ji Hua tomorrow morning. We agree on a price, and all of a sudden today has been a good day.
p= There Is, Yes,
Only One More Part