Liu Zhongli, the day-shift driver, is waiting right on time. He is friendly and curious and the drive is a clean 90 minutes. First, the lightly industrial outskirts of the city, then hayfields, and other hayfields, and still other hayfields. The monotony is relieved only once, by a large hay truck whose driver must have fallen asleep. The center barrier is mangled for 50 yards, and the truck is on its side, with another truck pulled up beside it, off- and onloading.

There is a town called Bixian, and we ask our way to the closest resort. It is not until we pull into the parking lot that I realize I have not yet seen any mountains. Or hills. Or mounds. The resort is called Er Long (Two Dragons), and it may in fact have two dragons, but it only has one pony tow, and one slope, holding only one run.

If that’s all there is, this morning was nothing more than a very expensive taxi ride, but the people at the desk say that the resort we most probably seek is in a nearby and similarly named town: Bixi. We thank them and head back to the cab. I wait for the driver to ask to renegotiate, as his expenditures for gas and tolls are now larger, but he doesn’t bother, and we buzz along the little roads, occasionally swerving to miss the very small, very slow three-wheeled cars that are indigenous to this area. The exhaust pipe on these cars protrudes from the center-front of the roof like a very short unicorn horn.

The main gate to the other resort is pleasantly bizarre, a huge construction of massive fake logs fakely lashed together with some species of cement vine painted chocolate brown. This resort is also very small, but fine for a single day of skiing in this cold: two chairlifts and four pony tows on one hill. I pay Liu his due, but he stays at my side to make absolutely sure that I have no trouble buying a hat and a lift ticket, getting skis and boots and a locker, tracking down a bus ticket for the trip back. He finally waves goodbye as I slide down the hill out the back door of the lodge.

There is nothing in the way of crowds, and the snow is not great but is certainly skiable; the upper runs are short but steep enough. Six hours of fast up and down, my fellow skiers neither noticeably bad nor noticeably good. I end the day with a pointless and painless pinwheel crash: nothing unusual. In fact, only three oddities register here:

  • The anatomically correct erection-shaped natural rock formation at the top of a nearby bluff
  • The music blaring from speakers hung on the poles of the main chairlift—it is the perfect music for an 8-year-old Mexican girl’s birthday party, as dreamed by Eminem, in an elevator, with mainly bagpipes at his disposal
  • The “lunch” that I brought with me from Harbin: plastic bags that, when squeezed, fart peach yogurt into your mouth

Then an easy ride back to Harbin, a bad curry at the USA-Bucks Café (yes), Arrangement Lady calling and calling and I am too tired to care.

- - -

My last day, another walk down to the river, and this time east along it toward the open water, which I don’t yet understand: the rest of the river is frozen several feet deep. Past a stack of bushes and cuttings 20 feet high—they have been sprayed repeatedly with water, which freezes to form a winter-wonderland scene that, sadly, looks more like melted wax. Under the railroad bridge, past old tour boats rusting where they’re stuck in the ice. At last, to the open water, and now I get it: the “banks” are cut in perfect lines, and this missing strip of ice 200 yards long and 50 yards wide is the source of all the blocks I’ve seen in sculptures.

It is said that people swim here even in winter, but there’s no one swimming today, just a few old men fishing from the edge. To the end of the waterfront, and then a taxi to the regional museum, which I have heard is well stocked, but the driver shakes his head: All the good stuff is gone, he says. I ask where it went. He doesn’t know. I ask if there’s anything at all to see, and he says, Yes, but … And then he shrugs. There’s another museum nearby, he says, the History Museum. You might like that better.

But now I’m curious, so we go to the regional one first, the Heilongjiang Sheng. And the driver is exactly right. They have removed all the archaeological bits I’d hoped to see, and replaced them with the Supreme State Gift Touring Exhibition of the People’s Republic of China. I’ve paid my entrance fee and taken two steps inside before a poster tells me what is in store: the gifts that Chinese political leaders have received in the course of state visits to 140 countries since 1949.

The quality of the exhibited objects leaves only two possibilities: tremendous disdain on the part of the countries visited, or the visitors kept all the good stuff for themselves. That is, not art but handicrafts, and mainly the kind you would buy for relatives you don’t particularly like: cloth dolls and cheap wooden carvings; a “silver” commemorative plate bearing the inscription “With Best Compliments from Underwater World”; a toothbrush holder (yes) from England; a pewter jug labeled “Koexistenz” from Switzerland; a bad bust of Lincoln from Nixon.

Not everything is quite so bad. There’s a nice abalone-and-mother-of-pearl box from Palestine, a shimmery gold-plated headdress covered with dangly bits from North Korea, and a nice carved tusk from Guinea. There are also a few cool daggers from Yemen, but then, pretty much all daggers are cool.

Elsewhere in the museum, there is a small bad calligraphy room, and a small bad exhibit of Qing porcelain. The ticket I bought does not include entry to the natural-history exhibit, or to the painting gallery downstairs, and that’s enough for me.

A scattering of things to fill the few remaining hours: the History Museum, which is closed; Harbin’s finest fur store, where the smallest, plainest, cheapest stole is 1,500 RMB and the coats are 60,000; a haircut; a farewell tour of EIFE; a final Russian dinner at 1914. Then happily through the cold to the station.

My train is not listed on any of the electronic boards, so I ask a guard, am lead into one of four waiting rooms, and handed off to an angry uniformed woman who is shouting through a megaphone. She takes me to the front row of seats. A woman sitting there is saving the two seats beside her with what are obviously her husband’s and daughter’s belongings. Megaphone Lady tells her through the megaphone to move the stuff. The woman protests, says they’ll be right back. I tell Megaphone Lady that it doesn’t matter, that there are plenty of free seats elsewhere. Still using the megaphone, she orders the woman to pick up her things, then physically pushes me into one of the vacated chairs. Ten seconds later, two seats open up on the other side. Before moving, I look around to make sure Megaphone Lady is not watching, because I am afraid of her and her magnified lungs.

The boarding of my train is announced. I get in line, and then Megaphone Lady comes over and tells me—through the megaphone, from a distance of 4 feet—that it’s time for me to get in line. I point out that I already am. This information does not interest her. She walks away, is back a moment later, shouting me into a different hallway than everyone else is using. It ends up leading to the same platform where the same train waits, but her shouts have saved me 50 yards of outside walking.

Reading, reading. A bit of watching at the window. Then up and out for a cigarette. Then a trip to the restroom. There is a little net compartment on the inside of the restroom door, with a symbol above it showing that it’s where you put your cell phone so it doesn’t fall down the toilet when you squat. This makes me very happy, that someone has thought of this, and brought it into being. Back to my bunk, and this time, thankfully, my pillowcase has been freshly laundered. It smells clean, clean, clean.

The Very End