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Timothy Harper : Harbin, cont.

Tim Harper  

timothyharper@gmail.com  






The 2nd half of the trip, from Jan. 17

Monday Jan. 17 Hey from the Harpers of Harbin. Or should I say the ghosts of Harbin. When I was in China 20 years ago, Westerners were often called "foreign devils" or "big noses." Now we're called "ghosts." It was a chockfull weekend. Saturday Lizzie slept late while I pored over our very unspecific but English-language guidebook map of Harbin, and a very detailed but Chinese-only big foldout map of the city. I carefully collated the two maps, and when we went out and caught a taxi I pointed confidently on the big Chinese map toward the Buddhist temples. The driver nodded as if he had taken lots of tourists there. Twenty minutes later he dropped us off, pointed across the street and drove away. I had sent us to the Harbin Amusement Park, sort of a smaller, downmarket version of Copenhagen's Tivoli. All the rides and other amusements were shuttered and snowed in for the winter, but Lizzie and I still had a good time walking through the park, checking out the amusements and imagining the place in springtime. Back on the street, this time I showed a taxi driver the guidebook and the Chinese characters for the Buddhist temple. He nodded, waved us in, and cheerfully drove us 45 seconds around the corner to the temple.

It's actually a complex of Buddhist temples and chapels attached to a working monastery, and it was very cool. And lots of Buddhas of many different sizes and demeanors, of course, but just as interesting were the hundreds of life-sized wooden carvings, all painted gold, of past monks. We walked along the shelves -- the carvings were all elevated in marble hallways off chapels -- and read the personalities of the long-dead monks based on the images they had chosen to leave behind: thoughtful, kind, scholarly, happy, a lover of children, a monk who liked to feed the pigeons, etc. We tried to stay out of the way of the worshipers as they prayed and bowed and lighted big bundles of incense in fireboxes that billowed pungent smoke. Lizzie initially doubted there could be a gift shop, but she found it and hit it hard. The clerks kept putting necklaces, incense, pins, statues and such on the counters for her to see, and then tried to put them back. But Lizzie kept saying, no, leave 'em out. It turned out that the clerks had to fill out a ticket for each item, on a piece of paper about the size of a movie ticket, using the same piece of carbon paper over and over. Then Lizzie took the tickets to the clerk, paid, and took the carbon copies back to the counter to collect the loot. Outside the walls of the Buddhist complex we walked along a promenade with dozens of ice sculptures, some on Buddhist themes and some just for fun, like the two 10-foot-tall slides made out of ice blocks. The ice was translucent, so you could see the little kids' colorful coats flashing down the slides through the ice before they emerged at the bottom and kept skidding for another 20-30 feet. It was slick.

There were also dozens of small Buddhist supply shops nearby, and Lizzie sharpened her bargaining skills there. Lots more purchases, perhaps most notably a saffron robe and slippers that promise to become standard downtime wear in her room at Oberlin.

Saturday night we went out for a big dinner with a some wealthy business people who had heard about us. The next day they picked us up in a Mercedes-Benz with a V12 engine -- this in a country where the vast majority of people never earn enough in their entire lifetimes to buy the cheapest Toyota. We drove over an hour northwest through the flat, snow-covered farmland, though villages that amounted to little more than a cluster of one-story brick or block homes, low flat roofs huddled together, with coal smoke rising lazily. At first I thought we were entering another village, it was so poor and ramshackle, but the last village just kept going and going. It was Lanxi, a city of 400,000, and home to the Sunshine Linen Co., where we had an interesting tour and discussion about China's growing economic muscle. Sunshine imports raw flax from Belgium and France, and processes it into either yarn in big spools or linen fabric in big rolls. The linen is sold to clothing manufacturers in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. The factory used to be a government operation, but it was so poorly run that the government closed it and sold it to the three Sunshine partners who were hosting us. They cut the workforce in half, raised salaries, increased training, instituted quality controls, invested in the infrastructure and more machinery, and hired four international sales people (one of them a former TV reporter who said he got tired of being able to report only what the Communist Party said was news). The 1,000 workers are mostly women, minimum age 20, and they earn at least 1,000 RMB (about $125) a month -- which is enough to buy one of the small enclosed three-wheel vehicles, basically a motorized tricycle with a little cab around it, that is a sign of being well-off in the area. On the way home we stopped in one of the partners' home village for some of the local cooking; the main feature seems to be a big and extremely thin pancake. We had a bunch of them, stuffed with sauteed vegetables and scrambled eggs. There were various other dishes, of course, notably a big bowl of chicken that seemed to use almost every part of the chicken -- I never identified a beak for certain -- and another big bowl with a school of small catfish. For all those dishes, you just reach in with your chopsticks, pick out what you want, and eat it. Very often we're not given little plates in front of us, so there's no staging. You eat straight from the bowl, and so does everybody else.

Back in Harbin Sunday afternoon, Lizzie and I went to the swim club and churned out some laps. Afterward she was tired of banquets and tired of talk about economics and business, so she had a quiet night in the room while I went out with the same crowd, with a few variations, for an incredible seafood banquet. It would take too long to describe the food here, but I must mention the drinking. Everybody got a glass or two of the local firewater, clear stuff that must be 80 proof, alongside a tall glass of sweet yogurt (they drink yogurt here, rather than eat it with a spoon). You'd take a sip of the booze -- or more than a sip, if it was a toast -- and then chase it with the yogurt. Waitresses kept both glasses filled. I bailed after a little while and asked for a beer. What a wimp. Leaving the restaurant, they noted the unseasonably warm temperatures -- it must have been around 12 -- and laughed at me for zipping up my jacket. Superwimp.

This morning, Monday, we went to the snow sculptures that Harbin is famous for, dozens of giant creations, from six feet high to 20 or 30 feet high, in a park on an island in the middle of the river. Lots of tourists there, plus folk dancers, souvenir stands and such. The sculptures were of elaborate design and finely detailed workmanship: dragons, unicorns, angels, and assorted heroes and scenes from Chinese legend. We're looking forward to the other half of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival: the equally famous ice lanterns. They're all around the city, ice sculptures with bright neon lights inside, but we haven't been to the big display in a park yet.

Lizzie is off teaching her class while I post this. She's doing really well in every regard. Ji says she is getting better at teaching every day, and on Friday even the Ridgewood mom -- who we think came to class without her kid -- gave her the thumbs-up. Lizzie has been re-making our rather austere hotel room into a space of her own, decorating her corner of the room above her bed with photos, postcards, one of her drawings and some crayon art from an admiring student ("From your little Chinese sister..."). Lizzie is a wonderful traveling companion.

Tuesday Jan. 18 After class yesterday we ate dinner with Ji at the school and then went across town so I could talk with a judge about changes in China's legal system and the long-range prospects for democracy -- or, rather, for China's "Third Way," neither socialism nor capitalism but something that they hope combines the best elements of both. Lizzie tried to follow along, but was soon dozing. After a while she curled up on the couch next to me. The judge and Ji, who was interpreting, thought this was pretty funny and made me put my coat on her as a cover. Afterward we went to one of the many ice sculpture exhibitions in a big public square. It was spectacular. I wish I could figure out a way to post some pictures before we get home, but we might have to wait til we get back to a more friendly computer. We took as many pictures as we could before we were both frozen -- the second time that day we got really cold, after going to the snow sculptures in the morning. Plus we had done a fair amount of walking around on the streets, which is not only cold but exhausting since you have to be so careful. The streets and sidewalks are covered with black ice, and snow on top of that. The safest places to walk, with the best footing, are where the ice is pocked and rough. It's murder when you're walking along and hit a patch of ice or, just as bad, a patch of bare marble -- and there are patches of marble everywhere in the downtown sidewalks -- that has been lightly covered by snow. It snows frequently, a hard, desiccated snow, little grains of snow, but rarely more than an inch or two -- just enough to cover the ice and marble. We have seen some real zippity-do-dah moments, with people's feet spinning and arms windmilling like cartoon characters, and we've seen a few falls but we haven't bitten the marble ourselves yet.

We swam this morning, and met one of my students, Wei Lan, a.k.a. Linda, 11, and her dad, Wei Hong Guan. We met her mom, Wu Hong Yan, the other day. The parents, both pharmaceutical sales people, are both good looking and, of course, their daughter is above average. After swimming we had a quick lunch -- smoked meat and fish, and some terrific dumplings, both pork and vegetable -- and then Lizzie headed to Ji's school to teach while I went back to the family's apartment. It's in a mews and then down a little alley between grim-looking buildings, and then a seven-story climb through a dank, dark, unpainted concrete stairway. Behind the big strong metal door is their apartment: cheerful, airy, clean and mostly new. It looks like it must have been redone -- new appliances, new bathroom with modular shower, hardwood floors, bright white walls -- before they bought it two years ago for $47,000. They reckon it's probably worth close to $60,000 now. We looked through the kid's old photo albums, including a couple with a series of professional "glamour" shots, like kids in the States would have done if they were doing to try to be models. Apparently this is pretty common, since we saw something similar for a teen-aged boy the other day. Parents here really love their kids. I mean their kid.

Wednesday Jan. 19 Just got a haircut, and I feel like a million yuan. The barber was a nice-looking woman, as usual. Her work probably wasn't quite up to the standards of my weekly trim in the kitchen at home, but it only costs 60 cents and she didn't seem to be expecting me to sleep with her tonight. Lizzie and I had a good dinner last night with Ms. Liu, the ski resort owner, and Ms. Wang, a history professor, and their teenaged daughters. Lizzie says I have to stop marveling at all the hot moms in China; it's embarrassing her. Last evening Lizzie and I went out for a beer at Basqa, the little basement bar near the sports college where we're staying. It was quiet -- this is winter vacation for the students -- but there were some Harbin hipsters in the corner: young women with makeup, long hair, leather trousers and bling; guys dressed in black trousers and black shirts with open collars. One of the guys kind of danced around behind Lizzie a little, but the only one who spoke to her was Jacky Ming, the owner, who said she was "prettiful."

Lizzie slept in this morning and then went shopping in a big department store with yet another mom-and-daughter team. She bought a shirt and was happy to hear when she got to Ji's school that this was payday. Ji paid me (Lizzie isn't getting paid, since this is an Oberlin project) in RMB, and I told Lizzie we didn't need to spend it all but I'm not sure she heard me. She's been talking about areas of town where we haven't been to the shops yet, and specific shops she's visited and needs to return to. I went for a swim (1500m, almost a mile) and then Ji and I went to the provincial broadcasting center, a fabulous new complex overlooking the only golf course in Harbin. We met with a regional celebrity who is known for her on-air consumer affairs programs. I wanted to ask her about her job. She went off to ask her boss, and came back shaking her head no. She also does something with kids' programming, apparently, and brought in a wispy 21-year-old guy -- his on-air name is Little Secret -- who hosts the nightly 10 o'clock call-in advice show for teens. He said most kids ask about problems with schoolwork and parents and friends. Nothing about sex, alcohol, drugs or rock 'n' roll. An 11-year-old girl called in last week to say she had a crush on a boy in her class, and Little Secret seemed to think that was pretty racy. He told her she was too young to like anyone.

Oh, I want to get back to the streets and how hard it is to walk. "I feel like a little mountain goat, especially when I'm carrying the backpack," Lizzie says. If we do an InstaBook from this trip, maybe we'll call it Mincing in Harbin. But the real point is how tiring it is being out and about in the cold. Monday night, for example, after two extended sessions outdoors sightseeing, we were in our beds with the lights out by 9:30 p.m. Jet lag is all gone. The cold simply saps your stamina.

A brief word on language. Chinese has four "tones," and it seems that Peorian is not one of them. I have a hard time picking up the subleties of the language eve to be able to repeat the simplest phrases, but that hasn't stopped me from trying. I think the Chinese appreciate my feeble efforts, though I sometimes hear them chuckling as I walk away after trying to say thank you. I reckon it sounds something like "sank goo" would sound to us. A complicating problem, though not very much in real terms, is that the Harbin accent is so different from the Mandarin in Beijing, which is what the phrasebooks are geared to. Our book says thank you is "shay-shay," but nobody in Harbin understands that. They say something like "SEE-uh-SEE." And the Shanghai accent is even more impenetrable. Ji, who is from Shanghai, says that when he and his wife want to talk without other Harbin Chinese understanding them, they switch to the Shanghai dialect. Lizzie hears and understands more Chinese than I, and sometimes interprets for me, but rarely speaks Chinese. Instead she says "thank you," sweetly and smiles, and nobody laughs at her as she walks away.  No matter. I reckon we'll both be fluent in Chinese by the time we get home. (For the Chinese reading along, this would be an opportune time to look up the word "irony." And I know there are some Chinese reading along, because every now and then someone will ask me "Teen, what means churn?" or, yesterday, "Teem, what means wimp?"

Thursday Jan. 20 Greetings from the Ghosts of Harbin. When the movie "Home Alone" came out here, it was dubbed "The Little Ghost Who Was Left Behind By Himself."

My class of 20 teenagers was on fire yesterday when, as an exercise in talking about "choice" and "choose," I got them talking about which one they would want, if they ever had the option: a U.S. dollar, an American T-shirt, an American baseball cap with a brewery logo on it, an I Heart NY pin or a book in English. Kids who are normally shy about speaking English were piping up on the relative merits of taking the dollar to buy several Chinese T-shirts versus taking the American T-shirt and perhaps selling it for several dollars versus wearing the pin as a keepsake versus will a hat last longer than a T-shirt? Nobody wanted a book. Everybody is going to get something tomorrow on the last day of class, but I think I'm going to withdraw the dollar. Hat, pin, T-shirt or book. We brought a bunch of those things to give away, and we're leaving enough dollars in China as it is.

Chen Jingtai, the head of the international commerce department at Harbin Institute of Technology (a prestigious university in northern China), picked us up after class yesterday in a van. We had met him before on his own, but this time he brought along his daughter and some of her friends. A couple of them spoke English, including the 20-year-old daughter, Cheng Qi, and they made good tour guides as we walked through the Harbin Ice Festival on an island in the middle of the river. It was incredible. We will post pictures when we can, but in the meantime, the festival was a series of sculptures, some several stories tall: the Paris Opera, an onion-domed Russian church, horses pulling a chariot, and so on. The buildings were created out of big bricks of ice chain-sawed out of the river, and the bigger more artistic sculptures were carved out of giant blocks. The dozens of sculptures, large and small, were lighted by neon lamps inside, and the effect was spectacular. "All the bright lights and things that represent famous stuff somewhere else," Lizzie mused. "It reminds me of Las Vegas." There's a lot to do at the Ice Festival, for the hardy: tubing or sliding on your butt down giant slides, grabbing a rope and climbing up a 30-foot ice wall, dogsleigh rides, camel rides, bumper ice-cars. We got cold fast, but that didn't stop Lizzie from joining the Chinese girls in what is rapidly becoming one of her favorite Harbin treats: frozen (what else in these temperatures?) sugar-sprinkled fruit on a kebab-sized wooden skewer. Lizzie seems to think strawberries are the best. We were tingling pretty good within a half hour, especially since we were taking off our gloves to take pictures, so when Cheng ran into the architect/designer for the entire festival, we were happy to join him in the lightly heated dining/entertainment hall made of snow -- it will all melt in the spring -- where you can sit down at tables and have a cup of something warm. They put strong hot coffee in front of me, and I drank it -- my second cup of coffee in 28 years. The coffee was delicious, and warming, and next time I'm that cold I'll have another cup.

A Russian folk-dance troupe was just taking the stage as we split. We piled back into the van and went to a banquet that Cheng had arranged with several of his buddies who wanted to meet us. They couldn't speak English, but one of the guys and I compared notes about having a 16-year-old son. The meal was a hot pot: a big boiling pot on a hot plate in the middle of the circular table. The pot is divided: half water, and half water with spicy chili oil. Plates come out with proscuitto-thin slices of mutton, rolled and stacked in pyramids, and you toss the meat into the hot pot. Plus vegetables, tofu, squid, whatever else is on the table. After it's boiled a while, you reach into the water with your chopsticks, fish around, pull something out and eat it. It's even more delicious than coffee in a snow hall. The private banquet room we were in, at the back of the restaurant, was like many others we've seen; it had a big TV and a serious karaoke machine. Cheng asked me a couple of times if I liked to sing, and at one point a waiter turned on the TV, but thankfully we got out of there without having to sing for our supper.

This morning we had a good swim and then went over to the home of one of my students. It was much smaller than anything most Americans would consider reasonable living space for three -- the whole family sleeps in the combination living room/bedroom, with the 12-year-old boy on a foldup camp cot -- but who knows, maybe living in such close quarters is one of the reasons so many Chinese families we've met seem so close and seem to get along so well.

Friday, Jan. 21 Ji's wife, Miss Wong, tried to kill us last night. Not really, but we had several near-death experiences as we tried to follow her three blocks from the school to a restaurant. She took off, doing the Harbin Ice Shuffle through the rush-hour crowds, and we struggled to keep up. Then she crossed the six-lane street at a spot where there was no traffic light. In the dark. At rush hour. On black ice. Lizzie and I clutched each other, rationalizing that at least we would go together either when we slipped on the ice and fell or one of the cars bearing down on us slipped on the ice and couldn't stop. Somehow we made it, and quickly found out why the Wong had crossed the road. The meal was one of the best we've had among many spectacular meals in Harbin. The restaurant, called Sun and Moon and Pond, is one of the best in the city, and Wong, by now knowing Lizzie's taste for vegetables, ordered well. One of the big hits was a fried tofu ball with a lightly spicy bean paste inside. We also had our first sweet-and-sour on this trip (it's more of a southern dish), with shrimp and pork and chicken bits piled high in the middle of a plate surrounded by thinly-sliced curlicues of cucumber and, on the outer edge of the plate, strawberries sliced in half, face down. "It's food art," one of the Chinese told us, and we agreed.

Other guests included Miss Wong's son Kevin, the 23-year-old computer whiz whom we met last week; Miss Wu, the school's cook; Miss Wu's son, a college senior, also majoring in computers, who asked us to call him Winston; and two moms with their daughters, both of whom are prize students at Ji's school. One of the moms is the wife of the Harbin Sports College official who arranged for us to stay in the campus hotel. She also owns some restaurants, and invited us to go to one of them tonight for barbecued kebabs, a Harbin specialty. The two daughters spent about an hour at the table teaching Lizzie Chinese words and characters. About the only thing I can read are the signs for the men's and women's stalls in the restrooms but, being a big ugly American, I can freely ignore them when the men's is occupied and the women's isn't. In truth, nobody seems to mind, and the Chinese themselves freely grab whichever stall is open. Incidentally, Western-style toilets are uncommon in public, including most restaurants. Restaurants often offer each diner tissues that can be used either at the table or down the hall.

The moms at dinner wanted to know about American education, and seemed to think the idea of give-and-take in the classroom is preferable to the Chinese system of lectures and learning by rote. They seemed intrigued by the idea that a teacher would ever say he or she is is wrong, or that a teacher might ask students what they think so that they can learn from each other. Both moms said they hope their daughters can study in America someday, and everybody at the table bemoaned the tougher U.S. restrictions on Chinese students since 9/11. The young computer guys wanted to talk about music and the Internet -- Winston recorded a song, posted it, and is pleased with the way it is being downloaded -- and answered some of my questions about the restrictions on the Web for most Chinese. The government tries to block pornography, and sites that are politically sensitive. I asked about Falun Gong, the health-based cult that has been at odds with the government in recent years, and the guys said they could be arrested merely for trying to go to the Falun Gong site. Once again there was a big karaoke machine in the private dining room. I think Winston and Kevin had been doing some crooning before we arrived, but when they asked us if we wanted to sing we said only if they could bring a shower into the room.

Lizzie slept in this morning, Friday, while I went for a swim -- one of the pleasant surprises has been how much swimming I've been able to do -- and then Ji and I got picked up by the Mercedes V12 and taken to the Harbin headquarters of the Sunshine group, the company that runs the linen factory we visited last weekend. It was another chance for me to shoot the breeze with the two top partners, Mr. Dun and Ms. Li. He said economic growth has gone too far for the government ever to roll back the personal and financial freedoms that have emerged gradually in China over the past 25 years. He owes his wealth and influence in part to position and privilege, but seems remarkably open to the notion of a Western-style democracy in China -- but only maybe, and probably far in the future. He, like many others I've talked to, seem to think that China's "third way" will not necessarily ever lead to a conflict between government control and popular demands for more freedom. After he acknowledged that corruption is a daily problem in Chinese private enterprise, I asked a hard Western-style journalism question about how much his companies have to pay in graft and bribes. Ji had to be persuaded to translate the question, but when he did Dun gave a classic Western-style business nonanswer: I am an honest businessman. My companies try to do everything legally and to avoid anything illegal. Remember, if you pay a bribe, you are commiting a crime, too.

Ms. Li, who is five-nine, has a good haircut and was sleek in a black sweater with black leather trousers and knee-high black boots, told me how she had been sent to the countryside to work the fields as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. Afterward, she went to college and studied accounting. When she graduated in 1975, the government assigned her to a job with the Harbin trade bureau as an accountant. She worked her way up through a number of local and regional accounting management positions, acquiring a husband and having a child along the way. In 1998 she left government and joined Dun and the Sunshine group. She said government work is a lot easier than private enterprise, which is one reason many women prefer it; working for the government gives them more time, if they want, for home and family and other interests. She said women and men are completely equal in the Chinese workplace -- but women are still expected to take care of the house. She didn't seem surprised that it's the same way in America. In some ways, however, it sounds like it might be easier for women to have a career in China. Kids don't start school til age seven, usually, but there's a vast network of good affordable day care, both public and private, that allows women to work if they want to or need to.

One thing I forgot to mention from yesterday when we visited my student's home, the 300-square-foot apartment. His mom brought out a big yellow oblong-shaped fruit that turned out to be maybe the best grapefruit I ever tasted. She told us that she had purchased it at Wal-Mart, which opened recently in Harbin. Ji says it's kind of an upscale place.




Monday Jan. 24 Last post from China. I'll probably add a wrapup note after we get back, and some pictures, I hope, but this is probably my last time at the Net Cafe just off Dongja Jie. I told Lizzie I'm going to have to get someone to come up into my office and sit at my elbow, actually touching my elbow, and blow cigarette smoke at me; otherwise sitting at a computer won't feel quite right.

We had a good and busy weekend, spending most of it just the two of us, with no Chinese people, getting around, shopping, seeing sights, eating out, etc. It was nice to be able to focus on each other instead of being the center of attention. We did some mighty fine shopping, including at an out-of-the-way arts and crafts factory I happened upon. I opened the door, walked into what seemed like a warehouse, really decrepit. Nobody there. I went upstairs, opened another door, and there was a showroom. It was closed -- somebody was mopping the floor -- but the mopper rounded up some ladies who started flipping on lights and pecking prices onto their calculators. That's how we did a lot of negotiating: they would punch their price onto the calculator, show it to us, we would laugh and shake our heads, clear the calculator and punch in a much lower price, and then they would laugh at it and shake their heads.

We spent part of Sunday with Chen Qi, the cute 20-year-old college-junior daughter of the president of Harbin Institute of Technology. We went to a couple of Christian churches and to the provincial museum, where Lizzie dawdled among the tanks full of exotic fish. It was a quiet and calming respite from the chaos of noise and people on the downtown streets outside. We swam Sunday afternoon for the last time, and then Lizzie stayed in while I went to another big dinner with some people, this time in an "ecology" restaurant -- a place the size of an airplane hangar, with thousands of trees, plants, bushes and shrubs. Very pretty and, as usual, terrific food. My host, for I think the third time, was Mr. Duan, the head of the provincial agency for the disabled, who is sending us home with several really cool gifts and then next month hopes to send us his son to show around New York, provided Young Duan gets his visa.

I should have done this much earlier, but here's a little about our living arrangements and daily routine. I'll start with the evening. After dinner we're usually back in our room by 8 p.m., but sometimes as early as 7 p.m. Once in a while we'll stay out late, til almost 10 o'clock, which is when the doors are locked at the hotel at the Harbin Sports College. (Though we've been assured that if we're ever late, they would open the door for us.) Harbin is a city of nearly 10 million without a subway system. There are thousands of buses, but they stop running at 9:30 p.m. This is a very early-to-bed town; and why not, given that the temperatures start dipping sharply when the sun goes down around 4 p.m., and by 8 p.m. it's often 20 below zero, or colder. When we come in, the little old gray-haired guy at the desk in an old full-length olive army coat waves at us and picks up the phone to call up to the third floor. We don't have a key to our room, but nobody does. There are three pleasant women who share the floor-lady duty on our floor of the hotel, and they trot down to the end of the hall with us and open the door to 312.

Our room is pleasant and airy, but not fancy. The ceiling is 11 feet high, and the room is about 25 feet by 12 feet. There's a wardrobe with a broken door as soon as you walk in to the left, and a small bathroom to the right. There's a shower but no stall. You just pull the shower curtain on the wall over the wooden door -- everything else in the bathroom is tile or ceramic -- and have a shower standing next to the loo. There's a drain in the floor. The air is so dry that all traces of the shower have usually evaporated within a couple of hours. The beds are side by side to the right, opposite the TV on the left. There's a small desk and a few drawers for clothing on the left, and a couple of armchairs at the end of the room, beneath the big window -- 5 feet by 7 feet -- that looks out onto the soccer field, track and dorms.

We'll spend an hour or two most evenings watching Chinese TV, reading, talking about the day, making notes in our respective notebooks, and preparing our lessons for the next day's classes. We've turned out the lights over the twin beds as early as 9:15 p.m., but on a couple of occasions -- usually movies in English or with English subtitles -- we've stayed up til midnight. The beds are short, narrow and low: a wooden platform, a few inches off the floor, then a very hard boxspring, and then a matress that is just as hard as the boxspring. No kidding, I think I've slept on floors that were softer than my bed. But we have slept remarkably well throughout the trip. No complaints. I kid Lizzie that she is not going to be able to sleep in her supersoft bed back on Ridge Road. She seems to be willing to take that bet.

In the morning I get up, make tea, peel some fruit, open some juice or almond-nut milk or liquid yogurt, read, make notes, and eventually get Lizzie up. She usually eats some sort of cake or bread or combination of the two that we've picked up at the student quickie-mart near the hotel. A kind of french toast with a shelf life of weeks has been a particular favorite of Lizzie's.

We often swim in the morning, a short cab ride away. (My piece of paper with three addresses in Chinese -- the hotel, the pool, and Ji's school -- is tattered and falling apart.) Chinese people mostly are very sedate breast strokers, and they like to stand around at the end of the pool and talk between laps. I am sure they think I am a maniac, plowing back and forth doing a messy nonstop crawl. In truth, the shower is more important than the swim for many Chinese. They routinely spend a half hour in the shower, scrubbing everything enthusiastically from stem to stern, rinsing off and then doing it all over again. Some guys sit on the floor of the shower room, all lathered up, to really get between their toes. I find it hard to linger in the shower for more than 15 minutes, and I am sure some Chinese guys must think Americans are very dirty people. In the lockerroom, getting dressed takes a while, too, especially since everyone is wearing at least three layers. Everybody wears long underwear, of course, but many people wear pajama-type underclothes beneath the long underwear. Big thick snowpants seem to be the everyday trousers for many kids all winter. Most of the long underwear seems to be wool, and I haven't seen anybody with the relatively sheer silk stuff that Nancy got me before I left. The people who work in the lockerrooms know us by now, and nod and smile or wave in acknowledgment. Some of the regular swimmers do, too. A few people try to talk to us, especially kids who shout, "Hello," and then run and hide behind the lockers, laughing. Lizzie had a bare-naked conversation with a regular the other day. "I see you here almost every day," the woman said. "Are you a student?" "No," Lizzie said. "I'm a teacher."

Wednesday Jan. 26 We're back in Ridgewood after a long day of travel. With time changes and crossing the International Date Line, it took us 37 hours of real time to move from midnight Monday in Harbin to midnight Tuesday in New Jersey -- including 26 hours of being on our way to airports, in airports or on airplanes. The trip was pretty much uneventful, except for Lizzie finding some good purchases at the Harbin and Beijing airports for the last of our yuan.

For my last class, I gave the kids T-shirts, basecall caps, NYC pins and books in English. I couldn't figure out why the kids were reacting so negatively to a couple of the caps -- they wouldn't even try them on -- until they told me that the problem was the caps were green. Turns out that wearing a green cap in China means that you (or your spouse; I got differing versions) are having an extramarital affair. Our last evening in Harbin was fun, as usual. We had dinner with Ji, Wong, and Mr. & Mrs. Duan. When I told the ladies about my students and the green caps, they confirmed what the students had told me -- and then asked me for the caps. They put the caps on, much to the amusement of their husbands, and then stuffed them in their bags, presumably in case they ever need to make a public statement on fidelity. The ladies, who over the course of three weeks adopted Lizzie as their American daughter, also decided on our last evening that she needed a Chinese name. They christened her Hu Nu (pronounced Who knew?), which means "Tiger Girl."

It was an incredible trip, a blast, and enriching for us in so many ways. Over the next couple of days as we catch up on sleep and laundry we'll find some time to post photos. Meanwhile, in the absence of a "guest book" section -- I now wish I'd put one up before we left -- please feel free to get in touch with comments and questions. And we'd love to get together with anybody who wants to talk about China in general and our trip in particular. There's so much more to tell...

Click here to check out our photos from the trip

Or here to go back to the first half of the trip













Tim Harper -- Writer, Author, Ghost Writer, Collaborator, Consultant, Coach -- can help you write your book and get it published.

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