|On Saturday, I came to work around 10. A few hours later, Kristen McDonald, Pacific Environment’s China Director, came to the office. Because of problems with the weather, her seat had been given to a passenger whose previous flight had been canceled, so she didn’t get in until really late on Friday night. We were all starving and went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. She too is a vegetarian, which is convenient and was good inspiration to reduce my meat consumption. After lunch, I took a bus home to get my stuff ready. On my way home, I stopped to buy some peaches (which I’ve become addicted to yum!) and got caught up in a conversation with the lady selling me the fruit and another buyer. The other lady buying fruit tried to convince me to teach her son English, but I apologized and said that I was leaving Harbin shortly. It occurred to me that it would be very easy to find a job if I ever wanted to, though teaching isn’t exactly my forte.
I looked up the buses from my house to the train station, but just couldn’t figure it out (I think there’s a glitch on google maps?) After walking around for a bit trying to find the fricking #110 bus, I panicked about the time and took a cab. I got there right in the nick of time and everyone was already waiting for me, which was a bit embarrassing. Other than Yadong and Kristen, I met Eugene Simonov and his wife Svetlana, their son Daniel and Svetlana’s sister Tanya. Eugene and Svetlana are both Russian but have been living in China for quite some time and can both speak fluent English and Chinese. Eugene is an expert on water resource issues and literally wrote the “Amur-Heilong River Basin Reader.” He’s done work with WWF Russia and other environmental groups focusing on water resource issues.
Daniel is an adorable blonde 2 ½ year old who can speak Russian and Chinese.
It ‘s really cute because he’ll be babbling on in Russian and suddenly switch to Chinese. It’s had being a blonde foreigner in China, because people always want to talk to you and take pictures of or with you (often without your permission), but I realized that the worst is hands-down being a cute blonde 2 ½ year old. People were constantly talking to him or about him, touching him and trying to pick him up, not to mention taking photos. He handled it really well and was basically just really good at ignoring strangers. Along with being absolutely adorable, he’s one of the most consistently happy little kids I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time with. Tanya couldn’t speak English or Chinese. She works in Moscow and was just visiting for a couple weeks, so she was basically just along for the vacation aspect.
We boarded the train, had snacks, hung out for a bit, talked about our plans upon arrival and then went to bed. We had hard sleeper tickets, which are hands down the best. I was super excited though and just couldn’t stop thinking about how amazing the trip was bound to be so I got very little sleep. The next morning we arrived in Hegang early (5:30) and bought bus tickets to Taipinggou before having a yummy Chinese breakfast at a convenient nearby restaurant. We got on the bus for Taipinggou and after a couple hours stopped for a one-hour rest stop in Luobei, one of the bigger cities in that part of the Heilongjiang Province. After an hour, we got back onboard for another couple hours until we were let off in Taipinggou. Taipinggou is a small town on the Amur-Heilong River. Eugene stumbled upon this place many years ago and has come back every year since. There are plans for a big dam – the first on the main channel of this river – that will likely affect the lives of the people here. Parts of their town will probably get flooded and it will likely also affect the fishing trade, which is an important source of income. There is one hotel in Taipinggou, but Eugene arranged for us to stay in the local houses, which was really neat. The hotel seemed big and sterile.
We met the party secretary of the Taipinggou forestry unit and he invited us to dinner with him that night. We then changed into our swimwear, had lunch, and hit the river. We brought some big (~580mL) bottles of beer to the river and basically just hung out, swum around, and chatted. It was really cool because the river is the boundary between Russia and China, and it really wasn’t that wide. There were some pretty swift currents, but it would have been completely possible to swim over to Russia. The area we swam in was nice because there was an eddy, so the current wasn’t really that intimidating. As we were drying off, Kristen decided to go ask the people working on the tourist boat that had just pulled in whether they would be heading down river the next day and whether we could get a ride. There was a small dock that could hold about two medium-sized tourist boats.
They said they couldn’t take us, but we arranged to ride with them on their short ride upriver. After about ten or so minutes, the boat stopped and a few of the Chinese tourists jumped off in life jackets to be swept by the current down the river by to Taipinggou. It was late afternoon and the lighting was beautiful. In a country as populated as China, I really appreciated the expanse of trees and lack of civilization on both sides of the river – again, it’s incredible how close we were to Russia!!
The ride was about an hour, after which we went back to our houses and changed for dinner. As we were heading home, we ran into our party secretary and arranged a place and time for dinner. When we got to dinner, there was already food on the table – lots of fish, including a dish of tofu and fish stomach. My stomach was hurting maybe from the beer down by the river earlier and embarrassingly I had issues “ganbei”ing the cold beer that we were served (ganbei 干杯 means “dry your glass” or “cheers!”). It was a pretty funny scene with the party secretary toasting people and ganbeiing with them, and I felt a little sad and left out that I couldn’t keep up. Towards the end, they brought out fried “mixed” small fish, which tasted sort of gross – very fried.
I only tried one.
After dinner, Kristen and I were walking home when we heard music coming from down the road from a big building we could see with green lights. We decided to follow it and came upon a weird touristy replica fortress. We met three shirtless men who were happy to walk around with us, goof around, and chat. It was kind of strange with very regal music playing for an empty courtyard filled with life-sized (or almost more-than-life-sized) replica figurines of ancient soldiers, miners, etc. going about their daily lives. We found a couple wheelbarrow-like carts that had a single seat and were obviously used for transporting people. They were just sitting out near the door, and it was decided that I would be pushed around on the rickety, unsteady carts by one of the men of unknown sobriety. Kristen then took a turn pushing to see how unsteady it was (very unsteady, maybe not a great decision) and then we all came to our senses and decided to stop.
After we left the fortress, the five of us when down to this big bare courtyard across the street, which had a fountain on one side with frog statues. The whole fortress-courtyard was obviously not quite finished being constructed and there was a ladder leaning on the upper part of the fountain, which I gleefully climbed and Kristen took a picture. It was all a bit of strange experience. The men walked us back home, Kristen bought some water at one of the little restaurant/stores/houses, and we went to bed.
The next day, Monday, we got up, Kristen went for a run, and we picked a place for breakfast. There was basically a row of houses that were also restaurants and I gathered catered to the tourists, though I never quite understood what the tourist industry was like there. It must have been somewhat decent with the fortress, hotel, and small dock, though the whole place felt pretty empty and remote for an area that relies heavily on tourism. For breakfast, we had hard boiled eggs, coffee, and “jin mantou” which is basically “mantou” – steamed buns – that are fried in oil.
I was given the morning option of sitting in on a meeting about the river issues with Yadong, Eugene, and Kristen or going to the river and relaxing with Svetlana, Daniel, and Tanya. I chose the meeting, which turned out to be a great idea, as I learned a lot. Eugene does work with a trans-boundary river-issues organization called Rivers without Boundaries and gave us the lowdown on the dam plans and the mobilization of a movement against it. We also learned a lot about the gold mining in the area and how much gold mining has been affecting river quality and ecology. It was all very enlightening. The meeting was partially in Chinese and partially in English, so I had some trouble understanding part of it.
After the meeting, we had lunch and drank this disgusting bubblegum flavored local soda.
We then met up with Svetlana’s old student. Svetlana taught her in Harbin, but her hometown just happens to be Taipinggou, where she is now a tour guide for the touristy fort that Kristen and I had discovered the night before.
We got to see it in the daylight, and it was still simultaneously lame and incredible. It had an exhibition on gold mining, museum with an exhibit on basically hating the Japanese, exhibit on old winter clothes, sleds, hot irons, etc. There was a pretty interesting two-floored museum on opium and gambling. There was a showcase with the little decorated containers that people used to carry tobacco (I think) in for snorting and Svetlana said something like, “Eugene has the modern version of that.” I asked him about it and he pulled out his little plastic container of snuff snorting tobacco, which I’d never seen before! Kristen decided she was hot and wanted to swim, so she went to the river while we all went up to the teahouse, our last stop on the tour.
We had planned to walk to a Daoist shrine on the edge of town and picked up Kristen then grabbed ice cream bars on the way.
When we were about to break off from the main road, Svetlana, Tanya, and Daniel decided they’d rather go play by the river and we split up. The “shrine” was pretty silly – it’s a shrine to 8 deities and there were 8 brightly painted figurines inside. Eugene told us that the real Daoist shrine was the 8 big trees at the base of the hill. He explained that there are little Daoist shrines all through the woods if you walk near the rivers and streams and suggested that we hire a local poacher to be our guides, because poachers know the area the best. After the shrine, we went and met Eugene and Svetlana on the riverside. This part of the river was a little bit upriver from where we were before and there was no eddy, plus it was a lot more trashed with lots of broken glass among the stones. I ended up not swimming. I was reading Cutting for Stone and it was getting good. I decided I’d much rather read on the riverbank than swim. Eugene was getting out of the water and stepped on a piece of glass, but handled it really well and just put on his socks and shoes. Shortly thereafter we decided to walk back along the river.
On the walk back, we passed an old woman who had two fish traps set up in the shallow of the river where she was fishing for “mixed” small fish – this means a mix of small minnows and baby small fish.
Kristen asked her what she was fishing for and she responded “fish children.” I made a comment about how nice her teeth were and Kristen and I got into a conversation about “seed teeth.” Many Chinese people eat sunflower seeds like nobody’s business and therefore decades of cracking open seeds have worn down a triangular-shaped hole in their front teeth. It’s definitely not unattractive or looked down upon, but just a phenomenon that is very specific to China. Kristen had never realized those triangular holes were from sunflower seeds – it really is interesting. Well after asking again at the dock about getting a ride downriver (and getting denied), I took a wonderful shower in Svetlana’s house. They don’t have indoor plumbing (they use outhouses), but somehow there was a shower, which I was very grateful for! At this point, my last shower had been in Harbin. As we were hanging out and waiting for dinner, Kristen and I were chatting and it came up that I’d gone to Exeter. Her response: “Oh my god, I went to Exeter!” What?! We were in rural northern China, by some accounts the only two American women to ever come to this town and we’d gone to the same high school!!! So we chatted and chatted and sort of forgot about dinner until we got a phone call saying that they were already at the restaurant. Dinner was good, but I found out that we were splitting up from Eugene and his family the next day, which I didn't quite realize was going to happen. The owner of the restaurant -- who also is the main purchaser of local fish -- had promised to have some drinks with us, and we were hoping to chat with him about the local fisheries. However, he was really busy and didn't even finish his beer that Eugene had bought for him. He had many tables to entertain that night.