|The next day, Tuesday, we had a quick breakfast then hired a “bread car” – basically a minivan – to drive us up to this lookout point of the river. It used to be a lookout for wildfires. According to Eugene, the old structure was wooden and rickety but pretty safe – built for drunken forestry men to be able to climb in the middle of the night. The old one, however, was torn down and turned into a big RED metal touristy lookout point with an elevator and many places where little cute 2 ½ year old Russian boys could fall off from. From the top of the tower, we could see the river and roughly where a dam might be placed. It was lush and beautiful and very sad to think about how a dam would affect the area. We piled back into the van and on our way back to Taipinggou we stopped at another lookout where we took a group picture, before returning. We had some ice cream from a lady selling it on the side of the road and then Eugene, Svetlana, Daniel, and Tanya left to go upriver without us. It was a sad and sudden parting and weird to suddenly have a group of only Yadong, Kristen, and me.
It was super hot out, so we just hung out in our little house. Kristen said she had a lot of work to do, so she did that and I napped and read. The previous night I had finished Cutting for Stone and was now reading Peter Hessler’s River Town, which is great!!! I strongly recommend it. Although a little bit of it is dated, he has some aspects of China to a T. It is definitely worth a read. We planned to leave Taipinggou that afternoon, so I decided to walk around the town a bit. I hadn’t really been around the perimeters and decided to explore. I found the town dump, which was just mounds of trash behind the village. There were also a bunch of beekeepers. I was walking around and this peasant guy seemed curious and sort of started following me. This didn’t really bother me. He seemed simply curious and I’m used to that curiosity in China, where seeing a foreigner can be a big deal. He said nothing but just gestured to himself. “I don’t understand your meaning,” I said, “Do you want me to take a picture?” I took a picture of him and showed it to him. He didn’t say much and what he did say I couldn’t understand. “I can’t understand, speak slowly,” I said, but he didn’t. I’m not sure if he could understand me – sometimes people assume they can’t possibly understand foreigners and therefore simply don’t. I kept walking and he sort of kept up. I stopped and took a picture of something and before I realized what was happening he had his arms around me in maybe an awkward mimic of a romantic movie kiss scene. He didn’t kiss me but almost had a curious look on his face (which was very close to mine) like “this is what I mean, what do you think?” I pushed him away, in my surprise whispered “no” and walked away. It wasn’t at all violent and I think he was a little surprised too, he didn’t follow me or anything, but it made me feel quite uncomfortable. It also made me question my actions leading up to that moment and assumptions rural Chinese people have of foreign women, probably due to TV, movies, and stories they hear. I really think that somewhere along the way there was just a miscommunication both between cultures and individuals.
I met back up with Kristen and Yadong and we got into our “bread car” for a drive to Mingshan, which is a trading town downriver. On our way, there were beekeepers all along the roads, so we stopped at one, and I bought honey for my host family. They didn’t have any small containers for honey – only huge jugs – so we used my water bottle. It was pretty cool and the honey is delicious! We arrived in Mingshan and weren’t too sure where to stay. We went into one hotel, which was overpriced, smelt lack a toilet, and didn’t have showers. The next place we went was still expensive for rural China, but we were able to get one room with a shower and the other with a view of the river, so it was fine… Kristen and I stayed in the room overlooking the river and used the shower in Yadong’s room. Mingshan was cool because the opposite Russian side actually had a town, as opposed to the thick forest opposite Taipinggou. While I loved the forest scenery in Taipinggou, it was weird in Mingshan realizing that Russia and an actual Russian town were right over the river. What I found really weird is that we saw no Russians in Mingshan, even though it was so close to Russia. Kristen said that when she had been running one morning in Taipinggou she heard somebody tell another person “Oh look! She swam over!” Russians are so rare even this close to the border that they’d assumed she’d swum (as opposed to boated, flew, rafted even). We walked along the river a bit and saw logs that were being traded piled on the dock, though it was unclear whether they were being imported or exported. We went to a little restaurant for dinner and then to bed early, for lack of anything else to do.
Wednesday, we had breakfast of porridge and a twisted type of mantou (steamed bun) and then walked the half hour or so to Mingshan Island, which is sort of famous and touristy. We bought a ticket to cross the bridge to the island and then walked to the museum that Eugene had told Kristen about. It started with a strong focus on the river, with an explanation of its geology, history, civilization, development, ecology, etc. It was pretty interesting, but way too long with nowhere to sit and rest for a minute. It then shifted its focus from the river to the horrors of the Japanese takeover, so we just bolted through the last bit. After the museum we went back to the main part of the island, and I bought a gross hot pink watermelon-flavored iced drink. We had then had an early lunch at one of the little restaurants on the main drag. It was nice except for the awful singers attempting to do public karaoke nearby. Kristen wanted to go swimming before we left, so we did the obvious thing and rented a 3-way tandem bicycle to ride around the island and find a good swimming place. There wasn’t a single bicycle for rent that had working brakes. The guy renting them out claimed, “it’s all pretty flat, so you don’t even need brakes!” We found a beach for Kristen to swim, and I read my book. The brakeless 3-way tandem bike was a bit dangerous at times, especially when the road sloped down through groups of Chinese tourists. However, it was a great decision and pretty ridiculous and funny.
We then crossed back over the bridge and bargained with a cab to take us to our hotel to pick up our things then the 20 minutes to Luobei, where we caught a 3-hour bus to Hegang. That night we had a 9:30-ish overnight train to Harbin. We got into Hegang at around 6 and had tons of time to kill, so Kristen and I took a cab into town and found a café to hang out in for a few hours. We drank fresh-squeezed lemonade (sweetened with my honey!) and ate a small meal. Before leaving for the train station, I went and brushed my teeth and washed my face in the bathroom, which was a little awkward because we were basically in a restaurant. For the overnight train, we were only able to get hard seats – the sleepers were all sold out or something. However, Yadong had a number he had obtained through guanxi of some sort. If I understood correctly, it was the conductor’s number – or one of the main guys working on the train – and we boarded the train, went to our awful crowded hard seats and right before the train took off, Yadong’s guy was supposed to tell us if we could upgrade or not. If we couldn’t Kristen said she was going to get off the train right before the doors closed and just find a hotel and take a bus in the morning. I guess the guy pulled through, because we got upgraded!!! However, the train started and stopped a lot during the night and I still didn’t sleep very well, though I did sleep a LOT better than I would have if we were in the hard seats. We arrived in Harbin (but at the West Station) at 7:00 and I said goodbye to Kristen before taking a bus home.
When I got home, for some reason the water wasn’t working and there was no water. I really wanted to take a shower, but couldn’t. I had also bought peaches on my walk home and couldn’t wash them to eat. I was tired and felt disgusting. I’d texted with Lang Dezhong about my second trip and we were meeting at the train station at 1:00, so I had limited time for the water to start working again. Fortunately, it did in fact start working, and I was able to take a wonderful shower!! I unpacked, repacked, and once again couldn’t figure out the buses to the main train station, so I gave up and spent all of $3 on a cab, this time making sure to get there half an hour early.