Harbin – a unique destination in China
Harbin has a colourful history that dates to the 1890s when the area was petitioned from the Qing dynasty by the Russian tsars to continue their railway to the eastern port of Vladivostok. The Russian presence grew substantially after the 1917 revolution as white Russians escaped to the east and apparent safety. Here they flourished as money poured in and the remnants of Russian aristocracy set about creating a little Moscow on the plains of Manchuria. The city was vibrant and during the Nationalist times in China (1912- 1949) Harbin held representation of 19 foreign consulates and quickly became the gateway for Europeans into China. There were regular society events including beauty contests, cabaret and music reviews run by Russian and Jewish interests, and Harbin society became notorious. It is said that some Russian girls would buy their clothes on credit and take them off for cash.
Everything changed in 1932 when the Japanese invaded and the good times came quickly to an end. Many left for the safety of Shanghai and its cosmopolitan society to continue their business. Those who stayed became embroiled in the increasingly bloody anti-Japanese war (as the Chinese call it). Harbin became the centre for germ-warfare research by the Japanese with the establishment of Unit 731 – a top secret research facility that cultivated virus and bacteria for use on the battlefield. Many Chinese nationals were used as guinea pigs or ‘logs’ as the Japanese called them, in the development of these horrific weapons.
By 1945 the Japanese had been defeated and the Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai Shek stood just 30 kilometers to the south. They never entered Harbin; instead the city was taken from the north by the Red Army of the Russians, and the remaining white Russians were summarily rounded up and shipped off to Siberia.
Now when you visit Harbin, the city is modern and vast, almost 6 million live here. In its heart you will find old cobblestone streets and art nouveaux mansions, St Sophia’s ‘onion’ church, sausage and bread in the markets, and local Chinese who speak Russian. The old days have gone but left their mark making Harbin a unique destination in China.
Tears from the mountain
In August of 2017 there was an earthquake in a valley that is home to Jiuzhaigou National Park, Sichuan Province in southwest China. The quake rated 6.7 on the Richter scale and had been reported to have caused extensive damage, indeed the park had been closed from that time until March of 2018. I arrived with our group in the middle of May, and despite my best efforts I was unable to get much advance information on the damage and how it may affect our touring. After ten years of visiting this pristine wilderness set in a glacial valley of soaring snow-capped mountains, I had become very familiar with its 100 lakes of clear blue water, towering fir trees, birch and maple, and an undergrowth of peonies and anemones. The park is a highlight on our Manchuria & Yellow River Hinterland trip and has a special place in my store of favourite destinations. I had my fingers crossed.
What information I did have confirmed that only half of the park had reopened to the public and only 2,000 visitors per day were allowed entry – normally they received 20,000 per day (remember this is China). We left that morning with our small group from the Ando Tibetan town of Langmusi. I had a cold with a heavy head, compounded by altitude (3,200 metres above sea level) and not feeling crash-hot for a seven hour journey ahead.
The drive is spectacular and unforgettable so my head soon cleared as we edged onto the Tibetan grasslands. Normally there are Chinese tourists being courted by overdressed Tibetans with horse rides, yak pictures and colourful tents, but today they were idle. It is common to see a Tibetan nomad just sitting on the grass, or perhaps with family or friends; they are relaxing after a long winter. Sometimes they are alone on the sides of hills often carrying a small prayer wheel that spins endlessly accompanied by soft chants. The sunshine on their backs is welcome.
It is a hard life when you live nomadically above 3,000 metres. The women in particular will spend their days milking yaks, collecting yak dung, cooking and being mother and wife. They are hardened and tough. Over my years of travelling here I have gained an understanding and great respect for the Tibetan nomad, and in particular their fanatical belief in Buddhism and ‘the spirit’ which Tibetans believe exists in most natural things.
We made good progress to our lunch spot at a small town called Chuan Jui Si and a favourite restaurant over the years that serves great Sichuan food. It is always a good feeling to reach this town, we have come down to just over 2,500 metres and we will drop down further from here; just two more hours to Jiuzhaigou National Park.
As we drove down and into the valley I could see almost immediately the landslides from the high mountain peaks caused by the earthquake. First just one slide then another, then so many that I did not want to count. The slides were massive, dislodging the rockface, stones and scree tumbling taking all in its path, crashing 500 metres to the valley floor, the fir trees, birch and maple going with it. It was like tears from the mountain, streaming from the rockface, a sad and sobering sight. The power of nature had showed its hand, and despite eight months since the quake there were many workers, heavy equipment and diversions on the road to the park.
We reached our hotel, one of only a few that was open when previously there were hundreds of options. It was like a ghost town. I met my Tibetan friend and local guide Jay who told me his story of survival during the quake.
It was early evening in August and the park was full tourists and workers running hotels and restaurants. Jay was filling in some leisure time in a café when the quake struck lasting for ten seconds. He recalled in some disbelief how he had run onto the street along with others. They spent the night there as emergency services arrived and the locals helped each other with food and blankets. Reports of casualties were unclear, however, some estimates say 1,000 lost their lives that evening.
Jay says those ten seconds changed his life; he thinks he is lucky to be alive and has been overcome by a presence of mind that a disaster defines. He went on to say that such events highlight our vulnerability, our frailty and re-focuses our internal energies to be in the moment – it only takes a second to change a life. He said his legs shook uncontrollably for a day or so afterwards as relief came in the way of buses to evacuate everyone from the park down to Chengdu a ten hour drive. The driver asked him to watch the mountain for the duration – he never took his eyes off those cliffs.
The following day we visited the park and I was happily surprised that whilst the quake had caused some major slides further up the valley, inside the park things seem relatively the same, albeit a reduced amount of sightseeing was available due to the repair of walking trails and other infrastructure.
The lakes were still blue, the waterfalls tumbling and the green fir trees swayed beneath snow-capped mountains. I went to the top of a small hill where prayer flags fluttered in the wind. Here I paid my respects to the spirits of the valley. I asked that they remain quiet and rest for awhile so we could wipe away the tears of the mountain and let everyone enjoy the natural beauty of Jiuzhaigou National Park.
The Cultural Revolution – Maureen’s story
‘There may not be much difference between Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon if we strip them naked’– Yoko Ono and John Lennon 1972
We are on our way to the Great Wall – to the Mutianyu section about two hours drive north of Beijing. Our local Chinese guide Maureen is talking in the bus about the wall, its history, its length and the folktales that arose during its construction and reconstruction. The Great Wall is an endless conversation and endlessly stimulating.
‘Do you remember that story about the Great wall?’ She asks. ‘It was the only man-made structure you could see from space. At least that was the popular myth until humans went into space and could not see it!’ All of us chuckle. Maureen has a way of focusing your attention. She has a great sense of humour telling us that she takes her BMW to work every day, only to clarify that she means Bus, Metro and Walking.
‘Do you have a wall in Australia?’ Maureen asks our eager group. ‘No, no nothing like that in Australia’ we respond, ‘but we do have a wall around our parliament house’ offers one of our guests.
Maureen is in her mid 60s, unusual for a guide as the nature of this business usually presents a much younger demographic. With her age comes a maturity and depth of experience that is hard to match. She has a degree in English literature from the University of Beijing, gained in the late 1970s where she went on to become a teacher.
Maureen is also the only person I know in China who lived through the Cultural Revolution (1962 to 1976) and she is quite happy to tell her story about this time.
The origins and outcomes of the Cultural Revolution are unclear and indecisive within China, and while there is plenty of commentary from outside, there is little from within. This in part is down to the lack of communication that existed during a time when provinces were isolated and there were few, if any, western correspondents in China reporting from the ground. It is said there were purges across all classes of people, including the rulers, public criticisms and agricultural projects designed to send academics and students to the countryside to ‘reform’ and become ‘good peasants’. This period may be seen by some as an over-reaction by the Communist party, or perhaps it was the beginning of the end of ‘true communism’. After Mao’s death in 1976, the incoming leader Deng Zhou Ping was quick to abandon many of the old policies and usher in a new age.
Maureen was one of those students who were sent to the countryside. She tells us that in 1967 as a 16 year old, all the schools in Beijing were closed, including universities. Along with 17 of her classmates (all girls) she was sent to the northern province of Shanxi where she and her schoolmates lived in a man-made cave for the next five years, sharing the same long bed of corn stalk mattresses and thin cotton blankets. The man-made caves of this province, hollowed from the clay and loess soil, have long been used by the local people. Although crude, they do offer an evenness of temperature during the freezing winters and hot summers. Each day Maureen and her classmates worked with the local commune in the fields bringing manure, carting vegetables and grain. They were expected to be self sufficient, cook their own food and raise some crops for their own consumption. She and her classmates were also expected to memorise quotes from the little red book, and be diligent in their respect of Mao’s teachings at regular village commune meetings.
You may imagine that this was a difficult time for Maureen, but she does not harbour any malice. She does acknowledge it was tough, and only visiting her parents once a year was hard. She does, however, remember the kindness of the farmers and even the cadres who sprouted ideology and policy each and every day.
In 1972 she returned to Beijing as the Cultural Revolution began to run out of steam, schools were open and so were universities.
She shows us black and white pictures of her time in that man-made cave, dressed in her padded cotton pants and tunic, little red book held over her heart just like everyone else. She giggles to herself and tells us that nothing is perfect and there is good and bad in everything. Now every year and for the past 30 years, her and her schoolmates from that time in the man-made cave have a reunion. Maureen says it is a bond that can never be broken.
A thought on China (from the diary)
Chinese statesman, Zhou Enlai, when asked about the significance of the French Revolution in 1789 replied ‘it is too soon to tell.’
It is satisfying to be back on Nanjing Road here in Shanghai. There is a clear blue sky and the forecast is for 27 degrees on this first day of May. From the café where I sit, I can see the top of the recently completed Shanghai Tower, over 620 metres tall and the second tallest building on the planet – it will only be another moment before the Chinese build the tallest.
China is now living the dream; some may say it is redemption for what they had to endure from the first Opium War (1842). This was when Europeans first sought to gain a foothold in China by selling opium to the Chinese in return for silver, which the Qing dynasty had in abundance. Attempts by the Qing to quell the trade were met with military retaliation from Britain, who with overwhelming firepower were able to defeat the Chinese and then go on to sue them for the equivalent (in today’s terms) of six million US dollars, and then demand access to five ports. Hong Kong became a British territory, and Shanghai and Guangzhou became enclaves for the so-called ‘foreign concessions’. The ‘unequal treaties’ as they were called, were the beginning of the end for the last dynasty of China, who would face increased European intervention and a bloody civil war (the Taiping Rebellion 1850 to 1864).
Further war and invasion by British, French and Russian forces, tore the heart out of the old Middle Kingdom as the colonialists looked on greedily to take what they could. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, China fell into a warlord state whilst the Europeans were engulfed in WW1.
The ensuing chaos created two political entities: the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Chinese founded by Sun Yat Sen, then later led by Chiang Kai Shek; and the Chinese Communist Party which was established in 1921. Both communists and nationalists worked together until 1927 when a split saw the Kuomintang create a government in Nanjing, and the communists were banished to their small zones or ‘soviets’ as they were called. This outcome brought both parties to civil war.
The Japanese had invaded in1932 and swept down from the north taking all the major coastal cities. Despite being confronted with massive Chinese forces under the leadership of the Kuomintang, Japanese victories were swift and bloody.
In 1937 after the ‘Xian incident’, the communists (Red Army) and the nationalists agreed to fight together to defeat the Japanese. Victory was achieved in 1945 after the Japanese capitulated, but instead of peace in China another civil war raged until 1949. Finally, the Red flag was raised over Beijing and New China was born under the political auspices of the communists. The Kuomintang and the remnants of its regime fled to Taiwan.
After 100 years of what is called in China ‘the years of humiliation and unequal treaties‘, this country has emerged as a powerful state, and arguably one of the most civilised. Their traditions and beliefs are strong, going back at least 3,000 years.
Some say it took a good dose of ‘communism’ to fix their problems after 1949, when one can only imagine that every man, woman and child were completely exhausted from war, pestilence, famine and exploitation. The Reds offered something simple – food, shelter, basic education and security to restore the confidence of the people and to build trust in a new form of government. With some reflection it seems to me the success of communism (and I do think in this context it was a success) became an odd sort of compassion, a necessary social and political reset.
In an interview with American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936, Chairman Mao told Snow that the ‘Democratic revolution of the Chinese bourgeoisie, under the leadership of the proletariat, may create energetic conditions enabling the transition of this revolution into socialism’.
A visit to China may confirm this view.
A visit to Beijing is never complete without sampling Peking duck. Around the back lakes of Beijing there are plenty of restaurants touting their wares, so it was here that I ventured to find the very best duck in Beijing. Bright lights, music and a plethora of bars and restaurants edge the lake, but my destination took me underground, two floors down from a rather bleak passageway that amazingly opens to a restaurant reception area complete with glamorous Chinese girls and red and yellow happiness and longevity symbols. These lead into a theatre that hosts small round tables with attractive nightlights. Chinese couples are sitting back enjoying the entertainment. Above them it’s like a Shakespearean style balcony where the VIPs look down to the stage. Here a series of performances rotate; an ebullient host introducing the acts that change from acrobats to magicians, to singers of Chinese pop. Alongside the stage are private rooms where we are seated and out comes the Tsing Tao (local beer), or for the brave, a bottle of Great Wall Red (it’s not that bad). The main course is duck and the presentation is part of the theatre. A chef resplendent in immaculate hat and apron rolls in with two ducks, cooked to perfection. First he slices the skin and it is served on small plates with an accompaniment of sugar. It tastes delicious and there is no holding back. During the first tasting I am entertained by two musicians playing traditional instruments and singing songs of the Qing dynasty. At this time I am feeling a little like the last emperor – indulged, entertained and fed. The flesh of the duck is succulent and comes with a delightful pancake, light and smooth, the consistency perfect, served with a brown sauce (a bit like hoi sin). You roll it up and down it goes.
On stage a magician is performing tricks with ropes and knots as a phalanx of waiting staff, in a flurry of activity around the tables, serve more ducks, beers and rice. I leave slowly. Peking duck, at this restaurant anyway, is a total experience and also a reflection of the new China where people want to enjoy their food and entertainment as well.
A Chinese tour guide (Yen's Story)
One of the great things about travelling is the people you meet. Across South East Asia, over many years, I have had the pleasure of engaging with and befriending people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds. This experience leads me to think that there is little that separates the human spirit; the consistencies far outweigh the differences. As Yoko Ono famously sang ‘there may not be much difference between Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon if we strip them naked’. As part of my work as a tour manager and director of a travel company I meet and work with tour guides, mostly young and enthusiastic men and women. They all display an interest for meeting people and sharing each other’s culture.
In Szechuan Province deep in the south west of China I met Yen (Helen). Typically she is bubbly and entertaining, sharing her thoughts and personality with me and our groups that pass through the national park at Jiuzhaigou. This stunningly beautiful part of China concludes our Manchuria & Yellow River hinterland journey. Here you will find 100 turquoise lakes formed in a glacial valley where soaring mountains and massive pine trees dwarf the undergrowth of peonies and anemones.
In a quiet moment Helen and I chat about our lives and work. She is eager to share her story. Starting life in a small village near Chengdu she is one of only three girls from her village who were able to escape the cycle of poverty to get an education. Her parents are rightly proud of her and she is deeply indebted to them for the opportunity they managed to provide at great personal sacrifice.
She began tour guiding in May 2008, this coincided with the massive earthquake that shook Szechuan province and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. At the time she was escorting a bus full of Chinese tourists following the winding road through steep mountain country from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou. The earthquake struck and she watched in horror as landslides tumbled from above, giant boulders crashing into vehicles all around her. The bus immediately in front of her took a direct hit; all were lost in those horrific few moments. She can’t explain why they survived, wedged in between the chaos, people injured and dead. They were cut off and it took three nights for the emergency crews to reach them. They had little food and water and it did not take long to exhaust their supplies. Miraculously she survived however her parents saw the whole event as an omen – she should not continue to be a tour guide.
After the earthquake rebuilding was tough; the grieving for lost loved ones tougher. She became a primary school teacher and in true Chinese tradition she did what her parents wished and helped support them in their village which had also been badly affected by the quake. After two years the call was too strong and with the blessing of her parents she went back to tour guiding and now hosts groups from all over the world. Yen`s story is one of hope, tragedy, then finally recovery.
‘You don’t make any noise when you eat’, said my Chinese friend as we ate lunch. ‘That’s right.’ I said. ‘My parents insisted I never eat with my mouth open or, even worse, speak with food in my mouth’. ‘Bad manners’, I said. She shrugged ‘It’s not like that in China’. Indeed it isn’t.
For many foreigners travelling in China for the first time it comes as a shock to see (hear) the eating habits of some Chinese. Western sensibilities are quickly tested as the sounds of slurping, burping and spitting abound. In some restaurants you can expect a table of diners to be raucous to the point of noise pollution! The slapping of chops contributes to the din as the dumplings, stir fired cucumber and steamed buns disappear at a frightening rate. We westerners mutter to ourselves and wondering where there manners are. And that’s the point; the concept of western middle class public behaviour does not sit in the post-communist period of China. Of course I am being general. If you wander down the Bund in Shanghai you may think you are in Milan or New York. At stylish eateries like ‘Mr and Mrs Bund’ or ‘M on The Bund’ it is new China ‘Chic’ at its peak. No spitting here. It takes a bit of getting used to when a Chinese friend gives you a big toothy smile with bits of rice wedged between their teeth and green vegetable hanging from the corner of their mouth. But you do get used to it and you do and in time begin to understand. Liberated from feudalism just 100 years ago China has endured a fast track growth from desperate poverty to become the second largest economy in the world. Will the Chinese adopt western behaviour and become just like us? How knows, however, it can never be said that the Chinese don’t enjoy a good old nosh.
As I see it - A drive through the Shanxi Province
Here in Shanxi province northern China, the sky is a greyish colour. This part of China is big on coal mining and power generation. There are coking factories, metallurgical coal refineries and coal-fired power stations everywhere, all spewing out clouds of white toxic gas. Clusters of chimney stacks reach out to the sky – sometimes six or more – like monuments to a long forgotten god. Around them, quite incongruously, are freshly ploughed fields, most preparing to plant their crops of wheat and barley, although there are stands of mature wheat, greenish in the murky sky. In the field a lone figure stands, the ubiquitous hoe his only accompaniment.
I am driving the back way to Pingyao with my Chinese friend, no freeway here. Along the roadside it looks like devastation; an urban strip crumble of two story buildings, the lower floor to sell services to the huge red coal trucks that rumble past. Upstairs the aluminium framed windows are shrouded with colourless curtains. There is junk everywhere, people squatting talking on their mobile phones, and the men in suit jackets always smoking. The hard-looking women of this area with forearms like steel rods, toss out water from their doorsteps onto the coal-stained slush before retreating though grubby doorways. The big red trucks stream endlessly, even on this back road. There are smaller, puffing blue trucks with their engines protruding from a bonnet-less chassis, struggling up the smallest of inclines with their loads of pink bricks. Black smoke belches from behind. The Chinese driver, ever patient it seems, cigarette dangling, just thinking of the money at the end of the day when he can discharge his load then do it all over again. Plastic bags and empty cigarette packets tossed from a car window blow into the furrowed field. My Chinese friend offers: ‘This is an industrial area’. I remark: ‘You can say that again’. She says: ‘This is an industrial area.’
From the diary: A cold afternoon in Langmusi (May 2011)
It snowed most of the day. A white cover across the mountains and grasslands of Gansu province here in north-west China. The unexpected wintery blast caught us all a little off-guard but made for spectacular viewing along the road from Xihe to here. We stopped a couple of times to take photos, thirteen Australians frolicking in the snowflakes. When we arrived in Langmusi we ate yak burgers at a café called Leshi’s owned and run by a tough looking Tibetan girl, who cooks out the back and rattles off a few English words. We eat heartedly as the snow falls, not quite settling on the street outside but covering the mountains and pine forest on the lower slopes. As I write sunshine is now filling my room, it’s late in the day. I can see blue sky making its way from the south-west and I hope it clears for tomorrow’s drive down to the national park at Jiuzhaigou. I went for a pleasant walk earlier today and discovered dry stone walls and tiny bridges over rapid mountain streams.
Every now and then I could see the mountain range through the pushing snow storms. I passed monks and walked up small lanes to a house on top of a hill that had an outside Tibetan chimney blowing smoke from its fuel of barley husk and pine. A puffing monk came up behind me carrying some dried shrub and a plastic bag with his shopping. Inside the courtyard house was a bizarre menagerie of stuffed or taxidermy animals. Pigs, goats and sheep were hanging from the ceiling of the drying room; they had ribbons or perhaps prayer flags attached, moving slightly in the breeze.
The weather has cleared beautifully and there is now the most wonderful evening light dancing on green valleys; monasteries and soaring snow capped mountains are everywhere. On tops of hills all around are wooden spears pushed together pointing to the sky like miniature rockets sending messages to the spirit of the mountain.