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Harbin: Day 1

by Thomas Martin   - Jul 20, 2015

After spending a few weeks in Beijing on a language intensive course for my university, my class hopped on a train and after seven painfully boring hours, we arrived in Harbin. We were on our way to the Harbin Normal University, which would be our residence for the next few months. On the way, I got the impression that I was riding through some Russian city, as the architecture was incredibly Slavic.  I brought it up to my teacher, who gave everyone a quick history lesson. Harbin was once a Russian colony during Russia’s imperial years, and was considered the Soviet Union's door to China during their period as allies during the Cold War. Indeed, my teacher told me a lot of the best sights to see were in the old quarter along the main river, where most of the buildings were built by the Russians at the turn of the century. This is what makes Harbin stand out from other Chinese cities, and why it is a must to travel should anyone be traveling through China.


On our way the bus stopped due to mechanical problems right in the center of the old quarter, and our teacher decided to give us a tour while the bus was being repaired. The buildings were empty, and in terrible shape, yet that made the area only more charming. We reached St. Sophia’s Cathedral, which is one of the few Orthodox cathedrals that have not been torn down. The place was now a museum dedicated to the unique architecture of Harbin, with many fascinating exhibitions on historical Harbin, which is quite a different image compared to other Chinese cities, due to its former colonial status.
 

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St. Sophia’s Cathedral

After the Cathedral, Our teacher let us explore the area individually, which was a godsend to me. From the flight, to the train ride, to the bus ride around the city, I was just about ready to get away from everybody, even if it was only for 30 minutes. This however, made me rely on my Mandarin, which was a rather scary thought. It also didn’t help that as a tall non-Asian I stuck out like a sore thumb.  Everyone stared at me like I was an elephant walking in the middle of a busy street. People would come up to you asking if they can take a photo with you. Such a weird request, but what the heck, why not!

Eventually, another student from my class finds me and tells me that we didn’t have much time and that we had to go. Her Mandarin was perfect, as if she lived here for her entire life, so I was incredibly thankful for her being there to help me. We go to this restaurant to order some rice and a dish called “Gu Bao Rou (咕咾肉)”, which is basically sweet and sour fried pork, and then dipped into honey. One bite and I thought I was in Heaven. So crispy, so sweet, it was perfect. I was immediately in love, but at the same time I knew once I leave China, I’ll probably never have sweet and sour pork like this again. We pay the bill (only 8 Yuan, which isn’t even 2 dollars!) and we were on our way.

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Gu Lao Rou

We arrive in Harbin Normal University (Hā’ěrbīn Shīfàn Dàxué; 哈尔滨师范大学), and were taken to our dorms. Now normally I am not somebody who puts a lot of care into living accommodations, after all, I have slept in the worst of the worst hostels out there. However, I couldn’t help but think “Wow, this place is really out of shape!” I saw some of the other hotels in the city, which were not that expensive. I wanted to complain, but then I saw the dorms where the Chinese students lived, and thought to myself “OK, maybe I am being a little spoiled here. At least I have my own room, and don’t have to share a broom closet with 5 other people.” However, should I ever go back, I would stay where my backpacker friends stayed - the Gloria Inn, which has great rooms close to the action right along the main road.

At the end of the day, we all gather at the night market outside of the University for a drink. We were all told to go find a food stand, and order some beer, and meet up at a table we picked out. Harbin is famed in China for its beer production, and its flag ship beer, Harbin Beer (Hā’ěrbīn Píjiǔ; 哈尔滨啤酒), is China’s most popular beer. However, here came the biggest challenge of the day: ordering the beer. I have been taking Chinese classes for about a year now, and while I was confident when speaking to my classmates and my teacher, I was incredibly shy speaking to anyone that couldn't speak English. It was my first time ever not relying on English. I sit there for a solid 15 seconds with everyone staring at me. I sit there thinking, “How do you say beer again?”  Then it hit me: Pi Jiu! So I try to say “Wo yao Harbin pi jiu”, but to no luck.  Hmm, maybe I didn’t say that correctly. Let’s try again. Same response, only a couple people snickered this time. Great, now what? All I wanted was a drink to unwind after all the travelling, is that too much to ask for? After about the 6th attempt, they finally understood my Chinese! They pulled out a large beer, and I jumped up and down in jubilation, as if I won the lottery. That really amused the vendor and his customers, who burst out laughing to my reaction of successfully ordering a beer.
 

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Anyway, I take one sip of this beer, and like the gulaorou, I immediately fell in love with it. It was so crisp and easy to drink. Definitely the best beer I have had in Asia. Everybody gathered back at the meeting spot. We talked, we laughed, we ordered an amazing Harbin Style hot pot, a meal that the city is also famed for. We also shared stories about the day in a way we never would have back home in America. It is really amazing how travelling brings people together and creates friendships in a way that just staying at home never would. Our teacher came by and had a drink with us, telling us that today was the only fun day. For the next few months, we would be swamped with studying.  All of us were so tired we couldn’t even let out a sigh.  Despite the exhaustion from the long train ride and various adventures in Harbin, I truly felt like I got to know China a little bit more that day.
 

 

About Writer

Thomas_Martin.jpgThomas Martin grew up in New York.  He lived all around the US, often taking road trips to take in the sights and culture of different states.  In 2011 he moved to China to pursue an anthropology master, which he later put on hold to study Chinese.  He has written for a variety of publications.  When not writing, he enjoys cooking Middle Eastern cuisine and collecting butterfly specimens.
 

 

 

 

 
 

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