We've been set loose into the wilds of China. Lu is staying in Mudanjiang to spend more time with her family before heading back to Shanghai to start working for eBay/Paypal. We will no longer have her around to hold our hands, which is essentially what she has been doing up until this point. Now we'll be totally on our own. Except, as it turns out, not quite yet.
Our next destination was Harbin, which Ness and I had prepared to handle. We researched hotels, read up on the taxi situation (apparently they like to bamboozle people, up in Harbin), traced routes to the airport, etc. Then Lu's dad caught wind of the situation and insisted we have help. I believe he thinks we will end up destitute on the streets, shivering in the cold, perhaps considering a life of prostitution if left to ourselves (I'm sure news of my “mugging” didn't help this perception.). He called a friend of his living in Harbin and made arrangements.
We took a 4-hour bus north through the frosty white countryside and were dropped off at a street in downtown Harbin, where it is -14 C during the day and -23 C at night. We had been sweating in our multitude of layers on the bus but were instantly missing it as soon as we stepped into Dr. Cold's Wonderland of Pain. This is a kind of cold that backhands you repeatedly in the face, insults your mother, and then issues several hard kicks to the groin. Not pleasant.
Lu's dad had instructed us to stay where we were until “Uncle Joe (Zhou)” came to get us. I had Ness teach me how to say “Are you Uncle Joe?” in Chinese, but the only people who approached us for the first little while were taxi drivers, none of whom were named Joe.
While we waited, I ran across the street to the public toilets. Upon entering, a lady at a booth screamed something at me, which clearly meant she wanted money. Realizing I forgot how to say “how much?” I flashed my fingers in a counting motion, and she favored me with a dead glare and said "dur." Dur – in much the same sound and intonation as someone with, shall we say, limited mental capacity. I have no idea what "dur" means – it is not one of the numbers 1 through 10 I had so carefully memorized. Pretending to understood, I just handled her my smallest bill, 1 yuan, and she handed me change. First solo Chinese transaction a success!
I returned to Ness and learned she had been able to text Uncle Joe and got a response that he would be there in 5 minutes. Go Ness! True to his word, Joe pulled up with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. She came bursting out of the car and said “Hello! Nice to meet you!” in heavily accented but adorable English. And then we were off. Ness was able to make small talk in the car with Uncle Joe and his wife. I mostly smiled and pretended to know what was going on. I have had to do this a lot lately.
What followed was a day of wonder, awe, and awkwardness. Wonder and awe for everything we saw. Awkward because a family of total strangers dropped everything for a day and became our guide and chauffeurs. They took us to a place to eat, bought us food (refusing to let us pay them), then to an inexpensive hotel to check in, then through the substantial traffic to the world famous Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. The festival is divided in two, on one side of Sun Island is Snow World with hundreds of amazing snow sculptures, and the other side is the ice festival with gigantic lit structures built with blocks of ice.
Getting into the exhibits was insanity. The entrances were packed with people, more packed than even our train travels at the height of the Spring Festival. Once through the ticket lines and entrances, however, the crowds spread out a bit. I won't go into detail describing everything we saw, I'll let the pictures do it. Suffice it to say, it was pure eye candy. Delicious eye candy.
Uncle Joe was waiting to take us back to our hotel as we left. He even met us the next morning and took us to the airport, refusing the money we tried to pay him. I just wish we could have been more interesting for him. Ness's limited (and my nonexistent) grasp of the language kept the conversation to a minimum. Yet Joe seemed happy to take us around, all the same. Lu says it's a cultural thing – that people in China bend over backwards for their friends (in this case, friends of friends). It certainly is an admirable thing, even if it did make our time together a bit awkward. As he left us at the security line at the airport, we thanked Uncle Joe profusely.
And now we really are functioning on our own. I know because I'm writing this from the future. Stay tuned.
Ness got to hold an arctic fox. She immediately wanted to own one.