China, 1st stop: Harbin

My first stop in China was in the city called Harbin. With a population of around 10 million people it is the tenth largest city in China. Its architecture has a lot of Russian influence and is therefore maybe not a typical Chinese city, thus it is very popular for Chinese tourists to visit. Since I was just coming from Russia, the Russian influence wasn’t so special for me, however in every other aspect I had a much bigger culture shock in my first Chinese city than I had in Russia.

Harbin riverside

The bus from Vladivostok dropped me off at some side street somewhere in Harbin (not a bus stop). I had the address of my hostel written down, however only in pinyin which is the romanization of Chinese characters. What I didn’t know is that taxi drivers can’t read pinyin and they didn’t understand me when I tried to say the words to them. Fortunately after my first failed attempt to catch a taxi, the probably only English speaking person around came to assist me and translated the address to the taxi driver.

Having no idea nor any expectation about Chinese traffic my first taxi ride was like a ride in an amusement park. The streets are jammed to the max, its the total mayhem, every car goes crisscross just wherever they find a way and there is a constant honking concert (like you can only hear in Austria if someone got married). First I thought they where all really aggressive drivers, because of the constant honking. Later I learned that its just a nice way to tell other drivers: Attention, I’m coming don’t get in the way or make space if you are.

Eventually the taxi driver got me through the traffic mayhem and brought me to my hostel (Kazy Youth Hostel) in one piece. The hostel was in the courtyard of an old church, which had a really nice atmosphere and it was also really cheap. It was only 35 Yuan which is about 4 Euro (this is the standard price for many Chinese hostels).

Kazy Youth Hostel

Interestingly, in that hostel stayed many Chinese girls traveling through China on their own. One of these girls gave me a pretty good introduction to China by showing me around and telling me many things about China. One of her stories was about the voting system in China. She told me that there are official elections every couple years were officially a certain percentage of the citizens are randomly selected as representatives who are entitled to vote. However, the girl told me, she didn’t know anybody who had ever been selected, nor did she know anyone who knew somebody who had ever been selected. In effect the leading communist party clearly wins every election. She also told me that many Chinese people know about the wrongs in Chinese politics, but nobody really cares or dares to do anything about it. According to her Chinese only watch out for their own well being and for that of their families and they don’t really care about anything or anyone else.

Then the girl recommended me many places to visit in China and I had to make a really tough decision if I wanted to do East or West China (not enough time for both). It ended up being the West with Beijing being my next stop.

Another culture shock I had when it came to eating and drinking. Chinese pretty much slurp everything. Not just soup or drinks, but also big chunks of food. And then they don’t close their mouth when they chew but they make really loud smacking noises. For me as European, who grew up learning that this way of eating is considered rude it was really annoying. However I got used to it, a little.

Finally, one more thing I had to learn fast, was that zebra crossings and sometimes even green lights don’t mean anything in China. I don’t know why they even have white lines on the road, maybe for them it’s some kind of decoration. Its definitely not a sign for a safe crossing for pedestrians. The worst I have seen was a big group of students crossing the street on a zebra crossing with green light for them. When the whole crowd was on the road, a car approached from a right turn. It just started honking and didn’t even slow down. The crowd naturally split up to let the car pass through. So honking also means: Watch out, I won’t stop.

Harbin, view from a boat on the river

My plan was actually to stay in Harbin for a little bit longer in order to relax and to catch up with my blog writing, however I had heard that the Chinese national holidays were coming up. This meant that from the first to the seventh of October all factories and offices in China closed and everyone started to travel. Therefore, during that time it would have been very hard to get in or out of any major Chinese city, because every mean of transport would have been booked out. So I decided to catch an earlier train to Beijing on September 28, in order not to be stuck in Harbin.