China Dispatch vol. 3 #7: I come from the Land of the Ice and Snow…

Science doesn’t have all the answers. Take cold, for example. If I’m remembering high school chemistry, then high school physics, then college chemistry and college physics right, “cold” (or “heat” for that matter) essentially refers to the amount of energy something has. If an object (using the term object loosely here, so it refers to places, people, drinks, etc.) is “hot” it’s more energetic, all those little molocules jumping around and bouncing off one another like animals in one of the dance numbers in The Lion King; if that same thing is cold there’s less energy, molocules, atoms, whatever moving more slowly, then more slowly still, until finally at absolute zero they freeze into lock-step. And then it’s possible, a friend of mine told me once, to get into *negative* temperatures, but I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about then — no doubt due to an obstinate and bullheaded refusal of mine to associate temperature with anything other than, well, *temperature*, hot and cold and all that, which may be old-fashioned but is nevertheless a reflex of mine — and I’m not going to attempt to explain it now.

(Though, parenthetically, if anyone does know or would like to take a second try at explaining to me what a negative temperature might be, I promise to be more flexible.)

Anyway! The point of all this babble is to say that the commonly-held impression of cold is wrong, as I know! Or, if not wrong, then at least incomplete. China, oddly enough for a country that burns like a somewhat congenial if polluted furnace from May to August,
has a way of showing one kinds of cold one didn’t quite think existed. There’s cold as in my house in southern Anhui province, wet and just above freezing, which wouldn’t be a problem save that there’s a shortage of indoor heating in Anhui, or at least indoor heating that doesn’t excoriate you and squeeze every ounce of moisture from your tortured flesh. So when the cold creeps in through layers of coat and sweater and long underwear and so forth, it doesn’t leave. Ever. Like the spiders on your ceiling and the field mice who creep around your window at night looking for ways to sneak in, it becomes a constant companion.

And then there’s the cold of Beijing, where I’m sort-of-living now with Stephanie, which is a dry, knifelike petty that scratches your face with thin, dry claws when you go outside. Again, a sharp contrast to Beijing in the summertime, where as soon as you step off the plane you are covered by the greasy wet wool blanket of the Party’s love; given the choice between the two I prefer neither. Beijing in the fall is beautiful, and I hear the spring isn’t half bad either, but though Spring Festival has come and gone, Spring is hardly here, and life is not pickles and life is not beer. (With apologies to Tom Lehrer.)

But both of these colds pale in comparison to the Harbin winter that Steph and I experienced during our trip there a few days ago for the Chinese New Year. Harbin, for those of you who don’t know, is a city in the North of China (which is about as informative as Arlo Guthrie informing the youth of the audience during his new recordings of Alice’s Restaurant that “Richard Nixon, you see, was President of the United States, and he liked to tape stuff!”); in kinder times when it didn’t matter quite so much exactly what borders fell exactly where, it was a town essentially shared by Russians and Chinese, a major trading post between the Siberian wilderness and the softer Chinese lands to the south. In the last 50 years there have been fewer and fewer Russians in the city – who knows where they went, especially the so-called “White Russians” who fled to China to escape the Communist uprisings of the early 20th Century? Harbin fared better, at least, under the surge of Russian inhabitants post-1919 than did Ulaan Baatar — where former Russian aristocrats established ballet schools and orchestras in the Chinese city, a mad tyrant known to history as “The Count of Blood” terrorized the Mongolians — but now the Russians’ passing is marked only by their architecture and their food, of which there are traces throughout Harbin.

Oh, and their cheap import goods — but that’s a story for later.

Anyway, Harbin cold is the big kind of cold, the children-get-frostbite-while

-waiting-for-the-bus kind of cold, the don’t-breathe-in-because-it-hurts-your-lungs kind of cold, the kind of cold where you can’t feel your fingers with your nose because the nerve endings in both extremities died off a long time ago. It’s the kind of cold that inspires legends of ice giants. But where else in the world can you ride ice-bicycles in front of a giant ice-block replica of Westminster Abby? (Save, possibly, Moscow/St.Petersbourg?) Once again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Steph and I left Beijing on the 6th of February, just in time for the Spring Festival Rush. Spring Festival, for those of you who don’t know, is the Chinese New Year, and if you’re forgetting your Chinese Restaurant Placemats, it’s now the Year of the Rat – which you could easily determine by looking at any television screen or at the cover of any magazine or at pretty much anything else, anywhere, ever (for values of anywhere equal to in China). If you were born between February of 1984 and February of 1985 you are a Rat, which makes me one of that august company, and several of you as well. Rats are (traditionally) freakishly clever and freakishly opportunistic, especially cut out to be CEOs, writers, or journalists. Not bad, eh? My sister’s animal is the Dog, and one of the listed occupations for her is Matador; one of the other animals, I forget which (maybe the Horse?), has “Secret Agent” listed as one of their specialties.

Chinese New Year is the mother of all holidays, with a cultural importance akin to what would happen if you rolled Christmas, New Years, and everyone’s birthday all into one big package. Steph and I flew on a cramped plane to Harbin; the unlucky schmucks who take trains the day before New Years in China find them standing-room only, booked weeks in advance, and frequently running hours, sometimes even days late even when the trains run on *time*. This year, with the insanity of the South China Blizzards, Lord alone knows what the trains looked like. No snow reached us in the Already-Frozen North, of course; it stayed in the South where the city governments have maybe heard of snow plows, or at least stories of them, from their grandparents, as things that Northern cities used sometimes. It is, perhaps, like rai-i-yayn on one’s wedding day.

When we got off the plane in Harbin after a three-hour flight in which we were served three drinks and a decent meal (ah, China), our first thought was: “This isn’t so bad.” Upon reflection, one might say the same thing standing in a boxing ring with Ali, right after the bell rings but before the first fist connects with your face.

The Harbin airport is a small, blocky, Soviet affair at the end of a long road from the city center. We took the bus in to see more of the town, which turned out to be split, architecturally, three ways. The standard Chinese boxiness was a distinct minority next to great traditional Soviet blocks (har, har), interspersed with goregous ornate Georgian or Parisian old-style houses with superfluous columns and white windows and frivolous ornamentation, or red bricks and white decoration and little bell towers. Bridges stretched over frozen rivers, and the buidlings that in any other Chinese city would be lit with blinding red neon were lit from below with yellow and green mood lighting, making the nights seem darker and the buildings more tasteful than any I have seen in China in some time.

We arrived at the Yuanda Business Hotel, checked in (our room on the 8th floor overlooked a Suning Electrical Appliance Superstore and the unmistakable wide vase-shaped smokestack of a tiny nuclear power plant), and ventured out into the late afternoon to find something to eat.

Regardless of your own religious persuasion or tendencies to eat out on Christmas Eve, you have probably heard that Chinese restaurants tend to stay open then. This is because traditionally Christmas isn’t all that important in China, the old Imperial Government having considered Christianity an outlaw religion until the late 19th century when various wars and forced treaties crowbarred the Empire’s borders open to the strange barbarian priests and their pamphlets. It’s important now, what with Starbucks Gingerbread Lattes and Chrstimas Discounts and shopping centers, but still nobody closes – Christmas is a commercial holiday. All the closing that would be done on Christams is done instead on Chinese New Year, and as Steph and I wandered, it became increasinly clear that our chances of finding an open restaurant were slim.

We walked through the ice and the more ice and the constant explosions of fireworks (China being, of course, the country that invented fireworks and gunpowder, and Chinese law being the kind to permit people to buy pretty much whatever they want pretty much whenever and wherever they want and use it however they want so long as it has no political significance). Parents around the New Year hand their children high explosives and tell them to go, play, and have fun; before dinner and later on at midnight the entire family goes out with the largest bore fireworks they can find and sets them off wherever they’re reasonably sure no harm can come of it: immediately outside the front door, for example, or maybe (if they’re feeling particularly safety-conscious) in the road. The cold was intense, and after about an hour (probably closer to forty-five minutes) I couldn’t feel most of my feet or my hands. We stopped into a local coffee-shop/bar (“The Bremen Piano Bar,” which in fact contained a piano of uncertain tuning, many Go boards, a bar and an espresso machine quite suitable for turning out delicious Irish Coffee) to warm ourselves, then set out again, down Gogol Street — spelled “GuoGeLi” in Chinese, in case you were wondering — into the center of town, where, once again frozen through, we hunted down an open restaurant and ate as the sky darkened and filled with cracks and booms and rushing, sparkling, whistling light. The fireworks continued until late that evening; around midnight we watched them sparkle and play about the lip of the nuclear cooling tower outside our hotel room window.

The next day was for the Harbin Ice and Snow World, which will be the closest thing I am likely to ever see in my life to a straight-out-of-a-video-game Ice Castle level. After an abortive expedition earlier in the day to buy tickets we showed up again soon after dark, to find the walls and towers and pinnacles and giant snow-Buddhas shining with inner neon radience. There were ice sculptures, of course, but ice *architecture* was the main draw, and most of it Olympics-themed: Westminster and Big Ben for the London Games,
a small-but-faithful replica of the Acropolis atop an ice mountain, glowing green, for Athens. Roads for Rome, and of course the red-and-green Forbidden City for Beijing. Steph and I crossed the central Imperial bridge over its frozen river below, and walked on top of the ice Great Wall.

Living in China for some time, one can start to sweat the small stuff. It’s easy: everywhere someone is spitting on the floor, or smoking cigarettes in a close-windowed bus, or asking you the same old questions. But once in a while you see something, well, something immense and made out of ice, something so ridiculous and labor-intensive and spectacular (in the old sense of “involving spectacle”, not our degraded sense of “really nice”) that you can’t help but wonder at it and think to yourself that there is something truly “of China” here, something that you couldn’t quite get anywhere else. It’s not in the skill (though there is skill) or the beauty (though there is beauty); it’s in the fact that someone was sitting at a table and said, “You know, Jack, I think that this winter we should build an entire city out of ice.
” And someone else said, “Capital idea, Bill! I’ll call the labour department.” Jack and Bill replaced with culturally-appropriate surrogates, of course.

And there are times when that same scale of conception goes a little out of control. For example, the animal show in the small coffee hut where we stopped to warm our destroyed feet and hands after an hour and a half of tramping about on steps, roads, walls, bridges of ice: tigers in tiny cages, set free to leap through burning hoops. Of course, this was the main attraction, so they had to lead up to it slowly: wolves first, then house cats, then a pig that could read and do sums, then a gymnastical bear (who knew you didn’t need thumbs to use the gymnastic rings?), then *two* bears boxing with boxing gloves, then tiny trick yappy dogs, and *then* the big cats. It was sad and strange, even when the animals looked healthy and happy (the wolves didn’t, they looked sick, but all the other animals seemed well-cared for and if not loved [hard to love a lion] then at least *respected* more or less). The tigers, the lion (there was also a lion) in the tiny cages were weird to take, because I’d never seen big cats moving so much, or with such menace and pent-up power, their rage bare, as is the greatness of heroes in a tragedy. Did I want the lions and tigers to break free? I did the wolves, for sure, but the tigers…

Even those of you who have seen tigers probably have forgotten the impression of them, which is hard for the human mind to hold for long: their paws are about the size of my chest. Their claws are a little longer than my middle finger. Their eyes are about the size of a man’s goatee region. Should these things exist in the wild? Clearly. But when I saw them there was a short circuit in my brain. Maybe fear, but more a sense of: something this great should be out there, free, and far away from us. We have done something strange in dredging it into our context, something maybe a little unholy.

The next day we went to St. Sophiya’s, the local Russian Orthodox church. The exterior was of brick and perfectly preserved, the decoration of brass; some energy had been put into restoring it. The inside, though, was still gutted, though many of what looked to be the original icons were still in their proper places. The Cultural Revolution was not known for its benevolence, and an edifice of corrupt Western religion must have suffered more than most. The restoration board had removed the altar, the cross, the pews, and most of the other religious paraphernalia, replacing them with museum photographs and city planning exhibits of Harbin at the height of its Russian phase. Interesting historically, but it made the space dead in a way I’m not used to thinking of churches as being dead. A strange example of cultural insensitivity, which admittedly hasn’t been a PRC selling point. Still, though, I felt uneasy.

Dinner that night at “Russia Cafe,” a tiny family place near Central Street in downtown Harbin behind the KFC (KFC, for those of you who have been keeping score, is without a doubt the McDonalds of China, which is cool in that they have healthier food – sort of – but uncool in that they have worse ice cream and *much* poorer quality coffee. McDonalds is not in the midst of a big push to become the McDonalds of China, whereas now it’s more the Burger King of China; who knows what Burger King will be when it finally makes its presence felt?). The food there was delicious, and (Steph assures me) pretty authentically Russian: subtle pickles and deliciously spiced sausage, good vodka (including a strange small bottle marked “AK-47 Vodka”), cabbage meat rolls whose taste was nearly obscured by the savory red soup, and, surprisingly, the creamiest mashed potoatoes I’ve had at least since my last thanksgiving at home – and surprisingly light! And of course the decor, which was Western in the unassertive way that only an authentic place can be: wooden chairs with leather cushions, photos on the walls, a grandfather clock that really chimes. We went back there for dinner the next night; the only disadvantages to this place were the food selection (both nights they were out of a good portion of the menu) and the music: their CD was great, but they only had one, and I must have heard those instrumental versions of “If you’re going to San Francisco…” and the love song from Carousel 20 times if it was once over 2 nights. (Not that both songs aren’t great, but “great” is quite relative to how much someone has listened to a particular bit of music in the last 24 hours.)

On our last day we took a taxi out to Sunshine Island for a visit to the Northeast Tiger Breeding Center. “Northeast Tigers” are what the Chinese call Siberian Tigers, coupled with a claim that the originated in Northeast China and spread to Siberia later. This is entirely possible, but is also in tune with a good bit of Chinese historiography, so it’s hard to tell when they’re being serious. Regardless, the Siberian tiger is a distinct breed of cat from the white tigers of Siegfried and Roy fame; it’s bigger, and a more traditional orange-and-black. Siberians are the largest of the “jungle” cats, and also one of the most threatened, with barely 350 left alive in the wild, less than 20 of those in China itself. The Northeast Tiger Breeding Center in Harbin houses 2-300 of the animals, bred in captivity and then set loose for prolonged periods in the semi-wild conditions of China’s largest hunting preserve, a good distance out of Harbin. The idea is to increasingly acclimate the tigers to wild conditions, hunting, etc. prior to reintroducing them as a species.

The Breeding Center itself was a scientific complex off-limits to the tour, but the tiger “pens” were amazing – we took minibusses through immense gated preserves with automatically controlled doors similar to those in Jurassic Park, and everwhere, lurking through the bushes or sunning themselves on rocks or coming over to inspect the cars, were tigers, big, strong, comfortable, to all appearances free, and curious. For New Years the Breeding Center put on a feeding show, so wherever we went we were followed by the feed truck, an SUV that looked as if it was ready for combat duty, with cages on all sides and a battered, dented body from multiple tiger impacts. The tigers (and the lions and lionesses, some of whom were also in residence, though mostly separated from the tigers) knew the sound of the feed truck instantly, and clustered about it as soon as it arrived. At each feeding event, the food truck driver would crack his door open, chuck out a chicken or pheasant, and slam the door instantly. The bird would last a terrified, flapping moment before massed yellow-green eyes, and then some big cat would leap casually and catch it out of the air with his (or her) mouth. Once, two birds were released at once; the first one went immediately but the second held still, and as all the tigers went for the first one it took them nearly a minute to realize there was something else tasty around.

The climax of the feeding show was the sacrifice of a young cow, which was carted into one of the tiger yards in a closed dumptruck, which ws then tilted back until the critter had no choice but to scamper out onto the ground. You can imagine the ensuing scene I’m sure, but you probably won’t get it quite right unless you’ve watched the Nature Channel a lot: we have a sense that tigers, lions etc. kill by slashing and biting and generally being a whirlwind of claw and rage, which is doubtless true sometimes, but not by any means the rule. Tigers fighting other animals look a lot more like wrestlers: they make contact, dig in with their claws, and use their sheer bulk and strength to maneuver the other to the ground, where the teeth can start their work. Grisly sight, though, strangely, there was less blood than I expected.

We left the next day, another three hour plane ride, another few drinks and a decent meal. I finished The New Science of Giambatista Vico on the plane, and slept; Steph read The Fountainhead. Neither of us watched the in-flight China New Year Special Extravaganza. And then we were back in Beijjing, where it was still cold – though at least it didn’t seem *as* cold as it had before – and where most of the restaurants were still closed for new years.

So there’s cold, and there’s cold, and there’s cold. It’s the funny thing about vacations that they come to an end, and you have to slide back into your normal routine – so now Steph is back in her office and I’m back in the starbucks a few doors down from her office, trying to get some writing done so maybe I’ll have most of this new novel I’m working on done before I have to start teaching again in a couple of weeks. More on that as it comes.

There’s a thing that happens when you’re programming computers – you need to watch your parentheses. If you make a parenthetical statement (like this (and then another one inside that ( and so on ( ad infinitum )))) you need to make sure you close all the parentheses right. Now I’m in Beijing, on vacation, and taking vacations from that, and before too long I’ll be heading back to Anhui – though my being in Anhui is in its own right, not exactly a vacation, but a leave from America and from the great continuity that goes on over there, and was going on as Steph and I were in Harbin: not just the elections and primaries, though I refer to those too, but also the movements of friends and relations and relationships, and all the little day to day things that get left out in occasional communication, just like I’m leaving stuff out even in a letter of this size. It’s cool to be getting to the end of this long period of being away – but there are still about five, maybe even six months to go before my triumphant return tour, so it’s a little early to be mourning just yet. I’ll still be here, and I’ll still be writing. Rock out everyone, and happy New Year to rats and cats alike.

Leave a Reply