Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Bus Follies
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Well, I decided to hop the bus today to try to go down to the river, where there's some sort of subsidiary Ice and Snow festival going on. (Not the big one - this is a Songhua River festival.)

Let me start by saying that I love public transportation. I'm a huge fan of the idea that for a nominal fee, I can get someone to drive me around a new city, following dependable routes at dependable times. I've ridden buses on three continents, not counting this one. (For sheer navigability, I'd take a subway first, but they don't have one here.)

Today's ride promised to be somewhat challenging because I can't really read the street signs too well, and - this is the huge drawback - I'm working from a map that, while it offers bus numbers, it has them written in a type size that is clearly not meant to be read by humans; I think the numbers are on there for decoration. (I've tried poring over this map with a magnifying glass, and mine isn't really up to the task. Tomorrow I'm getting a different magnifying glass.) I also consulted a very handy website that will tell you, if you know where you are and where you're going in bus-speak, how to get there.

This was my second attempt at taking the bus to the Songhua River. I tried a few days ago, but I had to transfer and I never quite managed that; the bus I was supposed to transfer to never showed up. It wasn't listed at the stop where I was allegedly supposed to transfer, either, which gave me pause. Of course, many, MANY buses that were not listed actually came to that stop. This is the first maddening thing about the buses here - the stops don't give an accurate account of which buses you can expect to see there. (The second maddening thing is that none of the stops have maps.)

I decided I'd take a stab at going down to a different location (St. Sophia church) and walking to the river from there; we've done that a bunch of times with our students and I felt pretty confident I could do it by myself. I had only the vaguest idea of which bus to take - my friend Fanlin had taken Barb and me downtown when she was in town, and my plan was to go to the same stop we left from, and wait for a familiar-sounding number. I ended up hopping on bus #55 (which, incidentally, had not been listed on the pole at the bus stop).

It didn't go where I thought it would go, but I wasn't too worried; it's not like I really had to be anywhere at any time. I fetched up in front of this Ferris wheel:


The Harbin Amusement Park. I'd seen it on the map, but I'd never actually seen it. I then walked back a few blocks because I'd seen one of those huge Chinese gates, and I wanted to investigate it. Here's what I saw inside the gate:



It was called the Harbin Cultural Park. I went in to take a look, expecting a museum of some sort. It wasn't - it's apparently a temple because lots and lots of people were doing this:




Burning incense or "money" for their ancestors. I was too shy to get some incense, although I really want to do this while I'm here. The theory (seems like it can't exactly be Buddhist) is that our ancestors live in a universe sort of parallel to ours and they need the same things we need. This makes me think I really have to burn some money for my mother, because wherever she is, all I can say for sure is that she needs it, I know. (And I oughta torch a little Bai Jiu for her, too, come to think of it . . . I'm sure that stuff is flammable.)

I knew I was south of the river, so I decided to head north on foot. This took me down some less-traveled roads, like this one, complete with ice ruts:


I swear, the ice ruts are 3 inches deep, at least. Look at this guy trying to ride/push his scooter up the hill:


Not too long into the trek, and I decided I needed sustenance before I went any further. I picked a restaurant based on the picture of hot pot on the door. (Hot pot is my favorite Chinese food, and I like northeast hot pot best of all.) I was met by two young men who, once they realized how limited my Chinese is, proceeded to repeat everything at a higher volume. Luckily, an older woman (not old, just older than the guys) came out and she figured out what I wanted. Here's what I ended up with:


That's a "soup," heated over sterno, and comprised of sauerkraut, clear noodles, pigskin, and blood. (Doesn't that just sound yummy?) Believe it or not, it was yummy - not that I would have ordered it, if I'd known what I was ordering, but still . . . And I was clearly the news of the day; I don't know if anyone in that restaurant had ever come face to face with a foreigner. I knew enough to know they were talking about me, and they were sure staring at me . . . so I smiled a lot.

Afterwards, I thought I'd try the bus again. I looked at my map, figured out (kind of) where I was, and realized that some of the buses going by had the same numbers as the ones I'd been trying to transfer to the other day. So I hopped on one of those, and huzzah, I made it to the river.



(That's a maze made of ice blocks.)



That last dark shot is of the ice rink - it's taken into the sun because I wanted the reflection on the ice. I rented some skates and spent a happy half hour cruising around the nearly-deserted rink.

Then, time to come home. It was approaching 4:00, and as it's pretty much totally dark here by 5:30, I figured I'd better go while I could still look out the bus window for places I recognized. I walked to St Sophia, hoping to catch the bus that we'd taken the other day (and still not entirely sure of its number.) I hopped on a 116 bus because I figured that if it didn't go back to campus, it would probably go by that place where I'd tried to transfer the other day. I hoped so, anyway; bus numbers are getting all jumbled in my head now . . . but no matter; the bus was warm and I was cold after my skating.

A few stops into the ride, we were passed by a number 55 bus. Good news! I decided to hop off the 116 and grab the 55, figuring that even if I was going the wrong direction, the bus would eventually hit its terminus and turn around and go back. Home free, I thought.

So I grabbed a 55 bus. Without heat, as it turned out. And as it turned out, I was indeed going the wrong way. And then I learned the Third Maddening Thing about buses in Harbin: at least sometimes, they get to the end of the line and they STOP. They do NOT turn around and go back.

I tried to ask the driver what I should do, and he pointed me up the street, telling me that when I got to the cross street I could go left or right and get a bus. But darkness was falling; I'd been out for six hours and I'd had enough; and a taxi happened by. Luckily, he agreed to take me back to campus (not all drivers will take you where you want to go), and to do it for the posted rate.

While we were on our way, the fireworks started. The driver pulled over to let me get these shots:



If it looks like they're right on top of us, that's because they were - they were being set off no more than 15 feet away from the car. I don't know who was setting them off; looked like some guys in uniform but that could mean anything; they could have been parking lot attendants, for all I know.

When I got to campus, the fireworks had begun here, too.


They were everywhere. There isn't a central location to set them off; ordinary people do it all over town. (Just ten minutes ago someone set a bunch off on the steps of my dorm, and I could have literally reached out my window and caught the ashes as they fell.)

Here's what I saw (and heard) out my dorm window when I got upstairs:

It's two hours later, now, and the fireworks are still going on . . . I can hardly wait until tomorrow, the official end of the Spring Festival. There's a big fireworks show at the river, and while I don't think I'm going to go down to see that, I think I'll have plenty to watch around here.

And I think that before I take the bus again, I'm going to get a bus pass, and ask if there's route maps somewhere . . . today was interesting, but not necessarily enlightening, from a transportational point of view. But it sure was fun.

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