Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Getting around
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It's full-on construction season here in Harbin now. (I think the beginning coincided with the end of heating season, but I can't be absolutely sure.) There are construction sites everywhere and they haven't just sprung up overnight, but I think the work has intensified - or maybe it's just that I have to commute in the traffic now, and I'm noticing the difference between being a tourist and a commuter.

I have to say, trying to get back and forth to the place where I'm doing my ESL training has proven to be challenging. It's maybe five or six kilometers from where I'm living, but it routinely takes me about an hour to go door to door. I have to allow 5-10 minutes to leave my building - I'm on the 15th floor, and I have to factor in the fact that the elevator could make five stops on the way down. Then there's the 10-15 minute walk to the bus stop. Then I need to allow 15 minutes for the bus to come; it might come earlier, but I have to play it safe . . . and then there's the 20-30 minute bus ride to go straight down the road for 5 kilometers. (This just slays me, it absolutely slays me.) And then there's the 5-10 minute walk to the building from the bus stop. Contrast this with my life at home, where I can literally go from the door to my home to the door to my office in under 20 minutes, either by car or by bike.

But it's understandable when you see how they do construction here. For example, take a look at this bridge:


It's being constructed just down the road from the training center where I'm taking my TESOL class. It has completely shut down the road for about six months; in the foreground, you can see some of the traffic that has been diverted. (It's especially challenging to negotiate the buses that have been given temporary routes; there are signs on the bus that indicate where the bus will detour - and as you might expect, the sight of such signs fills me with dread, because I can't read them very well.)

Anyway, this construction project has messed up both vehicular and foot traffic for about three blocks. But people gotta go where they gotta go, so it's pretty routine for people just to walk through the construction site:



It's pretty formidable. This is no country for wimps:




Now, this project has gone on for several months, but others are springing up literally overnight; it's not uncommon for a roadbed to be there for the morning commute and torn up by the evening commute, making taxi and bus rides highly entertaining. (Sometimes the taxi drivers don't even know the road's been torn up. One dark night I had a driver who stopped the car about ten feet shy of driving into a 3-foot dropoff . . . )

Anyway, China is the only country I've ever visited that makes me want to stay put; I have no desire to travel here. And construction is a large factor in eliciting that (unprecedented) feeling . . . The Chinese have a proverb that says, roughly, "Stay home and be comfortable forever, leave home and immediately encounter difficulties." I wonder if that idea makes people more tolerant of traffic snarls, or if it serves to lower their expectations about mobility. This is definitely not North America, and I feel that most strongly on my morning commute.

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