Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Harbin, Part Three: some lunch, some culture and some Mongolian Music Videos

Restaurant row looked a lot better in the sunlight than it had the night before. It was not clear to me how many were here; perhaps 4 or 5, all rather ramshackle, kind of like a seedy, rundown version of the US chain restaurant Pappadeaux’s. We pulled off onto a frontage road and our way was immediately blocked by young men standing in the street waving us into their particular parking lot. Small cars with sooty sheet metal chimneys blowing black smoke into the air lined the road. No longer mobile, these were now warming shacks for the guys working the parking lots. Our driver pulled into the second lot and a young man with black ear muffs opened the door and beckoned me out. It was a more aggressive version of the previous night, but nothing looks sinister in the daylight so I just climbed out. The driver walked in with me making some attempt to explain some nuance of the situation that was beyond my grasp, I just nodded and kept on moving.

The inside of the building was smoky and a bit dim, illuminated only by shafts of sunlight coming from windows up above beaming down through an opening in the second floor. The room was tall and the upper level was a railed walkway overlooking the entrance. Paper cutout Santa Clause heads decorated the walls. A friendly young woman showed us to a room off to the side where we found our long errant friends, already deep into their meal. The drivers greeted each other and said something and the other guy smiled a big smile and waved us out of the room. The hostess took charge and told me how the place worked, none of which I understood; I nodded a lot and smiled obviously indicating our willingness to stay and eat. Our driver motioned me to follow and we went back outside to a small shack off of the walkway. Entering we found ourselves in front of water filled rowboat teeming with big black fish – dinner on the hoof.

I was granted the privilege of picking our victim; someone told me not to pick the gray one floating on the surface. Scanning the herd I choose a lively fellow in the center of the ruckus teaching him that there is not always safety in numbers. The girl scooped him out, tossed him on a scale and announced his price at 90 Yuan.

She then directed us to three large kettles long the side of the shack lifting each lid and giving a description of the simmering contents. These were apparently appetizers meant to hold us over until our big fish was prepared. Each was less attractive than the prior so we selected the least odious option, some sort of chicken curry and went outside. Our guide pointed to a rabbit hanging from the eaves and asked if we wanted it, I said no. As we headed back in we passed a table covered with the frozen bodies of some sort of Sturgeon which were also offered. Again I declined.

The next stop was a table covered with plates of raw vegetables and I chose a handful not feeling nearly so bad about sending them to their deaths. Cabbage, green chiles spinach, snap peas and some of those giant white Chinese mushrooms were added to the collection.

We were led upstairs to a smoky room with two large round tables one occupied by a Chinese family who found us either quite amusing or shocking; it was hard to tell from the quality of their stares. We sat down at the other and a worker came in with some firewood. Kneeling, she opened an iron door in the side of the table, put the wood in and lit a fire. The table was sitting on a big cylinder of bricks and the fire was within. A small chimney exited on the opposite side from the little door and connected to duct work that went up and out through the ceiling.

The chicken curry was brought and we had some fun fishing through and commenting on the various pieces including the head, still sporting its bright red comb. One of my companions made a point of picking it up to pose for a picture and promptly dropped it on the floor. So much for chopstick skills, I retrieved it and gave it a place of honor in front of my plate.

The fish, now deceased perhaps due to the six big slices in its back was brought up and placed in a big cauldron recessed in the center. The vegetables and a bucket of broth were added and the lid was placed on allowing the fire below to do its work. By now it was picking up and the soup quickly reached a boil.

Someone lifted the lid and the driver clucked and motioned for them to put it back, lest the cooking be impeded. Beers were ordered and this brought another young woman who had been brought to explain to us in English that the beer was very expensive - $1.50 per liter bottle and that our total bill would be $9.00. We thanked her for her concern and told her we were solvent.

The driver opened removed the lid after 15 minutes or so and began dishing out the contents. The fish was now done to the point of disintegration and the vegetables were perfectly cooked. He made it clear we were not to eat the snap peas, an admonition I didn’t quite understand. It didn’t matter- no one was going to go hungry for the lack of a handful of peas. The driver was brought a bowl of white rice with pieces of yellow corn in it which he sat slowly eating, watching us over the rim.

We dined in style and as we got down the bottom the driver ladled out the head which he delivered to my plate. That portion of the meal is reserved for the most senior person or the guest of honor as the cheeks, lips and eyes are considered the best portions. I complied by cleaning up what I could not so sorry that the eyeballs were no longer present.

One of the people from the other party came up with a little flask of “bei jiu” which is Chinese hard liquor along the lines of tequila. There is a funny play on words with its name – “hong jiu” is red wine and it might make sense that if you replace the “hong” with the word for white, “bei” that you’d get white wine. Well, plenty of delicate westerners have been surprised to discover that you end up with grain alcohol if you place that order. To get true white wine, you have to specify it by adding the word for grapes, “bei putao jiu.”

I’d heard about this stuff but not tried it so I was curious. We toasted with a shot and it went down well enough, taking off the last of the chill from the snow park.
Someone had the bright idea to add dumplings to the feast so the English speaking girl was brought back up. The orders didn’t come in quantity; rather they were sold by weight. One “jin” is a kilogram here and that’s what we went with, approximately 40 dumplings which surprisingly didn’t last all that long.

Lunch came to about $12 each.

We finished up and headed outside climbing back into the van for the next stage of our adventure. As the ear-muffed boy closed the door, someone handed him 50 yuan and you might have thought his teeth would freeze considering the size of his smile.

It was now mid-afternoon and we had some time to kill as it was our plan to arrive at the Ice City just about sunset. Someone had printed out a couple of pages from a China guide and so I showed the driver some pictures and asked him if he knew where they were. “No” on the world famous pagoda, “yes” on St. Sophia’s Church in downtown Harbin so off we went into the streets which were at this time of day completely choked with traffic. We did make a truly infuriating side trip when someone wanted beer and the driver pretended to not understand what a store was. That solved we made our way to the church which sits in a broad square in the shopping district.

A smaller version of St. Basil’s on Red Square in Moscow, it was built in 1903 when the Russian ruled this roost. Brown brick with big green onion domes, icons of saints lining the fascia near the top it was an imposing structure, not for its size but its contrast with the modern buildings that surrounded it. We bought tickets and went inside passing through the obligatory stalls selling cheap souvenirs unrelated to the place at hand. Like most Orthodox churches it was built in the form of a cross with four separate wings. It was old and very much out of repair and lacking that sense of spirituality you normally get in such a place. But it was nice to wander around looking at the old photographs depicting Harbin at the time this place was built. Portraits of Orthodox saints were hung on each of the four corners in the center of the room. They stared at us serenely.

It was now getting dark and time to head out to the true goal of the day. The driver had done come math while were we perusing the church and asked us from 150 Yuan each so that he could buy tickets. We complied and he stopped at a building downtown to pick them up. As it happened we were parked across the street from the little park I’d seen last night that had a display of incredible light so a couple of us hopped out and took a few pictures.

Back across the river and into the parking lot, foggy with the steam from the heat of the exhaust of the cars inching forward to park. It was now dark and apparently very cold. We parked the van, bundled up and went with the driver to a trailer off by the side of the entrance. He had done us the incredible favor of buying VIP tickets which allowed us to cut the long serpentine entrance line and given the cold, this was a true treat. A young man with reasonable English led us to a special gate and in we went.

I could gush on and on about the ice buildings, they really were spectacular. But there is not a lot to say to describe something so stunning and unusual. The cold, the snow, the bright lights illuminating structures made of transparent ice blocks - just plain wondrous, I will allow the pictures to convey my sense of amazement.

I wandered around taking pictures until my camera battery finally died. Normally I could have squeezed a few dozen shots out of it but the cold was draining it at a higher than usual rate. All around us were pagodas, temples, cathedrals in the Christian and Orthodox style, the theme was places of worship. My favorite was a giant Buddha illuminated in soft yellow light. Prayer rugs were supplied for anyone willing to put their knees down on the frozen ground. A Greek Temple illuminated in shocking yellow stood up on a hill with ice slides leading back down to the main plaza. Techno music pounded across the square from the front of one huge building. We tried to get hot chocolate at a Nescafe tent but the place was too chaotic for my tastes so we kept on walking, eventually splitting up because we had different intentions. Several wanted to amble and several wanted to walk, so the logical conclusion was to go our separate ways for a while.

Two of us found ourselves in front of a Mongolian Yurt and decided it might be time for a break; we entered and were shown to a table. We ordered coffee and received two small paper cups of that same pre-sweetened, pre-milked syrup I’d seen at breakfast. Now though having had my core temperature reduced significantly it just didn’t matter, I took my time using it to warm my hands.

The young people running the place were dressed in traditional Mongolian clothing. A big screen television near the door was playing Mongolian music videos which consisted of someone singing a particularly heartfelt ballad set to scenes of ponies running across the steppes, animal skin yurts, children, panoramas of waving grass and flower blossoms. The color guns on the set were so far out of alignment that the Chinese subtitles were broken up into individual red, green and blue characters.

A young man turned on a microphone and addressed the crowd I live entertainment was on the bill. He introduced another young man dressed in black and gold robes who sang a long, loud song about fermented mare’s milk or some other element of Mongolian culture. He finished and two young women playing what looked like square cellos played a few songs accompanied by the soundtrack on the television. While this was going on other young men wearing green People’s Army winter coats circulated the crowd selling sticks of roasted chicken from a charcoal grill outside.

It was time to go back outside so I reluctantly pulled my gear back on and went out the door.

We walked past Chinese checkers and Chess boards with human-sized playing pieces. A large bronze bell was placed on a platform of ice, hanging from big red beams. A man with an arctic fox tried to get me to pay to have my picture taken with his pet. Off to their right a worker was running a snow making machine, shooting a big geyser up into the sky. We walked under it and were lightly coated with tiny pellets of snow that stuck to our clothing without melting.

Our friends found us and we were convinced to visit a Russian building that had dancers and purportedly vodka. But the cover charge to just sit there was 100 Yuan and the food and drinks were expensive to boot so we decided to head out and find dinner in town.

Collecting the driver and mounting up we headed back to the city. Once again I was in charge of getting us somewhere so I started working with the guy to see if he could understand a particular Russian restaurant that had been recommended. Even though I had the address in characters, he claimed ignorance so I used my bean and came up with the brilliant idea of going to the Shangri La Hotel and getting the concierge to write down instructions for us. Luckily the guy knew where the hotel was and so we stopped and got the necessary information which led us to a side street and a parking spot right in front.

Another drama came when the only girl in the place with broken English tried to explain the concept of a prix fixe menu to us which we grasped except that it’s hard to order when you can’t read the choices. We finally asked for ala carte and ended up with a decent meal.

And now it was time to call it a day. We took a few moments to wander up and down the pedestrian street where the restaurant sat, ruing the fact that we didn’t know it existed when we were hunting for food the prior night. Next time for sure.

The drive home was a last little weird vignette for an otherwise memorable day. We had apparently offended the driver earlier because he had tuned the radio to some sort of Chinese teleplay given by a man who seemed to specialize in guttural sounds. It was set so loud that it pretty much prevented us from talking; making me think he was just tired of listening to us. We motored back to the Bremen in silence, trying to understand just what the man on the radio was trying to convey by constantly clearing his throat.

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