Got a terse Weixin message from the hitchhiker just before I left Manzhouli: "I lost my wallet, but I don't give up....I have 150 dollar now."
Stuck in Russia with only a 150 dollars. I told him he should go to the police, because if the person who found it was honest, that's where they would take it. But I also told him that if the police did not have his wallet, he should probably start heading back to Manzhouli. What a bitter disappointment!
I am in Hailaer now. I went to the train station this morning to try to get a ticket. Plenty of tickets, but no sleeper tickets. I had the same problem in Manzhouli. I think I finally figured out what the problem is. They open ticket sales 20 days early for online purchase. But the ticket window purchase is opened 18 days in advance. That means that online purchasers have two days to buy up all the sleeper tickets. There is no way they would sell all the sleeper tickets in two days under normal circumstances. But in the peak travel season, there is lots of competition for those tickets.
Click to enlarge.
Yesterday morning, I got up and went to KFC for breakfast and study. As I was studying, a tourist came to me and showed me some pictures he had taken of me. It's a bit disconcerting to know that people are taking pictures of you at any moment, but that is life in China for a foreigner. Anyway, they seemed like nice folks. Most people think I am one of the many Russians who come across the border every day to buy cheap Chinese goods. But for me, Manzhouli is just a place to get away from the heat. There is nothing that sensational about Manzhouli, but it's a nice place to get away from the summer heat of Beijing. I do miss the mountains. Hulunbuir is rolling prairie. But the weather is perfect. Summers are really nice here.
No water. This is really crazy. I guess it happens every once in awhile here in Manzouli. They tell me it's because of the big rain two days ago. Doesn't make sense. You'd think with all that rain they would have plenty of water. Apparently the rain overwhelms their system or something. I first noticed it last night when I stopped by KFC to do my Chinese homework. The restrooms were blocked off. When I got to the youth hostel they told me the water was off. This morning early to my surprise I noticed there was a little trickle of water, so I was able to take a shower. A cold shower. But it's summertime, so no worries. But an hour later, there was no water. They tell me it will take three days to get it on again. I guess I will take this one day at a time. It's getting time to go back to Beijing pretty soon.
I met Feng Fan at the youth hostel. He is planning to hitch-hike through Russia and end up in South Africa. I think he's crazy. But I was crazy once too. After I graduated from high school, I put my clothes and a sleeping bag in John's old army duffle bag and had Mel take me out to the Market Street exit in Salem, Oregon, where we lived at the time. I stuck my thumb out and kept sticking my thumb out until I got to Dallas, Texas. From there I proceeded to Tennessee, then Florida, then back toward Oregon. So I'm not sure if I would have the nerve to do what Feng Fan is doing. But I sure do understand that urge to see what's over the next hill. And that youthful optimism. I was a boy scout, so I wanted to be prepared. I even made a small cook stove from some old vegetable cans, which I never used. But what if I had come to the end of a day, and had to be dropped off in a rainstorm or something? Or what if it had started raining when i was sleeping outside in my sleeping bag? I was taking a lot of chances--hoping for things to turn out right. There were few youth hostels in those days, and I didn't have money for hotels. So I made the decision to hitchhike. It was a crazy decision, perhaps, but it has influenced, at least to some extent, nearly every decision I have made since that time regarding my life direction. There's something about making a decision like that--even an apparently crazy decision--that emboldens you to do it again and again throughout your life once you have seen the benefit that can come from one step of faith.
Feng Fan is planning to use couch surfing part of the time. He seems to be quite enthusiastic and in good health, so I think his chances for success are quite good. But I did tell him to skip South Africa. Keep the wind at your back, Feng Fan.
I walked into a restaurant the other day, and sat down to order something. The waitress started speaking to me in Russian. I said to her (in Mandarin). "I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian." She panicked. She started looking around for someone to help her. Her response was a bit annoying, but it also struck me funny. She was obviously worried because, since I didn't speak Russian, I must be an English speaker, and she didn't speak English. But there was no reason for her to worry. After all, when I told her I didn't speak Russian, I wasn't speaking English. I was speaking Chinese. In fact, I had not spoken a word of English. I said to her slowly in Mandarin, "Do you speak Chinese?" She breathed a sigh of relief. In fact, she was Mongolian. Chinese was not her first language. I heard her telling her coworkers, "He speaks Chinese better than I do." That, of course, was nonsense. Mongolians go to school in Mongolian (unless they live in a totally Han community). The go to school in Mongolian throughout their elementary, middle school, and high school years, and if they want to, throughout their college years. But they all study Mandarin one hour a day. In today's Inner Mongolia, where many shopkeepers are Chinese, that is going to make you basically a native speaker. It depends on the individual, of course. I have met Mongolians who seemed much more attached to English than Mandarin, but they are the exception. Most Mongolians speak Mongolian and Mandarin. Their level of Mandarin proficiency really depends on the extent to which they themselves want to be integrated into Chinese society. If they prefer to study in a Mongolian university and live a Mongolian life, they can do that. But if they are good students, and they want to go to a top university in Beijing, they will obviously become quite good at Mandarin. But it struck me that this young lady, whose Chinese is obviously very good, has grown up in an environment where her Mandarin is always seen as "substandard," since it is not as native as that of her Han neighbors. So she thinks her Chinese is not very good, when in fact, she is basically a native speaker.
Finally found someone who speaks English in this town. A young lady has opened a small coffee bar not too far from the youth hostel. I just happened to walk by it the other day. She doesn't have a lot of experience with coffee--her mocha tastes like a regular cup of coffee--but it's a nice little place, with the added benefit of a screaming fast wireless system. I can watch McLaughlin Group on YouTube through my VPN without it breaking up. Because of this coffee bar, I found out there are actually English speaking people in this town. There's some kind of language school in this town, I guess, because the English teachers come to this coffee bar, since the "matron" of the place speaks pretty good English. She seems to be in her early twenties--I don't think she's been in business very long. But she's very friendly and determined to make a go of this thing, and I think she just might, because it's small, so her overhead is probably not that large, and she has a dedicated group of patrons who really seriously do not have any other place to go if they don't speak Mandarin. This town would not be the easiest for someone whose only language is English. Her English is quite good, which is extremely rare in Manzhouli.
Pavel. I met him last night in a local restaurant. He is the only Russian I have met in this town who speaks English. That isn't surprising actually. The folks who come across the border to shop in Manzhouli are mostly local folks from the countryside of eastern Russia. They don't speak English. They don't speak Chinese. In Beijing they have a joke about Americans..."What to you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American." But even the notoriously monolingual Americans are somehow able to order food and buy things in Beijing. Local shop merchants in Beijing don't speak English. In Manzhouli it's very different. The Russians you meet in Manzhouli are not here for thier "China experience." They are not studying Chinese. They are not working in China. They have no reason to be here except to take advantage of the significant price differential between their home community and China. So in Manzhouli, if you don't speak Russian, you don't get their business. The ability to speak Russian is literally a matter of life and death for local merchants in Manzhouli. The reverse effect of that is that most Russians do not learn Chinese, because they don't have to. They can buy things, go to the bank, go to a restaurant, get a hotel...basically anything they want to do..in Russian. Walk into a restaurant, the menu is in Russian. Signs on stores are in Russian. And Chinese. Sometimes. But sometimes even Chinese takes a back seat, since many local people can also speak Chinese, but most Russians cannot.
Except Pavel. His friends don't speak English. He has no English teacher. But he is determined not to let his life be defined by the rural environment into which he was born. So he learned English on the Internet, and presumably by watching American movies. He is friendly and outgoing, and his English is pretty good considering how he learned it. It is very interesting to meet young people like him who are determined not to be limited by the situation into which they were born. And the door out is English. There are more English speaking people in Asia than there are in the United States. Mind you, I didn't say there are more native speakers in Asia. But more members of the English speaking world. And Pavel is determined to be one of them. Hats off to him. As we were ending our conversation, he said, "Do you in God we trust?" Yes. Amen.
When it comes right down to it, there's nothing particularly sensational about this town. The Matryoshka dolls. The lake. Not much else to see. But there's something about this town that most Chinese people wouldn't notice, but which definitely gets my attention. I like Beijing, but as I have said numerous times, the summers in Beijing are really miserable. This town has a very mild summer climate. It's really nice. Warm, balmy days and cool evenings. But there's something else. This town sits right on the border. It's a small town, and not important. But it just happens to be located near a fairly significant port of entry for this end of the Sino-Russian border. So many Russians from neighboring towns just north of here come to Manzhouli to buy cheap Chinese goods. Because of that, the businesses and restaurants all cater to Russians. It would not be accurate to say that there are Russian restaurants here. They are not Russian. They are Chinese restaurants. But they all serve Russian food. Authentic? Well, I suppose if you compare them to a fancy Russian restaurant in Harbin, they may not win any prizes. The Russian restaurant I really like in Harbin serves very authentic Russian food. But it's expensive. Not ghastly, but not cheap, either, and the protions are small. And it's usually crowded. Here, you can walk into any average sized restaurant and find at least a few Russian dishes that are pretty good, and not expensive at all. A hamburger steak and eggs is 18 kuai (about 3 dollars). And the Russian vegeteble salads are delicious. Not just a pile of lettuce. In the afternoon or evening, cream on bread and coffee. This is the only town I have been to in China where you can walk into an average restaurant and get a cup of coffee. Not sensational, but it's not bad, either. So if nothing else, it's a nice place to hang out for a couple weeks and get some work done.
I hadn't really planned to go anywhere today, but some folks at the youth hostel had hired a taxi to go out to Hulun Lake. The taxi seated seven people and cost 400 RMB. There were six of them, and they were looking for a seventh, so I relented. I hate tours like that, but in the end, I guess it's a good thing I went along with it, because it's just not a tour you can do individually. We stopped at the park that has a whole bunch of Matryoshka dolls, the largest of which is a restaurant. Then we went to the port of entry. Except it's not the actual port of entry. It's the old one, and there is a museum there of some kind. But they don't allow foreigners. I had mixed feelings about that, because it was obviously a racist policy. Several people told me they did not have their ID with them, but they were allowed in because they "looked Chinese." I would have a tough time "looking Chinese," although I could pass myself off as a Uygur or something I guess. But it was 60 kuai for something that was obviously fake. So I stayed behind, hired a cab and went to the real port of entry. The taxi driver who took me out there was driving a regular taxi. It had all the markings, including the price per kilometer. But no meter. I didn't notice that until she dropped me off, because it looked completely normal from the outside (and inside, for that matter). When I got out she quoted me a price of 40 RMB. I was aghast. I said, "What about your meter?" She said, "I don't have one." I took out 10 kuai and gave it to her. Boy, was she angry! She slapped the seat and said, "No!" But she could see I was going to leave. She said, "Ten out there and ten back." I relented. I would have paid 15 kuai without complaining, and she had waited for me at the port of entry while I took pictures (which almost got me arrested). So I gave her the 20 kuai.
When the other members of my tour came back, I told the driver what had happened. He defended her. Sort of. He said that 20 RMB was a fair price, which means that he would have agreed with me that 40 was too high. But I don't see how you can defend someone who drives a regular taxi with all the markings, and tries charges inflated prices. I could understand his position, though. His car didn't have a meter either. He was charging by the trip. And his price wasn't cheap. But at least he told us before we departed what the price was going to be, and he allowed us to pack seven people in his minivan to get the price down. I don't like black taxi drivers. Especially black taxi drivers who pretend to be legitimate.
Becky, an art teacher from Shanghai who was is traveling in Hulunbuir for the summer, sent me these pictures (thanks, Becky). These pictures show the grassland area near Hulunhu ("hu" means lake). To be honest, there's nothing that sensational about Hulun Lake. It's very large, so that's why people think it must be something to see. The grassland is pretty, but I lived in North Dakota for many years, so it doesn't seem that out of the ordinary to me. But to an average Chinese person who has grown up in a gray Chinese city, it's sensational. And one must say, it really is pretty.
Don't know what I am doing in Manzhouli or why I am here. I just have a sense that I'm supposed to be here. We'll see. I left the village yesterday morning on the village bus to Erguna, hoping to change busses there to come here. I was told I should take the early bus from the village to make sure I would be able to get a ticket for the next bus, but I didn't want to leave that early, because the second bus gets to Erguna in plenty of time. At it was, they were right. But the time I got to Erguna, the tickets for the bus to Manzhouli were sold out even though it did not leave for another hour. But fortunately a man and his wife had made the acquaintance of one of the drivers, and arranged to get tickets this morning, so they offered to get one for me, too.
Last night some folks I had met up in the north of Hulunbuir wanted me to go with them to see the new church. I had actually planned on going there Sunday, so I was glad to go with them. The place was locked up, so today I took a bus out there again. You won't believe what I foound out. It's fake. Completely fake. Amazing. This had got to be the biggest fake church in the world. When I was in the sanctuary, I was talking to some other tourists. I said, "In China, there is fake milk, fake medicine, and now, a fake church!" I was speaking English when I said that, but one of them answered me in English. "Welcome to China."
When I ask who built it, everyone says it was put here by the government. It's almost new. 2009, I think. Why would the Communist Party want to build a huge brick church complete with an elaborate sanctuary and a big red cross? The cost for entry is 20 RMB. I wouldn't think that would be enough to pay for the huge cost of putting this elaborate structure here. The only thing I can think of is that they put it here to impress the Russians. But I'm not sure the Russians would be that impressed with a fake church. The ladies who work here insist that it's not a fake church. They say it's not a church at all. But that doesn't work. That big red cross has only one meaning. And if they took it down, you can be sure that no one would pay to have their wedding pictures taken here. The China.org website says it was put here for the purpose of "showcasing wedding traditions." Read that, "charging people money to have their wedding pictures taken." But from the looks of the thing, it may take them a few years to break even.