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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Russian Jewish Villas 

Met a guy at the shower house this morning who told me he was going to Russia. He even showed me his brand new Chinese passport with the Russian visa in it. I asked him how much a plane ticket from Beijing to Moscow would cost. He said he paid 4000 kuai. Not too bad actually. I have always thought that if I ever went to Moscow, I would want to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad. But when I tell people that, they say it would be too boring. They could be right. Five days is a long time to spend on a train. Anyway, I have no current plans to go to Russia. Maybe sometime.

There are several villas built by the Harbin Jews during their time here. Many of them have other uses now, and cannot be entered. But there is one large one by the Sinoway Hotel that is in very good condition, and relatively unchanged. I imagine it might have had the same fate as all the others, but by some strange accident of history, Chairman Mao happens to have spent the night there. Or something. Anyway, it is well preserved and has a full time staff. Nothing in there about the Russian Jews--just a bunch of large characters posters about Mao. But the interior is original. The intricately carved front room ceiling is really something to see. But it would be tough to get a good picture of the inside without a tripod, because a flash tends to illuminate the face of the one you are photographing, but leave the background dark. But if you have no one in front of you and the background is what you are trying to capture, then the flash on a camera like mine is just not adequate. Better, then, to turn off the flash and let the natural light do the job. It's great how modern computerized cameras are able to do that. The problem, of course, is that the computer leaves the shutter open until there is just enough light. But that's much longer than any human being can hold a camera perfectly still. So pictures taken inside with a modern digital camera tend to have proper lighting, but they also tend to be rather fuzzy.

They wouldn't let me upstairs. I guess the upper level was being used for something else. Couldn't really complain, because the ticket was free. I was tempted to tell them I was just dying to see the room Mao slept in, but I didn't think I could do it with a straight face.

I guess I sound cynical. Hard not to be the way that particular museum is set up. But actually, in terms of identifying old buildings, the city of Harbin does a pretty good job. As you walk around the city, if you see an old building, you will invariably see a bilingual sign describing the structure, and what it was originally used for.

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