Harbin – Our first taste of China.
Right so first things first, I feel I should give you some more info on the hotel we stayed in for Beijing. It was swanky. And by that I mean dead posh. To me anyway, who, in England, usually stayed in the cheapest youth hostels money can find or Travelodges. It had fountains, ponds, a lift that didn’t smell like urine and to my surprise, Western toilets! I guess my first experience with squat toilets wasn’t to come on the first day (thank god). I was placed with my (female) friend because the company had assumed (like most people in China it seems, but more on that later) we were a couple. I’m pretty sure we did put down ‘friends’ when we filled out the placement questionnaire but ah well, it was easily dealt with… until we got to the Harbin hotel…
Now the Harbin hotel. Well, it didn’t have a door on the bathroom. Which made things a little awkward. Especially because not only did it not have a door, it also had a mirror strategically placed so if you were sat on the beds you could see into the bathroom. And to top this off, it had a window in the bathroom wall so you could literally watch the other person shower. We had the ‘close your eyes and put headphones in’ system until we could ask the i-to-i guys to do something about it. Which they did; a curtain in place of the door, which made things so much easier than it was before, we didn’t need to leave the room now whenever the other person wanted a shower! The thing you should know about bathrooms in China are that they are usually very compact. The shower is over the toilet, the toilet right next to the sink, etc. Oh and you can’t flush toilet paper down the toilets. They put bins that you’re meant to put your used toilet paper in… and they say they use squat toilets because it’s more hygienic… with a bin full of crap covered tissues next to them. China doesn’t always make sense.
We found out pretty quickly that this wasn’t a normal hotel but a ‘love hotel’. A place where couples go to ‘have it’ when they can’t have it at home. Glorious. But it created a good laugh when as a group we realised it and it wasn’t the fault of i-to-i, the universities had booked the only hotels they could find that had the space for all of us. And there were quite a lot of us, 50 in i-to-i and about 100 with ITI, another company. The area around the hotel was pretty run down with a lot of building work being down but to be honest, that was what made it so interesting and almost everywhere in China is the same. Our first night, after the eight hours train from Beijing, was just spent opposite the hotel, outside a convenience store, drinking the much weaker than British, Chinese beer. Pretty soon we attracted the attention of a few locals who decided to crash the party; with three crates of beer for us to share between about fifteen of us. Now we certainly weren’t complaining! They also gave us some weird ice-cream things that were pretty grim but the beer made up for that. One thing about the Chinese is that the majority of them are incredibly generous – especially to us ‘Laowei’. Things were going great until they told us to ‘Ganbei!’. If you don’t know what ganbei is… you should probably try and keep it that way. We were told it meant down it or bottoms up. These Chinese guys decided to challenge us to a ganbei challenge – who could down their beer the fastest? Now this was a hard met challenge; these particular Chinese were experts at drinking – most Chinese definitely aren’t! However a few of us rose to this challenge and I’m proud (but not that proud) to say, I was the only one of us westerners who managed to beat the Chinese at their own game by downing my beer before them – a mistake I felt afterwards.
Around our area there were also a lot of KTV’s (karaoke which is massively popular in China). We quickly found out that these so called KTV’s were actually… Brothels. Yeah, we certainly weren’t in the nicest area but the locals were all really friendly and it was a brilliant first night in Harbin. And apparently, although prostitution is illegal in China, it is incredibly widespread. My China guide book says ‘be wary of KTV’s, hairdressers and massage parlours, especially ones with rotating lights’. One thing you quickly realise is that you make friends, and brilliant ones at that. I guess it’s because we’ve all been thrown into the same unknown position. Most people have gone through university already who do this internship and they told me that it felt like this period was like a Chinese freshers week. But regardless of why, I made friends that night that I hope I continue to see and talk to well after this internship is finished. I actually slept in one of my new friend’s room because A) my roommate had already gone up to the room and hadn’t left the key and B) because downing those beers have finished me off so much that I couldn’t really walk that well! Anyway, we were so busy in the first two weeks so I’m actually writing these blog posts up about two weeks later whilst swatting mosquitos and moths that have somehow flown through my closed window and eating some weird tasting jellybeans. So after introducing good ol’ Harbin, I’m going to try to remember the many things that happened in it and put them in my next blog post – they include chicken hearts, an accidental brush with a Chinese gay bar and the pretty epic Siberian Tiger Park. Oh, and lots and lots of drinking.
And Harbin continues.
Now the things that happened in Harbin… A lot of things happened in Harbin. But being the guy that I am, one with very bad recall memory, I can’t remember everything. So I’ll just talk about the things that stick in my head now. I’ve already covered the first night which is strangely the time I remember most, probably because it was full of meeting new people and was my first experience of China (not counting the days before which were just travelling and sleeping).
Our week consisted of several days of training, lots of group activities with i-to-i organising them and free time. We first visited the university where we had a long day of introductions and talking – which was like a school assembly if I’m honest. Here I would just like to mention; do not eat the canteen food. Well, let me rephrase that. If you want to then by all means go ahead, you should try it at least – it may be different at the university you’re at. But for us, the canteen was horrific. We were taking into a basement-like canteen and served food on metal trays with the same attitude as my old school dinner ladies, fed up of their job. The food was disgusting. Most of us couldn’t eat it and by the end of the meal there were two bins full of discarded food. I felt bad for wasting the food that had been supplied for me but it was inedible for me. We’d been told by so many people that one of the best things about China is the food but from that experience I wasn’t convinced! Luckily on the university campus they were a few restaurants which my friends and I visited frequently – compared to the canteen food, it was bliss! After the university we were taken out to a restaurant where we had our first experience of the Chinese spin table – a pretty nifty invention. The Chinese way of eating is usually order lots of different dishes and share them between everyone. The food we were given was very strange but a lot of it was good and you could easily avoid the things you didn’t like.
Now after this, instead of going back to the hotel with the coach, six of us decided to explore. And explore we did! We hopped on the first bus we saw and tried to ask if it went to the town centre of Harbin in Chinese. Unsuccessfully I might add. Even though we were saying the words right we hadn’t got the tones right – which are incredibly important when speaking Mandarin. To reiterate how important the tones are, when we were saying Harbin, none of the Chinese on the bus could understand us but when we changed how we said it they did. The bus was really crowded, none of us knew where we going to end up at but it was really fun! Everyone on the bus was friendly and obviously highly entertained by the rare westerners struggling to speak Chinese. We asked if anyone could speak a little English (a good idea to ask if you are lost or something because a few Chinese do. Not many though) and luckily a girl who could speak English told us to follow another woman who then showed us the way to a massive shopping mall.
After exploring this shopping we decided to try and find a place to eat and drink. And eat and drink we did! We found a small barbeque place, sat outside and pointed to some random pictures to order. What was brought out to us was chicken heart and chicken neck on sticks… And although that might cringe people out, it’s the norm here and it tasted pretty good, if very spicy. If you aren’t one for spice, and I learnt this too late, the Chinese words for no spice are ‘Bù là’. I’d just like to mention that chicken heart is most certainly not the worst I’ve eaten here. It was a great day and through this format of exploring, every other day in Harbin was great as well. Seriously, when you get the chance; explore. You’re on an adventure; make the most of the area you’re in! Get a group of you and just hop on a bus and see where it takes you, at the very least you’ll get to see the city. With a group it’s great fun but with only a few of you, it’s harder for it to be fun because it’s more daunting and stressful. The following days were similar to this, exploring, university lessons, eating, drinking and just generally having fun! Wherever you are, there will be things to do or see and everything in China is so incredibly different to the UK (or anywhere else in the world), it’s such a great experience.
The i-to-i university lessons were really good as well, it was really relaxed and friendly, you could go to the lessons you thought would benefit you. Mandarin lessons were good, although Mandarin is a difficult language and I have major troubles trying to remember phrases and words. I’ve also found that if I manage to say one word in Chinese correctly, all the Chinese people around me automatically assume I speak Chinese and start gushing out words like the world was going to end. ‘Tīng bù dǒng’ I say, meaning I don’t understand, my standard response for anything. We also had teaching classes where we planned lessons which I found really helpful and enjoyed a lot as well. Anyway, this blog post is getting long so I’ll leave it and talk about individual things we did in Harbin in the next one. Slowly but surely, I’m catching myself up to where I am now. Key lesson of this blog post, kids? Go explore. Don’t be afraid; just be aware that you’re in a different country and see what it has to offer!