Imagethief and the spectral tiger: A Dongbei travelogue

It was the same conversation I’ve had a hundred times in China. “Where do you come from? How did you learn to speak Chinese? Do you like China?” But it was the first time I’d had it buck naked in front of five inquisitive and slightly fey Chinese guys and, for good measure, my father. How did I end up in this situation? I get ahead of myself.

***

“Why on earth would you want to go to Harbin?” asked my colleague Christina. A Dongbeiren herself, and something of an office dragon-lady-in-training, she had me transfixed in the contemptuous, patrician gaze she reserves for people who have uttered something truly moronic in her presence. “There is nothing there. Nothing. Why don’t you take your father to Shanghai, or Qingdao?”

I had no real answer for this, except that an American friend of mine, an old China hand of some years, had recommended Harbin as a fairly chilled-out town (in the idiomatic sense). Furthermore, my father, on his third visit to Beijing and having spent a week wading through Ministry of Health bureaucracy while consulting for an American NGO, was anxious to get out of the capital for a few days.

Of course, it’s a drastic mistake to ask someone for tourism advice on his or her hometown. Whenever people ask me what they should do when they visit San Francisco I am instantaneously struck dumb. “I dunno”, I’ll mumble. “Get a burrito?” Fortunately another colleague, one of the few other foreigners in our office, dispelled my doubts. “Chinese people have different expectations of tourism,” he said.

This is true. My Chinese colleagues, many of whom are from provincial towns, sacrificed their childhoods to get into elite schools, learn English, earn places at top-flight universities and come to Beijing to work in an international consultancy. Spring festival aside, when family obligations trump all else, the last way they want to spend their vacations is by humping around some provincial burg that represents everything they escaped from. They prefer to go to Shanghai, Hong Kong or Singapore for their fun. I can understand this. I grew up in San Francisco, so how much need is there for me to go to Fremont for my vacation? (The different tourism expectations of Chinese people would become something of a theme on this trip, as you will see.)

I am a transplant to China who is trapped in Beijing most of the time. Singapore is my second home. I go to Shanghai on business all the time and I’ve been to Hong Kong. The dongbei, on the other hand, is the wild frontier to me. So off I went, wife and father in tow.

***

Whenever I fly into a Chinese city I proudly ignore the inevitable car touts and head for the taxi queue. This turned out to be a mistake in Harbin, where the taxi fare per kilometer increases drastically over distance. With a 20 kuai airport road toll and the airport apparently near the Russian border, we ended up forking over 150 kuai to get downtown. For a Chinese taxi fare, that is something like Avogadro’s number. You can deal with it mathematically, but you can’t really grasp the meaning. The opening tout bid had been 120 kuai, negotiable. Bear that in mind next time you fly to Harbin. Or take the train, which puts you in the middle of town.

We were dropped at the Modern Hotel, which is named half-correctly. It’s a hotel. There began our lesson in one the great Harbin truisms: Harbin’s average level of customer-service makes Beijing seem positively obsequious. It wasn’t 1990’s-style refusal to help white people, but more a general indifference that suggests, Ice Lantern Festival aside, the town hasn’t quite come to grips with the concept of tourism. Various people failed to help us book train tickets, make a hotel booking in Qiqihaer, find a bathroom, re-enter a bathroom-less tourist-attraction after leaving to look for a bathroom (related incidents), find some variety of dumpling not sold-out for the night, or avoid a deep-fried bizarre-dessert in favor of the green vegetables we actually wanted (different restaurants). These weren’t language issues, with two of us speaking at least some Mandarin. But if ten years in Asia has taught me nothing else, it’s taught me patience with mediocre service, so this didn’t destroy my enjoyment of Harbin.

Downtown Harbin is exactly what you’d expect of your medium-sized, provincial Chinese city of ten million. It has one boutique-lined tourist drag, Zhongyang Road, and the rest is interchangeable, gray Chinese city. Two things stood out. First, Harbin is a town designed for surviving winter on Pluto. Where Beijing has double-paned windows, Harbin has double double-paned windows with twenty-centimeter gaps in between and hefty double-doors. It is also peppered with European-style building from its days as a Russian entrepot, adding a splash of architectural color to the standard metropolitan Chinese fare of squared-off apartment blocks and dingy shopping malls.

Many of the Russian buildings line touristy Zhongyang Road, but you could see all you needed to see of that strip in twenty minutes. A Meters/Bonwe or KFC in Harbin looks just like one in Beijing. If you’re spending a day or two in Harbin, my advice is to ignore Zhongyang Road completely unless you are looking for a piroshki at the Café Russia 1914, or some other kind of meal. If you’re a veteran of Chinese cities (and who else would go to Harbin?), you’ll find it much more interesting to stroll around the old neighborhood just west of Zongyang Road. Many of the Russian buildings here are just decrepit shells, and gritty Harbin life proceeds unmolested by the Chinese tour groups that ramble up and down Zhongyang Road. Fascinating, grubby little storefronts line the road, and commercial life spills out onto the streets in the form of market and vegetable carts at the intersections.

This area has many large and unlovely local apartment blocks well worth exploring. Unlike the slabs and towers of Beijing, Harbin’s blocks are designed around courtyards, and each courtyard tells the story of the prosperity of its block. Some were gleaming and tidy, with exercise machines for the aunties and uncles and nicely groomed gardens. Many were shabby, decrepit and lined with the detritus of urban Chinese life. Real personality shows through the back of a house, not the front, and I am fan of this kind of urban voyeurism. I peeked into many of the courtyards as we walked, looking for the slice-of-life dramas that tell the real story of a city: families doting on children, old people praying in solitude, middle aged men with shirts hiked to their nipples gathered around chess games on overturned oil drums, tiny shops and midden-heaps. It is far more interesting than anything you’ll find on the shopping strips.

We did devote a little time to tourist sites, including St. Sophia’s, a century-old Russian Orthodox church, which could be lovely if the interior paintwork was tidied up. Plus it wouldn’t kill the city fathers to add some English to the captions on the otherwise interesting display of historic Harbin photographs inside.

I had broken one of my own travel rules the night before and eaten a very spicy meal prior to traveling. The north end of my gastrointestinal tract loves spicy food, but the south end is somewhat less resilient. My enjoyment of the fading architectural grandeur of St. Sophia’s was diluted by the sudden liquefaction of my colon and resulting immediate need to find a bathroom. 25 kuai to get into St. Sophia’s church does not get you into St. Sophia’s toilet, it turns out. Furthermore, the spotty youth guarding the door told me that I wouldn’t be allowed back in if I left. That left me with two options: a possibly sacrilegious and definitely illegal unloading in the church rotunda, or cutting short my visit and going in search of a Harbin public toilet.

Decorum won, but Harbin service gap loomed again. “You can’t shit here,” growled the lao taitai minding the public squats when I asked to buy a packet of tissue. Jeez, it’s a toilet. If not here, where? At that moment I realized how much Beijing’s abundance of fully functional public toilets has spoiled me. I promptly broke the record for a foot-transit from St. Sophia’s to the Modern Hotel, and my room’s semi-modern toilet.

Refreshed, we strolled down to the bank of Harbin’s kilometer-wide Songhua (pine blossom) River to see the unfortunately named Stalin Park. The park, a long, riverfront promenade, is home to the famous flood control monument commemorating the heroic efforts of the men who held the banks of the Songhua against the raging waters of 1958.

It was a hot, July Saturday and approximately the entire population of the city was piling into the river. Thousands of people were splayed along the concrete steps that line the downtown side of the river, treating the strip like a beach. Whole families had stripped off to their underwear and were splashing in the unwholesome but cool river water. Children careened around with water guns and cotton-candy, a volatile and sticky combination. Balloon and pinwheel vendors worked their hypnotic charms on toddlers, and aunties sold two-kuai tickets for the boats that ply the river between the promenade and the far-bank’s Taiyang Park. Smoke from roasting chuan drifted through the trees. It was a tremendously congenial example of the Chinese ability to turn any public park into a block-party.

Judging from the enormous crowd, the flood control monument was a renowned local attraction. While bronze flood controllers gazed forth resolutely from the plinth with socialist fervor, hundreds of people watched a fountain squirt and pulse in time with tinny, martial music blaring from loudspeakers mounted on a surrounding ring of Romanesque columns. Perhaps during Harbin’s legendary winter it becomes the glacier-control monument.

As we watched the plaza near the flood control monument, we noticed a slow infiltration of lao taitais and lao gonggongs in matching, white T-shirts. It looked like a geriatric street-gang was casing the area. In my head I could hear the Jets theme from West Site Story. This was appropriate, because suddenly they reached critical mass, a squawky drum/cymbal/pipe trio burst into life, and we were treated to Saturday Night Fever Harbin-style with a display of Chinese fan-dancing. An ornately-coiffed queen-bee in a black, sequined pantsuit, and her consort, resplendent in green, dominated the event with conspicuously smoother moves than their arthritic colleagues. All this took place before a surreal, bronze statue of a Sino-Greco-Roman Adonis in conspicuously modest, bronze shorts slaying a Chinese dragon. Another monument to either flood control or sensible underwear. In Harbin, both are important.

***

When in Harbin, it is mandatory to visit the Dongbei Siberian Tiger Forest, a kind of tiger theme-park where you can ride a bus through tiger-infested enclosures and gaze in wonder at the majestic beasts. To get to the Siberian Tiger Forest we took one of the two-kuai boats across the river to Taiyang Park, from which it is a fifteen-minute taxi ride to the tigers. The boats are steel rustbuckets that tie up at the riverbanks in droves and shove-off when full. Most of them look as though they’ve sunk and been salvaged repeatedly. They are clearly designed to bang off of each other when mooring and casting off. I am sure if the Songhua River ever dries up, the bottom will prove to be littered with the corpses of these boats. (The entire scene at the jetties would be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever been to Singapore’s Changi Point to catch a bumboat to Pulau Ubin.)

Taiyang Park is a kind of sterile, Russia-land amusement park that seems to cater either to Chinese who want a taste of “motherland-lite” or to homesick Russians tourists who have no better alternative. There is a lot of Russian on the signs. The most authentically Russian thing we witnessed was provided by a Chinese woman who was drunk beyond all sensibility and sprawled on the grass in full, keening sob with her skirts indelicately hiked up to her waist and a husband or boyfriend frozen in embarrassed inaction beside her.

The official propaganda for the Tiger Forest claims that it is breeding tigers and training them for reintroduction to the wild. This is utter balls. It is breeding tigers and training them to entertain tourists. At the Tiger Forest you can arrange in advance for various live animals to be hurled to the tigers for your entertainment. The price list begins with chickens (40 yuan) and escalates through ducks, goats and live cattle (a bit rich at1600 yuan). We were too cheap to arrange any livestock-hurling of our own, so we counted on the other tourists on our bus to do the right thing by subsidizing our entertainment.

But before we were treated to the action we had to wait for our tiger-bus to be ready. The waiting room was also a museum and, naturally, a gift shop where you could purchase any of a staggering assortment of tiger paintings, stuffed tigers, tiger tchatchkes and ice cream bars. But the centerpiece of the souvenir-emporium cum educational display was an enormous, tiger skeleton pickling in a glass vat of formaldehyde. Ragged bits of flesh still clung to the spectral tiger remains, which gazed through a brown haze of preservative. It was surreal in a way that only threadbare, Asian tourist attractions can be. If you’ve ever been to the Zoo in Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’m still not sure if it was simply a poorly preserved biological specimen, or a tremendous example of slyly provocative modern art.

It was time to safari. We bundled in with eight or ten Chinese tourists and I had visions of Jurassic Park as our bus made its way through large, electric double gates into the enclosure. Fortunately gambling on the blood-lust of our fellow tourists paid off.

The safari park where you pay to see live animals fed to other live animals seems to be a peculiarity of Chinese tourism. The show is definitely not for PETA members or sensitive bunny-hugging types. The whole time we were driving through the tiger enclosures we were shadowed by an armored Land Rover filled with plastic containers of live chickens and ducks. Whenever someone was ready to stump up for a feeding, he would fork over the bills to the driver, who would radio the Land Rover and specify which animal was to be hurled to its doom. (I’m not sure what they did if you ordered a cow. You might want to phone ahead if you want that.)

We were treated to two spectacles. The first was scarcely ten meters into the enclosure, when we stopped in the midst of four or five lazy looking beasts. The Land Rover drove up beside us, and the tigers reacted exactly the way my cats do any time I move towards the kitchen. The driver fished a live chicken out of one of the plastic bins in the back and unceremoniously tossed it up through the window on top of the car. The chicken barely had time to register its predicament before the largest of the beasts was on top of the Land Rover with a mouthful of live bird. You can see why chickens are cheap. They don’t last long.

We got another burst of excitement when one of the other tourists decided to front up another 100 kuai for a duck (an outrageous price for a live duck in Harbin considering 50 kuai will get you a whole roast duck in Beijing). We pulled up by an artificial pond surrounded by several somnolent tigers and the Land Rover stopped on the opposite side. The driver stepped out, duck in hand, and lofted the unfortunate bird down into the water. The tigers were completely indifferent. Only after the bus driver leaned on the horn and threatened to run over several of the slovenly cats did they rouse themselves into grumpy hunting action. Now we got suspense. Unlike the chicken, the flightless domestic duck had plenty of time to see what was coming. It went around the pond in increasingly frantic circles looking for a tiger-free stretch of bank as the stripey noose slowly closed around it. Finally one tiger took to the water, only to be robbed of its prize as it pinned the duck against the bank where another, more strategically positioned tiger jumped it. I wavered between guilt and fascination the entire time. It was actually a pretty good show.

And that was pretty much the end of the excitement at the tiger park. No one felt like stumping up 600 for a goat, to my disappointment. We did stroll through a series of elevated catwalks (no pun intended) with our fellow tourist, from which we could watch tigers frolicking. The most interesting thing was watching a few tigers roughhousing in their small, concrete swimming pool. The pool was absolutely infested with frogs. Damn, I remember thinking, what a shitty place to be a frog.

***

The next morning we set out for Qiqihaer to visit the Zhalong nature reserve, home of the giant, migratory red spot cranes. The two-hour train ride offered a splendid view of the desolate, industrial plain of Daqing. It was covered with decrepit oil wells dipping moodily for the remains of China’s vanishing oil, enormous coal-fired power plants, and the swamp itself, which we traversed for over an hour. Apparently the Zhalong swamp is the second largest wetland in the world, after Russia’s legendary Pripet Marshes. Much of the train ride was occupied by a lengthy debate among our fellow, Chinese passengers about how we should get from town to the nature reserve. The consensus was that we should catch an indeterminate bus from behind an indeterminate supermarket near the station.

Qiqihaer’s old train station is a true masterpiece. It’s a gorgeous, brick, Art Deco building dominated by a clock tower and two enormous sets of red, Chinese characters mounted on the roof: “Long live the communist party” on one side, and “Long live Mao Zedong thought” on the other. The new train station, next door, is ghastly, 1970s neo-Stalinist monstrosity with far less personality. Having looked up the CITS travel office, we took a taxi ride across Qiqihaer to the nearly glorious Hubin Hotel, next to Qiqihaer’s Longsha Park. Qiqihaer is an ammunition-manufacturing center for the PLA. It is broad and flat, and has little scenery to recommend it. It is, however, littered with Army surplus stores all featuring marquees with pictures of sexy women in military garb. If you like this sort of thing, by all means, visit.

After lunch at the hotel, the man who ran the travel office was thrilled to help us book transportation out to the Zhalong Nature Reserve and a night’s lodging at the Zhalong Guesthouse, thus sparing us from the alleged bus and uncertainty over where we would spend the night. He warned us that the guesthouse would be rough accommodation.

A one-hour taxi ride took us to nature reserve, which occupies a spit of land that projects into the swamp. To call the Zhalong Nature Reserve surreal is to stretch the definition of the word “surreal” to its outermost limits. A series of decrepit, squared-off office buildings surrounded a car park dominated by a space-age, Soviet era, stainless-steel statue of cranes in flight. The guesthouse itself was a charmless cinderblock construction featuring exactly no other guests, which really should have served as a warning. We were given two rooms featuring no fans, no air conditioning and windows that could not open.

Or rather, in each room one window could open and one window could not. But the window that could not open was the only one with a screen. More on this later.

Ten minutes walk away from the guesthouse and office complex was the “nature reserve” proper, which consisted of rows and rows of cages featuring captive red-spot cranes. While we wandered around gazing at the miserable looking caged birds we were treated to the brief spectacle of the one and only flight of wild cranes we would see while we were there. They didn’t linger.

The keepers explained the system to us. Every day at 10 AM, the captive cranes are released. They fly one or two laps around the nature reserve, and then return and wander around freely for a while so people can photograph them. While we were there, a chubby Chinese tourist was having a loud and abusive argument with the keepers because they (remarkably) would not accept his bribe to have a private flying for him then and there. He and his two friends were the only other visible tourists.

With no crane-flying to watch until the next morning, we walked further along a little raised path leading into the swamp, toward a distant hut inhabited, one must presume, by some kind of swamp man. (There was smoke from the chimney.) Swamp-man’s special powers immediately became obvious. He is invulnerable to mosquitoes. This is clear because by the time we were fifty yards down the path, my father and I were covered with mosquitoes.  This is not an exaggeration. Despite a dusting of repellent, every inch of exposed skin, and every inch of clothing had mosquitoes on it. And it wasn’t even dusk. My wife, who is gifted with something called “intelligence” (I’ve read about this; it sounds useful), had seen this coming and turned back. My father and I literally sprinted back toward the cages, swatting madly. Both of us were speckled with little splotches of blood where we had smacked feeding mosquitoes.

So an exploration of the swamp was out. We decided on an afternoon stroll to the local village instead. That also required a two-kilometer walk through the swamp, but along a much wider, elevated dirt road. Nevertheless, on the way out of the nature reserve grounds several people asked us the same ominous question: “Aren’t you afraid of the mosquitoes?”

On the way out of the nature reserve grounds we saw one lone, un-caged crane standing amidst the tall grass behind the security office. A real wild crane sighting! We were elated! “No,” said the cheery evening security guard, an aging, former fisherman who earned 300RMB a month manning the guard post at night, “He’s not wild. He can’t fly. So I take care of him.” Yes, we had spotted a pet crane. David Attenborough would be proud.

The walk out toward the village was surprisingly beautiful. The sun was getting low and orange, and the light was turning warm. Away from the trees and nature reserve buildings you could appreciate what a genuinely enormous, flat, uninterrupted space the swamp was. It stretched off toward the horizon in three of four directions, an endless sea of soggy sawgrass interrupted only by the very occasional structure or stand of trees.

A bus happened by and took us the rest of the way to the surprisingly tidy and prosperous looking village. Many of the residents must either fish or work at the nature reserve or some of the nearby hotels and restaurants that serve it. People were surprised to see us, and many, suspecting that we had taken leave of our senses, asked us the now common question about whether we had the good sense to be afraid of the mosquitoes. One mother wrestled her children into a row so I could take a group photo. Another pair of mothers was charmed when I showed them the digital photo I had taken of one of their young sons on a tricycle. “Can you take it out of the camera?” one asked. I had to admit that, at that moment, I couldn’t. But I made a mental note that a small battery-powered printer or Polaroid camera might be a nice icebreaker in some of China’s remoter locations.

The sun was getting seriously low and those questions about the mosquitoes were weighing on our mind. It was going to be a long and itchy walk back through the swamp. Fortunately, a family of peasants offered us rides back to the nature reserve in a xiao beng beng, rural China’s ubiquitous, two-stroke, three-wheeled utility vehicle. We all clambered into the back and had the least comfortable motor-vehicle ride of our lives. Xiao beng bengs (I think they are named for the noise the engine makes) have no suspension. I crouched painfully in the rear with my knees bent to absorb the otherwise spine-shattering jolts. The family was hauling a load of live fish to market and every bump splattered me in icy fish water. Worse, we were moving only incrementally faster than the mosquitoes, and I still picked up a fair few bites on the way.

Back at the nature reserve we stopped for a chat with guard and his defective pet crane. He was a friendly soul, and shared his last three cigarettes with us. In my travels in Asia poor people have often offered me cigarettes in lieu of any other available gesture of hospitality. I seldom smoke, but in those situations I usually accept, as an icebreaker and show of collegiality. Plus, it kept the mosquitoes away. I couldn’t help but think about 300 RMB a month, though, and what share of his monthly income a pack of cigarettes must have represented. After dinner at the nature reserve’s small but cheerful restaurant (the only cheerful thing at the reserve), I bought a pack of Chunghwas for the usurious price of 60 RMB and took them back to the guard. Of all the presents I have ever given in my life, this one the elicited the most spontaneous and genuine expression of joy that I have ever received. And people say that cigarettes are bad.

That night I was in danger of sweating to death. My wife and I were in a threadbare room with three beds. Although it was a dry night, a slow leak somewhere in roof above was dripping down onto the middle bed. It obviously hadn’t been used in a while, since the bedding and mattress were thoroughly discolored by the leak. We desperately wanted to open the window and get some air, but we were dissuaded by the constant drumbeat of insects against the closed windows. The sheer volume of insect life trying to break into our room sounded like rain against the glass. A fair number of insects were already in the room, and my attempts to read were constantly interrupted by small, wriggly flying things bouncing off the reading light and landing in my hair, on my sheets and on my book. Having spotted a few sinister looking millipedes on the wall, I had already shifted my bed away from all surfaces. I would have levitated it if I could.

The handle had broken off the one window with a screen. Finally, in danger of heatstroke, we asked the help (and I use word loosely) if there was any way to open the screened window. They produced the snapped-off end of the handle. After some fiddling and swearing I actually managed to get the window open, admitting a welcome breeze but also making the rain of insects sound ominously closer. The window in my father’s room was beyond saving and he had to roast. Finally, unable to read any longer for the constant stream of bugglies landing on my head, I turned off the light.

The next morning, in anticipation of the flying of the captive cranes, we were out at the cages at 9:00 AM. At 9:30 AM we were joined by busload after busload of Chinese tourists. At 10:00 AM the doors of the cages were opened and the cranes burst forth in a mighty flock. Captive or not, they are awesome to watch in flight. With their two-meter wingspans and the primordial swamp as backdrop it was like watching an orbiting flock of albino pterodactyls.

After two slow laps, the cranes landed in front of the cages and began pecking for frogs at the grass at the edge of the path. And the tourists waded in. These are some of the most tolerant birds I have ever seen. People scrambled among them, arranged themselves for family photos in front of them, herded them into position for pictures, and were generally louder and squawkier than the birds were. With one or two alarming, flappy exceptions, the cranes were completely indifferent.

An hour later, the birds were herded into their cages, the Chinese tourists left, and we were alone with mosquitoes again.

And here, then, is the great difference between Chinese tourists and western ones. We are obsessed with “getting back to nature” and seeing things that are unspoiled, or at least appear unspoiled (there is often a difference). We want the “authentic” and the “un-touristy”. We want to wander the local village, taste native life, and observe great creatures roaming their natural habitats. We want to scowl dangerously at other westerners who dilute our sense of cultural isolation.

The Chinese want a predictable spectacle, and then they want lunch.

I offer no criticism. Given that I am all for keeping animals in humane circumstances, the Chinese know what they want, and they go for it. We should get over our hypocrisies about it. We western tourists are as picky and spoiled, in our own way. We are as demanding of spectacle, but we camouflage it better behind our obsession with luxury eco-tourism and our treating of impoverished locations as adrenaline thrill rides. As an amateur photographer, I intrude as a matter of course. I just intrude on people instead of animals.

Having had our fill of Zhalong, we took a bus back Qiqihaer and caught the train back to Harbin.

***

In Harbin we had a couple of hours before our sleeper back to Beijing. My wife desperately wanted a shower before the train, and it didn’t sound like a bad idea to me either. During our travels she had noticed several buildings called 洗浴馆 (xiyuguan). After a little research, she determined that this was someplace where a shower could be had. As luck would have it, there was a large one in the building across the plaza from the Harbin train station.

It was, of course, a large Chinese bathhouse, of the kind that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Chinese film Shower. I had never been into a Chinese bathhouse before. I hadn’t even seen Shower at this point, so I really had no idea what to expect. We paid our fees and my wife headed for ladies’ side my while father and I headed for the gents.

The whole place had an over-wrought and slightly chintzy Greco-Roman décor, and a whiff of KTV lounge and prostitution. That put me well on edge from the start, and my unfamiliarity with the system made me feel even more vulnerable and awkward. The moment we were inside the locker room we were surrounded by squads of young, Chinese men dressed only in terry-cloth shorts and sandals. They tried gamely to nurse us through the process. With their cajoling I undressed, halting at my underwear. I don’t normally have a nudity taboo, but there were far more people involved and far less privacy than I had envisioned. “You have to take everything off”, said one of the boys. “Everything?”
”Yes, everything.”

Gulp.

So I took off everything except for plastic slippers and a bracelet that had my locker key and a token good for a massage attached. Being buck naked in an unfamiliar building in Harbin with all my possessions in a flimsy locker and a squad of nearly naked, teenage looking boys around me was making me a little squirrelly. But I put on my game face and flapped my way into the shower room desperately clutching a small, complementary bag full of single-use toiletries, with which I tried to obscure every sensitive part of my body. The shower room had the same pseudo-classical décor, three large, heated pools in the center, and rows of open shower cubicles and dressing-room style vanity counters around the edges. A few other men were in the pools or showering or grooming in front of the mirrors.

So I took a shower. I gather foreigners aren’t regular customers of this bathhouse. As I was toweling off, still naked, I gathered a crowd of customers and attendants who asked me many of the usual questions about where I learned to speak Chinese and how I liked China. I learned that my Chinese skills atrophy a bit in this situation. As do a couple of other things. As I headed toward the locker room the attendants anxiously explained that I hadn’t had my massage yet. In my vulnerable state, that was a bit more than I was prepared to take, so I demurred with the excuse of a train to catch. A wiry man, who had for some reason been allowed to keep his underwear, immediately asked me, “Can I have your massage token?” I was only too happy to make his day.

But, really, there was no reason to be anxious. It was a bathhouse. Nothing more. After I thought about it, I realized that my discomfort was mostly the result of unfamiliarity. I didn’t know what to do, where to go, or what to expect. Next time I’ll be better prepared. And were I to find myself in the same situation again, on the road and in need of a scrub, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at the local bathhouse.

Of course, if the attendant offers me a hand-job after the massage, I’m outta there.

And so, freshly scrubbed and relaxed, we caught the night sleeper back to Beijing. It was a good trip. But, then, they usually are.

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