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Cheating China’s Crowds

It is not very often you come across a deserted, ghost town in China, but I managed to achieve this on my recent trip to the village of Dangbi in the Dongbei region of what was once known as Manchuria, China. A trip to this village on the banks of Xingkai Lake during the weeklong National Day holiday was just what the doctor ordered to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life in the large city of Harbin. Located on the China-Russian border, it is a summer getaway for the increasingly affluent Chinese, a place to escape the heat of long summer days with a dip in the shallow, clean and cool water. My trip was in the beginning of October, when summer and the heat has long since passed away, as have the crowds. People told me it would be quiet and very few people would be there, that it would be of no interest to me, and as such I decided to go.

For those of you who have had the pleasure of attempting to buy train tickets to travel during a national holiday break, you would understand the challenge ahead of my girlfriend and I. The national day holiday is one of the few chances family members have to get together again, something of great importance here in China. Thus, we have millions, literally millions of students, peasants, migrant workers and others all wishing to buy tickets to travel at the same time. No chance of turning up at the train station and hopping on board the 10.12 from Waterloo station as one does back in good old England. However, unlike our ‘great’ English train network, Chinese trains run on time to the minute, don’t break down or crash very often and have devised a series of ticket checks that make it impossible to get a free ride. Our attempts to buy tickets resulted in a big fat meiyou, ‘Don’t have’, which was a kind of disappointment in our attempts to go solo on this trip. Thus we had to ask Auntie number 2 for help in obtaining tickets, something we really didn’t want to do. Anyway, she has an old classmate who is married to a friend of a friend who has a brother who is married to person who knows a guy who could get the tickets. You know the story.

Obligatory instant noodles, sausages, apples and peanuts in hand we board the ‘special’ carriage on the overnight train to somewhere that will drop us off in Mishan at the glorious hour of 3.30 in the morning. What is special about the ‘special’ carriage is that it is very old, got no heating and resembles a freezer to me. Nevertheless it is clean, attended to by some friendly staff and full of chatty and cheerful folk returning home laden with gifts. Spend the time doing what you do on a train, namely listening to your favourite tunes on your newly acquired MP3 toy whilst watching the scenery pass you by, read your book about how in 1421 some crazy Chinese sailors decided to sail the world and make a map, feast on your culinary delights and hit the sack by 8pm because it is too cold.

Arriving in Mishan, a town somewhere on the way to somewhere else was not as bad as I had feared, the stars were out in force and the weather was fresh. Bargained a cheap price in a hotel nearby to get a couple of hours more sleep and wait for the town to awake proper. At a more decent time in the morning we return to the train station to purchase return tickets, buy tickets for the bus trip onwards to our destination and join the locals in noodles for breakfast. I’m a big fan of noodles and have grown to the conclusion that having noodles for breakfast is perfectly acceptable. No more bacon and egg butties for me anymore, no more beans on toast with a healthy dollop of HP sauce.

The road was more a dirt path, a very bumpy dirt path all the way to where we going, making the whole bus shake and the windows rattle open, thus inventing the game of which passenger would ‘break’ first and leave their seat to close the large window down the front of the bus letting in all that pesky cold air. Our bus driver was experimenting with a new fashion accessory, he had an old and battered baseball cap placed sideways on his head making him by far the coolest driver in town by my reckoning. He was a good driver to be fair, not too fast and crazy, he even kept off the horn unless absolutely necessary.

Arrival was abrupt, and confusing because we were dumped along with a few others at a small dirt crossroad with no lake to be seen at all. All the others picked up their bags and headed off somewhere, while we pondered which way was the lake. Solving the mystery by asking questions, we set off down a road, a long road with a strange metallic monument at the far end acting like a guiding light for weary walkers. We had to walk because there were no taxis, no pedicabs/rickshaws, no motorbike riders around willing to take us, and that in itself is a strange thing in China. Anyhow, the fresh air and exercise would pay for the last few hotpots consumed. At the mad metallic monster of a monument was a gate and a friendly man reading his newspaper in a typical charcoal stove-heated wooden hut who we disturbed to gain entrance to the lakeside area.

From the hilltop we were on, the lake looked huge, and it is huge, no way you can see the other bank. Around the lake are many trees, a few fishing ponds and a few hotels being built or restored that we could see. First things first, and we set off to find a hotel, rumour had it we could find a small friendly family owned establishment down by the side of the lake offering dirt cheap rooms, good fish suppers and a scenic location. The larger hotels looked about as welcoming as one could expect as we walked on by finally arriving at the lakeside to find nothing but sand, beautiful clean yellow sand, and a couple of small fishing boats, but no small family owned establishment we were looking for. However, the sun was up, the sky was blue and all was peaceful, so we hung around enjoying our milk and apples, the peace and quiet, and the seagulls roaming around. The day was still young and what was the rush?

Over in the distance we spotted a line of buildings that I believed looked promising, so we set off to in the direction passing through the fishing ponds with no fishermen but plenty of dogs snoozing in the sun. The row of buildings turns out to be slightly run down looking 2-storey wooden guesthouse/restaurant establishments along a small tributary running off the lake. We choose one at random, well not really random because my girlfriend decided it looked the best because it had the cleanest windows and a national flag fluttering on top, while I thought it looked the most solid looking and would not collapse during our 2 day stay. Yet more dogs were sleeping out front making me slightly nervous but the not so slim lady who appeared to be the owner welcomed us inside gleefully. We successfully bartered down the room from 50yuan to 30yuan, feeling no need to push the matter any further for fear of upsetting the lady and her throwing us madly onto the streets. The rooms were on the basic side containing 2 narrow beds, thin blankets and rice filled pillows that ensure a bad neck, a few spiders and a broken TV on a rickety table. However, the room did come with balcony and accompanying outstanding view over the fields and trees to the lake. We were of course the only guests at the time, but apparently in the summer and winter it is packed out and rooms go for 400yuan a night, and the set fish supper goes for a staggering 1600yuan, which the lady informed us gave her and the family a comfortable lifestyle.

After settling into our new ‘palace’ we set out across the wobbling wooden bridge, passed the feeding ducks and geese and headed down to the beach at the lakeside. Biggest decision of the day was to either turn east and walk or turn west and walk, luckily the old papers, scissors and stones game resolved this and we headed east. In my opinion it is always a good day when the biggest decision of the day can be resolved by playing the paper, scissors and stones game. We walked a short while before wilting under pressure to play ‘skimming stones’ that is always fun, and then practice my Chinese writing in the sand. As the grey clouds started rolling in to replace the blue sky, we dipped our fingers in the water to confirm it was too cold to swim and decided to search for some kebab stick fish things that must be available we figured. Indeed we were correct as we found a little hut along the way offering such food, so we stopped, exchanged some paper notes for food and continued walking munching on local fish and shrimp sticks.

Eventually we reached a shabby fence and a shabby sign indicating the border between China and Russia, a sort of no-mans land area that existed for a couple of hundred meters. With this obstacle we turned around headed back this time with the 5 -colour forest on our left as we retraced our steps. The various shades of yellows and browns of the forest trees contrasted well with the yellow sandy beach and murky blue water to create a truly pleasant backdrop for a nice walk.

We headed back via another wooden hut, this time with a young, bored looking girl with only her small puppy for company, selling all kinds of useless, tacky souvenirs and gifts that we really did not need. She did manage to sell us some Russian chocolate and back at the guesthouse we made small talk and shared the chocolate with the lady for a while, took a nap and waited until our stomachs suggested it was time for some real food. This time came and we ordered a couple of fish dishes and some homemade dumplings and took in the last of the fading light with a short stroll while the lady cooked our food. Arriving back shaking off the oncoming cold we tucked into the fish dishes, supplementing them with the piping hot dumplings and found ourselves full to bursting as darkness finally arrived.

With the darkness came the strikingly bright stars that lit up the sky night, a peace and tranquility not found when you live in the city where there is always some unwanted background noise. It suddenly got much colder and a little windy outside, and with the numerous dogs near and far barking and howling, it seemed much easier and far more comfortable to relax in a warm bed and glimpse outside at the stars through the window at the turning of a page in your book. The warmth of the bed, tired reading eyes and sounds of the howling dogs naturally brought about an early night.

Morning came to fast and it was time to escape from the warmth of the bed into the fresh cold and clear morning air, made all the more clear and fresh by applying icy cold water to the face due to the lack of any available hot showers. A flask of hot water was kindly left outside the door to our room and so we were soon sipping our recently purchased Russian instant coffee and stretching our sleepy limbs standing on the balcony watching the world go by. Now if only I could have had a comfortable armchair and a copy of the Sunday newspaper available it would have been just splendid. I settled on a slightly out of date ‘National Geographic’ magazine from January 1992 that I had borrowed from my school library, and sat on an old bench.

Today we would walk in the opposite direction to the day before and see where that would take us. A half-strong onshore breeze was blowing this morning, along with smallish waves that were breaking calmly on the sandy beach generating that distinct seaside noise. That and the seagulls, along with the sheer size of the lake resulting in the lake stretching all the way to the horizon really it made it feel as if we were walking not by the side of a lake but by the sea. If only the weather were a little warmer we could have gone for a swim, or floated on inflatable dragons and such like. Out in the distance we could see numerous small fishing vessels out this morning, mindfully going about their business as we went about ours, namely doing some more strolling on the sand.

Up ahead jutting out from the trees loomed a couple of large multicoloured sheds that grabbed our attention as we got closer. What could have been a couple of funky lakeside restaurants or guesthouses appeared to be a couple of run down, boarded up, generally miserable looking buildings that showed no signs of life whatsoever. Behind these were a few other smaller buildings in equal state of disrepair and one concrete hut with tints of smoke chugging out a chimney, yet no people or animals to be seen anywhere. It seemed as if whoever was there had just upped and left in a hurry, kind of reminded me of the film ’28 days later’. We sat on the sand and made up stories about what had happened here, or what could have happened here, or what could happen here in the future, a great thing playing with your imagination for a while.

We decided to walk until we were either tired or bored, so we continued on our walk until we found a small strip of wooden buildings lined up along the lakeside amongst the trees. Again, these were all deserted and run down, from the hotels to the shops to the bars to the restaurants, all of them showing no signs of life. Behind these we crept and walked along the main mud street, where there were dotted a few more buildings hidden amongst the dense trees in even worse state than the others. Some of these ones looking to be have been vandalized, but not vandalized very well; others still had items of clothing hanging around inside and out. The place felt like it should be haunted, or perhaps like a film scene should be shot here, or in the future some obscure, violent and horrific mutilations would occur here. I wouldn’t have enjoyed discovering this place at night, when the place would have felt really creepy, but in the daytime it proved a welcome surprise to break up the walk.

We had come a long way now, and as such it would prove just as long a walk back, so we set off as stomachs began to rumble and the sky changed colours again. Forgetting to have a hearty breakfast may now have been a mistake as we wearily trudged back in the same direction stopping for more frequent sit downs on the sand. At least we were definitely hungry as we arrived back at the guesthouse, and after this good morning exercise we deservedly tucked into a few simple yet delicious vegetable dishes for a late lunch, followed by endless cups of tea.

Discovering we had missed the noon bus departure back to Mishan, the last bus of the day was a bit of poor news, yet all was not lost because I still had a large wad of notes that could be exchanged for the services of a friendly taxi driver. Of course, the lady owner just so happened to have a friend, a very good friend she added who was a taxi driver and could help us, so a phone call and conversation later our transportation fee was negotiated and settled. All that was left to do I could see was treat myself to an afternoon nap, what was left of the afternoon anyway.

Waking up again when the light is fading is always a little confusing on the brain, but the confusion was soon brushed aside by sipping on some Russian coffee and sitting on the nearby beach watching the light fade and minutes tick by. All in all, a trip to this lake is well worth the journey, especially out of season, in the busy season I imagine it to be a bit of a nightmare. Our taxi driver arrived promptly to take us away, his taxi a little too battered for my liking and lacking in essential seatbelts. He was a friendly and chatty chap that I found quite amusing listening to his ramblings, and he was one of those people who was sporting an outstanding Bobby Charlton like haircut. I believe people in such circumstances such let nature take the lead and just go bald gracefully, or wear a hat. We said our goodbyes to the kind lady owner and the all- important chef, sped off under the bright stars once more and were dropped off at a restaurant in Mishan, owned of course by a friend of our driver.

On the overnight train we could not upgrade to a sleeper berth as hoped and we had to rough it in the hard seat section, something I had sworn I would never do again, yet I found myself with no alternative as my girlfriend had to be back home the next day. I discovered more about China reading my book for as long as I could before finally joining in with the crowd and trying to arrange my body in a semi-comfortable position to try and get some sleep. We did get a good few hours sleep and woke up with the sun blazing through the curtains, some mad woman selling hot milk throughout the carriage and smelly eggs eaten for breakfast. The views of the countryside going about countryside business in the morning light made the last few hours before arriving home a joy once more. Time for a shower we agreed.

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