After the trip to the Great Wall, our tour of China was essentially complete. Next morning we headed for Harbin, but before we took off I took an opportunity to take some photos of the hutong in which we were staying. The pictures only begin to capture its bicycleness!
After that we took a plane to Harbin, where we stayed for one night and the following day. Harbin was mildly interesting with sites like “Stalin Park,” the largest Russian Orthodox church in Asia (or so they say), neon signs in Russian (usually wrong) and general desire to be a “Russian” city in China despite the absence of actual Russians. Actual Russians were a lot less numerous in Harbin than I expected, but apparently they are the main type of foreigners. As a result, we kept noticing strange looks (more so than in places like Nanjing), until we heard a woman on the sidewalk say to another after staring at us for a minute: “Are those Russians?” It then all made sense: places like Nanjing do not get as many foreign tourists but those who do come there look like us, so we did not look so strange relative to other foreigners. In Harbin we did.
After a day in Harbin we took an overnight train to Suifenhe – a small border town on the border with Russia. Buying the ticket to Suifenhe at the Harbin railroad station was quite an adrenaline rush, but a combination of rudimentary Mandarin, gestures (two hands next to cheek to show “sleeping”) and a number written on a piece of paper did the trick. We arrived in Suifenhe early in the morning, headed for the bus station and took the first bus accross the border. After 3 hours at the border we were in Russia – the first time that I crossed into Russia by land (not counting coming from semi-independent Latvia in 1991). About 5 hours later we were in Vladivostok.
We spent three weeks in Vladivostok (pictures coming next), then took a bus back to Harbin, from where we flew to Beijing. We spent another three days in Beijing on the way back, but I had lost the battery charger for my camera and thus didn’t take any pictures.