Thursday, March 03, 2005

"The Pearl Under the Neck of the Swan"

Many of our readers know that this is not my first time in China, or even for that matter, in Harbin. I spent a number of months in the summer of 1997 traveling throughout the Middle Kingdom with 13 other students of Zhongwen from Andover. Half of our time was spent here in Harbin where we spent out mornings in various classes and our afternoons and evenings putzing around.

My memories of Harbin, though faded, were not very impressive. Actually, I recently went back to my journals from that trip and found that I had described the city at that time as being "boring" and "run-down."

A lot has changed since 1997. Either that, or our tour guides did a truly rotten job of showing us around this metropolis.

The population of the city is officially around 10 million, though that includes all the outlying villages, which don't really count. In the city proper, we're probably looking at three to four million, of which there are between 400 and 700 expats running around at any given time, and I'm not counting Russians.

The city is teeming with life, everywhere I've gone so far at least. The northeast of China, and Harbin especially, has recently been targeted by the government for re-development. Any structure under six stories and not protected for historical reasons stands only for destruction and replacement by some nature of skyscraper. This means many of the structures that must have given me the impression of the city being "run-down" are now gone, replaced with monuments of neon lights and mirrored windows.

This doesn't mean the entire city has been laid waste and rebuilt, quite the contrary. The city of Harbin was built at the request of the Russians roughly a century ago. As such, the older parts of the city consist of old European style architecture. I've never been to Eastern Europe, but from what I understand, strolling down somoe of the streets here in Harbin one could think themselves in Prague or St. Petersburg. The contrast in architecture leads to a very interesting and fun dynamic, one that I personally like quite a bit.

While the older section of the city might resemble Olde Europe, the newest area, literally called "New Development Zone," is more reminiscent of Las Vegas than anything else. (I'd imagine Tokyo might be a better comparison, but I've never been to Tokyo, so I'm going to refrain from using it.) I've driven through it a few times and the glare from the neon was just tremendous. Though the bars in this area apparently close earlier than some others in the city (4 AM is early...) it probably does not matter what time you come stumbling out as the lights make it as bright as day.

The district I live in is called "NanGong," and while there is nothing tremendously special about it, it does have anything you would want and it is in the middle of everything else. My office is less than a 5 minute walk away, closer than 3800 or America House was from campus, there are a few local stores and eateries, and a major shopping area is still within a short walk. I'm still exploring the neighborhood, but I imagine I'll be quite satisfied with it. I've already found my local karaoke bar.

There is a lot for me to seek out here in Harbin, and even though I have a year to do it, I feel a need to get out and venture where I can as soon as I can. Dan, the Canadian who is one of the partners at my school, continues to recommend and point out popular expat hangouts. Once I get on schedule I'll certainly start taking heed of his advice.

Oh, "The Pearl Under the Neck of the Swan" is one of the nicknames the Chinese have for Harbin. I still havent figured out what they mean by it.


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