I was all “business as usual” until I looked down at the train ticket I’d just purchased and read the words Hā’ěrbīn that were printed upon it. Even after all these years of travel I cannot say that I’ve cultivated any sense of cool when holding a ticket in my hand that has the power to sling-shot me across a vast stretch of the earth. Some kind of receptor in my brain gets tweaked by this sight and releases the floodgates of excitement. I felt like jumping, but I’m far too much of a cultivated, tried and true, travel veteran for that — of course.
This Sunday, I will be boarding a train for the far northeast of China, I will be traveling out to Harbin and beyond. It will be one entire day — yes, 24 hours — on a train, but that only adds to the shear exhilaration of going to a place that, by all accounts, is not only conceptually but literally out there.
I have been intrigued by Harbin and this part of China ever since I first found out that it existed. This sidearm northern reach of this country which nicely rounds out a flank of Mongolia is easy to lack a conception of, as it sort of sneaks way farther north than you generally think of China extending. In fact, Harbin is farther north than Vladivostok and is just two clicks of latitude south of Ulaanbaatar. It’s up there. Because of this extreme distance away from the heart of China the place has an incredibly unique history unto itself.
At the turn of the 20th century, Harbin was founded by Russia, established by a Polish engineer, and was promptly filled with Jewish immigrants. Almost needless to say, the place prospered. The city came to life as a stop on the Chinese Eastern Railway, which was financed and built by Russia to serve as a shortcut to Vladivostok from Chitka, and was used as a Russian military base during the Russo-Japanese War. Then it was the heart of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. Then throughout the 20th century the place filled with Han migrants becoming what it is today.
What is it today? I’m going to find out.
I have a bunch of objectives for this journey, but I’m still looking for more. If you would like to get involved and help out with planning remotely, just read about Heilongjiang province and let me know in the comments below if you find or interesting, topics, places, or people that you will like me to check out and report on.