A mysterious figure in Harbin

Culture | by J. Zach Hollo
Posted: March 6th, 2012 | Updated: May 23rd, 2013 | Comments
Traveling in Harbin

It's cold up north, and only the heartiest of travelers bundle up and head out at this time of year. But the annual Harbin Ice and Snow Festival draws scores of those same hearty travelers out of their warm, insulated homes to gaze at the splendor of harnessed natural beauty. Today, James Hollo tells us about one mysterious figure he met on the snowy streets of Harbin last month.>>>

It was January 27th and I found myself moseying around Harbin's Central Street, checking out the ice and snow sculptures lining the shopping center. It was -11°C (12°F), and I decided to buy a stick of the crystallized fruit candy sold on every corner. I paid RMB 5 for it and had begun to take my first bite when an unexpected English word hit my ears. "Delicious," shouted a gleeful heavy-set Chinese man behind me. He was tall—about 5'11''—and had that dark skin-tone commonly found in Northern China. Read on to learn more about the mysterious, bilingual local...

"It's delicious right?" he said in perfect English.

My friend Nick answered with his mouth full of kiwi. "Do you speak English?"

"Yes, of course," he said, and this time his smile spread all the way back to his ears. Nick and I were in luck. We were trying to find St. Sophia Church, a beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral built in 1907. "Could you tell us how to get to Sophia Church?" asked Nick.

"Why yes of course I can. Follow me, I'll walk you there." We followed without hesitation.

What to do in Beijing

Charlie walked in giant strides, his glorious Mao-era style black coat billowing around his wide steps. His back was straight, showcasing his height with pride, and a smile never left his face. He walked like he owned the place. It only took about 15 minutes to get to the church, during which he enlightened us on his city's history: that the Mandarin language originated from Harbin, how Russian architecture and culture were abundant, dating back to the Trans-Siberian railway and post-World War II occupation, and how the famous Saint Nicholas church was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. He also told us that he worked for the government, translating foreign documents.

When we arrived at the church, there was a RMB 15 entrance fee. As Nick and I paid, Charlie showed the ticket clerks a badge of some sort and got in for free. The inside of the church is a small photographic history exhibit of Harbin, depicting all the elements of Charlie's walking lecture. We wandered around the church for a half an hour, with Charlie still discussing his city's past. It was 4:30pm as we exited the Church, and the cold had eroded all the energy from my body. "It was really nice to meet you Charlie, Nick and I better get going back to our hostel," I said.

The look on Charlie's face was astonished. "But don't you want to want to see the Dragon Tower (Lóng Tǎ, 龙塔)?"

Nick and I glanced at each other warily. "What's the Dragon Tower?" asked Nick.

"Why it's the tallest steel tower in China of course! We can go to the top and see excellent views of the city. It only costs RMB 50, not expensive."

Nick and I had a decision to make. Risk getting human-trafficked or miss out on seeing Harbin from above. "Okay let's do it," I said.

Charlie claimed to have the city bus schedule memorized, so we waited at a bus stop until one arrived. When we got on board, things began to get weird. There was only one seat left, and Charlie motioned for me to take it. I did, and sat next to a lady who looked to be in her mid-thirties. "Wow, she is very pretty. He is very lucky," he said to Nick, who gave a confused laugh. He then began talking about Russian women, about how when he was a boy he'd fantasize about marrying one, how he always liked their big breasts. As we passed more Russian architecture he brought up the destruction of Saint Nicholas church again, and how much he hated the Red Guards. Thus the conversation went, dancing back and forth between Russian girls and the Cultural Revolution until we arrived at the Tower.

What to do in Harbin

When we entered the Dragon Tower, Nick and I paid while he once again flashed a badge and got in for free. We went to the top and the view really was amazing. An outdoor balcony lined with red ribbons featured a gigantic bell with a swinging hammer at its side. Charlie informed us that one hit grants you love, three career success, and five adventure. I chose five. After we descended in the elevator we walked through the dinosaur exhibit and then a science room. We left at about seven o'clock.

Once outside Charlie said he'd show us which bus to take home. After he directed us to get on the A26 and take it 16 stops, he asked what we were doing tomorrow.

"I don't know. We haven't really decided," I said.

"I'd like to take you to a Russian ice-pond swimming performance. And then we can go to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival at night." he said. "Where are you guys staying?"

I thought about the potential dangers of answering this question. "Russian youth hostel," I said. His face lit up.

"I've never been there before, but I've always wanted to see it. I'll meet you in the lobby at nine o'clock in the morning," he said without hesitation.

"Well... I'm not sure. We might not be awake. Nick has a phone, you guys can just exchange numbers." Nick reluctantly withdrew his phone.

"Excellent!" cried Charlie.

That night Nick texted Charlie saying we would not be awake the following morning, but that we may be up for the Ice and Snow Festival at night. This was his reply: "Okay, we can meet at Center Street at five o'clock. Please make it. I am very lonely in my apartment and have no one to keep me company."

There was something seriously wrong with that last sentence—almost as wrong as him suggesting to meet us in the lobby of our hostel. Nonetheless, Nick and I were at Center Street at five o'clock.

[pullquote]"Hello!" shouted a familiar voice from behind. "It's great to see you guys again."[/pullquote]"Hello!" shouted a familiar voice from behind. "It's great to see you guys again." We walked about 20 minutes to the Ice and Snow Festival, not to be confused with Harbin Ice and Snow World which is about a half an hour cab ride outside of the central city. Charlie dissuaded us from going to the Ice and Snow World, saying it's too expensive (RMB 300) and that taxi drivers are not monitored outside the city and often rig their meters. The Ice and Snow Festival costs RMB 200, and once again Charlie flashed a badged and avoided payment. But this time we noticed something else. He walked ahead of us and spoke to the ticket-ripper, motioning towards us. The ticket-ripper nodded his head and smirked as we passed. Inside the ice exhibit, Charlie appeared detached. Nick and I walked around fascinated by the beautiful sculptures while he plugged headphones into his ears and looked bored. Once in a while he would feign interest and crack a joke about Russian breasts, but it was clear there was someplace he'd rather be. After about an hour we left the festival. Nick and I were hungry.

"Would you two be interested in a Russian singing performance tonight?" Charlie blurted out.

"Actually I think we're just gonna eat dinner," said Nick. "How much are tickets?"

"Only two hundred and fifty," he said, a pleading look in his eye.

"We're kind of here on a student budget and only have so much money to last us the trip," said Nick.

"Yeah but how many times are you going to be in Harbin?" Charlie countered. "I think you should just do it."

Nick looked baffled but stayed strong. "Sorry, we're just gonna eat dinner. You're welcome to join us."

"No, thank you," said Charlie. "I've got to get back to my wife now. Enjoy dinner. Goodbye." And he was off. We never saw Charlie again.

Over dinner Nick and I tried to guess Charlie's real profession. Was he getting a commission every time he took us somewhere? Does the government employ undercover travel agents to help tourists find destinations to spend their money? Either way, I'm glad I didn't get trafficked to Mongolia.

[Editor's note: Some names have been changed in this post to protect the identity of the is-he-isn't-he mystery guide/scam artist in the case that he is, in fact, just a regular guy who wants to practice his English and gets his kicks from showing lost laowai the high life in Harbin.]

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