I’d been waiting and skrimping and saving (sort of) for the past few months so I could afford to escape the big freeze for a while, an so two weeks ago I got on a plane to Wuhan, which is just over 2,000km southwest of Harbin. A friend from home is teaching there, and so a visit seemed like a good way to see some more of China. The week previously I’d called Driver Joe, the only English speaking taxi driver in Harbin, and booked his services for 5am on the 23rd. As I got to the bottom of the stairs and out into the chilly morning air, his jolly father was stood with arms wide open to greet me and relieve me of my rucksack. His jolly father doesn’t speak any English, apart from ‘passaport??’, and my Chinese isn’t much better, but this didn’t stop him from happily rabbiting away the 1hr journey to the airport. It was enough for me to chip in with ‘dui, dui, dui’ (which is a generic affirmative okay/correct) in the seconds he took to draw breath to satisfy him.
Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is a month-long period that sees the largest human migration in the world. Millions of migrant workers, students and families all travel to their hometowns for the biggest festival in the Chinese calendar. To buy a ticket is really difficult and expensive, and you have to book far in advance if you actually want a seat or if it matters which day you travel, but since Chinese employment holidays are regulated by the government, this is the only time of year most people can go to see their families. I was a little early, and surprised at how quiet the airport gate was, until about 5 minutes before boarding when they started pouring in. It looked like most of these people were still in bed when I’d arrived at check-in 2 hours before departure, as about 30% of them were still in their pyjamas and half were smelling out the place with some form of breakfast cuisine.
I got to Wuhan to discover that my sim card doesn’t work outside of Heilongjiang. I worried not, being quite sure of the route I needed to take on the winding airport transfer bus to get into the city. However, when I got off at my stop and looked for the shiny yellow M where I was to meet John, I couldn’t see it. I waded through the throngs of travellers, and asked, ‘McDonalds zainar?’ but this was met with blank faces. I’d left Harbin with about 3 layers on my bottom half and 5 on top, and as I walked around the heaving bus station trying to sniff out the McNuggets I was actually sweating. The sun was shining, the temperature a balmy 12c, and I was lost in a big city with no phone and scant knowledge of the language, those words I did know were said in a northern accent no-one seemed to understand that far south. Tired and weary, I was starting to appreciate the arduous plight of refugees and thinking about how I was going to turn my life around if I ever made it out of here alive. Then I found McDonalds so it was all ok.
Wuhan is very different to Harbin, and I’m so pleased I had the chance to see it. John’s gated apartment estate was leafy and green, with a little pond area and little walkways. The whole city seems a little more upmarket than I’d been used to, and they’re rapidly developing. Everywhere we went, we were driving on unfinished roads, roads with pipes pulled up from the ground, past demolition sites, each once home to hundreds of families. Just across the road, construction sites as far as the eye can see stretch out of the city. Newly built apartment blocks and business parks reach up into the sky, and every spare inch on the ground has a stake in it. The people in Wuhan seem to have a little more money too, and dress a little more conservatively than in the north (by this I mean neater and less neon).
On the second day of my visit, we went to East Park. We had to pay to get in, but I could see why. Hundreds of miles of lake, peace, quiet, green grass, warm sunshine and birds in the trees. Compared to this paradise, Harbin feels like a kid messing with the control panel on an artificial Hollywood film set. We spent the week hanging out with John’s friends. One of them, Gerry, is Chinese and teaches English to young kids, who he takes out on field trips. One young boy of 8 came with us to East Lake, and I could not believe it when he spoke to me. His English is unbelievable for his age, and not only that, he could answer my questions without thinking. It’s like he can switch between Chinese and English in his mind, without having to translate first. I met him again when we went to Polar Ocean World, where we got free tickets for helping with the field trip of 3 kids. The extent of my helping was to stand outside the toilet when the girl went for a wee before running off again to stare at jellyfish.
We also spent a lot of time in Starbucks, Subway, and the pubs, where we met some other foreign people. The foreigners code is to acknowledge with a nod if it’s daytime, and automatically become best friends if it’s after either 10pm or 3 units of alcohol. So we all became best friends, and after much alcohol we left because the smells wafting in from the street food outside were becoming too much. We went for a choice selection of meats on sticks, and I’m not saying I ate rat or dog, but I’m not saying I didn’t. I literally couldn’t tell you. But it was 3am and it was good.
We also did Madame Taussauds, and here some impressive ‘guanxie’ went down. Gerry had 4 free tickets from his cousin, who’s high up in tourism in Wuhan. There were 5 of us going, and so we were going to split the price of one ticket. But when we got to the counter, it turned out the tickets had expired. Now if this was Britain, you’d feel a fool for not looking at the smallprint, and get back to collecting the vouchers in The Sun for a £9 trip to Pontins. But here, no need. ‘Guanxie’ is the word for your network; connections and people you know who can do you favours and give you a leg up, because that’s how people get jobs here, evade prison, how they find husbands and wives even. So Gerry called his cousin, who immediately sent some lower level employee in a black shirt and a walkie talkie to have a private word at the desk. Seconds later all 5 of us were whisked through the door and I was face to face with Long Long before I knew what was happening. The collection was a bit smaller than I would have expected, and all of the Western celebrities had big noses and very orange faces, but it was god fun, and we ate frog soup for dinner.
All in all, Wuhan was a fun but tiring city, and the weather made such a nice change, but I don’t think I could live there all the time. After 6 days, we packed up and flew to Beijing. Which I’ll write about in…part 2.