I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Travel to Manchuria

Harbin from my hotel room
In 2007, I spent an entire month in Beijing working for the Higher Education Press (HEP). Although I was also still employed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, I took a month's vacation in order to travel to Beijing and ascertain the level of English translation in 17 scientific journals that are published by HEP. The job was arranged for me by Qian Ye, the Chinese member of our staff, because HEP needed someone who would be willing to do this work while not expecting to be paid a great deal for it. Since I was already collecting a salary from NCAR, they paid my travel expenses and a small stipend to be spent for food. They put me up in a hotel room that was used exclusively for people working at HEP. A fairly large van picked us all up every weekday and took us into Beijing proper into their offices. Smart Guy traveled with me for the month, with us paying for his travel, and it worked out very well. But that is not what this post is about.

During that month, my NCAR boss Mickey had arranged to travel from Colorado to Harbin (in Manchuria) for an environmental conference where he would be making a presentation. He asked me to come along for five days. I took my work with me so I didn't lose any actual time in my duties for HEP. We traveled by train into Northeast China (also known as Manchuria). All travel in China, everywhere, was arranged by our Chinese handlers. There is simply no way I could have managed by myself, since I speak no Mandarin and even taxi drivers need a slip of paper or business card with my destination in order for me to travel from place to place. Taxis are incredibly cheap and available everywhere. I cannot imagine what Chinese travelers to the US think when traveling by taxi.

The name "Harbin" (as you can find from the above link) means "a place for drying fish nets" in Manchu. It is known for its incredibly harsh winters and its legacy of Russian culture. One day while there we were taken on an excursion into the city and learned some of its history. It's amazing to see buildings that bear little resemblance to what I think of as being Chinese. But then again, this is another part of China that has had many conflicts, all of which make for fascinating reading and available for further research in the link. Here's a picture of Smart Guy in front of a magnificent church in the town's center.
One notable event at the conference was that it was attended by a few students from one of the many universities, who were very interested in environmental concerns. They asked Mickey if he would be willing to make a presentation at their university. He tried to decline, since there was only the weekend before we would be leaving on Monday morning. The young earnest student said that if Mickey would agree to talk to them on Sunday morning, she would arrange it, so he agreed to meet them the very next morning at 8:00 am. Imagine his amazement when he walked into an auditorium filled to capacity with hundreds of excited students! Smart Guy went along too, and he met a young student who he still communicates with by email these days, four years later. She earned a scholarship and entrance to Baylor University in Houston and now they carry on an email conversation that covers a wide range of topics on life.

One of my blogging friends once asked me to write a bit more about the people when I visited these exotic places. And I do want to say that the Chinese people are some of the friendliest, helpful, and passionate I have ever met anywhere. Once when I was in a very crowded train terminal, a woman came over and gestured to me to cover my purse so that it would be close to my body and therefore unavailable to thieves. She must have seen me looking vulnerable and wanted to protect me. This sort of thing happened all the time and I began to take it for granted. Then once I came home to the States, I felt a sort of shock at the lack of concern we Americans seem to have for one another. Of course it didn't help that I landed in New York and had to navigate back to Colorado. Although I was never actually knocked over, I felt in danger of it, and I wondered how a Chinese person coming here sees us.

Today I don't travel around much, but it is good to have these memories of international travel. As I have said before, international travel anywhere is not as exciting as it is grueling. Although there is plenty to be said for travel in order to experience different cultures, I am glad that these days here in retirement are spent mostly at home or traveling locally to different places in my area. I am blessed to have a group that has introduced me to the wonders of the mountains and trails nearby, and with Vancouver, British Columbia less than an hour away by car, my local world still carries plenty of adventure.

During my working years, I managed to accomplish what now seems to me almost an impossibility. One thing about getting older and retiring from that world, my life is now filled with numerous activities that are fulfilling and chosen by me. The pace is slower now, which is appropriate, and it all evolved in small incremental steps, so I never actually noticed. It's good to have a chance to look back and look ahead at what still beckons in my day-to-day life.


Linda Myers said...

I'm surprised at how "western" the buildings look!

You're right about travel being grueling. We took 14 trips in the first 14 months after I retired. This year there will be fewer.

Anonymous said...

How wonderful your job took you to these far away places, DJan! Lots of pleasant memories, I am sure. That picture of the church is amazing. It does look like something one would see in Moscow.

CrazyCris said...

That church definitely looks Russian Orthodox! Doesn't seem at all like the image we have of China! But then again, that country is so huge that there must be very large cultural variations bewteen the different regions. I hope to see some of it some day.

It's great that Smart Guy is still in touch with that student! I wonder, how did that person feel when arriving in the States? Culture shock much?

Dee Ready said...

Dear DJan, I've done little international traveling--three trips, all to Europe. The one to Greece was the most demanding because I hadn't learned even helpful phrases. Phrases that would let those I met know that I appreciated their language and didn't expect them to speak mine.

But that trip of four weeks made me so lonely for the familiarity of home and language.

Your trip to Manchuria sounds so intriguing and so mind-opening. Thank you for sharing it with us.


Meryl Baer said...

Your travels sound wonderful. But it is so true that as we age we must listen to our bodies and make adjustments, including slowing down the pace of travel. I love to travel but now I try to plan time to adjust to time zones and recover from air travel.

Rita said...

This is just fascinating to me! I love hearing about your worldly travels. Even though my parents and brother and sister have traveled to Europe and my folks to Mexico, I am the only one in the family whose world travels have only included Canada--LOL! I love to watch Globe Trekker and other travel shows on PBS.

You have had such an interesting life! And you still have a most fascinating and adventurous life right now! I am tickled when you share it. Thanks! :)

Stella Jones said...

Very interesting. It's nice to get an American's perspective of China. I expect it's changed a lot since you were there too. It must be very odd to go to a place where you cannot read or understand a single word!

Teresa Evangeline said...

What a beautiful church. It looks Russian Orthodox. My brother has done extensive traveling in many countries and he still says China is his favorite. He found the people to be wonderful and it was an amazing trip for them.

Thanks for sharing your time there with us.

Red said...

The key statement in your post is the last sentence where you say that you look ahead for other experiences. I'm sure you will become involved in other very challenging activities.
Great description of your trip.

Arkansas Patti said...

Lucky you, China has always been in my bucket list.
You can definitely see the Russian influence in that church. Surprising to me but I guess proximity has bearing.
I agree with you that orientals can teach us a lot about manners and just being human. The Japanese after the quake really showed the world how to behave.
How cool that SG has kept in touch with that student.

Sally Wessely said...

I would love to go to China. You were very fortunate to be able to go and spend some time there. My Chinese students are always telling me they will take me with them someday.

I am very surprised by the church in the photo. It doesn't look like anything I would expect.

CiCi said...

I agree with you that you are in a good place now and your hikes are amazing, for your soul as well as your body. We don't have mountains here so I feel fortunate to see the photos you share on your blog.

International travel opens a person up to other cultures and shows a connection between human beings no matter what part of the planet we are born in or choose to live. Thank you for showing the pictures and describing in a little more detail some of your work before retirement.

Nancy said...

I can relate to you feeling happy to have had the experiences, but also happy to stay close to home now. I feel the same way, although I haven't had all of your experiences - I'm happy to be close to home these days.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Sounds like a long way from home..I am not sure I ever want to travel to China. However I did enjoy your perspective:)

Rubye Jack said...

What an interesting post this is DJan. Harbin keeps sticking in my mind like I should know something about it. Maybe because of the Jewish communities there in the 20's. Maybe not. :)