Sunday, October 19, 2008


The best birthday celebrations are those that extend over a number of days. Or, more precisely, that's how I like our birthdays! I mean, a meal one day, a visit to some place another one, a special treat or whim a different one... right? So, lucky for me, I managed to celebrate my 35th that way.

First of all, one of my best friends visited from The Netherlands! We met while studying at Peking University back in 1997-1999, and if I've ever had a partner in crime, that was her! And after almost ten years, here she was, with her daughter, in Beijing, on my birthday! One of the best gifts ever.

Then, with her, her daughter and the habib, we did one of my favourite things in Beijing - hutong exploring! Though the area around Houhai is pretty cool for this, the hutongs around Qianmen (前门) are are no less interesting. 

You can still find a number of old houses with their peculiar roofs and panel-like decorations... 

There is still a functioning shadow puppet theatre too! on Dazhalan (大栅栏) hutong! The Beijing Longzaitian Shadow Puppet Club-Museum (北京龙在天皮影文化俱乐部博物馆). Needless to say, these people are masters of their craft, their puppets are beautiful, and sitting in a dark room watching one of their performances in an old hutong is an unforgettable experience.

Another reason I enjoy hutongs so much: Beijing snacks. It's the best place to find these local delicacies! Like these red-bean paste filled sesame balls. I love these! The crunchy fried outside and the warm soft inside... amazing I'm telling you! And then you get to enjoy them while walking the all too lively traditional hutongs...

Another cool thing happened during the "festivities" - gorgeous weather! I'm pretty lucky mid-October in Beijing usually has very pleasant weather. And thanks to the Chinese government's efforts to have a pollution-free Olympics, we enjoyed not just good temperature, but beautiful skies. Which led to perfect sunsets. Ah...

And, naturally, no celebration would be complete without abundant delicious food in good company! We went to Pure Lotus, a vegan place that does a number of mock dishes. But believe me, they take this to a whole new level! Like, a fish dish may actually have skin that tastes and feels like real fish skin! And there's plenty of vegetable dishes that are not mocking anything. Plus, the food is simply absolutely delicious. By far my favourite restaurant in Beijing. 

And, of course, entertaining at home! Which is always such an event for us because, with all the moving around and leaving friends behind and making new ones and trying to get a new place to feel like home, is no easy task! But my habib and my dear friends, new and old, made that possible.

And to close the week-long feast, chilling out with my Dutch buddy at home, with a nice, big, foamy glass of Guinness! 

A very happy 35th birthday. With very dear people.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Beijing is so polluted that when it decides to offer crystal clear skies I can't help but stand mesmerised by the window, or on the street, watching the bluest of blues, sublime pinks, brilliant golds reflected on the glass of this city reaching for the sky. (as you can see, I couldn't help but trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to capture what I saw with my camera)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Harbin - 105 years later

(trip from September 30th until October 3rd, 2008)

Harbin (哈尔滨, Харбин), a town that at the end of the 19th century was no more than a fishing village, became at the beginning of the 20th a transportation hub between Europe and Asia, with the Middle East Railway linking the Pacific Ocean (Japan) with the Atlantic (Portugal). A cosmopolitan city, a centre for Russian power and Russian refugees, a city that fell into Japanese hands and then was retaken by the Kuomintang, Harbin is rich in history and traces of the past.

But it was not just the city’s history which made us decide to visit during the October holidays (nor the fact that flights and trains were booked full to about every other destination inside and outside China) but, most importantly, my personal relation to the place. Harbin, the birthplace of my grandfather, is the symbolic source of my fascination (bordering on obsession) with travel and languages. I did meet my grandfather, but I was too young to remember. But, in a way, that might have made his story the more compelling, as I did not have to deal with ordinary reality and could let my imagination run wild with images of his family emigrating all the way from Crimea to Harbin, his life in that Russian part of China before he left, as a young man, for Kobe, Japan, where he lived until the terrible quake of 1923, after which he and his mother, by chance, docked not in the USA, but in Mexico. Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, the many languages he was supposed to speak (though no one could agree on which ones they were), if this was not what originated my love for travel and learning languages, it certainly was rocket-grade fuel.

We spent three full days there, which is more than many people spend, since they usually go in winter for the Ice Lantern Festival, when the weather is a crispy -20 to -30 ºC.

We stayed at a hotel built in 1904, which was actually the Mid East Railway Hotel back then! And that was just the beginning of a long list of encounters with old buildings, not just along the pedestrianised Central Street (中央大街), but at many other places our guidebook didn’t even mention (fortunately, we got hold of a book specialising on old Harbin architecture). I must say, many of the buildings were either renovated rather simplistically, in an awful state of disrepair, or being used for purposes that seemed rather undignified, but all in all we relished our chance of an encounter with them.

We visited places of former and present worship: two orthodox churches, a Lutheran one...

... a Turkish mosque, a synagogue (which had become, to our amazement, a Café, and Indian trinkets shop, a wedding photo company, a pizza parlour and even a cheap a hostel!)...

We visited former residences and companies, some of them in jaw-dropping Art Nouveau style...

We visited old and dignified restaurants, abandoned or in use...

...where we would have, what else, Russian fare! including the borshch, pickles and bread de rigueur!

And we even made it to the cemetery, originally within Harbin but now some 30 minutes from the city, to try to find my great-grandfather’s grave (he never left Harbin). I checked every single one of them in the Russian Orthodox Section (despite his Jewish surname, he was married, and buried, by the Russian Orthodox church, so, there was no point in name-checking the Jewish graves in the Jewish part of the cemetery). His name wasn’t on any. There were quite a few mounds with rotting, broken crosses and faded signs, tombs long since forgotten and with no one left to care, tombs of people of little means and no family (like my great-grandfather), and chances are his was just one of those nameless mounds of dirt...

And so, with our eyes and minds full with yet another side of China that gave us more food for thought that we could digest, we left. I’m glad I visited Harbin, and that I visited when the weather permitted us to walk and explore at leisure; I’m thankful for all the surprises the city offered us, and I’m excited about having come full circle, where a part of it all started one hundred and five years ago.