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One Chilly Choo-choo

This would be the girls’ first experience on a Chinese train, and we were all pretty excited when we arrived at Beijing’s main railway station at 7 PM to take our overnight train to Harbin.

The railway station has not changed since the last time we were there almost 20 years ago, except for the addition of metal detectors at the entrance. Since this was the first day of China's New Year travel season, the place was a mob scene, but much more orderly than we remembered from years past.

We found our group in the posh VIP waiting lounge for international travelers. In the old days, this relic of Soviet architecture was exclusively reserved for foreigners.

Now, the room is open to anyone who buys the most-expensive class of service, Chinese and foreign alike.

When we walked in, the chandelier-lit room was filled with people waiting for the Shanghai train. Tom struck up a conversation with a young couple cradling their new born baby. They were headed to Shanghai so that the grandparents would meet the baby for the first time.

Since it is unusual to see a young couple springing for the expensive tickets, Tom asked what they did for a living, no doubt expecting to hear something that translated into "children of well-connected businessmen". Instead, he was stunned to learn that they were power sellers on eBay (the US version!) -- hawking high-quality pearls at discount prices. Wow! Talk about the new China.

At 8 PM, we got the call to board the train. As VIPs, we got to use a special back door entrance to the tracks, and made it onto the train before the rush!

I’ve logged thousands of miles on Chinese trains, since as an English teacher in Hunan years ago my budget did not extend to air travel (which was the usual mode for Tom, who was an IBM employee on an expatriate salary package).

Back then, getting from Changsha (where I taught) to Beijing (where Tom lived) meant a lurching, 24-hour trip on a hard cot or a hard seat, being jostled along with peasants, their children and their chickens.

To give you a taste of that bygone era, here's a scan of one of my 1986 photos:

By contrast, CCC had successfully scored soft-sleeper accommodations, or “ruan wo che,” on the express Beijing-Harbin line.

This was no small feat, as this was the first weekend of the month-long Spring Festival travel season. The entire country was on the move, especially going from Beijing to other provinces as people make the mandatory trip home to reunite with their families. We read an article that said people in the US take a total of 20 million trips over Thanksgiving and Christmas combined; in China, people take 2 billion trips over a single 10-day spring festival time frame.

Soft-sleeper is heavenly: we had our own compartment for the four of us, complete with comfy duvets and pillows, slippers and – unbelievably – individual TV screens with remote controls and HBO! Really cool – even though all the movies were dubbed into Chinese!

True to form, the girls were much more interested in inventing various Tarzan-like moves to get from bunk to bunk than they were in TV anyway.

We fell asleep to the gentle sway of the train, and awoke 11 hours later to a hard-core Harbin winter.

The insides of the train windows were coated with a thick layer of ice!

Our CCC leader, Feng Cheng, hastened down the corridors to remind our group to put on ALL of our cold-weather gear before we got off the train.

Luckily, we had done a “dress rehearsal” at home, so the girls knew exactly what order to use to pull on their layers: pink long underwear, tops and bottoms, followed by a second pair of gray long underwear; thick capilene socks, padded ski pants, fleece pullovers on top, fleece cap-liners under furry Xinjiang hats, topped off with parkas and the all-important neck-covering gaiter.

Looking weird but warm!

Tom pulled out his furry Russian-style hat, bought in Beijing in 1985 and hardly worn since, and found it still did the job.

Zdrastvyutie, tovarisch!

We joined our group on the platform – that’s Feng Cheng in the middle with the CCC flag – and stepped out into a picture-perfect Harbin winter day.

At 7:15 AM, a brilliant sun was just emerging from behind the train station, crisp snow crunched under our newly-purchased heavy-duty boots, and the temperature was a balmy 15 degrees.

Below zero.


In other words, we couldn’t have asked for better weather!

Next: we discover Harbin's winter wonders


Harbin chapter shortcuts: Intro Train Wonders Sculptures Tigers Ice Dreams Sunday Stroll

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