Nanjing, China, November 2008.

Manchuria started as soon as we entered China through the Torugart Pass, even though this famed pass is at the opposite end, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang is actually a Manchu name for “New Frontier”, and the Manchu Qing Dynasty, which ruled the whole of China from 1644 to 1911, sent soldiers to guard this Central Asian outpost, hence several thousand Manchu descendants still living along the Uygurs.

So, we are in old Manchurian territory here in Nanjing (N32°2, E118°46), the ancient Chinese capital and the first of the two peaks we made south of the 40th North parallel. Our friend Tom lives and teaches English and TV production, and we visited him after a one-day stay at the private Shanghai clinic where our travel insurer flew us, free of charge, because of a simple kidney stone. Above is Little Fish (Yu Dong Mei), a 20 year-old waitress from some village in Hubei, as most are, serving the well-to-do Chinese students at the restaurant (superb food, 8 Euros for three including drinks) of the Nanjing University of Post and Telecommunications, one of many campuses around this huge town.


Xian, China, November 2008.

The second southern foray was to view once more Xi’an’s (N34°16, E108°54) beautiful terracotta soldiers whose number has increased as they have unearthed more since our last visit and housed them in huge museums and an extended park that needed the razing of the peddlers’ many shacks. We also visited anew the Shaanxi Province museum where employees (above) make copies of the many stele inscriptions for sale. This time we were accompanied by six, quite pleasant Fine Arts students from Guangzhou in the south, almost as foreigners here as ourselves. Haitang (below), posing with part of the terracotta army in the background, was the sweetest.


Lintong, China, November 2008.


Harbin, Manchuria, China, November 2008.

We don’t have good shots of Manchuria, it was way too cold, and it hit us hard and fast. We boarded the train in Xi’an one evening wearing sweaters and disembarked 30 hours later at 5:32 a.m., with way below zero temperatures. I had to look for an hour, in sneakers, around a large, ice-covered plaza to find onward transportation to Vladivostok, Russia, and a hotel. Then we visited a bit, the Songhua river (above) was solid frozen. It made me wonder about the Vladivostok-Japan ferry, was that harbor going to be frozen too? and service disrupted? We were mid-November only, but of course this is Siberian territory. This river is an affluent to one of Asia’s longest (4,354 to 4,444 km according to various sources) called Heilung chiang, Black Dragon, the name of the whole Chinese province, better known by its Russian name Amur (dirty, muddy in Buriat, a Siberian language).


Harbin, Manchuria, China, November 2008.

People were very friendly, smiling, a stark difference with the rest of the country, and helpful, well… trying. Imagine this, you are at the main train station of a major town not too far from the border – less than 400 km – and you want to go to the neighboring country’s main city, like going from Brussels to Paris. The clerk was nice and smiling, naturally she spoke not a word of English, but I had written down the train numbers, and the schedule, and the name of Vladivostok in capital letters. During two attempts and twenty minutes, I could not make her understand what I wanted, nor her colleague. I was not too surprised, at least she got the name of the Chinese border town, Suifenhe. I guess anything beyond was in another world. I later learned from an older Russian they use their own name, Hachinwei, but this is no excuse. Probably only U.S. high-schoolers have not heard about Far Eastern Vladivostok, the Master of the Orient.Then I spent over half an hour (at the counter) at the China Construction Bank with an equally smiling and eager clerk to change a 100-dollar bill. Communication is a true torture in China and I suspect language is not the only reason.


Harbin, Manchuria, China, November 2008.


Yumen, China, November 2008.

Actually, the Fine Arts students I mentioned above, we met in the train which took us effortlessly in just 24 hours (36, back in 1994) from the incredible Mogao caves in Dunhuang to Xi’an. Time flew as they kept making portraits of ourselves and other passengers, and we talked about Europe and showed them photos. A most pleasant ride on a fast, clean, safe, and punctual means of transportation.