Made it from my dorm to the gate in under 40 minutes! This left me time for a dinner of overpriced airport food! I paid 68 kuai ($10!!!) for a plate of spaghetti; it came with a plastic fork so I ate with chopsticks instead. Anyway, that way it’s acceptable to slurp. I also ordered 开水 (boiled water) because it’s the Chinese equivalent of chips and salsa in a Mexican restaurant – a.k.a. free. Also, the monoculture in China can be a bit overpowering and sometimes it’s more refreshing to drink boiled water with everyone else than to drink ice water by yourself. Holy crap, I really am becoming Chinese . . .
Once on the plane, I pull out a little duct-tape-bound notebook and start paging through it. This is the Chinese ‘dictionary’ I created during my summer on the farm, and it contains every Chinese word I knew at the end of July 2008. It’s a still-frame of that phase in my Chinese language learning. It’s also hilarious. A lot of simple words (mainly nouns) are right, and a blessed few even have pinyin (although at that time I didn’t know a single character). I knew a lot of really basic words, but also quite a bit of specialized vocabulary – words that I still don’t know in character form because I have no use for them off the farm, like cone, trailer, rivet, hammer, and shovel (both kinds). A few things in there, I have really no idea where they came from: both = erzhe? after = zaihou? accident = buxing? follow = yanzhe? or = yihou? scholarship = xuewen? But the really funny entries are the ones that I now see are wrong, and in retrospect, can figure out what happened. “Weiyingle” doesn’t mean “lose”, it means “didn’t win”. “You yi” kind of means “another”, but not in the sense I was looking for. “shiguding” means “fixed” as in “immovable”, not as in “repaired”.
I’ve spent the entire flight thus far and the hour before boarding trading glances with a young man seated in front of me. This would be way more exciting if he were a) cute, b) not obviously with his girlfriend/wife, and c) looking at me for a reason other than that I’m a foreigner. I can’t wait to go back to America and catch a guy staring at me because he’s interested, not curious!
Apparently my flight passes through Nanjing. This explains why the trip is scheduled to take so long! I’ve never been to Nanjing before, and my first impression isn’t that great, as the airport is kind of a dump. I spent the hour there eating the Mentos that I bought – Fresh Cola flavored, and disturbingly accurate.
We just landed in Changchun – I am finally in 东北 (the northeast of China)! The bathroom here is good – there’s toilet paper, although you have to grab it on your way in, and even soap!?!
I’m in a taxi with my new friends, Staring Man from the plane and his significant other. This situation – midnight taxi ride with strangers – doesn’t sound good on paper, but it feels okay. At one point, we pull over to the side of the dark highway in the middle of nowhere; it turns out the taxi behind us had a flat and needed our spare. Ah 东北, I’ve missed you! Taxi rides in Xiamen are too uneventful.
My train to Tumen doesn’t leave til 8 but I discovered a 4 o’clock one to Yanji. I lose 4 kuai by returning my original ticket and buying the other one. Sweet! This should shave 6 hours off my travel time!
I worked on my computer for awhile, and when I look up I see the sun has already risen. My alarm just went off at 4, a reminder that my train leaves in 15 minutes. My train, K7333, is on the master timetable, but we should be lining up and I don’t see it on any of the ticket counters, so I ask an employee. Turns out my train leaves from the Changbaishan station; I was apparently somehow supposed to know this although it was not on my ticket and was not mentioned at the time of purchase. BTW, the Changbaishan station half a kilometer away, good luck!
Despite it being 4 in the morning, despite only having gotten a few restless hours of sleep on the plane, and despite my three pieces of luggage, I speed-walk/run the entire way to the other station. Panting, I look up and see: K7333, 晚点23分 – my train is 23 minutes late. My emotions fluctuate between grateful (I don’t have to run to the train yet) and really pissed off (because I didn’t even have to run here). I comfort myself by remembering that I totally would have made it if the train had been on time.
Twenty-three minutes turned into forty before we finally got on. This train runs from Dalian to Yanji, which means we’re getting on about halfway. This is my first time doing this (as Tumen and Xiamen are terminal stops by necessity), and I probably won’t do it again if I can help it. First of all, trains usually depart on time; the delays happen en route. Secondly, it turns out they only change the sheets in the sleeper berths at the final destination. I really want to sleep, but not in the same linens that some other person slept in all the way from Dalian!
I awake to the sight of a train worker standing by feet. I’m pretty sure that he’s just been staring at me, waiting for me to wake up – and he takes my consciousness as an invitation to start a conversation. He’s asked where I’m from before I’ve even got my glasses on, and totally ignores my hints (repeated yawning) and outright declarations (我还是想睡觉) that I want to sleep. He finally leaves me alone after I’ve showed him every picture I have on me.
We stop in 朝阳川, and there’s Korean on the sign. We must be in Yanbian! (Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture is a region with a high density of Korean residents; Yanji is the capital and Hunchun and Tumen are also a part of it.) I start looking out the window with earnest, and what I see is exactly what I remember of this part of China – greenhouses and that semi-neon China Blue, everywhere. Have they been everywhere, and I’m only noticing them now when I expect to see them?
We’re in Yanji! I take a taxi to the bus station. Rather, I get in the taxi and watch as my taxi driver gets in a fight (literally) with another taxi driver over more passengers. I alternate yelling in Chinese (师傅，怎么了？快点，快点！) and English (“Seriously?! Are you a 14-year-old boy? What on earth are you doing??”).
With 20 minutes before my bus to Hunchun, I walk next door to get something to eat. (While the 24-hour fast en route to the farm is a celebrated tradition of mine – the better to stuff yourself with sticks upon arrival! – I’m in danger of passing out before I make it there.) I buy 拉面 (noodles) to-go and they bring it to me . . . in a bag. A little plastic bag, tied in a knot. Ummmmmmmmmmmm ‘kay. I ask how I’m supposed to eat it, and they grudgingly offer me a plastic bowl to go with it. I feel like such a nube, but this isn’t how we eat 拉面 in Xiamen!!
We’re on the highway, driving along the river. On the other bank, there’s a wall of mountains – I think that’s NK.
We just crossed the river, so I’m hoping I was wrong about the river being the border! Haha, this reminds me of the jokes we made every time we crossed a river during our summer on the farm – either we would make fun of Michelle for getting dysentery while fording the river, or we would pretend that we had accidentally crossed into NK.
Now the other side of the river looks dead. I think this is NK.
I see a man in a camo jacket driving a tractor, and I feel like I know him.
I see greenhouses everywhere, and remember why we first came to Hunchun.
I see that all the trees have submitted to the constant wind and point west permanently, and remember why we first came to Hunchun.
I see the Hunchun power plant, and have never been more excited to see a power plant in my life. It is the first thing that I actually recognize, and was right where I expected it to be, around 8 or 9 kilometers outside of town. I’m excited, it means we’re almost there – but as I search for Goose Lady’s tiny wind turbine in the shadow of the huge coal-burning power plant, I remember why we first came to Hunchun.
I see the first sign with Russian: Michelin Tires. This means Hunchun is near!
The bus stops at the Seoul Fashion Plaza (least fashionable building EVER, but I remember it fondly), and I get off. Hunchun, 我回来了!