Monday, November 7, 2016

Harbin Arrival


     The beaten Jetta’s driver crosses the median, dodges head-on 3am traffic; the college greeter says it’s faster when I ask why.  While we show IDs and my passport at a gate, beggars advance; cabbie hustles clunker through, slows past barred windows of cloned concrete buildings coated with coal ash.  Garage-like overhead doors of shops on ground floors reflect one high beam’s dimness.  My guide gets out at a dead end and reaches through a grate to bang a pane, which lights.  A lady in a bathrobe creaks open the entrance, then leads us up and through a maze of stairs and halls to the fourth floor, where I inter my two obese suitcases in a two-room apartment, once the home of sixteen students.  Twenty hours after I stepped into Logan, I’m left alone in a dormitory. 
     When I wake I check my cell, unpack.  A glass-doored metal cabinet that locks accepts my treasures: Longfellow’s Complete Poems, my bound thesis, honors pins and ribbons, two grammar books, and lots of Damart: I read on Wiki that Manchuria’s crazy cold in winter.
     The shower’s funky—two knobs regulate flow and heat until that fades to frigid.  The TV blizzards, but everything’s clean except the slightly oily micro-kitchenette, supplied with a heat plate, bent silverware, and a small clothes washer.  Empty, the fridge is in the living room.  From the window I view the campus and students, few, chatting, texting, standing or sitting on curbs outside. 
     The door guard lady smiles, dials a phone as I leave to find a cyber café.  Engulfed in smoke from bleary gamers, I transmit I’ve safely arrived, and then I walk toward the city.  Hurried, taxis pass three-wheeled delivery trucks, buses, and pedaled wagons.  Mobs crowd bus stops, a KFC, and food vendors’ carts near another university.  Smog chokes the summer humidity.        
     On the sixth, the English, floor of a bookstore, I search the expansive shelves until I find the Ancient Chinese poetry section, filled with parallel text volumes, where I read, oblivious.  Three hours later I walk out relieved of twenty Yuan (about two and a half bucks), but endowed with 300 Tang Poems: Chosen by Theme—all its pages are complemented with lush Chinese artwork.  My new favorite verse is Li Bai’s “Invitation to Wine.”          
     Back on the bare trees and clothes-lined sidewalk, I choose a shop; inside I inspect labels, contemplate a 440 ml jug of clear, 48% alc./vol. liquor.  The owner taps adding machine keys.  “Bai jiu—wine. Bai Da Can bai jiu. Si (four) Yuan—cheap,” he says, then grabs a couple of more expensive (fifteen Yuan), boxed bottles and follows me to brews in crates:  “Pi jiu—beer. Er (two) Yuan. Harbin pi jiu—Ha’ Pi.” 
     At the tiny cashier’s counter the man offers me a cigarette from his pack—“Baisha”—lights it, then opens a porcelain vessel of bai jiu.  A pungent polish, but sweet, bouquet entices.  From a glass, milky pear drop flames immerse my tongue.  My new acquaintance tops two cups with beer: “Ha’ Pi.” Yeah, I’m happy.        

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