200 km/h in the wrong lane

Apologies already for being slow to update - as I've only recently arrived here, I was hesitant to write my first impressions without first learning a bit more. As my head is overflowing with new experiences and information, it will be hard to go into much detail now, but I will try to give you a feel for the less-opinionated things I've found interesting.

I'm currently living in Harbin, the 10-million-strong capital of Heilongjiang province in northeast China. For being so far north, the weather has been quite pleasant. More than temperature, I'd have to warn about wind and dust; just walking down the busier and wider streets, it's common for me to become temporarily blinded if not wearing sunglasses. I've been experiencing chapped lips and a runny nose at times from this as well. Since I've yet to travel anywhere else in China, I can't compare, but my assumption is that Harbin is afflicted due to a subway construction project, being near Mongolian deserts (Asian Dust), and just being a dirty place in general.

I say dirty because hordes of people prowl the streets and many leave evidence of having been there. Food-stalls line the sidewalks, so wooden skewers and other trash from the treats are often discarded. Similarly, there's a lot of spitting - nothing casual, just full-out, loogie hawking. I'm not talking about falconry, but that loud, grinding noise of the mouth that gives "fair warning" to those nearby that they'd better mind their penny-loafers. Similarly, cleaning up after one's own pets is not much of a concern.

The trashy, neglected look isn't limited to the streets, but buildings as well. When we first pulled up to my apartment building from the airport, I thought we were making a quick stop to procure some crack. The front door evokes the feeling of a bomb shelter slum, and you'd think the residents were all squatters. (Thankfully, the apartments inside aren't ruins, but well-sized and respectable.) The Chinese so far seem to be quite pragmatic, and details such as trash, debris, rust, and simply hideous architecture aren't of much worry. We were told the importance of making a good first impression with student's parents by dressing well, yet the building we're working from looks just as dire as any of the others outside.

This doesn't make Harbin a bad place, just different. So far, I'd compare it closest with New York City. The tall buildings, bustling people, strong smells, constant honking, reckless cab drivers... it's all there. My first experience with a driver was on a 30-minute tribute to terror from the airport to my apartment. To summarize, here are my core observations about traffic in China:
  • Traffic laws are more like "guidelines."
  • Traffic control systems - such as lights and signs - are more like "guidelines."
  • The concept of the road, itself, is a "guideline."
  • Pedestrians do not have the right of way - ever.
Those are the four key points to remember. In spite of the anarchy I've just bullet-pointed, the roads here aren't awash with blood. Everyone understands the system, so it can work. It's only the unlucky bastards who walk in not knowing what's going on who will be maimed.

In my particular scenario, I got in the car at the airport and upon searching for the receiving end of my seatbelt, was told by my chaperone, "don't bother, this car doesn't have them in the back seat." By law, only the driver must wear a seatbelt. If you were paying attention earlier, you should know this really means that nobody has to wear a seatbelt. Naturally, this lack of restraint makes the sudden lane-changes and G-force turns all the more fun. It's as if the city is one giant theme park and each cab you see is its own roller-coaster ride waiting to be experienced.

Car horns are used so much, the little horn logos on the wheel must wear off. Honking isn't as much of a "fuck you" as it is a "it looks like we'll be hitting one another soon, and I want you to know that I'm not going to be the one backing down." An example would be a car looking to pull out from a drive and your taxi honking to keep them put. Another would be a car already on the road and your taxi honking before cutting them off. Since nobody wants to be in an accident, this still works, as you have the alpha-drivers zipping around and honking, while the others reflexively back off.

Our airport driver was so alpha, he shit omegas. At one point, there was a traffic jam for half a kilometer ahead of us and the car was actually stopped. Not one to tolerate such an idea, he pulled out from the "fast lane," across the lines, and slammed on the gas towards oncoming traffic, horn blaring. We flew past all of the stopped cars on the right and the oncoming ones unlucky enough to be in his way were quick to get out of it.


In sum, if one were to come to China with the intent of participating in the elaborate transportation tango, my advice would be to get in the appropriate mindset first. For example, one might consider making a mix CD for the car with the following tracks:
  1. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  2. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  3. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  4. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  5. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  6. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  7. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  8. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  9. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  10. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  11. Ludacris - Move Bitch
  12. Ludacris - Move Bitch
I'm pretty sure this is comprehensive enough to be effective.

To wrap up, it's easy to poke at the stark and often times alarming differences between another country's way of life and one's own, but it's all in good fun, and I've been having a blast here so far. The people have all been very friendly, the food has been great, the warm beer at restaurants... less than great - but it's all very interesting and I'm enjoying every second of it.


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