January 11, 2016. As I stepped off the train at Harbin West station after an eight hour train ride across the Manchurian flatlands from Beijing, the station was moist and frigid with the Siberian wind and the night which had fallen hours before.
It was -29 degrees Celsius as I dragged my two suitcases and a camera bag up and down escalators and long hallways, eager to meet my Chinese guides. Even with my Russian sheepskin coat and Yak hat, the wind split my bones and cut into my chest, reminding me of what cold is really like. Or perhaps I’ve never experienced a cold of this sort, the kind that literally takes one’s breath away. You feel grounded, incredibly alive, stimulated, a little scared, as though you’ll meet a greater reality that will not allow you to fret, at least temporarily, about climate change.
Harbin is the cold of another planet, in another time, probably the same climate-time that Pieter Bruegel and Hendrik Avercamp painted thousands of Dutch skaters frolicking on the frozen canals of Holland. That time was the late 16th and early 17th century, known to the world as “The Little Ice Age.”
Only now, nearly 500 years later, the figures on the ice are Manchurian, and the lake is actually the Songhua River, the largest tributary of Heilong Jiang (Black Dragon River, 黑龙江), the earth’s 10th largest waterway. Heilongjiang is known to the Russians as the Amur River; its headwaters flow south southeast from river sources in the mountains of Inner Mongolia, Outer Mongolia and Russia, cutting through China and separating northeast Manchurian territory from Russia’s Far East.
I’m in China to do research for a science fiction novel I’m writing.
The Songhua, and Harbin itself, sound like strange places to visit, but if you’re writing a novel where much of the action takes place in and around this river, obviously it’s better to see it first hand. In my novel, much of the action takes place in “True North,” around the rivers that freeze solid — and deep as a meter or more thick — from late November until March every year.
Of course, in a hundred years, the temperature will likely rise…but that’s also part of the novel (and Harbin in fact is already showing signs of warming…more on that in another post).
Manchuria, which the Chinese call “Dongbei” (东北), meaning “East-North,” is freezing as hell in January, its coldest month; the city’s temperatures drop to -28 to -30 degrees Celsius (-18 to -22 Fahrenheit) at nighttime, and don’t get much past -6 degrees C during the day. At MoHe, a tiny town 857 kilometers (532 miles) northwest of Harbin on the Russian-Siberian border, temperatures frequently drop to -40 degrees C (-40 degrees Fahrenheit) and below. No wonder the Manchurians are as tough as nails! The geography is now almost as familiar to me as the veins in my left hand. I’ve learned that the Songhua’s source is the Changbai mountains bordering North Korea; the river flows north and splits into the Nen and the “second Songhua,” which flows east northeast to the Amur/Black Dragon River.
The Russians are Coming!
At Khabarovsk, the Russian town northeast of Harbin, the big river changes course, flowing north-northeast to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Tartary Strait bordering Russia’s Sakhalin. This is the spillway of millions of lives, the original water source for Tungusic and Mongol tribes occupying the Amur Valley and the Manchurian plain for centuries, followed by the incursions of Ming Emperors Yongle and Xiangde in the 15th century, whose domination of the area was short-lived.
The Russians established their boundary on the northern banks of the Amur in the 19th century, pushing out the Qing Manchus in 1858 with their Treaty of Aigun. And in 1896, the Russians negotiated with both Japan and Qing officials to extend their 3000 mile Trans-Siberian Railroad from Siberia and Chita through Harbin to Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast. Russian engineers now poured into the swampy outpost on the “Sungari” or Songhua River, and quickly, in the most unlikely of ways, a thriving Euro-Russian transportation and manufacturing capital was built in central Manchuria. The new city attracted tricksters, migrants, criminals, and eventually, 20,000 Jews and 100,000 Russians who fled east to escape the Czar’s institutionalized anti-Semitism or the repression and economic hardship after the Czar was overthrown.
Here is a description of the “new” Harbin from F. Alexander Lusenko, published in The Orthodox Vision (Autumn 2006; see http://www.orthodox.cn/localchurch/harbin/harbinrussianenclave_en.htm
“…It so happened that in 1895 Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War, after which Russia, along with France and Germany, was able to persuade Japan not to take over a part of Manchuria it got in a post-war treaty. In return for this favor Russia, in the person of Count Sergei Witte, her illustrious Finance Minister, asked for and received permission to build the Chinese Eastern Railroad (CER) across Manchuria. In 1896 a contract was signed between the Chinese government and the Russo-Chinese Bank allowing not only for the building and exploitation of the railway, but also for a rather wide strip of land on both sides of the Railway line to be placed under Russian administration. This was to remain in force for 80 years following the completion of the line, with the proviso that China could buy back the railroad in 36 years….Among the various fishing villages in a swampy area called “Khaabin” (a Manchu word meaning “a place for drying fishing nets”) an abandoned distillery was found and purchased, becoming the new headquarters for the construction administration, which arrived at that location on June 9, 1898, generally considered to be Harbin’s “birthday.”
In its brightest times, Harbin was the seat of the most multicultural and cosmopolitan community in Russia’s Far East. It rivaled Shanghai for the diversity of its culture and artistic accomplishments. Russian Jews flocked to the city to open coal mines, candy factors, banks, dance studios, synagogues, museums and garment factories. The “roaring 20s” brought skimpy fashions and free-style bathing on the banks of the Songhua, which are actually warm in the summer (the temperature can reach 25 to 30 degrees Celsius, 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit), along with brisk trade. I took some of these images from an architectural museum found inside Harbin’s beautiful but pock-marked Saint Sophia church:
By the 1930, Japanese had swept across Manchuria and brought with it horrific violence and repression. In Manchuria (now called the Japanese name “Manchukuo”) and especially in Harbin, the Japanese brought microbiologists and vivisectionists who used local spies and Russian thugs (a branch of the Harbin Russian Fascist Party was started here) to round up thousands of Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, and even European immigrants for germ warfare experiments. These were conducted in the Pingfang district of Harbin, a compound designated the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Unit of the Kwangtung Army.” The city has now built a museum documenting the “inhuman atrocities” or the Japanese germ warfare experiments (more on that shortly), which I visited on my second day in the city. The exhibit is easily on the scale of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC — just as powerfully documented and disturbing. In my mind, its scale is even more spectacular than the Holocaust installation, and the assemblage of evidence should be much more publicized worldwide. More on this in another post.