We left Jiamusi City early on Tuesday morning, eager to experience this 3-day trip to China’s most Northeastern border.
We were heading to Fuyuan, the place where the sun brushes China first, every day.
It is a place of history.
A place of conflict.
Like most border-towns, a place where cultures spill into each other.
We looked forward to visiting Dong Ji Square, Black Bear Island, the world’s largest Wetland & walk the streets of an old Chinese City influenced by Eastern European ways.
We took a Coach, so that we could stop along the way & see where the Yellow Dragon River & Black Dragon River meet.
And visit the birth place of the world’s first Eskimos.
If you come to Fuyuan via Beijing you should fly.
It is remote.
In a corner of the world known to few.
The Coach was comfortable & air-conditioned.
There is also a train to Fuyuan.
Until 1998 the city was cut off from the rest of China.
The railway only reaching the city in the Autumn of that year.
The airport quite recently completed.
A deep water harbour being built.
It was a place where outcasts were sent.
Iced for the greatest part of the year with temperatures dropping below -40ºC for almost 7 months of each year, Spring & Autumn bringing good weather with temperatures rising to zero & a short summer creating the opportunity to grow food & stock up for winter.
If you visit Fuyuan, you should come in summer – July & August.
By September temperatures drop again & by October it becomes unbearable, unless you are equiped with Alaskan-gear.
Han Mei, one of our travel companions tell us her story along the way.
She came to Fuyuan when she was six years old.
She came from wealth.
The Han-family prominent & influential.
Her father an artist.
In 1965, as it always does, things changed, in China & in the life of the Han-family.
Where her father’s influence brought them privilege, suddenly it did not.
They were ‘redeployed’.
Not to be a teacher of art or leader, but to be a laborer.
Carrying building material down the mountain to the River harbor, from early morning to sunset & beyond.
Her life changed.
Suddenly expected, as six year old, to go into the mountains to fetch wood for the fire that would keep them warm as temperatures drop too low to measure.
Can you imagine that?
A six year old, walking axe in hand, through deep frozen snow, into wild mountains.
Her only company a 10 year old brother & a few other brave children.
To come home, bring life to a dwindling fire & start cooking dinner.
Not from pre-packed shop stuffs.
A chicken to be caught & killed & skinned.
Rice to be cooked.
Flour to be kneeded into bread.
To sleep & do it all again, tomorrow.
And the next day.
In 1976 change came again.
Her father never restored, but at least his artistic talents not squandered anymore.
And as an 18 year old, having excelled at school, despite life’s demands, she is off to University.
To become a nurse.
Later to study in the USA, during the early 90’s.
To become Professor of nursing management at one of China’s biggest Medical Schools & Director of an International Language School.
Her father now 80.
His battered body showing the scars of more than a decade’s hard labor, his heart the scars of life’s rhythm of loss & gain & loss again, always bringing new life, new experiences, new gain to be lost again.
A story isn’t told in a moment.
Our travel companion sharing it with us as we visit different sights, share meals & walk along ancient paths.
On day one we stop for a moment at the place where the eskimos of old were born, a little village with a little musuem and less than 5000 people.
They are the Hezheh-people of China.
One of the 56 peoples who form this nation.
Now protected & their lifestyle of hunting & fishing supported by their government.
We also stop at the place of three rivers, where the Yellow Dragon and Black Dragon Rivers flow into on big Heilongjiang River.
It is late afternoon when we arrive in Fuyuan.
The Eastern European influence very visible in the buildings, the food & signage.
Everything is bilingual.
Chinese & Russian.
Caviar is on the menu.
Beer is deep rich Russian-style beer.
Pagodas are relieved by domed roofs.
Day two takes us to Dong Ji Square with its 40 meter high Sculpture.
Until 2008 Black Bear Island was taken by the Russians.
Then half was given back to China.
Now Dong Ji Square comemorates peace & positive relationships.
Nearby Usu Town, the smallest village in China, with a single road & a single family, remembers a different time of conflict, the commemorative wall remembering the conflict of 1929, the battle, the lives lost.
We visit there too.
And we visit the largest Wetland in Northeast Asia.
This world has 56 ponds & 700 lakes.
It is a paradise for birds & water plants.
Many protected species & most only found here, in this little corner where China & Russia rub shoulders, sometimes even embracing each other.
Across the river is Russia’s smallest Village.
With its own history.
Its own story to tell.
Perhaps another story.
As in life.
A story of loss & gain & loss again, as seasons give way to the resilient rhythm of high tide & low tide, of abundance & poverty.
The Treasure Tower is our last stop for the day.
Reaching high into the sky, surrounded by 56 pillars, symbolizing the 56 peoples who are China.
A new structure with carved stone & a deep spiritual feel.
Even here, far away, people recognizing that treasure is gift received, never earned, for a moment to be grateful for, no matter how uncertain your connection with the Divine.
We enjoy a late lunch.
Sweet & Sour Pork.
Green Beans & shank of goat.
Soft white bread & sweet tea.
Then we walk the streets of Fuyuan in the golden rays of another precious Summer’s afternoon.
Traders approach us in Russian, believing we are just another group of Russians who came to Fuyuan to buy special goods at low rates.
But we are not.
Our journey is of another kind.
We came to become more.
We feel our beings expand, a cool breeze rustling through our leaves, from off the smooth cool surface of the Ussuri River as it flows towards the Japanese Sea.
Day three starts with another beautiful breakfast.
Then we head to the Fish Museum.
A 800 sq meter Pavilion featuring this world’s ancient Sturgeon.
The largest freshwater fish to be found anywhere.
It is called the living fossil of the Ussuri & Heilongjiang, believed to be 130 million years old.
It is carnivorous.
It grows 8 metres long & can weigh up to 1000kg.
It matures at 17 and can become 100 years old.
Some Sturgeon, born during Chin’s Cultural Revolution, still swimming the waters of these dragon rivers, spawning off-spring, providing Caviar to those who can afford it.
Then we drive up to the mountain.
Walk in the forest.
Take lunch, before we grab our luggage at the hotel & head back to Jiamusi City.
As we drive past kilometres and kilometres of rice paddies, sometimes broken by fields of corn, I think of what we’ve seen.
A place where even the street lamps are works of art, whith a welcome gate which reminds of the Arc d’Triomf & people whove known what life truly is.
I think of my own Tribe of Vagabonds.
And I am grateful.
For we see from another perspective.
And we become.
As we taste & share & experience.
Our own vagabond-culture taking shape in new ways, as we see a golden thread amongst all people, expressed in different ways, along the way.