On to Harbin, China

Trip Start Jan 02, 2013
Trip End Mar 17, 2013

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Where I stayed
Gfour Holiday Hotel Harbin
Read my review - 2/5 stars

Flag of China  , Heilongjiang,
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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I got up early, checked out of my hotel in Tokyo and dragged my bags over to the Ueno station for the Keisei line to the airport. When I was going through the turnstile the machine didn't work properly. Someone came over to check what was going on. He tried my Suica card (a card good for the metro and most commuter rails in Tokyo that can also be used to buy food and other items at some locations) on another turnstile and waved me through. He asked me where I was going and when I said to the airport he told me I wanted Track 2. I went down to Track 2 and got on the train.

Before I sat down I looked out the window at the display for the train and realized I was on the local train to the airport. I grabbed my things and headed for the door just as it was closing. I managed to block the door before it closed all the way and when they re-opened I quickly got off. Disaster narrowly averted.

The train I wanted was on the other side of the platform on Track 1 and was due to leave seven minutes later. I got on and we soon left for the airport.

Everything at the airport went smoothly. I caught my flight to Shanghai and settled in. I looked at one of the magazines in the seat back in front of me and realized that not only is it a longer flight to Shanghai than it is to Harbin, my final destination, but when I get to Shanghai I'll be further from Harbin than I was in Tokyo.

We arrived in Shanghai.  The Shanghai airport is huge and modern.  There were some enormous rooms I had to walk through after clearing immigration that didn't seem to serve any purpose.

I headed for the Maglev train. It's the fastest train in the world, at least at certain times of day. I had found the times when it runs fastest and I was there at the right time. My first problem was paying for a ticket. I went to a currency exchange counter and as I waited in line I noticed that in addition to giving you a lousy rate they charged a 60 yuan (roughly $10) fee. I went and checked a second one. It had the same fee so I decided to go find an ATM since my bank, which charges exorbitant fees, which is why I brought a lot of cash, charges less than the currency exchange company.  I got some yuan and headed back to the Maglev.

I bought my ticket and hopped on.  The train soon left.  There's a speedometer at each end of every car.  The speed rapidly increased until it hit 300 km/hr (roughly 184 mph) and then it stopped increasing.  I was on during one of the slow periods.  (I've since checked the timetables for when the train runs at top speed and I've found the same incorrect
information in several places.  I suspect they've changed their schedule

The train reached the first stop in around seven or eight minutes.  I didn't know if it continued on so I hopped off.  I assumed that the trains to the airport would be on another line so I went downstairs and through the exit and then through the ticket machine and the security check, up the stairs and found out I was getting onto the other side of the same train.  The same track is accessible from two platforms.  It just goes one stop and then turns around.

I talked to someone about the speed and was told that it starts going fast at 3:00, which would be the next train in 15 minutes.  Well, I was already running late and didn't want to press my luck waiting another 15 minutes so I hopped on the slow train, took it back to the airport and found my way to my gate.  I got there with enough time to spare that I could have waited the 15 minutes.  The posted boarding time arrived and nothing happened.  It turns out my plane was about an hour late.

My plane to Harbin eventually got underway.  The flight attendants have their work cut out for them on this flight.  People kept using their notebook computers and phones right through take-off and landing.  I could see two of them from where I was sitting that weren't turned off until it was time to get off the plane.  We hadn't been on the ground more than a few seconds and hadn't even turned off the runway when people started getting up and opening the overhead bins.  Harbin was founded by Russia in the 1800s.  Much of the population is Russian and many of the non-Chinese signs are Russian.  They seem to have maintained Russian manners.

When I got out of the plane I found we were parked away from the terminal and there was a bus at the bottom of the stairway to take us to the terminal. It was snowing making the metal stairs pretty slippery - not good when you have a bag in each hand.  We must have been parked a mile from the terminal but we eventually got there. By the time we reached the baggage claim area our bags were already there.T

he airport is tiny compared to Shanghai's.  Now Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 23 million so it's not a surprise that their airport is large but Harbin, with a population of 10 million, is a major city as well and the terminal seemed puny in comparison. 

I had neglected to check how I should get from the airport to the hotel.  I checked my Lonely Planet guide book and they suggested taking a bus instead of a taxi.  Just outside the airport there were some ice sculptures.  I found a bus, bought a ticket and got on.  When they stowed my bags they chained them together and gave me the key to the lock.  I've never seen that before. 

The bus ride into town took over an hour.  The bus was packed.  The heater was turned up full-blast and it was extremely hot on the bus.  For some strange reason, the person in the seat next to me was an inch or two into my seat and practically snuggling up against me.  The windows were steamed up from the heat and perspiration so I couldn't see out enough to get much of a sense of where we were.

We stopped a few times but I stayed on until we were somewhere that looked more like downtown to me.  We eventually reached a stop near the train station.  Most of the people were getting off the bus there and I decided to do the same.  When I went to get my bags I found a couple guys trying to unlock my lock.  I guess they're there for a reason.

Now I needed a taxi.  I tried flagging some down but they ignored me.  I suspected that Harbin is one of those places where taxis can only stop at designated taxi stands.  I figured there would be one at the train station so I headed over.  I found a taxi stand and got a taxi.  The first problem was that my bags wouldn't fit in the trunk so he had to leave the lid open.  I didn't think that was much of a problem but they wound up getting splashed with road grime and slush.  The next problem was communicating to the driver where I wanted to go.  He didn't understand the English name of the hotel.  I didn't have the name written in Chinese and it wasn't in my guide book.  I gave him the phone number but I had the International number with a Country Code and City Code and he couldn't figure out how many digits to dial.  He tried calling someone who claimed to speak English but they didn't do much better.  He had someone who actually spoke English call us back.  Finally, the driver knew where we were going.

I got to the hotel, checked in and went to my room.  I had book what they called an interior room.   I wasn't expecting a window but it had one -  that looks out at a wall about a foot away.  Actually, the room has two windows.  The other window looks from the bed into the bathroom.  It has a window shade that's on the bed side of the window.  You wouldn't want to share this room with just anybody.  I've had some strange rooms but this is the first bathroom with a interior picture window.  I checked some pictures on Expedia and it looks like all of the rooms here have this feature including rooms with two twin beds that you might be sharing with someone you don't know that well.  Some of them are even larger than the one in my room and appear to extend the entire length of the tub.

I tried to use the Internet.  The first problem was getting it configured correctly.  Unlike every other hotel I've stayed in, and that's in the hundreds, I could not use DHCP, which is the option where the computer is told by the router how to configure the connection.  There was a notebook in the room that contained hotel information that had a page on the Internet.  It was entirely in Chinese but I could see the numbers.  I used them to set up the connection with a fixed IP address and DNS servers and turned off TCP/IPv6, since that feature requires DHCP and I had a connection.  Barely.  While I was able to get this running it requires a lot more knowledge than I think should be expected from your average guest.

Also in the hotel information is something that reads, "His Excellency in the room can enjoy free of charge fiber-optic services, for the network to extend the line directly with the floor attendant or contact Service."  I've run a few speed tests.  The results have been as low as 30Kb and as high as several Mb but they don't seem to correlate with the actual performance.  I'm not sure where the bottleneck is.  I suspect it might be due to firewalls run by the government that stop you from accessing many sites, such as Google, Facebook or YouTube.  I tried running SlingBox, which gives a real-time readout of the connec
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