Days 16-17: Harbin, China

We arrived in Harbin yesterday afternoon about 5 o’clock. It took us three days to get here from Pogranichnyy, but that was much faster than George Schuster and the Thomas Flyer — they took seven days and their adventure made ours seem pedestrian.

The Thomas Flyer left Pogranichnyy on June 3, but after about 15 miles of driving over the Trans-Siberian Railroad track, the driving gear was stripped. Schuster hiked back to Pogranichnyy and caught a train to Harbin to get spare parts. In the meantime, the other members of the U.S. team camped out with the car for three days. After repairs, the Flyer arrived in Harbin on June 9.

Click NYT_19080605 to read the New York Times article about their ordeal.

We left Suifenhe about 10 a.m. and headed through town toward the G10 expressway that would take us all the way to Harbin. I was driving in the lead car with Sim, our guide, and as we approached the toll booth at the expressway entrance, a police officer stepped into the road and waved us over. He asked for my passport, looked it over and then handed it back. He and two other nearby police walked back to the Roadster, and in the rearview mirror I saw them smile and pull out their cell phones to take pictures. John later told me that when the police reached his car, they came to attention and saluted him!

We stopped for gas at a service area after driving for about an hour, and then had lunch and refueled again at another service area about two hours later. The food was delicious, but the portions were huge — next time we’ll just order two dishes and share them!


Lunch on the road in China

Lunch on the road in China (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

I had planned to drive for about 200 km before stopping again, but through a miscommunication over the walkie-talkies, we thought the Roadster was in a dire fuel situation so we took the next exit that looked like it might have gas. Sim asked the toll booth attendant for the nearest fuel station, and he told us it was one kilometer up the road. About 50 yards after the toll booth, the road turned into a rutted dirt road that we followed (very slowly) into a village. We passed farmers tending rice paddies and multiple people on bicycles and scooters pulling wagons piled high with tools, food, and goods to sell. The gas station was located on the edge of town, and a small police van sat across the street from it.

We pulled into the gas station and curious townspeople, including the two young police officers in the van, flocked to the Roadster.

Small town where we stopped for gas

Small town where we stopped for gas (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

After getting gas, we bounced our way back to the expressway and continued non-stop to Harbin. Although we had encountered little traffic on the drive over, the traffic in Harbin was the worst I’ve ever driven in (and I’ve driven in Los Angeles and Washington, DC).

Harbin traffic

Harbin traffic (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

But Sim had his GPS and he gave me great instructions on how to deal with the traffic, which mostly consisted of him saying, “Keep moving, keep moving,” and me saying, “I’m afraid I’m going to kill someone.” After making only one wrong turn, we found the hotel, but there was no entryway, so I just pulled onto the sidewalk (after all, just about every other car on the block was on the sidewalk already). Sim negotiated with the hotel parking attendant (I use that term loosely here) and the Roadster wound up on the sidewalk out front and I moved the Envoy to a spot on a side street, which involved driving the wrong way down a one-way street, but no one seemed to notice, given the prevailing chaos.


Figuring out what to do with the cars at the hotel

Figuring out what to do with the cars at the hotel (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Here’s the view from my hotel room:


View from the hotel room in Harbin

View from the hotel room in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Later that evening, John had to move the Roadster to a more secure location because the crowds were causing too much of a distraction for the hotel management!

This morning, we took a tour of Harbin, which included a walk down the central street, called Zhong Yang, where we saw interesting sculptures,


Sculpture in Harbin

Sculpture in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

all sorts of goodies to eat,


Food vendor in Harbin

Food vendor in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)



Balloon vendor in Harbin

Balloon vendor in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

a memorial to the victims of floods from the Songhua River over the years,


Flood memorial in Harbin

Flood memorial in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

boats on the river, including one that looked like a crew team,


Crew team?

Crew team? (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

bottles of gum,


Bottles of gum for sale in Harbin

Bottles of gum for sale in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

and the old Russian Orthodox Church of St. Sofia, which has been turned into a museum of Harbin’s early history as it transitioned from a village to a modern city with the arrival of the original Trans-Siberian Railroad route.


View of the ceiling in the Church of St. Sofia

View of the ceiling in the Church of St. Sofia (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

The museum had several pictures that depicted what Harbin looked like in 1908 when the original racers passed through. Here’s one of them:


Harbin in 1908

Harbin in 1908 (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

After dinner, John and I walked back down Zhong Yang to take in the night sights, such as this view of the flood memorial:


The Flood Memorial at night

The Flood Memorial at night (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Tomorrow we have a relatively leisurely drive of 300 km to Qiqihar.

Day 15: Clearing the Cars with Chinese Customs

At 7 am on Friday, we walked back to the Chinese customs area, which was located about 100 yards from our hotel.

The trucks with our cars were still sitting at the customs entry point, but at 7:50, we watched them roll into a holding area on the Chinese side. At that point, we were confident that the cars would be in our hands soon.

Cars in customs purgatory

Cars in customs purgatory (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

The Harbin office that had to release the cars didn’t open until 9, so we went back to the hotel for a quick breakfast and then caught a cab to a hospital in Suifenhe so we could complete the medical paperwork for our Chinese drivers licenses. The hospital was brand new, with gleaming blonde marble floors. We took an escalator to the second floor and entered a small office where we each took a color-blindness test and then we were on our way to the police station to get the licenses. We were in and out of the hospital so fast I didn’t even have a chance to take any pictures.

At the police station at 9:30, we entered an area labeled “Traffic Police” that anyone who has a drivers license in the U.S. would instantly recognize as a DMV. Our guide, Sim, gave our license and medical paperwork to two of the officers behind a counter, and we handed over our passports. While the paperwork was being processed, a driving school teacher gave us a short lecture on Chinese traffic laws, which are nearly identical to U.S. — use your seat belt, no drinking and driving, no cell phone while driving. A few differences — all cars must carry warning signs to post during a breakdown and a fire extinguisher, and you aren’t supposed to drive for more than four hours on an expressway (three hours on a back road) without a break.

At 10:05, Sim received a phone call to confirm that we had a loading dock available to get the cars off the trucks, and we had our “provisional licenses” by 10:30. I was amazed at how smoothly everything was going.

And then the process ground to a halt.


Waiting at Customs

Waiting at Customs (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

At 1:15, Sim had still not heard from the customs office, so we walked back over and found that the Harbin office was closed until 1:30 for a lunch break. Thinking we would hear something soon, we wandered about the customs area, looking at the wares offered for sale — mostly liquor, jewelry, lighters, and small tools — and Luke played a variation of Hacky Sack with some of the bored vendors. Here’s the “dart” they used instead of a Hacky Sack:


Hacky Dart?

Hacky Dart? (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

By 3:00, we were getting worried — once we got the cars through customs, we still had to unload them and take them to the police station again to complete the final paperwork, and the traffic police stopped working at 5 p.m. John, Leo and I lounged in a lower level of the customs area, while Luke went to drop some purchases he’d made in his room and to look for some ice cream.

A few minutes after Luke left, Sim came running down the stairs and said things were moving! The three remaining musketeers dashed up the stairs and followed Sim through a maze in the back of the customs building and into the holding area with the trucks. The Russian truck drivers, Igor and Yevgeny, were very happy to us! While we waited for additional paperwork to be completed, the drivers affixed some stickers to the cars and signed them:


Igor applying his decal

Igor applying his decal (Eileen Bjorkman photo)


Igor's sticker

Igor’s sticker (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Yevgeny's sticker

Yevgeny’s sticker (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

John and I climbed into Igor’s truck with the Roadster, and Leo and Sim got into Yevgeny’s truck with Leo’s GMC Envoy. And then we sat. And sat. And sat. Except for some taxis, nothing seemed to be moving in the customs area. Sim got out of his truck and yelled into his phone while making chopping motions with one arm. Finally, a customs inspector showed up and took some paperwork inside to a small blue building, and Sim walked back to our truck and said the police were coming to inspect the cars. We pulled up a few feet a past another gate at 3:58. At 3:59, the traffic police arrived, jumped on the trucks to inspect the cars, and at 4:09 we slipped through the last customs gate.

We drove about a mile to a loading dock, and the first thing I noticed when I got out of the truck was the Tibetan dog that barked constantly and looked ready to kill all of us if it got out of its cage. Yevgeny maneuvered his truck into place, and Leo drove his car onto the narrow loading dock:


Yevgeny backing up to the loading dock

Yevgeny backing up to the loading dock (Eileen BJorkman photo)

Then Igor backed his truck up to the dock, and we thought we were home free. Just then, a man came running over and began screaming at the truck drivers. I couldn’t understand a word he said of course, and I don’t think the drivers did either, but it was obvious he was mad we were using the loading dock. The drivers shouted back in Russian and for several minutes it looked like we might have to find another loading dock.

I’m still not sure what happened, but at 4:30 Igor jumped back into his truck and repositioned it while Yevgeny put his arm around the furious Chinese. Somehow all this worked, and John began to drive his car onto the dock. By then we were surrounded by a crowd that came out of nowhere and included a woman carrying baby who had climbed onto the dock and was now filming the operation with her cell phone. I had no idea that a loading dock could be such a hotspot on a Friday afternoon.

Getting the Roadster

Getting the Roadster (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

We managed to shoo away the onlookers long enough to get the Roadster onto the ground at 4:35, and were besieged by people who wanted to touch it and get their pictures taken.

But Sim ran over and said, “No, we need to go to the police station still!” I was confused — I thought the police had finished everything at the customs area. Sim didn’t know the way to the police station, so we went back to the main road and he hailed a cab. We followed the cab in the cars and at 4:50, we were flying back down the stairs into the traffic police area to finish the paperwork.

At 5:25, we walked out the door carrying our new Chinese license plates:


Temporary License Plate

Temporary License Plate (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Many, many thanks to all the people who made this happen — Sim, the customs folks in Sifuenhe, the truck drivers, and the traffic police who stayed late. I’m sure there are many more who helped as well that we aren’t aware of!

Next up: The drive to Harbin and tour of the city.

By the way, I did some research and found that the dishes we saw on the Thursday drive are part of the Galenki RT-70 radio telescope.


Day 14: Crossing into China: Part II

We finished the customs process and received our temporary Chinese license plates today at 5:25 pm. Just like in Yokohama, we were getting  a little worried that we might have to spend the weekend in Suifenhe, but our new guide, Sim, made everything come together, so we’ll be heading to Harbin on Saturday morning. But today will be a story for tomorrow — as a preview, it involved a junkyard, barking dogs, a near fist fight, and a woman carrying a baby.

We departed Vladivostok at 7 a.m. Thursday to drive to Pogranichnyy, a town on the Russian border where we were to meet up with the truck drivers who would take the trucks across and where Luke and I would board the bus to carry us across the border. Along the way, we encountered sheepherders,


Sheepherders encountered about 30 miles outside Vladivostok

Sheepherders encountered about 30 miles outside Vladivostok (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

four miles on a gravel road due to construction (which brought back memories of driving forest roads in New Mexico),


Construction zone demolition derby practice

Construction zone demolition derby practice (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

our first fueling stop in Russia,


First pit stop in Russia

First pit stop in Russia (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

radio telescopes (I think — maybe they’re something else),


Radio telescopes or some sort of satellite dishes

Radio telescopes or some sort of satellite dishes (Eileen Bjorkman photo)



Horses encountered during the drive to the border

Horses encountered during the drive to the border (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

beautiful open country,


Open country during the last 45 minutes of the drive to the border

Open country during the last 45 minutes of the drive to the border (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

and at 10:30 am, Pogranichnyy, where the Roadster created quite a stir, as usual. We’re getting used to these crowds following us whenever we wander into town.


Creating a ruckus once again

Creating a ruckus once again (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

At noon, the trucks hadn’t arrived, and it seemed there was some sort of problem. We headed to a restaurant for some Chinese food, and then at 1300 Svetlana got a call and we dashed to the cars and drove north back out of town to meet the replacement trucks. The first truck arrived, and it wasn’t of the “rollback” type we thought we were getting, so there was no easy way to load the cars, especially the Roadster. This was the picture in the previous post.

After an hour of discussion about forklifts, containers, two simultaneous cranes, car lifts, and other ideas on how to levitate the cars onto the flatbeds, we decided we needed a loading dock. So Svetlana took off with one of the truck drivers and they investigated every possibility in town — each one wasn’t quite right, but they each directed her to another facility that might work.

In the meantime, I went for a short walk and snapped a picture of this pretty kitty:


Russian kitty cat

Russian kitty cat (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

At 3:10 pm, Svetlana returned and the conga line now consisting of the guide van, the Roadster, the SUV, and the two Russian trucks headed to the loading dock:


Our salvation -- the loading dock!

Our salvation — the loading dock! (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

By 3:45, John’s car was on one truck,


Loading the Roadster onto one truck

Loading the Roadster onto one truck (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

although we had a brief scare with some overflowing antifreeze from the Roadster,


Scary-looking anti-freeze

Scary-looking anti-freeze (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

and by 4:00, the SUV was on the other truck, so Luke and I raced with Svetlana back to town to buy our bus tickets.


Leo's truck -- we're pros at this now

Leo’s truck — we’re pros at this now (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

But not so fast … Svetlana took us to the border to get on the bus, and when we arrived, we saw that the trucks were nowhere near crossing yet.


Cars waiting at the border

Cars waiting at the border (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Luke and I got some ice cream, and about 5:15, the trucks pulled across the first border barrier into the customs area. It looked like things were moving along, but then they pulled over to one side instead of continuing forward. Luke and I got on the bus at 5:20, where we sat for 45 minutes until the bus drove about 50 feet into the Russian immigration and customs area. After clearing immigration and customs, we reboarded the bus on the other side and about 6:30, we drove to Suifenhe, where we finally met our guide, Sim.


Customs building in Suifenhe

Customs building in Suifenhe (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

But John and Leo were still waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more. After a seemingly endless cycle of paperwork and passport inspections, Svetlana managed to get a temporary pass inside the border area and she somehow facilitated the release of the trucks into China. John and Leo arrived at Chinese customs about 9 pm as the customs officers were turning out the lights. But we all made it! Here’s our celebratory dinner in China at our hotel:


First dinner in China

First dinner in China (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Tomorrow’s post: Getting the cars out of purgatory today.