You always have options for long distance travel. The direct(?) flight to Vladivostok is around 30 hours with a 12 hour lay-over in Beijing. Not one of the better airlines, either.
But I can travel via Harbin, Manchuria in only 15 hours with a 2 hour layover in Taipei. Much better airline (EVA) as well. I'll have 3 nights to decompress and adjust time zones.
Pyongyang would actually have been closer, but ....
So Manchuria it is.
Perhaps this will be more difficult than I had anticipated. I just received a message from my hotel responding to a request for an airport transfer. The message reads - "Do you need to pick up the machine?"
The big question here is whether or not to visit the Unit 731 Museum.
To learn more about what I missed (and why) check out https://unit731.org/harbin-museum/
Just when you didn't think anything could be worse than Auschwitz. There's enough hate going around today. Focusing on dealing with the present seems to take precedence over revisiting past atrocities.
So much for anticipation. The clouds clear on final approach to reveal a densely cultivated landscape stretching to the horizon. The fields along a flooded river are a Van Gogh swirl of green and yellow.
We land and I am taken aside for special treatment. I am entering Harbin using the China 72 hour visa free program. Thousands regularly use this in Beijing and Shanghai, but evidently this is unusual in Harbin. Finally, after multiple officials check my passport, onward ticket and hotel reservation I am allowed to enter.
During my 3 days in Harbin, a mid-sized city of ten million I see 5 other non-Chinese. I am an object of interest but pleasantly so.
Harbin does not have much to offer the tourist. The Church of Santa Sophia is closed for renovation. So you are left with a pedestrianized street, the flood control monument and early 20th century Russian architecture that is only slightly less hideous than the Communist era apartment blocks that succeeded them. Nor are the Harbinese stylish. In food obsessed China they are famous for their sausages. And gmail is blocked.
However, I highly recommend Harbin. It is perhaps the most relaxed city, large or small, that I know. There is a park stretched along the Songhua river where the Harbinians go to stroll. They are relaxed, they are smiling, from infants to elders, lovers, families, friends, all moseying along in a communal good mood. In addition there is not a single piece of litter to be seen and the air is clean and fresh.
My first morning I am met by groups of people wearing matching t-shirts, marching gaily off to some communal event. In the afternoon groups of geezers gather to dance. They wear brightly-colored costumes and would be quite at home in a Mendocino 'pop-up.' They would add a bit of structure to those events and their twirls are world class. It is heartening to see so many people having so much fun. One passing woman joins the dancers for a turn and her face is pure joy.
So, for 2 days I join the stroll. And pass groups gathered to dance, to sing, to discuss.
The Harbinites leave me a bit less cynical about our species and our prospects. It is a welcome gift.
I visit the New Synagogue and its history of the Jewish community here. A third of Harbin's population early in the 20th century were Jews fleeing the increased hostility growing across Europe. An excellent exhibition gives fulsome credit to those seekers of asylum who contributed so much to Harbin's business and cultural life. Could there be a lesson there?
I'll leave you with a quote from Confucius.
"Wherever you go, go with all your heart."
Anything else would be a waste.