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California Beef Noodle King USA

Our train to Harbin arrived plenty early in the morning, and we attracted quite the crowd as we unfolded our bikes on the platform, strapping bags down, and generally preparing to wheel.  It was a big station, this one, built in part by the Russians. Harbin is the terminus of another one of the three trans-eurasian trains. The Trans-Mongolian (which we rode) terminates in Ulaanbaatar, the trans-Manchurian terminates here in Harbin, and the famed trans-Siberian terminates in far eastern Vladivostok. So it was out into a giant open Soviet-style parade ground that wheeled after being released from the immense building. We spotted a place called “California Beef Noodle King USA” and decided that we might as well stop in there.
It seemed no meal during AsiaWheeling’s northern China chapter would be complete without the ubiquitous cucumber dish, so we ordered that and a couple of bowls of the house noodles.We also noticed that they had Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on tap… that must have been the “USA” part of the place.

With noodles in our stomachs now to fuel us, we headed back into the city, and began wheeling in search of a hotel. Hotels were abundant, but for one reason or another, it took us quite a few tries to hit one that satisfied all our criteria: cheap, in-room Ethernet, and a window. While they did not end up being places for us to stay, the initial hotels that we stopped into were certainly quite interesting. If there was any Russian influence left in this city (and we hadn’t seen much so far) it might have been detectable in Harbin’s “concept first” approach to hotels and restaurants, most of which were quite grand and strange.

 We finally did find a place, of course… and what a place it was! The establishment was called the “Elephant Motel” and it was a very 1970s, with angular plastic shapes, and colored in the orange, cream, and dark brown of yesteryear. It even sported included breakfast, which was not common at all in China.

We threw our things down, and headed downstairs to hop on the cycles. We wheeled away from the hotel, over a bridge underneath which a large canal ran. Not long after the canal, we spotted a Baozi (steamed pork-bun) joint, and decided we might run in and eat a quick few of whatever was hot. It was definitely the right choice, for they ended up being the tastiest of the entire trip.

From there, we wheeled on, out of the urban center and into a district of brand new, modern high rise apartment buildings. There was another canal running through this section of apartment blocks, except that this one was mostly dried up, and there seemed to be people working or harvesting something out of it. It seemed interesting enough to warrant lugging the Speed TRs down into the canal and wheeling it. We rode for a while, and the further we went, the larger the puddles of water became. Eventually we ran into a few people who were harvesting some kind of lifeform from the muck. We did our best to question them as to a more in-depth explanation of their work, but they were busy, and Scott’s Chinese was not quite good enough to collect the rushed full explanation of what they were doing. So I guess this encounter must be placed firmly in the “speculation is invited in the comments” section.

So we wheeled on, using the canal as a kind of bumpy puddle riddled highway. Eventually, the puddles began to converge and then it was suddenly no longer a dry canal, but one filled wall to wall with water, so we hauled the bikes back up onto a pathway that ran alongside the canal. The path was nice, and nearly completely empty for the kilometers that we rode on it.

It dumped us out into a kind of pedestrian square, with a large statue showing the globe being pierced by some kind of a savage halberd. You guess is as good as ours, and most welcome in the comments, as to what’s being communicated by this one.

From the park, we headed back onto a larger road. It felt good to be wheeling in real China again. Beijing had been like an price-inflated, calmed down, slightly neutered version of the China that we’d come to know and love in Cities like JianShui, Urumqi, and Hohhot. Now we were wheeling with the people again, like this lady, transporting a giant load of flattened out cardboard boxes.

We were up north again and was starting to get cold, but also we were up north again so there was plenty more light left in the day. This could mean only one thing: leather jackets wheeling. So we stopped back by the Elephant Motel to pick up our leather jackets, and headed back out into the fray of the extended northern sunset.

We passed a huge ferris wheel and continued to pedal on into new parts of the city. As we pedaled, we began to realize: this place was big. It was not quite as densely populated as some of the other Chinese cities that we’d visited, but it certainly managed to make up for it in terms of being vast, confusing, and spread out.  Unlike most chinese cities, it was neither gridlike nor structured with ring-roads. We continued to wheel through a pollutant-scattered sunshine haze, into one neighborhood, then through it and into the next.

We stopped to snack a little when we spotted a woman grilling up skewered sausages, and painting them with spicy sauce. She would grill the sausages, which honestly seemed pretty much impervious to the little charcoal fire that she had, then scrape them off the of the spit, and stab them with a chopstick, to be served up lollypop-style.

Now that we’d started eating, we realized we were a little hungrier than just one sausage lollipop could fix, so we purchased a few other things: a meat filled Chinese pastry, and a kind of egg roti that was being cooked up by a particularly grizzled fellow on the street.

We strolled around munching hungrily on what we’d gotten, and poking around in amongst all the goods that were being sold curbside.

Once we’d finished the food, we climbed back on the cycles, and continued in the same direction, passing some fellow wheelers who were really putting the “full” in “fully loaded”.

As we approached the outskirts of town, we began to notice things getting decidedly more raw, and the general level of filth began to spike upwards. Soon the tall buildings of the city were replaced with squat little shops and sprawling outdoor markets. We stopped at one of the larger intersections to catch our breath, which was none too easy so thick was the air with industrial pollutants and truck exhaust. While we were doing so, we spotted a road heading off to our right that appeared to be closed down for construction. But there were certainly people walking and wheeling the thing, so we decided it might be interesting to join them.

We hoisted our bikes over the barriers, and past a giant semi carrying metal piping parked right next to a huge pile of plastic sacks filled with chili peppers. There were stray dogs poking and scratching at the sacks of chillies, which I found particularly impressive since even from a distance the scent of chillies was very strong, even tearing the eyes a little. Were these dogs, then, also immune to pepper spray? Speculation is invited in the comments.

The street we wheeled along was fantastic. It turned out to be the connector between that part of Harbin and a small nearby town, which seemed to have sprung up as a home for workers in the nearby agricultural and industrial operations. We had no problem weaseling the speed TRs through the construction zone, once we hit it, and right on the other side we were awarded by discovering the factory that produces that same Chinese Kvas that we had decided not to purchase in Beijing. The smell of yeast and grain was very strong as we rode by, which an almost soy sauce like tartness to it.

The sun was beginning to set as we rolled by lush farmlands and crumbling villages, but the dusk light hung around for a while, making it easier to navigate our way back towards the city center. When we passed a giant metal piping and rebar sales yard, we couldn’t resist heading in to investigate.

The yard was huge, and filled to the brim with every kind of steel piping or bar that anyone could ever want, and we took great pleasure in piloting the speed TRs around it.  For a split second, we reflected how there were such few industrial yards  in the developed world that would be open enough for two curious mustachioed young men to investigate freely on bicycle.

Back on the road into Harbin, we were becoming increasingly unsure of our location and how to get home from there. We’d made it back into the city, but the city was gigantic, and it always felt like we were just a block or two away from somewhere that we’d recognize. We stopped multiple times to ask for directions, but the pedestrians were not very helpful, pointing us only vaguely onwards.

We stopped when we rode past a grocery store which which had hired a rapper spitting freestyle Mandarin to help coax customers in.

As the last bits of daylight finally fled the sky, we were still nowhere near our hotel. And so we wheeled on, asking for directions from time to time, and doubling back on ourselves plenty. The people of Harbin were very kind, and more than happy to give us their best idea of how to get back to the hotel, but we had learned now to trust only in the Indian system of polling many people and making a decision based on the group consensus.

In the meantime, the temperature was perfect for the leather jackets, and the wheeling was still feeling good as we paused at a stoplight next to this fellow wheeler who was transporting large metal frames. Wheel safe brother.

We finally got back to the hotel ravenously hungry. the small snacks that we’d eated had long since been turned into tire and break-pad wear, and we were excited to head out in search of more food. We headed onto a street that had no pavement, just a large wash of sand near our hotel, and soon found a restaurant, right across from where a family was burning their garbage in the street.

The food was, of course, amazing, and we stayed until it was only us and the staff chatting about what a fascinating city we were in.


  1. Monti | January 12th, 2012 | 9:22 am

    Great to see a new AsiaWheeling post. I also see some pix of you guys on the Tern Bicycles FB page. Is another journey in the works? I sure hope so!

  2. Woody | January 12th, 2012 | 5:41 pm

    Thanks, Monti. It’s been way too long. We’re really grateful to those reader who have been demanding more for giving us the impetus to post again.

    Nice detective work. We had a great time at Interbike with the folks at Tern and really enjoyed trying out their new products.

    Another trip is always in the works here at AsiaWheeling Global Enterprises, but I can’t disclose any more detailed information than that 😉

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