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Of Marines And Missed Trains

It was to be our last morning in Harbin, and it began as any morning at the Elephant Motel does, with the surly knock on the door at 7:30am sharp, advertizing the arrival of plastic bagged breakfast. This morning was no different, and offered the same lackluster plastic cup of hot soymilk and a few steamed buns. I was pleasantly surprised by the addition of a salty tea-boiled egg, but still ate little of it. Time was flying as we sopped up the last few minutes of in-room ethernet. For some reason, Harbin had chosen that day as the appropriate one to test the city’s emergency siren system, so we were serenaded by shrieking tones, emanating from key points all over the city. We began to pack our things, and take our freshly washed clothes down from our makeshift in-room clothesline. With our bags almost packed, Scott unplugged his cell phone from the wall.  We had been sharing a SIM card, due to the inflated prices in Beijing, and I offered him a shift with the card, which had been in my phone. He obliged, snapping his phone open, whipping out the battery, and clipping the SIM in.

The sirens were still raging as we made our way outside to pick up our clothes and my Dahon bag from the pleasant old woman who had agreed to repair the many rips and holes which both had acquired throughout the journey. Her work was good, though she missed quite a few of the (admittedly dozens of) holes in my Dahon bag, and the price was certainly right. We walked out of the shop 3 dollars lighter, and unfolded the cycles for the short ride into the city. The sun was shining and we had plenty of time. As we rode we discussed revisiting the California themed noodle joint that we had enjoyed the day before.

As we pulled onto the main street headed for the station, traffic was thick and fast. It was a mild downhill, so I took advantage of the potential energy, racing ahead of Scott. I flew down the street, whipping around busses and cabs which were changing lanes to pick up passengers from the steady stream emanating from the huge soviet-looking train station.  I went by the noodle place on my way downhill, but in order to get there I needed to find a way around the large metal and concrete barrier which separated the lanes of Harbin’s main street.

At the bottom of the hill, I took a right and headed for a round-about, which would allow me to get at the noodle joint. I paused there, scanning for Scott. I could not make him out anywhere in the traffic. Figuring he may have discovered a better way to get across all the traffic and over to the noodle joint, perhaps by riding subversively, I took the roundabout and headed back up to the restaurant.

I waited there for 20 minutes. With no sign of Scott, I dropped my stuff off in the restaurant, exchanging smiles and a lack of mutual intelligibility with the waitress, figuring Scott would spot it if he showed up, and headed our unencumbered. Wheeling hard up back to the last place I saw him, and retracing the route again. Still no sign of Scott.

I returned to the restaurant, and waited another 20 minutes, finally leaving once again to ride through the front of the railway station, in case Scott had headed there. He was nowhere to be found.

Our train now left in about 40 minutes, so there was still time. I put my growling stomach on hold, and began digging through my wallet. We had been using the card which came with the SIM card to jam the device which regulated the power in the room into the “on” position, allowing us to charge our devices even when not physically in the space. Luckily, I had grabbed it. On the back was Scott’s cell phone number. I first went into the noodle restaurant, hoping against the odds that Scott had arrived there in the meantime. I spoke in bits of mis-toned Chinese and pantomime to the women there. They confirmed that they had not seen him. I asked to use the phone, but upon discovery that it was a Beijing number I wanted to call, they refused.

I headed out onto the street, walking my bike, and stopping strangers asking in bits of Chinese and Russian to use their phone. The Beijing number must have been quite expensive to call, for the first three people refused. Finally, I found a chap smoking cigarettes outside of an electronics shop who took pity on me. I called Scott’s phone, but all I got was a Chinese message indicating that this phone was out of service. Shucks.

The train was now leaving in 30 minutes. I continued to leave my stuff at the restaurant and headed to the front of the train station and set up shop on a kind of pedestal in the center. I began scanning, keeping my Vietnamese motorcycle helmet on so as to be more visibly AsiaWheeling. As cops passed, I would ask them in ugly bits of Chinese if they had seen a foreigner who looked like me around. All of them said no.

A Uyghur fellow wandered up to me, no doubt attracted by my strange behavior, and complimented my mustache in English. Revealed to meet someone with whom I could fluently converse, I explained my situation, and he offered to let me make another call on his phone. I did, but still no answer. Why was the damned phone off?! The Uyghur hung around with me, playing translator with a cop who had strolled by. We were begining to attract a crowd. This was good I thought. It would make us more visable. The cop radioed Scott’s description and last known whereabouts to his team. I heard them radio back one by one. None had heard anything about my freind.

Now it was getting down to the wire. With about 15 minutes left, I returned to the California Beef Noodle King USA and grabbed all belongings, strapping them back to my bicycle in what must have been an insanely sweaty an animated manor, for the staff of the restaurant exited to watch me, which caused another crowd to just begin formation by the time I finally wheeled off.  I headed for the station, sweated and grunted my way through security, and hauled my bike up and across a bridge and down to our train’s platform. I stood there on the platform, with my cycle and helmet, hoping frantically that Scott would arrive, but still no sign of him. Now the train was leaving in 5 minutes.

I had learned during our misadventures trying to get up Haba Snow Mountain in Yunnan with Stewart Motta that a passanger on the Chinese railway could exchange their tickets one time for no charge, but only if they had not been punched. Punching happens when boarding the train, so I refrained from climbing on.

Where was Scott?!

I tried not to think about the possibilities, but could not help myself. Traffic had been dense, what if he’d gotten into an accident? Or what if his bungees had gotten snarled in his wheels again… he could have lost control…

The train was blowing it’s horn. I could hear the engines revving up a bit. The attendants were doing their final dance and climbing one by one onto the train, eyeing me with confusion… or was it pity? I looked down at my ticket. To the best of my knowledge, Scott was somewhere in this city, maybe hurt, maybe even in an ambulance or hospital bed. I couldn’t get on the train.

Ans so I let it leave.

I headed back downstairs, carrying my cycle haphazardly down the escalator, with my technology bag strapped to it. At the bottom, I was sternly reprimanded by a station officer in Chinese. I stood and stared dumbly at him for a bit and then headed back out onto the street. My head was swimming with adrenaline and a lack of blood sugar.

What to do now… well, there was going to be no way to think critically without anything in my stomach, so I headed back to the same noodle place, still hoping against hope that I might find Scott inside. No dice. I ordered the beef noodles, and slurped them down in a hurried and joyless way, staining my shirt heavily in the process. I headed from there back out on the cycle. What I needed was a SIM card. That way I could send Scott a text with my number and once his phone was back online, he would be able to contact me.

So I began to wheel in search of a China mobile shop. A couple blocks into the wheel, a man called out, zdravstvuite! I was for one reason or another positively iraationally exctatic to hear Russian. Perhaps it was a reminder of being in a foreign country where I could more smoothly operate? Regardless, I pulled over and began babbling semi-coherently in Russian with a Chinese man who explained to me he was from Sichuan Provence. He introduced himself as Chai and flashed me a huge smile full of nearly Uzbek-style gold teeth. I explained my predicament, and he assured me that he knew of a very nearby place to buy a cheap SIM card. So I followed him, walking my still fully loaded Speed TR to a set of crumbling stairs that lead down into a dark basement shop. He helped me to stow all my worldly possessions in a nearby bush, which, after fluffing the foliage fervently he, assured me was an invincible hiding place. Strugging, I rather stupidly headed down the steps into the damp and cavernous mobile shop. The owner, a rather scantily clad young woman, perhaps 15 years old, snubbed a cigarette into an overflowing Disneyland mug, and  greeted my new Sichuanese friend warmly. I wondered whether my things were being pillaged above as the two barreled right into a furious explanation of my predicament.

The girl twirled her finger around in the air in a eeny meeny miny mo type gesture and then selected one of the many phones on her desk. She popped the back off and removed the SIM card from it, then made a few notes with a large smelly permanent marker in a big book of graph paper. I put the chip in my phone and paid her 30 yuan (about 4 bucks) and headed upstairs. I gave Scott another call, and sent him a text. His phone was still inactive. Hopefully when he did activate his phone, he would get the text, and then know my number and call.

I headed back to the Train station one more time, asking the same few cops if they knew anything yet. Still no nothing. I waited for a little while longer, and then decided that the next place to go would be the Elephant Motel. So I began to wheel back. I asked one more cop had seen any signs of Scott. I have no idea if he understood me at all, but he basically told me to get out of his face.

Back at the hotel, I attempted to communicate to the women at the front desk. She seemed to understand that I was looking for Scott, but not that he was missing, which I must admit is a subtler distinction. The going was tough, but eventually I was able to get the message across. They had not seen them, but with a little cajoling, graciously allowed me to plug into an Ethernet jack in the lobby. Once online I booted up Skype. I decided to call our dear Mekong Bureau Chief, Mr. Stig Motta, and began to type in his number. Just as my finger hovered above the return key, and at precisely the moment that my brain sent the signal to push down the button and initiate the call, an incoming call popped up and the icon turned from a “call” button to an “answer” button.

“Woody! How are you!” The voice belonged to Claudia, our most valued East Asia cultural liaison, and Scott ‘s sister.

“To be honest, Claudia, I am pretty medium…” my voice trailed off as I pondered how much information it would be appropriate to disclose…

“Hello? Are you still there? What’s wrong?” She sounded worried.

I decided to just be honest, and attempted to relay the story in the least alarming way I could. I explained that I was about to call Motta, who was versed in all things travel emergency related, and that we would together figure out the wisest next steps. She offered her help in any way that she could. And I thanked her, turning back to the task at hand.

Motta answered in a couple of rings. “Wai?”

“Motta, it’s Woody. I’ve got a bit of a situation…”

And so we began to work through the logistics. “Do you think he could have gotten on the train?” Motta asked.

“It’s possible,” I replied, “but I really don’t think it’s likely. I was around the train station, attempting to make myself pretty visible, and I never saw him. Also, to be honest, I just don’t think he would have gotten on the thing. Our seats were right next to each other, so he’d have to know that I wasn’t there.”

“Ok, Man. I hear you.”

“He’s an eagle scout after all, and I feel like during that training, they instill a Marines-like never-leave-a-man-behind-type mentality.”

“Ok… well I guess the next step is to produce some images of Scott for the cops to use.”

“So we’re taking it there?” I asked.

“I think Cops are the next step. The Chinese are going to be slow, but they speak the language and they have the power. If someone is going to be calling all the hospitals, it can’t really be you or me. And it should probably be them.”

Claudia had been of the same mind, so I agreed. I put Motta on the phone with the ladies at the front desk of the Elephant Motel, and he explained the situation. I continued to communicate with them through pantomime and snippets of text produced using Google translate. After a few false moves, I was able to procure an email address belonging to one of the receptionists, and sent 2 images of Scott that I took from this website and a Google map showing his last know whereabouts along with some translated text describing the situation to a woman upstairs who proceeded to print them.

Below is a copy of the text I sent along with the images:




Then they called the Chinese police. As Stewart had related to me, the Chinese police have adopted a 24 hour policy with missing people, due to the large population, but it had been suggested that Scott’s foreign nationality might encourage the police to hustle a little more sooner. When the woman got off the phone, she asked me to call Stew for him to play the role of translator again. He answered right away, relaying the message back to me that they were indeed going to observe the 24 hour policy, but that since he was a foreigner, they would begin collecting information starting now (fair enough). And that at any time over the next 24 hours, I should be prepared for a call or even a visit from the cops.

Well, that was it. The beast was in motion. I next got on the phone with the US embassy in Beijing. The phone line that I called gave me two choices, all spoken by a very stern male voice not unlike that of John Wayne, the first option was “if you would like to report the death, injury, arrest, or abduction of an American citizen, please press one.” The second was “if you would like to learn more about the services offered to US citizen’s abroad press two.” I guess mine fit best with “one” and so I hit it.

A Chinese woman picked right away. She spoke passable English, but I felt I needed to repeat and rephrase my communications a little much for a US embassy. Finally, I was able to get my point across, and she told me she would connect me to the correct contact in the embassy. There was a clicking and fizzing noise that came through my skype connection, then a stern voice picked up on other end, almost yelling into the phone.

“US Marine guard! Beijing unit 3!. How can I help you!”

I stumbled over my words a bit, “Hello… marine guard unit three, I’m calling to report a missing person.”

“Sir or Madam,” the man replied, “is the person in question a US national or citizen?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Are you, the individual who is reporting the disappearance?”

“yes” (sir)

“Are you a US citizen or national?”


“Hold on a minute.”

A new choice came on the line. “ Equipment and Supplies. This is Ervin.”

I told the story again, this time with full detail.  Ervin, explained that he would begin putting the wheels in motion. He thanked me for calling, and told me I was doing the right thing. “I’ve got just a few more questions,” Ervin continued.

Just then, one of the front desk women from the hotel came over to me. She began to indicate that the police were on the phone. I explained to Ervin that I would have to call him back. “Can I have your direct line?”

“Ehh…” he replied “no can do. Against Policy.” Just call the front desk again and ask for the marine unit 3. The operator there will connect you to me.”

“Fair enough,” I said, and I hung up.

“The Chinese police officer was female, and sounded nervous. She barely spoke English, and did not know the meaning of the English phrase “sight seeing” and had a bunch of trouble with “tourism.” So when she asked me what I was doing in China, and Harbin in particular, she became troubled. “You are not valid visa for working job in Harbin.” she explained “Is your friend valid?” I was unsure how to answer. I took a new tack, explaining that we were just traveling on folding bicycles, seeing china.

She bagan to laugh. “You are travelers!” “Are you valid travelers! Have you registered in your hotel?” I was almost sure we were and had and offered to hand her over to the women at the front desk, who paled a little when I looked at them.

She began to ask about Scott. “Is he a Chinese American? What color are his pants? How tall is he? What is his passport kernel?” The kernel was tough, but his passport number seemed eventually to have settled it. “I will call you larger than one hour.”

Right back at you, mam, I thought. Then I heard a click. There was no goodbye.

I got back on the phone with the US embassy, then the marines. Marine Guard Unit 3 sounded almost happy to hear from me again, and furthermore had determined my gender by that point. Soon I was back on the phone with Ervin. We continued to talk about the situation, and to play out possible scenarios. Ervin seemed to think that the Chinese police were probably now calling hospitals, and would call back with more info. It was likely that Scott’s status as a foreigner was accelerating the process.

“What happens now on your side, I asked”

“Well, with the 24 hour policy in effect, we’ll need to stand by until tomorrow at 11am. Then we’ll get involved. You should stay in Harbin.”

“Of course,” I replied.

I hung up with Ervin, and transferred over to my email, refreshing once again in hopes of word from Scott.

There was a new email in my inbox. I opened it.

It was from our friend Kristin in Beijing. It seems Scott had called her brother, the one and only MCK… from the train.

Here’s the message:

This is Kristin. MCK just received a call from Scott. The phone is out of credit, but here is the number he’s been using 15011343792. We will
try to add credit if we can when we return to Beijing tonight. Here is the number from which he just called. 13708969060.

He was able to get on the train to Qingdao which arrives tomorrow at 4pm. Did you make it on the train? Hope you’re ok.”

Scott had gotten on the train! How? Why? When?

I was flabbergasted and confused. First thing I did was call text Claudia, who was no doubt asleep by now it being 5am her time, letting her know that her brother was ok. Next thing I did was call Scott. It was good to hear his voice. That feeling faded as I felt frustration rise up in me “You got on the train!? Where the hell did you go!?”

Scott explained that his technology bag had fallen from the back of his Speed TR, where it had been strapped, and he had stopped to repair it. Then, I believe he waited there a bit for me to turn around and come back. When I did not, he headed to the train station, and, not seeing me there, and being unable to recall which specific Noodle spot we had eaten at before (in his defense there were quite a few California Beef Noodle King USA branches in Harbin), chose one at random, and ordered a bowl of noodles. From there he headed into the waiting hall for our train, and not seeing me there as well, climbed on board at the last minute.  As the train was leaving, he decided to stay onboard, in hopes that I might have gotten on in a different car, and still be on my way to our compartment.

“We already had reservations on the ferry to Korea,” he explained “There was no obvious right decision.”

Scott’s phone had chosen just this day to run out of credit, and since we were roaming from Beijing was refusing to even receive calls.

Fair enough, I thought. There was no use being frustrated and flabbergasted at this point.  I needed to figure out how the hell I was going to get out of Harbin, and down to Qingdao in time to meet Scott and catch our ferry to South Korea. So I went online to look at airline tickets. A direct flight from Harbin to Qingdao came up on Kayak.com, it left the next day, there were still seats, and at 150 bucks it seemed like an easy solution. Scott was still on the line, using this other passenger’s phone. I explained to him that I would be landing in Qingdao about two hours before his train arrived, and would wheel into the city to meet him and then hung up.

What a whirlwind! Just then the Chinese police called again. It was a new officer this time, slightly better English. I struggled to halt what was no doubt going to be a serious barrage of questions and I explained to him that Scott had been found. “Where is he found?” the cop asked, sounding angry.

“He’s on a train to Qingdao.”

“You said to my other officer that he was not on the train. I will have to change the report.”

I frowned and looked at my shoes, holding the hotel reception phone, and feeling like crap. “My mistake, officer. No need for further action on your part.”

But the officer did not seem to want to hang up “Why he did not call you?”

“I don’t know.” (was he rubbing it in?) “It’s been a long day, officer. I’m sorry for causing trouble.”

“Where did he park his bicycle, then?”

What was this interrogation? “His bicycle is on the train. Again, I’m sorry to have caused problems. Bye Bye.” And I hung up.

He got on the train. Wild.

“US Marine guard! Beijing! unit 3! How can I help you, Sir or Madam?”

“Hi, it’s me again.”

“Hello, Sir!” The marine sounded happy to hear my voice.

“Could you just pass on the message that my missing friend is now found?”

“Alive? Excellent news. Do you need to make a report?”

“Ah. No no. All is well.”

I purchased another night at the hotel, and headed up to my new room. When I got up there, the electronic lock on the door was broken, so I left all my stuff in a pile and trudged downstairs and got a new room and a new key, then headed back up. When I finally threw my stuff down on the bed, I was begining to feel waves of hunger and exhaustion flowing over me. I plugged my computer in and decided to take one last look at my email before heading out to find food.  I was about to head out when I noticed that Orbitz had not sent me a confirmation for tomorrow’s flight.

I went to the website, and under the “my trips” section, it showed that the trip had been canceled. I immediately booked the flight again, and got on the phone with Orbitz.

And thus began an hour and a half long dosey-doe with the Orbitz staff. There was something about the transaction that was preventing the ticket from being issued. But it was too soon to get the full report, as the system takes a few hours to churn that data out. I didn’t want to wait around for hours before I knew if I would get to Qingdao the next day or not, so I pushed for an immediate solution. Piper, the Philipino woman that was helping me, thought that it was a problem with my Mastercard. Finally we canceled my current booking and redid it over the phone with a different card. By the time I got off the phone, I was very good friends with Piper, starving, dejected, baffled, and quite a few other things.

I threw on my leather jacket, as cold Harbin night was falling outside, and headed out in search of food. It felt good to walk, and I indulged in a little of the classic Russian gulyat. I bought a cold beer from a corner shop and sipped it while I strolled, allowing the events of the day to wash over me. After about 40 minutes of strolling, I found myself outside of a chicken head stand. I watched in a kind of stupor while the man battered and freind head after young chicken head. I got paper bag full of piping hot heads (spicy style) and headed back towards the hotel, buying another beer on the way.

Back up in my room, I had just put on Tom Waits album “Alice” (it had always been a soothing force in my life) and was just about to crack into the chicken heads, and open the second beer when I thought to look at “my trips” again. No ticket had yet been issued, and the itinerary was pending cancelation. I frowned and thew the chicken head I was about to eat back into its bag. And so began another hour an a half fiasco, involving booking and canceling a number of tickets. We finally identified the problem as being a request from the airline for valid ID, to which Orbitz had replied with my credit card number. Credit cards are not valid ID in China, so the tickets would not be issued. Elementary my dear Watson. The very nice Pilipino guy who I was working with, named Amman, assured me at the end of the call that this one would go through.

At this point, the beer was warm, but still tasty, and paired well with the heads, which were cool now but hit the spot more or less. I only got through part of both of them, however, before exhaustion took hold. I was sure to set a few alarms. Tomorrow was going to be another big day.


  1. Shubham | January 16th, 2012 | 10:23 am

    Collection of all these blog entries into one book will be classic! Do it once u guys finish…great piece this!

  2. Woody | January 16th, 2012 | 3:14 pm

    @ Shubham Thanks. That’s the plan. What do you think: coffee table book with large images? or a paperback?

  3. Rachel | January 17th, 2012 | 10:00 am

    With all the pictures that you have? Coffee table no doubt. Not available as ebook. Sign me up for a coffee. Or copy. I get confused these days as both are spelt (and pronounced) “kopi” in this part of the world.

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