When people ask me «Where have you been in China?» I usually reply with the classical Tourist-In-China Starter Pack: «Beijing-Shanghai-Suzhou-Hangzhou» and some more. But there is a place that comes to my mind right after that and I never mention: Shiwei.
Imagine seven italian students who have been in China for just a month. It’s September the 30th and a one week long holiday (October the 1st is the National Day of People’s Republic of China) is about to begin. The students are extremely excited, because they are soon leaving the campus to trip Inner Mongolia. They are a bit worried about the chinese night train, the low temperatures, the chinese hotels they would stay in, but they’re young, they’re far from home and still as excited as their first day in China. So they go, knowing next to nothing about the places they’re going to visit.
We couldn’t imagine the bumping trip to Shiwei.
After a couple of days in Manzhouli, Haila’er and surroundings, we were ready to visit another new place. We left in early morning on a minibus with a couple from Guangzhou, an high school student nicknamed Pippo, and the tour guide. We stopped for a delicious lunch and to visit some beautiful parks, and then we left again. And went. And kept going. And going. And going.
While the guide was driving across a beautiful yellow larches forest, the majority of us fell asleep (the first one was Pippo, also referred as The Boy Who Never Wakes Up). No one spoke a word, and the sun was more and more near to the western horizon. Then, after a very long time of driving on the very desolate northern China highway and its bumps, someone opened his eyes and asked three questions: «How long have we been travelling today?», «When will we arrive?», and «Where are we going?». The answers were: «More or less four hours», «In more or less two hours», and «On the Russian border».
After two more hours, terrified because of the distance from the civilization (and from the food), in a trouble to explain in our poor chinese that we weren’t allowed to cross the border, and almost freezing, we eventually arrived at our final destination: Shiwei, also known as The Middle Of The Nowhere.
Shiwei is a very small city on the China-Russia border. Apparently, lots of people head out on long car rides just to see Russia from the distance, and the city probably lives on it [Dandong, on the China – North Korea border is this kind of city, too]. It consists of maybe fifty buildings, dirt roads, a bridge (to Russia) and a viewpoint (from where you can see Russia). There are some souvenirs shops that sell matrioskas, russian alcohol in very ugly bottles and even more ugly knick knacks, and some nongcunren (country people) whose looking clearly says “What are you, strange non-chinese guy”. There is also a chinese “pub” where we had a very good dinner and a not so good breakfast and a very particular inn with Gucci bathroom floor and incredibly cold bedrooms – incredibly cold, I mean. I almost freezed taking a shower in there.
After a very particular night – we were even able to meet a french couple who was caught in a crazy chinese trip, too – we finally left the inn for the purpose that made us take on a six hours long ride (and that, obviously, would have made us take on a six hours long ride back): a walk on the famous bridge to Russia.
What a pity that the bridge was closed.
The tour guide tried to recover by taking us to the viewpoint, but our innate panic was already coming out. We had to take our train back to Changchun in the six hours away Haila’er, we feared the cold, the hunger and the lack of toilets, we knew that we would have not be able to take a shower until the next evening and we realized how much money we had spent on that trip. I wonder if the tour guide was aware of the craziness bomb he was carring in his minibus.
It was a pretty fun drive back. We sang italian songs (and Pippo didn’t wake up), played typical car games and screamed for at least an hour because we were late to catch the train, but in the end we made it – and we were even able to have dinner in a korean restaurant before our long, long journey back to campus.
Yes, Shiwei was quite an adventure. But we didn’t know that back home the water was being cut off in the whole campus until two days later…