Nicholas Quirke was immersed in history on 30 May 2020 when the day started with a cycle ride to the Presidential Palace which has had a long narrative as a seat of power. A Palace in the Ming Dynasty, it was eventually, after the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, where Sun Yat-sen was sworn in at as the provisional President of the Republic of China, where he kept offices, while the Qing Dynasty’s last Emperor languished in the Forbidden Cityand it was also the Headquarters of the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek also had his office in the palace until 1947 when Mao’s Peoples Republic relocated to Beijing. The palace, its extensive gardens and strange mix of Ming and 1920 architecture focuses mostly on its incarnation as the political centre for the government of the celebrated, revered figure of Sun Yat-sen who was not only a Chinese philosopher, physician, and politician, but served as the provisional first president of the Republic of China and the first leader of the Kuomintang. It was a fascinating and beautiful walk through China’s confusing post 1911 history. A wonderful exhibition of photographs documenting all aspects of life and culture in China at this time occupied the stables and Nicholas was utterly absorbed by what they depicted, including to his horror, means of punishment and torture, with an image of a man, the skin on his chest and thighs flayed, distressingly burned forever into his memory. The mood was lifted considerably when they cycled to the uniquely located Librairie Avant-Garde bookstore, a cultural icon of the city, and hidden in a former government parking lot underneath Wutaishan Stadium, which has Also been used as a bomb shelter. It was opened in 2004 by Qian Xiaohua who hoped the bookstore could serve as a spiritual guide for the people making their way in darkness. “A good bookshop should provide space, vision and nurture the city with its humanitarian spirit,” “It’s a place for people to have dreams in the city.” And it was indeed a wonderful space to be in, though he did feel the customer service, helpful as they were, and as vast as the store was, was not particularly considerate as when he asked where he might find a copy of ‘ The Dream of The Red Chamber’ in an English translation, the assistant kindly led him to where it was at a run, trying to maintain his dignity to keep up with them was not easy for him. They then cycled to temple based Vegan restaurant whose claim (backed up by a certificate) was that their food was an ‘intangible element of Cultural heritage in Jiangsu’. Energised by the taste of a Centuries old food tradition, their next major sight seeing venture a trip around Xuanwu (Black Tortoiser) Lake, which legend claims is named for a black dragon seen in the lake which looked like a tortoise and snake. They traversed the Lake via five islands interconnected by arched bridges, with temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens, teahouses, restaurants, entertainment venues, a small zoo, and other attractions. The late lunch has left them feeling stuffed so they had a small supper at the hotel before heading across the city For a walk along the Yangtze River, the third largest river in the world, to see the famed Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, a double-decked road-rail truss bridge which opened in 1968 and the first heavy bridge designed and built using Chinese expertise. Night had fallen and they tried to capture the span and the glory of the bridge at nighttime with some limited success. Their walk led them to a seemingly isolated and dockside territory with its towering metal structures and looming super high rise building, which in the darkness and cold was unsettling for Nicholas who was also concerned that searchlights were scanning the skies for an unknown purpose. He was relieved to get a taxi to the safety of their hotel and the comfort of his bed
Nicholas Quirke was absorbing the fact by the end of the day on 18 July 2021 he had covered 4 Provinces by train in as many days. He had left Inner Mongolia for Heilongjiang and the city of Harbin which, was swiftly followed by a stop in Jilin and its capital Changchun and now he was ending his day in Shenyang and the province of LIaoning. Though Changchun had few charms, his main reason for wanting to visit the city was to see the Imperial Palace of Manchukuo, the official residence created in 1931 by the Japanese, in an attempt to give legitimacy to their occupation, for China’s last emperor Puyi to live in as part of his role as Emperor of the puppet state Manchukuo the area of modern-day Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces which, were historically known as Manchuria. The palace was the actual setting in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 biographical film of Puyi, The Last Emperor, depicting Puyi’s reign as Emperor of Manchukuo. With the entrance fee came an exhibition ‘From Emperor to Citizen’ that proved to be a fascinating perspective to see the deposed Emperors life from. He had seen the film and read the biography and he had always felt a little sorry for treatment the last emperor had received at the hands of the communists, but after the lessons he had learned of his trip through the north east he deemed the pawn of the Japanese jolly lucky not to have not been executed. He had promulgated reactionary imperial edicts and laws and colluded with the invaders in the cruel torture and murder of people in the region. It was easy to see why he was a criminal in the eyes of the Chinese people and ten years reeducation was a lenient sentence for the man who eventually served a useful purpose in society. He had been pleased to see that shared bikes were available, though unlike most schemes the bikes had to be locked and parked in specific areas and not just left outside the station or place he was visiting. Therefore, when he got to the palace and couldn’t find where to put the velocipede he was horrified by the reaction of the officer he asked for assistance. The guard literally ran away from him in horror and refused to help. Nicholas was so incensed by the behaviour that he photographed the bigot, indiscriminately parked his unlocked bike and when he bought his ticket he made a formal complaint to their customer service. They apologised profusely and he didn’t let the incident colour his enjoyment of the surprisingly spare accommodation. He had a train to catch and was surprised that when he left the compound the unlocked bike was still there and he returned to the subway on the vehicle encountering yet another mysteriously hidden parking space. Peng came to the rescue and managed to lock the bike through the app and he didn’t get a fine. It was only an hour train ride to Shenyang and he had time to fit in a relic. As home to the Qing Dynasty family there was plenty to see, but he chose as his first visit Zhang’s Marshal Mansion, the official residence of Zhang Zuolin and his son Zhang Xueliang, a warlord of Feng Faction. To his amusement the translation of the buildings in the east and west courts are referred to as the Large and small brothels. Although it only dates from 1914, three years after the founding of the republic of China it was the history of the incumbents he found fascinating and strangely moved by. It is also home to the National Fengtian Library housing Chinese thread-bound books including Wensuge’s ” Siku Quanshu”. ” and part of the archives of the Ministry of War of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. Zhang Zuolin was an influential Chinese bandit, soldier, and warlord during the Warlord Era in China and briefly became the military dictator of the Republic of China in 1927. He invaded and gained control of Peking but his success was quickly followed by defeat at the hands of the National Revolutionary Army of the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek and in early June 1928 he was assassinated and killed by a bomb planted by the Japanese Kwantung Army which, made way for the eventual invasion of Manchuria. His son Chang Hsüeh-liang was the effective ruler of Northeast China after the assassination of his father and though was known as a womanizer and an opium addict, he surprisingly proved to be more independent and skilled than anyone had expected. He was an instigator of the 1936 Xi’an Incident, in which Chiang Kai-shek was arrested in order to force him to enter into a truce with the insurgent Communist Party of China and form a united front against Japan. As a result, he spent over 50 years under house arrest by Chiang, first in mainland China and then in Taiwan. He is regarded by the Communist Party of China as a patriotic hero for his role. Under house arrest for forty years in a Villa in Taipei he spent his time studying Ming dynasty literature, the Manchu language, collecting Chinese fan paintings, calligraphy and other works of art by illustrious artists. Zhang and his wife, Edith, became devout Christians and after Chiang Kai-Shek’s death in 1975, his freedom was officially restored and he immigrated to Honolulu where he died of pneumonia at the age of 100. The CCP pleaded with gab him to return to China but he refused citing his close connections with the KMT but so highly is he regarded he was given the nickname “Hero of History” because of his desire to reunite China and rid it of Japanese invaders and the atheneum had even charmingly recreated his apartment in Hawaii in the building. Nicholas had immersed himself thoroughly in the narrative of the museum and was surprised when he heard the announcements that he had to leave as it was closing. He also realised how hungry he was and as both Jieyu, who had been a student in Shenyang and Peng had sourced suitable restaurants for him he went to eat. The restaurant he chose was a Buddha vegan Buffet style and he liberally filled his plate with food. He had two iced teas at the hotel and exhausted by the pace he had set himself retired for a good nights sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was up early on 16 July 2021 to combat the full itinerary of the day which would end with a flight back to Harbin. Though his room was not only comfortable but huge he had still not managed to have a deep and satisfying sleep and as he had only eaten a protein bar and some nuts the day before breakfast was much needed to give him the energy he was going to need. There were a number of sights to see in the volcanic fields of Wudalianchi and the plain but tasty congee and accompanying dishes were just what he needed. The day began with the information that his seven pm flight had been pushed back to 10. 50 which meant huge would not arrive in Harbin till nearly midnight. This also presented a problem as to what he would during the 4 hour delay. Though he had to pay, he was fortunate to have the son and daughter of the hotel owner drive him to the four disparate locations he was going to. The whirlwind day began with a boat ride across one of the volcanic lakes to enter the Geo Park. At the gate there was some confusion as the lady sold him a ticket and then the gate keepers wouldn’t let him in. It turned out after an emergency call to Peng that she had only sold him a ticket for the bus which was pointless as he couldn’t get on it unless he went through. He wasn’t going to let the moment spoil his day though he did feel he needed to apologise to the ladies at the gate as he had been a little stroppy. There was a bus ride to main site of the Wudalianchi volcanic field, which, consists of 14 cinder cones and was formed during five eruptive cycles from the early Pleistocene to 1720 -21 when the freshly preserved cones of Laoheishan and Huoshaoshan erupted in 1720-21 when the lava flows covered 65 km2 forming the five lakes of Wudalianchi. There was a lot of ground to be covered and after a walk that took him along the sea of lava he began an ascent too the crater which looked once he had reached the top decidedly benign through he had read some reports stating that the volcanoes were getting ready for another burst of life. He circumnavigated the crater, posed for photos with fellow visitors and on three occasions when he mistakenly thought he was going to be asked to pose again took photos for them. It had taken a lot of effort and though there was a cool a wind it was very hot work and lasted about 3 hours. Once he was back on the bus to the entrance he called his guides who picked him up to take him ton the next location. They suggested lunch but he decided to carry on with the tour and they took him rot the ‘Three Pretty Lakes’ scenic park. Though the landscape surrounding him was rugged he felt ‘pretty’ was an apt description of the water, the grasses, the paths, the luminescent pools he encountered on the long walk and to his delight the tour ended with a cruise by river boat through the reeds and grasses which he felt was exquisite. He was again the centre of attention on the boat and he posed for photographs with the passengers. He was looking forward to the next stoop which was a visit to some ice caves which were indeed very cold but when he saw the illuminated ice sculptures that led to final large Buddha he was disappointed by the cheesiness of it all. The next location he was visiting was to have been his last, but due to the delayed flight the hotel owner and Peng had added an experience for him at a health spa where the healthy properties of the volcanic water could be enjoyed. First though he took a long walk across a lava field and round a lake which proved, once he had left the families behind, to be a very peaceful and contemplative time though an encounter with two youths prompted him to record a live FB post as once again they misunderstood his pronunciation and thought he had said he was Indian. He was looking forward to the spa and once he was inside was delighted to find a series of pools all offering relaxation and treatments for a variety of conditions at differing temperatures. He had nearly 4 hours to enjoy the luxurious waters and as was often the case as the only Laowai he bathed in Green Tea pools, Red Tea, Ginger, Peach Blossom pools and along the way meeting a number of people. He impressed a group of onlookers when he stepped into a large deep swimming pool that turned out to be freezing cold and in true English spirit plunged straight on in. He finished with a bathe in the ultra hot Longjing Tea bath and once he was showered and changed he was still pouring with sweat and the attendant gave him a towel to keep as a memento of his visit. His drivers picked him up drove him back to the airport. It was a short wait and a relatively short flight back to Harbin, though it was still nearly an hour to get to the Hotel which was a charming, Art Deco building. It was past 1am when he checked in. A new day had begun and even though the AirCon was broken he longed for sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was reminded for the second day in a row on 15 July 2021 of a grammatical error Peta Taylor had once pointed out to him when he had accidentally penned the words ‘them Japanese’ instead of a more correct ‘the’, though the thought was generated with more venom than the amusement he normally associated with the phrase. He had chosen to start the day in Harbin with a visit to Unit 731 which during the occupation of China had been built for the purpose of biological warfare research. The evidence he had seen the day before of mans inhumanity to man had been distressing enough and after his visit why he’d felt the need to pick at an already exposed wound was beyond him. He had stepped of the train onto Harbin soil in the province of Heilongjiang at 6.35am having managed to get about four hours restless sleep and then spent over an hour trying to find somewhere he could deposit his suitcase, which he eventually was able to leave at a branch of a hotel he was a member of. He was then able to start his day with a walk to a subway station and a long journey across the city to Unit 731, short for Manshu Detachment 731. It was a covert research unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War of World War II and was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (now Northeast China), and had active branch offices throughout China and Southeast Asia. They routinely conducted tests on human beings, who were referred to internally as “logs” ‘Maruta’ as they were ‘raw material’ using more than 50 kinds of bacteria and viruses including plague, anthrax, cholera in their experiments. Germ contamination tests and pathological anatomy were carried out as conventional methods including the inhuman test of vivisection. Additionally, biological weapons were tested in the field on cities and towns in China. Estimates of those killed by the Unit and its related programs range up to half a million people. At the end of the war the researchers involved in Unit 731 were secretly given immunity by the United States in exchange for the data they gathered through human experimentation as they had done with German researchers in Operation Paperclip. Though the Soviet Union did capture and try some of the criminals victim accounts were largely ignored or dismissed in the West as communist propaganda. The evidence as it was laid out in the museum including testimony from Japanese soldiers, researchers and Chinese victims was overwhelming and heartbreaking and touring the remains of the site, the prisons, the labs, the burn pits which had been blown up by the Japanese as they departed, left him wondering how such cruelty and inhumanity to others could exist. It was not a happy place and coloured his mood for the rest of his day. Tired and in distress was not a good combination and as he retraced his journey back to the subway to go and visit the famous green-domed Saint Sophia Cathedral, an former Eastern Orthodox church, the blazing sun and its accompanying humidity added to his feelings of discomfort. Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang China’s northernmost province was developed in the late 19th century with the influx of Russian engineers constructing the eastern leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and much of the old architecture is Russian. Inside of the church a recital was taking place and he momentarily relaxed and enjoyed the faded grandeur of the surroundings. He was thirsty and next to the cathedral was a cafe which he went to and had long cold iced tea. He was occupying a table and when a large family came in he gave up his seat for them and moved to a high stool the family, who were all quite large were very grateful and he had a broken short conversation with one of the girls and their daughter. Though he had only spent a small period of time in the city he did notice on the subway and in the streets that there was a large proportion of very obese citizens. He was not staying in Harbin as he was on his way further north to the Scenic Spot of Wudalianchi which means “five joint ponds” and refers to a set of interconnected lakes formed after the eruption of the volcanoes of Laoheishan (老黑山, means “Old Black Mountain”) and Huoshaoshan (火烧山, means “Fire Burn Mountain”) in 1720–21, he had a flight to catch and as all of his technology needed a recharge he went back to the hotel who had held his bag for him and he sat in their foyer with a cold drink and recharged for an hour before going to the airport. Travelling dominated the rest of his day and when he arrived at his destination he was collected by the hotel owner and endured an hour long drive to where he was staying in the remote countryside. He’d had very little sleep, it was raining and the WiFi in the hotel was virtually non existent and after a very short walk to buy some water for the next day where the staff were thrilled to see a laowai he retired for the night to try to get some sleep.