Road Trip Dreaming: Minnesota to Beijing

As I have written on this blog before, I love a good road trip. I have road-tripped my way around the US and Canada, Europe, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and taken a few trips around China.

One dream I have always had is driving from Minnesota to Beijing (I’m getting sick of that flight).


So you can imagine my excitement when I read on a site called (yes, such a site exists) that the president of Russian Railways has proposed building a superhighway that would link New York and London, and run right through the Twin Cities.

The proposed route doesn’t actually enter China, but I’m sure that there will be a junction with a highway heading south.

I wonder if it’s too early to start packing the car….

Related Posts:

Scenes from a Western Road Trip

Road Trip: St. Paul to Skagway

An Impromptu Road Trip

A Western Road Trip

A Ningxia Road Trip


Book Review: China Road

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A Russian Bell in Harbin

We spotted the bell in the tower from the street on Saturday as we walked around the church. It was locked up tight and looked like it had been locked up tight for decades. We trained our telephoto lenses on the bell, snapping at a distance, figuring that was as close as we were likely to get.

We were wrong.

By noon on Sunday, we, along with our new Russian friends were climbing up into the tower to see the bell.

An American friend had introduced us to some Russians who worship at the church and know the man in charge. They agreed to meet us there on Sunday morning. When the services were done at 11:30, they set about trying to get permission to go up in the tower. Since they were the ones with a relationship to the leaders of the church, we were content to hang out off to the side and let them do the talking.

It wasn’t an easy task—convincing the man to let these strangers (Americans and Protestants, to boot) climb up to see the bell.

After awhile our Russian friends called me in to make a final appeal, directly and in Chinese.

I told him that I viewed the bell as a symbol of God’s love for the Chinese Church and that I wanted to tell that story. Upon hearing that, he asked me to write down my contact information, then got out his keys and opened the door to the  tower.

Up we went!

Even though the inscriptions on the bell were in Old Russian, our friends were able to tell us that it had been made in Moscow, and weighs 784kg. According to this website, it was made in 1899. There are some differing stories as to what happened to the bell during the Cultural Revolution, which I’m still trying to sort out.

Of course we were thrilled to have gotten up to see the bell, but our Russian friends felt it even more since it was THEIR cultural heritage we were glimpsing. They were also happy to meet a couple of nutty Americans who were interested in learning about and telling the story of that heritage.

After seeing the bell, we all went out to lunch to celebrate.  As we enjoyed a wonderful meal together — with Chinese as the common language among us — I couldn’t help thinking that, given the unique circumstances of our seeing it, the message that this bell rings forth is the message from the great hymn “In Christ There is No East or West.”

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding humankind.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.

I will save the story of the church itself for the next post.

Run for the Border

It seemed like a fun idea at the time — to climb the sand dune over there…..the one on the other side of the short barbed wire fence, the fence that looked like it was merely surrounding a pasture to keep the cows in. Fortunately the two People’s Liberation Army soldiers who had attached themselves to our merry (but clueless) band intervened just as Max and Mr. S each had one leg on the other side of the fence.


“DON’T CLIMB OVER THE FENCE!” they both shouted excitedly.  ‘THAT’S RUSSIA!”


Faster than they could say “where’s my vodka?” Max and Mr. S scurried back to the sand dune where the rest of us were — the one that was in China — where we all got a thorough, yet friendly and lighthearted scolding.


We were at one of the most interesting geographic spots on the globe — Fengshan, in Jilin Province — a place where the borders of Russia, China, and North Korea converge. Obviously we were in China.  The Chinese road from the city of Hunchun to the border is along a narrow strip of land that is China.  To the north (on the other side of the barbed wire fence) is Russia. Across the Tumen River that parallels the road to the south is North Korea.


We had heard that this area had been developed into a tourist spot, so on a holiday weekend in October of 1997 we decided to make a run for the border….to get a glimpse of all 3 countries. 7 of us from our language program set out by overnight train from Changchun to Yanji, where the train line ended . From there we weren’t sure how we’d get to Fengshan, but we were confident in our ability to improvise.


Our first order of business when we got off the train in Yanji was to ask around for information on how to get there. I don’t think it ever occurred to us how strange it might be for a group of Americans to wander around asking everyone we saw how to get to the North Korean border.  Most people looked at us like we were nuts, but one young man seemed eager to help us. That’s because he was the owner of a van, something he quickly surmised we were in need of. He told us that Fengshan was beyond the town of Hunchun (about 100 miles away).  He was from Hunchun, and he’d be happy to drive us there since there was no train service.  We negotiated a price, piled in and off we went.


Halfway between Yanji and Hunchun we stopped in the Chinese city of Tumen, which sits across the Tumen River from a dilapidated North Korean town. We wandered around town, took a few photos, then continued on our way to Hunchun. We had no idea where to stay, but our friendly driver took us to the local “approved hotel for foreigners.”


When we rolled into Hunchun for the night , however, we were still only partway to our destination — Fengshan. Now what?  I asked at the front desk and they told me they’d never heard of it. The van driver, who was lingering around for the entertainment value of watching 7 bungling foreigners chimed in and said he’d go ask some of his friends.  He came back about an hour later saying that he’d gotten information and would be happy to drive us out there the  next morning.  We negotiated a time and price and settled into our rooms above the Karaoke Bar.


The next morning the driver dutifully showed up with his wife and child in tow.  It was a public holiday in China, so they decided to make a family trip out of it. We all climbed in and set off across beautiful hills covered with fall colors.


About ten miles from our destination, we came upon an army checkpoint with a big sign announcing that we were entering the border region.  Uh-oh.  An armed PLA soldier appeared on the road and ordered the van to stop.  He stuck his head in our van, saw 7 foreigners and the driver, his wife, and kid and barked “Where’s the tour guide?”  I quickly raised my hand. “I am the tour guide!” This elicited a confused look from the soldier since the internal logic of that statement was impossible to process.  Tour guides are  Chinese. Foreigners are tourists (and potential spies).  Therefore, this Foreigner CANNOT be the tour guide. The soldier looked at the driver as if to say “I’m holding YOU responsible for this situation” but he just smiled and said “She really is the tour guide. Her Chinese is good, though, so it’s OK.” He then told the soldier how we were just foreign students out for a holiday weekend.


We all held our breaths, fearing that, having come so close to our destination, we would now be turned back. The soldier turned to us all and asked for our passports.  GULP!  Passports?  None of us had our passports with us. In those days we all had green Foreign Residence Permits that we carried with us at all times. This functioned as our passport when travelling. Fortunately we all had those along with us, and that seemed to be fine with the soldier.  He took them all and headed into the guard house.


After a few minutes, the soldier returned with our passports and told us we could proceed. Whew! As he walked away, two young soldiers ran over and hopped into the van with us.  They told us that they had the day off and wanted to go to Fengshan tos, so they were just hitching a ride with us. I had a sneaky suspicion that they were being sent along to make sure we stayed out of trouble, but they insisted it was just a fun outing for them on their day off. We happily adopted them into our group.


We drove the remaining ten miles to  the Fengshan Scenic Spot, took some pictures of Russia and North Korea, read President Jiang’s inscription carved into a rock, then headed back.


It was while we were heading back towards the army checkpoint that we had the little incident at the sand dune. Coming up the highway we’d noticed some big sand dunes on the north side of the road. Max suggested it would be fun to stop and climb to the top of one. So we did. This seemed to make the soldiers a bit nervous, but they let us climb anyway.


Well, they let us climb until Max and Mr. S. spotted the bigger dune about 50 yards away and started climbing the small fence to get to it, at which point the they ordered us all back into the van.


As we bounced along the road back to their post, I asked them “you were really sent to keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t cause an international incident, weren’t you?”  This time they admitted to us that yes, that had in fact been their mission.


Mission Accomplished.







The North Korean town across the Tumen River from Tumen, Jilin, China.








The meadow and trees in the foreground are in China. The road and building to the left are in Russia. North Korea is on the other side of the river.  The train bridge links Russia and North Korea. The river empties into the Yellow Sea, about 5 miles further up the river.