2016 and the last day of melbourne's autumn. today winter hit us with a punch.
after three warm and sensuous post-summer months, we woke, this morning, to temperatures of between 1-3 degrees.
we're all a bit in shock.
i jumped out of bed at 5.50am, cheated, perhaps, by the radiator that had kept the chill out of our bedroom in the night.
Outside, in my gym gear, the cold blasted through my thin jacket and seemed to strike harsh punches at my bones.
the wipers at my car's rear windscreen struggled with the frost. i blasted the heater and took off to my 6.15 gym-stick class. inside it was warm and, with the exercise, i was soon hot.
but the icy morning brought memories.
it reminded me of those times where i have lived in, or visited, cities of winter ice: New York; St Cloud, Minnesota; Beijing and Harbin.
Harbin is a city in China's far north-east (or 'east-north' as is articulated in Mandarin.)
It is famous for its extreme cold and its ice-lantern festival, which is held in the depths of winter each year.
A link to that festival is here, but if you want me to conjure it for you, think life-sized ice-sculptures of world famous architectural or cultural icons, all lit from the inside by lanterns of different colours.
It is amazing and magical. a true fairy-land.
I visited Harbin for the ice-lantern festival many years ago.
In that city I learnt what it means to hop onto public transport for the express purpose of getting warm; to take a photo in extreme temperatures without my breath freezing the image over; to drink 'snake wine' for internal warmth; to artfully use my scarf to hide the skin on my face from the extremities and to experience true coziness, in a warm room boarded by windows heaped four centimetres-thick with ice and snow.
I had a beautiful 3-4 days in Harbin... with cured meats galore.
I look back on that time still as an eye-opener for me. It was my first true experience of a China outside of Beijing.
I saw the Russian influence to the city, felt the scratch of cold on the place and appreciated that feeling of being an 'outsider' even more than I had already done during my time in Beijing.
Today, with winter descending on Melbourne, I looked in my diaries for an experience of my trip to that coldest place: Harbin.
The part I found most profound was not my descriptions of that city, but my thoughts on my journey towards it. I found, in the writing I am about to share, a very strong sense of a girl trying to find herself. . . and trying to lose herself at the same time.
People push themselves via travel and engagement in worlds outside their own. I look back on this entry and I see so much of the yearning I had to understand the world and to put myself out into isolating places so as to understand both the world and me.
I still don't understand the world.
But I am inching close to understanding myself.
I wrote snatches of that personal journey into my novel, Ghost Girls.
I think the trips we make, as individuals, into the depths of 'winter', are so important to the understanding and exploration of our lives, the end goal being gratitude.
Here are these young girl's winter words:
Train to Harbin, 2000
late december, a train with green carpet and a pattern, red. there are six bunks to a berth and R and i each have the middle.
for now, we sit on narrow seats by the window, share a hard red table, write in diaries and stare out windows to the dark. there is not much to see, but there is snow.
later, R is speaking bad mandarin to the people in the next berth.
i feel lonely, here, and left out.
although R is also a foreigner, canadian, i feel this label more. R's parents were chinese but this doesn't mean he speaks mandarin; a smattering of cantonese, yes. still, it is assumed that he, more than i, can speak mandarin because of our appearances. i suppose there is a touch of 'old country reunion' about his reception here, too.
although i can now manage in mandarin, i know my white skin makes me less approachable. i don't know that my boyfriend appreciates this. he has left me here by the window and i feel very much the foreigner.
i should follow, but, at this time, in this place, i am feeling the need to be invited. i am feeling out of place here, on this train heading north. i should stop writing now because my mood has turned foul.
but i won't. i need to write and record this experience.
there is a man sitting on the bunk nearby, black trousers, grey shirt. his card game has finished and his companions have left him. he sits on the edge of his bunk among clutter: suitcases, water tins, a shiny spitoon. i look around at the other passengers on this train: i see mostly men. they wear blacks, greys, browns. they play cards, drink tea and eat their way through dispensable bowls of noodles. there is chatter but it is subdued and the music over the loudspeaker is invasive: this is work-based travel.
i hear the slow rumble of the train rolling over track, snippets of conversation that i understand, the crick-crack of seeds breaking between teeth. i smell beef broth and salt and, outside, when i clear the window pane of fog and press my nose towards the dark, i see endless black, marked occasionally by a light in the distance.
i realise that there is space, here, somewhere northeast of beijing.
i press closer and observe the foreground: snowbanks and a road by the train tracks. in time, i see a series of trucks barreling past, lights ablaze. the darkness swallows them as they speed on, carrying their goods to the north.
i wonder what i shall find there...