A Memory Walk Through Harbin
I think of beloved places I can visit now only in memory.
There was the old Academy of Sciences with the gleaming brass pendulum that swung outside the planetarium and the dioramas in the California Hall where if I closed one eye I couldn’t tell where the 3D part ended and the backdrop began. There was the old Nut Tree with its toy store and train ride out to the little airport, its swirling lollipops the size of my head and the little loaves of fresh-baked bread they’d bring to my table. I can still close my eyes and walk through those places in my mind, but they don’t exist anymore.
And then there’s Harbin Hot Springs.
I’ve been there so many times since the mid-eighties that I can close my eyes and see almost every foot of the place. But it exists that way only in my memory. I know it will rise from the ashes of the Valley Fire that destroyed it but for now I want to take a memory walk through the Harbin that was.
(This is for those of us who knew the place and loved it and want to remember all those special little things. I’m not even going to pretend you’ve never heard of it.)
I’d usually get there in the daytime when the gate was still open, drive carefully up to Mainside and park in one of those 15-minute spots that people always occupied for a half hour or more.
I’d lug my ice chest and bags of food up to the Fern Kitchen, put a “Date of Departure” form on each and look despairingly for space in jammed refrigerators and cubbies (sometimes having to gingerly move one selfishly placed box which was taking up half a shelf). I’d carry sleeping bags and pads up to the camping deck or (later, when money was less of an issue) carry pillows and daypacks up to my room.
Then I’d back painfully out of the crowded 15-minute spot, turn the car around in a series of microscopic maneuvers, watching for people walking behind or in front of me, and drive back down to the dusty main parking lot where I’d find a space if I was lucky. (Of course, I tried to come midweek when parking and refrigerator space were plentiful!)
Up the steps I’d walk, from the parking lot past the smoking court. For years I hated that smoking court which made my first and last breath of Harbin reeking and stale. But I finally made my peace with it: folks who needed to smoke honored the rest of us by smoking only there, keeping the smell of smoke out of Harbin proper and doing their best to keep Harbin safe from fire.
Up the gritty road (paved only in the last year or two), past the main office, the lawn with the tents where rainbow silks were for sale, past the gazebo over the fountain. And then the final steep, sweaty walk up to Mainside, knowing that soon I’d be relaxing in warm water.
(That climb was gravel when I first came to Harbin. Then they paved it but left drainage ditches every 20 feet or so across the road. After a year of people walking down that road at night and nearly breaking their necks stepping into the drainage ditches, they finally filled the ditches in with cement.)
Legs aching, panting, I’d climb those last steep steps to the golden wood of the gate to the pool areas and the signs reminding me not to bring glass where all those bare feet would be. If I hadn’t seen any nude bodies yet, there’d be the delightful anticipation that I’d see some soon (although I’d studiously not ogle). There would be the familiar sign with the coachman from Pinnochio and the reminder “If you’re in a hurry, you’re probably in the wrong place.”
Through the gate – and still the stairs to the dressing room to climb. Often I’d be so tired by then that I’d go up the wheelchair ramp, walking 20 extra feet rather than climbing those last few steps.
Into the dressing room which had a doctor’s office scale and a red tile floor that was always just a little bit icky and rubber mats that would press big round circles into my bare feet. Urgh, the task of finding a cubby for my clothes: easy on a weekday, nearly impossible on a weekend. Glowering at the nearly empty cubbies holding a water bottle or a single pair of underwear. Never sure whether to feel grateful for the new locked cubbies where I could actually leave valuables with some degree of trust or pissed that I now had to have a supply of quarters to feed them. Leaving my shoes in the bizarre translucent blue plastic shoe storage cubbies.
Naked now (and looking out the corners of my eyes at other naked people in the dressing room), feet cold. The inevitable trip to the bathroom before soaking: those doors with the locks that you turned to set the circular sign outside from green “vacant” to red “occupied.” Sometimes the only bathroom available was that one outside bathroom, colder than the others, and with a door that opened into the main thoroughfare so you’d thunk somebody if you didn’t open it very slowly.
One last chore before I could slip into dreamy meditation: a shower. I could have chosen one of the enclosed showers with the swinging barroom doors where I could be private but I might stand in the cold waiting for five minutes. But I usually went for the two completely exposed showers in front of the pool because I didn’t mind people seeing me scrubbing diligently at my private parts. The water was always cold at first and then in two seconds went to sizzling hot.
And then, cleaned off, shivering a bit (especially if it was night), I’d climb the softly rounded steps up to the warm pool.
Maybe I’d already hung my towel on a wooden peg in the dressing room or maybe I looked now for a place to drape it over the iron railings with their rusting curlicues. (I’d already made sure my towel was either unmistakably unique or cheap enough that when someone accidentally took it, it was no great loss.)
At the top of the steps down into the pool, I’d linger for a last second, savoring the discomfort of the cold because of the delighted anticipation of warmth to come.
First step down, still cold.
Second step down and my feet sink into hot water.
Holding onto that squared ribbon of railing, I’d sink into water that always felt very hot at first but would soon feel just body temperature.
Then came swiveling around the bottom of the railing and looking to see if there were any seats along the bench at the south end. My favorite spot was at the end of the bench right next to the stairway where there was a little crack from which bubbles would rise and tickle the soles of my feet.
I’m tall enough that the water in the warm pool came only up to my shoulders. My wife is shorter and the water was over her head in the south half. I’ve often thought what a very different experience I would have had if I’d been shorter: I’m always a little near panic in water that’s over my head. But to me the warm pool was safe, safe, safe, every inch of it.
And now at last, sitting on the bench or standing in some unoccupied spot, I’d drift into a meditative trance, cocooned in a warm womb, hearing the splash of water from the little creek tumbling in its bed down the hillside nearby. Tiny ripples in the water and even my own breathing would bob my body up and down. I’d gaze at the huge leaves of the fig tree and the blue walls of the hot pool building on the north side, look up at pines and bay trees and a patch of blue sky or stars. In the morning ripples of light would dance on the opposite wall; at evening bats would fly through the pine trees; in the rain steam would rise from the water and shroud everything in mystery.
Perhaps I’d admire naked bodies (but never ogling, we’re agreed on that, right?): just over there naked bottoms rise into view as people climb the wide steps to the hot pool. For many years I looked only for the most shapely buttocks, the model-perfect tanned brown behinds shaped like hearts. More recently, as I discovered how passionate I get at the sight of larger women, I would treasure nearly every body as it rose gleaming into the golden light of candles.
On weekends I’d be tense, trying not to brush against any of the people who were less than a foot away on all sides. On weekdays I might be one of only ten people in the whole pool and at three in the morning or if it was rainy, I might be the only one. Then I could float and float, eyes closed, pushed along by subtle currents carrying water from influx to outflow, waiting until my foot finally hit a wall to see where I’d wound up.
An hour later, the warm pool was still just the perfect temperature. My body had long since donned a delicate frosting of tiny bubbles and my pubic hair had become a jeweled crown. If I stroked my skin, the bubbles would titter against my hand and flame to the surface in a slender column.
Or maybe it was a rainy day and the water was just a tad too cool. I’d drift over to the hot pool end and find the pipe where the really hot water flowed in. There’d usually be someone pressed up against that spot but every now and then I’d luck out and could snag it. If not, I’d sit on the broad, shallow steps up to the hot pool, trying not to be one of those people who made the stairs so crowded they were impossible to use, looking at the pots of flowers and (in the evening) candles.
A lit sign reminded us to refrain from conversations and sexual activity.
How I wished they could have allowed quiet sexual activity! Late one night I heard a female voice sighing, “oh, this is perfect, oh, oh this is perfect,” in quiet gasps and it blended sweetly with the trees and water and steam. Far more annoying were the people who had prolonged conversations about computers or who was sleeping with whom, even if they did talk in whispers (and often they just blabbed away in normal street voices, giving disgusted withering looks to the people who shushed them).
But of course if Harbin had allowed sexual activity, the warm pool would have quickly become a loud splashy orgy (and the water unbearably icky). So I suppose it was best as it was, where you weren’t supposed to have sex in the pool but of course people did from time to time. (What’s that you ask? Er, I take the Fifth Amendment.)
Hot and Cold and Hot and Cold
Of course nobody ever did anything the weeniest bit sexual in the hot pool.
Man, that pool was hot.
For years, I’d climb the wide steps out of the warm pool and then hiss and gasp my painful way down the steps into the hot. Everyone used those steps, so someone invariably came and waited behind me and made me feel I had to force myself into the hot water even faster. Thoughts of the scene in Shogun where a poor sailor is boiled alive were never far from my mind.
But a few years ago, I figured out what to do. Of course the hot pool was agony to a body already heated from the warm pool. And of course the steps on the side everyone used were always crowded. But there was a set of steps on the opposite side of the hot pool that almost nobody used, except to sit on.
So when I was ready for hot, I’d climb out of the warm pool on the Fern Kitchen side, stand there cooling down for a few minutes, then walk around the south and east side of the pool, stopping to look down at the koi pond and the sauna, and enter the hot pool building by the other door. Then I could ease myself down into the boiling water at my leisure.
It still hurt. But it hurt a lot less.
Easing my painful way into the steaming water, I’d hold onto the railing of coiling rippling metal in the shape of silver dragons swallowing their own tails. From the corner of my eye I’d see the dragon-mouth pipe where the water poured in and the planter in the shape of a quietly meditative, long-haired goddess with a crown of hanging flowers.
I made it into the hot water! I’d breathe through clenched teeth for a few more seconds, then head desperately for the steps out of the pool before my body melted. Oh no, somebody is making their painful way down the steps and I have to wait, feeling like my skin is sloughing off, trying not to guilt trip them with my impatience.
Out at last into cool air that feels great no matter how cold the night might be. Out the west door of the little hot pool building, maybe down to the stone fountain for a quick drink of untreated water. And then up to the cold plunge, past the foot-sized bath in its little nook and up the wooden stairs to the deck with the bench in front of the white porcelain Quan Yin. At the top of the stairs I’d touch the triangular piece of wood hanging from the wind chimes and give the gentle wave which set them softly singing.
Stepping over the raised lip and down into the cold plunge, I’d gasp and hiss as the ring of cold inched its way up my body. Usually I’d stop halfway in and drink from the white inflow pipe. Teeth clenched, I’d say a prayer and sink in to my neck at last. Yaaaahhh!
I’d position myself out of the current from inflow to outflow because body heat makes a fragile layer of bearable water right next to skin as long as the water is still. Even so, I was too cold within a few minutes.
But that didn’t matter because many years ago I had discovered the ultimate hot springs secret: the utter hedonistic pleasure of all the rounds of hot and cold after the first. I’d made it through the volcano of the first hot plunge and the hypothermia of the first cold plunge. Now I rise out of the cold water and head back for the little bath house.
On the second dip in the hot pool I’d simply walk right down the steps with a sigh, that molten water feeling as cozy as a perfect bath tub. I’d submerge myself without pain and stand in front of the dragon pipe to let hot water cascade over me while I worshipped the little goddess with the crown of cascading leaves.
Of course after a few minutes I’d start to superheat again. But I’d just climb out, walk calmly up to the cold plunge and step straight in. It would feel deliciously cool and if I stationed myself out of the current, I could stay in for a good long time. I’d lean against the rounded edge, let my head lay back against the sparkly coated cement and close my eyes. Even if I felt my body starting to spin, I’d focus on the firmness of the cement under my feet and the supportive arms of the cool water and just leave reality for a while.
I’d go back and forth from hot to cold and hot to cold, maybe three, maybe four times until my body became a limp noodle. And then at last, before returning to the warm pool, a trip to the bathroom (because I invariably had to pee by then). If I went straight from the hot pool, my superheated body didn’t even feel the cold.
Back in the warm pool there might be the joy of letting someone float me or of carrying someone in my arms as happy and trusting as a child.
Late at night, I’d walk back to the sleeping deck or to my room. How many of us at least once stepped in the dark into the little drainage dip that bisected the mainside area, shouted “Whoaaa!” and nearly broke our necks?
If I was camped on the sleeping deck, it was sweet to sleep under the vast sky of stars and wake up and see the dawn just beginning over the hills, to sit up and watch the sky go pink over the wooden railing, and feel the world warm up and finally see the sun peep over the rounded hilltops.
There was also a hidden waterfall: Some 15 years after I first went to Harbin, someone showed me the little dirt path that took off from the bottom of the Stonefront building near the grocery store and climbed a short way to a small grotto. There, in that forested nook amid ferns and mist, I’d sit in quiet awe before a wall of joyous, splashing white water enfolded and beribboned with white-gray tree roots, a thousand tendrils of wood holding that waterfall in a sacred grasp.
Like many of us who mourn Harbin, my first introduction to the place was the Human Awareness Institute (HAI) workshops and the Conference Center where they were held.
I honestly don’t miss the Conference Center itself so much. The HAI “room of love” was always more of a concept than a place. My physical memories of the Conference Center are of sweating or freezing (if I sat under a fan I might need jeans, a turtleneck and sweater; two feet away I might need nothing at all); of cold aching feet on the tile of bathrooms where the toilets stopped up too easily; of losing things until I learned to designate one or two special places and put stuff nowhere else; and of stepping on tiny bristled fruits from the trees as I walked across the pebbled concrete outside at night.
But like a lot of us, I remember so many life-changing experiences in that room that the discomforts fade and the sentiment remains. In the tiny tiny kitchen, the cooks would somehow prepare fabulous meals for every workshop. And of course I remember soaking in the outdoor pools with good companions who were sharing the intense workshop experience. A radiant sugar pine grew in the elbow between upper deck and stairs down. Deer would graze on the hillside above.
Going Back to Special Places
I’ve been back to my beloved memory places. The new Academy of Sciences is amazing and they even left one of the old halls in place (the African Hall, not my beloved California Hall). The Nut Tree mall is a sad travesty of the Nut Tree that was and I literally sobbed after the one time I went there.
What’s left at Harbin? The buildings are all gone. Anything made of wood (and at Harbin they used lots of beautiful, intricately shaped, exotic wood) burned to ashes. But the pools weren’t made of wood; they remain and as I write this they’re again full of lovely pure water. All those exquisite metal railings seem to have survived. The little nook with the foot bath beside the hot pool building escaped entirely. Nobody has yet posted a picture of the waterfall area but I can hope that the fire skipped over that moist secluded little nook.
I can never again sit by the fountain in the gazebo or have breakfast in the Stonefront restaurant or cook a meal over the humendous flames of the stove in Fern Kitchen. But I hope to soak in the warm pool again while looking at stars through mist.
At the charred entrance to Harbin tongues of metal fire still emerge from the mouth of the dragon gate. On the remains of the fig tree that completely shaded the northern end of the warm pool is one bright green island: a small freshet of new leaves. Near the cold plunge the porcelain Quan Yin sits serenely by the ashes of the deck, radiating mercy and hope.
All photos in this article are from the Harbin web site, www.harbin.org, except the photo of the deer grazing on the hillside, which was taken by Geri Weitzman.