The day was a Monday and it was my day off, but unfortunately Rose had to work. I had the urge to take a day trip because my days off up to that point had consisted of staying inside or going to neighbourhood stores and restaurants when necessary or to meet up with Rose. It was time to do what we had come here to do in the first place: explore and travel.
I had made a list earlier in the year of all the interesting attractions that popped up when Googling “Dalian”. One that really stood out was the Lushun Russo-Japanese Prison, a prison from the Russian Japanese War. The history of prisons from different eras had always fascinated me and to see one on the opposite side of the world would be a new experience for me. It had great reviews on TripAdvisor and it was about a two-and-a-half-hour trip from where we lived by public transport; a perfect distance for a day trip. Luckily, the weather was supposed to be great as well so I was happy with the decision. I copied and pasted the Chinese name of the prison into Baidu Maps and started my journey just after eight AM.
After getting off the first extremely crowded, rush-hour bus, I was in a busy area of the city close to a Walmart. According to Baidu, I was to board a second bus that wasn’t marked with any numerals like most city buses, but would be identified by a variety of Chinese characters (none of which I could read, of course). Baidu navigated me down a little side street where a small crowd of people were gathered by what appeared to be a trailer with ticket windows. I assumed this was the place and approached the window with a confused look on my face until a woman noticed me from the inside.
I communicated the only way I knew how by handing her my phone through a little hole in the window, which displayed the Baidu-mapped route to my destination. She pointed at a sign that said it would cost seven yuan for the bus. Nice and cheap, about $1.40 CAD. I began switching to the payment app on my phone to complete the transaction until she pointed to a pile of money, indicating that it’s cash-only.
I was in complete shock. In what feels like a country where everyone pays digitally, we’ve been told countless times that the only money you need is the money securely stored on your phone. Hell, even the people selling cherries out of baskets on the side of the road have a QR code for you to scan. So how much cash do you think I had on me? About 3 yuan leftover from our first days here, kept in my wallet mostly for effect, well shy of the required amount. I nodded in understanding and turned around looking for any sign of a bank to withdraw some cash. Of course, being in an unfamiliar place when trying to find something you need is never easy. After making my way back to the main street and pacing up and down multiple times with no luck, I decided to go back to the window and make 100% sure that it was indeed cash-only. Sometimes non-verbal communication can have mixed interpretations.
As I turned the corner, I was met by a young man who looked to be about sixteen years old, and a woman I assumed was his mother. He said in accented English,“I saw that you needed cash for the ticket. We can give you cash for a transfer” while gesturing to his phone.
In other countries, a traveller might think that this was a scam, but with China’s paperless economy, I had heard this kind of interaction was quite common. I thanked them repeatedly and probably too much to be honest (the Canadian was coming out in full force). They led me back to the father who had the cash and we made the switch. A ten-yuan bill for a quick e-transfer via Alipay, and with bill in hand, I went back to the window to buy my ticket for the journey.
I thanked the family once more and milled around with the rest of the crowd waiting for the bus. It arrived shortly and the boarding process began. Another woman from the trailer had come out to collect tickets and began speaking to me in Chinese while the confused look returned to my face. Once again, the young man from the helpful family was nearby. “She says to get off at the final stop.” After yet another thank you, I gave a thumbs up and hopped on.
Now I had been planning to plug in to a podcast and enjoy the scenery, but as I chose my seat the young man asked if he could sit next to me. After all his help, I certainly wasn’t going to deny him. He seemed genuinely interested in talking with me, and while I’m not the best at striking up conversations with strangers, I figured why live abroad if you’re not going to speak to any locals? No harm in a slight change of plans.
I came to learn that his English name was Atha, he recently graduated junior high school and was on a week-long holiday with his family from Shanghai, concluding that evening with a flight out of Dalian. We talked about his schooling, his enjoyment of cosplay, and he showed me pictures from his trip up to that point. The language barrier was a bit of a hurdle but we made do. He tried to tell me about the famous poets of China and a little bit about China’s history, while also saying that Lushun was the nicest place in Dalian; somewhere not to be missed. A fact unknown to me at the time.
I was glad, thinking that the scenery around the prison might be a nice bonus. I told him that was my end destination, but much to my surprise, this fact was met with a pitying look.
“The prison is closed on Mondays,” he said. At first, I didn’t believe him, but he confirmed it with his father.
I felt a little crushed. Of course, looking up the hours of the prison might have been a good thing to research before deciding to make this two-hour trip. How could I have overlooked such an important detail? It seems a universal fact that museums are closed on Monday, but then again, it often feels like China isn’t a part of this universe. Just once, I wanted something to be easy, but apparently today wasn’t that day.
I think Atha could see the disappointment in my face.
“Would you like to come to a park with us?” he said, gesturing to his family.
After letting go of the fact that my plan was effectively ruined and having no plan B, I said what the hell and accepted his invitation. I felt my disappointment fade slightly. I chose to take it as a sign that today wasn’t the day to see the prison; today was the day to hang out with a random Chinese family and see what happened. If I hadn’t talked with Atha, I would have arrived excitedly at my destination only to realize it was closed and the day might have been a complete waste. Plus, this meant that I could come back to Lushun with Rose and have a day at the prison with some company.
We departed the bus and were immediately bombarded by taxi drivers and people with touristy-looking papers and maps. Luckily, the parents were able to politely (or impolitely, I’m not really sure) tell them to leave us alone. We began walking down a busy street filled with different vendors and plenty of people selling cherries out of baskets (QR codes and all). Lushun is very close to the water so the breeze and the overall weather were already much nicer than where we live. Things were looking up.
As I was enjoying the walk, a taxi suddenly pulled up beside us and we all got in. At that point, I felt these were trustworthy people and had no notion that I was being driven off to my slow and painful death. Thankfully, I was right.
We pulled into a large parking lot next to an even larger hill. There was a ticket booth and a sign saying tickets were twenty yuan to walk up. I took my phone out to purchase my ticket but the dad, who had been talking to the people in the booth, turned around with a ticket for both myself and Atha. Again, I thought about how nice these people were. On the ticket there were pictures of impressive-looking cannons that I assumed must be at the top.
The parents chose to avoid the climb up the hill, so Atha and I made our way up the man-made stairs. When we reached the top, there was a gorgeous three hundred and sixty-five-degree view of Lushun with multiple cannons lined up along the ridge. And yes, they were impressive (both the cannons and the view). They were Russian cannons and, I assumed being so near the prison, must have been used during the Russian Japanese War. There were also a bunch of old ruins that, according to Atha, were most likely used as bunkers for the soldiers during that time. I couldn’t help but appreciate the fact that I never would have stepped foot on that hill or knew it existed had my day gone according to plan. It had only been half an hour since leaving the bus and I was already pleased with my decision.
After we took some pictures and admired the scenery, we headed back down to rejoin mom and dad. The next stop, I am told, would be the Lushun History Museum. I thought it was weird that this museum was open on Monday and not the prison but I didn’t question it further. I was just going with the flow as we began a beautiful two kilometre walk.The museum was located in a massive park with many other buildings and lots of greenery. However, it turns out my thought was accurate; the museum was indeed closed. The four of us had a quick chuckle at the bad luck and decided to never travel on Monday again. I guess we were all bad at looking up opening and closing hours.
They decided it was time for lunch so dad found a restaurant on his phone and led us there. They ordered A LOT of food. Way more than they were expecting. Apparently in Shanghai, the dishes were always very small so one needed to order a lot of them. In this part of China however, the dishes are huge and you never need more than two or three to feed a group of people. I was continuously pressured by the mom to eat as much as I could so there were fewer leftovers. I did my best but had to tap out with much of the food still remaining. Nobody seemed to mind all that much, but I suppose no waste in good waste.
When it was time to leave, they paid for lunch and adamantly refused when I offered to send them money multiple times so I smiled and gave them more thank yous. They must have been getting tired of hearing it.
It came time for them to head to the airport, and I felt close to overstaying my welcome, so I said I was going to wander around on my own. We added each other on WeChat, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways. I recounted the day to myself and although it was not what I had planned, I wasn’t unhappy about the outcome in the slightest.
I finished the day by wandering through more parks and along some of the water. Lushun reminded me a lot of Vancouver with the greenery, and the seaside smell in the air. I don’t think I would have seen enough of the beautiful offerings had I just plugged into a podcast and gone to the prison. Sometimes being open to unexpected opportunities can lead to special experiences. Now I know there is much more to see and look forward to going back with Rose!