Haerbin is a destination that should be on everybody’s travel list, but only to be ticked off once. Never have I been so aware of every nostril hair, flash frozen in my nasal breathing space, in my life.
With about nine weeks time off given to me for the winter holiday, lately my days have been devoted to surviving my pathetic spiral into entropic destruction. My latest discovery is that yes, dust bunnies do mate. I am yet to see it in action, but the offspring are appearing at the rate their animalistic counterparts do.
As you can probably surmise, I do very well with nothing to do. /sarcasm.
So with (some) money to my name, and more time off to it than is socially acceptable, I needed a plan of action. My logic was such that it is winter and I should go see something famous that happens in winter, because Hamilton back home doesn’t really “do” this season.
Enter into the equation, Haerbin.
Quick points about this city –
Tenth most populated city in China (just up from 10.5 million).
Often called the “Ice City” and has held an internationally recognised ice festival since 1995.
Heavily influenced by Russian architecture and culture as it was once under Russian rule.
It’s pretty, and filled with culture that isn’t just Chinese? I was sold.
Trains to Haerbin from Beijing have become more commonplace as the CCP lay down more and more G train tracks. What five years ago was a 16 – 25 hour trip has been shortened to seven hours and change. Booking trains is easy on Travel China Guide, and after writing down the exact details I hop on a bus to Huangcun and book it at the ticket office to save money on Internet fees. After that I booked a hotel, and sealed the holiday deal.
The G train there was pretty uneventful, save for the small squirmy child behind me thinking my seat to be some sort of DanceDance platform. G train feels very similar to an aircraft cabin; the seats are almost spacious enough, there is always as awkward battle for armrest usage, and you’re travelling at speeds up to 310km/hour. I really wish New Zealand had 1/10th the rail capacity and technology of China, it’s so convenient to shift large groups of people in a relatively economical framework.
Arriving at Haerbin I lined up for a legitimate taxi (another 45 minutes, with one lady trying to morph through my backpack and gain the upper hand, nu-uh lady back off) and powered off into the night. Taxi drivers, especially during winter, make a killing off all the traffic entering the city, and often try to fill their cab with passengers going to different places to keep the meter running (or they’re being nice and not letting people freeze for too long, but I doubt it). My ride ended up being quite long as we picked up, and dropped off, two Chinese. I’m uncertain whether they gave the driver any money (as a foreigner you are always being ripped off, it just depends as to what degree you will suffer) but I arrived and prepared to head out for food with some Shijiazhuang friends who had arrived earlier that morning (Courtney, Dan, and Elizabeth). Through no communication during either trip planning’s we all ended up in the same hotel, and I graciously accepted their offer to hang with them for the trip. Travelling alone can be great, but being with friends is a hell of a lot better in such a frozen environment. For dinner I ate a large meatball/dwarfed meatloaf dish simply titled ‘Russian Patties’.
Unfortunately the next morning saw Courtney break her glasses, so Dan and I being the two early-birds went for a walk around the hotel to try and find a convenience store. In Shijiazhuang and Beijing you can find a convenience store on every second corner, but in Haerbin you have to walk (or in my case hobble like an old woman) across miles of ice to find anything resembling such a store. As it turns out our hotel was in this food/drink/amenities dead-zone, and only good for language education and banking. But we found one with superglue, walked back to give it to Courtney, and promptly jumped in a cab to go to the main street for some brunch and coffee.
Elizabeth and Courtney then phoned and said they wanted to complete their souvenir shopping, so Dan and I headed to Sun Island. Sun Island is where you will find the daytime exhibit of snow sculptures. Most sculptures were carved from a 3x3x3metre cube of snow, but some measured 10-30 metres long. The unofficial theme this year seemed to be the promotion of student success, and what defines being a successful university student in Haerbin, Heilongjiang, and China. Most definitions translated into English featured positive study phrases similar to the famous ‘good good study day day up’ we all come to learn when living in China. I loved the largest snow sculpture that was still being worked on, a horse melting into a woman’s face, melting into what I think was a dove, but I don’t envy the sculptors standing over seven metres high on a blockade of snow with absolutely no safety equipment whatsoever. One slip and the warnings will soon include ‘don’t eat the red snow’. Gulp.
As it came time to yet again defrost ourselves inside a nearby building, Dan and I were directed to a hut that had fish and pheasants hanging in front of it by a German passerby who said there were some Mao era artefacts hanging on the walls. We just needed a place to thaw out after being outside almost two hours, so we hightailed it there. The artefacts turned out to be obscure posters featuring gargantuan babies and lavish lotus flowers; pretty propaganda is popular in China. We bought a crappy coffee and waited for the girls to catch up with us as they had arrived to the park about 45 minutes ago. Once we regrouped we ordered dinner and drank vodka to liven the belly up/acquire an alcohol blanket for the terrible wind outside. Upon leaving we sort of wish we had have been kicked out, the lights had been turned off and the entire park had shut down somewhere between our jiaozi and vodka consuming. Thankfully Dan managed to pry the gate open, and we set off down the road hoping a taxi would come as we planned to visit the Ice and Snow festival.
Five minutes later our asses were saved by a black cab (not actually black, but slightly less legal than other cabs) and for a mere NZD $5 we landed right at the doorstep of the Ice and Snow festival grounds.
If I could sum up that area, I would choose the word ‘sublime’.
A wide array of ice sculptures measuring 2-15 metres tall wound around the festival. There were a lot of tower/castle displays, I think they’re the easiest to construct with such a material like ice. Every sculpture has an array of lights wound through the ice, and every evening they are turned up to level ‘dazzling’. The combination of frozen water and electricity is beautiful, hypnotic even. This display is the reason you come to Haerbin, nowhere else will you find an Ice City quite like this. At one end there was an ice-skating play happening, the general war theme was present as it is in most China plays (they really love to feel victorious here). Towards the back there was a professional ice carving display area with lots of horse motifs, being all Year of the Horse in China soon. Some of those were carved resembling a marble statue, and some resembling the blunt end of a chainsaw. The massive thermometer sculpture showed the evening temperature at -33C, also known as how-do-people-survive-this-shit-C, and after reading that we decided that maybe it was home time.
Day two we woke up to go to the Siberian Tiger Park. This is the largest tiger ‘sanctuary’ in the world, and by sanctuary I mean biggest caged in area where tigers roam around a bit. The greatest part of that area was when our bus was stuck transitioning between areas, and three tigers decided to try and escape. After countless three-point turn manoeuvres to try and get the tigers back into their enclosure, a jeep was hailed to come and drive around with meat, essentially being a meal on wheels for the fat cats. The walk around area was just a caged elevated platform where you could see the tigers and other cats sunning their balls. The most unusual part about the caged platform was the diagonally downward facing open shoots, located every ten metres or so around the place. Apparently you can feed live chickens to the tigers with one…uhh…helping push down the chutes.
To finish off the afternoon we visited the new Jewish Synagogue, a well constructed temple (can I use that word?) with the history of Jewish settlement in Haerbin sprinkled around the second and third floors. I loved the architecture and stained wood detailing and would definitely include aspects of it in my house if I had one. We ended the night with a game called ‘drinkie pool’ and NZD$4 whiskey that remarkably tasted like cheap whiskey.
The last day of my trip I said farewell to the three Shijiazhuangers as they had a morning train booked, and I hung out on the main strip ZhongYang DaJie to collect souvenirs, coffee, and of course more whiskey. My sleeper train left at 2130, I planned ahead for that train because it was the perfect time to lie down and sleep the journey back to Beijing away.
I’m immensely glad I can say I’ve been to Haerbin, there are very few places in the world with such a strange culture clash mixed in with spectacular ice showcases. It’s totally worth it, even if you do lose every nerve ending to the brutal cold.