Harbin Ice Festival

My first excursion in China goes to Harbin, which is famous for its annual ice festival. Any time you check into a hotel or hostel in China they need to report to the government that you’re staying there, so even if I’m travelling within the country, I still need to bring my passport.Beijing train station For that reason I wanted this trip “out of the way” as soon as possible, since I also need to turn in my passport to the immigration authorities, in order to get a residency permit. And before I have my residency permit, I can’t get the rest of my things from Sweden into the country. So right now I’m still living out of my vacation bag, which of course is packed for 30 degrees, and not the -20 which Harbin is expected to bring.

My colleague Tanhsin has helped me book a night train for the way up (Harbin is located way up northeast, due north of the Korean peninsula) and my first task is to get to the station.The Russian Church Turns out that it’s not as easy as I’d imagined to explain that to a cabbie that speaks no English.  I get waved off twice before I think to just give my ticket voucher to the driver and after studying it intently for almost a minute he says “Beijing cha4? (fourth tone, black finger down is the memory aid), which I assume means station. It turns out to indeed be that and I’m dropped off outside the impressive looking behemoth of a station, tastefully lit up in the February darkness.

I remember Tanhsin saying something about first having to get the real ticket, and that it’s off to the side of the station. So by just showing my voucher to random official-looking people I finally find my way over there and get my ticket. Then you need to go back to the real station house and show the ticket to a guard before being let in. After passing through a metal detector you get in to the actual station, which looks more like an airport terminal than a train station. Too bad, I had my hopes up for one of those impressive old-school station house ceilings. Instead the ceiling is really low and the place even manages to feel cramped.

At the marketBoarding starts as early as half an hour before departure and to my delight I actually recognize the character for car/wagon on my ticket, to mean the cart number I’m in. The interior is just like any other sleeper train, nor fancier or worse than a Swedish one and the ride is uneventful. We arrive in Harbin at seven in the morning, and as you might expect, it’s bitterly cold. I discover almost immediately that it’s very slippery, oddly enough I seem to be the only one having a problem though. The fucking joker who designed my so-called winter boots ought to be stripped, dipped in honey and buried in an anthill! They can’t possibly have tested them in real winter conditions, since the Vibram rubber in the sole seems to turn into almost hard plastic when subjected to lower temperatures. This means that I spend most of the weekend walking like a grandma, and even though I’m amazingly close to taking a spill roughly 44 times during the weekend, I never actually do it. If there is one super power I have, it has to be “getting around in low friction”.

Tunnel of love?My very nice colleague Frigg (awesome name, eh?) has prepared a vacation package for me, since she’s from a town very near to Harbin. She has equipped me with maps, a suggested list of sights and written them down in Chinese so that I can show taxi drivers. I start off by just walking around though, to get a feel for the place. The ground is littered with the remains of firecrackers since yesterday was Lantern Day, the finale of the Chinese New Year.

Crossing the street, I go for an underpass (most Chinese streets will have a hard-to-climb fence in the middle, making it not really worth crossing where there aren’t crosswalks). The underpass has doors, which seems a bit strange, but I enter and find myself in what could almost be called a mall! Right there, under the street, are rows upon rows of tiny shops, all selling clothes. Relishing the warmth, I walk around a good while, finding that the place is huge! It just goes on and on and it’s pretty fun to just browse. I come upon an area selling men’s dress pants, and I’ll have to admit that they look really nice. It’s hard to judge the fabric quality, but the workmanship is very good, and there are lots of cool details incorporated into the designs.

SwordfishEmerging back topside, I decide to turn on the GPS to see where I am. When it finally gets a reading I am somewhat shocked at seeing how far off I am, I’m usually pretty good at gauging where I am and where I should be going, so this discovery stings a bit. I’m in the northwestern part of town when I should be in the northeastern. Well okay, I start heading back, regularly checking in on the GPS to make sure I’m not veering off course. But the GPS behaves rather erratically and doesn’t seem to follow along as it should. Finally I hit a larger street and some street signs (which thankfully are both in Chinese and English) and is able to locate where I am. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing, the GPS is actually _wrong_! This goes against everything I know about the technology involved, but it aside from that, it all makes sense. It’s not off by a little either, it’s something like a kilometer! Not sure what to believe, I write it off as the cold doing a number with on tablet. I guess I will have to rely on plain old map reading from now on.

Huge doggieI find a café that has Internet and a waiter that speaks passable English and decide to sit down to defrost and come up with a plan. Frigg had suggested that I first go visit the Russian church and after some thinking I decide to swallow my navigational pride and take a taxi to the church. (it turned out that I’d taken the opposite direction right off the bat and was actually in the southeastern part of downtown)

The Russian church is indeed nice, and next to it is an indoor market, filled with all sorts of wonderful things. Everything from sausages, nuts and candy to sea cucumbers, river turtles and cakes. Now that I’ve gotten my bearings it’s not hard to find my way to the next location; the pedestrian precinct. From what I’ve gleaned so far, it is not very common to have streets exclusively for pedestrians in China, so this is very welcome to my European sensibilities. The street is really nice, and there are beautiful ice sculptures at regular intervals, giving me a first taste of what to come.

Near the end of the street is a park that Frigg suggested I visit, it’s a smaller version of the main exhibition, but still pretty large. Admission is a whopping 200 rmb, but since I’ll likely never come back here I fork up the cash. The sculptures are really beautiful, but are probably even better viewed in the evening, when it’s dark and they’re lit up from within. Even though it’s really nice, there isn’t much variety and there aren’t many people either, undoubtedly due to the steep price (normally it is 80, but since this weekend is Lantern Day and all, the price is higher).

Up on the castle wallMoving on to the nearby river I find the next stop on my itinerary; an activity area out on the river itself. It’s filled with people doing the most amazingly boring things, like renting a sledge with ski poles and then using those to get around. There are other kinds of sled rides, pulled by horses or some of the largest German sheperd I’ve ever seen (the poor dogs aren’t very well suited for that though, they can hardly get around without slipping even before being strapped in front of a sled). Over on the side is a really shifty looking fellow, it looks like he just stepped out of a Tintin comic!Buddha He has a table with two positively adorable arctic foxes and he charges a ridiculous amount of money for you to pick one up and get a photo with it. Even though they are amazingly cute, I resist the urge as they don’t seem to be treated very well and I don’t want to support that kind of behavior. Off to the side there is some kind of escalator filled with people, it turns out that they all have tractor inner tubes and up on the river bank they all line up before, on a given signal, go down the slope like a rubber avalanche.

The sun is finally setting now, so it’s time to head out to the big ice exhibition. The cabbies are reluctant to go out there, I guess because it’s a ways outside of town and it’s hard for them to get a fare back. So in the end I have to pay an exorbitant 40 rmb to get there. It’s now around seven in the evening and the exhibition area is bitingly cold. It’s another 300 rmb to get in and I actually have to start worrying if I have enough money to get back since scrounging up all that cash for the rent has made me run up against the withdrawal limit on both my debit cards. After some calculating it seems like I’ll be fine if I just steer clear of any more unforeseen expenses, but there’s this gnawing doubt at the back of my mind throughout that isn’t much fun.

Ice festivalThe exhibition is beautiful, but bitterly cold, and there is really nowhere to defrost. When I was downtown I could at least duck into stores every now and then, now I’ll just have to tough it out. The coolest things they have are the large snow Buddha and the really big Disney-esque ice castle that you can even go up on the wall and look out over the area. The exhibition area is of course packed and getting around is a hassle, especially with my shoes being in the state they’re in. The cold makes my camera battery drain super fast (I changed it just three hours earlier, and normally it lasts about a week). So when the battery finally give up, so do I. In the interest of saving money, I take the bus back to town (public transport is amazingly cheap in China, the bus is 3.50 rmb), hoping it will stop somewhere recognizable… Turns out I’m in luck and it stops at a bus station I passed earlier.

To get to the hostel I booked I have to take a taxi though, since it’s a bit off. I had the waiter back at the café earlier write down the address in Chinese so that I can show the cab driver. Despite this he drops me off totally wrong, and since I don’t really know how to argue with him I decide to walk the remaining ˜2 km. When I finally get to where the hostel is supposed to be according to the map, it simply isn’t there! There is a hotel there though and with some gesturing I’m able to communicate that I’m lost. They speak no English at all but seem to indicate that if I just walk over to the side road, it should be there.More Ice Festival So I head back over there, but find that it’s all stores, and all closed to boot. I go back and try the neighboring hotel this time. This time I show the lady the address instead of the map. The hostel is supposed to be at 63 Huashan Road and the lady tells me that this is number 8 Huashan Road. So yet again I’m screwed over by the map!

Grudgingly I start walking again. Ironically 63 Huashan Road is really close to where I was originally dropped off by the cab, making this whole misadventure even more infuriating. Checking in at the hostel I get a room that happens to be 11 degrees, I just can’t catch a break this weekend! It takes ten minutes to explain to the staff (again, no English whatsoever) that even though I’m running the AC full blast, nothing is happening to the temperature. Finally one of them gets it though, and they put a space heater in my room (which runs amazingly hot!). Finally things are looking up and I get all cozied in.

Dragon TowerAt 1 am, someone knocks on the door. Fortunately I’m still up and as I open the door, one of the staff hand me a note with the words “Bank card is not just money do you think you can brush card trouble can not pay cash you use” scribbled on it. After some back and forth I understand that the Visa I paid with is not coming through. They want me to pay cash instead and they’ll refund the money to the card. Problem is that the refund isn’t working either… The staff are getting really frustrated by not being able to communicate and finally they phone someone up (it’s now 1:30) that speaks a little English, problem is that the sound quality is awful so I can barely make out what the guy is saying. In the end I’m able to verify that the money has indeed been drawn from my account, even if it hasn’t reached them. So I grudgingly get my cash back (the poor kids probably have to make it up out of their own pocket, too bad I really can’t afford to be generous at this point).
The next morning I wake up with a sore throat, that, and seeing the thermometer is showing -23 makes it an easy decision to sleep in. When I finally get going it’s almost noon, but since I crammed almost everything I’d planned to do into yesterday, today is more ad hoc anyway. The hostel is right next to a pretty cool looking TV-tower, called Dragon Tower. It basically looks like a slightly more steam punky version of Tokyo Tower which is a look I really like.

With a ticket in my hand I naïvely assume I can just go up the elevator, but no, the elevator ladies just wave me away and points up to the second level. So I head up there and find that there are little exhibitions, each one worse than the former. There are terrible 3D paintings where the Chinese delight in pulling down the shorts of opponents to Yao Ming (the NBA basketball hero of China) or photographing themselves pulling off the sheets of a sleeping, nude, woman. There is a tiny science museum where you can lift yourself and all that usual stuff and a natural history room with plastic dinosaur skeletons.Yao Ming At each of these you get a little stamp and as I’d visited most of them I was finally let into the elevator.

From down below it had looked like a reasonably clear day, but up top you can’t really see far, the smog is still there. Not that there seems to be much to see anyway, the cityscape looks really drab, the building all alike in their dirty, off-white facades. They’ve made an effort to fence the platform up, but I cannot help but thinking that a determined BASE-jumper would have no trouble scaling it. There are a couple of additional levels above this one, but they are both indoors and doesn’t offer much of interest.

Optimus PrimeI grab a taxi back to city center and stop in at the café I found yesterday to try and find out how to get to the zoo northwest of town that has Siberian tigers. The waiter explains that there really isn’t any way to get there except for taxi, so I decide to give it a miss and instead ask him for suggestions. He tells me I should visit the convention center and a nearby place where I can eat all the regional foods of China in one place. Okay, fine, that doesn’t sound too bad, so I get him to write them down and he also gets me into a cab.

As I get to the convention center, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do there, it’s really just a mall like countless others. It’s focused on outdoors equipment so I browse a bit, only to find that if you get the brand stuff, it’s just as expensive as in Sweden. I come to another part of the mall and there it is gold, gold, gold as far as the eye can see. It seems that the Chinese really fancy gaudy golden figurines, much like the ones I saw in Hong Kong. I do find some adorable Doraemon earrings though. The mall doesn’t hold my interest for that long, but at least it’s warm, so I stay longer than I normally would have. I remember seeing a big Optimus Prime statue across the road when I rolled up with the taxi, much like the Gundam Wing statue in Tokyo. So I decide to make my way over there, remembering that the waiter had said something about “being able to play” over at the convention center. The statue is of the newer incarnation of Optimus Prime, the pointy one from the movies, which I’m not very fond of. Regardless, it’s still pretty cool. But when I get inside the building next to it I’m sorely disappointed since this is just another mall… At this point it has gotten dark and I realize that I won’t have time for the buffét restaurant, so instead I head to the airport to get back to Beijing.