In which our long underwear becomes our constant companion.
And finally, the details of our holiday in the frozen north:
After the Lunar New Year, when the crowds travelling had died down a bit, Aaron and I travelled north towards Russia, to the city of Haerbin. We took train on which we had booked hard sleeper class tickets. Hard sleeper cars have three-sided compartments, two sides of which are lined with bunks – three high. Despite buying our tickets on the first day they were sold, we had third tier bunks. Avoiding your lower neighbors’ heads, you shimmy up some little foot holds, and worm yourself into your bunk near the ceiling. One benefit, though (aside from being able to lay down all night and sleep – yay!) was that no one wanted to sit on your bunk, as with the lowest bunk which became a seat during the day. Our train left Beijing at 9:45 pm, and we pulled into Haerbin, well rested, at about 8:30 the next morning.
Haerbin is cold. They specialize in ice, snow, ice and snow festivities, and all things Russian. To keep cozy, each day I wore two suits of long underwear, pants, boots, two shirts, my biggest woolliest sweater, winter jacket, gloves and mittens, scarf, hood or hat and ear warmer. And I was still cold while walking outside in the evening. And sometimes during the day. If you go, I highly suggest carrying a hip flask (or at least a bottle of hot water)!
The city is adjacent to a river which was frozen solid with at least two feet of ice. Sun Island lies about a 20 minute walk across the ice (or horse carriage ride, or cable car). Once making it through an utter gauntlet of people hawking winter wear, horse rides, photography services, rides down the giant Coca-cola slide (complete with repetitive disco music), snacks, dog sled rides, ice bicycles and little sleds powered by “rowing” sharp metal sticks against the ice, the river is a huge expanse criss-crossed with deep cracks and areas of flawless black-colored ice. The island is mostly a park with some conference center and hotel buildings. During the winter, one end of the park is transformed into the Haerbin Snow Festival. This year’s theme was Beijing buildings, complete with a replica of the Gate of Heaven. Part of the stairs at the front had been smoothed into slides for those willing to drop a serious amount of cash (over the 120RMB entrance fee!) to rent a snow tube. The rest of the park was filled with snow sculptures of various sizes, including quite a few devoted to the French and drinking. There was also a snow sculpture competition. These sculptures were much more well-preserved (we were in town at the very tail end of the festivals) and very detailed. The park also had a collection of iron and bronze sculptures depicting families and children of enormous scale and beautiful texture. My favorite was called “Bean” and showed a very elderly bespectacled grandmother reaching waaaay down to retrieve from the floor one single bean (cast of a gold-colored, polished metal that contrasted with the bronze). I think we enjoyed these sculptures more than the snow sculptures!
More striking than the snow festival were the two ice festivals we attended. One was smallish, and in a city park, and one was enormous and just off the island. These ice sculptures ranged from refrigerator size to a nearly life-sized Westminster Abbey. There were slippery ice steps to climb to the top of slippery ice castles, and slippery ice mazes, another ice Gate of Heaven (still no Mao portrait – very disappointing as I’m sure it’s possible to do an ice Mao!), ice rinks with more sleds with sharp metal poles (watch your toes!), and really lovely ice sculptures. The ice edifices were lit with neon from within, and they glowed brilliantly. Some had moving lights for an extreme 80s disco feel.
My favorites here were the competition ice sculptures. They weren’t huge (would definitely fit in your dining room), but they were very intricate, and artistically designed. Like the snow sculptures, these were better preserved than the rest (due to ropes around each, and a greater security presence). Many countries were represented, including excellent combinations, such as a joint India/Canada team! I intend to post pictures soon – these are beyond description.
One of the things (yes, there are many) that has bothered me while living here, is the general disregard for keeping hands to ones self. In the natural history museum, people stood in the exhibits with the mounted animals, in Xi’an people stole soil from the pits of the terracotta warriors and banged on drums labeled “Do not bang on drums” (in several languages), and in Haerbin, people touched and stood on every reachable snow and ice sculpture surface, even crossing rope lines. We saw one guy, with his group of friends, cross the rope line and touch a really beautiful under-the-sea sculpture, breaking off a little piece. He then pushed the sculpture AGAIN, and an entire ice sting-ray broke off and came crashing to the ground. Over and over again, Aaron and I have noticed that rarely is anything said by witnesses in these situations – people just turn a blind eye. Aaron often does say something (and I would too, if I could!). He walked over and pointed out the sign, “Can’t you read!! Do not cross this line! What are you doing?!” The guys sulked away…I hope this dissuades them in the future. What selfish, unacceptable behavior.
In more exciting news, one ice festival had a very long slide, but Aaron said, “It’s hardly sloped; it doesn’t look very fast!” We went to the end to survey people’s reactions, and were told that, if we pulled some sleds to the top, we could skip the long line! So we did (up yet more treacherous stairs – my insurance surely does not cover ice accidents!) and were the next to go. A man sat me down on a tiny child’s sled and indicated how I must, must keep my feet together and pointed forward, my arms across my body, my elbows in and here you go!! It was not mildly sloped. It was very nearly an Olympic luge. It was terrifying. The high ice walls (inset with yellow neon that blurred by as I whizzed along) provided hard surface from which to bounce (like that luge team that gets a little out of control and pings like a pinball off the walls until being disqualified and breaking hips and arms). As I neared the bottom, I began to wonder…how would I stop? And then I hit a slight incline complete with a pile of fluffy snow that worked its way up my pants and into my nose – and in which I had come to a halt. How fun!
Aside from ice and snow festivities, Haerbin boasts an enormous Siberian (Manchurian?) tiger park north of the city. We spent the day. When we arrived, we boarded a mini-bus which drove through all of the large fenced-off areas full of free-ranging tigers and lions. You can purchase a chicken (or lamb, or cow!) on your way in. While riding in the bus, an SUV armored with a steel cage drove out. The tigers gave chase (a Pavlovian response to an SUV!). The driver opened the door just wide enough to throw out a chicken, which roosted (momentarily) on the roof of the car. Until a tiger jumped up, grabbed it, and ran off to enjoy its snack (after carefully plucking the chicken first)! In another part of the park, there are smaller enclosures of tigers with an elevated walkway for viewing. There were people selling chickens and strips of lamb. When the tigers saw that someone had bought meat, they moved to that part of the fence. I bought a strip of lamb and, holding it only with some little tongs, lowered it through the gap near the bottom of the fence (tiger head height). The tiger helped out by jumping up (now my height was tiger head height!) and grabbing the meat! This fencing system would never be seen in the US – literally just a chain-link fence between us and the tigers! The park also has pumas, jaguars, tiger and lion cubs (aww!), a white tiger (who looked pretty irritated to be separated from his orange family) and a liger!
Haerbin was a site of Japanese occupation during WWII. The Japanese had a germ warfare base just outside of the city where they “researched” Black Death and cholera and ran a death camp. We visited a museum on the site of the base (the Japanese destroyed it at the end of the war). The goal of memorializing these atrocities is so future generations of Chinese never forget what happened, and to make a permanent record of the event so the Japanese can’t deny their actions. The museum was pretty terrible. Exhibits included descriptions of experiments on humans, video of Japanese war criminals describing what they did, and clay models showing vivisections and infecting people with disease. It was all very sobering, and very well done.
We also went to the Science and Technology Museum. This museum rivals that of Boston. It is quite new, and really, really excellent. Their physics and mechanics exhibit featured a giant track around which you move a giant ball-bearing using simple machines. The whole museum is hands-on. They have a hall of mathematics, energy production, fire safety, water (including an incredible water table – I was hooked like a pre-schooler), light and optics, electricity and magnetism and sound. We were there for the entire day! The exhibits had explanations in Chinese and (good!) English. The most impressive thing about the museum was the exhibits requiring staff supervision. Some exhibits were open for ten minutes each hour, during which time a staff member was dependably there to show you what to do! I rode a bike across a high wire (Aaron was deemed “too big!”), and rode in a gyroscope chair (the kind that spins in every direction – ooo, woozy). There were many very fun exhibits with big moving parts labeled “be careful!” that never would have made it in a U.S. museum. We also saw an Omni film called “Back to the Cretaceous” which was dubbed in Chinese and had some scary, in-your-face dinosaurs. Quite a good time and very, very inexpensive (20RMB per person – compared to 120RMB for the ice festival)!
Food. We ate quite a bit. Haerbin was settled by Russians in the late 1800s and still boasts some commercialized culture (lots of shops selling nesting wooden dolls). We ate at two Russian restaurants. The food was ok, but still looked quite like Chinese food. For Valentine’s Day, we had the set meal at one Russian restaurant which included peppery steak – the first I’ve had since moving to China. It was delicious. We ate at another non-Chinese restaurant and had baked stuff scallops (yum), “salmon” (I’m quite sure it was not), and little rounds of chicken-wrapped bananas with an orange glaze. That was different enough to be really delicious and very un-Chinese food. Having a wide variety of food was a great change. We also had a Haerbin specialty – very thin pancakes into which you roll your choice of filling – eggs, pork, sprouts, spinach, onions and brown sauce. Delicious! Haerbin has a brewery with at least three kinds of (light colored) beer. It was just enough of a change from YanJing to be quite enjoyable.
I found Haerbin to be very touristy (we were there during the tourist season), and quite expensive, even more so than Beijing. This may be because we’ve learned to avoid the touristy in Beijing, and were vacationing in Haerbin amid many other (mostly Chinese) tourists. We had a very bad experience at a restaurant near the train station (web of high-priced misery for tourists – avoid it in any city, we’ve learned!) where the owner grossly overcharged us, and then physically held us (with the help of a very big man) in the restaurant until we paid. She and Aaron had a fantastic-sounding yelling argument in Chinese (while the rest of the patrons turned a blind eye). We eventually paid a slightly lower (though still inflated) amount of money. The next day, Aaron still didn’t feel right (neither did I, but I was done, DONE with that place!) and decided to return. He stood outside and told would-be patrons about his experience, until someone told him to go to the police. He did, and the police officer actually went and brought the restaurant owner to the police station! She returned some money, and was civil (but did admit that she’d rather make money by cheating people than run an honest business). We’ve learned to be careful; I hope she’ll be dissuaded from cheating people in the future.
I often wonder if people are inherently good or inherently evil. I tend to remember the evil ones more clearly, though I am making a huge effort to really appreciate the very, very kind people who give us directions and other help when we’re travelling in this strange place. I feel quite confident that the good people are greater in number, though they are lesser in volume of impact. Having terrible experiences does remind me to be as kind a person as I can and to remember that my actions may characterize to a Chinese person the way all foreigners act, just as I sometimes think that all Chinese behave in the way one certain rude person acts. That is not true, but any action can make a permanent impression in another person.
We took soft seat home, because sleeper was not available for any range of dates we were looking for. Our train was an express, and left Haerbin at 6:45 pm. I was under the impression that it was an overnight, but we arrived in Beijing at 3:30 am! Just an evening train with a very late arrival! We hung around the train station until the subway began service at 5:15 and arrived back in Changping at 7:30 am to sleep for the rest of the day. Overall, it was an excellent trip, and a nice change of pace and location from Beijing and Changping.