The North-East Tour – Harbin
The first step of my North Eastern tour would take me to the capital of China’s northern-most province Heilongjiang; the bustling city of Harbin. The city known as serves as the central hub for a historical interweaving of cultures originating from neighbouring nations, historical conquerors and prosperous foreigners alike. Known as “Ice City”, the city becomes a prime holiday destination during the Spring Festival, catering to the thousands of Chinese tourists that come to marvel at the world record breaking festivities that occur here every year.
Being the time of year, available train tickets were few and far between, with only worst ones left. I was in for 21 hours on a vertical seat in a sold-out train. I envisioned those movie scenes of smoke-filled carriages, shelves of locals falling atop each other with wild chickens flying about uncontrollably. Thankfully it wasn’t quite as bad as that, but it wasn’t exactly luxury.
The train really was packed to capacity. Chinese trains are the only ones that I’ve ever experienced that sell standing tickets. Its exactly what it sounds like, you simply stand wherever there’s room, even if its in the middle of the isle. You can image the disorganisation and logistical issues that come with that. Getting on the train itself was an ordeal, to the point where the staff began screaming and physically pushed the horde further down the train.
Initially, the unbearable thing was the heat. Jesus fucking Christ I’ve never known anything like it. I stepped into the carriage from 0 degree weather wearing four layers in preparation for Harbin’s weather. Within 5 minutes I was BATHED in sweat. Comparing it to a sauna wouldn’t do it justice. Crack a window open? Good luck, as the train attendant have to open it by key whenever they see fit.
As for the journey itself, I still honestly prefer it to an 8-hour flight. Although leg-room wasn’t much better, and at least their seats have the ability to recline. On the train however, you aren’t restricted to your seat, and on occasion you’re able to stretch your legs at designated stops.
Another slight discomfort was being sat near the window. Despite providing an extra degree of personal space, due to the tropical conditions within the train and the arctic conditions outside, I’d experience a tropical rainfall from the condensation which constantly streamed against my clothes completely soaking them
The day began with a short subway ride (of the little subway Harbin has) straight to always reliable attraction in any country; temples. This particular temple is not only the heart of Buddhism in the North East, but also considered one of the most important temples in the whole country; Jile Temple.
Within there are a number of halls each with their own particular statue dedicated to an important figure in Buddhism. Each are surrounded with wisps of burning incense put forward by the many faithful who visit the temple. The most astonishing site it found further within the courtyard, passed the scripture towers and several other immaculately designed halls. When the courtyard opens up it reveals an enormous golden statue of the Buddha standing tall overlooking the courtyard and the faithful worshippers beneath him.
The second target of the day was my most anticipated attraction in Harbin, the Siberian Tiger Park. After deciphering the buses (and catching one in the wrong direction) I arrived in a near empty park. One benefit to the time of year is that practically every attraction is void people. Rightfully so as its fucking freezing; hardly the best opportunity to enjoy a family day out. However, definitely beneficial for me.
The very first sign in English I found was a price list for potential live animals you could have the privilege of feeding the tigers. Immediately it let me know this wasn’t your normal “zoo” experience. That included an opportunity to ride the tiger bus which drives through the enclosures.
The heavily armoured Dawn of the Dead bus drove through the park as we visitors eagerly searched through the metal bars for the elusive creatures. A staggering number of tigers were spread throughout the park, each minding their own business as we observed. That’s until the opportunity came to feed them.
For once, China’s lack of health and safety was a huge positive! The driver sold buckets of meat which could be handed to the tigers via a pair of much needed tongs. The tapping of the tongs against the metal bars was a familiar sound which induced the familiar sharp-eyed gentle footed approach of the hunt. That’s when the surprisingly enormous beasts would jump up and lean against the bus, determinedly try to grasp the pieces of meat dangled before them.
The bus then dropped us off to a viewing platform, essentially a caged walkaways that ran above the various paddocks tigers were kept in. There was also a woman along the walkway that provided a second chance to feed the tigers with her box of meat. Perhaps more disturbingly she also had chickens kept locked next to a near-by “chicken shoot”
Typically I will try to avoid patronising zoos, particularly Chinese zoos. I do agree that its cruel to see a creature of that size caged in such conditions. However if zoos/sanctuaries/anywhere that houses animals are going to do it, this is the way to. Providing the animals with the acres of space that they need and reversing the roles, putting the visitors in cages to view the animals. Additionally, this place was made for the preservation of the species, which nobody can see that as a bad thing.
The last attraction of the day was a seasonal one, only found here during the winter months. Its also one of the biggest festivals in the country, and the biggest of its kind throughout the world. The world famous Ice & Snow Festival. Its a festival best left until the sun goes down, when it becomes visible for miles around.
It’s a collection of some of the most extraordinary crafted ice sculptures you’re ever likely to see. Forget the over-done ice swan on the middle of a buffet table, oh no. These are entire buildings made of ice. Towers, palaces, cathedrals, even a post office. It beggar’s belief how these structures are created.
Each of the sculptures have also been carefully crafted to include bright neon lights, illuminating each structure as though the entire structure was one bright light. Its an extraordinary experience to look in wonderment, and something you’re not likely to find anywhere else in the world in these numbers.
My first target was Sun Island, somewhere I tried to visit the day before. Back at the tiger park I explained to a taxi driver in my best Chinese “sun” (the only word I knew how to say) to get me there. At first I assumed this was in close proximity to the Ice and snow festival, I was wrong. This was a park, and the sun was going down, I came at the wrong time.
I arrived there bright and early, for the most expensive park in the world. It cost 340 yuan to enter. I imagine this would have been more acceptable during the summer, winter not so much. Although there were some more fantastic examples of snow sculptures, some yet again of monumental proportions.
There was also an area dedicated to snow-related festivities. Beside some extravagant snow sculpture designs, there was a frozen lake which had been converted to a bicycle-skating kind of arrangement, which was incredibly exhilarating. Along with entire cottages and a purpose built rubber ring slide, all completely void of people.
Amongst this I also stumbled on an eerie site. To support my theory this place was best seen in summer, I found a completely abandoned amusement park. I imagine it would be perfectly functional otherwise, but pointless in such weather. He result was an incredibly eerie Chernobyl-esc feel.
From here there were a few other sites worth a look back on the mainland. Close to the rivers edge was none other than Stalin Square, and his adjoining street. Harbin undoubtedly has a strong Russian influence. Sharing a border with the nation and establishing a railway that connected the both of them resulted in a place known in certain circles as “little Moscow”. Although I can’t work out why this man deserves his own square to this day.
There was also an extension to the Ice and Snow festival close-by, Zhaolin park. I had anticipated on visiting this too, however on closer inspection through the park fences, if you’d already attended the bigger one on Sun Island, this one pales in comparison. For that reason and the 130 yuan price tag, and all the while being fucking freezing, I passed.
Walking through the very pleasant detour of Zhongyuan street with each and every tree extensively wrapped in lights illuminating its surroundings. Each tree lit one after the other. This charming little street led me to the last site of my visit, one of the most well known; the Saint Sophia Cathedral. This is the clear well known indication of a strong Russian influence, with an unmistakably Russian dome poking through the neighbouring skyline.
Next stop, Wudalianchi..