Harbin on Ice

Written by Jan 11, 2006 06:01
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The Overnight Train to Harbin

Harbin had fascinated me since I'd first read of it whilst preparing for my voyage to China; a small city in the extreme northern regions of Manchuria with a history smudged across several occupying cultures, all precariously shouldering each other for the last century. It is a Manchu township made into a European style provincial capital, it was the focus of early Japanese interests in North China and instrumental in the Communist saga of Twentieth Century China. It is famous for its impossibly cold climate, alcoholism, superb Russian architecture, annual ice lantern festival, beautiful women and importantly, its railway line which connects the middle of Siberia through Mongolia to Vladivostok on the sea of Japan. If not for that railway, the city would certainly never have become the enigma it is today. It is also, bizarrely enough considering its remote location, the city where the most standard Mandarin is spoken, even purer than that of Beijing.

Hotels are not cheap for a foreigner, and, given that I could only manage a short visit, I elected to sleep on the train there and back, leaving Sunday night after my last class, and returning early on Tuesday morning with enough time to recuperate before my Wednesday night classes began. I had planned to go alone, but took an opportunity to be guided at the last minute by a friend of a friend who also had never seen the northern capital of Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River) province.

I had no luggage save a plastic bag of snacks for the train. I arrived with my escort at the train station in the dark and cold, thick with excess clothing to prepare for temperatures of less than 35 degrees below centigrade in Harbin. Searchlights arranged the mist into columns upholding the layers of cloud and snow, at the station grubby merchants and beggars hunched close to old brick walls, there was the smoke and smell of cooked stringy meats from small lamplit glass stalls and a host of overzealous taxi drivers offering to transport me to the hotel of their choice, in the hope that I was arriving rather than departing. One middle-aged woman in a uniform offered us the opportunity to bypass the cold, dirty waiting room, a preferential early boarding of the train for a mere 10 yuan. She was a corrupt ticket agent, we decided that given the cold, it would be money well spent.

We were quite wrong. Led through the gates a half hour before the departure of the train served only to leave us stranded on the platform. Of course, the train had to arrive before it departed, and this would occur just a few minutes before the scheduled time. In plain language, we had purchased the right to stand outside in the cold instead of sit inside, so that we might be first in the queue when the train came. There was no-one to complain to, we found ourselves standing next to a small group of dangerous looking men carrying long taped-together pipes which seemed rather likely to be weapons. We moved nervously closer to a gathering of passengers. It was ill-lit, and thick white steam rose from vents beneath the platform floor. Old carriages and train engines waited on the tracks, in the smoke it could well have been the 1940's again, Kuomintang nationalists fleeing the oncoming People's Army headed for Shenyang.

The train arrived, and we fought the rush of rested and warm oncoming passengers from the waiting room for a way on to the train, before finally locating our allotted sleeping berths. They were barely the width of a human being, bunks stacked four-high and arranged as close together as possible, a hard mattress with a pillow and duvet. The train was considerably warmer than I'd expected; I had to remove most of the extra clothes I'd put on for Harbin, stacked uncomfortably at the foot of my bed where my legs would be unnaturally pressed against them all night for lack of room.

Despite all this, the train ride was acceptably comfortable. I had read accounts before of Chinese train travel, Theroux talks about unheated carriages and unforgiving attendants ripping blankets away at early hours of the morning. This has changed, the facilities on board were livable enough, and I found the hard bunks allowed for a heavy night's sleep after all. I awoke a few times during the night; my pillow was right up against the train window, so I took the chance to pull aside the curtain where possible to catch glimpses of remote parts of Jilin and Heilongjiang. The railside country failed to change all night, a line of thin trees marked the boundary of a featureless terrain of grassland covered in snow.

Taken for a Ride Across the Song Hua Jiang

It was on Harbin's prettiest street, Zhong Yang Da Jie, a pedestrian mall leading down to the river bank, that we were greeted by an 'official' tour guide offering us a tour of the attractions along the river at a reduced cost. I was irritated by her pestering, however, she managed to convince my companion to accept her services for half of what she had asked for, 120 yuan. We ignored 'ice world', a 16,000,000 yuan installation erected for the first time this year to encourage tourism - it contained life-sized ice and snow sculptures of famous buildings, and charged an 80 yuan admission fee. I took a picture of the Arc de Triomphe and some cathedrals from the gate. Our new guide, an elderly lady with a dubious ID card around her neck, led us to the frozen Song Hua where her husband awaited with a horse and buggy.

We took a bumpy ride halfway across the river, stopping at the 'ice swimming' attraction where crazies in speedos displayed themselves swimming in the river, a swimming pool having been cut in the ice which was over a metre thick. Admission to this show appeared to be additional to the guided tour. Our guide attempted entry but was stopped at the door, which gave me to further suspicions about her value.

The swimmers were a fair sight, naked skin suffering extreme temperatures and excited Russians parading around the pool in very little clothing, addressing the crowd in English, Russian and Chinese. A girl in traditional Russian costume held aloft a Russian flag, a fat girl in a bathing suit pulled spectator's gloves away to shake icy hands with them. A Korean observer next to me advised that were any uninitiated swimmer to attempt the dive, death would be near instantaneous as all blood would rush to the centre of the body and a massive heart failure would follow. The swimmers looked in good health to me, especially considering that many were in their seventies.

Outside again, our guide took us across to the Sun Island resort, a popular sanatorium in summer months. In this season it is the site of a series of snow sculptures, which, after yet another admission fee, I found to be remarkably less interesting than ice sculptures. It's impossible to keep snow pristine white when sculpting, it appears, so I looked over a parade of grey sculptures, admittedly skillfully done. Whilst in the park, I debated with my escort about the benefits of our new guide, who so far hadn't saved us a cent. We wondered whether, now that she had been paid, she'd still be waiting for us upon our exit from the park.

She was, which did suggest that she had some decency about her; this appearance was lost when, upon our reseating in the horse buggy, she demanded a tip for waiting. We paid an extra 5 yuan, making for a 65 yuan horse ride across the river, which would have otherwise been an interesting walk. She had begged for the tip, I momentarily reconsidered my otherwise highly positive impression of the Harbin Chinese people, and conceded that perhaps she too had a child who needed college fees paid for in the hope of avoiding such a degrading career as his mother had resorted to. I wondered how many of my own student's parents were in similar positions.

Zhaolin Park's Ice Lantern Festival

It was almost 4.30 by the time we arrived back on the city side of the Song Hua, so we made our way directly to Zhaolin park. It was already getting dark at the time we came to the gates, and the lanterns had been lit impressively. A 30 yuan entry fee proved well worth the extraordinary display we were treated to within.
There were scored of life-sized buildings which we could walk through, replicas of well known landmarks, fantasy castles, gigantic temples and slides. We crawled through a maze of ice, ascended staircases and walked through boulevards, all frozen without thought of melting, dry to the touch.

A series of fine sculptures sat near the centre, my guide booked advised that traditional Chinese themes had once been the norm, but that comic characters, Mickey Mouse, were more likely subjects now. Times had apparently changed again, nude girls were the order of the day, slender transparent female forms twisted around birds and fish. Near them, an enormous pagoda capped a steep hill, rising above a broad bridgeway and a map of the country.

It took a good couple of hours to take it all in, after which we managed a meal at a local restaurant, seeking the Russian food for which Harbin is known, having long incorporated Russian methods into their Chinese cooking. Instead we could only locate old favourites, eggplant and dumplings, and an adequate bottle of Harbin beer, famous throughout China. It was a meal that was most satisfying, and a fitting end to a fascinating tour of one of China’s most compelling cities.

 More Harbin Travel Reviews
1. The Light They’ve Chipped Out from the River MISHEN from NZ Sep 2, 2005 12:09
2. Yabuli -skiing DAVIDHOH from MY Jan 21, 2005 08:01
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