harbin - Where's Byrne?


23.02.2012 – 25.02.2012 Cloudy/Sleet -15 °C

Cold is not the word. Freezing doesn’t do it justice. Getting off the train at 7am in Harbin, it was raw and piercing. I walked out with a piece of paper in my trembling hand the very nice people at our previous hostel wrote the name of our next place to stay in Mandarin on and went to get a cab. We lasted five minutes and had to go get coffee, KFC this time as there were no golden arches anywhere. I never thought I’d wish for a McDonald’s but KFC coffee in China is shite. Packet crap pre-made and kept under hot lights used to keep the chicken warm accompanied by creamer that tastes of plastic, it was wet and warm though so better than nothing. Back in the queue for a cab outside the station, it was long but went down quickly. We gave the piece of paper to our driver and he made some positive grunts so we got in. The meter was running and it was cheap, when converted to pounds and pence. One weird thing I’d read about in China but hadn’t experienced until now, was cabbies stopping to pick up other passengers on the way. You’re expected to share the cab. Well, you don’t have a say, they don’t ask you, the driver just pulls over and if they want to go in the general direction of where he’s heading already they jump in and the cabbie claims the original fare from you and a set amount from the passenger he just picked up. Not a bad idea, that. In jumped a young Chinaman who also didn’t speak much English but the two of them were having a good old laugh in the front. Our taxi driver found our place with relative ease anyway and didn’t rip us off, the meter reading Y15 (£1.50) for a 20 minute trip. We gave him Y20 and he seemed over the moon. We checked in at the Russia International Youth Hostel for 2 nights despite the strong smell of excrement in the lobby. We just wanted to stay out of the cold and sniffing crap was better than freezing to death. Y140 (£14) a night for a double room on the second floor wasn’t bad anyway. Surprisingly the room had under-floor heating which appeared a god-send when just coming in from the blistering weather but turned out to be a curse when actually trying to sleep in there as there was no off switch and the dial was cranked up to ‘sauna’ level. I was stripped at night but was still baking. It was -15°C outside and 30°C inside, you can’t win!

Sun Island, Zhongyang Dajie and the frozen Songhua River. On Sun Island they hold another Ice Festival but according to Wikitravel, if you’re going to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, just outside of town then this one wasn’t worth it. We went out to buy our train tickets to Jilin City for a few days time from a hotel around the corner and got a result. It’s only a three-hour train ride but it was easy enough even though the pretty Chinese girl didn’t speak any English at all. (Y131 each). We then had a stroll down Zhongyang Dajie (Central Street to you and me) towards the Songhua River. Central Street was nice, Harbin’s version of Oxford Street, with the addition of the road being cobbled and the buildings Russian. It was nicely maintained and had black lampposts which I imagine would have been gas in days of old but were now fitted with energy-saving coil lightbulbs… sign of the times. Towards the end of the street was a McDonald’s – handy if you like coffee, and a monument. I’m not sure what it represented but I think it was to remember people who had died when the river flooded in the past. Past the monument was the river. And something I’ve never experienced before. It was frozen solid. A Chinese entrepreneur had cordoned off a square of the ice fairly close to the embankment and was renting ice skates out, it was packed. Old men were sitting on chairs in front of small holes they had made in the ice with a fishing rod in and teenagers were sitting on chair like contraptions with skis attached to the feet, pushing each other around. The only thing I could think was ‘what if the ice broke?’. You’d be dead wouldn’t you? Nervous at first we stepped on the river and came across footsteps in the dust and dirt on the ice leading to Sun Island on the other side, so we followed. The ice was thick, really thick and we got some great photos. Also beats paying to get the cable car across. On Sun Island there was an old Russian type village with nobody around which was odd, like it had been deserted. Even all the restaurants and bars were closed. Further up was another KFC and the entrance to the other Ice Festival. Sun Island – done.

We headed back over the river, cautiously again at first and had nearly made it back when we stumbled across a poor puppy wearing a little blue and white coat, frozen solid laying on the ice. Real sad sight that was. He must have run off and got lost and with the -30°C temperatures at night it would’ve only taken a few hours before he died. Not wanting to leave him on the ice I picked him up and carried him to the embankment, it was like carrying a statue. Shivering ourselves now we headed back and called it a day, but with the under-floor heating it wasn’t long before I was sweating again.

Church of St. Sophia. Harbin day two, was spent in McDonald’s for coffee (again) and then on to the Church of St. Sophia near Central Street. It was quite impressive, a nice building with a Russian influence. We went back to see it again later that evening when it was lit up and it looked even better. From there we caught a taxi (eventually) to the Siberian Tiger Park. The first cab we flagged wanted Y80 and the second who was a woman, wanted Y150 (a woman driver? She should deduct danger money for riding with her). The third though was happy to accept the meter and it clocked up to Y35, just as Wikitravel quoted. God bless the internet. We gave him Y40 and again, he seemed well happy.

Siberian Tiger Park. I’d read a lot of shit online about how the park was cruel and unkind etc as you are able to buy live animals to feed to the tigers, but that they were also involved in a very successful breeding programme and at the forefront of rescuing these animals from extinction. I don’t really want to get into the ethical issues linked to this attraction though and so this is based purely from my experience on the day.

Y90 entrance (£9) each is reasonable but we didn’t really know what to expect or to do as there is so little information available at the park in English or Mandarin. After seeing a load of tourists jump on a bus after it turned up in the car park, we presumed that we were meant to hang around until another bus came with space for us, which turned out to be right. We froze whilst waiting. We then proceeded to have a disagreement over the seating with some Chinese tourists on the bus. As we had waited in the arctic temperatures for well over half an hour and as we were the first ones to start waiting we felt entitled to a window seat. Once aboard they wanted us to move so they could sit their group down. I promptly refused. They weren’t happy but fuck them. The bus drove around the park for about twenty- minutes, far too quickly in my opinion. The tigers got right up close to the van but as soon as they did, we burned off. The bus windows were dirty on the outside so nearly all my pictures taken from the bus show mud marks. After the drive, there was a walking tour allowing you to walk around the various tiger enclosures. I didn’t see any animals fed to the tigers although we were offered a live chicken for Y60 (£6) and there were chicken feathers scattered about the enclosures. The walking area was quite good with many tigers in together for company but with more room to live in compared with other zoos and parks. They all seem to sleep together, lying on top of each other and grooming each other too, something I’ve never seen. Lions yes, tigers no. I presume it’s because of the temperature, they huddle to keep warm? The cages at the end of the walk however where the ‘speciality’ animals were kept was far too small. They were no more than existing. A Leopard, two Pumas, two White Lions, two White Tigers and two Ligers were shamefully short of space although didn’t seem too depressed, if that makes sense? They were playing, laying in the sun on their backs or stalking each other through their cage, looking content. I was so impressed I’d finally seen a Liger as this is one animal I have wanted to see for a long time, they are weird. Out of the two, one had the dominant Tiger gene resulting in stripes and pointy ears and the other a dominant Lion gene leading to a mane, a tail with a ball of fur attached to the end and a larger frame. No stripes either or very faint ones at least. It was a shame their cages were so small, these animals, kings of the jungle and savannah, reduced to sitting in a 10×10 foot cages, waiting for dinner and having a kip. Sad. We caught a cab outside no problem back to our place and the bill was again Y35.

Verdict: For me, I think it was worth going. The entrance fee goes somewhat to the keeping of the animals and the breeding programme, however I may have felt differently had I watched a live chicken, duck or cow be fed to the Tigers. Some would argue it’s just nature, others would say it’s barbaric, I’ll let you decide. Also if I knew that there were no Ligers I probably would have thought twice.

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. After the Tiger Park we hung around for a few hours then set off for the Ice Festival. Busy day. On the way out to the Tiger Park that morning we had stood in the smelly lobby of our hostel, breath held the entire time, while the Chinese receptionist informed us that the best time to go was dusk, so dusk we went. A 206 bus dropped us on a main road and we hopped off following another couple we’d overheard were going there too. Once we jumped off we could see the festival, lucky we did really because we didn’t know where we were going. We left in anticipation of something great, and it was, in a way. We knew it was Y300 each to get in (£30) but was still not happy when it came to handing it over. They rejected B’s student card for a Y200 (£20) discount on her entry and we also saw a sign saying the entrance fee was Y100 (£10) if you get in before 13:30. Drat, drat and double drat. We begrudgingly paid and went in. First impressions were, this is not worth £60 but once the sun went down through a spectacular sunset and all the coloured fluorescent tube lights came on, it did look pretty cool. Unfortunately because we had arrived so late in February many of the sculptures and ice castles had begun to melt, making them unsafe and were sectioned off which was a let-down. Obviously they can’t stop this from happening but when half of the attractions have red and white tape around them with no entry signs, this should surely be reflected in the ticket price. Nevertheless I tried to make the best of it (and stay warm), first by going down a big ice slide. I climbed to the top, backed up and took a run, sliding on my arse and back at the top of the slide. I picked up a little too much speed and smashed my right knee into the right side of the slide as it twisted left. I slid well past the bottom of the slide and on to the snow on my back, with my knee jarred. Ice is harder than I thought. Unsurprisingly B didn’t fancy it.

Next up was sledging down a massive ice toboggan run. I wasn’t sure about this but went up to the top to see what it was all about. It was high, really high and I had even more doubts. I was given a plastic sledge, that had a fat split in and was ushered to the top. I asked the Chinaman where you sit to begin and he grabbed the sledge off me sat it down backwards, pushed me on to the back of it and kicked me down the hill. It all happened so fast but it was too late for doubts now. At first I thought ‘this isn’t so bad’ but then half way down started to pick up speed. About fifteen seconds or so and two-thirds of the way down I hit a pile of snow which flew up and covered my face. I now couldn’t see and was still picking up speed. I had no idea how or what was going to stop me at the bottom because of the snow in my eyes but I was about to find out. I smashed into a huge pile of snow which covered me from the waist down. Another Chinaman at the bottom just stood there laughing at me instead of helping me up and when he did he grabbed the sledge from me and accused me (in Mandarin) of breaking it because it was split. I told him it was already like that and when he kept nagging, a swift fuck off and I walked away. That was dangerous. I didn’t enjoy it particularly and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before someone breaks their leg. B didn’t fancy this either.

A walk round the corner revealed a zip line. With me goading B and calling her a poof she seemed a bit more determined to do something to prove me wrong. ‘Go on you tart’ I was saying to her, not thinking for one minute she would. ‘OK’ she said ‘I’ll do the zipline’. ‘Really?’ I said. Shit. Now I’ve gotta do it too. I really didn’t want to do this. I don’t really like heights and even though it wasn’t a huge zipline I just kept thinking ‘what if the line breaks’?’. There were just trees and things underneath. No one would be able to get to you even if you survived the 100ft or so drop. After queueing though and seeing so many other people do it (including a bunch of girls) I manned up and braved it. B went down first then I did. It took about half a minute to get down to the bottom and was nowhere near as scary as it looked from the top. The hardest part was slamming into the plastic, foam wall type thing at the bottom built to stop you. Next time there’s a zip line, I’ll be there.

I was really wet now as the snow pile I crashed into earlier had turned to water and soaked in to my jeans, but saw people tubing from the top of an ice hill. I had to have a go on that. Once again B wasn’t so sure and was actually scared. I don’t understand how you could be OK with a zipline but be scared of sitting in a tube and sliding down a hill? I dragged her to the top with her tube, sat in mine and waited for her to get ready and pushed off. It was brilliant, hitting various purpose-built bumps to make you fly into the air on your way down. We got to the bottom and I said to B ‘see, was good wasn’t it?’. ‘No’, she stroppily replied. ‘Was crap’. Oh, OK then, I liked it. I went up twice more but then had to retreat for a coffee into one of the cafeterias. I forgot we hadn’t had any dinner and so grabbed the Chinese equivalent of a beef pot noodle. Quality. Back outside and now warm, I’d had my adventure for the day, having conquered all there was on offer and spent the next hour or so walking around the park, looking at the sculptures and taking photos. By 9pm we were frozen to the core again and left getting a cab back for Y20. Bargain. Verdict: Was good and something I’ll never forget but £30 entrance is too much. Should be £20 at a push. If the same offer is on next year, go at 13:15, get in for Y100 and you only have four hours until the sun starts to go down. Use the money saved towards coffees and snacks in the warm cafeterias. Take a pack of cards to pass the time?

Verdict: The Ice Festival is the only reason to go to Harbin. If you don’t fancy it, don’t bother.

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