25.02.2012 – 28.02.2012 Cloudy/Snow -21 °C
We had to be out of the room by midday so went and sat in Harbin station’s soft seat lounge and listened to podcasts for a couple of hours waiting for our 3pm train to Jilin. Harbin’s station was miles better than Xi’an’s where you’re treated like cattle. Although they are both old, Xi’an had no soft seat lounge. They had lounges but they were rammed with goblins and Ewoks and nowhere near as clean and comfortable as Harbin’s. The train journey was smooth, taking approx three-hours and we’d looked up a hotel on the net before we left, right near the station, JinJiang Inn. Getting out of the station we headed left and down the main road. We couldn’t see any hotels except one, which was clearly a chain so opted to carry on walking. The weather was, dare I say it colder than Harbin and we were eager to get out of it.
Continuing to walk down the road, we popped in a supermarket for a water and as we came out the JinJiang Inn was opposite us. Brilliant. Except it too was a chain. I try not to stay in chains if I can help it as there’s no character, you don’t meet anyone and you don’t tend to get a feel for the place as much. As we’d already decided to stay here (despite the cunningly written information and photos posted online posing as an independent) we checked in for Y189 a night and went to bed. Not too cheap for China but not bad for what was basically an Ibis we thought.
The Ice Rimmed Trees of Jilin. These trees are described on Wikitravel as ‘one of the four major natural wonders of China along with the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, the landscape of Jilin and the Stone Forest of Yunnan’ and were our sole reason for coming. Our first full day exploring Jilin didn’t yield much (apart from getting our onward tickets to Tianjin for two days time for Y766, £77) and trying to find out where these fucking trees were was proving difficult. I couldn’t find anything concrete online that said they were here or there and good luck asking people, they didn’t understand us at all. No one spoke English, with even the people on reception downstairs resorting to ‘type the Chinese into the computer – it speaks the English’, to us. We walked all the way down through the main town, past Century Square (which was covered in graffiti), past a decaying temple I think was the Wen Miao Confucian Temple and to the end of the road. Nothing. We were keeping an eye out for the Meteroite Museum for something to do too but couldn’t find that either. Wikitravel lists Beishan Park as one of the best places to see the trees so having found nothing we decided to get up early the next morning (this wasn’t set in stone either, with some reviews saying get up early before the sun burns the ice off and some saying it didn’t matter) and go to Beishan Park.
5am. It was one of the earliest times we’d been up since we left the UK and when we stepped outside into literally the coldest weather I’ve ever been in (I checked on weather.com later that day, it was -25°C, feels like -25°C) we questioned whether it was all worth it? We bused it down the main road near to Beishan Park and walked the rest. It was now 6:30 and the sun was coming up. Walking around the park we could see plenty of trees, some were white from a bit of frost, but nothing meeting the description ‘sparkling’ or ‘diamond like’. We continued to walk through the park until we hit a river with a misty cloud of smoke hovering over it, when we saw this B and I thought our luck was finally in. This is written online. It’s the reaction between the cold air and the warm water from the river. It produces the mist which covers the trees in rime (a kind of ice) you could say, for no rime or reason. We now had the mist, we just needed the trees. By this time the sun was coming up fast and I was concerned we’d miss any trees covered in rime because some were already bare that were white twenty-minutes before. Walking the length of the river through the park we saw no ice rimmed trees, just crazy people swimming in the river. It was so cold the moisture from my breath was turning to ice on the inside of my scarf I had wrapped around my face, and they were swimming in a river. Nutters. We got to the bridge that crosses the river and cold and hungry we decided to give up and head back, it was now about 8:00. Just as we walked along the bridge, B spotted, what looked very much like pictures of ice rimmed trees, along the other side of the river. Not wanting the sun to melt the ice before we got there, we picked up our pace to a quick walk past Chinese hermits doing Tai Chi, past a Bruce Lee lookalike doing horse squats for Kung Fu, past people playing badminton (all along the river embankment) until we finally got to the trees. Truth is they were all dead and had no leaves on at all. In fact, they looked no different from the trees you get in England when there’s been a heavy frost. Except for one which was sparkling in the sunlight covered in rime. It looked pretty cool. If we had found a smart group of trees in a nicer setting I would think that would have been worth all the effort. For one measly tree though? I put it down to the fact we were there at the end of February and all reports say get there January – February. Maybe – 25°C is not cold enough, I don’t know. Some reports online even say November is the best time to see them and there’s even one from a girl who lives there and saying she’s never seen iced rimmed tree in Jilin and to try Harbin. What I do know is that trying to hunt these trees down was a frustrating and stamina filled task and on reflection, wasn’t worth coming to Jilin. It was pretty much a dump as far as the town itself was concerned, there’s graffiti and rubbish everywhere and there’s nothing to do for tourists – probably why there is nothing but chain hotels there. The one good point is the unbelievably authentic Chinese food we had and how cheap it was. A fantastic Kung Pao Chicken and rice for two with beers for Y40 (£4). Verdict: Heavily research this before you go to give yourself the best opportunity of seeing the trees (find some locals and ask questions), or just don’t bother. Never found the Meteorite Museum.
After three nights in Jilin we caught our night train to Tianjin where we’d grab a flight to KL with AirAsia that we booked in January. KL – back where we started eight months ago.
29.02.2012 Cloudy/Rainy -2 °C
Tianjin. The train was not too bad as far as train journeys go in China, we woke up with ample time to get ourselves together. Exiting the smashing train station was a breeze and we walked about, passing on KFC in search of somewhere to spend the next six-hours until it was time to get to the airport. Cue Maccy D’s, breakfast menu still on, Y4 (40p) for a coffee and a sausage burger that filled me up for breakfast. A coffee on it’s own was Y4 – how does that make sense? Three-hours passed with us raping the Wi-Fi and having only spent £1 when the lunchtime deal kicked in and I decided to try the grotesque looking double burger with bacon and mashed potato (yes, really) being the main contents. Throughout our time in China, every coffee order was followed by ‘try a Big Tasty sir?’, if they could speak English. This was my last chance. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds or looked but wasn’t great.
With 1pm knocking on and our flight at 5pm, we took a cab to Tianjin airport, flouting public transport for a change. It was a long journey of about 35km from the train station and cost Y100 (£10). I gave my passport and booking confirmation to the AirAsia girl and put my bag on the floor. She then asked me to put the bag on the conveyor belt and I noticed I’d rested my backpack in a massive pile of phlegm which was now all over the hood of my bag. My last experience of China…
Verdict on China: China was amazing. It’s a pretty controversial country. I’ve met travellers who hated the place and some that loved it. In a nut shell, Hong Kong I think remains the best place I have been to since leaving the UK, Macau was magic, Shanghai sensational, Xi’an ‘zilariting, Beijing boring, Harbin hardcore (weather-wise) and Jilin City merely a jaded joke. No ice rimmed trees for me. The food was generally smashing, except for the odd dodgy meal, including a plate of stomach and tubes in Harbin and in my experience the further south you go, the less gob you see, the nicer people are and the more English they speak. Hong Kong and Shanghai have an array of gorgeous girls to rival any city.