Harbin: Journey to the North. Day 3

After a nice big breakfast at a nearby Chinese Muslim restaurant (a cuisine which often involves lots of “pulled noodles” (拉面lāmiàn), meat skewers and naan bread –  just the thing for breakfast!), we grabbed our bags and went off to investigate the “Harbin New Synagogue”. We found out when we arrived there that, like many religious buildings in Harbin, it is no longer operational and has been converted into a museum, so we decided against going in. Nothing much else to say here, apart from it was still a puzzling thought to imagine Judaism in China. We went on to the railway station, and pulled out of Harbin at around 2:00pm that afternoon.

The main attraction which drew us to make a visit to Harbin in the first place was undoubtedly the Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, but the city itself is definitely not to be overlooked. From our brief encounter with the city, it seems to strike a nice balance between being a city influenced by Russian culture and, at the same time, not feeling too much like a theme park or a museum. Although the population of the city is largely made up of Han Chinese, people seem to go about their daily lives in an environment which seems essentially non-Chinese. Harbin also feels like a very pleasant and liveable city – its streets are clean and its buildings are not as ugly as other Chinese cities we’ve seen. In a certain way, the midwinter cold enhances the city’s façade as a diluted version of Siberia. I regret not venturing out of the city to enjoy the apparent natural beauty of rural Heilongjiang province, but the charm of the city itself is worth travelling all that distance up to the northeast, even if just for a few short days. Just try to forget about the cold.

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Harbin: Journey to the North. Day 2

A fairly slow morning. The brisk morning temperatures from the previous day had convinced us that we deserved a few hours in the morning enjoying the warm of the hostel, as well as spending time catching up on emails. At around 11am, we headed out to grab some food at a small Chinese restaurant, and then ventured down to the river again to set off some firecrackers we had bought at a roadside stall. (Despite the fact that it was a good two weeks since Chinese New Year had been and gone, people are still buying fireworks and setting them off all the time. I’m sitting here writing this in Beijing to the sound of fireworks outside, and it isn’t even dark yet). After the fireworks, we had a go on the ice slides on the river, and headed back in to town.

The Daoliqu Tangge Procession

We went to the central area of Daoliqu (道里区), and while we were wandering fairly aimless down the main drag, Zhongyang Dajie (中央大街), another Russian architectural legacy, we stumbled across processions of elderly people dancing, dressed in red coats and multicoloured belts and headbands and waving pink fans in the air, all set to a cacophonous beat of drums, cymbals and trumpets. The dance was apparently the Yangge (秧歌), or the “Rice Sprout Song”, a traditional form of folk dance especially popular in this area of northern China, and a fusion of ancient farming songs, martial art, acrobatics and traditional opera dances. All the way down the pedestrianised street were groups of dancers, the vast majority of whom seemed to be elderly people. This was the first real impromptu “festival” which I had experienced in China, and it was an impressive atmosphere as so many people got into the spirit of the event.

As darkness fell that evening, we headed out of town to see the real reason we had visited Harbin – the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. I had seen photos of the ice-block buildings and sculptures from previous years, which were impressive, but I still was not prepared for the sheer scale of the constructions. As soon as we disembarked from the bus which took us a few miles out of the town centre to the complex, I was immediately taken aback by the glaring and slightly garish colours illuminating the ice buildings, bright greens and blues and reds, against the stark backdrop of the jet black sky. Artificial snow had also been laid down on the ground, just to complete the look. Once inside the complex, we ran around erratically exploring the area with ice-block castles, sculptures and a plethora of random models such as huge Harbin Beer bottles and the famous Buddhist sculptures of the Yungang Caves. There was also a multitude of slides, which we compulsively raced down, and even a zip-wire, which would have been fun but the queue length was somewhat off-putting. It must have been an hour or so that we spent running around like small children, trying to whizz down as many of the slides as possible, with too much excitement to be affected by the sting of the bitter cold.

Some of the buildings in the Ice Festival

We also caught wind of a “European Show” which was being performed in a theatre on the site. Curious as ever of where Chinese people obtain their jumbled impression of Western ways, we went to watch the performance. The opening was a dance piece set to the theme from the French film Amélie. Fair enough. Other skits in the performance were rather confusing though – especially an Arabian dance piece, a samba one, and in particular when the American director took to the stage, spoke in English to a very poor audience reception, picked out a Chinese man at random from the audience (who looked baffled and terrified) and proceeded to guide him through a magic trick involving him doing some sort of rope trick with the American man’s “wife”. The whole show was a confusing insight into a culture which was meant to be my own, which I suppose the Chinese audience must have found even more alien. I just daren’t think of what they made of the provocative burlesque-cum-striptease finale.

The temperature outside had taken a further dip when we emerged after the show, so we made speedy tracks back into town to have a meal. It must have been barely 9:30pm, but many of the restaurants were shut, so we returned to the Russian restaurant we had visited the previous day. I can imagine why the Russians drink vodka to fight the cold weather outside. This was our final night in Harbin, and we returned to the hostel around midnight.

Harbin: Journey to the North. Day 1

Hello from China! I’ve finally arrived back here after a nice break in the UK, and after little more than 24 hours back in Beijing to recover from jetlag, I found myself on a train racing off to Harbin. My three travel companions and I were all slightly intimidated by the foreboding temperatures seeming to hover not far above -20ºC, but were well-prepared as we set off on the night train, wrapped up in countless layers of thermals, coats, scarves, balaclavas and hats.

Harbin is a city deep in the north-eastern corner of China, capital of Heilongjiang province (黑龙江 Hēilóngjiāng – literally “River of the Black Dragon”), and relatively not far from the border of far eastern Russia. Originally founded in 1898 by railway engineers from Russia, many supporters of the czarist state fled across the border to Harbin during the Russian Revolution of 1917; as such, the city has been fairly heavily influenced by Russian culture, evident in the city’s architecture and food. Much of this influence is sure to have been overridden by the influx of Han Chinese people in modern times, but a Russian presence is still very much evident in the city. Today, the city is most renowned for its International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节 Hā’ĕrbīn Guójì Bīngxuĕjié), an event which attracts throngs of tourists each year. Including us.

We took an overnight train from Beijing and arrived at Harbin at around 8:30am. Naturally, the first thing that hits you the moment you get off the train is the cold, especially early in the morning. I was wearing two balaclavas which covered my mouth, and soon discovered how quick the moisture from my breath would freeze, and how my eyelashes would often freeze together at these low temperatures. We exited the station, stood for a few minutes waiting for a taxi and then found our way to our hostel, fingers crossed that it had good heating.

On the Songhua River

The Kazy International Youth Hostel is an interesting place, as the building itself is a renovated synagogue. The water in the showers was bracingly cold at times, but in general it was a fairly comfortable place to thaw off from the subzero temperatures outside. We headed out of the hostel and had a walk around the city, first heading down to the Songhua River which, incidentally, did not seem like a river at all, as it was covered in a layer of ice which seemed, to my eye, to be at least 4 feet deep. On the southern bank there were a number of ice-themed attractions set up on the river, such as slides, bumper cars, an ice buggy arena and a curious activity which seemed to allow paying customers to sit on a stool and simply push themselves around the ice using a stick, altogether making the area seem like a huge ice-themed amusement park. Horses and even cars regularly made crossings to the other side of the river, but we did so on foot. It’s not a particularly narrow river either – it must have been at least half a mile in width. Such a huge expanse of pure ice was quite an awe-inspiring sight, and equally unnerving one to see the slight cracks in the ice and imagine the temperature of the water beneath.

We crossed the river, had lunch on the north bank, and investigated the possibility of making the return journey on a cable car. However, as some tourist attractions in China seem to think is reasonable, the price specifically for foreigners is bumped up considerably, and despite the fact that every inch of our faces and heads was swathed in clothing, unfortunately our Chinese accents are not yet sufficiently convincing.

So after another trek across the ice river, we found our way back to the centre of town, and took refuge from the cold with a few shots of vodka in a Russian café. I’ve never been to Russia, but Harbin felt like a living and breathing advertisement for it, and with its Russian-style buildings, cafés, restaurants, bitter cold and the odd sign in Russian, it was a little taste of what I imagined life in Siberia to be. Of course, being inside Chinese borders, the vast majority of the population is comprised of ethnic Han Chinese, but the general feeling of the place made it not too hard to imagine that we had crossed the border. The occurrence of this feeling is strangely common in China, such as in the former German treaty port of Qingdao and the Italian Concession in Tianjin, to name just those which I have visited.

The St Sophia church

The red-brick St Sophia church is arguably the city’s landmark Russian-style building. Its green onion dome is especially impressive when illuminated after dark, and reminded me of pictures I have seen of Russian cities like Irkutsk or Novosibirsk. The romantic impression is somewhat shattered, though, when you enter inside (for a fee). No longer a functional church, it has been transformed into the Harbin Architecture Arts Centre, essentially a museum with black-and-white photographs which document the city’s past lining the walls. It is an interesting look back into history and the foreign influence that has shaped the city’s modern face.