Monday, February 04, 2008

Harbin and the Ice Festival

Well, I've been back from Harbin for one week now, but only just getting around to writing about. It is a goal of mine to start writing more regular blog posts in preparation for London... once there I intend to write at least 2 per week.

After oversleeping, I met Nate and Barbara at the Yantai port to board the ferry to Dalian. The mood, as always, was extreme goofiness as you will see by the photos below.

We had originally planned to take the ferry to Dalian and then an overnight train to Harbin. Unfortunately, after we booked the ferry, we found out that the train was completely sold out for the next three days. Consequently, we had to get plane tickets.

Upon arrival in Dalian, we found our way to a Korean restaurant and had noodles for lunch. Dalian was freezing cold, with an ice cold wind whipping at our faces. We took a taxi to the airport, bought some Snyder of Hanover's Jalepeno pretzel bits (I couldn't believe I found these here), coffee, and marzipan cake, and finally boarded the plane to Harbin...

...where we were met by The Spaniard (our friend Marcos) like this:

Thank you, Marcos.

Harbin didn't feel nearly as cold outside as we were expecting -40 degrees below zero to feel, but then the taxi driver told us that this past week they had been having somewhat of a "heatwave". It was only -25 today!

We found our hotel and were pleasantly surprised that despite the exterior of the building and the ridiculously cheap prices we were paying, the rooms were quite nice and the staff quite friendly. We donned our long underwear (see below... first time I've ever worn any before) and ventured out to the train station and found a place to eat. Along the way back, we were amused that Barbara had ice crystals hanging on her eyelashes. There may or may not have been some public urination to see if that too would freeze. It does not. Don't worry, this is China... there is public urination everywhere.

In the morning we got a taxi to the Snow and Ice Festival. BOY WAS I GLAD IT WAS ONLY -25 DEGREES!! Forty below would have been unbearable. We were soooooo cold! But the sculptures were incredible. I honestly had no idea you could do that with snow!

Throughout the day we had to keep stopping in the park's cafes in order to warm our toes-ies on the radiators and try and regain feeling in our fingers. My camera had a particular problem... as soon as we walk in from the cold, condensation would form on the lens, but it would still be cold enough inside to freeze the condensation instantly. I had to keep taking the UV filter off the lens and putting it in my pocket in an attempt to warm it up.

We thankfully found a kiosk at the park selling wool socks... they helped tons.

After dealing with the taxi Mafia (the Harbin taxi drivers were the biggest group of scam/rip-off artists I've ever dealt with in China), we headed back to our hotel to warm up. The Ice Festival section was supposedly much better at night so we decided to warm up a little before tackling it.

Later that night we were treated to amazing sites. While the ice sculptures were not nearly so ornate, they were absolutely HUGE! The ice luge down the Great Wall was particularly exciting! We took a break in a cafe to warm up... and we were treated to a trained animal show with lions, tigers, and bear (bears boxing and riding bicycles), OH MY!

We took a taxi back to our hotel and had dinner in the hotel's restaurant. There was a table of drunk Chinese next to us, and once one of them started puking all over the floor, we decided we simply had to join them, so we offered the whole table a "Ganbei!". Well, it turned out they were the hotel owner and his friends and we ended up getting completely sloshed with them. Lots of fun. Apparently sometime during that drink-fest we agreed to have dinner with them the next night at 7pm.

Friday morning, very hungover, Barbara, Nate, Marcos, and I went in search for the bus station that would take us out to Unit 731, a notorious germ & chemical warfare research center that the Japanese used during the 1930's to conduct horrific experiments on the local population. Well over 300,000 people were killed here (photo is of the incinerator where the bodies were disposed of, sometimes still alive), in experiments as gruesome as:

  • frostbite experimentation
  • vivisection (dissection whilst alive and with no anesthetics)
  • replacement of the blood with horse blood
  • injection urine into the bloodstream
  • exposure to bomb blasts at varying distances
  • etc.

The germs that this laboratory developed were spread to local towns and villages with rats and fleas dropped from airplanes. The Japanese soldiers even distributed anthrax laced candies to the children.

Absolutely horrific and something that should not be forgotten.

Later that night, after the hour bus ride back to the hotel, we met up with our newfound Chinese friends. We expected we were having dinner in the hotel's restaurant again, but they ushered us into cars and drove us to a very nice, very expensive Chinese restaurant where we were treated to an absolute feast and introduced to more of their friends. During the drive to the restaurant, our driver pointed out that the driver's side mirror was all smashed in. Apparently he had driven home the night before from our dinner absolutely hammered and drove into something. He seemed quite proud!

The next morning, The Spandiard left us and Nate, Barbara, and I went searching for Saint Sophia, the old Russian cathedral. We found it, as well as the best snowman ever. Unfortunately, you could still go inside the cathedral, but it had been converted into an architecture museum.

We had lunch at a Muslim restaurant, but were quite disappointed by the food. It was so drenched in oil that we could only stomach a few bites before we left. An interesting thing is that in Harbin, blue lanterns outside a restaurant denote Muslim and hence no pork, while red lanterns signify traditional Chinese fare.

We found one of the main shopping streets in Harbin and spend the rest of the day wandering. We didn't have to be at the train station to go back to Dalian until around 8:30pm, so we had the whole day. We found a Russian bar that was entirely made of ice, including the tables, chairs, and glasses. After stopping in for a while for some ice cold vodka (and to buy some Russian chocolate to take back with us), we ended up having a disappointing dinner at Russian restaurant.

We took the overnight train back to Dalian, which I slept very soundly in. After a quick stop at McDonalds in Dalian in the morning, we found the ferry back to Yantai after first going to the wrong port. This last picture before boarding will give you an idea of how tired we were.

It was an absolutely fantastic trip, one of the best I've had in years. If you get a chance to go to the Harbin Ice Festival, and you think you can bear the extreme cold, by all means go. It is incredibly impressive and you will be very glad you went.

I highly recommend it!