Brace yourself, winter is coming.
Confusion at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport: the flight booked to Harbin is suddenly supposed to go to 黑河 // Hei He. What is Hei He? Quick check on baidu (the equivalent of google). Anyways, flights to Heihe stop in Harbin because nobody really wants to go to Hei He, confusion could have been avoided if someone bothered to leak this info (like airport staff). Apparently, our flight is somehow booked on First Class – how I managed to do so is beyond me, but it gains us entry to the China Eastern Lounge which is a happy place for foodlovers like me. Look at those eyes:
Landing in Harbin, i spot changing rooms. Brace yourself for winter and dress accordingly! The temperature during our stay is -11°C to -25°C during the day. Michelin Man dress up required: two down coats, four layers underneath, three layers of pants, three pairs of socks and lined boots. Two pairs of gloves, two hats plus face cover. The cold still eats down to the bones. Another problem is the haze sitting over Harbin, it just feels like something is wrong with the air, it smells funny and feels bad to breathe. Some Chinese call breathing chronic suicide. The second day, the haze magically disappears and the sun illuminates the blue sky as if nothing ever happened.
The most annoying thing, however, is that I can’t see. See, I have to wear glasses. For it is deadly, or at least very uncomfortable to leave any area of facial skin exposed, my face mask covers my nose and almost reaches the eyes. After about five seconds, my glasses fog up. After about 2 minutes, ice crystals form on the outer side of the glass. Yes, glasses can freeze. Can’t see without them, can’t see with them.
Why go to a place like this in winter? The Ice and Snow Festival of Harbin is THE attraction to see. Loved and feared. One attraction is probably not correct, there are different areas with different kinds of ice things, each with a separate entrance fee (and each very, very expensive).
Maybe start with the smallest and most central one to get a feel for ice and cold and snow and other winter features: Zhaoling Park.
Next up, the Snow Sculpture Expo on Sun Island. Next question: how to get to the island without a taxi. We end up taking a gondola from a hotel near Stalin Park for RMB50. The view is breathtaking: the Songhua River is completely frozen, people and cars are moving on the ice and enjoying the cold. The opera is visible in the distance.
The upcoming Year is the year of the rooster, about one third of the sculptures are chickens or roosters, in all shapes and forms.
Impressive and breathtaking, and freezing. Hot drink stops are conveniently scattered across the park.
Sun Island provides another major problem: apparently there really is no public transportation to the island. We ask a staff member for directions, he eyes us pityfully and says cabs are hard to get here. How does he get off the island? At least he seems to speak the truth because we do not spot any willing cab drivers and end up crossing the river by foot. On the ice. Sometimes, the ice reveals the darkness that lures beneath the frozen layer, quite scary. Halfway, we are overtaken by a horse carriage. We make it to the other side.
Closer to the shore, the Songhua River is budding with life. Some people play a game featuring spintops and whips. Children enjoy ice slides, sledges (horse, reindeer and husky available), modified bikes, tubing behind a jeep. A family tries to send a lantern into the sky. A sign warns not to step onto the ice since it is dangerous. Vendors promote spintops, photo opportunities, sparklers and gloves. Boats lie neatly in a row, frozen and immobile.
Taking the “free” bus to the Ice and Snow World. Maybe half of the group are foreigners. The tour guide only speaks Chinese. Don’t disappear is her favorite phrase: We are not supposed to lose the stickers she put on everyone’s jackets.
Again, amazingly breathtaking, except for the shows, those are just weird. Like a copycat Victoria’s Secret Show with teenagers weird. On the way back, she takes us shopping at some supermarkets. Half of the bus doesn’t understand what’s going on. We’ve had enough, we are hungry and hangry. We get off at the supermarket and take a public bus. The bus sounds like it’s going to die soon but gets us to our hotel.
Since it is cold and food stops are required regularly, noodle soups are a cheap and tasty option. Central street sells all kinds of street snack, choose wisely which stalls are worth removing your gloves. One stall advertizes ginger-flavored hot coca-cola. Doesn’t taste that amazing. Dumplings are a classic, restaurants should be close to everywhere. Russian food is also widely available, we enjoy Russian food Chinese style in a Russian restaurant in China/former Russia with Chinese staff dressed as Russians and Russian musicians playing Chinese music. In an underground passage, people play a game called 踢毽子 // Ti Jian Zi which is maybe a mix between badminton and soccer.
January 8th – January 11th 2017