This weekend we took an overnight train with seven other American English teachers north toward the Russian border to a city called Harbin. Harbin is known for its proximity to Russia, its ice sculpture festival, and its freezing temperatures.
Overnight train with Chris and Greg
Just how cold was it? Well, the first sensation I had was one of my nose hairs freezing. Gross, but completely true. Everyone was real tripped out by it. Also, frost developed on eyelashes and facial hair, and despite wearing three layers of tights, pants, three sweaters, a down jacket, a hat, earmuffs, and two pairs of gloves, I was pretty much freezing the entire time I was outside.
Chris' frozen facial hair
We arrived in Harbin in the morning and found our hotel, a Super 8 that was close to the pedestrian street and reasonably priced. After checking in, we headed out to the walking street to catch our first glimpse of the ice sculptures. This year's theme seemed to be "Slide!" because there were ice slides everywhere, every one of which my dear husband felt was his duty to try out. The -8 F temperature forced us into various shopping malls and coffee shops frequently, where we spent more time inside than out just trying to warm up.
Greg in his clever Soviet-era coat and hat
Some of the architecture in Harbin is European-esque, due to its proximity to Russia. There was a beautiful old church called the St. Sophia, though the inside was pretty bare. Andrew and I wandered off on our own that afternoon, walking a little ways onto the frozen river to play in the snow and slide around. Apparently people sometimes swim in holes in the ice. Crazy.
On the frozen river
Snow angel on the river
After dinner that night, we hopped on a hotel bus and headed to the "Snow and Ice World" which had a Disneyland price with half the fun. It was cool to see the various ice castles and sculptures, and there was even one snow sculpture, but for the price, I was expecting a little more. We were allowed free access to slides, ice bikes, and inter-tubes, but there's only so long you can do that in the evening in -20 F weather. We only stayed about 2 hours before dragging our frozen bodies back to the hotel for a cozy night spent talking and drinking.
The next morning, things began a little badly. We woke up early and tried to take hot showers, only to find there wasn't any hot water, and in my quest to convince the tap to produce hot water I flooded our room. After we shivered our way into warm clothes, we met with Chris, Ryan, and Narissa to find some breakfast. Apparently Chinese people don't eat breakfast. We spent the next 1 1/2 hours searching for something to eat before we settled on a hard-to-find dumpling restaurant. Then we tried to hail some cabs to take us the 10km out to the tiger park. It took a long time before a car stopped, and the driver already had a passenger. Andrew and I hopped in and explained as best we could where we were going, after which the driver went 20 minutes out of our way to drop this other guy off, all the while trying to convince us to hire him for the return trip for 100RMB. We agreed, seeing as how the guidebook and hotel said the one-way price was 40RMB. But then the driver picked up another passenger and dropped them off first before finally heading out of the city to the tiger park, where our friends had been waiting for us for about 20 minutes. Finally, we paid a reasonable entry price and then waited for the tour bus that would take us around the park to arrive. Then, despite the fact that we had tickets for a certain bus, everyone else pushed in front of us, leaving us to wait for the next bus. We were a little cranky by then, but the tigers were worth the wait!
Narissa, Chris, and Ryan in our caged bus
Isn't he precious?
There were hundreds of them, roaming the park, playing with each other, dozing in the snow, and they weren't shy of approaching the bus. In addition, we paid to have a live chicken released from an armored car and watched as a tiger pounced on it before the stupid fowl even knew what was happening. It was so "Animal Planet."
The park also housed some uncomfortable looking lions and even a liger! These hybrids are extremely rare, with only about 70-90 of them in the entire world. After our bus tour, we roamed around on some of the raised platforms for a bird's-eye view of the caged tigers. We also got the chance to feed a tiger some strips of meat.
After an exhilarating visit, we returned to the parking lot and the five of us piled into one taxi (our driver had conveniently left) and headed back to town where we had lunch at a weird place called USA Bar. The menu was interesting.
Intestinal stem, anyone?
Four of us had planned on heading over to the Snow Sculpture Park, but after 30 minutes of trying to flag down a taxi we gave up. We're not sure what the issue was, but dozens of empty taxis passed us by and wouldn't stop. The one taxi that did stop refused to use the meter so we gave up after a while and instead wandered the walking street, spending most of our time in the cozy cafe. We eventually met up with our other friends for dinner and then went to the train station for our return trip to Qinhuangdao, where the temperature was a whole 30 degrees warmer.
Ross, Greg, Ryan, and Morgan
The moral of the story is: Go to Harbin for tigers, not ice, and hire a car. The taxi drivers are jerks and will rip you off in a second.
And what post would be complete without some signage? Feast!