I had never felt so cold in my life.
The moment I stepped out of the airport in Harbin I was struck with a cold so severe that the hairs inside my nose stuck together. A rather perturbing image, I know, but it’s my strongest memory of the cold. My hands and feet lost their feeling as well, but the sensation inside my nose was bizarre, and slightly disconcerting.
I cursed the cold as I walked out of the airport and even more when I alighted from the bus in downtown Harbin and groped through the darkness for a taxi to the hotel. Frustratingly, taxis were in short supply as thousands of visitors had joined me in travelling to Harbin for the annual snow and ice festival. As my core temperature plummeted, I certainly hoped the sculptures were worth it.
The plastered nasal hairs were not my only physical impediment. I was bleeding. Blood dripped from a cut on my right hand which had been ripped open only a few hours earlier when my cheap suitcase fell apart just moments after leaving my apartment in Qingdao. I hadn’t even started the journey and I’d already split my suitcase and the webbing on my right hand, and there was no time to go back to my apartment and re-pack.
Thus, I stumbled through the freezing, dark night in downtown Harbin, dragging a broken suitcase full of winter clothing with a bloodied hand wrapped feebly in a handkerchief, searching for an elusive taxi.
I finally found a taxi and the hotel, and rejoiced in the warmth of my room and the chance to drop my battered suitcase and unwrap myself from some of the layers of protection. I surveyed the ugly cut on my hand and found a very sympathetic hotel receptionist who supplied me with a bandage. I wrapped my wound, shoved the bulging extremity into a glove, re-layered and set off to find my friends for dinner. I eventually located them in Macdonald’s, and I’d never been so happy to eat at Maccas.
Then I confronted the next obstacle – ice.
Every thoroughfare in the city was covered in slick, black ice. This made walking, even a few metres, a dangerous and nerve-wracking experience. We spent the next 3 days teetering around the city streets on our way to the sculptures and other points of interest.
Was it worth it?
The freezing temperatures, the plastered nasal hairs, the slick ice and the crowds all disappeared as we took in the amazing snow and ice sculptures. The size and intricate carvings of the sculptures defy belief and enhance the snow covered parks in which they lie.
Our days were spent walking amid the snow sculptures on the other side of the river, which had frozen solid. We marvelled at the sculptures, took photos, and sought refuge inside the little tea houses dotted along the route, thankful for any warm beverage we could acquire.
We then retired to our rooms to thaw out, before submitting ourselves to temperatures as low as -25 celsius in order to witness the ice sculptures at night, as they were lit up with a fantastical display of lights and lasers.
I don’t speak Russian
Harbin houses many Russian churches and other buildings carrying the Russian style of architecture and carries a distinct Russian influence, due to it’s proximity to its northern neighbour.
Thus, when a group of ‘weiguoren’ (foreigners) walk into a local restaurant and tell the staff that they don’t speak Chinese, they’re likely to be handed an alternative menu, in Russian. So, if you don’t speak Russian, you could point at the menu and say ‘wo yao zhege’ – I want that,…or you could go back to Maccas.
The Siberian Tiger Park
We weren’t quite sure what to make of the tiger park. The expansive zoo had been recommended and it provided a rare opportunity to see the tigers up close, but even thought the property was fairly large, and the tigers appeared to have ample space in which to wander, the park emitted a particularly odd vibe. Perhaps it was the result of seeing a local family take up the chance to feed the tigers for a few extra ‘yuan’ – it was all a bit weird.
We left the park thinking, why did we come here?
We weren’t really sure, so we went back to Maccas.
The cold bites again.
The snow and ice sculptures filled us with awe and wonder and after three days we went our separate ways. My travel buddies returned to Qingdao while I remained in the Harbin region to enjoy a rare chance to go skiing – using the ski clothes in which I’d ensconced myself for the last three days.
Alas, upon arriving in Yabuli after what was a beautiful train ride through stunning, snow-covered scenery, I hit the wall. I was sapped of energy and could do nothing but sleep for the first afternoon. I expected to be re-energised by the next morning but I could not rouse myself. The previous four days of sub-zero temperatures in Harbin had taken their toll and I was completely run down.
I was left with no other option but to cancel my ski trip, board the train back to Harbin and find a flight back to Qingdao.
I was obviously disappointed and frustrated that I missed the chance to strap my ski boots on, but I spent the majority of the flight back to Qingdao consoling myself with the knowledge that Qingdao would be warmer than Harbin. That is, until I returned home, and discovered there was no hot water in the apartment. I had ice-cold showers for a week.