Haerbin There, Done That

Well, the party’s over folks. For us Future School peoples anyway. We’re all back at school today, making up for Christmas Day. It went quickly though, and I’m home now trying desperately to post about my trip to Haerbin 哈尔滨, also known as the coldest place I’ve ever experienced.

All my thoughts of “Hey, I’m Canadian, how cold can it be?” and “Ah, these Chinese people are such reactionists. It can’t be THAT cold” did nothing to warm me. Fortunately my newly purchased coat and hat did. I’ve never worn so many name brand clothes … fake or not. That’s a Puma logo leaping on my jacket and a Nike swoosh adorning my 15 yuan toque.

The Lunar New Year started with my visit to Maggie’s parent’s house. Being the first time I’ve met her parents, I was a little nervous. Not so much nervous about anything in particular, but more just worried I would do something culturally insensitive that they would not forget for generations upon generations to come. Or more likely, just do something that would support the rather twisted view much of China’s population has about foreigners. I think I was able to make it through the afternoon without doing either. Mostly we just sat around and ate a load of food that Maggie’s father cooked for us. The food was familiar, as most of it was dishes Maggie had made for me previously – it also helped that Maggie prepped them not to cook me any “gross food”. I was spared the numerous dishes that contain parts of animals I didn’t know existed, never mind were editable.

After Maggie’s parent’s, we returned home with just enough time to pack and eat some dinner before catching our overnight train to Haerbin (Dalian-Haerbin, 9.5h, 224 RMB for a middle bunk hard sleeper). Having now weathered a round-trip to Beijing 北京 and a day-long journey to Shanghai 上海 on overnight trains (as well as a plethora of them in various other countries), train journeys are a bit old-hat for me, but Maggie was like a kid at Christmas with her excitement. As previously mentioned, the number of places Maggie’s been can easily be counted on one hand, with a couple fingers not getting much use. Her excitement was infectious and it helped me get excited about sleeping in the crappy little beds north-bound.

Day One

We arrived in the chilly Heilongjiang 黑龙江 city early in the morning, and went immediately to the booking hall to secure our train tickets home. No such luck – the only tickets that were left were standing tickets in the smoky, noisy hard-seat cars. In the end we settled on the cushy, if not as comfortable, seats of a 12 hour long-distance coach. Saved ourselves a bit too, as the seats were only 180 yuan each.

Checking into our hotel also brought a few complications as the room we thought we had booked turned out to be a room with two single beds – far too Fred and Wilma for my ideas of a romantic vacation. We complained, and despite there being a 20 yuan/night price difference, the hotel gave us the room with a big bed at no extra cost (180 yuan/night).

Only having two and a half days in the city, we wanted to make sure we had some sort of plan – and it, for the most part, went off without too many problems. Monday’s itinerary mostly focused on the downtown core. The city centre, directly south of the Songhua River 松花江 (of pollution fame), is bisected by Zhong Yang Da Jie 中央大街, a long pedestrian street full of tourist-geared shops mostly touting Russian Goods.

We started our journey at the Russian-style Church of St. Sophia 圣索菲亚教堂 (pictured left), but balked at the 20 yuan entrance fee (me having seen some of the biggest churches in the world, and Maggie not knowing the difference). From the church we stealthily followed a tour guide to Zhong Yang Da Jie, and leisurely made our way up the length of it towards the river, marked by the large Flood Control Monument recognizing Haerbin’s triumphant conquering of the Songhua. By this point I had resigned myself to the unstylish fact of having my face buried beneath a low-pulled hat and my scarf. On the upside I experienced an anonymity I have not felt since landing in China 13 months ago!

From the monument we were able to see the creative use Haerbiners had made of the frozen river – there was everything from tubing to ice bike riding. Too cold to motivate ourselves to partake, we continued east along the river towards Zhaolin Park 兆麟公园 (20 yuan daytime/60 yuan after dark) – one of the cities many collections of ice sculptures. Though we’d been seeing a smattering of them throughout our walk, the park gave us a glimpse at what everyone had been going on and on about back in Dalian. The sculptures were numerous and amazingly detailed. The park had a “Classic Chinese Literature” theme, meaning there was a lot of displays from China’s four most famous works of fiction: The Journey West 西游记, Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义, Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦, and Outlaws of the Marsh æ°´æµ’ä¼ . Pictured right is the Monkey King lounging on some peaches, with an ice temple and ice pagoda in the background.

Famished from all the walking we attempted to find some fine Haerbin cuisine to warm our gullets. We were left wanting. After searching a while, we found a small restaurant that specialized in fried, meat-stuffed pancakes 陷儿饼 – the sort that can be purchased at many a fast-food shop, cheaper and better tasting than we were offered there. We also ordered (based on a misleading photo in the menu) a potato and rib dish that had mushy potatoes and a sprinkling of over-cooked, under-meaty ribs all coated in a sickly sweet craptastic sauce. Needless to say, we were not impressed with Haerbin’s, so far, over-priced and unsavoury food.

We returned to the hotel in hopes that the next day we could find better food.

Day Two

I don’t know what it is about Chinese breakfast; rather I don’t know why Chinese people eat it. With a complimentary breakfast included with our room, we headed downstairs bright and early. Aside from some sweet-bean stuffed man tou 馒头 (steamed bread), all that was on offer was a couple of tea eggs 茶蛋 (I mean that count literally) and the completely tasteless slop that has no right calling itself porridge or anything else that could be confused with food (available sugar for seasoning or not).

Again, I was a bit disappointed with the food.

Day two was divided between tigers and more ice sculptures. The tigers bit was first with a quick bus ride to Dong Bei Hu Lin Yuan 东北虎林园 (Northeast Tiger Forest Park), located on the northern side of the Songhua.

For those that don’t know, tigers are the biggest cats in the world, and the Dong Bei Hu, or Manchurian/Siberian Tiger, is the largest in the family. It’s also a threatened animal, and the park touts that it is a breeding and protection centre for the big predators. I can’t really say that I was overly impressed with their conservation efforts, as more focus seemed to be on selling chintzy souvenirs and tiger baijiu (you can buy bottles of baijiu that had sat in a big tank with a full-on tiger skeleton).

A big open-concept zoo (animals are free to roam in big enclosures), the tour began after buying our 50 yuan tickets and boarding large, new, big-windowed minibuses. Along with about 12 other buses, we entered the various enclosures, where tigers were everywhere (more than 300 in the park). We also got to see lions in their very realistic snowy climate, hanging out in seeming harmony (and envy) of the better-coated tigers.

After passing a cage housing a mom and her rather playful litter, and driving through the King Tiger Area 虎王区, we entered a big clearing where all the buses had formed a wide circle around about a half dozen tigers. Not quite sure what was going on, I watched as a well-caged vehicle entered the circle and all the tigers licked their lips in salivating synchronization. The car released a chicken, and faster than I could push the shutter release on my camera it was in the maw of one of the big cats. This was repeated several times before a larger truck entered.

The truck paused for a few moments, giving the predators time to get a whiff of the meal inside, then it slowly began to raise its hold dump truck style, plunging a small cow into the Arena of Death. The bovine’s last moments (and they were brief) were spent staring through the thin glass separating me from the carnage, passed the viewfinder of my anxious camera, directly into my soul. I’ve never seen a big animal killed in person before, and as fast as it was, I doubt I’ll forget it anytime soon. The “wild training” (as it’s dubbed in the flyer) seemed rather a little illegitimate, and left me feeling like the Romans must have two millennia ago while exiting the Coliseum – a bit guilty about being so fascinated by it.

The end result was that I truly have a much broader respect for tigers. I mean, I’ve seen tigers in the Toronto Zoo, continually pacing in their caged existence, and it was nothing compared to watching the power of them doing what every muscle in their body does best – kill.

When the tigers were well into making mince of the cow, the buses started to depart – giving everyone a nice close drive-by of the feeding. From here we were brought back to near the start where we concluded the tour with a walking portion. We walked along a heavily-caged catwalk (pun, unusually, not intended) where you could buy strips of meat to taunt, and eventually feed yearlings with. We also got nice and close to the parks other inhabitants – some snow/white tigers, a rather restless panther, some huddled together (dreaming of savannahs) lions, and a bizarre lion-tiger mix, appropriately called a Liger.

From the zoo we made a brief stop at Tai Yang Dao Gong Yuan 太阳岛公园 (Sun Island Park), where we were told by a taxi driver that paying the 80 yuan to see the park’s ice sculptures was a waste of money if we were later going to go visit the more impressive Bing Xue Da Shi Jie 冰雪大世界 (Ice Snow World), which we were later that evening.

Wanting to wait for nightfall before heading to Ice Snow World, we decided to go back to the hotel, relax and warm up a bit. At around 6:30 we got to the park and immediately felt like we had made the wise choice by the sheer number of people and the rather colossal entrance completely made of ice.

Entering, it was all a bit much to take in at first. Everywhere there were large buildings made of ice, all near-faithful recreations of famous Russian constructions. Everywhere we looked was either ice or lights in ice – from coffee shops to “warm” up in, to a giant castle. The photos likely don’t do it justice, as many of them turned out blurry, no doubt a large part due to the fact I couldn’t really feel my fingers, never mind hold the damn camera steady.

Despite the cold we stayed for a couple hours and explored. As our core temperatures neared that of the architecture around us, we decided to break and head to Zhong Yang Da Jie to see if we couldn’t get a bit of Russian food at a nice looking restaurant we’d seen the day before. The restaurant was open, but wouldn’t accept any more patrons due to the late hour, so we settled on Korean, and finally had a good bite to eat.

Day Three

The third and final day’s primary goals were to see two Buddhist temples, Ji Le Si 极乐寺 and Qiji Futu Ta 七级浮屠塔, on the east side of the city (10 yuan). We took the bus from our hotel, and got off at the required stop, but were a little lost as to where exactly the temples were as we were surrounded by the very un-Enlightened cityscape. Not sure what direction to go, we guessed that the man with the close-cropped haircut and earthy-yellow robes at the stoplight might know. Maggie and I are clever that way.

The temples were surprising serene considering being surrounded by the mid-town bustle just outside their gates. There was a number of people burning incense and asking good ole Siddhartha to assist their wait for Nirvana with a bit of cash, so Maggie and I – with our heathen ways – opted not to mock the institution and kept our peeking inside the places of worship to a minimum. We did manage to get some shots of the complex’s tall golden Buddha and its namesake – the Seven Tier Pagoda. We also picked up some cheap monk-blessed jewelry in the gift shop.

From the temples we made one last stab at having Russian food, something the city is famous for due to its close proximity to Russia. Though we had to wait about a half hour, and were then seated at makeshift tables beside the kitchen, we pulled it off and were not disappointed. The food was fantastic. We had borsch, cabbage rolls, real bread (few and far in China), and some meaty stew.

Before heading to the bus we stopped and grabbed some edible souvenirs (the only souvenirs we bought) in the form of Haerbin sausage, Russian pickles, baijiu candies, and ginseng. The bus ride back to Dalian was mostly uneventful, with the exception of a fight that broke out. It was about an hour after we had stopped for an extended 30 minute break, a man in the back of the bus yelled to the bus driver to stop the bus so he could take a piss. The bus driver explained that wasn’t going to happen. The guy paused, and again requested an immediate stop. The driver said no again. The man, a third time, complained and added that he would piss on the bus if the driver didn’t stop. The driver spotted a sign saying there was a stop in 12 km, and he told the man we would stop in about 4 minutes. This wasn’t good enough, and the man reiterated his threat of in-transit urination. Having enough of it, another passenger stepped up and gave the man (I can only assume, as my Chinese is weak) some advice on how to hold it. This erupted into a small brawl as the bus pulled into the rest stop.

Not in all my bus journeys have I seen such a flurry of people getting off a bus and heading to the washroom. No one wanted to be stuck in a situation that required them to request a stop before we reached home.

We’re back now. I’m back at school. The break was nice and I can’t believe this means that I’ve barely a month before I’m moving to a new apartment and a new job.

*Note: If you’ve got some goofy characters after the Chinese spellings it’s because I’ve included the Chinese characters and you’ve still not installed the East Asian Language Pack for Microsoft Windows. Get on it man! Also, I technically posted this on February 4th because my computer crashed just before posting it last night, and I had to write it all over again. Yeah, I was pissed. But I’m passed it and if not for this note you wouldn’t know, so I think you should move on too.

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  1. Pingback: A trip to Haikou Zoo | Ryan McLaughlin

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