This past weekend I took a trip to Harbin, the northern-most provincial capital in China. Many warned me before I left that it would be extremely cold, and to pack more layers than I would ever think necessary. Why go if the average January temperature is negative 18 degrees C? Harbin is home to an international ice sculpture festival, is known as the Moscow of China, and even includes a Siberian Tiger Park. What better place to bring the first friend who has braved applying for a Chinese visa and coming to stay with me! Before she got here I bought us airfare tickets and a hotel stay. I had done a little research on this, given that Harbin is a popular tourist destination, and I had heard from many coworkers who had gone and visited. You might be thinking that since I had talked to other people who had traveled there and even gotten advice on hotel locations from locals, that everything would go smoothly. I also suffered from this delusion, thinking my minimal planning would be enough to compensate for the fact that we’d be touring on our own rather than in an organized group. I should have known better than to expect a seamless trip, especially considering all past vacations with my friend Carrie have always seemed to go slightly awry (like that time I dragged her to the rural amazon or when we tried to tour wineries on a day when alcohol vending was prohibited). Anyway, let’s review this current debacle and see how we still managed to enjoy the trip despite the many challenges.
First, let me just come out and admit that even though I live in Beijing, my mandarin skill is abysmal. I make it around OK here, but I wasn’t prepared for the lack of English spoken by anyone in Harbin, forcing me to depend so much on Google translate to come up with key words to throw out. I guess now I can look back on it and be glad gesturing and even a few words do go a long way in being able to communicate. I also know next time I venture out, I’ll join a tour rather than try to figure everything out for myself.
Aside from the language barrier, there were a lot of other aspects of the trip that made it a little strange and unexpected, and at least I can say not all of them were my fault:
- The weather the day we flew out was bad, so our flight was delayed a few hours, supposedly due to frost on the runway or poor visibility.
- We arrived at the hotel, and the staff had very little English. They also wanted 300 RMB at checking which was confusing because I had pre-paid. Turns out it was just a deposit they needed!
- The room itself- Not bad, except there was no door on the bathroom, so that was pretty weird. It also had a sign that said “slip carefully,” which we assumed meant to to be the equivalent of “caution- wet floor.”
- The hotel restaurant only had a Chinese menu with no pictures. We ordered beef dumplings because that was the only food word I knew how to say. They were delicious though, so I guess no harm there.
- We had really bad luck with taxi drivers, and we had to point to our tourist brochures to show them which sites we wanted to go to.
- One taxi driver called someone and pulled over, left us in his car while it was running, and went inside some building. If we had been in Peru, I would have assumed we were in an express kidnapping. It turns out he was stopping by his travel agency buddy’s place to sell us some tickets for the snow and ice world. After using my “phone a friend” to call a Chinese speaking friend of mine and making sure we were interpreting the situation correctly, we got our tickets and continued to our destination. Whew.
Don’t worry, though, the trip wasn’t a total disaster. There were some great highlights as well, making this trip worth it despite all the hassles:
The architecture of the city was fascinating. It has a long history of Russian immigrants, so many buildings had a Byzantine look to them. Also, everything is lit up at night, so driving was really fun. All the large roundabouts had mini ice and snow sculptures, and lantern lights were hanging all along the streets. Taxi rides can be somewhat stressful, but being able to look out the window at all of this made the traffic bearable.
On the second day we got a cab to drive us out to the Siberian tiger park, which is like a wildlife refuge for Siberian tigers. The entry ticket includes a bus tour where we drove through the area and got to see the tigers running around, and we even saw some enjoying a chicken snack. It was really neat to see them so up-close, and see their thick fur.
All the walking around in the cold gave us quite the appetite, so once we got back to our hotel we wandered around in search of lunch. The place we stumbled upon was the California Beef Noodle King restaurant. Even though we couldn’t read the menu, it had pictures, so we could order some noodle bowls. They turned out to be delicious, and provided Carrie with more chop stick practice. After warming up with some delicious spicy soup, we went back to the hotel to layer up for a night at the Ice and Snow World.
Now, aside from hearing that this place had ice sculptures and seeing a few pictures of it, we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. This place was awesome! There were ice structures everywhere, and I even went down a few ice slides. They had mini restaurants inside in case you needed to warm up with some hot chocolate, there was music, an ice show, and even a KFC. Overall I was really impressed with the level of craftsmanship of the ice buildings and the attention to detail paid to the ice structures.
You can view more photos of the trip here.
Even though this trip was a little frustrating at times, I am really glad I went. The ice sculptures and tigers were really rare experiences, and I’m glad I have a friend I can drag on these adventures with me. You can view her photos on her website. If you’re planning a trip to Harbin, though, I’d recommend going the easy route of signing up for an all inclusive tour through an agency, unless you’re prepared to navigate all the Chinese information yourself! In the mean time, I’ll go back to enjoying the (by comparison) warmer weather in Beijing.