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Greg & Karen's Life Adventure Karen and I, in love, in life ; following our bliss

HARBIN, CHINA

CHINA | Friday, 18 February 2011 | Views [842]

HARBIN, CHINA

Although we had decided to end our relationship with the training school in Harbin, our tickets were not re-fundable, so leaving  our two large bags at  Beijing airport, we landed in Harbin  around 6.00pm. We had booked a hotel online near the main train station;  so in the dark and laden with backpacks, laptop, camera bag and two smaller shopping bags, we caught a very crowded shuttle bus . Here is where it gets interesting – no English anywhere.   Where to get off? We didn’t know for sure whether it terminated there or continued on. Time to put some of my Chinese into practice. I finally got a young  guy to understand and we found ourselves on the street in this chaotic mess of huge, open square, streets, lights, flashing neon , noise,  taxis and cars intent on running us down. We didn’t have a clue which way was up – where was the train station? And did I mention it was -22 degrees ?

 Now if this sounds like a real stupid place to be;  I would have to agree with you.  What we did know however, was the name of the street, and that the hotel was only a short distance from the Train Station. Sounds easy, but remember there is no English and we couldn’t see any street signs. I asked a taxi driver if we were on the right street – he wanted 100 yuan – `get serious mate’,  said I confidently and feeling none of it.  Karen led the way onward, trusting her instinct and I have learned to trust this also. She stopped at a building displaying only Chinese characters and not the `Bremen Inn’, which we had booked; and disappeared inside. I was so incredibly relieved when she called me inside, into the warm – remember that phrase people;  I may write a song entitled `Into the warm’. You would not believe how good it feels to come into a heated room from -22 degrees outside.

The bed was passable, as was the room. The internet was great and this was home for the next three days.           Next day, we muffled up (2 pairs thermals,  jeans, 2 pairs thermal socks, snow boots, shirt, padded vest, heavy coat, scarf, gloves and fur cap with ear flaps-I  learned this in England, guys) and went for a walk downtown.              Imagine trying to walk on uneven ice, on badly maintained sidewalks, wearing big heavy snow-boots, all the while dodging pedestrians and every conveyance known to man? You get the picture – what a learning curve! Yes, we were doing this last night too. We quickly adopted a technique called the `four legged drive’ – hold hands as you move so that one of you usually has traction and stability enough to prevent the other falling.

Believe it or not, we walked for miles through the main streets of Harbin city; and what an extraordinary place it is. A sleepy, rural town developed quickly around the railway station on the new line from Russia, back in the 1930s. It became a fashionable, cosmopolitan city; more European than Chinese with heavy Russian presence.  Modern high-rise tower over heavy, colonial edifices; Islamic Mosques and Russian `onion domes’. The place is a visual banquet and we ate our fill. Everywhere there were huge digital screens, moving neon signs and colour! Colour all around. They love their colour! Beautiful, artificial gardens of colour; trees wrapped with vividly coloured lights, ice statues and monuments along the streets and colourful people crowding the streets during the day. What is amazing, is that even in these inhospitable temperatures, this city still functions as normal – cars still swamp the streets; albeit slowly as they’re driving on ice and people go about their business as usual.

Our first stop was the iconic, St Sophia’s Church which now houses the Harbin Architectural Museum. A classic Russian style, brick structure of quite elegant design,  beckoned us into the warm and beguiled us with hundreds of actual photographs from Harbin’s development. The interior was imposing, but un-restored and un-adorned. It has suffered from both the Japanese occupation and the Cultural Revolution, but like most of what has survived in China from the past; it is now seen as a valuable heritage to be saved from the onslaught of rampant capitalism.                 As luck would have it, a cultural singing group was performing there and we watched the show appreciatively. Again, as in KL, we were asked to stand with the group after they finished and be photographed by the onlookers.  Now I was under the understanding that many` Westerners’  came to Harbin to see the International Ice & Snow Festival, held there every year in Winter – not so, it seems. Indeed they get many thousands of visitors but most are Chinese. We seemed to be the only foreigners around and we were the object of much visual attention.  Mothers wanted their children to be photographed with the `laowai’ and I was much bemused the first time this happened. The Chinese will openly stare at a foreigner and not look away, as we would if caught doing so.

Dusk found us approaching Zhoalin Park (pronounced `Jowlin’-  it would be Stalin Park In English – Yes, that Stalin )   We had come to see one of the main attractions of the Festival – the` Light and Lantern Show’.  The Entrance gate was 2 storeys high, ornately finished and built entirely of quarried blocks of ice; lit internally with multi-coloured lights. I will let the images tell the story from here; suffice to say that, even though we had seen this on Utube;  we were utterly astounded by the symphony of music, colour and light that engulfed us for the next few hours. I finally ran out of video battery and Karen took a record  350 photos that night. If you’re thinking this is not enough description ; let me tell you it just gets better. Yes, we walked all the way back, arm in arm in the neon lit dark.

Day two: we reached the mile wide, frozen Songwan River which runs along the edge of the city and with intentions of crossing over to the Snow and Ice Sculpture Park on `Sun Island’; negotiated for a horse driven carriage. We paid the 60 yuan and got `taken for a ride’ – a circuit out and back – ( I’ll be more specific next time) We did get a great photo op’ out on the ice though. We declined giving the driver a tip when he asked and headed out across the ice; along with others, I might add (I’m not that stupid) . Greg finally got to walk on water!  But it is a wary feeling being half a mile off-shore, standing on an unknown thickness of ice.

We had dressed warmly but the wind, blowing along the River, burned any exposed skin – It was bitterly cold all that day. Again, although we had seen them online, we were entranced by the rows and avenues of wondrous creations, carved  both in snow and ice. We quickly found a coffee place and went `into the warm’ – to our amazement;  the whole place was built of ice with an insulated liner- I sat with my frozen toes on the heater while we drank very ordinary coffee. Now `the warm’ has oneeee  little downside – when you go back outside, you feel very cold for a while. Still, we adventurers pushed on through the snow to ever more delights and huge walls, depicting Gods and heros and temples. The ingenuity and creative genius of their design cannot be described by a mere mortal, such as I

Many of the sculptures form the basis of National and International competitions and their work is truly stunning.

Light was fading as we exited the Park, looking for the `Ice World’- it was not where they said. We walked to the centre of an imaginative, one tower, suspension  bridge over a side river. We could see for miles. How do you lose an Ice City with highrise buildings and 6 storey towers;  lit up like a Christmas tree, for cryin’ out loud! There was the Songwan , illuminated by the city lights on the other side. You guessed it. We walked all the way over and back to the hotel – why? I hear you say. Mostly, we walk as much as possible to get the full experience, the nuances of the scenes we pass and to keep fit. But I kid you not - it was such delight to gain the warmth of our room and to have a hot shower that night.

Day 3: We spent the morning of our last day in Harbin online; finding the `Lost City’ – We have learned that when a Chinese person says `it is near’ they may mean many miles away. We set off again to walk there over a long, very modern pier bridge; alongside which they are building another. There are cars streaming over this 8 lane highway, but only we are walking across it. (remember it’s now dusk and -22 degrees outside) Ah, the lengths we go to get you the full experience!!

From the centre of the bridge, we see the Ice City on the horizon- and as we approach the outer walls, you are left in no doubt that this is one of the Modern Wonders of this World. Only slightly phased by the $52 NZ/ head entry price, we were in for a visual bonanza of epic proportions. Let me tell you folks ` it doesn’t get better than this. A rare combination of visual and audio overload, monumental scale, extraordinary effort and creative design. I have run out of superlatives as I ran out of battery again. I hope we captured the essence of this truly remarkable spectacle and you might pause for reflection here; every one of the millions of blocks of ice had to be quarried and brought from the River ; and they do this anew every year.

Early next morning we packed our lives and prepared for another hyper-jump to Beijing; by railway this time. Remember the Railway station – there was some fore-thought here. We had purchased the tickets in 2nd Class and all went smoothly as we jostled on board and stowed our still copious gear; only to have someone show us their seat number. Who would have thought it. Well this kind lady beckoned us into the next carriage, asked a man to move from our divided seat number and wished us `bon voyage’ or the Chinese equivalent, I’m guessing.  Fortunately, Karen had led us well along the station to almost the right seats. Trust her instinct Greg.

Now this 2nd class carriage would put some business class airlines to shame –comfortable,  roomy seats that laid well back and a limited cabin service. We enjoyed the 8 hour trip, covering the 1300 kms at speeds of up to 250 km/hour. Surprisingly, that didn’t seem that fast as the ride was very smooth and we spent the time dozing or filming the snowy; mostly featureless landscape and the cities along the way. 

 

Tags: festival, ice, ice world, snow

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