From the frozen north to the unknown future. (China part 4)

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February 6th 2010
Published: February 6th 2010
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As I had stepped, disappointed, away from Halong Bay in Vietnam I realised that my travels further north were going to be far more dependant on the weather. Maybe it was therefore better to turn my attention to attractions that were ‘in season’ and there was going to be none more so than the Ice Festival in Harbin a city that sits slightly north west of Vladivostok in Russia - cold cold cold!

Train tickets towards Beijing had not been a problem despite the approaching holiday season. Like most capital cities the majority of its population are not from the city and would therefore be going home for the holidays. The difficulty was buying a train ticket away from Beijing. I took it as a sign of destiny when a guy in the dorm was heading out to get a refund on his ticket to Harbin for that night and quickly intercepted him. Although it was a night earlier than I had been planning, Beijing had fulfilled my dreams and I was ready to go. The hostel for Harbin read like an unfriendly dump but at least I was prepared mentally for that. I hurriedly packed and was good to go.

It was a relatively short journey of just over 9 hours so as soon as I got on the train I hopped under the blankets and slept through till the morning. On emerging from my slumber the scenery had changed completely. There was snow in every direction and thick ice had formed around the train windows. It was too late to regret the decision so I wrapped everything I had around me and found my way into the press of people disembarking.

Now at the risk of sounding very strange the only way I can describe my first breaths of the Harbin air are as follows; did you ever hang your head into the freezer compartment at the local supermarket and breathe in deeply when you were a kid? My brother and I did it a few times teasing each other that we’d freeze our noses off or the like. When you breathe air that cold it almost has a fragrance to it, and this was what Harbin was like.

Outside the station it looked very much like every other industrial city I’ve seen here and after a couple of hours battling buses I was ensconced in my hostel. It was everything that I’d read, it even had the added bonus of a shower that electrocuted me when I touched the flex! I tried to report the problem but my phrase book couldn’t handle the situation and nor could the receptionists English. I shorted the shower out to make it safe and figured they’d discover the problem when I left!

It was time to explore the city centre - and what a refreshing change that turned out to be. Harbin grew up as the gateway city between Russia and China. When Russian workers became involved in building a railway line between Harbin and Vladivostok then so too started the beginning of the Russian influence on the city. The architecture looks almost European until you look to the tops of the buildings to see the beautiful Russian domes crowing them. St Sophias church stands proudly in a central square restored and resplendent in the cold winter sun. There have been plenty of other influences here too - not least of all through Japanese invasion.

I have sometimes found in Chinas version of history there is barely a veil held over its contempt for Japan. It is clear that with entrance fees to places such as the Japanese Germ Warfare Museum set at nil that the government clearly wants its people to be able to visit these places at the very least and the put heavy slants on events against others that were also happening in the world at the time, I suspect without the general audience having the bredth or access to information to gain a perspective on what they are seeing. What I would have liked to see was more balance of the other people who suffered there too. I met a young Korean guy who was visiting the place and he told me that this is a particularly important place for Koreans to visit given the numbers of his countrymen who were killed there. There was no mention whatsoever of any other race or peoples killed at the unit. Of course, looking around it is heart wrenching to think that anyone at all could have suffered there; that people should be dissected alive, had parts of their body decapitated and then measured for how long it took them to die from blood loss or the like is inhuman in the extreme. Much like the Nazis had dehumanised people into numbers the regime here called the inmates ‘Marutas’ which means ‘logs of wood’ - in keeping with the cover story that the unit was actually a lumbar yard.

Full of food for thought, and after another chilly bus ride back to the hostel it was time for rest and warmth before heading out for lovely Russian food and a walk round the smaller ice exhibits in the city centre.

The following day I moved my lodgings to stay with a New Zealander I’d met in Tiger Leaping Gorge. As we whizzed round the supermarket to pick up dinner I realised that it was the first time in months that I’d been involved in the cooking of a proper meal - it was in itself a novelty!

After much sulking and a few posts on the Travelblog forums I accepted the inevitable and bought a new camera as mine seemingly requires open heart surgery - there was no way I could come all this way to the ice festival without some shots!

Later on and new camera in hand I was ready - wearing … ready? Wooly hat, hoodie and hood on my anorak, three jumpers, long sleeved shirt, face mask and scarf, thermal long johns, lined trousers and over trousers, boots and two pairs of gloves. I had camera batteries strategically placed around me to keep warm and therefore keep their charge and my camcorder and camera were tucked inconveniently under a few layers of clothing! Would you even trade in such fun times??

The night itself was practically tropical - I’d chosen well - only -10C which meant I'd probably be able to stay outside comfortably around 3 hours. I caught the bus down to the festival and gawped at the enormous walls of ice built into 20 foot high entrance gates. Within the grounds the sights were just as impressive. A mini coliseum, many other buildings, snow and ice sculptures. Some of the ice sculptures were carved to represent Buddhist gods - and I couldn't help wondering if you shouldn’t worship false idols what about one’s that melt? The lights were spectacular and the centre piece appeared to be the Empire State Building. Amusingly the placcards depicting what each structure was meant to be was behind the cordon around the sculpture and out of reading range! There were bridges you could climb on, slides, zip lines and tobogans .. Fantastic!

I stayed till I was cold and then retreated back to the cosy flat to thaw.

The following day I moved back to a hostel and then headed off to the Siberian Tiger Park. This place is a breeding place and sanctuary for the Manchurian tiger or which only 30-50 still live wild in northern China. The park itself has had a very successful breeding programme and report that they have around 200 tigers there as well as other big cats. Controversially the animals there are fed chickens, ducks and the like and are not therefore learning many of the hunting skills, or indeed typical diet that they would need in the wild so it remains to be seen if they will ever be able to be released.

I was initially reluctant to go as I’ve seen some pretty poor conditions for animals generally across Asia. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that we were put in a caged vehicle and driven into the large expanses of gated park where the tigers live. My positive opinion wasn’t going to get somewhat dented as we drove past African lions who should have been enjoying much warmer climes and other tropical cats in smaller cages. There was one of only 10 Ligers in the world there too - a cross between a tiger and lion.

All too soon though it was time to fly down to the comparative warmth of Shanghai and it is from here that I bid farewell to China. I’m sat looking down at the Bund, heavily under construction for the Expo in about two months time. Across the river are spectacular modern buildings creating an unforgettable skyline - and that is of course what China will be - unforgettable.

I have written so many notes to help me construct this blog - of the extremes of China, of the tai chi and kite flying against the back drop of sleek high rise multi nationals. Of spitting and barging through people whilst also able to exhibit such extreme kindness that has enabled me to muddle my way through the country unharmed. Of censorship and propaganda skipping along hand in hand whilst simultaneously chasing the designer brands and capitalist dreams.

The daily English language paper today reports tough times ahead if President Obama is to meet with the Dalai Lama, it also reports that Tibetans will have a say in their future and that some of the data about global warming having a human cause might be flawed (this the week after China said environmental issues would 'have to wait a decade'). I have never been anywhere that has challenged everything that I think I know on such a regular basis and I can only imagine what my views would be like if these were the views I had been fed since childhood. I am of course extremely grateful for our lands of ‘free press’ and of 'freedom of speech and association' - but never before have I so deeply understood the extent of how we too in the West are ‘fed’ our opinions and perspectives and how important it is for us all to remember to seek out the truth - wherever and whatever it may be.

Additional photos below
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6th February 2010

Glad you purchased a new camera!
The photos of the ice sculptures are wonderful - this is a definite destination for my next visit to China! Also, what is the name of that hostel you stayed at in Shanghai with the superb view?
7th February 2010

Glad I was able to put China on the map for you ... the Shanghai hostel is 'The Captain' which you'll find in your lonely planet. There are two but I'm at the one on Fuzhou Rd. It's 55yuan per night, 50 with a YHA card. Not much of a backpacker vibe but like you see ... a superb view!
7th February 2010

Your blog was outstanding! Easy to read and follow with all of the details. It almost seemed as if I had been there. I most appreciated your last sentences which has been my thinking for many, many years. Sue

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