My Trip to Harbin, China: The Ice Festival and the Manchurian Siberian Tiger Preserve

Day 1

Monday afternoon my girlfriend and I left Beijing on a train, leaving behind the smoggy, snowless city for Harbin. We had soft seat tickets, which meant we had padded seats and sat 2 per row and effectively by ourselves. As far as 9 hour train rides go, this one was way better than expected, it being my first China train ride. I was comfortable and undisturbed, and though their seats didn’t have power outlets, it was comparable to America (except half the price!). Every winter this northern city holds the Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, a Guinness record holding event that is one of the world’s four largest ice festivals. I knew I was heading into some very cold weather, but when I got off the train into 2 foot high snow as far as I could see… Well I guess you could say I was surprised. Thankfully there was no wind, and the air was refreshingly clean. I can’t say I’m surprised, seeing as the city is on the border of Russia and I WAS at an ice and snow festival. I know how to pack for cold from years of boy scouts and skiing, and without the wind it was pretty enjoyable. The air alone made it worth it after being in Beijing for 6 months, -16C temperatures or not.

The taxi ride into the city was interesting, the roads were covered in ice and the car spun out multiple times. Our cab driver didn’t seem worried, just continued to hotbox the taxi with cigarette smoke and read his cell phone recklessly. At one point he even turned his head backwards to talk to us, and almost got us rear ended as he drifted into another lane. He reminded me of an oblivious puppy.

We arrived at the Little Russia Hostel. It was decent enough and 70$ for a 3 night stay is nothing to complain about. Our room smelled musty and was pretty small, but if it’s cheap and in a convenient location I could care less to be honest. And they had wifi, so I had no complaints. Since our train took 8 hours and we only ate snacks, I was famished and we set out to find a restaurant. It was 9:20 when we set out, and being a small city most businesses had already shut down. Most of the restaurants were the kitchen style kind you can find in Beijing, also the kind I’ve consistently gotten food poisoning from because of half cooked or fouled meat. Not wanting to spend my vacation on a toilet, we set out to find a nice restaurant that was still open in a city we knew nothing about.

Beijing, as far as Chinese values go, is one of the most western cities in China. The people are impatient and inconsiderate, and also totally unfazed by western tourists. Harbin is not the same, and in retrospect I actually think I prefer Beijing more. We came across a restaurant after 15 minutes of walking, and when we entered it was pretty clear they were about to close up and go home. We told them we hadn’t eaten any food that night, and tried to ask if they knew of another restaurant in the area. Instead of telling us, they did us one better; they invited us up and kept the chef from going home to feed us. In Chinese culture, the concept of guests and host hospitality is huge. It’s considered shameful to disappoint a guest, and most traditional Chinese families and establishments will bend over backwards to help you and make sure you walk away happy. It’s actually seen as an insult to the host’s concept of face to fully finish your meal. Even if you’re on the verge of vomiting from stuffing yourself, it signifies they didn’t feed you enough and left you hungry. I’ve been in Beijing for awhile, and overall Chinese service can be more than lacking, so I was quite pleased with this. We got upstairs and began to order our food, but each dish we asked for was unavailable. Dish after dish the Fuyuan responded “that takes too long to cook” or “we’re all out of that tonight.” I think only 5% of the menu was available, which we frustratingly were forced to find out by asking over and over again. The food we could order were items such as salads and pickled meats, all of them neither appetizing or nutritious. After wasting fifteen famished minutes with a not-at-all-helpful Fuyuan who most likely just wanted to go home, we decided to try out luck elsewhere. A taxi driver picked us up just as we exited the restaurant, and after explaining our situation to him, he drove us in search of a place open to eat. He also stopped and tried to get every group of girls he could talk to to also get into our cab. I have no idea why he was doing this, since we had no clue where we were going and there was only room for one other person, possibly two if somebody sat on a lap. With no luck adding women to the cab, he brought us to a Chinese restaurant open 24 hours. The food was awful, the fried duck we ordered was actually duck tendon and cartilage… Not meat. Completely indelible. The duck legs we ordered were 90% bone, and the rice had strangely bitter freeze dried pork in it. We suffered through the food and went back to the hostel to rest for the next day.

DAY 2

Before heading to any tourist attractions, we decided to walk around and explore the city while finding something to eat. It was designed a lot differently than Beijing. If it weren’t for the hanyu I think I’d have felt like we were in Russia. The streets and sidewalks were coated in ice and snow, often to the point of being dangerous, and the roads were much too wide for the amount of traffic going through them. The architecture was much different than that of Beijing. The buildings didn’t look like they obeyed the laws of fengshui, and had European style arches and ledges plus the round-topped towers like I’ve seen in pictures of Moscow. The buildings here had a very European feel, and I’m going to guess Russian design has greatly influenced their construction. The streets had alcoves with statues of Romanesque naked men, and most signs also had Cyrillic on them.

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I can’t say I was all that surprised to see these similarities because of Harbin’s proximity to Russia, nor that most of their business district was Russian as well. Even most of the cars and motorbikes were of Russian make. The street foods weren’t the typical Chinese types, less meats and more nuts and insect pupae. I enjoyed be able to get kielbasa as Chuar though! It was very interesting to walk around and take it all in, and overall it speaks to the massiveness of China and how the many ethnic groups contribute their own cultures to create almost pseudo nations within one giant nation.

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After exploring the city a little bit and finding something to eat, our first stop was the Manchourian Siberian Tiger preserve. When we arrived i wasn’t really sure what to expect. There were anime style tiger people doing strange things, as well as giant gaudy plastic tiger statues. The tourist center was offering a service that poorly photoshops you “petting” a tiger, as well as stuffed animals and a wine made from tiger piss. I had the feeling that I’d stumbled into China’s equivalent of the highway road stop “Come see batboy and the world’s only living dinosaur at exit 47,” where the dinosaur turns out to be an alligator and batboy is just inbred. We purchased our tickets and our chicken vouchers, and boarded a bus painted with tiger stripes. That’s when the tackiness ended; and we began to drive through several miles of fields with over a hundred grown tigers stalking our bus or resting and playing. Multiple times large tigers would chase the bus and swipe at the back of it. The driver threw chickens out of the window of the bus for the tigers to catch and tear apart in front of us. If we’d spent 2600RMB we could’ve had a cow sent in for them to eat, but that was way too steep for me. Overall I gotta say it was a pretty awesome experience. And when I say awesome I don’t mean the typical everyday uses it’s been wasted on, such as saying Great!, and describing a good movie or a fun day. There are plenty of other ways of saying that. But when you see 500 pound tigers from 10 feet away, swiping at your bus and tearing apart farm animals, you realize not many feelings can convey just how in awe you are. These animals are the most beautiful yet powerful creatures I’ve ever seen. It was humbling to be so close observing them. I have no illusions one wouldn’t even have to try to kill to me, as strong as they are gorgeous. THAT is what awesome means. Being the second largest tiger preserve in the world, I’m very happy I got the chance to see this. I definitely recommend it if you go to Harbin.

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The second event of the day was the Zhaolin Garden Ice Lantern festival. Zhaolin garden is a huge park in the middle of the city, and every winter it’s full of ice buildings and ice pathways with multi-colored lights shining and reflecting through them. Many famous buildings were recreated, as well as bulls charging and Cinderella carriage were sculpted from ice. It was very cool, and since it was dark the lights were beautiful. The Harbin international ice art exhibition contest was also held here. The submissions were mostly from Russia and China, though there were several from Mongolia and Malaysia, as well as a single and very unique one from France called “the free electron theory.” The Mongolians focused on nature and animals, which is interesting because a lot of their cultures folklore holds animals in high regards. The Malaysian ones were very wholesome and uplifting, much like their carefree loving culture. The parallels were interesting, though there were way too many from Russia and China to make any distinctions. Unfortunately the translucency of ice and lighting made it hard to show the intricate detail in many of these sculptures, but I’m sure the pictures will be able to show most of how exquisite they are. We spent about an hour and a half there, and after that it all began to look the same.


To end the night we stopped by a Russian restaurant called Tatoc. The inside made me feel like I was in a mob movie, dim lighting and finely finished woods everywhere, with a very family owned but also expensive atmosphere to it. The music playing sounded like the score from Eastern Promises. Their menu was pretty smart, you could order dishes separately but they also had a section of meals for 1-3 people who want to try traditional Russian food. At first glance it’s pretty expensive, but when you break it down you’re getting 9 dishes for about 350RMB, and more than enough food for two people. Most of the food was exquisite, though I don’t think I’ll ever get a good steak in China. The mutton le duchese was melt in your mouth tender, and the borsch was rich and flavorful. I definitely believe I got a good taste of what Russia had to offer, on top of a food coma and happy belly.

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Afterwards we hit a bar called The Western Bar. There were pictures of Jesus with naked black manakin pieces in piles before it scattered around the bar, and the wallpaper said “Stock market fraud” over and over again. The pictures in the bathroom were both erotic and disturbing, including a dick soldier and obvious necrophilia. I’m not going to upload them or talk more about them though since I’d like my blog to stay in the SFW realm of the Internet. I will say I think they have some misconceptions about what’s hip and provocative, and what’s not socially acceptable and creepy. There’s a fine line, and they passed it three miles ago. They were trying to pull off hipster, and I really can’t blame them; since an ESL person who had to literally translate the word hit the nail on the head for “douchey and being a fan of things no one else likes.” The beer was good though, and regardless of the creepy, erotic decorations and pictures of known terrorists on the walls, it somehow managed to have a nice atmosphere.

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DAY 3

I think because day 2 was such a great day, day 3 was destined to be shit. It was one of those days where the Chinese are infuriating and seriously test one’s patience and self restraint. After grabbing a quick breakfast we headed out for the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair, a snow theme park which features large scale snow sculptures as well as tourist rides such as tubing and dog sledding. As usual the venue had a student pricing option. When we got in line, a burned man was ahead of us using some sort of ID, either student or military, to receive a discount. He kept turning around to talk to us instead of the woman helping him, and because I figure people turn him away often because of his disfigurement, I decided I’d be nice and talk back. He began to offer us half price tickets, and as a rule of thumb in China more goods are counterfeit than authentic. Knock off Nikes and name brand clothing are a blessing, fake tickets that don’t get you into the park are not. We said no and moved to another line, only to be refused by the woman selling tickets. Meanwhile the burned man was shooed away from the ticket booth, and I noticed in his hand he had an ID much like mine, with a photograph attached inside it rather than printed onto a page… Just like mine. When I pressed the woman for a reason why we’d have to pay full price, she told us it was because our IDs could be fake as well, and probably because I’d talked with that man for a minute or two. I’m pretty sure he was using his maimed face to use another persons ID and claim it was before the accident, then scalping the discounted ticket for a profit. After arguing with the woman for almost ten minutes, we ended up paying the full price of 240RMB instead of 120. If we’d had another form of ID it probably could’ve been smoothed out, but I prefer to have my passport in a safe place instead of out and about with me. I gotta say, as annoyed as I was to pay the full price, it was worth it. The snow sculptures were gigantic, Guinness-book-of-world-records-breaking gigantic. The amount of detail in each was astounding too. At multiple sites there would be people dancing to traditional Chinese music and waving flags, which was interesting to watch. The other attractions were pretty lacking though. The bobsledding and tubing would only be fun for a child in elementary school, and the dogs used for dog sledding looked like they might feint if I forced them to pull me. It was pretty sad actually, they didn’t look well taken care of at all. The park was also incredibly slippery, most of the paths had iced over and multiple people fell as we walked the park. There was way too much walking in between each snow site, and the slickness of the paths quickly became annoying. We were HELLO’d a lot as well by many of the Chinese men in the park (described in detail in its own blog entry) and as usual the Chinese had no regard for the picture you were taking, which was frustrating on top of everything else. I was pretty happy though when one young douchebag screamed hello at us and then right after fucked himself on a patch of black ice. He should’ve known better than to be a prick in the shadow of goddess that belongs to Hinduism, a religion all about karma. Setbacks aside, it was definitely worth it though to stand underneath a 40 foot tall snow statue of a Shiva or a Greek goddess unleashing dragons. The pictures cannot do this place justice.

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After dinner we grabbed a cab to head out to the Harbin Ice and Snow World. It took us many tries to get the driver to turn on the meter, but the hassle was necessary since we were in a bad cab area and also in a rush against time to make the park before it closed. Just as we neared the bridge to Sun Island, the tourist area of Harbin, he picked up another woman. We tried to tell him no but he didn’t listen and she had already closed the door. She told him where to go and he assured us it was on the way, right after which he turned away from the bridge that was in sight and became grid locked in side road traffic for 10 minutes. It made it worse that they flirted the whole time, and I was close to snapping at him. I held my tongue though because it would probably take us more time to get another cab in the traffic jam than to sit in the one we already had. Eventually he came to her destination and again began to approach the bridge with it in sight. He began to ask us if we had tickets for the festival. We told him no, and that we’ll buy them there. Upon hearing that answer he turned down another side road and yet again away from the event wanted to go to and were already late for. He ignored us telling him no and that we didn’t want them, and instead assured us they were a good price… 10RMB and not even 2 dollars cheaper, as well as probably fake. We sat outside the general store his friend was selling tickets out of and argued with him furiously, which he continued to ignore and practically plead with us to just buy the tickets. I began to exit the car, and he started to yell at me. I gave him the ultimatum to drive or we’d leave and not pay. He wasn’t a big man, and I already wanted to bounce him off the pavement. He started to posture but then backed down, and offered to take us where we wanted to go. He patronized us the whole way there, saying how the tickets were a great price and we were dumb. The logic that ‘he was going to say they were real even if they weren’t’ fell on deaf ears.

Exiting the cab as quickly as possible, we rushed into the ticket center only to hit another obstacle. The regular price is 300, but the student price is 150. Even with no burned men to cast suspicion on us, we were yet again told we’d need to pay full price, with the reason being “foreign students who are studying at Chinese universities aren’t students and don’t get a discount. Chinese people only.” I wanted to stand in front of the window and block the line until they gave me my discount but figured a half price ticket didn’t matter if the park closed half an hour after we got inside. I bit my tongue and bought the tickets, with one hour left to explore the biggest ice exhibit in Harbin.

I gotta say, it probably wasn’t worth the stress. Don’t get me wrong it was amazing. A once in a lifetime experience. The sometimes-6 story tall ice buildings were beautiful, each with multi-colored neon lighting frozen into it and changing colors every couple seconds. There was a Smurf, and an Ice Age exhibit, as well as a whole site designed to be a mock Angry Birds level.

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But quickly you notice that besides the handful of special and unique structures, each castle looks the same. If you were pressed for time and didn’t care to slide down any slides you could walk the place in 30 minutes. Besides the ice structures, the festival had features that included ice bicycling, skiing, and a live war reenactment/opera with skiers and figure dancers.

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Horse and carriages went up and down the ice city streets for tourists who wanted a ride around the attractions. There was one stand that even had snow foxes that you could hold and get a picture with. Their fur was out of this world soft, but I had to walk away when the workers would grab the fox by the tail and drag it across the cage. I wish I hadn’t given them money to get my picture with the fox, these animals are obviously mistreated and I’d never knowingly support that.

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The slides here were much larger than at snow world, and definitely would’ve been a cool ride if it weren’t for their lines, which alone would have eaten up half our time to explore. As I tried to photograph one of the ice slides from the bottom, a worker appeared in the shot and snatched at my phone, almost managing to grab it out of my hands. I’m not very friendly to somebody trying to grab a 700$ phone out of my hands, and replied in a knee jerk reaction “Yo, fuck you!” I was told I wasn’t allowed to photograph, standing 5 feet away from 3 different Chinese men snapping away pictures. I figured it would be best to just move on, logic wasn’t going to win here and this guy was familiar with the Fbomb.

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This guy is a douchebag

Don’t let my jadedness from this last leg of the trip skew just how magnificent the place was. The pictures I hope will give some credence to how beautiful it was, and the ice statues were bigger than most of the buildings in Harbin city. I unfortunately was there in the wrong mindset and circumstances, but hey, I’m writing my experience and this was it. I will say though, I’d have been upset if I missed it, it was Harbin’s most spectacular attraction.

The cab ride home was again a headache, the cab driver made us get out on the highway and switch to another cab where we were forced to pack in with other tourists. This cab driver kept trying to get us to go to another area of the city, and the Chinese tourists we were with couldn’t even get him to stop. Eventually he told us we’d arrived, but upon getting out we realized he’d lied. We said our goodbyes to the couple, who happened to live ten minutes away from us in Beijing, and went to get a late dinner. I’ve realized something about Harbin, it is a very difficult city to eat in. Either the restaurants are all kitchen style, and small and dodgy with Chinese only menus, or they’re upscale and expensive with poor service. It was very hard during our stay here to find a happy medium that wasn’t a fast food chain. We stumbled onto a little place called The Dumpling King, and found it. The food was good for what it was, and it was quick affordable and easy. It helped after the stressful day.

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As we left, many of the locals were burning fake money to honor and give as thanks to their deceased relatives. In Beijing they are forced to burn paper or cardboard, and anything resembling RMB is illegal. Here though, they were burning large bundles at a time of parody RMB, which was also being sold on the streets. I’m not sure if it isn’t a law up here or it just isn’t enforced, but the tradition is always interesting, and in a weird way cute to see as long as you avoid the chemical smoke that comes off of the fires.

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DAY 4

To be honest, our fourth day in Harbin really wasn’t worth writing about. We had just enough time to kill that we had to find something to do, and not enough time to really begin anything worthwhile; not to mention anything we did do would have to be done while carrying all of our luggage. So we did what any other sensible people would do; we found the nearest place with both coffee and free wifi. After waiting it out at a Starbucks, we made our train and headed home on an overnight trip. This train ride our tickets were soft sleepers, meaning we had padded beds instead of hard beds or padded chairs. There were four beds to each compartment, arranged in a double bunk bed fashion. Our compartment had one empty bunk, holding just us on the bottom two bunks and a middle aged woman above us. She smelled funky and kept telling us she had a fever and a head ache, asking if we could switch beds. We told her no each time, and when that didn’t work she called her friend and told them in Chinese she didn’t want to sleep on the top bunk. It was awkward because I don’t think she knew we could understand her that well. Eventually she complained to one of the workers and was switched to a new compartment. Some advice to any foreigners, unless you are taking an overnight train just get a soft seat; it’s cheaper and you’re not going to be put with somebody who smells, coughs and sneezes towards to you, and who in general will not leave you alone because of your novelty as a foreigner.

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