My Winter Travels, Part 1: Harbin

Harbin Picasa Photo Album
I began my trip by visiting the city of Harbin, Heilongjiang Province (in northeast China). I went there with Josh, Chad & Krystal, some of the other ELT Edge teachers at my school. We took a night train from Beidaihe (the closest train station to the school) to Harbin on January 8th. Usually when we take a long night train, we buy sleeper tickets. That way you get a bed to sleep on during the long train ride. It's much better than being stuck in a hard seat with tons of other people, where it's impossible to sleep. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get sleeper tickets--Beidaihe is a minor stop and there simply weren't any available. So the trip started out on a bad foot...taking a 13 hour train ride overnight without getting any sleep.

When we got to Harbin, some students met us. We didn't know them before, but they were friends of another student of Josh's who is from Harbin (but that student wasn't in Harbin to meet us). Their English wasn't very good, but they were very helpful...they found us a place to stay that only cost us 17.50 RMB per night each (that's a little more than $2!).

Harbin is a decent big city in its own right, but most big Chinese cities feel pretty much the same--when you've seen one, you've seen 'em all (there are exceptions, of course, such as Beijing). So the city of Harbin doesn't really have a lot to offer the traveler...except for an annual event that was our entire reason for visiting: the Ice Lantern Festival. Harbin is justifiably famous for this. I had seen pictures before going, but it was definitely worth visiting and seeing the festival in person. There were actually two separate parts to the festival: the ice sculptures and the snow sculptures. The first night we went to the ice sculptures. It was pretty pricey to get in (150 RMB for the full price, or 75 RMB for the student discount), but it was well worth it. The ice sculptures were made out of blocks of ice, with electric lights embedded in them to make them look very beautiful. Most of the sculptures were of different buildings (which you could actually walk in, and even walk up to a 2nd floor!), but there were plenty of other sculptures as well. In addition, they had several places set up where you could do fun things like ride an inner tube down a slope or slide down an ice slide. Here are some pictures of the ice sculptures:


Amazing, eh?




It was very easy to get lost in this maze!


Pretty much everything was decorated, including the trees.


This is Krystal, on one of the slides.


The next day we went to the snow sculptures. They were less impressive than the ice sculptures, but still very cool. They had a few large sculptures of things like buildings, and then lots of smaller ones that individual artists had done. Here's a couple of them:



This was one of my favorites. Josh is standing in back.



A snow building. You could go inside, and the interior was all snow, too.

Harbin also has a tiger preserve that we visited. It was a bit like a zoo, but they took you around in a bus/van into these large fenced areas with lots of tigers, lions and ligers (yes, ligers are real. They weren't just made up for Napoleon Dynamite). Some pictures...


Ahhh! I'm being eaten alive!


One of the tigers jumped on top of a jeep a park employee was driving.


This Cheetah scared the crap out of me the first time it jumped. I was right up against the fence and it jumped right up in front of me. The second time, I caught it on video :).

Harbin has a heavy Russian influence since it's so close to the Russian border. Many of the common souvenirs we found were things you commonly associate with Russia. One of the streets is commonly called "Russian Street" because it has some buildings with Russian architecture and has so many Russian souvenir shops. Harbin also has a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church:

This is St. Sophie's Church. Unfortunately, it's only a tourist attraction now. No one worships here.

After spending 3 days in Harbin, we took the train back to Qinhuangdao. Luckily, we were able to get sleepers for the train ride back, so it was much more comfortable than the ride to Harbin. I spent a couple of days in Qinhuangdao before leaving again for the rest of the trip, so Harbin was essentially a completely separate leg of the trip.

One other thing I forget to mention above: Harbin was incredibly cold, as you can imagine based on seeing the ice and snow sculptures that don't melt during the Ice Lantern Festival. I think it was less than 0° F every day we were there. During my time there, I wore as many layers of clothes as I could fit on: 3 pairs of thick socks, 2 pairs of long johns (including a pair of super-thick Chinese long johns) and a pair of jeans on bottom, 6 layers on top, a ski hat, a scarf and mittens. One day I tried to put on 4 pairs of thick socks, but I couldn't get my feet in my shoes, so I had to abandon that. Even with all those layers, I still got cold. But it was worth it to see the ice & snow sculptures :).

Next, I traveled with some friends to the tropical island of Hainan.
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Husband and father, musician, software engineer at SEOmoz, open source developer specializing in Ruby and Rails, world traveler and Christian.