CSA Trip to Harbin
It’s been a little while since I last wrote a blog, so I thought what better way to end ‘the blog drought’ than by writing about my recent CSA trip to Harbin in North-East China.
For those of you who are perhaps unfamiliar with Harbin, it’s a small city of ten million people (this is small by Chinese standards), which lies in Manchuria – North East China. This part of China is renowned for its warm summers but bitterly cold winters with temperatures plummeting to about -20ºC daytime average and approximately -30ºC nighttime average. When you couple a bitterly cold winter with hundreds of Chinese army soldiers with not a lot to do, you get the perfect recipe for one of the most spectacular festivals you can ever experience - the Harbin Ice Festival. What started in the 1980’s as the army building a few ice and snow sculptures for the public to marvel at, has turned into a full-blown international spectacle where Harbin can celebrate its international heritage via a display of some of the worlds most majestic ice sculptures and snow exhibits.
Since coming to China almost two years ago I’ve always wanted to visit Harbin, so imagine my excitement when I got the go ahead to run a CSA trip there. A total of 13 people (including myself) decided to make the journey North-East. Nimbly fending off the usual dose of ‘China problems’ (a fever, a missed train, and a lost ticket), we finally got on our way to Harbin. While those might sound like pretty serious issues, everything was very easily rectified and out turned out to be another day in the CSA office when it comes to sorting out our student’s problems.
Mishaps out of the way, we were finally ready to go and party in the snow, we decided to spend our first evening checking out the Zhao Lin Park (兆麟公园). This quaint little park located in downtown Harbin is where the ice festival first began back in the 1980’s. It costs just 20RMB to get in if you have a Chinese student card and is jam-packed full of ice sculptures, ice mazes and even an ice slide.
The next day was a little more action packed with visits to the fantastic ‘Sun Island’ (太阳岛) and the Harbin Tiger Sanctuary (东北老虎园). Sun Island, despite its name, is actually freezing cold, on the plus side though, it provides visitors the ability to rent out sledges and basically go totally crazy on any of the ice themed rides. Cue everybody finding an even bigger ice slide and reliving their childhood snow filled nostalgia. The tiger sanctuary in contrast, was a calmer affair, which involved our group taking a winter safari through the park in the back of a prison’esk-caged bus (for our protection of course). As the bus weaved its way through a multitude of different enclosures, our group was treated to the sights of tigers (in all different shapes, sizes and breeds) enjoying life in their purpose built sanctuary. Sadly, things got a little more ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom like’ when some members of our group chipped in and purchased a live chicken which promptly became very ‘not alive’ after being introduced the to tiger enclosure by the local gamekeeper. While the casual reader may revel is disgust, this is actually a very common money making activity many Chinese zoos employ to boost revenues, so we ask you to disapprove of the system rather than the act itself. Nonetheless I was glad to have not directly bought into this sought of commercialism, I should also point out the tigers did seem pretty content despite the gawking of foreign tourists.
I’m not so sure about the chickens though.
Sunday saw the busiest day yet as we visited Harbin’s bustling ‘Central Street’ (中央街) and its famous Russian style church located right in the heart of the city. The church, which was abandoned after World War Two, now serves a museum documenting Harbin’s origins and pre war years. The following afternoon the group and myself were left in awe as we visited Harbin’s fantastic Ice and Snow World theme park (冰雪大世界) where we were treated to a array of multicolored buildings made completely out of ice as well as lots of free activities such as ice sledging, ice biking and archery etc.
The next day, which was to be our final day in Harbin, was significantly quieter affair, although no less interesting. Nestled in-between a highway and an engineering university lies the tranquil ‘Temple of Bliss’ (极乐寺) which serves as one of the largest temples in North-East China. The temple is still in use, meaning it has actual Buddhist monks living there, making it a refreshing change from the scores of other temples I’ve visited during my time in China. Finally, I took the tour group on a 30km journey south to view perhaps one of the most tragic scenes the group, China and I have ever experienced. The Unit 731 museum marks the one of the 20th century’s most forgotten war crimes. From the years 1931 – 1945, the Japanese conducted cruel experiments on the local population and prisoners of war all in the name of ‘science’. Although I won’t go into the details in this blog, between 10 – 150 thousand people are estimated to have died at the facility during its 14 years in operation. To make matters worse, almost all of the facility’s scientists and administrators escaped prosecution at the war after an American amnesty was issued in exchange for the data collected from such horrific experimentation. Although museum was actually closed during our visit, we were able to get inside the facility to review its remains and pay our respects to those who died there.
After returning to the hostel it was finally time to leave, so with a hearty meal in our stomachs for just ¥22 RMB per person (that’s less than $5USD) we boarded our sleeper train back to Beijing, thus bringing an awesome trip to a close.