Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Harbin, part I - Subarctic Wonderland

Bryan, Angela and me left in a soft sleeper train to Harbin at 8:30PM last Thursday evening. Angela and my farewell to China as, within the previous week, we had suddenly decided to leave China for Italy. We had wanted to visit Harbin ever since we had arrived in China 30 months ago and, now, we were finally getting our chance. We had wanted to go to Harbin because of the Ice Festival held there every Winter (at least for the past eight Winters) and the spectacular ice sculptures and structures which would be on display.

The berths were comfortable, Angela and me shared a cabin with two mild-mannered young men who were returning home to Harbin, and Bryan shared another cabin with three Chinese dudes who were, before the train even left the station, cracking sunflower seeds, eating other unidentifiable animal matter, and drinking the king of beers, Budweiser. Once the train pulled out, we left our cabins and made our way to the dining car. I had a beer while Bryan flirted with the female police officer. Angela soon returned to her room as it had become a little too smoky for a pregnant woman. Bryan and I continued to talk with each other and with the staff, splitting one final beer before heading back to sleep.

Harbin - Russian QuarterWe were awoken at 6:30AM the next morning by the automated announcements of the train and learned that we would be arriving in Harbin shortly, so we roused ourselves, collected our things together, bundled up and waited for the train to slow to a stop. I was expecting snow and fierce wind, but the weather wasn't bad. There was hardly any snow on the ground, but it was cold. The three of us exited the station and quickly found a cab to take us to our hotel. On the way to the hotel, we noticed a few ice-sculptures in different locations, but none of the impressive sights we'd heard about. In fact, the city appeared to be quite dingy par for a Chinese city.

It was too early to check-in, not even 8AM yet, but we left our bags and went out walking. We were all hungry and sought somewhere to have a proper breakfast. Unfortunately, as we had wandered into the touristic Russian quarter, most of the eateries hadn't opened yet. It's actually possible to find a coffee shop in large cities in China, which is what we were looking for, but none of them were ever open early as they are in Western countries. We found a Russian tea house and were greeted by a St. Bernard, but the menu mainly consisted of lunch and dinner fare, of which it was still too early to consider eating. We left, crossed the street and sat down in a Chinese restaurant which was quite large and deserted. The music was loud and the horrible Chinese pop finally drove up to consider another alternative.

Harbin - Ice MazeAfter wandering around in the cold and feeling as if we were going to be denied in our search, we spotted a steamy-windowed Chinese restaurant on a corner near the river, entered, and decided to stay. The restaurant was not pretty with large patches of mold in the corners and streaking the walls. Bryan said, "you can smell the mold in the air," and we all could. The restaurant was full, though, but not crowded, with Chinese, and we looked over our options: a variety of baozi (steamed stuffed bread), corn or rice porridge, and a multitude of small cold side-dishes such as pickled vegetables and tofu. It looked great to us and for 10RMB the three of us gorged.

Harbin - St. Sophia's ChurchAfter about an hour or so, we left the mold restaurant and walked to the Flood Monument and the river to look around. There wasn't much to see, another one of China's super giant cities with not much to it, and we made our way back to the hotel to check-in and get some rest. On the way, we stopped at a small park which had a bunch of ice sculptures. It was completely deserted as most people visited these attractions in the evening when all of the lights were turned on, but still impressive. We moved on and came to another of the city's attractions. Under a muzak version of Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water blasting out of a speaker above the entrance, we came across this beautiful church, St. Sofia's, which has now been turned into a museum.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ciao Ragazzi,
I have been trying to write you since...mhhh...forever, and all of our e-mails to Angela's address were sent back. Then we remembered Bob's blog, and here we are. So it seems you are heading back to Italy: me and Marco are also leaving Taiwan (just for a month vacation) and will be home tomorrow. In case you are back in February, we hope to meet you or at least talk on the phone. How are you guys doing? La pancia???? And what the hell is going on with that e-mail address? I guess it might depend on Taiwan's earthquake, or maybe you just didn't have time to check it and it is full. Hope to hear from you soon! Ciao belli, fatevi sentire, altrimenti ci preoccupiamo. Baci baci,
Simona e Marco