*trigger warning* this post contains stories about large, striped animals eating smaller, feathered animals; the latter were sent to their untimely deaths by well-intentioned tourists.
After Beijing I returned to Lanzhou for a week to celebrate the Lunar New Year, then headed back northeast to Harbin in Heilongjiang Province– one of the coldest regions of China. Why would a PCV take a vacation in 0°F temperatures when the rest of his cohort enjoys the beaches of Thailand for a few weeks of sunbathing?
See for Yourself:
Harbin has a unique culture that is found nowhere else in China. In the 19th century, a weakened Qing Dynasty could no longer secure its borders and by 1860 the land that is now Heilongjiang province was annexed by the Russian Empire.
For this reason, many of the century old buildings in Harbin are designed in a style that mimics what you could see in Moscow or St. Petersburg (there are also Russian dolls and Fabergé eggs sold all over the city that were clearly Made in China, and the Russian restaurants are tourist gimmicks at best).
St. Sofia Cathedral and its surrounding plaza are located in the heart of downtown Harbin. This cathedral is more of a museum now than a house of worship, but it has retained its Russian orthodox onion domes, gold crosses, and stained glass windows.
St Sofia Cathedral is the most permanent icon of Harbin, as the equally famous snow and ice sculptures are seasonal offerings… and the city’s other icon is a flash of orange and black stripes…
Siberian Tiger Reserve 东北老虎园
The Siberian Tiger Reserve is basically a zoo, home to only one species of animal – the Panthera tigris altaica – more commonly known as the Siberian Tiger. These felines are native to Manchuria/ the Korean Peninsula and thrive in cold winter weather. At the entrance of the tiger reserve, you can pick up tickets for a steel-clad bus tour of the park, and buy some snacks to feed the tigers:
These goodies include live chicken, live duck, and a live GOAT! (Small goat costs 1,200 RMB/ Large costs 1,500 RMB). I got the cheapest animal to feed the tigers- a live chicken for 60 RMB. I thought I would get to chuck the hen out of our bus by myself, but this is far too dangerous. Instead, halfway through our winter safari, a steel-clad SUV pulls up and ejects the live chicken through the sunroof.
Otherwise these tigers have been spoiled and mostly lounge around in heaps, sleeping off the meat that is handed to them on a daily basis.
Harbin Sun Island Snow Festival:
Sun Island is where the annual Snow Festival takes place. The festival takes advantage of the frigid weather here, and lasts from the first week of January to the last week of February- I’ve been told this year is unusually warm, but it was still below freezing every day, so i can’t imagine what the typical winter is like here. An entrance ticket is pricey by Chinese standards (around 320 RMB) but you get to spend the entire day walking around/ into/ under massive snow sculptures. And some of them are truly fantastic!
Paid 20 RMB to get a photo with a tranquilized fox/ dog/ furry creature. Please ignore my heavy duty purple gloves- my black leather gloves did not provide sufficient insulation, and had to pick between looking fashionable or losing all my fingers to frostbite.
The Frozen Songhua River 松花江
The mighty Songhua River is frozen solid from shore to shore in the winter months. It is in this river that the massive blocks of ice are mined to make the ice structures that are placed throughout the city.
The ice is so thick that I have seen SUVs casually parked in the middle of the river. There are dozens of activities to enjoy here, all for a small fee.
There were mules pulling carriages, huskies pulling sleds, ATVs pulling tubes, adults pulling children around on boards, ice skating, setting off fireworks at night (dangerous), and all sorts of other wintry nonsense.
Ice and Snow World 冰雪大世界
This is the showstopper of Harbin. After another pricey entrance ticket (450 RMB), I stepped into a dreamlike winter spectacle, where entire palaces and temples were recreated with blocks of cool blue ice. you could climb up the structures (which are several stories tall) and then slide down with a sled from a separate exit.
The temple of heaven that I adored so much in Beijing made an appearance, this time reinterpreted with a frosty blue glaze
Artists from around the world came to carve their creations into glass-like ice.
At night the entire park is lit up in LED colors in every shade of the rainbow.
It was visually stunning, overwhelming, and somewhat psychedelic, similar to what someone might hallucinate after chugging a half pint of Nyquil mixed with Vodka and RedBull. truly unforgettable
I packed winter Tretorn boots and wore three layers of socks every day. Even then my toes were cold. It was so cold that whenever I removed my gloves to take a photo, within 45 seconds my fingers would start to hurt from freezing temperatures. The iphone would occasionally shut off on its own from the cold. I also wore an inner layer of thick winter pants, and a heavy winter coat.
The roundtrip flight was insanely expensive – $500USD – but this was expected, given that I was visiting at peak season (Jan – Feb). Still it is a small price to pay for the once in a lifetime experience of dancing on a frozen river and spending a few days in the closest environment humans could create to Disney’s Frozen.