Spring Festival celebrations continued well in to the first day of the year of the tiger. After enjoying far too much of the local tipple baijiu, a sorghum fermented paint stripper, I was hoping for a good few hours of sleep before catching my train to Harbin, the first destination of my week’s vacation. If I thought the constant firework and firecracker explosions would cease with the start of the new year, I was rudely mistaken. Even before sunrise, they had started again, and they continued until lunch. There was little chance of catching up on my sleep.
I was hoping the hassle of buying train tickets over the hectic Spring Festival period was going to be worth it. Harbin, meaning ‘a place for drying fishing nests’ in the old Manchu language, is located in the far north reaches of China and has a long and colourful Russian heritage. Many Russians and Jews sought refuge here during the Russian Civil War. Even though the Russian population has dwindled to nothing, and the last Jew reportedly died in 1984, there are still plenty of opportunities to eat traditional Russian sausages and buy typical Russian nesting dolls. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the heritage, food nor souvenirs that was Harbin’s main draw. It was the chance to see the world famous ice and snow festivals that are held here at the beginning of every year.
Harbin is an incredibly cold place. In the midst of winter, temperatures can drop to as low as minus forty degrees Celsius. With such coldness, it makes for the perfect place to hold ice and snow festivals, festivals where some of the sculptures near ten stories in height. By mid February the coldest of the winter temperatures were past, meaning more bearable day time temperatures of minus fifteen degrees Celsius could be enjoyed.
Located next to each other across the Songhua River from the centre of Harbin, the ice and snow festivals by day are impressive. But by night the 15,000 plus LED lights bring the sculptures alive in a magnitude of dazzling colours. Walking around in the coldness with a woolly hat and red cheeks left me resembling more of a frigid gnome than a tourist. Imagine my delight then when I came across a bus offering people a free taxi service to the main ice sculpting arena. I didn’t think twice about handing over the ice sculpting entrance fee and not being given my ticket in return. Everyone else was doing the same! But I don’t think everyone else expected the driver to try and lose everyone in the crowds when we arrived at our destination. With the speed and manoeuvring ability of a cheetah, he was soon nothing but an angry memory.
My fellow Chinese tourists were furious. I didn’t understand their anger filled words, but I can only gather they were thinking of ways of how to retrieve their money back. There are some excellent professional conmen out there who will never be caught. Then there are those that probably went to ‘special’ school and still depend on their mothers for survival. Luckily our conmen was one of the latter. Quickly realising that at some point he would have to return to his bus, half of the group waited in ambush, while the other half went in search of a member of the law-enforcing establishment.
It only took twenty minutes of waiting before our cunning plan worked. If people were already irritated at the ‘special’ conman’s cheek, then standing around for so long in temperatures touching minus twenty degrees Celsius meant the levels of rage were boiling out of control. He actually seemed immensely surprised to see us still waiting at his bus, expecting us to have cut our losses and forked out another small fortune again to enter the arena.
There was no chance of escape this time for the conman. He was immediately surrounded on all sides by snarling group members. After having the audacity to argue back that he was merely going to buy the tickets, the group could take no more and wrestled the conman to the ground. Two of the larger men sat on him, while a couple of mothers launched a barrage of abuse. Feeling slightly left out of this heated exchange of words, I felt it was only right to throw in my own annoyance. I walked up to the beaten conman who had given up the struggle of escape, and shouted, "I WANT MY TICKET, I WANT MY TICKET, I WANT MY TICKET," like a demented robot stuck on repeat.
I don’t know if it was the groups anger, or my irritating Chinese, but seconds later, the group frogmarched the conman to the ticket booth. He bought our tickets without a whimper, handed them over and disappeared in to the night to lick his wounds. It felt uplifting that a group of strangers could work together to overcome a villain with such ease. Then again he was probably the stupidest conman I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. No one cared that he was probably on his way to try the exact same trick with the next group on unsuspecting tourists. We all had our tickets and were ready to witness the best and biggest ice festival in the world.
Any negativity from recent episodes was soon lost when entering the ice sculpting arena. Adrenaline kept the plummeting night time temperatures at bay. A slight tongue twister, the theme for this years festival was, ‘splendid ice and snow architecture, and joyful people from around the world gathering together.’ It might not be the most perfect English sentence ever devised, but the sculptures in size, detail and grandeur easily made up for this. Towering, almost life-size models of The Forbidden City, The Empire State Building, an Egyptian Sphinx and The Taj Mahal stand side by side amongst hundreds of equally impressive ice sculptures.
With the ice festivals best by night, it meant there was plenty of time during the day to see the rest that Harbin has to offer. Alongside the longest pedestrianised street in Asia, Zhongyang Dajie (where you can buy any Russian souvenir imaginable), The Church of St Sophia (same style as its ice-cream coned sister churches in Moscow and St. Petersburg) and the impressive Ji Le Buddhist Temple, the only other attraction that jumped out was a Siberian Tiger Park.
With less than five hundred Siberian tigers in the wild, this Siberian Tiger Park is the main component in raising their numbers to a healthier level. With around eight hundred pure-bred formidable beasts living on three hundred and fifty five hectares, they are certainly doing a good a job at conserving their population.
The Chinese have a very intriguing way of raising capital for the tiger’s conservation. Not only are you led on a safari-like tour through various enclosures where around one-hundred of these animals are kept, but if you have the cash to splash, you can buy live animals to throw to them. This could explain why the tigers follow each tour bus like a grade A student follows his teacher’s mathematical equations. If you are tight with your money, then a live chicken costs only $7. The increasing price scale sees also pheasants ($15) and lambs ($75) for sale. For those wanting to hear some real muscle-tearing torturous action, the daddy of all purchases would be the cow. But for $225 you have to be slightly twisted or dedicated to the Siberian tigers survival to part with such sums of money. No money making opportunity is left unturned. You can have your photo taken with a real tiger skin, and you can buy alcoholic spirits soaked in tiger bones.
Some might say killing innocent live animals in the name of conservation is a sick, barbaric act of cruelty, but with the park breeding more of these tigers than in the wild, they must be doing something correct. I decided against making a ‘live animal’ purchase. A loving mother on my tour bus decided differently. Her pleading daughter’s words of, ‘please mummy, please can I throw a chicken to the tigers and watch it get ripped to shreds,’ obviously hit a nerve. Minutes later the chicken was in the young daughters hands as she threw it into the enclosure. Flapping wildly, the poor thing didn’t even have time to touch the ground. Three tigers pounced while it was still mid-air, ripping it to shreds before it could gasp it’s final breath.
After reaching the end of the park and seeing a few other big cats in small dilapidated enclosures, including two of the world’s ten ligers (so much for Napoleon dynamite thinking they were noting but mystical beasts!) there was nothing left to do in Harbin. So it was on to my next destination, Dandong; and the Chinese - North Korea border.