“Sipping a beer beneath a giant red Lenin flag, flanked by an equally large poster of Jimi Hendrix and watching a six foot, topless Chinese transsexual doing stand-up comedy, it’s hard to escape the notion that Haerbin is an unusual place.”
Eighteen hours after leaving Beijing on a hard-sleeper train (actually, pretty comfortable, once you’ve got used to the lack of mattresses in China) and we were in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, the northernmost province in China.
Every January, they hold a festival of ice sculptures and it’s well worth seeing, as long as you’re prepared for some extreme cold.
We got off the train and the first breath we took made each of us cough, as the cold hit our lungs.
Everyone makes the same mistake with their second breath. They breathe through their nose. Bad move! Everything up there freezes. I mean everything.
I can’t describe the sensation, other than by saying it’s the most wrong thing I’ve ever experienced.
So what do you breathe through, I hear you ask? The answer is, your scarf.
The city’s great. It was once part of Russia and the centrepiece is the Orthodox cathedral of St Sophia. It’s got a vibe that makes you want to stay.
When night falls, the ice sculptures come to life, lit in vibrant colour from inside and out.
As the temperature dropped to -30C, we headed off across the frozen Songhua River, leaving the visitors who had gathered for the ice festival fading into the illuminated distance behind us.
We were making for the north bank, which was the source of more multi-coloured lights.
By the time we reached the north bank, about 20 minutes later, our hair had frozen solid, our eyebrows had frozen and your eyelashes had frozen.
When we closed our eyes, they started to freeze shut. You had to rub your gloves together to generate some heat, and then press them to your eyes to get the open without plucking all your eyelashes out.
In fact, there was nothing much to see on the north side at night. The city sits almost entirely on the south side.
I’ve no regrets about going there though, it was just nice to spend an hour or so getting away from the crowds, walking across a frozen river and back.
Clambering up the bank, back into the hubbub of the city, we made our way to the Ice Festival itself. I’m going to let the pictures speak for that. Superb!
Strange nights without hot beer
Sipping a beer beneath a giant red Lenin flag, flanked by an equally large poster of Jimi Hendrix and watching a six foot, topless Chinese transsexual doing stand-up comedy, it’s hard to escape the notion that Haerbin is an unusual place.
Later in the evening, a Chinese taxi driver will become inexplicably angry with my friend Dan and charge at him wielding a tyre iron, but I don’t know that yet.
Dan will slip on the ice in a manner which, fortuitously, will cause him to bring the angsty taxi driver to the ground and land on top of him.
Like I said, a strange place, but somewhere we all fell instantly in love with. Go to one of the Russian restaurants and try the mashed potato. Unbelievable!
They also have proper bread in the Russian restaurants. You won’t believe how much you miss proper bread. The Chinese insist on making it sweet.
By the time we’d arrived at the Blues Bar, with its topless transsexual comedian, we were frozen.
Thanks to Steve, we’d wasted valuable time and body temperature wandering around the darkened city looking for a place that sold the local speciality ‘hot beer’ …
Before we realised he’d been lying to us. They don’t serve hot beer and we’d managed to confuse staff at most of the city’s bars by asking in broken Chinese of their beer was hot.
You’ll have fun in Haerbin in January, but really do prepare for the cold. If you don’t, you’ll not be able to enjoy it.
I was wearing a base layer, a pair of fleece-lined thermal long-johns (I’ve only seen these in China, but you can pick them up for a bargain price – a little restrictive, but so warm!), my combats, two thermals, two fleeces and my jacket stretched to bursting point on top of the lot.
Anything less is reckless!