Harbin – harbinger of numbness

Departed from Beijing University’s Global Village at about 6pm. Made my way to the Beijing Railway Station, 取票’d (picked up the tickets), and filled gate A8’s last two remaining seats among a group of six or seven men from 山东 (Shandong). As their lack of annunciation and thick dialect made them terribly difficult to understand, I was forced to hire a young Chinese woman to translate to Mandarin (普通话) for me. The main Shan Dong-er, a 52-year-old man sporting a crisp red-star hat was waiting for his 11pm train back home for the Spring Festival and 提’d (brought to the conversation) mild topics such as America’s affinity for starting wars and Obama’s malevolent disposition.

Boarded my first night train (夜车). Front car seats. Paired in a quad-bunk room with a 20-year-old couple from 太原, 山西, we shared photos, stories of our college experiences, plans for the Spring Festival (they were on their way to Harbin to see the Snow and Ice World for the first time), and a 山西特色 (a specialty from their hometown)–delicious sweet sugar-coated nuts and beans. Bunk 28. I stayed awake until about 9pm and made a decent impression in “Warped Passages,” a new astrophysics book by Lisa Randall, before succumbing to the gentle roar of friction as it clutched the steaming rails of our icy locomotive. Woke up intermittently in the night to the strobing lights of other trains speeding back towards Beijing. Murky darkness ruptured by a blaze of fleeting light, thunderous overtones of aerodynamics prevailing over blustering arctic winds, and the treble-less melody brought back memories of Interstellar, its Endurance piercing the event horizon and entering Gargantua.

6am. A crewmember opened our door, turned on the lights, and asked for our tickets, saying we would arrive in about 40 minutes. The sun rose in fiery brilliance, light from the scarlet star and purple sky dispersing and refracting as it collided with our window, varnished by a thick sheet of ice. Stories of temperatures in Harbin reaching 40 below zero circulated the train, prompting us to add a few layers to our outfits, now nearing unable-to-walk-properly levels of thickness. I had a long stare out of the Western window—Siberian-like tundra, gusts of snow and smoke rising from towns buried deep within the hinterlands of Northern China—and thought of my high school classmates, their migrations back to St. Louis for Christmas break, and their families awaiting their return, before stepping off of Car 2 into Harbin Central Train Station’s outdoor terminal. Harbin, first impressions: 0-30 seconds: Hmm, it’s not that cold; must be overrated. 30-60 seconds: I didn’t know it was possible to choke on air. 60-90 seconds: The inside of my nose is officially frozen…

Sunrise over 黑龙江 (Heilongjiang)
Sunrise over 黑龙江 (Heilongjiang)

Baroque architecture, plumes of smoke rising from every pair of lungs fighting for breath, and hoards of taxi drivers waiting to rip off foreigners desperate to escape the cold. Harbin, once a multi-ethnic fishing town, was eventually discovered and developed by south-eastern Russians as a midpoint market town for commerce between northern China and Russia; a massive rail system, European-looking buildings, and a large Jewish community. If you’re suffering from a severe case of lethargy, Harbin is not the place for you. As it turns out, negative temperatures and pounds of dense clothing can drain every ounce of tourist out of you, no matter how 3rd generation-American you are.

Relishing the warmth of a heated taxi, I made my way to the Bremen Inn, inches from 中央大街, Harbin’s Main Street, where the cherry-wooden furniture and odd staff uniforms are exactly what you would expect from any Chinese wannabe ski resort transported into an urban setting. Headed quickly to a disappointing breakfast consisting of numbered eggs (I have no idea), bread, and an eggplant-animal-heart dish, and then immediately to a much-needed 3-hour nap in the “Lover’s Suite” (cheapest accommodation on the menu). After a bit of investigation, I am now almost positive that the only difference between the regular room and the Lovers’ Suite is that the latter comes with two fake rose pedals, is about 180RMB (≈30USD) cheaper, and makes you feel slightly more uncomfortable when the staff sees your receipt. Fair trade, I’d say.

Woke up for an afternoon stroll down 中央大街. Layered up, back into the fray. Cobblestone roads, 热闹 crowds, Euro-esque colonial buildings, and several ice and snow sculptures lining the sidewalks, the street’s vivid energy pervaded its artful environs. Sculptures ranged from giant snow cherubs to a Coca-Cola bear made of ice (Coca-Cola has a factory in Harbin). Candied hawthorn-pineapple-grape-strawberry stick in hand, I observed a slower pace of life than dominates Beijing, and admired the lovely European statues of angels and classical figures, of course backed by stately architectural street corners.

Russian-European Colonial-Style Architecture
Russian-European Colonial-Style Architecture

Lunch at the Russian Café, the former home of a wealthy Russian woman, a hole in the wall that doubled as the “Museum of Russian History in Harbin.” Its inside sported black-and-white photos of early 20th century Harbin, recognized Russian inhabitants of the town, and several cases of Russian-influenced china (not the country, the ceramic), grandfather clocks, and portraits. Despite a food safety rating of C (a red, frowning face on a placard hidden behind a few struggling ferns), the delicious Russian meatballs and black-pepper mashed potatoes tasted exactly as what I expected Russian food to taste like. On my way out after a satisfying meal, I befriended a local Harbiner, who happened to be a tour guide—deus ex machina—, under the impression that I was French until the end of our conversation. When I asked directions to the Cathedral of Saint Sofia, the largest cathedral in Southeast Asia, she (suspiciously?) asked why I was interested in going to a cathedral, but nevertheless told me where it was, just a few blocks away.

Just enough blocks to completely lose feeling in my extremities… Finally made it to 索菲亚’s 教堂, a compact, yet impressively majestic dome-topped church, and, with a 50% student discount, entered the warm museum for just 20 RMB. Harbin’s notably excellent indoor heating offered a heavenly toe-thawing retreat. The inside of the cathedral stands elegant in its age, with fading walls and elderly chandeliers. Its peeling pastel paint gives way to a busy museum of photographs—documentation of Russia’s introduction to Harbin in the late 19th century through the railway connecting Vladivostok to China’s northernmost province. Leasing about 50,000 hectares of land from the Chinese, Russia soon established its influence in the previously agricultural village, turning its fields to young urbanity, and its dirt roads to horse-carriage-carrying stone. Surrounding St. Sofia circles a rotunda of the railway, a bringer of Russian civilians to the town. Influenced by Russian life and architecture, the town has taken on the Russian language (seen on most street signs accompanying Chinese, spoken fluently by several Chinese locals, and suspected in most Western-looking foreigners (i.e. me)), food (my lunch), customs, and (as mentioned) architectural style.

St. Sofia Cathedral, Harbin - Exterior/Interior
St. Sofia Cathedral, Harbin – Exterior/Interior

Reading all the photo captions made me more aware of my Chinese lingual progress this past semester. Excited to have juxtaposed the pictures of early-20th century Harbin with my experience of it that day, I eagerly looked up land, contract, and political language in my Chinese dictionary apps to better interpret photo captions. Exhausted by the cold (and probably also end of school), I left the cathedral around 3:30pm to find the sun almost at its setting conclusion. Trotting back to the main street before numbness returned to my toes, I found a Starbucks on the main road (one of many Western shops, mixed with Russian and 风味 (local flavor) restaurants) and enjoyed hot drinks and pastries. Also indulged in a locally popular “vanilla cream lolly”… essentially a stick of butter.

Back to the room by 5pm; felt like midnight. Seeking options to view the internationally renowned Ice and Snow Festival, I found a hotel employee at her desk selling tickets. After asking if there was any discount for students, she hesitated before saying that most foreign students are exempt from such discounts, but once I argued I was studying in China, she made a call and confirmed that it would be all right. Result: half-priced tickets… again!!

Alarm at 7. Woke up at 10. Eyes drooping, but prepared for lights and white. Documented the layering of my outfit and mentally prepared for the day’s high of -13°C. Again on 中央大街, the ice sculptures of dancers, ribbons, decorative ornaments, and a massive snow tree (~30 feet high) glistened in early sun and leaked their glowing translucence, just to be frozen over again by icy wind. Asking around for directions to bus route 29’s bus stop (the line circling to the festival and back), I finally encountered an elderly woman and her granddaughter, walking home from the last day of school. The grandmother told me her apartment was right next to the bus stop at the end of the street so she would accompany me there. In a serendipitous connection, I learned from her about Harbin, the more locally popular sights (Ice and Snow World gets repetitive after a while to those who’ve seen it 20+ times), best eateries, and her own life in Harbin. About a mile later, we arrived at the main bus stop center, and although in the vicinity, she persisted in asking several nearby officials to make sure I knew precisely where to stand for the bus before taking her six-year old up for an afternoon with grandma.

Soon swiveling around the corner came bus 29, a charging double-decker. The first in line, I skipped up to the second deck, and enjoyed an outstanding viewing ground for the drive to Sun Island.

Rode for 30 minutes and crossed the frozen, unwieldy Songhua River (松花河), littered with tire tracks, daring pedestrians, and even more audacious locals, out for a drive on the precarious ice. Made it to the Sun Island bus stop, sweaty from the bus ride. 2-mile walk down a snow-packed, deserted road to the entrance of the “27th International Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival.” Strange North Korean/Chernobyl-esque feeling of traversing tracts of land, once lively, now marooned. Passed a colossal, abandoned launch facility, its massive cylindrical concrete frame nearly hidden by the haze of blowing snow (was curious as to the nature of its projectiles).

While the Festival, located in the middle of Sun Island Park, boasted fantastic, larger-than-life snow sculptures, it was relatively poorly attended, perhaps because I arrived in the interim between its opening celebration and main, Chinese New Year Vacation attendance period. I enjoyed snow sculptures of famous Disney characters, Despicable Me minions, angels, eagles, spectacular interpretive contemporary art, and breathtaking renditions of classical pieces with modern twists—one sculpture entitled “Genesis”, nearly 10×25 meters in size, depicted Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of God reaching for the hand of Adam, only to replace Adam with a hazmat mask-wearing robot, supposedly indicating that artificial intelligence would inevitably surpass human capability. Further into the park. Newton, Adam and Eve, cruise ships, firemen, packs of wolves, a huge, 50 meter-long slide, and a life-size replica of the Kremlin. All made of snow. I ran though man-made snowstorms, dashed under ice-bridges, and navigated forests of crystallized trees. While the park no-doubt maintained a magical atmosphere, often manifested was an underlying feel of depression. Other than being located on the rather forsaken-feeling side of Harbin, the festival held more than a few malnourished animals, sleigh dogs and reindeer in particular, as well as multiple rusting ice-bicycles, abandoned food stands, music left on from the opening ceremony weeks before still echoing from speakers clinging to an empty stage, and one small boy having the time of his life, the only attendee of a go-kart race on ice, careening around its barren track.

Entrance to the Snow Sculpture Expo
Entrance to the Snow Sculpture Expo

Back to Bremen Inn for a quick thaw. Hit the Russian Café for lunch. Recognized by the staff as the westerners from the day before, I soon befriended two waiters, one from Inner Mongolia and one a native of Harbin. Telling them of my experience at Beida and the process of learning Chinese, I was flattered–and somewhat surprised–to have been recognized from CCTV by the girl running the cash register. In an amicable gesture, the restaurant staff prepared for me a free bag of cookies and a refill of hot water for the nighttime (really afternoon, without the sun) journey back to Sun Island.

Clutching my steaming canteen, I soaked up the last ounces of heat I could before taking on Harbin’s legendary nighttime temperatures. 冰雪大世界. Welcome to the Ice and Snow World. After months of preparation, packing in clothes, and packing on pounds, I had arrived. 4pm; deep-black sky. Danced for a few minutes in awe at my arrival before embarking on a path to conquer the enormous ice kingdom.

Planned a counter-clockwise route through the park, first venturing towards the tallest climbable ice-castle in the park and winding my way up to the top. Atop the massive frosted structure, wind smashing into my face, I looked out over the black north side of Sun Island, roaring with mystery and frozen desolation, and imagined where I’d be without one of the infinite multiplicity of factors that led to my being there. Moved on to an ice maze. Four-foot walls made of solid ice, each frozen around a burning neon light that illuminated its fractures with brilliant colors. Slick enough to skate in tractive boots. Next, to a giant fish made of metal beams. Entering at the tail end of the fish, I assimilated into the line that formed inside its belly. 30 minutes of numbness. Huddled together with fish-slide-awaiting Chinese, I received more than a few mumbles and looks from locals telling their friends that white people were in fact present in China. Ascended the ice steps up to the mouth of the ice slide that extended out of the mouth of the fish. While the unfortunate family in front of me, who had decided to wear rubber-exterior pants, stuck to the ice slide and ended up walking their way down, I had gone with the classic, made-in-China nylon pants, affording me a speedy delivery out of the giant red fish’s mouth and back into the blizzard. Ran past a Mongolian yurt restaurant and over to a log cabin to defrost. Ordered a cup of hot tea. I have never come so close to pouring a beverage on my body for warmth. The old woman who owned the cabin walked outside in a T-shirt and jeans to pour a tin of hot water in the forest, unfazed by the presumably immediate frostbite she incurred. Out again and over to another ice castle, the “Fairy Princess Castle,”—just my type—and up to its icy peak. Meandering around the snow-dusted ground, I came across an ice replica of the Greek Parthenon, a full-sized ice locomotive, a museum dedicated to Heineken beer (made entirely of ice of course), and a 50×50 foot snow sculpture of three rams (yes, the animal–a reference to the Chinese New Year of the Ram). Over to a fenced-off courtyard that held the ice sculpting festival champions’ works. One in particular, sculpted by the Latvian team, depicted a child in its mother’s womb wearing a gas mask. The Chinese placard explained its symbolism: a mother’s contamination of the health of her unborn children through substance abuse. Observing several other international carved ice pieces, I came to the city’s central ice spire, bursting with neon color, anchored to the ground by thick wire tethers. Adjacent to the spire was a stage being conducted by the booming voice of a Chinese DJ, surrounded by a crowd of hundreds dancing in circles in the falling snow. At stage right sat the world’s largest snow Buddha, a little over 82 feet (25 meters) tall, illuminated in yellow brilliance, overseeing his wintery domain. At stage left, the 2015 Harbin art exhibition housed two floors of comfortable temperatures and a slightly less comfortable fashion show that started just in time for me to leave. A final stroll as close to the Songhua as I could travel took me past dark, snowy woods, even more abandoned ice go-kart rinks (although this festival was better attended), and an avenue of fire-lit Chinese lanterns before returning to the Bremen for the speed-packing that would soon be so familiar.

World's Largets Snow Buddha - 25m/82ft tall
World’s Largets Snow Buddha – 25m/82ft tall

Four in the morning. Departure day. After a few hours of rest, I strolled towards the Bremen Inn front desk, suitcase rolling behind me, eyes rolling back into bed. The lack of managerial presence surprised me, but given the time, it shouldn’t have. Harbin: where an open front door, and empty front desk, and an easily accessible cash register requires a security team of one: a sleeping, barefoot, mid-twenties Harbin-er in a Russian maid’s jumper. I reached towards the bell on the unattended front desk.how many deuses can one machina have? “要退房吗?” I jumped, swinging around and squinting into the dark corner of the room. “Checking out?” a voice said again in groggy, North-Eastern Chinese as the Hotel sentinel rose from her slumber on an adjacent couch and took my room key.

“Are there taxis available outside at four in the morning?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“Outside.”

“If I can’t find a taxi, can I come back here and get some help?”

“No.”

Throwing open a loosely hinged front door, out I stepped into the subfreezing gusts of Harbin, expecting to see the tranquil tributary of Daoli District’s “Central Big Street” uninhabited. Instead, waves of public service street sweepers in reflective neon yellow jumpsuits patrolled the gutters with bamboo fitted shafts sweeping molecules into empty dust receptacles, clearly underpaid for the temperatures they were being forced to endure. Truly the most fascinating city in China.

Fortunately, across the street was parked a cab still humming from its last expedition. Arriving just in time to catch the driver entering REM levels of slumber, I knocked on the passenger window until the familiar feel of numbness returned to my knuckles, before the driver was shaken from his dormancy.

The driver propped himself up, burying his head in his hands and rubbing the comfort off of his face. And what to his wondering eyes did appear, but a persistent “western bastard” (美国佬儿) freezing outside his bedroom window. He waved me off and rolled back over, preparing to embrace sweet serenity once more. Apparently he had forgotten the meaning of persistence. Hurdled back to the icy perdition outside by another, more forceful knock, he let out a sharp cry and flung himself to the window.

A few miserably long minutes of begging and denial brought me to the cold reality that he was, in fact, unavailable. At the next intersection, however, I was met by a taxi almost immediately upon arrival, loaded my case into his radiating trunk/engine-housing compartment and sped off into the dark side streets of Western Harbin.

Though I was informed by the Bremen staff-of-one that the drive to Harbin West Station would take approximately forty minutes, she had obviously never met 杨师傅. With die-hard, half-conscious determination, the driver made the trip to West Station an exceptional sojourn, doubling the speed limit down backlit construction paths, barreling up one-way roads on bald tires, and even running every red light! Arriving curbside at Harbin West Railway Station in 16 minutes, I walked into the extravagant entrance hall at 4:20am, the only presence of life in its massive underground halls. Making my way through security, again woken up by my rolling luggage (given the number of people I had woken up between 3 and 5 AM that day already, I was starting to feel like I was making a name for myself among Harbin’s night-shift workforce), I found my seat beside gate A8 a mere two hours before the train’s scheduled departure. First one here!

The train woke from slumber and ignited in locomotion. 13 below. The sun shimmered over a frozen horizon and set out to conquer the gelid reigns of night. Flecks of light emerged across fields of darkness. A lone farmer carrying a kerosene lantern meandered a winding dirt road in a distant field. Frosted pastures acquiesced to dawn’s imbuing rays and smoke began to rise from the flues of local dwellings, soundless, nestled under blankets of snow.

Back to Beijing.

Barren Land and Fiery Star - Departure Day Sunrise
Barren Land and Fiery Star – Departure Day Sunrise

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