Welcome to the future!
…or not. Fans of the Back to the Future film franchise were treated to a marvelous view of what the year 2015 might look like, complete with flying cars, self-drying clothes, and hoverboards. However, the arrival of the actual 2015 appears much different. In fact, it looks eerily similar to 2014 which likewise appeared eerily similar to 2013 (and so forth and so on). So where’s my future? Where are the hoverboards? Where are the flying cars? Where are the self-drying jackets?
For my most recent New Year’s celebration, my fiancé and some friends accompanied me to a small town in northeast China, Harbin. This town is so close to the Russian border, its restaurants might as well serve vodka instead of water. And it was so bitterly and excruciatingly cold, we had to purchase an entire wardrobe of sub-zero outdoor gear just so we wouldn’t freeze to death (self-drying jackets they were not, however, did the trick at any rate).
Why would anybody in their right mind voluntarily trek out to a place with such abominable conditions? Harbin is basically known for three things: the Snow and Ice Festival that takes place every winter, a Siberian Tiger Park reserve/zoo/farm (yet to be determined), and the St. Sophia Russian Orthodox Church (which is no long a church at all, a lesson learned the hard way).
Prior to China’s Cultural Revolution, Harbin was a bustling metropolis of Russian people, culture, food, architecture, clothing, and influence. Citizens and tourists could enjoy Borsht in the restaurants. They could attend Orthodox services on Sundays. They could even speak to each other in a language that wasn’t Chinese. Yet in the 1950s, the Russian population of Harbin began a mass exodus across the border. With them, their culture disappeared from northeast China. Nowadays, you can only experience the fumes of what once was, fumes that don’t compare to the full bottle. Overall, the city looks and feels like every other place in China we’ve visited so far.
Other than the cold, the most obvious difference from other places on the mainland is the attitude of Harbin’s citizens. Perhaps the cold brings out the worst in people, but we found them to be uber-aggressive; so aggressive in fact, that I believe them to have more in common with Turks than other Chinese ethnicities. Here’s something you may not be aware of: there are about 30 different ethnic groups with what westerners would refer to as ‘Chinese’, including (but not limited to) Mongols, Tibetans, Manchu, Han (the largest), and Taiwanese. Naturally, my theory could be completely off base and it may not be a racial issue, but one of ice water running through their veins.
One of the major indicators of this aggression seemed to be the taxi drivers’ lack of interest in stopping for just about anyone – other Chinese tourists included. We must have spent hours over the course of the weekend, just hanging out on freezing cold street corners, waiting for taxis to pick us up. A second indicator was on New Year’s Eve while out at a bar. Upon entering, we were immediately approached by three or four workers of the establishment who herded us to a table and then demanded almost $100 just for the benefit of sitting there! They got so close into our faces, I felt like we were back in Camden or New York. This wasn’t the respectful Asian culture I’ve come to know and love since living both here and in South Korea. Where the heck was I?
Which brings me to the church. Without a doubt the most magnificent structure in the city, the St. Sophia Church, was built in 1907 and used (appropriately) until the 1949 treaties between the USSR and China turned over all Russian churches to Chinese control. The Chinese government and people allowed this beautiful work of art to become a run-down relic of history; even the frescoes, mosaics, and crosses were destroyed and removed until the National Cultural Heritage Foundation declared the building an historical site in 1996 and began work to not only preserve what was left, but restore the elements that had been lost.
As of 1997, the church has been used as a very mediocre Municipal Architecture Museum, showcasing nothing more than a few dozen black and white photos of Harbin’s history.
I suppose touring churches, cathedrals, and mosques in the Middle East has spoiled me. The best thing about Sophia in Harbin was how the exterior was lit at night. It felt very Christmas-y. The shame is that Sophia is the final bit of evidence remaining of the Russian influence in the entire city. What is packaged and sold as the most unique atmosphere in all of China boils down to this one city square – very disappointing if you went in hoping to find a bit of old Europe.
Surprisingly, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip was the Siberian Tiger Park. Built over 350 acres of land, this combination park/zoo allows visitors to take bus rides through the reserve and then walk along cat-walks to get very close to these big jungle cats. For an additional fee, you can select some piece of livestock (chickens, cows, etc) to have handlers feed directly to the tigers, who rip them to shreds before your very eyes, while you look on in fascination, disgust, and horror. It’s all quite entertaining!
The Siberian tigers are on the endangered species list and the Chinese government would like to have you believe this park exists as a breeding ground to increase the magnificent animals’ numbers. However, the jury is still out on whether or not this park is anything more than a farm, whose purpose is to raise these tigers simply to slaughter them and sell their pelts for coats and rugs, and their bones to make Chinese tiger–bone wine (meant to improve virility in old men). Sigh…
The centerpiece of our trip was the Snow and Ice Festival where artisans craft monuments out of snow and ice (duh) that reach up to three stories high. Enormous blocks of ice are carried into the region (mostly from the Songhua River), and with temperatures that won’t even flirt above freezing for months, stacked on top of each other to create castles, Ferris wheels, pyramids, and Christmas trees! These wonders are set beside snow sculptures and smaller ice sculptures carved with such attention to detail, it’s surprising the artists haven’t been picked up by the Disney Corporation to work in their theme parks. One artist from Russia crafted a fish skeleton that looked so amazing, I had to snap a photograph.
Apparently, they are intricately designed using swing saws, chisels, and ice picks. And de-ionized water is used to create 100% transparent ice blocks – like glass – as opposed to the opaque ice we are all used to seeing in our water glasses. They even went so far as to construct an igloo bar and restaurant, where patrons can sit on ice benches at ice tables and drink beer and wine from ice goblets; even an ice labyrinth that people can navigate their way through!
The first festival took place in 1999 and since then the Harbin festival has grown into the largest in the world. Each year thousands of visitors flock to the ‘North Pole’ community for the spectacle of carved ice and snow. Afterward, the artists are rented out to other ice festivals around the world, including Florida. The best time to visit the ice festival grounds is sunset. Just as the sun begins to fall, the park workers turn on the multicolored lights they embedded in the sculptures and the place erupts in rainbows!
We were saddened to learn that the official open date of the festivities was January 5th. We were there on January 3rd, so while there was much to behold, we weren’t able to truly get into every single exhibit as they didn’t have everything completed right away. On top of that, the batteries in our electronic devices (cameras too) weren’t able to maintain a charge in the frigid temperatures for more than a couple hours. We weren’t able to get many pictures, and in fact, my digital SLR decided it didn’t even want to operate for me at all! Luckily, Jen’s digital camera had three separate batteries in the pouch so we never ran out of juice. I’m willing to bet that even my hoverboard wouldn’t have worked properly in Harbin.
Until Next Time…