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China, Heilongjiang Province, Harbin, 11-12 February 2012

The Harbin China trip is what I’d call a quickie trip. I was in Beijing. An impromptu suggestion by Scott Polisky (my long time meetup.com friend whom I met in person only the night before the trip), a last minute decision to go, quick enroute to a nearby shopping mall to buy thick winter clothings, a quick and time-pressed purchase of domestic air tickets the evening before the trip (30 minutes to closing time), quick packing, a sleepless night and wala! All these happened while we were over the brim for work!

Stressed at work
Trying to finish work as much as possible before leaving for Harbin over the weekend

I knew Isza (my colleague from Singapore, left in the picture above) was secretly praying that Scott would turn out decent as we never met him before. Our Beijing colleague made sure we had each other’s contact number, in case of emergency. Eventually we found Scott to be a really cute, hilarious, and fun loving guy who is also respectful as a friend. He was our source of entertainment with his non-stop supply of nonsense.

We paid about SGD300 for the domestic return ticket from Beijing to Harbin. It certainly was not an easy feat to book those tickets as I sourced through multiple sites in Chinese, then to find out only China bank issued credit cards will be accepted. We had to pay in cash when someone delivered the tickets to our office in two hours’ time. We were too focused on the air tickets we forgot to book the accommodation until about 4 hours before the flight time. The taxi ride was about SGD50 from Beijing Sanlitun to International airport. Our hotel for one night was about SGD120. Food and transport was relatively cheap. It is very important to bring more than enough RMB. We brought just enough for food, transport and entrance fees to places of interests. We didn’t realise that our credit cards were not accepted in most shops, except for big restaurants and hotels. Money changer is a rarity in Harbin or even China as the only place for currency exchange is some selected banks. I was told it’s not safe to use the ATM in some parts of China.

When we arrived in Harbin after a two-hour flight from Beijing, and we could really feel the shivering cold. It was colder than Beijing which was about 4 degrees then.

In Harbin
Taking the bus to the city central

We found the easiest and cheapest way to get to town was to take a bus from the airport, then drop somewhere in town to take a cab. Bus tickets can be bought at a counter in the airport. It was definitely much easier to travel when you can speak the same language. In China, I think it’s really hard to get around if you don’t speak the local language. The bus, as you can see from the picture above, was quite clean, just like those Grassland coaches in Singapore.

Harbin hotel
Just arrived in the hotel and exhausted as we didn’t sleep more than 1 hour the night before

Checked into Bremen Holiday Hotel Harbin. We had an hour nap before heading out to roam around the city.

The streets of Harbin. And I used to think that there are only ice buildings in Harbin, not real ones.

The first place we visited was the majestic St Sofia Orthodox Church. It was beautiful, heavily influenced by the European style. Tickets are available by the kiosk next to the building at about RMB20 (SGD4). The interior was beautiful and the whole place looked quite in its original state.

Harbin square
Striking a pose

The plan for the evening and one of the reason to visit Harbin is the 13th Harbin Ice and Snow World exhibit. It’s held yearly for a limited period of time during the extreme Winter. The Harbin International Ice and Snow festival 哈尔滨国际冰雪节 is an annual thematic winter festival that takes place in Harbin China. It is also the largest ice and snow festival in the world. During winter, it turned dark really early. Downtown Harbin was beautiful with all the neon lightings. I said downtown because we went to other parts of Harbin later that night and the place looked like any typical streets in China, gray and gloomy.

Reaching the Harbin Ice and Snow World. We were really excited!

Harbin Ice and Snow World
Reaching Harbin Ice and Snow World

It was freaking freezing. Like a million times colder than Beijing. I couldn’t speak or think properly and I felt like going back to the hotel right away. It was just so freaking cold! We spent a lot of time asking about tickets. The ticket price was about RMB300 (SGD60). Scottie and Isza were ‘students’ and as the only person who could speak fluent Mandarin, I spent quite some time figuring out about the tickets for them. They got about 50% off their ticket price. Just look at how proud the two ‘kids’ were in the picture below. I was just freezing like mad!

Then both of them spent a great amount of time wearing their extra socks and gloves. I sweared I almost turned into a popsicle waiting for them.

The minute I stepped out of the ticketing booth, my feet hurt. The floor in the Harbin Ice and Snow World was a slab of ice. My boots were thin – I wore the wrong boots to Harbin!!! I felt like a thousand needles poking into my sole in every step I took. We were told that it was about -40 degree celsius!

It was dark inside the Harbin Ice and Snow World and I felt strange to be surrounded by buildings made of ice. The feeling was rather surreal. There are sheltered kiosks selling food and drinks everywhere in the premise. The trick to survive was to take shelter in a heated area every 20 minutes or so. I wondered how Scottie could drink cold beer in this freezing place.

The ice sculptures were magnificent, it wasn’t a small compound, I think we easily spent about 2-3 hours inside.

These people pulled a huge rubber tyre up to the peak and glide down in the tyre. I couldn’t make it up as I kept falling off the stairs. Bummer!

Harbin Ice World steps
This is the way up to sliding down the slope on a huge tyre.

Just 30 minutes out there in the minus 40 degree celsius cold, there were icicles on my eye lashes and nostrils.

selfie at harbin
Taken before it gets extremely cold

This was how the ice building looked like when the lights were off. Just a fancy ice block. Even the ceiling was made of ice blocks.

See the difference with the lights and without:

By now we are extremely hungry. So here we go, downtown Harbin again. Scouting for food but no restaurants were open at that time and it was only 9.30pm.

We went back to the hotel hoping to get some food but the restaurant and room service were closed. No one knew where to get food at that hour. The concierge pointed us to some nearby bar. We walked about 15 minutes and found one but it was a smoky sleazy bar with some drunk Russians and Chinese and there were no food, only alcohol. After asking several people on the street and taxi drivers, we finally came to this fusion restaurant, which was next to the famous CoCo Club at Changjiang Road (长江路). It looked quite upmarket and packed with businessmen. I was never a fan of Chinese food but these were really good and they didn’t leave a strange oily after-taste in my mouth. As usual, I always over-ordered. We had about five dishes and all were great. The bill was about SGD15 per person.

We were told just next to the restaurant is the famous CoCo Club. We were too exhausted to party that night, so we called it a night and went back to our hotel. We were going to a few more places the next day before heading back to Beijing at night. Next day’s plan: to visit the Siberian Tiger at the Tiger Safari.

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