The last stop on our journey from Moscow to Beijing by train was Harbin in North-East China. The captial of Heilongjiang provinces experienced lots of different influences which one can still recognize today. Besides these influences, especially the Russian old town, the ice plays a particularly important role when it comes to what the city is famous for.
It was still dark on January 9, when we left our hostel for the train station. It felt as if we had gotten up in the middle of the night to catch the train from Irkutsk to Harbin. However that was just an impression. The streets were already very busy at 7:30am and, luckily for us, the tram was also already running. Without any incidents we caught the train 20, which was on its way from Moscow to Beijing.
This time no breakfast or lunch was included in our train fare, however we came prepared. On the first of our two days on the train we enjoyed the mandatory smoked Omul from Irkutsk. We hadn’t gotten a chance to try this Baikal specialty in Listvyanka or Irkutsk, but now it was our time. Luckily for potential other train riders in the same compartment, we were by ourselves and thus did not disturb anyone with the smell of the smoked fish. Once we had figured out how to separate the bones from the meat in the most efficient way, nothing hindered us in enjoying the delicious food.
The amount of snow became quite impressive while passing along the South coast of Lake Baikal, but decrease drastically with each passing kilometer we moved away from Lake Baikal and towards Mongolia and China. After a late breakfast we reached Zabaikalsk, the border town on the Russian side of the Russian-Chinese border. The only attraction would have been to watch how the bogies on the train were changed from the Russian width of 1.520m to the Chinese width of 1.435m. We spent the five hours strolling through the “romantic” town of Zabaikalsk. Before heading on we had a small meal in the train station.
The border control procedure was quite amusing on the Russian side. Considering we were leaving the country, they performed a very thorough check of both the train compartments and the official documents. The even brought a ladder into the compartments to inspect the upper berths and luggage department. The lady checking our passport was especially diligent check the 7 or so specifics between the photographs in our passports and our faces. For each item she looked at the passport and us while we had to stand up in the compartment. We had to stay serious during the whole procedure, however we felt this sort of game was very funny. Apparently the young lady had just completed here training and was very eager to do a good job.
On the Chinese side in Manzhouli, about 20 minutes down the train track, we had to undergo the Chinese check. Unfortunately we had left the fruits we had bought in Irkutsk on the small table in our compartment, such that they were taken away immediately. The brochure we received to teach us what we are allowed to important into China indicated that we had been smuggling quite a few times during the past months. We did likewise this time, since we had an additional 2 bananas sitting in our luggage. The tangerines they confiscated were probably grown in Xinjiang province in China and we were just reimporting them, however the laws do not permit that.
After noon the next day, on January 11, we arrived in Harbin with about half an hour delay. We immediately headed for the hotel which was only one block from the train station. The reservation had worked out perfectly and we got a nice and clean room. After a nice shower, we headed for the Russian-influenced quarter Daoli, which is located between the train station and the Songhua River. The ice sculptures in the pedestrian zone gave us a first impression of the importance of solid water in this city. After dusk, we headed to the Zhaolin Park followed by the Stalin Park to see the ice sculptures in the city. Not quite as fine art as the ice sculptures, however dimensions larger than the ones we had seen in Russia. In Harbin, ice is a material to construct buildings and monuments like sandstone.
We spent the second day visiting the Siberian Tigers in the corresponding zoo. The zoo is located a little bit outside the city center, such that we had to use a taxi to get there. We were surprised as to how well the local people could understand our Chinese the first time. There must be a reason why Harbin is considered the number one city to learn standard Mandarin. The taxi driver was also kind enough to point out further attractions, as for example the huge snow wall which indicated the entrance to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. We were uninterested first, because on the one hand side we were more interested in tigers at the time and on the other hand side we thought we had seen the ice sculptures the night before.
Once we had reached the Siberian Tiger Zoo, we first went onto the mandatory bus tour, which led through the different ranges, where groups of tigers reside. Since the attendants had spread hay near the road the animals were never far. The following walking tour gave us another opportunity to to watch these mighty animals at our own leisure. The park is known for life feeding, for which one can spend a lot of money buying life stock which one can feed to the animals. The information we had indicated, that there was going to be a lot of feeding, however this was not the case at all.
The Siberian Tiger Zoo consumed about half of our day, such that we had some more time to spend. Checking our alternatives we learned that there was more ice to be seen than what we had seen the night before. The sculptures in Zhaolin Park were only an appetizer for what was to come. By bus we headed back towards the city center only to get off on Sun Island, where we found the “real” Snow and Ice Festival.
Had they not already been white, the sculptures in Zhaolin Park would have turned white from jealousy. The towers, castles etc which we could see on Sun Island were a few times larger and much more beautiful. This was the real Snow and Ice Festival! During daylight and dusk we strolled among the huge structures made of snow and ice and watched children enjoying themselves sliding down the many ice ramps.
Another big surprise however was still to follow. We sat down in one of the cafés inside the festival area and were just about ready to leave, when the Schaufelberger family, the family of a former colleague, arrived. Them now living in Shanghai, they took the opportunity to take a weekend off in Harbin and in the meantime we have met three times, since I moved to China. China is also just a village!
Jointly we discovered the frozen magic after night fall to see the lit sculptures, before we headed back to the city. For dinner we all wanted to try local food. We had looked up a restaurant which offered just that and besides getting much more food than we had anticipated we also received some Chinese live entertainment. Due to the live entertainment however it was impossible to have any further discussions. With stuffed stomachs we separated, since our vacation was slowly but surely coming to an end. The train for Beijing finally left at 9:34pm and after an almost sleepless night due to the snoring of our fellow passengers, we arrived back in Beijing just before 7:30am. By subway and bus we finally managed to get home, where we had a lot of work to do…