Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Ice, ice baby (Harbin - Part 3)
Harbin is the coldest place ever. That is all you really need to know about this relatively dumpy city. Harbin is in northern China, relatively close to the Russian border and every year they put all the ice and snow to good use and hold these huge Ice and Snow Festivals with enormous sculptures made entirely of ice or snow. This was the main reason we were going to Harbin and the reason we had to go in the dead of winter.
Our first day in Harbin we didn't roll in until the early evening and we decided to get rolling as fast as possible and try to squeeze in as much as we could since we were only going to be there for 3 days. Jeremy, Jenna, Michelle, Sherly and I headed off to find our hostel so we could dump our belongings and head to the first of the ice sculpture parks that we wanted to check out. We, of course, got lost in trying to find our hostel, but because I was so full of energy and excited for our trip I kept running through the frozen tundra with my enormous backpack shouting, "Amazing Race, come on you guys, Amazing Race." Apparently I decided to turn our Spring Festival travels into my own private Amazing Race and make sure we got to see as much as possible while we were roaming around the country.
After over an hour of wandering around the city we eventually popped into a place that we thought was a hotel and hoped they would be able to help us. It was not a hotel, it was a massage parlor and this would not be the only time we would make that mistake during our trip. Anyway we called the hostel and Jenna was able to tell them where we were and convince someone to come meet us and take us back to the hostel. Apparently we were really close, we were just somehow missing the hostel that should have been in front of our eyes.
Turns out the hostel was down some crazy back alley, hidden from the main road. Hmm, that seems logical. Anyway, they didn't have our reservation right and there was nothing else available so we had to take what they gave us. We had two rooms with one bed each and five of us. Score! Jenna and Jeremy bunked up in one room and Sherly, Michelle and I prepared to get cozy in the other bed. As if this wasn't bad enough the place was a total dump. We watched them clean the rooms, which consisted of remaking the bed and emptying the trash can before the next guests came to the room. The bathroom was so gross that we decided we would be cleaner if we didn't shower and used the toilet at the KFC up the road. Also, on the second night Jenna and Jeremy found rat poop in their room. All in all it was horrible.
But, of course, we weren't traveling to stay in world-class hotels. We were traveling as cheaply as possible while trying to see as much as possible.
We decided to just dump our stuff and start seeing the sights right away. We decided to hit up the first set of sculptures on that night, because we were told it was best to see everything ice related at night and see the few other things in the town during the day. We went to the Ice and Snow World on the first night and it was beautiful. There were massive sculptures made from ice and all of them were made with lights inside to make the city light up bright as darkness fell.
There were castles and houses and pagodas and boats and animals all made from ice and you were free to climb on almost all of it, but it was incredibly slippery. Of course, I'm about as clumsy as they come and I was sliding all over the place. Jeremy fell on a patch of ice, told us to watch out and then 10 seconds later I fell in the exact same spot. Of course when I did this I broke the zipper on my winter coat, rendering it ineffective for the remainder of the trip through the coldest place in China.
There was a huge hill made from ice and snow and you could pay 10 kuai to walk to the top, jump on a tube and fly down it, so of course I did! I screamed and cursed the whole way down, but it was really fun. We walked around the park for a few hours until we started to worry about frostbite and decided to look for some dinner since it was getting late.
We found a hot pot restaurant nearby and decided hot pot would be the perfect meal to warm us up. Hot pot and beer, of course. We tried some gold label Harbin Beer, which was awesome, seriously the best beer I've had in China. The strange thing was there was this man who worked at the restaurant who kept making our hot pot for us then using chopsticks to feed the food to us. He was really nice, brought us some free food and helped us out, but his feeding was a bit too much. He gave all of us his business card and told us we were good friends of his. It turns out he was a police officer and he kept calling us all weekend, and we finally had to tell him that we didn't understand what he was saying (which was true) so he would stop.
After hot pot had warmed us up we decided to meander a bit and ended up going to a coffee shop. Coffee is a special treat for us here in China and when you do find it it is usually pretty expensive. I drank more coffee during Spring Festival than I have the whole rest of the time I've been in China.
We settled into a both at this coffee shop/restaurant and drank coffee, talked and played cards for several hours. A few hours later these guys sat down next to us in a practically empty restaurant and proceeded to smoke away and be obnoxious. We asked them to stop several times and finally we got pretty angry and told them to stop or to move. Then they felt really bad and when we were leaving they asked if they could take us to dinner. We said no, we had already eaten, but we appreciated their apology.
We got in a cab and headed home. To our surprise they got in a cab and left as well. After a few blocks it seemed definite that they were following us. We all started to freak out a bit at this point. Here we were in a strange town with two random guys following us back to our hostel. When we finally arrived at the back-alley hostel they continued to drive. We threw money at the driver and jumped out of the taxi as fast as we could. We could see that they had pulled over less than a block away and we wanted to get inside before they caught up with us. We didn't think they were trying to give us any trouble, but you just never know.
When we got to the door it was locked! Oh come on, what kind of luck were we having tonight? We pounded on the door for what seemed like forever when an old man finally appeared at the door. He looked at us, then motioned that he didn't have the keys and we would have to wait for a minute. At this point we knew the guys from the cab had to be close and so Jeremy motioned for us girls to hide behind a nearby car while he waited for the man to come back with the key. When he finally opened the door for us we all ran inside, straight to Jeremy and Jenna's room and collapsed on the bed. A minute later we heard some knocking at the main door and then voices in the hallway. The old man had let them into the hostel! Jeremy went outside to tell the man that they needed to leave, but they were just smoking together and then the guys got up and left. It was a very strange series of events and enough excitement for one night.
Sherly, Michelle and I headed next door to our room and curled up in our freezing room with only one bed giggling about the night's adventure. If this is what the first day of our trip held, we knew it was going to be an exciting month of traveling together.