There are a few trains a day from Beijing to Harbin so my plan was to buy the first available ticket once I arrived at 06:30. Indeed, if I was very lucky, I thought I might be able to get on the 07:15 service. Oh, it's easy to look back and laugh now...
With Chinese New Year just around the corner, thousands of people were thronged around Beijing main train station, even at such an early time in the morning. Each destination had its own ticket window, so I found the one for Harbin. Although we could see staff pottering around for ages, this section of windows didn't open for business until 08:00. When it did, and after another half an hour's queuing, I was informed that all tickets were sold out for over a week to come.
I took a taxi to good old Wangfujing hostel to see if the tour desk could help me as they can often get tickets through agencies for trains that are officially sold out. It turned out that they have even less chance than the general public during this time. They were able to suggest a couple of bus stations though so I headed to one of them. Going with me were Emma and Sarah, two English girls who were working as teachers in Guangzhou for a year. They were looking around China for a month during the festivities and also wanted to go to Harbin. They needed tickets for themselves and three other teachers from the south of the country who would be joining them later that night.
I hadn't been to this place before but knew Beijing well enough to find it OK. Bus tickets are almost always available, even at this busy time, so were were able to buy what we wanted for six PM the following day. I then retired to the hostel for a much-needed rest until departure time. That night I met the others and we chatted and had a few drinks in the bar.
The six of us shared a couple of taxis to the bus station. These places always look even more chaotic than the train stations, albeit on a smaller scale. I tried to use the loo as often as possible before we departed as I didn't want to get caught short during the ride, but another distinctive aspect of bus stations is their horrible toilets.
On board the bus, it was much the same drill as my previous night bus experience in Xinjiang; shoes off and put into plastic bags when you get on and off, beds a bit too short for me (although being on the lower level this time meant I could stick a foot out), same layout etc. Despite Beijing's size and population, traffic can get in and out of the city remarkably quickly so we were soon on our way, stopping occasionally for toilet breaks and for late dinner for those who wanted it.
Harbin's temperatures are minus twenty by day and minus thirty by night. None of us had experienced anything like that before so were a bit apprehensive about how bad it would be. As we awoke in the morning to find ourselves riding into the city, we peered through the icy windows to see what the locals were wearing. "See that man over there? He isn't wearing any gloves, so maybe it's OK". I still had no proper coat or warm leggings. All I had to wear was my fleece, a couple of layers of t-shirts (one long-sleeved), a scarf and a pair of gloves. I didn't want to buy any extra clothes unless absolutely necessary as I would only have to dispose of them or add them to my backpack as soon as I was in a warmer climate. So, my plan was to see how it felt and buy or hire what I needed to after I got there.
As is often the case, the bus dropped us at some anonymous street corner. I got the feeling that the teachers weren't really travelers looking to mix with other travelers, so I left them to get their own taxis and tried to walk somewhere useful. After only a few minutes, I had to concede that the cold was a big problem, biting hard into my face. Poor sleep and a heavy backpack won't have added to my durability at the time either. I resolved to buy a hat and wrapped my scarf around my face and ears for the time being.
I walked for a further forty minutes but still couldn't find any street signs or landmarks that corresponded to my map, so I finally had to admit defeat and wave down a taxi to take me to a possible hotel I had been looking at beforehand. They had a nice room for me so I took a shower then headed straight out to make use of the day.
The first objective was the hat, which wasn't as straightforward to find, even in the main shopping drag, as you might think. It still only took twenty minutes though. I was rather pleased with my purchase, which was slightly tube-shaped in design and had a hole at the top. Back in Beijing a few days later, I showed it to Shan who laughed and told me the hole meant it was a woman's hat so she could put her hair through it. I asked Sunny at the hostel for a second opinion. She said it might be true but that I didn't look stupid in it. She assured me that anyone who saw me would just assume that my girlfriend had lent it to me which meant that I must have a very loving girlfriend which meant that they would assume I was a great guy. Kind of her to try, but...
Anyway, back to Harbin, I fulfilled my second objective by getting something to eat and then went to the river. This vast expanse of water is a kilometre wide and is absolutely frozen solid in the Winter. Not only is it safe for people to walk about, I even saw a few cars driving around on it. I say 'safe', but I did find a few deep-looking cracks which worried me a bit, but nothing moved so I guess it was OK.
The frozen river becomes the entertainment focal point during the winter months. One could toboggan, skate, ride karts, 'ski' on seats, be pulled along by a horse, slide down slopes on rubber rings or many other activities I either didn't see or have forgotten. All set against the magical white backdrop of ice and snow. Actually, I'm not certain to what extent the snow is real, in the sense that we might be familiar with it. Rain is rare here at any time so I see no reason white snow should be common. I suspect that the thin layer all around was actually bits of frost that had blown about and settled.
As I set about walking across the river, I was waylaid by some locals selling horse rides. They kept directing me towards their horses, explaining the price. I couldn't understand why they wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, in any language, until I realised that they wanted me to explain what the English translations were so they could use them on foreigners in the future. Having taught them, you think they could have offered me a free ride, yes?
Reaching the far bank, I was on an island with a strong Russian influence. The whole city and region contains aspects of Russian culture and architecture, but this island was almost exclusively Russian. It was also like a ghost town with barely a soul in sight anywhere. After an exploration, the cold started to bite and I began to fear that I might not make it home with all my appendages still attached, so I made the slow walk back across the river and onto my hotel room, venturing out later in the evening for dinner.
During the Sino-Japanese war, occupying forces maintained a scientific research facility at a secret base outside of Harbin. Here, prisoners of war from many countries but mostly Chinese were used to conduct gruesome experiments for chemical and biological weapons. Most of them died in the process. Some were apparently still not dead when their bodies were thrown into the furnace for disposal. Today, the site is a museum to document what took place, so I went in search of it.
I walked the slow mile to the train station and finally found the crowded bus I needed. Needless to say, it was phenomenally cold, probably even more so as we got outside the city. Despite the correct instructions in the guidebook, there was no chance of ever spotting what stop to get off at when we got there an hour later. Fortunately, the driver knew from experience that it was the only likely destination for a westerner on his bus, so he called down to me when the time was right.
The displays were all inside an original building, which meant it was poorly insulated and unheated, ergo not much difference to the temperature outside. At the start was a sign declaring that the museum was important because hiding the truth would be a betrayal of history. Probably true, although I couldn't help but wonder if the same applies to China's suffering under Mao's dictatorship. The contents were generally interesting and informative. I did feel that they talked about technical matters of the base and talked around the abuses themselves rather than detailing them. But, perhaps I have been too exposed to crass western 'documentaries' where we gorge ourselves on shocking stories and pictures, almost taking a twisted pleasure in them.
Back outside I waited for a return bus and, after the hour's ride back into the city, tried to buy a ticket to go back to Beijing the next night. Finding the block that contained the bus station, I was trying to find the entrance to the station itself and asked a policeman. A woman came over to intervene and insisted I follow her. She took me on a ten-minute walk in the bitter cold of the early evening until we eventually arrived at a pokey office for an agency selling bus tickets. A pokey agency that was also shut for the night. I wasn't impressed. Going all the way back, she then pointed me into a hotel until I found the station myself, twenty yards away from where I had first met her. On the plus side, I was able to queue up and buy my ticket once inside.
The reason I had come all the way to Harbin in the first place was to see the famous ice sculptures of the ice festival. Frankly, those I had seen were not that impressive. I mean, they were OK, but for an internationally-famous festival, I expected more. So, when checking out of the hotel and with a few hours to kill until the bus, I asked the receptionists where the best place to see them was. I wondered if I had perhaps not been looking in the right places. But, they just pointed me at where I had already been. I walked around them some more incase I had missed something, but not really. Still, the views of the frozen river were still magnificent.
Going back to the station, flagging down a taxi in the dense traffic was tricky. I did get in one, but when he tried to agree an price before setting off, I knew he was just trying to charge a westerner an inflated rate. I assured him that I had no intention of paying anything other than what the meter read, and helpfully turned it on for him, but he wouldn't back down so I had to get out. I did leave the door open though, forcing him to get out and shut it before driving off.
By the time I'd walked some more, I was most of the way there so ended up walking all the way. Although I had the backpack, at least it was too cold to sweat. Although I had slipped on the ice a few times during my days in Harbin, I had somehow always managed to stay on my feet. Being top-heavy with the big bag gave me a few scary moments, but I managed to keep my record intact. There was ice everywhere in the city, on all the roads and all the pavements. But, there was so much dirt and dust mixed in, it was rarely as slippery as you would normally expect.
Getting into the bus station, as I queued to put my bag through the pointless scanning machine, I found that right in front of me were the same five teachers I had rode out with. It turned out that we were on the same bus. Indeed, when we got on in, there were only four other passengers, so we could stretch out and sleep where we liked. For me, this meant I could have the whole of the back to myself and wasn't restricted by the limited 'height' (IE length) of the beds and could have a comfortable night's sleep.
As a footnote, they told me that they too had walked across to the island. They had walked around more of it than I had and reckoned that the best of the city's sculptures were on the far side. So, maybe I had missed the real festival after all.