Tuesday, January 8, 2013

[HEILONGJIANG] Harbin is a Winter Wonderland

If Russia and China had a love child, Harbin would be its name. The people would be speaking Mandarin in general, but it wouldn't be uncommon to find Russian-speaking Caucasians roaming the streets. It would have buildings showcasing Russian architecture; a street with stores selling Russian chocolates; and lots of frozen spit on the pavement. Whether you come in by plane or by train and no matter what you decide to ride when you leave, remember that Harbin's winter is one of the harshest on the planet. You have been warned. Make sure that your layers are in place.

What welcomed me in Harbin was a three-hour bus ride that was just supposed to last for around ten minutes. I rode the right bus, but on the wrong side of the road. I promised myself that I would be relying on my listening skills to determine whether it would already be time to alight the bus or not. Gao Yi Jie was never announced, because the bus already passed by that station even before I got in at Harbin Train Station's stop. The good thing is that public transportation is ridiculously cheap in China. I lost three hours, but got set back only by a yuan or two. Hooray me.

As my shoes were not really made for winter, the icy streets meant wet soles, and for some reason the wetness reached my socks. You know what happens to water left in the open at -20 degrees Celsius? It freezes. Poor feet of mine, suffering the same fate as my fingers wrapped in those cheap mittens I bought the other year at Lotte World's ice skating rink. They went numb, and this when I spent those three hours seated on a bus. It doesn't matter. You are in Harbin, and Harbin will not adjust for you.

The air quality is bad, particularly in winter. Harbin relies on coal for heat, which explains all the fog. But enough about the negative, what does Harbin have to offer that makes it a worthy tourist destination? Aside from the Ice and Snow Festival, I'd say the Russian flavor would be a good treat. So Russia denied you of a tourist visa, huh? Apply for a Chinese one, then go to Harbin. Pretend you are in Russia; it won't be that difficult to imagine, promise.

Start at the church of St. Sofia which no longer serves as a place of worship, but has since been converted into a museum detailing Harbin's rather unpleasant past as a frequent flashpoint in Sino-Russian bilateral relations. Entrance to the museum is 20 yuan but if you are not that interested in the city's history, staying outside and adoring the architecture should suffice. The birds put on their own show, flying in sync around the church while classical music is played loud enough for everyone to hear.

The next logical place to visit is the Russian street, which is known by different names in English, Russian, and Mandarin. Even the road signs would be trilingual. The pedestrian street stretches all the way to a tunnel leading to the banks of Songhua River, which freezes and turns into a wonderland of sorts during the winter.

Forget Star City's fake Arctic village. This is the real deal, a legit frozen river that would otherwise drown all these tourists if it were not winter. Imagine the Pasig River transforming itself into something similar where people would be riding make-shift sleds and ice skating, with matching winter clothes. Too bad it does not snow in Manila, huh? If freezing to death on thick ice is not your thing, then you could just settle for a stroll by the riverbanks which is not a bad idea at all given the many attractions lined up along that path.

Wait, were we not talking about the Russian Street? Of course, shopping. As already mentioned, you can buy an assortment of Russian products such as chocolates and tobacco in some of the shops in that long stretch of road. If you're not that keen on shopping because the money you plan on spending has already been used for the admission fee at Ice and Snow World, then bad for you.

Or maybe not, because you could always enjoy free things in life like camwhoring, right? The street is well-decorated during the holiday season because it's where tourists converge. You won't run out of ice sculptures to pose in front of. If everything else gets boring and -20 degrees Celsius is just not that cold for you, then perhaps you might want to hop on a half-day bus to Vladivostok. But then again, you'll need a Russian visa for that. If you want to get two countries at once, then might as well do a Harbin-Vladivostok tandem, unless you want to torture yourself once again the following year if you ever decide to visit them separately.

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