Here's my entire journal from our Harbin trip! Enjoy.
Day 1: I'm on the train to Harbin as I type this; it's Christmas Eve 2011 and I've been on the train for 18 hours. 12 hours to go! Seth, Maryia, Seth's roommate 明文 (Ming Wen) and I decided to spend Christmas in Harbin. It's the capital of Heilongjiang province, the northernmost province of China, bordering Siberia and North Korea. It has a world-famous ice festival and a Siberian tiger park and skiing! Although I heard people on the train earlier saying it hadn't snowed there yet...hmm. In any case, we're heading up there to freeze to death and enjoy ourselves in the real winter weather!
We're in a hard sleeper car, which has small rooms with six bunk beds on the walls in each. The four of us are on the top and middle bunks, and there is a minimal amount of room, definitely not enough to sit up. The hallway is narrow, but there are fold-out seats built in to the wall with little tables, so we can sit there when we're tired of cramming into our bunks. We played scum for a couple hours earlier and read books; Seth and I also gave Maryia a short missionary lesson on priesthood authority and how it works.
The bathrooms are little rooms with squatter toilets that open right onto the train tracks; fun, no? We walked the length of the train earlier to find the dining car. Of course, everyone stared at us, but it wasn't worse than usual, and I don't mind being the foreigner as much as I did when I first got to China. Dining car prices were about twice the price of normal food, but still very cheap by American standards. Traveling with Seth, Maryia and 明文 is an interesting experience when it comes to cost. Maryia has money and doesn't care nearly as much about saving money as she does about comfort and cleanliness., while Seth wants to save wherever possible. We're on hard sleepers right now because Maryia wouldn't go on a seat, so we compromised and all got sleepers there and seats back except for Maryia. Same with hotel accommodations - Seth would be fine sleeping on someone's couch, while Maryia wants a decent place to stay.
On the train for 20 hours. We got back from dinner a little while ago - Seth didn't eat (he said he wasn't hungry, but I think it was on principle or to save money), but the rest of us got food, mostly because Maryia was hungry. We just read Luke 2 and 3 Nephi 1 out loud, and I flipped through the December Ensign, so it feels a little more like Christmas Eve. This will be quite a story to tell; I never thought I would spend a Christmas Eve on a crowded, dirty sleeper train heading to Harbin! Tomorrow should be interesting...
Day 2: Sunday, Christmas Day 2011. We arrived in Harbin around 8 am. When we got off the train, the cold shocked all of us. I experienced cold like that on my mission on occasion, but it had been a while. It was around negative 20 Celsius, and our nose hairs froze when we breathed! Everything that would be liquid in other cities - the spit on the ground, little splashes of water, urine - freezes within minutes here. 明文's friend from high school, 王爱 (Wang Ai), who goes to university here, met us at the train station and took us around for part of the day. First, we took a bus to our hotel. It is so cold here! All the windows on every bus are frosted over, and if you take your gloves or hat off, it only takes a minute for your fingers or ears to go numb. We all brought lots of layers, so we should (hopefully) be fine. Maryia and Seth gave me Christmas presents at the hotel! Seth gave me a Chinese cookbook (with DVD), and Maryia gave each of us some socks filled with candy and some lip balm. I felt bad for not bringing anything for them, but I'll write Maryia a nice card when I get back, and I gave Seth a card already.
After we checked in to the 7 Days Inn, we all went in search of a church with Christmas services. We took a taxi to one, but it wasn't having services. The lady who let us in was very helpful, though, and she told us where to find another church. In the few minutes I spoke to her, she said "神祝福你" and "谢谢主" (God bless you and thank the Lord)! That was the first time in China I've ever heard a Chinese person say anything like that, and it was startling, but nice to hear. The church we went to services at was a somewhat modern building, and there were hundreds of people crowded in to watch. We went up to the second level, and after a bit of waiting, two nice old women ushers found a place for us on the front row of the balcony. It pays to be white in China sometimes; that probably wouldn't have happened if we were Chinese! The service itself was basically song and dance numbers, with elaborate costumes and emcees and concert lighting, and it was a new experience for Christmas. Only the last number felt much like a Christmas song; it was a medley of a few carols, and the whole cast entered at various times and took their bows at the end. Besides that, though, it was an eclectic mix of Chinese, Christian, and Russian cultures. I was pleasantly surprised at how many Christians there are in Harbin!
After church, we went to lunch at a hot pot place we had passed along the way. Maryia didn't like it that much, but it was fantastic, and fairly cheap! We got platters of pork, beef, and lamb, noodles, and several kinds of vegetables, and it ended up being only 20 something per person! Awesome. With the warmth of hot pot in our bellies, we were once again ready to face the bitter cold of the Harbin streets. We went to the Harbin Institute of Technology campus, where they have an ice skating rink on the track! I think it was my third time ice skating, but I did pretty well, except for the one time I fell. Maryia is a great skater (she's done figure skating before), and Seth is pretty good, too (he has lots of skills like this - rock climbing, skating, skiing, fencing, etc), but I didn't feel as self-conscious as I usually do at such things. Attitude is all-important. It was really cold on the campus, but I got warm while skating for a bit.
From there, we went to the Saint Sofia church, which is an old Orthodox church turned into a museum. It was really cool. I was a little sad that it wasn't quite as grand as the Hagia Sophia, though, because when Seth sent out an email with pictures of Harbin to convince people to come on the trip, he sent a picture of the Hagia Sophia instead of Harbin's Saint Sofia! Oh well; it was still a neat building. There is Russian all over Harbin! It's on the signs, and there are these little cheap Russian goods stores every 20 feet along the streets. There was a Russian impressionist gallery on the same square as Saint Sofia, so we stopped in there for a bit, and it was very nice. If I had any money, I would have bought one of the paintings, because they're a steal compared to the ones in the Park City Russian impressionist gallery, and quite good. *Note to self: when you are living in China and want a painting, head to Harbin.
After at, we went to the main shopping area, 中央大街, and we window shopped for a while. At the same time, we looked for a Russian restaurant for Maryia's Christmas dinner. We found a basement restaurant that looked and smelled fantastic, but it was going to be at least 70 kuai a person, so we passed that one up. We found another one in the basement of a mall - Harbin has all of the major international brands and a very nice European-style mall - but it turned out to be more of a Russian strip club that serves food! We also chanced upon an all-you-can-eat pizza place, but there were throngs of people waiting to get in line and to get seated! It was likely the busiest restaurant I will ever see in my life. We got colder and colder as we went around, but we didn't find anything else, and finally we took a taxi back to where we thought we had seen another Russian place earlier today, but we didn't find that one, either. Eventually, we broke down and went to a little cafeteria place down an alley by the train station; it was very good, although definitely not the Western Christmas dinner we had promised ourselves!
Man, I need to stop writing so much on these travel journals. After dinner, we came back to the hotel. We have a room with a large bed and not much else; Seth wants to sleep on the floor, so I'm going to sleep on the bed in between 明文 and Maryia. Fun! At least the room is warm.
Day 3: Sleeping on a large but not huge bed between two other people wasn't as bad as I expected! I didn't kick anyone, and I managed to keep a sufficient portion of the comforter. Not something I want to do often, but it was okay. We went downstairs and got our free breakfast at 9:35 when we were ready for the day, only to discover that breakfast ended at 9:30, but the two women cleaning up let us eat anyway. A boiled egg, two meat buns, an orange, some gruel, soy milk, and a little spicy pickled cabbage. Very much like our breakfast in the monastery on Emei Shan. They had mantous, but I think I'm done with them - they have absolutely no taste.
Our first adventure of the day was the tiger park! After a couple buses and a walk of about a kilometer into the park, we arrived. 明文 bought Seth a fuzzy tiger hat for a Christmas gift, which he wore for the rest of the day. The first part of the visit was a bus around several enclosures. We bought a chicken to feed the tigers, and in the first enclosure, we watched as an armored jeep with our chicken on top drove up to two tigers. One jumped on top of the car, scaring the chicken off, and the other one pounced! Within seconds it was tearing the chicken apart. It was pretty cool to watch. We drive through several more enclosures, some with a couple tigers and some with many, and in one we saw lion cubs playing! The tigers would prowl around the fences, and every enclosure we drove into they would meet us at the gate and then back off as the driver barreled through! They would also follow the bus and come up and lick the sides - I was inches from tiger fangs!
The second part of the visit was an enclosed walkway, reminiscent of Jurassic Park. As we walked, we came upon a mass of tigers, maybe 15 or 20, taking a nap together. There was a lady selling food for the tigers, so Seth bought another live chicken, and I videoed as he grabbed it behind the wings and lowered it through the bars to the waiting tigers. They jumped for it, and it became a frenzy for a few seconds until one of them ran off with most of the chicken in his mouth. After that, there were cages with all kinds of big cats in them - a white tiger, a white lion, a cheetah, black panthers, regular panthers, and a liger, one of the few living ones. The tiger park was awesome - definitely as close as I've ever come to experiencing Jurassic Park!
After that, we went back into town for lunch at the all-you-can-eat pizza place we found yesterday. It wasn't nearly as crazy at 2:30 in the afternoon, and we were seated immediately. Everything was good, not great, but we gorged ourselves nonetheless. A man came up to our table and asked if any of us knew Italian. Upon learning that Maryia did, he proceeded to sing some Italian operatic love songs and asked her to correct his pronunciation! It was fantastic - a fifty-something year old man singing to us in a restaurant in a language he didn't understand. After that, he tried one English song, and then switched to Russian, which was the best of the three. Then he thanked us and said goodbye, all in Russian, and went back to his table. I wish we had some video of him singing, because it was hilarious and pretty good singing at the same time!
It gets dark in Harbin at 4:30, so after our pig out fest we went to the Harbin Ice and Snow World! It's a world-famous ice carving festival held here every year, and it surpassed its reputation! As we drove up, it was like entering a fairy tale. All around were huge castles, palaces, pagodas, and bridges, all made of ice, and there were neon lights throughout everything! We spent a good two hours climbing all over, sliding down ice slides, taking pictures, (almost) petting yaks, and spinning in circles. Seth got the hiccups, and he spent a good half an hour with his affliction!
After that, we came back to the hotel and watched The Princess Bride on Seth's computer, then went to bed. I insisted on taking the floor, since Seth slept on the floor last night, and he let me after being stubborn about it for a bit. He can be so 不听话 at times!
Day 4: I slept fairly well, but this morning I was depressed for no reason. I really need to figure out why this has happened to me several times since I came to China. I don't think it's homesickness, but I'm not sure what it is. Anyway, we didn't leave the hotel until almost noon, because we were deciding what to do for the day, and we headed to lunch first. We got 30 dumplings each at a restaurant in the neighborhood, and they were really good! I felt a little better afterwards, but still terrible. I decided to be happy, though, and the rest of the day was much better. Again, attitude is everything!
We went from there to the Sun Island amusement park area and ended up going to the Harbin Polar Land. It's a combination sea world and aquarium with mostly polar animals and fish, and it was pretty fun. We got student discounts by booking online on Seth's phone after getting there, but then they held us up for 15 minutes because Maryia's student card doesn't have an expiry date. They finally let us in, but we had missed the last scheduled beluga show of the day! Lame - people not taking responsibility for individual actions that aren't specified either way in the rules makes me angry sometimes, and it happens a lot in China. We went around and saw the other animals for a while, and then we went to the sea lion show, which was much like those at Sea World, but it had 中国特色 all over it, especially with the 主持ing. The final act was the sea lion coming up and kissing a Chinese girl from the audience!
After that, we went back through the first exhibits, which we had rushed through to get to the last of the beluga show. They had penguins, wolves, arctic foxes, and polar bears, all in small cages, and the wolves and polar bears were magnificent and pitiable at the same time. They did the same things over and over, pacing their cages or swimming in the same patterns nearly the whole time we watched them. Seth thinks they can be just as happy there as in the wild, but I feel to disagree. Even if they themselves might not know what they're missing or feel sad (insomuch as they can), they would fulfill the measure of their creation much more fully in the wild, and I think that and the freedom they are deprived of would help them live a happier existence. How can a creature that paces in the same circle on the floor all day every day truly be happy? Then again, what does it mean for an animal to be happy? And are we also not pacing in circles, albeit wider, each day, week, month, and year? I don't have all the answers to these questions, but my gut reaction is to recoil from putting innocent creatures that naturally have much larger habitats in tiny cages. In any case, it bears thinking about.
As we left, it had once again grown dark. It would be hard to live here in the winter, where there's so much less daylight. We went back into town and finally had our Russian dinner at a place 明文 found online. We had borscht, potato salad, chicken fried in egg batter, meatballs, a beef stew, and the best bread I've had since I've come to China, with butter and jam! I had heard that Russian food was comparatively bland, but this was all very good, and Maryia said she could make most of it better. It came to about 50 kuai per person, a great deal for all that food. After dinner, we went across the street to a famous local ice cream place. It was very good, but not any better than normal ice cream in the States. Chinese people are obviously deprived of good ice cream! We walked around the central shopping district for a while looking for presents - Seth for his sister and brother-in-law and me for 辛强, but we didn't find anything at the several cheap Russian goods stores we stopped in. We finally gave up and went back to the hotel. Bed early tonight, because we're going skiing tomorrow! I'm sleeping between Maryia and 明文 again; it's really hot in our room, but hopefully I'll be able to sleep anyway.
Day 5: I'm now on the train back to Nanjing, sitting in a crowded car full of students going home for the holidays. This morning, we got breakfast on the street and caught a cab to a ski resort outside of town. We thought we could rent dog sleds there for 100 kuai an hour, but it was really 100 kuai for a lap lasting a few minutes! So we opted for skiing the single bunny hill covered with manmade snow instead. It was actually pretty fun, maybe because I haven't been skiing in so long. I don't think I went at all last winter. Seth spent most of the time teaching 明文 basic skiing techniques, and Maryia and I went on the 'advanced' tow lift to the steeper half of the hill a few times waiting for them. I went down backwards in front of 明文 with him holding onto my poles like a kid in ski school once. I can now say I've skied a run backwards, even if it is a bunny slope! It was ridiculously cold. We all had icicles form on our eyelashes and eyebrows, and the cold made me tear up going down every time, so I couldn't see where I was going near the bottom.
We got back to the hotel with barely enough time to grab our things and check out, and then we went to the train station and had lunch at a USA California Beef Noodle King restaurant! They're all over Harbin, but we have no idea why they decided to brand it that way, because they're pretty regular beef noodles, and it's not a single chain, it's most every noodle place in Harbin. After that, we went to grab our tickets, and then we boarded the train. We got two hard sleepers and two hard seats this time around, so we're going to trade off who gets the sleeper next to Maryia. 明文 and I took the first shift on the hard seats. They're actually about like airplane seats, except arranged so they face each other and there are little tables in between, so in that aspect it's not bad. The car is overheated, however, and pretty noisy. It's a much better way to make friends than the sleeper car - I've already had conversations with several people about different things, and that seems to be the norm for these cars. We've been on the train for 6 hours. 23 to go!