Every year in China they hold an ice festival in Harbin. Harbin is close to the Russian border and is very cold in the winter. The average temp during the day is below zero with lows of -18 degrees. Crazy! We had a pretty warm weekend comparatively, our low was -7 degrees. Even though we had a few people tell us it wasn't worth the cold, Joel and I decided it was something we would really like to see so we talked our friends Josh and Kelly into joining us and packed our bags.
Our first day in Harbin we checked into our hotel and then set out to explore the area we were staying in. Our hotel was right on the walking street where there were tons of restaurants and stores. We stopped in a dumpling restaurant that was so good for beer and of course tons of dumplings.
After our dinner we hit up the American bar that was across the street from our hotel. We had seen it on Anthony Bourdain's show when he visited Harbin and it looked like a fun place. The owner is half Chinese and half Russian and is totally wild. He was at the bar in full army uniform and there were hundreds of pictures of him all over the walls in different costumes and scenarios. It was hilarious. We started calling him Mr. Harbin because not only is he "famous" for being on American TV and for owning a bar in Harbin but he was everywhere! We ended up running into him again (more on that later) and his pics were everywhere. It was really funny.
The next day in Harbin we joined a tour from our hotel and headed to the tiger reserve. They said it has the largest number of tigers in any reserve, they also can boast about having a white lion and yes, the magical Liger. It's pretty much my favorite animal. It's a lion and a tiger mixed. Bred for its skills in magic. (Napoleon Dynamite anyone?) At the reserve we were driven though the fields in a bus that was reinforced with steel wire over the windows. You could pay extra to watch the keepers feed certain animals to the tigers. The most common was a chicken. It was thrown to the tigers out the window of a truck onto a wooden platform. Now too exciting. The next most popular was the pheasant. This is what the boys bought. It was a little more exciting because the birds actually tried to escape from being eaten so you were able to watch the tigers chase the birds and catch them. I really didn't enjoy this but the boys did. Apparently you could also buy a cow and a deer but we didn't see anyone do that. I think that would be really gross to watch! I am glad that no one bought one.
After the bus ride we walked around looking at the tigers. In one section you could feed them yourself. They gave you kitchen tongs and raw strips of meat to hang through a fence for the tigers. Only in China would this be allowed. I was only about a foot away from the tigers and easily could have reached through to touch him. It was a little scary!
After the tiger reserve we got back on the bus and went to the snow festival. It was cool, even though we were at the end of the season and things were starting to melt. The snow sculptures were massive. It must have taken them forever to carve. My favorite was one of three owls (of course), it was really cute. Joel and I took a sled dog ride, it was really slow moving and only lasted about 2 minutes but Joel really wanted to do it.
We had too much time there so we stopped for hot chocolate. And guess who was there! Mr. Harbin! (told you he would pop up again!). We thought it was so funny. He was telling a very in depth story to a group of Chinese people, with full hand movements, very animated. We had no idea what he was saying since it was Chinese but we still enjoyed the show. His picture was also all over the wall of the coffee shop we were in.
After Snow world we grabbed the tour bus back to the hotel so we could grab some lunch. We had one of our favorite meals of the trip for lunch. It was a Chinese restaurant that served these flat pancakes and you could pick the fillings and fill them. Sort of like the idea of Mu Shu Pork in the US. We found the restaurant from a recommendation of wiki travel and managed to locate the restaurant even though there was no sign outside. We walked down these stairs to the basement and we were all a little skeptical. Especially when the waitress told us that there was no english menu. We totally lucked out because a Chinese girl at the table next to us over heard and came over and ordered for us. She spoke English so she was able to order a whole bunch of food that sounded good to us. It was delicious. We had pork, egg, potato and vegetable fillings and a sweet sauce. We ate so much but it was so yummy.
After lunch we went to the ice festival, our whole reason for this trip in the first place. We wanted to wait because everyone told us it was more spectacular after dark and they were right. It was so cool. When you first walked in you could rent a carriage for a circle around the park. We decided to do it so we could see everything before walking around a bit. You could also pay someone to follow you the whole time you were there and film your experience. Weird. We did see some people do this, but we decided to skip it.
There were tons of activities that you could do around the park. One of the things we liked were the many ice slides that you could ride. The first few we rode were very slow, not too slippery or steep. I enjoyed them. The last one that we rode was the big one and we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. It was so long and so steep with sharp ice ridges on either side to keep you in the slide. As we were walking up the stairs to get on it, we kept seeing people heading down the stairs and could't figure out why they decided not to ride it. Then we came upon the pile of broken plastic sleds. Uh oh. We started getting a little nervous but didn't have time to rethink it because before we knew it they were handing us cracked slides and pushing us to sit on them. There were two slides, side by side so Joel and I were able to go down at the same time. I was screaming at the top of my lungs trying to slow myself down by pushing on the side of the slide. It didn't work! It was really terrifying! Everyone seemed to enjoy it but me, I would never ride it again!!
We also stopped for a bit to watch an ice-skating show. It was in Chinese so we weren't sure what was happening but it was very strange. Lots of ice skaters but also skiers coming down the hill behind them. We think it was possibly Communist propaganda because there were also lots of Chinese people in military uniform in the show, singing and dancing. We didn't stay to watch the whole thing because we were getting too cold to just stand around and not walk.
I also rode a Himalayan Yak. I had never seen one before, Only seen it on a menu in Colorado once. It wasn't super exciting, I really just sat on it for some pics. It was a very cool animal though, white long hair.
The ice festival was so worth the trip and the extreme cold. It was so cool to see all of the ice castles and buildings lit up at night. There were so many more buildings than I was expecting and we loved it. I was totally amazed at the size of the buildings. We would have stayed longer if it weren't for the cold!
Our plan for dinner after the ice festival was to finally try some Russian food. Because Harbin is so close to Russia, it used to be a hot spot for Russians to live and vacation. It is not as much anymore but there is still huge population of Russians and it is an equal mix of the two cultures. We found a Russian cafe and tried a snack but it wasn't for us. We tried a sort of hamburger patty that was seasoned a little differently. I did love the pickles though! We ended up just going next door and eating some regular Chinese food. It was good, totally hit the spot after a long day. One more stop off at the American bar and we called it a night.
We had such a good time in Harbin and Joel and I are so happy that we found some more travel buddies! Despite the cold we loved the sights and the food and would definitely go back!
|Joel and Josh enjoying a beer before boarding the plane to Harbin!|
|In front of the restaurant, it was very cold!|
|High five for Harbin!|
|Kelly and Jenny on the walking street.|
|Beers at the bar.|
|The boys taking shots!|
|Kelly and Josh on the bus.|
|Where they feed the tigers chickens.|
|Feeding the tiger.|
|Look how close he is!!|
|Entrance to Snow World, can you see me??|
|Joel and Jenny in front of the giant snow sculpture.|
|In a heart sculpture.|
|Mr. Harbin's many pictures of himself.|
|We thought this nutcracker was hilarious. Notice his one little shoe...|
|Kelly and Josh with Mr. Harbin behind them.|
|Joel enjoying his lunch.|
|Meeting the horse before we got in the carriage.|
|Kelly and Jenny in the carriage.|
|The boys in the carriage.|
|On the little ice slide!|
|Pic of the show...|
Our next stop was to see the Arctic foxes where you were able to pay to hold them. They were kind of stinky but oh so cute! I wanted to take one home but Joel said no. He also wouldn't hold one because of the smell. Oh well.
|Holding an arctic fox.|
|Riding a Yak.|
|All of us at the festival.|
|Us doing our best "Chinese pose".|
The next day was our last in Harbin and we decided to explore the city a little bit more. We did some souvenir shopping and picked up a Russian nesting doll. We also went to see the only Russian orthodox church in China. It has turned into a museum now and is no longer an actual church but it was worth seeing for the architecture. It was smaller than we thought it would be and definitely needs some TLC but it was still a beautiful church.
|Joel and Jenny in front of the church.|
|Inside the church.|
|Joel in the Church.|
|Kelly and me doing our Chinese poses.|
Here are the rest of the pics if you want to see them!