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Harbin Day Three

Synagogue, Ice Swimming and Buddhist Temple

sunny -22 °C
View Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival - Harbin 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Jewish Synagogue

The New Jewish Synagogue, built in 1921,has been restored and contains an impressive collection detailing the history of Jews in the city which at one point in time numbered 23,000 (including the grandparents of former prime minister Ehud Olmert) who created their own rich religious, cultural and educational life.


Harbin's Jews were wealthy businessmen who came from Czarist Russia and created a thriving community, building empires by trading timber, furs and soy beans. Many of the mansions along Central Street are a result of their success. In the early years of the 20th century, over half of the members of the City Council were Jewish, and Jews were busy setting up hospitals, banks, cinemas, concert halls and a beer factory. However, tensions existed with the White Russians who had fled en masse to Harbin after the Bolshevik Revolution. Not long after The Russian Fascist Party set up its headquarters in the city in 1931 the Old Synagogue was burnt down. Life became even harder for the Jews under the Japanese occupation, and many fled. By the end of World War II Harbin's Jews numbered only 3,000 and each year saw the numbers dwindle to just one man today, professor Dan Ben-Canaan, who is overseeing and advising on the restoration project.


The traffic was appalling today – Sally was over 20 minutes late this morning to collect us; and it feels like we have spent most of the day sitting in one jam or another. The driving is a bit of an experience in itself: like many places in Asia, the car with the loudest horn wins. We have been cut up in traffic here in Harbin more times in the last three days than in an entire lifetime of driving in the UK. The scary fact about the Chinese drivers, is that some 80% have had their driving licence for less than five years because of the previous rules and affordability of private car ownership. Because of the heavy traffic today, and one of our stops was time-crucial, we changed the itinerary around so that we went for an early lunch.

Today's offering was pancakes, pancakes and more pancakes. Five plates of them in fact, with juliennes of potato, pork in sauce, fried pickles with pork and scrambled eggs to go in them. I was feeling so proud of myself, doing so well in picking up the pancake, serving myself with filling, and rolling it all up using only chopsticks – until I managed to send the whole lot flying on to the floor.


As a kind of starter we had what Sally called a drink, which we would call a soup (made from ground corn) back home. It is the first thing I have eaten here in China that wasn't completely smothered in salt, and I have to say it was somewhat bland.


Sidalin Park
The Harbiners are very good at making the best of their harsh winters by creating all sort of fun activities, although I suspect a great deal of them are for tourists. The vast majority of the visitors here are domestic tourists – I have seen 20 or so other westerners in all the time we have been here, and I suspect one or two of those may have been Russian resident workers. Down on the river there was tobogganing, dog sleds, ice sailing, skiddoes and all sorts of other activities on offer. All on the frozen river, whose icy surface is a bout a metre thick and solid enough for even cars to drive across it.


We declined the offer for all these activities – we were here for one reason only: to confirm that madness is alive and well and living in Harbin.

Winter Swimming

There are reportedly 141 winter swimming organisations across China with a membership of more than 200,000 with Harbin being one of the main areas for this 'sport'. The younger swimmers are under ten years of age and the older ones in their 80s.

At least the audience is dressed sensibly

Winter swimming can be dangerous to people who are not used to swimming in very cold water. After submersion in cold water a cold shock response will occur, causing an uncontrollable gasp for air, causing the swimmer to ingest water and drown. If you survive the gasp, this is followed by hyperventilation, a longer period of more rapid breathing. As blood in the limbs is cooled and returns to the heart, this can cause fibrillation and consequently cardiac arrest. These are the two most common causes of death related to winter swimming, although experienced swimmers can build up resistance through conditioning.


Hypothermia also poses a risk, albeit smaller than the cold shock response. Apparently, it takes more than 30 minutes at 0 °C water until the body temperature drops low enough for hypothermia to occur with many people being able to survive for almost an hour. However, exhaustion or unconsciousness is expected to occur within 15 minutes.

Scientific studies also provide evidence for health benefits, with winter swimmers experiencing less stress and fatigue and more vigour, have a better memory function, better mood and feel more energetic, active and brisk. Swimmers who suffer from rheumatism, fibromyalgia or asthma report that winter swimming relieves pain. I declined the invitation to join in, despite the perceived benefits. I also read that winter swimmers do not contract diseases as often as the general population with the incidence of infectious diseases affecting the upper respiratory tract being 40% lower among winter swimmers when compared to others. The nearest I have got to doing anything like it, is rolling in the snow after a sauna. Winter swimming is popular in some parts of Norway too, but I have never taken part.


These facts were all going through my mind as I was standing there at minus 20-something degrees, feeling colder and colder and doing up the top of my jacket to try and get some feeling back in my jaw. And these idiots came out of a perfectly warm building, dressed in nothing more than a swimsuit and posing for photographs before throwing themselves in the icy water. I was reliably informed that the water feels warm because of the outside temperature. Whatever. You still would get me doing it!


The finale confirmed what I thought all along: that these people are completely crazy! A Russian woman dressed in nothing but cold front teeth, a swimsuit and a horse's head (as you do), playing to the audience with cries of “ay ay ay”. After her dive, she walked around the whole arena with her swim cap full of the icy water for us all to feel just how cold it was.


Jile Temple aka The Temple of Bliss

At one time, many Harbin citizens believed that the then newly built Orthodox church damaged the local feng shui, so they donated money to build a Chinese monastery in 1921, the Ji Le Temple. The Temple of Bliss, as it is also known, is dominated by a seven-storey pagoda, some 30 metres tall.


Following traditional Chinese temple architectural styles, the magnificent temple is built of blue bricks and glazed coloured tiles. It is known as one of the 4 most important Buddhist temples in North East China and has been listed as an important cultural heritage site.


The main entrance to the temple, the Mountain Gate, is built to resemble a Chinese character, which means “Mountain” when translated into English, hence the name.


Sally, however called it by another name, which I just could not catch what she was saying. It sounded like “Temple of the Superhighway”. She explained that he was the “God of Buddha”. I am still none the wiser.

David and Alan went for a beer while I wrote up the blog tonight - much as I enjoy writing the blog and love the feedback I have been receiving, it is a very time consuming business, averaging at least two hours every night.

The waiter tonight spoke good enough English to explain that the company did not allow me to photograph their menu. We had some interesting stuff tonight, including a dish which was described as 'shrimp leek, fried dumpling', which consisted of no shrimps or leeks that I could see, but plenty
of squid and liver. There were dumplings, but they certainly weren't fried.


As we were finishing our meal/drinks, the staff were busy 'cleaning' - taking a damp cloth and wringing it out over the floor. That's it. No wiping.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:11 Archived in China

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Ugh, can't imagine the cold and swimming in the horrible icy water!
Laughing at the mental image of your pancakes flying into the water.

Did you manage to snap a picture of the menu anyway?
I KNOW you did!

Love and hugs,
Homer & Eddie

by Homer Gardin

Wow, Grete, your trip sounds like something not for the feint hearted! i'm afraid it doesn't sound like somewhere i'd like to visit, all too much like hard work!! i'm not a fan of what they do to the endangered animal species either!! i hope you're eating what you think you're eating. Enjoy, have fun. maybe we will finally meet up this year. Love Mx

by Marion

Hi Grete, just wanted to say that those of us who aren't quite as brave as you with our travel plans, I'm loving your blog & appreciate the time & effort that you put into it, I feel your pain & joy at some of the things you have seen & done, you explain it all so well & loving the pictures as always, stay safe & warm xxx

by Julie

I am saying that it is temple of super happy,cause 极 means super,乐means happy ,寺means temple,so that I called it temple of super happy,and also 极乐 is another world from buddhist scripture.

by sally

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