Harbin: Provinvial Museum, Dragon Tower, St Sophia Church, Central Street, Flood Protection Monument, Stalin Park, our first Snow and Ice Sculpture exhibition and a Russian Show.
More typical Chinese logic this morning – go down to ground floor to collect vouchers for breakfast from reception, then back to to 2nd floor by lift only and walk down steps to first floor again.
Breakfast was an enormous and varied buffet, providing you like Chinese food, and providing you are not a prissy eater as there was no way of telling what 99% of the food was. There were signs of course; in Chinese only. It was very enjoyable though.
The orange 'juice' was served hot, but I wasn't going to drink it anyway as Sally had warned us yesterday not to drink too much as “toilets are difficult to find”
Sign for the toilets in the breakfast restaurant.
Although her vocabulary is very good, Sally's pronunciation is a little difficult to understand at times, for instance when she talks about arsenic (ethnic), Caribbean (Harbin), steak (stick) and Russian bride (bread) for breakfast.
David using chopsticks to spread jam on his Russian bride for breakfast
Until I started researching for this trip, I assumed Harbin was a small provincial town in China. Not so. It is in fact the tenth most populous city in the country, with over 10 million inhabitants (that is more than London!). Founded in 1897 (up until then it was little more than a small fishing village - the name Harbin in fact means “a place for drying fishing nets”) by Russia as a major transit point on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Labour demands brought in a collection of outcasts from across Russia, Poland and even from within Manchuria. Tsarist Russia encouraged settlement in their outpost here by waiving the then 25-year long military service obligation. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, thousands of Russians settled in Harbin and set up businesses here, giving the city a Russian character that it has never lost, and the city is affectionately known as “Moscow of the East”.
In the 1920s, the city was considered China's fashion capital since new designs from Paris and Moscow reached there first before arriving in Shanghai or Beijing. The city was captured by the Japanese during World War II and in 1946 the Chinese gained control of Harbin. Over the years Harbin grew to become the most northerly of China's major cities, known for its bitterly cold winters and often called the "Ice City." And that's exactly why I am here. To be honest, there are very few other reasons to visit this somewhat grotty northern outpost with its brutally-cold winters with temperatures regularly dropping below – 30° C and the air pollution going off the top of the scale. These days, the city is one of China’s top tourist spots thanks to the annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Every year, hundreds of thousands of (mostly) domestic tourists descend on the city, drawn by a national love of extravagant, excessive, exuberant, ostentatious over-the-top gaudiness.
The Provincial Museum of Heilongjiang
Built in 1906 as the Moscow Department Store, the Russian style brick-and-wood museum is like Fort Knox to get in to. Just to buy tickets you have to show your passport in a totally separate ticket booth outside, and to get in to the building you go through airport style security with you and all your belongings X-rayed separately, and lighters not allowed.
The place seemed to be part museum part shop, with half the exhibits coming complete with price tags. Fortunately Sally did not take us around all the 107,400 exhibits, just a few of the more important one, including the calligraphy, stuffed animals, dinosaurs and Eiffel Tower.
Exhibits with price tags
Eiffel Tower on show/for sale in the museum
Half way around the museum I twisted awkwardly, and seemed to have trapped a nerve in my back, sending shooting pains down one leg. . By the time I was leaving the museum, I could no longer feel my leg; it seemed to have gone numb. Very scary! It got some better after sitting in the van for a while, although actually getting in was somewhat difficult as I wasn't able to really lift my leg to get it up over the ledge.
Also known as Long Ta, the TV and communications tower is the tallest steel tower structure in north-east Asia and the second tallest free-standing lattice tower in the world at 336m tall. Although some sources said it was merely built in order for the Chinese to have something 'biggest and best', the tower has a couple of museums on the lower two floors including one full of dinosaur fossils as the word "dragon" also doubles as "dinosaur" in Chinese.
Could this be the ultimate selfie?
The other museum was one called 3D Art, and it was quite a clever interactive adaptation of the street art concept.
The "Exciting Ring" as the flying saucer part at the top is affectionately known, is the longest glass walkway in the world with a perimeter of 60 meters with amazing views over Harbin. You have to pay 2 Yuan (around 20p) for a pair of cloth socks to wear over your shoes in order to be allowed to walk along it. Apparently each of the glass panels are built to be able to hold a five ton elephant. Not sure how you'd get it up in the lift though.
The lift was one of the more exciting things about the tower – I loved the way you could see it travelling up past the tall buildings surrounding it through the glass sided lift. Very cool. From the observation deck you get a great view of... Soviet style blocks surrounded by smog (measured at 198 AQI against London averaging at 29 AQI and New York at 21,)
From the viewing platform we climbed a further five flights of stairs to the tea shop, which was unbearably hot (and so were we from climbing the stairs with all those layers on) resulting in me stripping off to my thermal underwear. At this stage we were all discussing how much we were looking forward to going outside again to cool off! Right at the top was a prayer room where people come to ask the God of Money for some of his dosh – by sticking bank notes into crevices in the wall. Really?
Dangfang Jiaoziwang Restaurant (Lunch dumplings)
This appears to be Harbin's localised answer to McDonalds, with at least one restaurant in each district of the town. The speciality here is dumplings (jiazo) which are traditionally served on many Chinese holidays especially at the time of Lunar New Year as they think "jiaozi" in sound means "bidding farewell to the old and ushering in the new". Also, the shape of the dumpling is like gold ingot from ancient China. So people eat them and wish for money and treasure. But with the increase of people' living standard, jiaozi has become a common and popular food in daily life. People don't have to wait till Chinese new year for a bite.
Sally and Mt Safe joined us and we suggested Sally ordered for the whole table, and the dumplings just kept coming and coming, ending up with six large platefuls for the five of us, plus a bowl of potato noodles with pork and tofu noodles with beef. I have to say that to the uninitiated (that being David, Alan and I) they all tasted the same. It was somewhat of a dumpling overload!
St Sophia Orthodox Church
Initially built of timber in 1907 as a place for the Russian soldiers and workers to worship to re-consolidate the confidence of the army by building an imposing spiritual symbol; the church was later reconstructed in brick and after almost a decade, it was finally consecrated in December 1932 and hailed as the new Hagia Sofia. The layout of the church is in the shape of a cross (not that this is particularly obviously when you're inside) and the main hall is topped with a huge dome. With several other steeples topped with gold crosses, I think the church somewhat resembles St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow rather than Hagia Sofia. The church was said to be so beautiful that it could only have been made by God's hands, with the name St Sophia meaning “God's Wisdom”.
By 1958 it was closed when the People's Republic of China was formed with the Communists ending all Christian Missionary work and a treaty was signed between the Soviet and Chinese governments turning all Russian churches over to Chinese control. The church was listed as one of the Key Cultural Relics in 1996, and almost immediately repaired and turned into a museum (Harbin Architectural Art Gallery). The original Russian murals which had been totally destroyed over the years, were replaced by modern murals depicting the architectural history of Harbin. Crosses were replaced, and the dome and bell tower restored to their original splendour. At 53.3 m tall, it is the largest Eastern Orthodox Church in the Far East.
There were more than 15 Russian Orthodox churches and two cemeteries in Harbin until 1949. Mao's Communist Revolution, and the subsequent Cultural Revolution, saw many of them destroyed. Now, only about 10 churches remain, while services are held only in the Church of the Intercession in Harbin.
Fanghongbei - Harbin Flood Prevention Success Monument
The 12-metre tall monument commemorates the thousands of people who died, and the volunteers who helped, in 1957 when the river overflowed its banks reaching 120.3 m above sea level, some 4 m higher than the level of the city. The people of Harbin worked along the river bank day and night for over a month, and eventually the flow retreated and the city was saved.
In contrast, in 1932, when the Japanese invaded the city, the water level was almost as high at 119.72 m, but this time the authorities did little to build the bank. Tens of thousands of people were drowned and many more died in its aftermath. Yet another massive flood in 1998 meant an addition to the statue, and last year, in August 2013, the water level again reached nearly 120m.
According to the flood control authorities, the 500-km-long river banks around Harbin are mostly made of mud and sand, making them more susceptible to flood breaches.
At the base of the monument, the ponds represent the different water levels. The main monument consists of a Roman style cylinder column with statues of the flood prevention heroes on top of it. At the back, 20 columns forming a semi-circle represent Harbin people in the 20th century creating miracles.
Created in 1953, the name of the 105,000m² park is an indication of the friendship between Russia and China – the two biggest communist states at that time. Being mid-winter, the park's famous Russian style beds and lavish flowers are covered in a layer of the white stuff. Nevertheless, the park is still popular with locals and tourists admiring its art sculptures and trying their hand (or should that be foot?) at ice skating, ice hockey or ice sailing as well as the very popular game of spinning the top by using a rope to whip underneath the top to keep it going.
Sally kept asking if we wanted to go and join in, but I was quite happy to keep my feet firmly on the ground. It's too early in the trip to break a leg. With the cold wind coming off the water, this is the first time I have felt the cold today. I ended up digging out my snood and covering the bottom of my face with it.
Central Street ( Zhōngyāngdàjiē)
I find it quite ironic that in a country such as China which is filled with architectural masterpieces that people travel half way across the world to see, Harbin's pride and joy is this long corridor of European style buildings. As with most of Harbin, construction of Central Street began in 1898; back then it was paradoxically called Chinese Street. There are 71 buildings of varying European style architecture from Renaissance through to the Baroque Period, as well as the Art Nouveau and Eclecticism to the Modern School. At 1,450 metres, this cobblestone road is one of the longest pedestrianised streets in Asia and serves as a perfect remnant of the bustling international business activities at the turn of the 20th century with Byzantine façades, little Russian bakeries, German pharmacies, English wool shops and French fashion houses, as well as non European architectural styles with American eateries and Japanese restaurants. As well as numerous ice sculptures of course.
By the time we'd had a little sit down because Sally had a bad back, the sun had set and the buildings/carvings were just being lit up. Which, of course, was what we were waiting for.
Stalin Park Ice and Snow Sculptures
This is one of the smaller parks in town which has a Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival exhibition – it seems they are all after a piece of the action, or more likely: your money! There isn't much to say about this park that I can describe better than the photos will, apart from the fact that it was awfully col now that the sun had gone in. We all three went off in different directions to take photos and just generally wander around looking at these beautifully lit ice creations. There was an 'indoor' arena with some incredibly detailed and delicate carvings, as well as castles, buildings, walls, a maze, even a giant duck!
At one stage I was a little concerned that I only had 20 minutes to make my way back to the exit where I was meeting the others, but fortunately my sense of direction didn't let me down and I made it to the meting point in time, By this stage the skin on the inside of one of my knees was beginning to crack and chafe with the cold, making it painful to walk.
Moscow Theatre – Russian Show
At lunchtime Sally asked us if we were interested in seeing the “Russian Show” tonight. It was a dinner and cabaret style show, and if it hadn't been for the words “Moscow Theatre” over the stage I would not have made the connection with the former Soviet state. There was some semi-traditional Russian music, dancers in various stages of undress, a calligraphist on stage (they then spent ages auctioning off his works – in Chinese only of course as we were the only Westerners in the audience) , some very good acrobats, an excellent rock musician and a couple of comedians whore bored us senseless as we obviously couldn't understand a word they were saying.
The food consisted of a thin steak 'cremated' beyond belief and a few slices of duck which quite tasty; a small salad, a very bland tomato soup and the famous Harbin sausage which I didn't rate at all. Sally has been going on about this sausage quite a lot, explaining where we can buy the best one to take home as “once you taste it you will want some more”. No thanks.
Last night we removed the giant orange ball from the bed and put it in the shower – it gave me quite a start, staring at me first thing this morning. As I was writing up my blog this evening when we got back to the room, the ball suddenly appeared in the doorway to the bathroom. I am beginning to feel like a character from the TV series 'The Prisoner'. “I am a name, not a number.”