Thursday, February 27, 2014

Harbin 2014: Quick 'n' Chilly

There comes a time in every man's life when he's got to make decisions that are, well, perhaps not in his best interests. I am not talking about cocaine, or prostitutes, or even wearing a Yankees cap. I am talking about a weekend vacation that will leave you exhausted and depleted for weeks to come, even though the exhaustion and depletion are well worth it. I am talking about frigid temperatures, wild animals, ice, Russians, late-night karaoke, being stranded in the wilderness, dance parties, fatigue, frostbitten digits, and defecation disaster stories. I am talking about the stuff legends are made of.

I am talking about a weekend trip to Harbin, in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province.

The characters involved: Dan, an American scientist who specializes in cloning sharks, Dawna, a singer who rides leopards for kicks, and myself, Reuben, who regretted trimming the beard he grew on a recent trip when he realized how low the temperatures get in Harbin. The plan: Friday night sleepover at my apartment, fly from Beijing to Harbin at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, see tigers and ice, stay at a Russian Youth Hostel, return to Beijing at 7 p.m. on Sunday evening, and feel good about life. The "To Do" list: Siberian Tiger Park, Harbin Snow and Ice Festival, survive.

So, following a pre-game party at my house that involved a lot of dancing, some weird pictures, a lot of chocolate cake, multiple international phone calls that sought to wish my mother a happy birthday, a book exchange, and not enough sleep, we left my apartment at 5 a.m., went to the airport, and flew from Beijing to Harbin. After not much snooping, we got to our hostel, ate some lunch, and headed to our first destination: the Siberian Tiger Park.

You couldn't take two steps there without stumbling over some tiger-themed thing. A giant tiger head poking out of the earth, a cart drawn by a tiger (there is no way this thing ever existed)(or the giant tiger head poking out of the earth, for that matter), tiger organs in jars that looked like they could be opened, tiger skeletons. You get the idea.

We entered and were ushered onto a shuttle bus of some kind. The bus took us through a tiger park. It was basically the same setup as in Jurassic Park, but with far fewer storms and deaths. We drove past the tigers in their "natural habitats," they ignored us, and we all took pictures of them. The highlight: two started fighting with each other because our bus driver almost hit them. It was a tactic, we think.

Then, the part we'd been waiting for: the chicken feed! Dan and I purchased a healthy young chicken for 60 RMB, and we promptly named him "David Emmert" after the late (to China) David Emmert, a men among boys and a friend from earlier in our lives. There were chutes into which David Emmert and the other condemned chickens could be shoved. Then they'd fall into the tiger pit, where it appeared that they often didn't even hit the ground before they were snatched out of the air by the powerful, awful jaws of a hungry tiger.

We wanted to free David Emmert in an empty part of the tiger pit so he'd get to run around (read: get chased) before being torn apart, but, sadly, his demise was as immediate as all the other chickens'. The crowd of other foreigners - people who weren't heartless enough to buy themselves a chicken but who were nonetheless intrigued enough to see one get ripped apart - was sort of disappointed with how quickly it was over. Maybe we were, too, although actually David Emmert lived quite a long time before getting eaten, since the tiger spent a considerable amount of time removing feathers from his body before digging in.

Maybe that's enough. Here are some nice pictures of lazy other tigers, a leopard, and some jaguars that were also in the tiger park.

Eventually we left there, had some hot chocolate, and prepared ourselves for the second item on our agenda: the 30th Annual Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival. A shuttle from our hostel took us there. They told us we'd get two hours there; Dan, Dawna, and I weren't sure if that'd be enough time, but after only one hour, we'd completed a circuit of the complex and were freezing...freezing but happy.

There is not a lot to say about this thing, so I will say these things and then just post a million photos, because they show it like it was. It was cold, but not as bad as we'd heard it would be. There were a lot of people there, but not as many as we'd imagined there would be. There were illuminated ice sculptures, but they were probably forty or fifty times more amazing than we'd imagined they'd be. It was awesome and beautiful.

Eventually we'd seen everything and lost feeling in our toes and noses, so we went back to the hostel. It was at that point, ten hours after we'd arrived in the city, that we had accomplished everything we'd set out to do. But, still seizing the moment, Dan called a friend of his from Harbin, and we all went to a KTV nearby and destroyed it with "If I Die Young," "Empire State of Mind," "Sexy Back," and "Baby, One More Time." Then, they kicked us out. I am going to put more pictures of the ice festival here, instead of pictures of us dancing to "Sexy Back." This will be much better for your eyes.

The next morning, though, we attacked the city with renewed vigor. At least, some of us. The Harbin Polar Aquarium received the brunt of our assault. It was maybe what you'd expect from an aquarium in a winter wonderland, although there were all sorts of aquatic life that didn't necessarily seem like they were arctic at all.

But of course there was plenty of animal life that is usually found in snowy conditions:

We watched a beluga whale show. It was okay.

Then we watched a seal show. It was funny.

Then, we took a taxi to the airport and flew back to Beijing.

Good trip. Short. Cold. In the days following the excursion, at least two if not three of us felt incredible fatigue; each of us leaped right back into teaching the next day. The trip was sort of an expensive one; all the attractions came with high tickets prices (for example, the Snow and Ice Sculpture tickets were 300 RMB, or a bit under $50), but they all came with high pay-offs, too, since they were awesome. We'd heard, also, that it would be cold enough to freeze eyeballs, but the weather was tolerable. There were icicles forming all over the sculptures, and many of them, upon closer scrutiny, showed some melting damage incurred during the sunny days. So maybe we just picked a good time to go, weather-wise.

Not only were these things not really a problem, but the three of us make an excellent travel team, if I may so myself: lots of jokes, good communication amongst ourselves and local folk, flexibility, and a willingness to do whatever it took to achieve our sight-seeing, booty-shaking goals. Everything we did see was great, but the city of Harbin also seemed like it would be a neat place to spend more time in: good food, kind taxi drivers who never tried to rip us off, beautiful women, a blend of cultures, to some degree. Good stuff.