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Trip Report Trip Report Australia Day in Harbin January 2012

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I’m finally posting a trip report for my time in Harbin in January.

We travelled there on a tourist train booked from Australia with about 100 people and travelled over 6 days from Beijing to Harbin, via Shenyang, Jilin, and ChangChun; spending time in each. There were 4 sub groups divided by language: Mandarin, Cantonese and English. The English speaking group was the smallest though a large number of people in the other groups were ex-pat Chinese or of Chinese heritage. Especially interesting was one man who was born in Harbin 80- years ago and is travelling with his sister who was born a few years later in Shanghai where the family moved prior to going to the USA.

As an aside, we very much enjoyed the trip through the old ‘Manchuria’, particularly Chang Chun. I would recommend this as a worthwhile trip to or from Harbin rather than just flying I and out.
On January 26th we spent a few hours travelling on our final trip on our train between Chang Chun and Harbin. As it was Australia Day, we celebrated with 3 fellow Aussies by eating Caramello Bears.

We finally arrived at Harbin, intact and packed. Not an easy feat. Harbin was for a long time part of Russia and many 'white' Russians escaped here after the 1917 revolution. Their influence remains.

Off the train and to lunch prior to arriving at Ice World which is the major display of ice sculptures. On the way we stopped for 40 minutes at a classic little town square built next to St Sophia, a Russian church which survived the Cultural Revolution. Classic Russian Orthodox church and fortunately intact.

The ice sculptures were fantastic; we walked around looking at the various sculptures, some mickey mouse, some more fantasy, some spectacular and some real art. The families are out and the weather is freezing, obviously has to be to allow the sculptures to remain as ice. One of the highlights is the Russian-style troikas (I think) and we did indulge in one short ride and another ride on a dog sled at the Snow Festival.
We were informed that the locals, on a specific day each year, go to a part of the river and start to cut massive ice blocks, about 18 inches by 12 inches. These are used as the basis for the sculptures and are also located all over the city wherever you go. There is one of dinosaurs we pass by several times. And given Lunar New Year, lots of dragons.
Neither of us live in the colder part of Australia and are not skiers so clothing became a major pre-occupation prior to the trip.
We purchased some items where we thought size and fit would be an issue before leaving - thank goodness for Kathmandu sales - as we didn't want to spend much on things we were unlikely to wear again. Best advice was for a down, preferably goose down, jacket. I bought one and it was superb. We borrowed thermals and whatever else we could.
Once in Beijing we had a few days so took the opportunity to purchase during the New Year sales a few more appropriate pieces of clothing. This included a double weight set of thermals which were outstanding. Finally we bought cheap fur lined boots (about $25AUD) in Chang Chun Walmart. As we were on a tour and only had 2 days in Harbin we weren’t sure we’d have time to shop locally so decided that we should have everything prior to arriving. Most of what we purchased would be cheaper in Harbin but we took that decision for our particular circumstances. Others might prefer to wait until arrival in Harbin.
Overall by the time we got to Harbin, we were wearing:
• 3-4 layers below plus heavy corduroy jeans (bought in Beijing)
• 3 layers on feet plus fur lined boots (boots also had thick sole and good tread)
• 4-5 layers on top plus down jacket
• Neck warmer, balaclava, two hats and a hood from jacket
• 3 layers on hands.
I had taken some ‘chains’ to wear on my boots but didn’t use them. The tread on the boots was okay and we walked around fairly tentatively and didn’t walk up too many ice steps or snowy steps. The advice we were given, and it did seem to work, was ‘walk like a penguin’ and climb stairs ‘like a crab’. With all that clothing, walking like a penguin was very easy!
Ladies – a word of warning, we found waiting to use the bathroom not a good idea, we tended to go when we could. If in a hurry, using a squat, taking off jacket, 3 sets of gloves etc could be somewhat problematic. Also not a lot of room to manoeuvre in a small stall.

With all this we lasted only about 50 minutes before heading to a cafe and paid an exorbitant $7 for a cup of coffee but 15 minutes there restored us to some semblance of humanity and we re-emerged on the ice to continue. (We justified the cost by saying that $2 was for the coffee and $5 was for the heating)
There are castles with kids sliding down, dancers in the middle of a massive ice dance square, toboggans, ice scooters, ice everything.

About 4.30pm-4.45pm it got darker and the lights inside the sculptures came on, quite pretty. We commented that it looked a little Disneyland'ish and actually preferred the sculptures as they appeared in the daylight. By this stage we estimate that it was approaching about -30°C. The ‘high’ for that day was -17°C.

From here we drove back into the main part of Harbin and onto the International Ice Carving Competition. The local Zhao Lin Park was set up for the event, strangely we were both struck by several entries from Thailand which included a dragon and are superb, and there are also a few massive carved faces which I particularly enjoyed.

Again a 45 minute walk requires a break from the cold though the main part of the competition is under cover and perhaps we are just getting used to the cold.

I suspect this is the most unusual Australia Day we will spend anywhere, anytime...

On the next day we travelled to the Snow Festival display on Sun Island. This is magnificent, dominated by a massive wall of snow carved in a myriad of designs with a woman in a tutu the centrepiece. There are many snow sculptures all over the park which we approached via a mini road train thing through a field of snowmen and the dragon for New Year.
I really think that this is worth the total misery of the cold and the layers of clothing and everything associated with it.

We left Harbin fairly pleased with ourselves, that we survived it and surprised at what a pleasant place it is - massive, 10 million or so people but with a heart and a consciousness that we hadn't really expected.

Final word of advice, hand, feet and preferably body warmers purchased from department stores or pharmacies are an absolute must.

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