Chilled to the Bones, Harbin Part 1

Happy Chinese New Year

16th February marked the Year of the Dog. Earth Dog to be precise. The Dog occupies the eleventh position in the Chinese zodiac, after the Rooster, and before the Pig. According to the Chinese element theory, each zodiac sign is associated with one of the five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. So the Earth Dog comes once in a 60-year cycle, the last being in 1958. According to the Chinese zodiac, each animal has its own personality with dogs being loyal and honest, amiable and kind, cautious and prudent. Due to having a strong sense of loyalty and sincerity, Dogs will do everything for the person who they think is most important.

Dogs are not typically thought to be not good at communication, it is difficult for them to convey their thoughts to others. Therefore, Dogs tend to leave others with the impression that they have a stubborn personality.

Famous people born in the year of the dog thanks to are…

Famous Dog Birth Date Element
Winston Churchill 30 November 1874 a Wood Dog
Mother Teresa 26 August 1910 a Gold Dog
Elvis Presley January 8, 1935 a Wood Dog
Bill Clinton August 19, 1946 a Fire Dog
Donald Trump June 14, 1946 a Fire Dog
George Bush Jnr July 6, 1946 a Fire Dog
Steven Spielberg December 18, 1946 a Fire Dog
Madonna August 16, 1958 an Earth Dog
Michael Jackson August 29, 1958 an Earth Dog
Justin Bieber March 1, 1994 a Wood Dog

3 presidents, 1 prime minister… FYI Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher and Hitler were all born in the year of the Ox (as was Walt Disney and Vincent Van Gogh!) and  Theresa May was born in the year of the Monkey.

CNY for us was two weeks holiday. As many staff headed to Cambodia or Vietnam it seemed, there were a few of us who stayed in China. Mainly those married to Chinese women. But for us, we were going to Harbin/Haerbin. A place where we have wanted to go to since we arrived in China. A place where temperatures can get as low as -38 degrees Celcius or -36 degrees Fahrenheit and as high as 20 degrees Celcius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer.  Haerbin is the capital of Heilongjiang province, and is the most northerly that we have been while in China.

The “Ice City” as it is known is a tourist trap in the winter, not only can you ski in the surrounding areas but it is the ice and snow sculptures that people flock to see. We flew out late on the Monday night, and came back on the first flight on CNY day. 3 whole days was more than enough and we saw easily how you could do this on a weekend, but flights are not cheap.

Ski coats packed, thermals packed, sallopettes (ski trousers) packed, heat packs packed. This was going to be a holiday where the main aim was not to get cold. And by in large we succeeded.

The first thing of note was that neither of our flights Wuxi -Harbin and Harbin-Wuxi was delayed. This is a big thing. We have not taken an internal flight yet were we have not been delayed.

Despite there being buses into the city from the airport, we took nothing to chance and had already booked a driver. More expensive than a taxi and Didi (Chinese version of Uber), but knowing that someone is going to pick you up and drop you where you want to be left, is a thing, especially when travelling at night, with a child. As soon as we left the plane and stepped onto the airbridge, there was a marked difference in temperature. But the airport was toasty warm.

Luggage and driver found, we stepped into the cold night air. Probably about -20 the cold hit us as the automatic doors opened. But we were well wrapped up, and when we got to the car, coats were removed as it was roasting inside.

30 or so minutes later we were checked in and ready for bed ( we had taken a late night flight!). The next morning I drew back the curtains…IMG_5683

The windowpane was frozen. Thankfully, later the view turned out to be this…IMG_5777

During breakfast we planned our attack on the city. I am sure we did not cover everything, but during our three days we saw what we wanted to. We departed from the hotel to make our way to Sun Island Park which was across the river, which naturally we walked across.

Apparently there is a ferry terminal and a cable car, one we definitely didn’t see operate for obvious reasons, the other – we saw the cable but no car. Walking on the ice was surreal, it wasn’t slippy, though areas had been cleaned and we saw speed skaters that clearly hadn’t made the winter olympics and recreational skaters that were having fun and we also saw cars being driven on the ice at various speeds.

Finally we got to an entrance of the sculpture park, and paid nearly 900 RMB (102 GBP) for the priviledge of getting in, but was it worth it? Yes. The magnitude of the sculptures made out of snow is a craft. Scale varied from the small (which was still large) to the enormous. The detail was incredible as in parts it was extremely fine.

We bought a plastic sled for 40 RMB, we knew we were being fleeced as Eleanor bought it without haggling, but actually that was the one that lasted the longest, another one that we bought on the street by the Flood Control Monument for 10RMB (I haggled), lasted for 2 or 3 slides down the ice slides before disintegrating.  You get what you paid for.

The park was empty. Yes there were people about, but it certainly wasn’t busy. No-where was despite it being in the week of a major Chinese holiday people obviously weren’t putting Harbin to the top of their winter holiday destinations.

Our 900RMB did not get us the added extras of cycling on ice. For that priviledge 120RMB for Martin and I to do the hard work and for Eleanor to sit on her posterior and be pulled about.  If she expected speed, she had the wrong parents. But we did give her some handbrake turns. I wouldn’t have liked it, if the place had had more customers though… health and safety. Steering was practically non existent, comfort none, but Martin and I were very warm after our exertions. IMG_5703

Before and after lunch Eleanor took her newly acquired sled (not the one she is sitting on in the picture) and clambered up a few hills to slide down… and to get the adrenaline pumping she had to avoid a few other people who would casually walk infront of her as she was hurtling down. Near misses averted we oohed and ahhed at a few more sculptures (including one not made of snow)

before tracking down a Didi and returning to the city centre.

Late afternoon we got back and found that our hotel was directly opposite Zhongyang Dajie, a pedestrianised cobbled street, that has low level buildings, many restored to how they may have looked when the Russian influence was at its greatest in the early 1900s. The street is also flanked with ice and snow scupltures, so if you are a skin flint you could make do with seeing those instead of paying to get into the designated parks.

A stroll down this street meant that we could try one of the local delicacies. Strawberries coated in sugar. A toffee apple if you will, but replace the apple with strawberries and think of the hard exterior sugar coating on an apple and then freeze it in minus temperatures and you get a lovely, hard but squishy on the inside treat.


Again, like the sled they ranged in price, but they were delicious.

The other treat we had while in Harbin was ice cream. But we waited until Thursday before we felt brave enough to eat ice cream when it was about -10.

Ice cream with no packaging, 5 RMB (57ish pence), it didn’t melt and it tasted like a milk lolly. Wonderfully simple, and a 5RMB it was never going to break the bank. This was the only shop with a queue. Other shops were selling them, but as with most things in China, go to the place where everyone else is going, that way you can be assured (in a weird logical way) of quality. The ice cream could be bitten off without fear that the rest would drip if not eaten quickly enough, it did melt in the mouth and was a bargain. We weren’t cold after eating it, it was another surreal experience though given our brains associate ice cream with warmer weather!

Martin and Eleanor along with the strawberry stick went back to the hotel, while I went exploring on my own to find the Church of Sofia (China Eyewitness Travel) or the Church of Sophia (Lonely Planet). Either spelling still denotes a church – sadly though this is no longer a Russian Orthodox church. Built in 1907 it is now an Architectural Arts Centre which exhibits photographs of the Russian influence on Harbin from the 1900s. It is beautiful from the outside and stands in a square with McDonalds as its neighbour.

While walking to Sun Island park in the morning, we hadn’t taken a direct route. We should have walked out of the hotel (Holiday Inn) and straight down Zhongyang Dajie, that would have got us to the river. However we would have missed many nods to Harbin’s Jewish past which includes a synagogue (again now a museum).

With minus temperatures, 2 cameras and 2 phones we managed to take most of the photos we wanted to. Heat packs are great things. Eleanor and I had taken them to Tibet with us, simply peeling off the sticky back and shaking them a little would heat the pouches up. One was stuck to the back of my phone, another was inside the camera bag, exactly where the battery of the DSLR camera lies, and another was inside my inner pocket keeping warm the handheld camera. The heatpack on the back of my phone kept it alive, and also my hands warm when I took my gloves off to take pictures – you couldn’t keep your hands exposed for long – that was really the only time that I felt the cold.

Walking through the city, I was able to look at what people were wearing. Some like me, wore boots, hats, gloves, thick trousers, but others didn’t wear hats or gloves, and some females even wore skirts and thick tights – we reckoned though that if you did live in Harbin, the temperatues that happened when we were there (-9 and a little bit of a windchill factor) were actually quite mild given that temperatures are recorded in the -40s, so positively balmy really.

The Past

One person when we mentioned about going to Harbin told us about Unit 731. When questioned further she responded that it probably was not suitable for Eleanor. When we were having dinner in the hotel on our first day, an American who had come to Harbin for the third time to see the ice festival (who didn’t live in China), also told us about Unit 731, and so on the Wednesday morning I set off on my own to see for myself Unit 731. Trip Advisor gives lots of handy hints about getting buses, but in the afternoon we were planning to go to the Harbin Ice and Snow World for late afternoon/early evening, I didn’t want to faff with buses and risk getting there when it was closed for lunch between 11 and 1pm. I took a Didi out. 45 minutes later and I was standing infront of the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base – 731 Division.


Both of the guide books mentioned above in reference to the Church of Sophia say that this complex in notorious. Having checked the meaning, which means widely and unfavourably known, I was shocked that I didn’t know about this place. My Second World War history isn’t bad, but actually it is lacking when it comes to what happened outside Europe, and this museum which is free, is highlighting these war time atrocities.

The Japanese at the end of the war destroyed many of the buildings and records and it is only after the efforts of a Japanese journalist in the 1980s that this place and its grutesque past came to light. There are photographs and exhibits which are not for the feinthearted and not for young children. When you feel the temperatures when you are wrapped up warm, and then see pictures of emaciated humans, tortured by freezing them alive in the winter months you can’t help but have shivers go down your spine and your skin covered in goosebumps. Stories of prisoners of war and civilians of all ages subjected to vivisection or “research” on the effects of being infected with bubonic plague, anthrax and 50 other kinds of bacteria and infectious diseases. Three to four thousand people died. Russians, Mongolians and Chinese women, men and children.

What makes the atrocity even more gruesome than it already is, is that the men who did the experimenting and their superiors were exempted from the Tokyo Trials and other trails thanks to the protection of the United States. General MacArthur struck a deal, secretly granting immunity in exchange for providing America, but not the other wartime allies, with their research on biological warfare and data from human experimentation. 

The museum makes you think about the connection between war and medical science. Having been chilled to the bone with what happened here between 1939-1945, I was really chilled to the bones when I couldn’t get a Didi or taxi back to the city centre. 2 cars cancelled on me, and on the 3rd attempt I succeeded. Phew.