Harbin: City of Ice

Harbin:  City of Ice

Hooray! I’m writing about a real trip for once! What a wonderful few days I’ve just had. I travelled to Harbin, Northeast China’s glistening, bustling, City Of Ice! The Harbin Ice Festival is  renowned for its beautifully carved ice/snow sculptures, amazing lantern show and definitely lives up to its reputation as one of the top attractions of China (in January, at least!).

Despite its sweltering summer, Harbin’s temperature rarely moves above zero degrees for six months of the year. We walked right across the wide frozen river, covered in snow, horses and carts trotting back and forth behind us. To the right, a huge suspension bridge, majestic alongside the greyish sky. To the left, we watched a fantastic sunset from the centre of the Songhua River, the rays turned deepest red by the thin haze of smog that surrounded other parts of the city.


A friend had recruited our Chinese guides, his aunt and cousin who had been born and raised in Harbin. The aunt was motherly, knowledgeable and very interested in foreign life, culture and food. The son was crazy about anime, and old English legends. He “likes the swords”. They took us to the best restaurants in Harbin to try Northeast China specialties, 锅包肉,土豆,and other dishes I forget the name of. We ate well. They showed us sights we wouldn’t have considered: the Old Town of Harbin, with Russian influenced architecture (late 19th-early 20th century); the 300m+ Dragon Tower  that Harbin citizens paid to build together but aren’t sure exactly why; and the ancient style hutong where we bought pretty candy and I was given a snowflake.

Northeast China Food

I guess they tried to teach us a lot about the history of the city, but sadly, they couldn’t speak a word of English! There was a lot of nodding and smiling: half formed sentences in Chinese, and so on. I got that many farmers from southern China had moved to Harbin because the earth here is famously fertile. They wanted to make use of it. At the turn of the 20th century, Harbin was colonised by Russians from Eastern Europe, who heavily influenced Harbin’s food, language and culture. In the city there was a replica Russian village, but it was very superficial. Maybe it was built just ten or twenty years ago.

This was a cable car station!
This was a cable car station!

The 27th Harbin Ice Festival was really beautiful. One 300RMB ticket got us into the main attraction: Harbin Ice and Snow World. Here , we found a magnificient collection of ice and snow sculptures, igloos, ice slides and fairytale castles. I particularly liked the Huge Snow Buddha. We climbed the highest ice sculpture, 30m tall, and watched as the lanterns installed inside the sculptures animated , turning the icy landscape into a (to coin a phrase) ‘winter wonderland’ of very exaggerated colours, noises and flashing lights. Which is, of course, in true Chinese style!



Discovering China from my dormitory

Discovering China from my dormitory

So , the truth is, I haven’t had many awesome adventures or conversations lately. I blame a combination of homesickness, laziness and, recently, a longing for the familiar. I’ve still found some rare moments where I do sit down and find some interesting things to do that are just so….China. I thought I would talk about those.

I have been studying a book full of ancient Chinese philosophical poems, the sort of book that is given to Chinese kids. Many Chinese children are taught to recite these poems in school and may even have to do so for their university entrance exam. It’s full of ‘lessons’ on how to live your life, including Confucian concepts. I studied the first lesson, and found out that actually ancient Chinese characters and sentence constructions may be so different to modern Chinese that my friends probably couldn’t understand me if I read one out. The poems comprise at most twenty four characters each, four lines, six characters and two ideas per line. The modern Chinese used six or seven characters just to describe the meaning of one single character in the poem, which I found interesting.

The book is full of these lessons to teach young children. The  poem I studied most recently goes like this:

第子规 ,圣人训 Young children (第子) should obey the rules (规), the elder sages (圣人) taught (训)

首孝弟,次谨 信 Firstly (首), you must show filial piety and obedience (孝)to your parents (弟), second (次) be honest, trustworthy and careful (谨) with your words(信).

泛爱众, 而亲仁 Spread (泛)love (爱) to everyone (众) around you, and most of all (而)treat your parents well (亲仁)

有余力,则学文 If you have (有) extra (余) time, energy or ability (力), you must (则) use it to discover more about every culture to increase your intellectual knowledge (学文).

The last line appeals to me most of all. I feel I really don’t make the use of my time and ability very well, especially while I am sat in my room watching TV. Moments like this where I am really just studying Chinese for the sake of interest , and I come across some wisdom like this, really do make me happy!

The large characters are the ancient Chinese poem, which actually has a rhyme at the end of each word. The smaller characters are the modern Chinese explanation which is much longer.
The large characters are the ancient Chinese poem, which actually has a rhyme at the end of each word. The smaller characters are the modern Chinese explanation which is much longer.
This is the collection of ancient Chinese poems that many Chinese children are taught to recite in school, and contains a lot of philosophical ‘lessons’ for how to live your life (for example, Confucius).

Points of Communication

Points of Communication

It took me some time to figure out why I had come to China in the first place. I thought I wanted to travel around the country, but after several incidents where I cancelled my trip to stay with my friends in Beijing, I decided maybe that wasn’t the case. I think I might have come to talk to people, to find out what it’s like to live in China, rather than to be a tourist. Recently, I’ve barely even done that. I’ve been on autopilot for the entire Christmas period, feeling like all I wanted to do was fly home to England. I decided to write about some strangers I met to remind myself how interesting China can be.

  1. The wordless conversation
  2. At the start of the year, I passed a young man on campus who was deaf and mute. He sat me down and showed me a page of intimidating Chinese characters. Realising I couldn’t read them, he proceeded to translate the entire document into English using Pleco (a popular Chinese translation app) on my phone. I found out shortly he was asking for money, money to help people like him get a good education, and he’d come quite a long way to get to Beijing. I showed him I didn’t have very much in my wallet, and he placed his hand over mine as if to say ‘don’t worry’. I thought after that he might just leave, but instead he sat with me. Somehow using a combination of Pleco and weird hand gestures (I don’t know sign language) we managed to find out where each other lived, how old we were, what our daily lives consisted of, among other things. He spoke to people without saying a word, managing to understand them even though he couldn’t hear. But when we were alone he gave me a cheeky smile as if to say ‘actually I was just pretending’. He took me to the place I was supposed to find, said he would wait for me, but when I came outside he was gone.
  3. The moon cake women
  4. On Mid-Autumn Festival(6th-9th September), I found the Tsinghua University lake. There were student societies, families, classmates, workmates: hundreds of people were out that night eating and drinking under the clear night sky. The Mid-Autumn Festival is the day families sit outside and watch the moon. I was absorbing the environment by myself, until a woman just a little older than me heard me trying to speak Chinese to a barista and took pity on me! She invited me to sit with her and her friend, both were a little tipsy, and they bought me my very first Tsingtao beer (the first of many to come!) and I shared my moon cake with them. They were fascinated by me because they so badly wanted to travel to England. One of them had spent some time in France and her English was really very good. We hung out, discussed their work in Haidian District, their families and their hometowns, how they had come to be such great friends. They are really the only graduates I have met during my time in China. After that lovely night, I never saw them again either.
  5. The illegal religion
  6. Once I was travelling with a friend who spoke far better Chinese than me. By that time I was used to people stopping us on the street just to talk to us, and it was much more rewarding with him there as he could explain exactly what was being said. We were walking along a quiet path, and a man stopped us. He said that he was a member of a certain religion. The religion was once well supported by the Chinese government, but later seen as a threat. In the 1990s, there was a crackdown on the religion which was seen to threaten social stability. The man said something about how he could talk to us because we were foreigners, but didn’t feel secure talking to other Chinese.
  7. These are some experiences I have had communicating with Chinese people. I look forward to my Chinese improving so I can have more and more meaningful conversations as time goes on.