We arrived in Harbin mid-afternoon to temperatures around -20, cold but bearable for now. We had arranged to stay with a local girl called Alicia in Harbin, through CouchSurfing, she’d invited us along to a ‘Festival’ that she was part of that night, so we got a taxi from the train station straight to the hotel where it would be, with our backpacks, having no idea what to expect.
It transpired that Alicia was part of a women’s E-MBA community who had organised their big end of year festival on this day and she had invited us along. We were obviously the only non-locals there, but with about 100 women and a couple of men, some who spoke at least a couple of words of English, we had a great night, somehow ended up reciting a poem on stage in front of everybody, were given as many free gifts as they could fit in our bags, had our first chinese banquet and were part of something we never expected we would see.
We left late that night to get a taxi together back to Alicia’s place, by this time the temperature had dropped to -31 and I was sent outside, without my coat on, to take some things to somebody’s car, the dictionary needs an alternative word to ‘cold’ to describe that.
The next day we planned to go to the ice festival that we had come to Harbin for, so we left mid-day, went for some lunch and walked down towards the frozen river, ice sculptures dotted the streets everywhere but people just carried on with their daily lives, even though its colder than we could ever imagine. We had come prepared though, thermal base layers, thermal socks, fleeces, coats, hats, ski-gloves, scarves. Anything we could think of to protect ourselves from the cold, but unfortunately, nothing can protect you from the wind making your eyes water and then it freezing to your face. I also never imagined that when you wear a scarf to protect your nose and mouth, when you breathe through it, this then turns to water and freezes the scarf solid, it seems now perfectly logical but nobody had warned us of that.
It was snowing, which was amazing to see at that temperature, but made the pavements dangerously slippery. We crossed the frozen river on the cable car, a really good experience, but this then dropped us on the other side of the river nowhere close to the ice festival that we were trying to get to, so just before we froze solid we managed to get in a taxi to take us there.
The ice festival was amazing, a whole city of sculptures and buildings that look great during the day but create an amazing spectacle at night when the whole festival lights up. There are long tubing and sledding slides, smaller slides in the ice buildings, activities like ice bikes and even locals jumping in to the freezing water, just to prove that they could do it i think.
We had great fun, stayed for hours and laughed all day, with many stops inside to try to thaw out a little. By about 7-8pm, the cold had become to tiring to endure any more so we headed back to Alicia’s place, had a couple of beers and went to sleep.
The final day was even colder than the previous two, windy, snowing at times, hard to be outside in for any more than a few minutes, so we had a walk, saw the Russian Cathedral and found a local brewery that brew their own european style beers in the bar. We spent most of the afternoon in there, in the warm, drinking some beer.
The day we had to leave to get to the airport, we decided that because of the cold we would just get a taxi as that would be easier than public buses. We walked outside and got one on the street within a couple of minutes, there was already somebody in there, but that is normal around here if you are going in the same direction. It turned out the girl in the taxi wasn’t going in our direction, so the driver took her first then turned around to head towards the airport. This taxi driver sounded like he was dying from some form of respiratory illness, he drove with the windows open at -25 and we weren’t 100% sure he even understood that we wanted to go to the airport.
About 10 minutes from the airport on the main expressway to there, he pulled over, leant out of the passenger door and started swearing. The back tyre had burst when he went over a bump in the road. We hadn’t put all the thermal layers on, knowing we were only going straight to the airport in a taxi, that was a mistake! He tells us to get out of the taxi, pulled our bags out of the boot and starts trying to change the tyre. Staci stood the other side of the barrier on lookout whilst I basically changed this tyre as the guy might have needed an ambulance if he did it. After about 20-30 minutes, it was changed but we had almost frozen to death. We bundled back in to the taxi with the bags on our knee, for Stac to notice he had ripped her backpack when taking it out of the boot, it was not a happy final 10 minutes ride. And when it finished, he got more money out of us than he should have and dropped us at the wrong terminal. But we eventually laughed it off and moved on, and now Stac’s backpack has a “poorly” which is plastered and bandaged up until we can find a more permanent fix.
Our final thoughts on Harbin is that it really is incredible, the city’s ability to endure those temperatures and ice and snow, and still carry on as normal is amazing, the people were nice, the ice city was amazing and it was great to meet the locals, but would we come back to Harbin in winter again? No! It’s so cold! 🙂