This was an 8D/7N tour package that we took with ChanBrothers.
The bitter cold of northeast China was frontier land and a much fought over area between imperial China and Russia in the 17th century and later with Japan. Today, it has emerged from its industrial rust belt stigma to offer tourists a taste of the snow and ice.
The start and end point of the 8 days will be the same – the city of Harbin. Because there is no direct flights into Harbin from Singapore, we had to fly in via Beijing. And run the gauntlet of catching the connecting flights in time. Consider that one needs to get through immigration first and then pick up the luggage to recheck-in at the domestic terminal.
Harbin is about slightly over a thousand kilometers from Beijing and the domestic flight alone takes about 2 hours.
A very long day. We had to connect a flight in Beijing to get to Harbin. The day’s sightseeing was all around Harbin itself and we also went to buy some winter wear for those who did not have enough.
|The flight to Harbin departed on time (yeah!) It was a little misty when we arrived in about 2 hours, but it was to a white-out landscape! Time to immerse into the frigid cold that we had been talking about!|
|Because we arrived at around noon, we did not have lunch and headed straight down to center of town and visited St Sophia cathedral. As the main Orthodox Eastern church in Harbin, the church was constructed in 1907 to cater to the approximate 100,000 Russians that domiciled in the city with the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway (ok that was 100+ years ago). It was only a 15 minute stop. So many tourists! There was even little stalls selling candied fruits. Today they do this with all kinds of fruits, but it used to be the small apples and cherries.|
|Next, we made our way to Harbin’s Central street. This thoroughfare is long and a continuous shopping belt much like Orchard road. We started off our walk from the 5th street, making our way to the Songhua river. There are already quite some ice sculptures on display here. Some snow sculptures were also in progress!
The end of the walk culminated at the flood control monument, dedicated to the city folks’ fight against the overflow of the Songhua river. My goodness the whole river has frozen over! Look at the people playing on the ice!
|The river freezes over so much that it is possible to skate on it. Lots of people have come on this Christmas day to play. We saw parents bringing children with little shovels, probably to make small ice sculptures of their own! There was even a skating rink!|
|To prove we are on the river, the bridge connecting the two sides can be seen in the distant. We closed out the day with a visit to a local store – for the less prepared folks to buy winter equipment or clothing and ride out the biting cold of the next few days.
We bought inner pants and for Mel, a pair of boots. Dinner was at a buffet with complimentary abalone, lobster and braised sea cucumbers. Full and satisfied, we checked into the hotel for a rest!
First, it was damn good luck on our side. The flight arrived on time and we all (41 folks) made it through customs quickly. Therefore, it was no hassle at all to get to Harbin.
Being here for the first day after an overnight flight, most folks were tired. But this did not mean we had it easy. The frozen river was certainly the highlight for us, as we had not seen much of this in Holland when we lived here (warm winters we were told). The sight of people skating and tubing on the river was fabulous!
The tour package also helped bring us to a local winter wear shop, so that those who are in need can make that last minute purchase. Because where we are headed the next couple of days, there will be exceedingly little in the way of apparel shopping and if available they will be probably exorbitant…
At the end of the day, we had a beautiful seafood buffet dinner. Hey it’s Christmas and we certainly did not miss out here with delicacies such as braised sea cucumbers, abalone and even lobster! All washed down with complimentary wine, it was a hearty way to sleep through the night.
This morning we went to the snow sculpture exhibition – it’s fabulous! It is 2+ hours’ drive to Harbin to Yingjie. This is a hot spring resort that is popular with the locals.
|What a glorious morning! Bright lights and blue skies await us for this day! Sun Island comes to life once a year during the winter from December till March. Here are two exhibitions – we call them festivals.
The first one is the snow sculpture exhibition, best viewed in the day time with all the large snow piles shaped into various themes. One major theme is the lunar new year of the Rooster. So you can see many of them all over the park.
|A ticket if you come on your own costs RMB 218pp.|
|We thought these sculptures were the displays…But we were told these were just the teasers! Fiery red leaves on the trees as the onset of winter begins…These red leaves look almost as if there were planted there!|
| A trolley bus is available for RMB10pp one way. This bus brings you to the “end” point, which at this time is temporary, since the whole park is actually in a state if work in progress. Officially the full complement of sculptures will be ready by January. And we are early, so some of them are only in the early stages of being put together.Such is the privilege of being early, we get to see the artists who are the local workers getting on with these artistic pieces! Here is a man-made lake that has frozen over. They are assembling blocks of ice on the surface!
Large blocks of snow being “piled” in place, compressed so that they become solid. Then an army of sculpting workers descend on the pile and start chipping away on it, eventually forming even something that looks like a palace.
|An archway is being built and we expect to be a complex one! See how the pillars supporting the archways are built? See Santa’s sleigh being pulled by a pair of dragons! 2017’s theme for the festival is: “Happy Ice Snow, Exciting City”. Rudolf, you’re in trouble. The Chinese are out for your job!|
|Officially opened 5-Jan, this must be the reason for the feverish pace of work that is ongoing! After 2 hours of exploring though in the cold, you’d want to slip away even if the sculptures keep making you stay longer!|
|We went for lunch at a Guandong ancient lane showcasing the culture of the northeast. Here there are all kinds of folk arts such as painted candy or even ones that are blown into various shapes!
Our lunch was at a dumpling (东方饺子王) restaurant, where we had a fill of dumplings!This was followed by a 3–hour drive out of Harbin towards the resort area of Ying Jie. Along the way we drove past fallow fields and came up to this beautiful town archway signalling we are near!
|Most visitors come here for the hot spring bath. There is a large hall with many separate pools, along with an outdoor bath area. We did not have group dinner catered and were given an RMB40pp credit for use in the resort. We did not eat at the local restaurants and opted to have dinner at the food court instead – all in for just RMB50 for a bowl of Beef noodle and pork rib noodle. Washed down with some complimentary side dishes.|
It was indeed a great day. Blue and clear skies, little if no crowds. We did not know this then, but Suan noted at the end of the tour that quite some members of the tour had cuts and bruises, which they said was incurred when they were at the snow sculpture exhibition. And it’s no wonder. The paths were partly icy and thus slippery. Being the first day in winter wonderland, it is inevitable that people from the tropics are little less careful.
So, exercise caution when you are here.
The wonderful thing as we mentioned earlier in the essay is being here early. Both in the day as well as before the official opening. Coming earlier in the morning is definitely a plus, before more folks come in. And watching the artisans work on the snow moulds is such a privilege. You see how much effort is put into carving these humongous works of art!
After a morning’s drive through the back roads, we got on the highway and made for Yabuli. A horse sled ride waited for us before lunch. While our tour mates went for snow tubing, we stayed in the hotel room and rested before dinner.
|This morning we made a near 4-hour drive via the highway to Yabuli. Beautiful vistas of the rural countryside with its fallow fields and green houses dot the landscape. Main crops : corn and some rice.|
|We made a pit stop at the Ping Shan (平山) rest stop. It was all rather busy with numerous tour buses stopping here. There were vendors here selling all sorts of dried fruits and nuts. Believe that these are all “freeze dried”… We saw what must have been wild pheasants too! Wondering if people buy them and prepare them for a meal!|
|Our only tour activity was a horse sled ride. Six people sit on an open carriage pulled by a single horse.There are three stops on this ride. The first one was at a local home. It shows how the frontier people lived. See how they dried the corn that is harvested in the autumn.
The home is not large and the kitchen is next to the sleeping area. The one we visited appears to be a real home…that’s because they seem to have a mortar to grind soybean or wheat/barley. For a small fee, you can buy some fire crackers and set them alight in the courtyard.
|Second stop, they brought us to see Birch trees which seem to have odd eye brows on their barks. The final stop was a bandit hold out. In the 19th century, this was frontier lands and many a local bandit leader made themselves lords of the hills. They made us walk through an underground tunnel ending with a “secret” exit, all to simulate how these wild men lived off the land. Then it was a bumpy ride back through the fallow fields of corn.|
|We did not partake in any optional activity today and went straight to the hotel for a rest. The evening dinner was at the same place. Tonight we celebrated the birthday of one of our tour member with cakes and song etc… All well prepared by the guides…|
We have left behind the comforts of the city and are now ~200km away. It has been noticeably colder, the negative reading on the thermometer going into double digits. Especially in the morning when we first get on the coach – it’s more than freezing! But the scene outside of the coach makes for beautiful pictures and we were quite glued to the window, though many slept through.
The rest stop was an experience in itself. First there are the vendors and the colorful fruits and dried pheasants displayed in the cold. What a way to do shopping… then there was the mad scramble for the toilets. You cannot imagine how chaotic it was. Anyway, visualize it in your heads on your own.
In the old days this was the frontier land. How people survive winter here back in the day is incredible. Just look at the homes they have (said to be still living in them). Learned something new too, birch trees with “eyes”… heheh.
We took an excursion to see the “ten mile paintings gallery”, sort of like ZhangJiaJie, except it is snowscape. Then it was off to Snow Town (中国雪乡).
|There was not many going for skiing lessons when we got to the beginners’ piste. Then it was off for a 3-hour drive towards Snow Town, stopping at the 十里画廊 for our optional tour.|
|The idea is to look out for how the snow has formed interesting shapes all along the trail. The many fallen trees do make for illusions but you’d need some imagination! Hence the name ten mile gallery. Though fortunately it was not that long for a walk!|
|But the highlight for us is to see the Siberian tigers (东北虎)! They are kept in a large enclosure and seem to be hungry of something…Perhaps as we passed, it looked to them like a buffet spread was walking by! Aside from the tigers, there are other animals, like a petting zoo.|
|Next up, we got to the entry of Snow Town, which requires finger printing to access. Our coach cannot drive into the town and we had to take the local mini buses to a designated stop in the town. Thus small traveling bags are recommended.|
|We are now at ~1500m altitude, and about 280km from Harbin. From the alighting point, we continued to walk for about 10 minutes to our accommodation, home for the next two nights. Dragging your large suitcase is quite a chore in the heavy snow and now it is clear why small bags were recommended. We got allocated an attic room, which is great since it afforded us a view from our window!|
|We walked up to the hill side overlooking the entire town before we begin to make our way back to the hotel. The snowing continued into the night, and even more people came up here to enjoy the views. Time for us to retire for the night, back to the “kang” (火炕) to experience how people in this part of China weather winter!|
It seemed that not many went skiing. And to be fair, it wouldn’t have been conducive in the sense that there was only a window of 2 hours for “enthusiasts” to get into gear and head up the slopes. Provided you already knew how to ski. So for newbies it was rather tight scheduling considering we were leaving at 1030am.
The optional activity we had today was a mix bag of disappointment and surprising pleasantness. Definitely did not expect to see Siberian tigers but that was really awesome though they were all behind cages…
And the way to Snow Town was indeed fraught with difficulties. Take your own luggage with you and try to squeeze on the mini buses! But the fruits of all that effort pays off in the evening when it is dark. For that is when the town really comes to life! If there one thing not to miss, it is the view over the town with gentle snowing. Mel’s hands were frozen from taking all the photo but the sacrifice was well worth it!
Go on here to read Part II of this journalog.