Traveling to China?

Paul Bograd

Posted on June 30, 2006

Visit Harbin for Ice Palaces, Siberian Tigers, Russian Culture, A Massive Dumpling Feast and Maybe A Glimpse at China’s Economic and Cultural Polarization.

I will be the first to admit that a winter vacation to China is not everyone’s idea of best possible use of precious days off. All of my best traveling buddies had very plausible reasons for begging off, but in their voices I could have sworn I detected their suspicions of my mental health as I described how great the -25 degree temperatures would feel and arctic beauty of the Sino – Russian border region.

But we needed a change of climate from Bangkok and the influx of tourists in Bermuda shorts and black knee socks. Besides, my Philippine-born wife had seen snow only once for about 1½ hours during a quick July trip to the ski area outside of Melbourne. So we scoured the Bangkok markets for winter clothes, booked Dragonair to Beijing and had a great, great time.

I won’t take too much time extolling the virtues of off season travel to Beijing, but in words of one syllable… Do It!

No Tourist Crowds: In fact, virtually the only western tourists we saw were large groups of European couples arriving to import their newly adopted Chinese infants. By the way, not one of these couples expressed any remorse about adding to the trade deficit.

You Get To Feel Like One Of The Locals: Since it is the off season, almost all the audience at the regular Beijing sites (Great Wall, Forbidden City, Acrobats, Opera, Plate Spinning and Kung Fu etc.) are Chinese tourists in from the Provinces, or local Beijing residents who can venture out without fear of feeling out of place among the masses of western and Japanese tourists. I liked the notion of just being one of the folks out on the town and not part of an overdose of western tourists. Although in deference to intellectual honesty, while my wife does pass for Chinese, my chubby, New Jersey-born face didn’t really blend in.

You Get The Competitive Advantage In Market Economics: Since you are one of the few foreign tourists braving the sub zero temperatures, the market works in your favor. Hotels, cars, restaurants, markets, even counterfeit golf club salespeople are so happy to see you that they start dropping the price before you even get the chance to join the bargaining session. Plus if you happen to use U.S. dollars, it feels like the old days when a dollar was a dollar.

But no more about Beijing for now, because the real star was Harbin.

For those readers who don’t know, Harbin was a former Russian city, occupied by the Japanese and finally returned to its rightful Chinese ancestry. Located in the far northeast not far from the Russian border, it is sub-arctic in climate which means very, very, very cold, tempered only by icy blasts of Siberian wind that drop the – 25 degree temperature to a wind chill factor somewhere around -50.

The Ice Festival
But in this urban freezer, Harbinites ( I am not sure of the English term for Harbin residents, but Harbinites sounds better than Harbinonians) celebrate each winter with an extraordinary nightly Ice Festival, which centers around a fantastic “ice city” of replica buildings constructed out of huge blocks of ice embedded with multi-colored fluorescent lights. Enormous replicas of Thai Temples, Chinese Buddha, Fantasized European Castles, The Great Wall, futuristic ice labyrinths and pyramids among others are constructed around broad plazas and roads, some of which serve as runways for ultralight aircraft that continuously buzz the site with their load of a pilot and single, frozen and slightly terrified passenger.

In addition to this frozen architectural wonder, the Ice Festival features a daytime visit to a beautiful park full of extraordinary, massive snow sculptures of everything from replicas of European art, to the logo from the Love Story movies. Dog sleds, snow mobiles, a squirrel sanctuary, horse drawn sleighs and a variety of winter sports competitions all provide for a great, if somewhat frozen getaway from the steamy streets of Southeast Asia.

Siberian Tigers
Finish off the trip with a few hours at the world’s biggest Siberian Tiger sanctuary, where 200 or so Siberian Tigers loaf around in a labyrinth of large, frozen, fenced off areas of Suburban Harbin. At the end of your visit is a display of one of the more twisted examples of Chinese bio-engineering…an odd hybrid offspring of a female Tiger and male Lion. Other than the slightly confused ethnic heritage we all seem to suffer, the creature seemed happy enough, and all the tigers were envious of tropical climate that their Thai tiger relatives enjoy.

Russian Culture and Dumplings
Beyond the Ice Festival, Harbin culture is a bit unique. One can visit the site of the World War 2 era Japanese bio-chemical experiments, (we took a pass on that one), shop for some rather creepy looking fur products, or visit the incredible number of dumpling restaurants. (Harbin dumpling are considered the greatest in China, albeit this analysis comes only from Harbinites. I actually thought they were rather ordinary)

Russian cultural leftovers are worth a few hours of sightseeing. A few churches and building in the classical Russian architectural style, a handful of Russian restaurants, and even a Russian replica village complete with genuine, imported Russian villagers.

Interestingly, virtually the only souvenirs available in Harbin are from the dozens of “Russian Shops” located throughout Harbin. The most popular product seems to be the Russian matrioska (nesting dolls) which are for sale everywhere, including various political versions, one of which features Osama bin Laden. One interesting note to Intellectual Property Rights advocates, a large percentage of the matrioska which are passed of as Russian made, are apparently manufactured in China. (no doubt a case will soon be heard at the Hague) The Russian caviar was so low priced that it can’t be genuine or even real caviar. Never the less we purchased some and will report on its quality after a taste test.

China’s Economic and Cultural Polarization
While I usually hate to sully an otherwise fun vacation with too much intellectual thought, one can’t take in all that Harbin presents and not ponder on the obvious economic and cultural polarization that China faces. I won’t pontificate much on the nature of the “Have vs. Have Not” challenge that China must deal with. If you are reading AsianPundit, you know enough about Asia to understand.

Harbin presents it all. Behind the shiny new airport and 5 Star hotels are the grimy backstreets, and grim soviet style housing blocks of Harbin’s “Have Nots”. Within 20 minutes of meeting a young college age women who acted as our guide for an afternoon, she told us in no uncertain terms that Harbin had only too kinds of people; The Very Rich and the Very Poor. She considered herself among the very poor. But she said it without anger or even resentment. In the next breath she told us with obvious pride that she was a born and bred “Harbin Girl”, and Harbin girls were known locally as “Lauo” or Tiger in Mandarin. She will do OK in China’s future.

As we sat at the McDonalds next to our hotel, (we couldn’t face another stroll in the -25 degree weather) I peered though the window at the Walmart Supercenter, and the Warner Brothers multiplex theaters, while the loudspeakers along the walking street of high end international brand signature shops played trance and American hip – hop tunes. A James Bond movie blared on the McDonalds Television screens and advertisements heralded tomorrows Super Bowl. I was struck by how extraordinarily rich and full of promise, opportunity and conflict are the lives of young Chinese. They will spend their lives sorting out the attraction of western culture and the past of a state controlled life and the more distant past of traditional Chinese culture and norms.

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