As the Chinese lady moved towards the wire fence with a bucket of meat she had bought, I couldn’t help feeling this was a mistake. Taking her tongs and pushing her small son closer to the barrier, she proceeded to force the meat through a gap in the fence; below the hungry Siberian tigers looked up in anticipation. As the meat appeared the animals, on hind legs, leapt up to grab it with their huge paws, just inches from the boys face. It was a little scary, especially when the lady started to fend off the too enthusiastic paw with her tongs. Hey welcome to China!
The reason we had to travel basically the length of the country in one go was to meet a tour we’d booked onto, which started in Beijing. After almost a year of sorting out all our accommodation, transport and general life for ourselves the idea of someone else doing it was quite appealing! The draw of the Snowdragon trip was that we would be going to far-flung corners of Manchuria, the Northern most region of China, which we would never have been able to get to under our own steam…the downside was it was going to be cold…very very cold.
So after meeting our group we boarded an overnight train to Harbin, arriving at 6am we soon worked out that just two pair of socks was not going to be enough on this trip! Harbin is a pretty city with a strong Russian influence because of a railway line built from Vladivostok in the early twentieth century making it a major stop for immigrants. Now it has a feel of Eastern Europe, complete with domes on the top of buildings and some distinctly Russian cuisine.
Our first stop was to the Siberian tiger and liger park just outside of the city. Jumping in a badly scratched minibus we drove around the enclosures at high-speed spotting the giant animals outside the windows as we went. It soon became clear that this bus was not only used to shuttle tourists around, but also for feeding times, as the giant wild cats jumped up onto the bus to have a sniff and a nibble at what ever they could get their mouths on… explains the scratches on the bus I guess. After the joy ride we took the chance to walk around a caged elevated platform for a closer look at the tigers. Being as cold as it was these beasts where much bigger than your average tiger and had a much bushier coat. They were most certainly beautiful though and almost strokable… if only it wasn’t for their ability to kill you in record time, I’m sure they would have made great pets. As we slowly lost feeling in our toes, we watched Chinese family’s get their pictures taken with grumpy tiger cubs, next to the gift shop with every tiger themed product you could imagine… we really couldn’t be anywhere but Asia.
Harbin is most famous in the wintertime for its Snow and Ice Festivals, which also double as the international snow and ice sculpting competitions. We first set off to explore the snow festival, gazing on at huge lumps of snow that had been turned into everything from a Disney based shrine, to sculptures of famous scientists like Darwin and Newton. We watched on as teams expertly sculpted more of these temporary artworks and we slowly lost feeling in all our remaining didgets (it was around -30 C at this point). However, no amount of cold could keep us from enjoying the pièce de résistance, the ice festival. With a few star jumps and a warm coffee we headed into the Ice festival like giddy school children, it was surely the closest thing to “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” anyone will ever get. Made up of huge buildings made out of ice bricks, lit up from within with multi coloured lights, which you could go inside, some even had ice sofas and others ice slides! Now it was tacky and the number of ice castles would have been a little much for any Disney princess but we ran around like 10 year olds after too much sugar. We ended our very long and cool (in both senses of the word) day in the best possible way with some Russian beer and a big bowl of mashed potatoes… Bliss.
Next time… Ella’s first ever time on skis!
R&E (plus most of the snow dragon group)