Ice Castles

“I can’t find the platform” Ann said as we held our heavy luggage fresh from storage. Despite the -3 degree weather, we were both sweating, hoping that we won’t miss our train.

She was right. This trip may have been one of the hardest trips I’ve ever taken I recall, remembering our panic-stricken faces as we walked up and down the corridors looking for a familiar number, an arrow or signage to tell us where to go.

Relatively close to the country geographically and having had eons of history with our trade, culture, mindset etc, It was hard for me to fathom how foreign I felt at the time. We were in China afterall, in one of the busiest train stations in Beijing, on the way to the annual Ice & Snow Festival in Harbin.

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This was exactly two years ago when we excitedly wrapped up our self-planned day tour of Beijing (which I will post about very soon). If it’s your first time in China, I would definitely recommend the following:

  • Get a tour group to maximize your time in the famous landmarks instead of navigating your way in the city.
  • Do not underestimate the weather in January.
  • Download a translator app.
  • In lieu of a translator  app, you can make do with a lot of screenshots of probable words you would use locally. Start from “toilet”, “train station”, “airport” etc. Simply determine the local language or dialect, then look for the words written in that form on the internet. This is what we did. 
  • Get one of these awesome Turovaller shirts. I wish I had this. I would wear it everyday.
  • Get a language book.
  • Have an extensive language course 5 years before your trip.

“I found it!” Ann exclaimed.

There it was in the distance, a shiny sign pointing to the general direction of our platform. Knowing we were already pressed for time, Ann and I went on focused-mode and ran through the crowd likened to an episode of The Amazing Race. Grabe. Ang daming tao.

Understandably, it was the weekend and a lot of people were either heading home to the province or just arrived in the city. It was crazy! At one point, I remembered flinging my very heavy luggage between the escalators so I can run down and slide everything I was carrying at the same time. Oh, we were also pushing and shoving as inspired by the locals. 

We made it to our seats.

Exhausted, I sat by the window hoping to be able to sleep through the 8-hour trip on the mighty D27. Having been told a few days before our flight that the train we originally wanted, the Z Train, was fully booked, we were surprised to find our carriage also full. We made ourselves comfortable and the sun followed suit, resting behind the Chinese terrain. Soon it was dark and I fell asleep.

I woke up mid-trip with this unbelievable smell. It was a cross between someone’s tired feet and an egg, forgotten in a basket, behind potatoes you’ve stocked up on. It was a gentleman beside us eating pickles. It made me uncomfy but excited at the prospect of many sights, sounds and smells that Harbin offered. Outside was total darkness with occasional faint, snow-covered plains and rooftops, lit up by lone street lights and shop fronts. I didn’t know the extent of how cold it was as we were inside a warm train and soon eating cart-bought noodles.

Two words: Negative. Seventeen.

Like frozen-muta feels.

Man, it was cold. The train halted to a stop in this surreal train station, powdered with fresh snow. Having just woken up, I juggled between reality and dreaming but soon jolted awake as we were mauled by the freezing temperatures brought on by the sudden opening of the train doors.  Like frozen-muta feels. I thought we caught the wrong train to Siberia. Everything was bright, fluffy and borderline depressing at the same time.

Upon disembarking from our carriage, we scaled the length of the platform and tried our best to warm ourselves up while taking photos of everything we thought was interesting making sure that my iPhone was tucked inside my sleeves as it didn’t do well in lower temps (I found this out incoveniently in Beijing and missed a lot of photo opportunities). Ann and I excitedly talked behind our teeth as we shivered into the concourse. It dawned on us that at nearly midnight, we didn’t know how to get to our hotel. Looking around, it seemed that the station has already closed shop with just a few people around. I think they detected our confusion and expertly offered us a way to the city center. We were hesitant but we took the risk after a few agreeable calculations.

We were soon heading towards a lone car outside of the station. With us were three men who seemed to know each other. We were red in heightened awareness as this situation could go very wrong in many ways. We could also have been red because of the cold. I wasn’t ready to freeze in Harbin. I harbin’t been here before. Chos. Well I guess there was nothing we could do then, because our luggage was forcibly pushed into the boot of the car and so we snuggled into the back seats with all of them. Isa lang pala sa kanila, but you know what I mean. We soon drove towards the city and looked through our window at siberbia. #halohalo feels, Besh, but we eventually made it to our hotel for a much needed rest.

The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is the annual showcase of ice-sculpture and lights held in China’s northermost province between December and end of February. It is a magnificent display of cultural icons, ice-castles and precise lightshows attracting over 15 million visitors yearly. Don’t worry though as there’s plenty of space to frolick about. Every year, the sculptures are bigger and awe-inspiring, not to mention the ever-changing exhibits they offer for everyone to enjoy. To give you an idea of how vast the festival is, it has three main venues:

  • Sun Island Scenic Area: As the name suggests, it is best to visit this venue in the day time to enjoy the many sculptures on display.
  • Zhaolin Park: Usually for kids or young at heart, the sculptures in Zhaolin Park are beautifully lit up and often interactive. They have slides so I highly discourage wearing shorts. LOL.
  • The Ice & Snow World: My favorite amongst the three venues, the sheer size and grandeur of the snow scupltures speak of the local artists’ dedication to create transient and ambitious structures.

The stark blue skies juxtaposed against the crisp, meticulously-carved, giant snow statues quite dramatically and we were happy to pose in front of these giants:

But it is really during the night that the festival comes into light, pardon the pun; leaving us speechless as we explored and feasted with our eyes:

Look at it! Isn’t this a song?

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Syempre, sari-sarili kami ng pose:

It was difficult to continuously document the sculptures as our phones kept shutting off in the cold so we would have to often plug it into our powerbanks to wake it up. For us, we recharged in one of the many enticing, and very warm cafes.

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Joke lang, eto yun.

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After a quick coffee and soup sesh, we went to see more frozen delights.

We were rubbing-alcohol cold.

But in the end, we enjoyed every crev-ice of the massive site. See what I did there? Cool! Wait.

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You still have time to visit Harbin’s 3-month long festival. To help you with planning this trip, here are our suggested tips:

  • Book your train ticket from Beijing to Harbin as it often gets very busy during the season. We got ours here, opting for the Z train or the D27. The Z train costs roughly around $150 USD and the D27, a little cheaper.
  • Borrow  or buy thermal wear. Like, full snow gear less the skis. Trust me. I nearly underestimated the weather which would have made for a very painful (my knee doesn’t function in the cold) trip. Luckily Ann had friends who recently visited Harbin a month prior and we were able to borrow. 
  • Plan your trip from Harbin West Train Station to your hotel ahead of time to save the hassle of having limited transpo options. I’ve read about scamming “taxis” at the station who would exploit and squeeze a few dollars out of you if you are not careful. I remember paying roughly a bit more than the usual CNY 25 taxi so I guess we were scammed. There are also buses available so research the bus schedules thoroughly.
  • Print a copy of your hotel booking with an address and supplement with a map. We initially went to the wrong hotel of the same name. LOL.
  • Prepare a sandwich to eat on your way to Harbin. Or baon ng rice and ulam from Yoshinoya.
  • Set your alarms multiple times for the next day as gallivanting in the snow can tire you like you walked the length of the Great Wall in high heels.
  • Oh, we missed our flight to Beijing the next day after we didn’t do above. LOL.

There are plenty of things to do in Harbin as well. In the summer, they have their own music festival which I’d like to do sometime in the future. Their architecture is heavily influenced by a combination of their Chinese and European heritage, earning their namesake, “Oriental Moscow”.

The buildings in Zhongyang Street are ornate and distinctly of Baroque and Byzantine influence. But nothing stood out more than the Russian (some say Greek) Orthodox church we saw in the city: the centrally-located Saint Sophia Cathedral, now a museum (CNY 20), and surrounds. 

My trip to Harbin remains as one of the most memorable experiences in my life. It tested us beyond our limits but most of all, also taught us the value of these limits and how to better prepare for them. The new sensations of eating a sweet, half-kilo kamote or the inviting smell of spicy soup is nothing compared to the unforgiving cold we were barely expecting. So don’t find yourself ill-equipped and naive of these details to truly enjoy your travel to and in this contrasting city. Trust me, harbin there.

To my travel buddy, Ann Dimamay, my life-long mentor and friend, this post is for you. 

Thanks for taking this trip with me:

And now I do believe
That even in a storm
We’ll find some light
Knowing you’re beside me

-Looking Through The Eyes Of Love.

P.S. If you are trying to access the Turovaller shirts, stay tuned as this will be available soon.

Hint: #iphonographshoph 

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