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Harbin: When there’s not an ice festival in sight

by Bernard H. Wood on December 7, 2012

Trips and Tales (Part 92): Trans-Siberian Offshoots #3

All the emphasis on Harbin (for tourists) appears to be based around the impressive Ice and Snow Festivals, which are headline-grabbing spectacles after all. However, the city caters amply to other, varied interests too.

Siberian tigers: World famous and endangered in the wild, here they may be found en masse, and roughly half an hour by wheels away from the city centre. A (covered) bus trip is available through their “preserve”, enabling you to marvel at them in close proximity, whilst the equally curious beasts wander over at their leisure to investigate this latest concept in mobile canned food.

A Confucian temple in HarbinA word of caution for animal lovers who may wish to go and see “conservation in action” – as it were. Although you can actually feed the tigers, they of course have their own preferred menu. It’s similar to us throwing bread to the ducks, but replace “bread” with live goats, ducks, and chickens. Apparently even cows too, if your budget will stretch.

A little too real for most of us. We can conserve them but we can’t rehabilitate them into polite vegetarians. I can’t honestly say that I’d want to watch a cow being taken apart, having witnessed a pig meet a similar fate in my formative years. Tread cautiously.

The Old Quarter: This sounds remarkable. Unlike other histories in China, bulldozed in a bid to eradicate the past (something learnt during the Cultural Revolution) Harbin’s old Russian quarter still survives. Not necessarily pretty, but an intriguing, displaced snapshot of early 1800′s urban Russia quietly decaying into modernity.

Zhongyang Dajie: Literally meaning “Central Avenue”, this cobbled street represents a jump ahead in time from the Old Quarter by roughly 100 years – with modern trappings thrown in. On display are a collision of architectural styles: Byzantine, Russian, Jewish, Baroque and French, alongside modern fast food outlets, and stores of fake brands. Only the best fakes, perhaps.

The “Unit 731” Museum: One of those locations, alongside Auschwitz that have to be painfully remembered in the hope that the persistence of knowledge will prevent their re-occurrence. Whilst not on the same industrial scale of atrocity, Unit 731 is the horrific remnant of Japanese occupation and worse still: prisoner of war experimentation – in order to “see what happens” when captives are protractedly tortured to death in the name of science and biological warfare. The term “human vivisection” only begins to describe what happened to a possible 12000 lives here (figures vary). You have been warned.

Incidentally, of the perpetrators themselves, some were ultimately arrested by Russian forces, found guilty of war crimes and spent terms in labour camps; others enjoyed subsequent careers in science, medicine, academia. etc, whilst still more were granted immunity by the US forces in return for their knowledge and “skills” – akin to Werner Von Braun et al. Proof if any were needed that “war criminals” are only those atrocity-enthusiasts not deemed actually useful.

Contrasting creeds: Calm and sanity prevails, well I ultimately hope so. Worth a look for the Pantheon of tolerance that they collectively represent: The Confucius Temple, St. Sophia Church, the Jewish New Synagogue and the Buddhist Temple of Heavenly Bliss. Hopefully enough scope there to secure some kind of spiritual calm or, at the very least, a chance to admire the architecture.

More festivals: The International Beer Festival is held annually in august and features local and (some) international alcohol as well as stages hosting dancing and music events. More of which can be found at the bi-annual Summer Music Festival, held in July in and around the City Square. It’s a free event attracting crowds to see and hear famous Chinese bands perform a variety of concerts, even on an epic scale. A thousand simultaneous pianists on one occasion (really?) – any takers?

There really seems to be a lot on offer in Harbin, the above just scratches the surface. A few words of caution above the usual “city” precautions: it is recommended to avoid ingesting fish (or anything) from the Songhua River, because in 2005 it was contaminated by an industrial benzyne spill (benzyne is a potent carcinogen). Also (I hear), Harbin has a reputation for being a tough, rowdy city, so you may want to avoid some of the more down-market night-life establishments. Apparently fights are frequent amongst various ethnic factions, and if caught in the middle (or at the sharp end), you can’t rely on staff to come to your aid. I read that it is best to avoid going to clubs, bathhouses and “KTV” (karaoke) bars alone and to make a sharp exit at the first sign of illegal activity.

As mentioned before, the roads can be insane so extra care is needed using or traversing them. Best defer to someone who “knows the ropes”. Good luck.


[Photo by Prince Roy]

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