My Second Visit to the Coldest Place in China
I was thinking about it as I was on the train coming back from Haerbin last night, that had I not extended my stay here in China for another six months, I would be going home in about two weeks. And I would be going home feeling like I did by no means take full advantage of my stay here. I am so glad that I made the decision to extend my stay in China.
Haerbin was the second major trip I have taken since living in Beijing, the other being to Henan, which you can read about a few posts down if you haven’t already. Other than these past two trips, I spend the majority of my time either in class or at home. As I write this, I am making a promise to myself to get out and explore the city more, if not the country. Travel is somewhat difficult because of my lack of an income, which is somewhat of a pain, but I will figure out a way to circumvent that obstacle. Still, Beijing is the capital of China. It has so much to see, so much to photograph, so many people to meet, and even though I have been here for almost five months, i have barely scratched the surface. The unfortunate thing is that most of the people I come into contact with at school have little to no interest in doing anything else besides drinking and creeping on unsuspecting Chinese girls at clubs. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sauce, but only the good stuff. If anybody can find me a brew that doesn’t taste like migrant worker sweat, I don’t know what I’d do.
Actually, there are a few places that have imported microbrews, but they are prohibitively expensive. Well, maybe not prohibitively, but anything more than occasional imbibing of those delicious bottles of America libation pretty much nixes my travel budget. I even contemplated setting up a homebrew, but it is so impractical in China due to the lack of ingredients, space, and quite frankly sanitation. Even if I can find some quality barley and a carboy and brewing yeast, it would be so difficult to keep the set up sanitized that it is simply not worth it. So time after time I find myself heading back to Kro’s Nest or Tube Station Bistro, with their $3.00 longnecks of nostalgia, to enjoy a little taste of home.
Luckily, my nostalgia did not preclude my getting to Haerbin this past weekend. Haerbin is famous for its Ice Festival, during which the locals build a whole city out of ice. It is downright gorgeous. Look it up. Unfortunately, we came to Haerbin too early to see the Ice Festival, which really sucked, because this time marks the second time I have visited Haerbin, and both times I ended up promising myself that the next time I come I will see the Ice Festival. My last trip to Haerbin was during my first journey to China, with the beloved Zhou Laoshi, back in the summer of 2006. If you have kept up with this blog/know me well enough, then you know the profound effect that lady has had on my life. If you don’t, then check back a few entries previous, where you can read just how influential she has been in the path my life is taking.
When I went to Haerbin back on ’06, it was in the middle of summer. Haerbin was still a little chilly. This time, it was -18 degrees Celsius. That’s just below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. There was also a constant wind that felt like broken glass as it whipped across your face, through your hood and down your back. Haerbin is cold like I have never experienced before. Coming to Beijing from Shanghai took some getting used to, but after a week or two I got used to the cold enough that it no longer affected my daily activities. Conversely, I don’t know if I could ever get used to the cold of a Haerbin winter. The wind that comes off of Siberia flows directly into the city. It’s a good thing I was there for the weekend, as the novelty of such profound cold did not have time to wear off. I will share a dirty (literally) secret with you, though. It was so cold and dry in Haerbin that not one of the six of us needed to shower the whole three days. You don’t sweat, and any oil or whatever that would normally gather on your hair just never collects, or evaporates before you can look and smell like you haven’t showered in days.
After we disembarked from the train we lined up in the taxi service line, where we got our first taste of the snow and the wind. It was enlightening. The hostel we stayed at was converted from a synagogue back in the late 60’s. It still has a lot of Jewish imagery in it, as they basically threw up a few makeshift walls and lofts and divided them into rooms.
After dropping our stuff off, we headed to my favorite part of Haerbin from ’06–the Tiger Park. Haerbin is unique in that it has this park, on whose grounds over three hundred big cats live, assuming you use the term ‘live’ loosely.
Despite their beauty, they are not fed too well by the caretakers, and I am sure many an animal-rights activist would have a field day. Honestly though, what part of China wouldn’t piss off any type of activist? No matter. The cool part about the Tiger Park is that you can buy things to feed the cats. You can buy steak. You can also buy a cow. In fact, aside from the bovine variety you can also buy chickens, pheasants, and sheep to feed to the cats. I think this is the main reason why they keep the animals so starved–so visitors will feel more compelled to buy animals to watch the cats eat for lunch.
The ungulates were too expensive for us, so we bought some of the avian variety. At $7.00 a pop, it was more than worth it. First, they take you inside a bus to drive through the compound. It is very reminiscent of Jurassic Park, with the electrified fences that open by remote control, and the wild way the bus driver corrals the animals into their respective areas, using the bus as a giant border collie.
After you drive through the compound, they drop you off at the entrance to this overhead boardwalk, very much akin to the velociraptor cage in JP. There, you can buy additional chickens from this sweet old lady, who will tie them to a pole so you can ‘fish’ for the tigers.
It is important to go to the park with people who are either Asian or who watch a ton of Discovery Channel, as it can get somewhat gruesome. Interestingly, the last time I was at the park, Zhou Laoshi had a little freak out, and wouldn’t let us stop to take pictures of the cats because she was so scared of them. To this day, my best friend Chad from high school and I scream “走了，走了，走了!!!” (LET’S GET OUT OF HERE LET’S GET OUT OF HERE LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!!!) to one another whenever Zhou Laoshi comes up in conversation. The following pictures are about 50% graphic, 150% awesome, and they manage to tell the story of these two chickens’ last moments better than any words can.
And then there were none.
If it makes you feel any better for the chickens, the Chinese do in fact sell tiger bone wine. It is literally wine that pickles a tiger skeleton that sits in a tank in the gift shop. Evidently it (like everything else in Chinese traditional medicine) promotes youth and is an aphrodisiac while at the same time meeting the obligatory medicinal requirement of being absolutely repulsive-smelling.
After we had finally had our fill of the tigers having their fill, we left the park and headed to Sun Island, a large garden amusement park. Last time I went to Sun Island, it was sunny and beautiful.
It began to get dark, and somehow even colder, so we decided to make the long trek back to the entrance, where we fortunately found a cab driver waiting to shuttle the stragglers back to town.
Since Haerbin shares its northern border with Russia, there is a lot of Russian influence in the architecture and culture.
Aside from the Red Army surplus stores and Russian chocolate everywhere, there is also Russian food.
Unfortunately, the food sucked about as much as I’m assuming living under Stalin did, so Scott, being the artist in the group, used the food as a medium with which to express his disappointment. Modern art–use your imagination.
Fortunately, we were able to find some candied crab apples to snack on while enjoying the local sculpture.
Finally, we headed back to the hostel to call it a night. The next morning we went to see one of Haerbin’s most famous structures–St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Formerly a Russian Orthodox Church, it was built in 1932, closed during the Revolution, and re-opened in the last few years. It no longer holds services, now serving as a museum that showcases multicultural art and historical photos from around Harbin.
Here is the inside, with the famous dome and chandelier, as well as some of the works on display.
After visiting the Cathedral, we made the collective decision to skip the Russian shopping mall, instead choosing to visit the 731 Memorial Museum. which turned to be a very bone-chilling, hallowed place. Even the bus over there gave off a foreboding aura.
Unit 731 was the Imperial Japanese Army unit under the command of Shiro Ishii that performed myriad heinous experiments involving germs, chemicals, and amputations on the Chinese during WWII. Their goal was to study the effects of bio-chemical and germ warfare using fleas packed in bombs, as well as the effects of frostbite and other conventional weaponry (grenades, etc.) when the wounds went untreated. Somehow, the ‘experiments’ performed here exceeded even those horrible official goals. Unit 731 was responsible for some of the most notorious crimes against humanity ever perpetrated. The atrocities have been compared to the Holocaust, and while not on the same scale in terms of sheer numbers (though the Japanese slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese), some of the experiments performed, in my opinion, are far more atrocious than the experiments Mengele and his team of doctors performed, especially because the Japanese used every prisoner for some sort of horrible experiment, and in the name of ‘recreating battlefield conditions’ abstained from using any sort of anaesthetic while performing their live vivisections. Some of the accounts by Japanese doctors remembering their feelings and emotions during their time at 731 are some of the most chilling accounts I have heard in memory, and I do not count myself as one that scares easily. It is important to note, that, albeit ethically questionable (the use of such data obviously, as the methods used to gather it swing many degrees past unethical), much of what modern medicine today knows about the effects of frostbite, hypothermia, drowning, and other terrible ways to die came from the data collected from Mengele, Ishii, and their respective teams of doctors.
The 731 Memorial Museum was a somber ending to our stay in Haerbin. After leaving the museum, we had a quick dinner before boarding the overnight train back to Beijing. All in all, my second visit to Haerbin was a very fulfilling one. It was interesting to see how the city had changed since I had last seen it, as well as how much I had changed since last setting foot there. I am glad I got to experience the tiger park for all it was worth this time around, and I am glad that I got to experience Sun Island for all it is worth last time. Not surprisingly, St. Sophia’s hadn’t changed much, and though I had heard of Unit 731 prior to my visit, seeing the site and the artifacts of the horrible things that took place on too large a scale there brought a very concrete, very real dimension to an otherwise abstract sequence of words on the paper that I read about 731 on. In a sense, it brought to life the large-scale death that took place there, and if nothing else, those poor souls can live on as a memory of what happened, and hopefully serve as a reminder to not let things like that happen again. In our current global state, this is infinitely easier said than done, I know.