Some places are just not your travel style. But then what is the joy of traveling if you keep returning to the same kind of places without discovering a place which you wouldn’t have picked. A place that can shock your senses in either direction.
Even as we landed in Harbin, and we ventured out of the airport to catch a taxi, Harbin shook all my senses. It was not just the cold, which I was expecting, but the stutter it gave to my lungs. My breath was suddenly hardened, and I felt like I had to really push my body to keep breathing. In that taxi stand, kept unshielded from the superlative cold (-30 degrees), there was a riot of taxis and my expectation of a quiet winter town came exploding, but with a stutter that was matched with my breathing.
The taxi ride was uncomfortable – our driver seemed unusually rude and stiff. It was a preamble to the fight that ensued once we were dropped at our destination – an ugly haggle over the money which left us irritated. We walked into the hotel, to its very full lobby of idlers. Perhaps people were bracing themselves before venturing out in the extreme cold, perhaps the cold had just dulled their senses and they were numbed out into standing in one place.
We stayed in Harbin for 5 days – too long for a town which has little left of nature except a frozen river, and which is too cold and industrial for beautiful architecture to spring up. Yet, between the cold and the promises of the Winter festival, we settled into a slow routine that seemed just perfect. There was no pressure to spend hours and hours outside in that gruelling cold, every day we could go out for 3-4 hours and snatch the small nuggets that Harbin had on offer. It helped that our hotel stood at one end of Zhongyang Dajie, the one street Harbin has to offer, which blends in its Russian and Chinese cultures, and we could strut on it countless times and see the happy locals and tourists braving the cold, sometimes slipping over the frozen pathways. At the other end of the Dajie, lay the frozen Songhua river and the Stalin Park, and everytime we walked to that other end, we came back with violent shivers that would not cease for an hour. It was as if the frozen river was sending out a deadly curse. Yet, tons of people were enjoying effortlessly in the Stalin park – sliding on tyres, or sometimes just on plain ice.
In a city where little English is spoken, we had a hard time doing many things, but most of all finding food. The menu just didn’t make sense in most of the places. We walked out of several restaurants after finding only pork meat (everytime it took us at least 15 minutes to figure that out), until we found a delicious hotpot place in a mall on the Dajie. We liked it so much that we returned 3-4 times. In the intervals, I once resorted to Pizza hut (!!), at other times experimenting with Cafe Russia (the fish made me sick) and some bakeries by the roadside.
For me, the best part of the trip was when we went to Sun Island Park. In a vast expanse of snow, several artists had come from all over the world, and sculpted their imaginations in pure white. Pitched against the royal blue of a very clear sky, it felt magical. We walked into the park bracing the killer winds from the river, and were greeted by the seven dwarfs. From then on, it was like walking in snowland. There were palaces, mountains, human heads, abstract structures, even the Easter Island statues in that island, shining brightly in the sun to a golden hue. If it had not been for our inadequate shoes through which the cold persistently jolted our body, I would have liked to stay much longer, but after two hours the body triumphed in getting itself heard, and we huddled back into the taxi.
There was a similar excursion the next night, when we went to the ice sculptures of Ice & Snow World. The ice sculptures were fabulous. Built as palaces, temples, gardens, churches, mosques, they were so complete in their detail that you could walk through them. It was all lit to dazzling light and felt like walking through Jaipur on Diwali. The day we visited this park was also the day when the festival officially starts and fireworks kept illuminating the sky at intervals. Again, people effortlessly seemed to slide on ice, and I wondrously looked at them.
This is how Harbin was – in the end, despite the battle my lungs had with its air, I was glad I went because it was so different from anything I have seen.