December 25 – January 7: Quite contrary to common practice, I, for one, find it extremely difficult to pen down a travelogue immediately after concluding an adventure. From my own scrutiny of this abnormal behaviour I have learnt that it is perhaps the level of unadulterated wonderment (something that I am very prone to) that almost automatically and unscientifically converts every rational description into an incomprehensible babble in excitement. Also, I have always believed myself to be utterly unfit for writing travelogues in spite of being an ardent travel addict. The reason I assume this is so is because, as a writer and as a reader too, I greatly rely on and relish the human elements and experiences rather than facts and figures though my trip to China had been strangely based on some queer facts, self-drawn correlations and no known human experience.
I was turning thirty this year and found that to be a remarkable excuse to plan the seemingly greatest adventure I had had so far. In one of my earlier plane rides I had happened to come across the name Harbin in an in-flight magazine that had listed the top three destinations for the winters. Books have always played a mysterious part and presence in directing my life and this was no exception. The pictures of thick snow, the kind you see on Christmas greeting cards, almost immediately won the attention of the snow-starved in me. The only time I had seen ice was in the refrigerator, as a child and as an adult. I knew I had to see snow before I turned thirty!
The cosmic cue that later confirmed my decision was the fact that Harbin hosted one of the largest international ice and snow festivals that began on no other day than on my birthday eve, 5th of January! This was their 28th annual festival. There could be no other excuse for missing my international birthday bash. The tickets were booked, following which began our enthusiastic, much-revealing efforts on fact-finding research and analysis that urged us to shop for layers and layers of fleece and down. By the time we actually boarded our flight, we were told that the temperature in Harbin had dropped to a -36 to -40 degrees Celsius. It was the lowest in the past three decades! There was no looking back. Cold temperatures almost always make the best ambience for a lazy afternoon on a couch or tucked under a fluffy quilt with a story book in hand and a hot cup of coffee by the bedside – no?
The flight to Harbin included a well-planned stop in Beijing for four days. It took us six hours to reach Beijing from Singapore where I live, though I remained within the same time zone. Upon landing, we were told by the stewardess that the temperature that day was -8 degree Celsius though it felt like a -13degrees C with all the icy winds that, like a zillion tiny anesthesia shots, numbed our faces later; even our speech slurred due to this unaccustomed onslaught of cold air and served to divert our attention besides making us laugh. Yet no amount of -13 degrees C could have possibly prepared us for Harbin, and that no one had told us yet.
In Beijing we had picked a modest homely hotel along the Tiananmen Square area where a couple of renowned historic places were within walking distance, that is, if you were well equipped to battle the minus score outside. Well, we learnt it the hard way though that didn’t dampen our spirits nor affect our plans one wee bit. Empowered by a miniature map of the area with most places marked in Chinese, we set out in search of the Forbidden City. After a while I could feel fine threads of icicles on my eyelashes and hair. That was my very first glimpse of ice in China!
We reached the political landmark, the Tiananmen Square before entering the gates of the once forbidden premises. The magnitude of that quadrangle and the crossroad in front of it was in itself an overwhelming experience that proudly announced to each one of us: ‘welcome to China!’ The two-hour Forbidden City tour that followed fuelled several vivid imageries in my mind as I listened to the stories behind these tall walls. Characters appeared and vanished along those long quiet corridors and from behind the ornate gold pillars as our guide told us fascinating stories of kings and queens that one wouldn’t usually find in any textbook.
Ironically enough, I had picked Oliver Postgate’s Seeing Things to keep me company in this journey. While books take you places sans ticket, travel without books is as unimaginable for me as enjoying the rains without coffee! And it turned out to be the most suitable partner in the mystical old city area of Beijing though, distracted by the list of places I had to cover, I hadn’t remained too loyal to my paged friend. In particular, I was drawn by the gorgeous embellishments in red, golden and green colors that lent character to the graceful descent of the Chinese roofs as they stood out in striking contrast against the white snow. The Temple of Heaven offered one such spectacular sight.
The next most obvious choice for visit was the majestic Great Wall of China. And we opted for the Mutianyu section. Even the basic stretch of the steep climb, in spite of the blessed presence of the cable car, could prove quite exhausting! Also, the thin sheets of ice over the wall could have you slipping ahead rather than walking down gracefully. I must add here though that I happened to have company who actually enjoyed slipping down the icy slope instead of walking down. We stopped to have some hot coffee from an isolated vendor as our eyes and souls feasted on the gigantic open spaces of varying shades of soil and snow in complete contrast to the clear blue sky that we were lucky to have. My mind soared into the clear blue above and dived earthward feeling the cold breeze that caused its wings to flutter like a kite. The experience was breathtaking – both, literally and metaphorically!
In the next few days we visited the Laoshe Teahouse that presented a brilliantly entertaining assortment of Sichuan and Peking opera, Kung Fu, and other performances as we sipped on our green tea served in the traditional Chinese style. We also booked a meal at the famous QuanJude that served the most authentic Peking duck. The entire presentation was worth every penny if not more! In fact, being strategically placed along the bustling pedestrian shopping street –QianmenDajie– this is an absolute must-try; just make sure you take time out to explore the area around it too. The street that houses several western and Chinese brands is outlined by an overwhelming number of ancient city alleys called Hutongs weaving into each other. It is a great place to indulge in some knick-knack shopping and bargaining over silk scarvess, souvenirs, Feng Shui products, shoes, bags etc. Being a booklover, I picked some beautiful bookmarks made of metal with intricate Chinese paintings on them, and some Chinese ink tablets and brushes for calligraphy!
Beyond the signature-style Chinese souvenirs that sell in plenty within these Hutongs, the graffiti-filled walls of the 798 Art District was a breath of fresh air.The location, studded with art and craft showrooms and boutique-stores selling artifacts, junk jewellery, postcards, vintage diaries, glares etcetera make a perfect Collector’s paradise. This was where I refilled my year’s quota of vintage diaries and picture postcards for almost one-third of what I would otherwise spend. ‘Money saved is indeed money earned’ and who’d know this better than a writer! And after we had earned back our appetite too from all the roaming around there was plenty of food and drink options within the circuit. The place also offered some great western food options. For those who aren’t adventurous enough to try the local cuisine, here’s a place that’d seem like paradise. The washrooms here were very well maintained too with doors that actually locked all the way!
We concluded our evening with a drink or two at the Red Lotus pub in Hon Hai, one of Beijing’s pubbing alleys, decorated with Chinese red lanterns. Besides the well-made drinks the music performed by the live band there was particularly great since there are very few pubs these days where I get to hear the good ol’ music I grew up listening to. This was a rare evening for me…and definitely a most memorable one!
The first day of the New Year started off with our two-hour flight to Harbin. If there is a single golden rule in Harbin, besides the more known language barrier, it has to be ‘beware of cab drivers’. They could take you for a royal ride! Though for me, all the white that zoomed past on either side of the road during the cab ride somehow managed to pacify the feeling of being cheated by the cabbies.
In Harbin we stayed at a hotel right across the Zhongyang Dajie, the Central Street, that led us to some of the most soul-satisfying experiences in Harbin. The creamy ice creams of varying flavours seemed so much more delicious in -30 degrees Celsius! And for a change, they didn’t threaten to melt either! The next was the Simmer Pot experience at the Euro Plaza on the same street. The overwhelming aromas and taste of the simmering spices and meat in complementing contrasts to the cold outside bore a hypnotizing effect on our senses (especially sinuses) and we returned to it every day. The staff there welcomed us even during hours when they were closed and our excited and animated, and surely extremely entertaining, explanations of our order made a great visual treat for everyone including ourselves.
I say this as a true compliment of the highest degree that the Zhonghyang Dajie spoilt me with choices way beyond any ordinary shopping venue! Not only did my wobbling walk over the slippery ice-laden streets seem like an entertaining spoof of an astronomer’s stance on the moon, but the ice sculptures spaced every few meters, the European look-and-feel of the buildings, and all the colourful fashionable woollens carefully-carelessly flaunted by passersby made it a unique experience for pedestrians there! Even the bakeries, local vodka, Burberry look-alikes that perched along the Zhonghyang Dajie easily slipped into my must-experience list! In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hot milk-tea served in KFC came with a choice of including the tasty sago pearls with a gorgeous core that I guessed was red bean.
With no time to lose, on the very first afternoon we walked down to the Zhaolin Park, the Flood Control Tower that commemorated the 1957 floods, the St Sophia’s Church and the Songhua River which by then had frozen completely. The fluid outline and stunning architecture of the St Sophia’s Church with its green dome and brown body made the entire landscape seem so surreal. During the seemingly accomplishable walk to this church we managed to have several interesting moments including a slip over thin ice while crossing a road and some bum-numbing snow sports along the frozen Songhua River. On our way back to the hotel, being a proud collector of the freakish and funny, the unexpected and unfamiliar, I even picked up a Matryioshka Doll as a souvenir from the city that is better known as Eastern Moscow.
In Harbin, we would receive the comparatively warm temperature around noon and a little beyond it. And that was when I’d be filled with the urge to grab my book and sink into my cozy bed but that was not to be; thanks to the gracious company of friends. The sunset by five in the evening was nature’s way of announcing its curfew time, though that didn’t stop us fromventuring into the sunset city.
One of the days started with a trip to the Siberian Tiger Park, a complete visual treat, where the brilliant golden fur coats striped with the darkest shade of black set the white snow ablaze. Their booming roars, piercing looks and their stealthy strides around their two-legged visitors (thankfully perched in covered vans) was an exhilarating experience. It surely was a gratifying feeling for me to share a close space with these stunningly ferocious creatures…thankfully from within our secure cages…oops, vans.
I also visited the Confucius Temple, which is said to be the largest Yin and Yang temple. The Chinese roofs, that by now I had fallen in love with, in their typical glory, hid themselves under a quilt of soft snow making another artistic picture across the sky canvas.
Though not ona par with the other places that we had visited earlier but the Polar World and GuogeliDajie lent us a feeling of seeing the whole of Harbin…well, almost.
However, the reason that had brought us there was still waiting to be visited…and when we did, it kind of blurred our senses with its overpowering magnitude and brilliance. The Sun Island Scenic Areas, situated on the north bank of the Songhua River, hosted the daytime displays of snow. The gigantic mountains of snow carefully chiselled and transformed into the most intricate works got me speechless in disbelief. A doe-eyed god playing a flute, two tall masquerades precariously supported against each other, the stern stance of an Egyptian god, …there were so many of them. Even the smallest one among them must have been more than triple my height. The opaqueness of snow under the sun captured the intricacies behind the serene expressions and subtle detailing.
The Ice and Snow World, on the other hand, made full use of the night sky to flaunt its glass-like ice sculptures that glittered with light. There were life-size mosques, sprawling landscapes, Chinese gardens…all made of giant blocks of ice resplendent with multicoloured lights. The word was – magnitude! And just when the dark evening sky seemed too plain against these festive displays, it too was adorned with a breathtaking display of fireworks that lasted several minutes! It was the entire city rejoicing and partying with me, as it were, that evening. While the day marked a +30 to my life the temperature outside hovered around a freezing -30 degrees Celsius.
The next morning, we were on our way back, travelling across a distance of 60-degrees Celsius. I smelled like a lamb after ten days of fleece and fur though my mind still wandered back to the city of snow. The only thing that now lent me comfort was the assuring warmth of my storybook against my palm. And I looked forward to wandering away into another story unknown…
© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013