Northern City Harbin/Chicken Drones at The Tiger Park


Our trip to Harbin finally happened this past weekend. The family took separate DiDi’s and managed to arrive at the fast train station at the same time. I packed two large backpacks, one with warm gear and the other one filled with snacks for the fast train ride of six hours to the ice city of Harbin. Chinese passengers started lining up half an hour before the train left and we dove into the crowd. We don't have a national ID card that we can scan before we get on board so we have to stand in a separate line with a human being that looks at our passports. In order to ride a train in China, you must scan your national ID to get into the train station, scan it to get onto the train, and just incase you managed to climb onto a 200 mile per hour train illegally while it was moving, scan to get out of the train station as well at the other end of the journey. We finally got on the train and it was very comfortable and I managed to get some homework done. “Sandy” the woman that had arranged for a tour of Harbin had arranged for us to be picked up and taken to the Baroque part of the city. At first Laura was very unimpressed by the cheap hotel I had booked. I thought it was OK. The air outside however was 400 AQI which was pretty shocking. That fact combined with the run down state of the hotel caused us to consider going back to Beijing. I knew that was impossible though and that we had to stick with our plans. In the morning however the air was better and our perspective had improved. We attended the Chinese breakfast served at 7 AM. It was a militaristic meal as they seemed to be yelling at and ordering the participants more than serving them and very unimpressive except for the odd shaped donuts and the sausage. I had known it would probably suck because of the reviews. I asked for coffee and the woman gave me some kind of hot water that smelled like chlorine and herbs. I found a coffee place on my phone and we went outside and we're assaulted by the freezing temperatures which were about -5°F. We wandered around a couple blocks sliding around in traffic on the ice and we're unable to locate the coffee shop. This happens all the time. The apps on our phones don't work because they're not Chinese apps. The locations are incorrect. But we can't read the Chinese apps so we continue to use the apps that don't work hoping for the best. We managed to get back to the hotel and get Jack up and out of bed and meet with the tour guide at 9 AM sharp. He took us on a tour of the Baroque area of Harbin. He said he had never picked up any clients in the local side of town before. This was the neighborhood he grew up in and he was excited that we were sleeping in his neighborhood. He seemed impressed. After some very cold photo taking we arrived at a coffee shop that he recommended. It was warm but the coffee shop was very difficult to order a coffee at because the menu was online and it needed to be scanned to get the app. The app was not in English and I ended up making friends with the manager on WeChat and I paid her for the coffee personally.  Next we went to an old famous bakery down the road.  It was pretty amazing with beautiful huge wooden tables to eat all your new Chinese confection adventures and cakes. We thoroughly stuffed ourselves on cookies, bread and coffee and we jumped back in the van and headed towards Saint Sofia Cathedral and the museums. The Saint Sophia Cathedral is an incredible structure, the largest Orthodox Church in the far east. It has recently been refurbished and restored and they have musicians playing on raised stages inside and lots of art on the walls. The structure was built in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian railroad. It was gutted during the communist period of the Great leap forward 1958-61 and became a warehouse. We were impressed by the lighting inside and the art and the musicians were enjoying themselves and the sound of the great room. We headed to the museums next. They were mostly filled with Russian art and relics. The Harbin museum was OK. Fairly interesting until we got into the political sections. We left and went to a dumpling restaurant that was delicious. The guide took off in the middle of the meal to go find me a Harbin beer. A very sweet man with the English name of Michael. He was Chinese and had grown up in Harbin and attended the University of Harbin as well. By the way Harbin is a city of 4 million people bigger than New York City. It's considered a small City by Chinese standards. It's a very industrial city with factories surrounding it. Hence the smog. There's a massive river that flows past Harbin called the Songhua. A beautiful name. This is the river where they carve out ice blocks and build giant ice palaces with them, in fact many structures for tourists in the winter. This was our next stop. Once again we went through security and showed our passports and finally got in and we were given chemical heat patches to put on our backs to keep us warm. Michael had timed our visit to the ice palace just perfectly. He knew that the sun would be setting and shining through the giant Ferris wheel and through the ice versions of Notre Dame and various other temples. It was astonishing just how big the ice display was. It felt like Disney World made of ice but much nicer with the lights imbedded under the ice shining up coloring everything. There was even a giant Buddha and bridges and tunnels and an ice bar and an ice hot pot restaurant. I requested that we get some coffee at one point and hot drinks. Michael took us to a place but it only served hot pear juice. As the night wore on, it became flooded with people. We crunched on frozen fruit on a stick, tanghulu. I tried to get the kids to join me in some crazy ice activities like being pulled by a jeep with 40 other people on a giant raft made of inflatables.There was also an ice field of plastic bubbles you could climb into and run around and dune buggy’s you could race around an ice racetrack. We kept making our way back to the ice Notre Dame and the ice version of the Temple of Heaven from Beijing. The people watching was high quality. Massive crowds waited four hours to ride the giant 600 m long slide of ice or ride the tremendously tall Ferris wheel with enclosed heated rooms. The ferris wheel moved so slowly you could barely perceive it changing. We lasted as long as we could and then we jumped back into the van and drove back to the hotel. The next day Laura and I walked to the Baroque area to have coffee and tea and more cakes. We met with a tour guide and went to the Siberian Tiger park. Luckily we got there fairly early in the morning before the lines were huge. The biggest line was the line for the tiger feeding buses that went deep into the Tiger park where the driver would hand you a bucket of pork meat if you paid him 100 RMB. You would then take the pork meat with tongs and shove it through holes in the tiger proof glass and the tigers would jump up and grab it and gobble it down. This is how the tigers are fed 160 kg of meat a day. The tigers that got along and cooperated and didn't fight were allowed to roam through pretty large enclosures. The tigers that tended to fight were imprisoned in a little corrals along a giant building. It was very exciting feeding the tigers the raw pork. We worked our way from one section to the other each time going through giant metal automatic gates like the ones in the movie Jurassic Park. After feeding the tigers, the bus dropped us off near some bathrooms that had bidets with heated seats surrounded by ferns and fountains. From the bathrooms we were funneled into a long corridor that made its way across the Tiger park. It was lined with astroturf and massive metal bars to make it safe and peaceful music played the entire time through the speakers and it was cold. There were a couple of old Chinese women selling chickens in boxes that you could offer to the tigers from the ‘cat walk’. The chickens knew they were screwed. They just had that look about them.  At one point we noticed a drone hovering over one of the buses feeding the tigers. To our amazement the drone dropped a chicken into the group of tigers and they chased it across the snow into an orchard and killed it. I came around the corner at one point and there was actually a liger in one cage and a cougar in another. This was a lot to process as we climbed back into the van. Our next stop was a public version of the ice park where they had giant snow sculpture competitions. They had a smaller ice slide that we went down a couple times. I was pretty nervous doing it because I thought it might hurt my knee again but I managed. Our favorite part of the public park was the frozen lake with strange welded ice bikes.  Some of them were impractical and some very well devised. We had a blast for a long time and even our guide Michael jumped on one of the ice bikes and was cruising around with a big smile on his face. At some point there was a large contingent of people in strange animal costumes and weird house music playing on huge speakers in front of the giant ice queen sculpture. There was also a large black horse with black wings some demented person had attached to it. The horse was not excited about his newly sprouted wings. It was absolutely surreal and I took long videos. I forgot to mention that we had been whisked there by an amazing fast mini-shuttle that took us across the park to the most exciting features. Had we not taken this, we might have frozen solid. We toured the sculptures took a lot of pictures until it finally got too cold to hang out. We went to a noodle restaurant that was owned by Uyghurs (look them up) and later walked all the way down Central Street towards the river and a huge monument. On the way we asked Michael at one point if he had any children and he said yes I have a 12 day old daughter. He asked if we would come up with an English name for his daughter? If we could think of it as a family and get back to him?  The next day as we rode the train south back to Beijing we decided on the name Amelia. I've always liked that name and I've always admired Amelia Earhart although we did not tell him about the mysterious fate of Amelia Earhart, we just told him that it means hard-working and it's a good classic English name. He accepted the name and was very pleased we were very honored.


(Below: Amelia)



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