China 5: Harbin pre-Universiade

I will tell you that, more or less, all fast food worldwide tastes the same. And then KFC creates the spicy chicken breakfast sandwich and I find myself passing the one KFC in Sevilla reminding myself about it. We hopped on a plane to Harbin, a town two hours south of the Russian border, a town known for its cold temperatures, fashion and ice sculpture festival. Yes, ice sculpture festival.I was warned about the Chinese being pushy, but I witnessed it first-hand when the plane landed. We were seated near the back in a nearly empty plane. Instead of waiting for use to grab our luggage from the overhead compartments, someone went careening past us, sending Linder toppling over into her seat. Que moro tienen. We were welcomed to an airport in the middle of an ice field by life-sized caricatures of a snowflake. This would be Dong Dong, the mascot of the Winter Universiade. Apparently my sister and her synchronized skating team at Miami of Ohio are pretty big deals because this competition attracts full time university students from all over the world (including Borat’s home country of Kazhakstan!) The students are treated like Olympic athletes – they live and eat at an athlete’s village, have interpreters and security badges, and are often asked to pose for photos.We took a taxi to the center of town too a big, fancy, five-star hotel. The team mom, Janine, was waiting for us with all of our tickets and plans and schedules for the next few days. The woman is una puta maquina!! (a machine) We joined some of the other team parents for lunch at a restaurant nearby. A concierge insisted he take us so he could translate, as this place isn’t so touristy and we would have a hard time understanding. There were two high schoolers with us who asked, “Do they have sweet and sour chicken on the menu?” only to find out that they had pigs ears and other strange-looking things. By now, we were pros with chopsticks and our stomachs had adjusted to weird foods prepared under questionable hygiene, so we drove our chopsticks into some beef dishes and spicy prawns.

Our hotel is located next to a new mall known for its fashion. We were disappointed times ten to find Hello Kitty stores cozied up to a wannabe Starbucks and an appliances store, but the basement supermarket was definitely a trip. We got pushed into the Super-Walmart like store that had everything-even free sample! The candy aisle featured corn flavored soft candy, and there were a few aisles dedicated to noodles that just required hot water. A sandbox full of rice stood in front of the checkout lines. I’m used to seeing supermarkets dead after the meal time started, but you could barely steer a cart through this place! The kids were snapping pictures because they’ve never seen anyone chopping fish heads off and the guts spilling out, nor to watch a woman boil pig feet or makes an omelette right in front of you. There were all kinds of strange foods for sale, and in the international aisle, I was not shocked to find just olive oil from Spain.

We had a rest, which consisted of my dad and I propping ourselves up on the silk blankets and watching the National Geographic Channel while we ate some cookies we found at the supermarket. We also picked up a few beers because Harbin is known for its beer culture, as well. The city welcome the first beer factory to Harbin in 1900, and surprisingly the beer is better warm! Janine made a reservation for us at a Russian restaurant down the street. Even at 5 p.m. the place had live music – a tall, blonde Russian woman and a shorter man clad in traditional clothes kicking his legs in time with the music. Rose and I split borsch and chicken stuffed with grapes in a cream sauce and I had some Russian beer. It was AMAZING to not eat Chinese food for the first time in a week! Because of our fears of sanitation and some sensitive tummies, we tried not to go too wacko with the foods.

The following morning, after getting things settled with the schedules regarding practice and competition, my parents, Linder and I took a cab to Central Street, a long strip of Russian tea shops, American fashion stores and ice sculptures. I swear, if it weren’t for all of the Chinese characters on the buildings and all the Asiatic people, this city could look European! There is baroque architecture up and down the street, Orthodox turrets piercing the sky and Russian letter accompanying the characters. Snow began falling, making the weather outside nearly unbearable by the time we reached the Soagua river, marked by an odd-looking monument to the hundreds who died when the banks flooded in the 50s or something.

Harbin’s always featured for its ice and snow festivals, which consist of three parks – two of ice sculptures and one of snow. The Children’s Park is located right off of Center Street and is a couple of acres of castles, pirate ships and Disney characters. The park was closed, so my mom walked into the first doorway she saw to try to get warm and ended up in a pet shop. It was the ODDEST place I have ever been, and thankfully it wasn’t a puppy mill. There were plants next to dog booties, dozens of turtles piled into a single tank and grain. It was like a Chinese Farm and Fleet.

Nance and Linder headed for home, so my dad and I stopped to have a coffee at a Russian Restaurant to warm up. We sat in the plush booths for two hours and our coffee stretched into beers and eventually onion rings and a club sandwich to split. We could watch the entrance gate from the window next to our table, so as soon as the giant ferris wheel started turning, we bought our tickets for 150RMB and went into the park. The fence was made of ice with Mickey Mouse ears, and recreations of famous Disney movies and sets were all over – Cars from Cars, a few castles, spaceships from Toy Story, the pirate ship from Pirates of the Carribean, Aladdin’s castle, life-size Shreks, etc. Everything was carved from ice that’s carved from the river – huge blocks that are worked on by artists from all over the year. My dad and I took an elevator to the top of one of the castles and pushed each other down ice slides (probably not smart or safe) and ended up with snow-covered butts and then climbed a pagoda when the lights began to turn on. Pink, blue, green and gold lights are frozen into each of the sculptures and at 5pm they began to light up, starting at one end of the park and spreading to another. Aladdin’s castle glowed a golden blue, the lighthouse on the pond became a pink beacon. Children suddenly appeared from the trees for all I know, and they were running through the park carrying fruit kebabs.

We had a meeting with the girls FINALLY back at the hotel at 6:00, so my dad and I tried to hail a cab. Most people sped off upon seeing us, and the cabbie who picked us up picked up another guy two blocks away! Because it was rush hour, we were told cabbies often pick up several people in more or less the same direction. What was even stranger that he started screaming and then drove onto the sidewalk and proceeded to speed past the traffic until the next traffic light! It was great to see Margaret, who gave me the Gwenyth Paltrow Spain cookbook with made me crave Spanish food. I ordered gazpacho off the menu that night for dinner while we caught up with Margaret, who told us all about life in the village and the crazy dude from the US Hockey team who followed around all of the synchro girls. Hay gente pa todo.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel, the same fried noodles and dumplings we’d been eating for over a week. My dad and I bought cookies and Sprite for Margaret, who wasn’t staying in a five-star hotel and had only eaten bread and fried rice since arriving. Janine arranged for us to take a tour of the city with an interpreter who I didn’t understand (this, after listening to pueblo kids for three semesters). We picked up the skaters at the village and Margaret and I sat chattering more than our mother does while the interpreter Cindy droned on. Our first stop was at St. Sofia church, a Russian Orthodox, brown brick church with green turrets surrounded by a plaza. There was Universiade memorabilia all over the place and people snapping pictures of 20 girls wearing the same red jacket (known to them as snuggies or elmos). The church is breathtaking on the outside, but the inside has a souvenir stand and its all falling apart inside. I really love old, abused objects, but this place just looked like crap. A choir sang songs like Santa Lucia in Chinese and wore these obnoxious pink dresses, which I later came to realize were the same as my sister’s long program dresses.

We drove across the city to a recreational area called Sun Island Park. The giant snow sculpture park dominates the lake and hills that make up sun island, featuring reindeer and Santa Clauses to pay homage to Finland, as well as the recreation of a Bird’s Nest, a mountain dominated Dong Dong and his female counterpart, Dong Dong. There were giant lions, mountable pigs and tractors (have to represent Iowa) and dozens of representations of oxes. The city had experienced a heat wave a few weeks before, so half of the statues looked like hoodlums had knocked off the arms or Santa or the snouts of the reindeer. Afterwards we had dinner at a famous dumpling restaurant that Margaret’s coach wanted to go to. I expected this place to have dumplings de puta madre, but they gave us soy bean crazy things, tripe and another assortment of weird things. I have no idea what I put into my mouth, but I didn’t like most of it. I had to wash it down with coke, which I also don’t like much.

I was the most excited to see the Ice Sculptures on a bigger scale than the one my dad and I had seen the day before, called the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. I was blown away by this place. The west end of Sun Island practically glows from the arena, which is about as big as three football fields. The whole thing is surrounded by a wall of ice and a decorated main gate, like the portada de la Feria here in Sevilla. Inside, with only a time of 30 minutes allowed because of the cold, my sister and I RAN around the whole park my dad caught us in his viewfinder and said something along the lines of, “There go the girls; nice to see them enjoying the festival.” I would have loved to get better pictures of the miniature temples and pagodas, the bright green Dong Dongs or the Giant Peaceful Buddha. In years past, the festival has been more extensive and they’ve collaborated with other countries to recreate famous landmarks. Margaret paid some of the University’s money to take our pictures with snow foxes, who were so afraid of the heat lamps they were put under. If they didn’t grow up to be so ferocious, I might have tried to keep one!

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

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