Due to a very upsetting family bereavement my writing came to a sudden stop in early December, also turning the Christmas period into an exceptionally sad time for myself and my family. Later in December I quit my job, my fiancee Becky followed in early January, days before we were to embark on our long awaited trip of a lifetime. Fortunately, neither myself nor Becky have too many commitments, we were both able to leave our jobs with little financial worry and rid ourselves of any money related tethers that would eat away at our travel funds. Other than a £7 per month Netflix subscription we have nothing to pay for other than putting a roof over our heads and food in our bellies.
One of the cornerstones of this trip is good budgeting and I think we have got off to a good start. Six months ago we were searching for cheap flights on Skyscanner simply to give us a few ideas on where we wanted to start our travels when we saw a flight for £180 per person from Amsterdam to Beijing on the 12th of January; deals like this don’t come around too often so we decided to just go for it, following this we booked a cheap Easyjet flight to Amsterdam where we we would have a few days to wind down. Fortunately one of Becky’s colleagues has an apartment in Amsterdam and offered us a room for the duration of our trip. From Amsterdam we flew to Beijing where we spent four days before making our way to the north eastern province of Heilongjiang which is what I will be writing about today.
Today this area of China is known as Dongbei (simply meaning east north), historically it was known as Manchuria. This region is comprised of thee provinces: Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang (and also some parts of Inner Mongolia). We took an eighteen hour slow train to the most northern of the three provinces, Heilongjiang to the provincial capital of Haerbin.
Due to it’s geographical position, Dongbei is notoriously cold and Heilongjiang in particular regularly experiences winter temperatures below -20°C and during our stay the temperature dropped below -30°C. I live in a fairly cold country and Beijing was even colder than England but I have never in my life experienced cold like this. My typical outfit for a day of walking around the city consisted of a thermal layer (long sleeve top and long Johns), a thick flannel shirt, a wool jumper, jeans, a waterproof and windproof coat, ski socks, hiking boots, ski gloves, a wool scarf and a thick Tibetan hat – short of wrapping myself in animal skins this was the best I could do and even still the icy Haerbin air cut right through the lot of it in a matter of minutes, it really was an effort to stay outside for more than half an hour without taking a break from the cold.
Haerbin was built by the Russians and as such you can expect to see a lot of the Russian influence in both the architecture and the food. St Sofia’s cathedral pictured below and the beginning of Zhongyang (central) street above.
What we came to Haerbin for was the annual Ice and Snow World, known in China as BingXue DaShiJie 哈尔滨冰雪大世界. All around Haerbin you can find festivities in one way or another, mostly in the form of ice sculptures and street food, but the real show is the Ice and Snow World. Positioned on a large plot of land around a twenty minute drive from central street you will find this staggeringly awesome feat of ice related engineering.
Each year has a different theme, the 2017 theme was Russian. Monumental sculptures and buildings are constructed using blocks of ice, some of which must way almost a ton, the blocks of ice are cut from lakes in Heilongjiang and transported to the festival site where skilled workers use heavy machinery to assemble the blocks into sculptures.
Some of the ice buildings are not there just to be gazed at you can actually walk inside them, walk up the stairs and stare out at the whole festival from a better vantage point, and if you get bored of the sculptures you can grab yourself a rubber ring and slide down one of the four halfpipe shoots carved out of the snow which is incredibly fun.
One of the best parts about travelling to a new place for me is the food, what better way to get to know a place than with your tastebuds, and Haerbin has plenty to offer. You might want to try the HongChang which is a smoked Russian sausage; the ‘Hong’ in Hongchang means red in Mandarin, in reference to its red colour – it’s not the best thing you’ll ever taste but it is pretty good. One of Haerbin’s most famous foods is their big bread which can sometimes weigh over 2kg, baked with hops and often seen in shops stacked in fabric bags, this is a food brought in by the Russians. I didn’t try this because who eats 2kg of bread in a few days. I tried one of the best Chinese dishes I have ever tasted in my life in Haerbin and considering the dish originated in the city there is no better place to try it – the dish I am talking about is GuoBaoRou. This dish is a Dongbei take on sweet and sour pork with particular detail going into how thin the meat is cut. The thin slivers of meat are covered in a cornstarch batter and deep fried before being wok fried with pickled vegetables, rock sugar and vinegar producing a dish perfectly balanced in both flavour and texture. If you find yourself in Dongbei I can’t recommend GuoBaoRou enough.
One of the most fun experiences we had in Haerbin was heading out onto the very frozen Songhua river, here you will find a multitude of things to do such as iceskating, driving dune buggies, quad bikes, horse riding, the frozen version of a banana boat (being dragged around the ice by a quad bike on a train of rubber rings). You can see our four days in Haerbin compressed into fifteen minutes in the Youtube link below. (Sound may be restricted on mobile devices)
Next time I will be talking about Beijing, a city I have just finished visiting for the third time, although this time we stayed in a more out the way Hutong which was pretty cool.