Rob, Beth, Cat and I had already bought train tickets from Ha'erbin to Qingdao when the rest of our group got in touch saying they'd found plane tickets. We stuck with our much cheaper train tickets although the thought of them having a 2 hour journey compared to our 26 hour hard seats journey left a bitter taste. Beth and Cat discovered an empty carriage near the end of the train and I stayed behind to watch the bags while the others went to try and regain some of the sleep they hadn't got the night before (trains aren't the best place to sleep on). When empty seats appear it's normal for people to come and sit in them so I ended up with a very ugly woman opposite me who slobbered when she talked. I made polite conversation for a bit but lack of sleep, aching bum, cramped legs and so long on the train with no end in sight made me impatient so it wasn't long before I returned to my iPod and solitaire. I didn't trust the woman though, she was too touchy and kept fingering everything on the table including my tablet, books and pack of cards which swiftly ended up behind my back. I watched her out the corner of my eye and she kept going under the table to retrieve bits of rubbish and playing cards. Eventually she put her head on the table and appeared to go to sleep… but I could see her swaying hands swinging towards Cat's valuables bag next to my leg. She fumbled for the zip and I was about to reach out and grab her hand when she looked up and saw me watching her. She quickly sat up and after I stared at her for a while (how much does it take to make someone uncomfortable) she got up and left. Stupid woman. But I realised how it was still important not to get complacent and to stay alert. Despite the fact we were heading further North inside the train was really warm, warm enough for t-shirts although the windows had formed ice all around the edges. The landscape turned to white and as we neared Ha'erbin I got ready to face the cold. I changed into my fur lined super thermals, two pairs of socks and fur lined boots, trackies, t-shirt, micro fleece mum sent, fleecy hoody and giant police jacket with fur collar topped off with my Chinese army hat. I lost my gloves somewhere along the travels… They'd have been no good though, I knew I needed to buy much better gloves to face Ha'erbin in. I had to change into all this in the toilet which meant balancing in a tiny rocking carriage above a filthy hole in the floor. I had to do this a few times while travelling but it never became easier or more enjoyable…
The cold hit us as soon as we stepped off the train but even so it wasn't as bad as we were expecting. Probably around -12 degrees and we scurried off to the warm looking Mcdonalds with the hope the huge taxi rank queue would vanish while we ate. Even the short distance from the station to Mcdonalds made our faces hurt from the sharp, cold wind and it was a welcome relief to get inside. The taxi rank stayed the same size but we found another guy willing to drive us and we were the first ones to arrive at our hostel which had been converted from an old Russian synagogue. The taxi ride gave us our first glimpse of the city and I'd been expecting a snow and ice wonderland. There wasn't actually that much snow or ice but it did look cold though. They have endless teams of people who are set to clearing the roads and all the ice gets dirty from people walking on it. Some parts were like a wonderland though; there were lots of lights strung through trees and ice sculptures glowing in all colours lit up the roadside and parks we passed. We went straight to bed in the hostel and woke in the morning to meet the others whose plane had brought them in a bit later. I wrapped up in about a billion layers again and we headed out to search for the 'Russian quarters.' According to the guidebook there was a whole maze of Russian styled streets filled with Russian styled restaurants and thrift shops where you could find cheap treasures. We followed the guide book's map and found nothing, by now we were learning not to trust the guide book… We did find the main street though so while the others went to a restaurant to eat, Henry, Nold and I (we'd woken earlier and eaten breakfast in the hostel) wandered towards towards the river. Ironically the main street was actually very close to the hostel and filled with Russian architecture. Ha'erbin is in Heilongjiang Province which is the furthest North of all China's provinces and closest to the border with Russia. A 21 hour slow train would have taken us to the northernmost tip of China although the Russian border is much closer if you travelled North-East. In China terms that's practically walking distance. Anyway, you could see the Russian influences here - Russia had control of Ha'erbin for many years. The sides of the main street was flanked with lots of buildings sporting onion shaped roofs and other Russian stuff (I'm not an architect…) and the centre of the street included multiple ice sculptures included a giant statue of the 'Gangnam style man' made from packed snow and complete with black sunglasses. Henry, Nold and I walked the length of this street which led straight to the banks of the Black Dragon River. It was an impressive sight with a huge memorial to remember the dead from an old flood mounted in front of a castle styled entrance built from giant blocks of ice and topped off with red Russian onion things again. Walk under the arch and then you stood on the banks of the river which was completely frozen. At our feet were a flight of steps to take you down to river level and they looked treacherous. I saw at least 3 people fall on them while I was there and walking down ice covered steps was pretty scary. Once you got down to river level though you there was a large area which was filled with people wandering about or 'skiing' themselves along on seats running on blades that were for hire. You could take a sled ride pulled by Alsatians, bounce down the ice slides they'd built or go ice-skating on a smoothed out area of the river. We headed back to meet the others again to return with them another day.
Once the group was reunited we went to find the famous Russian church. We got student discounted entrance again and spent a while in comparative warmth looking at photos from Ha'erbin's past and another impressive Chinese roof. We did return to the river the next day to go ice skating which was great fun! Wooden chairs were provided on the ice for the less able and we pushed a few people around the rink for a bit. In the end one chair became our base in the centre with Pete sitting on it under a mountain of our bags and coats. He lost another wallet and so couldn't afford to go skating so we sat him down and slid him to the centre. The ice skates weren't even that bad quality and after a few laps of finding my ice feet again some cheeky Chinese guys starting trying to race us so I joined them. I spent the remainder of our ice skating time trying to perfect the new tricks they were teaching me and ended up falling over an awful lot. But I learnt some new stuff and they were impressed with my effort - I was down to skating in just a thin jumper and visibly steaming by the end! Easily the best part was Beth wobbling to a stop to point and laugh at one of my particularly painful falls… and then falling straight down herself because she couldn't control laughing on ice-skates. I love karma. Nold and I hung back to look in some Russian touristy shops where the main product was eye wateringly expensive vodka in weird and wonderful bottles. This meant we lost the others but we found them soon in enough in McDonalds where we ate fast food and waited for darkness. Ella and I spent an awful lot of time thinking up lots of Ha'erbin related puns which got steadily worse as ideas faltered. We were also impressed with the two little girls next to us who both seemed content to come to McDonalds and eat a cup of sweetcorn washed down with coffee. Whatever floats your boat I guess.
We were waiting for darkness because Cat's guidebook told us the Ice and Snow Festival was just across the river. This was about the time we were coming to the dawning realisation that the guide book knew nothing about an awful lot of things. We walked across the river which was an experience in itself. There were some horses pulling carriages across the ice but we opted to walk and if you kept your head down you could truly believe you were on a trek in the North Pole. We were crunching our way through crusts of snow covering the ice and it was very eerie standing in the middle of a deserted, frozen river. Ella and I were together when the music came out of nowhere and fortunately for us neither thought the other was odd for randomly dancing. We continued what we like to call our 'interpretative dancing' until the music stopped. Even better was that everyone ran up to see what was going on and joined us no questions asked! Eventually, we reached the other side and found no Ice and Snow Festival. Thanks a bunch Lonely Planet. We got a taxi despite Nold wanting to walk and made it there in the end.
After some hassle with trying to prove we were students (we're not) with our international student cards (that were now out of date) some of us managed to wangle nearly half price tickets. Once inside we split into two groups and headed off in opposite directions. The place was absolutely beautiful with huge ice sculptures and ice buildings rising up in every direction lit up by brightly coloured lights. Near the entrance was a towering thermometer obviously made from ice and showing it was currently only about -23 degrees. Some highlights were sitting in an actual bar where the building, chairs and tables were ice, the novelty didn't encourage us to splash out on there expensive beer though. Instead we posed in front of the giant Tsingtao ice beer bottle. Watching a skiing/singing/dancing extravaganza supposedly showing the history of Ha'erbin but involved lots of skiing soldiers and war music followed by dancing cartoon animals. A giant Buddha made of packed snow with an eery call to prayer echoing around it. Wandering around the ice sculpture exhibit where international teams had entered the competition and some were very strange indeed. Finding an entire 'Angry Birds' section of the park and arriving in time to watch lots of Chinese staff arrive dressed as Angry Birds and run inside the castle and throw themselves down the ice slides to cheery music; painful to watch. Joining a huge conga line in an ice disco then enthusiastically dancing to Gangnam Style in a vain attempt to stop our feet hurting with cold. And of course the ice slides; they were dotted all over the many bridges and buildings so of course we joined the queues of little children to have a go. It was only as we neared the end that we realised we could go so much faster if we squatted on our feet and we finished off the night by scrambling around a Chinese family who appeared to have got stuck on one of the long slides… By the end of the night the temperature dropped a bit to -27 degrees and while we were waiting for the other group we discovered that you could literally spit ice. Spitting's perfectly acceptable in China by the way… But if you spat then it would turn to ice before hitting the floor! Disgusting, but pretty impressive. The Ice Festival was absolutely stunning but I think I'd better split the Ha'erbin post in half here!