Jahn, Lucy, Jorges, May
I love train journeys, especially the overnight ones because of the very idea of being carried forward to your destination while you sleep relatively comfortably. I'm heading to Ha'er Bin with slight trepidation - temperatures are rumoured to be unbearable and mind-numbing. Weather reports say -25 to -30 degrees. Without proper layers, I'm not sure how I'm to cope but I throw caution to the wind nonetheless, having been seduced by the possibility of seeing something that is so momentary: only in the weeks in January will this ice-festival take place, when the river through Ha'er Bin is frozen tens of inches solid enabling talented ice sculptors to wield their magic with the abundant ice resources, creating spectacular displays that include model replicas of The Forbidden City and the Empire State Building to name a few. Serendipity is one of my favourite words in travelling, and it just seems too wasteful to let this opportunity to see the show pass.
Ha'er Bin, in the North East and in close proximity to Russia, is a city which flaunts its Russian influences: in architecture, food, religion and language (with some Chinese bilingual in Russian and Chinese). I met a Russian girl on the train ride who works in Ha'er Bin. Apparently, there's quite a few Russians living in the city. This is further emphasis of China's diversity - with such a huge landmass, neighbouring a number of countries with distinct races (from Indians to Russians to Laotians) it of course encompasses many cultures.
I arrive to Ha'er Bin without accommodation since the one I'm after is fully booked. I head there anyway, convinced that I can find something nearby after checking for certain at the hostel itself. I arrive inside only to be told the same thing - there is no bed available. I must have looked rather at a loss of what to do and stood there for a while considering options of where to go only for the receptionist to (I suppose) take pity on me and decide that she can squeeze me in after all, in an all-male dorm. No problem! After a few minutes, I'm told that actually, I can have a room to myself for not much more after she swapped me with a guy who will come later. Score! It's just amazing how these things work out.
Soon after, I meet four seemingly disparate people in reception preparing to go out. Not sure of what to do with myself, I asked if I could join them, thinking that they'd just met themselves. It turned out the four were good friends from Beijing - two Chinese girls, Lucy and May and two guys, Spanish Jorges and Norwegian Jahn. It is only later on in the morning that I also discover they were all paired up.
Lucy and Jahn had met in another city some years ago while she was studying at university and he was travelling (or teaching English. It seems much the same anyway). She approached him and started a conversation in order to practice her English. She showed him around the city and they had a great time. They kept in touch after he left and he eventually came back some months later to see her. They got together soon after. He moved back to Norway but then eventually got a job in Beijing, where she also lives after graduating from university, though it is by lucky chance rather than planned that they ended up in the same city. I remember his work is something to do with engineering, either on the computer or scientific side. Or maybe it was research. Whatever the case, they had been going steady for some months already when I met them. A cute couple.
May and Jorges never told me their story. I can only guess that they met through the other couple, since the boys work together and the girls seem to know each other well. Their intimacy was less evident and they were more of an odd pairing. Nonetheless, the four were a pleasant group to hang out with that morning, though I did feel somewhat of a 5th wheel and extra luggage in the company of couples. Their intimacy also made my own loneliness all the more evident.
We walked around the city that morning - to a former Russian Orthodox church, now a museum with pictures of the city's glorious past. The church is a beautiful, very Russian building, which I still marvel at (the fact that Russian architecture exists in what should be purely Chinese soil), despite knowing of Russia's influence in the region. We then walked towards and then around the market streets which were meant to be littered with Russian architecture (not too evident), stopping very often indoors in order to warm up. My feet were numb and in pain though I could still continue but Jorges appeared frozen solid and was feeling sick from the cold.
Along a market street, we passed by a man selling huge box load of ice-creams, all displayed on the street. No freezers were needed - the whole city was itself a freezer and I realised that really, we've been walking around in a giant freezer all this time. At lunchtime, we had some great food. It makes a big difference going with Chinese-speaking people who can order well.
Jason and Kimiko
I parted ways with the group in the afternoon, deciding to take myself to the ice-festival to see the ice buildings in daylight as well as the intended darkness. I made the decision to go alone rather than wait for the free bus leaving from the hostel at night, with a ready-made group of people (potential new travelling companions!!) to walk around with. It's a move I will question later, as I walk around the amazing sights on my own.
I arrive just as the sun was setting, so didn't get to see the displays in much daylight after all. As soon as I walked through the entrance, the evening lights were already switched on.
I found out later that the festival was not just a random commercial effort to draw high fee-paying crowds but a derivative of a long held tradition of using blocks of ice to encase a candle or some sort of lantern so that hand-held lights could be carried around unaffected by strong winter winds. Brought to the modern world, this meant coloured strip lights were put in the blocks of ice that formed the building blocks of some rather fantastic ice sculptures and buildings, creating a spectacular visual wonder that really comes to live in the night. Egypt's Sphinx, Russia's Orthodox Church, a building in Japan's Imperial Palace, Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Singapore's merlion and of course the Empire State Building and Forbidden City are only a few of the things represented in the huge site. Giant chess pieces, huge sculptures and art work, giant slides, an ice-bar and disco, ice-cycle rides and a whole load of other things are dotted around the ice playground, all lit up beautifully with colourful lights within the clear ice. It was amazing! But the evening also heralded the first moment I felt truly alone in my journey thus far.
The last four months had been a whirlwind of highs, with very few lows. I seem to always be occupied with lots and little at the same time, but always moving from one encounter to the next. Loneliness had to catch up with me sometime, and it finally happened in that first evening of Ha'er Bin, among the spectacular displays and groups of people milling about with smiles and wonder on their faces. I suppose it struck because I was unable to share with anyone the huge excitement and overwhelming sensory overload that such a place engenders. When you get on such a high, the loneliness is more acute. Was it silly to shun the company of those in the hostel? My independent streak was perhaps too much in this case.
Eventually, I meet American Jason and Japanese-American Kimiko, both on a short holiday from their Google office in Tokyo. I deduce that they are a couple, having probably met in Google's California home base where they had both worked.
I've always been intrigued by the Japanese culture, with its mix of strict traditional values and modern, western practise. How does this dichotomy permeate into the working life? And especially in the free-flowing world of Google? Jason and Kimiko tells me it's a very different work life in comparison to what they know elsewhere. Google's famed laid back environment is stunted in Japan's more disciplined world. Banter is less and people are more focused on tasks at hand. If this is Google's office, I would hate to think what the other companies are like. But still, they are enjoying Tokyo's bright lights and exciting living.
They gave me a ride back to near my hostel and had A.R. Rahman's music blaring out of the speakers all the way home. I was in raptures! And it wasn't even me who put the music on. The combination of music and their company lifted me from lonely nostalgia. Even better was an encounter with a traveller from the UK back at the hostel while brushing my teeth. Mutual laughter is the best cure for low moods so our jokey conversations and agreement to go to Disney's ice festival together with his sister and other friends the next day was the perfect end to the day. The sister is apparently a Disney fan too, and the thought of walking around a Disney setting singing along to classic Disney tunes with a fellow fan is just too sweet for words.
I meet freshly arrived Susie at reception, and together, we explore the snow festival, a spectacle of buildings and sculptures made of compacted and opaque snow. Less remarkable than the ice-festival, it is nevertheless amazing to walk around and see the impressive carvings. Even more fascinating is seeing actual sculptors at work. I had visualised carefree and creative artists, moulding their designs meticulously on a big block of ice. Instead, I see a team of everyday workers with shovels and other equipment, chipping away at the snow in a seemingly haphazard manner. It was difficult to determine who is overall in charge. Somehow, every man knew his part and executed it with perfection. Amazing!
My companion in this park complex is a beautiful Susie from the UK, currently teaching English at a university in Suzhou (not far from Shanghai), on a British Council programme. She's paid a basic salary for 16 hours of teaching time a week. Doesn't seem bad. She, and the rest of the English teaching crowd around China it seems, are on holiday, thanks to the long Spring Festival vacation.
Though currently teaching English, what Susie really wants to do is to volunteer in conservation while in China to gain experience for a future role in that field. She is finding it difficult to search for NGOs in China, however - it seems they are a rare thing. I reflect that with the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government, its distrust of western meddling and possible Chinese conservatism and inward looking nature, NGOs would have little space to start up or develop. India is benefiting from the great work of numerous NGOs operating among the disadvantaged and marginalised of society, and it's a shame that China is not allowing organisations the same freedom to transform lives.
Susie and I had a nice morning, walking around exploring. Through her, I also discover that Ha'er Bin is a known ski resort, something she planned to make use of in the coming days. I later find out (from some chefs I met on the train back to Beijing who were in Ha'er Bin for skiing) that one-day skiing in the area was merely 30 or 40 pounds with all equipment and lessons included - the cheapest I've seen anywhere! But I was leaving that very night. I regretted being so organised with train tickets and booking ahead. Unplanned is so often the better route.
I end my weekend Ha'er Bin trip with a lonely evening in Disney's ice festival - a small park with ice sculptures and ice buildings from Disney cartoons (Aladdin's palace, a castle etc.). The music was there, I sang and danced along, enjoyed the ice slides and a surprise gymnastics show, but all without the companions I had expected due to meeting glitches. Oh well. To wrap it all up, I had dinner for one in a Russian restaurant before heading back to Beijing on an overnight train. The loneliest weekend on record.