China: Harbin (哈尔滨) Food & Culture

To kick off our next series entitled “how to use a years worth of vacation in 4 months” (aka – our company has informed us we will be returning home in May 2017) we made a long weekend trip up to Harbin in the north eastern part of China. Famed for its snow and ice festival this time of year Harbin boasts stunning snow and ice sculptures, exquisite Russian architecture, and horrendous air pollution. The pollution we learned is a result of needing to burn enough coal to keep everyone warm, but it makes going outside less pleasant. This time we planned a longer than necessary trip to Harbin totaling 4.5 days, but we got to experience some pretty interesting things nonetheless. I believe the essentials can really be covered in 1.5 days, but I digress.

Our journey began with a city tour where we got to take in a super bizarre show of “winter swimming,” some delicious food, St. Sophia Church, and the main pedestrian walking street.

Our first stop, winter swimming, was really more of winter diving where the divers tried to get in and out of the water as quickly as possible. I had a chance to talk with a fairly famous (I’m told) Chinese cliff diver who was standing around outside for photo ops. She was the first person I have met in China who wanted to talk diving with me in Chinese [跳水/tiao shui, literally “jump water”]. Finally learning this word has come in use!

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While we waited for the short show to begin, we got to try some tubing.
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…and strange sled-chairing…

The diving well itself was cut from the frozen Songhua River and had to have the water continuously churned by a motor to keep it from freezing. Sounds comfortable, I’ll stick with an indoor pool thanks.

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The show was only about 5 minutes long because I imagine after 6 or so people you quickly run out of volunteers for this activity. David decided before the trip he was going to participate in winter swimming if they would let him. Thankfully they would not let him join; jury is still out on if he would have gone through with it.

Next up was lunch, a delicious Chinese taco called spring pancake (春饼). You can order anything on the menu and roll it all up in a very thin pancake/skin. We opted for sweet and sour pork, sliced potatoes with vinegar (which we love), and a huge pile of eggs. A surprisingly good combination, I would order it again!

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When one eats lunch at 2:30pm it is very easy to get a table in this restaurant.

Harbin itself has a long history with Russia and at one point in time Harbin was full of Russian citizens as well as Chinese. There was great cooperation between the two countries to build the China Eastern Railway and at this time Harbin had the largest Russian population in the world outside of Russia. After WWI things turned difficult for Russians in China though, and the population started to decrease from there. Saint Sophia is one of the only Russian orthodox churches left in Harbin as the rest were destroyed in the cultural revolution.

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St. Sophia and St. Nicholas. The latter was destroyed in the cultural revolution.
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Inside is a museum about the city’s history.

Our final destination for the evening was the main walking street. There were plenty of ice sculptures to get us excited for the big expo, and some snacks to be had all along the way. You can even buy Russian nesting dolls and other sweets on this street. I could not begin to tell you what is authentic or not, but it adds a nice touch nonetheless.

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They have some very famous ice cream bars on this street that you just have to try despite the fact that it’s freezing. We got distracted by a Chinese man trying to convince us we needed a photo of us actually eating the ice cream..as a result it took 3 takes to get us both to look at the camera.

The next day we opted to take a day trip out to Changan lake to see a very old (prehistoric even) Mongolian method of winter fishing that is in limited use today. It is considered an intangible cultural heritage of China and is only done on this specific lake. As David likes fishing he was curious to see how this was done, so we made a trip out there.

img_5591Did I mention all of this was happening in the middle of a lake? It took us about 15 minutes to drive out there and there must have been at least 100 cars all parked in the same area of this lake. The ice is quite thick by this time of year, so they have to carve a sizeable hole for fishing and use a pump to keep running water going to prevent freezing. The fishing method itself involves VERY long nets that are fed into the lake and drawn back out using a horse driven winch system. I believe this method currently holds the Guiness world record for most kgs of fish caught with a single net. The first several minutes of “fishing” they are dragging this net up there are a few fish here and there, but by the end it is just hauling up loads of fish. The very end though. Like the last 5 minutes are very exciting. Let me be clear, this was an interesting experience but not worth the 3.5 hour drive out to the lake and back in a single day. Definitely stay overnight and see some of the other sites if you want to observe the fishing. In our case we planned too much time in Harbin and needed to fill it with something. When we arrived we waited around for an hour to see the more exciting part of the fishing and based on feedback our guide received it would be at least an hour or two before there was more action. I was glad we opted for a guide this day or we would have been very confused as to what was going on logistically. Everything else was easy enough to observe.

Step 1: Cut a large hole in the ice and insert massive nets.

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It’s some pretty thick ice!

Step 2: attach a long rope to each side of the net and use your horsey-go-round to help pull it back out of the water.

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Step 3: Continue to collect each side of the 2 part net onto two separate sleds for easy deployment the next day.

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While we were waiting for something exciting to happen at the lake we decided to take a trip over to a nearby Tibetan Buddhist temple called Miaoyin. Unfortunately I do not have much background to go on here, but it was quite stunning and firmed up my resolve to make it more to Tibet in the future.

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I just LOVE all the color!!!

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Once we had a good look around the freezing temple complex we returned to catch the end of a different net being hauled in. This was just as well as the end is really the most exciting part of the whole endeavor. The day we were there they did not catch close to the amount I have seen in photos from this method, so perhaps it was just a bit of an off day. I also had trouble getting photos of the last bit as I was a bit too short to crowd my way up to the front of the mass that had assembled to observe.

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I want a hat like that guy…

Before we headed back to Harbin for the evening we stopped by a small ice carving expo on the shore of the lake to get some photos. Little did we know these were just the beginning of what we would get to see in Harbin!

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Despite the long drive we had a good trip and got to enjoy some 锅包肉 (guo bao rou, aka Dongbei style sweet and sour pork) which was phenomenal. American Chinese food ain’t got nothing on this, seriously. It was awesome. I wish I could eat it again!

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Everything in this picture was amazing. I wish I could learn to make it all…

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