Exciting Misadventures in Harbin, China

Saint Sophia Cathedral Harbin China

At the end of my senior year in college, I received a scholarship to study the Mandarin Chinese language in China for one semester.  At the end of my semester, my friend Angela met me in Beijing, where we started our one-month travel around China.

This would be our first international trip together (unless we count Canada), and we were both excited to be going on this adventure together!  This post is about our misadventures in China and, specifically, our trip to Harbin, China.

About Harbin, China

One of the final places we visited during our one month travel in China was Harbin. Harbin is in northeastern China, in the Heilongjiang province. It is known for its cold weather.  How cold, you ask?  Well, considering one of its nicknames is the “Ice City,” you can guess it gets pretty cold. 

According to Travel China Guide, “The snow season can last as long as half a year. Harbin weather in January is the coldest with temperatures dropping to -38C (-36F), while it is just 20C (68F) on average in summer.” So, there you have it–it’s cold! They can build entire ice villages and not worry about them melting for months.  

It was because of their cold weather that I wanted to visit.  Well, not the cold weather, but rather the Harbin Ice Festival.  The Harbin Ice Festival started over 36 years ago and is now the world’s largest ice festival. They construct entire buildings out of ice to create a life-sized ice village. They also add colorful lights to the ice sculptures to create a magical ice wonderland.  It is awe-inspiring!  Here are some photos from a BBC article about the Harbin Ice Festival.

Moe and I were visiting in mid-December, so we knew there was little chance that we’d get to see any of the ice sculptures since the festival doesn’t kick off until January. However, with our flight back to the States leaving in a week, this was our only chance to see it. So, with hopes of seeing some ice sculptures, and intent on exploring a new city, we boarded a plane to Harbin. 

The Misadventures Begin

Our misadventures in Harbin start with our flight. To begin with, the flight left one hour late (not unusual when flying in China). Then, 20 minutes before landing in Harbin, they announced we were diverting to Qingdao for an emergency landing. O-K. However, 30-minutes before landing in Qingdao, we’re informed that we are diverting to a different airport. 

We land in a dark and deserted airport and we are told the emergency landing is due to bad weather in Harbin.  So now our plane sits in a dark, empty airport, in who-knows-where, China.  

The Chinese passengers start chatting with each other. They also thought it was strange and didn’t sound too happy about it.  They began making phone calls to family in Harbin, and from what I could understand (from my limited Chinese vocabulary), the people they phone in Harbin had no idea why the plane wouldn’t have come straight there as the weather was okay–no storms.  

Abandoned airport in China

This photo was taken through the airplane window while waiting on the empty runway.

Here’s an audio file of our experience as we sat on the plane. 

To hear the reports that there appeared to be no reason why they didn’t take us straight to Harbin, was not exactly comforting.  So we sat there, contemplating why we landed in this deserted airport while listening to the frustration of our fellow passengers. Thankfully, about 30 minutes later, we continue to Harbin as planned.

I’ll still never know why we landed on that empty runway, and I guess it doesn’t matter.  It was all part of the adventure!

Exploring Harbin

We have only one full day in Harbin, so we have to limit our sightseeing activities and maximize the time we have.  We got up early that morning and started our day by visiting the Saint Sophia Cathedral. This former Russian Orthodox church is over 100 years old. It is now an art gallery.  When I stood there looking up at the cathedral, I felt like perhaps I’d taken the wrong flight and landed in Russia. The cathedral really stands out among the surrounding architecture.

Saint Sophia Cathedral Harbin China

Saint Sophia Cathedral

After exploring the Saint Sophia Cathedral, we walked to Zhaolin Park. We watched the workers cutting large blocks of ice with which to build the massive ice structures for the upcoming Harbin Ice Festival. Although we couldn’t go inside the park, we saw a lot of the buildings being constructed as we walked around the park.

We continued walking to Stalin Park on the banks of the frozen Songhua River.  The Songhua River is used to supply the ice needed to make the enormous ice sculptures for the ice festival.  The workers come to the river and then carve out huge blocks of ice, which they then use to create ice bricks to form the buildings. Although we would love to have seen the actual ice festival, it was still fascinating watching the behind the scenes construction that goes into creating it.

People were out walking on the frozen Songhua River. You can also take horse-drawn carriage rides across the river. During the Harbin Ice Festival, in addition to the horse-drawn carriage rides, they have dog sleds, ice swimming, and other activities on the Songhua River.  

Frozen Songhua River in Harbin China

The frozen Songhua River.

An Afternoon Adventure

After returning to our hotel, we made arrangements to have a taxi take us to our next stop, the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park. I love tigers, and this is one of Harbin’s recommended attractions, so we decided to check it out. 

The drive to the Siberian Tiger Park was about a 30-minute drive outside of Harbin. Our driver turned off the highway and then turned down a side road before turning around to find the right road to the Siberian Tiger Park. It’s never a good sign when your taxi driver isn’t sure where your destination is.

We turned down a dirt road with tall brush on both sides. This excursion was starting to feel very remote.  I guess I should have considered that they wouldn’t keep a bunch of Siberian tigers in the middle of town. The taxi driver lets us out at the main entrance, we pay him and then see about purchasing our tickets.

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Harbin Siberian Tiger Park

We paid for the standard tour before heading to the waiting room inside. You can choose a variety of experiences, including purchasing live chickens and goats that are fed to the tigers while you watch.  We skipped that. Instead, we’re taking a small bus tour that drives us through the park, where the tigers roam freely.

As we wait for our tour, I overhear two men conversing in Mandarin Chinese. One of the men (who appears to be Chinese) tells the other man (who I later learn is from India) that I am probably Russian.  A little annoyed, I reply (in Mandarin) that I am not Russian, that I am an American. 

The Chinese man is shocked that I understand what he is saying.  He comes over, apologizes, and then asks where I learned to speak Chinese–and thus begins our conversation.

Now, if I were in the U.S. and had overheard a stranger talking about me, I would be annoyed, but I wouldn’t say anything. However, after almost four months in China, I’ve learned that privacy and social boundaries are a Western luxury.  

On almost a daily basis, in China, I was asked the following questions: Where did I live? Was I married? Did I have kids? How much money did I make?  These are all questions in the U.S. we would never ask a stranger, but, in China, it is completely acceptable.

So at this point during my time in China, I embraced the culture of saying whatever you want to strangers, and I didn’t hold back on correcting this man when he referred to me as Russian.  Later, I learned what a blessing in disguise this initial interaction with these men would be.

tour bus

Our tour bus at the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park.

The Siberian Tiger Tour

It is time for our tour.  We leave the warm confines of the waiting area and board a small bus.  There are large windows on every side so you could view the tigers from your seat. 

Siberian Tiger

These are such beautiful creatures!

We wait while another SUV, a different package experience than ours, drove out to feed the tigers.  One of the Siberian tigers walked up to the SUV, and its head came above the passenger window! I was in awe at how massive these beautiful creatures were. They are stunning!

Getting to see the tigers up close through the windows of the tour van was a great experience.  However, there was also a section of the tour that you could walk through, that had animals in small cages.  Some of them looked injured and others malnutritioned, including a liger, which of course, made me think of Napoleon Dynamite–“It’s pretty much my favorite animal…”

All in all, I loved seeing these gorgeous creatures, but it’s not an excursion I recommend. All in all, I felt the animals were not receiving proper care. 

three Siberian Tigers

Here kitty, kitty!

Almost Stranded in Harbin, China

It was getting dark as we finished the tour, and since we were the final tour of the day, everyone headed outside to leave for home. I saw a taxi driver, and I ran over to him to ask if we could get a ride, he let me know he was waiting for someone else.  I went to another taxi driver, but he was also waiting for someone else.  

It was at this point I realized we had no way to get back to our hotel.  Just when I felt a little panic starting to creep in, the two men I conversed with earlier, offered to give us a ride back to town in their car.  Thank God! There was no way we could walk back to town in the dark, not to mention we wouldn’t even know how to find our way there.

We packed into their car and thanked them profusely for their generous offer.  The Chinese man explained that there were no taxis that came there, except the ones reserved to take the employees home. We would have been stranded at the Harbin Tiger Park if they had not offered us a ride.

3 people in the back seat of a car

Me and the two men who befriended us on our car ride back to Harbin.

On the way back to town, we learned that the other man was there on business from India. The Chinese man was his business contact and host during his stay.  The man from India told Angela and me that if we thought China was crowded, then we really needed to take a trip to India!

They dropped us off in town, and Moe and I stopped to eat dinner before walking to our hotel. This wasn’t the first misadventure of our trip to China. Thankfully it was the last.

Other Misadventures in China

There was the time we visited a remote Shaolin temple, only to learn there weren’t any “official” taxi drivers to take us home.  We had to bargain with a man in a van for the ride back to our hotel. We joked with each other about what our moms would think. They taught us never to take rides with strangers; yet, here we were riding with one for over an hour. He turned out to be an amiable and helpful driver who gave us a good tip about which train to take the next day.

Then, of course, there was the time in Xi’an when we couldn’t find a taxi anywhere (typical problem there) and had to take a ride with a rickshaw driver who thought he was a NASCAR driver.  Then on top of it, he tried to take advantage of us on the price! So he and I got into an argument on the street, which then drew a crowd, and eventually Moe and I just walked off, paying him the originally agreed-upon amount. 

Sometimes, these misadventures were frustrating, even a little scary, but in the end, they always taught us more about ourselves and our fellow humans. Perspective is all you need to change a misadventure to an adventure.

Women standing in the snow

My friend Angela standing outside the Saint Sophia Cathedral.

Kindness of Strangers

Those two men, who gave us a ride in Harbin, were just a part of many acts of kindness I have been fortunate enough to receive during my travels. I was relieved and grateful for their generosity. I knew we had angels watching over us that day in Harbin.  Otherwise, we might have become an ice festival exhibit, “ode to ignorant tourists.”

It is a reminder that we should practice kindness, no matter where we are.  You never know what struggles a person might be dealing with–especially when they’re in an unfamiliar place. Your act of kindness might make all the difference. I know that was the case for Moe and me in Harbin.  I’m glad those men thought I was Russian, and I’m happy I spoke up, even though it went against my usual inclinations.

I can say, looking back on my time in China, I experienced things I’d never experienced before. I did and said things I wouldn’t normally have back home. However, it was all part of the adventure (or often misadventure), and it changed me for the better. That’s what traveling does. It opens you up to new things, new people, and a new way of thinking. You grow and develop a better understanding of the world outside your comfort zone. I am better for having traveled.

China wasn’t the last of my misadventure fun with Angela, read Misadventures in Normandy France to learn more about our travels together.

Have an Adventure!

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  • Angela at Reply

    Loved hearing the audio from the plane!!! Crazy!!

    • Charity at Reply

      I’m happy to hear you liked the audio, I wasn’t sure about just adding audio, but hoped it provided a fun perspective.

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