Well, I decided the best way to rekindle my romance with the Middle Kingdom was to take a little trip somewhere – maybe some place a little warmer than Wuxi. You know, where I wouldn’t have to wear two pairs of long underwear and ten pairs of socks every time I wanted to battle the elements by going outside… or, say, into my unheated kitchen.
I contemplated a trip to Kunming, which is known as the City of Eternal Spring because of its consistently temperate weather.
I thought about taking a little river boat cruise down the Li River in Guilin.Harbin. Which is about as close to Siberia as you can get without actually being in Siberia.
Because really what better way to recharge my relationship with China than to run the risk of foot amputation due to frostbite?
(Yes, I know, it’s like I should be a marriage counselor or something. Because, obviously, I know the secret to bringing the spark back to any dying relationship.)
The main reason I wanted to go to Harbin was because of the city’s Ice and Snow Festival, which is one of the largest ice and snow festivals in the world.I should probably mention here that I am not really a big fan of ice or snow.
I blame this on growing up in Buffalo, where it snows about seven months out of the year so ice and snow are not exactly considered novelty items. Sure, I’m used to ice and snow, but I have never felt the need to throw it a party every year like they do in Harbin.I should probably also mention that I’m not really a big fan of festivals either.
Festivals involve large crowds of people, and large crowds of people make me claustrophobic.
They also ensure that I’m going to have to wait a really long time before I can use the bathroom or buy some meat-on-a-stick. And I get cranky when I have to wait for the bathroom or meat-on-a-stick.And, admittedly, the last time I took a trip in China, I went to Hangzhou which did not exactly increase my love for China. If anything, it just made me appreciate my couch even more.
Not that Hangzhou wasn’t lovely. There were blue skies and a number of pretty parks and pagodas all clustered around the stunning West Lake.
And there were these fried dumplings. Which were amazing. (But then again they are dumplings and they are fried, so I think the amazing part kind of goes without saying.)
But I tend to be something of an idiot when I travel (okay, and maybe I’m an idiot all the time, but I’m especially idiotic when I travel), so I made a lot of stupid mistakes.
I booked a hotel which was about a million miles away from the city center because the website made it look really charming. (Note to self: places tend to lose their charm real quick when you have to walk five miles to get there.)
And, while the hotel’s cafe and other rooms were quite charming, my room turned out to be a dingy, windowless affair that reeked of mildew and broken dreams. And it was decorated with evil bunny wallpaper.
I got lost a lot and ended up walking around the lake a few too many times.
I hiked up a muddy mountain in a-million-degree heat because everybody else was doing it and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I finally managed to do something right and found a food street where I bought some meat-on-a-stick and beer. And then the meat seller asked me to go have sex with him. Because, apparently, only sluts eat meat-on-a-stick and drink beer.
So, yeah, given all these factors, I probably shouldn’t have had such high hopes for my trip to Harbin.But it turns out my trip was even better than I expected it would be.
In fact, I had such a good time in Harbin, it’s entirely possible that I slipped into some alternative universe. You know, one where I’m not such an idiot all the time.
Or possibly it was all just a dream. Just in case, I’ll be careful not to pinch myself for fear that I may wake up cold and crying and lying in a gutter somewhere.The first indication that I was entering some magical kingdom was when I stepped out of the airport to discover a sparkly ice castle greeting all the new arrivals.
It was there as if to say, “Welcome to Harbin! We made this ice castle for you. What did all those other cities in China make for you? Sure, the Great Wall is pretty impressive, but is it MADE OUT OF ICE? DOES IT SPARKLE? Yeah, didn’t think so.”
Before I could gawk too much at the ice castle, I was ushered onto a shuttle bus to the city. I’m usually pretty wary of taking buses in new cities because I have a tendency to get on the wrong bus. Or get off at the wrong stop. Or, you know, just never get off the bus and just sit there for two hours.
But, this time I was not only told exactly what bus to get on, but also the bus driver made a point of telling me exactly when I should get off the bus and, then, showed me in which direction I should go for my hotel.
And he didn’t once ask me to go have sex with him. Probably because I was wearing five layers of clothing and looking particularly lumpy.
Or because he was a really good guy.
Either way, it was a pleasant experience.When I arrived at my hotel, I was informed that the twin room I had booked was a smoking room. And before I could even pout and stamp my feet and claim that I’m allergic to cigarette smoke (which is what I usually do when I forget to book a non-smoking room which happens a lot because I always forget to book a non-smoking room), I was upgraded to a non-smoking queen room that smelled of lilacs and happy thoughts.
The free toiletries in the bathroom claimed that they cared for me. And I totally believed them.
And the posters in the hallway enticed me to eat more breakfast. And, seeing as I usually like to eat breakfast at least twice a day while I travel, I totally took them up on that offer.St. Sophia’s Cathedral, which shone magically in the moonlight… and the spotlights… but also the moonlight.
And then I stumbled upon a noodle shop where I was greeted by a smiling staff and a picture menu boasting beef noodles and fried dumplings.
When I ordered tea, I was informed they were all out of tea that day. But they had plenty of Harbin beer.
This happened quite a lot while I was in Harbin. I would be at a restaurant and try to order tea because, you know, it was noon or I was trying to be healthy or some other ridiculous reason. And then I’d be informed that they didn’t have tea, but they had plenty of beer. Which, frankly, seems like yet another indication that I was in a magical alternative universe where I’m not even allowed to pretend to be healthy.The next day, I discovered that my friend, Fiona, and her family also happened to be in Harbin for the festival.
And, well, if you’re going to be in any city as freezing cold as Harbin, you should really be there with Fiona and her family, as they are lovely, warm, generous people. Plus, Fiona happens to be a doctor so, you know, just in case you get frostbite and need to have any toes amputated, she’s the lady to do it.
Besides, it was really nice being able to spend a few days enjoying the city with other people. I’m not usually very good about meeting people when I travel. I tend to feel really awkward about throwing myself at strangers even if I’m so desperate to talk to someone that I’ve started talking to my food.
My usual tactic for making friends while I’m traveling involves grinning maniacally at people in hopes that they’ll talk to me. And, in case you’re wondering, this tactic very rarely works. In fact, it usually just results in people looking really alarmed and clutching their wallets.
Luckily, though, I have no qualms at all about throwing myself at friends and their unsuspecting family members. So I spent the next two days inviting myself along to lunch with Fiona and her family and then monopolizing their conversations.I also tagged along with them to the Harbin Snow and Ice World, which was definitely one of those things you want to do with a group of people rather than on your own. You know, so you can have someone to ooo and ahh with you at all the fantastic ice sculptures.
And take your picture while you’re coming down the ice slide.
And then help you stand up after you fall down… like five times because that ice stuff is slippery, man.When I wasn’t tagging along with Fiona and her family and subjecting them to my never ceasing banter, I was walking around the city in a charmed haze.
It’s hard not to be charmed by a city full of ice sculptures:
And snow sculptures:
And, you know, sculptures made out of soda cans:
And there are street vendors everywhere selling meat-on-a-stick and candied-fruit-on-a-stick and really anything else you might want on a stick.
And you can do everything from ice skate to sled to ride a horse carriage across the frozen Songhua River.
It kind of felt like Disneyland, but a really, really cold version of Disneyland, where you need to wear five layers of clothing just to survive.I wasn’t alone in my charmed haze.
The city was chock full of other excited festival-goers eating candied apples and striking cheesy poses in front of the ice and snow sculptures.
Or cheesy poses in front of the regular sculptures.
As I walked around the city smiling maniacally to myself (partly because I was really happy and partly because my face had kind of froze that way), people didn’t look at me with their usual level of alarm
Instead, they smiled back at me.
I headed over to Zhongyang Dajie, a pedestrian shopping street near my hotel, where a crowd had gathered to watch fireworks and eat stuff on a stick.
I happened upon a small town square where a group of men and women were dancing. An older man glided up to me and asked me where I was from and if I wanted to dance. I fumbled along trying to take his lead, but, after a few steps, he stopped and laughed and shook his head at me and then glided away.
And then right about the time I couldn’t feel my fingers any longer, I stopped in a restaurant for noodles, fried dumplings and, of course, beer.As I shuffled back to my hotel through the snow, I couldn’t help feeling all warm and fuzzy inside despite the freezing temperatures.
Maybe it was my love for China rekindling itself and keeping me warm… or maybe it was all that beer I’d been drinking… or maybe it was the five pairs of pants I happened to be wearing.
Either way, it was a pleasant experience.Have you ever taken a trip that turned out much better than expected?