Coke & Som Smith Photography & Travelogue

Expedition to Harbin, 2012!


One of the "lucky" Siberian Tigers we saw at the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park

 

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Winter Trip to Heilongjiang Province!

The spectacular ice sculptures seen on a MINUS 14 degrees February evening at Harbin's famous Ice & Snow Festival! 

 

So pretty much everyone who calls themselves an “expat in China” makes a visit at one time or another to Harbin, in China’s far northeastern Heilongjiang Province (previously known as "Manchuria"), to visit what is famously known as the Harbin Snow & Ice Festival.  Not wanting to be UN-caught-up-with-the-Jones, the Smith family decided to make a visit during the winter of 2012.  Actually it was Cokie who insisted we go to the ice festival.  He really wanted to slide down the ice-slides and snowy slopes.  We opted to visit well after the Chinese New Year’s crunch, when there are literally hundreds of thousands of people visiting the city for the festival.  Our decision was vindicated when we had basically free-run of the town and the festival with surprisingly small numbers of tourists! 

 

 

Actually it was really pretty awesome!

 

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Surprise! North Korea!

Our unexpected view of North Korea from 30,000 feet!  Note the vast forests and undamed watersheds.  One of the benefits of extreme poverty and a completely out-to-lunch leadership...

 

To my utter surprise, our weekend expedition to Manchuria started with a stunning flight over the Korean Peninsula with a surprising and amazing 30-minute flight over North Korea!  At first, I was questioning how this could be possible but then it dawned on me that we were in a Chinese Airline, and only they have rights to cross North Korean airspace.  As we progressed from South to North Korea, we witnessed a transition from first-world to the middle ages, with villages that had virtually no evidence of infrastructure of any sort, including roads, electricity, etc.  But what struck me the most was the vastness and intact-nature of the deciduous forests of this sliver of land.  When we were in Russia some years back, we looked across the border of North Korea and saw the forests that penetrated deep in to the landscape.  Our scientist-guide in Russia told us that they knew for a fact that Siberian Tigers ventured across the borders regularly, but no one knew to what extent or how many as scientific study in North Korea is simply nonexistent.  But looking at the condition of the forests from 30,000 feet, I could see that there were still millions of acres of forest cover that could perhaps support many of the prey species to support a tiger population.  Perhaps – glass half full?

 

 Near the western edge of the mountain range, we started to see more evidence of development.  The frozen lakes were basically the highways of this region.  Could not tell what sort of road system was available in the warmer seasons.

 

There were very few logged areas in this vast ecosystem.  I couldn't help by wonder if there were tigers in those hills!

 

Take a peak at a country trapped in the dark ages...

 

 

 Harbin City

 Harbin's famous Zhongyang pedestrian street.  Frigid temperatures didn't seem to phase anyone!

 

Saint Sophia's Cathedral added so much to this city.  A remnant from the early part of the last century, the cathedral luckily made it through the Cultural Revolution relatively intact. 

 

Saint Sophia's Cathedral is without a doubt the heart of the city.

 

We arrived in Harbin with some daylight remaining which allowed us to spend some time exploring the city centre.  Harbin is a surprisingly vibrant and charming city, with a rich history, albeit short one.  What struck us first was the amount and quality of Russian heritage evident virtually everywhere in the city.  From the exquisite Saint Sophia’s Cathedral to the Zhongyang Pedestrian Street to the Songhua River area, Russia was everywhere!  Som quickly bought up several souvenirs that we forgot to get when we were in Russia!  We even tried some Russian cuisine from a locally famous restaurant, but were pretty much left wanting to puke for the rest of the evening….At least they had cold Harbin beer!

 

 

Thank goodness for Harbin Beer!  It saved our first night, after a rather disappointing "Russian" meal...

 

Zhongyang pedestrian street seen on one of our many strolls though the city center.

 

I think Harbin did a great job keeping its outstanding old architecture, especially on the Zhongyang Pedestrian Street.

 

There was so much of Harbin that reminded us of our two months in Russia.  And I actually vaguely remember a store just like this one in Moscow's famous Arbat area.

 

Our days and nights were spent walking the large streets of Harbin, soaking in the atmosphere.

 

A constant reminder of the temps!  Only minus 9 this morning...

 

The street life was very Chinese and we enjoyed being voyeurs on our treks through town...

 

Harbin was definitely trying to make a grand statement but it was very tastefully done...

 

This building could have seriously been simply lifted right off the streets of Irkutsk, Siberia!

 

***

 

The Ice Festival!

Our goal was to show Cokie the great Harbin Snow & Ice festival and we made it our first night in town.  While it was about as commercial and touristy as you can imagine, we really enjoyed our time at the festival.  I think the utter lack of crowds made our trip there much more enjoyable.  After reading the horror story-reviews on the festival from Tripadvisor, I was very leery about even going to Harbin.  But we all feel that the event was worthwhile, albeit once is surely enough, at least for the Snow & Ice festival.  Harbin itself and the province of Heilongjiang are definitely worthy of more in depth exploration.  I think Cokie was a bit disappointed in the festival however.  While he did have a great time overall, several of the really fun activities were off-limits (for good reason – VERY dangerous) for kids.  And the activities that were available for him were mostly boring, or so he said.…  I did ask him, however, why he was smiling so widely in so many of the pictures of him taken at the festival…

 

 Something tells me my little guy was actually having a good time.  This was about his 12th run down this slope....There was never a wait for anything!  Post tourist-season dividends!

 

 

I have to admit however that some of the slides and activities for kids were a bit lame.  Cokie did try hard to "slide" down this slide (he is the one in the picture basically walking down the slide...) but eventually gave up and walked the rest of the way.  The best slide was so dangerous that only adults were allowed and Som paid for her run with a major fist-sized bruise on her arm!

 

 This was the "death slide" that nearly cost Som her arm!  Thankfully Cokie was not allowed to go on the slide though.  But I will never forget the look of disappointment when he was told no.  "But dad, the main reason I wanted to come to the festival was for the slides..."  Poor little guy...

 

 

 

 That's a lot of ice!

 

Bright lights and colors seemed to be the theme...

 

Guess who was one of the sponsors!

 

And guess who else!  Our namesake!  But take a look at just how UNcrowded this place was.  At the peak there were hundreds of thousands of people per day coming to the festival.  I guess it pays to be late...

 

Praying Mantid!

 

Ooooh...green ice!

 

This little guy was so cute, I couldn't resist, so I paid the 20 RMB to hold him for a few seconds...

 

 Even Som got in a few good runs!

 

Harbin Siberian Tiger Park

I am not sure why we visited this place; I suppose it was my morbid curiosity and my desire to see the amazing Siberian tiger up close.  I wish could say our visit to the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park exceeded my expectations, but it pretty much met my expectations…. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I was surprised at how poorly the tigers were treated there.  The place is a serious scar on the fabric that is Harbin and China in general.  While seeing the tigers so close and in such great numbers was fascinating, the way they were treated by their keepers was shameful.  They were kicked at (through the fences of course) repeatedly.  Tourists and guards continually flicked their cigarette butts at the tigers.  The cages they were in were feces-filled health hazards.  And herding the tigers from cage to cage with M-80 firecrackers was simply disgusting.  The tigers were terrified. 

 

 But they were so spectacular...

 

There were a few lucky tigers that were allowed to roam the relatively “natural” grounds in the park, but most of the 200 or so captive tigers were limited to 3m by 3m cells. I have no idea if there is a rotation of which tigers are let out to roam or not.  We left the park depressed and incensed.  Som asked me, “Why did we support this place by visiting it?”  All I could say is that, “I wanted to see the tigers.”  We all agreed that this was not a good enough reason…  But all this being said, I did get some beautiful images of one of the most spectacular and endangered carnivores on earth.  And we all agreed to very SOON return to Ussuriland, in the Russian Fareast (where we spent approximately 2-weeks a few years back tracking Siberian tigers and Amur Leopards – Click Here to see our trip report) to once again pursue our goal of seeing a wild Siberian tiger, but this time, in a place that protects them, rather than egregiously abusing them.

 

 

While good views of the tigers, i.e., views without bars, cages, cigarette smoke, spitting tourists, etc., were actually surprisingly difficult to come by, I was able to catch a few glimpses of some of the tigers in the larger enclosures that made me imagine what it would be like to see these amazing animals in the wilds of Manchuria or Amurland or Ussuriland...

 

Magnificent animal...

 

There are over 200 Siberian tigers at the park

 

This was one big kitten!

 

This one almost looked like he was ready to pounce!  He probably thought we had one of the live Guinea-fowl they had for sale for 20 RMB to feed the tigers...

 

While this is a captive tiger, it looked similar to the countless tigers we've seen in India and Nepal crossing dirt tracks of places like Chitwan, Bardia, Kanha, Bandhavgar....Well, almost, if we thought hard enough...

 

This was a breeding center afterall...

 

 No matter how many big cats I see, both wild and captive, I am always impressed with how much they are like big kitties!

 

 On the prowl...

 

***

 

 

"Liger!"

I've studied, talked about and taught about Ligers with my bio students for decades now, but I have never had the opportunity to see one!  I just wish it wasn't in a 3m X 3m cage.  But it was fascinating to see nonetheless.  Note the striped legs and spotted forehead...

 

Liger stripes!

 

In case you were wondering how Ligers are made!

 

There was several nonmelanistic forms in the reserve as well

 

The only other wildlife seen while in Harbin were basically Carrion Crows, Black-billed Magpies, Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Pigeons...

 

There were no shortage of pigeons in town, especially circling Saint Sophia's Cathedral

 

***

 

Unit 731

 

The "Power Station" that was used to generate power to the base for Unit 731.  It was also where they incinerated thousands of corpses of the victims of the unit.

 

Perhaps the most fascinating part of our weekend in Harbin was our trip out to the hinterlands of the city to see what is infamously called, “Unit 731”.  Harbin was a major Japanese-occupied part of Manchuria before and during WWII, and Harbin was the center of this region.  A top-secret base used by Japan’s “Unit 731” perpetrated many of the war’s worst crimes on innocent civilians and prisoners of war, mainly in the name of “scientific research”.  Basically this boiled down to thousands of unspeakable, inhuman acts of barbarism so unbelievable, that all you could do was shake your head in disgust when learning about them.  The sheer scope of the sadism of these psychopathic “scientists” is truly unbelievable.  From biological weapons research using live humans to the vivisections performed on pregnant women to the bombing experiments on live, crucified victims, the list of crimes is just too long and absurd to comprehend.  The museum and grounds are definitely some of the more memorable (and disturbing) scenes of our trip to Harbin.

 

 Watching Cokie silently walk the grounds and museum at Unit 731 was very interesting.  We did talk at great lengths about what happened there and I felt it was important for him to hear as complete a story as possible.  He spent a lot of time simply quietly observing however.

 

The memorial hallway with the names of the 3000+ known victims of Unit 731.

 

One can only imagine what happened behind these windows so long ago...

 

One of the more barbaric "experiments" of Unit 731, was the dropping of biological-agent-bombs near helpless civilians, with the intent of studying bacterial-introduction techniques via bombing raids. The intent was not to kill the poor souls that were basically on crucifixes, but to injure them badly enough to simply infect them with toxic strains of bacteria.  And then they would study how they died over time....  

 

Vivisections of live and awake victims were a daily event in Unit 731

 

The unit experimented on various infection techniques to determine the best way to kill their victims...

 

Helpless civilians were often kidnapped right off the streets of Harbin and its suburbs and then secretly transferred to Unit 731 for experimentation.  This were always the last trips of their lives for these poor folks

 

When Cokie saw that the Japanese soldiers were able to wear gas masks during these experiments, he said, "That is not fair".

 

***

 

More On Our Trip To Harbin

We all agreed that our trip to Harbin was great fun, and we hope to return in a warmer season to explore some of the exciting natural areas of Heilongjiang Province.  One of the things I learned in the Unit 731 museum was the great numbers and variety of ground squirrels in the region (the Japanese collected millions of them as vectors to spread biological or germ warfare weapons).  And there are substantial Red-crowned crane breeding grounds in the far north of the province as well that I hope to return to to capture on film! We’ll be back!

 

Songhua River Frozen Activity Zone!

Cokie and Som loved hanging out on Harbin's Songhua River.  There were loads of activities and the river was frozen solid!

 

Cokie did have a few collisions and accidents on the frozen river however...

 

Cokie "ski-sledding" his way in to the sunset on the Songhua River...

 

I enjoyed studying the designs in the several-meter-thick ice.  These were trapped gas bubbles deep within the frozen river ice...

 

Pigeons doing their hourly circumnavigation around Saint Sophia's Cathedral...

 

Our entire family feel a very special connection to all things Russian, and the onion-domed Saint Sophia's Cathedral made us feel very much at home...

 

The interior of the cathedral had a very unrestored feel to it...maybe because it was....unrestored...

 

The great dome...

 

Saint Sophia's Cathedral

 

We definitely enjoyed the Harbin style of hotpot better than the Sichuan style.  Much better flavor and not so overpowering!  This was our last supper in Harbin...

 

Fashion shopping Harbin style!  Holy crap!

 

These dudes were yo-yo gurus for sure!

 

The post-Victorian architecture was still intact in many sectors of Harbin, not just in the touristy areas...

 

Another cool tower in Harbin...

 

I mean for $41 per night, you cannot beat the Ibis Hotel!!!

 

Harbin simply has charm...

 

A typical downtown Harbin scene...

 

In case you were wondering if you could cool your drink on the window sill....It took about 15 minutes for this can to explode!!!

 

For 3 RMB, you could feed seeds to the pigeons.  Cokie spent about 50 RMB....I think he enjoyed it...And the pigeons got fat!

 

Good grub!

 

Cool pigeon!

 

Although I am definitely no pigeon expert, it seemed that most of the color-morphs were viewable in the Harbin flock...

 

Sunset on our final evening in Harbin.  Great trip for sure!

 

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