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Things to do Outdoors in Harbin. Like Swimming.

They breed’em tough in far northern China. This pair of diehards are dōng yǒng 冬泳 or winter swimmers, and they’re about to dive into a swimming pool cut directly from the thick ice of the frozen Song Hua River in Harbin, wearing nothing but the scantiest shreds of lycra and a swimming cap. 
Winter swimming is apparently good for your health, but possibly only if you already possess an extremely robust disposition, or you need a full-body shock now and again to let you know you’re alive. Just like sticking your finger in a powerpoint, but colder.
I heard about these winter swimmers before I left Shanghai and I felt an immediate affiliation – I mean, I’m a winter swimmer myself! Winter swimmers like to pride themselves on swimming outdoors all through the winter months, because indoor swimmers in heated pools are just babies who can’t take a bit of cold. Or maybe they’re just sensible. One or the other.
But my winter swimming usually took place in subtropical Queensland, where a chilly winter day was about..oh.. twenty degrees celsius, or in the Pacific Ocean where the water temperature never drops below twenty four degrees. Not exactly a rugged hardship then. More like a summer vacation somewhere a bit further from the equator than Brisbane.
This sophisticated machine keeps the water churning constantly so it doesn’t freeze over. Water temperature – minus five degrees celsius.
There are very cold parts of the world like Russia, Scandinavia, and China, where winter swimming actually takes place in sub-zero conditions and they have to employ all sorts of smart techniques to stop the water re-freezing. These guys are truly hard-core and can proudly call themselves ‘Polar Bears’, which most of them do. They even have a Winter Swimming World Championships every December!
What I didn’t realise was just what a tight-knit and unique group winter swimmers are. More of a cult really, if you consider the many winter swimmers who believe that plunging into ice-cold water on a regular basis will bring you closer to God. But then again, most near-death experiences tend to do that.
According to winter swimming advocate Dr Vladimir Antonov  (a prolific writer who has written books on Atlantis and the Atlanteans and Sexology, amongst other learned classics), winter swimming can also cure a whole stack of diseases previously thought tricky to get rid of, like TB. This, from his Eco-Psychology website:
‘winter swimming decreases the sickness rate for cold-type diseases 60 (!) times, and for other diseases 30 times….winter swimming can heal many diseases including radiculitis, pulmonary tuberculosis, pancreatic diabetes, chronic gastrintestinal diseases, inflammations in genitals, menstrual cycle abnormalities, dermatoses and so on [32,65]’
Try as I might I couldn’t find Dr Antonov’s references 32 and 65 anywhere, which is a shame because I’m sure they might have made for interesting reading. He does caution that swimming ‘in water with temperature over 8 degrees…may even cause untrained individuals to catch cold’. So take care, and only swim in the really icy stuff. 
Back to China though, where life is much more pragmatic and a whole lot less spiritual. These guys swim in winter, yes, and they do believe it’s good for your health….but they’re only getting in the water if you pay them quite a lot of money. Totally sensible, like a paid dare really. The rest of the time they’re sitting in a cosy heated cabin drinking hot tea and waiting for guileless tourists like us to happen along.
This guy is the official swim pimp. For only 200 yuan (about $30) he said he could arrange for someone to swim for us. We bantered the price back and forth, but when my husband opened his wallet there was only 120 yuan inside. He snatched it quickly and shuffled on the slippery ice back to the heated cabin, to break the good news to the swimmer. 
In the end though, we got two swimmers for our money, a man in his sixties and a younger woman. They strode out of the cabin without robes, looking for all the world like they really enjoyed this stuff, hamming it up with crazy poses and growls of bravery. Neither of them popped a single goosebump the entire time, perhaps an indication they’re genetically suited to winter swimming.
I was alarmed to see they were planning to dive from the not-very-sturdy diving platform, a feat worth every yuan of the danger money we were paying. The platform was constructed from tent poles and a few planks of wood, with spindly legs embedded in the river ice, and the whole precarious contraption wobbled and swayed when the first swimmer took to the ladder.

Look at that. After diving in and swimming half a length, not a single goosebump, although I think the involuntary look of pain when he resurfaced after the dive says it all. Extraordinary.
Next, the woman climbed to the highest rung and edged out along the diving plank. At the last moment she took off her plastic slippers, positioned herself and blew us a kiss before executing a perfect dive into the water below. 

I’ll make sure I think of these guys when I’m next doing my winter laps back home in Brisbane, sun shining and a balmy twenty-one winter degrees.

The Harbin Ice Festival: Ten Kinds of Spectacular

It’s just one jaw-dropping spectacle after another when you walk through the gates of the Harbin Ice Festival’s showpiece ‘Ice and Snow World’, where everything you see elicits an involuntary ‘wow!’ 
Harbin builds excitement about its annual Ice Festival from the moment you arrive in the city. Every corner, every roundabout, and every public space is graced with an ice sculpture – small archways contain ice Venus de Milos, ice pavilions large enough to walk through sit alongside rows of giant carved ice vases, and parks are lined with ice colonnades. Even the pavements are fenced in a zig-zag patterned ice barrier. It’s over the top.
Which makes it hard to imagine that Ice and Snow World might not be something of a let-down, a tacky overblown, overpriced folly. From our hotel room on the first night I can see what appears to be a sprawling multicoloured neon ice city on the opposite side of the frozen Song Hua River. It looks massive, the size of a whole city block, and the coloured neon lights flash and change colours continuously. I can make out something that looks like the Kremlin with a flashing pink onion dome.
But the Ice Festival is what we’re here for and night-time seems the best time to go with all those neon lights, but first we have to figure out how we can spend several hours outdoors without freezing. To death.
Harbin is seriously cold – daily maximum temperatures during winter are minus sixteen to minus twenty degrees, with overnight temperatures dropping to minus thirty or more. The ideal place to build a whole city out of ice and light it up with crazily-coloured lights.
But for an Australian from sub-tropical Brisbane, this sounds dangerous. My family asks me what the treatment for frostbite is, and I’m forced to admit to them that in my medical exams I kind of skipped over the chapter on frostbite on the grounds I was never likely to encounter it, and instead studied practical and useful wilderness medicine like snakebite, sharkbite and heat stroke. And venomous spiders like funnelwebs and redbacks, because we have a lot of those in Australia.
Spiders would be hard pressed to live in Harbin. 
Just to make sure we have no chance of getting frostbite, or chillblains, or hypothermia, each of us is wearing enough clothes to outfit a small village – thermals, ski trousers, down jackets, glove liners, ski gloves, undersocks, snow socks, balaclavas, beanies and snow boots. For extra warmth, we’ve also bought eight packets of adhesive heat-packs in every size. My husband, who has large feet and couldn’t buy any snowboots, has discovered his thick-soled shoes are useless in this cold so ingeniously he’s using the heat patches keep his feet warm but looks like a bizarre nicotine addict with stick-on patches on the top and bottom of each socked foot. 
When we do finally make it to the festival, in the sparkling company of travel blogger Sally of unbrave girl (She’s famous! Just been nominated for a Bloggie!) who happens to be in Harbin too (and is wearing four fewer layers than us because she’s from Buffalo, and therefore tough), we realise this Ice Festival business is going to get expensive. Really expensive.
Money falls out of your pockets at every turn, starting with the extraordinary 300 yuan entrance fee, and doesn’t stop until you’re back at your hotel and have paid the taxi driver his 70 yuan/hour fee for waiting for you so you don’t freeze to death walking home. Want to cuddle a baby snow fox? That’ll be an extra twenty. Ride on snow yak? Thirty. Recline in a horse-drawn carriage with sleighbells? A hundred. Never mind, this is an Ice Festival, and building a whole city from blocks of ice hauled up from the Song Hau River by 12,000 workers isn’t cheap. Even in China. So just empty your pockets and enjoy it I say!

Harbin Ice and Snow World

Runs annually from Jan 5 for approximately one month, open 7 days and nights
Adults 300 yuan
Children 160 yuan
Ice slides and all shows and hourly performances free
Eating bing tang hu lu 10 yuan
Holding a baby snow fox 20 yuan
Sitting on a snow yak 30 yuan
Riding in a neon-lit pumpkin coach 50-100 yuan
Taxi from downtown Harbin approx 15 yuan. Ice and Snow World is in a fairly isolated spot and you may have difficulty finding a taxi back. Your driver will wait for you for a negotiated fee, around 70 yuan/hour.

Train Travel Chinese Style, with Pot Noodles.

Soft-sleeper car, early morning

It’s a long way from Shanghai to Harbin by train – two nights and a day, in fact. That’s two nights and half a day longer than flying there. 

Why on earth then would you do it? Well, because it’s a train, and train travel, even in China, is capable of being a romantic and memorable experience mirroring the great train journeys of old. As long as you can shut out the smokers, the squat toilets, the PA announcements and the toothbrush hawkers that is. More on them later.

Train journeys anywhere in China always begin in a cavernous, cold, poorly lit waiting room, a place that would feel like the antechamber to a mausoleum actually, were it not filled with so many thousands of people with luggage and bags of brightly-coloured pot noodles.

In the waiting room, you wait, and wait, and just when you think your train must be running late they call for boarding and the neon-yellow sign above your gate turns green, a signal to the entire crowd to leap out of their seats and run madly across the waiting room to assemble as a tightly-packed mosh-pit in front of the narrow gate. 

Some desperate buggers who have standing-only tickets cram their way to the front, shoving violently, and can later be seen sprinting across the platform to secure any spare seats so they don’t have to sleep standing up.

The whole mosh-pit then squeezes through the single gate and on to the platform where it’s just a matter of finding your car and berth number, more difficult than it should be because sometimes an entire Chinese family or very deaf grandmother has taken occupation of your seat. They know it’s yours, they’re just hoping you wouldn’t turn up. After some to-and-fro and the eventual intervention of the guard, they give in, take their pot noodles and leave.

After memorable past experiences such as these in hard seat and hard sleeper class, for long journeys there is only one way to go – soft sleeper. It’s as cheap as chips, and sounds luxurious, doesn’t it? And it is, in the same way riding a bicycle is luxurious if you’re accustomed to walking barefoot on icy ground with frostbite to all your toes.

In soft sleeper you’re the master of your own four-berth compartment, two up, two down, with your own window, lockable door, soft cotton-coverd quilts, lace antimacassars and a Ministry of Railways thermos, standard issue. 

This is perfect if you travel as a family of four, as we do. If you take a berth on your own you will have to contend with a degree of smoking, snoring, spitting, plus or minus unexpected extra passengers in the berth above you, snuck in after the guards have gone to bed to share a bunk with their mother/brother/girlfriend.

The downside of soft sleeper? Well there’s a few. There’s the PA message on loop with a hidden volume switch it takes hours to find. The incessant smoking. And the pot noodle and toothbrush vendors who trundle their long narrow steel trolleys through the carriage every half hour with the same sing-song sales cry – “Bee-er! Instant noooo-dellls! Tooooth-brsh-toooooth-pste! Beee-er!” and on it goes. 

But the worst by far is the single stainless steel squatter toilet you have to share with the whole carriage. Now if, for example, you have a supernatural ability to go to the bathroom at the start of a thirty-three hour train journey and never again, this won’t bother you one bit. On the other hand, if you need to use the toilet more than once and you have some ridiculous hang-up about flushing, or about ones and twos being confined to the receptacle of the squatter, or about used toilet paper thrown on the floor, or even about touching the same door handle as the person who left their large number two in the corner of the room, then thirty three hours in soft-sleeper is going to be tough for you. 

I prefer not to think about it. It’s just shit, after all. And it’s much worse in hard sleeper.

But it does then get you thinking about the troubling grimy carpet, and where all that grime has been tracked from. Better to just take your shoes off when you get back to your room. And try not to drink any water.

The first night on the train is noisy and busy. I hadn’t paid attention to the schedule when I booked our tickets, and our first 13 stops occurr in the first overnight stretch of 11 hours. Just frequently enough to drift off to sleep before the next load of passengers boards and wakes you with a jolt, in combination with the searchlight strength platform lights streaming in your window and the platform PA message. 

Even at three am Chinese train passengers have no sense of quiet awareness of a carriage full of sleeping bodies, and consider it perfectly natural to wander up and down the corridor yelling:
‘Where is number 33?’ 
‘What berth are you again?’
‘Are you sure we’re in the right car?’
‘Oh! There’s 33!’
‘I just passed it.’
‘There! Behind you! No! The other way!’ 

The same guys always need to get out of bed for a smoke once an hour. 

If nothing else, train travel is great for people watching. My favorites are the train guards – a special breed of slightly fierce-looking but actually really goofy individuals. They sport a navy blue uniform with a pilot’s hat, with degrees of red braid and gold buttons you can acquire depending on rank. 
The guards in my carriage. ‘No photos! My hat’s crooked!’
Soon after we get on the train I find one of them dragging a reluctant six year old down the corridor to the 130cm mark on the wall at the end of every carriage, to check he isn’t scamming an under-130cm ticket when he should be paying for a regular child’s ticket, the pint-sized 131cm rascal. I hear his dad pleading that his shoes have extra thick soles. The guards let him off, just this once. The dad smiles a lot, nervously, as the guards return his son but the kid knew all along it was one big funny joke at his father’s expense and the guards were in on it.

Of course, you’ll want to know about train food, that special variety of cuisine served up by the Ministry of Railways. It varies by route, and runs the gamut from unidentifiable slop (I’ve described my first train meal consisting of fingernails and gristle before) to really quite tasty in a retro, boarding school sort of way. 

The dining car is often empty, becuase the meals are expensive compared to a five yuan pot of instant noodles, but there are always one or two hardy souls sleeping with their heads on the table nursing a bottle of fiery bai jiu so they don’t have to return to the horror of the debris-strewn hard-seat carriages, and a couple of off-duty guards lounging around. The cook always wears the dirtiest white coat and has little hair. 

Faced with the look of some train food, it’s no wonder that at least fifty percent of our meals turn out to be pot noodles. Instant ramen, two-minute noodles, cup-a-noodles, whatever you know them by, the Chinese name for them is the best ever – fangbian main 方便面 -convenience noodles. My husband is always disappointed that the sachet of dehydrated green and brown flakes doesn’t transmogrify into a hearty beef and vegetable stew under the influence of hot water from our thermos, just like the picture on the pot. But they are only five yuan. 

Chinese train travel is still, in spite of the downsides, for me the most wonderful way to travel. You go to sleep in Shanghai, and wake up to a winter-scoured landscape in Shandong province, and through the day see frozen rivers, and village houses stacked with golden corn, and beautiful parts of the Chinese countryside out of view for the air traveller. 

Dinner over for the second time, just outside Tianjin I drift off to sleep to the comforting thought that it’s only ten hours until I can use a clean hotel toilet. And tomorrow I’ll be in Harbin.

Train fanatic? Other train journeys you might enjoy:

Shanghai to Guilin by Slow Train

To Ancient Xian by Train

Train to Nanjing