Holiday on ice
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“Five bus tickets, one turkey and one lamb, please.” My friend then turns to the rest of us: “Karmically speaking, we’re going to hell.” That may well be so. In the short run, we are cramming into a small armoured bus along with a crowd of palpably excited Chinese tourists. We are about to have a close encounter with the largest cats on Earth. And our contingent is providing the picnic.
The Siberian Tiger Park, a 356-acre reserve on the north bank of the Sungari River, outside the Chinese city of Harbin and not far from the Sino–Russian border, is home to nearly 1000 of the animals the Chinese call dongbeihu (Manchurian tigers). Zoologists know them as Panthera tigris altaica and others as Amur or Ussuri tigers. Whatever you call them, these are magnificent, strapping animals, all hulking muscle, dense pelage, striped beauty and sprung power. The males grow up to 3 metres long and 1 metre tall; they weigh a crushing 180–300 kilograms. Once, they ruled the forests of Korea, northern China and the Russian far east. By the 1940s, poaching and the relentless destruction of natural habitat reduced the total wild population of Siberian tigers to about 30. Today, they’re back from the brink in no small part due to the breeding program that, supported by ‘tiger tourism’, is the core mission of the Siberian Tiger Park.
Before boarding, we’re shepherded into a souvenir hall and presented with a range of Siberian tiger memorabilia: fake fur hats that make your head look like it is popping out of the mouth of a tiger; mittens that turn your hands into paws. I’m a sucker for the offer to have a happy snap taken with a baby tiger. Only as the creature is lifted dully into my arms do I realise it must be drugged and am instantly filled with regret, though the photo does make us look like the best of friends.
Considering it’s January in Siberia, it’s a lovely day, a mild minus 15 degrees Celsius, and almost sunny with an iceberg-blue sky. Snow blankets the ground. Our vehicle passes through a number of security gates in a slow, meticulous process that reminds me of passing into an Australian immigration detention centre. Soon we arrive in the middle of a large, sparkling white field where well over a dozen of these glorious beasts loll. Some are interested enough by our arrival to pad over and check us out. The driver says we can open the windows but reminds everyone to keep appendages and cameras well inside the bars. In the wild, Siberian tigers may vary their normal diet of wild boar and deer with the odd bear, salmon, dog, pig or sheep; a human arm would make for a tempting snack.
On this morning, courtesy of our group, the first hors d’oeuvre is winged and delivered by a protectively armoured 4WD. At the entry of the 4WD, every striped head in the place turns and several tigers begin trotting in its direction. Flung out, the turkey flies up onto the roof, followed at lightning speed by two tigers, one from either side. The force of their collective pounce – back paws on the ground, front paws easily reaching the roof – rocks the vehicle. Within seconds, the turkey is little more than flying feathers.
We pay on the spot (100 yuan, less than A$18) for another. This one flies into a copse of trees, pursued by a pack of rust, white and black streaks; it didn’t even have time to squawk. As for the lamb – brutal but fast and, judging from the licked chops of the tigers, delicious. Nature. We are both chastened and adrenalised by the spectacle.
The journey ends at a fenced walkway where more tigers, including young ones, may be observed up close. To our horror, this then leads to an open-air zoo stocked with displaced African lions and other large cats wretched with cold and confinement, an ugly contrast with the rest of the reserve. Back in the souvenir hall, we all buy battery-powered fluffy Siberian tiger toys that dance to a tinny version of ‘Primetime Sexcrime’ by the Earphones.
The Chinese friends with whom we’ve come to Harbin have boycotted the tiger park. That evening, over a meal of lamb hotpot, they clamp their hands over their ears as we relate tales of animal sacrifice. The tigers would have been fed in any case, we say, just not in front of us. “Lalalalalalala,” they answer. We are in unanimous agreement, however, about the other delights of Harbin. One of them is the city centre itself.
In the Manchu language, Harbin means ‘a place for drying fishing nets’. In 1898, the Russians brought the Trans-Siberian Railway to Harbin, transforming fishing village into cosmopolis. By 1913, more than 34,000 Russians, 24,000 Chinese and Manchus, 5000 Jews and others – notably Japanese, Armenians and Poles – called Harbin home: nearly 69,000 people speaking 45 languages. They created fashionable boulevards lined with grand baroque and Byzantine buildings, and turned the place into a hub of industry, commerce and banking. In the 1920s, Russians fleeing the revolution swelled the population further; Harbin’s Jewish population rose to 20,000. But, in 1932, the Japanese occupied the city, now part of the puppet state of Manchukuo, where they committed some of the most horrific war crimes of the Pacific War against the civilian population. The Soviets occupied Harbin in 1945 and the Chinese took over soon after.
Throughout all this chaos, and despite Cultural Revolution–era destruction of many churches and foreign buildings elsewhere, Harbin’s city centre remained largely intact. The 1.4-kilometre long Central Street (Kitaiskaya Street in Russian) is today a protected, living ‘architectural museum’ lively with businesses, hotels and restaurants. It is so beautifully lit at night that even with the mercury plunging to a chastening minus 24 degrees or lower, a stroll is irresistible – as is the act of hurling oneself down the numerous street-side slippery-dips carved out of ice. Swathed in thermals, ski pants, snow boots, umpteen layers and padded coat, my hood pulled snug over a woollen beanie and secured with earmuffs, ice crystals crusting my backside from the slippery-dips, I observe the Russian women floating by in house-sized fur coats and orbital hats, and feel as chic as the Pillsbury Doughboy.
By day, we cross the frozen, snow-covered Sungari in horsedrawn carriages that look like something from the set of Doctor Zhivago to visit the optimistically named Sun Island. There we peer into empty dachas and look at giant snow carvings, including one of Chairman Mao (titled, simply, Remembrance).
We drink endless cups of hot chocolate and enjoy hot meaty borscht. We also eat the worst meal any of us, Chinese and old China hands alike, have ever had in China: a roughly chopped and unsavoury river fish chucked into a wok and cooked with vegetables as old as the scam that snared us like ordinary mugs, via an overly friendly taxi driver. On the subject of scams, we learn from an other cab driver that most of the merchandise in the ‘Russian goods’ shops lining the streets is made in China for tourists. He also tells us that Harbin’s sizeable population of Russian sex workers cater mainly to Chinese tourists from elsewhere in China as, he said, locals abhor both their body odour and the lashings of Dior Poison with which they attempt to cover it up. Besides, he adds, Chinese prostitutes are cheaper, at 800 yuan, than the 1000 yuan the Russians charge.
Finally, it’s time for our visit to Harbin’s most famous winter attraction: the Ice Festival, which begins in early January and lasts about one month. Hundreds of years ago, peasants and fisherman here carved lanterns from ice. Now, workers cut and haul massive blocks of ice from the Sungari, carve, stack and electrify them until a great, magical city of ice rises from the packed snow. We marvel at fantastical versions of Angkor Wat, Tiananmen Gate, the Chrysler Building, the Colosseum, a Russian palace with onion domes; it is slippery-dip heaven. At an open-air ice disco, led by snow-suited go-go girls on ice platforms, we dance to Kanye West; inside an ice Moulin Rouge, scantily underclad Russian cancan dancers enthral the audience, including a jolly contingent of policemen who toast us from the next table.
It takes only eight hours on a fast, comfortable train to return us to Beijing, where the night temperature is a nearly subtropical minus 12 degrees. You call that winter? Harbin – now that’s winter.