Recapping A Sixth Visit To Mainland China – With Stops In Beijing, Harbin & Urumqi – En Route To Central Asia
The Bird’s Nest, Beijing, China. February 5, 2015
China 2015 (February 3-12 2015)
My sixth visit to China was yet another passing through affair, this time en route to pastures new in Kazakhstan & Central Asia. To get there, & between time spent covering larges distances on various trains, I spent a few days on familiar ground in Beijing; I paid a visit to Harbin, in northeastern Heilongjiang province, for its annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival; And I passed through the world’s largest city furthest from a sea or ocean, Urumqi in the autonomous northwestern Xinjiang province, en route to, and not far from, the border with Kazakhstan.
Archived Postings From The Chinese Road (In Chronological Order)
The sun shone a lot today. It was beautiful, a lovely day to walk around Beijing, China. Being as familiar with this city as I am meant I didn’t have much I wanted to see today but I kept busy regardless. Although I was on familiar ground it was good to be out and about with a camera in hand.
– UNESCO commenting on Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang
Beijing’s Olympic Park housed the main venues for the 2008 Beijing Olympics & Paralympics, the XXIX Olympiad & the so-called ‘Green, Hi-Tech & Humanistic Olympics’. It didn’t surprise me to learn that the almost 12 km² site, wasteland prior to redevelopment for the games, is the largest development ever for an Olympic games – trust the Chinese to make a statement. The park boasts, among other things, a massive dragon shaped waterway, a huge conference center, the National Indoor Stadium, numerous shiny sculptures & gardens, a temple, hotels, a shopping centre, and more than a few space age-looking towers & buildings. According to the onsite information boards, the whole shebang ‘blends together both traditional & modern architectural elements’. Maybe it does but, and only 6+ years after the event it was built to accommodate, the park already feels and looks, to me, tired and dated; it’s a vast space, so vast that the whole area feels soulless, void of any character. I peered at the site through construction railings some distance away on my February 2008 visit to Beijing, some 6 months prior to the games, when the whole site look far from finished. Today I ponied up the guts of €11 (CNY80) to snoop around the innards of the site’s two main attractions – the confused looking National Stadium, a.k.a. the Bird’s Nest, & the bouncy looking National Aquatics Centre, a.k.a. the Water Cube – and left the park convinced that both look way better from the outside (& from a distance), especially on a beautiful day just like today.
Harbin started life as a small fishing village on the Songhua River, frozen solid when I was in town, as was I. It’s far from small now. It’s massive. The city’s population swelled with the influx of Russians – firstly those building a railway line & secondly those fleeing the Russian Revolution – & with a present-day population of over 10 million, Harbin is China’s 6th most populous city, easily the largest urban centre in northeastern China, & the last city of any note prior to hitting the unforgiving sub-Siberian wilderness.
I stepped off the overnight train from Beijing earlier this morning. It was just after 9 a.m. & cold – -19 degrees Celsius I believe – but bearable; I have experienced colder on my travels & I’m well prepared for it, as one should be travelling here this time of year. I wanted to spend two nights here (why, I don’t know) but the language barrier meant I failed to change my train ticket shortly after arrival. Even when standing at the ‘Change Ticket’ window I was met with a stone-faced ‘no’ and an accompanying shake of the head. I may still be in China but I can tell Russia isn’t too far away.
So Harbin was to get one day & one night of my time before returning to Beijing in the morning. That day is done, the night almost so. Here’s what I got up to.
Zhongyang Dajie/Street (Central Avenue)
While Harbin is mostly a massive, sprawling, typically Chinese city full of sterile blocks & skyscrapers, parts of it have retained the look of the past when the Russians were around. Nowhere is this more in evidence than on the pedestrised shopping street of Zhongyang Dajie in the heart of the city, the first such street in China & a little bit of St. Petersberg, Russia, lifted right into downtown Harbin.
Russian Orthodox Cathedral
There isn’t a whole lot to do or see in Harbin and if you’re here anytime of the year other than in the depths of winter for the various ice treats the city serves up then this, the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of God, a.k.a. the Russian Orthodox Cathedral or formally St. Sofia’s, is probably going to be top of your must-see list. Boasting probably the most famous onion domes in China, this is Harbin’s finest sight (so says Rough Guides).
Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival
Harbin’s main draw, and the only reason I chose to spend 19 hours on two different trains getting to & from the city from Beijing, is its annual International Ice and Snow Festival.
Various ice sculptures, ones you can ogle at for free, line Zhongyang Dajie, but the city’s Zhaolin Park, a leafy expanse in the center of the city, is transformed for the festival to house various, more ambitious ice sculptures & structures – stairways, arches & even entire building, albeit small ones. The icy works of art are carved with picks & chainsaws and are illuminated internally to heighten the psychedelic effect. It was all, & if you’ll the pardon the oh-so obvious pun, very cool but it was also a bit of a letdown, a tad underwhelming, especially give the CNY150 (€21) entrance fee. Seemingly the mega ice structures I had expected to see are – whoops – elsewhere in the city, part of the so-called Harbin Ice And Snow World. Where that is I’ve no idea (even my hostel wasn’t too sure) and with no more Harbin time at my disposal I’ll have to revert to doing what I did prior to arrival in the city earlier today – look at the pictures online and tell myself that one day I’ll visit. Except I probably won’t.
It’s 09:29 on February 7th and I’m on the high-speed train back to Beijing having spent the previous day, & night, in Harbin in northwest China. I’m sandwiched between two elderly Chinese in seat 7B. There’s an armrest either side of me that both my elbows are presently monopolising, but it may as well not be there as all three of us are nice & snug, shoulder to shoulder. This is one of those ‘new China’ trains; fast and futuristic looking. I was one one before, back in October 2012 when I took a similar train from Shanghai to Beijing, so doubtless this Chinese riding the rails experience will throw up many, if any, surprises. There’s no doubting the Chinese will to improve, and the capital outlay for investment in such projects as these high-speed rail lines must be monumentally large. But that said, corners were still obviously being cut – while this carriage has a digital readout informing those aboard of the current date, time, internal/external carriage temperatures (25/-14 Degrees Celsius right now), & train speed (191 km/h as I type), it doesn’t have comfy seats, much room, or power sockets/outlets. Oh, & the toilets still smell like all other Chinese toilets. It feels like the future on the cheap, the future ‘Made in China’. This carriage, carriage 4, does, however, come complete with a carnival atmosphere; the Chinese in here can’t seem to sit still and all 89 of them – there’s room in here for 90, me, the lone foreigner, included – seem to either know each other or want to get to know each other. It’s like they are all off on holidays, and for all I know maybe they are.
The train is not long in motion – it left bang on scheduled time exactly 37 minutes ago, meaning I’ve another 7 hours & 30 minutes, give or take, of inquisitive stares from the locals to look forward to as we cover the 1,241 kilometres of track that separate Harbin and the Chinese capital. And with the clock ticking on the battery charge of my laptop, one of my only sources of entertainment between now and Beijing is on borrowed time. God damn you China Railways. Couldn’t the budget stretch to power sockets?
I’m somewhat pleasantly surprised that the 39 hours I have just spent in a Chinese hard sleeper carriage (it’s not as bad/uncomfortable as it sounds) getting here to Urumqi in northwestern China passed as quickly as they did. I had positively nothing to keep me occupied – no book (except for my Central Asia guidebook that I’ve already read inside-out), no laptop (once the power died that was – lack of outlets again), no travel companion to shoot the breeze with. Nada. Of course, I had my iPod but even music & Podcasts get tiring after a while. I spent most of the journey’s daylight hours staring out the carriage window at the bleak, uninviting landscape we passed through, pitying anyone living in the numerous towns, villages and track side settlements I saw. Needless to say I took a few pictures, but not too many.
On the way back through the train I fired up the Instagram Hyperlapse app on my iPod. This is the result.
For the longest time, China has for me been nothing more than a stepping stone to somewhere else. Aside from my very first visit back in late 2004, when I spent 6 weeks touring the country in a clockwise loop from Beijing, China has only ever been in the way, somewhere I’ve used, & traversed, to get someplace else – Vietnam in 2005, Mongolia & Russia in 2006 & 2012, Tibet & the Indian Subcontinent in 2008, & now Kazakhstan & Central Asia in 2015. But I’m not quite there – Central Asia – just yet. Almost, but not quite. I’ve just one more Chinese city to deal with.
Today is my 9th & last day on this my 6th visit to China. I’m spending it in Urumqi, a city on the northwest of the country. Again, it’s a big place, the political, industrial & economic capital of Xinjiang, China’s largest province and the homeland of the Uighur people. Rough Guides claims it – the city – to be ‘a drab & functional place’, a rather concise description I’d have to concur with. I arrived off the train from Beijing at 7 a.m. yesterday morning, a whole 12 hours before the departure of the next 24-hour overnight bus to Almaty in Kazakhstan, my next port of call as I head west. There’s obviously not a lot going on here in Urumqi & so, & when purchasing a bus ticket shortly after arrival in the city yesterday, I debated hard whether or not to leave at the earliest opportunity or give the city the bare minimum of 1 night. I eventually decided to stick to the original plan and stay the night – aside from anything else, I’ve been moving a lot of late (only 3 days ago I was in the largest city in the extreme northeast of the country & now I find myself in the equivalent city in the northwest) and thought I could do with staying put, even in a place as ho hum as Urumqi. All that said, Urumqi can be pretty. It’s just not that pretty for very long.
Central Asia Bound
The 24-hour overnight bus to Almaty in Kazakhstan leaves Urumqi in 3 hours. One of the CHY440 (€60) berths on board the bus is mine. Google maps tells me it’s a 1 hour 30 minute flight from Urumqi to Almaty but offers up an apology for not knowing the land distance. Tut tut. All I know is it’s a long way & that sometime tomorrow I’ll cross over into Kazakhstan & Central Asia proper. Given the cancellation of my North Korea tour, which was supposed to start from Beijing in two days’ time, on the 13th, I’ll be entering the region earlier than initially planned. More time I guess for pastures new.