Try to remember a time when you were the coldest you have ever been. Now magnify that cold 10 times over plus few more times and you will get an idea of winter in Harbin, the capital city of the Heilongjiang Province in China. I like winter and as a young and beautiful student I used to go on skiing holidays regularly, which gave me resistance to extreme cold. Well that is what I thought until we stepped out from the Air China flight into a dark, cold, misty night in Harbin.
We met our local guide who had a big wide smile which warmed my heart. She was very enthusiastic and welcoming, trying to persuade us that temperatures below zero are normal, usual and in fact healthy. After a short drive we arrived in the city centre at one of the best hotels in the town, Gloria Plaza. My God did I felt a warmth coming though my blood once we got in.
After the usual hotel procedure, like taking passport details, filling forms in, getting the key and arranging a meeting with the guide for the following day we managed to get to our comfortable room on the 4th floor. The first thing I did was to take my water and wind proof gloves from my cold hands and try to warm them on the radiators, thinking of my little flat where I have to cuddle the radiator to get any warmth. Unfortunately the radiators in Harbin are like ovens and the only thing you get are burns on your hand. So my first advice when you are in Harbin during the winter – do not touch the radiators. Good old blowing into your hands is excellent!
The following day we met our local guide at noon which is a very late start considering that we had a full day of pre booked sightseeing arranged. The only reason for the late start was the weather – noon is the warmest part of the day – minus 24. The first place we went to visit was the main street of Harbin which is like stepping onto any Russian street but one much better preserved. The architecture is typical European and the only signs of it being a Chinese city are the signs above the shops. People are of
Chinese origin but there is a good proportion of Russians here. Harbin had a very turbulent past, it changed hands on a few occasions between the Russians, Japanese and Chinese and the historical background is visible thoughout the city. One of the most imposing Russian influences is the Russian Orthodox Church in the city centre built in a typical Byzantium style and still impressive from the outside. However, once you get inside, instead of nice colourful frescos you will find business entrepreneurs selling gloves and hats. On higher parts of the wall you can stillmake out frescos, with the colours almost faded away The St Sophia Church was originally built in 1907 from timber, only to be finished in its present state in 1932. It’s the largest Eastern Orthodox non-working Church in the Far East and now the Museum of Architectural art.
We finished the day on a lighter note – looking at Chinese swimmers jumping into the frozen Songhua River. They cut a small swimming pool in the middle of the river where some brave Chinese jump in for a swim.I heard about these swimmers back in the UK and being highly suspicious I always thought they must cover themselves with oil or something to protect their body in the cold water. But this time I had the chance to sit with one of the swimmers before he changed into his trunks and nonchalantly, just like he was just going to make a cup of tea, he went outside into the cold, and jumped in the water. He swam the whole length of the hole in the river (or winter swimming pool) and came out untouched. When he got out he didn’t shiver, no one ran up to him to give him a blanket or anything. He smiled and waved to the public and went back to his changing room. And that was it.
We finished sightseeing early at around 5’clock and went rushing back to our warm, hot, sneezy hotel for a special chef sandwich in the room and some CNN news.