It would be impossible to sum up the winter essence of the city of Harbin in a single word. Said essence can, however, be summed up in two words: the second word is “cold,” and the first is “fucking.”
I went there because I was alone—my wife and children were visiting my in-laws in Maryland—and it is easier to forget that you are alone when you are very, very cold. Unrelatedly, the e-mail that I received from the woman who helped arrange my train tickets said this: “You will have to be very careful with your wallet and valuables, both when you’re sleeping on the train and when you are walking around Harbin. The citizens of Harbin are good-hearted, hospitable and violent (some of them).”
I also went because I wanted to see the Ice Festival, and because Harbin is a place between: hardly any history compared with much of China, but far more than the value-added boom cities. The 11-hour train ride was easy, as I was not accosted by any hospitable but violent people. I did not, however, sleep well, as my pillow was made of raw beans and smelled like the breath of its last dozen users, and I will now switch to the present tense because I require illusion in my life.
From the bowels of the train station, Harbin does not seem too cold. From the main corridor, it seems quite cold enough. Outside in the bright blue light, it is an arctic assault.
A taxi takes me to my hotel: the Bremen Inn. The lobby smells of kerosene. The room is small and sad and I fall asleep in the process of unpacking. Then up and out and walking, though it would be easier to roll, given the spherical proportions my many layers of clothing have given me.
The sun is going down, and the light on domes and façades and cobblestones is now bluish gold and very fine. Most of the shops along Zhongyang Dajie, the central pedestrian thoroughfare, sell Russian handicrafts and furs and liquors: Russia built the railway that turned a fishing village into this city, then wanted further concessions, lost a war to Japan and, with it, their rights here, took it back from the Japanese in 1945, and made it a gift to Chiang Kai-shek the following year. And they still come, thousands of them, tourists and salespersons. Surplus, or “surplus,” Soviet army gear moves particularly briskly, it appears.
The ice sculptures along the street are quite big, often built around, or in harmony with, existing structures: an ice girl playing an ice piano in front of the shivering bronze statues of a small folk orchestra; a stone fountain rebuilt bigger with ice blocks, the water in the center still running, forming still more ice in the basin. Also there are ice sculptures of Japanese cartoon figures that I do not understand.
Zhongyang ends at a circular plaza giving onto the Songhua River. In the center of the plaza is a strange sculpture in bronze, the Flood Control Monument, a huge green swirl surrounded by mainly Russian-looking bronze children with shovels. This was erected, in 1958, to commemorate the success finally managed in terms of flood control, and to memorialize those who had drowned in the flooding.
Beyond the plaza is a long, thin riverfront park with trees and odd statues. The park is still named after Stalin. It is breathtakingly cold and I hurt all over.
The river is frozen solid in both directions, though there’s a bit of open water a quarter of a mile east. Below the plaza, an area has been scraped clean, and in that area are people slipping around on the ice, plus several small sleighs pulled by limping German shepherds. Immediately to either side are ice slides, and people sliding.
On the far side of the river is Sun Island Park. The boats that normally ferry tourists across are now frozen in place, so the tourists simply walk, each of them made into Jesus by the ice, or are carried across in sleighs pulled by horses. There are also a few people selling kites, the wind advertising their wares, and one old woman selling postcards.
I have dinner and wait for dark at Russia 1914, a café just up from the plaza. The lamb stew is very hot and good and filling. The place is filled with Russian near-antiques: box camera, piano, porcelain, clock. It’s like the sitting room of someone else’s grandmother.
Then the Ice Festival, though my entry ticket says “Harbin Ice-Lantern Party and Exhibition.” It is beautiful, but someone needs to inform the relevant authorities that the colored lights—red, green, blue, yellow, orange, purple, pink—are not helping.
There is a huge Gothic castle, complete with half a dozen ice spires and another pair of ice slides. There is a shoulder-high maze, and pagodas and arches and small palaces. Best by far is the exhibition itself: several dozen ice sculptures competing in beauty. My favorites all happen to be ichthyologic: mechanical piranha, massive carp, a fish tank of solid ice with real fish frozen inside. There is also a nice pair of stylized reindeer sharing a single set of horns, and a magnificent transparent Dall ram. The best of these sculptures have protruding bits that are incredibly slender and delicate, and needle-sharp at the points; it’s hard to believe they’ll last long, even given this cold, but they’ve survived thus far and I’m grateful.
A bit of night street walking, and into a Russian-goods store to try on a fur hat. I do not need a mirror to know that I look ridiculous and do not, in fact, need or want a fur hat. Back to the hotel, the stink of kerosene, the small, sad room. Then, as I read of Steven Millhauser’s most extraordinary knife thrower, the phone rings. A young-sounding woman’s voice says, “Do you need an arrangement?” I have no idea what this means, and tell her that I do not. She says, “Are you sure?” I tell her that I am. She keeps talking. I hang up halfway through her next sentence.
Then I get it.
Five minutes later she knocks on my door. She has not been young for several decades, and is wearing a hot-pink spandex jumpsuit that she stole from Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1980s. She starts in again about arrangements. I say I don’t want any, and she puts her arm through the door when I try to close it. I keep pressure on the door, say twice more that I do not want an arrangement. She keeps talking, so I raise my voice a bit, and finally she leaves.
An hour or three later, there is the noise of her work in progress a door or two down the hall. Relatedly, to a certain extent, there is a page in the hotel directory where the Harbin Police Department welcomes me to the city, and informs me that “If a married couple stay in the same room it is necessary for them to show credentials of marriage relation” and that “Within the hotel, the following conduct is prohibited: Get drunk and create a disturbance, come to blows, gambling, go whoring, drug taking, dissemination of reactionary, obscene and superstitious books, pictures of promiscuous drugs, pornographic devices and other criminal activities, uproarious talk.”
I pledge not to talk uproariously, now or in the future.
To Be Continued,
and Do Not Worry—
This Time There Will Not Be
So Many Parts