Family Travels: Harbin

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Travelers: The English/Indonesian/Australian Turner family – Lewis, Ningsih and their daughters Cassie (13, 14 in June 08) and Vicky (12, 13 in Jan 09). Lewis is GM for Asian Tigers removalist company and Ningsih teaches classes in South East Asian cooking.

Destination: Harbin, Heilongjiang Province

The Plan: To drive to Harbin for the International Ice and Snow Festival, during the height of an icy winter. The three-day trip slipped into four days due to road conditions.

On the Road: The Turners pretty much grabbed a map and started driving. They took food provisions and made sure they carried a full car kit including spare tire and an emergency number for SOS.

The Route: Taking the Jingcheng Expressway, the family followed the plethora of signs en route, all conveniently in English. Ningsih insists the roads were great – mostly freeway with plenty of refueling stops. With a hefty 1,230km ahead of them, they pit-stopped in Shenyang then continued towards Changchun where the road became steeper and somewhat slippery. These conditions caused a delay of over three hours, though savvy road-side sellers touting hot water and noodles made the wait bearable. The family eventually decided to stop in Changchun for the night.

Driving Logistics: Lewis and Ningsih strongly recommend taking a car with ABS brakes and they insist the drive is easy if you take your time. Snow chains are good for slower driving in Harbin itself; the family loved having the option of a car to nip around town. If you don’t want to drive, take the overnight train, stay one night and fly home. If driving, remember toll fees add up – the Turners spent nearly 1000RMB alone on this journey, and they used 327 liters of petrol for a round trip of 2,713km.

What to Take: The girls took handheld toys, iPods and books for the road trip. The family packed a cooler with bread, butter, pre-cut cold meats and drinks, an electric sandwich maker for Harbin, a thermos and hot chocolate mix.

Where to Snuggle Down: The family stayed at the Wang Jiang Hotel (two double beds 560RMB, 0451 8488 0288, www.wjbg.cn) in Harbin. The only 5-star hotel in Harbin is the Shangri-La (from RMB878, 0451 8485 8888).

Ice Ice, Baby: Harbin’s annual Ice and Snow Festival is divided into three main parts; possibly the most dramatic draw-card is the nightly Ice and Snow World Exhibition in Stalin Park – a fairyland of enormous ice sculptures, luminescent with multicoloured lights. This year’s theme was Olympic Dreams and the Turners were awestruck by the life-size sculptures, including the Parthenon and the Beijing Friendlies. They were also struck by the cold. Being so freezing, they looked around for half an hour then nipped into the little “cafés” – heated, perspex enclosures, dotted throughout the park – when you can warm up with a hot chocolate or noodles before braving the cold again. This is an especially good tactic for younger kids (150RMB adults, 75RMB kids, 9am-10pm daily, www.hrbicesnow.com).

Snow Ball: Sun Island’s daily Snow Sculpture show (30RMB adults, 15RMB kids, 8am-5pm daily) is a wintry wonderland of white. Sculptures from small to colossal will boggle the eyes; the family watched as sculptors created the Arc de Triomphe right in front of them. Other attractions include dog sledding, tobogganing, sled sailing, small ski runs and – the girls’ favorite – sliding down snowy slopes on tubes (5RMB/hr). The Ice Lanterns Fair in Zhaolin Park (in the centre of town) may be small, but kids will love exploring this charming, frozen park jam-packed with beautiful creations, many of them in-the-making by budding sculptors and their chisels.

Animal Parks: Most bears hibernate in these temperatures, but not polar bears. Harbin Polarland is worth a visit according to Cassie and Vicky, who loved the bears, penguins, seals and two hours to warm up (100RMB adults, 50RMB kids under 1.2m, 0451 8819 0909, 9am-5pm daily). The Siberian Tiger Park (the family didn’t care to go here) offers a wild drive-through experience; live animals are available for purchase to “feed” the tigers – something to consider if traveling with young or sensitive children (50RMB adults, 25RMB kids, 9am-4pm daily).

Polar Bears: No, they’re not the real deal, but they might as well be. These remarkable (often elderly) swimmers are world-famous for their iced river plunges, diving into water considerably warmer than external air temperatures. A large “swimming pool” is cut into the ice on the Songhua river (watch the water’s edge freeze before your eyes), and men and women shuffle out of a makeshift changing room in their swimming costumes and bathing caps, climb onto an ice starting block and launch themselves into the icy depths. Breathtaking – literally (50RMB, 10am and 2pm daily).

The Big Chill: Temps in Harbin’s winter range from -15°C to -40°C, so it’s seriously icy. Thermal underwear and multi- layers are essential, as even your breath can freeze. Layer thickly and take cashmere pashminas to swathe around the face. The family wore faux-fur-lined boots, long-johns and feather down jackets. Wear thick-soled snow boots, preferably with flip-down metal hooks for the ice (these can be bought everywhere in Harbin for 100RMB or less) and keep little hand-warmers in your pocket. Ningsih suggests limiting outdoor escapades to no more than an hour, nipping into buildings to warm up again.

Icy Tips: Keep your camera warm. Batteries drain rapidly in the freezing temps. Make sure you take a bathroom break before you head out – toileting facilities are scarce.

Best Experience: The Turner family loved the creative artistry of Harbin’s ice sculptures. The kids loved the simple things on this trip – making snow angels, goofing around on the snow and tubing down snow slopes. All this made the aching cold absolutely worth every frost-bitten extremity.

First published, in part, in beijingkids magazine and on the beijingkids website.

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