Polar Bears

The only reason I added Harbin to my itinerary is that I really wanted to see, in person, the remarkable ice sculptures in the Sun Island complex that I had seen on the internet. Alas, I never made it there. Instead, after a whirlwind tour of the (impressive) snow sculptures, WN, my guide, insists we get to get to the Polarium for some kind of aquatic show. The Polarium is an aquarium and place where animals of the cold are showcased.

Earlier in the day we had a tour of Tiger Park, a truly pathetic tourist attraction where some 200 Bengal tigers live on a few blocks of land within the city of Harbin. They are, of course, flabby and lethargic. A drive in a caged wagon through the preserve affords us a look at these huge felines (including several white ones) in a natural setting. Well, sorta (said sarcastically). Extremely bored drivers navigate the park, pausing only at the double gates that separate groups of cats from each other, organized by age. The tour ends at at a distressing bank of rusty cages, home to some miserable animals, including a Liger, a freak cross of Lion and Tiger. I hate this whole place.

When I read about it online, I knew I did not want to go, but WN is so insistent that I cannot seem to manifest my wishes. Thus, I now find myself inside the Polarium.

The initial displays are saltwater fish tanks, actually quite well done, albeit a bit crowded. A ray glides midst a bevy of colorful fish, while a large grouper hovers in the corner. Also, much to my surprise, are two cylinder tanks of jellies. I am wondering if this is the aquarium Dave Powell, my old diving pal, consulted on. Jellies are very difficult to display, and he perfected the waterflow for the tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’ll have to inquire.

Then I round the corner to the mammal display and am sickened. Arctic foxes in glass cages sprawl on cement snow. Two polar bears, separated from each other by steel bars, live in a space about the twice the length of the animals. They pace and roar. One is particularly agitated, and its thunder reverberates in my soul.

Fortunately (yes, fortunately), I slip on a wet step while leaving the toilet. The facilities are more often than not raised up one step, and the door to the cubicle is right on the edge of the step, so that when you open it, you must immediately step down. For some reason, in the Polarium, there are two steps up to the john, and there is a woman mopping the floor. This combination proves to be dangerous. As I leave the stall, I forget about the step and thump down, only to slip off the wet second step and fall hard, my coccyx hitting the bottom step as I go down. It hurts like hell, and I am dizzy as I leave the room.

To see the much touted aquatic show, I am to take the escalator to the lower level. I can see from the posters that there will be beautiful free divers interacting with beluga whales, who will form a heart shape by arching their backs while touching tails and bowing their heads nose to nose. What I wasn’t prepared for was the size of the tank. It is tiny…deep, but tiny. I cannot stand it, and I cry. I do not want to be here. I do not even want to know about this. As I descend to the basement, changing colored lights illuminate the denouement of the performance previous to the one I am supposed to see. The two magnificent animals perform their act perfectly to a packed house. The audience is enthralled. I apologize to the whales, and know I have to leave. I cannot stand to be here.

I spy a beaming WN. (Isn’t this wonderful! Yes, yes, yes.) I tell him of my mishap, and that I must go back to the hotel…NOW. “But, but, but. You don’t want to see this show?” I insist we leave, and he is convinced when he sees my bleeding hand. I wasn’t aware I cut it.

We had planned to go see the ice sculptures after the Poalrium. Remember, they are the whole reason for my journey to Harbin. “No, no. We cannot go to the Sun Island ice sculptures tomorrow. We are on this side today, tomorrow we have many things to do.” I am way to tired and hurting too much to even begin to mount my protest. “There are ice sculptures not too far from your hotel. You can see them.” What he doesn’t say is that they are paltry and half melted.


Now I am in Beijing. I have only two days before I leave, and need to get a few little souvenirs. There is nothing that really appeals to me that is within my budget till I stumble onto a working ceramic studio. Three little polar bears are arranged on one of those tiered Chinese shelves. They are just artistic enough to please me. Without a moments hesitation I complete the transaction, pondering the coincidence that my trip begins and ends with polar bears. The sculptures are charming, but are also a symbol of the sadness I feel. Those two white bears in the Polarium and the loss of Polar Bear habitat in the wild parallel the predicament of Tibetans in China.

I have truly enjoyed Beijing, but the wanton Han incursion into Tibetan and other minority lands along with the exploitation of the ethnic groups as tourist attractions is an painful thing to observe. The distress has permeated my trip. How could it not?  Somehow this experience, witnessing the demise of traditional Tibetan cultures, including the rape of their land, is a core element of my journey.

Samtso’s brother said regarding images I had given him from my earlier visits, “We have pictures from you of places that don’t exist anymore.”  Of course change is inevitable everywhere, but here in China, the new scene is almost always one of woeful environmental and aesthetic degradation. It is NOT progress; it is depressing.


Harbin, day 1

A force to be reckoned with, I once again was overwhelmed by the prevailing winds. I think in the long run, all will be well, but for now, I am still recovering from both WN and Harbin. Do I say it was a grand mistake? Well, it simply is what it is, but I would certainly not (NEVER EVER) duplicate the experience.

I cannot blame it on WN, as all of the tours booked the same venues. I had concluded that, since I had communicated that I only wanted to see the ice sculptures, and that I wanted time to photograph them, and that he kept pushing all of the other venues, it must be a government thing. He must HAVE to stick to the established tour route. maybe, but I doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a kickback involved at the shops, or that somehow favor was gained. I will never know. I do know that I spent most of my time, and a lot of money, going places that not only did I not want to see, they were devastating to my sensibilities. Usury, of both human and animal worlds.

WN is a fairly good sized man, not fat at all, but thick and muscular, and relatively tall. I neglected to ask if he is Chinese, now that I think about it. He certainly acted quintessentially male Chinese, as my prejudices define it. Very dominant, very forceful, very talkative, very loud, and very pushy. The first thing we did was go to the bank, where I changed my money. Then before a step further was taken, he had me pay him IN FULL. Hmm, this is the guy who was counseling never to pay anyone in China up front. He had an itinerary and all of the gate fees figured out. the gondola to Sun Island, where we were to see the Russian village. As it turned out, only the Russian village, then right back over on the gondola to see the ice swimmers. “Wonderful, yes. Very good, very good.” Three, maybe four, swimmers came out and dove into a seriously cold body of water, one that freezes over when the circulating pump is off. That was it, except for a bathing suit attired couple with whom one could pay to have their photo taken. It was a freak show. The best part was the roasted sweet potato. I bought the steaming tubers, one for each of us, altho I did not see WN ever eat his!

Now, it is important to mention that WN was charging $90 for each day, which would have been just fine if he would have done what I wanted. Also, I believe he was honestly well intended and he was truly helpful in practical matters, like going the next day to get my real train ticket without the burden of dragging my luggage. However, the next day after a couple of hours of some actually interesting sightseeing, he told me he had to leave because his boss called. When I suggested that I should not pay the whole day rate, ” my goodness, my goodness, look what I have done for you. I got your ticket.” occurred. Here again, not really black and white, because he made himself available by phone, and once back in Beijing, he was very helpful in getting me to the correct airport. But I am certainly getting ahead of my story.

Did I mention the van? $100/day for a heated van. I now know for sure, the driver did not get all the money, but, hey, a guy’s gotta make a living! Really. I agreed, and that is fine. The van was there when we needed it, and it truly was warm. Mind you, the temperatures were -14F. Fortunately it is a dry cold.

Arrival at Harbin

Henry wrote the address of my hotel in Chinese script, so I could get a taxi.  Meanwhile, WN, my guide booked online, had written emphatically NOT to trust the taxi drivers.  I should put my luggage in the back seat of the taxi, and not pay til I had removed my luggage and the driver had printed a receipt. I should also get the price before hand, so he would not charge too much at the end. Harbin, according to WN, is a den of iniquity. Taxi drivers will drive off, stealing luggage before you can get to the trunk to remove it.

At the Harbin train station, Henry’s mother offered to help me get a cab. So we, with her three year old in tow, headed to the taxi gate. HA!  A line to put all lines to shame. An extremely lovely woman, she stayed with me for a bit, and scoffed at WN’s concern about the cab driving off with my luggage.  ” Who would want what is in your bag, anyway,”  she queried, looking at my size. As she had Rory, with her, it seemed insane to ask her to wait with me, so, with many thanks for her help, she soon dissappeared into the nebula of Harbinites returning hone to celebrate New Years.

After at hour or so, I finally found my self at the head of the line, ready to do the cabdash. I slung open the backseat door, and threw my stuff in, and jumped in the front seat.  This unlucky driver ridiculed me to waiting passengrs.  But, hey, I couldn’t understand! The driver was basically furious with me for putting my luggage in the back seat. He could not pick up addition passengers, thereby losing money. I found this out because I called WN, so he could talk to the driver. No matter, we got to the hotel, and check in was a breeze.

The Ibis hotel is, I think, a Danish outfit. Small, but well thought out.  Still…the hard beds of China, and I was very grateful for my blow-up mattress. The staff were very helpful. Enough English was spoken, and, coupled with pantomime, we communicated quite adequately. I would recommend for the budget minded.