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.