I went off on a group junket this weekend to Harbin to see the snow and ice festival for which this northern city is famous. It’s also known for its extremely cold temperatures, which I suppose goes hand in hand with hosting a world renowned snow and ice festival.

It was a pretty big affair with several dozen of my closer friends having booked through fellow employee’s girlfriend who happened to be a travel agent. I made my own reservations as I was late to the party, figuring I’d find a car with a place in it and just help out with the Chinese directions as a means to paying my way and as it turned out, I more than paid for the privilege.

When you begin regular trips to some foreign country your comfort level starts out in the range of abject fear – you’re fundamentally incapable of communicating which is doubly bad if you happen to be in a place where you can’t even make sense of the signs. But after a couple of trips and some studying, you gain a bit of confidence and that starts the cascade to gaining more ability. Once the light bulb goes off, you build and build until you feel pretty good about yourself.

And then you go somewhere else where the dialect is different and your accent sounds like the last place and you start again. Not from the beginning – you retain some of your progress – but from a couple of steps up the path.

This is my story with China where I began by spending many hours in Shanghai, wandering around learning how to get by. From there I moved to Dalian and had a bit of a restart only now regaining the same level of competence I had down south. This weekend was another reset, and it was a tough one because a thousand miles up the road in Heilongjiang Province no one understood me at all. Even the few that spoke English.

Our trip out of Dalian was a bit challenging right from the start as it appears that everyone in our little city by the sea tries to get out of town on Friday afternoon. The airport was mobbed with long lines for check-in and longer lines for security. As I queued up to get groped by the security guards, I was starting to rue the fact that we’d spent so much time upstairs wasting time in the smoky restaurant. But then a new line opened and my newly evolved Chinese genes kicked in and I bullied my way past everyone to line up there.

The plane left on time and I was able to get a few peeks out the window as we headed to our destination – empty, flat, snowy tundra from horizon to horizon. It reminded me a lot of the northern part of Labrador which I flew over on a return trip from Ireland early last year only much less scenic. It was bleak, made more so by the sun setting below a thick gray blanket of cold, gray clouds.

Harbin is the 10th largest city in China and was once known as the St. Petersburg of the East due to the heavy Russian influence. The region grew quickly when it became an intersection between the China Eastern Railway and an extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway and it played an important role in the waning stages of the Russian Revolution as an enclave for the fleeing White Russian forces. Since then it has changed hands several time including an occupation by Japanese forces which used the area for their infamous biological warfare experiments. Today it is a key trade center for the region.

We landed and exited thankfully through a jet way as the cold was pretty shocking the moment they opened the door. The metal panels forming the walls were covered with frost from the freezing respiration of the passengers and tiny icicles were instantly forming on the roof as we walked off. It made me think of those old refrigerators with the bare metal cage for the ice cube trays and like them, this jet way was not “frost free.”

We met our driver and went out with our bags into the genuine cold. I honestly couldn’t get my gloves on fast enough and I was struck by an instant wave of irony – here we were in our fancy engineered down garments while the driver had on a button down shirt, a sport coat, cheap loafers and polyester slacks. I tried hard to come up with a rationale that made that okay but my wits failed me – it was so cold the justification center in my brain was shutting down.

Everyone hopped in the van and we left the airport heading down the expressway that was a straight 35 kilometer shot into town. The roads were covered with the same brown, frozen slush I remembered from my growing up days in Rochester. The windows in the car instantly developed an impenetrable layer of ice.

The driver took me to be the leader in fluency and started asking me indecipherable questions. I gathered that he wanted to take us to a restaurant, judging by the shoveling motion he was making towards his mouth with his hand. I told him “no”, we wanted to stop at the hotel and it struck me instantly that he had no idea what I was talking about and this was just a tiny ominous glimpse into the rest of the weekend. I pulled my hotel voucher out of my bag and showed it to him and he got it.

The ride was long, made longer by his unduly safe speed of 40 kph but we eventually arrived and checked in. The desk help could speak a bit which was useful especially when they rang up my credit card at 1000 RMB more than my room rate. I questioned it and was told they needed to collect at deposit which struck me as odd, because from the looks of the place there wasn’t anything worth breaking or stealing. The Bremen Hotel has three outlets here around town and this one is the flagship. I was struck how well reality can be hidden on travel websites through creative photography. I went off to my room to drop my gear before heading back out for dinner.

I’ve stayed in some good places and some not great places and this one fell more or less in the middle. The fanciest thing was the RF proximity key that took me a few minutes to figure out as I struggled to get in the door. The least fancy thing was the pair of giant radiators under the windows, painted shiny black with gold sponge paint accents, added in an attempt to suggest that these relics were an intentional part of the décor in this modern abode. While standing there a knock was delivered at the door and I was met by a tiny Chinese girl bearing a snack of two cookies, a piece of sponge cake and a yogurt drink, I guess buying a suite pays off on occasion. Rather than try and understand what I had gotten myself into, I dropped everything off and went back downstairs to see where we were heading.

I stopped to talk to two Russian girls – hotel staff – who were standing around trying to entice people to have dinner in the restaurant. One spoke fairly good English so we had a chat about Harbin and Russia and the cold. Her friend spoke less but I managed to get her to tell me that she was from Vladivostok. It’s a common theme her in the East, leave one barren, off the grid outpost to move down to a less barren, slightly less off the grid backwater. Usually to attend some local university which was the case for these two, studying tourism and “hostessing” in hopes I imagine of moving to the next less out of the way place. I’ve met many young women in my travels here, doing exactly the same thing.

I noticed some of my fellow travelers engaged in a three way conversation with the desk clerk and the driver who was apparently trying to decide where we wanted to go to dinner. Sort of a dumb question, given that none of us had a clue where we would possibly want to go and eventually we got around to calling the driver of the second set of travelers to try and figure out where they were going. This straightened out, we left the hotel, got back into the van and started driving into the town but just out of the parking lot the driver pulled over and made a phone call. Lots of arguing transpired and he handed the phone to the unlucky person in the front seat. The travel agent was on the line and wanted to know what we had agreed to. We explained our plan of finding our friends and hung up. A few minutes passed and the phone rang and we repeated the process with the agent, our driver, our friend’s driver all going around and around with our guy getting angrier and angrier. At least I assume he was angry as phone calls here often involve lots of yelling which may or may not indicate a problem.

Eventually he turned off his phone and we started heading off into town. I asked him if he knew where he was going and he replied in the affirmative and so on we went. And on and on and on we went, driving through the city and across the Songhua River Bridge, passing rows and rows of wintry trees lit from below by pastel spotlights. Soft pinks, yellows, purples and blues, the image was serene. Reaching the other side we had our first glimpse of the Ice City glistening off in the distance. I’ll speak much more about this in the next installment, but from the car on a freezing winter’s night, the sight was just magical. Dozens of buildings on a flat snow plain lit from within by red, blue, yellow and green neon lights. I wanted to just stop the car and get out then and there but we were on a mission to find some food and we had to keep moving.

I began to wonder whether we were headed in the right direction as we went by the park and continued on. Civilization faded away as we continued out into the countryside, far away from the city. From what little we’d gathered talking to the other car they were having dinner in the city and why they could not make this clear to our driver was beyond me. I had a chance to ponder this as we went further off into the darkness.

Snow gusts blew across the deserted road occasionally illuminated by a passing truck bringing to mind some deserted country road in the middle of Nebraska,. As I was just beginning to wonder if dinner was literally going to be in Russia tonight, we pulled up alongside a long line of what appeared to be warehouse buildings out in the middle of nowhere. No lights, a bare few cars in the lot, our guy stopped and said this was the place. Someone outside suddenly swung the door open and grabbed my arm saying “Yu, yu”, “Fish” in Chinese. I looked at the driver and he said “Yu” and pointed to the building. There were two young women now at door now beckoning and trying to get me out of the car. My companions were frozen in shock. I looked at the driver and told him “No, we don’t want fish” especially at this place. He made a grunt, called off the restaurant girls and pulled out of the lot, heading back to town.

We got the other car on the phone once again and had him talk to them. They’d not been to this place at all, they had eaten somewhere in town just as I had thought. More yelling, a few more calls and eventually he claimed to understand it a second time; back towards the city we went.

Ice buildings are not limited to the park, they can also be found on just about any street corner with empty space and in most of the tiny neighborhood parks. As we passed them joking to the tune of “Hey look, an ice building” they gave a festive look to what really was shaping up to be just another grimy industrial city. The trees in the medians were wrapped in tiny twinkling lights which unlike what we are used to came in the most vivid colors – bright red, electric blue, hot pink and magenta. A small lot formed by the intersection of a couple of highway overpasses was filled with both illuminated trees and giant balls of exploding lights. It was an eyeful.

We passed through many neighborhoods before finally coming to a stop on a street with a few dozen restaurants making we wonder why we had not gone here in the first place. Civilization at last, we parked and he showed us to the door of a place made to look like an ancient Chinese inn, making sense something that one of the people in the other party had said – “We’re eating at the 200 year old Chinese man restaurant.” They took us upstairs and put us in a private room that seemed to also double as storage. Menus were delivered and I did my best to order the things I could understand. A funny thing about ordering in China is that you are often waved off from your choices, making you wonder if the waiter is telling you they are bad or if they are out of them. I ordered a bunch of items and sat back to enjoy some warm Harbin Beer.

The food arrived and was in general pretty darn good. The highlight was some thinly sliced venison and the lowlight a plate of some vaguely flavored gluttonous noodle shaped things. The spicy potato pancakes were probably the best rendition of this local favorite I’ve had, and a green bean dish was pretty darn good too. Dumplings were ordered and I’m told they were tasty too.

We ate and laughed and paid our bill and went back out for the haul to the hotel. We boarded up and retraced a portion of the route we had taken, making a left where we’d come in from the right. Another left and we were at the hotel – that restaurant was around the block from where we had started.