Written by Wiebke Schmütz
As Christmas is not really celebrated in Chinese families, we decided that a Christmas trip is a perfect way to experience some of the holiday spirit.
Originally we had planned to go to Beijing, but there were some stronger powers (too much hydrogen in the air which is a nice Chinese expression for smog). The upcoming Ice and Snow Festival was the main reason why we went to Harbin instead.
So we met on Christmas Eve at the airport and had a delicious Christmas Dinner at the Golden Arches (for those who don’t know: McDonalds). After the 1 1/2 hour flight we arrived in Harbin, where we were really surprised at the fact that they have changing cubicles at the airport on the way from the plane to the baggage claim. Be prepared: Harbin is famous for its bitterly cold winters. The Chinese people’s reaction when we Western people got changed without using that cubicles was priceless!
When we finally arrived at the hostel it was already quite late, so we just checked in and had a look around the housing. It was actually a nice place with many Chinese people talking to us during our stay. I really should have counted how many times we had to play pool – too many!
The next day we enjoyed a relaxed morning and a nice Chinese style brunch: Baozi and Guo Bao Rou – yummy.
After finishing the brunch we took the bus to the city centre. There we could already see some ice or snow sculptures, but the highlight for the children in our hearts was definitely the slide completely made of ice.
We also had to try the famous Harbin ice cream. It was impressive how many people had the same intention even though it was so cold that Amber’s iPhone wasn’t working anymore. Following the road we arrived at the frozen Songhua River. There was so much going on at the river: a kind of sleighs for 2 or 3 people, motor sleighs, ice skaters, people selling different items, quad bikes pulling tyre tubes, photographers… You also had a beautiful view at the city, the bridge and the other side of the river.
We enjoyed it very much, but it was finally time for a warmer place to drink some hot coffee or chocolate. In the evening we had a real Christmas Dinner at a fancy restaurant with “live” music. Trying to find a bar – not a KTV – to celebrate and conclude the evening, we failed or rather it was too cold to go on searching. Then another problem turned up: many taxis were already occupied or refused to stop for a group of four people, however we eventually found a taxi and when we came back to the hostel the evening ended in good atmosphere.
The next day we woke up earlier and had some sweet potatoes from a street vendor before going to the same restaurant as the first day. Then we went to the famous Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of God or Saint Sophia Cathedral.
We refused to pay entrance fee, but one of us managed to enter. The inside has few to do with a church, it houses the Harbin Architectural Art Gallery. We then went on to see the old town. Minus 26 degrees forced us to make a long stop at a café with lots of vintage furniture and decoration. When we found the old town we discovered the next surprise: it was more like a shopping mall trying to look traditional. We liked it nevertheless and even bought some small things. In the end we changed our plan and did not go to see the famous Ice and Snow Festival as it was still under construction, but they already charged 300 RMB entrance fee and it was just way too cold – brr.
So we just ate dinner and went back to the hostel, and in the evening we managed to go to a cute bar in the same street of the hostel. As we had to get up really early the next day to catch our flight, we didn’t stay so long.
It was a nice trip full of new impressions, but we were happy to be at home in warmer Qingdao on Sunday early afternoon.
If you want to experience trips to cities like Harbin for yourself, apply now!
Christmas in China was very different from myself and the other interns are used to. After a few discussions about the differences in an Irish, Spanish and German Christmas, we ended up thinking about the very obvious differences we were going to experience in China.
The first huge difference is that sadly Christmas isn’t a holiday in China, however the period is still full of the usual craziness I have come to expect from Qingdao. Hong Kong and Macau however do celebrate Christmas on the 25th December with a public holiday!
Christmas Eve, a quiet night in with family for me at home and the day of the main event for the Spanish and German interns, sees apples sold in brightly coloured paper because the Chinese for Christmas Eve, “Ping An Ye” (meaning quiet or silent night) sounds similar to the Chinese for apple, “Ping Guo”. Secondly, in the food court beside the Qingdao office it would seem that unfortunately, Jingle Bells is the only Christmas carol known.
While Christmas isn’t widely celebrated across China, it is becoming more well known and in the cities which are aware of the holiday the decorations are big and beautiful. There is certainly very little evidence of the religious aspects of the holiday, however the traditional icons such as trees, lights, snowmen and reindeer appear everywhere. Some Chinese people know the Christmas tree as a “Tree of Light”, and they are often decorated with paper chains, flowers and lanterns, rather than the usual baubles, angels and tinsel.
Christmas for many in the West is an obvious religious holiday as well as being a time to spend with family and friends, but for those in China who do choose to celebrate, it is a time for family and friends with very few people actually being aware that Christmas is a religious holiday. I was invited by a Chinese friend to attend church on Christmas Eve though which I found surprising!
One major concern for us was the lack of Christmas markets, but luckily for Qingdao we had our very own traditional German market to attend… complete with glühwein, a nativity scene, a huge Christmas tree and ” weckmännchen” (think of a fat gingerbread man, made of bread, complete with a small clay pipe.)
Our weekly Thursday dinner was spent trying to find a suitable substitute for a traditional Christmas dinner… but of course, what was traditional for each of the interns was very different. There were an abundance of both Chinese and Western restaurants offering Christmas dinner and buffets, so we were spoiled for choice either way. In Qingdao and Zhuhai we were lucky enough to have a traditional home cooked Christmas dinner, and Chengdu were treated to a Christmas buffet, so the Chinese food didn’t disappoint on this occasion!
Some of the Qingdao interns also took a trip to Harbin over the Christmas weekend to visit the Ice Festival, while Zhuhai spent the weekend practicing their archery… so none of us had a “traditional” Christmas, but we had fun experiencing something new! Among the crazy decorations, continuously amazing Chinese food and good company, Christmas in China was another fantastic experience for all of us.
Now to see how New Year’s Eve is celebrated!
Spring is just around the corner, so I decided to share a wonderful winter experience in China to say goodbye to winter!
The majority of people may not have heard of Harbin, it is the capital and largest city of Heilongjiang province, China. The city is generally known because of its annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival that has been held since 1985. The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is one of the four largest ice and snow festivals in the world! It is usually open to the public from January 5th to February 25th every year.
The two main exhibitions to visit are Sun Island and Ice and Snow World. There are many activities to do here including ice slides, ice skating, dog sledding and dodgem bumper cars on ice etc. Ticket prices for these two magnificent expositions cost roughly 200-300RMB each for adults. It is possible to get discount if you have a valid Chinese student card. These prices may seem expensive but in my opinion, it is a truly magical experience. Pictures do not do this place any justice! As well as these two main expeditions, other tourist attractions that I would recommend are going to see the Siberian Tiger Park, visiting Saint Sophia Cathedral and shopping in Central Street (Zhongyang Dajie).
Harbin has its own unique Russian influence and freezing cold temperatures (-25/-30 °C). It is also well known for its distinct hot coca cola, hot orange juice and famous Harbin ice cream which you can purchase for a very cheap 5RMB, you definitely need to try this! It is easy enough to travel around Harbin by bus; I would recommend doing this instead of getting taxis because they tend to charge high prices and rip you off, especially if you are a 外国人(foreigner). I would recommend spending no more than three days in Harbin, as it is so cold, if you stay longer you may not survive! Don’t forget to wear a lot of layers, bring hot packs and drink hot water to keep your body warm. I hope other travellers will consider visiting this place as I promise it will be a magical experience!
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