Going below zero for Harbin’s ice festival and unveiling wartime truths at Unit 731

We took an early train from Beijing and finally got to see some (relatively) smog-free landscapes. We spent the nine-hour train trip to Harbin, capital of China’s northernmost province Heilongjiang, in front row seats, well located close to the hot water tap, though unfortunately near the toilet, the door of which didn’t shut well. The baby behind us spent the trip kicking Christophe’s seat when it wasn’t screaming. But at least we were together, although our original seats weren’t. A man had insisted on moving back in the train for me, even though his family was sitting up front – the friendly image of the Chinese we had got in Qingdao and Qufu continued.

The most striking thing about the landscape was how flat and used it was. Hour after hour, we passed well-maintained fields, some villages and smokestack towns, greenhouses, more fields and people collecting straw on them and occasionally a shepherd tending his flock. No square meter seemed to go to waste. Sometimes we passed some lonely-looking mountains. We never saw a “real” forest – strange after the forested landscapes of Japan and Russia – but we saw quite a few young trees planted along roads and ditches and in batches here and there. Maybe signs that some slight “reforestification” is taking root here? We also passed some wind turbines. Both felt like small pieces of good news after a polluted week in Shandong.


At Harbin’s west train station, we walked in circles for a while, following the signs for the metro, before realizing the metro hadn’t been built yet. It was late, and at -10 degrees, it was much colder than we were used to, so we opted for the luxury of a taxi. A police officer sitting in a golf-cart stopped us on our way to the line, saying there were no taxis. His English ended there, but after some confused communication about busses and street names, he decided to get us a car anyway. Things got hectic. He rushed off upstairs, turning to wave at us to hurry up. We ran to a taxi drop-off spot where he grabbed a cab on its way out, forced the unwilling driver to stay and all but shoved us into the car. We shut our doors as the driver speeded out of the building and 30 death-defying minutes later he dropped us of. By some miracle, no one died on the ice-stained roads.


Harbin is very pretty. Like Qingdao, the city centre is marked by foreign influence, in this case mainly Russian. A quiet fishing village until 1896, Harbin grew in size as it was connected to Vladivostok, Dalian and later Lake Baikal by a railroad built by the Russians. By the 1920s, more than 100,000 Russians lived in the city, which also became the site of an expanding Jewish community. The Japanese occupied the town and the region then called Manchuria during 1932-1945. It’s easy to see what foreigners are more popular. One of the top sights is the Russian Orthodox Church of St Sophia, some street signs are written in Chinese, English and Cyrillic, and there are several Russian restaurants and souvenir shops. The Japanese have a museum detailing atrocious experiments on living human beings in the south of town.

We were a bit nervous about Harbin after being warned countless times about how the temperature could drop to -40 degrees there in winter. Our wardrobe was not up for that, despite the addition of a winter jacket in Korea. However, we got lucky and I don’t think it ever got colder than -18 degrees. Cold can be fun and in Harbin, the frozen Songhua river becomes a massive ice skating rink. Neither one of us have skated for about ten years, but it was great giving it a new try, though jeez, my confidence on skates is not what it used to be.

It was the cold that drew us to Harbin in the first place: The city organizes one of the world’s biggest ice and snow festivals. This year’s edition was massive, spectacular and colourful – and not as crowded as expected. It’s impressive to think of the work that goes into making large ice fortresses as well as the minute details of specific sculptures.

There are three main venues for the ice festival. The pictures above are from the Ice and Snow World, the biggest and most famous event. The large site was filled with palaces, temples and labyrinths made of ice and beautifully lit up, large ice slides and cafés and restaurants where you could thaw yourself in between. We also visited the much smaller Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park, focused on more detailed sculptures.

Meeting with Siberian tigers

Apart from the ice festival, we came to Harbin to see Siberian tigers, also called Amur tigers. After all that time spent in Russia’s Far East, this turned out to be our best chance to get a look at them. Siberian tigers are endangered and there are about 540 left in the wild, according to the WWF.

We visited the Siberian Tiger Park, which is said to have 800 tigers or more, of which you can see about 100. In hindsight, I wonder if it was a good idea. We got to see many impressive tigers very close up and a lot of them looked like they were in a good condition, roaming in large enclosures. But we also saw a lot of tigers kept in very small cages – I hope there is a rotating system making sure everyone gets time out in the open, but I can’t know that – and several other felines in equally small cages, seemingly thrown in at the end for good measure.

The safari-style tour in a minivan with thin, green bars in front of the windows got us out just a few meters away from the cats. After a while, a smaller black car showed up, from which staff threw live chicken for the tigers to catch. It was very popular in the minivan, but I can’t say it sat right with me. This had nothing to do with training tigers to catch live prey; it was a show for gaping tourists. I have since read some reports suggesting that the centre, like other similar ones, survives thanks to sales of pelts and tiger bone wine, in violation of Chinese law. I don’t know what the truth is, but writing this now makes me feel a bit ashamed of going and of us making such a beginner’s mistake of not researching better beforehand. No matter how good some of the views were.

Chilling history of biological warfare at Unit 731

On our last day, we spent hours in local buses to visit the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base, also known as Unit 731, located in an unremarkable suburb south of Harbin. During Japan’s occupation of the area, general Shiro Ishii oversaw a wide range of horrifying experiments on humans – mainly Chinese, but also Russians and other nationalities – which they called maruta, meaning logs.

The staff carried out vivisection on subjects with or without anaesthesia to harvest organs unaffected by the decaying process. They tested how best to treat frostbite by leaving their victims outside, limbs exposed and periodically drenched with water. They cultivated bacteria – bubonic plague, anthrax, cholera, syphilis – infected the prisoners and studied the effects the diseases had on their bodies, with the aim of creating weapons. One example is the plague bombs, which they later test-dropped on some Chinese cities to see if they could create outbreaks. The tests were successful. There were gas chambers and pressure chambers and “field tests” where captives were tied to stakes before being exposed to mechanical, chemical or bacterial bombs. There are many other examples and gruesome stories about a place that claimed thousands of lives before it was destroyed by retreating Japanese at the end of the war. To make matters worse, the epilogue includes post-war silence, with all of the guilty escaping trial and many going on to make great careers, thanks to a deal in which the US gained knowledge for its own biological warfare program. Only a few of those working at Unit 731 have made public apologies.

The museum is housed in a new, dramatic and modern building, a metaphor for a black box from a plane crash. The content is clear and informative but not too graphic, despite the horrible topic. It’s the kind of place and the kind of story that makes you question the humanity in people. In a way (and isn’t there some irony in this?) it reminded me of the museums of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I kept looking closely at the faces of the staff on the photos, many of them young men and women. They looked so normal, not particularly evil at all. Did they all know what they were doing? Did they understand? Did it matter to them? And if it didn’t, when is it that you go from looking at another human to seeing a log?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s