Our second morning in Harbin found us groggy from the journey and ravenous for a bite to eat. In hunter gather fashion we took to the -18℃ streets in search of anything to feed our weary bodies. We quickly stumbled on a tiny place, going with the general rule in China that the smaller and grimier the place, the better the food. Inside there was enough room to fit only two people comfortably around the cooking station and lucky for us, we were today’s two. We watched the man whip up two delightful egg borritos, which would become a holiday favourite, with one of us returning every morning for breakfast-to-go during our stay in Harbin.
After brekkie my travel companion was hit with a severe bout of jet-lag, so I enrolled the help of a local I met on the train to be my tour guide for the afternoon. Accommodating as ever, the Chinese man arrived at my door some fifteen minutes after I contacted him. I made the mistake of trying to listen too carefully to what he was saying (due to his thick Northern accent) and soon his words became a blend of sounds with little meaning attached (and lots of ar nar ar). Quickly snapping myself out of that (whilst wondering how funny my facial expressions must have been trying to keep up), I managed to glean enough of what he was saying to maintain a conversation. Luckily the conversation was soon interrupted by the car pulling up at our first stop. He took me to the main street in Harbin, ZhongYang DaJie 中央大街， which had a glorious old European vibe because of the Russian influence in Harbin. The cobbled streets were lined with trees (fake leaves included) and the prevalence of Russian churches in atheist China combine with the usual Communist propaganda which can be found every few feet in most cities in China created an unusual yet intriguing mix of culture.It started snowing as we walked, adding to the Christmassy feeling which was already present in this area full of fairy lights and churches. My tour guide pointed us in the direction of Harbin’s famous ‘Madieer’ milk ice lolly for which the queue as typically Chinese; a group of people pushing, each trying to get their outstretched cash-wielding hand out further than the other. As a skilled local, my tour guide, Hao Ming Fu (also known as Ming Ming, who later we gave the English name Murphy, although as my travel companion pointed out, there was never a name that suited a man less), pushed his way to the front of the queue and shortly emerged with two rectangular milk lollies. It pained me to remove my un-gloved hand from the comfort of my well insulated sleeve to grip the ice cream stick which was being handed to me, but there was enough good eating on the other end of the stick for me not to be too resentful. The ice cream was strangely warming, but I guess in -20℃ something that is merely freezing cold would be considerably warmer. While chomping on my yummy ice lolly, we made our way up the cobbles to Stalin Park, which lies on the bank of Harbin’s main river, the Songhua River. At this time of year the massive river is transformed into a frozen playground. All around various activities were occurring atop the frozen river, including ice skating, sledding, some strange form of ice hockey and, the fate which was about to befall me- donuting down a steep icy slope. I reluctantly grabbed a tyre which would deliver me to the bottom of the death slope, trying to be selective and choose one which may carry me safely. As we assumed position at the top of the slope Ming Ming grabbed he handle of my tyre- ready to pull me down the sheet of sloped ice I was now facing. I heard the announcer’s vicious war cry on the microphone. It was time to go. With no hesitation Ming Ming gave the handle a sharp tug and we were both hurdling into the whipping wind, our donuts creating a spray from the ice which hit our faces like tiny needles. Finally my tyre slid to a halt, and I slowly peeped out one eye to to see if it was over. With that peep I saw a large man spinning towards me on his tyre, which collided with mine, knocking me further across the frozen river. I leapt up, not about to let another rampaging human being hit me once more. Scrambling gracefully off the ice was no easy feat, but I managed it with only one fall, after which Ming Ming grabbed my hood impatiently and dragged me back to my feet.