Snow sculpture festival, Harbin
Our last night in Qingdao was New Year’s Eve, and like all good party nights this one came together without any planning. Several coffees in the early evening, some dry hot-pot with Welm’s chinese friends (very spicy, and it included a few bonus ingredients such as sauted tripe and cooked duck’s blood), playing pool, more than a few drinks, and finishing off with barbequed skewers and more beer at 3am with an English teacher from Rockhampton and his Chinese fiancee.
The highlight of the night was where we saw in the midnight hour, a top-floor bar with fine views across the city that was effectively a private party. Feeling uncannily like that late-night bar that Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson went to in Lost In Translation, a skilled band of expats we playing rock classics (lots of Led Zeppelin, for example) throughout the evening. Fronted by a very drunk Melburnian who could still belt out tunes pretty well until the very end, many of Qingdao’s tiny circle of foreigners were here and the beers were super-cheap (Y10 each, A$2.20). A great way to see in the new year!
What followed was two days of travel, as we headed to the frozen north for the Ice Festival in Harbin. Rather than the easy option of flying (it’s approximately 1700 kms away), we decided to go overland so we could visit Yantai and Dalian on the way. Great in theory, but the practice didn’t work out so well…
Waking up quite dusty on New Year’s Day, we eventually made our way to the bus station to get a ride to Yantai. Luck was on our side here, as a “booming business class” bus was just about to leave. With very large reclining seats (exactly like those up the front on a plane), movies and even a hostess who served water and tea, this was the PERFECT way to sleep off a hangover! Yantai was rather disappointing, though we didn’t have much time to explore the night we arrived. Intending to catch an express ferry to Dalian the next day we slept in, only to discover that express ferries don’t run in winter. Our only option to get to Dalian would take nearly seven hours, giving us just an hour and a half before the night train to Harbin departed 😦
This really sucked, as we’d heard great things about the place, but what could we do? We got two sleeper beds for the ferry, which turned out to be extremely spacious berths in a room shared with four others, and to our surprise we slept most of the way. Fortunately the rest of the journey went smoothly, in large part to the help of Wonder Wang. The Chinese train system does not have a centralised booking system, so apart from a handful of routes you can only book a ticket in the city you want to depart from. This makes it hard to plan if you’re on a tight schedule! Talking with Kate about this online, she said I should contact a friend of hers who lives in Dalian to see if he could help. Yes indeed: Wonder (also known as Wang Xi, but Wonder’s a much better name) organised two prime bottom bunks for us on the train we wanted, was waiting for us at the ferry terminal when we arrived and was even willing to take us on a tour of Dalian if we’d had the time. Sadly the boat stuff-up meant that was out of the question, but he did recommend a very fine Taiwanese restaurant for dinner before the train.
The train itself was excellent, the “hard-sleeper” cars (so called because the bunks are open to the corridor rather than in enclosed cabins like “soft sleepers”) very comfortable and uncrowded on this journey. Welm likened it very aptly to a white-collar prison dorm: dozens of middle-class people incarcerated in a clean and tidy cell with nothing to do but read, chat, play cards or sleep. Amazingly, after all the rest we’d had in the previous two days, we still slept most of the way. And arriving at our Harbin hotel uber-early (6am), they still checked us in and even gave us an upgrade to a finer room. Praising the Holiday Inn chain heartily, we crawled into the first soft bed either of us had used for weeks (months for Welm) and slept some more.