(Editor's Note: This is part two of a two-part series)
After spending the previous evening walking around Harbin, China's northernmost city, in sub-zero temperatures admiring the ice sculptures for the annual winter festival, getting out of bed the next day was especially difficult. The hotel room was warm and the covers heavy, but I wasn't visiting for a weekend of lounging around - I was here to see the snow and ice.
Beijing had deprived me of both; this winter was particularly dry and lacking of any form of winter precipitation. And having grown up in the Pennsylvania coal region where I've enjoyed many a snowfall each winter, I wasn't about to break with tradition of trudging through a bit of the winter white stuff. And Harbin had plenty of that.
But before continuing my ice viewing expedition, I wanted to check out the Siberian Tiger Preserve just north of the city.
The preserve is home to hundreds of Siberian tigers and a few other wild cats - panthers, lions and ligers included. The tigers were split up into different holding areas a few acres in size and allowed to roam around. Buses rigged with bars over the windows took us through the various areas as the driver tried not to run over any of the precious beasts. Most of the tigers were indifferent to our presence, but a few pawed the bus or grunted if it slowed down.
In the largest area, our bus pulled into a open area and stopped. Tigers started moving our way from all directions. A second car entered the area and the tigers perked up. The car pulled up beside our bus and the driver opened his door quickly and threw something onto the top of the vehicle. It was a live chicken. Feeding time.
Two tigers jumped for the bird, which tried to flap away, but soon found itself in the jaws of a third tiger. A few more chickens and pheasants were thrown atop the car, meeting similar fates as the first. But this was just part of the tour - for a fee, tourists could pay for slabs of meat ($7) or live chickens ($14), pheasants ($14), goats ($90) and even cattle ($200). Call it cruel, but it made the experience a bit more realistic in terms of watching the tigers pounce their prey.
After walking around the preserve for a while, I returned to the city to visit Stalin Park. The ice sculptures were few, but the park's location next to the Songhua River allowed me to look out across its frozen waters. An ice rink and horse drawn carriage course were set up on the river; a giant snow Buddha about 20 feet tall also sat out on the frigid ice.
But more so impressive than Stalin Park or Zhaolin Park, which I visited the night before, were the castles, temples and towers of the Ice and Snow World. Each structure was made from blocks of ice carved out of the nearby Songhua River. As a kid, my dad and I had struggled to make small, two-room buildings out of packed snow. Seeing entire ice castles that resembled those in Europe, in size and grandeur, made those childhood efforts seem trivial.
Most of the life-sized ice buildings had slides that made getting down from the second or third levels of the structures more interesting. And like any tourist attraction with snow and ice, a ski lift and sled and snow tube area allowed for some extra winter fun.
As night descended, the lights within each ice block that formed the foundation, walls and spires of the buildings were illuminated in an aurora borealis of colors. Against the snow-white ground with the colorful lights dancing about, it felt like I'd slipped into a life-sized snow globe - a machine in the distance dispersing freshly made snow completed the scene.
By the end of the trip, my feet were frozen, my hands sore and my nose red like Rudolph the Reindeer's, but I had a slew of great photos and a new found respect for the word "cold." And like my other foreign friends who had visited the ice festival, I can check Harbin off my list of travel destinations and fondly remember the fun I had in the snow and ice of the northern city while enjoying warmer climates in the winters to come. Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at email@example.com.