Freezing South Africans in a warm-hearted Harbin

Winter is a time of great cold. Yes, but for four South Africans freezing in Harbin, in the Heilongjiang province of north east China, the cold was cast aside by an act of great kindness.

Often, acts of kindness are simple things, like a walk across town, as was the generosity of spirit we enjoyed. And as happens often the act of kindness was offered by one stranger to another.

Let the story be told from the beginning.

Harbin Winter Castle

A few years back I, my wife Kathy, and our kids Keah and Joel went to Harbin to see the majestic Siberian tigers and the ice sculptures.

We flew to Harbin out of Shanghai on Christmas Eve. We landed at 12.54 pm in minus 15 degrees Celsius. That was the coldest any of us had ever experienced. Worse was to come. There were changerooms inside the airport terminal so that people could add layers of clothing to their person as they arrived and remove them as they left. We found our way to our accommodation in the Songbei suburb and encountered one of the joys of winter, which was central heating. To be inside in shorts while outside was covered in ice appealed to me.

Christmas Day. We left our accommodation at 11.20 am, which was far too late, and as well wrapped up as we could be, to explore. Harbin this day had a maximum temperature of minus 11 deg C and a minimum temperature of minus 25. The sun rose at 7.13 am and set at 15.54 pm. The sunset time was of relevance to us, as we were to discover. The pavement was covered in ice and was treacherous. One had to watch every footstep lest you land on your rump.

Winter in Harbin with the family

We travelled by bus 31 stops into town. We came upon people walking on the frozen Songhua River. I immediately wanted to do that, so we did. In places you stared far down through grey, cracked ice. It was a little frightening. Some boats had been frozen in the river for the winter. One’s fingers froze instantly and painfully when extracted from gloves.

We visited Russian Street, also known as Zhongyang Dajie, which was a much-acclaimed landmark in Harbin. Zhongyang Dajie was a pedestrian walkway that offered a collection of international businesses, from Russian bakeries and shopping outlets to American and Japanese restaurants to French fashion houses. The street featured Baroque, Byzantine, North American and Japanese architectural styles.  We went into a Russian supermarket to buy a small bottle of vodka, chocolate and a few other things. On the way out, the shopkeeper gave us Russian coins as souvenirs of our visit. We bought two renowned Russian sausages, fabled winter ice creams and a round loaf of bread.

Those were the days when you could do Russian things. One could spend all those days walking up and down the street without exhausting the attractions. However, we wanted to see the Sofia Cathedral so set off to do just that. We passed several groups of people building ice sculptures on the street with big blocks of ice. Cranes were needed to place the ice blocks on top of each other, as they were so heavy. The ice workers used chainsaws to cut up the ice. The statues were lit from within by colourful neon lights.

We stopped in at a shop selling merchandise from the Japanese animé television show One Piece and followed cell phone maps to another nearby Russian street. Except the street was not nearby.

I suggested we turn back as we were going deeper into the city. The evening was approaching and the chill was setting in. We pushed on, spurred by Kathy’s immortal line: “I have not come all this way to sit in a flat.” We unwisely pushed on. I feared we would die of exposure in the streets of Harbin. We came upon a huge network of roads that necessitated a huge detour for us to cross. I put my foot down. No further.

We turned back. Darkness had set in by the time we found a bus stop offering a number 47 bus that we hoped would take us to Songbei. I am like that; if you arrive by bus you must return by bus. Alas, we waited for many minutes without our bus appearing, which was unusual for China public transport at the end of the working day. We were at the wrong place. The streets around us were absolutely crowded; and cold. We had seen a tourist information office at the cathedral so we went back there to ask where our bus stopped. A woman staff member had to walk out of the office to show us where to go as we could not speak each other’s language. We found the bus stop.

Now picture the scene. The streets were crowded and cold. The sun had gone. As we waited for our bus, an Ebike crashed into the back of a taxi right in front of us. We heard it happen and saw the aftermath. The rattle of the Ebike parts on the road rattled me as well. As it was, I was not at my best in that awful cold. This was a low point of our lives, never mind our trip to Harbin. My spirits were down and I feared the worst.

And at that point the Lord sent an angel to save us. There was one person at the bus stop who could speak English. We checked with him and yes, we were at the correct bus stop for the 47 bus we wanted. But no, we were going to catch the wrong bus, he said. We should be catching the 126, he offered. So, he led us one kilometre through the centre of the city to the correct bus stop. Think of that. Here we were: total strangers, and this chap led us to the correct bus stop at the end of his working day, in cold, dark and crowded conditions. We would never have found the correct bus stop by ourselves. We joined an orderly group of people waiting for the bus. The bus arrived. Our new friend insisted on paying our bus fares.

The bus duly dropped us close to our accommodation. Our friend also got off the bus. He pointed to blocks of flats visible yet far, far away and said he had to catch another bus to his home. We were reminded that in China there is always a person on hand to show you the way. Foreigners are never lost in China. We were so touched by this stranger’s act of kindness, especially on Christmas Day. His kindness warmed the hearts of four South Africans loitering on cold streets. Having said that, the family were not as overrun by the spirit of human kindness as I had been. They still want to know why we did not just catch a taxi home. Sorry family, I was too cold to think of that.

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