Once arriving in Harbin we lodged at, what I thought to be, a pretty nice hotel. I was even special enough to get my own room, mostly because I didn’t know any other girls going on the trip. There are times when having guy friends is a letdown, but this wasn’t one of them.
Thanks to my selective friendships I was given my own room and a lot of privacy. I really didn’t know what to do with myself; I’m not one to go jumping on beds, so I contented myself by taking up all the drawers and closet space with my things. The first place we went to had an ice toboggan slide, and polar bear swimming. I opted out of the swimming in -30 Celsius weather, but I did go on the slide! The good part is I beat my partner by at least a mile; the slide was by no means 5280 feet long, but I think that’s how hurt his pride was. The bad part was my eyelashes kept freezing together making it hard to see, I literally had mini icicles hanging off them.
As we walked over to the swimming part I found a large chunk of ice on the ground. I thought it would make the perfect skateboard and practiced skating across the ground. I coerced my friends into trying it, and if I do say so, they are mighty clumsy. We decided to stop before someone twisted their ankle and then proceeded to kick it to each other, which in fact was more likely to hurt my ankle since it was a big chunk of ice. Still waiting for the swimming spectacular, we built some houses out of sheets of ice and then destroyed them. Finally the show began and it was very interesting. All the swimmers I swear were over 40 and a good amount of them were Russians. There was one older lady who after making her dive would run around the perimeter of the pool shouting and shaking hands. I couldn’t make out what she was saying but it was entertaining to watch. She would then hunch over, suddenly feeling the cold, and tip toe back to the pool ready to jump in again. They dived, and flipped, for about 30 minutes and then all headed back to the changing rooms, we then realized the show was over. As we headed to our next destination we practiced using the same words, with the high octave used by the daring Old Russian woman. Thinking back, perhaps we shouldn’t of since there’s a good chance she was swearing at us and we wouldn’t have had a clue. I’m pretty positive that happens quite a lot to foreigners.
The next place we went to was Heilongjiang Northeast Tiger Forest Park (黑龙江东北虎林园). It was started as one of the first breeding parks for the endangered Siberian tiger. It had only eight to start with and now its numbers are pushing 800. They do have a few other animals, but really the tigers are the main attraction. We were loaded onto to small caged vehicles, similar to ones I imagine they use for safaris in Kenya, and driven around to see them up close. There were many gates and security towers we passed through as we got deeper, and deeper, into the enclosure. Then just as we rounded the bend we saw 10 of them right smack-dab in front of us.
They are gorgeous animals, with thick rusty-red fur. They wear their stripes as elaborate trimmings, and their faces are distinguished by white markings, which go down the neck and under the belly. Though alert, they hardly moved and would just stare back at you lazily. When they did decide to move they took slow, deliberate steps, and seemed on the whole unfazed. The same way you become hypnotized by looking at a fire you become mesmerized looking into a tigers a face.
The other animals we saw were all singly caged with limited space. They surprisingly were all warm climate animals, and what sticks out most in my memory is the black leopard and lion. There were was nothing inside their pens, just a sloping cement floor and walls; it was just long enough for them to pace a few steps back and forth. The Lion was roaring something fierce, and would go on its back legs scraping at the metal door with its forepaws trying to unlock its only exit. Some thought it was funny, but I found it disheartening.
Later on, as part of the Parks special feature, and ways to profit off them, you are given the chance to purchase live animals to be given to the tigers to eat. I hear a whole cow costs 1,000 Yuan but a chicken is less about 20-50 Yuan. One of the members of our group bought a chicken. He first teased the tigers by dangling it above their heads, and running side to side. Eventually he threw it towards the eagerly awaiting tigers. I had a split second to decide if this was something I wanted to see, and turned my back.
Why did I turn? It’s a law of nature that predators eat prey, and I’m not queasy by the sight of blood. I think the reason was more than not watching it happen, I didn’t want to participate. If you could only imagine the atmosphere a general aversion, but curiosity to know what would happen. Some outright reproached the idea while others huddled around closer to watch. Many of us had been to Zoos/Parks and knew this wouldn’t be allowed to happen anywhere else. It’s reminiscent of the Gladiator’s or Freak Shows in the 80’s. It seems people are very willing to watch cruel things in the name of entertainment. Even today we have TV shows like that, but much of it is watered down and voluntary.
Overall I wasn’t very impressed. Parks and Zoos in my mind are places where you can admire and learn more about animals you never knew existed. You usually leave with a better understanding and respect for them. To have it turned into a joke, an area to pester and irritate, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It made me much more appreciative of Canadian Zoo’s. I’ve been to the one in Calgary, and Vancouver and it’s a whole different feel. The animal enclosures are wide and modified to their living conditions. There’s suitable fencing and constant reminders to not harass the animals. In a strange way it’s almost made me an animal lover except for the fact that I don’t want a dog, or a cat, or even a fish. I can admire them just fine, but living with one is entirely. I could probably do with a turtle though, that’s about my speed.