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The International Writers Magazine: Birthday in Harbin, China

Kai, Mary’s Second First Birthday and an Ice Igloo Hot Pot! 
Darren Skelton in China


As I live with my wife and young daughter in the so called Ice-City of Harbin up in Manchuria, the People’s Republic of China, and my folks live in South Yorkshire, England, we do not get together every weekend or even every other weekend as you can well imagine! Meet up once a year we do. 

Wanna spend some good quality family time together whislt also doing something a little bit different? Then, a day out along the SongHua river bank, more pertinantly on the frozen river itself, doing a bit of this (sledging, skating and spinning tops) and more of that (horse riding, horse and cart riding, dog sleigh riding), followed by some luxury fodder at a 5-star hotel to follow is the way forward. It is good for both for the oldies and young uns to tell a good yarn upon returning to the playground at primary school whilst slurping fizzy drinks, the yard at the truck depot whilst drinking sepid tea in horribly dirty (but passable to truck drivers) mugs or back to the university staff / levturer room with colleagues who think they know better! 

Wanna freeze your toes off in the name of fun and frolics, then blow some of your not so hard earned cash in Harbin on treats, well head on down to the Shangri La Hotel (the ‘La’ as it is effectionalty known amongst us locals), located on the river bank itself for what they can offer, as they are always good for accepting monetary payment in exchange for a service or product. 

Down on the frozen SongHua river, the elders chose to get some R & R in the fetching horse and cart ride, which was fortuotously also a covered cart so preventing the icy biting wind from biting already frozen faces. That was 20 RMB (2 pounds) well spent. Young Kai (my nephew), my brother and I played the fools on a snow frozen slide (30 RMB for unlimited goes – a bargain), sledging down on old inflated rubber rings – boucing over bumps and having speed races. All the fun of the fair it was. In fact – we celebrated finishing by gnawing on Chinese style Candy floss sticks! My wife – she was on photograph and flask duty! Soon, we were cold, proper cold – the kind of cold to the bones that your great Grandfather talked about when he was down in the trenches during the Battle of the Bulge, so it was time to taxi onwards and upwards over the ‘La’! 

Well… why choose here? Well, of recent, they offer a top notch afternoon tea buffet, packed with all that is good and bad, from the extensive fruit platter to the killer chocolate cakes and puffs. Then there us the incredibly satisfying and perplexing culinary treat with a twist with their hot pot in an igloo splendor. And to top it all off, you can entertain yourself by having an acloholic beverage in the blisteringly cold ice bar! You could do all three if you so wished back to back, so we did. 

Traditional afternoon tea comes with a difference in the Shangri-La, as not only can you drink the more traditional Chinese teas and nibble on a few dim sum favourites, you can also have a gigantic Caramel & Chocolate covered Cappucino in a mega cup and chocolate cake treats! When you have been out a wandering along the riverbank catching the icy breeze, it is a more than welcome respite and pick me up! 68 RMB each, plus service charge makes it not a cheap affair, but it certainly is worth it! Lounging in large mini sofas enjoying a selection of prawn filled dim sum, winding up the old man about the size of the ridiculously small offerings of sandwiches and cakes he has piled up trying to get his moneys worth out of it. Little Kai wasted no time wolfing down all the cakes he could muster up, mother & wife were hitting the healthier fruit selection at a more lady like pace, father was on cakes & sandwiches as mentioned and I was on the Dim Sum. Great fun all around. Soon we were all well-fed and watered and were feeling all happily sleepy and contentedly lazy! 

An ice igloo (an igloo made of ice no less) is at a perfect temperature for polar bears, penguins and seals, not so for human beings generally lacking in the inches of blubber required (excpet for my younger brother – who is rather well known for his liking of a pint, a packet of pork scratchings and a plate of pork pies), so it gets chilly it does. Colder than cold, this is the only place I’ve been where you need to add layers as you enter the restaurant, and for sure it is the only 5-star hotel eating experience I’ve had to date requiring gloves. The food was very tasty indeed, hefty chunks of beef, slithers of pork and plenty of other veggies to boil in the broth! It is accompanied by plentiful cups of strong, steaming ginger tea to warm your insides up. Service is excellent – a good example is they have the pots on the boil at a time requested you’ll be in to dine, so as to avoid sitting around waiting for the darn things to come to the boil. The igloo quickly gets all steamed up though as all that boiling broth gives off a considerable amount of steam, so often as not you cannot see the person across the table – which can be a good thing at family meals, sometimes (you know what I mean!). Boiled up meat and veggies are a winner no matter where you are living in the world – or what your weapns of choice are (chopsticks or the fork?). 


The poor old barstaff who have been allocated Ice bar duty must feel like have pulled out the short straw from the staffing rota for sure. Proper brass monkeys it is in there you know, especially on the fingers & toes I’d imagine. I once worked a job that was proper brassy too – as a part time milk delivery boy – cracking job, but my god was it cold picking up endless cold bottles of milk. The job did have its plus points – namely that you could drink as much milk as you could for free!  The bar, it is of a simple design, rectangular in shape, peppered with the odd arts-farty pics and traidtional pics from the province, a couple of picturesque ice sculptures (the piano & pianist is particulary good) a few tables and chairs made of ice and a bar made of, yep you guessed it - ice. 

We moved on down from our igloo after finishing off the last morsels of beef, not needing to put on any more clothes than we had on already and entered the ice bar. 45 RMB for a 330ml bottle of Harbin Beer and a wopping 77RMB for a shot of Brandy is a little scandalous though, fortunately my father had offered to get the first round and as it was way too cold for hanging around talking the talk, there was no second round. 

Actually, we had a second and third round – but in the comfort of the toasty warm flat watching Decepticons and Autobots battle it out for supremacy of the universe in that blockbuster produced by Michael Bay (not as bad as the first movie I’d say, but ran it close), but you know my nephew is 9 years old and that sort of mindless storytelling is what rattles his cage. The other good thing about 9 year olds is that they can be easily bribed to don all their gear and go out in the cold to the local shop to buy you the beer and hall it back if you tip them / or allow them to buy all the sweets that loose change can buy!

The following day was Mary’s second BIG ONE! Yes – a second first birthday, as she is half English – half Manchurian Chinese, she gets 2 birthdays every year – one her actual day of birth and one according to the lunar calendar. Lucky for her that is on the presents front as she gets double hits (alas she gets both Christmas presents and Chinese New Year cash filled red envelopes too!). We went low key at home for her natural birthday and went a bit upmarket / over the top for her lunar birthday – which happened to come second. I’d booked a fancy posh restaurant nearby – a monstrously large lazy-susan table holding upwards of 17 people. Plenty of local dishes were hammered home (including sweet & sour pork to die for), a little local rice wine (strong enough to use as fuel in the smaller cars at least) and more manageable beers were drunk, a large cake was devoured. The highlight was the little one year old traditional ‘choose your career’ game. Numerous objects were layed out on the sofa (for example; a camera, a lion toy, a money pig toy, a pen, a ten pound note, a notebook, and others), with each represnting a potential future career. The young one year old would be let of the leash – free to choose the first thing she would choose from the choice of objects in front of her. Little Mary chose both the toy pig and the 10-pound note – which indicates to me she’ll be a rich farmer or a vet. Who knows eh? Good fun was had, bellies were filled and enough drinks had to provide the beer coat for the short walk home.
© Dareen Skelton March 2010 

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