This section covers the journey from Vladivostok to Harbin, Harbin itself, and the Ice Festival at Harbin.
Exiting Russia was four hours of bureaucracy; it would take a team of geniuses a year to come up with a more complicated irrational method to deal with this. A few hours later we immigrated into China where I was hauled off the train because the immigration officials didn't like my damp passport. I had a whole hour of nervousness deep in the heart of the immigration hall.
The difference in the people is striking. On the Russian side of the border, they look the same as everywhere else in Russia and much of Europe, and there are not many Chinese. Immediately over the border, a distance of maybe 30 kms, 100% of the people are Chinese, just like that. They've taken their borders very seriously for thousands of years.
It's amazing that the annual Harbin Ice Festival hasn't permeated into the mainstream travel destinations for Westerners. This is a truly world class event; it alone worth a flight out to China. Don't miss the Ice Festival photos in the links above. During our night visit to the festival, 5 Chinese girls approached me with their camera. I assumed they wanted me to take their picture, but in fact one girl wanted her photo taken with me. Then the other 4 wanted their photos with me as well. Quite flattering!
The language barrier here was absolute. While we never really learned Russian beyond some basic phrases, we had managed to actually learn their alphabet and could read it fluently and quickly. This was useful for place names and the few words that are also the same in English, "restoran", for example. In Harbin there were no English signs, as there sometimes are in Beijing, and absolutely no one speaks English. We managed, but everything was difficult.
We thought one advantage would be that at least in China we looked different from everyone else, so they wouldn't automatically address us in Chinese, as the Russians had spoken Russian to us while we were there. We thought wrong, however, as many Chinese started speaking to us in Russian.
Our only mistake in Harbin was the hotel we stayed at, the Kun Lun hotel. The facilities and rooms were all right, but the restaurant was terrible and the whole place was run by brain-dead staff. We would rather have stayed at the Holiday Inn where we had coffee and drinks, or since then I have discovered on the web a Shangri-La there.
Eric - from London