Qiqihar. The Palmerston North of China

The local Government of Qiqihar (think “Chee chee har” and you’ll be getting close) holds an Ice and Snow Festival every year, in a bid to increase the tourist numbers…. and this year they invited a collection of diplomats up as well, to help spread the good word. The New Zealand Charge d’affairs and partner attended.

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It was indeed a saga. On Friday morning at 5am, we were picked up by NZ1 and driven to a small military airport in the south of Beijing. It was pitch dark and snowing. The driver seemed to be guided by sense of smell – we certainly couldn’t see anything. Once at the airport, we were herded into a small VIP waiting lounge with the rest of the delegation, consisting of maybe 8 or 10 countries, some with families in tow. We sat there for several hours while we waited for the snow to clear during which time Reid was informed she was the senior diplomat attending and would be required to make a speech to the mayor at the reception that afternoon.

Finally the airport cleared and we flew north for a couple of hours, landing in snow-covered wilderness at an airport that looks a lot like Palmerston North (Qiqihar however has a population of 6 million). A convey led by a traffic-clearing police 4WD whisked us into town and we immediately started into the first of many banquets – this one featuring horse meat. A quick stop at the hotel to change into suits, and off to meet the mayor at the local town hall. Except it turned out to be a vice-Mayor, as central government had pulled rank and summoned the boss to Beijing for the weekend. Reid made her speech, all polite thank-yous and appreciation and exchanged gifts then we were back to the hotel to change into warm clothes for the Ice Festival opening.

(as an aside, it appears to be a useful thing in speeches when you are being translated. You say a line then wait as it’s translated, giving you time to dream up what happens next).

We were running slightly behind by this point, so missed most of the speeches at the opening (in Mandarin anyways) but did arrive in time to be showered in fireworks and have a 30 minute walk around the ice sculptures, during which fireworks continued in the background. We were then whisked back to the hotel for another banquet (this one featuring snails, and I don’t mean Escagot – I mean snails from out the back, without garlic) then off to the Cultural Festival opening night, held in a school gym.

This was like a 3 hour school variety show, with bells, whistles and many enthusiastic kids. There were dancing girls, traditional songs, gymnastics, parading Mongol armies, a bloke juggling huge vases, more fireworks and a horse, who after being led around the stage a few times showed her displeasure by having an enormous crap. At one point the bloke with the smoke machine almost managed to fill up the entire stadium (his machine was so loud it drowned out anyone attempting to have a romantic sing-along in the mist, which was okay because they were usually completely obscured by it as well). All that out of the way, we were returned to the hotel.

(A quick aside on the hotel. The owners had obviously read somewhere that the way to keep a tired hotel looking good was to keep the lighting low – and they’d taken this to heart. I kept losing things in the gloom. To read, we took the single bedside lamp into bed with us and huddled around it. Security was also obviously a concern, so they’d thoughtfully installed a car alarm by the door. This occasionally went off, leaving us to grope around the murk for the remote to disable it. And the breakfast was unspeakable).

Saturday dawned, and we were off again, this time to see the endangered Red-crowned Crane, a featured bird of the district. Hundreds of these cranes were housed in a snow-covered park about 1.5 hours from the city, inside large spacious cages – and when let out, flew a large circuit around the park, coming into land over our heads. TV crews were on hand to record our appreciation of the birds, but Reid couldn’t stand the cold, returning to the bus early accompanied by the wife of the Thailand rep who looked fairly stunned that this sort of cold actually existed. You could certainly tell the folks who came from snowy countries – the woman from one of the ‘Stans wandered around in heels and a huge fur coat, looking completely comfortable.

From there, we were sped back into town for another banquet, which was promoted as a feast consisting of many types of fish, but in fact had only one fish dish. It did, however, feature pigs face. I had a warming (but vile) glass of the local baijiu but Reid did not, and therefore never warmed up, so we retired back to the Gloom Room while the rest of the party attempted to ski.

That evening we met again for the final banquet which was supposed to be followed by a command circus performance. Some drama ensured and our Government host stormed off just before dinner, at which point it became apparent the circus would not be happening. Instead we had another variety performance at our banquet table, more songs, a woman that played a musical instrument through tubes stuck up her nose and a bloke who licked red-hot embers.

Next day, Sunday, we flew home.

(thanks to Erin and Marion for looking after the Small Child back in Beijing while this drama was unfolding)

Qiqihar – Northern China at it's coldest

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