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Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival Heilongjiang Province China

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

Waiting for the hangman’s noose to be tied around our necks was driving me crazy! After our showdown with Trudy, all S and I could do was get on with our classes and wait for the agency to make contact. We simply had no idea how Maggie was going to react.

Would she summon us all for another godawful meeting?

Perhaps move us to another school?

Or maybe we’d just get straight out fired!?

I had no idea in which direction the pendulum would swing. Moreover, the suspense was killing me. We hadn’t seen much of Trudy in the week since the shit storm broke. Keeping a low profile, she seemed to be actively minimising her dealings with us. If only Water, the school Judas, had followed suit. I was so disgusted with her I could hardly make eye contact. But of course she continued to sit in on my lessons, stinking the place out with the stench of betrayal. 

Determined not to let recent events destroy our Beijing experience, S and I kicked off 2010 with a steely resolve to enjoy our free time to the max. Hence we set about exploring as much of the city as we could. With freezing temperatures and a record snowfall that year, China’s capital was a veritable winter wonderland.

Sub Zero Adventures a short story from China.

A snowy evening in Beijing. January 2010.

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

One day we hopped onto the subway at Shangdi and zoomed off towards the shiny new Olympic Line. Our destination was The National Stadium, affectionately tagged The Bird’s Nest due to its twisting, interlocked sections of exposed steel. Shrouded in thick, evil smog, the structure looked thoroughly menacing as it came into view. Literally like a reimagined Death Star grounded on some poisoned planet.

The Bird's Nest National Stadium Beijing

At The Bird’s Nest, January 2010.

Happily, the atmosphere in and around the stadium proved anything but sinister. In fact, the entire place was positively joyous as people frolicked around in the snow.

Inside the stadium, on the pitch, was an amazing winter-themed fun park. Keen to soak up the atmosphere, we grabbed two spectator tickets at the turnstiles and climbed the stairs to one of the highest stands. Below, kids built snowmen and daredevil teens whooshed down hair-raising slopes on their sledges. Elsewhere, there were snowball fights, ice-skating, snow tubing and a maze. 

The Bird's Nest National Stadium Beijing January 2010

Inside The Bird’s Nest.

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

A few days later we hooked up with Richard, Marisa, Marc and Amy for an afternoon at Behai Park. On arrival, we saw that the lake had frozen over. It was utter madness, with hundreds of people skating, tottering around and falling on their asses.

I found myself fascinated by a popular contraption best described as the Chair Sled. This rusty, homemade curiosity was little more than an old chair fitted with a couple of poles for propelling yourself forward. Whoever invented this bizarre vehicle was clearly making a killing, as the chair sled was everywhere.

Frozen lake Behai Park Beijing January 2010

Behai Park, January 2010.

The highlight of these wintry Beijing wonders came with an unforgettable morning at The Summer Palace. Actually, we’d already visited the previous summer. The weather had been fine that day, which made for some beautiful views over the lake. However, this also ensured we had to share the place with what I can only describe as a tidal wave of tourists.

Kunming Lake Summer Palace Beijing.

The Summer Palace, July 2009.

In contrast, our experience that crisp January morning was incredibly peaceful. The entire lake had frozen over and there was hardly anyone around. Just a few scattered locals and the occasional fisherman cutting holes in the ice.

Frozen Lake The Summer Palace Beijing

The Summer Palace, Beijing.

The views across the lake were incredible, thus we were really able to forget about our troubles and lose ourselves for a couple of hours. On the way back down to the entrance gates, we came across an impromptu gathering of middle-aged women. They were passionately singing traditional Chinese songs and seemed proud to have the chance to perform in front of two shivering foreigners. 

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

Traditional singing The Summer Palace Beijing

At The Summer Palace, Beijing.

“Leighton, we need talk,” announced Trudy one morning. She was standing at my classroom door nervously, the weight of the world on her shoulders. Slowly, I made my way to her desk, with absolutely no idea what she was about to say. “I have talked with Maggie” she said, clearing her throat.

“Can we make a new start? I don’t want you leave!”

What a pleasing and surprising development! Oh to have been a fly on the wall during Trudy and Maggie’s conversation. Even now, over twenty years later, I would love to know what led to her dramatic change of heart. I remember feeling so relieved I was barely listening as she assured me how I’d now have “full control” in the classroom. And that she wanted to create an atmosphere of “clear and open communication”.

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Unfortunately, there was an almighty flip side to Tracy’s good news. I still don’t have enough students” she explained. “And the money I pay the agency is so much”.

 “I really can’t continue with two teachers”.

There was a deafening silence as the implications of this revelation sank in. “I’m so sorry!” said Trudy, leaning forward. “But Maggie says she will find S a new school. “Please, don’t worry!”

Within a week S had left MOMA. For a few weeks she found herself stuck in limbo while the agency worked on finding her a new school. Although S put on a brave face, I knew she was disappointed. After all, it had been fun working together, not to mention super convenient with the school right on out doorstep. In the end she was placed at a language institute called Easy English in the nearby neighbourhood of Wudaokou. The school was just one subway stop from Shangdi. So, all things considered, the outcome could have been much worse. 

Short stories from China

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

While S got to grips with her new teaching job, my schedule was heating up with what Trudy called The Winter Intensive. Chinese New Year was coming, which meant a ten day holiday! But first, my normally light afternoon schedule was about to transform into a gruelling eight hours a day for ten days straight. With a holiday waiting at the end of it all, I knew I just needed to get my head down and push on through.

Trudy pulled out all the stops to pile as many students into the winter intensive as possible. In the mornings, I had a reading class with seven year old Max. He loved the books we read, especially the creepy tales. There was one in particular called Strange House that had him howling with laughter.

“Leighton, look! Twenty dinosaurs dancing! Ha ha ha!” 

“Oh!!! Sixteen sharks shouting!! Haaaaaa!!! Fourteen crocodiles creeping!!! Wahaaaaaa!!! I’d never seen anything like it. Max was literally lying on his back clutching his ribs. Tears of laughter pouring down his face as he chatted away to himself. 

English school Shangdi Beijing

Max laughing himself into a stupor.

My favourite winter camp class saw me teach Trudy’s son Happy, his friend Tom and a chunky boy known as Monster Frank. Balancing out the boyishness was Becky, a cute but timid girl who spoke so softly I could barely hear what she was saying. I gave them basic geography lessons in which they learned some astonishing facts. Such as what Europe is, how long it takes to fly from Beijing to London and the names of the U.S. states.

Sub Zero Adventures a short story from China.

With Tom, Monster Frank and Happy.

We also played phonics games and learned how to tell the time. In a bid to get them to memorise body parts, I had them each create a giant poster. Then label the legs, arms, feet, eyes, ears and so on. The boys all drew hideous drooling monstrosities. Becky meanwhile produced an endearing self-portrait that she was clearly very proud of.

English training school Shangdi Beijing

Becky showing off her body parts poster.

Towards the end of the camp, Trudy started badgering me about clothing vocabulary. “Happy’s knowledge of the wardrobe very poor!” she grumbled. “Please, can you help?” The next day I wheeled in a suitcase from home and we had a big dress up session.

“Monster Frank, put on the green and white sweater”

“Happy, take off the black and grey scarf”.

English training school winter camp Shangdi Beijing

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

My most challenging winter intensive class was a one-on-one course with Trudy’s nephew, James. Before we met, Trudy told me that he was an eighteen year old boy who “really dislikes English!” Despite the fact that James could hardly string two words together, Trudy insisted we work from an upper intermediate Trinity course book. From lesson one it was obvious that he was completely out of his depth.

“What’s your name?”

“I fi thank you”.

“No, your NAME. I’m Leighton, and you?”

“Me nay is James Bond”. 

Ridiculous English names in China are par for the course. Over the years I’ve had students called Banana, Planet, Chocolate, Spiderman, Kissy, Gawain and Nemo, to name but a few. Nevertheless, James Bond still stands as one of the silliest. Especially from a so-called adult. 

Teaching James Bond English school Shangdi Beijing

With James Bond, January 2010.

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

Over that nine day stretch, James and I spent two hours a day together and it nearly killed me. There were so many misunderstandings, even with the most basic of questions and exercises. His pronunciation was so poor at times it rendered him incomprehensible. Furthermore, the poor guy had zero capacity for remembering new vocabulary or verb conjugations.

On so many occasions I had to resist the urge to say “We meet again Mr. Bond”. Or to say that page 35 was “for your eyes only”. In any case, he wouldn’t have had a clue what I was taking about.

Teaching James Bond English training school Shangdi Beijing

Mr. Bond.

Making little to no progress was exhausting, but slowly we did build up a camaraderie of sorts. Through long, painfully confusing fragmented conversations, I learned that he wanted to be a policeman and that he was a fan of Kung Fu movies.

“I love Orry Hebber!” he told me one afternoon.

It took us ten minutes of farting around on Google for me to realise he was talking about Audrey Hepburn. That same afternoon, I also discovered that Mr. Bond’s main passion was art and that he had a special talent for Japanese Manga. Each day he brought me a selection of his sketches, which were really impressive.

He also revealed how his mother was forcing him to learn English. And that she disapproved of his artistic side, calling it “a waste of time”. In our final lesson together, he gifted me a drawing he’d made especially for me. It was a Manga version of himself looking sharp in a tailored suit. He even signed it James Bond in his squiggly handwriting.

The Chinese James Bond Shangdi Beijing

James Bond by James Bond.

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

I was so relieved when winter camp finally finished. In keeping with the wintry vibe, S and I booked a four-night stay in Harbin, a city in China’s bitterly cold northeast. We’d timed our stay for Harbin’s world famous International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, one of the world’s most impressive winter festivals. 

The flight over from Beijing was a brisk one hour and forty minutes. When we stepped out of the airport into the late afternoon air, it was minus twenty degrees! Thankfully we were fully prepared, with woollen socks, gloves, scarves, sweaters, hats and long johns.

Sub Zero Adventures a short story from China.

Little Fir Youth Hostel: an authentic shit hole.

We had booked into Little Fir Youth Hostel that first night. But oh lord what a horrible, horrible place it was. We knew it was going to be crap the moment we saw the filth-ridden welcome mat at the main door. Then, we had the displeasure of meeting the dreadful prison-warden-woman at reception. Neglecting to even say hello, she proceeded to rudely demand my ID, before bitterly arguing with S about the nightly rate.

Our worst fears were subsequently confirmed when we opened the door to our shitty room. The radiator was broken, needless to say, and the floor was thick with dust. And then there was the bed, with its plastic sheet for a mattress, under which sat a layer of soggy cardboard. Wordlessly, we checked out the following morning and booked ourselves into a four-star hotel on Zhongyang Street, Harbin’s main drag.

Little Fir Youth Hostel Harbin China

Little Fir Youth Hostel. Just say no.

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

Switching accommodation proved to be a fantastic decision! Following smiles at reception, a brief but wonderful nap and a hot shower, we set off on foot for the Ice Festival. Making our way down Zhongyang Street, we eventually found ourselves at The Songhua River. And… surprise surprise… the entire thing was frozen!

Having become quite the specialists in navigating frozen waters, I thought what the heck, let’s add one more to the scrapbook. Freezing cold, but with a touch of warmth on our faces from the afternoon sun, it took us thirty minutes to reach the other side of the river. 

Frozen Songhua River Harbin China

Crossing The Songhua River on foot.

On the other side, we saw a sign pointing us in the direction of Sun Island, a huge recreational zone that housed the Ice Festival. Following the route, we crossed a bridge, passed some cute penguin topiaries and stopped at a photogenic piano sculpture. After a while, the road straightened out and we were treated to some amazing views of Harbin glittering away in the distance across the river.

Piano sculpture Harbin China

Sun Island. Harbin. February, 2010.

It seemed like we’d been walking for ages and there was nothing to suggest we were getting closer. Turning onto what looked like an infinite one-way road of hanging red lanterns and fluttering Chinese flags, we pushed on as the sun sank into the horizon. A sheet of impenetrable darkness rapidly descending. And then the red lanterns flickered into life and we could see the humongous form of a garish pink neon archway ahead.

Harbin China Chinese New Year 2010

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

Welcome to the 11th Annual Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival! 

I’ll never forget that evening. It was like being back at Disney World as a kid. We ran through the pink ice maze, stumbling upon several dead-ends home to snarling ice tigers. Coming out through the other side, we headed straight for the enormous ice-sculpted chessboard, moving tentatively between glacial kings and arctic queens. Elsewhere, there were horse and cart rides, a huge skating rink, snow slides and a five-a-side football pitch with ice-block goalposts.

Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival Harbin China

Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival. February 2010.

And then there were the remarkable sculptures themselves. A breathtaking array of intricately carved formations lit up by multicoloured lasers and lanterns. Designed by local engineering students and carved by around fifteen thousand workers, they really were a sight to behold. Among the best sculptures, I recall a tightly-knit pack of galloping horses and a replica of The Empire State Building. I also remember a line of Chinese pagodas and a colossal fairy tale palace guarded by mythical dragons.

Visit Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival China.

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

It was all so fascinating we were actually able to forget about the piercing cold for a while. At some point though, the cutting wind became too much and we took refuge in one of the heated cafe tents. Settling down with coffee and pastries, it was great to refuel and feel the blood pumping back into my toes.

Sub Zero Adventures, a short story from China.

Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival Heilongjiang Province China

Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival.

Huddled around an industrial heater, we reflected on what a tough couple of months we’d had. And how at times it’d been hard for us to justify what it was we were actually doing in China. But for all of Tom’s bad behaviour, Water’s deception, Trudy’s unpredictability and S’s unforeseen ejection, we knew that it was moments like these that made it all worth it! Downing the last mouthful of my gloriously hot coffee, S and I rose, made for the padded tent doors and disappeared back out into the Harbin night.

Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival Harbin Heilongjiang Province China

Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival.

‘Sub Zero Adventures’ is the fourteenth tale of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Memo

    I would have loved to see the summer palace in winter. Oh, and I had a 15 year old girl who chose the name Jesus because Americans love Jesus. T.I.C.

    August 18, 2020 - 2:27 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    Wow! The Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival is stunning! I’d expected just some large ice carvings, but with the colorful lights lit up at night, it truly becomes a magical experience. I have not been to Harbin before, but it’s on my bucket list of places to visit the next time I visit China. 🙂

    August 18, 2020 - 10:43 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Oh that festival is just something else. One of my biggest “shit photos” regrets. The Siberian tiger camp (reviewed on my travel reports) was also an experience that made Harbin memorable.

      August 18, 2020 - 10:51 am Reply

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