Thursday, January 22, 2009

Harbin Part Four: Manchuria Tiger Park

Given the treatment we had received the night before, I had no idea what we would be facing with the driver on this, our last day in Harbin. In fact I wouldn’t have been surprised if he failed to show up for work at all. Yet there he was smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper when I left the restaurant.

I went over and sat down and told him we wanted to go to the Siberian Tiger Park, a refuge and home to a rescue program for the Manchurian strain of the Bengal Tiger, whatever the heck that might be. He nodded his understanding and motioned me to join him at the desk. He said something to the desk clerk who translated to the effect of “You have 14 tourist points, do you want to see the Dragon Tower?” Interestingly, Dragon Tower was one of the places I had asked about yesterday and he had feigned ignorance at the time, so either he had done some research or he had overcome whatever agenda he’d been previously working to. I told the girl we would like to see the tigers and if we had time we would like to go to the tower. He met this suggestion with a furious waving of hands and arms that I think meant “The tigers are on that side of town and the tower is on the other and no way am I driving to both.” He had a point, it had snowed overnight and the roads were in a far less than ideal condition. I decided we would see the tigers and head to the airport. One of my companions overheard me and made a face; it seemed they didn’t really like airport food and they wanted to go through yet another round of “find the restaurant” when we were done with the cats. I suggested that they take over if their Chinese was superior to mine knowing that this suggestion usually shuts people right down – they don’t want to lead but they do want to reserve the right to complain about the decisions that get made on their behalf. Right about then I realized that group junkets were a thing of the past from this point forward.

We headed out of town across the bridge passing the Ice City and Snow Exposition one more time. The roads were miserable and on the far side of the river the snow started to come down even harder. I was at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of trying to figure out how our timing would shape up for the day; I’d not been to the Tiger Park and I had no idea where the airport was relative to the direction we were heading. I just sat back and let the dice roll, figuring the worst that would happen would be another night in this forsaken place, albeit possibly at a better hotel.

The surroundings looked more and more familiar despite the poor visibility and the ice on the inside of the windows. Sure enough, as we passed the last edges of the town of Songbei we found ourselves driving by the fish restaurants one more time. The weather had put a damper on the place on this day, it was completely abandoned.

The Tiger Park turned out to be 5 or 10 miles beyond Restaurant Row. We drove in and parked and he took us up to the window for tickets. From there we crossed the lot where the buses stop to pick up the sightseers. We went into a different building – long and low with movie theatre chairs lining the wall. Apparently you wait here until your bus number is called and then you go back outside to the lot. I say “apparently” because my assessment was pure conjecture - if you weren’t being led around by the hand, you’d have little chance of figuring this out.

An announcement was made and the driver took us back outside to the bus barn. It looked as though we were scheduled for bus #8 and of course there was no bus in the space marked as such. Bus #7 was idling empty in the middle of the lot and the driver said something to a guy wandering around who pointed at it indicating that this was our ride. Makes perfect sense, mark the tickets for bus #8 and send us to that empty spot. Then have an idle stranger tells us to get onto #7.

The driver showed up and we shoved our way in, seats with windows were limited and everyone wanted one. I managed to get one at the back and set myself to work drying up the condensation with a wad of tissues figuring that was the only way I was going to get good photographs. One friend grabbed the seat in front which afforded control of a slider in the bars on his window giving us a sporting chance of getting clear shots.

The bus pulled away and we headed towards a double set of tall steel gates. I should mention that the entire place is surrounded by a double row of 15 foot tall steel fences decorated with smiling cartoon tigers holding signs that say “Climb here if you want to get eaten.

The bus stopped and a woman in uniform got on and started collecting tickets. I think it might have made sense to collect them before the people got on the bus, avoiding the problem we ended up having which was 25 passengers with 24 tickets. She walked up and down the aisle counting loudly, apparently hoping that the stowaway would crack under pressure and bolt for the door. As it turned out, the only other foreigner on the bus had wadded his ticket up and jammed it in his pocket. He snapped to the problem, handed it over and we were on our way.

It was an interesting ride, an armored airport rental car shuttle bus careening down high centered dirt roads made completely treacherous by 5 inches of wet snow. I kept seeing the CNN story about a bus capsizing in Manchuria in my mind’s eye. Back to relaxing and letting the dice roll, I figured. If it wasn’t the anti-social driver, it was the daredevil shuttle bus driver that was going to do me in. We passed through several sets of double gates and into Tiger Territory; the place was dirty with them.

Out in a snowy field you really gain a perspective on just how big tigers are, they’re like horses with short legs. We saw dozens of them in repose, walking around, sitting on buildings, growling at the gates, lying on their backs, reclining in piles, getting amorous, I eventually lost count.

We drove on passing through a pride of lions which perked up at the same time, doing that laser focused vision thing you see them do on “Nature.” They must have liked what they saw, because they went tearing after it. They are kept here to support a Liger breeding program and so not were not unexpected. But Lions in the snow are still odd an sight indeed.

We pulled up into an open field and stopped forming an open circle with our bus and two others. A half-dozen tigers lolled about in the center.

Suddenly a small SUV, covered in armor tore into the field and began tossing live chickens out of the back window. The tigers went nuts, jumping up on the roof, grabbing the birds in mid air and running off with their unlucky pals in hot pursuit.
Feeding live animals at a zoo was a new one on me and watching them rip the poor birds apart did not form an endearing memory. The sign I read at the ticket office came back to mind – 700 Yuan for a goat and 2000 for a cow, it seems they bring live mammals out here too if the bus passengers are willing to split the cost. Someone told me they deliver the cow on a forklift and deposit it here in the middle of cats. I sat there thinking about the PETA demonstrations if this was the fare at Busch Gardens.

The SUV took off and we followed passing the cats now smeared in chicken blood. We pulled out of the enclosure, drove down a road and stopped at the entrance to a raised walkway that wound its way through pens holding the tigers not lucky enough to be outside playing.

And here it got very interesting; again there were dozens of cats lolling about doing cat things including sleeping in big piles. At an intersection in the pathways, a woman stood selling chickens from a cage. Another opportunity to enjoy the spectacle if you missed it on the bus ride. 40 Yuan for a bird and there were many takers including a little American girl of about seven who ran around yelling “Daddy, daddy, buy me a chicken.” Her family finally decided on a 5 Yuan strip of beef which their 13 year old was given the chance to feed. She held it with dinner roll tongs through the protective screen and a cat jumped perhaps 15 feet in the air to grab it. That was an amazing thing to see - a 500 pound, 10 foot cat leaping straight up in the air.

The girl had put her hand too close to the fence and her father told he so and in true early teen fashion, she threw a fit and mouthed off to which her mother said, “No more money for you!” Ah, my Fellow Americans.

Some people had decided to go for the whole bird and so the chickens were attached by their feet to bamboo poles and dangled out over the tigers which milled around trying to decide who was cat enough to make the leap. A few had a half-hearted go at it to which the person doing the dangling would raise the bird up, just out of reach. It was not at all unlike teasing Fluffy on Christmas morning with her new catnip toy except that the chicken had a lot more invested in this game. One big cat finally connected and made off with the bird. I’d hoped that the chickens went quickly, suffocated in the jaws of those big brutes but I was quickly disabused of that illusion when I rounded the corner and saw the cat stretched out, holding the still alive bird in its massive paws, pulling out one feather at a time. I’d had enough, it was freezing, the weather was getting worse and I couldn’t witness any more animal abuse. This morning had pretty much cured me of my bad feelings about sending that big fish to the pot the day before.

I asked our driver how long to the airport and he claimed 2-3 hours so I told him to head off. The ride was cold and a bit bleak and the only excitement came from a few minor wrecks on the airport expressway, people going far too fast on these slippery roads.

The team members brooding over their denied lunch snapped to when it became obvious that we were going to be able to get an earlier flight and pull in our arrival time by three hours. Sometimes the good comes with the bad and I felt a tiny bit redeemed although I doubt I got any brownie points for delivering us to this point. We said goodbye to the driver and someone handed him a 20 for his trouble. I imagine he went home and told all manner of tales of horror to his family.

We made it through security, some of the boys bought beers and smoked sausages at an oddly placed butcher shop (considering that this was an airport) and waited. Our flight was a bit late but we made it home far earlier than we would have. My ride from the airport was a nice cap on an otherwise interesting weekend. Big arches of lights were draped across the roads and fireworks could be seen out both sides of the car for the entire drive home. A little early New Year’s celebration and a nice coda for me.



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