Given that Harbin, China was once a hub for Trans-Siberian Railway construction, it’s unsurprising that an ice festival is the town’s current claim to fame. How poetic that even today, such a locale remains infamous for its (literally) freezing temperatures.
Truly, Harbin’s ice festival is stunning–particularly its crowing jewel, Harbin’s Ice and Snow World. I feel blessed to have made it there, at least once in my lifetime.
But I’ll be honest–magical as the Snow World was, there are some drawbacks to wandering around in -20°F weather (that’s actual temperature–none of this “feels like” nonsense!) after the sun goes down. Namely, being brutally, numbingly cold. The day after our icy adventure, our group decided to take a break and head to the (only slightly) warmer Siberian Tiger Park.
For me, this site triggered conflicting feelings. Harbin’s tiger park houses roughly 500 Siberian tigers, in both cages and larger, paddock-like enclosures. It was amazing, watching so many of these cats roaming about. It was intriguing, too, seeing their bold orange and black splashed against Harbin’s snow. Blame it on Disney’s The Jungle Book, but I’ve always and only envisioned tigers in rainforest environments. For the first time, it clicked for me why Siberian tigers are called “Siberian.”
But alongside the wonder was a sense of unnatural environment–both for the tigers and the people visiting them.
One of my photos shows tigers (hǔ, for you Chinese scholars) in the foreground and a towering city apartment complex in the background. It was a strange, unsettling juxtaposition–the urban and the wild. And then there were the tall, barbed-wire trimmed fences and soaring cement guard towers overlooking each of the paddocks… just in case. Something about the bleak winter landscape and the extreme containment methods reminded me of my January 2010 visit to Nazi internment camps in Poland. (Not that I mean to equate them–cruelty to people outranks cruelty to animals every time.) But the comparison felt genuine. Large as the paddocks were, there was no attempt to provide the tigers with anything of interest. And the cement cages for individual tigers were just grim. In contrast to the zoo in my husband’s Indiana hometown, neither intriguing landscaping, nor a means of privacy (and egress from ogling humans) was provided. And there’s this fact, too: tigers are by nature solitary beasties (though, fun fact, a group of tigers is called a “streak”). The very act of having so many tigers together in a confined space is unnatural.
It felt more like animal prison than any other zoo/preserve/animal park I’ve ever visited.
We humans also seemed out of place. China has many things going for it, but safety-mindedness is often not one of them. Any quick look at the news (here and here) will point to this; I regularly experience it living here. That isn’t to say the U.S. never has such tragedies occur. But our litigious culture (which I find generally irritating) has at least one positive aspect–it creates a fiscal incentive that motivates responsible parties to make places and activities as safe as possible.
My dubiousness regarding Chinese safety precautions resulted in my heightened appreciation of the tigers’ powerful capabilities as predators. The first half of our tiger park tour involved our driving out among the tigers in paddocks–at quite close proximity–in a van that had seen better days. As we slowly rolled well within striking distance of the cats’ enormous claws and incisors, I kept thinking: “They wouldn’t be letting us do this if it wasn’t safe, right?” Then I’d remember: “Toto, you’re not in the U.S. anymore.”
That’s not to say I was afraid. I was just very aware that if the van did have issues, the scoreboard would read thus: Tigers: 1, Lauren: 0. For all Harbin Tiger Park does to enable we humans to foray out among tigers, we were, nevertheless, the beta animal in that environment. We were in their element and out of ours.
The second half of our visit saw us strolling along an elevated walkway above the tiger pits. All that stood between us and los tigres was one layer of open grid-work and another of thin chain-link fence–nothing so solid or sturdy as zoo glass. When some of our fellow tourists started taunting the tigers with a pair of earmuffs, I had two, simultaneous reactions. Laughter, because the tigers’ response–batting at the muffs–was just so cat-like (an image of our friend’s giant, 18lb house cat comes to mind). And resignation, because I was sure that when that tiger broke through the wiring to avenge this mockery, I’d be the dessert after the tiger finished dining on his tormenter.
Happily, we survived. And all things considered, our version of extreme tiger tourism was fairly tame. For the truly bold of heart, there is the option to purchase and feed a live animal to the tigers, ranging from low end options like a chicken for ¥60 ($9.20) to the grand-daddy of snacks: a live cow for ¥2800 ($429.19). (If you’re feeling blood-lusty, there are some interesting YouTube videos of just this.) This one in particular proved my lack of confidence in the anti-tiger fencing to be justified. That hungry kitty-cat had no trouble whatsoever breaching that first line of defense.
Unfortunately for our tigers, we were cheap dates and didn’t shell out for dinner.
But for all my reservations (pun!) about our tiger park expedition, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. It was strange, unsettling, and a bit more brutal/sketchy than anything I’ve in the United States. But the tigers are beautifully, savagely majestic creatures for whom I now have increased respect and appreciation. I was able to resolve the vexing debate about whether or not ligers exist. (They do, though they’re much less noble-looking than I would have envisioned). And I got to cuddle a baby tiger–a Harbin highlight I won’t soon forget.