Life in Harbin aint pretty, particularly during the coldest days of winter when the mercury hits -25, the wind is up, the nightlife shuts down, and there's nothing to do over Chinese New Year because every local person is heading back to their home town to get drunk on Pieju with their family and long lost Uncle Le.
Social life for many of the expats of Harbin revolves around two funky little places at opposite ends of the good taste spectrum. At Hit 1098 bar (HIT is the Harbin Institute of Technology, but you knew that already) you can drink 4 kwai beer (about 0.70AUD) and eat greasy snackfoods and talk and smoke the night away. It has just the right vibe for cold, homesick expats, and the bar is filled most nights with the crazy characters who are strange enough to call the city home. Flags draped on the walls, bizarre graffiti, a glorious Bob Marley poster peering in on the Smokers Den... this is the sort of place I'd be a regular at, if it wasn't 6,000km from home.
Once Hit 1098 closes, the action shifts to Bluz (supposed to be a cute pun, but like most things at this place, it's lost in translation). As well as providing a chance for expats to test out their funky dance moves, Bluz is the favourite destination of Harbin's significant Russian population. Being just a short distance from the border, and having Vladivostock a fair bit closer than Beijing means that there are plenty of people Russian around. Young Russian women caked in enough make-up to stage their own inpromptu Chinese Opera wander around drinking overpriced vodka and staring their noses down at those Chinese men naive enough to try to practice the art of conversation on them. The latest Russian dance music is pumped through the cheap speaker system, and the shimmering pole in the middle of the dance-floor sees more crotch-action then most of the party-goers ever will.
Those who have made it through Bluz without bringing up their Vodka for a second taste and without enjoying the company of Harbin's finest Svetlanas then head off for a traditional Chinese hangover-prevention - HOTPOT. The streets of Harbin are dotted with 24 hour hotpot joints, most of them doing plenty of business during the witching hours. In the centre of the table sits a gas stove, with a large saucepan filled with spicy broth. As it bubbles away, diners add meat, vegetables and tofu to the mix, letting it sit for a while before diving in with their chopsticks for a Hotpot lucky dip. Normally, people of taste would stay away from hotpot, but these same people jump in with gay abandon, provided there is ample cheap beer on offer. I plead guilty - dispite my previous bad hot pot experience (see The great Taipei Hot Pot Incident of '05 some time back in January) - I experienced the full hotpot adventure, although I pushed the meat to the side rather than trying to exclude it completely, in the true spirit of Chinese vegetarianism.
A strange crowd in a strange city, this truly was a spectacular night out. There's something oddly exhilirating about heading outside after a drunked hotpot and catching a taxi home as the morning sun peeps over the snowy hills. Repeat it night after night, and you've just found Harbin Nirvana.