Post image for Harbin Top Ten: Hard cold reality and ice festival magic

Harbin is a bustling city close to China’s Russian border. Winter temperatures average a punishing minus 20 to 30 degrees. Yet during this time of year travellers from all around the world head there in droves.

The appeal? The annual snow and ice festival. Every winter the city invites people to party amongst spectacular snow and ice sculptures and buildings. Watching the yearly media coverage from Sydney I was determined to see it in person. At the beginning of 2014 I finally did, but the experience wasn’t all magical.

Here are my top ten most memorable moments from the weekend.

1. The overnight train from Beijing

This was my first time in a sleeping carriage. It was pretty comfy! A friend and I shared a four-bed compartment with two others. One was an interesting South Korean photojournalist on assignment at the ice festival. The other didn’t talk much but snored plenty. Either way, I was too excited to be fussy – ho, Harbin ahead!

2. Realising your 57 layers of clothing just might be enough

Rejoice! The piles of money you spent at the discount ski clothing warehouse paid off. I felt like a spindle wrapped in an endless thread of thermal underwear – but at least I managed to walk around outside without turning into a popsicle.

3. Snowball fight fail

Temperatures were so low, the snow just wasn’t sticky enough to make anything with. It was powdery and squishy between my fingers. My heart sunk when I tried to throw a snowball – the intended ice fight of the death was more like flour sprinkle time. So I just wrote my name a billion times with a stick.

4. Harbin haute couture

I learnt that it’s very hard to feel or look attractive in minus 30 degree weather. You’re wearing a balloon shaped jacket, your thermal leggings are making your jeans pull in uncomfortable directions and your nose and eyes won’t stop watering. I have much to learn from Harbin locals. They effortlessly cat-walked around Zhongyang Dajie (the main street) in attractive faux fur jackets or adorable matching face-masks and mittens. I obviously wasn’t from there.

5. Hugging an arctic fox (who hates you)

Me: O-M-G, WHAT’S THAT?!!? (My exclamation when I saw the beautiful white arctic fox sitting on a small table outside the ice maze. That’s right, I was thirteen again.)
Me: “Oh, 20 Kuai ($5) for a photo? Ummm… hmm..”
My friend: “Go on, it’s oka-”
Me: “OK, if you insist!!!”…  (Picking up animal) “HELLO sweety, you’re soooo cute and beautiful I’m gonna squish you and take you back to Beijing!”

From her expression you could tell the fox was fantasising about my slow and painful death. Still, best 20 Kuai spent ever.

6. Flying down a mega ice slide on a rubber ring

This massive and pretty steep ice-slide was one of the rides at the fun park built over Harbin’s frozen Songhua river. Our outdoor ice-skating hadn’t delivered top speeds, but this attraction could. I hesitated as I got into the rubber donut realising the potential for dangerous collisions. But before I could reconsider a worker manning the ride pulled me to the edge, and with a nonchalant kick said “hao, zou!”/ “ok, go!” Loud screaming ensued. I survived – and had the biggest grin on my face afterwards. But geez, I hope those guys have third party insurance.

7. Every hot drink establishment with free wifi

Defrost stops every few hours were essential. Entering those heated cafes was like getting a big warm hug. Wrapping your fingers around a hot coffee, chocolate or green-tea salted caramel latte was the perfect way to power back up and prepare to face the freezing outdoors again. Wifi was handy for helping us choose which Dong Bei cuisine or Russian restaurant to try next!

8. Finding Narnia

Yep, it’s real. There’s no wardrobe or strangely attractive half goat-man, but there is a giant snow Buddha and enough ice slides to fill a lifetime. I was so excited I wanted to run around like crazy and climb everything. Freezing? Nah, just a little chilly. Now let’s go check out the castle over there after ringing that massive bell!!

9. Paying a go-between to escape hell frozen over

Do you know the meaning of despair? Despair is being so cold that every movement is painful – it’s wanting nothing more than to retreat indoors as fast as you can to preserve your quickly blueing extremities… then exiting to see a line of THOUSANDS of people waiting to take the same small bus back to the city as you. I almost called my parents to say I love you.

Then out of nowhere: “qu nali? / going where?” – the voice of an angel (or just a guy looking to make a quick buck). After a snap-negotiation with my savvy friend, the exchange of cash and a few minutes waiting on the sidewalk – we beat the queues and were in a taxi. My toes could live to see another day!

10. Seeing the festival lights after nightfall

It turns out making enemies with a fox, ungracefully falling over on ice while standing still and dealing with nightmare crowds was absolutely worth it. I know I’ll never forget that weekend… one where I walked around a real-life winter wonderland. Just magic.

Like to know more?
Get in touch with Katrina or follow her on Facebook, her official CCTV Travelogue blog, Youtube, Weibo, Twitter, LinkedIn or About Me.

I was standing eyes closed and half asleep when it happened.

The carriage heaved to a stop and the weighty metal doors slid open. Before I could react I was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of warm bodies. Shoulders and elbows pushing at every side, I clasped the railing with both hands – desperate not to be expelled by the avalanche of impatient commuters fiercely muscling their way through the doors.

Platform guards aggressively blew their whistles, men shouted and women squealed — but I would not surrender. NO, I — (ouch)— will NOT (argh) let —-GO!

In 30 seconds it was over. I had prevailed and maintained my spot. The carriage set off again and shuffling quiet resumed. Hands still wrapped around the railing, I closed my eyes. There were seven subway stops to go – seven tsunamis of sweat to survive – but for the next two minutes I could relax.

Welcome to peak hour on subway line 1. Welcome to Beijing.

For those who live here what I’ve just described is so commonplace I wasn’t sure it was worth mentioning. But for those who have never experienced anything like it, or those who have never been to Beijing, I think it’s telling.

Besides its history, this city is epitomised by its massive population. Some cities never sleep – but Beijing doesn’t know the meaning of the word. At night in my bedroom I can hear the constant rhythm: people working, driving, walking, waiting… Waiting in the cold for a train home, waiting for a taxi in the dark, waiting for the morning to come again – never completely at rest.

There are as many people living in greater Beijing as people living in the whole of Australia – 22 million in one city. 

So yes, it’s crowded. And no, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I can’t help but see it as an urban miracle – a maddening marvel! And like anything, it just takes getting used to. And three months into calling China home, I think I’m well on my way.


For all the little pains of living here, there are many pleasures. Exploring all of these aspects has been the reason I’ve largely been on a personal blogging-hibernation since I arrived. I’ve been overwhelmed in every way by life here.

 Family and friends have often asked “so what’s life like in China?” and I have always struggled to respond.

Just how can I find the words to reconstruct a world so different to any other I have ever inhabited? Is it possible to describe the dizzying mixture of stimulation and discomfort that’s swept through me almost everyday? Surely some modern dance, abstract painting or experimental soundtrack would do better to express everything I have felt these past three months!

But since I’m fresh out of those, I’ll do my best to find words.

Moving from Sydney to Beijing is like moving from one galaxy to another. Reality seems to be lived on a different spectrum entirely. So many things must be re-learned; place, customs, culture, language.

At the beginning getting anywhere alone is an exciting adventure. Accomplishing the most basic tasks – going to the bank, buying movie tickets – makes you feel like you’re the hero of your own 90s Nintendo game, battling little obstacles, solving problem after problem. The more obstacles I overcome, the more brownie points I give myself. And whereas you’d expect things to become less shiny – less interesting as you progress, I feel the opposite. The more competent I become, the more captivated I am.

I’ve simply fallen for this city: the frenetic energy, the history tucked away in gritty alleyways, the vastness of its avenues and the power emanating from its buildings. I feel at home in the messiness of it; among the people pulled from every corner of China – every corner of the world… the collision of east and west, the butting together of the developing world and the developed.

The whole experience is unavoidable, confronting… visceral. You can only be in it or leave it, there’s nothing in between. That’s why I love it.


Of course, not everyone will feel the same. Perhaps I love it so much precisely because it is so different to what I have known. Certainly most of my Chinese friends don’t see what all the fuss is about… but I think other expats or foreigners here – or those who have ever lived anywhere so far from home – know what I mean.

Growing up in an Asian-Australian family with deep-seeded Chinese values, I considered myself pretty fluent in Chinese culture. But I was wrong. I know much less than I thought I did. There are many more subtle contrasts than I imagined – which I think underpins so much misunderstanding. Sure Mandarin is difficult to master, but language is only the tip of the iceberg.

Just stepping outside my apartment is bound to lead to an educational experience – but I am putting in extra effort. Outside work and the obligatory language lessons I read what I can – borrowing books about the country’s history, or delving into online articles and videos explaining some element of culture.

But the most enlightening lessons happen during conversations with Chinese friends. Many educated in Europe, generously speak to me English because they can speak it so much better than I can speak Mandarin.

 The other night my flatmates and I compared notes about going to school over glasses of wine.

“You never did group work? Never had group assignments forcing you to work with others?”

“No, not really.”

“How about group discussions during class or tutorials?”

“Classes are so large, maybe 50 or one hundred people, you don’t get many opportunities to speak out unless called on by the teacher… Tutorials? We don’t have those at university here. We just have lots of lectures in big lecture halls. The first time I had a tutorial was in university in Britain.”

There are lots of little revelations like that that give reason to why Chinese students are perceived so differently when studying abroad, or just differently in general. That’s just one of a million examples.


One of the reasons I’ve truly enjoyed the transition is because I’ve been surrounded with warm, open and giving people. Friends, colleagues and sometimes strangers – Chinese and from elsewhere – have always been available to give me a leg-up. Whether it’s to point me in the right direction, translate a gym membership contract or to help me work out my washing machine, their patience and kindness has astounded me.

Whenever I’ve returned from the day’s adventures, slightly bruised from some difficult or unpleasant experience, the warmth of my friends has never failed to rejuvenate and ready me for the next little challenge. Whether it’s a sly salesman, horrendous peak hour traffic, or being tumbled about in a sweaty human washing machine — they’re there to listen and make sure I’m ok. That really makes all the difference.


Now that I’ve awoken from my hibernation I hope to be posting more regularly about my life in China – so please keep reading! But keep in mind these posts are strictly not work-related. If you’re interested in reading about my journeys with CCTV Travelogue – the English-language television program I work for as a presenter – please check out my official CCTV blog here ( represents my thoughts only, and not those of my employer.)

Phew! Ok now that I’ve gotten those initial unwieldy feelings out of the way I promise to fill my next posts with some concrete things I’ve been up to.

FOR EXAMPLE, do you know what its like to climb a castle made completely of ice? Well I do, and in my next post I’ll tell you all about it :) For now here’s a teaser pic I took during the experience…

Like to know more?
Get in touch with Katrina or follow her on Facebook, her official CCTV Travelogue blog, Youtube, Weibo, Twitter, LinkedIn or About Me.

“We, who with songs beguile your pilgrimage -
And swear that beauty lives, though lilies die.
We poets, of proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why.”

Storytelling is a phenomenal thing. Stories do two paradoxical things at once: make the world bigger and make us feel less lonely in it. Journalists have been called many things – hack, newshound etc. – but I will always prefer storyteller. Journalism is both a service, founded on integrity – and a craft, requiring artfulness and innovation. At a time when content is king and time is short compromises are often made – but at it’s heart I believe this is what it is, and that is why I love my job.

2011 SBS journalism cadets

My first day at SBS with fellow 2011 cadets, and one of our shorthand classes.

For almost three years I’ve had the honour and great luck to work at the Australian public broadcaster of Seven Billion Stories, SBS – and what a ride it’s been!

Since 2011 I’ve had the opportunity to report on cultural diversity initiatives and unpack debates about racism and discrimination. I’ve walked seedy underage sex hubs abroad and investigated horrendous ‘invisible’ assault in our own backyard. I’ve stumbled cloudily into the newsroom some mornings – only to be handed a cab charge and speedily ushered back out the door to fly to the day’s politics row, disaster scene or scientific conference – barely enough time to grab that crucial coffee or comb my hair.

Week after week my world has expanded – and through the patience, support and encouragement of brilliant seniors and colleagues – so have my abilities and confidence. I’ve learnt how to cope with intense pressure, deal with undue hostility and recover peace after failure.

Look mum I'm on TV! On-camera as a cadet reporter 2011

"Look mum I'm on TV!" On-camera as a cadet reporter during 2011

Above all, I’ve been constantly surprised by the capacity of people to reach-out to others. Touched by their trust in our crew and I, after just one conversation, one meeting or one phone call – inviting us into their offices and homes, explaining their passions, hopes or painful pasts.

And now begins a new adventure.

In a few days I will pack my bags, fly to Beijing and take up a role with CCTV English’s travel program Travelogue. Still telling stories – but differently – as one of the show’s hosts, traversing across China and perhaps beyond, to help explain the story of one of oldest and most dynamic cultures in the world. It’s what a good friend described as a “sabbatical from hard news – but no less a real education.

A career highlight: winning 'Best Investigative Story' at the NSW Premier's Multicultural Media Awards earlier this year

A career highlight: winning 'Best Investigative Story' at the NSW Premier's Multicultural Media Awards earlier this year

I can’t wait for the challenge, but saying goodbye to SBS – even for now – will be far from easy. Raised an awkward Third Culture Kid I’ve always loved the national broadcasters tagline “news from home, if you live in the world.” SBS is a cosy, collection of colourful characters – passionate professionals from all over the place – with open minds and diverse backgrounds. Together we’ve laboured long hours – learning, laughing and (when possible) lazing around. I can’t express how grateful I am for the opportunity to be allowed in there, feel at home and be paid for it!

Graduating to live television: the first live two-way broadcasts of my career at the beginning of 2013

Graduating to live television: the first live two-way broadcasts of my career

Equally I am thankful for everyone I’ve encountered outside the newsroom – those I’ve interviewed, those who’ve gotten in touch with me about my work and via social media walked alongside me – partaking in my best work and bloopers alike. Although I won’t be on the same side of the equator I will try to continue to document and share my experiences along the road – and hope those who have been keeping across my stories, either through my blog Diversity Diaries, Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, will continue to do so.

So wish me luck! This new gig may mean moving to a different country, speaking a different language, working different deadlines, and presenting in a different style – but I have no doubt the stories will be just as challenging to tell and colourful to watch. I’ll keep you posted.

Other 2013 highlights: hosting the Independence Day festivities for the Sydney Filipino community and being a finalist in the Walkley Young Journalist of the Year

Other 2013 highlights: hosting the Independence Day festivities for the Sydney Filipino community and being a finalist in the Walkley Young Journalist of the Year

Like to know more?

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