At every turn, Harbin kept surprising me.
This frozen city, far up in the northeast — a stone's throw from Russia ... ish — was not at all like I expected.
(Though truthfully, I had nothing to base my expectations on. In preparation for our trip, I had purposefully avoided all online searches of Harbin. Manfriend had been there before, so he was left to sort out the details.)
"So what was it that you imagined?" Manfriend asked, voiced muffled by his wrapped-up face, his glasses permanently fogged up.
"I don't know," I said, side-stepping a woman swathed in a massive fur coat, "but it wasn't this sprawling, European-esque, frozen metropolis."
Before we landed, here's what I knew:
There was an ice festival.
It was cold.
And so I expected a tiny city, a little worse for wear being located so far north. I figured, as most tourist attractions are in China, that the ice festival would be a gaudy, over-the-top mess with no more than a few ice sculptures and dozens of corresponding souvenir shops.
So while I was genuinely excited for the trip, it was more the time with Manfriend I was looking forward to.
But as I've already mentioned, I couldn't have been more wrong.
I mean, yes, it was cold, reaching -4 degrees most nights, and a balmy 9 degrees as a high.
And yes, there was an ice festival.
The world's largest winter festival, as it turned out, boasting dozens of massive ice and snow towers that could reach about 150 feet in height. After a short drive out, we arrived as the sun was still setting, the towers' lights only just flicking on. By 4:30 p.m., it was dark, and I could finally appreciate why this festival was a big deal.
Sure, it was a little much sometimes. But when you're dancing with your partner in a frozen, neon-lit ice castle, you don't care. You're on a touristy high that almost keeps the biting winds at bay.
The city itself was a brilliant cultural clash. Its history, built with strong Russian roots more than a century ago, was all around. Stunning cathedrals and domed rooftops stood in strange contrast with Chinese characters on shop signs. We'd emerge from heaping mounds of classic Chinese cooking only to walk home along cobblestone streets lined with classic European architecture.
... And then bump into someone taking a typical selfie in front of a massive advert.
It was a city that felt nothing like China yet absolutely was.
We laughed and loved our way through our overly crowded adventures, ringing in the new year in our cozy, warm room.
And while I love a good resolution, I'll bet 2019 will be a lot like this trip.
So while I could guess what's ahead, I know I'll end up surprised. Hopefully in a delightfully lovely way.