We arrived in Harbin late on Friday night, after a flight that practically defied belief and defined discomfort. Thankfully, it was short, if not sweet, and three hours after leaving Shanghai, we touched down onto the frozen wilds. Ok, they’re not frozen wilds. Harbin is China’s eighth biggest city, boasting a population of 10 million people. Every year since 1963 they have held a festival of ice, and it was for this reason that we had made the trip north. And it really is north. Vladivostok, not exactly famous for its balmy summer evenings, lies south east of Harbin which should give you an idea of just how North we are talking here.
I’ve never really known how to deal with, extreme temperatures. I’m from Leeds, and until August last year had lived my whole life in the UK. Now, I’ve done ‘hot’ before. Even arriving in Shanghai in August brought us face to face with 90-100 degree heat and a humidity of 95% and up. On our honeymoon we visited Death Valley and spent a day driving in 120 Fahrenheit so heat wasn’t a stranger to me, but the coldest I’d ever known was probably about -5c. Harbin’s average temperature in mid-January is usually somewhere around -20, with a wind chill factor that makes it feel about 10 degrees lower, so I wasn’t sure how that would feel.
Getting out of the airport and feeling the first blast of cold was like being attacked by a million tiny snakes all at once. I’d never felt anything quite like it; and I wasn’t mad about the idea of feeling it for very long. Fortunately, we quickly got into a well warmed taxi and found our way to our hotel which, to compensate for the sub-zero temperatures outside, had very kindly warmed our room up with a thermo-nuclear warhead disguised as a radiator. This was a kind gesture but made for an ironically uncomfortable night’s sleep in the heat. The following morning, we donned our many, many layers, and headed for the city centre to see what this ice festival was all about.
It turns out, unsurprisingly, it’s about ice. The 20-minute walk into the town centre was a novel experience. The cold attacked us from the outset, but unlike any cold I’d known before that, after the initial shock and awe, it didn’t go away. It changed tack and slowly seeped in to our bones. It was unremitting in its assault and before long our extremities were struggling. It turns out a decent hat, some thermals and a sturdy coat will keep your body and the top of your head warm enough, but your face, hands and feet will need serious attention if you want to enjoy your stay. I tried the first 5 minutes of the walk without my hat on (I hate wearing hats) and proceeded to experience brain freeze from the outside in. Head thumping, I admitted defeat and hatted up. I then realised my scarf had frozen to my face as the moisture in my breath caught on it. An interesting moment, even if I don’t really fancy doing it again any time soon.
Arriving at the Central Street, (imaginatively named ‘Central Street’) we found a cafe in which to warm up. Despite the fact that the ornaments and chintzy curios that lined every surface lent the place the air of a serial killer’s basement in an episode of Criminal Minds, the atmosphere was genial and the waffles were nice. Also, since there were six of us and only one waffle iron in the place, we ended up staying six times as long as we’d planned to and therefore got six times more warmed up than we’d planned. And it was a good job, because after lunch, it was time to cross the Songhua.
The river is massive. Far wider than the Thames, it flows through Harbin and in summer provides boat trips, water skiing and a refreshing dip. Not in January though. The entire river was frozen solid – and not just on the surface. We saw people walking across the ice, which we would have thought precarious until we saw cars and vans driving across it too. People were skating on it, sliding around on it and generally treating it as solid ground, which practically speaking it was. We pondered how best to cross this frozen tundra until we spotted a quad bike attached to some rubber rings, and a friendly looking man beckoning to us. Not quite believing it ourselves, we promptly found ourselves being dragged across the river by said bike, sat in said rings. This was enormous fun, although when the bike suddenly pulled a skid and sent ice daggers straight into our faces, it was a bit less pleasant. We all arrived on the north side of the river looking like we had just had an encounter with a frozen sandblaster; but perhaps it was good for us. Perhaps. It was great fun though, even if I don’t really fancy doing it again any time soon.
Having once de-ringed (and that’s not a euphemism for how scared we were crossing the river) we found ourselves at the entrance to the snow sculpture park. We were all, by this point, doing our best to give the impression that the cold really wasn’t that bad and we were fine, but my hands and feet were starting to really scream. However, the screaming subsided when I saw the incredible, surreal beauty of the snow sculptures.
Set across 14 square miles of Sun Island (ironically named, I presume) the sculpture park features hundreds of snow sculptures varying in size from quite big to thunderously gigantic. The sheer size of some of them absolutely baffled me. Arriving at the edge of a lake (I say it was a lake, but I only know this because the ‘ground’ got slippier and a bit see-through at this point so I presume it’s not always ground) we were treated to the sight of a giant snow sculpture of what I presumed was Genghis Khan, bestriding the horizon. Fair enough, I thought; seems a bit odd to immortalise him in snow, but what do I know? Well, it was meant to be Santa Claus. So, cultural insensitivity class complete, we slid across the ‘lake’ to have a closer look and discovered that not only was it more festive than your average Mongolian warlord, it was also a slide! This was incredibly exciting to me, and I bounded up the stairs with relish. Well, I skidded towards them carefully and then stumbled tentatively up them, but you know what I mean.
The slide itself was very slippy, and inordinately quick. The giant corner at the end hadn’t filled me with any fear until I realised that my little shovel/sledge type thing had no steering mechanism whatsoever and not even a hint of a brake, and so I simply crashed into the side wall and gravity did the rest. My hip is still a little sore even now. It was great fun though, even if I don’t really fancy doing it again any time soon.
After finding another cafe in which to warm up (this time by attaching heat pads to as much of my body as possible and drinking a hot, if utterly formless hot chocolate) we walked further round the park. The scale of the snow sculptures is unbelievable; the sheer artistry that goes into them took my breath away. I don’t know how they do it, but then maybe that’s part of the charm of it – I probably don’t want to know, deep down. It was just utterly stunning, and under the clearest skies we’d seen for a while, the views were staggering.
This wasn’t even the main event for which we’d travelled, but what a bonus it proved to be. By now we were feeling the chill again and so we caught the cable car back across the river and went for dinner before beginning our evening stretch.
The ice festival is held across 600,000 square meters outside the city, and has to be seen to be believed. In the absence of actually being there, here are some pictures.
The ice is taken from the Songhua by 10,000 workers and transported to the site where it’s cut into ‘bricks’. The sculptures are then built up (over 40m tall in some cases) brick by brick, with rows of specially adapted LED lights laid between each layer. The lights are specially designed not to emit any heat, and proceed to light each structure up in a kind of odd fusion of Vegas and Arundel. There’s a mix of gargantuan ludicrosity in the main buildings and beautiful intricacy in the smaller sculptures that are dotted around the festival, and at the entrance gate, reindeer give rides on a sleigh to children, lending the whole thing a distinctly fairytale air. It was certainly surreal, as we slipped and slid our way around the vast park taking in the sights and trying to forget that it was so cold you could build an entire city of ice and then happily let people walk all over it. The cold, by this time, was well into its Blitzkrieg against our senses, and there was no end in sight. It was great fun though, even if I don’t really fancy doing it again any time soon.
Shattered and shivering, we made our way back to the hotel and tried to make sense of the day we’d just had. Realising that there wasn’t much sense to be made, we laughed the evening away and retired to our (extraordinarily warm) bedrooms for some well-earned sleep. Walking 7-8 miles on ice will test your legs considerably if you’re not used to it, it transpires.
The next morning as we got dressed it was so warm in the room we genuinely had to open the window to let some cold air in. The air was -18c so it was very cold indeed, but it came as welcome relief since our G-Type Main Sequence Radiator didn’t have a temperature control attached. We spent more time on the main street and having popped into some shops filled with tat of questionable quality (and obviously bought some of it while we were there) we found our way up to Saint Sofia Cathedral at the other end of town. After the Trans-Siberian railway was built in 1903, the Russian Army arrived in Harbin and, presumably in need of a place to rest, warm up, and worship all in one, they built this Cathedral.
At the time, Russians made up 1/3 of Harbin’s population, and so this presumably would have been a very important place to them. It’s not a copy of St Basil’s in Red Square but the similarities in architecture are clear. It has also never been renovated, and so for the very reasonable price of ¥15 you can go in and see it in its original glory. On top of that it now serves as a museum of Harbin’s history, which is as fascinating as it is long. It was a lovely way to finish our trip, and as we made our way back to the airport I felt an odd lingering sadness. Leaving a place isn’t always a sad thing, but leaving somewhere so oddly idiosyncratic as Harbin, in the full knowledge that you will probably never go back, is something different. We were only there for about 36 hours, but they gave us all memories that we’ll never forget.