I’ve spent the last four months in China for my year abroad. We just had a month off for the Chinese ‘winter holiday’ and I chose to travel North, to Beijing and then to Harbin. Harbin is in the northernmost Chinese province – Heilongjiang. If you look at the shape of China as a chicken, Heilongjiang is the head.
Due to it’s location, Harbin (pronounced Ha’erbin) has a lot of Russian influence, visible for example in the Orthodox church of St. Sofia. Because of these links to Russia, many European powers had institutions there, such as embassies. Harbin has also had a large Jewish population, which you can see in the old Synagogue and Jewish schools. To add more to the mix, during the Sino-Japanese war Harbin was at the mercy of the Japanese. So it’s an incredibly varied place, with Chinese, Russian, European and Jewish architecture sitting side by side in the snow. Which brings me to the next, and most famous thing about Harbin: snow and ice.
It’s damn cold up there, during the winter the temperature bounces between minus twenty and thirty everyday. So of course, I had the genius idea of going there during the winter. My god was it worth it though. During February, Harbin plays host to the world-famous Snow and Ice Festival, wherein giant statues and even buildings of snow and ice are constructed all over the city. Because of the freezing temperatures, these icy creations stay whole for the whole time.
I found the tourist infrastructure to be limited, and unfortunately my trusty guide book proved to be not that helpful as it’s three years old. Getting around and finding things out was pretty difficult, though an excellent opportunity to practise my Chinese. We managed to find out that there were three different parks where the main exhibition centres were. The first was Zhaolin Park in the centre of Harbin, the second was the Snow Sculpture exhibition on Sun Island in the middle of the huge, frozen Songhua River, and the third was the Snow and Ice World a little outside the city.
The Snow and Ice Park in Zhaolin was impressive, there was a train of ice, ice slides, a giant yellow ice duck, and the group-ice sculpture competition. This is an international competition, so the standard is top notch. All of the huge Ice works have lights running through them, lighting them up in all sorts of colours. I had a great time in Zhaolin Park, sliding down the slides on my bum and seeing the artistic creations. Though for all it’s uniqueness, it did not prepare me for the incredible Snow and Ice World.
Crossing the bridge to get to the other side of the river and to the Snow and Ice World, I could see a huge multicoloured mini-village, it looked like some kind of fairy tale land. As we got closer we could see that these weren’t just sculptures, they were huge, tall buildings and constructions, covered in lights.
After much pushing to get a ticket, and an argument (in Chinese – very proud) with the guy at the box office, we got in. And wow, I was completely mind blown. The entire entrance was a twenty meter high ice-gate of arches and crenellations. Then you’re inside where you can see a ice-colosseum replica and a huge, I mean huge, tall tower for the ICBC bank which must have been the sponsors this year.
As a happy reminder of the terrible cold, they also had a massive thermometer embedded in a giant tower of ice, displaying the joy of minus thirty. I was so excited and overwhelmed by the whole spectacle though, that I managed to ignore the cold for at least the first half hour, but taking my glove off to take photos proved painful, and very soon I was frozen to the bone. There was just so much to see! They had a Ski-wear fashion show, the individual ice sculpture competition, a huge show on ice skates and up a mountain of snow, ski lifts – so many things! All in this amazing, other-worldly setting of cold and colour.
Needless to say after three hours of walking around the place, I was so frozen I was miserable and all I wanted to do was go and take a hot shower. Even so, it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing. I’m so glad that I managed to brave the cold (I’m not a cold person, give me forty degrees and a beach any day) to see this festival. If any of you happen to be in Northern China or Russia during February, I would absolutely recommend a trip to this festival!
Images credited to Reuters and NBCNews