When the list of recommended travel essentials includes a ‘small flask of hard liquor’, you know you are either in for one hell of a party, or going to somewhere cold, very cold… In my case, it was the latter, although a party would definitely be on the cards too!
As if the frosty temperatures of Hangzhou and Shanghai were not chilly enough, I decided to check out THE Chinese winter destination of Harbin, located in north-eastern China and sandwiched between Russia on the East and Mongolia on the West. In the firm grip of the icy Siberian High anticyclone, Harbin winters are cold and dry and average day temperatures hover around minus 18. Definitely a case of getting the extra layers and winter woollies ready to brave some serious subzero mercury… and of course packing generous supplies of hand warmers, foot warmers, body warmers, balaclavas as well as not forgetting the recommended ‘small bottle of something strong’ to add that shot of instant heat!
For the last thirty years, Harbin has hosted the Snow and Ice Festival, an extravaganza of snow and ice sculptures, which from mid January until end February attracts an avalanche of visitors to revel in the impressive accomplishments of its designers and artists. Starting in mid-December, massive ice blocks hewn from the nearby frozen Songhua River, are sculpted into awe-inspiring buildings and monuments of different architectural styles. Compacted snow is carefully and delicately carved into grandiose and mind-blowing statues. In fact, in matter of a few weeks a small city fashioned out of ice rises up providing not only spectacular views for the visitors, but also a range of fun activities. Adults and children alike spill from the ‘castle doorways’ on massive slides; a ‘cycle lane’ is brimming with ice-adapted bicycles; there are areas for ice hockey games… Awe-inspiring by day, the park transforms at night when the millions of LED lights meticulously threaded through the ice blocks are lit up and set the ice city aglow.
Although most of the sculptures are found in the ‘Ice and Snow World’ and other dedicated parks, plenty of other statues and creations are dotted around the town. An intrinsically carved train engine stands proud in the pedestrianised main street and a huge ‘frozen chicken’ heralds 2017 as the ‘Year of the Rooster’.
But Harbin is not just a destination for spectators and offers plenty of opportunity for action. Whereas I had to give the ski slopes a miss on account of my knee (and probably the fact I was never any good at it in the first place…), there was plenty to keep me busy. The ten-minute long husky ride (which included a full five minute photo shoot) and two circuits on a quad bike on ice set us back more than two hours on the slopes would have cost… We were in ‘tourist land’ and the locals had definitely cottoned on how to make the most of it.. Although to be truthful, after just a short spell of thirty minutes outside, we were pretty glad to escape to the indoors and warm our hands, toes and noses..
More fun was to be had on the Songhua River, frozen solid in midwinter, and turned into an enormous playground at festival time. Biking, skating, miniature tanks, ponies and even 4x4s set revellers spinning across the Songhua’s frozen surface.
And of course, there were those who literally preferred to take the plunge in the outdoor pool, cut into the frozen river… Whereas the onlookers on the sidelines were carefully wrapped in thermal layers and covered with heat packs and heat patches to defeat the cold, the swimmers – mainly Russians – appeared from their huts, scantily clad in bathing suits and bikinis and charming us with displays of bravado before, elegantly or otherwise, diving into the icy water… Not for the faint-hearted, but after prancing around in the minus 15 air temperature, maybe the water felt pleasantly warm and none of them swam more than a few strokes before retreating back to their saunas … I do not know, because – to be honest – I was not that keen on finding out… Some boxes do not need to be ticked…