As our travelsmith finds out, an icy winter in the capital of China’s northernmost province is no match for the resilience of the human spirit.
Words & Photography: Jessica Palmer & Steve Langguth
Are these people crazy? I shake my head in amusement as I watch another man dive into the pool. This would be quite a normal scene in any other part of the world. However, this is Harbin and it is currently -10 degrees Celsius. The ‘pool’ they are jumping into has actually been carved out of the frozen Songhua River. To add to the amusement, these men are wearing nothing but skimpy swimwear and slip-on footwear.
I join in the growing crowd, clapping and cheering these brave men along. I start to wonder what other unusual things I will come across today. It doesn’t take long to find out. Within the hour, I am standing in the snow watching a costumed musical parade march past. Flower pot men playing the horns and some kind of purple mushroom character playing drums parade past me, followed by a waving Astro Boy, Tombliboos, Shrek and Sponge Bob Square Pants.
There is a man standing off in the distance with a stoic expression on his face. He is wearing a distinctly Russian-looking beanie, with a young doe-eyed deer standing beside him. The beanie doesn’t surprise me, considering Harbin’s proximity to Russia, and the obvious Russian influence on some of the architecture.
The image seems surreal but once I get past the cheesy parade of costume wearers, it’s hard not to be mesmerised by the powdery snow beauty of this place; and of course by the gigantic size of the snow sculptures that I have come here to see at the annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.
I spend a magical morning walking around admiring these ice sculptures. When I say gigantic, this is no exaggeration. In 2007, a Canadian-themed sculpture was awarded a Guinness World Record for the largest snow sculpture at 200m long and 35m high. The sculptors seem to be influenced by popular culture with huge representations of popular movie characters, religious and political themes and iconic imagery.
When the wind picks up around lunch time, I admit frozen defeat and head towards a cosy-looking hut. The hut is completely covered in sculptured snow; however it’s the door that excites me the most. It has the word coffee written on it in plain English, so I am confident that I will be able to wrap my cold fingers around a hot beverage.
Lucky for me, there seems to be a few of these hot food and drink huts scattered around the place. All of them sell hot beverages, two-minute noodles and the kind of yummy dumplings you can only find in China. The huts are all blessedly heated however, the wash basin water in the public toilets are not. This makes for a painful handwashing experience.
The International Ice Festival, usually officially opens early January, closing a month later in February. The exact dates change year by year due to the weather, which is perfect for building and maintaining a winter wonderland. It doesn’t seem to deter the hordes of visitors that visit Harbin specifically for the festival, including myself.
The festival is held in various parks around Harbin, and ice sculptures are showcased on the main street. I have been enjoying Sun Island Park, which is only open during the day. A scenic cable car ride over a very picturesque frozen Songhua river ensures you arrive and depart comfortably. The same cable car ride provides a bird’s eye view of the frozen river, passing over horse-drawn carriages awaiting passengers, an ice skating rink and various other activities; all taking advantage of this usually flowing frozen beauty.
Back in town, I catch a cab to Zhaolin Park. The ice sculptures on display here are constructed from ice bricks. Whilst quite different from the compacted snow sculptures at Sun Island Park, they are no less amazing. In fact, I enjoy them more as the sculptures themselves have provided a refuge from the wind chill that has set in. I spend hours walking around the park, in, around and through the various sculptures. In addition to the sculptures, there are red lanterns hanging on the snow-powdered trees, and a beautiful snow-covered bridge. It’s a perfect location for an Instagram selfie or two.
When the sun goes down, this is when the true magic happens. The frosted ice bricks are transformed by a multitude of lights, turning the castles and ice sculptures into a colourful winter fairy tale. Even though I am wearing thermals and two extra layers of clothes, without the warmth of the sun, I am uncomfortably cold; so I cut my visit short. I visit again the next morning and it is absolutely delightful as I have the warmth of the sun and the whole place virtually to myself.
Back on the frozen Songhua River is Harbin Ice and Snow World, another main attraction to the Ice Festival. Like Zhaolin Park, this is best viewed at night due to the colour explosion of lights. This park gives off a real popular culture and fairy tale vibe with its ice sculptures. I can’t help but be reminded of Disney’s Frozen movie as I run my hand along the wall of an ice cube castle.
I am pleased to find a lot more facilities here than the other two parks. You can do some shopping, rent ski items and try out the local food.
There is more to do at the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival than just visiting the sculptures, although this spectacle alone makes the visit worthwhile. If you time your visit right, you can witness the grand opening ceremony or see theatrical performances. There are unique activities on offer such as snow biking and ice sailing; or you can always stick with old favourites such as building a snowman, or starting a snow ball fight.
Whilst the temperature in Harbin is freezing cold at this time of year, it just adds to Harbin’s charm. If you embrace the thermals, the thick gloves and the Russian-looking ear flap beanies, you will find yourself having a memorable once in a life time experience. The International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is an event not to be missed.
WHAT TO WEAR
- A coat that is longer than waist length, insulated and windproof
- A beanie that covers your ears (I know they look funny, but don’t worry, everyone wears them here!)
- Snow boots or waterproof shoes
- Winter or thermal socks
- A long thick scarf to keep your neck and face warm
- Insulated gloves (cheap thin gloves will not cut it here)
- Thermals and extra layers
ACCOMMODATION Harbin has a range of accommodation options from budget hostels to well-known 5-star hotels.
GETTING THERE AirAsia has daily flights to Beijing from a number of destinations. Search for flights here. From Beijing, Harbin is easily reached by a 2-hour flight or an 8-hour bullet train ride.
Featured image by marcmooney