Harbin is in the very north of China and inland a bit, along the Songhua river. It is on a parallel north of Vladivostok, Russia. As we fly from warm, damp Shanghai, over Beijing and onward north I can see silvery black mountains like wrinkled taffeta gowns lined with bright white veins of snow and ice in the valleys. Then they give way to more tundra like terrain. And still the roads stretch on for kilometer after kilometer broken occasionally by outpost looking towns. The harsh beauty is mesmerizing. I can watch the clouds build on the windward side of a ridge and dump their cargo of thick white snow on the leeward side of the mountains. I am fascinated by who would choose to live here and why?? Also what do they do for work, for fun, and for food?
We will land shortly and they have announced the current ground temperature is 7•F, much warmer than I had expected, but that is todays high temperature. The joke in my family is that my body runs so cold I wear turtleneck shirts in August. This is an exaggeration, but perhaps not a huge one. My kids keep asking me why I, of all people, chose this trip. I have to say that I am intrigued by all the ice and I figure I can survive anything for three days.
We wore our regular clothes and polar fleece jackets on the plane. I kept looking at our fellow travelers while we were boarding the plane, trying to judge if we were over or under prepared. We packed our winter gear and figured we would get changed in the airport. I thought we had done ok. Everyone else seemed to be dressed similarly to us. We were in a big surprise! As the plane stopped people started pulling down their carry on luggage and pulling out jackets obviously designed for the arctic. I thought we would be ok, all we had to do is get to our luggage in the terminal and we would have our jackets too. Then as the plane parked I realized we were out on the tarmac and just like the old days we took a stair case down, walked a ways, and took a bus in to the terminal. The dry cold wind sucked every bit of heat from our bodies so quickly and took our breath away. Once packed into the bus we shivered quietly and then made the mad dash for our coats in the luggage.
We had a guide and a driver with a heated van 🙂 waiting for us. They took us to our hotel in the center of the city. Once checked in we added more layers of thick long johns, hats, neckies, ski gloves, two layers of socks, and headed out for a tour of the old part of the city. The historic street has several buildings which are very influenced by Russian architecture and are quite lovely. This is unusual for China as many buildings were knocked down or otherwise destroyed during the cultural revolution. Also, just culturally, the attitude is old is bad and new is good. The sense of historic preservation really barely exists here. There is one very old and very beautiful Eastern Orthodox church which is now a museum of architecture. We were on a tight schedule so we did not go in it. According to our guide the military destroyed much of the inside during the cultural revolution so much of the beauty is on the outside anyway.
Along the historic street there were several small ice sculptures which were pretty during the day but really great lit up at night. The day time high hovers around 5F and goes down to -20F during the night so there is no fear of melting sculptures. This is a cobbled pedestrian street which is lovely for a stroll.
Saturday we were up and out to see the Sun Island Snow Park with amazing snow sculptures. They actually use snow machines to create huge blocks of compressed snow out of which they build amazing sculptures. They start work on the park in mid November and, according to our guide, are largely done by the end of December. At this park they also had dog sled rides, an ice slide, and go carts out on part of the frozen river. But we did not do the rides here. We were enjoying the snow park sculptures and walking around. After two hours we realized that we were loosing the feeling in our toes and fingers. We popped into a tea house and had a pot of tea and enjoyed the warmth. The main sculpture is huge, about 5 or 6 stories high. Our guide told us that while the smaller sculptures are allowed to melt naturally in the spring (March or April) but the larger sculpture has to be blown up. The kids want to come again to see that!
Heading back out around 2:00pm the sun was already starting to hang low in the sky so we headed over to a different part of the Songhua river to watch a ‘swimming show’. This show was really just a group of swimmers willing to dive into a pool carved out of the ice. Crazy in my book. The highlight of this part of the trip were the ‘ski chairs’ and top games as well as the ice slide. Next to the pool there was a man doing a brisk business in renting out ski chairs so we gave it a try. My policy is when in doubt follow the locals and they were right again! The ski chairs were a blast. You use giant ice picks to dig into the ice and push yourself along. Some people had races, some just scooted around, and some took the opportunity to play bumper cars.
The top game was free to try while you waited for the swim show. They were metal tops about 4 inches high and two inches in diameter. You give it a good spin between your palms and let it drop to the ice. Then, using a stick with a cord tied to the end, you whip the bottom of the top and this keeps it spinning. For those of you with younger kids you may know the game ‘bay blades’ which is battling tops- this is an older but very similar game. The kids loved it.
The ice slide was steep and ran out pretty far onto the frozen river. They gave you a plastic mat to sit on so you went flying down and out onto the river. The kids could have done this all day. But it was time for dinner. We headed to a restaurant which specialized in Chinese pancakes (think mushu pork style- not sweet american pancakes). We had all kinds of fillings which ranged from pickled seaweeds to tofu to beef and the best sweet and sour pork I have ever had in my life. It tasted of fresh, crispy pork with a freshly made sauce with vinegar and sugar and fresh ginger – no red dye #2. Sooooo yummy!
As the sun set we prepared for the main attraction to winter in Harbin – The Grand World of Ice and Snow Sculptures. The ice buildings are nice during the day but at night they are lit up by LEDs which change color and make the ice sparkle. Many of the ice buildings had stairs to go up (and down if you wanted to) but ice slides to take the fast route down. Everything was made of ice. There was no support structure that I could see. Just the sparkling ice.
There were extra rides here too but you would have to stand in line for over half an hour and the temperature was hovering around -10F so we opted to keep moving. As a travel tip I would recommend anyone who goes to Harbin go to the ice show once during the day to do the rides when it is less crowded and then, after warming up, go again at night to enjoy the lights. This ice city largely defys description so enjoy the pictures.
We thawed out over bowls of hot noodle soup and crawled into bed under warm down comforters.
Sunday we explored the local market and tried some of the local foods. The market was especially hopping since the Chinese new year is coming up and everyone is out shopping for the foods they will need for the holiday. Our guide was very patient and explained many of the mysterious foods. I felt like Anthony Bordain in ‘No Reservations”. After eating our way through the market and picking up a few things to take back to Shanghai we headed to the Tiger breeding park. This park was billed as a place where they breed siberian tigers to release back into the wild. I don’t know what their success rate is but the park, sectioned into several large areas with fences and gates not dissimilar to Jurassic Park, seemed bleak. Maybe it was the lack of snow (there had only been one snowfall in Harbin this year) or maybe it was the lack of educational material (in Chinese or English) but either way I am not convinced of the benefits of this park. I would say it is not worth the time. Spend your time and money at the other parks going on rides or in the great restaurants in town.
The pictures really tell the tale for this trip. I am sorry WP has limited my ability to a video I made unless I upgrade (read spend more money). But I think you get the idea from these pictures. If you get the chance I would VERY highly recommend a visit to an ice festival. There are many around the world.