Hooray! I’m writing about a real trip for once! What a wonderful few days I’ve just had. I travelled to Harbin, Northeast China’s glistening, bustling, City Of Ice! The Harbin Ice Festival is renowned for its beautifully carved ice/snow sculptures, amazing lantern show and definitely lives up to its reputation as one of the top attractions of China (in January, at least!).
Despite its sweltering summer, Harbin’s temperature rarely moves above zero degrees for six months of the year. We walked right across the wide frozen river, covered in snow, horses and carts trotting back and forth behind us. To the right, a huge suspension bridge, majestic alongside the greyish sky. To the left, we watched a fantastic sunset from the centre of the Songhua River, the rays turned deepest red by the thin haze of smog that surrounded other parts of the city.
A friend had recruited our Chinese guides, his aunt and cousin who had been born and raised in Harbin. The aunt was motherly, knowledgeable and very interested in foreign life, culture and food. The son was crazy about anime, and old English legends. He “likes the swords”. They took us to the best restaurants in Harbin to try Northeast China specialties, 锅包肉，土豆，and other dishes I forget the name of. We ate well. They showed us sights we wouldn’t have considered: the Old Town of Harbin, with Russian influenced architecture (late 19th-early 20th century); the 300m+ Dragon Tower that Harbin citizens paid to build together but aren’t sure exactly why; and the ancient style hutong where we bought pretty candy and I was given a snowflake.
I guess they tried to teach us a lot about the history of the city, but sadly, they couldn’t speak a word of English! There was a lot of nodding and smiling: half formed sentences in Chinese, and so on. I got that many farmers from southern China had moved to Harbin because the earth here is famously fertile. They wanted to make use of it. At the turn of the 20th century, Harbin was colonised by Russians from Eastern Europe, who heavily influenced Harbin’s food, language and culture. In the city there was a replica Russian village, but it was very superficial. Maybe it was built just ten or twenty years ago.
The 27th Harbin Ice Festival was really beautiful. One 300RMB ticket got us into the main attraction: Harbin Ice and Snow World. Here , we found a magnificient collection of ice and snow sculptures, igloos, ice slides and fairytale castles. I particularly liked the Huge Snow Buddha. We climbed the highest ice sculpture, 30m tall, and watched as the lanterns installed inside the sculptures animated , turning the icy landscape into a (to coin a phrase) ‘winter wonderland’ of very exaggerated colours, noises and flashing lights. Which is, of course, in true Chinese style!