This weekend, Shanghaiist Junior Editor Cary Hooper braves the winter elements to bring you coverage of the world famous Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. While he’s at it, he’s going to do his best to slip and slide all over the ice covered city in hopes of finding the perfect tipping point between Harbin Beer-drunk and death from hypothermia, and maybe even a few cultural points of interest. Sponsored by the lovely folks over at Ctrip, the easiest way to find the best fares in China.
Harbin can be a daunting, unwelcoming place for the uninitiated. If you’ve never been, the closest experience I can think of would be a skiing holiday, minus the skiing, lodges with fireplaces, and hot cocoa. Its nickname, the “Ice City,” is telling: most of the city is covered in snow or ice, and if it somehow isn’t, it’s slippery enough from the moist residue that it might as well be. That said, it’s the type of place that greatly expands your horizons, both physically and culturally, which makes for a much more worthwhile experience than your average fun-in-the-sun trip.
It takes a bit of getting used to, of course: as I sat in Pudong’s glitzy terminal 2 for a good four hours waiting for my inexplicably delayed flight (after my fifteen hour flight from New York, mind you), I started to lose my cool thinking about the cold. Checking the weather and seeing that it was a brisk -21℃ in Harbin, I stared with envious eyes as the better part of the passengers waiting at my gate boarded their perfectly on time flight to sunny, tropical Haikou. Eventually, my plane did come, and after landing sometime around 1AM in Heilongjiang’s capital, I waltzed onto the tarmac to find the most barren tundra i’ve ever seen: snow blowing hard and mercilessly off the ground, covering everything in a thin film of freezingness. It makes for a stark first impression, let me tell you.
But Harbin, the lovely lady she is, knew just what I needed to cheer up: as soon as you exit the airport back into the cold, you see the first among many things to cheer you up: a magnificent Chinese gate and pagoda complex made out of ice and lit up like Disneyland at night. I shivered with excitement for as long as physically possible, and then jumped in a cab with a fellow Shanghaier, Andreas, who saved me a bunch of money and heartache by dealing with our taxi driver after he tried to pian us by switching the meter off halfway through the trip. Thanks! In any case, I sleepily found my hotel and checked in sometime around two in the morning.
After waking up in the midst of a dream about being in Harbin (and being utterly confused and disoriented by the fact that I actually was in Harbin) I packed on as many layers as possible, and headed out into the winter. After much research on Ctrip, I had decided to book a room at the Songhuajiang Gloria Plaza Hotel (松花江凯莱花园大酒店): right on the Songhuajiang river across from the Ice festival, and only an underpass away from Harbin’s Center street, it seemed like the perfect base of operations for my tour around the city. On my way out the door I passed through the palatial lobby, and noticed a number of interesting things about it that I had missed in my sleep-deprived stupor the night before: the goldfish bowls hanging from the ceiling definitely take the prize for the most interesting/confounding.
The first thing I noticed was that the feel of Harbin is very different from the rest of the cities I’ve been in around China. Heilongjiang province, in the spectrum of China’s long and fabled history, is a fairly new acquisition: originally founded by the Russian architects of the Trans-Siberian railroad in 1897, the city was a vibrant, eclectic border town, and was only liberated and incorporated into China in 1946 after a ten year occupation by the Japanese. As a result, the city proudly bears its layered history: old photographs, dilapidated Russian buildings, and all sorts of tsotchkes abound, reminding the city of its frontier, melting pot heritage. And it is still very much an international city: my favorite embodiment so far has to be the novelty shop I walked by early in my ventures, straightforwardly named “Russian goods and chopsticks shop.”
Having traveled all over China, you begin to notice the slight variations in souvenir shops is actually a very telling indicator of the local culture: here in Harbin, busts of Stalin and lines of Russian dolls share prominent window space with chopsticks and Maomorabilia. Novelties aside, a walk down Center street (中央大街) will give you the same impression. Center street is the main cultural artery of the city, or the equivalent of Nanjing pedestrian road in Shanghai: it’s a promenade closed off to traffic that boasts all of your favorite Chinese luxury stores.
The main difference, and what makes it special, is that it’s also the heart of old Harbin, and boasts a tourist-map-worthy selection of cultural sights. Gape at historical Russian buildings, shedding their chipped paint from their last renovation in the seventies, as they somehow meld seamlessly into the malls of modern China next door. In fact, the architecture is such a large part of the heritage of this area that, amazingly, many of the new buildings in the city’s landscape reflect the Russian/Western architecture around them. Frankly, it’s a trip to see a Metersbonwe in an aging building with spires straight out of St. Petersburg, or a Converse store within a palatial neoclassical building, bookended by Doric columns.
Being a fan of beautiful, old architecture, I just had to see the St. Sophia Cathedral (圣索非亚教堂), which is only a short walk from the southern end of Center street. The cathedral, built in 1923, is one of the most beautiful sights you can see in town…on the outside. The site, which is worthy of its own open space and a modern structural imitation next door, was once an Orthodox Christian church, but has been turned into something like a history-cum-architecture museum. The interior is lined with a ton of pictures from Harbin’s past, almost exclusively from the “pre-liberation” period, and has some of the best Chinglish museum signs I’ve seen in a while (“Following the complex trails of former days, perhaps you fall into disquieting thoughts…”). In fact, I came as close as I ever have to buying a souvenir at a Chinese museum: it was t-shirt of the cathedral, or “The Palace of Art”, with graphic editing straight off a WWF shirt from the mid-90’s. And to one up that, they have a plaque from the government that says the cathedral is a “model of civilized windows.” Is that all they could come up with?
That said, the actual interior of the museum is utterly gorgeous because it’s so run down. In these times, it’s rare to find things that are so blatantly evocative of their antiquity, especially in China: the past has a tendency to be “harmonized” with our modern concepts of aesthetic beauty, and what ends up coming out is something neither historic or beautiful, but an awkward mesh of the two. And to see the bare walls of a century old cathedral with the original paint and brick exposed is really touching, in a way that the imperial palace or the Yu gardens never can be.
My favorite part of the experience, however, had to be the “Square Pigeons” (广场鸽) outside: it was a little stand with a little lady with a little whistle selling little packets of pigeon pellets. You buy some pellets for two kuai, then she uses her whistle to approximate something like a bird call, and then the pigeons roosting on the cathedral come down and eat out of your hand. Frankly, I don’t quite see the appeal, but the kids (and the pigeons) really ate it up. All I’ve got to say is that those pigeons have a pretty good eye for housing.
Oh, but to just marvel at the architecture is to miss the livelihood of the city unfolding in front of your eyes! Thousands of locals and tourists are constantly sliding across the street’s snow covered cobblestones, regardless of the temperature, and like any good pedestrian street, special foods and regional specialties are available both in stores and on the frigid streets. And of course, the main feature of Center street is the Ice City’s most integral and important feature: ice sculptures.
Although the city is literally lined with them as far as the eye can see, nowhere outside the Ice and Snow festival grounds can you find a more inviting display of beautifully carved ice. And I mean inviting quite literally: children run around the promenade, touching and climbing on the ephemeral artworks as if it was naturally meant as a playground. And in many ways, the ice is a playground: besides the ever present ice slides you can find around town (that are, sadly, only accessible to youngn’s, or those around a meter tall), you can easily slide down to the bank of the Songhuajiang river (松花江) and skate on the ice on something that looks like a schoolchair, ride a dogsled, or even take a carriage ride.
Though I’ve never been a fan of the snow or the cold, I’ve already learned to love it, or at least love watching the people around me who love it. As I walked down Center street in the early morning, dozens of men and women were busy at work chipping the snow and ice from the street all along the kilometer and a half long promenade, kicking up a fine mist of ice and snow that made the entire street glitter and shine in the morning light. It was one of the most ethereal and stunning moments of nature and humanity I’ve ever seen, watching as the city lit up before my eyes.
Anyway, that’s Harbin as I’ve come to see it in the past few hours: I’ve only got a weekend to soak up what this great city has to offer, and with the best part of the trip coming up (the Ice Festival, of course!), I think I’m going to don my winter wear and head back out into the cold wonders for some more!