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.
Disclaimer: although it’s day two of my reportage, it’s technically still day one of my trip to Harbin. But with all of the crazy things to do around this lovely, blustery little town, I figure today warranted at least two days of coverage, if not more.
After my morning activities, I had decided to spend a few hours resting in the warmth of my hotel room, and then left for the lantern festival a little bit before sundown. My original intention was to walk through Stalin Park (斯大林公园), an austere, tree lined promenade that runs along the side of the river, on the way there. But I didn’t quite make it: as soon as I got to the riverbank, I became way too curious about the festivities on the frozen ice. After all, you can walk along a tree lined path any day, but how often can you see snowmobiles blowing across a frozen river?
It was cold on that river, and i mean it. I’ve already talked about how cold it is during the day, but once you’ve experienced Harbin nights, you stop complaining about the days. Sunlight makes this place practically tropical in comparison. I’ve been wearing a scarf around my face to conceal my identity lest someone recognize me and blow my journalistic cover (ha, ha, okay, it did happen once though, I swear), and after about a block of walking, the moisture on my breath condenses on my face to the point where I have to wipe my brow, and by the time I actually reach my destination there’s a thin crust of ice on the top of my scarf. It’s intense. If you’re planning on walking around town, your best bet is to carefully choose a hotel that’s centrally located, or just take cabs everywhere
(By the way, if you’re considering coming here, I would highly advise staying at the Songhuajiang Gloria hotel. It’s probably the best location in town: I haven’t had to walk for more than fifteen minutes to get to any destination I’ve wanted to go so far, and it’s not too shabby to boot. That being said, make sure they don’t give you a room that ends in the number 40. It literally takes me about fourteen turns and two minutes to walk to my room from the elevator. In fact, I’d suggest trying to avoid any rooms ending between 30 and 50, but definitely avoid 40. It’s a bad number. Plus, If you say it in some Mandarin dialects, it sounds kind of like death doubled over, which only furthers my point.)
While I’m talking about the weather, there’s another phenomenon worth discussing that I’ve noticed around town. People drive slow, and i mean very, very slow, as if they were in a retirement home parking lot. Naturally, it’s because of the ice, and as I have yet to see any cars actually equipped with winter traction gear, I imagine Harbin could easily be awarded the nickname “Spinout City.” You would think this would perhaps make for less accidents, you say? Wrong: cabs and cars still come within incredibly close, horn honking distances of each other- it just happens in slow motion.
Anyway, I made my way down the treacherous, snow covered steps and out onto the ice of the Songhuajiang (松花江), and boy was it a spectacle: horses, carriages, snowmobiles, tube slides, those indescribable sit down ice skating devices that kind of look like cross country ice luging, and a whole assortment of other activities. There were street (ice?) peddlers selling cotton candy and hats, a small snack shack constructed on the ice that made all sorts of hot and cold food, and best of all, a dj booth which blasted dated techno hits loud enough to deafen people within half a kilometer.
After packing all sorts of warm clothing for the inevitable freeze, I stupidly forgot to pack any sort of warm footwear, and have been stuck wearing my lovely, canvas thin converse across the icy tundra. Bad move, in general: the only mildly redeeming part about wearing them is the lack of traction, which made sliding around the ice pretty fun. After a number of photo ops with locals and tourists, I decided it was about time to get off the ice, but then I saw them: lines of German Shepards tethered to little ice chariots, waiting to mush around the ice for only a few measly kuai. If you’ve ever seen me drunk, you’ve probably heard about my love for dogs, and maybe if i was really skunked, I would’ve brought up my lifelong fantasy of dog sledding. Needless to say, I just had to do it, and it was a blast: I laughed the entire time, even though it was only for about two minutes. Still, totally worth it.
Finally, I made my way off the ice and towards Zhaolin Park (兆麟公园), where they host a smaller ice festival than the grand one across the river. As I had head this one was crappier than the others, I was just mildly excited, but as soon as i I got to the ice castle gate surrounding the real gate, I let myself go. I bought a ticket, and ran into the park at its west entrance, where a gigantic lion snow sculpture something out of the opening scenes of Aladdin greets all the guests. And as I passed row after row of ice and snow sculptures, this deep contentment settled in: not many people have the chance to see something like this in their lives, and the enchantment I felt can only be likened to a child’s first visit to Disneyland. Feel the magic, you know?
This simile was only further hardened when I came upon Aladdin’s palace made out of ice. Seriously, it was the palace out of the movie: it even had a picture of Aladdin and Princess Jasmine on both sides, and a snake staff ice luge next to it. You could also tube down the side of the palace, which was extra fun, even though I probably was too large for the intended audience. Park attendants in pink bows and mickey mouse ears greeted my winter enthusiasm with laughs and smiles, which only fed to my enthusiasm.
After passing a whole row of Mickey Mouse statues from different eras, I….wait, Mickey Mouse? It suddenly dawned on me that pretty much everything I had seen so far was somehow Disney related: The palace was a giveaway, and I realized that those snow sculptures I had been admiring kind of looked like Ariel from The Little Mermaid to boot. Sadly, I still didn’t quite process that it was the Disney Harbin Ice Festival until I saw the princess castle, with pictures of every imaginable Disney princess inside. Okay, I guess I could have just looked at the ticket stub when I bought it: I blame my ignorance on my enthusiasm, and mild frostbite.
Once I realized it, it was too obvious to miss: there were Ice mouse ears everywhere, small figurines from every iconic Disney cartoon ever, and even a part of the park where they wrote out in lights “Mickey Park.” I could have probably saved myself some personal embarrassment had I just turned left at the entrance and seen that first. Best of all, they had turned a temple complex into a Disney store (tacky?), with televisions, more statues, and a ton of things to purchase. But after staring at the off-blue mickey plush dolls and remarkably Japanese animation looking Pooh bears, I began to wonder whether Disney had anything to do with the “Disney Festival.” I’ll probably always wonder about that.
After a good long time in the snow, I decided to retreat back into the warmth of my room.Back at the hotel, I suddenly found myself feeling the beginnings of fatigue from my twenty nine hour journey the previous day. I think you call it jet lag. I decided to nix the nightlife, and just go get some food. After some research (i.e. finding what was recommended online within a few block radius, I settled on Lao Chang’s Spring Cakes (老昌春饼, 道里区中央大街178号), a chain around town that serves traditional Dongbei food in a manner pretty much identical to Beijing Roast Duck.
Here’s the dish: you sit down and order dishes and beer like at any Chinese restaurant, but this one comes with your chunbing, a crepe-like wrap, as well as a special brown sauce and onions. Apparently, their specialty was an omelet (yeah, just eggs), so I ordered that, and some vinegar-sopped vegetables with meat bits to stuff in my large spring cakes (does that sound inordinately dirty to anyone else?) Oh, and a Harbin Beer, of course. I love Harbin beer so much that I try my best to drink it no matter where I am in China, and it’s been awesome to see so many different varieties of it around town: even the 2.5 kuai large bottles are notably better than other Chinese beers.
I wasn’t expecting much from what looked like it should be breakfast food, but frankly, it was pretty delicious. And with the amount of food I ate and had leftover, I pretty much had no choice but to go back to the hotel and succumb to my full stomach, and the wonderful, soothing sensation of finally being warm for the first time since I had gotten out of bed.
Tomorrow should be a good day: I’ll be heading to the actual International Ice Festival, which should blow my mind, and I’m thinking of tracking down the Harbin Brewery before that to give me liquid courage to brave the cold. Wish me luck!