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.
In Harbin, where nature does its best to assert its supremacy, you begin to notice the daily cycles quite quickly. The city is in a constant battle with the ice: every morning, the ice pickers have to come out and clean the streets, because if they don’t, the entire city will freeze over. Though it might be grating to repeat daily what will only be undone by nightfall, the inhabitants of this cold city have no other choice. The war between man and the elements is a constant fact for the city in its winter months, and it really makes you stand back in awe at how ten million people deal with such extreme weather every year.
Anyway, on my final day in Harbin, I had decided that I wanted to go see the brewery. After all, I do love Harbin Beer, and I would’ve loved to try their beer at the pinnacle of its freshness. Sadly, though, I couldn’t find the Harbin Brewery. Then again, neither could anyone else: everyone I asked seemed to have never thought that Harbin beer actually has a factory inside Harbin, much less that you can go there. At a loss for how to spend my morning before the ice festival, I decided to check out the Harbin tourism office right off Center street.
As I walked into the tourist center-cum-renovated underground bomb shelter, the attendant greeted me with a fairly perplexed, boding look. I ask her about the brewery, but like everyone else, she has no idea where it was, so I simply asked her if she had any advice on what I should do around town. She gave me a searching look, paused, and then resoundingly said “No!”. The best she could do was give me some “literature” on Harbin, which was even more worthless than her non-response. So, I smiled, waved, and said goodbye, determined to find at least a few things of interest to do on my own.
I decide to walk around and look for something that caught my eye. I had seen a science museum somewhere near my hotel on a map, so I walk circuitously for a while to try and find it. No luck, but I did find a ton of beautiful buildings: at least I had the senseless luck to wander around the old Russian district, which is absolutely gorgeous if you like old architecture.
And finally, thanks to the Russians, I had a payoff. As I walked along the cold streets of Harbin, losing the feeling in my toes, I stumbled across something I’ve never (or very rarely) seen in China: a Jewish synagogue. Of course, the government has since turned the building into (guess what?) yet another architecture museum, very similar to St. Sophia’s cathedral, but with terrible “art” (read: watercolors and touristy photographs) of Harbin. I lamented the fact that Harbin, for some reason, has decided to turn all of its old religious centers into terrible architecture museums: it doesn’t make much sense, and really detracts from the beauty and history of the space. Then again, the synagogue was gorgeous (though recently renovated), and in all fairness, did have a ton of historical pictures and odd relics from the history of the Jews in Harbin. Plus, as it seemed no one else wanted to see the synagogue, I got the whole place to myself to wander around in.
After that, I decided to check out a fur market that I had seen on a map in the center of town. I’ve always wanted to go to a fur market: I’m not a fan of fur for fashion, but in places like this, I can totally understand the necessity of wearing it. More importantly, I’m deathly curious as to what a fur market looks like: I’ve seen animal pelts before, but certainly never en mass like what you would expect from a fur market. Well, in this case, I was disappointed: the fur market was not a fur market, but rather something like a luxury fur department store. Hundreds of dour faced noveau riche Chinese women scuffled around, trying on hundreds of similar fur coats, followed by a small legion of saleswomen. Of course, they were not interested in me at all once they realized I didn’t want to buy anything. So much for my undercover journalism.
I decided it was about time to head back towards my hotel, and prepare myself for the ice festival. First, though, I needed to eat something, and something delicious. I passed by Oriental Dumpling King (东方饺子王, 道里区中央大街39号), which I had heard had good dumplings. I was curious: to me, a dumpling is a dumpling, by and large. But today, I discovered what makes the king’s dumplings so great. I’ll share the secret: its entirely about the sauce. If you habitually bathe your dumplings in just vinegar and la jiao, they’re always come out tasting pretty much the same, no matter where you go. The king gives you that option, but then blows your mind with mustard and mashed garlic as well. Mustard! Garlic! Who knew it was so deceptively easy to make a plain dumpling absolutely delicious?
I thought about why you can’t get mustard with your dumplings everywhere (because you really should be able to), and it determined it must be the Russian influence. The only other time I’ve had mustard like this in china was in a dish of webbed duck feet at my favorite Beijing duck restaurant right outside of Qianmen, and that was definitely Dongbei food. Needless to say, hats off to culinary cross-culturalism! And the price is right: 5 kuai for a ton of dumplings. Somehow, I managed to eat nearly two plates, with the only bad effects being a mild stomachache, and some seriously kickin’ breath.
With my belly full and the sun about to set, it was time to finally visit the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival! But first, on my way to the bus station, I found a small bakery and dairy store that was over a hundred.years old and made ice cream with a “western flavor”. I had to try it, and It was definitely worth it: although the consistency was a bit questionable at points, there’s really nothing like good, handmade ice cream from a local dairy. You don’t really get that in Shanghai, you know?
At the end of Center street, I found a bus that would take me to the festival, and boarded it with about an extra thirty people past any sort of sensible safety point. Even all that body heat wasn’t enough to keep me warm, though: it was a good way to get to the festival, but man, unheated buses in sub zero weather really make your toes feel like they’re about to freeze off. I did my best to think warm thoughts, imagining that I had Home Alone 2’d it back at Pudong International and gotten on that flight to Haikou instead. It sort of worked. But at least the trip was short, and i found myself at the festival grounds within fifteen minutes.
Once you step off the bus and see the towering gates of ice that lead the way to the ice and snow sculpture festival, you forget everything about your devolving physical condition. I timed my arrival perfectly: with about half an hour of sunlight left, the sculptures and buildings began to come to life in brilliant colored lights just as the sun faded the sky into billowing shades of red, orange and Van Gogh blue. I ran around the entire fair grounds, partly from excitement and partly to keep warm. Each and every statue I looked at was bigger and better than the last: there was the Forbidden city next to a Sphinx, who stared off at an ice hedge maze, which led out to an intricate snow scuplture of pouncing tigers that was at least half a football field long. My absolute favorites had to be a pair of Bodhisattva snow sculptures and the ruins of the Roman Coliseum in ice, with a close runner up being a small platform with a large, bronze bell, simply because people loved hitting it with a ramrod.
It’s the combination of the sheer size and beauty of these things that really blows your mind: you can describe them, you can take beautiful pictures, but you really can’t impart anything like the experience of actually being there. You forget the elements, if only momentarily, when you see something as breathtaking as a tower of ice blocks beautifully sculpted. And in negative twenty degree weather, that’s really something.
After about half an hour, I had nearly frozen rigid, and decided to get a Harbin Beer next to a humongous Harbin bottle ice statue. I tried to thaw myself for a while, but it wasn’t much use: once you feel that after-sunset cold, you really lose all desire to go back into the cold. Still, I made one more effort to run around, take another look at the fairgrounds, now enrobed in darkness, and gawk at their majesty. And so, thoroughly frigid, I made my way back out the gates, and back to the comfort of my hotel to unwind before my flight the next morning.
And so that concludes Harbinist: I’m on my way back to Shanghai, happy to return home, but sort of longing to do it all over again. My face is windburnt, and I’m exhausted and cold, but I can only say that Harbin has been one of the most unique and exciting trips of my time in China, and even of my life. It’s the type of trip you realize you may never take again: as I left the fairgrounds, I took one last look, thinking about how this was really a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that thought made those last glimpses of the Ice City all the more meaningful.