Just over two years ago, sat in a cafe somewhere in Cambodia, Leighton was showing me some pictures from his visit to the Harbin snow and ice festival in Heilongjiang province, China. It looked spectacular, a cacophony of ice, snow and colour with gargantuan sculptures between huge, illuminated buildings forming a mini-city made from ice. I was stunned:
“Bloody hell! That looks amazing! One day I’m gonna go there”
Hence why, in January just gone, I found myself disembarking the plane after the 3 hour flight from Wenzhou at Harbin airport on a sunny but chilly afternoon. As soon as I got to the door the icy air flooded my lungs, and after 3 months of dusty Rui’an air it was refreshing to feel the crisp familiarity of the cold; it reminded me of winter back in the UK. I had no idea the horrors the weather had in store for me at this point, I was still welcoming the change in my surroundings so I took a few deep breaths and bounded down the steps to the bus waiting to whisk us across to the terminal.
“It’s cold” I’d been warned before setting off. I’ve generally never been one to be overly impacted by the cold (quite the opposite, I’m normally the one who’s too hot, knocking about in short sleeves when everyone else is in jumpers) Still, I’d done some research and it was showing that temperatures in Harbin were going to be -17C when I landed so I’d bought my gloves, a sizable scarf and some extra layers of clothing so I wasn’t too concerned: how much colder than -4C or -5C could -17C be?
The cab dropped me off outside the Home Inn (a cheap and cheerful chain hotel) right in the centre of Harbin, less than 50m from one of the city’s main tourist attractions, St Sophia Church. After an unheated hour long coach journey from the airport to the train station and then a 30-minute rigmarole trying to find a taxi driver that was willing to take me into the centre (from what I could gather their reluctance was due to the traffic) I was keen to get inside and warm up before heading out to take a look around. By the time I came back out, wrapped in 4 layers, leather gloves, a trapper hat I’d bought in advance of the trip and my blanket-scarf, the evening had set in and the weather had taken a significant turn. It was snowing heavily and the temperature had plummeted. While the snow made for an exceptional backdrop to St Sophia, it was proving impossible to photograph given every time I took my gloves off to take a shot, my hands went so numb I lost all feeling in them! Deciding to abandon the pictures until the following morning, I set off in the direction I (thought) one of Harbin’s other highlights was located, the centuries old cobbled ‘Zhongyang Pedestrian Street’. After 45 minutes wandering in circles and stopping for directions (twice) I was frustrated, freezing cold and exhausted after the 5am start to the day so I decided to call it a quits and just start afresh the following morning. Unfortunately what I hadn’t counted on was the temperature dropping to -28C. (MINUS twenty-eight!!!)
The second I stepped out of the door that morning, every part of me that wasn’t wrapped up, hurt. No ‘ohh it’s a bit cold, I best try and warm up somewhere’ That was bypassed and just went straight to ‘fuckin hell, oww’. Every time I blinked the ice crystals which formed on my eyelashes would stick together and I had forcibly re-open them to get them unstuck. It was madness, but after abandoning my efforts the previous night I was determined to persevere. After a detour into Starbucks to warm-up (again) and get some new directions I was able to make my way to Zhongyang Pedestrian Street and I was finally treated (briefly) to some of the delights Harbin had promised in my pre-trip research.
Zhongyang Pedestrian Street starts from a south-west from St Sophia and runs north up to the (unsurprisingly) frozen Songhuajiang river across from which you can find the ironically named ‘Sun Island’ home to what is now the worlds largest snow and ice festival. I started up the cobbled road towards the river, but having been outside for around 40 minutes at this point I was suffering. Despite all the layers & gloves I was still really struggling with the cold. I ducked into a nearby shop and bought a second pair of gloves to put on over the first pair but still couldn’t get the feeling back in my hands so spent the next hour inside a well-placed Zoo coffee overlooking the crowds and desperately clutching the mug trying to de-ice my digits. Prising myself out of the warmth back into the painful air, I was rewarded with rows of ice and snow sculptures littering both sides of the street every 30 meters or so running from the ornate iron entrance gate all the way to the Songhuajiang river.
After a few hours I finally made it to the top of the st (it’s not that long but I had to keep stopping to try and warm up!) When the river freezes over every year , it turns into a playground offering up a veritable banquet of ice and snow activities! The army of sales people at the top of the steps bombarded me with offers of ice skating, sledging, quad bikes, dodgems, skiing and quad-bike powered banana-boat style rides. There was also an ice path running across to ‘Sun island’ and I knew it would take around an hour to walk across (not counting slipping-and-landing-on-my-arse time) I also knew that the cold and wind were cutting through my clothes like they weren’t there and trying to walk across an ice filed would likely be the end of me so I headed west towards the cable-cars which link the city to the island.
Occupying two unmissable but rather chintzy looking fibreglass castles on either side of the river, the cable cars offer a relaxing and scenic (although unheated) view across the Songhuajiang. The trip lasts about ten minutes and at 80 Yuan for a retun trip (about £8) it’s not the cheapest but it does drop you off right by the entrance to the snow sculpture park. By the time I reached Sun Island it was getting dark and the temperature continued it’s horrific downward spiral. I was surprised to find that the entrance to the sculpture park was pretty much deserted, but then less surprised when I was told it was shutting in 45 minutes. With a hefty 280 Yuan entrance fee (approx £28) I wanted to ensure I got my moneys worth so decided that I’d return first-thing the following morning. I took the cablecar back to the city (after a cab driver quoted me an extortionate rate to get bacl to the hotel, cabs are a real issue in Harbin) then dropped into a Russian restaurant at the top of the walking st which had been recommended by both the Lonely planet & by Leighton.
The imaginably decorated but unimaginably named ‘Russian Coffee & Food’ is choc full of history, filled in it’s entirety by a former Harbin resident by the name of ‘Nina’ There are information cards dotted about the restaurant giving an overview of Nina’s life in Harbin from 1911 till her death in 2001. As a Russian ex-pat and socialite she collected a considerable number of pictures and knick-knacks over the years which now make for a fascinating browse between courses. The TV in the restaurant even plays a looped scene from a Chinese film that was shot on location there. Well worth a visit for the decor and history alone and I was lucky enough to be the only one in there. The food was hearty and affordable without being exceptional and afterwards I headed back to the hotel for an hot shower and an early night in the hope of being ready to hit the snow and ice festival first thing the following morning……(cont in part 2, coming next week!)