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China’s winter wonderland: The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

Winter comes with a vengeance in the northeast Chinese city of Harbin. It was a “relatively mild” daytime temperature of minus 15 degrees Celsius during our visit in mid-February (when it is often many degrees colder); but the nights drop by another 10 degrees or more.

All of which is vital information, as it is at night that one can see the incredible Harbin Ice and Snow Festival at its best. The main events of this annual winter festival take place on the other side of a long bridge, on Sun Island in the Songhua River; the site is around 5km from the main tourist region of Harbin City, which is south of the river, and centred around the old Russian quarter. In this area you’ll find the famous Walking Street and its beautiful Russian architecture, including the nearby St Sophia cathedral, now a somewhat faded museum.

Hotels abound, and many of the usual international five-star names are included, but we opted for the Modern Hotel – not so modern at all, but rather a throwback to the days when Harbin was a major refuge for émigrés from Moscow. The hotel was warm (often too hot, in fact!) and comfortable in a surprisingly non-Chinese way, with wooden floors in the rooms, a slightly softer-than-usual bed and a pleasant Russian-style restaurant. Breakfast was of the Chinese variety – plenty of unrecognisable vegetables and noodles (not my favourite), but there was a passable egg station manned by a slightly unwilling chef, and various cereals and fruit for Western tastes. But let’s face it, if you’re in Harbin for a few days for the festival, the accommodation is secondary, as you will want to be out touring for much of the time – and, for us, the Ice and Snow Festival was waiting.

Crossing the river by taxi, we soon came across the Snow Carving Park, a vast area dotted with snow buildings and carvings that almost defy description. Huge, yet often delicate and incredibly detailed, these carvings take shape in the early winter through the efforts of over 2,000 sculptors. Armed with massive snow-moving equipment, they first create the white mountains that are then transformed into the sculptural exhibits.

By day, the walk around the park – or one can “tram” it, if it’s too cold or windy – is a unique experience, such is the magnificence of the carvings. Stopping only for a cup of hot chocolate and a warming of the toes at each of the various small, insulated cafés scattered around the snow art, we happily spent an hour or two in the park before moving on to see the equally famous white tigers of Harbin. Remember to negotiate with your taxi driver to take you for both experiences, as the passing taxi trade isn’t that reliable.

The tigers are held in very large compounds, giving them plenty of room to exercise and roam almost free. They looked healthy and well-fed – mainly thanks to the “live chicken throwing” attraction. (This isn’t for the fainthearted.) As we drove around the network of vast, high-fenced compounds, although it was clear that the Siberian tigers would be used to the cold, we were surprised to find many lions there in captivity too, probably desperately missing the warm savannah of their natural habitat. A lonely puma and a cheetah were also looking a bit fed up with the weather – who wouldn’t be? This is an interesting side trip, but as we’re not so keen on caged animals, however big the cages, we didn’t rate it as a highlight.

Definitely not to be missed amongst all the pizzazz of the main festival is smaller Zhaolin Park, where the international ice-carving competition entries are displayed. Many of these are now housed inside a huge tented warehouse, to protect them from vandalism, we supposed – certainly not to keep them from melting!

The artistic skills of ice carving can be seen here at their very best, and almost every entry had the “wow” factor. They’re carved from blocks of ice up to three cubic metres in size, and one can only imagine how much fun it would have been to be present during the many days of carving activity to see these block of pure, clear ice turn into the most imaginative and stunningly detailed creations. Of our three days of fun in Harbin, this was perhaps the visual highlight, rather than the bright and gaudy lights of the Ice Festival Park at night.

Entry to the Ice and Snow Festival is fairly expensive at around RMB300 (S$60), but discounted for those over 60 and free for anyone over 70. Again, the best time to visit the huge Ice Park is at night, when the multicoloured lights installed inside the ice walls of the buildings and exhibits make the whole park come alive. You can watch displays of mass ice-skating and acting, only slightly less spectacular than the famous Zhang Yimou’s Impression spectacles in Lijiang and Hangzhou; or take a trip on one of the ice slides: these vary from long and steep to the small, short one that I succeeded in mastering.

When all this is done, warm your toes in one of the well-spaced cabins selling coffee, tea and hot chocolate, with perhaps a small addition from your carefully remembered hip-flask…

The visual impact of this ice wonderland cannot be overstated and if you have never been to such a spectacle before, you’ll be amazed at the sheer scale of the architecturally stunning buildings and the massive volumes of glass-clear ice used to build this “city”. However, as this was Maxine’s and my second visit together (and my third), we were less in awe, and we felt that the commercialisation of the experience detracted from it somewhat. Watching multiple panda-costumed artists leading PSY’s “Gangnam Style” dance was a bit incongruous; but then again, why not? Actually, I joined in and had some fun, even if only to warm up a bit!

Keep your camera warm inside your coat, but also at the ready because this may be a one-off trip, and you’ll want reminders of this fabulous experience. Our advice? Go, and go as soon as you can, as in our view it won’t get “better” – just busier and more hectic. It’s worth all the effort and worry of deciding on the right clothes to bring and braving the freezing conditions. Remember, by the way, that while you cannot have too many clothes on outside, you’ll certainly need to strip off in the well-heated restaurants and hotels.

Great fun – you’ll love it!

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