There are two types of people on the Songhua River today: those who’ve come to do, and those who are here to watch.
The watchers are recognisable by their thick coats, scarves, fur-lined hats and gloves; the doers identified by their lack of appropriate clothing, and by the oddness of their behaviour.
The Songhua is a wide river but, with winter temperatures of around -20C, every inch of it is frozen. From the bank, I totter out onto the ice, passing a man holding an arctic fox, and, behind him, a man walking a husky dog with a pair of aviator shades perched on its nose. Soon I arrive at a temporary enclosure, where a crowd has gathered around a large rectangular swimming pool that’s been cut into the ice.
From out of an inflatable hut walks a middle-aged Chinese woman in a one-piece swimsuit, holding up a card containing indecipherable Chinese script. She’s followed by a shuffling huddle of swimmers — some Russian, some Chinese — each wearing nothing but a swimsuit or trunks.
One by one, they climb up onto a 3ft-high block of ice, where they pause for just a couple of seconds before diving headfirst into the icy pool. Moments later, they emerge from the water via a short metal ladder, greeted by both applause and the savagely cold morning air.
After the first wave of swimmers return to the hut, things start to get a little more theatrical. To the left of the makeshift diving board, a pantomime boxing match seems to have broken out between two men wearing shower caps and capes. It ends when one topples backwards into the water. Then, from out of the hut emerge two plump elderly Russian women, one dressed in a pink leotard with a yellow skirt; the other in a black one-piece with a large green hat shaped like a horse’s head, complete with flowing mane. There’s no self-conscious shuffling where these two are concerned. Instead they parade around the perimeter of the pool, arms aloft, teasing the crowd.
The woman with the horse’s head then climbs up onto the icy diving board, where she continues to grandstand, before eventually plunging head first into the water, emerging triumphantly a few seconds later. As I make my way to the exit, I see her holding a pink shower cap full of water out to the crowd, inviting them to feel the temperature for themselves, all the while barking like an elderly seal.
If anything, it seems to be getting colder. I’m wearing two thermal vests and two pairs of leggings beneath my many other layers, but still I can feel the chill. Back outside the enclosure, I notice for the first time that on the banks of the frozen river two long slides have been fashioned out of ice — every 30 seconds or so someone zips down the slope with a grin. It looks fun, but as I glance up at the queue I’m struck afresh by the cold, and decide to head to the market stalls on the embankment, in pursuit of a warmer pair of gloves. For today at least, I’m definitely more of a watcher than a doer.
Harbin sits in a remote corner of northeast China, not far from the mysterious wilderness of sub-Siberian Russia. Until about a year ago I was unaware of its existence, so when I arrive I’m staggered by the size of it.
Everything about Harbin seems implausibly huge. The roads are wide — multiple-lane affairs, separated by huge roundabouts, each one hosting a needlessly bulky monument. Wherever you look there’s a forest of broad, sturdy-looking tower blocks. Even the shops are great square blocks squatting on the side of the road like gigantic washing machines awaiting collection. You’d be hard pushed to find a small building here — but, then, why build in miniature when you’ve got so much land, and 10 million residents to house?
It feels like a large Russian city, albeit one jazzed up by a sprinkling of elegant Asian-style roofs, bright red doors and those large Chinese characters that make Westerners feel so wonderfully far from home.
In fact, the Russian population of Harbin has actually dropped sharply over the past century, and now stands at just a few thousand, yet their influence is still palpable — Russian dolls and hats can be found in the souvenir stalls, there are still a handful of onion-domed orthodox churches, and, every Friday, the Trans-Siberian Express clatters through the main train station.
This strange marriage of these two, often impenetrable, cultures makes Harbin an intriguing place to visit, but it’s not the chief reason people come. The big draw here is the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, which pulls in thousands of visitors from across the world every January.
What started out as a simple garden party and lantern festival in 1963 has today grown into something truly epic. Every winter, using blocks carved from the frozen Songhua River, around 7,000 licensed sculptors labour for weeks with picks, chisels and saws to create a dazzling world of ice.
A handful of modest sculptures on the city’s streets give me some idea of what’s to come, but as I arrive at the main venue, the Harbin Ice and Snow World, I’m taken aback by the entrance alone — three enormous arches, carved into a thick rampart of ice that’s easily 60ft tall.
Inside, a series of striking ice buildings spread out before me, each one illuminated with coloured lights. This isn’t sculpture; it’s more like construction. What I’m seeing is the work of architects, who’ve used fluorescent frozen blocks to create a city of towers, bridges and palaces, complete with staircases, balconies and even slides. It’s a bewildering spectacle, made surreal by its isolation — a magical fairy kingdom, on an out-of-town bit of scrubland next to an enormous car park.
Within minutes of our arrival, a man appears, holding the reigns of a pony, which is pulling an illuminated cart. I sit in the back, grateful for the blanket provided, and we proceed to perform a circuit of the arena. Each huge construction I see is quickly succeeded by another — some beautiful, others bizarre. By now, it’s dark, and against the backdrop of a completely black, starless sky, this icy world feels even more unreal, as though I’ve stumbled upon a strange film set.
The pony comes to a stop. It’s time to explore by foot, but, without the blanket, I’m distracted by the sudden cold. I quicken my pace and try to put it from my mind, but I soon realise I’ve been taking pictures without giving any thought to what I’m seeing. Salvation comes in the form of a little coffee shop (one of the few things here that isn’t made of ice), and a kiosk selling hats. I buy the warmest looking one, a child’s hat, complete with stitched-on dog ears, and at once it feels as if I’ve closed a circuit, for the rest of my body starts to warm up too.
With renewed vigour, I cross an icy bridge and head in the direction of a distant fort with several ornate towers. But my route is full of distractions. The centre of the arena is dominated by a huge, jagged replica of the iconic Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. Somehow, it reminds me of the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas — except it’s as if the water jets have frozen in mid-air, to form a gigantic arrowhead of icy spikes.
Next to this there’s a tall, bottle-shaped tower, with an LCD display, confirming a temperature of -20C, and nearby I find a fairytale castle, adorned with the unmistakable outline of Mickey Mouse’s ears. But, if this seems tacky, the scaled-down replica of Rome’s Colosseum is charming — the famous crumbled edges of its upper levels have been beautifully recreated, while at its base, amazed tourists pass beneath its arches.
Eventually, I reach the fort and follow a procession of people up a zigzag staircase. From the carpeted battlements, I look out over the arena, upon the rainbow cityscape of arches, pillars and spires. I try to capture it in its enormity, but my camera can’t do it justice, so I put it away and, not for the first time, I find myself gazing. Then, after a few reflective minutes, I explore the battlements and find the entrance to a long, icy slide in the nearest tower. As I glide my way back down to ground level, I remember something I can’t believe I’d forgotten — being active really is the best way to keep warm.
From the middle of the frozen Songhua River — where Harbin’s hardier citizens practise their winter swimming — if you look east, you’ll see what looks like a Bavarian castle on the horizon. This apparition is actually a cable-car station, and when I step inside it the next day, it’s clear the Alpine splendour of its facade bears very little resemblance to its criminally unfinished interior. I negotiate my way over missing floorboards, through a half-erected door and up onto the tiny cable-car, which begins to glide over the full width of the Songhua.
As the cable-car approaches the far bank, I can see scuffed stretches of the river’s frozen surface, where the ice has been chainsawed into blocks for the festival. I can also see two white objects behind some distant trees. One looks like an elephant, and the other a woman’s face, but from where I’m perched it’s hard to get any sense of scale.
I’m headed to Sun Island Park, where I’ll get to see a different side of Harbin’s winter offering, because in January the island is home to a huge array of snow sculptures. As I walk around, I’m struck by how different it feels from the ice arena. The park covers a vast area, and, as a result, the snow sculptures are quite spread out, which makes viewing them a pleasantly leisurely experience. Sun Island might not have the pizzazz of the ice park, but it’s nice to enjoy Harbin’s creations by daylight, in a more natural setting, in the crisp afternoon air.
Things begin modestly enough, with a series of compact sculptures, each about 6ft high. The range of subjects is broad: a church with four twirling spires; a cannon standing beside a cluster of snowy cannon balls; the head of a monster, bursting out of a white canvas; and, my favourite, a grinning bear, holding a picture of a smaller bear, holding a mirror. But, as I head further in, things soon turn grander, starting with a huge tableau of charging white horses. As I reach the park’s perimeter, I find the two sculptures that had struck me from the cable-car: an enormous, carved jungle diorama, complete with supersized elephants and lions; and a striking, if eclectic, snowy scene, featuring a ringed planet, a horse’s head and the face of a woman. The whole thing is the size of a row of terraced houses.
I stand and stare, far too captivated to move on, but also conscious of just how much standing and staring I’ve done so far on this trip. Normally, I’d find this lack of participation distinctly unsettling, but the fact is there are just so many things here that demand nothing less than a rapturous gaze.
On the way back to the city centre, I drive past the ice arena. As the coach slows, I peek inside. By day, without the coloured lights, the ice sculptures are less glamorous. Instead, they’ve taken on a stark new beauty. The towers seem pointier, the spikes somehow spikier, with the whole city now resembling the setting of a sinister fairytale.
A few minutes later, I pull up beside a terracotta-coloured housing estate, and make my way first into a courtyard, and then up a stairwell. It’s in fairly poor condition, with the walls badly in need of plaster, but the doors are bright; many adorned with red-and-yellow Chinese New Year decorations shining through the shabbiness.
My tour operator has organised a visit with a local family, and the head of this particular household is Mr Fong, a bright, excited septuagenarian, in smart black trousers and a white indoor jacket. He leads us through his small, two-room flat, to a bedroom-cum-parlour. At its centre is a dining table, laden with fruit and nuts. As I perch on the end of the bed, I’m introduced to Mr Fong’s grandson, a confident, sensible-looking teenager with a dynamite smile.
Mrs Fong sits passively at the head of the bed as her husband does his utmost to ensure everyone is eating. He then passes around a series of photographs in which he’s standing, head-to-toe in cycle gear, in front of various Chinese monuments, having, it transpires, just cycled implausible distances from city to city.
My guide asks him the secret of his stamina. He responds by grabbing a large, transparent plastic keg from the windowsill, filled with murky water and what looks like bits of striped bark and ginger root. “You drink this every day?” I ask. “Twice,” he declares, holding up two fingers, before filling a small cup and handing it to me. I throw it down my neck, and for a moment it feels as though my head might explode. Then a wonderful feeling of contentment creeps up on me as the herby spirit leaves its pleasant, warm footprints on my throat and chest.
Mr Fong is highly amused by my initial pained expression. He hands me an unfamiliar Russian soft drink to wash away the taste. A few sips later, I find myself chatting to his grandson about his schooling, and offering my own few Mandarin phrases to the room. It’s an extremely good-natured affair.
I look around at my fellow travellers, huddled awkwardly together into this tiny parlour. It’s a strange gathering, and one with a modest shelf life, but when it’s time to go, I feel a little sorry to be leaving.
Methodically, I put on my hat, gloves, scarf and coat, bid the Fongs goodbye and brace myself for my latest encounter with the sub-Siberian winter.
There are no direct flights to Harbin from the UK. China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Air China, Asiana Airlines and EVA Air all fly indirect services from the UK. Passengers can expect to change once in China. uk.ceair.com csair.com airchina.co.uk flyasiana.com evaair.com
Average flight time: 15h.
Harbin has an extensive network of (mostly) self-service buses. Taxis are cheap and widely available, while a new metro system is being built, with some stations already operational.
When to go
The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival runs from the start of January until the end of February. Summers in Harbin are mild by China’s standards, with temperatures typically in the high 20Cs.
Need to know
Currency: Yuan (CNY). £1 = CNY10.28.
International dial code: 00 86.
Time difference: GMT +8.
Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. harbinice.com
Lonely Planet China. RRP: £20.99.
Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway. RRP: £15.99.
How to do it
Wendy Wu Tours offers an eight-day Harbin Snow & Ice Festival & Chinese New Year itinerary, taking in a visit to Harbin, plus Chinese New Year in Shanghai. The tour departs on 13 February 2015 and is priced from £2,290 per person based on two sharing on a fully inclusive basis. Price includes international flights, domestic transport, accommodation, all meals, touring with guides, entrance fees and visa costs for UK and EU passport-holders. wendywutours.co.uk
Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)