Check out just what the people of Harbin, in northern China, can do with truckloads of giant ice cubes and mountains of imagination
I receive an email from a friend in Madrid. “It’s beautiful and sunny; 15 degrees here today,” she writes. “About 15 here as well," I reply. "Minus 15 that is.” Only kidding. It was probably nearer minus 25.
We had arrived in the northern Chinese city of Harbin about two hours earlier, around six o’clock one f..f..f..freezing December morning. The first hotel we saw, 80 metres away straight across the railway station plaza, looked fantastic. The biggest selling point being its location. I couldn’t see one any closer.
So why the masochism? Why take on temperatures I had never envisaged suffering in a lifetime? When I could have opted for lying on a warm tropical beach. The answer was simple: to check out Harbin’s remarkable annual ice sculpture festival. Now I’ve done it, I can safely pass on the secret for others to follow in my footsteps.
The festival proper gets under way at the start of the western New Year. That’s when thousands throng into the main venue, Zhaolin Park to see what’s been carved out. But these ice sculptures don’t make themselves. Huge blocks have to be ferried in by truck from the Songhua river, the nearest bank of which is less than 200 metres away. Then somebody has to map out the design on the ice block and others to start chipping away.
The day we arrived, Boxing Day, the chippers were in full flow, working on the likes of Goofy and. Micky. But nearly all the main ‘buildings’ were already in place and waiting to be visited. Anyone who knows China knows that the country’s attractions can easily get jam-packed. But not many people appear to be interested in seeing what happens behind the scenes. I went expecting a long queue for the ticket office, and we walked straight in. I had a job to count the number of non-workers on the fingers of two hands.
First stop was a fantasy ice-castle, complete with an electric lift inside to take you up to the ramparts. Getting down again was much more thrilling. A group of working students offered us a plastic sack to sit on and whoosh straight down an ice chute toboggan run.
There were plenty more sculptures. Among them: a domed palace straight out of the Land of 1,001 Nights; a tree house inspired by tales of Winnie the Pooh; and a huge pirate galleon sat in what in summer is a pond in the middle of the park. (In fact, it probably becomes the pond in summer.) The themes change each year.
Wandering around the assembled giant ice cubes, it’s easy to miss some of the park’s permanent attractions, several of which fit in well with the winter wonderland scene of ice and snow-encrusted trees. Such is the case of a tiny wooden shop, set behind its own white picket fence, with a Buddhist temple ensconced on a knoll behind.
The shop, now a museum piece, was actually originally Russian, the first concrete hint I had of why this city used to be called Little Moscow. When other powers were carving up China, this part, then known as Manchuria and now the more prosaic Dongbei, went to the Russians. They built a rail line through the city to their Pacific port of Vladivostok at the end of the 19th century. That influence is still clearly there to see.
In winter you can walk right across the frozen Songhua river – or ride by horse-drawn stagecoach if you prefer – to check out several colonial buildings at Sun Island with its parks and colleges. Without getting the soles of your shoes icy, from the safety of the south bank you can even watch what looks like a modern version of one of the great Dutch masters’ paintings of 17th-century European ice fairs. Or you can join in the fun: sliding down the bank on a giant ring, spinning tops on the ice, skating on a fenced-off and carefully flattened rink, or taking a husky and sledge ride round the perimeter. Walk a bit further and you can watch fishermen hauling up nets submerged below the floe.
Directly inland from the fair is another prime example of Russian influence. All along the Zhongyang Dajie pedestrianised street are carefully restored examples of early 20th-century Russian homes and stores. For those seeking a break from typically Chinese fare, you will find many of the modern businesses are geared up to selling Russian foods – either eat-in or take-out – and souvenirs. A good winter tip: look out for one of the round hats with pull down ear-muffs that both Chinese and Russian soldiers love to wear – and with good reason.
Where to stay
Harbin International Hotel (4 West Dhazi Street) was built in 1937 and refurbished in 2008. Chairman Mao was among former guests.
Out and about
China Highlights can organise tours, including to nearby Yabuli ski resort.
For a drink, check out the USA bar (next to Tianzi Hotel) and plenty more drinking haunts on Zhongyang Dajie.
Take in a show and dinner at the Russian theatre on Sun Island (book through your hotel). You can get to the island travelling way above the river by cable car from the city centre.