Having visited the Land of Fire and Ice in 2015, I was intrigued to step in to the icy lands of North Eastern China to experience just how cold -25 degree temperatures feel against the skin. Whilst named ‘world famous’, I hadn’t actually heard of the great China Ice and Snow World until I arrived in the People’s Republic, but advertisements assured me that this would be their 17th festival. So, with 66hrs of weekend time, me, myself and I took an overnight train and headed to Harbin.
Before I even reached the main focus of my trip – the Ice Festival – I fell in love with the city. Upon getting quite lost trying to find my hostel for the night, I stumbled across the Sophia Church, built by the Russians in 1907. Not only was the external appearance stunning and a beautiful contrast against the modern day high-rises, but inside also displayed photographs dating back to the 1900s, during a time when the western world had a huge influence on the cities architecture.
The Daoliqu area, or Old Harbin, is a maze of quirky streets and cobbled roads which I enjoyed without the never-ending traffic beeping their way past. Ice sculptures lined the pavements under blue, pink and green buildings dating back to the early 20th century and the lightly falling snow was causing chaos underfoot – walking fast to keep warm was not an option on the thick black ice.
The Jewish influence came to light as I investigated the Haerbin New Synagogue, with its three floors of black and white photographs and history exhibits. In the 1920s the city was home to some 20,000 jews who fled from nearby Russia.
After a few hours of aimless walking, I ended up at the Songhua River: 1km wide and 1 meter thick with frozen ice. I was not disappointed to find (as usual) unusual Chinese antics happening and laughed aloud to myself as people pushed past on little sled bikes in time with the dubstep music, blaring from a nearby speaker. Amongst the few hundred people mayhem, there was ice-skating, dog sledding, tobogganing and rubber-ring pulling (visually similar to the banana boats you see being pulled by a jet ski).
As darkness came and the -17 temperatures plummeted to -25, it was time to cross the river to Sun Island where the much anticipated Ice Festival awaited. Thanks to my super friendly taxi driver, I got to hang on to that anticipation a little while longer as he dropped me halfway across the bridge and told me to walk the remaining 10 minutes. I paid him double the fair price for the privilege.
The life-sized castles really stood out with the florescent lights and it really was a surreal environment to find myself in. The cold however meant I could withstand no more than 20 minutes before ducking inside to defrost – a moment in time when I wished for familiar company to help laugh off the pain.
To end the weekend perfectly, I got chatting to the English speaking hostel owner, who invited to me lunch with the other guests. In a local restaurant tucked away from the tourist hot spots, we enjoyed traditional North Eastern cuisine of dry hotpot – fish, chicken (inc. the feet), noodles and an assortment of vegetables – and locally brewed Harbin beer. I sat and indulged, listening to my new found friends as they conversed in Mandarin. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand – there was laughter, contentment, good food and warmth; that was the important thing.
Oh and as for pudding? When in Harbin, the thing to do is eat ice-cream that is bought from a small vendor on the street. It’s the moment you realise you are in fact standing in a city-sized freezer when the ice-cream sits casually on a stick in a cardboard box.