I’m reminded, as I sit in the warmth of my Shanghai apartment, of the thoughts distracting me as I prepped for my speaking final: why do we continually push ourselves into situations that we know will be horrible? Just after we booked our flights to Harbin, in China’s freezing north, I had a discussion about it with someone in my class who comes from Buffalo, New York. She said that winters at home for her frequently plunged to -30, but that she’d never felt a cold like Harbin.
The sacrifice (of warmth, perhaps of working digits) would be for a noble cause: to see the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. What could we do but prepare? We did so in earnest, over a period of weeks. How many layers would we need on our legs? Long-johns + trousers, or long-johns + trousers + something else (and what – another pair of trousers? Some super trousers?). Are my beautiful, bottle green, suede and leather gloves going to be warm enough? Same question to Roland’s cashmere scarf that always reminds me of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
When the air stewardess announced that we were soon to land in Harbin (on Chinese flights they announce this literally as the wheels are hovering 6 inches above the tarmac. It’s like ‘oh we’re landing. PHEW; I just assumed we were crashing) she said we might like to take some time to change into clothing appropriate for the ground temperature of -19. Obviously Roland and I leaped at this opportunity (when the fasten seatbelts sign had been switched off); the cold had been a brewing supervillian in our minds for months and we couldn’t let it beat us. Interestingly, zero of the Chinese people on our flight decided to treble the layers of clothing they were wearing; they did stare at us quite a lot though, and a few of them openly laughed.
Stepping off the plane was a physical shock. It’s not dissimilar to jumping into cold water, but somehow, as the air rapidly worms its way into every crevice, more instant and bracing. In an act of kindness, the plane had parked (?) 100 miles from the airport, so we had to get on a little bus that kept its doors open forever and almost killed everyone on board.
In retrospect, we were lucky; the temperature didn’t dip below -23 (although in real feel (my absolute obsession: but what is it in real feel?) I suspect we were hovering around -30). But that is not a kind of coldness that you can get used to; every time I stepped outside it was like being slapped by a chorus of hands that had been holding snowballs for half an hour. Worst hit were my toes and fingers, which just could not deal. And yet, I saw locals milling around without gloves on. I had to keep taking my gloves (2 pairs) off to check that my fingers hadn’t turned black and were on the brink of falling off, which I realise only made them colder and the likelihood of this eventuality all the realer. Roland kept taking his gloves off to take pictures, but it didn’t seem to bother him. What a hero.
The River Songhua cleaves Harbin in two. In winter it freezes solid and, the guidebooks informed us, could be crossed on foot to reach the ice festival. We decided that we were not cool with this (my nightmare death: falling through ice, finding my way to the surface but being trapped under ice). But when we first saw the river on our first morning it was a literal winter wonderland. People were ice skating, zorbing, riding little ice tricycle things; there were huskies pulling children on sleds; people were driving cars on the ice; there was a horse galloping in the distance.
Reassured that it was safe, we took a tentative stroll onto what, in summer months, would be liquid. But it was clearly secure, and also the surface was slippy but not slippy, so you could do a little skid without falling over; ideal. We thought perhaps we would walk to the other side of the river but guidebooks had suggested it could take an hour, and I wasn’t sure my fingers would last that long. Alternatively there was a cable car crossing, or we could be super boring and walk over the bridge. It was the corner of Roland’s eye, I think, that caught a glimpse of the only way we could ever cross the river: a quad bike pulling a chain of rubber rings. A bit like a banana boat, we were dragged out into the frozen ether and spun in huge circles, icy spray showering us as the bike skidded this way and that. It was utterly exhilarating, and, like everything in Harbin, utterly freezing.
The next day Roland and I did cross the river, and back, on foot (it didn’t even take 15 minutes, massively cautious Lonely Planet). There were passages of the stroll when the brittle snowy covering of the river cleared and the ice became crystal clear, offering a refracted view to the blackness of the dormant water beneath. It’s honestly one of the most terrifying (I want to use the word chilling without it being a clunky pun, but there’s no way around that) things I’ve ever seen. Also at one point we saw a massive crack in the ice and ran away.
Sun Island sits in the middle of the Songhua and is a lovely park and fairground. During the festival season it is the home of the snow sculpture display and competition. This was our first glimpse of the craftsmanship that goes into the sculptures, and blow me, it’s breathtaking. The sculptures range from the small (maybe about 3x3x3m in total) and contain the most intricate detail such as this one of a snowflake inside a woman inside a snowflake.
Seeing such sculptures made me think of all the really sub-par snowmen I’ve cobbled together throughout my life and marvel at how creating something of this standard is even possible. There were also big (huge, gargantuan) sculptures that were humbling to witness. Throughout the park trees had fake blossom or autumn leaves attached, to add an extra level of beauty, and speakers everywhere blasted Chinese pop-opera to really cement the feeling of wandering through the climax of a surrealist film.
Sun Island, which had a frozen lake of its very own for us to skid over, also contained two ice slides, that we rented sledges to ride. I imagine this is sort of what riding a bobsled is like, but instead of a protective metal case you’ve got… nothing. So maybe it’s like skeletoning (?) but instead of going headfirst we were going feet first. As I picked up speed into my first bend I was convinced that my legs would hit the wall and instantly shatter. In the end I was only bruised, and it was so much fun.
In the evening we were on to the real deal: the ice sculpture park. Here was housed the entries for the ice sculpture competition, of a similar size to the small snow sculptures, as well as huge buildings made of ice breeze blocks, that you can actually climb.
When I was trying to pinpoint the exact location of the festival site I came across the most Trip Advisor comment of all time: the sculptures are good but there are too many colours. Because the festival looks like this:
Now, I can appreciate the stylistic simplicity of white-only lights as much as any devotee of Kinfolk magazine, but I’m really with the Chinese here in thinking that if I’m going to construct 100-foot structures of ice on which hundreds of people at a time can stand, I’m going paint it like a rainbow. The lighting tubes are actually frozen into the ice blocks, which I imagine is really easy to do and maintain.
The competition sculptures were brilliant. My favourite was a Chinese entry depicting cupid firing his arrow into King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. I know it’s hard to believe that an ice sculpture could encapsulate so many of my sensibilities, but it actually existed.
On the whole I would credit the Chinese, Russian, Mongolian and Latvian ice artists as really having their craft nailed. The Spanish and Finnish teams have a little bit of work to do; especially the latter whose sculpture of a bear looked like they’d tried to bring to life a 3 year old’s crayon imagining of what a bear might look like, having never actually seen a bear.
The festival was full of people absolutely loving life, and the noise of excited chatter, blaring music and all those lights made it feel like being at a huge, freezing rave. I had not given due consideration to our Harbin trip before it happened, and being there felt like a genuine once in a lifetime moment. The sculptures, the river festival, the cold; everything about it was unique to every other trip I’ve taken. I feel very lucky to have seen what I did, and I absolutely loved every bit of it.