The first stop of our 6,000 kilometre trip was Harbin 哈尔滨 located in the Heilongjiang province. This is the most Northern province of China, sharing it’s borders with Russia. On the first of our five days in Heilongjiang’s capital city we hit the famous Harbin ice sculpting festival, the very reason for our trip to the treacherous -20°C weather.
Although I’d seen pictures online of the wonderfully illuminated ice castles, seeing them gloriously life sized in front of us was well worth the eight hour seatless train journey we’d endured to get here. Racing to the observation deck of one particular castle (equipped with a slide) was a good start, as the view allowed us to soak in our surroundings as one enormous production, giant ice sculptures visible as far as the eye could squint.
While the detail in some of the sculptures had been lost from people running their grubby hands on them mid selfie-mode, the definitions of the edges had not been compromised. While running my grubby hands around I was surprised that the ice wasn’t at all wet to touch but dry, cold and wonderfully smooth. Some of it was clear like glass, while others showcased tiny bubbles or specks of dirt, frozen amidst the giant mass. Sculptures were made from snow as well as ice and with the New Year around the corner there were lots of horse (2014 in the Chinese Zodiac) and goat (2015) sculptures amidst the many other giant animals which surrounded us.
In addition to appreciating the art work, visitors were enjoying horse and carriage rides, sliding down ice slides, sledding down snow piles, pulling their children around in sleighs, making snowballs and of course taking an obscene amount of photos, with and without the help of selfie sticks.
To add to the excitement, there was an attraction which many people hadn’t seen before; foreigners. We were asked several times to pose in photos with various Chinese tourists and when taking some respite from the snot freezing temperatures over a cup of hot chocolate, we watched with amusement as a group of foreign tourists were cornered by one a group of Chinese tourists, who were utterly fascinated.
After creeping past this commotion and back into the bone shaking weather, we spotted some animals scattered about the ice festival, which you could pay 20 kuai (about 3 euro) to be photographed with, including llamas and one or two unidentifiable polar creatures.
Despite the cold we must’ve magpied our way around for two hours, not tiring at seeing a new giant ice castle with every few steps.
When it was almost time to leave we happened upon an ice stage, where of course a performance had just began. Soon an MC took the stage, complete with a whistle as if on a bar of an under-aged Ibizan disco. He was yelling directions into the microphone and soon the crowd came to order, forming a large circle. After the music came on the large circle bunny hopped in sync, men, women and children alike.
I was delighted for this particular gathering, as it meant my travel companion (who was only visiting China for the month) got to see a very common form of Chinese entertainment; choreographed dancing.
In this kind of cold the old wives saying “your face will stick like that” felt all too likely, and as my smile began to hurt, we headed for home.