Try to remember a time when you were the coldest you have ever been. Now magnify that cold 10 times over plus few more times and you will get an idea of winter in Harbin, the capital city of the Heilongjiang Province in China.
I like winter and as a student I used to go on skiing holidays regularly, which gave me resistance to extreme cold. Well that is what I thought until we stepped out from the Air China flight into a dark, cold, misty night in Harbin.
We met our local guide who had a big wide smile which warmed my heart. She was very enthusiastic and welcoming, trying to persuade us that temperatures below zero are normal, usual and in fact healthy.
After a short drive we arrived in the city centre at one of the best hotels in the town, Gloria Plaza. My God did I felt warmth coming through my blood once we got in.
After the usual hotel procedure, like taking passport details, filling forms in, getting the key and arranging a meeting with the guide for the following day we managed to get to our comfortable room on the 4th floor. The first thing I did was to take my water and wind proof gloves from my cold hands and try to warm them on the radiators, thinking of my little flat where I have to cuddle the radiator to get any warmth. Unfortunately the radiators in Harbin are like ovens and the only thing you get are burns on your hand. So my first advice when you are in Harbin during the winter – do not touch the radiators. Good old blowing into your hands is excellent!
The following day we met our local guide at noon which is a very late start considering that we had a full day of pre booked sightseeing arranged. The only reason for the late start was the weather – noon is the warmest part of the day – minus 24.
The first place we went to visit was the main street of Harbin which is like stepping onto any Russian street but one much better preserved. The architecture is typical European and the only signs of it being a Chinese city are the signs above the shops.
People are of Chinese origin but there is a good proportion of Russians here. Harbin had a very turbulent past, it changed hands on a few occasions between the Russians, Japanese and Chinese and the historical background is visible throughout the city.
One of the most imposing Russian influences is the Russian Orthodox Church in the city centre built in a typical Byzantium style and still impressive from the outside. However, once you get inside, instead of nice colorful frescos you will find business entrepreneurs selling gloves and hats. On higher parts of the wall you can still make out frescos, with the colours almost faded away.
The St Sophia Church was originally built in 1907 from timber, only to be finished in its present state in 1932. It’s the largest Eastern Orthodox non-working Church in the Far East and now the Museum of Architectural art.
After walking for almost half an hour in cold weather, – 24, our energy level dropped considerably and we decided to have lunch. The choice was impressive: Russian, Chinese, Japanese or Manchurian cuisine. We chose a feast of dumplings as they were prepared in front of us.
The restaurant was full of Chinese people which is always a good sign that the food is good. The choice was fantastic: sanxian dumplings, celery pork dumpling, dumplings stuffed with pork, nut kernels and sweetcorn, dumplings stuffed with fried beef, cabbage pork dumplings… I loved one with nuts and minced pork dipped in soya souce and garlic.
The chefs were busy and very quick in producing very tasty food. They never looked around, smiled or stopped for one second. I felt like a voyeur looking at them in amazement and it was like looking at art in the making.
Afterwards we went to the Siberian Tiger Park.
Now there is controversy surrounding this park as some people think it’s set up to provide tiger parts for Chinese medicine not for the protection of tigers. Apparently tigers from this park are not able to fend for themselves once in the wild. I spoke to one of the locals and he assured me that there is another park where they do breed tigers for Chinese medicine but not in this one.
We had a drive in the park in a bus whose windows were covered in wire for our own protection but somewhere in the middle of the park with hundreds of beasts around me, I didn’t feel safe. Some people from our bus group even tried to encourage tigers to jump on the top of bus which I didn’t find funny at all. Nor the savage way of feeding them with live animals – chickens, ducks and even goats. This visit was not for the faint-hearted.
We finished the day on a lighter note – looking at Chinese swimmers jumping into the frozen Songhua River. They cut a small swimming pool in the middle of the river where some brave Chinese jump in for a swim.
I heard about these swimmers back in the UK and being highly suspicious I always thought they must cover themselves with oil or something to protect their body in the cold water.
But this time I had the chance to sit with one of the swimmers before he changed into his trunks and nonchalantly, just like he was just going to make a cup of tea, he went outside into the cold, and jumped in the water. He swam the whole length of the hole in the river (or winter swimming pool) and came out untouched.
When he got out he didn’t shiver, no one ran up to him to give him a blanket or anything. He smiled and waved to the public and went back to his changing room. And that was it.
We finished sightseeing early at around 5’clock and went rushing back to our warm, hot, sneezy hotel for a special chef sandwich in the room and some CNN news.
The following day we visited the Snow and Ice Festival.
When you mention Harbin everyone thinks of the Ice Lantern Festival which takes place from 5 January until the end of February. Those dates are very flexible and depend on global warming – sometimes ice starts falling off the sculptures at the beginning of February and you have to be very careful not to get too close to the ice exhibits.
The opening ceremony is on 5th of January in the afternoon when the lights are officially switched on, followed by a?fashion show, Chinese dancing and music.
Preparation for the Ice Lantern Festival begins in December when large ice cubes are cut from the Songhua River and transferred to Zhaolin Park ready for artists from all around China and recently world, to make sculptures of dragons, temples, waterfalls, taking you through Chinese folk tales. The combination of illuminated lights inside the ice block of different shapes give you amazing spectrum of colours and sets you imagination racing.
After a few hours of walking around Zhaolin Park we decided to get some warmth in the restaurant which was actually a tent with a big heavy rubber door to keep the warmth inside. We decided to go to the Tibetan tent which was very cosy and very warm inside.
The lights were smouldering, sending us off to sleep. After taking two pairs of gloves, abalaclava and Russian hat, thick woolen scarf and waterproof jacket (that was just the outside layer of my clothes!), I ordered a nice hot Tibetan Tea. The combination of ginger, green tea and sugar fried in a pan then covered with hot water is very soothing, sending heat through every small vessel in your body.
We looked at the menu and between choosing a juicy yak steak and soup back in the hotel-decided to go for soup.
On the way back to the hotel we visited the Ice Sculpture at the World of Ice & Snow Show. This show used to be a part of the Ice Lantern Festival at Zhaolin Park but with the years it has grown so much that the organizator decided to move to the Sun Island.
Every year has a different theme – this year was Russia with all the sculptures fashioned in a typical Russian style. Among them were replicas of some of Russia’s most famous architecture, such as the East Palace, and Moscow’s Red Square.?
So in the middle of the show we could see the Red Square built from ice and illuminated. The Basilica was in the most prominent place and by the time we decided to take some shots our camcorder was so cold it gave up.
You have to carry your camera between your skin and vest. Once you decide to take a photo it takes all your acrobatic skills to get the camera out from underneath all the layers. Once the camera is out you need to free your hands in order to press the button and don’t forget it’s cold, your hands are trembling.
When I showed all my photos to my friends they questioned my ability to take straight photos, not realising what I had to endure!?
How to get to Harbin:
The best time to visit the Ice Lantern Festival in Harbin is in January. You can either get there by flying from Beijing to Harbin or by train but please note the train tickets are not confirmed until 10 days prior departure.
You need to stay 3 nights in order to see all attractions. There are lots of good hotels around but I would recommend the Gloria Hotel as it’s centrally located and price is affordable.
Travel tip shared by Tara