We arrived in Harbin on the eve of Chinese New Year. As we flew out from the capital city of Beijing, we watched from the plane window as fireworks exploded below us, mingling with the neon lights that made up part of the ancient capital’s impressive skyline.
Our taxi entered the old town of Harbin, also known as Ice City, close to midnight. With the use of sign language to communicate with the driver, we navigated hopelessly around in circles looking for the hotel we had pre-booked. We exited the taxi in the middle of a deserted street and were met with a painfully icy hit of air that could only be found on the Chinese border of Russia in mid-winter. This kind of cold was like a slap in the face. It couldn’t have been more than a ‘toasty’ minus twenty degrees.
We stumbled with our heavy packs to the closest hotel we could see and desperately forced open the doorway to escape the cold. The reception of the hotel was an elaborately decorated room with plush chairs and didn’t look like the usual backpacker jaunt we had become accustomed to. We approached the reception and the staff took one judgemental look at us before declaring the room would be ninety dollars. Each. Ninety dollars each! On our backpacker budget we were used to paying only fifteen! But at that late stage of the night, it was pitch black outside and our chances of finding the cheaper hotel were less than that of finding an earring on a beach. Plus, neither of us were keen to wander aimlessly in the dark with our heavy packs almost freezing. With a look of dismay at the staff, we begrudgingly handed over 180 dollars.
Meanwhile, outside, there was a cacophony of noise echoing around the ice-cold city. Fireworks to celebrate Chinese New Year were going off as regularly than the tick of a clock. Despite the outside temperature, in a sudden burst of excitement, we threw on every pair of thermals and explorers we could get our hands on and dashed outside to take part in this famous Chinese festival. As we walked along the cobblestone streets of the old city we started to see people everywhere, setting off fireworks on the street, sending out flashes of colour to intercept the darkness of the mid-winter sky. The result of these fireworks was a smoky mist that hovered romantically above the city.
On every corner, there were elaborate ice-sculptures. Everything from ice-made slides to Winnie The Pooh. We took turns sliding down the ice, throwing our arms in the air. The cold seeped through my clothes and the fireworks erupted loudly enough to burst an eardrum.
The cold was amazing. Despite the thousands of layers I had on, it was as if the night’s air was biting my skin. We walked toward an iced-over lake where groups of people were standing, setting off more fireworks. I saw a street sign dripping in thick icicles. I had never seen this kind of cold before.
We had some food in a busy local McDonald’s. Nothing like a high calorie diet to keep you warm in the middle of a frosty winter. It was packed-full inside and there was a heightened atmosphere about the place. Excited locals were talking a mile a minute and tourist’s cheeks were a bright red from the outside conditions. Everyone had a heavy jacket, earmuffs and thick socks. There was not a soul who would brave the Harbin winter without being armed with every piece of woolen, insulated clothing they owned.
There was something exhilarating about being in such a foreign environment as Harbin. Around us barely a word of English was spoken, with Mandarin flowing endlessly and the occasional Russian being thrown about by tourists who had nicked over the border for some New Year excitement. I felt as though I were an alien landing on another planet. But wasn’t that what travel was about? Landing in foreign places and being thrown into new cultures and old traditions?
That night, our sleep was disrupted by the constant crack of fireworks outside our hotel window. It appeared the Chinese locals didn’t give up. We woke early, forced down a breakfast of cold rice and interesting looking vegetables from the buffet, checked out and dragged our heavy packs up the road to find the hotel we had originally booked. We almost laughed when discovering it had only been a hundred metres from the over-priced hotel we stayed at the night before.
We went to explore the Harbin Snow Festival: the reason we decided to come here in the first place. Every year, Harbin hosts a snow extravaganza where people come from all over the world to build and enter their snow art in the competition. It is one of the largest ice and snow festivals in the world.
On the way to the festival, I noticed the European and oriental influence in the architecture. The buildings in the old town were hauntingly beautiful with turret-like features. The city centre stood apart from the rest of Chinese architecture I had seen due to its close proximity to Russia.
That morning the lake looked like a pure winter wonderland. There were horses being drawn by carts and people skating, leaving figure of eight patterns on the ice. We crossed the lake tentatively, ensuring we had solid footing to prevent landing on our behinds. The other side of the lake was an abandoned village. The mansions boasted Russian architecture and were decorated by icicles hanging gracefully from each balcony. These homes were empty shells, deserted in the winter. We were completely alone in this part of the world. Or that’s how it felt, anyway.
We walked past frozen park benches and deserted gazebos. We wandered aimlessly into a decadent building and stared at the haunting ice coated statue of an angel spreading its wings in the open courtyard. The entire place felt like a ghost-town and at that point I wondered when we were going to stumble across a world-famous snow festival.
We were almost at the point of getting out the map when a snow-arch appeared before us. It welcomed us toward a wonderland with larger-than-life snow sculptures everywhere we looked. We walked past an entire entrance dedicated to sculptures depicting the travels of Marco Polo. This was where all the people were. The place was packed with tourists taking photos, bouncing up and down, still excited from the New Year the night before. There was everything from mythical creatures to well-known structures such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Some of the sculptures were a thousand times my own height, and next to them I imagine I looked insignificant, like a small, black ant.
After walking for hours, examining the sculptures and taking a mountain of photos, we stopped to warm our hands at a conveniently located café in the midst of the sculptures. It was actually a sculpture itself, made entirely of ice and boasting warm coffee and hot food inside. I remember feeling my hands thaw out, and witnessing the red glow return to them. At this stage of the Harbin-visit, I was accustomed to being freezing. I had developed a close and needy relationship with my earmuffs.
I felt completely alive in this kind of weather. It put into perspective the way I felt about my own Tasmanian winters. They were nothing like this. The air was nowhere near as frigid and it didn’t burn the skin in the same way. I wanted to bottle the intense cold and take it home so that others could appreciate our own winter climate that was decidedly warm in comparison.
That night, after thawing by the heater at the hotel, we ventured back into the heart of the old town to sample some authentic Chinese cuisine. What we hadn’t expected was the range of Russian-style restaurants that were on offer. We were drawn to a particular cosy looking establishment that had a warm fireplace and dim, romantic lighting. I ordered a plain vegetable soup from a menu of foreign looking ingredients and my partner, Justin, more adventurously went for a thick, traditional Russian stew. In his stew, I experienced the best mushrooms I had ever tasted. They practically exploded with a warm flavour inside my mouth.
After warming by the fire and satisfying our hunger, we made our way to the Ice Festival; a similar setting to the Snow Festival but less majestic. The Ice Sculptures were still impressive though with their intricate carvings and life-like features. I was particularly impressed with an Alice in Wonderland sculpture of Alice breaking through the mirror. The detail that went into that sculpture was simply exquisite and it truly deserved one of the top placings. At the end of the night we were accosted by a Japanese TV crew who threw microphones in our faces and prompted us to gloat about the wonderful ice-sculptures. We both momentarily stood frozen like dear caught in the headlights before offering them some kind of comment. I don’t think we would have made the TV.
Harbin was an experience that I hadn’t expected. It was somewhere I had never really thought about before. The entire setting of the old town was magical. I felt as though I had been whisked away into a winter wonderland. That’s what I love about traveling; the fact that such unexpected and unheard of destinations can offer you unforgettable experiences and show you new, exciting places. Harbin is a combination of both Chinese and Russian influences and they blend together in winter to form this amazing place.
I encourage everyone to travel to the unknown. Go to places that aren’t necessarily the first listed in the travel guide. Walk into uncharted territory and come out with a broader mind. Experience what you never expected to and enjoy it. I know I sure did.