Snow and Ice with Colored Lights
A couple of weekends ago, I made my way up north to Heilongjiang province, in the far northeast of China (China's Maine, if you will)to see Harbin's annual Ice and Snow festival. Harbin is bitterly cold in the winter, usually not getting above 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but it is high tourism season, with flocks of local and international visitors coming to snowboard and ski, and to look at Harbin's festival of life sized castles made out of ice. Held in 3 parks this year, this festival features scaled down buildings, monuments, symbols, and figures all entirely carved from ice and snow, and then illuminated from the inside by colored lights.
Harbin itself is also a beautiful city, full of culture and an interesting modern history. Harbin borders Russia to the north, and is also the Chinese end of the Trans-Siberian railway, and has had close ties to Russia in the 20th century after a railway was built from Russia into Harbin and Dalian at the turn of the century. Russians flooded into Northern China for much of the early part of the century, as evidenced by the architecture (which almost looks like Europe). Still today, many of the goods hawked in souvenir shops are Russian, and the most common foreign tourists are also Russian (which would explain why, while I was there, most Chinese thought I was Russian. Some even tried to speak Russian to me). A lot of foreign architecture was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, and we are lucky that we still have some of the architecture left today, including the Church of St. Sophia, restored and in beautiful shape.
Harbin is also home to some of China's minority groups, including Manchus and Mongols. Heilongjiang was, before 1949, considered "Manchuria," which is where the Qing dynasty began and where the Japanese began their invasion of China in 1931 (and for a short period it was renamed "Manchukuo"). We can still see influence here through the food, much of which is spicy fatty meats.
The Ice Festival, however, was the main pull for me as I bundled up and headed north. This year, there were 3 parks where we could see ice and snow sculptures. The first was held in Zhaolin Park, and for the first time, was entirely Disney themed. A private company licensed by Disney took over the designs, making giant versions of Cinderella's castle, the Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Mickey's small toon house cottage. We had a wonderful time riding down a slide on the Black Pearl, although (since the slide was made of ice) it was very cold.
The next park we went to was across the Songjiang river in Sun Island Park, which was by far the largest display. This one was distinct because the sculptures were not actually made of ice, but snow. And for some reason (I still am not clear) many of the sculptures were about...Finland...? (except for, of course, the Bird's Nest).
The final park was supposed to be the biggest (as it was the most expensive) but it was actually the smallest of the three, its just that the sculptures were the largest of any of the parks. Giant pagodas, Buddhas, mosques, churches, and of course, a 40 foot tall bottle of Harbin Beer. There were activities at this park also on the larger scale, such as a slide that one slides down on a sled (which means that they go harrowing down a tunnel of ice as ice chips spray in their face so they can't even see as they crash into a hard snowbank, which effectively dislocates their legs), and tobogganing on a pool of ice.
All and all, Harbin was a wonderful place to visit, as, along with our ice castle adventures, we also visited the Siberian tiger park (which was a tentative ride on a bus covered in cages through a field filled with 800 pound tigers that could have very easily made the bus topple over if they had the mind to it).
We also walked along a road with old Russian architecture (and ate some fabulous Russian food), and went to some Buddhist temples, which were beautiful. I actually found Harbin one of the most pleasant Chinese cities I've ever been to, despite the freezing cold and Chinese peoples' attempts to speak Russian to me. I would highly recommend a trip to Harbin.
As a side note, I stopped in Jilin city on the way up to Harbin. I spent 7 hours in Jilin, which was honestly 5 hours too many. I only went up hoping to see the trees crystallize with ice (which they weren't) and to see a Confucian temple (which had been torn down). Also, information for others like me, Jilin has no coffee shop. :P