Trip duration: 2 days if you are already in Beijing | Approx cost: £80 | When: Jan/Feb
Doinit factor: It’s so colourful and so cold!
Have you ever looked at an ice sculpture, acknowledge the craftsmanship that goes into it, yet failed to truly admire and be dazzled by it? The Harbin International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival is sure to change your perception. Dan Nusl visits this icy wonderland and quickly discovers a new perspective.
Located 20 minutes outside the city centre, within easy and affordable taxi reach, every year hundreds of sculptures are erected and Harbin’s skyline becomes that much brighter. Opening every year on the 5th January and lasting one month the festival draws crowds from all over the world and includes renowned sights such as the Eiffel Tower, The Coliseum, The Taj Mahal, and many more.
On arrival the first thing we notice is how dramatically the temperature drops once the sun goes down. Relatively well prepared we venture into the cold, but with one mistake, we had been prepared for the temperatures affiliated with Beijing rather than Harbin. The thermometer hugs -17 degrees and the cold starts to sneak its way up through the soles of our shoes and the fingers tips of our gloves. All this and it’s only been a minute. Even our thermals and ski jackets are little barrier from the cold. Moving seems to be the best option so we make a plan of action to circumnavigate the ice city once before regrouping over a hot chocolate to warm up and venturing out to take pictures.With no time to waste our stroll turns more into a gentle jog as we struggle with the temperatures. We meander through the sights and I can’t help but be astonished at the size and delicacy of the work. Bright lights run through the blocks giving an astonishing aurora which lights up the sky. I am glad we came at night despite the freezing temperatures. Even the surface is a constant battle, with the floor entirely made from ice I lose my balance and take a fall. By now our hands are frozen and our faces starting to turn a pale shade of blue so we make a break for the coffee shop and take a seat in the only place not made from ice. With no heating inside it’s not what you would call warm, however it’s the lesser of evils and we take the opportunity to ‘warm up’.With feeling returning to our hands, feet and faces we go back to brave the wilderness but this time to take pictures. It’s the only point at which even with the cotton gloves I have on my hands are exposed and away from the comparable comfort of my pockets. There is an almost instant freezing of my fingers and I know we can not last long before taking another ‘warming up session’. We climb some ice steps to a viewing platform that overlooks the festival. Carefully placing one foot in front of the other we both almost slip once again. But alas, we make it and are rewarded with a spectacular view. It seems we have the best vintage point of the festival.
Many people clamber around wanting to sneak a picture, but it’s not what it seems. With Harbin isolated so far from the westerner world, it seems that we have stolen the show. Locals take the opportunity to take a picture of what might be the only Westerners they have ever seen. Smiles all round as we move on and down the torturous stairs.We try to pace ourselves towards another huge sculpture but half way there, once again the cold wins and we are made to retreat to a coffee shop. So far we have spent more time inside, admiring the hot chocolate rather than the ice wonders that lie outside but truly our ill-preparation is the only thing to blame.After a further 20 minutes the usual drill commences and we jog between everything we want to see. The sculptures are such a nice welcome from the grey of winter in China and it seems people’s mood is soaring high. Every colour can be seen and I wonder how it’s possible that the heat generated from the lights don’t affect the integrity and look of the sculpture. I conclude that it must just be so cold, that it over powers the minimal current that is supplied to each bulb.
In the centre stands the gem of the festival. What appears to be a replica of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, it’s definitely my favourite. It’s colourful and overwhelmingly huge. There is even the detail of dolphins lit up in the forecourt and it seems to use enough illumination as the actual hotel and casino itself. It makes for some breath taking pictures but as I snap away, my battery flashes red. My battery that had been fully charged prior to arriving! The coldness has drained the lithium battery and now means I have to be quick and selective. We scurry back to the coffee shop wear I take the battery out and place it in my pocket in a bid to keep it warm. Surely enough, by the time we leave the relative comfort there’s life back in it.
We agree to break for it one last time and rush around taking pictures of what we can. The next 10 minutes are frantic as we forget that we are here to admire everything first person. All we worry about is taking pictures and in retrospect I wish we had taken more time to soak in the atmosphere and gaze at the marvels. Every time we agree to call it a day, one of us stops to take a picture of something that we had not managed to fit in yet. Upon finally making our way to the exit we are stopped by some curious locals who want nothing more than a picture of two westerners clearly out of their depth. A quick pose, a couple of frozen limbs and we rush into the nearest taxi.
WHERE TO STAY
A simple internet search will relieve ample options for accommodation. Like all cities you can find luxury as well as more modest accommodation.