If you’ve never heard of Harbin before, it’s ok. Nor had I. When it comes to Asian geography, the Dongbei (north east) region of China isn’t a particular focal point in key stage 2 gepography. Harbin is a city of interest to Chinese people largely because of the Russian influence in the main city. The Central Street has a definite European vibe, but to me it’s nothing out of the ordinary because I’m European. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d assume that all Chinese city centres have clean Chester style cobbles and square stone buildings with polished plaques. As Harbin is the first and only city I’ve been to in China, I don’t have anything to compare it to, but it’s a big attraction to Chinese tourists, who flock here to get a glimpse of another world. Unless you’re big on architecture, it’s not of great interest to non-Chinese people.
Outside of China, Harbin is most famous for three things:
1) Harbin Beer. I’m not a beer connoisseur so I can’t tell you much about this, except that it’s by far the cheapest beer to buy here, and three bottles is more than enough to give you a headache. It’s Harbin’s biggest export, and every summer the week-long Harbin International Beer Festival turns the Central Street into an organised piss up.
2) Harbin Sausage. It’s made to a special Dongbei recipe which is part Chinese, part Russian. To me, it tastes like the smoked sausage you can buy at Lidl, except the chunks of fat inside are much larger. Normal Chinese sausage is small and pathetic and contain whoknowswhat% meat. They look like hotdog sausages, but they’re mushy, more like paste than sausage. So again, a crunchy garlicky European style sausage takes the prize.
3) The weather. Even though it’s not the northernmost part of China, it seems to be the coldest. Something about the position in relation to the Siberian winds, and believe me when I say you can feel it. I’ve been told several times how mild this winter has been (today is –22c), so I’ve been lucky coming this year. The weather itself isn’t the main attraction, but the way we deal with it has become one. Instead of complaining and closing schools, we turn it into an industry. We make beautiful ornate snow and ice sculptures. Well, I don’t, but other people do. Dotted around the city are magnificent sculptures made from snow (the white ones) and ice (the clear ones). The snow is genuine snow from the sky, and the ice was harvested from the frozen Songhua river.
Last Friday I went to the World Famous International Snow and Ice Festival. The most international part was the national flags hanging in the entrance tent. The rest was entirely Chinese. Over the top, neon, and in violation of all my health and safety instincts. But also very impressive, unimaginable in size and detail, and all hand-made over the past few weeks. At night, we took taxis over the bridge to the other side of the river, to an area called Sun Island, where the festival was held. As we crossed the river in darkness, the festival could be seen illuminated in the distance, and I felt like I was on my way to Blackpool. There were plenty of people there but it wasn’t packed, and after paying 260RMB (about £26) we could spend the evening wandering around. As we posed for photos, on several occasions there would be at least one other camera lens flashing in our direction, foreigners still a novelty to Chinese people.
As we wandered around the ice castles and domes and palaces, we came to an unlit section in one corner which looked like a little cordoned off ski-slope. Crowds were gathering and music was thundering from this corner, and I watched as about 50 Chinese men sheathed in togas and red headgear, loosely resembling Roman soldiers, on ice-skates, skating around the slopes in single file like Penguin Racers and waving PRC flags. Suddenly, from over the crest of the hill appears another group of skaters in darker clothes. They gather at the bottom of the slope and begin marching and carrying 10ft logs. There are two opposing sides. Then a man, suspended above the scene from a 50ft crane and dressed in top to toe fur, starts doing air acrobatics. The dramatic music roared into a climactic finale involving face to face combat, more felled trees and resounding cheers from the crowd as the Romans come away the victors. It occurs to me later that they’re possibly recreating the Cultural Revolution on ice, and I realise where my £26 has gone.
Aside from this random human exhibition, the rest of the festival was all snow/ice. Recreations of Beijing’s Forbidden City, Mr Bean, a nightmarish duck enclosure, fairy tale statues, Praying Houses, a 20ft Buddha, ice slides, horses and carriages, it was all there and illuminated. The ice sculptures were made from ice blocks like an igloo, and had LED neon lights set inside them to give that ethereal glow and frequently plastered with big city logos and sponsors. The opaque snow sculptures looked a bit more demure with yellow lights beaming up at them from ground level.
Towards the exit were the ice sculptures, competition pieces that were sectioned off and had their own plaques. The detail and vision was incredible, but my favourite one was the simplest one there. A lifesize mannequin in the clutch of a giant fist. It’s hard to tell whether the fist has swooped in to save the man from some sort of horror, or whether he’s fighting to escape its grasp.
The temperature is about –26c in there, but we knew it was going to be so can’t really complain about it. After 2 hours, we were cold enough and satisfied enough to leave. The sculptures were magnificent and it’s definitely something you should do once, even if it is a little expensive.