To wander into a restaurant in Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province, is to find a scene not too unlike one you might find in a ski lodge. Red faces appear frozen in their last expression, hands cling desperately to hot beverages, mounds of clothes lay piled on any available furniture, and, perhaps most notably, the warm interior air is filled with a murmured excitement. For, while the restaurant offers a necessary respite from the freezing temperatures outside of it, the weather itself, no matter how cold, is exhilarating, and the experiences that can be had in it, whether it be exploring the dusty backstreets of a Russian city left from a bygone era or marveling at the towering ice sculptures that give the city its fame, are so unique that you want to duck into a warm place not out of a want to escape the cold but out of a reluctant necessity to avoid frostbite. And so was our dilemma for the duration of our time in Harbin, balancing our desire to see as much as we could with our desire to feel our limbs.
If there was any part of us that thought that growing up in the frigid winters of Ohio and Iowa meant that we would be better equipped to handle the cold of Harbin, it was laughed out of the room the second we stepped off the plane and felt the arctic air gripping our body as we scampered to the shuttle bus. We would later find that the average January temperature in Ohio and Iowa sits somewhere around 30 degrees Fahrenheit while Harbin’s is down in the single digits. With those figures in mind, we applied layers to our body with reckless abandon the next morning before heading out to Zhongyang (or Central) Street, whose name implied an apt place to start our exploration of Harbin.
The street, and Harbin itself, got its start at the turn of the 20th century when Russian railroad builders chose the site as the terminus station for one of their cross-continent lines. In the ensuing decades, Russia’s influence on Harbin was unparalleled, even among the Chinese, as they essentially erected a city from scratch and filled its streets with its people and culture. After World War II though, with the Russian army in firm control of the city after wrestling it out of the hands of the Japanese, the city was hallowed out when its Russian population, which numbered into the hundreds of thousands, was forcibly deported back to Russia, leaving just 450 left by the early 1960’s. While the people who gave the city its unmistakably Russian character were no longer there, the skeleton of their influence remained in the form of buildings and a culture that were still very much visible during our visit to the city over half a century later; nowhere was this more noticeable than on Zhongyang Street.
Entering the street, we became a bit disoriented as surrounding us were Baroque and Byzantine-style buildings, cobbled streets, Russian cafes and bakeries, and fellow revelers so bundled that it was difficult to make out their species let alone their nationality; in other words, scenery that in no way hinted that we were in China. Pulling us back to reality though was the overly cheerful face of a Chinese girl etched into a block of snow that rose well above the reach of our heads. Surrounding her was an array of less eye-grabbing designs celebrating the upcoming Chinese New Year and that, we decided, placed us firmly, and perhaps a bit harshly, back into the context of China.
As we wandered further down the street, the view of buildings and trees that had dominated our surroundings up to that point gave way to the more open scenery of the Songhua River where an army of amateur snowmen shot off in either direction along the waterfront. If army gives the impression of uniformity and seriousness, the snowmen were anything but, being similar only in number. Rather, they were decorated mostly with an absurd array of googly eyes, cartoon mouths contorted in a variety of exaggerated expressions, and colorful tinsel draped around their bodies like a scarf. Apart from their faces, their size also varied from one to the next from those that barely topped off at our chests to others that stretched well beyond the reach of the tallest tree.
Having taken in our fair share of snowmen, we ventured down to the river which was completely frozen over, so much so that trucks were able to move across it to load and haul away the two ton ice bricks used to build the city’s famous ice sculptures. Along with the trucks were crowds of people partaking in different ice-themed activities that ranged from the familiar skating to a game that involved whipping a spinning top to prevent it from toppling over. With no skates and our whipping skills rusty, we decided to partake instead in the timeless and all age-inclusive fun of running up to a patch of ice and seeing how far we could slide across it.
After doing this several times we walked on, though our ability to stay atop the ice was fleeting for, however cold we thought it was while not walking over a mass of frozen water, it couldn’t compare with the arctic chill invading our bodies not only from the ice below but also from the steady, numbing breeze blowing over top of it. No longer able to enjoy our surroundings, we headed back up towards Zhongyang Street, which seemed comparatively cozy, a feeling we would continue to pursue by stopping in a small Russian restaurant where we basked in its warmth like a lizard under a heat lamp.
Once feeling returned to our fingertips and toes, we ordered an array of hot dishes and tea to aid in the thawing process. As we sat, we watched as others sought the same warm refuge as us. Through the fog of their own breath, layer-laden bodies whose rotundness would make even the Michelin Man blush, made their way to open tables, peeling off coat after coat until a heap of winter wear lay piled up behind them, nearly pushing them off the front of their chair. Like a greedy baron stashing away his money, we kept our layers on, building up as much warmth in our bodies as we could in the fruitless hope that it would serve to keep us warm once we left the restaurant.
We would need all the warmth we could get for a visit to the Ice Festival was in our near future and we expected that, whatever chill we had felt while atop the frozen Songhua River, the one we would be experiencing amidst a city of ice after nightfall would be even more. The sun set at a surprisingly early 3:56 p.m. (perhaps Harbin was a bit too chilly for even the sun to hang around longer than it needed to) and we arrived not long after with any traces of the sun, whether it be light or warmth, long gone.
As we approached the festival, we felt as if we had bought a ticket to another world. The uniform black of the night sky served as the perfect backdrop for the glowing brilliance of the ice sculptures which rose up from the snow-covered ground in every way imaginable. There were walls, bridges, towering buildings, churches, temples, and castles. The Roman Colisseum was even on display. As if the size and scope of the structures wasn’t enough, each one emanated a different color that, when looked at together with the buildings around it, created a rainbow of glowing ice across the landscape. Some of the colors remained unchanged within their given structure, while others faded in and out of each other, purples turning to blues turning to greens as they rose up through the ice, making the buildings they illuminated appear alive as they coursed into the night sky. Funnily enough, the way the ice blocks looked reminded us of embers in a fire, emanating a calm and steady glow. Far removed from the contemplative coziness of a fireside, the ice blocks drew our attention in all the same.
Standing in contrast to the radiance of the buildings were the people moving around them. If the buildings were the definition of light, the figures were the complete absence of it. Always in the form of a silhouette, they seemed an extension of the nighttime sky above them; an unwavering black. You would think that one would pay little attention to the comparative dullness of black when surrounded by a gigantic, illuminated ice city, but the crowd of shadows served as the perfect accompaniment to the buildings, always reminding us of just how bright and monumental they were.
While standing outside of one particular ice sculpture that resembled a church, we were approached by a reporter from a news channel who wanted to interview us about our experiences in Harbin (you can find the videos here and here). However exciting it was to do the interview, it meant standing still for an extended period of time which spelt doom for our waning ability to feel our fingers and feet. After the interview ended, out of sight of the reporter and cameraman of course, we danced and shook our bodies wildly to restore as much circulation to our limbs as possible (sorry, no videos of that one) before continuing our exploration of the festival. Not wanting to lose what little warmth we had managed to restore to our bodies, we would spend the rest of our time there in a constant state of motion, pausing only to snap a quick picture. When finally, the cold became too much to bear, we left the festival to head back to our hotel.
The next day would see us return to Zhongyang Street where, this time, we would be heading away from the river and towards the city’s most iconic permanent structure: St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Wanting to get off the crowded confines of the pedestrian street, we made our way through the Russian quarter’s less-trafficked alleyways which, unlike the restored and admired Zhongyang Street, were full of crumbling edifices whose influence had seemingly been lost along with the population that built them; a fate that the cathedral almost suffered itself.
Built in the early 20th Century to help restore confidence to Russian troops who had just lost a war to the Japanese, the cathedral stood as the center and symbol of the city until the formation of the People’s Republic of China. Like so many other cultural sights within the country, the communist takeover of it spelt doom for the cathedral. While it withstood its intended destruction during the Cultural Revolution, it would endure an equally miserable fate as it became nearly forgotten as concrete apartment buildings and factories were erected within inches of its walls, making the cathedral completely invisible from the street. It wouldn’t be until several decades later, in 1997 to be precise, that it would regain its visibility after wealthy donors pooled together their money to tear down the surrounding buildings and return the cathedral to its former glory.
As we approached the cathedral, the idea that it could have remained unseen and forgotten for nearly half a century became even more absurd as we were met with, what was to us, a work of art. While the buildings of Zhongyang Street looked far from Chinese, the Chinese signs and brands that filled them were steady reminders that they were indeed, made in China. St. Sophia’s on the other hand, looked as if it were ripped from the pages of a Russian travel book and plopped down in the middle of the large ornate square that held it. Apart from the faces moving around it, one would never guess by looking at the cathedral alone that it would belong anywhere but in Russia.
As we looked upon the cathedral, our attention couldn’t help but first go to its green, bulbous roof which crowned the rest of the structure in ceremonious fashion. Trickling down from the roof was row after row of patterned brickwork, whose intricate designs would look far more at home within the pages of quilting book than on the facade of a large cathedral. Pigeons flocked from ledges, swooping back around to their perches almost immediately in a way that could only befit a pigeon. Being smaller than other cathedrals we’ve seen, we were able to make several trips around it, with each one offering a new angle or detail that we hadn’t seen before. Once there was nothing new for it to offer, we headed back to Zhongyang Street for a late lunch and dark beer at Madieer Brewery before retiring to our hotel.
For our last day in Harbin, we would head to Sun Island to take in the other headliner of the Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. While their icier counterparts across the river were best viewed at night, these, we had read, were at their best during the day. So, after a hearty hotel breakfast, we layered up and got in a taxi bound for the Snow Festival. We’re not really sure how Sun Island got its name, but, upon arrival we could venture some guesses for the midday sun was shining off of the snow to a degree that nearly blinded us in our attempt to view the different sculptures. Once our eyes adjusted, we were able to see that the park was full of the most elaborate snow creations we had ever seen. If the Ice Festival was impressive due to the size of its buildings, then the Snow Festival was so due to the intricacy of the designs on display. There were massive ones of course, but even the smaller ones were able to hold our interest due to their details and ability to tell stories in a way that the ice simply could not.
As we made our way further into the park, the sculptures grew bigger and we even were able to find intrigue in the unfinished projects and the monumental efforts being taken to bring them to completion. In the back of the park, and the grand finale of the festival itself, was a several story high sculpture that dwarfed anything we had seen up to that point and was the clear focal point of the festival as evidenced by the crowds of people staring awe struck at its base as well as the numerous activities set up in the large expanse of snow in front of it. After admiring it for a short while, we decided to escape the cold one last time in the form of a cafeteria and souvenir shop overlooking the massive sculpture. As we sipped our Harbin beers, we reveled in the joys and sights we had seen as well as the fact that, for the first time, we were finally able to enjoy the fruits of Harbin’s winter without having to experience the winter itself.
For those who have made it this far, firstly, God Bless You!, and secondly, there were a few snow sculpture pictures that didn’t make it into the blog that I though were still worth sharing. If you care to go on, here they are: