Harbin is a bustling city close to China’s Russian border. Winter temperatures average a punishing minus 20 to 30 degrees. Yet during this time of year travellers from all around the world head there in droves.
The appeal? The annual snow and ice festival. Every winter the city invites people to party amongst spectacular snow and ice sculptures and buildings. Watching the yearly media coverage from Sydney I was determined to see it in person. At the beginning of 2014 I finally did, but the experience wasn’t all magical.
Here are my top ten most memorable moments from the weekend.
1. The overnight train from Beijing
This was my first time in a sleeping carriage. It was pretty comfy! A friend and I shared a four-bed compartment with two others. One was an interesting South Korean photojournalist on assignment at the ice festival. The other didn’t talk much but snored plenty. Either way, I was too excited to be fussy – ho, Harbin ahead!
2. Realising your 57 layers of clothing just might be enough
Rejoice! The piles of money you spent at the discount ski clothing warehouse paid off. I felt like a spindle wrapped in an endless thread of thermal underwear – but at least I managed to walk around outside without turning into a popsicle.
3. Snowball fight fail
Temperatures were so low, the snow just wasn’t sticky enough to make anything with. It was powdery and squishy between my fingers. My heart sunk when I tried to throw a snowball – the intended ice fight of the death was more like flour sprinkle time. So I just wrote my name a billion times with a stick.
4. Harbin haute couture
I learnt that it’s very hard to feel or look attractive in minus 30 degree weather. You’re wearing a balloon shaped jacket, your thermal leggings are making your jeans pull in uncomfortable directions and your nose and eyes won’t stop watering. I have much to learn from Harbin locals. They effortlessly cat-walked around Zhongyang Dajie (the main street) in attractive faux fur jackets or adorable matching face-masks and mittens. I obviously wasn’t from there.
5. Hugging an arctic fox (who hates you)
Me: O-M-G, WHAT’S THAT?!!? (My exclamation when I saw the beautiful white arctic fox sitting on a small table outside the ice maze. That’s right, I was thirteen again.)
Me: “Oh, 20 Kuai ($5) for a photo? Ummm… hmm..”
My friend: “Go on, it’s oka-”
Me: “OK, if you insist!!!”… (Picking up animal) “HELLO sweety, you’re soooo cute and beautiful I’m gonna squish you and take you back to Beijing!”
From her expression you could tell the fox was fantasising about my slow and painful death. Still, best 20 Kuai spent ever.
6. Flying down a mega ice slide on a rubber ring
This massive and pretty steep ice-slide was one of the rides at the fun park built over Harbin’s frozen Songhua river. Our outdoor ice-skating hadn’t delivered top speeds, but this attraction could. I hesitated as I got into the rubber donut realising the potential for dangerous collisions. But before I could reconsider a worker manning the ride pulled me to the edge, and with a nonchalant kick said “hao, zou!”/ “ok, go!” Loud screaming ensued. I survived – and had the biggest grin on my face afterwards. But geez, I hope those guys have third party insurance.
7. Every hot drink establishment with free wifi
Defrost stops every few hours were essential. Entering those heated cafes was like getting a big warm hug. Wrapping your fingers around a hot coffee, chocolate or green-tea salted caramel latte was the perfect way to power back up and prepare to face the freezing outdoors again. Wifi was handy for helping us choose which Dong Bei cuisine or Russian restaurant to try next!
8. Finding Narnia
Yep, it’s real. There’s no wardrobe or strangely attractive half goat-man, but there is a giant snow Buddha and enough ice slides to fill a lifetime. I was so excited I wanted to run around like crazy and climb everything. Freezing? Nah, just a little chilly. Now let’s go check out the castle over there after ringing that massive bell!!
9. Paying a go-between to escape hell frozen over
Do you know the meaning of despair? Despair is being so cold that every movement is painful – it’s wanting nothing more than to retreat indoors as fast as you can to preserve your quickly blueing extremities… then exiting to see a line of THOUSANDS of people waiting to take the same small bus back to the city as you. I almost called my parents to say I love you.
Then out of nowhere: “qu nali? / going where?” – the voice of an angel (or just a guy looking to make a quick buck). After a snap-negotiation with my savvy friend, the exchange of cash and a few minutes waiting on the sidewalk – we beat the queues and were in a taxi. My toes could live to see another day!
10. Seeing the festival lights after nightfall
It turns out making enemies with a fox, ungracefully falling over on ice while standing still and dealing with nightmare crowds was absolutely worth it. I know I’ll never forget that weekend… one where I walked around a real-life winter wonderland. Just magic.