Image ©REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon via The Telegraph
Back in 2001 I was living in the Chinese Capital, Beijing with some friends from University.
It was a Gap year of sorts, (A second one) we’d been given the opportunity to teach English as a foreign language at a degree preparation School and the job came with an apartment near to the school.
Each Semester the School would have a have a break for their holidays which meant we were left with the opportunity to explore the Country. At the time China still didn’t allow the sale of travel guides as they often included maps or references to territories that they disputed & our access to the internet was limited so our knowledge of what there was to see and do outside of the more famous sights was limited to what we could tease out of our local friends.
We’d started by taking short trips to other cities or famous places. Summer break was an easy decision – let’s go find a beach (easy decision but not so easy to do in practice. If you do manage to find a decent beach its normally crowded with chinese men in full on Mao suits wading in the water. It’s a sight to behold.)
A Chinese friend told us about a Winter festival with snow and lights (It sounded so Disney) in the North East of the country. She offered to purchase train tickets for us and sort out a hotel as at this stage our Chinese wasn’t good enough to do much on our own.
2001 was actually the first time the snow, skiing and ice events had been held together and is recognised as the official first year of the modern international festival although individually they had been taking place since the 1960’s
We didn’t really give it much thought, it was a week away and we always had good adventures no matter where we ended up so we jumped at the chance.
The three of us had no idea what to expect other than it would be cold so we spent the preceding day at what used to be known as ‘Silk Alley’. This aptly named black market (due to its location in a series of dark alleyways which have sadly now been bulldozed and repurposed) was full of knock offs straight from the factories and if you weren’t careful fake versions.
You could buy literally anything there and it was excellent for clothing and outdoor wear. Lots of major brands had factories in China and inevitably some of their products found their way onto the black market. Sadly the market is gone now after the city was renovated prior to the Olympic games. The indoor market that now bears the same name is little more than a tourist attraction with prices often higher than the shops and the friendly bartering is no more.
Gortex winter gear was probably the biggest seller at the time and if you knew what you were looking at you could easily get genuine products for 70% less than they were sold in Europe.
After a full day of bartering with the ladies in the market we returned home head to toe in arctic expedition standard kit.
The next day we were dropped off at a train station with an envelope containing our train tickets, a print out of our hotel reservation and a helpful hand written letter in Chinese that would explain who we were, where our hotel was and our travel plans in case we needed help. (They included three copies as they knew something would likely go wrong)
The first thing we noticed was that we had tickets on a sleeper train. We hadn’t thought to ask how long it would take so as soon as we had boarded the train we found a conductor who spoke English. He told us it would take between 14 & 15 hours and that the journey was almost 800 miles.
800 miles! That’s almost the same distance as the length of the UK from Lands End to John O’Groats.
Unfortunately, there were no high-speed trains in those days. I hear you can now travel from Beijing to Harbin in less than 8 hours on China’s modern rail network.
It was going to take a lot of ‘Tsing Tao’ beer and fried dumplings to get us through that.
For those of you that have never been lucky enough to travel on the old Chinese trains this is what you missed out on;
The toilets – a metal rimmed hole in the floor ala ‘Squat & Drop’. Obviously said hole also gave you a great view of the train tracks flying past underneath and a very cold bum from the updraft. The important rule when riding these trains was to use the toilets only within the first few hours. Chinese people weren’t fans of toilet paper, preferring to use the high-powered water spray to clean themselves.
The problem with this was that after an hour or two of people with dirty muddy shoes, pooping, peeing and spraying water all over the floor (squatting can be hard enough without bouncing along train tracks) the cubicle started to look and smell like a vomit inducing cess pit. I once took a 40hr train trip on a seated train which was so crowded and the toilets were that bad that people were doing their business wherever they could.
Other passengers – No matter how long a train journey is, Chinese people will eat and talk throughout the entire journey. Even in the sleeper carriages, unless the lights were out they would be up and active the whole time.
Not all passengers are human – I’ve shared train rides with chickens, dogs and even a very angry and flatulent goat once.
In case you’d never thought about it, animals don’t use squat toilets. I guess they might fall through the hole so beware, anything at or near ground level including sleeping people are at risk of becoming wet and smelly.
Choosing a bunk. My advice is always get the middle bunk. The top bunk is about 12 inches below the aircon duct and the bottom bunk is low enough to wake up with a chicken shitting on your leg. Either that or you wake up to find an entire family using the edge of your bed as a sofa spitting out the shells of sunflower seeds all over your sheets. Worse still if it’s a bumpy ride you could end up scalded by someone’s boiling hot water. I never did figure out why the Chinese drank hot water instead of cold. The water dispensers at the school were heated even during summer.
We were quite used to long train journeys by now so armed with our litre bottles of beer, dumplings, fake pringles and a deck of cards we survived the journey and even got a few hours’ sleep.
We arrived very early in the morning and with the help of our basic language skills and the address of our hotel written on our emergency letter we took a taxi to our hotel.
Our friend had done us proud here and booked us into a business hotel so the staff spoke English, unlikely every other person in Harbin.
Left: The modern Chinese train bunks from my visit in 2014.
We slept till lunchtime before getting togged up in our arctic snow gear and headed out to explore.
Harbin is in the far North of the country and is situated almost midway between the borders of North Korea & Russian Siberia. Thus, it’s never particularly warm, even in summer it rarely goes above 18 degrees Celsius. On the other hand, in Winter it’s been known to be as cold as minus 38 degrees Celsius. It was about -15 during the day when we were there and easily dropped to -20 overnight.
We were cold even with our arctic weather gear. Anything more than an hour out in the cold led to Icy cheek bones. I’m one of those odd people that just doesn’t drink hot drinks but even found I needed something in those conditions. The locals were obviously more accustomed to the conditions but you rarely saw Andy without a hat and gloves. Exposed flesh is in serious risk of frostbite. Saying that I did see a drunk man peeing in the street and was amazed to see it had frozen almost as soon as it hit the floor so god only knows what state his poor little fella was in by the time he got home.
It was noticeable that the environment had also influenced the evolution of its inhabitants. The locals had a slightly Russian look to them which was odd with them being Chinese. They were slightly paler in complexion and Everyone was of much larger build than I had seen anywhere else in the country. I’m guessing that the extreme temperatures have led them to ‘fatten’ to insulate themselves against the cold.
Right outside our hotel was the main square which, despite the temperature was filled with tables and chairs. We discovered that the winter festival was their version of a Spanish fiesta where everyone sat outside eating and drinking. At the centre was a fire pit and to our horror a horse was being roasted above it on a spit.
My buddy was not a fan of Chinese food (meal times in China were always fun. Imagine a year or constant arguments about what to have for dinner.) or indeed any food away from the English norm so he convinced us to go and find the local McDonalds which he had found nearby on a map the hotel had given us.
This turned out to be a good idea as it gave us our first taste of the festival. We found the McDonalds just a few blocks away and we were amazed when we saw a group of men outside carving the iconic ‘Golden Arches’ out of Ice. It was amazing to see and we had no idea that the Ice festival was going to be full of amazing sculptures.
There are two parts to the festival, during the day the park on Sun Island was open and showcased amazing snow sculptures and at night various parks within the city centre open to display the Ice scultpures.
We had been directed to the river which we would have to cross to get to Sun Island and had asked where the nearest bridge or ferry was but were told not to worry as it was easy to cross and there were lots of options. On our arrival, we saw exactly what they meant. The river was frozen solid. I’ve seen frozen rivers before but this was huge, at points you could barely see the other side and the Ice was thick enough that not only people but mini buses were using it as just another road.
The road to the side of the river was high above water level but of course these ingenious people have sorted that as well. They built themselves a giant slide made from large blocks of ice. We couldn’t wait to have a go, thinking it was a novelty tourist attraction and although it does well in that account we saw men in suits on their way to work sliding down on their briefcases and woman carrying shopping bags following suit.
Our first few steps after sliding down the long ice pathway were tentative to say the least, despite the mini buses and even cyclists crossing the frozen river I think we all thought the ice would break or we would slip and break an arm. These thoughts were soon dispelled as we could see through the clear frozen Ice. There was no sign of any flowing water underneath in fact it was just like walking on a glacier it must have been frozen very deeply. After a few minutes the stupid gene kicked in and we were sliding and dragging each other across until we reached the other side.
We found the park we had been told to visit and were greeted by an avenue of trees that had been sprayed with water which had in turn frozen as it ran off creating stalactites making the trees look like they had been carved from sparkling crystals.
This park was the ‘snow’ park and contained hundreds of elaborate sculptures made from snow. There were no snowmen here, instead there were dragons and other creatures of Chinese lore, perfectly detailed replicas of the Xian Warriors, animals of every kind and even depictions of historical or mythological events (History & Mythology have a habit of blurring in China).
A giant chessboard had been created in one section of the park with each of the pieces made from pure white compacted snow. Each piece was over 6ft in height and many had even been dressed with clothing or brightly coloured banners and sashes. Standing between them was amazing it felt like we had been transported to the set of some epic fantasy film. One group of artists had created a line of dwarfs following Snow White so well it could have been made by Disney itself.
After a few hours of marvelling at the snow creations we walked back to our hotel. Unfortunately, there was no slide on the park side of the river as the pathway beside the bank was barely two feet above the water. Obviously, we stopped at the other side to have a few more goes on the slide before heading back.
That night we visited the main attraction, the Ice Sculptures. I thought that nothing would ever top what we had seen at the snow park but I was very much mistaken.
Where-as the snow sculptures were big the Ice artists had gone for what could only be described as ‘to scale’.
The centre piece of that year’s event was a full-size replica of the Taj Mahal. Now, I’ve never seen the actual Taj Mahal so I can’t say if it was indeed the same size but I can say that it was huge, the doorways were taller than me and it was easily as large as a three-story building.
As much as that was the centre piece there were many equally as incredible structures on show including a section of the great wall with a slide and a full size Egyptian Sphinx with yet another slide on its back. There was an immense Maze full of screaming lost children and equally distraught parents. Rows and rows of traditional style buildings had been recreated along with steam trains, cars and statues of gods from every religion imaginable. There was a four-storey Pagoda and even an ice replica of a Ferris wheel. Of course, every exhibit was lit up in different colours making the whole place feel like a giant fairground.
There is a also a competetive side to the festival, much like the Chelsea flower show indiviual artists or teams compete for prizes and there are more and more international artists taking part each year.
The artistry and effort that must go into these creations is incredible. If they had been in charge of building the Great Pyramids of Giza I think they would have reached the moon.
I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like this and I would love to go back one day to show my Wife, although secretly that’s just my excuse to have a go on more Ice slides and take some better pictures as sadly digital cameras were not common in those days and what few I still have are of very poor quality.
I make sure that I see the pictures from each year’s festival and they just seem to get bigger and better. I wouldn’t be surprised if one year they found a way to build a replica solar system.
Often, I say to people “If you ever get the chance to go…” but sadly Harbin is not the kind of place that anyone just ‘gets the chance to go’ to. Its somewhere you need to make a concerted effort to visit, even in this day and age of high speed trains.
To this day, it still doesn’t get the mainstream publicity that it deserves, sure most travel publications and newspapers print a few pictures each year but they don’t do it justice. Apart from perhaps meeting Panda cubs in Chengdu no other attraction or experience in China even comes close to Harbin’s winter festival.
Visiting the Snow & Ice Festival in Harbin is something so amazing that it should be present on everyone’s bucket list.
Above: Some images from more recent festivals
- Harbin’s Snow & Ice Festival is the largest of its kind in the World with some sculptures exceeding 45m in height.
- It’s getting more and more popular each year close to 15 million people visited during the last festival.
- The main festival runs from late December to 15th February but dates may change so always check in advance. Weather is obviously a big factor.
- It takes more than 10,000 sculptures and artists & labourers to cut, haul and shape the exhibits.
- Back in 2001 we had no choice but to take the train as a flight from Beijing to Harbin would have cost us around £300. I understand that flight prices have reduced dramatically but it still remains an expensive option and takes around an hour to travel from the nearest airport to the festival sites in a taxi which no doubt will be charging massively increased rates (As with any Chinese Taxi you must insist they turn the meter on, make sure you can see it so it isnt running fast and make sure you have plenty of small notes as beaking large ones could result in receiving fake notes back. Trains are thankfully much quicker these days, typically taking less than 8 hours and cost around £30.
- Temperatures will be sub zero so you will require good quality cold weather gear, people who come unprepared do get frostbite. Also, take sunglasses as we found that despite the freezing temperatures it was often clear and the sun was very bright if not warm. Staring at pure white snow and brightly lit ice scultpures day and night can really hurt your eyes.