There’s cold, and then there’s colder and then there’s F****ng freezing, and in the city of Harbin that is the default temperature setting.
What on earth made AMM and I decide to nip up north to Harbin for a 48 hour mini-break during Spring Festival? You may well ask. The short answer is that we were lured by the chance to visit one of the world’s great ice festivals which takes place in Harbin from early January to late February each year.
A couple of hours after arriving in the city we had donned two layers of thermal underwear and wrapped up in coats, scarves, hats, gloves, padded boots and were in a taxi en route to the Festival park. It was quite dark by then, but I could still see and be unnerved by the large patches of sheet ice on the streets along which the taxi driver was hurtling with wild abandon. It crossed my mind that if he had to slam on the brakes I might not live to see the festival. So I took action – I closed my eyes and hummed a cheerful tune to myself.
The effect is surreal, gaudy, vulgar and yet beautiful at the same time. Crunching snow underfoot, we wandered from one edifice to the next ooh-ing and aah-ing like children. Every few moments some of the lighting inside the structures changes colour, which alters how it appears.
There were massive snow carvings, the most impressive of which was one of Buddha, in front of which were strings of Buddhist prayer flags, an altar for incense burning and prayer mats for worshippers to use; from the loud speakers the relentless chanting of Buddhist mantras echoed round the area interspersed with the occasional banging of a gong, or the clanging of bells.
In other parts of the festival area non-stop jaunty Chinese pop music was playing full blast. We wandered past stalls selling spicy Uyghur lamb kebabs, others selling hot corn-on-the-cob, or sticks of candied haws. Or you could have an icecream – icecream – in this weather, were they mad?
We ended up watching an outdoor Ice Show which had hundreds of skaters in dayglo outfits with tiny lights all over them, they did lots of different dance routines, one using ice-mobiles,another incorporating a huge sledge carrying a vast jagged metal urn blazing with fire; and last but by no means least, a really extraordinary synchronised dance performed by machinery which I (not being very au fait with construction equipment) would call ‘diggers’.
By then I was so cold it was painful, I could feel my eyeballs turning to ice. When I breathed into the scarf which was wrapped round the lower half of my face my breath froze and turned the scarf into an ice mask. Time to leave.
So what did we do after that? Mad fools that we are, we went for a quick pre-dinner drink in an Ice Bar. We sat at a table made of ice, on a chair made of ice (fur cushion provided), with ice walls, bar, ceiling, shelves of ice; there was even a model grand piano made of ice…you get the picture. The waitress asked if I wanted ice with my Gin & Tonic, for the first time in my life I said ‘NO’!
I’m glad we went, it was extraordinary, but it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience and so I’ve ticked it off my list.