Sunday, June 8, 2008

China Trip: Ice Festival at Harbin

In January I again flew to China, this time to visit the Ice Festival at Harbin. The exchange rate in February was 12.80 Yuan to £1.

After an overnight stop in Beijing we flew with China Air to Harbin which is one and half hours flying time from Bejing. I think the pilot thought he was driving a sports car, he started off down the runway before we had even sat down!. But the times I have been to China and taken flights and trains, the transport has always left and arrived on time. We discovered that on all internal flights there is an airport tax of 50 Yuan.

Arriving at Harbin we were met by our guide Zhao Yang, none of us could pronounce this and she told us to call her Chow. We drove through a snowy wonderland into the city of Harbin. We are stopping at the Holiday Inn.

Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang province and it is 238 miles northeast of Beijing. Its Manchurian name means 'where the fishing nets are dried'. The average temperature stays below freezing for five months of the year. Until the turn of the century it was just a fishing village. Then the Manachu Dynasty agreed to let Tsarist Russia build a branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway through Harbin. With the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 about half a million Russian emigrants fled through Siberia to Harbin, consolidating the Russian appearance of the city with stucco houses and churches with onion domes.

From 1932 to 1945 Harbin was under Japanese occupation, followed by one year under the Soviet army. In 1946 the Chinese Communists took control of the city.

When my case arrived I donned my long johns, thermal vest, moon boots, several layers, gloves, scarf and hat. Even though it is sunny outside the temperature is -22

We drove down to the river. The mighty Songhua River runs through Harbin from west to east. At this time of year the Songhua freezes over and becomes an ice skating rink and winter playground for ice yachting, sledding, sleigh rides and lots more for the local people.

A long runway of ice for sledding sweeps 160 yards down the riverbank and on to the bed of the river. We watched the locals speed down with shouts of glee. One of our party went down the slide, we all just stood and admired his courage.

The ice looked a bit grubby here. There were sleds for hire pulled by German Shepherd Dogs who all looked well fed and happy. We walked down the very slippery river bank which was solid ice, onto the frozen river. It was really difficult to keep from slipping over and we were all hanging on to anything we could, including each other.

Down on the ice we had a sail boat ride which was a bit disappointing. We sat on this sail boat and were then pushed along the ice by a couple of chaps. Not what I imagined an ice yacht ride would be like at all.

We went into the pool area to watch the swimmers. The whole of the swimming pool had been cut out and was in the middle of the river, so making an ice pool. The diving boards were ice steps. There were lots of swimmers who came out, paraded round the pool to the shouts and applause of the spectators. One by one they dived into the pool, most of them doing the most ungainly belly flops which looked very painful. They swam up and down in the freezing water. Then out came another group. Men and women. In all we must have watched 30 or 40 swimmers come out to dive into the freezing waters.. Some of them were obvious favourites with the crowd.

We went on to a shopping street. At this point I realised that Harbin is not geared up to the tourist. We could find no postcards to buy, and no guide books on Harbin.

The highlight of today was a visit to the ice sculptures. Chow got us there in time to see the ice carvings in daylight and then, as it got darker, on came the lights and the ice sculptures really came to life. They are so beautiful and as we went round corner after corner more and more beautifully coloured carvings came to light. It was far better than I was expecting.

Ice sculptures at night were anazing, just like being in fairlyland
The next morning as I pulled back the curtains I discovered that it was snowing, hard.

Got all dressed up in my heavy thermal wear which I will certainly need this morning. As we left the hotel it was still snowing heavily. The snow here is a dry snow we could just brush it off our jackets, therefore staying dry. It was so dry that it was almost impossible to make snowballs although we did try!

This morning Chow took us to a snow carving park. The snow carvings were of animals, bridges and buildings. We had such fun here going down the ice slide and having a go in the snow cars it was like being children again. It snowed hard all the morning and we loved it, we felt that this is what we had come to Harbin for.

We went on to the tiger park and saw lots of tigers all looking very fat and sleek. The Chinese have a big breeding programme here in an attempt to try and save the tigers. We saw a lot of young cubs. We drove into and round a compound watching the tigers playing in the snow. We then walked along a walkway and looked down at lots of tigers who were enclosed in huge compounds. We were a little startled to see a box of live chickens half way along the walkway. Chow told us we could buy a live chicken to throw to the tigers - needless to say, none of us did.

Tigers in the snow

After lunch we went to the Ice and Snow Carvings down on the river. These carvings are much bigger than any others we had seen. Some of them were huge. There was a carving of the Sphinx, Arc de Triumph, The Matterhorn, a huge Tibetan Monastery and lots more. Some of the carvings were of huge buildings, it was wonderful. As it got dark the buildings were all lit up, it was like being in fairyland.

Photography was not easy as it was snowing heavily all day. We certainly needed all our thermal gear on today. Some of the surfaces were very slippery and we had to be very careful how we walked about.

I went into a bookshop to try and get a guide book on Harbin. Nobody spoke English. Trying to explain that what I wanted was a guide book on Harbin with English translation was impossible, and not surprisingly ended in total failure! Hand signals didn't seem to work in this instance!

I managed to get some postcards today but Harbin is not a commercial tourist area. None of us have seen another western face so it is not surprising that we are getting a lot of people staring at us, not with any animosity but with curiosity.

The next morning the sun was shining and our first stop was at the children's play park. Onthis site there is a miniature railway which is operated by the children, although not in the winter months. The railway is the only one of its kind in China. Small trains carry passengers of all ages from 'Harbin Station to Beijing Station' - a distance of just over a mile. In real life the distance is 862 miles.

It was very cold this morning even though the sun was shining. One of our parties beard froze up and the inside of my glasses had ice on the inside. We are all carrying our cameras inside our anoraks to try and keep them warm.

People were playing table tennis, outside There were 4 tables and they were all being used. It was strange to see people playing table tennis outside surrounded by ice and snow.

We watched people clearing snow and ice from the roads. They are chipping the ice up with hoe-like tools, this is like painting the Forth Bridge. Apparently all the citizens have to spend an hour a day clearing away the snow and ice and that includes the schools and universities.

There is a great system here at traffic lights. When you arrive and the lights are red there is a 60 seconds countdown so you know how long before the lights change. It is the same when the lights turn green so as you approach the lights you know how many seconds you have before the lights change. This is a great idea and it would, I think, save a lot of feelings of frustration with drivers.

We went to the Swan Hotel for lunch. On the menu was chips. We all got very excited to have chips and they soon disappeared.

The indoor market was closed to day so we visited St. Sophi'a. A Russian Church. This is a typical Russian, onion domed church. Inside, the walls were full of old photographs of Harbin. There were lots of pictures of white Russians. Interestedly there was only one picture of a Chinese and that was a picture of a coolie. I took a picture of a model in the church and then discovered that no photography was allowed!

Outside I took a photograph of a bush that had pink pieces of paper stuck on to make it look like blossom. We have seen quite a few bushes done like this and the pieces of paper are always pink.

Tonight we have a Russian banquet. Having sampled Russian food in the past I do wonder what 'banquet' will mean!

Minus our thermals we left the hotel for the Russian Banquet. Walking the 200 yards to the restaurant from the coach we felt very cold without our cold weather gear on. It is minus 30 tonight and I realised how my cord trousers and thermal long johns had protected me over the last few days.

The whole time I was in Harbin with temperatures of -25 and -30 I never felt cold. Unlike the UK it is a dry cold and our thermal gear, hats, gloves and scarves were enough to keep us nice and warm.

The meal was superb. Lovely white fresh bread, caviar, soup, goulash, beef, chicken and pork dishes. Everything was very tasty.

The Chinese hotels run a very good system for e-mailing home. All the hotels have a business centre and for a very small amount you can type up and send an e-mail home. The receptionist changed over the typing from Chinese to English. I was tempted to send home an e-mail in Chinese!

I left all my postcards, 30 in all, at the reception desk of the Hotel with the money for postage. Only 3 of those cards arrived and I suspect that the bell boy or someone in the hotel pocketed the money. We had all been trying to buy stamps for our postcards home but could'nt find any.

The Ice Festival at Harbin is superb all of the 16 in our party thought it much better than they had expected. The ice and snow carvings are beautiful and much bigger and better than we imagined them to be.

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