My ideal habitat is a warm day on a tropical beach. I'm also a sucker for beauty in all its most unusual forms (part of the reason I'm on the Board of Burning Man). So, when I heard about the Harbin International Ice & Snow Festival in northeast China (Manchuria meets Siberia: that just sounds frozen!), my initial reaction was, "How far would I travel and how cold would I get all in the name of experiencing an aesthetic phenomenon?" So, after 90 degree humidity in Malaysia, two planes delivered me to this cursed, desolate part of China (20 degrees below zero).
Amidst the Siberian wind gusts and short days of daylight, Harbin is a revelation, a place where the light of collective aesthetic joy is experienced by 800,000 visitors annually for the Ice & Snow Festival (90% from China as this is one of the country's top winter destinations).
Oddly, I kept having Burning Man flashbacks...night being preferred over day due to the psychedelic visuals enhanced by the dark, the fact that thousands of artists (15k in Harbin) labor 15 days around the clock to create something out of nothing only to know that these beautiful structures will either melt (Harbin) or burn (Burning Man), and, finally, the sense that no picture or video can capture the sensory overload of being surrounded by spectacle. Think: "You had to be there." Remember the spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony?
I heartily recommend this trek that takes place late December through February.
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The Biggest Cold City You Didn't Know Existed
You’d think that an industrial Chinese city near the Siberian Russian border named after the Manchu phrase for “a place for drying fishing nets” would feel a little Podunk. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there are hundreds of 50-story apartment buildings in the suburbs.
But, the center of the city is a surprise: in the 1920s one-third of the population was Russian, thus monumental boulevards and well-executed European style architecture that has earned Harbin the name “Paris of the Orient,” and many more people and cars than you ever imagined. There are more than 5 million people in this city and there are hundreds of building cranes constructing new skyscrapers, as Harbin is one of the primary metro areas where the Chinese government is repopulating peasants from the country.
There’s a saying here, “If you haven’t been to Central Avenue, you haven’t been to Harbin.” There are 77 ornately-designed, pedestrian-friendly buildings along this one-mile corridor with half of them being historic landmarks.
Harbin’s Siberian Tiger Park is worth a visit, as it’s credited with saving the majestic Liger (Lion + Tiger) from extinction. And you must head to the Songhua River to watch the 9 am or 1:30 pm daily show of a dozen or so crazy older folks going for a swim in the frozen river. 10 below zero the day I witnessed this crazy exercise.
This is also where you start the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow. And note: only 10% of folks understand a word of English.
At Harbin, you'll get into a habit of dropping your jaw...until your teeth start chattering. The sheer volume of human-inspired arctic beauty is staggering and comes in small and large packages. Between the four primary parks or amusement zones with ice sculptures there's a few thousand works of temporary art, but when you include all the ice architecture created throughout the city for the city - everywhere you look - it's staggering how much artistic talent went into creating this winter wonderland.
Over the course of the hurried half-month of carving - some by hand, some with lasers - more than 4 million cubic feet of ice is sculpted, almost all pulled from the Songhua River. By early December the massive river is frozen thick, three feet in depth. The Ice Lantern Festival was the precursor to the current festival (started in 1963 - on hiatus during the Cultural Revolution). A few hundred years ago, local fishermen would hollow out pails of ice, inserting candles for nighttime lighting. Over time, the lanterns went from functional to art fixture in what came to be known as "Ice City."
Today, it's a combination of art and science: deionised water is used on some art pieces, which produces ice blocks as transparent as glass. And, multicolored lights give an ice sculpture a multi-dimensional depth and beauty.
I asked a man about worry that global warming may affect the festivals long-term prospects. He chuckled, "Warm is not in our vocabulary in Harbin."
Most of you won't decide last minute, "Let's go to Harbin." This is a serious undertaking, so let me give you a few tips...
#1: Dress for excess. But that doesn't mean your suitcase has to be dominated with parkas (you can buy a cheap, heavy coat when you get here if necessary). Don't forget your gloves and something to keep your ears warm. At Ice & Snow World, I saw live minks being rented to attendees for shoulder and neck warmth.
#2: Work with a local travel agent who knows Harbin. I used Cathy Zhang at Ice Festival Harbin. She booked me a local guide/driver, got me tickets to all the right events/shows, and booked me at the New Kailai Garden Hotel that's right on the river at the end of majestic Central Avenue.
#3: My top 3 amusements: Ice & Snow World (must see, only open at night), Zhaolin Park (also at night), and Snow Sculpture Art Expo on Sun Island (daytime so not as photogenic or colorful). And, a huge fireworks display at the January 5 opening + in February, when things are closing down, attendees can start smashing sculptures with ice picks. There are also three ice and snow sculpture competitions in the first week of January.
#4: Food. The Spring Pancake restaurant in the basement of Central Avenue and Dingxin hot pot restaurant where you cook your own at your table.
#5: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other sites are banned in China. Why ponder about the challenges of the rest of the world when you've got your own chilly piece of paradise right here?