China’s annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is one of the greatest winter tourism attractions the world has to offer. Held in the far-flung city of Harbin in the country’s remote north, for all the statues, lanterns and fireworks, it’s colder than Antarctica, so take plenty of thermals with you. Bay’s Nick Smith heads to the winter wonderland of the orient…
Toffee apples, roasted chestnuts and ice-skating on the river. It all sounds like the famous frost fairs of London back in the days when the Thames used to regularly freeze over. But in fact, I’m in thoroughly modern China in the middle of winter. And while it is cold, as long as you wrap up in the right gear, it’s a really good time to visit. This is because during the summer months the country’s capital Beijing is a hectic place, with hordes of tourists flocking to see the splendours of Imperial China. Famous landmarks such as the Forbidden City, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Old Summer Palace can be unbearably crowded, hot and sticky. In winter, Beijing’s tourist attractions are relatively deserted and much more rewarding. I’ve done both, and I’d much rather do it in the cold. Plus, there is the bonus of being able to visit the annual ice and snow festival at Harbin right up in the north-east, sandwiched in a salient between Mongolia and Russia.
It gets so cold in Harbin during the winter months they call it China’s North Pole. As the Arctic winds whip down from Siberia, temperatures plummet to -30C, cold enough to freeze the hair on your head. Stepping out from your hotel without Arctic boots, thermals, a heavy parka and a fur hat is simply not an option. But step out you must, because every January the whole of Harbin is transformed into a magical land of ice sculptures, snow statues, Chinese lanterns and firework displays. If you don’t like wearing several pairs of gloves at the same time, going to the ice festival might not be for you. But you can be sure that a visit to this remote corner of the planet will change the way you think about China.
Despite Harbin being my main travel objective, I’ve got to change planes at Beijing, so I might as well spend a few days exploring the city, and the best place to start is Tian’anmen Square from where you can pass into the Forbidden City through the Gate of Heavenly Peace. At this time of year, the monumental brick-red gate is aptly named because, apart from a few frozen soldiers standing on guard in their dark olive-green uniforms, it is virtually deserted. It was here that I spoke with a British watercolour artist sitting at her easel, who told me that she was packing up and going for coffee because her paint kept freezing. As the day wore on, the cold drained the life out of my camera batteries, and I stopped reloading film cartridges when I realised that the chill was causing the emulsion to crack. Deciding I needed to warm up too, I made my way to Hóngqiào market which, with its counterfeit designer goods, real pearls and curios from the Cultural Revolution, is an experience in itself. I managed to restrict myself
to a copy of the Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (otherwise known as the Little Red Book) and a packet of rechargeable handwarmers. I also bought a ticket for the Beijing Opera at the Huguang Guild Hall. Anyone expecting Bellini, Donizetti or Puccini might be surprised by the Chinese version that is a colourful blend of acrobatics, mime and slightly disturbing screeching. But it is great fun for a while (make sure you don’t go to a 6-hour long performance), and the English subtitles displayed on tube station-style announcement boards are often hilarious. With a few days on my hands before flying to Harbin – at the time there was only one scheduled flight per week – I took the bus a few hours northwest to an impressive, much-restored section of the Great Wall at Badaling.
On my return to Beijing, I called in at Shísán Líng, or the tombs of the Ming Emperors, where under a cobalt-blue sky a statue-lined avenue called the ‘Spirit Way’ leads to the imposing Great Palace Gate.
I get very cross with the way China is portrayed in the mainstream media, and I will tell you why. If we are to believe a 2017 poll conducted by the BBC’s World Service, so-called ‘anti-Chinese sentiment,’ or more correctly ‘sinophobia,’ is a worldwide phenomenon.
Leading the way is the United States, with 70 percent of those polled holding negative opinions about the country (before we get too smug about this, the UK comes in fifth on the list with a whopping 58 percent tally). And while it’s tempting to put this down to the recent influence of Donald Trump’s seemingly random prejudices against China, like most things in life it’s not that simple, because western anti-Chinese sentiment can be traced back at least four thousand years to the Imperial Wars. In the UK, if we examine the history of the mid-19th century, when Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister, we find that one of his reasons for justifying the Opium Wars was that he considered the Chinese ‘uncivilised.’ Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, the US was inscribing into law its Chinese Exclusion Act. In the 20th century the Soviet Union nearly went to war over the ‘Chinese threat.’ So it’s hardly surprising that all this negativity should have trickled down to the way we think today. You don’t have to spend much time in any pub anywhere in the UK to hear those tired old recycled views that Chinese manufactured goods are cheap, the people are rude and all look the same, they can’t drive properly and suffer from terrible air pollution. It’s a bit embarrassing, really, especially when you weigh all this up against the fact that more than half of all Americans still don’t have a passport, while East Asia is their least visited destination. As for British tourists, the Office of National Statistics tells us that while more than eight million of us will go to our top overseas destination Spain every year, only 62,000 will go to China (47th). So it seems that here in the West, we’ve got a lot of expert opinions on something we know absolutely nothing about from first-hand experience. Which leads to the uncomfortable thought that we might have more in common with Donald Trump than we’d like to believe. And yet, according to research published in the Daily Mail (whose ‘journalist’ simply lifted the story from a Channel 5 documentary), ‘Britain’s Favourite Takeaway,’ is predictably Chinese food. So that’s all right, then.
From Beijing I flew several hours north to Harbin, the city known as ‘Oriental Saint Petersburg’ because of its Russian architecture, which is never more apparent than at the onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral of Saint Sophia. Built in the Russian Revival style, with a nod to the grandeur of Saint Basil’s famous cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square, the fact that Saint Sophia’s seems so out of context to the western eye says more about our entrenched stereotypes of China than it does about anything peculiar in the architecture. After all, a century ago when the cathedral was built, there were 100,000 Russians living Harbin, workers building an extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway that cut across China en route from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. There was a time when Harbin had more Russian émigrés than any other city in the world, with its own Russian school system, newspapers and theatres. Naturally enough, it’s easy to find a bar selling vodka in Harbin – Russian, of course – and don’t make the mistake of thinking that the ludicrously cheap caviar in every corner shop is fake. It’s the real deal and worth every jiao. So fill up your bags as fast as you can.
Harbin is also known as the ‘Ice City’, because of its long gruelling sub-arctic winters. Before the Russians came, it was a sleepy little fishing village – the name means ‘the place to dry fishing nets’ – and today it’s a slightly off-the-beaten-track destination for the open-minded. The curious traveller will be rewarded with the Ice Lantern festival at the city’s Zhaolin Gardens, which is like something out of a brightly coloured fairy tale or fairground, while the larger attraction of Sun Island has gigantic sculptures of swans, mythical creatures and even a replica Forbidden City. Ever since the 1960s, when the world-famous International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival began, it’s become the place to see ice sculpture. The event starts long before the official opening in early January when the broad Songhua River that runs through the city freezes over. Fifteen thousand workers labour though December to cut four million cubic feet of ice from the river. At this point teams of sculptors fly in from the world over to hack and saw away at gigantic blocks. They work day and night on their jealously guarded designs that will adorn Harbin’s public gardens, roadsides and town squares.
It’s a world of frozen contrast: some sculptures are as small as cherry blossom, while others are life-size buildings several storeys high. I’d been told that to get the best out of the experience I just had to remember: ‘snow while it’s light, ice at night.’ So during the day leave the city to visit the amazing snow sculptures at Sun Island. But after dusk, which arrives at about four o’clock in this part of the world at this time of year, those brave enough to do battle with the bitter cold should take a stroll in the Zhaolin Garden, where you’ll marvel at the ingenuity of the expert craftsmen who use an array of tools from traditional adzes to laser-cutting technology, often using blocks of ice made from de-ionised water to make sure their work has dazzling transparency.
With many of the largest exhibits reflecting Chinese cultural themes – there’s even been an ice model of the Great Wall – it’s hardly surprising that the festival is a big hit with local tourists. Of the million visitors it attracts annually, nine tenths of Harbin’s visitors are Chinese. And while most will stop at nothing to protect themselves from the cold, for a hardy few there’s nothing better than a quick dip into the inky waters of the Songhua River. Standing in my polar explorer gear I was for a moment taken in by the illusion of just how intrepid these ‘ice swimmers’ are. But, when you think about it, the water can’t be colder than zero degrees, making it at least thirty degrees warmer than the air I was standing in. Of course, water is far more thermally conductive than air (24 times more, in fact), and so on entering the water you will feel colder, but providing you don’t stay in for very long, you’ll not come to a great deal of harm. I was explaining all this to my guide, a multilingual Italian woman who clearly didn’t believe a word of what I was saying, when an Australian tourist in a bottle green and gold rugby shirt standing next to me invited me to prove my point by stripping off and jumping in. My outright refusal led to a good-natured exchange about the relative virtues of our international cricket teams that inevitably continued into the evening in an ‘ice sports bar,’ where German beer was cheap and plentiful. As we watched American football on an enormous flatscreen, my antipodean friend said to me: “You know, I’ve been coming to the ice festival for years. No-one believes me when I say this is what China’s really like. They’ve got no idea. No-one has.” And with that, he was gone, leaving me to contemplate the long haul back to the comparative warmth of winter in Wales.