The minibus pulled up at a nondescript junction of a duel carriageway and the driver motioned for everyone to disembark. In both directions all I could see were snow covered fields and road, with the exception of the huge billboard marking the turning for Sun Island pointing back the direction we’d just come. As the only official form of travel from Sun Island to Harbin Ice and Snow world (It’s quite a mouthful so I’m going to call it HISW or ice world from this point on) I’d been expecting that there would be some indication of where I was supposed to go. Or that the place would be so big it was impossible to miss (It’s a 750,000 square meter site, not exactly subtle and certainly not something that should be a challenge to locate!) Thankfully one of the younger couples on the bus spoke a little English and motioned for me to head north along the road and across a bridge before they hurried off in the other direction.
I set off, racing against the sunset and fighting against the cold once again as I was hopelessly exposed to the cutting wind while on the roadside. I was keen to get to HISW while it was still light to try and get a few pictures before nightfall. When the sun goes down and the park lights up in an explosion of neon is when it comes alive but I was keen to see the contrast in the two states and also to be there before it got overly crowded. After around 10 minutes walking I reached an unmarked underpass which ran off to the left. There was no signage or markings to indicate that was the correct direction, but there was a row of vendors selling miscellaneous snow related knik-knacks (little plastic sledges, snowball makers etc and the obvious hats & gloves) and so logic told me that was the way to go.
I cut through the grotty looking underpass and followed the path back uphill and around the sharp s-bends. The collection of vendors was getting thicker and finally the small wooden barrier separating the path & the brittle frozen grass behind it served as nothing more than one long display table covered in garish plastic snow-toys. Coming around the last bend a large pale-blue ice wall veered up on my right before the scale of the site slowly revealed itself. The ice-wall served as the outer barrier for the site and from behind I could see the hulking great ice buildings behind. It was still light and so there was no neon as yet, just outlines of pale blue ice merging with the similarly coloured skies as far as you could see. I made my way into the circus big-top style tent which serves as the main ticket office and paid my 330RMB (£37, €42) entrance fee before finally making my way through the double set of insulated doors and inside the festival site.
I think overawed is probably the best description. Snow and ice in it’s various guises sprawled off in every direction, there was even a stand full of maps (one of which I gratefully accepted, and which came is very useful in the next few hours) I decided to start with the ice sculpture competition because a) I thought the intricacy of the detailed sculptures would be better reflected in daylight and b) I was already next to it 🙂 Thankfully the crowds still hadn’t gathered at this point and apart from one guy with a drone which he was flying much too low in the circumstances (at about 5 feet off the ground, I had to dodge it more than once) and one serious photographer with selection of lenses and a full size tripod (not a euphemism) I had the place to myself. As it turned out, I’d gotten lucky as the sunset was just beginning; the orange-red sky behind the sculptures lit them up in some glorious hues which the neon lights on them later that night could never replicate. I spent a good half an hour or so admiring the detail on the beautifully crafted sculptures submitted by the multiple person teams from around the world and unsurprisingly given Harbin’s proximity to the boarder (and the fact they have a dick-load of ice) there was a large concentration of Russian teams.
After one two many attempted drone strikes from the overzealous operator I started off towards the festival site ‘main’ although I hadn’t gone 20 meters before running into a pagan-looking dance troupe performing a well choreographed but highly unusual dance in-front of the sunset to the assembled film crew. Sadly no-one there spoke enough English to explain to me what was going on so I just stood back and enjoyed.
As the sun went down, sadly, once again, so did the temperature. The mid-day thaw from the cafe earlier had long since passed and I was in serious need to some warming up. Thankfully, as the festival runs for a solid 2-3 months each year, they also have an extensive selection of semi-permanent buildings on site housing multiple restaurants, gift shops and, oddly, a car dealership which is hardly something I’d call an impulse buy (maybe praying on people who nip in there for warmth or who are just so over the cold they need to get out of there like RIGHT NOW “Ok, Fuck it, give me that car! ‘I’m driving south!!!”) I ducked into the Pizza Hut and treated myself to a hot meal and two super-sized hot drinks (one to drink, one to hold, then drink as well) before heading back out once I’d thawed.
The crowd sizes had ramped up now the sun had disappeared but the stunning neon backdrop helped to deal with the inevitable crowd frustrations. I spent the next couple of hours just wandering round the multiple ice structures, exploring the inside of the navigable ice-buildings and basking in the scale of it all! There was a distinctly Asian theme (unsurprisingly) with a number of ice pagoda towers and what felt like tributes to the bell-shaped Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. The centrepiece for these towers was a 50m, high colour changing, climbable tower which dominated the skyline (it’s glowing red in the featured image at the top of the page) There are also two lengthy ice slides you can ride from the top of the overlooking hills down to ground level. The slides were a good length but nothing compared to the length of the ques to ride them which ran all the way down the stairs and trailed off around the festival site! (I didn’t partake. Standing still in the cold for that length of time was not an appealing thought) Aside from just how visually stunning it is, the work that goes into building these two sites, not to mention the multiple smaller sites dotted around the city, is staggering. I found out later it takes 10,000 people and 180,000 meter squared of ice just for ‘ice world’!
With the temperature (and my resistance to it) driving ever downwards, my camera succumbed to the cold by initially scrambling any pictures I tried to take before just shutting down completely. Reasoning that I’d rather not go the same way, and after around 4 hours exploring it felt like time to go. Taxi’s are aplenty outside the site and the queue is managed by the police to stop any untoward behaviour so after a brief wait I was whisked back to the hotel for a very reasonable 38RMB (about £4, €4.50) given it took around 40 mins due to traffic. I’d been cursing my super-heated hotel room for the last few days given my inability to sleep and the dried out cough it’d subsequently developed but after a full day out in the ice, despite the numerous layers, I welcomed it gladly and just lay on the bed for 20 mins letting the warmth slowly defrost my extremities. I was delighted, I’d finally managed to overcome the conditions and make it out to the thing that had brought me this far North in the first place. That said, I was spent. Done. I was so over Harbin, the cold, the fecking ice everywhere, the numbness and the discomfort that I briefly considered never going outside again. I just had one more thing to do the following morning then I could cross Harbin off and never have to deal with it again.
My final day in Harbin. After another poor night sleep (despite my exhaustion) I was up early and wearily pulled on my various layers once again to see the last of the local sights I wanted to take in. Harbin Siberian Tiger park is the largest wild tiger sanctuary in the world at a whopping 1,440,000 square meters (355.8 acres) You can get the bus from Harbin centre but I opted for a Didi (the Chinese version of Uber) as after the previous day I was so done with the cold I wanted to keep my exposure as minimal as possible. The sanctuary is located in the North and the cab ride took 25 minutes or so, costing around 20rmb. The only way to see the tigers is via a bus, encircled by wire mesh, through each area while the tigers roam freely in the fields and so after 15 minutes waiting in the freezing waiting room, myself and a small group of visitors boarded the first bus of the day. The seats face outwards, making for a far easier viewing experience and the tigers were clearly used to the intrusion as they didn’t pay them us any heed. We moved slowly between areas, each set of fences operating a double sliding door mechanism to ensure none of the tigers could make a break for the other areas when the bus approached. The bus would stop at intervals giving us the opportunity to take pictures & observe the tigers interactions with each other, grooming and playing in the snow (in the summer they also open up the ‘wild training field’ to visitors and you can see how the tigers hunt their prey) After a leisurely 30 minutes or so we were dropped at the final section of the park, the walking area and viewing platform.
The rest if the tour group went hurtling off away down the walkway before I could blink! The Chinese voice-over wasn’t any help to me anyway so I ambled along behind taking in the surroundings. The walking area dips and curls around a number of smaller enclosures containing some of the older tigers and a few other big cat species they have at the park. I was bumbling along when an elderly woman with a huge bowl of raw chicken breasts and some tongues popped up seemingly out of nowhere. She pointed at the chicken, then at one of the tigers through the thick wire mesh. It didn’t take a genius to figure out I was being given the chance to feed one of the tigers! I paid 20RBM (about £2) for two pieces of chicken and the woman walked over to the mesh & banged a few times with the tongues. The tiger evidently knew the drill and bounded over, jumped up to the mesh and started at me expectantly. The platform was raised a good 5-6 feet off the ground so the tiger was up on its hind legs, paws against the wall and it’s head separated from me by about two feet and the wire mesh. This thing was HUGE! I remember being surprised by how big it was up close (and really thankful for the mesh) I took the tongues & poked the first piece of chicken through and in an instant it was gone. The second piece got stuck in the bars and I was frantically trying to prod it through to the monster sized beast on the other side (although I resisted the urge to use my hands!) I thought it would kick off and start growling but instead it just licked at the bars, trying to get to the chicken from the other side. After about a minute it got it across and again, the food disappeared with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speed. The old woman turned away and made towards the way I’d come to wait for the next busload of visitors and the tiger, taking this as a sign feeding time was over, dropped back down & strode off. It all felt a bit surreal but it was a definite highlight, a hugely unique experience for me and one I’d wholeheartedly recommend! (I wish I’d managed to get a picture!)
Cold but satisfied, I headed back out to the car park and jumped a cab back to the hotel. My flight back wasn’t until the evening but at this point I was done. I was so over the cold I just couldn’t face it any more. Temperatures as low as I’d had to deal with are not only bad for travelling, their bad for your health. I was exhausted, sick and deteriorating with ever hour I was there. No doubt if I’d been a smaller man I could have just bought some new clothes there and been properly equipped but as a rule China doesn’t make stuff in my size (I’m so far removed from even what they would deem a large body type) so I had to make do. Although I was pleased to finally see the ice festival and chalk it off my list, you couldn’t pay me enough money to ever think about living there or even visiting again. I got a cab to Starbucks and tucked up in the warmth with hot drinks and a book until my flight. Thanks Harbin, but no thanks. You can stick you minus thirty up your hole.