Thursday, January 21, 2016
The World's Biggest Ice Festival!
China is one of those mysterious places with lots of ancient history of all kinds. Ethnic groups are plentiful, politics is interesting and varied, religion is integral, and even region comes into play in making China one of the most diverse countries on Earth. Most of us don't know much about China, and see things in one way--the way we eat. Most of us eat Chinese food which is not even Chinese but Polynesian or Szechwan or something. Basically, we don't know all that much about China. We do know that they have a huge population, so the cities are crowded. Harbin, China looks like the average over populated city that we see in China. The city is home to some 10 million people, and is full of modern businesses, high rise buildings, and traffic problems. Sounds average, right? Well, Harbin is one of China's newer cities being just over 100 years old. Harbin is also China's most northern city being nearly on the border with Siberian Russia, sitting at the same latitude as Montreal, Canada. Long story short, it's cold up there. So, why visit?
For one thing, Harbin is a unique mix of cultures. Siberia is not far away and in the early 1900's there was war afoot. The Russians and the Japanese had a real blowout and Harbin was young and vulnerable and for a while was quite Russian. Therefore there are little things around that are distinctly Russian, like St. Sophia Russian Orthodox Church. Sure there are Asian style temples around, but here's a Russian church. That's different. It sits right in the middle of the city, so you can't miss it.
Harbin is also very artistic. Sun Island Park, or Tai Yang Dao is the enormous park in the city. It's filled with beautiful sculptures, interesting architecture, beautiful lakes and other water areas, and gardens. It's a beautiful place to spend some time while in the city. Culture is very important in Harbin, and they have their own distinct culture there with the cross between various Asian, Yakut, Inuit, and Russian cultures. There is the Siberian Tiger Park and the aquarium. The Siberian Tiger is on the endangered list, and the people in Harbin are dedicated to helping preserve the wonderful species. The aquarium has local indigenous animals, mostly arctic, to learn about. But, Harbin is home to artists and lots of art culture. You never know what kind of art exhibits you might see along the way.
Harbin is home to one of the longest pedestrian shopping streets in the country, Zhongyang. You can find pretty much anything you need there, plus great food and drink. The architecture is some of the oldest in the area and is more colonial than most areas of China. It's a really interesting place to take a walk.
But, why mention Harbin in the middle of winter? Seems like a great place to spend the summer, when a train ride up that way would be nice, the weather would be great, the days would be long, and the topiaries would be blooming. You see, winter is kind of Harbin's thing. They have a huge ski resort, that draws skiers from all over the world. Even Anthony Bourdain has skied there. Oh yeah, they also have the biggest ice festival in the world. The Harbin Snow and Ice Festival takes over the entire city during January and February each year.
The parks, Sun Island and other various venues around the city are completely taken over by magnificent ice sculptures created by some of the best sculptors in the world. You never know what they're going to make, but rest assured they will be outstanding. They light them up, which started when they used to call it the Ice Lantern Garden Party. They make everything. They carve buildings, animals, scenes of all kinds, temples, slides and so much more. They hold mass weddings in the castles, and the kids play on the playground sculptures.
In addition to some of the best ice sculptures you'll ever see or play on, there are activities and entertainment to go along. The festival last for weeks, and the participants have a great time, even though it's not unusual for the temperature to remain below zero the entire time. No one seems to mind and it's one of the most beautiful and colorful festivals in the world.
Lots of cities around the globe glow at night, but few of them glow because the ice is illuminated. Proud to be China's northernmost city, proud to be somewhat Russian, and proud of the beautiful art that makes up their city; Harbin really knows how to enjoy winter. So, for that season that most of us tend to avoid, waiting for spring to come and rescue us; spend it in Harbin. You'll get a whole other view of winter and what it's really all about. Enjoy!