Every winter, Harbin, , China's 10th biggest city, attracts a million visitors despite temperatures nearing -30 degrees Celsius. Why did we decide to join all these people in the freezing cold? Because every year, Harbin organizes an ice festival, an immense festival that attracts crowds and cameras from all over the world!
The ice festival is spread out over several parks, one of which is Sun Island, which can only be visited during the day because the sculptures are made from snow and are not lit up at night. Here you walk around what is, in summer, an immense park on the banks of the Songhua. The works are spread about the park and some of the sculptures are bigger than an apartment block. My favorite sculpture this year was the immense, ephemeral face of a woman, which I thought was very delicate. There are also other activities at the park: curling, ice skating, dog sledding, and luge on slides dug into the structures, tested and loved!
When night falls...and it falls very quickly in these areas, from about 4.30 pm...it is time to head for the heart of the festival: Ice and Snow World. We wandered round a park full of XXL sized ice replicas of well known monuments with incredibly kitsch lighting . This year the show stopper of the festival was a 46 meter high replica of Reykjavik's Hallgrimskirkja church, which changed color during the evening...
The sculptures didn't run the risk of melting given that the temperature was -35 that evening...after spending several hours looking round, including a stop in a heated cafe, (that is to say the temperature in the cafe was around zero, so we didn't take our coats off...), we were using all our energy struggling against the cold , so it was time to go back!!!
Harbin knows how to attract visitors because, as well as the sculptures, there is an aquarium, which we didn't see, but above all a Siberian tiger reserve. The reserve has been surrounded by urbanization and has apartment blocks in the background... An apartment with view of tigers from the living room...not bad!
The reserve is enormous and we took a bus to observe the tigers and then walked the length of the cages. You can feed the tigers... For a few yuans you can buy a live hen and give it to the tigers, but also a cow or a pig...Sensitive souls and animal rights advocates should probably not bother, but I must admit that seeing tigers chasing their prey in front of me was truly impressive.
As much as we expected to be impressed by the town's 'amusement park' we hadn't expected to appreciate the old part of Harbin, with its old Jewish and Russian quarters, so much...a very interesting page of history. Harbin is not just about its ice festival!