Saturday, January 17, 2009

Harbin (Brrrr)

The girls returned to school on Jan. 4th. Unsure of our travel plans for the Chinese New Years we decided we should plan a quick trip up to Harbin in the north of China to experience their famous Ice Festival. Harbin has taken its worst aspect, freezing weather, and turned it into a tourist attraction. Armed with reams of long underwear, snow pants and sox that we either borrowed or bought, we flew up to Harbin with our friend Deborah Bender. We arrived at the airport to -15 c weather. The first sign we knew it was a different world? The airport had “Cloths Changing” areas (identified in Mandarin, Russian and English) for folks to don the extra layers we would all need to survive this weather.

Even when well prepared, it was still a challenge. The mouth covers that we had previously thought were exclusively for pollution are more often worn to keep out the cold weather. But those of us with glasses discovered that the mouth covers caused warm air to go onto our glasses, which quickly frosted up. Runny noses, a chronic problem with cold weather, are awkward when the weather is so cold that everything (i.e. everything) freezes.

Luckily our hotel was right along the pedestrian walkway in the old section of Harbin. Harbin is famous for its strong Russian influence, which emerged when the Russians came into China to build a railroad. The old buildings looked more like Moscow than China, although the Chinese world was obviously the dominant perspective.

The lure of Harbin, the ice sculptures, were amazing. A thousand workers had chipped away for 24 hours a day, 14 days, to create winter wonderlands. Downtown had ice sculptures along the pedestrian walkway. Zhaolin Park featured a Disney theme (we can’t get away from it!) A cab ride took us to the Ice World, which was particularly amazing at night. An ice city was created from scratch, with glorious lights to showcase the work. But nighttime temperatures went to -20 and lower, so two hours was our limit. Many ice sculptures had slides built in, allowing for fast and furious runs. We also indulged in a horse ride around the ice sculptures. We even had hot cocoa and warmed up in – of course – an ice cafĂ©. The bathrooms were also encrusted with ice, but our one test confirmed that the internal plumbing was made of more permanent material.

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