This one promises to be the best holiday I've ever been on. Sure, there are no sunny skies, no grassy knolls or even gambolling lambs. But who cares for those when everywhere you look is a blanket of white, when the land beneath your feet is soft as snow. Nicknamed 'Oriental Moscow' or 'Oriental Paris', Harbin is the largest city in Northeastern China.
It has been particularly cold in Harbin this year with winter temperatures reaching 40Â° below zero. Our guide told us that Harbin has more than 190 days each year below freezing temperatures and we should feel lucky that today, it is only -35Â° Celsius!
Harbin, aptly called the 'Ice City' makes the most of its winters with the Harbin Ice Lantern Festival.
At the glittering Ice and Snow World, one of the five exhibition areas in the festival, huge ice blocks are carved into sculptures, palaces and pagodas and lit from within with fluorescent lights in electric blue, pink and several other colours.
Harbin's location in northeast China accounts for its arctic climate, which provides abundant natural ice and snow for the sculptors to carefully chisel away at and create everything from restaurants to Buddha statues. The largest composition is more than 100 feet high and 600 feet wide. More than 30,000 cubic metres of ice is used for the festival each year.
Inspired by the Pharaohs...
The inspiration for the ice and snow sculptures here usually is derived from traditional Chinese fairy tales or world-famous emblems of architecture such as the Great Wall, the Egyptian pyramids, etc. These ice replicas however will not stay for any longer than a hundred days -- this winter wonderland comes to life in December and ends in February.
These sculptures are set across a large park area just north of the Songhua River. Giant blocks of ice are farmed from the river, hauled to the site, and built to replicate world landmarks. When the temperature is well below freezing point, getting lost in this maze of ice is not a good idea! The annual event pulls crowds from across China and visitors from overseas.
... And ice lanterns
The first ice lanterns were a wintertime tradition in northeast China. The local peasants and fishermen often made and used ice lanterns as jacklights during the winter months. In those days, these were made by simply pouring water into a bucket that was then put out in the open to freeze. It was then gently warmed before the water froze completely so that the bucket-shaped ice could be pulled out. A hole was made in the top and the water remaining inside was poured out creating a hollow vessel. A candle was then placed inside the resulting windproof lantern.
From then on, people made ice lanterns and put them outside their houses or gave them to children to play with during some of the traditional festivals.
As you gape at the sculptures with awe, your eyelashes seal together with frost. Touch the sculptures and your hand will come away completely dry -- the ice is so cold that even body heat won't shift it. When you tire of rubbing your hands and feet to stay warm, you can head to the many indoor teashops scattered around the park.
The Ice and Snow World leaves most travellers chilled to the bone. Here we found locals wearing ski masks like dacoits, to keep the tips of their noses and cheeks warm.
As the night falls, rent a horse-drawn carriage to take a spin around lit trees with buds all aglow. You can also take a ride on the ice slide, several stories tall. Other attractions include dance and music shows, and photo ops with snow foxes and white yaks.
Else, take a dip in freezing water. Winter swimming is a long-standing Harbin tradition, drawing many enthusiasts who rave about the health benefits of plunging into frigid water. The less adventurous can stand on the sidelines and watch as swimmers dive off a platform made of blocks of ice into the pool dug into the frozen Songhua River.
Amazing as it may seem, Harbin had no souvenir stalls in the ice festival ground of this size. If you want souvenirs here, you only have your pictures to take back home! Or else there are the frozen fruit candies, which you can buy from a vendor's cart.
Urmi is an architect by profession, and is passionate about travelling. She has published two travel coffee table books.
You can fly to Harbin from Beijing or take the train, most of which are overnight trains that leave in the afternoon and arrive early the next morning.
Alternatively, you can take a five-hour flight to Harbin from Kunming, which is a mere two hours' flight from Kolkata.
Take a stroll down the 'architectural art gallery' of Zhongyang Dajie (Central Street) with trendy goods housed in century-old buildings. St Sophia Orthodox Church is the largest Orthodox Church in the far east. Visit the Helongjian Siberian Tiger Park where 800 Siberian tigers roam freely in the fields. Don't worry, the bus is encircled by wire mesh.For information on prices visit www.harbin.gov.cn/english and http://bit.ly/2DT6EE