Finding winter wonder in Harbin
The longer I live in Beijing, the more I wonder if loving the city life and enjoying the winter season may be mutually exclusive ideas. Winter in Beijing means smog, wind that hurts your face, and more smog. If it does snow, it falls onto the dirty streets and is never thick enough to enjoy looking at.
Winter is the only time of the year that I find myself feeling truly homesick. I miss walking in the woods and waking up to snow that is definitely going to cause traffic problems. There just isn’t enough winter wonder to be had in Beijing (that I’ve yet found), so with that in mind, last January I gathered up some friends and headed to Harbin to see the world famous ice and snow festival.
The very first thing I noticed when we stepped off the train was that the air itself was shockingly cold. I had just spent more than eight hours in a metal tube crowded with people and was neither dressed nor mentally prepared for the weather. Despite this, the frigid air was a welcoming reprieve from the smog in Beijing. The city definitely took advantage of this fact with its beautifully lit displays and buildings.
We arrived at the hotel to a lobby full of portable heaters and were very, very confused. Maybe the heat was broken in some of the rooms. But no, it was just that cold. I had to sleep fully covered in my
quilted underclothes with two pairs of socks and the thin blanket pulled all the way up to my nose!
I set out early the next morning to do a little exploring and found the local Harbiners to be sturdy notherners; gruff but not impolite. The famous shopping street was packed with both Chinese and foreign tourists and was, for the most part, filled with food. There were watermelon-sized loaves of bread and famous Harbin sausages in every window. We decided to leave the main thoroughfare for lunch and found an eclectic little place that served up local food and, with its boisterous crowd, plenty of local culture.
As the sun set, we crossed the frozen river on foot and made our way to the Ice and Snow Festival. Most of the time, I felt as if my fingers, toes, and nose were going to freeze and fall right off, but the incredible displays made up for it all. There were an incredible array of sculptures from traditionally carved statues, to snow sculptures and structures built from blocks of solid ice. We managed to find a little space in the pop-up KFC to warm our feet, but just kept going back outside for more. Every time we took another walk around, we saw something new. The festival is truly a sight to see and definitely worth the frozen toes.
I was only able to visit Harbin for a day and a half, but it is definitely one of my favorite experiences in China. Next time I’ll be sure pack plenty of hand warmers and maybe book my stay at a hot spring so I can relax in a hot bath after a long day of exploring Harbin’s frosty streets. My trip to Harbin will always be a reminder that winter can be enjoyed despite the temperature if you know where to look.