The day started for me about 7:00 when I popped out of bed and had a look outside careful not to touch any skin to those massive radiators. It was sunny and it looked mighty cold judging from the steam coming off of the few pedestrians foolish enough to be out walking. I got dressed starting with my long underwear soon realizing that I would die if I kept it on due to the heat of the room. Stripping it off I figured I’d just have to re-dress before leaving.
I went down to breakfast around 8:30 finding most of my companions already there. A free buffet came with my room and like most in China the offerings were strange relative to what we westerners consider morning food. I ordered a couple of eggs scrambled only able to get my order across by making the universal hand signal for eggs prepared in that manner. Sort of a back and forth, whisking kind of motion. Aside from eggs there were all the regulars – baked beans, noodles, salad and several pots of soup and rice congee, a porridge-like concoction. I found a plate of little doughy muffins and grabbed a couple figuring they would help me to better survive the cold.
Coffee here in the east is also not what we’re used to – they load it up with milk and sugar in the pot, depriving you of any option other than to make it more syrupy than it is. I chose tea – Lipton yellow label bags steeping in a coffee pot. The blandness of the tea choices in this country never ceases to amaze me. Outside of local restaurants it’s the same stuff we could drink at home if we were willing to stoop that low.
We agreed to meet at 9:30 and so I went back up to put the cold weather wear back on. As I was taking inventory I realized that my fancy new Burton hat was missing – not a good thing since it was the only one I had and it was really nice. I figured I’d lost it at last night’s meal as I had it on when I went in and didn’t when I came out. Not a good start to the day, I called one of the boys hoping he had an extra. I didn’t think my ears were going to stand 12 hours out in the frigid air and my only alternative was to wrap a scarf around my head. Luckily, he had one.
Arriving downstairs I walked into yet another battle with the driver. His masters had given him a very specific itinerary and darn it, he was sticking to it. I waded in and finally made it clear we wanted to go see the snow carvings, not the Harbin Institute of Technology. We were off.
Harbin in the daytime was a bit more appealing than Harbin at night, but not a lot so. These old industrial cities seem to have stopped back in the 1960’s when China was closed and the influence was Soviet. Most of them have a modern glass-clad upscale district, but down here at the working class level the streets were mean, gray and tired.
We crossed the main bridge and had our first view of the frozen Songhua River. Big blocks of ice littered the edge on the far side – the raw materials for the Ice City which stood off in the distance, drab in comparison to last night’s brightly lit splendor. By day the Ice City just looks like piles of blue-green ice, interesting but not intriguing.
We entered the park and left the van and the driver took me over to the group ticket window where he proceeded to get into an argument with the agent. Putting on my gloves I found my missing hat deep within a hitherto unexplored pocket. Those of you who know me understand what I’m talking about when it comes to pockets and inventory management.
I figured there was going to be a ticket problem since it appeared those who had made their arrangements through the travel agent had pre-purchased theirs. I planned to just go and buy one but instead I waited patiently while the two of them fought about whatever it was. Finally he gave up and led me over to the regular ticket booth where I paid $10 to get in.
Off to the side a kiosk was selling snow boots, gloves and fake versions of those floppy Russian fur hats for those enough dense enough to come out here unprepared. For fun I had a look at one of the hats and asked the price. 150 yuan was the answer and when I walked away it immediately dropped to 120.
You enter the park through a gate that leads to a bridge back across a braid of the Songhua to a river island called Sun. You start your tour by walking down a broad boulevard lined with massive snow sculptures. It’s worth mentioning that the boulevard is paved with marble tiles, a fact that I noticed when I almost went down flat when my shoe caught the edge of the path which was lined in marble of the super polished variety. Only here would park designers deign to use the world’s most slippery flooring material in a place that is covered in loose snow for 7 months of the year. For the rest of the day we had a running laugh going each time someone put a foot down and did the splits.
Most of the big sculptures here were of the “heroic” nature – eagles, horses, bulls, and people looking to the distance with determination. There was no theme I could discern, but the mood was decidedly Socialist. After a dozen or so of these, the timbre changed to the Story of Santa which was considerably friendlier. Santa’s of various sizes and shapes lined the avenue.
A parade of people in strange costumes came into view – tin soldiers, cartoon Revolutionary Fife and Drum players, clowns, Pashas, Chipmunks, Santa’s and primary-colored Hippopotami. A tape loop started with “Jingle Bells” and switched into “Dixie” of all things, complete with a vocal soundtrack. Using a tree planter I took a moment to repack my bag and must have chosen to do so at the end of the parade because the marchers stopped around me, removing their headdresses. Dixie continued to play from the float as its driver sat in the cockpit talking on his cell phone. I started to sing along and the marchers stood and stared. I smiled and went on.
We came to an intersection and chose to make a right turn, passing down what must have been called the Avenue of Finnish Currency judging from the sculptures which depicted various denominations of Finnish paper money. A little further on a life-sized steam locomotive was set down in the middle of the street and it was quite impressive.
The park ended here so we turned around stopping to watch little winter birds working their way through the pine trees that lined the street. Goldcrest and Coal Tits, the Eurasian version of the same birds I might find on a day like this in the bosque back home. Birds are a funny little theme that runs commonly through all the places I visit and it’s nice to have the skill to be able to identify them.
Rather than head down the other lane we took a turn at a giant sculpture of two roosters done in moss and pine needles. This direction held no sculptures but it was nice to just walk along through the quiet winter woods stopping mid-slip occasionally on icy marble. A man in a big red parka rode by on a bicycle impressing me with his ability to stay upright on this slippery surface.
Off through woods was an amusement park, abandoned in this season. As always, the figures decorating the rides were very odd – comic bears with gaping mouths, a pastel Roadrunner, a hummingbird and giant ears of corn. Things like this, normally strange to my eyes were made more so by a dusting of snow and the complete emptiness. The path through the area led back to the sculptures, depositing us on the Street of Finnish Folklore. The theme here was what the Finnish do in the winter, activities like wife carrying. None of it made a lot of sense so we headed off towards a big Russian Orthodox church made of snow at the end of this lane.
I was pretty impressed at this point, the work was beautiful, and I was able to see the sculptors in action with their chainsaws, hand trowels and sanding blocks. I had more than received $10 worth of enjoyment and would have been happy to call it a day. But the best part is often just around the corner, and it was true here. We found ourselves in the competition portion of the festival, the place where individuals and groups take standard size blocks of compressed snow and work their magic. Whimsical was the word of the day and each individual sculpture was a true work of art. Lions fighting alligators, a skeleton riding a dragon, a giant sphere parked next to a giant cube made me think of The Borg. The grand prize winner was an Alice in Wonderland themed work with the Mad Hare typing away on an Apple computer. It was simply amazing and again it would have been fine if that was all there was but there was more surprise – behind the church was the centerpiece of the park – a giant Christmas themed massif of carved snow. I don’t think I can accurately estimate just how big it was, perhaps 500 yards long and 50 feet high, carved from end to end. A tubing slide from the middle to the bottom beckoned and I paid $4 for the joy of riding it twice.
We wandered around taking it in and having a look at various animal drawn rides for hire down in front. So often in China people are making a buck inside of making a buck and that was the case here. Dog sleds pulled by pairs of Huskies were lined up, the dogs dozing on carpets in the sun. Two reindeer pulled sleds stood nearby, a pile of moss spread on the ground in front of the animal who was far more interested in sleeping than eating. No one was availing themselves of the services but everyone was stopping to take pictures and have a look.
At this point I was pretty much saturated so we began to mosey towards the exit. We wandered down another path finding a big pile of ice blocks waiting to be put to some use. I was happy to find the machine used to cut them as it gave me a chance to see how it’s done.- a long contraption with a gas engine driving a 4 foot diameter circular saw, the whole thing on a pivot that allows it to be raised and lowered down into the raw materials. While standing there admiring it I heard a dog whining from what appeared to be on high and looking up I was surprised to see a Husky on the roof of a nearby building with both paws on the parapet looking down at me.
We took the road out to the exit and found our driver standing at the entrance shivering in his inappropriate clothing. A thin leather jacket had replaced last night’s sports coat. No gloves, just a cigarette in his red hands.
He loaded us up and headed out of the parking lot. Passing the Ice City I took the opportunity to make it clear this was the next stop and gave him a time. He nodded with comprehension, much to my satisfaction. But now it was time for lunch and the cell phones came out again for another round of confusing plans. It seemed that the other party was nearby and so we headed off to find them, driving down roads that struck me as oddly familiar. Heading out of town onto a barren country road lined with what appeared to be a long row of warehouses it came to me suddenly – we were once again at the Fish Restaurant at the Edge of the Arctic. The place we’d turned down the night before.