Once under Russian rule, Harbin’s cross-border heritage means there’s a lot more to the city than giant ice sculptures and a Siberian climate. Colours explores China’s coldest city.
Words and Photography by Daniel Allen
In air cold enough to crystallise human breath, an insipid sun hangs low over the frozen surface of Harbin’s Songhua River. Locked in winter’s vice-like grip, the ice grows so thick that the city’s residents use it as a playground, nonchalantly driving their snowmobiles, go karts and horse-drawn carriages across the river’s super-cooled skin as if it were terra firma.
But, while the sight of thousands of Harbin residents crowding onto the frozen Songhua may be an attraction for overseas visitors, local ice sculptor Xiu Wu has seen it all before. Here in northeastern China, living and revelling in sub-zero temperatures is a skill learnt at an early age.
“Harbin has a reputation as China’s coldest city,” says Wu. “When you grow up here, you become used to the sight of snow and ice for six months of the year.”
Working outside a shopping mall on Harbin’s main street, Wu is well-insulated against a bone-chilling December breeze. Using an array of chisels, scrapers and brushes, the experienced sculptor is halfway through transforming a giant block of ice into something that he hopes will melt the hearts of passers-by. “It will be a polar bear with cubs,” says Wu, who has begun his latest creation by carving out the animals’ hindquarters. “People think sculpting looks easy, but it’s not. The most difficult parts to get right are the face and the eyes, so I always leave them until the end.”
Situated in Heilongjiang province, more than 1,200km northeast of Beijing, Harbin is China’s northernmost provincial capital – farther north than the infamously cold Russian seaport of Vladivostok, just 500km to the east. At times the temperature here can drop below –40°C, while summers are ephemeral affairs when life blossoms in the brief respite before winter.
But, rather than endure the cold, the hardy residents of Harbin choose to celebrate it instead. The Songhua River, which bisects the city, is the lifeblood of the headline local attraction: the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Running from January to mid-March, this extravaganza of frozen water has bewitched increasing numbers of visitors since 1985.
It is from the Songhua each year that an army of over 30,000 workers cut, lift and transport the gigantic blocks of ice required to construct and create Harbin’s myriad ice sculptures and shortlived architecture. Kept pristine by the sub-zero conditions, these are dotted across multiple venues on both banks of the river, with themed zones home to glittering, blue-white renditions of world-famous buildings, historical luminaries and mythical beasts. The most impressive works can be viewed at three locations: Sun Island Park (Taiyangdao Gongyuan), Zhaolin Park (Zhaolin Gongyuan) and Harbin Ice and Snow World.
Typically carved with chainsaws, the festival’s largest sculptures dwarf Xiu Wu’s modest polar bear offering. Boasting internal lighting, many become neon-illuminated masterpieces as the sun sets. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much you can’t create with a virtually unlimited supply of ice, a fertile imagination and a willing workforce.
“Everything becomes bigger and more professional every year,” says Wu. “Last year we saw an ice Kremlin, an enormous Buddha and a pod of whales. The Crystal Castle was nearly the same height as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.”
Many of the sculptures appearing at Harbin’s ice festival are competitive entries, with international teams jetting in from every corner of the globe.
“I like to try guessing the nationality of the team before reading the signs,” says 20-something Harbin resident Chen Yan. “When you see a sculpture of Napoleon or an icy samurai warrior, it’s not so difficult. Others are a little more obscure.”
Harbin’s main event may have a threedecade-old history, but local creativity with ice dates back a lot longer. From the 17th century onwards, native hunters and fishermen would create ice lanterns for use on windy winter nights.
“These were made by pouring water into a bucket, which was then left outside to freeze,” explains Harbin-based historian Zhang Luo. “The bucket-shaped ice was then removed, the inside hollowed out, and a candle placed inside. Eventually people started hanging them from their homes as decorations.”
But it’s Harbin’s more recent history that has endowed this chilled metropolis with a character and charm that goes beyond snow and ice. This is, like Shanghai far to the south, a Chinese city with a colourful history of foreign influence.
With a name that means ‘a place for drying fishing nets’ in Manchu, Harbin was barely more than a rural backwater until the end of the 19th century. It was transformed by the completion of a railway line from Vladivostok in 1896; Russian traders poured in first, followed by White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
By the mid-1920s, Harbin’s population had been swollen by more than 100,000 Russians, who set about creating a vibrant outpost in the style of Moscow or St Petersburg.
“Harbin was for all practical purposes a Russian city outside Russia,” says Zhang Luo. “That meant buildings, newspapers, cuisine, music and all the other trappings of Russian society. In its heyday this was known as ‘the Moscow of the East’.”
Today Harbin is firmly back within the Chinese sphere of influence, but still boasts a distinctly Western atmosphere. Zhongyang Dajie, a cobblestoned thoroughfare that runs through the heart of the city, feels more European than Oriental, lined with sombre classical mansions in baroque, Renaissance and art nouveau styles. The magnificent Cathedral of St Sophia, undoubtedly Harbin’s finest architectural masterpiece, dominates surroundings with its verdigris onion dome and ochre brickwork.
Dining and shopping in Harbin are also cosmopolitan experiences. Visitors here are just as likely to enjoy a snack of pelmeni (Russian dumplings) as jiaozi, their Chinese equivalent, while beef stroganoff and blinis feature heavily on local menus. Many Harbin eateries boast an impressive array of imported vodkas, while the shelves of souvenir shops are crammed with matryoshka dolls and other Soviet-style memorabilia.
“This isn’t the Moscow of the East any more,” says Xiu Wu, proud of Harbin’s ongoing development under China’s economic miracle. “But we should be proud of our heritage here. After all, our cosmopolitan culture has lasted a lot longer than my sculptures.”
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5 Senses – Taste
What could be more European than smoked sausage? With a taste reminiscent of German wurst, Harbin’s famous red sausage – or hong chang – dates back to March 1909, when it was first manufactured in the Churin Sausage Factory, located in the city’s Daoli district. Delicately flavoured with garlic and black pepper, hong chang combines perfectly with local sourdough bread, and tastes even better when accompanied by a frosty pint of Harbin beer. Available in many restaurants, pubs and shops.