Harbin: Journey to the North. Day 2

A fairly slow morning. The brisk morning temperatures from the previous day had convinced us that we deserved a few hours in the morning enjoying the warm of the hostel, as well as spending time catching up on emails. At around 11am, we headed out to grab some food at a small Chinese restaurant, and then ventured down to the river again to set off some firecrackers we had bought at a roadside stall. (Despite the fact that it was a good two weeks since Chinese New Year had been and gone, people are still buying fireworks and setting them off all the time. I’m sitting here writing this in Beijing to the sound of fireworks outside, and it isn’t even dark yet). After the fireworks, we had a go on the ice slides on the river, and headed back in to town.

The Daoliqu Tangge Procession

We went to the central area of Daoliqu (道里区), and while we were wandering fairly aimless down the main drag, Zhongyang Dajie (中央大街), another Russian architectural legacy, we stumbled across processions of elderly people dancing, dressed in red coats and multicoloured belts and headbands and waving pink fans in the air, all set to a cacophonous beat of drums, cymbals and trumpets. The dance was apparently the Yangge (秧歌), or the “Rice Sprout Song”, a traditional form of folk dance especially popular in this area of northern China, and a fusion of ancient farming songs, martial art, acrobatics and traditional opera dances. All the way down the pedestrianised street were groups of dancers, the vast majority of whom seemed to be elderly people. This was the first real impromptu “festival” which I had experienced in China, and it was an impressive atmosphere as so many people got into the spirit of the event.

As darkness fell that evening, we headed out of town to see the real reason we had visited Harbin – the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. I had seen photos of the ice-block buildings and sculptures from previous years, which were impressive, but I still was not prepared for the sheer scale of the constructions. As soon as we disembarked from the bus which took us a few miles out of the town centre to the complex, I was immediately taken aback by the glaring and slightly garish colours illuminating the ice buildings, bright greens and blues and reds, against the stark backdrop of the jet black sky. Artificial snow had also been laid down on the ground, just to complete the look. Once inside the complex, we ran around erratically exploring the area with ice-block castles, sculptures and a plethora of random models such as huge Harbin Beer bottles and the famous Buddhist sculptures of the Yungang Caves. There was also a multitude of slides, which we compulsively raced down, and even a zip-wire, which would have been fun but the queue length was somewhat off-putting. It must have been an hour or so that we spent running around like small children, trying to whizz down as many of the slides as possible, with too much excitement to be affected by the sting of the bitter cold.

Some of the buildings in the Ice Festival

We also caught wind of a “European Show” which was being performed in a theatre on the site. Curious as ever of where Chinese people obtain their jumbled impression of Western ways, we went to watch the performance. The opening was a dance piece set to the theme from the French film Amélie. Fair enough. Other skits in the performance were rather confusing though – especially an Arabian dance piece, a samba one, and in particular when the American director took to the stage, spoke in English to a very poor audience reception, picked out a Chinese man at random from the audience (who looked baffled and terrified) and proceeded to guide him through a magic trick involving him doing some sort of rope trick with the American man’s “wife”. The whole show was a confusing insight into a culture which was meant to be my own, which I suppose the Chinese audience must have found even more alien. I just daren’t think of what they made of the provocative burlesque-cum-striptease finale.

The temperature outside had taken a further dip when we emerged after the show, so we made speedy tracks back into town to have a meal. It must have been barely 9:30pm, but many of the restaurants were shut, so we returned to the Russian restaurant we had visited the previous day. I can imagine why the Russians drink vodka to fight the cold weather outside. This was our final night in Harbin, and we returned to the hostel around midnight.