(Editor's Note: This is part one of a two part series)
As I stared up at the massive ice castle glistening in front of me, a light flurry of snow gently blowing all around as the sun began to set, the lashes on my right eye froze together. With this temporary impairment, I was only able to enjoy the castle's changing lights - blue, red, pink, purple, blue - at 50 percent.
Aiya!, I thought to myself as the hairs in my nose also began to freeze. What had I gotten myself into?
Dressed in a heavy down winter jacket, insulated Timberland boots and layer upon layer of thermal clothing, I felt like I was part of an expedition heading to Antarctica. But despite the frigid, possibly life-threatening conditions, the Earth's poles were still thousands of miles away - I was just in Harbin for the annual Harbin Snow and Ice Festival.
The draw of the ice festival had failed to pull me last year. I was just starting my expat life in China and, as compelling as it was to go see one of the most prominent ice festivals in the world, was fully content with the weather Beijing had to offer - it was cold enough and there was plenty of snow. Why go north where it was even colder?
That was last year. This year Beijing has lacked any of the fluffy white stuff. As a native of the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania - where winter means cold weather, regular snow showers and the occasional Nor'easter (a massive snow storm along America's east coast that causes mass chaos) - I've been grossly disappointed with the Chinese capital's winter. So like a misguided goose, I headed north for a winter excursion.
Friends who had lived or worked in Harbin assured me that I'd have a great time - the snow and ice were beautiful and made Harbin look like a city out of a winter wonderland tale - but that I'd need to dress warmly. The words "you could die" were also mentioned, if only to tease. Unfazed, I booked train tickets, reserved a hotel room, and invested in a few pairs of maoku (wool pants). I also bought enough heat packs to put in every pocket of my jacket and pants and in both boots.
But nothing could prepare me for the change in scenery of Harbin - or the change in temperature. That first breath of frosty, Siberian cooled air chilled my lungs as I disembarked the train. Jack Frost nipped at my nose as I made my way to the station exit with a crowd of closely packed travelers that provided a bit of additional warmth.
For a moment, Harbin didn't feel much colder than Beijing - and then I stepped into the open plaza in front of the rail station. Suddenly, it felt like Jack Frost had punched me in the face; my eyebrows, nose and cheeks quickly started to hurt from the cold as my ungloved hands went numb.
Harbin is a city of almost nine million, but I couldn't figure out why a single person would want to live there, enduring temperatures that for me had existed only as numbers on a thermometer. Clearly Harbin was a city founded in the midst of an extremely hot summer before the winter chills set in.
The desire to jump on the first train bound back for Beijing subsided after I flagged down a taxi and zipped across the city to my hotel in the warmth of the cab. Ice monuments lined the sidewalks, as if large chunks of ice had fallen from the sky in a hailstorm of epic proportions and were promptly carved into the icy beauties that dotted the cityscape.
As cold as it was (-25 degrees Fahrenheit at its coldest), the low temperature didn't detract from the experience. The ice sculptures of Zhaolin Park were expertly crafted with the finest detail. Sculpted animals, real and mythological, kept watch over the park grounds; bridges of ice made for some cautious river crossings; and a few classic Chinese architectural structures dazzled with their size and splendor.
On Zhongyangdajie, Harbin's central pedestrian street, ice carvings of Disney characters greeted visitors and residents out for a stroll. Mickey, Minnie, Winnie the Pooh, King Triton and others from the treasured Disney vault were out in their icy forms to celebrate the festival. Kids, and a few adults, slipped and slid as they climbed on and had their photo taken with their cartoon favorites.
After spending a solid three hours outside in the night cold, I had to retreat to the shelter of my hotel room. As my body thawed I went over my plan for the next day: an afternoon at Harbin's Siberian Tiger Park, a stroll through Stalin Park, and an evening at the epic Ice and Snow World.
(Next week, the castles and towers of the Ice and Snow World and Harbin's Tiger Preserve)
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.