CCC had organized our day to bring us to the Ice Lantern Festival around 5 PM, just after sunset. This is the best time to enjoy the sculptures, which have neon tubing frozen inside.
Note that the sign on the enormous entrance gate - made entirely of ice, of course - announces this as the sixth annual festival; that’s a bit misleading. The festival itself has gone on for years inside Harbin city itself. In 2000, it moved outside the city to the present location on Sun Island, and in the past three years has grown to the enormous size and scale that we saw this year. It’s unclear, then, what the “sixth” year refers to. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that it’s growing bigger and better by the year.
You may also wonder what the little hang-glider/airplane thing is above the entrance. Apparently the owner was selling rides above the park for intrepid visitors. Tom really wanted to go, but was dissuaded by Sharon's reminder that safety is never high on the list of Chinese attractions, and (more convincingly) that it would be REALLY cold up there!
Once we got in, we were, simply awestruck.
It’s difficult to convey the size and grandeur of the icy sculptures. Some of them represented actual buildings, like the Paris Opera and the Louvre (it’s the official “Year of France in China,” and the French supermarket chain Carrefours, which is opening stores all over the country, sponsored these two scultures).
Frantic to get some shots before my camera froze up, I ran from building to building snapping away:
Miranda was getting pretty cold at this point – we had been there about 20 minutes – so we looked around for some activities to warm up. The girls found a giant bell hanging in an icy temple, and banged the bell in the traditional way - on the outside - to earn some good luck for the new year.
Next, we sped over to a replica of Beijing's Summer Palace – complete with an ice version of the Dowager Empress’s marble boat. Getting up and down the undulating staircase was precarious – at one point Miranda fell smack on her back and the rest of us had a hard time staying upright. Liability issues abounded! I didn’t dare take my eyes off my feet and my hands off the ice rails to take photos.
At the top of the summer palace, we had a great view of the festival.
Getting down seemed easier than going up, since a long ice slide built into a replica of the Great Wall snaked down to ground-level. We each paid up for a plastic sled and jumped aboard.
It was the scariest ride I ever took – we hurtled down at speeds probably exceeding 30 km/hour, banging our knees and elbows on the icy walls all the way. I was extremely grateful for our Xinjiang hats, which are almost as sturdy as helmets.
At the bottom, a huge mound of snow loomed up. I figured that my years-long efforts to save my ACLs were now doomed to fail as I crashed feet-first into the snow mountain! But it was not packed snow, just loose powder, and two attendants immediately hoisted me up and out of the way of the next screaming sledder. All was well, and my knees survived another day.
The restaurant had a funky charm but at that point, we were all exhausted by our busy day and were happy to head back to the Gloria Plaza Hotel to thaw out and crash.
Next: Our last day in Harbin, so it's time for a stroll