As a Shanghainese girl who only sees snow once a year, it’s always my dream to go to Northeast China to experience the real winter where the whole region is covered with thick and crystal snow.
So I took a trip to Harbin, the capital and the largest city in Heilongjiang Province in China. It is known for its bitterly cold winter and is often referred as the Ice City. Harbin is notable for its beautiful ice sculptures in winter and its Russian legacy. It is a perfect combination for me to feel the cold weather and the exotic architecture.
I realized how special this trip would be when I started to pack. Usually I just pack what I need for my trips, but this time I had to try on the clothes first to see if they are warm and comfortable.
Here was what I decided to wear before I landed in Harbin:
Head: down jacket’s hat + ear muffs
Upper body: thermal underwear with velvet + my thickest sweater + technically the thickest down jacket I could found in Shanghai + Mom’s handmade 2.5-meter wool scarf or cashmere scarf + padded gloves
Lower body: long johns with velvet + padded pants with velvet + two pairs of wool socks + snow boots
I thought I was well prepared! But right after I got out of the airport (like in two seconds), I felt that my nose hairs were frozen! No kidding! It has never occurred to me that would be the way how Harbin greeted me.
Harbin Taiping Airport – When a friend of mine saw the picture of the terminal, he asked me whether it’s a skating rink.
It’s cold; it’s really cold. I was well prepared how cold it would be but it’s still beyond my imagination. The average temperature in Shanghai in January is around 2 ℃ and it’s below 20 ℃ in Harbin. However, I’m not sure if I’m lucky or not, the temperature dropped from – 19 ℃ when I just arrived in Harbin to – 33 ℃ the day I left. Local taxi drivers told me that it was the coldest winter in the past 18 years.
Luckily I also packed another cotton coat and sweater vest just in case. I put them on the very next day in Harbin. I’ve been told millions of times that Harbin is dry cold. It doesn’t penetrate to your clothes like the way humid cities’ wintry days do, for instance, Shanghai. As long as you wrap yourself well, you won’t feel cold. But no matter how much I wore, the only part of my body, my face, which was not protected from the elements, was introduced to a sensation I’d never experienced before. Then I realized: my cheek was frozen. It’s like thousands of knives stabbing my face at the same time – hurt yet senseless. I tried to cover my cheek with a mask but it got frozen after 30 minutes. So was my scarf.
However, it was hot inside the room. I mean, way too hot. The temperature in the room I stayed was over 30 ℃. Harbin has ground heating and my room was on the first floor. It felt like sleeping on a hot summer day in Shanghai without keeping the air-conditioner on. I couldn’t fall asleep quickly because I was sweating. I asked the hotel staff if I could turn on the air-conditioner to cool it down but he said it was frozen. That’s not the worst part. The worst part was that I had to put on all the clothes for – 30 ℃ when I was actually in a 30 ℃ room. I grabbed two bags of snow from outside and put them on the ground so that it wouldn’t feel too dry inside. And the electric fan you see in the picture on the left was on all night long. It’s just a completely waste of money and electricity.
Beside the cold weather, taxi was a major concern for me before I flew over. I’ve heard a lot of bad things about the taxi drivers in Harbin. Things like the drivers often doctor their meters or take a detour which did happen to me once when I was there. They also want short trips where people get in, pay the minimum charge, get out, and another person gets in. If you are trying to go a longer distance, they will refuse to carry you or they will pick another passenger in the middle if he or she goes to the same direction.
I quit taxi after waiting for it for 20 minutes. I found taking a bus was more convenient and cheaper. But the down side of the bus was that I had to bear the water on the floor as everybody’s shoes were full of snow. That made my feet frozen. What made me feel colder was the frost on the bus windows which I only saw in the refrigerator. And because of that, I couldn’t see anything through the windows which was not fun at all.
However, local harbingers are not bothered by the cold weather or the unsatisfying traffic. On my first night in Harbin, I was wandering in the city and saw a group of mid-aged women dancing and singing at a square near Songhua River at 9.30pm. People were also playing table-tennis and badminton at Stalin Park on day time just like what I see in Shanghai. For me, the charm of travelling is not going to all the tourism sites, instead, is to explore local culture and experience local life. Yes, it’s freezing in Harbin but local Harbingers still find ways to enjoy their life.
One of the highlights of the trip was walking on the Songhua River which was the first frozen body of water I’ve ever seen in my life. I took the horse carriage from Stalin Park to Sun Island but it’s much more fun walking on the river on the way back. At first I walked slow, really slow like an old lady, but after 10 minutes, I started to mend my pace. Then I slipped as I went beyond myself. But it wasn’t that hurt and nobody laughed at me as slippery is so common in Harbin in winter. In the middle of the river, I saw a group of local men fishing under the frozen river and they succeeded!
Another highlight must be the food. I’m a foodie and I like to taste local food when I travel. I also find that one of the best ways to learn local life and culture is to go check out its food market. So I went to an outdoor food market in Harbin and it opened my eyes: here, the frozen tofu was frozen for real! Watermelon was sold inside and ice cream was put on the ground outside. Not a fan of ice cream or ice lolly myself, I somehow decided to buy an ice lolly to experience what it felt like here. It turned out to be soft and not that cold! Ah well, it’s – 33 ℃ that day! The outdoor temperature was much lower than the ice lolly.
You have to try the Tanghulu when you are in Harbin. It’s a syrup-glazed fruit on a stick which is frozen solid in winter. I tried two flavors, grape and hawthorn and they were both awesome! Crispy, sweet, sour and of course freezing! It’s almost impossible for me to bite them outdoors. I had to bring them back to hotel to taste them.
How could I not eat dumplings when I was in Harbin? I eat a lot of dumplings when I’m in Shanghai but the ones I had in Harbin were amazing. The skin was thin enough to see the stuffing when it’s done. I had boiled dumplings, steamed dumplings and Harbin’s special fried dumplings. Some stuffing I tried seem normal for locals but was creative for me such as cucumber with prawns, pork with eggplant, etc. I will have to make it myself someday.
I’m not going to write about the famous ice and snow festival as you can read about it in almost all the travel journals about Harbin. I just don’t get the point why people want to spend 330 RMB ($52) on that since you can see ice and snow sculpture everywhere in the city!
This trip surprised me a lot ever since I got out of the airport. Some are good, others are bad. Either way, it’s a wonderful experience that I’ll never forget. But if you ask me if I want to go to Harbin again in winter, the answer is no. It’s just too cold. Harbin is a place you have to go in winter in your life. Yet once is enough.