We went one bitterly cold but dazzling morning and met a merry group of Manchurians in traditional full-length scarlet coats and fur hats, dragging each other around on wooden sledges. Later, as it grew dark, we went to the Ice-Lantern Garden Party in Zhaolin Park, which houses Harbin’s international competition for ice sculptors. Throughout the park are big blocks of ice, on which keen amateur sculptors can set to work. These are stunning enough, but the work of the real artists is on display in a tented pavilion. Here ice is chiselled into sinuous and complex shapes – a Thai dragon with finely etched scales, arrow-sharp tail and long tongue; Alice’s face through an ice looking-glass; a stag with elaborate antlers fighting off a leopard – the craftsmanship defies belief.
Harbin still feels like a frontier town, despite its 10 million population and its determination to put itself on the global tourist map. Restaurants and cafés aimed at foreign visitors are virtually non-existent and the huge Japanese restaurant next to the ice city turned out to be a dismal empty hall with some enterprising young people selling snacks from plastic boxes. In the ice city itself, people were offering to take photographs of us for money but there were no hot drinks for sale, as if the fine details of this enormous endeavour had yet to be worked out.
But Harbin is built on a solid industrial base of coal, oil, chemicals and aeroplane parts and is growing steadily. It is said that China devours enough steel and concrete annually to build seven New Yorks and driving out of Harbin, it’s easy to believe. There are more cranes than you can possibly count. On the streets, new wealth is clearly in evidence – there is plenty of sleek fur trimming the fashionable puffa jackets of the young and warmly cloaking the elderly, while designer handbags and the latest mobile phones are much in evidence.
In the modern Shangri-La Hotel, where we stayed and ate one night in the restaurant, tough-looking businessmen in new leather jackets talked over deals in private dining rooms.
Though Harbin feels as if it is on the cusp of establishing itself, it was a Manchurian settlement as early as the 10th century and is steeped in history. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews fleeing persecution in Russia began crossing the border, helped by the completion of the East China Railway. They bought or established coal mines, sugar refineries and oil mills and soon Harbin was a flourishing centre for European culture, full of theatres, concert halls and sturdy mansions. At one time there were around 25,000 Jews in Harbin. Though many left for Israel in 1948, Huangshan remains the largest Jewish cemetery in the Far East and Harbin’s synagogue (China’s biggest) houses a fascinating display of photographs, showing groups of finely dressed European Jews outside their mansions and factories or in their banks or stores.
Some of this European legacy also survives in the fin-de-siècle architecture along Central Street. Built in 1898, the street is one of Asia’s longest and widest pedestrian thoroughfares, and is still home to the once glamorous Modern Hotel. Hoping for iced vodka and caviar, we went to dinner in its Russian Restaurant. In a dismal, violently over-lit ballroom, heavy square tables stood in rows among marble pillars. Maroon velvet curtains hung at windows, dusty and fading. It was practically deserted. A waitress sauntered forward and eventually brought huge laminated menus with photographs (no caviar in sight). Under the chandeliers, we resigned ourselves to frozen, microwaved food and were subjected to blaring Muzak – pop tunes Rachmaninov style.
We left via a corridor lined with neglected glass cases displaying tarnished silver cutlery, elaborate samovars, porcelain and crystal from a long-gone era when the hotel was the fulcrum of Harbin’s glittering social scene.
While this was a throwback to Harbin’s past, much else in the city looked forward. I had not been to China before and Harbin was an ideal starting point from which to understand the country’s ability to adapt and embrace change. But even leaving this aside, along with the city’s cultural heritage, the Ice Festival alone is enough to justify the long journey – a glowing emblem of China’s extraordinarily inventive and continually evolving spirit.
Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) flies from Heathrow to Beijing from or Shanghai; British Airways (0844 4930777; britishairways.com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow to Beijing or Shanghai; China Airlines (020 7436 9001; china-airlines.com) flies from Heathrow to Beijing or Shanghai. China Eastern Airlines (020 7935 2676; flychinaeastern.com) flies internally to Harbin.
Bales Worldwide (0845 057 0600; balesworldwide.com) offers a seven-day trip to Shanghai and Harbin from £2,275 per person based on two people sharing. The price includes all flights, private transfers, two nights in Shanghai and three in Harbin at Shangri-La properties, a full sightseeing programme and several meals.
Far East tailor-made specialists Bamboo Travel (020 7720 9285; bambootravel.co.uk) offers a 12-day/10-night China’s Ice Sculptures & Landscapes tour to the Harbin Ice Festival from £2,795 per person, including international flights, accommodation and sightseeing with a private guide.
THE INSIDE TRACK
Do not to miss the “winter sports” in Stalin Park, a bizarre and hilarious display of resilience as Harbin’s hardiest citizens strip down to their bathing suits and dive into an icy pool and then roll around in the snow (10am and 1.30pm daily; 20 yuan/£2_.
Harbin’s subway is not expected to be finished until some time next year so traffic is heavy all day, particularly around Central Street. If you hanker after fur, this is the place to buy it 10,000 to 40,000
Taxis are plentiful and cheap, costing 9 yuan (about 85p) as a starting price and then 2 yuan for every kilometre after that. Taxis will stop for you (especially when it’s cold) even if there are other passengers on board.
Good hotels will provide big, warm coats so check before you go, but take warm boots, plenty of thermal layers, thick gloves and a hat.
WHAT TO AVOIDThe Russian shops on Central Street sell overpriced, factory-made Russian dolls, glitzy gold jewellery and “Success” vodka made to look like Absolut. Wine by the glass – it can be heinously overpriced at the equivalent of £10 a glass. The expensive Mykel Mall, which sells international brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior and Burberry. Go instead to Harbin New-100 Mall and buy cheap shoes and clothes – especially trainers.The tiger sanctuary is said to be China’s biggest. Most visitors are encouraged to go to but unless you like zoos, avoid it – the 800 tigers, lions and tigers are in enclosed spaces
THE BEST HOTELS
Beware of “fake” branded hotels like the so-called Sheraton downtown and stick to reliable, international brands like the Shangri-La, where we stayed, which was comfortable and excellent.
Harbin’s finest; a five-star, 404-room hotel; sleek, modern and luxurious, with excellent, English-speaking service and great views over the river. The food is good, especially during the festival when the Ice Palace is open (86451 8485 8888; shangri-la.com; from £150).
Sofitel Wanda £
Further from the Ice Festival but in the business district next to a plaza full of shops and restaurants, this 322-room hotel boasts a spa, a pool and three restaurants, including a good Japanese and several fun bars (0871 663 0625; sofitel.com; from £60).
Holiday Inn City Centre £
Fairly basic and has been undergoing recent refurbishments. Its main advantage is that it is right in the city centre, a 15-minute walk from Zhaolin Park and the staff speak good English (0871423 4896; holidayinn.com/hotels; from £45).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
The Ice Palace
The Shangri-La Hotel builds its own Ice Palace during the Festival and serves a variety of vodkas and delicious Hot Pot dinners in fun igloo surroundings and the ice bar is definitely worth visiting.
The Shang Palace
The Shang Palace in the Shangri-La specialises in North-East cuisine and Cantonese home-cooking – it’s a bit brightly lit but the food and service are good (86451 8485 8888 ext 21; shangri-la.com/en/property/harbin/shangrila)