Upon arrival at Harbin airport on a February winter evening, I rush to the exit, hoping to make it to Zhaolin Park before it closes. Some haggling with taxi drivers proves necessary to secure me a fair price, and after driving for half an hour along dark streets and some ice sculptures here and there, the driver looks back at me, pointing ahead, with a question mark on his face. I see a brightly illuminated arch made of ice, and I know I have arrived. I pay my entrance ticket, put on my gloves, and walk up the steps. A carpet on the ice makes walking easy, and I step into a wonderworld of ice. First thing I see: a carved goat standing high above me; after all, in a couple of days, it will be Chinese New Year, and the Year of the Goat is about to start. Behind the goat, I pass under another arch, and walk a lane which is defined by two walls of ice, with red lanterns hanging inside open spaces. There are many red lanterns above my head, too. Inside the ice blocks, blue and red lights, giving the lane an uplifting appearance.
A girl takes pictures of me with her cell phone, and when I look back at the colourful tunnel of ice and lanterns, she is next to me, taking a selfie with me in it, before she disappears into the cold air, laughing apologetically at me. I walk a lane with ice sculptures of animals and human figures, all colourfully lit, before I arrive at a small plaza with an exhibition of ice sculptures. They turn out to be true pieces of art. Finely carved ice, with delicate details, incredibly smooth and sharp lines, which is only possible because of the extreme climate of Harbin. The exhibitions open on January 5 every year, and even after more than a month, the temperature clearly has not been above freezing. There are fish, a frog with huge bulging eyes, horses, a unicorn, but also a ship, female nudes, hands. Even though other exhibitions have grown to be larger than this one, Zhaolin Park is where the habit of sculpting ice in Harbin started back in 1963, and has continued ever since, apart from a spell during the Cultural Revolution when it was considered improper.
By the time I reach the other side of the park, where constant sound of trains is played to accompany an ice train and an ice railway station, the cold starts to bite. I keep on walking, past small Chinese temples made of ice, an iglo-like snow church, a long slide where people rush down the ice, steps leading to green, red, and blue pillars, several cafes inside ice buildings. I have to sway my arms to keep them warm, and I am happy I still have two more layers which I will surely need the next day. Then, suddenly, an electrical scooter pulls up behind me, a man steps off, and switches off some of the lights in the sculptures. He continues, and I now walk even faster on my second lap of the park, to keep ahead of the lightkiller who is, step by step, spoiling the fun of the park. Apparently, there is no main switch: section by section, the park that was so brightly lit before, turns to dark. The sculptures look totally different and dissolve into the darkness. When the guy hits the last switch, I walk back to the exit in the dark. And now, I need to hunt for a place to sleep, while I cannot wait for all that I will see the following day at the Winter Festival of Harbin.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
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