Waking up to a bright winter day, I head directly to the Songhua river. The winter festival of Harbin is well known, but I have read that there are also plenty of things to do on the river in winter. When I arrive at the frozen body of water, I am surprised to find a big section of the icy surface dedicated to having fun on the ice. I walk down to the river, which appears solidly frozen. It is still early in the morning, and there are not many people around yet. I decide to quickly explore the city, and come back to the banks of the frozen Songhua river after an hour or so. Much more people have found their way to the ice, and I am baffled by what I see.
Anything you could think of related to ice, is done here. There are toboggans, downward sloping lanes defined by blocks of ice. There are sledges on which you can sit, and which you have to move forward with pointy sticks that have grip on the ice. There are bikes with a rear wheel, which have a skate where the front wheel should be. There are carriages drawn by horses. There are sledges with dogs. There are bumper cars. Men are lashing out their whips to keep spinning tops moving. You can rent special ice cars and scooters to drive around on the river. There are big rubber tires in which people rush down the icy slopes made on the river bank. And yes, there is even a small skating rink where I am surprised to see Chinese skaters on speed skates. I just wonder: why not clear a much bigger space of snow, so you could easily skate much more and comfortably?
Some of the activities look very attractive, and it is hard to resist participating in everything, but I want to have sufficient time to see the exhibitions that are waiting on Sun Island, on the other side of the river. I walk across, meeting several people on the way. Some in cars, some on bikes, some walking like me. At various points, the thin layer of snow is gone, and I try to guess how thick the ice really is by the cracks and bubbles of air in it. Coming from a country where ice, if present at all, is never very thick, it is impressive to see this much ice just next to a big city - ice that is here for months on end. When I reach the other side of the Songhua river, a closed carriage behind two horses, with people inside, is waiting to be drawn back to the city that looms in the distance.
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