Harbin, China. "Wear Everything"
January, 11 2008
Dear Family and Friends,
"Oh, my goodness!"
The airplane from Beijing descends through the clouds towards the Harbin airport. I stare at the landscape below and I think, "Oh, my goodness!" Actually, "Oh, my goodness" is not the exact phrase that comes to mind. "Holy cow" is a little closer but still not 100% accurate.
Deserted roads and snow-covered farms spread out everywhere like an Amish quilt that landed in a vat of bleach. Smoke from a tall smokestack rises in a disturbing pattern; it blows horizontally.
"Be happy where you are, Jan. What did you expect? Tropical waves washing up against white sand? Coconut palms, maybe, swaying in a light breeze? You are in Harbin for the Ice Lantern Festival. Harbin. 45 degrees North Latitude. North of Vladivostok and halfway to the North Pole. Ice, Jan, ice. Think ice."
It's -25C (-13F) outside, so during my first evening visit, after about twenty minutes, I duck into one of the little coffee shops that are scattered around the Festival grounds. My eyeglasses immediately fog up. The lenses on my camera are useless. My numb fingers seize a cup of hot coffee.
An appropriately-dressed man and his young family sit nearby. He is Chinese and he speaks fluent English. He is from Toronto where cold weather is not unknown. Not as cold as Montreal, perhaps. Nevertheless, he offers this arctic advice, "Jan, wear everything!"
"Wear everything" he said, so wear everything I did. One woolen stocking cap. One thick woolen scarf. One pair of woolen gloves. (Mittens would have been better, but how do you snap the shutter?) One long-sleeve denim shirt. One-long sleeve heavy woolen sweater. One heavy-duty nylon all-weather outer jacket with lining and hood. One woolen overcoat. Three pair of woolen socks. One pair of high-top boots. One pair of woolen slacks. One pair of jeans. One pair of heavy woolen pants. I wore everything every day for the remainder of my trip. Yes, I was warm. Only, one thing. After several cups of hot coffee or hot tea, can you imagine the complex, contortionist, pressing problem I encountered, from time to time?
During the day, the Festival is a white-ice playground. From the tops of the ice-block buildings, elementary school kids and high school kids slide down the ice sliding ponds to the ice covered walkways below. Other kids use thick ropes to climb walls of ice. Others sit on hand-powered sleds and glide around ice ponds. Others spin tops on the ice or simply hold hands and lie down on the ice. It's a children's festival!
As night falls, the grounds are transformed into an international metropolis of radiant, multi-colored ice. Spotlights beam up from the ice-paved walkways, but most lights are embedded into the ice walls of the structures themselves.
I climb the bright-white ice steps to the golden Parthenon with white ice-block columns. I walk through the golden ice watchtowers and along the white walls of the Great Wall of China. I circle the red and blue ice temples of The Forbidden City. One temple sits on a base of white. It has red walls and a blue cornice. The multi-faceted roof is bright orange. It's an arts festival!
The devout kneel and pray to a huge, glowing orange snow-sculpture Buddha who sits on a purple base. Four bright green Heavenly Kings stand guard. A two-towered cathedral is pink and blue. Another is white and gold and blue. It's a religious festival!
Everyone wants to sit and pose inside one of the three super-size Porsche ice roadsters that point towards a super-size ice bottle of Coca-Cola Classic. It's a commercial festival!
Finally, it's a sports festival! To honor the Summer Olympics to be held in England in 2012, London Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral shine in icy neon blues and reds, white and gold. And the signs are everywhere announcing the 2008 Summer Olympic Games that will open in Beijing in August, just after this entire annual festival city of snow and ice will have defrosted, to melt away once again into the Songhua River, to flow north though Siberia, to arrive finally into Sea of Okhotsk and the North Pacific Ocean.
I know my friends in Miami and Bangkok suspect that a few of my brain cells have congealed. "Why would you leave a city where you wear next to nothing, and pay good money to travel to a place where you are required to wear everything?"
Why? I hear that question very frequently. Here's one answer: Years ago, a Balkan immigration officer was astonished that I arrived to visit his poor country. "Why?" he asked. My answer was, "Because I have never been here before."
The 2009 Harbin Ice Lantern Festival is already in the planning stages. Shall I return next winter? Yes, it's cold but it's colorful and unique. It's a Festival!!
My mind wanders:
Every year, starting about September 1, before I went out of the house, my late father would say to me, half jokingly, half seriously, "What, no hat?" And if my mother were here, I am sure she would say to me, "Jan, sweetheart, take an extra sweater."
I know that you alpine aficionados are thinking, "Jan, next time take a hike to your local North Face emporium and treat yourself to a couple pair of thermal underwear. Problem solved!"