waitress paused in mid-scribble, pen hovering over order
"Grilled what?" she asks, a puzzled expression crossing
"Moose nose," I repeat in Mandarin, confidently pointing
to my guidebook, which promised, among other things,
that a plateful of nostril ("delicious baked, stewed
or fried") was a local specialty in Harbin restaurants.
The waitress seems none the wiser. Fortunately, we predicted
a possible breakdown in communication, and had rehearsed
the words in sign language. In perfect unison, my friends
and I raised our hands to the sides of our heads, giving
the universal gesture for antlers.
nose of this animal," I explain.
gives me the type of look normally reserved for the
criminally insane, and in desperation turns to Anna,
the only Chinese member of our party, for help in interpreting
this clearly mentally imbalanced foreigner's requests.
Anna looks suitably embarrassed.
"His book says people here eat moose nose," Anna says,
neatly distancing herself from the whole affair.
There is a mystified silence. The waitress glances down
at her pad, raises her eyes again, and looks around
at the circle of expectant faces. "How about steamed
lamb dumplings?" she suggests.
This has been the scenario in every eatery in Harbin
we have tried so far, and I am starting to lose hope
that I will ever succeed in my quest. I have even spent
half the train journey working up a way to ask "Is it
freshly picked?" and am determined not to go home disappointed.
Now some of you may think that anyone willing to brave
the minus-30 degree farenheit temperatures, Siberian
gales, and heavy snowfalls of Heilongjiang province
in the middle of January purely for a taste of nose
is probably quite mad. You would, of course, be right.
The real reason for our trip is to visit the renowned
Harbin Ice Lantern Festival. But for me, well, the chance
of chomping on deer snout is just as much part of the
Unsuccessful though I am at finding this culinary Holy
Grail, the festival itself well makes up for my disappointment.
Traditionally, the ice festival has been held in Zhaolin
Park, towards the north end of town. Part of the frozen
surface of the Songhua River is always set aside for
ice-skating, skiing and any ice sculptures that spill
over from the park. This year however, the river serves
as the main showcase for the snappily titled "China
Harbin Thousand Years Celebration and Great Ice Snow
World of Songhua River." To mark the millennium, the
exhibition far eclipses the usual offerings, both in
terms of area and of the scale of works. According to
organizers, this year's show stretches over one kilometer
and covers an area of 200,000 square meters. More than
60,000 cubic meters of ice are used.
When we arrive at the exhibition for the first time
it is shortly after 4 pm and the day is rapidly descending
into dusk. Upon emerging from a series of light-starved
streets and passing through a corridor of skeletal,
snow-draped trees, we suddenly come across a breathtaking
band of blinding white. About half-a-mile wide, it stretches
in a gentle concave arc to either side. If it wasn't
so clearly marked as a river in our map we might have
thought we had stumbled upon an inner-city park, or
perhaps a deserted, snowed-over freeway.
We have only seen photographs of the festival in full
daylight. The larger ice constructions, without their
lights on, are great crystalline edifices, sharp-edged
and as cold to the eye as they likely are to the touch.
But at night, whether illuminated by strips of colored
lights buried deep within or splashed by floodlights
from without, they seem to lose their harshness and
become soft glowing beacons. We could make out towers,
walls, windmills, boats, mountains, a whale, and a host
of other shapes indistinguishable from a distance. All
of it is scattered across the river, appearing like
some bizarre architectural experiment, a deep-frozen
Disneyland in northern China.
We make our way to the entrance kiosk, reject the Y50
all-inclusive, entry-skating-skiing ticket, opting instead
for the Y30 basic fee. I guess what we should be most
impressed by are the huge exhibits: a scaled-down version
of the symbol of Macao, St. Paul's Church, a giant pot-bellied
Buddha, Century Square with its six-story clock and
bell tower, and Century Stage, where dancing girls in
thermal leggings and exceptionally high-necked blouses
strut their stuff through the frigid night air to music
composed for the occasion.
However, to be honest the best part by far is the Great
Wall Toboggan Ride, which rises over 50 feet from the
ice in a great loop several hundred feet long. We queue
patiently, then join the mad scrum to wrest a sled from
the besieged attendant, before joining another queue
to climb the icy (yet somehow not at all slippery) stair
to the summit, before finally taking the exhilarating
plunge down a twisting bob-sleigh run to the bottom.
Determined to get my full five yuan's worth, I lay back
on the sled, lift my feet, and take off like a rocket
with the help of a hefty shove from the burly attendant.
It is amazing--the icy walls blur as I bank up corners
and bump off walls. Then, just as I am reaching top
speed, I round a blind bend and see before me two Chinese
tourists, their feet and legs pressed firmly on the
ice, sliding along at walking speed. I jam my boots
into the walls on both sides, desperately scrabbling
for some friction against the flawless surface, sending
up twin sprays of ice that shoot towards my face with
unnerving accuracy. Partly because of this, and partly
out of natural reaction to what appears like an unavoidable
collision, I shut my eyes. The next thing I know there
is an almighty crash and the three of us career down
the final straight in a hopeless tangle of limbs and
wooden boards, coming to rest in a crumpled heap at
the end of the run. There is much grumbling from the
Chinese, but by that point the small boy in me is firmly
in charge, and I go right back and do it again.
The large works of ice are indeed spectacular, but we
also love the smaller ones, many of which have been
carved by individual artists from a single block of
ice. Dancing couples, leaping fish, fantastical animals,
flowers and trees and figures from history. Most of
the sculptures are colored by lights, but we soon discover
that some are built from colored ice, presumably dyed
before freezing. Then it dawns on us--if the sculptures
have been made to look like giant ice-lollies, then
who is to say they haven't been flavored as well? There
follows a brief flurry of excited tastings by a few
of the less hygiene-conscious among us, which only serve
to prove that a) pressing your lips against very cold
ice can result in leaving a layer of skin behind when
you withdraw, and b) that yellow ice does not necessarily
taste of bananas, red of strawberries, green of lime
or orange of orange, whatever your childhood experiences
may have taught you. The only exception to this is a
claim that the blue ice, in true school trip cup-drink
fashion, does indeed contain a hint of raspberry, but
it is later pointed out that this could have just been
a touch of frozen industrial effluent.
The remainder of the evening is spent walking around
Zhaolin Park, which houses a far more modest display.
The highlights here are a mini Tiananmen, and a series
of small sculptures with things like flowers, money,
and household objects frozen into the ice. One even
has a pair of goldfish, captured and preserved in their
In the end, I never did succeed in my moose hunt, but
I suspect that several of our party were secretly relieved
when we eventually had to make do with the "delicacy"
beef-cooked-in-beer (the local moose probably shared
the same sentiment). But for me the trip was incomplete,
and I am certain one day I'll be back.
The Harbin Ice Lantern Festival usually opens in early
January and runs until February 20. If the weather remains
cold enough, it can stay open until the end of February.
Getting there: Flights from Beijing to Harbin
are Y770 one-way; Y1,540 round-trip. The flight takes
about an hour and a half. There are about eight flights
daily going both ways. By rail, the trip from Beijing
to Harbin takes about 13 and a half hours. A soft sleeper
costs Y440 one-way, and a hard sleeper costs Y290 one-way.
Be aware that rail tickets can be hard to purchase right
now due to Spring Festival season.