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  Beijing Scene

In Search of Moose Nose in Harbin
by George Vaughton
Sure, Harbin is known for its spectacular Ice Lantern Festival, but have you ever tried its lesser-known delicacy?

The waitress paused in mid-scribble, pen hovering over order pad.
"Grilled what?" she asks, a puzzled expression crossing her face.
"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.
"The nose of this animal," I explain.
She 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 lure.

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 element.

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.

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