Let me start by saying that after years of anticipation, the festival was all I expected, and more.
I started the day with 4 layers on top, 2 on the bottom and 2 on the feet. Verdict: not quite enough.
Our first outing was to the beautiful Church of St Sophia - a Harbin landmark at any time of year - showing the strong Russian influence on local architecture. With a layer of snow on its extremities, it looked like something out of a fairytale. The interesting thing about Harbin is that it looks like no other Chinese city I've seen. The square upon which the church sits is surrounded by distinctly solid but elegant buildings that make you think you could be just about anywhere in Europe.
Next we hurried off for the 10am appointment with Harbin's famous ice-swimmers. CRAZY. I gingerly made my way onto the ice and watched in fascination as these mostly elderly people clowned around for the crowd and took turns diving into the specially-created pool in the ice. After their dip they each did a lap of honour around the edge of the pool, shaking hands with the people in the crowd and wishing everyone a happy New Year. Although there were a few Chinese taking the plunge, I thought on balance there were more Russian-looking people doing it. I had my gloves off to take photos for 3-4 minutes, but that was all I could bear. It took almost an hour for them to stop stinging afterwards.
By this time we'd been out in the elements for maybe 2 hours, so we had to return to the hotel to give people an opportunity to recharge camera batteries. Some people were having real problems with this (they discharge very quickly in cold temperatures), but I was quite lucky with mine.
For the afternoon/evening session - where we were to be outdoors from 2pm until about 7:30 - I stuck with my 4 layers on top, upgraded to 3 on the bottom and 3 on the feet, PLUS a stick-on back-warmer and 2 sets of handwarmers for emergencies. This might sound a bit over the top, but I have to admit that after the sun went down at 4:30 I though my #1 fear (see previous post) could still become a reality.
In the daylight we visited the snow sculptures at Sun Island Park, on the opposite side of the frozen river. This year's theme is something about Italy and passion, but to be honest, it wasn't always apparent from the sculptures. There were some distinctly Italian pieces; the leaning tower of Pisa, Leonardo, Pulcinella etc, but there was also a good smattering of both western and Chinese fairytales, Disney characters and the like. Some were really impressive with the level of detail and the enormous scale, while others were a bit 'meh'. Sorry, that's about as descriptive as I can be without photos to show you what I mean!
At 4:30 it was already well into twilight and we drove 3 minutes or so to another section of Sun Island Park where all the ice lanterns are constructed. For me, this is what the Festival is all about. Everywhere you turned, from the entrance gate to the massive Neuschwanstein-style castle, there was a sight to take your breath away. I would say most of the lanterns were in the style of buildings; castles, temples, shrines, windmills etc, but there were also a few that doubled as advertising for the local Harbin beer, Stolichnaya and so on. Many of the larger lanterns had multicoloured, changing lights, while the smaller ones tended to be a bit more simple, with static lights and colours. Again, that's probably as good as it gets until the photos are ready.
Was I warm enough? No. My handwarmers, which lasted at least 90 minutes during testing in Melbourne, were lucky to give me 10 minutes of relief. At one point I discovered that my scarf, which I was using to cover most of my face, had developed an unfortunate crease and had then frozen, leaving my nose exposed to the elements. There was simply nothing I could do about it. Around the site there were some indoor activities (eg the lamest cabaret-style show you can imagine) that you could escape to when the going got too rough, so I rationed these opportunities to try to make myself last the distance. It was really difficult taking photos, too. I'd discovered that I could operate my DSLR reasonably well with gloves on, but even then the metal body of the camera was too cold to hold onto for very long at a time.
I think I'll leave it there. It was a really rough day, but was it worth it? Hell, yes.