waitress pauses 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 promises, among other things,
that a plateful of nostril ("delicious baked, stewed
or fried") is a local specialty.
The waitress seems none the wiser. Fortunately, we had
predicted a possible breakdown in communication. In
perfect unison, my friends and I raise our hands to
the sides of our heads, giving the universal gesture
"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 we have tried
so far, and I am trying not to lose hope. I spent half
the train ride 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
subzero temperatures, whipping Siberian gales, and heavy
snowfalls of Heilongjiang province 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.
Luckily, the festival itself well makes up for my frustration.
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
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. 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 p.m. 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 a deserted, snowed-over
In the fading daylight the larger ice constructions,
without their lights on, are great crystalline edifices.
But as night sets in, strips of colored lights buried
deep within, or floodlights splashing from without,
illuminate and the sculptures lose their harshness and
become soft glowing beacons. We make out towers, windmills,
boats, mountains, a whale, and a host of other shapes,
all of it scattered across the river, appearing like
some bizarre architectural experiment, a deep-frozen
We then head to the entrance kiosk, reject the RMB50
all-inclusive, entry-skating-skiing ticket, opting instead
for the RMB30 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, 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 stair to the summit. 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.
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.
For a second I shut my eyes and the next thing I know
there is an almighty crash. 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
are also dazzled by 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's 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, who
prove that: a) pressing your lips against very cold
ice can result in leaving a thin layer of skin behind,
and b) that yellow ice does not necessarily taste of
bananas, red of strawberries or green of lime, whatever
your childhood experiences may have taught you. The
only exception to this is a claim that the blue ice
does indeed contain a hint of raspberry. But then this
could have just been a touch of frozen industrial effluent.
In the end, I never find my moose, but I suspect that
several of our party are secretly relieved when we eventually
have 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. But if the weather
remains cold enough, like it has this year, it can stay
open until the end of February.
Getting there: Flights from Beijing to Harbin
are RMB770 one-way; RMB1,540 round-trip. The flight
takes an hour and a half. There are eight flights daily
going both ways. By rail, the trip from Beijing to Harbin
takes a little more than 13 hours. A soft sleeper is
RMB440 one-way, and a hard sleeper is RMB290 one-way.