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  Beijing Scene




In Search of Moose Nose in Harbin
By George Vaughton

The waitress pauses 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 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 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 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 freeway.

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 Disneyland.

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.

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