Potholes of ice crunched under the worn tires of our battered taxi as we bumped through the back streets of Harbin, Manchuria’s largest city. Under a winter sky, the sprawl was grey and stolid and reflected my mood – I was at the end of my tether. We had come to ski the remote fields of northern China, but instead of being knee-deep in powder, we were experiencing the second day of what was to be the most annoying aspect of our travels in China.
As first time visitors, we had accepted the itinerary of the local tourist office, which included complimentary ‘sightseeing’ tours. We soon discovered why they were complimentary, given the choice, no one would have actually paid for them. After eventually reaching the place we have travelled thousands of kilometres to get to, we were ‘expected’ to explore all the things that we wouldn’t bother to go and see at home. The tour had become a battle of wits with our tour guide (minder), we becoming more and more frustrated as he stuck rigidly to the ‘official’ itinerary, extolling the virtues of one pigeon poohed People’s Hero statue after another. Our taxi was now taking us to the next attraction, the frozen Harbin River.
The sight of the wide frozen expanse immediately lifted my spirits, it seemed as if half of Harbin was out enjoying the ice. Close to the bank, two skating rinks had been cleared. Looking like little Michelin men, rugged-up children slid about playing chasings on one, on the other, older boys played a proficient game of ice hockey. Further along the bank, hundreds of ice blocks had been hauled up to construct a giant ice-slide and fathers, daughters, mothers, sons, grandfathers and grandmothers kept up a steady stream of speeding bodies that laughed and squealed down the shoot and way out onto the river ice. Further out, iceboats raced across the white plain – their brightly coloured sails full of afternoon breeze.