'Tis the season to be jolly across the Christian/Santa Clausian world and even here in the Confucian/Socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics world....
Chinese haven't really caught the spirit of Christmas yet and perhaps they never will. Christmas is about family and giving and togetherness and the Chinese have their own Spring Festival for that (and since everyone travels for Chinese New Year, you're advised to book your Spring Festival flights & hotels now). X-mas here in China is a chance to slash prices or bonk heads, which ever comes first, and to do so in the twinkling light of thousands of made-in-China kitschy decorations (the locals love the flashy, commercial side of affairs, to be sure).
Nevertheless, there is a little Winter Wonderland action happening out here that should catch your attention, most notably the Harbin Ice Festival, but also the celebration of Winter Solstice which, depending on how many times you watched Zeitgeist, may be the actual precursor of Christmas anyway so....
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
Dec 5th to Feb 17th
Entry ticket of 260 RMB for all three major parks
(Check out these great Harbin Ice Sculpture pics)
The big deal every winter has got to be the Harbin Ice Sculpture extravaganza, known officially as the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. The festival has been around since the 1960s (though it stopped for a few years so Red Guards could pelt their teachers with snowballs before resuming in 1985 after the dust from the Cultural Revolution finally settled a bit).
The festival might have its roots in the local practice of creating lanterns out of solid blocks of ice, which became more and more elaborate until the entries included astonishing sculptures, such as last year's winning composition: Niagra Falls flowing into the Bering Strait. Contestants have also labored over replicas of the Sphinx, the Colosseum, massive 10-foot-tall chess pieces with Buddha visages and subtly lit pagodas.
Locals also engage in mass marriages and mass swims in the semi-frozen Songhua River. It's one of the great ice and snow festivals of the world and if you have the chance to get out there, DO SO! The Festival takes place from December 1st and lasts into February. The official start date is January 5th, but there are exhibitions and events going on throughout the winter months, with construction and icy river swim competitions starting this week.
The festival is split up into three major areas:
Sun Island Park, which holds the snow world exhibition;
Zhaolin, a park devoted to artistic renditions with ice and snow as well as the site of the Lantern Festival which incorporates ice, snow and light to make a dazzling show;
Harbin Ice and Snow World, where all of the major architectural achievements with ice (Sphinx, Colosseum etc.) are on display.
The whole city of Harbin is decked out for the festival and the actual festival grounds are along the Songhua River that runs through town. There are tours and buses that can take you through the city and out into the countryside, or you can DIY and grab a local cab and have him help you find things during your trip. No matter how you get there, be sure to bring warm enough clothes—Harbin is one of the coldest places in China.
The Winter Solstice in China
The Winter Solstice was once the most important festival of the year for Chinese. The solstice marked the end of the year and after the longest night, the return of the invigorating Yang energy that was waning ever since Midsummer's Day. The festival is no longer as important as it once was after it was decoupled from the lunar New Year more than 1,000 years ago, but old traditions die hard in China.
One of the major traditions involves eating dumplings in the shape of ears, to symbolize the creation story that has Nuwa the serpent Queen putting holes in man's ears and threading them with a string to keep them from falling off during the harsh winters. In many parts of southern China, people make sweet rice balls for the children to slurp up during the long night ahead.
For those of you who are trying to get back in touch with the truth about our planet, turn off all of your electronics and eat sweet nothings with your loved ones a day or two before Christmas. Then, when Christmas does arrive, you can appreciate the happiness of that festival knowing that the strong energy of the sun is returning....
4th Tour De Ski China 2010-2011
Beijing - Changchun, Jilin - Xiwuqi, Inner Mongolia
Dec 28th to Jan 2nd
See the Official Tour de Ski China Website for more information
The Norwegians love to ski, and they're bringing their love for the winter sport to China this year with a cross-country skiing event that will take international participants from Changchun all the way across Inner Mongolia and then back to Beijing. The event mirrors a longtime Norwegian event known as Vasaloppe, and with the China version now in its fourth year, we can expect to see more Chinese ski bums & ski bunnies on the slopes of Asia's (and the world's) mountains soon enough.