Late in December, on the plane to Harbin, we flew straight into a snowstorm from Russia. We had left frenetic Shanghai just three hours earlier and it was like landing noiselessly into a Chinese landscape scroll-painting with softly falling snow. The snow piled up, muting traffic noises and outlining the city in inky black with smoky smudges. Shaggy-haired ponies pulled carts.
Harbin taxi drivers, when talking about the weather, relate temperatures as “15” or “18” – the part about “degrees Celsius below zero” is understood. We heard snatches of radio bulletins about officials preparing for bad weather but my husband and I decided to press on with our plan to go skiing at Yabuli, where China’s ski team practises. We braved the gelid night, slipping and sliding over pavements at a bustling train station to buy soft-seat tickets to Yabuli.
It was a two-and-a-half-hour ride in the morning, in an almost deserted carriage. We glided through the fallow, snow-dusted countryside of Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, which the Russians call the Amur. Small farms by the tracks were stripped of cattle and human life, driven inside by the storm. The only signs of life were fogged windows and smoking chimneys, the only dabs of colour were bright gold ears of corn stored for the winter in backyards.
At Yabuli, on a one-street hill, hotels are scattered on either side. At the bottom sits the shiny, brand new train station equipped with great chandeliers. A complimentary shuttle bus drops skiers off at their digs.
We got off the bus too early and went to the wrong hotel – I didn’t know the Chinese for Windmill Inn and just hopped off when I saw the character for “wind”. The staff quickly began to slander the Windmill Inn; their hotel was apparently much better. I was cross with my husband for calmly sending work e-mails on his BlackBerry while I sorted out the mess in my most stern Chinese. But when we got there, the Windmill Inn didn’t have our reservation records. “I will stand here till I get the room I booked, at the price I booked it for,” growled my husband. The tactic worked.
We hired a van to the biggest slope and found the ski lift was brand new and the rental equipment all premium brands – recent investments, I guessed, as a prelude to the 2009 Universiade winter games for students. There was some confusion about prices and access to slopes, but our excitement grew.
By the afternoon, it was misty, the storm hanging over the mountain-tops. Even my cold toes and frozen fingertips could not spoil my pleasure in pushing off the chair-lift, of my skis slicing and spraying down the slope. I found my ski legs quickly, relishing the wind pushing against my chest. I loosened my knees to better feel the mountain underneath and crouched to follow my husband’s figure receding into a black dot below.
“In China, they ski the way they drive,” a friend had warned. There was carnage on the slopes around us. Woollen hats flying off heads, poles pointing skywards, skis spread wide apart in a free run to the bottom. Stopping meant falling – the run was littered with sprawled bodies.
We tore down the slope a few times, hungry for speed. Then, a man cut sharply in front of me and lost his balance. He was too close for me to swerve. I could hear myself scream as we collided and tumbled in a tangle of powder, snapped-off skis, lost poles.
“Jesus Christ!” I yelled, on all fours, although I hardly ever say that. But I was able to get up, shaky with shock. My leg burnt, I tested my knee, everything was moving.
“Bu hao yi si [sorry],” the man said, limping uphill, bringing my ski to me, a peace offering. I was so maddened by the interruption of my trance, my communion with the wind and the snow, that I could not even bring myself to ask how he was.
The pain came later. Just above my knee, a bruise bloomed, mottled, a rich aubergine and shaped just like the Korean peninsula. It throbbed. My shoulder had been wrenched, too, and that night I could barely move my arm. I moaned, snug under the lodge’s cottonwool-stuffed quilts, receiving my husband’s periodic sympathy.
Still, like most skiers, I couldn’t bear the thought of being left out of any morning skiing and cautiously stretched my limbs to warm up. Strong winds had forced the higher slopes shut – they made the cable cars swing dangerously. A mournful tourism intern from a Harbin university directed us to a lower slope, with older chair-lifts. Mercifully, it was nearly deserted, the sun was out now, and we spent a delightful morning chasing each other downhill on the clean, packed surface.
Every few runs, the cold forced us back to the rest area, to thaw out and blow feeling into our fingertips. Once, in ski boots, I negotiated a tiled, wet, squat toilet. It was -20°C. In the rental area, an attendant, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, sat on his haunches to help outfit a young skier.
Back in Harbin, a friend sent a text message in the hours before New Year’s eve. I phoned him: did he remember the trip up here from our student days? “I still have a picture of you coming down an ice-slide,” he said, and I thought this is what friends are for: repositories of our younger selves.
One night, we visited Harbin’s ice-city. The skyline shimmered and glistened ethereally, rising over the Songhua River’s north bank and it took my breath away. Horses pulled sledges through the lighted city. Music piped through speakers. We hunched our shoulders, pulled our scarves up to our eyes and walked briskly to keep warm.
There was an ice Great Wall, an ice Forbidden City, but mostly tributes to past Olympic host cities. Translucent structures lit from within rose one after the other, landmarks from Athens, Moscow, London. The message was unmistakable. “China’s not emerging, it’s re-emerging,” said my husband.
In an ice pavilion where a sacred bell hung amid bright glassy pillars, I waited in line with others to swing a log against the metal for a stifled chime in the cold night. It seemed appropriate at this icy temple to have come to this frozen land to ask for a boon.
Mishi Saran is the author of ‘Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang’ (Penguin)