World's great winter festivals
A cold winter is the rat of seasons. It always appears and most of us greet it with irritation, contempt, whining, even fear. Shouldn't be the case. Vancouver's showing off winter fun at the Olympics next month, and even away from ski slopes (or luge tracks), some places save their biggest events for the chilliest temperatures of the year.
Here's a list of great festivals that embrace the cold. (Just not the rats.)
Quebec City's Winter Carnival
Claiming to be the world's biggest carnival, Quebec City's annual festival (held Jan 29-Feb 11 this year) certainly has the cutest mascot, the chubby snowman with the red tuque (stocking cap) Bonhomme. Founded in 1954, the two week festival is a scene of sculptures, dog-sled races, dances, music, parades and ever-reviving mugs of Caribou (an alcoholic drink from the settler days). Bonhomme actually sneaks into town a few weeks early from Knulandis (a land of ice and snow -- and one that should really exist) to get the party started soon. He's an upbeat chipper fellow. Try not to burden him with fears of the recession or your bout of traveler's diarrhea. (Note: A life isn't lived until you sing the song on the YouTube link above.)
Sapporo's Yuki Matsuri
Drawing more than two million visitors a year, the Snow Festival on Japan's Hokkaido island is held in Sapporo every February (Feb 5-11 in 2010), and is easily one of Japan's best any time of year. It began in 1950 when local high school students built six snow statues, then the city followed with bigger and bigger ones; by 1974 it became an international contest. Sculptures now can take weeks and weeks to carve, and there are regional food, bands, ice slides and ice mazes. My friend Mami Osaki grew up there and went many times. She said, 'You cannot believe what they can make of ice.' Her favorite of all time? 'The ice Disney castle.'
Shetland's Viking festival
Britain's most farflung islands, the Shetlands, takes its proximity to Norway seriously. Delightful Lerwick -- a port town built off herring, with nice walks along the clear blue Bressay Sound -- gets taken over by an all-out, ominous, Viking-style 'fire festival' Up Helly Aa. Come on the last Tuesday of January (Jan 26 this year) to see the scene of axes and torches carried by the seriously bearded, who top things off with the ritualistic burning of a longship (and a few tourists -- joking). Here's one video of last year's event.
Yukon Quest, Fairbanks to Whitehorse
Whatever you think about dog mushing, this February event is a classic test against winter's toughest conditions. Following an old Gold Rush trail along the Yukon River, the race of up to 50 sleds covers 1023 miles between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in Canada. Though less famous than the Iditarod trail, it's considered far tougher, having to climb four mountains over 3000-feet high -- and the scene of the sleds pulling out from or into downtown Fairbanks is that city's greatest event all year. This year, the race starts in Fairbanks, leaving on February 6.
Lake Baikal, Russia
Bigger than all of the US Great Lakes combined -- and containing enough fresh water that all the world's rivers, streams and creeks would take a year to fill it -- Siberia's Lake Baikal celebrates the months its 400-mile frame is coated in ice. Taxis from Irkutsk (the biggest nearby Trans-Siberian Railway stop) race across the frozen surface to islands or hockey games. In late February, Zimniada (Winter Sports Festival) is the big sports event, while the 'Crystal Seal' ice sculpture festival is held in early February on the south shore at Listvyanka. Great local English-speaking agent Baikaler can help set up a trip.
Montreal's La Fête des Neiges
The snow festival in Montreal, about 150 miles up the St Lawrence River from Quebec City, is another great scene of ice sculpture, sled races and (less famous) costumed characters. It's held on three consecutive weekends beginning last Saturday and ending February 7.
Japan's Naked Festival
On the third Saturday in February (Feb 20 this year), crowds of men strip to their loincloths and tabi (split-toed Japanese socks) -- or sometimes to nothing at all -- and fight over sacred shingi (batons) while freezing water is poured over them. It's part a Buddhist-monk method to purify the spirit, and festivities include jumping into rivers, running around temples, and wishing good greetings to spectators. It's a national festival called the Hadaka Matsuri, but biggest at Okayama's Saidaiji Temple, where 10,000 men partake each year.
Frozen Dead Guy Days, Nederland, Colorado
Held March 5-7 this year, Frozen Dead Guy Days -- held 17 miles west of Boulder -- certainly has the name to back its goofy take on fun in the snow. Three days of free events include psychics, van smashes, snowshoe racing, a 'polar plunge,' and naturally coffin racing. What of the frozen dead guy? That's Grandpa Bredo Morstoel, a Norwegian immigrant, who got particularly interesting after he died in 1989. In the hopes of someday resuscitating him through cryonics (apparently), his family soaked his body in liquid nitrogen for four years, then stored him at his grandson's home in Nederland. All of which is loosely legal. Read the full story here (click 'story' for PDF), try to make sense of this site, or just see a video of the event. Grandpa Morstoel, hope you can make it this time to give us all a big, icy high-five!
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