Two freezing Days around the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival
There’s a city in the north-easternmost corner of China. In Heilongjiang province, still a good two-hour flight away from Beijing, close to the Siberian border:
A Chinese industrial tier-two city with roughly eleven million inhabitants and an annual average temperature of mere 4 degrees centigrade, where there’s not much that would attract tourist visitors.
Except for one month in a year:
Every January, the annual “Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival” makes Harbin become the centre of attention and turns the city into a tourist magnet (though still on a relatively small scale compared to other tourist hotspot areas in China, which are easier accessible).
But for a very good reason: this festival is the largest of four top ice and snow festivals worldwide (with the other ones being the Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido, Japan, Winter Carnival in Quebec City, Canada, and Holmenkollen Ski Festival in Oslo, Norway) and is absolutely worth visiting.
However, before you go, I need to tell you about two framework conditions you should be aware of:
Language skills help
As Harbin is a city which is not that much exposed to international tourists, the level of English is relatively low. It helps to know a few bits and pieces of Mandarin to communicate with taxi drivers or waiters. Alternatively, language skills in Russian could also help as there are quite a few ethnic Russians in the city.
At least have the address of your hotel/hostel written on a business card with you to show it to the driver. The staff in my hostel (Hash International Hostel) was very good at speaking English and very helpful with making arrangements. Since the bar and the food was decent, too, I can absolutely recommend this place. Don’t worry: in the end language won’t be a big problem and it should always work out somehow (see also my guide for travelling China on your own). The bigger problem is the following:
It will be cold. FREAKING COLD
Don’t underestimate this fact. EVER! Pack the warmest clothes that you have and plan for at least three layers. Remember to bring a warming scarf. Make sure that your boots, gloves and beanies are well-lined and can keep you warm even in the coldest conditions. With that, I mean temperatures as low as minus thirty degrees. MINUS THIRTY! And lower! Have you ever experienced anything that cold? No? Then pack a layer more and thank me later.
Even if you’ve always found it ridiculous to see people walking around wearing face masks, here you should get yourself one, too! If only to keep your face warm, it is a worthwhile investment. It is so cold that you don’t only see your breath, but your eyebrows and even lashes start to freeze!
Welcome to Harbin
If you follow my recommendations above, you should be ready to travel to Harbin.
A few tourists will travel by train from Beijing, but the majority of visitors should arrive at Harbin International Airport (HRB). From here, a shuttle bus will take you for around 20 RMB to the city center of Heilongjiang’s capital.
On the way, you are welcomed by a gigantic city gate made from ice. This looks promising for what is to come! However, the “hot” spots for the Snow and Ice Festival are somehow scattered around town:
“Hot”spots in Harbin
Harbin City center (incl. Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Fair)
I arrived in Harbin on a late Friday afternoon, so I decided to explore the city center for the rest of the day and only to go to the Ice and Snow World on the following day. Everywhere in the center around the main street Zhongyang Dajie there are sculptures made of ice and snow as well as booths selling warming snacks and drinks. "Hot Coke" was one of the funniest things on offer and of course I had to try that.
Zhongyang Dajie is a pedestrian cobblestone street that was built in 1898 and cars are forbidden here, so that you can leisurely stroll around and marvel at the artworks, displaying motifs of modern pop culture (like the minions or other cartoon figures), or engage in icy activities like sledding or ice skating. However, you will most likely end up like me crossing the street from left to right and entering each and every shop that looked as if it could warm my freezing body a little before exposing myself to the cold again for another few minutes. These shops are boutiques, souvenir shops or fur traders as well as restaurants and coffee shops. During my short stay in the city, I must have become Harbin Starbuck’s best customer...
The traditional ice-lantern exhibition in Zhaolin Garden can only be visited if you pay RMB 150 to get access to the area. As it seemed rather small to me, I refrained from purchasing a ticket, so I cannot tell whether it’s worth the price or not. Everything else in and around Zhongyang Dajie is free to look at and definitely a good start to an icy weekend in Harbin!
Sun Island (International Snow Sculpture Art Expo)
As my friends arrived in Harbin later on Friday night, we slept long and had a breakfast that provided us with a lot of energy on late Saturday morning. After that, we wanted to make our way to the Ice and Snow Festival.
We took a taxi into town and were dropped off at the cable car station crossing the Songhua River. The cable car took us for an admission of RMB 50 per person to the opposite site and our first stop of the day: Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo.
This exhibition of enormous snow sculptures will set you back RMB 240 per person, but it is absolutely mind-blowing. On this beautiful island, you can see lots of snow sculptures of the annual competition on display. Moreover, huge artworks out of ice and snow, like a Roman galley, a Disney-like snow castle and other famous architectural highlights or portraits.
Sun Island is best visited during daytime, as it opens at 8:30am, but closes already at 6:30pm. On the premises, there is also a restaurant as well as a few food stalls to energize and warm your body when you start getting cold. From the park’s western entrance and exit, you can then take a taxi to Harbin Ice and Snow World, which is the main theme park of the annual festival.
Harbin Ice and Snow World
Harbin Ice and Snow World is by far the largest venue of the annual Ice and Snow Festival, showcasting a few thousand sculptures resembling major sights from all over the world (e. g. Kremlin, Great Wall, or Neuschwanstein Castle) as well as scenes from traditional Chinese legends. Admission costs RMB 330 per person and the area is open from 11am to 11pm every day during the festival.
However, most interesting is watching the artworks after 4:30pm when the lights are on and all sculptures are colorfully illuminated from the inside and outside. It looks magnificent and is really nice to look at and to take pictures of, but, eventually, it becomes hard to stay outside in the cold for only a few minutes in a row. Time and again, we had to seek shelter inside and try to warm our freezing legs and hands.
Finally, we decided to leave the area and look forward to a hot chocolate in our hostel bar, not knowing that we should have to wait for approximately 45 minutes in the taxi queue. Not a minute too late we arrived back at our accommodation. The warm shower that evening was the best one I ever had in my whole life, big time!
One more learning from spending one day at minus thirty degrees: Don’t waste your morning discussing where to party at night, your motivation will be gone at the end of the day. You will only be looking forward to a hot drink and a thick blanket after that hot shower, the cold literally absorbs all of your energy!
Duration of Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
The official opening ceremony of Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is usually held on January 5th each year, but most of the sculptures can already be seen from end of December. The 34th Harbin Ice Festival 2018 will be closed at the end of February.
Other points of interest in and around Harbin
The railway connection to Vladivostok brought a huge wave of Russian immigrants to Harbin when they had to flee from persecution during the Russian Revolution. Traces of Russian influence are visible all around Harbin: Cyrillic characters, the way people look, the architecture. Perhaps the most obvious one stands in the middle of the city: the 1907-built Church of St. Sofia. The red-brick structure with the green onion domes is the biggest Russian Orthodox church in the Far East. The unrestored inside of the building houses the Harbin Construction Art Museum (RMB 20 entrance fee).
In addition to this, there is Stalin Park along the shore of Songhua River. Here you can find another sight of Harbin, the Flood Control Monument from 1958. This is also the area where elderly people assemble to dance together. During winter time, you can rent ice-skating equipment or even go-karts to have fun on the frozen Songhua River.
Harbin is also famous for its beer. We didn’t have the time, but heard that it should be possible to visit the local brewery, which might help you to limber up. In Pingfang around Harbin, there’s one depressing site: the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base. Here, the infamous Unit 731 experimented in an inhumanely cruel way with living human beings during the Japanese occupation. Knowing the stories that happened here, one might understand better why the relationship between Chinese and Japanese people is still highly reserved.
Lastly, I would like to ask you to do me one favor: Don’t visit the Siberian Tiger Park! As my flight back to Beijing left around lunch time on Sunday I didn’t go there, but my friends only left in the evening and had the time to pay this park a visit. How much they regretted it! You can already see from the pictures they sent me that the enclosures are way too small and there are by far too many tigers within those tiny areas. In my opinion, this is animal torture and should not be supported.
Instead, rather enjoy your time at the Ice Festival and with all the Ice and Snow Sculptures and activities all around Harbin to the fullest! Put on your thickest clothes and you are ready for a lot of icy fun!
Have you been to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival? How did you like it? What would you recommend to other visitors? Or have you been to Harbin during a different time of the year? What kind of activities are worth undertaking when there’s no snow? Please share your opinion and experience with me in the comments below. Thanks!
(Experience report from January 2016, updated with prices and opening hours of 2018)