Up in the northeast corner of China known as Dongbei, you’ll find the city of Harbin. Dubbed the “Ice City” for its bitter cold winters, the city hosts an annual Ice and Snow Festival, which brings in artists from all over the world to design epic sculptures out of ice and snow. In all of my years living in China, Harbin was the only place I visited on three separate occasions. Perhaps it’s the Russian blood in me, or perhaps it’s the super cheap vodka that’s readily available; whatever it is, there’s just something I love about this frozen Chinese city.
Here’s a bit of background info on the city, a guide to the festival, and a few other things you can do in this winter wonderland.
Originally financed by the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century, it later became the largest Russian enclave after the Soviet Union when the city was flooded with Russian white émigrés who were fleeing war and revolution. While you won’t find many Harbin Russians living in the city today, the Russian influence is still everywhere you look – in the architecture, the shops, the restaurants, and yes, in the vodka.
On our most recent visit there, the lasting Russian legacy was very apparent as we took a stroll along the riverside Stalin (yes, that Stalin) Park. Stopping for a quick workout in one of the many free public exercise parks, we chatted with an elderly Chinese man who spoke Russian just as well as he spoke Mandarin. By the way, if you’re seeking out the best environment to study standard Mandarin, many people suggest Harbin.
A Land of Ice and Snow
With an average temperature of −16.8 °C (1.8 °F) during winter, it should come as no surprise that Harbin is well known for its ice and snow related activities. The annual Ice and Snow Festival is one of the Top 5 largest festivals of its kind on Earth, and it attracts thousands of tourists who brave the cold to take in the sights. If you plan or hope to visit Harbin during the festival at some point, here are some tips:
Although the Ice and Snow Festival doesn’t officially kick off until around January 5th, you can still visit the parks and see plenty of sculptures beginning around Christmas Eve. By late January, most of the works are completed, so if you want to watch the artists at work it’s best to head there a week or two earlier. Not surprisingly, it becomes a madhouse during the Spring Festival; unless that’s your only option, it’s best to come at another time. At the end of February, the sculptures begin to melt and the festival comes to a close.
Places to Visit for the Festival
While you’ll find small ice lanterns scattered around town, especially along the pedestrian only Central Avenue, you need to head into one of the three main parks to really get the full experience. Here are your options:
The smallest, cheapest, and easiest to visit from downtown, this park features a variety of ice and snow sculptures. While they aren’t quite as impressive as the other parks, the convenience and lower price make this a nice option. Plus, it’s very family-friendly, usually featuring some sort of themed area geared towards children (or my friend and I back in 2009 when we visited the park slightly inebriated on beer and cough syrup).
HOURS: 2-9:30 PM
COST: 200 RMB/adult; 100 RMB/seniors over 60; 80 RMB/student; free/seniors over 70 and children under 1.4 meters tall
TRANSPORT: If you’re staying along the Central Avenue, you can just walk! Just go along the West Fifth Street and you’ll run right into it.
Sun Island Park
Cross to the other side of the river during the day and come here for the Snow Expo. Incredibly detailed and intricate snow sculptures are on display, ranging from ancient Greek mythology to Chinese legends. If you get cold wandering around the large grounds, there are plenty of places along the way to warm up with hot coffee, noodles, or perhaps some Chinese rocket fuel, aka bai jiu.
HOURS: 8:00 AM-5:30 PM
COST: 240/adult; 120/children between 1.2 and 1.4 meters tall, students, and seniors over 60; free/children under 1.2 meters and seniors over 70
TRANSPORT: From the south end of Central Avenue, hop on bus #29 and go directly there for 2 RMB. Alternatively, you could take a taxi, join a tour group, or just walk across the frozen river yourself!
A video tour of the Snow Expo from 2013.
Ice and Snow World
The granddaddy of them all, this is definitely the highlight of the festival. Here, massive structures made from ice become illuminated in a sea of LED lights at night. If admiring the lazer-ice-castles isn’t exciting enough for you, there are plenty of other activities to choose from – horse-drawn carriage rides, a dangerously fast ice-sled, a carny-style thrill ride, and at least on our last visit, a bunch of people dressed in oversized animal costumes dancing to “Gangnam Style.”
HOURS: 9 AM-9 PM
COST: 9am – noon 150/adult; 120/children over 1.2 meters and seniors over 60
Noon – 9pm 300/adult; 160/children over 1.2 meters and seniors over 60
Always free for children below 1.2 meters and seniors over 90
TRANSPORT: Bus #29 will also take you out here. Just make sure you’re on the last bus back, otherwise you’ll be haggling with cab drivers who know you are freezing and have no other choice. Alternatively, most hotels can set you up with a shuttle that will take you there and back free of charge and buy the ticket for you.
Check out the 2013 Ice and Snow Festival with us!
There’s plenty more to see and do in Harbin outside of the Ice and Snow Festival. Just head down to the Songhua River where you’ll find a winter activities theme park. Go ice skating, or just rent an inner tube for 20 minutes and sled down an icy hill. For a more Chinese experience, you can rent an on-ice bicycle, simply push yourself around on a chair using poles, or whip a dreidel on ice.
Simply walking along Central Avenue is a great way to take in the Russian architecture, and there are plenty of places to stop for a bite or a drink along the way. If Russian knick-knacks are your thing, you’ll be able to find plenty of them in the shops as well. A brief detour down a side road will also lead you to the stunning St. Sophia cathedral, which now houses a small museum.
Take a tour of the city in this short video.
Before heading out, you might as well take a trip out to the Tiger Park. Here, you’ll see a big group of massive Siberian tigers, as well as a variety of other animals. You used to be able to feed the hungry kitties yourself by throwing them slabs of meat or actual, live chickens, but it seems as if they’ve taken that option away.
While this isn’t exactly a city known for its nightlife, that doesn’t mean you can’t find something to do after dark. On our last visit, we found what seemed to be the only bar in the city. Inside, we tried on their silly hats and wigs, danced around a stripper pole, and had an all-around ridiculous photo shoot. As is the case with every Chinese city, you can also find plenty of KTV (karaoke) joints, where you can rent a room and sing your heart out to American pop songs with totally random videos – think Backstreet Boys with Mongolian horsemen riding across the grasslands.
Whatever you decide to do, you’re bound to have a good time in Harbin. Don’t let the subzero temperatures deter you from visiting; just put on a few more layers, take a sip of that cheap Russian vodka you found in a corner-store, chase it with a Harbin beer, munch on a tasty Harbin sausage, and get out there to enjoy this winter wonderland.
Transportation: There are tons of trains daily from Beijing to Harbin. Some go to Harbin station, while D trains go to Harbin West. We took a D train there overnight, and our 2nd class seats cost 306 RMB each. The train takes about 10 hours and is pretty comfortable, but of course you have to try and sleep sitting up. On the way back, we took another overnight train, but this was a Z class train. We went with the classy route and bought soft sleeper tickets for 427 RMB each. You can also fly into Harbin from most cities in China, or you can even take a sleeper bus.
Get Around: Walking around the Central Avenue and the Songhua River is great. To get out to the bigger parks, you can take a public bus, join a group, or hail a cab.
Accommodation: Although there are a few hostels in Harbin, we’ve always booked our trip too late and never gotten a room in one. On all of my visits, I’ve stayed in Chinese 3-star hotels that I’ve found online. You can expect to pay anywhere from 150-300 RMB/night depending on the hotel.
Activities: It really is a winter wonderland out here in Harbin. In the winter months, you can play on the frozen river – ice skating, sledding, and so on. There are also three huge parks with ice and snow sculptures that make up the Ice and Snow Festival. Taking in the Russian architecture along the Central Avenue is also a good time. You can also get to China’s biggest ski resort in just three hours by train. In the summer months, you can hit the Harbin Beer Festival.
Food/Drink: Of course, you’ll find a variety of Chinese restaurants in the city, as well as the standard KFC/McDonald’s/Pizza Hut trio of shitty Western food. Harbin also has a few Russian restaurants, which are pretty good and not too expensive. There’s only one bar around the Central Avenue now, so aside from KTV that’s your only nightlife option. Alternatively, you can just buy bottles of cheap AK47 Russian vodka and start your own party.
Recommended Time: If you just want to visit the Ice and Snow Festival and wander around the city, three days should be enough. If you’d like to include a trip out to Yabuli, you’d better make it five.