I remember taking a break one time at a cafe where I was working and flipping through a newspaper someone had read and left behind. I stumbled upon a beautiful picture of ice structures that were lit up, with people walking around inside them. The caption read that the photo was taken at the Ice Festival in Harbin, China. I was in awe. It was so beautiful, and so amazing that they could create such huge ice structures that people could walk through. I decided at that moment that I had to see this ice festival at some point. I made it a point of keeping that paper, and glued that picture into my journal. Honestly, it was a dream that I never thought would become reality.
Now, fast-forward about five or six years, and I found myself teaching English in China. My contract ended in the middle of January, leaving me with a few weeks to travel before my visa expired. So, I thought of that time I had begun to dream of seeing the Ice Festival, and well, when in China…. It was far out of the way considering my plan was to travel southeast towards Hong Kong for Spring Festival, but I decided to go to Harbin and then start the trip to Hong Kong afterwards.
My first thoughts about going to Harbin were pretty much freak out moments about how I was actually going to survive walking around in the extreme cold. Being from southern California, and never having spent a proper winter in snow, aside from maybe a week or so on vacation, I felt I was not designed to be able to handle the cold. So I got some leggings and a new pair of wool socks and wore four layers of clothes each day. I’m sure if I lived in that sort of weather I would have a nice insulated jacket and pants, but four layers of everything I had warm on top and bottom had to do. I somehow managed to even look a little fashionable, which is a win for me on any day, hot or cold.
So, what does Harbin have to offer the curious traveler other than just the Ice Festival? I was surprised to find it had a lot, and it was especially rich in Russian history. So aside from seeing the beautiful ice and snow sculptures at the actual Ice Festival, I will tell you about other things that you can add to your itinerary when visiting Harbin.
St. Sofia Orthodox Church
The city of Harbin itself is actually really neat. There were a lot of Russians in Harbin at one time and there are still some Russian-style buildings, including the beautiful Saint Sofia Orthodox Church. The church has a nice open square where people were lingering, taking selfies and photos of friends and family in front of the church. Also, you can get all sorts of snacks and treats from the many vendors. The church itself is no longer in use, and just serves as a museum. The artwork inside is inspiring, with ornate ceilings that you’ll want to take your time admiring. There is also a brief history of the city of Harbin and its Russian influence over the years, plus some pretty amazing old photographs from around the Harbin area.
The main downtown area along Central Street is also a great place to explore. The street is pedestrian only, and is lined with all sorts of ice and snow sculptures. There are also a lot of malls and shops (because in China you are always close to a place to go shopping). All those malls came in handy when I started to feel too cold as it was easy to duck in and grab a cup of coffee while waiting for my body to feel warm enough to brave the outdoors again. The town really is very festive during the Ice Festival and you can walk around Central Street all day eating yummy treats, looking at ice sculptures, and feel entertained.
Bank of Songhua River
Another place in town that has lots of fun outdoor winter activities is down on the Songhua River, which is frozen solid. Honestly, some of the things people were doing seems like it came out of a 1920’s movie. Things like slapping a top with a whip to keep it spinning on the ice, or sliding around on a weird seat on skates. There were more modern looking attractions, like sliding down ice on an inner tube, dog sledding, and surprisingly there was a race course where you could drive a race car around a track. I feel like the activities on the Songhua River are a must see, if only to just people watch. Being that I never really spent time in super cold places I was amazed at how thick the ice on the river was, allowing for so many people and so much activity to be held without the threat of breaking. If the weather is nice, you can even walk all the way across to the other side where you will find the next attraction.
Sun Island Scenic Resort
While the name may bring up the feeling of being in Southeast Asia, in winter it is a bit different. Sun Island is supposed to be the best place to go in Harbin during the summer to beat the heat but in winter it is covered with snow. Staying with the theme of the whole town you can see lots of Snow Sculptures throughout the park, and if you want to pay a little more you can go to the Snow Expo to see many more of them. But, if you are like me and were trying to minimize the amount of money spent in Harbin, you can see some pretty great stuff near the entrance without having to pay another entrance fee.
Harbin Ice Lantern Garden Party
This is a smaller version of what happens at the Ice Festival, and is located on the banks of the Songhua River. Unlike the Ice and Snow World that is also open during the day, this attraction comes alive only at night, incorporating music and lights with the ice sculptures. There are different areas set up around the park, and there is an array of fun activities for kids. We never made it to this part of the festival, thinking that the Ice and Snow World would be enough, but if I had an extra day I would definitely go and check this out, with the hopes of it being less crowded.
Harbin Ice and Snow World
This is the main attraction that draws thousands of tourists both internationally and nationally to Harbin. If you go during the day you can spend a lot less, but its totally worth it to go at night. We had walked all day, enjoying different treats and activities along the way, before arriving at sunset. The lights had just been turned on when we were taking pictures of the entrance, and it changes the mood and feeling of the ice. My first thought was that it was a frozen Burning Man. People are dressed in their colorful snow outfits with fur and sparkles everywhere. Every color imaginable is flashing at you through the ice, and there is music playing. Its pretty wild to experience. After walking around in awe, going inside some ice structures, taking so many pictures because everything is so beautiful, I finally started feeling the effects of walking around all day in below freezing temperatures. I needed a hot chocolate. So we went to find an indoor place to warm our bodies, and give our tired feet a rest. It was a mad house inside the food structure, and wouldn’t you know, there was a KFC inside that had the biggest line. We opted to get some dinner from one of the many local eateries, and of course the hot chocolate. After eating and relaxing for a while we didn’t last very long once back out in the cold. But we managed to walk around the whole festival and see all the snow and ice sculptures around the park.
Siberian Tiger Park
This is another attraction that I did not go see, as I read mixed reviews about it. But if you want to get up close and personal with some local Siberian tigers you can head to this park about 15km outside of the city. The park boasts having a Liger, and the option of feeding the tigers raw meat through the fences of their enclosures.
Donnelly’s American Diner
If you make it to Harbin, and have been traveling in China for awhile, chances are you might be craving some comfort food. Donnelly’s is not in the downtown area, so you would need to jump in a cab, but if you are looking for a nice burger or pizza this is the place to go in Harbin. (This is an unofficial review of this restaurant, I just really enjoyed the food) Also, the night I went they were playing the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, adding to the ambiance, and allowing a small escape for just a meal.
New 72-Hour Transit visa
As of August 1st, 2015, foreign visitors from 51 countries can enjoy the 72 hour visa-free transit policy when transiting in Harbin Taiping International Airport. This would allow you to see all these attractions with time to spare. My time in Harbin was very short, but I packed in a lot of activities into the one full day that we were there. We walked over 20 miles that day all over the city, from downtown to the Ice Festival. It would be easy to spend a lot of money while visiting Harbin, mainly on entrance fees to all the different themed festivals located around the city. I chose to just go to the Ice and Snow World, and maybe if I were to ever return, I would check out the Snow Expo in Sun Island Park, or the smaller Ice Lantern Garden Festival in Zhaolin Park.
I had hopes of visiting the Saporro Ice Festival this year while living in Japan, but sadly it is only a week long festival, and my work schedule will not allow me to make it up there. Eventually, I would like to see all the ice festivals around the world.
Have you been to the Harbin Ice and Snow World or another Ice Festival around the world? What did was your experience like?