Visit the Harbin Ice Festival
The Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival is a truly memorable experience and one of the best things I've seen in China so far. In this article, you'll find information and personal photographs showing what winter in this amazing city is all about.
The Ice Festival
Every year, in the northeast of China, Harbin hosts the worlds biggest celebration of snow and ice.
The festival is an amazing show of carved ice sculptures, from small animals and zodiac signs to planets and dragons. Different yearly themes for artists and sculptors mean that no two festivals are ever the same.
Arriving in the mid-afternoon is the best bet for getting the most out of the festival. The daytime allows one to appreciate the dedication and work that goes into creating the beautiful sculptures and buildings, but it's at night that the festival looks most spectacular. Standing on the ramparts of a castle made of ice and watching the sunset and the lights turn on inside the glistening sculptures is an incredible experience.
More Than Just Sculptures
Overlooking the festival from a tall ice castle to see spectacular views over the rest of the festival is truly a memorable moment, but walking around at ground level offers more discoveries...
Delicate sculptures are submitted by university students, competition entrants or professional ice carvers and artists. In addition to these icy displays, the festival also has a number of stalls. You can buy the usual Chinese snacks such as tea eggs and hot dogs or (very welcome) hot drinks. Encounter men with reindeer, pulling sleds, a stall allowing you to hug arctic foxes and people selling plastic bum sleds to use on the smaller ice slides. (Wheeeee!)
A large central building (not made of ice), offers a welcome area to defrost your toes and holds regular fashion shows and virtual reality arcade games.
Climbing the stairs to the top of a steep hill, you can queue for a number of different slides that wind in and out of tunnels (again, these are all sculpted from ice - crazy!) Some of the queues can be a little long (some are more than a two-hour wait!) but arriving in the early afternoon, the lines are generally short enough to go on multiple rides before the festival gets too busy.
Other Things to Do in Harbin During Winter
In addition to the ice festival, there are plenty of other tourist attractions to visit in Harbin city during winter.
Harbin is the capital city of Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River) province, which shares borders with Russia along the North and the East. You can see this Russian influence in the city through a lot of the architecture and the food. The cobbled pedestrian street in the city centre would look at home in a European city.
Top Wintertime Activities in Harbin:
- Walking along Zhongyang pedestrian street.
- Seeing the Monument for Flood Control.
- Walking across the frozen river.
- Visiting Saint Sophia's cathedral.
- Eating the famous Harbin ice cream (despite temperatures being below -20).
- Eating at a Russian restaurant.
- Going to see the Siberian Tigers.
- Visiting the Unit 731 museum.
Saint Sophia Cathedral
Saint Sophia's cathedral is a short walk from the top end of ZhongYang pedestrian street. It was built in 1907 by the Russians and is the largest orthodox church in the Far East. The beautiful Russian architecture really stands out from the surrounding buildings. For around 30 Yuan, you can enter the cathedral which is now a museum and photo gallery, showing the history of Harbin city.
Zhongyang Pedestrian Street
Zhongyang pedestrian street is a long cobbled road in the city centre. Here, during winter, they display themed ice sculptures all along the street. The usual brands and coffee shops line the street for people who enjoy shopping and small market stalls sell street food and tourist souvenirs.
Weirdly, a popular thing to do in winter-time Harbin is to try one of the famous ice creams from the market stalls. Attempting to eat ice-cream in sub-zero temperatures is an experience in itself! If you prefer to eat something a little warmer, go for the fresh-roasted chestnuts.
Harbin Flood Control Monument and the Songhua River
At the end of Zhongyang pedestrian street, you are greeted by the Harbin Flood Control Monument near the river's edge. In 1957, Harbin saw a terrible flood when the Songhua river broke its banks and the water rose to 4 meters above ground level. The monument was erected a year later to commemorate the event. It stands in a small square at the river's edge and shows the water levels reached by the Songhua when it broke its banks.
Walking past this monument takes you to the Songhua river itself. Coming from the UK, I had never been on a frozen river before. The idea terrifies me a little. But here, the river has turned into a place for people to gather and relax. Hundreds of people take part in ice-related activities. Parents run along, pulling their children across the ice on sleds or small chairs. Hawkers roam the river trying to sell small, plastic bum sleds or metal shoe spikes to tourists (expect to be hassled) and you have the opportunity to ride husky sleds or horse-drawn carriages. There are also a large number of ice slides and you can drive snowy dune buggies around the river.
Out on the water, you really are exposed to elements and the lack of buildings makes you feel truly cold to the core within a matter of minutes, so wear lots of layers!
Things to Try on the Songhua River:
- Go on an ice-slide.
- Ride on a husky sled.
- Ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
- Drive a dune buggy.
- Drive a quad bike.
- Have a go on a tractor-pulled banana boat.
- Go for a walk along the river.
At some sections of the river, you can see where large chunks of ice have been cut out, for use to create the ice buildings and sculptures at the festival.
Where would you most like to visit in Harbin?
What to Pack for a Trip to Harbin in Winter
Harbin's winters are crazy cold! As well as the usual things you would pack for a winter trip, remember to prepare for the extreme cold weather to make your trip more enjoyable.
You should take:
- Lots of under-layers - thermal T-shirts and leggings for under your clothes.
- Multiple layers of clothing for each day you are there.
- Lots of socks - Wear as many as you can comfortably fit into yours shoes.
- Proper winter-weather gloves.
- A hat. Maybe two hats. To wear at the same time.
- A good coat, with a hood.
- Good walking shoes
- Extra camera batteries - the cold isn't a friend of your camera - you won't be able to take as many photos as usual. Try to keep your camera in a warm place or inside your jacket.
- A phone charger and battery pack - your phone won't last long in these temperatures.
- Heat packs - If you forget to buy these, most of the street market stalls sell small heat packs (they have a kangaroo on the package.) You can stick these all over your body on your under-layers for extra heat.
- A thermos flask of your favorite hot drink.
Most of Harbin's attractions are easy enough to get to in a cab. Though many cab drivers will charge you more during the festival season, so the bus is always a cheaper option, usually only costing 1 or 2 yuan.
If you're worried about the language barrier, my favorite websites for finding directions and addresses to popular attractions are WikiTravel and TripAdvisor. Take a screenshot containing the address in Chinese characters to show to the taxi driver.