Travel: Harbin Ice Festival

Published on Feb 11

Winter Wonderland

When snow birds flock for warmer climes in Hainan, bolder travelers head for the spectacular Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.

Think Beijing is cold? Think again. There is a place where not blinking fast enough makes one’s eyelashes seal together with frost. There, people don ski masks not to rob a bank, but to keep the tips of their noses and the apples of their cheeks warm.

The place is Harbin, where the infamously harsh winters fortuitously produce the right conditions for an annual Ice and Snow Festival. Now in its eleventh year as a grand affair (the original festival was a smaller production set in city parks), the festival offers magnificent exhibitions of colossal sculptures made of, yes, ice, snow, and lights. Here, brave visitors are rewarded with wondrous experiences of walking through icy Japanese palaces, praying at frozen Indonesian temple ruins, and scaling up mini slopes resembling the Hollywood hills.

A shopper gets cozy with a promo doll at Central St

Travelers arriving by plane (a mere ninety-minute flight from Beijing) or by the comfortable “Z” overnight train can start acclimating themselves to the cold with a daytime stroll down Central Street. East meets West along these cobblestone pedestrian walks where shoppers browse a vast array of trendy goods housed in century-old Russian buildings. Harbiners are known as much for their exuberant hospitality as for excessive drinking and extreme fashion forwardness.

The Ren He underground mall and Sofia Golden Sun shopping center showcase diverse clothing and accessories ranging from basement bargain prices to upscale Korean imports.

The square at Sofia Church restored to its old glory

When in downtown, the Kremlin-style pointy domes of Sofia Church dominate the landscape. In recent years, the city has cleared the church’s adjoining areas of bleak modern buildings, restoring the glamour of a wide open European square. Inside the church is one of the better-curated museum displays to be found in China, including gilded chandeliers and an extensive collection of photographs depicting Harbin’s Sino-Russo past.

A trip to the Central Street area is incomplete without a stop at Modern Ice Creamery. Locals pack the narrow dining hall and can’t seem to get enough of its secret ice cream recipe, regardless of the season. For a more substantial (and warmer) meal, go for “chun bing” – vegetable and meat dishes wrapped up in pancakes – at Lao Chang Chun Bing.

Magnificent ice sculptures at the Ice and Snow World

When night falls, the winter wonderland comes to life. The main attraction in Harbin this time of year is the Ice and Snow World, where ice sculptures are set across a large park area just north of the Songhua River. Giant blocks of ice (visible on the drive across the bridge from the city) are farmed from the river, hauled to the site, and built into world landmarks familiar to the frequent traveler. Lights placed inside the ice blocks illuminate the artwork and the entire park glistens with the brilliance of artificial and icy sparkle. Wandering around the Ice and Snow World, one feels like a Siberian Alice in Wonderland. When visitors tire of gaping at sculptures with awe, or of rubbing hands and stomping feet to stay warm, there are chances for respite inside the many igloo tea shops scattered around the park. Other attractions include ice slides several stories tall, dance and music shows, and cheesy photo ops with snow foxes.

An hour in the Ice and Snow World has most travelers chilled to the bone. A dinner of hot pot comes as a most welcome change. Cai Zhen Ji hot pot restaurant serves up the style and selection of Ding Ding Xiang in Beijing, but at second-tier city prices. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. So, when in Harbin, remember to order plenty of Harbin Beer and “baijiu” for endless rounds of toasts with friends.

Following a day exploring icy man-made wonders, a nature expedition of sorts makes for an interesting diversion. The Siberian Tiger Park was once a dinghy little zoo where morbid tourists could purchase live cows and watch the feeding frenzy from the safety of an iron-barred bus.

Siberian tigers greedily eye a ranger’s van

Now, the park has developed into a respectable facility where Siberian tigers of the orange and white varieties, panthers, cheetahs, and even a few ligers reside under the care of zoologists.

The bus tour through the snow-covered grounds is thrilling, as packs of tigers surround the vehicle looking for feed, but the best view are up high. The viewing platform gives visitors the perfect vantage point to take in the stunning scene of a white landscape dotted with tigers at play.

Around mid-afternoon, an altogether different breed of animal can be observed in its rather unnatural habitat. Winter swimming has been a long-standing Harbin tradition, drawing many enthusiasts who rave about the health benefits of polar plunging into -30°C waters. The less adventurous can stand on the sidelines and watch as middle-aged swimmers strut their stuff on the frozen surface of Songhua River before diving off a platform made of, you guessed it, blocks of ice.

Winter swimmers take the polar plunge

A panoply of less extreme diversions can be found on the banks of the Songhua River, just outside the polar swimming hole – dog sledding, horse carts, and tops spun with long whips. The strangest contraption here, which attracts a surprising number of customers, is a chair set atop sharp blades, which a rider can propel using short ski poles.

Snow pagoda

The last hurrah of an ice and snow-themed trip would be the Snow Exposition at Sun Island. Here, the snowy counterparts of the icy sculptures seen earlier are dispersed around a large park that is, in the summer time, all sun and water. The structures here are mostly of Chinese subjects – a traditional village house, pagodas, outlandishly big children rolling a snowball (quite a whimsical sight).

To celebrate the bravado of two days of traipsing through ice and snow, finish with a meal at Da Quan Shao Kao, where everything from enoki mushrooms to larvae, as well as the more conventional lamb chunks, comes on a barbequed skewer. A few more rounds of “ganbei” and you might start to think that the cold isn’t all that bad for a winter voyage!


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