But before I dump my SD card on you, here’s some background: The Harbin Ice Festival has been going on annually for about 17 years, and is now one of the biggest in the world. It’s made up of three snow and ice sculpture parks, and goes from the end of December through February.
Where is Harbin, you ask? It’s in China. More specifically, Northeast China. It was once a sleepy fishing village, until 1897 when Russians settled and built what is now known as the Trans-Siberian Railway. So besides being a place to see cool ice sculptures, it’s also a way to soak up some Russian culture in China.
Here’s a look at Zhongyang (Central) Pedestrian Street, Sophia Square, and of course, hawthorn berries! Now, I have always been a sucker for the sugar-coated, slightly sour crab apples, but Harbin took the treat to a whole new level. They’re not just peddling haws, but also bananas, pineapples, grapes, strawberries, kiwis–pretty much any fruit the vendors can get their hands on. And since it was -15 degrees Celsius ( 5 degrees Fahrenheit), the fruit was frozen. Yes, it might sound crazy to eat frozen fruit in that kind of weather, but there comes a point when your body is colder than the frozen food you’re eating, and it doesn’t matter. Plus, it was delicious. To get to the snow park, we had to cross the river. We chose to take the cable car there, and on the way back, we walked on the ice. There were other options, such as dog-pulled sleds, carriages, and even motorcycle-led inner tubes, but seeing the look on my Australian boyfriend’s face as he slid across the frozen lake was just priceless.Here are some pictures from the Sun Island Scenic Area. The snow sculptures were pretty impressive, and we especially liked the town made of snow. However, nothing–and I mean nothing–tops what was happening inside the park. Please see below.I can’t accurately describe how amazing this was, so I’m including a video. So, I guess I’ll have to call this a photo-and-one-video-essay. You’re welcome.
Next, it was time for Harbin’s main attraction: Harbin Ice and Snow World. Word to the wise: public transportation between venues is scarce, so arrange a taxi beforehand. We had actually given up on finding a taxi, and began the 30+ minute walk (in the cold and wind). Luckily, a nice bus driver took pity on us and pulled over. He wouldn’t even take our money. I could have kissed that man.Above are some pictures of the park around 4:30pm. I would recommend getting there before the sun sets, as the sculptures are just as impressive without the lights. When we were there, the sun set just after 5:00.
The Ice and Snow World really surpassed my expectations. I had seen pictures in the past of the brightly-lit sculptures, but viewing them in real life was just magical. Plus, we had a blast going down the slides. The lines were long, but worth it. Just grab a beer or a hot tea, and enjoy the surroundings. And note that you will come down FAST. We ended our short stay with a nighttime stroll down the pedestrian street, while eating the area’s famous red sausages, and the BEST ice cream I’ve had in my life. Seriously. I have had some good ice cream in my days, but there was something special about this. Maybe it was because you could buy it off the street, without the need for refrigeration (that’s just cool), or maybe it was the consistency (soft-serve meets popsicle), or maybe it was the flavor (rich, sweet milk taste, although slightly sweet and sour). I don’t know. All I know is that it was damn good, and if you go to Harbin and don’t try it, just stop reading my blog.
Where I stayed: Holiday Inn Centre Harbin. Reasonably priced, clean, and a great location (right in front of the entrance to the pedestrian street). The staff wasn’t able to make recommendations, but they did provide me with a map and were hospitable.
What I ate: I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that almost everything I ate in Harbin came on a stick. I may or may not have ingested five (or so) red sausages (think really good hot dogs, grilled, and rolled in red pepper, salt and cumin), several lamb kebabs, a variety of frozen fruits on sticks, and ice cream. You can get all of these things on Zhong Yang street. Just look for the stalls with the biggest lines. We also ate hot pot, and goulash and potatoes at some obscure Russian restaurant that I cannot, for the life of me, remember or find online. Do yourself a favor, and stick to the sticks.
Things you should know:
- Taxis are few and far between, even at the airport. Know that it is common to share taxis with other passengers, and that the men soliciting their taxi services inside the airport are legit. You just need to ask them to use the meter (请打表; qĭng dă biăo). It should cost around 120 RMB from the airport to the city center, and take approximately 45 minutes.
- The ice festival is not organized in the same way it would be in, say, the United States. Make sure to get a map from the hotel, and have them circle the points of interest on the map (and make sure it’s in Chinese). Organize a taxi to take you to and from the sites, or make sure there are public busses running (and make sure to know the number).
- It’s freaking cold! Plan to wear thermal underwear, a long-sleeve shirt, sweater, coat, scarf, hat, two pairs of socks and boots. Heat packs saved my life. You can buy them all around Harbin, and stick them on your feet and in your coat pockets. The Japanese brand worked best.
- The entrance fees are expensive. It was 240 RMB (approx. $37 USD) to see the snow sculptures at Sun Island Park, 300 RMB ($46 USD) to get into Ice and Snow World, and 100 RMB (approx. $15 USD) to see the tigers at the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park.
- The red sausages, all the fruit on sticks, and the ice cream are amazing. Eat as much as humanly possible. (I know I’ve already stated this, but it’s worth repeating.)
Have you been to Harbin? What did you think?