The Harbin Ice Festival has been going on annually for about 18 years, and is now one of the biggest in the world. It’s made up of three snow and ice sculpture parks, and runs from January 5th to February 25th (for 2017). Harbin was a sleepy fishing village until 1897 when Russians settled and built what is now known as the Trans-Siberian Railway. A visit here is an interesting way to soak up Russian culture in China. Read our advice below and start planning your weekend getaway.
When staying in Harbin, the most important considerations are warmth and location. Holiday Inn Centre Harbin has both. Reasonably priced, clean, and directly in front of the entrance to the pedestrian street (shown above), this hotel is a great option for exploring the city. But the biggest draw by far is the quality of the heating units, shower pressure (with very hot water) and thick comforters.
Harbin’s food scene is heavily influenced by its Russian and Mongolian neighbors and its cold climate. Think hot pot, dumplings, hearty stews and even Khleb (a hearty, thick Russian bread), which are all great choices when you’re chilled to the bone. But what may surpise you most is the popularity of ice cream. Sold on the street, without need for refrigeration, the plain milk variety--rich, slightly sweet and a bit sour--is the most common. And though it may seem crazy to partake in eating this frozen treat while you’re frozen yourself, it’s somehow comforting. Other must-have items include the area’s famous red sausages (similar to really good hot dogs, grilled, and rolled in red pepper, salt and cumin), lamb kebabs and a variety of frozen fruits on sticks, usually containing hawthorn berries. You can get all of these things on Zhong Yang street. Just look for the stalls with the longest lines.
Dress warmly (long underwear, three layers of clothes and two pairs of wool socks) and prepare for a lot of walking. Spend time admiring the Russian architecture in the city’s center, walk across the frozen river (or ride in dog-pulled sleds, carriages or even motorcycle-led inner tubes) and definitely set aside a couple of hours to see the snow sculptures at the Sun Island Scenic Area. Each year, the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo displays frozen art work from the beginning of January to the end of February, and each year has a different cultural theme. If you have extra time (i.e. an extra day), make sure to check out the Siberian Tiger Park. It's the largest natural park for wild Siberian tigers in the world, occupying an area of 1,440,000 square meters (355.8 acres), and gives visitors an opportunity to see the animals in a wild atmosphere, from the safety of a Jeep.
Harbin’s main attraction, Harbin Ice and Snow World., is best enjoyed after the sun goes down. Glowing, brightly-lit ice sculptures decorate more than 750,000 square meters of snow, creating a landscape that is other-worldly. Tourists are carried around in horse-drawn carriages, and children and adults line up to slide down the impressive monuments. The entire scene plays out like a dream. It’s recommended to get to the park just before the sun sets, around 5pm, to watch the transition from day to night, and to break up your outdoor time with tea and dumpling breaks at the indoor cafe. Afterward, be sure to take a stroll down the tree-lined pedestrian street, decorated with Christmas lights. It’s a beautiful walk back to the hotel, and proof that Harbin is, in fact, a winter wonderland. www.icefestivalharbin.com