Fascinating facts about Harbin, China’s ice festival city

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Heilongjiang (黑龙江, Hēilóngjiāng), meaning ‘Black Dragon River’, is one of China’s most beautifully rugged provinces. Forests, lakes and mountains, and the dormant volcanoes of Wudalian Chi beckon well beyond the capital Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn), an architecturally diverse city with a distinctly cosmopolitan feel.

Chill out in China: Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival

Harbin’s Ice and Snow Festival

Temperatures that can dip to -30° C, ferocious winds that howl down from Siberia and a distinct lack of sunlight from the mid-afternoon on might not sound like the ideal weather conditions for a holiday.

In Harbin, though, the arrival of winter signals the beginning of the peak tourist season. From late December, visitors throng this city in Heilongjiang Province in the north-east of China to experience one of the finest ice and snow festivals anywhere in the world.

Hundreds of gigantic, intricate ice and snow sculptures line both sides of the banks of the frozen Songhua River, which cuts through Harbin. Ever wondered what the Forbidden City or the Great Wall would look like if they were made of ice? Or perhaps Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral and Egypt’s Sphinx? You’ll also see icy versions of pagodas, skyscrapers,  dragons and sea monsters.

Carved by around 15,000 workers and designed by local engineering students, the sculptures are normally ready by late December, although the festival doesn’t officially start until January 5th. At night, they are lit up by multi-coloured lasers and lanterns. The effect is magical enough to take your breath away – if it wasn’t already a freezing mist hanging in front of you. The advantage of this arctic-like climate is that it’s often close to the end of February before the sculptures start to melt.

Launched in 1963, Harbin’s festival is now ranked as one of the four largest ice and snow carnivals in the world and attracts close to a million visitors. Many are Chinese tourists from warmer parts of the country, for who snow and ice is an unseen novelty. The festival has also contributed to Heilonjiang’s growing reputation as a winter sports playground. China’s best ski slopes are at the nearby Yabuli Ski Resort, while in Harbin itself the Songhua River provides space for ice skaters and ice hockey games. Now, Harbin is expected to bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Harbin’s history

Snow and ice are only one part of the city’s unique charms. Like Shanghai, Harbin has a remarkable recent history of foreign influence. Until the end of the 19th Century, Harbin was little more than a fishing port, but the construction of a railway line from Vladivostok in Russia in 1896 transformed Harbin into one of China’s most cosmopolitan cities. Russian traders and Jews escaping pogroms were the first arrivals. Then the outbreak of the Russian Revolution resulted in Harbin becoming a refuge for those fleeing the Bolsheviks. By the mid-1920s, over 100,000 Russians were calling Harbin home.

Far less welcome was the Japanese army, who operated an infamous concentration camp, in Harbin’s southern suburbs in the 1930s. The camp is now a very sobering museum. The Russian legacy lives on in the abandoned Russian Orthodox churches dotted around town, and a former synagogue is now an excellent museum covering Harbin’s Jewish past.

Most evocative of all, though, is the Daoliqu district. Its centre is Zhongyang Dajie, a street lined with early 20th Century buildings in a mish-mash of European architectural styles. Some are now hotels, like 1906’s art nouveau-inspired Modern Hotel. Harbin is also home to the vast Sun Island Park and a Siberian Tiger Park. Best of all, Harbin is a surprisingly laidback and friendly place. The pedestrianised Zhongyang Dajie and the long riverfront make walking an attractive choice, which is not the case in most Chinese cities, as well as providing endless eating options. Just don’t forget to wrap up warm.

An avalanche of visitors descends on Harbin for the annual Ice & Snow Festival. And it’s well worth braving the cold: the sculptures are often record-breaking in size and night illuminations of the ice add a surreal kaleidoscope of colour to northeastern China’s bitter winters (minus 13C on a good day).

But there are plenty more reasons to relish a visit to Harbin, capital of China’s Heilongjiang province. From Russian architectural stylings in the city to Siberian tigers in its surrounds, these 10 facts are sure to pique your interest in China’s ice festival city.

A dreaming snow maiden at Sun Island art exhibition. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet
A dreaming snow maiden at Sun Island art exhibition. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Harbin hosts China’s chilliest festival

From January through to mid-March, Harbin hosts the International Ice & Snow Festival. Exhibitions of snow and ice sculptures, kept pristine by subzero temperatures, are dotted across multiple locations. The biggest – and priciest to attend – is Harbin Ice and Snow World (en.hrbicesnow.com), which showcases the flashiest and most neck-craning sculptures. For a less hectic experience there are exhibitions at Sun Island (a short taxi ride across the Songhua River) and Zhaolin Park. Down-lined jackets, thick gloves and even balaclavas are recommended if you plan on ogling the ice art. The mercury can drop as low as -35°C, so take regular breaks to thaw your nose in the festival’s coffee huts.

This festival has serious pedigree

Ice sculpting isn’t uncommon in north Asia’s numbingly cold winters, from Sapporo in Japan to Korea’s Taebaeksan Mountain Snow Festival. Harbin’s sculptures have been dazzling visitors for 31 years. Today the festival area covers 750,000 sq m and themed zones present glistening renditions of architectural wonders, folklore and traditional crafts. Some border on the surreal, so step back and enjoy the chubby snow fairies, dragons and towering igloos.

Colourful ice towers oversee Harbin's Ice and Snow World. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet
Colourful ice towers oversee Harbin’s Ice and Snow World. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

The sculptures break records

The tallest ice carving in recent years was the Crystal Castle. At 48m high, this structure was just shy of the height of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. 2015’s festival had an ice Kremlin, enormous seated Buddha, snow-rendered whales and supersized Chinese fishermen, glistening bluish white during the day and illuminated magenta and neon green after dusk. Ice art here is serious business. Master sculptors mostly use ice blocks cut from the Songhua River, but deionised water is also frozen when artists need ice with perfect clarity.

There’s more than wacky ice exhibitions

The Songhua River, frozen solid in midwinter, becomes a playground at festival time. Biking, skating, miniature tanks, ponies and almost every conceivable mode of transport set revellers spinning across the Songhua’s frozen surface. And not everything has a steep entry fee. While the bigger and more elaborate ice sculpture displays require a ticket (ranging from ¥150 to ¥300), ice carvings are dotted across the city, especially around the riverside and along pedestrian-only Zhongyang Dajie.

Icy train sculpture nods to Harbin's long railway history. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet
Icy train sculpture nods to Harbin’s long railway history. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Trains made this town

Harbin was a sleepy backwater until the building of the Chinese Eastern Railway line (1897-1901) thrust it into the spotlight. As its value as a trading post skyrocketed, there were tussles to control Harbin. The Russians, who negotiated the building of the railway line, lost it to the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5), though Russian immigration and influence continued to trickle in. Today Harbin is a main port-of-call along the Trans-Manchurian Railway, linking the Chinese capital, Beijing with Chita in Eastern Siberia, where the line joins the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way to Russia’s capital, Moscow.

Russian flair spices the city

First-time visitors might rub their eyes at the neoclassical stylings and cobblestoned pedestrian zones, especially in Harbin’s old town. Russians streamed into Harbin to flee the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, gradually shaping the town with Russian flavours and architecture. To this day, you’re just as likely to chow down on pelmeni (Russian dumplings) as their Chinese equivalent. Sample some Russian flavour at train-themed Caféxpress (Xitoudao Dajie), decked out with a treasure chest of vodkas, and look out for souvenir shops along Zhongyang Dajie packed with Russian kitsch. But before you imagine you’re in Red Square, remember than 5903km and a five-hour time difference separate Harbin and Moscow.

The Church of St Sophia's spires dominate Harbin's old town. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet
The Church of St Sophia’s spires dominate Harbin’s old town. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

One church outlasted them all

The gilded Orthodox churches of Harbin, steadily built up by the Russians, were ransacked during China’s Cultural Revolution. But one gem remains: the magnificent Church of St Sophia has been polished from its dark green onion domes to the golden spire-top crosses. This 1907 church may have been stripped of its interior splendours – today it’s a museum hosting a photographic exhibition about Harbin history – but it’s a striking reminder of the city’s Russian heritage and an unmissable photo op for visitors to the city.

Harbin has rich Jewish history

The biggest Jewish community in the Far East made Harbin their home. In the 1920s, about 20,000 Jews, mainly Russian, moved to the city. Mostly they fled persecution in Russia and, despite Harbin’s challenging conditions, they thrived, building two synagogues along the way. Many fled during the First and Second World Wars and the community dwindled with the last Harbin Jew dying in 1985 – but the synagogues still stand, and you can find traces of Harbin’s Jewish history at the Huangshan Jewish Cemetery in Harbin’s eastern suburbs.

The city basks in summer

Don’t let the ice fool you. Come summertime, locals flock to the riverside, splashing in the Songhua River and lapping ice cream on the promenade. Temperatures reach the upper 20s°C – good enough to sunbathe, for sure. If you’re here in warm weather, slather on sunblock and follow the crowds to Sun Island Park’s shady gardens and highly splashable waterparks.

Playful white tiger cubs at the Siberian Tiger Park. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet
Playful white tiger cubs at the Siberian Tiger Park. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Siberian tigers are right at home

Siberian (or Manchurian) tigers prowl these parts. And 15km north of Harbin, conservationists are hard at work to help these snarling felines roar another day. In the Siberian Tiger Park, dozens of these mighty beasts stalk the grounds. First you board a minibus that rattles through the enclosures, with predators like shaggy lions and rare white tigers padding right up to the windows. Then you can amble at your own pace past tiger enclosures, as well as cheetah and the crossbred ‘liger’ (part lion, part tiger). Animal lovers may wish to look away while onlookers drop strips of meat through the fencing. A ‘menu’ outside the zoo advertises the option to buy live prey to feed the tigers, too. Be advised that you may find the conditions in which the animals live here distressing.

Zhalong Nature Reserve

Zhalong Nature Reserve near Qiqiha’er is the most accessible and most visited of the nature reserves established to protect endangered species of wild cranes in Northeastern China. The reserve is home to some 260 bird species, including several types of rare cranes. Four of the species that migrate here are on the endangered list: the extremely rare red-crowned crane, the white-naped crane, the Siberian crane and the hooded crane.

The reserve comprises some 2100 sq km of wetlands that are on a bird migration path extending from the Russian Arctic down into Southeast Asia. Hundreds of birds arrive in April and May, rear their young from June to August and depart in September and October. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of the birds you can see live are in captivity and are periodically released so that visitors can take photos.

The best time to visit Zhalong is in spring. In summer the mosquitoes can be more plentiful than the birds – take repellent! To get here, head to Qiqiha’er and board bus 306 (¥20, 45 minutes, half-hourly) from Darunfa (大润发). Birds are released at 9.30am, 11am, 2pm and 3.30pm. From the ticket booth, you can take a return a minibus (¥10) or walk the 800m.

Edited by staff

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