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Harbin: The Snow Festival
by Margaux Schreurs - Dec 29, 2015
Harbin in winter is just one of those places that everyone wants to go to. News of the ice and snow festival spreads far on the media, and for me it was always one of those places that I thought was too far away. However, when I finally moved to Beijing it was on the top of my list. My friends and I went in January, just before Chinese New Year to avoid the crowds.
We took the relatively new high-speed railway from Beijing, which means we were able to get to Harbin from Beijing in approximately seven hours, which was much easier than dealing with an airplane and airports, as well as checking in luggage. In fact, I am sure that seven hours on a train is actually faster than getting to the airport, checking in, waiting, boarding, flying for two/three hours, getting off, getting your luggage, and getting away from the airport.
Getting off the train was a real shock though, as I had never been this cold before and the temperature difference just hit me. We arrived when it was about -20 degrees Celsius, and in the evenings temperatures dropped closer to -30 degrees Celsius. Breathing was almost difficult, and every bit of exposed flesh was freezing. It was incredible though, and interesting to see how people live in that temperature. Whereas in Beijing winter I am always forgetting my gloves, or too lazy to put them on, or feel like it is too inconvenient because it’s hard to text etc, there was no minute spent without them in Harbin.
Harbin in winter – a true winter wonderland.
After checking into our hotel we decided to spend the first day at the Siberian Tiger Conservation Park (Dōngběihǔ Línyuán; 东北虎林园), the Sofia Church (Suǒfēiyà Jiāotáng; 索菲亚教堂) and the Snow Sculpture Park (Xuědiāo Yìshùyuán; 雪雕艺术园), and save the best, the Ice and Snow Festival (Bīngxuě Jié; 冰雪节), until the next day.
The Siberian Tiger Conservation Park was set up in 1996 in order to preserve the Siberian Tiger, but it has been a bit controversial with foreign visitors. The park is large, but undoubtedly these tigers need more space. We saw about 20 of them roaming around as we drove through the park in a van with a few other tourists, and then there’s also a few more enclosures you can visit through a skybridge.
The tigers at the Siberian Tiger Conservation Park
Apparently there are over 500 purebred Siberian tigers in the park, and you can feed some of the ones living in the enclosures. This is no regular feeding, and I didn’t actually feed the tigers because I didn’t really like the idea, but in this park you can buy living ducks, chickens, and apparently even cows (although I haven’t heard of anyone or seen anyone getting cows – that sounds a little bit extreme!). Some other tourists bought a chicken and threw it into the enclosure, making for an interesting sight as the tiger chased the chicken, even if not for very long.
After about an hour of walking around we were all a bit too cold to stay any longer, so we decided to get a taxi to our next destination: the St Sofia Church. The drive there was fascinating, as you can really tell that Harbin has a large Russian influence by the architecture.
There are a lot of different looking buildings, and St Sofia Church itself is really a prime example of this. On our way to the church, we went down some of the main roads to sample some street snacks too. I was surprised that there were still people selling snacks outside in this weather, but we had some great squid balls and cold noodles from a stand.
Street stalls sell snacks throughout the city
The St Sofia Church has a lot of interesting explanations and historical photographs on display on the inside. The church is the largest Eastern Orthodox Church in the Far East, and the atmosphere surrounding it just really doesn’t feel quintessentially Chinese. Pictures of the building of the church which was rebuilt several times in the 20th century gave it great context since I didn’t actually know much about the city before going there.
St Sofia Church on a beautiful day
And finally, we spent the rest of the day at the snow sculpture park which is located at the Sun Island Scenic Area (Tàiyáng Dǎo Fēngjǐng Qū; 太阳岛风景区). Again, due to the cold, we decided to get a taxi there which was easy as the driver knew what we were talking about. The park is huge and a great collection of snow sculptures: it is not to be mistaken for the snow and ice sculpture festival which is during the evenings. We visited the snow sculpture park during the day, and the sculptures were amazing.
Quite a few of them were made by Chinese artists and had traditional Chinese influences, but there were many international artists’ works too. We spent a few hours wandering around here, checking out the displays and taking regular breaks in the cafes to have warm beverages – the main way to keep warm during our trip to Harbin.
Amazing statues at the Snow Sculpture Park
Some of the statues had slides built into them, so we rented sleds and went down the slides a couple of times. It was really fun, and a wonderful way to enjoy the cold weather.
The day was quite exhausting though, as we packed in so many activities to try and see as much of Harbin as possible within our two-day trip. We ended our day with a stroll down by the river, where, again, there were huge ice slides that you can slide down onto the frozen river. All we had to do was rent a sled, and you pick whether you want to slide down the really steep slide or the slower one. We had to be careful though; some of the kids were a lot faster and nearly knocked me off on the way down!
Everything freezes over for months at a time in Harbin
And finally, after a full day of visiting the Siberian Tigers, the Snow Sculpture Park, and spending some time roaming around Harbin city (which is actually the eighth most populated city in the entire of China!) to enjoy the architecture and atmosphere, we went to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, one of the most incredible annual festivals globally.
The festival has been held annually since 1985, and opens on January 5 each year (although there are sculptures around the city much earlier than that too). Preparations reach the international news because of the sheer amount of work involved: over 15,000 workers work on the site to set up the sculptures for at least 16 days every year.
The bricks used come from the Harbin river, and starting in December specially trained ice artisans will cut out over 120,000 cubic meters of ice blocks from this river. These numbers did not really impress us as much as the actual site – that’s when we started to realize just how much ice and how many people were involved in the Harbin Ice Festival year after year.
Our preparation before leaving our nicely heated hotel room was pretty intense as we knew that most of the afternoon and evening would be spent outdoors in the freezing cold (we were looking at around -25 degrees Celsius as predicted by all of our weather apps on the evening of this day) with few breaks inside the cafes on the ground.
We decided to wear all of the clothing we took with us, probably a total of about six to seven layers (some of which were thermals, too) underneath our winter coats, wear two to three pairs of socks depending on how many we were able to fit inside our winter boots, and to take hats and scarves to wrap up on top of that. And finally, our gloves which were probably our most prized procession during our time in Heilongjiang’s capital.
The main thing we realized the day before was actually that whenever we took our phones or cameras out of our pockets for too long, the battery just drained really quickly. This is why we decided to take an extra sock to wrap our phones and camera batteries in, as warming the phones or camera batteries up instantly lead to an increase in battery as long as you didn’t let the entire battery deplete. It was very bizarre, but the cold seemed just too much for our phones to take. I guess our iPhones really weren’t built for Harbin.
We arrived at the site just before the sun went down, so that we could have a good overview of what was happening on the festival grounds. It looked beautiful already, with the lights on, and we could see a huge amount of sculptures; castles, towers, temples, bridges, many of them incorporating slides into their structures too.
The site was even beautiful before the sun fully went down
Walking through the entrance it was quite overwhelming how many people there were, as we saw busloads of tourists getting dropped off, but thankfully, the fact that the sculptures are covered over a huge amount of space meant that we didn’t feel like we were in a crowded place. We spent a large amount of time strolling from castle to temple, checking out all the different sculptures and enjoying the light shows.
It was quite quickly that the sun started to go down fully, and darkness started bringing out the lights of the ice sculptures even more clearly. Although the lighting seemed a little bit garish and tacky at first, the flashing colors made for a great spectacle, in a very Chinese way.
The colors of the sculptures were brought out more clearly as the sun went down
Every hour or so, we went inside the little cafes (there were multiple cafes dotting the grounds) just to regain feeling in our feet and hands, make sure our phones weren’t freezing, and sticking little heat patches on our hands and feet (which we bought from the local supermarket and had actually used before in Beijing during winter, too).
The little cafes dotted around the festival ground serve hot chocolate, tea, coffee and beer. They provide a great escape from the cold if you just want to warm your hands or feet.
Then we went back outside, enjoying the slides at the top of the bigger castles, and spending time at some of the stages where live music and lots of jumping helped everybody keep warm.
The ice structures were truly impressive
There were so many different structures and all of them blew us away. Not only that though, the lighting was incredible, and the temperatures are really a once-in-a-lifetime experience for somebody who grew up in temperature Europe and tropical Singapore. I will never be that cold in my life again (hopefully).
We were all pretty relieved to get back to the hotel after this evening. Our room was warm and we knew that we would go back to the bearable winter temperatures of Beijing that were hovering around the 0 mark the next day.
Note: Panda Guides is now organizing a group tour to Harbin for Ice & Snow Festival departing on Jan 8 and returning on Jan 10 between Beijing and Harbin. Anybody interested please add WeChat: grantdou or scan the following QR code to join the group which we specially set for this tour. Thanks!