Winter in Harbin is a cold and visceral thing, where night-time temperatures often drive the mercury past minus 30 degrees C, and the phrase “chilled to the bone” takes on a whole new meaning!
But, tempting as it may be to stay cocooned in your hotel, evening is when you need to put on that practical, if unbecoming, set of thermal underwear you invested in, and head out in to the night.
For come sundown, the lights are turned on at the annual Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, transforming it from a very impressive display of glacial sculpting into a spectacular “bucket list” experience!
The city of Harbin is located in the far north-east of China, just below the Russian border and the vast region of Siberia, in what used to be called Manchuria but became Heilongjiang province after the Chinese revolution.
Summers are warm and pleasant there, if a little wet… but come autumn there is a brief transition before the harsh arctic winds from Siberia start to make their presence felt and the long, cold winter sets in.
Soon after the Songhua River starts to freeze and within weeks large swing saws are in action cutting the big blocks of ice that are used as the building blocks for the incredible replica buildings and monuments that are the center-pieces of the Ice & Snow Festival.
The preparations and the construction takes months, with some 15,000 workers involved, but are completed by the 5th of January each year when the festival starts. Officially it is only open for one month but, weather permitting, it often goes longer as the winters in Harbin are reputed to be the longest in China.
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is the largest of the four such events held annually, with the other three being the Sapporo Snow Festival in northern Japan, Quebec’s Winter Carnival in Canada and Norway’s Ski Festival.
It is said that it all began in Harbin when local fishermen invented an ice lantern by filling a container with water and allowing it to freeze. Inserting a candle or lamp inside the ice created a way to keep them burning at night when out on the nearby lakes.
The first festival was held in 1963 in Zhaolin Park, in the old district of Harbin, and the whole thing grew from there – although a halt was called for several years during the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution…
Today the festival has become both a major domestic and international event, so expect to be in amongst some significant crowds if you go there, but spread out as it is over some 600,000 square meters there is plenty of room to wander.
Harbin is the 15th largest city in China and is well served with flights from the main international hubs of Beijing or Shanghai and, if you go, allow at least two full days to get a reasonable flavor for the city.
During the day the huge snow sculptures are the main attraction at Sun Island, the large recreational area on the opposite side of the Songhua River from the city, while at night the nearby but separately operated Ice and Snow World is where the ice sculptures are.
All of the first day can easily be taken up at Sun Island and the nearby Siberian Tiger area, then in the evening visit the Ice and Snow World – but don’t forget that thermal underwear!
The city itself is well worth wandering around the next day as the strong Russian influence justifies the effort of another day in the cold.
In the evening a walk around Zhaolin Park to see the much smaller but highly intricate ice sculptures is highly recommended, followed by dinner at one of the many restaurants.