“You must go to the Ice City,” was one friend’s immediate response when I told him I was moving to China. I had never heard of Harbin’s Ice Festival (nor, to be honest, of Harbin), but when I saw the pictures, I knew this was something I had to experience.
The reality proved to be less dramatic than I imagined, though perhaps more fun. I’d envisaged something like Burning Man, where enormous wooden structures are erected in the middle of a remote desert, then ceremonially burned at the end of the festival. Harbin has something of the same celebration of impermanence, its ice buildings and snow sculptures only standing for a few weeks in January and February. Here however the sights are scattered at various locations across a busy city.
A cable car provides a great view while carrying you over the frozen Songhua river to Sun Island, which, along with several other tourist attractions, hosts the International Snow Sculpture Art Expo. You can also see sculptures at Ice And Snow World, Zhaolin Park and along the pedestrianized main street, Zhongyang Dajie.
A walk down Zhongyang Dajie is an essential part of any visit. In 1898 Harbin, then just an insignificant village, was selected as headquarters of the Chinese Eastern Railway, constructed by the Russian Empire across Chinese territory. Over the next twenty years the city expanded rapidly. The architectural and cultural influence of Russia is evident everywhere, but particularly in the center, where there are many fine old buildings in a variety of European styles.
At the end of Zhongyang Dajie you come to Stalin Park, which runs along the south bank of the river. Here steps lead down to another festival site, one with no admission fee: the river itself. The ice is bustling, a venue for skating, zorbing, bumper cars, and a variety of even sillier activities. This was perhaps our favorite location of the whole trip. Until you’ve sat in a tire and been towed at speed by a tractor across a frozen river, you haven’t lived.
Harbin is only 2 hours from Beijing by plane, and we had a great time traveling there cheaply on the overnight train. Costs can soon mount up though, as each site charges separately (and expensively) for admission. Watch out too for taxi scams: one driver didn’t turn on the meter until we insisted, and then took us not to our destination but to a seedy-looking office where he claimed we needed to buy tickets. (We paid him the fare to that point and made a hasty exit back to the main street to find another cab.) And at the height of winter it’s shockingly cold, averaging minus twenty in January. However when the ice castles are lit up at night, it’s utterly magical, and truly unlike anywhere else on earth.