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Beijing Getaways: Harbin Ice & Snow Festival

Harbin Ice Festival | Harbin Attractions | Harbin Access | Harbin Accommodation

Moscow of the East: Harbin's icy treasures belie the city's warm tourist welcome

Daniel Allen

Ice sculpture at Harbin ice festival.

Situated in northeastern China, Harbin is the country's northernmost provincial capital - it is actually further north than the notoriously cold Russian seaport of Vladivostok, just 300 miles away. In fact the city is a lot closer to the Russian border than Beijing, and the traditional Russian architecture left over from former colonial times give the place a distinctly European feel.

Harbin is renowned for two things - its cold weather and the city's annual ice festival. The temperature in Harbin plummets to forty below zero, and stays below freezing nearly half the year. Rather than suffer the cold, however, the residents of Harbin celebrate it, with an annual extravaganza of snow and ice sculptures and competitions. The festival officially runs from January 5th through to February 15th, but often opens a week early and runs into March, since the weather is usually still cold enough.

Harbin Ice Festival

Snow and ice sculpture in Harbin dates back to Manchu times, but the first organized show was held in 1963, and the annual festival itself only started in 1985. Since then it has grown into a massive event, bringing in over a million tourists from all over the world.

Sculptures have become increasingly elaborate and artistic, and now involve competing sculpting teams from around the world. Harbin's most impressive ice artworks can be viewed at three main locations - Sun Island Park (Taiyangdao Gongyuan), Zhaolin Park (Zhaolin Gongyuan) and Harbin Ice and Snow World.

The Sun Island Park lies on the north bank of the Songhua River which runs through Harbin. In summer the cooler weather makes it a favorite location with locals, although it is the ice sculptures that attract thousands of visitors in winter. The Ice Sculpture Garden and International Snow Sculpture Art Expo are particularly impressive, and the island is also home to various Russian and Chinese museums, theaters and exhibition halls.

Zhaolin Park, Harbin, China. Zhaolin Park, Harbin.

Harbin Ice Festival.

With its stunning collection of "ice lanterns" Zhaolin Park is another must-see during the Harbin Ice Festival. Combining water, lights and Songhua River ice, the ice lanterns are made by freezing water, piling up ice or snow, and then carving blocks into intricate shapes. Numerous pieces of ice artwork are arranged into groups according to different themes depicting Chinese classical works, European folktales, and mythical and real life animals. The park really comes alive at night when the ice becomes illuminated and locals and tourists alike gather to view the spectacular scenery.

The first ice lanterns were a winter tradition in northeast China. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) local peasants and fishermen often used ice lanterns to find their way in the long hours of darkness. At that time the lanterns were simply made by pouring water into a bucket which was then put out in the open to freeze. It was then gently warmed before the water froze completely so that the bucket-shaped ice could be pulled out. A hole was chiseled in the top and the water remaining inside poured out creating a hollow vessel. A candle was then placed inside to create a windproof lantern.

Icicles, Harbin. Taiyangdao, Harbin.

Taiyangdao, Harbin.Taiyangdao, Harbin, China.

Starting in 1999, the Harbin Ice and Snow World is the world's largest snow and ice exhibition. The ice carvings are regarded as some of the finest examples of ice art, with the design in some way related to the festival's annual theme. In 2005 the theme was "Friendship between China and Russia", with all the sculptures fashioned in a typical Russian style. Among them were replicas of some of the most renowned Russian buildings, such as the East Palace and Moscow's Red Square.

Harbin Attractions

Other Harbin highlights include the Songhua River itself, on which thousands of locals turn out in winter to skate, ride horses, skidoos and go-karts, hurtle down ice chutes and use spinning tops. In summer people swim, fish, go boating, sunbathe and eat picnics. The city center is also home to the magnificent St. Sofia Orthodox Church, the largest orthodox church in the Far East, and which also contains an interesting art gallery.

The best place to view Harbin's classical Russian architecture is along Zhongyang Dajie, which bisects the center of the city. There are many colorful buildings in varied European architectural styles ranging from Renaissance and baroque through to eclecticism. The biggest shops can be found along this street, and there are a number of "Russian goods" stores where tourists can pick up cut price chocolate, vodka, wooden dolls and other souvenirs after some hard bargaining.

Taiyangdao, Harbin, China. Ice play, Harbin, China.

Harbin Essentials - Getting To Harbin

  • Chinese Railways Trains Z15 (Beijing-Harbin) and Z16 (Harbin-Beijing) leave around 9.30pm and arrive early the following morning - tickets are around RMB 400. For the hardy there are also long distance regular buses.
  • Sun Island Park (entrance to main outdoor sculpture area) - 120 RMB
  • Zhaolin Park - 55 RMB
  • St. Sophia Orthodox Church - 15 RMB

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St. Sophia Cathedral, Harbin. Taiyangdao, Harbin, China.

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