Every once in awhile backpackers stumble onto something that unexpectedly becomes a memory or experience all by itself. The International Ice Festival in Harbin, China is one of those times.
Tucked away in far northeastern China, Harbin holds a significant mix between Russian and Chinese influence. With temperatures reaching -40°F sometimes you will wonder whether you are in China or have slipped into Siberia.
11 Things you should know about the Harbin Ice Festival:
1. It is cold in Harbin … really cold!
If you aren’t willing to toughen up and deal with sub-zero temperatures then it might not be the festival for you. Between the sculptures, festivals, pedestrian streets, and cathedrals you will be outside a good amount of time, and the cold isn’t going anywhere! Everything worth seeing in Harbin is outside; so dress warm.
2. Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival … and everything else.
The Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is on Sun Island and it’s the main attraction in Harbin. It cost 330 RMB to get in as a tourist (with no Chinese Student ID) in 2014 and prices seem to go up every year. I would recommend doing this one first and then if your frozen fingers, toes, and courage are still up for it visit the smaller attractions.
Other attractions include: The Ice Lantern Show in Zhaolin Park, the Snow Sculpture Art Exhibition on Sun Island, and snow activities on the Songhua River. If you want a detailed account of everything there is to do in Harbin, check out Chrissy and Jav’s post at C.J’s Team Travel Blog.
3. Traveling to Harbin is expensive.
Prices continue to climb every year for the Ice Festival. It continues to attract brave travelers willing to endure the cold; when you get there they will expect you to pay for it though. The sculptures are amazing and they are all over town… so don’t panic if you don’t think you can afford everything. It is impossible to visit Harbin between December through February and not see ice sculptures and trancing lights. So do your wallet a favor, pick 1 or 2 major attractions, and enjoy the overall winter-land feeling of Harbin.
4. Your phone will die!
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my phone when we went to Ice and Snow World. There I was, amazing sculptures, ice, and lights everywhere and I had dug my phone out of my pocket with frozen fingers… only to find that is was dead! Well… that’s because batteries don’t like the cold and cell phones are no exception. I’m not sure how different phones hold up in cold whether, but my iPhone 5 lasted 1-2 minutes in open air before turning off. At the festivals there are food tents that you can pop into in order to warm up and defrost your phone. It is well worth it to stop by every 20 minutes or so to warm up, get a drink, let your phone turn back on, and then head out again.
** Note on taking pictures: At night it is really tough to get a good picture with you and the ice sculptures. The ice is either too dark behind you, or you are too dark in front. If you want good pictures of you and the sculptures you’ll have to go during the day or around sunset.
5. The Pedestrian Street is Worth a trip.
Called Zhongyang Dajie, this street is definitely one of the highlights in Harbin. It is packed with tourists, malls, shopping centers, food, ice cream, and of course … Ice Sculptures! Walk the entire street and it will feed you directly into the snow activities on the south bank of the Songhua River.
6. Russian Food and Culture is huge.
Swing by one of the many Russian restaurants in Harbin. It has a significant cultural influence in the city and it’s a good change of pace from the usual Chinese food. I recommend trying Borsht and Stroganoff at Katusha Restaurant, and there’s also no shortage of Russian Vodka if you’re up for it!
7. Eat Ice Cream!
It’s a tradition in Harbin … It will be -30° but people will be lined up across the street in order to buy ice cream at popular shops! Give it a try, despite the fact that it’s freezing, it is actually pretty good.
8. The Ice Festival is from Jan 5th through late February.
Because of the timing, there is a very high likelihood that you will be traveling to Harbin during the Chinese Spring Festival. That makes trains and busses difficult to book and people are everywhere. Schedule everything early and consider flying to Harbin for comfort, convenience, and cost.
9. Learn the busses and Metro before leaving your hotel/hostel.
When it’s cold it sucks waiting for busses and metros and not knowing where you are. Do yourself a favor and know the transportation you are going to use. Harbin only has 1 metro line (as of Feb 2014) and it doesn’t go to any of the festivals, train station, or the pedestrian street.
10. Saint Sophia Cathedral.
This is an old Russian Orthodox Church. Churches can start to feel the same after seeing a bunch of them, but the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin is definitely unique. It has a timeless ethereal feel to it that makes it worth visiting. The lights and the cold add to the experience and you won’t walk away thinking that you saw “just another cathedral.”
11. Don’t go to the Siberian Tiger Park.
There seems to be mixed opinions about the Siberian Tiger Park. I’ve read that they are doing research and vastly improving the survivability of Siberian Tigers in the world. Lonely Planet credits the Siberian Park with increasing the number of Siberian Tigers worldwide. The Harbin Ice Festival website says there are more than 600 Tigers at the park that are “trained to get used to the environment.”
Personally though, I have been to one other zoo in China and I’m inclined to agree more with the comments on TripAdvisor… the cages are too small, the Siberian Park is packed with warm-climate animals forced to live in -30º temperatures, the conditions are poor, and there is a desire to make money rather than ensuring proper living conditions.
** I didn’t go because I didn’t want to support what I suspect is a typical chinese zoo… but that said, I didn’t see it for my self … so you will have to decide for yourself on this one.