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[Outbound]: Harbin Ice & Snow Festival

Braving the the subzero temperatures of Northeast China to come back with intel about ice & snow festivals and dodgy wildlife parks...
Jan 29, 2014 | 13:04 Wed
Outbound: Outbound is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not.

North, all the way up north, lies Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang. It’s also known as the “ice city” because of its sharp winds and average winter temperature of -18 degrees Celsius. It’s extremely cold. Winter there makes Shanghai’s coldest day feel like beach weather.

For the past 30 years, they’ve hosted the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. It’s now one of the top four ice festivals in the world, with about one million people expected to visit this year. Massive ice blocks, an estimated 180,000 cubic meters of them, are pulled from the nearby frozen Songhua River to build the structures. They also use 150,000 cubic meters of man-made snow. The sculptures are built the way China knows best: lots of manpower. About 10,000 people were apparently involved in construction this year.

The festival has a few attractions spread out throughout the city. The Ice and Snow World is the main event. It sits on a large plot of land and is packed full with vertiginously tall ice sculpture replicas of famous monuments, like the Empire State Building, Disney castles, and the Roman Colosseum. They’ve inserted LED lights in the middle of the ice blocks, which turn on around sunset. The whole place lights up and changes colors so quickly that it feels like you’ve landed in some sort of trippy, imaginary world.

The Ice and Snow World's main exhibit this year is this 46-meter-tall replica Reykjavik, Iceland's Hallgrimskirkja (pictured below). The ICBC logo shines brightly off its sides, like a beacon of corporate light penetrating the freezing air. I suppose the sponsorship money was a small price to pay for having its name stamped all over the tallest ice sculpture in China. There’s also a long ice slide attached to it, which provides endless opportunities for taking shameless selfies while crashing into those in front of you.

The Ice and Snow World is best to visit around sunset or at night. That's when they turn on all of those LEDs. Ticket prices change according to the time of day: it’s 150rmb before noon and 300rmb after that for adults. Most tickets at any of the places are cheaper for children and students.

Harbin’s Sun Island Park is better to see during the day for all of its competitive snow sculptures. You can walk on the of the Songhua River to reach it. It’s not really worth the 240rmb you pay to get in, but if you’ve got the time and cash it’s cool to see what can be made with a whole lot of snow. There was this weird performance of people in animal suits dancing to Psy’s lesser-known single "Gentleman". You can rent rubber tubes to slide down the snow slides. They've got go-karts and dog sleds, too. If you have an ounce of compassion, avoid the sleds; the dogs look tired and overworked.

Zhaolin Park in downtown Harbin, hosts an “ice lantern show”. This is also supposed to be one of the main attractions, but it’s like the red-headed stepchild of the other attractions. After The Ice and Snow World, it's a letdown. Still, for what it's worth, 160rmb gets you in. There are a lot of red lanterns lining green pillars of ice though, and small ice slides that could be great for kids. The biggest slide there gives away a free ice cream when you buy a ticket. Incidentally, eating ice cream in the harsh winter weather is surprisingly popular in Harbin. I tried it. It's probably the only time ice cream has actually felt warmer than the ambient air temperature around me.

Should you have your fill of ice and snow festivals. Harbin was heavily influenced by Russia and was home to the largest Russian community in any city outside the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The city now has a slightly more European feel. Russian-inspired architecture lines Harbin’s main street, Zhongyang Dajie, and its surrounding areas.

The most famous edifice, by far, is the onion-domed St. Sophia Cathedral, which is now a museum of Harbin architecture. This basically means it displays a lot of pictures of Harbin buildings and streets to show how much it’s changed over the years. The museum costs 20rmb to get in, and there is not much to look at, unless you’re really into old buildings.

Then there’s the Siberian tiger park. They have around 1,200 tigers and lions, making it the largest Siberian tiger park in the world. It’s divided into two sections: training fields, where the tigers roam “freely”, and a walking area, which is essentially a walkway through the park with metal cages separating you from the tigers. We were told they had too many tigers and not enough space, so they “trade in their freedom” every few days. This means half the tigers are locked up and pace back and forth in tiny cages. But of course, this is all in the name of "research and protection of an endangered species".

Any gravitas one might attach to such a noble notion is completely undermined by the fact that they let gawking spectators feed the tigers live animals. There’s a whole menu of domestically bred, livestock to choose from — starting at 60rmb for a live chicken and going up to 2000rmb for a cow. They’re either bought during the bus tour, or from a little woman who stands with a cage of scared shitless chickens in the middle of the walking area. I'm not kidding about the "scared shitless" bit, either. On my visit, another guest bought a chicken and it defecated all over the floor before being ceremoniously (this involved a lot of photo taking and high-pitched squeals) tossed down a chute into the tiger cages. I suppose it's entertaining enough... if you're kind of an asshole.

When to Go:
The best time to visit is now-ish. The festival has been open unofficially since mid-December and lasts until the end of February, although a definite end date is hard to determine. Probably best to visit after the Chinese New Years, though, to avoid unbearably long queues and crowds.

Where to Stay:
As with any other big Chinese city, there’s a wide range of accommodation to choose from. For those who don’t mind sharing a room with strangers, the Harbin Russia and the Kazy International Youth Hostels have dorm rooms for about 50rmb a night and private rooms starting at 85rmb. There are also the usual mid-range hotels listed on C-trip. We stayed at a place called Yiju Kuaijie, which has “European style rooms” (read: kitschy decorations and huge headboards), which is between 150-200rmb per night — not bad at all. For those those looking for luxury, the Shangri-La and Sofitel. Both have branches in Harbin, with rooms hovering around 1700rmb per night.

Getting There and Away:
The easiest and quickest way to get to Harbin is by plane. Since this is one of Harbin’s busiest times, ticket prices have shot up to about 2000rmb for a return. If you go after Chinese New Year, however, Spring Airlines has flights for half that price. They’ve got flights leaving from Pudong four times per day, and they take about three hours. Harbin’s airport is located 33km from the city center, so from there you can get on the airport shuttle bus (20rmb) or catch a cab (between 130 and 150rmb, depending on your bargaining skills, and you’re expected to pay the highway tax on the way).

Another option is to take the train. You’ve got two choices for this: a 13-hour ride leaving from Shanghai Railway Station for 898rmb, or a 24-hour journey that costs 496.5rmb for the cheapest hard-sleeper, which leaves from Hongqiao. The train brings you right to the middle of Harbin, as the railway station there is situated downtown.

Photos by Renee van Diemen