Harbin, China: Ice Ice Baby

“You’re going to Harbin? It’s very, very cold there!!!”  We heard variations of this (and advice on what to wear) over and over again leading up to our trip.  Tommy and I just brushed it off.  “Oh, we’re from Minnesota. It’s very cold there, too.”  Little did we know… Harbin seriously is next level cold.  Our faces constantly hurt.  We layered up like chubby Chinese babies for even the shortest journeys outside.  Our fingers and toes were always a little numb.  And yet, it was completely worth it – because we got to explore the magic that is the world’s largest ice and snow festival!  In addition to this, Harbin has a unique Russian culture due to its proximity to the border which was really interesting to experience.

Harbin’s international ice and snow sculpture festival is actually spread out over several locations throughout the city.  Unfortunately, each is a separate and rather expensive ticket (grrr), but we figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and shelled out to visit two of the three locations.

Ice and Snow World

The first was Ice and Snow World, a sprawling complex best experienced at night when the structures are lit up with vibrant colors.  I was most impressed by the large ice recreations of famous architecture such as Bangkok’s Grand Palace and Beijing’s Temple of Heaven.  There were also quite a few general palace/tower structures that were pretty cool spread throughout the famous pieces.

Ice and Snow World also had some incredible ice sculptures!  The detailed carving was absolutely amazing.  They are made by teams from all over the world and often reflected different countries’ history and culture.

As if all that wasn’t enough, they also had a large area with all kinds of winter sports, from sledding to ice bikes to giant canoes pushed by ice picks.  There were a few more random attractions including a giant red fish and some action-figure snow sculptures.  All in all, it took us about 3 numbingly-cold hours to see everything at this immense, incredible complex.

Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo

The second ice and snow festival location we went to was the Snow Sculpture Art Expo at Sun Island.  This is only open during the day and the structures are made of snow rather than ice.  Like the ice sculptures at Ice and Snow World, they are crafted by people from all around the world.  We were glad that we went to both, because they were really different!  The snow sculptures seemed more focused on artistry and creativity, while the ice complex was more about impressive scale, craftsmanship, and theatrical lighting.  There were three absolutely massive showcase pieces, and tons of smaller pieces (which were still taller than us!).  It took us about 2 freezing hours to see them all.  The only bummer was that not all of them were finished, but it was still quite impressive.

Harbin: Beyond the Ice and Snow Festival

Since we were in Harbin for a few days, we also had a chance to explore it beyond the ice and snow festival.  It was really interesting to see Russia’s influence in the form of food, architecture, and even language!  Some of our highlights in Harbin included:

  • Zhongyang Pedestrian Street – Our hostel was right next to this, so we took full advantage of the delicious foods available!  We ate countless spicy, crispy sausages and frozen milk lollies (aka the best vanilla ice cream I’ve EVER had – it was literally so good we had them multiple times despite the subzero temperatures).  We also tried halupki, a traditional Russian dish made of cabbage stuffed with pork and rice. Yum! There are plenty of Russian import stores, so we picked up some kvass (rye bread-flavored beverage – so bizarre!) and Russian vodka.  There were also a lot of ice and snow sculptures on this street advertising different businesses and brands, which was pretty fun.
  • St. Sophia Cathedral – This small Russian church has since been converted to a museum.  The outside was absolutely gorgeous and the historical photos inside were interesting, but I wish I could’ve seen the original interior!
  • Siberian Tiger Park – Definitely a different experience from any American zoo!  At the park, we were driven around huge enclosures in a caged bus to observe the tigers doing their thing.  At the end of the bus ride, they asked if we wanted to pay extra to have live animals fed to the tigers!  We declined, but there were plenty of Chinese tourists who cashed in.  We watched from the bus as a truck drove in and threw several frantically flapping chickens to the eager tigers.  After the bus ride, we wandered through an elevated, caged walkway checking out some of the animal cages that included lions, white tigers, and even a liger.  Here you could pay to have strips of meat fed to the tigers through the chain link fence.  I’m far from knowledgeable about animal welfare so I was a little undecided about how I felt about the park, but it was definitely a unique experience.

We did also walk across the Songhua River and briefly passed Stalin Park, but those were most out of necessity than desire.  Despite the nice views of the city, we were so cold we would’ve gladly skipped this part!

All in all, we’d highly recommend Harbin and the International Ice and Snow Festival to absolutely anyone!  Despite the freezing cold, it was a real highlight of our trip.  Up next on the blog is another trip  highlight – Seoul, South Korea and a day trip to the North Korean border!

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