The Harbin Ice Festival

Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, China

January 15th - 17th, 2016


Harbin is the largest city in the far Northeast of China. There is only one, but one very good, reason to come to Harbin in the freezing cold of January, and that is the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. It is something I have been wanting to see for some time, and I finally found a weekend in January this year to do it. It was just as cold as I had feared and every bit as spectacular and beautiful as I had hoped for.

There is no direct flight from Hong Kong to Harbin. The shortest flight is a 6 hour flight on Shenzhen Airlines leaving Hong Kong at 4pm, which includes a technical stop in Yantai. You have to get off the plane in Yantai to go through China immigration, and then get back on the same plane about 30 minutes later. My flight was an hour delayed out of Hong Kong, and so we landed in Harbin just before 11pm. Getting from the airport into the city was not quite as easy as I had expected, since there were no taxis to be seen anywhere. I usually try to only take the official taxis in China, but since none of those turned up after about 10 min, I decided to follow the nice looking lady in the arrival hall who was touting a ride to the city. She handed me over to her husband, who turned out to actually have a fairly official looking taxi parked around the corner. After I got in, he managed to get two other passengers to join (a practice that turned out to be fairly standard with taxis in Harbin).

The ride into town was rather quick and a bit exciting, since he was hurtling down the highway at nearly 150 km/h. Although the roads looked fairly dry, at a temperature of nearly –30 degrees Celsius my hope that the roads would not be icy and slippery was probably just wishful thinking on my part. I had certainly had moments in my life where I felt a bit safer than in the back of this taxi, which as most taxis in China had seat covers that also covered the rear seatbelts thus rendering them unusable. But it all turned out well, and I was dropped off safely at my hotel just before midnight. I stayed at the Huate Harbin Hotel which is right in the center of the city only a few blocks away from the river. The hotel doesn’t look like much from the outside but the rooms are very nice, similar to a 4 or 5 star level Western hotel, and most importantly it was nice and warm inside with a well functioning heating system.

The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is not only the largest ice and snow festival of it's kind in the world, it also has the world's biggest and tallest ice sculptures. The festival is held annually starting in the first week of January and usually lasts until the end of February weather depending. The festival has been held for over 30 years, but it has grown in size and scope significantly since its beginnings.

Construction of the ice and snow sculptures and palaces starts in early December. There are as many as 10,000 workers involved (including architects) as well as cranes, scaffoldings and other large scale construction machinery to put it all together. The huge ice blocks used in the construction are sawed out of the frozen Songhua River. Some of the perfectly clear sculptures are made of special ice blocks using deionized water, which when carefully frozen can make the ice as clear as glass. The main festival is spread over two separate sites, the "Ice and Snow World" and the "Snow Sculpture Art Expo", both located on the North Bank of the River, and a couple of smaller ice sculpture exhibitions in the city itself. It is not that easy to find out where the main sites are if you can't read Chinese. So, here is a map with the key locations:

The Harbin Ice and Snow World

This is the largest and most spectacular of the sites. It is located on the Western side of Sun Island. Depending on traffic, the taxi ride from the city takes about 15 to 20 minutes, and taxis are very cheap in Harbin. Most people visit this part of the festival only at night, when all the ice structures are lit from the inside by colorful LED lights, but I would definitely recommend seeing it by daylight as well. The entrance fee to this part of the festival is not that cheap, it is 300 Yuan (about 45 USD), but it is worth every cent of it.

It is basically a small city built out of huge almost perfectly clear ice blocks. There is a large spiraling central tower in the middle, probably about 30 meters high. And it is surrounded by numerous large and small ice palaces - one vaguely in a style of mosque, one a European medieval castle and one that looked a bit like Aladdin's castle out of a Disney movie. You can even walk inside some of them.

There is a small hill on one side with staircases made of ice leading up to it. You have amazing views over the whole area from up there, and there is a long ice track, where people line up to slide down at considerable speeds. (Something I was happy to skip, as moving fast in this freezing cold air did not seem like a desirable thing to do.)

Winters in Harbin although very cold tend to be very sunny. There is very little precipitation, and the two days I was there it was sunny with perfectly clear blue skies and very little pollution. The huge ice structures look absolutely beautiful in the bright sunlight, and there were very few people there during the day.

 I know I don’t look like I am having a lot of fun. I did, but it was really bloody cold.

It is cold in Harbin, and by that I mean really painfully freezing cold. The average temperature in January is –18 degrees Celsius. When I was there even in the bright afternoon sunlight it did not go higher than –15 and at night it dropped to  –30 degrees. (That is –22 Fahrenheit for my American readers.) I found it difficult to spend more than an hour at a time outside. Even though I was dressed warmly in many layers, after a while the cold still got in, feet and hands started to freeze and it started to get really painful in your face. Another slight complication caused be these temperatures was the fact that camera batteries stop working properly. Even though my battery was fully charged the camera kept shutting down after a few shots, and I had to keep warming it up in my pockets for a few minutes before it worked again. So I would highly recommend bringing a second battery, which you keep warm somewhere close to your body. Fortunately there are a few restaurants inside the ice park, where you can go and warm up, including a Pizza Hut and a KFC.

To one the side of the park there are a couple of separate areas displaying the entries to a ice carving competition with some beautiful and incredibly intricately carved ice sculptures, and there is even a giant ice beer bottle advertising the local brew.

I spent a bit over on hour at the Ice and Snow World in the afternoon. Then I went back to the hotel to warm up and rest for a couple of hours, before getting back into a taxi to make my way across the river again to see the whole thing in the dark. (It gets dark around 4:30pm here in January). The sight that greeted me here in the dark was completely different and spectacular on a whole new level than in the afternoon:

This was truly one of the most spectacular and unusual sights I have ever seen. Each of these giant ice palaces was built with powerful LED lights inside, which made the ice glow in these incredible colors. It did look a bit gaudy, but also incredibly impressive, like nothing I had ever seen before.

While there were very few people here during the daylight hours, there were thousands of people here at night. The huge lines at the ticket counter and the entrance fortunately were moving quite fast. The vast majority of the people there seemed to be local ‘Harbinians’. (I knew they were locals, because they had a separate entrance for residents, who paid half price for the tickets, and there were about ten times as many people lined up at the residents' entrance gates than at the visitors'.)

There were these huge lines for the ice slides. People lined up for probably over an hour to have a chance to freeze their butts and faces off on a short but very fast slide down the hill inside an ice canal. There was also a half pipe for a handful of snowboarders.

An odd thing they were selling here everywhere were these sugar coated fruits on a stick. I tried some strawberries, and I am sure those would be very nice on a warm summer's day, but they were obviously completely frozen and hard as stone - almost impossible to eat without breaking a tooth or freezing off your tongue.

It turns out that when you stand inside a blue ice castle, your face turns blue to. Who knew?

Here are a couple of examples where I managed to get the same angle shot at day and at night, showing the stark differences between the subtle and elegant beauty of the ice at daylight, and the overwhelming, colorful and slightly kitschy scenes in the dark:

The Harbin Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo

This is the second main event at the Ice Festival. It is also located on Sun Island on the North bank of the river, about 2 km to the East of the Ice and Snow World event. You have to buy a separate ticket for this event, which was 240 Yuan.

I went there on Saturday afternoon, after walking across the frozen river. On the way in towards the main structures, there are a large number of these incredibly detailed carved snow sculptures. They are beautiful, and it is hard to fathom how much work, effort and time went into these artworks, that will only exist for a couple of months.

Most of the main sculptures are built on a frozen lake, including this enormous snow palace, several ice castles and pagodas and what looks like a Viking long boat:

I found these two huge relief walls filled with intricate sculptures particularly impressive:

There are various activities you can participate in, including ice-bicycles or sliding down this huge ice slide:

The City of Harbin

Harbin is the capital and largest city of the Heilongjiang Province, which is the most Northern Province of China. Harbin lies about 1,000 km to the North-East of Beijing. This is essentially Siberia (and in fact Harbin is about 300 km North of Vladivostok). Heilongjiang Province is a major agricultural and industrial area. The rich soil in this region makes Harbin a center for grain production. The last census put Harbin's population at just under 11 million.

The area around here briefly played an important role in Chinese history, when the Jin dynasty (1115 - 1234) was first established here. The founder and first emperor of the Jin dynasty was born in a village of the Jurchen tribe in this area and he established the first capital of the Jin Empire here in 1115. However, following the Mongol conquest of the Empire in the early 13th century, the city was largely abandoned and the area reverted into being a small rural community of farming villages for the next six centuries. The region remained largely rural until the late 19th century, when the small village of Harbin received a major boost following the construction of the China Eastern Railway in 1898. The railway was largely financed and built by the Russian Empire, and Harbin was chosen as the place for the administration headquarters of the railway. The China Eastern Railway was essentially an extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway linking Vladivostok on the East Coast with the rest of the Russian Empire.

In the early 20th century the city continued to grow rapidly and became one of the most international cities in the world. By 1917 the city had a population of over 100,000 with citizens from over 50 countries, with Russians making up the largest group after the Chinese. Following the Bolshevik revolution, many more Russians fled to Harbin. The Russian influence is still very visible in the city's architecture. The Soviet Union occupied the city after WWII for about a year, before they handed over control to the People's Liberation Army. During this time the Soviet Army also forcibly deported almost all Russian emigrants back to the Soviet Union.

Harbin lies on the bank of the Songhua River, which flows into the Amur River at the Chinese-Russian border. The river is nearly 1 kilometer wide here, and frozen completely solid throughout the winter. It's an amazing site seeing this huge white expanse, with piers and river boats frozen in.

There is an incredible amount of activity on the frozen river, with hundreds of people enjoying the beautiful weather out on the ice despite the freezing temperatures.

There were quad bikes pulling strings of up to ten tire tubes with people on them at a very fast pace over the ice. This looked like a really unpleasant activity at these temperatures, but people seemed to line up for the rides. And there was even one guy kite surfing.

The quadbike tube train
Kite Surfing – Harbin Style

There are several large sections that have been swept clear of snow for ice skating and other weird activities, like pushing yourself on these seats on rails, which appears to be a popular winter activity for the elderly.

Another strange but popular activity I saw were these little whipping tops, which are spinning metal cylinders that are hit with whips to keep them spinning, and they make a weirdly loud and eerie humming sound on the ice. Here is a video of a woman being quite adept at this:

One aspect I found really amazing about this city, is the fact that the extreme cold does not seem to stop the locals from going outside and having fun. Apart from the activities on the frozen river, there is an incredibly lively street life even in the evenings when temperatures drop significantly below -20 again. There are food vendors selling all sort of weird sweets, fruits, as well as grilled octopuses on a stick (which are very nice) and German style bratwurst. And they are doing a roaring business, since it's incredibly busy on the streets. Even temperatures of –30 degrees don't keep the locals from enjoying themselves outside.

I did not do a lot of sightseeing in the city itself. It was just too cold to be walking around all day. But I did visit the main landmark in the city, the beautiful Saint Sophia Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was built in 1907.

This is the Harbin Flood Control Memorial Tower. Clearly an important enough issue here, that is was worth building a huge column like this:

Zhaolin Park Ice Sculpture Exhibition

In the city itself there is also the much smaller but beautiful ice sculpture exhibition in Zhaolin park:

My hotel was two blocks from Zhaolin Park and I went back after dark to see the sculptures lit up in colorful lights.

I really enjoyed my very cold but fascinating and beautiful weekend in Harbin. I left Harbin on Monday on an early morning flight on China Southern Airlines to Shanghai.


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