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Harbin. Ultimate destination of spectacular snow and ice

Harbin
Ultimate destination of spectacular snow and ice
By Leoni Botha

TP 201912 cHINA 02Winter is already in front of our doors and if you happen to be in China in winter, a trip to Harbin in the north should be on your bucket list.

 

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The Beginning

TP 201912 cHINA 08Harbin is a quant mixture of true Chinese culture infused with strong Russian flavours, following the influx of Russians trying to escape the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.

 

Harbin was founded in 1898 with the building of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which became an important trading post, due to its strategic location. Even today, Harbin remains an important port of call along the Trans-Manchurian Railway and runs from Beijing to Chita, in Eastern Siberia. Here the railway links with the Trans-Siberian Railway, which will take you right to Moscow, the Russian capital. Since its founding, this railroad settlement has developed into the city that now hosts the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, widely regarded as one of the best in the world.

 

Historical sights

TP 201912 cHINA 15However, Harbin is not only about snow and ice and sculptures and a cold that cuts through flesh and bone. Harbin does not have the ancient history of most places in China, but its short history includes an interesting mix of different influences, mostly prevalent in the architecture and food. The Russian influence is evident in the architecture you will find, especially in Old Town. Sadly, many of the authentic buildings were destroyed, but there are still many historic temples, churches and synagogues, reminiscent of a long history of joint cultures. One of these is the Russian Orthodox Church of St Sophia in the Daoli District. With its green dome and spires, it is undeniably Russian architecture. Today, the St Sophia is a museum that chronicles Harbin鈥檚 unique history.

 

Zhongyang Pedestrian Street food, shops and sculptures

TP 201912 cHINA 03Strolling down Zhongyang Street, admiring the ice sculptures lining the pedestrian street on both sides, you can choose from true traditional Chinese dumplings to the Harbin version; the famous Harbin smoked red sausages; the big, round Russian bread called Dalieba or Guo Bao Rou 鈥 classic Harbin sweet and sour pork. Another famous Harbin dish is di san xian, a combination of fried potatoes, peppers and aubergines (eggplant), flavoured with soy sauce 鈥 enough to warm your body and soul. Vodka, the famous Russian spirits, is available everywhere in restaurants and in the numerous shops along the street. Of course, Harbin is also the home of the Harbin beer, brewed from the wheat that grows abundantly in summer on the farms around the city. Even in winter, you can see the stubbles of the harvested wheat fields lining the outskirts of the city.

TP 201912 cHINA 04鈶 Guo Bao Rou

TP 201912 cHINA 05鈶 Dalieba


Take your time down Zhongyang Street, which is the best at night when the ice sculptures glisten with a translucent clarity in the soft glow of the street lamps. Although much smaller than the ones in the Ice and Snow World and on Sun Island, they are still amazing works of art. Cosy Russian restaurants rub shoulders with their Chinese counterparts and some offer a happy mix of both cuisines and cultures. In spite of the cold, be sure to enjoy the milky sweetness of the traditional Madier ice cream, another of Harbin鈥檚 own.

 

Hop into the many shops for a taste of smoked red sausage, warm yourself with a sip of vodka, buy Babushka dolls or embossed leather goods. Throw in a few packs of chocolates and candy that you won鈥檛 find elsewhere.

 

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The Biggest Ice and Snow Festival in the World

TP 201912 cHINA 06So where to from here? Obviously the main attractions: one of the most spectacular man-made sights you will ever see - the Ice and Snow Festival.

 

Sun Island, which is a huge park, is the home of the magnificent, larger-than-life snow sculptures. Crafted from pure white snow blocks, it is something you will never forget. Apart from the main sculptures, that will blow your mind, the park is scattered with so many other sculptures that it takes a few hours to find them all and marvel at the size and beauty of them all. For fun you can take a snow slide down a hill. Hot-houses are all around, where you can warm yourself, take a break from the cold. Hot water is freely available and necessary to stop yourself from freezing over completely.

 

Then, there are the ice sculptures in Ice and Snow World, only a few kilometres away from Sun Island.

TP 201912 cHINA 07One word: wow! It will leave you breathless. Words fail to describe the sheer beauty and size of these creations. Crafted from ice blocks cut from the Songhua River and specially frozen water for clarity, there are replicas of famous buildings like the Colosseum, Buckingham Palace, the Rialto bridge in Venice, ice stages for live performances, bridges, tunnels and many more.

 

It is the best to visit in the early afternoon, as the sun sets already just after 15h00 in winter, to see these fabulous structures in the daylight. As dawn approaches, find a high spot from where you can watch the daylight fading into twilight, transforming the structures from glistening to luminous glowing objects that take on a life of their own. Then the lights come on and once again transform the whole park into a fantasy wonderland of magnificent proportions.



The lights form a colourful halo around the park that can be seen from miles away, even when approaching the city in an airplane.

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Ice Lanterns and Songhua River

TP 201912 cHINA 10Still, there is more to see and do, although Ice and Snow World will fill your senses to the brim. Not far from Songhua River is Zhaolin Garden, where you can marvel at the famous ice-lanterns, obviously best seen at night. The park also offers fun activities like ice bumper cars, ice flying saucer cars, a mini tourist train, a dancing machine and ice bicycles. Songhua River itself is a hive of activity, from skating and snow-boarding to driving around in 4x4 vehicles. Scratch away the soft snow and you can see clearly through a thick plate of transparent ice, the river flowing below. Scary. Literally hundreds of snow sculptures are parading on the sides of the river. You can also take the cable car across the river to Sun Island for a bird鈥檚 eye view of the snowy landscape.

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Ski Resorts and Hot Springs

TP 201912 cHINA 12Yearning for even more? You can spend a few days at the ski resorts a mere 200km from Harbin. Yabuli Ski Resort and Jihua Changshou Mountain Ski Resort are considered among the best, although there are many others to choose from. Take a three-hour bus drive from Harbin to Lindian Hot Springs for a good dose of healthy mineral soaking and enjoy the intense sensation from freezing cold to steaming hot.

 

More than snow and ice

TP 201912 cHINA 14Harbin is not only about the Ice and Snow Festival, but holds a few other secrets up its sleeve:

 

鈥 The Harbin Symphony Orchestra, which was established in 1908, is the oldest symphony orchestra in China. A visit to the theatre is recommended.

 

鈥 The very first music school in China also hails from Harbin - the No 1 Music School was founded in 1928.

 

鈥 In 1996, Harbin hosted the Asian Winter Games.

 

鈥 Many Winter Olympic medallists call Harbin home.

 

鈥 Harbin beer is well-known and popular with beer drinkers.

 

鈥 Harbin has become a popular summer destination, because it offers a cooler version of summer - temperatures average 20-24 degrees Celsius in summer. The summer landscape of golden wheat fields and the magnificent Songhua River are pleasing sights for summer tourists.

 

Saying good-bye

Saint Sophia Cathedral in HarbinSaint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin

 

As you pack your bags and glance one last time at the glorious landscape and the splendour of these impressive structures, cut and sliced meticulously to form art works of magnificent proportions, spare a thought for all the hours of mathematical precision that went into its creation. Because when spring comes, it will all melt down into trickles of icy water, flowing away into the river of its origin. Until next winter, when the whole process will start again鈥.

 

What to pack

 

The warmest clothes you can get. Temperatures in winter range between -13 degrees Celsius to -27 degrees Celsius. Ski gear, if you have any, would be ideal. Snow boots (the terrain is very slippery everywhere), insulated snow gloves, sunglasses, long padded coats with head covers, scarves, thermal underwear, are all musts. Take a few packs of hot patches, available at most stores, lining the insides of your clothes, gloves and boots. They generate heat for up to 6 hours. Layering is advisable.

 

Cell phone batteries don鈥檛 last long in the cold - in fact, your phone can literally freeze. Take extra batteries with you and keep your phone inside your clothes, next to your body to keep it warm.

 

A flask to fill up with hot water will help to keep your body temperature at a comfortable level. There are 鈥榟ot-houses鈥 all around with hot water and where you can have a warming cup of tea, to escape the bone-biting cold for a while. There are also a few restaurants at Ice and Snow World.

 

Getting around

Russian Matryoshka doll in front of the entrance of the Russian VillageRussian Matryoshka doll in front of the entrance of the Russian Village

 

Didi鈥檚 are the quickest way to get to the different sites. Order them on time so you don鈥檛 have to stand in the cold, waiting. Prices are reasonable and drivers know where tourists want to go - just show them a picture and they will know exactly where to take you. Getting back from Ice and Snow World at night is a nightmare, though. Traffic is regulated, even before the official opening of the festival and you may have to wait a long time for a taxi, as all other traffic is re-directed away from the grounds. Unless you want to walk quite a distance to get a Didi, it is best to wait your turn for a taxi.

 

Where to stay

 

Hotels are reasonably priced and distance is not a huge problem. Shop around to find what best suits you, be it a resort, a hotel or home-stays with local residents. If you plan on going during the peak season, book well ahead of time, as rooms will sell out quickly.

TP 201912 cHINA 16How to get there

 

Taking a night train might be a good option, arriving early in the morning to have a whole day to explore. The High Speed Train takes 6-7 hours. If time is limited, taking a flight would be the best. Flying from Tianjin takes about three hours. It is possible to do the whole trip in three days, unless you want to go skiing or spend a few days at the hot springs. Plan carefully so that you make the most of the time you have available.

TP 201912 cHINA 19When to go

 

The official opening of the Festival is from early January and lasts until mid-February. The parks remain open until May, when spring heralds the end of the winter. Be warned though that the town will be flooded with tourists during January and February, especially during Chinese New Year and Spring Festival. Even before the official opening, there are thousands of visitors. If you go before the official opening, some of the really big sculptures might not be completed, but then again it gives you a chance to observe the sculptors with their chisels and chain saws at work.

TP 201912 cHINA 17Costs

 

Entry tickets to the main attractions are expensive, from about 330RMB. Many other sights are free, for example the Songhua River, the Ice Lantern Park. Entry tickets for St Sophia are about 15 RMB.

 

PS: A trip to Harbin may be once-in-a-life-time. However, you will never regret it and the sheer beauty will linger in your mind forever. Just do it.

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