In Heilongjiang province, the northern-most of China’s 22 provinces, there is a city named Harbin. Harbin is notable for its Russian influenced architecture, a Chinese beer, being ludicrously Siberian-type cold and probably most famously the largest Ice and Snow Festival in the world that takes place in early January every year.
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival originated from local Harbiner traditional ice lantern show garden party in winter since 1963. It had been interrupted for a number of years during the Cultural Revolution but had been resumed in January of 1985.
The first ice lanterns were a winter-time tradition in northeast China. During the Qing Dynasty（1644 – 1911), the local peasants and fishermen often made and used ice lanterns during the winter months.
The average temperature in Harbin during the winter sits at a balmy 1.7°F (-16.8°C). Yet, annual low temperatures below -31°F (-35°C) are not uncommon.
I hope this sets the scene because, quite frankly, this is the coldest I have ever been in my life and I need you to know that because this harsh climate definitely colors the experience of traveling around Harbin during the festival. During our journey, we were privileged to enjoy a cool -18.4°F (-28°C) for the majority of the day. Luckily, the wind wasn’t blowing too much because I’m afraid to know what it would have been like with wind chill factored in. Despite this harsh arctic wasteland’s best efforts to thwart us, my fellow travelers and I didn’t arrive unprepared. I wore no less than 2 pairs of socks, 3 layers of pants, 4 layers of shirts, a mask, a hood, and a winter jacket with solid winter boots. Even bundled to the max like this, Katie, Lotte and I still needed to pop into one of the many little refuges about every 15-20 minutes.
In spite of all the frigidity, we had a really good time. When we arrived in the city, like many other times this summer, we normally have no idea where to go first. We generally just grab a bus and see where it takes us. Stakes felt a little bit higher than before, because being outside for even a few minutes would freeze the little hairs inside your nose, which feels REAL weird. Yet fortune smiled upon our frozen faces because we met a lovely young lady on this bus who could speak English and helped point us in the right direction. We arrived on the main drag of Old Harbin where its Russian-influenced architecture is easily identifiable and also luckily where everything that you would want to see in Harbin is located. We snagged some lunch and popped off to St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral after navigating through many underground shopping streets.
After surviving the return route in the underground shopping labyrinth, we hit up a Lonely Planet recommended coffee shop and let our bright pink mugs, mitts, and toes thaw until it was dark outside which is when we decided to make our way over to the Ice and Snow Festival.
We arrived at the entrance which was absolutely stunning.
Our excitement was crushed a little when we arrived at the ticket counter and the attendants wouldn’t let us use our Student IDs to get half price like it said on the advertisements and the sign right next to the window. He told us it was for Chinese people only. My favorite part about this exchange was that in this very room there were flags from all over the world, yet this jerk couldn’t see this irony. So we forked over 300 RMB ($50) and grumbled all the way in.
But the grumbling was short-lived because the Ice Festival is AWESOME. There were many giant castles, snow sculptures of cartoon characters, pagodas, scenes from famous Chinese mythology like the story of Sun Wukong the monkey king.
Everything was so much larger than life. The ice blocks are created with holes in them so that they can run lots of lights inside. During the festival, there are three different venues you can attend. We attended the largest one, but couldn’t justify spending another 240 RMB ($40) on seeing sculptures of Doraemon, Mickey Mouse and Despicable Me minions. I don’t have much to say about it other than I climbed a couple castles made of ice and rode a two story slide that was glowing bright green all the way to the bottom. I can’t recommend you go to see this crazy winter wonderland enough. Just stay warm, dude.