Harbin is the coldest place in China, and in January it's where you can enjoy the annual Snow and Ice Festival. Pack your bag with long-johns, gloves, hats, and ski pants. Here's how you can make the most of two days in Harbin at this below-freezing time of year.
After arrival or a leisurely breakfast, catch a taxi to the snow sculpture park on Sun Island. The snow sculptures are astounding and extensive; in 2008 they included a huge pavilion resembling something from the Forbidden City, as well as fanciful chariots, gods and goddesses, Rodin reproductions, and some modern sculptures so striking you wish they wouldn't melt. Expect to spend one to two hours outside in the cold.
- If time permits and you are so inclined, visit the nearby Siberian Tiger Park, a breeding center for these rare animals. We didn't do so, in part because of reports that visitors purchase live chickens to feed the tigers.
- Have a drink of Russian Standard vodka inside a bar made entirely of ice.
The highlight of your visit is the ice lantern exhibition (also known as Ice and Snow World), which opens as soon as it gets dark. Plan on a very early or a very late supper and go when it opens, as it doesn't stay open late. It's utter fairyland. Walk the circuit of enormous buildings constructed blocks of ice and wired and lit in fanciful colors. This year these included Westminster Abbey, the Acropolis, and a large palace with a rink where Russian dancers gave a fantastic show of ice-dancing. You will probably want to spend more time, but will leave after one-two hours to warm up.
Spend as much of the day as you have available sightseeing and shopping in the old part of town. Start at St. Sophia's, an onion-domed wonder that was formerly a Russian Orthodox Church and is now a museum reflecting Harbin's history in photographs. Head to the pedestrian walkway at Zhongyang Dajie, where you will find a number of shops advertising "Russian goods". Among all the trinkets almost certainly made in China, the caviar and vodka are plentiful and can be had for good prices (but be prepared to haggle). Turn briefly off the walkway to stroll by the old synagogue and Jewish school located at 82 Tongjiang Road. Walk into Zhaolin Park, the original home of the lantern ice exhibition, and still filled with ice sculptures every year. Throughout this part of town, you'll enjoy looking at all the old, sometimes crumbling, Russian architecture and the additional sculptures that punctuate the streets.
Where to Stay and Eat in Harbin
At 1100 yuan for a double room, the Shangri-La is one of the most expensive hotels in Harbin, but is well located near the river with views out toward the ice lantern exhibition. It's also well-equipped with a pool, massage options, etc., in case you get tired of the cold. But book very early (months ahead of time), as it fills up quickly for the weeks of the Ice and Snow Festival. We stayed at the equally high-priced Sofitel Wanda and found its location inconvenient (in a new economic development zone) and the service poor. A less expensive, but well-situated, option is the Gloria Plaza Hotel.
- Shangri-La, 555 You Yi Road, Harbin 150018
- Sofitel Wanda, 68 Ganshui Road, Harbin, 150090
Harbin is home to a wonderful mix of Northeast Chinese and Russian culture, which is reflected in the variety of restaurants and foods. A favorite place for a meal or tea is the utterly charming Russia 1914 located adjacent to the pedestrian walkway at 57 West Toudao St.; be sure to sample the piroshki and the mashed potatoes. Another recommendation for hearty Russian fare is Katusha Restaurant, located at the edge of the river near Zhaolin Park, but you will need to speak Chinese or Mandarin there. Good local Chinese food abounds around town; especially recommended are the local chun bing (spring rolls) and dong bei jiaozi (northeastern dumplings).
This is serious business if you are to enjoy your time in winter Harbin. (It can hover around -30 C) Bring layers of all the outdoor gear you own, including warm boots (preferably skid-resistant on all that ice) and gloves. We were happy we had masks to completely cover our mouths and noses and little disposable chemical heaters for our feet and hands. Happily, all the buildings are very well heated, so you will not be cold indoors.
Another tip: keep your taxi until your final destination. Harbin cabbies seem to be used to this service and will offer it; they keep the meter running at a very modest rate. You will be glad you did when you come out of the ice exhibition, cold and in the dark, and find your driver waiting for you in a warm car. And if it's just too cold to walk around much, this is one way for you to pop in and out of various spots in the old part of town.
Postscript: A Summer Return
We found Harbin so charming that we were delighted to have another day there in warm weather, under blue skies in the summer. It was far easier to wander and enjoy looking at all the old buildings, and there was no wait for the restaurants. There was still the lure of Russian food and bringing home caviar and vodka. If you go, make sure to wander down to the edge of the river to Stalin Park at sunset or later. It seems that all of Harbin is happy to be outside when it is not cold – eating snacks, buying balloons, simply sitting on the steps looking out at the river. Many people were buying red lanterns, inscribing their poems, hopes, and wishes on them, and setting them alight to drift and float in the breezes over the river as darkness came down; joining them is a delightfully romantic way to end a stay in Harbin.