We arrived in Harbin on new Year’s Eve after a long and interesting journey by sleeper train. Once we had checked into our hotel and freshened up a bit, we decided to go for a walk down the main street to see if we could find a bar or a restaurant to spend the evening in and celebrate the changing of the year. The main street was beautifully decorated with fairy lights and lined with ice sculptures, some still a work in progress. Along this street you can also find high street stores, shopping malls, restaurants (yes there is a McDonald’s) and some of Harbin’s famous ice cream parlours. Apparently no trip Heilongjiang province is complete without ice cream and so, this is how we found ourselves in a bar at quarter to midnight ice cream in one hand and a drink in the other. I think the main appeal of Harbin ice cream is the novelty of eating it in sub-zero temperatures, but it is still really good ice cream so I do recommend giving it a try.
The ice festival in Harbin doesn’t actually start until the 5th of January so we travelled Yabuli for three days of snowboarding. Yabuli is located about three hours south of Harbin by train and is probably the most well-known Ski Town in China, boasting three major ski resorts. More about this in a later post though…
There are three main parks in the Harbin Ice Festival, two I would say are a must do and one that I would recommend you squeeze in if you have time but is not essential for the overall experience.
The first park I suggest you go to is Sun Island Snow Sculpture Competition and Scenic Area. My research told us that it was best to see this park during the day and I do agree with this but make sure that you stick around for sunset as seeing the large snow sculptures bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun was definitely one of my favourite things about this park. We arrived just before midday and left as the sun was setting around half past three, spending roughly four hours there in total. I don’t think you need four hours to see the whole park, you could probably see everything in around two and a half hours, but we spent a good amount of time warming up in the coffee shops that are scattered around the park. Another reason we were at this park for so long was because of the amount ice related entertainment on offer, they had everything from giant ice slides to ice bikes and sledging. I pretty much had to drag Justin away from the attractions before I froze to death!
Also on offer at this park, and included in your ticket, is a shuttle bus from the main entrance to various stops around the park and back again. We chose to walk around the park first and then got the shuttle bus back to the entrance because when the sun goes down in Harbin the temperature starts to drop really quickly!
The second must see park and main attraction of the Harbin Ice Festival is Ice and Snow world, also located on Sun Island. A popular option for visitors to Harbin is to do the Sun Island Scenic park and the Ice and Snow World park in the same day. This is definitely a good way to do it but is not necessary if you are in Harbin for more than two nights. We chose to do the parks on separate days as we had more than enough time in Harbin and didn’t want to feel too rushed.
Ice and Snow World has been on my China bucket list since I made the decision to come to China way back in 2017 and it did not disappoint. I have never seen anything quite as impressive as the ice sculptures in this park. Before we travelled to Harbin I watched a few videos online and read a couple of blog posts as research for our trip, but even that did not prepare me for the scale of this place! The park has everything from to-scale replicas of famous landmarks to rides and slides made from ice. There were towers of ice blocks as tall as a block of flats and actual castles made from ice! Words honestly cannot do this place enough justice and even in photos it is hard to appreciate the wonder that is Ice and Snow World. I would say two hours is probably enough time to walk around the park and, as with the Sun Island Snow Sculptures, there are plenty of place to nip inside and warm up when the cold starts to get too much. We arrived around seven in the evening and stayed until the park closed at half past eight, we would have arrived earlier but I could not figure out how to get there. My advice would be to flag down a taxi and just show them a picture of Ice and Snow World, this is what we ended up doing and it was far easier than trying to figure it out on google maps!!
The third park I recommend taking a look at is Zhaolin Park. This park is free to enter and has more than 1,000 ice sculptures. These sculpture are more like what you would traditionally think of when someone mentions ice sculptures. Intricately carved designs lit up brilliantly with coloured lights line the pathways through the park; figures of animals, people and even an axe made up the art works alongside some smaller ice-block buildings. Don’t feel like you have to squeeze this one in if you are a bit short on time, it is worth checking out but there are ice sculptures dotted around all around the city so if you don’t make it to Zhaolin then you are still pretty much guaranteed to see one somewhere!
Harbin was the perfect way to end off my year in China (I was originally meant to begin my year there but with the Chinese New Year festival they changed our orientation week to Beijing instead). The festival for me really summed up my experience in China, it is the perfect combination of Chinese culture and the “how is this real?” moments that were a running theme throughout my time there. If you find yourself in need of sub-zero temperatures and pretty lights then Harbin is the place to go. Given the opportunity I would return to the Ice and Snow Festival in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t mind another one of those ice creams either!
Why not check out some more of my adventures around China?
- Zhangiajie: The Inspiration Behind the Movie Avatar
- Arriving in China: Rice for Breakfast?
- Xi’an’s forgotten warriors: The stone army everyone forgot about until 1974
- Chengdu: More than Just a Panda Sanctuary