Harbin isn’t just cold, it’s freezing. The average temperature in January is minus 20°C, but instead of sitting around the fire, the inhabitants prefer to do fun things with ice and snow. Like building huge castles, for example.
The first Winter Festival was held in Harbin in 1963 and it has since become the largest of its kind in the world. Despite its extreme climate, China’s most northern city attracts more visitors every year. You can get there via Beijing. From there it is a 2 hour flight or a 10+ hour overnight train ride to Harbin.
In December, 15,000 people spend two weeks building the sculptures, after which the festival officially opens on 5 January. The exhibits are on show until the thaw sets in and everyone is invited to help chop down the sculptures with axes.
Harbin has been on my wish list since I first heard of the festival many years ago. The sculptures are exhibited at venues all over the city, the best known being the Ice Lantern Show, the Snow Sculpture Art Show and Ice & Snow World.
The Ice Lantern Show is in Zhaolin Park, where ice sculptures are illuminated with fairy lights. I walk around the park, totally enthralled, until a man on an electric scooter starts putting out the lights one by one, leaving me to find my way out of the park in the dark, chilled to the bone.
Skating and sledding
The next morning I put on every piece of clothing I have with me and cross the river Songhua.
There aren’t many ice sculptures here, but there’s plenty of fun to be had. You can skate here (I’m surprised to see Chinese people on Dutch speed skates), but there are also other alternatives like ice sledding, bumper cars on ice, downhill sledding on ice slides, rubber tire sledding down the river banks, and ice cycling (the front wheel is replaced with a skating blade).
I cross the river, a sprawling expanse of ice, to Sun Island. This is where the festival’s largest exhibits are located, including gigantic snow sculptures. Even though the sun is intense, the temperatures are so low that the exhibits still look spectacular, even a month after the official opening. Portraits, animals, abstract art and huge tableaux – you name it, they’ve got it here, carved out of ice and snow.
Year of the Goat
Ice & Snow World is the best known part of the festival. Towering castles of translucent ice, slides, the biggest snow Buddha in the world and a vast tableau celebrating the Year of Goat are just a few examples of the works on show.
When the sun sets on the horizon, the lights incorporated into the sculptures are turned on, turning everything blue, red, purple, yellow, green, white and then blue again. Truly a winter wonderland. As night falls, the biting cold returns. Those who can take no more seek the shelter of one of the restaurants to warm up. I keep warm by proceeding on my tour, trying to take in as much of this magnificent fairy-tale world as possible. My wish has finally come true, and it is more spectacular than I could ever have imagined.
How to get there:
– Plenty of flights from Beijing. Flying time is 2 hours.
– Overnight trains from Beijing. Travel time is 10-16 hours.
The main exhibition is on Sun Island, to the north of Harbin, on the opposite bank of the River Songhua. GPS: 45.775702N, 126.552819E (Ice & Snow World)
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