I recently went to Harbin, China to check out the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival and other attractions.
I think snowy & icy landscapes are beautiful and Harbin delivered! I went for about 3 days. I left Dalian by train on a Friday at 9 AM, arrived in Harbin at 1 PM; returned from Harbin by train on Sunday at 2 PM and arrived in Dalian at 5:30 PM. I saw Sun Island, Ice And Snow World, Zhaolin Park, Sophia Square, the Siberian Tiger Park, Zhongyang Pedestrian Street. All of these were great experiences and each one had something different to offer. I would recommend this trip to anyone.
I've put a few highlight pictures below.
These are for people already relatively familiar with China. I think giving the run-down on how to get around in China is far more than I can write in this single blog post!
Avoid using local taxis to travel to the events.
I tried 3 or 4 taxis the first time I was trying to go to the Ice And Snow World exhibit. They all turned me away, except one who offered to take me for 200 RMB (the fare should be about 40). Basically, they don't want to drive all the way over to the island where all the attractions are. They would rather stay in town. You'll need to use DiDi to get taxis. These drivers had no problem with going to the island, and you'll save a lot of time. The other option is to rent a driver or tour guide for the weekend, but this will cost you much more.
Local taxis seem to charge +1 RMB for everything
The first time the meter said 14 and the driver requested 15 I was a bit annoyed. But after multiple trips, even very polite drivers made a similar request. I assume it might be a local thing.
Make sure you have good shoes!
You need warmth and grip! My first evening at the Ice And Snow World was very difficult because I was constantly almost slipping. I even had a few falls despite my best efforts in my work boots. If the profile view of the sole of your shoe is flat (with or without a pattern) it's all going to slip at the same time and you're going to have a bad time. You need to get something that has more height variation in the sole to prevent slipping. You also need something that will keep your feet warm. My biggest regret of this trip is that I spent most of my time at the first exhibit trying to avoid falling. I promptly went to Decathlon the next morning for better snow shoes and got some great ones for 300 RMB
In case you didn't know, it's COLD at the Ice And Snow Festival. While I was there the temperature ranged from -20° C to -30° C (-4° F to -22° F) . I grew up as a desert rat and never lived in a cold climate before moving up to Dalian. Harbin is even colder. The only time I got cold was my feet after ~3 hours of walking through snow and ice, and my ears when I didn't put my wind-breaking hood on, and my hands when I was constantly taking pictures. Here is what I wore and it kept me nice and toasty:
- thick wool cap
- wind breaking hood from jacket
- Upper Body
- Merino Wool Base Layer (Mid-weight, ~200 grams)
- down jacket (~550 fill) with a rain and wind-proof outer shell
- One pair of Merino Wool gloves or
- one pair of Wind-proof insulted gloves
- Lower Body
- Merino Wool Base Layer (Mid-weight, ~200 grams)
- wind-proof snow pants with a thin fleece lining
- Thick wool socks
- snow boot
I liked the merino wool gloves for when I was handling the camera a lot or using my phone. Once the wind kicked up and I was done with pictures I switched to the thicker (less dexterous) wind-proof gloves. I also supplemented my less warm gloves with some of the disposable heating pads. They're quite cheap and effective if you place them in your pockets and keep your hands there as much as possible.
After wearing the base layers I bought for this trip, I think Merino Wool may be the best fabric there is (except for the price). It's incredibly soft, incredibly warm, but it still breathes well so you don't sweat easily. It also wicks away moisture.
I purchased the boots, winter jacket, wind-proof gloves, and snow pants at Decathlon here in China. I felt a bit like a walking advertisement for them. I was wary of buying the gear in China, but while I was in the US all the winter gear was sold out. I got my winter jacket at Decathlon in Dalian for ~$225 and it is comparable to $300-400 jackets from The North Face and others. At Decathlon you can buy everything from my gear list except the merino wool base layers. I only saw synthetic base layers there and I read that they're not as warm.
As I mentioned, each one has a little bit of something to offer. They also have slightly different operating hours.
Ice and Snow World
This one is open earlier in the morning and closes down around 9:30 PM. It has snow sculptures, lots of ice block buildings, and a few ice sculptures. It has a very bright and charming feel to it. There are a decent amount of food options (including KFC), and they have some shows. The lights don't turn on until 4:30 PM. I made the mistake of trying to travel over to this place at around 4:30 and I hit massive traffic and couldn't find a taxi who wanted to drive over. I think it would be better to show up to the Ice And Snow World at about 2 PM. This would give you some time to go around and see the snow and ice sculptures in the daylight. You can then take a break and have a meal while waiting for the lights to turn on and for the sky to get dark. After that you can spend as much time as you want until the park closes. If you can only see one thing in Harbin, it's probably this one.
This place is vast. It really is an island where you can spend a lot of time wandering around. This place is actually open all year and even has sculptures indoors when it's too warm for them to be outside. Sun Island specializes in snow and ice sculptures. It has much larger and more elaborate snow sculptures than the Ice And Snow Festival, but not as many Ice sculptures. It also has a more free-roam styled layout. There are plenty of coffee and snack shops that you can step into and still look out the window to enjoy the surroundings. This park closes earlier in the evening (around 5 PM I think). You should get there earlier in the day and plan to do something else at night. One thing that was really amazing is how different the same snow sculptures look in different lighting. It's part of why I wish I went to the Ice And Snow World Earlier in the day.
I accidentally found this place while I was searching for a taxi from Sophia Square to the Ice and Snow World. From the outside I thought it might be a scam of some sort because it didn't look like what I had seen in the pictures. Don't let the entrances fool you. Inside there is a nice big park full of ice sculptures. This is what the park appears specialize in. It also has a more cozy and relaxed feel than the other two larger exhibits. One advantage of this place is it's right in the city center - so you can easily do it in a couple of hours between other activities.
This is an old Russian style church. You see this type of architecture influence in many places around Harbin, but it is very obvious with this church. Inside, it is not really a church. These days it is a small exhibit about the history of Harbin. It has a wealth pictures throughout the years to show how Harbin has grown. If you're not interested in the historical pictures then it's probably not worth it to go inside. You're better off just getting a coffee from the McDonald's next door and enjoying the surroundings for a while.
Siberian Tiger Park
Obviously, this place specializes in Tigers as well as other big cats. I debated about whether or not to go to this exhibit. First, I was really worried about the condition of the animals. I soon found these fears to be wrong. Second, I was worried about how long it would take because there wasn't much information available online about exactly how long it takes. As with all the exhibits outside of city center, it was about 20-30 minute drive over by taxi. You buy a ticket to go in, you ride a bus around the "free roaming" areas, and then you end up at a place with an elevated platform you can walk around and take pictures. The process up to this point took about 45 minutes. Then it's just a matter of how long you want to walk around taking pictures. All the cats are obviously well fed and lazy. I didn't see any obvious signs of abuse outside of the normal "in captivity" issues. Not all of the animals were out because it was too cold for some of them.
Zhongyang Pedestrian Street
This street is right next to Zhaolin Park and Sophia Square. It's the perfect place to end your evening and get a good meal. The street itself is just like any other walking street in a tourist area. There are lots of shops and food options. The street food here was delicious. A taxi driver recommended a dish: 锅包肉 (Guo Bao Rou) and pointed out the name of a shop that is famous for it. Luckily, I found one of these in the walking street! Be prepared to queue though. I would recommend you get your number when you first arrive. You can then wander around a bit near the restaurant and try some other street food. Then you can have your main course and work some of it off by wandering the street for the rest of the evening. The Guo Bao Rou dish was awesome. I normally don't like fried food, but this was just right. It's basically thin slices of pork that are wrapped in something like a rice noodle and then lightly fried. The sauce is similar to a sweet and sour sauce. The end result is crispy yet chewy golden deliciousness. I definitely ate more than I should have! One other comment about this area is that they definitely know how to market themselves. There are two popular restaurants here: the one that serves the Guo Bao Rou and another that serves ice cream pops. Each shop has much more to offer, but they're known for these special dishes. Each of them has a small window outside of the shop dedicated to serving their signature dish! So in case you don't have time (or money) for the full experience you can still get a quick taste. I wish more places would set themselves up this way.
- Ice and Snow World
- 4-6 hours, from early afternoon to evening
- Sun Island
- 4-6 hours, from mid morning to early afternoon
- Zhaolin Park
- ~2 hours, in the evening
- Sophia Square
- ~1 hour, any time
- Siberian Tiger Park
- 2-3 hours, early morning
- Zhongyang Pedestrian Street
- 2-3 hours, evening
If I could do it again I would arrive around lunch-time, check in to my hotel and head straight to the Ice and Snow World.
The next day I would go to the Siberian Tiger park in the morning and Sun Island in the middle of the day.
If you were pressed for time, you could even do Sophia Square after Sun Island and then walk over to Zhaolin park.
To polish off the evening you can go to the walking street.
Overall, you can easily enjoy all of this in two whole days. I had a good experience taking the train up on Friday morning and coming back on Sunday evening.