Everything You Need to Know About the Harbin Ice Festival
Whether you are just visiting China as a tourist or are here long-term working, going to Harbin is one of the bucket list items on many people’s agenda. Even though I had lived in China for twelve years, I had never gotten around to going to visit. This past winter, I made it a priority to visit the world-renown Harbin Ice Festival.
Though I will mainly be going into depth about the Harbin Ice Festival, if you are unable to visit during the specific dates, Harbin is still a wonderful destination you should consider including on your list. Below I will include other reasons besides the Ice Festival that may spark your interest in booking your flights to Harbin.
Quick Introduction of the Ice Festival
The Harbin Ice Festival usually begins at the beginning of January and ends close to the end of February. It is currently the world’s largest ice festival and began in 1963. When it first started, it was mainly local Chinese who participated and competed, but now it has officially expanded to international participants. Each year there is a different theme, and it has now expanded into exhibits of ice sculptures, lit full-size buildings made from snow and ice, and other winter activities.
When you plan a trip to Harbin during the Ice Festival, remember to pack warmly. Of course, the tolerance of cold will widely vary based on your individual experiences. Make sure to layer up and ensure that every part of your body is covered. You might even find it helpful to purchase these heat packs. These are extremely popular in China for the winter time. You can even find specific ones to put in your shoes. From personal experience, the feet are key to keeping the rest of your body warm. My shoes did not cut it, and I regretted not purchasing these heat packs for my feet. The first few moments you are outside, you may think I was overreacting, but since most all the activities are outside, after spending several hours in the cold, I hope you will thank me for the advanced warning!
Harbin is located in the north of China, (relatively) close to the Russian border. It is fairly convenient to find either a flight or a train to get straight there. If you are tight on time, consider a flight or a night train. Sometimes the prices are comparable, so do not immediately assume a train will be less expensive. Of course during the peak season of the Ice Festival, you will want to make sure you book early. As not only do Chinese tourists travel during this time, the Harbin Ice Festival attracts a large international crowd as well.
The Ice Festival can easily be done on the weekend. For those who have work, leaving early Saturday morning and returning late Sunday night can be enough time to see the main attractions. Since staying out in the cold can be hard on the body, an hour or two at each destination is enough to enjoy the beauty.
The top three places to see sculptures and exhibitions of the Ice Festival include the following:
- Sun Island
Sun Island is located right in the center of Harbin, and is divided by the Songhua River. The International Snow Sculpture Art Expo is located here and you will find various submissions from local universities and groups. Here you can also play winter sports including skiing, skating, hockey, sledding, etc. Tickets this past year were 150 yuan. Expect to go here during the day anytime from 10am-6pm, unlike the other two destinations, the primary attraction here are the intricate sculptures and not the light show.
- Ice and Snow World
This is the main attraction for most people who go to Harbin during this time. Although discounted tickets are available during the day, the main excitement is also the light work. Tickets are around 300 yuan for the later part of the day, and during special holidays the price is slightly more expensive. From 9am-12pm, tickets are half the price. Note that if you do buy an earlier ticket for during the day, you can stay until closing. However, if you are on a tight schedule, it may make more sense to buy the later ticket as the activities and sights will not take a whole day to enjoy, and you do not want to miss the lights that come on in the night. There are a few buildings you can enter and purchase warm drinks and food if needed.
Ice and Snow World expands every year, covering more than 750,000 square meters. The impressive buildings and structures are over 300,000 cubic meters, and will include iconic symbols such as the Great Wall or Buddha. It is truly a magical experience to enjoy. If you only go to one place in Harbin during the Ice Festival, this is your ultimate choice.
- Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Fair
The Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Fair is set in a folk garden style. When I went, I was told this was targeted more for children. Since I had some time on my last night, I decided to visit anyway. The ticket price was not as expensive as Ice and Snow World or Sun Island and was worth it. It is best to go during the night as well, as the main attraction are the lantern sculptures. From beautiful icy figures of fairies to animals, it was amazing to see what artists can create with simply ice and light.
To take full advantage of your time in Harbin, or if you are going during an off-season time, you should consider visiting the Siberian Tiger Park. It is close to Sun Island, and here you can catch a glimpse of one of the world’s top 10 endangered animals. You can sign up to feed the tigers livestock ranging from a chicken to a cow, however, if you find this too much to watch, you can stick with observing them lie around and play with each other. The entrance ticket for this is 100 yuan, but does not include any meat you may want to purchase. One to two hours is enough to go around the Tiger Park and visit the different species they have here.
As I mentioned previously in the article, Harbin has a strong Russian influence. Visiting St. Sofia Church is an excellent way to learn more about the history of Harbin and the Russian and Chinese culture that Harbin inherits. Walking through Central Street, you will clearly note the European influence in architecture with foreign shops, hotels, and bars scattered along the pedestrian walkway.
If you are in Harbin for an extended amount of time, there are plenty of other places you can also visit.
Tourist Trap Warnings
As with every popular tourist destination, you will want to avoid some things to ensure you have the best experience possible. Firstly, when deciding when to go, try and pick an earlier weekend. As the festival goes on, the snow and ice begins to get dirty due to a large amount of visitors. Though there are clear signs stating not to touch the sculptures, this is not often followed. The first few weeks are the best time to capture the pristine beauty that winter has to offer.
Secondly, you might find taxi drivers to be extremely persistent in not using their meters but negotiating a price. They might say the destination is out of the way and you will not find a ride for the way back. They will usually offer to bring you there and back and wait there for an increased price. They might also recommend you purchase tickets with them, where they will escort you to a larger tourist bus. Though these may seem to be good deals at the time, you might find it cheaper to stick to your own plan and simply stay firm in asking them for the meter. Do not worry about not being able to find a taxi or a bus on the way back, as most destinations will have plenty available there. The most economical way is to take the public bus, however, if you are going with a group or would rather not wait in the cold, a taxi is a good alternative.
Finally, you might find that booking your tickets ahead of time or online can save you some money and the long lines that will await you when you arrive.
Harbin was well worth the visit and even though the ticket prices can surely add up, this is once in a lifetime experience that you do not want to forego! The pictures do not do it justice, and the feeling of being there yourself is something that cannot be captured through images. The wintery wonderland you get to experience with artistic beauty all around you is something you will never forget.
Have you ever been to Harbin? What did you think? If you have not, are you now convinced to plan a trip? Let us know in the comments below; we would love to hear from you!