Harbin. All I had heard about this northern Chinese city was that it was cold and had some cool ice sculptures in the winter. Most expats I know in China had mentioned Harbin as being one of those “must-see” places. So, when planning our trip for Chinese New Year, Emily (my travel companion for few previous trips and this trip) mentioned heading up for the first part of our vacation. I thought it was a good idea and we booked the tickets. It was then that I started to monitor the weather to see if I had enough layers to take. It would be the coldest temperatures I’d ever been in…colder than when I was at Everest Base Camp even. I’ll admit, this Florida girl was worried.
The night we arrived in Harbin, I put on a hat, thick scarf, and a few jackets before bracing the cold walk to the driver’s car. I was hoping the next day, when we explored the city, I would be warmer. I wasn’t.
The first morning in Harbin, we woke up, ate breakfast, and braved (I braved it with four layers on top and three on the bottom, Emily embraced it) the cold to walk to the St. Sophia Church, a former Russian Orthodox church. The church was built in 1907, with Byzantine architecture. In 1996, it became an art gallery where locals and tourist can walk through (we paid 15rmb). The inside offered pictures of the past, while gazing up offered an impressive look into traditional Russian architecture. After our fill, we continued to walk around and came across our first ice sculpture. I was impressed. It was right there off Central Street, and you could walk through the little open ice “hallway”. Of course, it wouldn’t compare to the sites we had not seen yet at this point.
We continued our walk and came to the frozen Song Hua River. The icy frozen surface hosted lots of activities…traditional ice games, dune buggies going into the sky via a sketchy propeller, slides, and dog sleds. We opted to walk (slowly and carefully for me) across the white expanse of ice to the small island. After about 15 minutes, we made it to the other side (I with a sigh of relief for making it without a broken ankle, and a sigh of annoyance that we’d have to eventually cross it again!) We paid to take a little closed tram around the island to see what it offered. We came across the Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Expo and decided to hit it up later that evening, after a little more sight seeing. After getting off the tram, we walked to an almost abandoned temple. The only person there was a lady who came out to take an entrance fee from us. I loved the sound of my feet crunching along the snow as I took each step. Again, coming from Florida, it was not an everyday experience for me.
That evening, we headed back to the Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Expo. People from all over the world came to Harbin to create amazing sculptures out of snow. Each sculpture was truly a work of art, offering impressive details. Every corner you took, another piece of art was there. In the center of the expo, a frozen pond had people “riding” bikes or being pulled by inner tubes. In the back of the pond, I saw many people going up stairs with an inner tube. Now, as I’ve stated before, I am not use to ice and I really was trying to avoid a broken ankle or leg, so I happily waited on the snowy shore as Emily glided gracefully over the ice to the stairs. A while later, she came back and said I had to come. I was skeptical, but begrudgingly went. For a 100rmb deposit, you get an inner tube and go up the stairs. Emily carried my inner tube for me as we went up the stairs (in all fairness, at this point, my body was 70% ice and didn’t move too easily). We were instructed to sit a certain way and then were pushed down an ice luge!! It was so much fun!! It was worth every slippery step on that ice! If you ever find yourself at this expo during the winter, you must go ice luging there! I would have gone another time, but the attendant said no. We left the expo as the sun was setting (in my attempt to get back to the hotel before the night temperatures set in).
The next day, our second and final day in the charming city of Harbin, we set off for a walk through the city. We eventually found ourselves at the Shangri-La Hotel, where I had read about them having an ice bar. I asked about it once we got there. Sadly, they were not doing the ice bar anymore, but they were doing a restaurant with hot pot. I’m not sure what part of my brain (probably the part that had frozen over at this point) thought it was a great idea, but we signed up for a meal. We each got our own pot among the table that had a million things to cook up spread on it. It was cold in there. So cold, that the Coke I ordered was nearly frozen by the end of the meal. Even the meat slices were frozen not long after we began eating. It was a great experience, but at this point, my body was starting to feel the effects from being exposed to the cold I was not normally used to.
Later that evening, we headed to the main reason people travel to Harbin during the winter months: Ice-Snow World. We took a taxi to the venue (which was overpriced but we wanted to get out there and so we paid the 100rmb) and purchased our tickets. Tonight, I was prepared: I had on five top layers, Chinese hot packs (that you can stick to you) on my upper back, three layers on the bottom with hot packs on the front and back of my thigh area, plus two pairs of socks, a scarf, and hat. I was relatively comfortable with all this on, with the exception of my poor nose that was running.
Upon entering Ice-Snow World, you are magically transported into another world, a world made of ice. Once the day starts becoming night, colorful lights blaze through the ice buildings. Some of the buildings were two stories high and offered views of the impressive ice city. I’ve never seen anything like it. After a few hours admiring the buildings, we were about to walk towards the exit when out of nowhere, maybe 20 feet in front of us, boxes of fireworks started going off to celebrate the Chinese New Year (it was considered the Eve of Chinese New Year which means the start of booming fireworks for days in China). After the initial panic and stepping back (because why rope off the firework zone?), we admired the fireworks show before taking the packed bus (much cheaper than the earlier taxi) back to our hotel area.
But before heading back to the hotel, we had a stop to make since we were heading to the next place on our itinerary in the morning. Before heading to Harbin, we talked to some coworkers (who were from Harbin) about what they would recommend for food. The one thing everyone mentioned was the ice cream. I know, ice cream in those temperatures? Yes. We stopped at one of the vendors and got an ice cream bar. It was so creamy and a delicious frozen treat. A highly recommended treat! The best part? It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to eat it because it won’t melt in those temperatures!
We stayed at the Holiday Inn near Central Street. When hotel researching, this one seemed relatively close to what we wanted to see and the price was right. Inside, it was like a sauna and the staff was super friendly. For the night of Chinese New Year Eve, the hotel gave us a bag of peanuts, and in addition invited us to watch a fireworks show at midnight and enjoy a dumplings feast to bring in the new year. At midnight, we stood outside and watched the workers roll out yards and yards of fireworks. Soon, they lit the ends and the show began. We were so close (safety isn’t really a priority when it comes to fireworks in China I’ve learned) that firework shells were hitting us, not to mention my hearing was worse than normal for the following hour. After the 15-minute firework display and attack, we headed to the hotel’s banquet room and were shown to a round table, set up with the traditional lazy susan. Other families sat with us, and together we feasted on multiple types of dumplings and dishes. It was a great way to celebrate the new year and to end our trip to Harbin.