Actually a Freezing Cold Weekend in Harbin
The City of Harbin is Packed With Chilly Activities
As I was already in the Northeast part of China, Harbin was a no-doubter on my list of places to visit, especially in the winter. If you’ve heard of Harbin before (which the city itself is a fun word to say), then you’ve definitely heard of the Harbin Ice Festival. It occurs every winter from December through February, basically when it’s coldest. Other than the big event, Harbin is filled with sights to visit and delicacies to try out. My almost four days there were plentiful, but there were still things I wanted to see if I given the time. If you can survive the cold, which means consistently hitting -20 C then you’ll be ok . Hopefully you’ll be even more inspired to visit after viewing my cold weekend in Harbin.
Top Sites to Visit in Harbin
Day 1 – Getting to Harbin and First Impressions
The bullet trains in China are amazing. They’re super fast, much more comfortable then the standard train, and a huge time-saver. Who wouldn’t want to take a five hour ride over a ten hour regular train ride? Riding out from the farthest southern point of the Northeast in Dalian, I took an early morning bullet train up to Harbin. The ride isn’t really a scenic view to say the least, as in the winter the Northeast looks mostly like a snowy tundra.
Once getting off the train ride, I decided to take a public bus to my hotel. Instantly, you feel the sharp cold of Harbin stinging against your face and the heavy clouds that form with every breath. Come prepared. The west train station which houses the bullet trains is about a 30 minute ride out from the city center. I figured it’d be a good way to get feel for the city and is much cheaper than a taxi.
After analyzing my Baidu maps and chatting with a few different bus drivers I was on my way. The Harbin accent is actually very standard and doesn’t really carry any tricky tones to throw you off. After dealing with the rush-hour traffic and closer to 45 minute bus ride, I was finally at my hotel. I decided that after the long transit trips to take a small break and venture for a quick night stroll of downtown Harbin.
As it was a tad late, Zhong Yang Da Jie (中央大街) sounded like a good idea. It’s basically a tourist street filled with shops and local food delicacies, but you do get to take in the beauty of some of the Russian architectural influence. Everybody will tell you the street is a must-see and I would recommend strolling through as well. With ice sculptures speckled throughout the street and tons of colorful street food tactically placed, it’s a good way to get a vibe of the city.
I picked up a warmer pair of gloves, snapped some shots, and tried out some small bites. One thing you must try out is the Ma Song Bing Guer (马送尔冰棍), a milky popsicle that every Chinese in the Northeast seems to know. It may sound kinda crazy eating a popsicle in sub-zero temperatures, but it was worth it. After grabbing a couple dinners in the area and mingling with some locals I decided to call it an evening.
My second day in Harbin was extremely packed. After eating a breakfast and once again mapping out everything on the Baidu Map app, I took out to test out the Harbin subway system. Once you start strolling around in the city you really start to almost think you’re in Russia. The architectural influence is everywhere. From the historical buildings on every corner to the interior design of the subway system, Harbin really showcases the foreign cultural influences the city has witnessed.
My first stop of the day was the infamous Unit 731 located south of the city and about a 30 minute subway ride. Unit 731 was a pre-World War II Japanese prison and chemical warfare research lab. Unfortunately, the site here isn’t as well known to people outside of China. However, Unit 731 did commit some awful atrocities on the same level of what occurred in Europe. It was definitely hard to read about some of the horrific human experiments that were done here.
The site is definitely worth visiting and to understand some of the history that occurred in the region. After losing my gloves somehow on the subway, I decided to check off another museum, the Harbin Museum. The Harbin Museum didn’t wow me in any way and wasn’t as well designed as other city museums I’ve been to. I would pass on this site if you’re into museums.
At this point I needed to grab some grub and decided to try out Guo Bao Rou (锅包肉), a Harbin delicacy. I found a nearby restaurant with good reviews online and tested it out. It’s scrumptious and a must try out when in Harbin. It really isn’t the same in other Chinese cities. After eating dinner, I thought it’d be a good point to warm up before heading to the Ice Sculpture Festival a little later. You’ll probably find it necessary to warm up a couple times throughout the day as most places, even when you’re inside feel a tad colder in Harbin.
Harbin Ice Festival
So not to confuse anyone, but in the winter there are three major tourist areas spread throughout Harbin. Many websites group them together as part of the overall Harbin Ice Festival experience in one location. The actual Harbin Ice Festival itself is located just northwest of downtown Harbin. Then, there is Zhaolin Park(兆麟公园) which is a small park within the city center and includes ice sculptures. I did not personally visit this one. The third location is Tai Yang Dao (太阳岛 ) which holds many of the large snow sculptures that you’ll find posted online when researching Harbin. I did spend a day here as you’ll later see.
As I headed out around just past seven I figured I’d scout out a taxi to the Harbin Ice Festival to save a little time. You should be able to find a taxi around 25-30 RMB to get you there. It does take about twenty minutes as you take the bridge over the Songhua River. I luckily had pretty smooth traffic even with it being prime-time season. You will know as soon as you’re there with the massive lighting and crowds of people.
It literally looks like a winter wonderland. When goggling at some of the massive ice sculptures from outside the festival, your eyes will eventually scan across to see the ticket center. Tickets are not cheap, but will be worth the one-time visit. I’m sure that is exactly how many times the most of you will come out for. Cough up the 290RMB for the ticket and in you go. If you are an undergrad student you will get to enjoy the 150RMB ticket. Enjoy the few minutes of warmth inside the ticket center as then you head back out into the freezing bitterness to get into the colorful winterland. For tickets this is a direct link to the Harbin Ice Festival for tickets.
I knew it was already a cold weekend in Harbin, but once you’re at the Harbin Ice Festival it goes down even a few notches more. The stories about your phone battery magically losing their battery life are indeed very true. Bring an external charger with you as it feels like you lose a couple percentage points every minute. Also try keeping your phone as warm as possible, it does give it an extra life. I was only wearing my adidas ultraboost instead of boots as I was getting tired o my boots. Come with some think socks on too.
The ice sculptures are pretty amazing to say the least. Everything from the finely crafted ice sculptures, huge chunks of ice blocks to scale the enormous monuments, and carving techniques used to craft details into these massive projects was incredible. There’s everything from the Great Ice Wall of China to fortresses with a variety of western designs. You can definitely see the time and effort it takes to build this place up each year. The lighting at the Harbin Ice Festival is also well done as it gives it that magical “touch”. The everybody’s always happy music also reminds you a bit of a Disney park. Walt Disney himself would be touched by this place.
I would recommend warming up periodically within the small restaurants or coffee shops as your body will thank you later. Check out show times in front of the Great Ice Wall. They have a small assortment of dance shows and music events. If you’re into that stuff. In all, I stayed at the event for around an hour and half. I figure this will probably be the longest you’ll want to handle the cold anyways.
The Harbin Ice Festival closes around 9:30, but I would recommend heading out a tad earlier if you want to avoid the crazy crowds leaving. Taxis bump up their rates 2 to 3 times the normal price and will probably try to stuff you in with three other people to maximize their trip. If you’re up for it, I went out past the parking lot to find the public transportation bus. There are a couple routes but get there before the last bus stops at 10. If you haven’t yet try to figure out Baidu maps yet, I would. Spend some time getting around it if you can as it does get you around with public transport. That VPN doesn’t always want to work.
If you have questions, Chinese people are super friendly and are usually very eager to assist if they can. In Harbin, the bus stop routes are luckily displayed in both English and Chinese. Remember to have spare change (at least 2RMB for this ride) or to have Zhi Fu Bao (支付宝), aka Alipay. Chinese buses do not accept WeChat pay. Bus rides are always a fun time in China anyways. This is where to find the bus stop.
Day 3 – Sun Island Scenic Area and Saint Sophia Cathedral
It was day three of this freezing, cold weekend in Harbin and at this point I was getting into my routine of bundling up for the Siberian winter. I slept in just a bit and got a warm breakfast at the hotel. I usually have one big meal in the morning and wait till later in the afternoon to eat while traveling. This day I had scheduled to visit the Sun Island Scenic Park which houses all the massive snow sculptures. Since it was a direct trip from my hotel to the park I decided to take the bus again. It’s about a 25-30 minute bus ride.
Once you got off the bus it may look like you were dropped off at the Sea World. Go north where you will see a large parking lot and a sign showcasing the snow sculpture exhibit. Right near the entrance you will see a ticket office. Tickets are 250RMB. As soon as you receive the ticket go through the entrance and follow the path till you get to the park entrance.
The park is pretty self-explanatory once you scan your ticket in. It’s really a large loop with multiple stops throughout the path. A map on the right side of the entrance door shows you all the major sculptures and names of each area. I took almost a little over two hours here at Sun Island. From looking at the detailed work of each snow sculpture to stopping at some of the resting areas on the path, you could easily spend half a day here. I took a ton of photos, but there were many more snow sculptures than I was expecting. Just like the ice sculpture park you will enjoy the snow sculptures just as much.
After the Sun Scenic Area I took the bus back down to check out the Saint Sophia Cathedral which is located right in the main square downtown. Before that however I stopped at a dumpling chain to try out some local Harbin dumplings. And to warm up. After eating I walked across the street to check out Saint Sophia Cathedral. Unfortunately, Saint Sophia Cathedral at the time was closed for remodeling. However, from the outside Saint Sophia looked beautiful and even more spectacular when it got a little darker. At this point it was close to -18C in the city around 5pm. I raced to a coffee shop for a bit and checked back in the warmth of my hotel room. I don’t know how locals survive any cold weekend in Harbin for months at a time.
Rounding Out a Cold Weekend in Harbin
The next day was my ticket out to another city in Liaoning, thus ending my cold weekend in Harbin. Harbin is a marvelous city and with very friendly people. The food is delicious and the city of Harbin itself is just fun to rumble through. You’re basically getting a mix of a Russian and Chinese vacation in one by coming to Harbin. With the influences of the two cultures and amount of things to see, Harbin will have a second go around with me. If you haven’t yet check out my previous post of life in China!