It can be hard to decide whether to visit Harbin, the Ice City, in winter. Temperatures sink to more than 30 decrees Celsius below zero in the capital of China’s far northern Heilongjiang Province.
But the rewards are enormous for hardy souls who bundle up and seek adventure.
The biggest draw at this time of year is Harbin’s spectacular Ice Festival, which is internationally famous and attracts noted sculptors. They create massive, delicate and fanciful works of architecture, animals and people in a magical setting. Light shows make the works even more exotic and visitors can slide down ice slides at night.
Of course, there are winter sports like skiing and snowboarding in China’s top winter sports destination in Yabuli County.
Since the 19th century, Harbin has been an important trade and rail hub between China and Russia. After World War II, it was briefly controlled by the Soviet Union until it became part of China in 1946. In the 1950s, thousands of Russian engineers were sent to Harbin to help China develop its heavy industry.
Therefore, there’s plenty of sightseeing in the historic city with strong Russian influences, Russian food and a trove of well-preserved Russian architecture. Central Avenue and St Sophia’s Church with green onion domes are highlights. The cathedral is the largest Eastern Orthodox Church in East Asia.
Heilongjiang shares a border with Russia and Harbin has been called the Eastern Paris and Eastern Moscow. In the last century, designs from Paris arrived in Harbin before they showed up in Shanghai.
The downtown area is also beautified by ice sculptures in winter, though they are not the massive scale as those in the ice festival park.
The city also contains the Siberian Tiger Park and a winter sports park on the Songhua River that divides the city into northern and southern sections. Visitors can watch ice fishing in the frozen river, and even try their luck.
The word Harbin is generally thought to be derived from a Manchu word meaning a place for drying fishing nets.
Once a small settlement on the Songhua River, Harbin became one of the largest cities in northeastern China.
Yabuli County, famous for winter sports, is three hours’ drive from the city.
In the region, there are other places for winter tourism. Rime Forest or Wusong in Jilin City of Jilin Province is a three-hour train ride from Harbin. Rime is spectacular frost created by the rapid freezing of water vapor. It only occurs on extremely cold days. Check in advance.
Snow Town or Xuexiang is six hours drive from Harbin. It contains magnificent snow scenes featured in films and the popular reality TV show “Where are we going, Dad?”
Today, Harbin is a key political, scientific, cultural and communications hub in the northeast. It’s easily accessible, easy to get around in and friendly to tourists.
Harbin Ice and Snow World runs from Christmas through March. The 750,000-square-meter park is on the north shore of the Songhua River.
It features ice and snow animation, activities, performances and light shows. The famous sculpture exhibition is near the ice and snow world and located on Harbin Sun Island. Highlights include a replica of the Coliseum, a church in Reykjavik, Iceland, a Gothic castle, and a 20-meter-high Buddha sculpture.
Animation such as Hello Kitty and Three Kingdoms War (San Guo Sha) can be found at the park. All are illuminated beautifully at night with light shows.
Visitors can take in both sites in one day, appreciating the snow sculptures during the day and the ice lanterns and light shows at night.
Various ice slides, especially the biggest slide 24-meter-high for 30 seconds to slide down, are exciting but there are always long queues.
Tame snow foxes, indigenous to the northeast, can be held and pictures can be taken for 10 to 20 yuan (US$1.6-3.2).
Harbin Ice and Snow World
Tickets: 160 yuan daytime, 300-330 yuan at night, with discounts for locals, students and seniors
Bus: Take bus Nos. 55, 80, 80Z, 119, 211, 212, 213, 215, 216, 219, 346, 511 or 552 to Sun Island Road Crossing Station. Then walk to Ice and Snow World. Or take direct bus Nos. 88, 125 or 126 to the Ice and Snow World.
Architecture, Russian legacy
If you can only visit one place in Harbin, then it must be Central Avenue, one of the longest pedestrian streets in Asia.
The long corridor of European architectural art is an enthralling destination filled with history and drawing tourists from around the world.
The street is 1,450 meters long and reflects a variety of European architectural styles. There are 71 major buildings, including some replicas.
Highlights include Jiaoyu Bookstore (Education Bookstore), a massive example of Baroque architecture. The Modern Hotel (Ma Die Er Hotel) built in 1906 and the Qiulin Shop built in 1919 are fine examples of Art Nouveau architecture.
Russian culture is everywhere, from Russian restaurants such as Tatoc Pectopah to Russian-style streets to crafts such as Matryoshka dolls.
More than 100 years ago, the Russian Empire financed the China Eastern Railway connecting the two countries. It was expanded to become the Trans-Siberian Railway, liking the ports of Vladivostock and Dalian in Liaoning Province.
During the Russia-Japan war between 1904 and 1905, Harbin was a Russian base for military operations in northeastern China. In the early 20th century, the city had a Russian-language school system and Russian newspapers and journals.
The Soviet Army took the city in August 1946 after Japan’s surrender in World War II. The People’s Liberation Army then took control, making Harbin the first large city under a Communist government in 1946.
St Sophia’s Church, actually a cathedral, is 53.3 meters high and covers 721 square meters. Much of the church has been reconstructed. It’s spectacular in the snow, with pigeons perched or flying around.
St Sophia’s Church
Tickets: 20 yuan
Bus: Routes 1, 2, 13, 15, 64, 66, 113
The Yabuli International Ski Resort, 200 kilometers east of Harbin, is the biggest and best ski resort in China. At 1,3474 meters, it provides great skiing with high mountains and tracks for both competition and leisure skiing.
Yabuli is a training center for China’s alpine skiiers and international competitions have been held there. The snow is neither too hard nor too powdery. Snow falls for around 170 days. The best time to ski is between November to late March.
A German-built tram takes skiiers to the top. The competitive skiing section reaches 1,374 meters and meets international standards. The leisure skiing section is only around 1,000 meters and it’s safe for learners. Professional coaches are available.
Yabuli International Ski Resort
Cost: 200-240 yuan for two hours, 500-600 yuan for full day
Special Ski Train K7047 departs daily at 8:08am from Harbin East Railway Station, returns at 4:08pm.
Visitors can take tour buses to Yabuli Town, leaving Harbin Longyun Passenger Station; trip takes three hours. From Yabuli, take a mini-bus for a 20-minute ride to the resort.
How to get there:
An airport and several high-speed rail routes connect Harbin to Jilin, Liaoning Province, Beijing and Shanghai. A new rail route from Shanghai takes only 13 hours, compared with more than 30 hours several years ago.
What to eat:
Address: 127 Central Ave
Famous for garlic sausage.
Address: 365 Guogeli Rd
Where to stay:
The Modern Hotel Harbin
One of the landmarks in Harbin. Excellent location on Central Avenue with Europe-style decor.
Address: 89 Central Avene
Price: 978 yuan/night
Hanting Express Hotel
Opposite railway station, clean.
Address: 35 Songhuajiang Rd
Price: 246 yuan/night
Near Central Avenue and railway station, many restaurants and shops nearby, clean.
Address: 365 Chengde Rd
Price: 160 yuan/night
Clothing: Warm, layers, water-proof boots
Taxis: At peak, taxis are shared; it’s legal.
Photography: Do not open cameras immediately on entering a warm room after being out in the cold. Because it will steam up the lens and mechanism, damaging the camera.