Ice sculptures as high as houses which are illuminated at night and partially change their colours. Enormous snow sculptures with delicate details. Icy temperatures of up to minus 35 degrees Celsius – all that is the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin, the capital of Chinas northernmost province Heilongjiang in Manchuria in the Northeast of the Middle Kingdom. The scenery appears to be a dream, almost like a fairytale landscape but it is real.
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is the largest ice and snow festival in the world and attracts about one million visitors from China and all around the globe every year. Each year there is a different motto. The theme of 2018 was “Ice Snow Blooming Garden, Fantastic World”. Artists from all over the world vie with one another who designs the most stunning sculpture. The ice sculptures are created of ice blocks which are cut out of the frozen Songhua Jiang (Songhua river). The festival opens officially on the 5th January every year, but in fact already short before Christmas and lasts until the end of February. The exact duration of the exhibition depends on the outside temperatures. As soon as it is not cold enough anymore, the ice and snow sculptures start to melt.
For many years it has been my dream to see the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival with my own eyes and stand in front of the giant sculptures. But even though I have been to China seven times and in Beijing six times before I haven’t made it to the Middle Kingdom in winter until last year. When I was told that I would be living in the Chinese capital and studying Mandarin at the Renmin University in Beijing for five months I knew that I would be visiting the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival this time.
A snowy landscape like in the fairytale stretched beneath me when the plane prepared for landing. Although a snowplow stood by, the runway was covered with a thin layer of snow because it was constantly snowing. Nevertheless, the pilot landed the plane safely at Harbin Taiping International Airport. When I left the airport building the icy cold hit me. The thermometer showed an outside temperature of minus 18 degrees Celsius. Fortunately, I was well prepared and dressed warmly enough.
I took the airport bus to the city center. Already from the bus, I could see a few illuminated ice sculptures. At the train station, I tried to get a taxi to my hotel but the taxi drivers told me accordingly that due to the heavy snow they couldn’t go by meter. Instead, they demanded 30 RMB. Due to this high price, I would have normally walked to my hotel especially since it didn’t seem to be far away. But because of the icy cold temperatures, the fact that it was quite late at night and I didn’t know the way, I bargained with the taxi drivers until I managed to get the price down to 20 RMB.
The Snow Sculptures on Sun Island
The following morning, I left the hotel very warmly dressed and took a taxi to the snow sculptures on Sun Island, one of the main attractions of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. I had asked the staff of my hotel to tell the driver that he should go by meter. But after a few minutes, I realized that it wasn’t switched on. Only after I insisted several times the driver reluctantly turned it on. As a compensation for this, he dropped me off quite a bit away from the official ticket counter instead of getting the ticket for the snow sculptures for me as promised. After a few minutes walk, I reached the ticket booth. Like all other visitors, I had to show my passport to get my ticket.
On the bridge which leads over the Songhua Jiang (Songhua river), sightseeing trains were waiting for visitors. The drive led past a few snow sculptures and took about five minutes. On foot, I crossed a kind of tunnel. To my right appeared a large snow sculpture which formed a group of galloping horses and was maintained by a few artists. On the left, I saw a dog of similar size which was framed by several smaller dogs. An even greater, giant snow sculpture rose right in front of me which showed the head of a female with long, blowing hair. She seemed to appear from an ocean of waves and played on a transverse flute. In front of her, I saw a group of sheep and rams.
The frozen Songhua River
I saw several smaller snow sculptures. Some of them were already completed with delicate details, others were only partially finished. I also passed a few snow blocks which should apparently be transformed into snow sculptures. On a frozen lake I saw a giant snow sculpture showing a scantily dressed female body with wings. It was surrounded by ice crystals and mythical creatures on skis. Next to it was a snow sculpture in the form of a Russian Orthodox Church which reminded me of the Sophia Church in Harbin. On the left, I spotted a herd of deer coming out of a snow-covered forest.
A snowplow removed the snow from the covered frozen surface of the lake. Thus it was possible to use ice bicycles and ice sleds which were rented at the banks of the frozen lake. However, thereby the ice surface became very slippery so that you had to watch out not to slip on the ice. Directly by the lake was a restaurant where I warmed myself up after walking around between the snow sculptures for quite some time. Furthermore, there were a few little huts behind the lake where you could buy drinks and snacks and spend some time in the warm.
It was already getting dark and the snow sculptures were illuminated when I left the restaurant. On foot, I walked along all snow sculptures back to the main exit of the snow sculptures park on Sun Island.
The Ice and Snow World
I took a taxi to the Ice and Snow World from there. The taxi driver didn’t only take me but also three Chinese people. He wanted to know whether I already got a ticket for the Ice and Snow World or not. When I negated he drove me to some sort of ticket office where I was sold an entrance ticket for 330 RMB. Since this price corresponded with the regular entrance fee I didn’t conceive of anything negative. I began to wonder when he didn’t drop me off at the main entrance but a bit away from it. A group of Chinese tourists together with a local, apparently the tour guide of the group, was already waiting there. The taxi driver gesticulated that I should wait there as well. Apparently, he had sold me a Chinese group tour in Mandarin because neither the tour guide nor any of the Chinese tourists spoke anything else than Mandarin. A group tour was exactly what I didn’t want otherwise I wouldn’t have travelled to Harbin individually. When several vendours then appeared who tried to sell the members of the group things, no one really needed, I had enough. I grabbed my ticket and walked to the main entrance. But at the admission control, I was told that my entrance ticket was only good when coming with a group and that I was only allowed to enter the Ice and Snow World together with a group and not solo. At the ticket counter, I tried to change my ticket into an individual ticket but the employee told me that we first had to find the people who were responsible for my wrong ticket. He would accompany me. I took him to the place where I had left the group. Actually, we met the organizers of the group tours. Contrary to all expectations, we managed to get the money for my wrong ticket back. At the ticket counter, he gave me the right ticket without further ado and I could enter the Ice and Snow World without problems.
Right after enter entering the sight I was speechless. I didn’t know where to look first. A winter wonderland like in the fairytale revealed itself in front of me, consisting of illuminated blocks of ice. I saw parts of the Forbidden City in blue, pink and purple. The Temple of Heaven shone in blue, pink, purple, green, yellow and red. The Sagrada Familia which is located in Barcelona and is actually sandy-coloured shone here in Harbin in several colours and also constantly changed them. I encountered a Buddhist Temple Complex, domes, towers, pillars, bridges and stairs which were illuminated in different colours. Among the giant ice sculptures were smaller transparent ice sculptures with delicate details.
There were small huts and restaurants where you could buy food and drinks. The outside temperature was between minus 26 and minus 29 degrees Celsius. Despite wearing three pairs of gloves and several pairs of socks which I wore one above the other I got ice cold fingertips and tiptoes. Hence I occasionally warmed myself up in one of the huts.
Unfortunately, my DSLR didn’t like the icy temperatures after I had spent a whole day outside. I knew beforehand that my camera batteries and my smartphone would have problems with the sub-zero temperatures. Therefore I had put them in my money belt under my clothes. For my Smartphone and my power bank, my friend Mill who had been to Harbin a few years ago had given me heat packs which kept both warm. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use them for my DSLR because otherwise, I couldn’t have turned the lens anymore. The problem was that my DSLR didn’t like the combination of ice-cold air and warm breath. It switched itself off more and more frequently and eventually couldn’t be switched on anymore. Since I hadn’t seen and photographed all ice sculptures at this time I decided to come back the following day despite the high entrance fee of 330 RMB.
I took the public bus back to the city center. During the bus ride, I talked to a young Chinese female and her father with whom I shared some sort of Chinese Tuk Tuk from the final stop to my hotel. When we arrived there they didn’t want to take any money from me.
Harbin Ice Lantern Fair and Sculptures at Zhaolin Park
Although I was told that the Harbin Ice Lantern Fair and Sculptures at Zhaolin Park were only a smaller version of the Ice and Snow World I wanted to go there nevertheless. Unfortunately, the park was closed at midday from 1.30 to 3.00 PM, exactly at the time when I was there. Since I wanted to revisit the Ice and Snow World in the afternoon I didn’t find the time to discover the Zhaolin Park.
Saint Sophia Cathedral
Instead, I visited Saint Sophia Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church which was built in 1907. It is located in Daoli district and is within walking distance from Zhaolin Park.
In the late afternoon, I took a taxi to the Ice and Snow World. Also, this taxi driver didn’t want to go by meter. He told me in Mandarin that he can’t go by meter because I am not Chinese. My evil look, my insistence to turn on the meter in Mandarin and the fact that I tapped on the meter, again and again, made him yield and turn on the meter. Like his colleague from the previous day, he wanted to know if I already got an entrance ticket for the Ice and Snow World but I had learned the lesson and affirmed this question. This time I was dropped off close to the main entrance.
Fortunately, my DSLR had restarted working. To protect it better against the cold I wrapped it in a towel and put both into a plastic bag. This was very annoying but thus I could visit and photograph the ice sculptures I hadn’t seen the day before. This time my camera didn’t stop working until I left the sight.
The following day I actually wanted to take the airport bus back to Harbin airport and I was at the right bus stop on time. But when the bus arrived the driver announced that he could take a maximum of three people because the bus was almost full. Together with me, twelve people were waiting. The bus driver left most of us behind and drove away. The outside temperature wasn’t more than minus 18 degrees Celsius and the next bus would have arrived half an hour later. Miraculously, a taxi driver appeared who offered to take me to the airport for 150 RMB. When I told him that the same drive would cost me 100 RMB with a Didi taxi, the Chinese version of Uber, he was willing to take me for the same price. He even went down to 60 RMB when I didn’t agree right away. Together with three Chinese people, I decided to take that taxi. The driver stowed a part of our luggage in the trunk and scantily strapped the rest on top. With an open trunk, we drove onto the expressway in the direction to the airport. I was convinced that we would loose a part of our luggage on the way but fortunately, this didn’t happen. My delight at the fact that each one of us would only pay 15 RMB since we were four passengers was diminished by the driver. He advised me that the 60 RMB were, of course, per person and not for the entire journey. I don’t know if I, as a non-Chinese, paid more than the Chinese tourists but when we reached the airport he asked me for the 60 RMB.
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival – how to get there
You can visit the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival either individually or as part of a tour. I deliberately decided to travel to Harbin individually because I wanted to take lots of photos and spent a lot of time doing it. This wouldn’t have been possible timewise if I travelled on a group tour.
If you decide to travel individually you can either go to Harbin by train or by plane. Harbin has four train stations, the North, the West, the East and the central station. The high-speed trains arrive at Harbin West, the slower trains also at the other stations. You can buy train tickets at Ctrip or at TravelChinaGuide.
Harbin Taiping International Airport (HRB) is located 40 kilometres southwest of Harbin and is the largest northernmost airport in China after Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK). Among numerous national flights from and to destinations in the Middle Kingdom, there are international direct flights from and to Russia, Japan, South Korea and from and to the USA. I often book my flights at the German website of flights.idealo.com and, when I am in China, sometimes also at Ctrip.
If you fly from Beijing to Harbin, I highly recommend to fly from Beijing Capital International (PEK) and not from Beijing Nanyuan Airport (NAY). Beijing Nanyuan is an airport which is primarily used by the military with only very few seats outside of the security area. The only passenger airline which takes off and lands there is China United Airlines. They only allow 10 kilogrammes of free luggage without the opportunity to add additional kilogrammes in advance. Every additional kilogramme has to be paid as excess baggage at the Check-In counter which is correspondingly expensive. Furthermore, Beijing Nanyuan Airport isn’t as easily accessible by public transport as Beijing Capital International Airport which is well connected to the public transportation system.
I had decided not to take the train but to fly to Harbin since my stay abroad in China ended exactly one week after getting back from Harbin and I had a long distance flight ahead of me. Therefore I was happy that it only took me a bit more than two hours to get from Beijing to Harbin instead of travelling by train between seven and 19 hours.
You can also visit the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival as part of a guided tour. There are several operators which offer English speaking tours. Although I flew to Harbin individually I have done quite a few tours with G Adventures* in China and in other countries and I really like them. You can take a four-day tour to Harbin to the Harbin Ice Festival* with them. They also have a six-day trip where you spend time in Beijing and at the Ice Festival in Harbin*.
Accommodation in Harbin – the best location
You best choose an accommodation in Harbin which is located in the city center or close to Sophia Church in Daoli district. You have to take a taxi or a bus to the Snow Sculptures on Sun Island and to the Ice and Snow World from the city center though but Zhaolin Park and Sophia Church are within walking distance.
Accommodation in Harbin is three to four times as expensive during the Harbin Ice Festival than usual. Also, an early booking is no guarantee for reasonable prices. I booked my hotel shortly before going to Harbin. However, I would recommend not to book at too short notice but between one and three months in advance and compare prices as soon as you know that you will visit the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. I often book hotels at Booking.com* or at Agoda*.
How to get the (right) entrance tickets
When you take a taxi to the snow sculptures on Sun Island or to the Ice and Snow World many taxi drivers will ask you if you already got an entrance ticket. Even if you don’t have a ticket yet I would always affirm this question to avoid getting ripped off. To get the right ticket at the official ticket counter you don’t need to have Mandarin language skills. The official ticket counters are located close or right next to the main entrance. Regardless of your nationality, you need to show your passport when buying the ticket. Therefore you may not leave it in the hotel. Upon presentation of your passport at the official ticket counter you will get the right ticket. 2018 the entrance was 330 RMB for the snow sculptures on Sun Island, 330 RMB for the Ice and Snow World and 160 RMB for the Ice Lantern Fair and sculptures at Zhaolin Park. In the morning you only pay a little more than half price to enter Zhaolin Park. As a student you get a discount upon presentation of your passport and student ID at these three sights but only when you are under 25 years (this goes for the snow sculptures on Sun Island) respectively under 24 years old (at the Ice and Snow World).
Many taxi drivers will try not to go by meter but try to charge you a much higher price especially when you speak only a little or no Mandarin. Ask someone to write down “please go by meter” in Mandarin for you. Take the business card of your hotel or hostel with you. The cheaper Didi taxis are hard to get during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. The same goes everywhere in China during rush hour, in the evenings and on public holidays. Ask the staff of your hotel or hostel to get a taxi for you and ask them to tell the driver that he should go by meter. If he still doesn’t use it call your hotel or hostel and ask them to tell the driver to turn it on. I did that once when I realized during the drive that the taxi driver didn’t use the meter and refused to turn it on. This worked quite well.
You should also be aware that many taxi drivers will not only take you but also other passengers or try to take other people on the way. This is of course not ok but at least during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, there is not much you can do about that. You can take the airport bus from Harbin airport and the public bus from the Ice and Snow World to the city center and in downtown Harbin, you can walk.
The right clothing
Don’t underestimate the icy cold. In the winter months, Harbin faces icy temperatures down to minus 35 degrees Celsius. You should ideally be wearing several layers of clothing. In addition to a warm jacket, you should wear at least one scarf, gloves and a warm hat.
Specifically for Harbin, I had bought the warmest thermal underwear I could get. In addition, I wore two or three additional layers of clothing, three pairs of socks, three pairs of gloves, two scarfs, a thick jacket and a warm hat. After spending several hours outside I got ice cold fingertips and tiptoes though, but overall I was dressed warmly enough and well prepared for the cold.
Cameras and the cold
Cameras, mobile phones, power banks, batteries et cetera don’t like icy temperatures at all. Therefore you should carry your camera, smartphone and batteries under your jacket close to your body. With large DSLR cameras, this is not always possible. I stumbled upon two articles in German which recommended to put polystyrene, dry granules or a warm cherry pit cushion into your camera bag. Try to keep your camera dry and warm. Before returning from outside into the warmth, dry your camera if it got wet, wrap it in a towel and/or plastic bag and remove the air. Try to avoid the sudden change between the cold and a warm room. The second day I left my camera wrapped up in a towel in a plastic bag in my backpack overnight to avoid a sudden change between cold and warm.
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival – is it worth the money and the effort?
In my opinion MOST DEFINITELY YES. A visit to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival has been a dream of mine for many years and in reality, it was much more beautiful and even more impressive than in my imagination. The snow and ice sculptures were even larger and more elaborately designed than I thought. If you consider visiting the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival – go for it. You will later forget the icy cold temperatures and the high admission fees but the impressions, memories and the photos of the breathtaking ice and snow sculptures will last you a lifetime.
*All links which are marked with a star* are affiliate links. That means that I would get a small commission if you book a hotel or a tour through one of those links – of course at no extra cost for you. Affiliate links help me to cover a part of the costs for running this website – so thanks a million in advance. When you are a returning traveller of G Adventures you even get your five percent discount in case you filled out the evaluation form within a month after your previous tour. After booking just send G Adventures an email or give them a call and claim your discount if it doesn’t appear on your bill automatically. Being an affiliate doesn’t affect my opinion in any way. I only recommend companies and products which I personally use and love. All links which are not marked with a star* are no affiliate links.
If you have a question regarding the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, leave it as a comment. The answer might also be interesting for other readers.
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