China's Winter Wonderland: Harbin International Ice Festival
Harbin Ice Festival Ice & Snow World; photo c susd20, tripadvisor

Unlike many places, Harbin, China transforms ice and snowflakes with the help of winter weather into mesmerizing gifts, ice sculptures and lanterns to entertain locals and people from overseas.

The Harbin International Ice Festival, along with the Sapporo Snow Festival (February) in Japan, Quebec City Winter Carnival (late January-early February) in Canada, and Holmenkollen Ski Festival (March) in Norway, is one of the biggest winter events in the world, attracting roughly 150,000 visitors during the first 10 days. This year’s festival will be held from late December to late February in 2018.

Winter Brings the Ice Festival to Harbin

Harbin, the capital of HeiLongJiang province in Northeast China, has been renowned as Ice City since the 1980s, during which it held several smaller ice festivals. In 2001, the first Harbin International Ice Festival was born as the merger of the Ice Festival and HeiLongJiang International Ice Festival.

Featuring ice sculptures and lanterns that take on different shapes and colors, the festival provides a wide range of events at various locations. Ice and Snow World, Sun Island, Ice Lantern Fair and Songhua River Ice are among the small, themed areas that welcome visitors. All together, more than 15,000 people work on designing, hand crafting and moving these giant yet vividly detailed sculptures and delicate lanterns.

At attractions such as the recently controversial Siberian Tiger Park, visitors will also be able to witness an actual Siberian Tiger. Although it is one of the most precious creatures in existence, with a population fewer than 500, many animal rights activitists criticize the park for being an illegal breeding facility rather than a rescue operation. At China’s Snow Town, visitors of all ages can discover what an authentic Chinese village looks like. Many of these tourist destinations have other special events scheduled throughout the entire winter.

Harbin, a Town of Two Cultures: Russian and Chinese

Offering more than ice arts, Harbin is also a good place to look for the mingling of cultures. Located on the border between Russia and China, Harbin has been influenced by both sides, in terms of language, food, and most discernibly, architecture.

Among the many Russian-style buildings in Harbin, Saint Sophia Cathedral probably stands out from the rest and gets most prominence, because of the function it used to have. As many Russians emigrated from their home country to China during the 1900s, they brought their religious beliefs and spread them over the region. They built the Cathedral so that anyone, both Russian and some Chinese, would have a place to pray and to share their troubles with others. Nowadays, the Cathedral, no longer a religious place, still attracts people for its unique Russian dome structure and its rich history.

For those who want a cultural tour of Harbin, Central Street is also a must-go. Food, paper arts, and buildings along the street illustrate a part of history that cannot possibly be appreciated from textbooks. The local history is profoundly embedded within the cultural context of Central Street, where, even after decades of change and evolution, history marks the walls, the stepping stones, the food, smells and everything available to passersby.  

Planning a Visit to the Harbin Ice Festival

Plan ahead if you want to visit during the Harbin International Ice Festival. On Central Street, there are several hotels, for example, the Modern Hotel Harbin, where international tourists can easily book a room on hotel booking websites such as Agoda. Central Street and its location in the city make hotels in this area the best choice for people who want to travel conveniently. Another advantage of living near Central Street is having countless food options: Russian, Northeastern Chinese and many other kinds of Chinese food, such as SiChuan, HuNan and Canton.

For people who favor international brands of hotels, Sofitel Harbin Hoteland Shangri-la Hotel Harbin can be great choices. These hotels offer the conveniences that their brands have in the U.S., including airport pickup, currency exchange, and laundry services, making them totally safe choices for anyone who wants to travel safely and stay comfortably.

One more tip: make sure you have enough warm winter clothes with you before your departure. Usually a down coat is necessary, because a leather jacket or a hoodie would simply not keep you warm in Harbin. Waterproofed boots and other accessories are also necessary because there will be heavy snow during a winter visit.

For more information and the latest Ice Festivals events, please click on Ice Festival Harbin, a site run by the Guilin China Travel Service, which also organizes guided tours to the fair.

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