Nothing can prepare you for the bitter cold of Harbin, home to the world-famous ice festival, but bring the right clothes, and the experience is unforgettable.
It takes all of three seconds for the harsh truth of what minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius) feels like to sink in.
It’s real. It’s horrible. It hurts. But not enough to stop taking selfies, of course.
Constantly removing two pairs of gloves to take pictures of one frigid marvel after another during a fleeting visit to the annual Harbin Ice Festival in northeastern China means your hands never get a chance to warm up.
Soon, they stop working altogether, a pair of frozen KitKats that can snap off at any moment. Such is the visual magnificence of Harbin’s biggest tourist draw.
For years, I’d seen the pictures, been dazzled by the artistry of more than 6 million cubic feet—enough to fill 70 Olympic-size swimming pools—of carefully sculpted ice illuminated with infinite LED lights.
But when I finally decided to go, I quickly discovered I was woefully unprepared. Harbin, which is colder than Iceland and Moscow, isn’t a place where you can wing it.
Don’t let the challenge put you off. Harbin is a destination worthy of your bucket list.
You need layers and layers of thermals, multiple pairs of gloves, jackets, snow boots, special socks, headgear, heating pads, balaclavas—and that’s before you leave the airport.
But don’t let the challenge put you off. Harbin is a destination worthy of your bucket list.
Land of snow and ice
One of the first things you notice is the sheer enormity of the place. It takes about an hour to get from the airport to my hotel in a car. Harbin is the eighth-largest city in China, with a total population of over 10 million, which means you have to cover serious ground to take in the icy delights.
Located just over 300 miles from Vladivostok, the Russian influence on Harbin is obvious, particularly in the architecture. Several buildings on the main pedestrian street, Central Avenue, for example, appear distinctly neo-Baroque.
Also dotted along the famous cobblestone thoroughfare are dozens of intricate snow and ice sculptures.
There are ice reindeer, polar bears, horses, maidens, the Eiffel Tower, a guitar, even some Smurfs.
But the two main events—the International Snow Sculpture Art Expo, and Ice and Snow World—are away from the main pedestrian street.
Unlike Central Avenue, which has plenty of places to hide from the weather, both of these events are open air, and you have to battle the elements with everyone else.
The International Snow Sculpture Art Expo is held on Sun Island on the north bank of the Songhua River, which bisects the city.
This is the one with all the giant standalone snow sculptures, painstakingly assembled and carved on site with shovels, forklifts, and even cranes for up to 10 days on end.
Down the road, Ice and Snow World is the lurid marvel that makes headlines worldwide each year.
Billing itself as the largest ice and snow amusement park in the world, there are ice castles up to 150 feet high which you can climb, ice bridges that you can cross, and ice slides and ice bike circuits—all lit up with thousands upon thousands of pulsating LED lights of every color, spread across 150 acres of snow.
The best time to visit is, of course, at night, when it’s even colder. Again, the exposure soon leads to serious limb pain, meaning I have to call time on festivities well before I can see the whole offering.
How to get there
Unlike trips to Beijing, Shanghai, and China’s other marquee cities, getting to the Harbin Ice Festival is not a smooth and easy journey.
But you’ll see things that can’t be found anywhere else and meet people who turned the disadvantage of China’s worst winter to their advantage.
The Harbin Ice Festival runs until the end of February, depending on the weather. Harbin has limited international flight options from Russia, Japan, South Korea, and Los Angeles.
However, there are more than a dozen domestic destinations, including China’s biggest cities.
Six bullet train services also run the 770 miles between Beijing and Harbin every day.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.