If you see your friends in China stocking up on thermal underwear and down jackets at this time of year, they are likely planning a trip to Harbin, China’s top winter destination. Here’s a look at how to plan a trip up north to Harbin to experience its famous ice festival and more.
Freezing Siberian winds mean average winter temperatures in the city rarely get above -10℃, frequently dipping as low as -35℃. While Harbin’s fabulous ice and snow sculptures have rightly made it famous with international visitors, there is plenty more to recommend in the city.
Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province. Once a small fishing village on the banks of the Songhua River, Harbin exploded into the history books with the construction of the China Eastern Railway at the turn of the 20th century, which extended the Trans-Siberian Railway eastward and brought with it an influx of Russian engineers and workers.
Fast forward two decades to 1917 and Harbin became home to tens of thousands of wealthy Russian émigrés fleeing the October Revolution. These new arrivals shaped the city in their image, not only planning buildings and boulevards in European architectural styles but also launching Russian-language newspapers, theater companies, and churches in a bid to preserve pre-revolutionary Russian imperial culture. You’ll find many European-style buildings in the old part of the city in Daoli District.
Don’t’ Miss: Harbin’s history is perhaps best embodied by Saint Sophia Cathedral, a former Russian Orthodox church built in 1907 in the flamboyant Neo-Byzantine style. Just west of Saint Sophia, the Former Site of the New Jewish Synagogue is a remnant of Harbin’s Jewish history — in the 1920s, up to 20,000 Jews called the city their home. Although it isn’t a synagogue anymore, there is an interesting museum of Jewish history and culture on the site.
Land of Ice and Snow
Summer is a pleasant time to visit Harbin — the weather is warm but not as warm as Beijing or Shanghai, perfect for strolling the streets and enjoying the architecture — but you are missing out if you don’t schedule at least one visit during the winter months.
From December through to February, Harbin transforms into a winter wonderland. Since the 1960s, the Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival has been enchanting visitors with its incredible feats of ice engineering. There are two main exhibition areas: Sun Island, which hosts enormous snow sculptures, and Ice and Snow World, home to ice structures carved out of blocks of ice from the Songhua River. Ice and Snow World is noted for its life-size recreations of iconic buildings from around the world, but these days you’re just as likely to find cartoon characters as you are the Kremlin.
Top Tip: We recommend starting out at Sun Island and then heading to Ice and Snow World as the sun goes down, as the ice sculptures are lit up with dazzling neon lights at night. Many hotels offer shuttle buses to and from the festival sites but to save time (and potentially freezing waits for buses or taxis), it’s better to hire a private driver for the day.
Food for thawing out
You’ll need plenty of food to fuel a visit to Harbin. The city’s multicultural history has left a mark on its cuisine. Eastern European-style smoked garlic sausage is a local specialty, and ice cream from time-honored brand Modern 1906 is a popular treat despite the freezing temperatures — get it from the Modern Hotel on pedestrianized Central Street (Zhongyang Jie).
However, we recommend filling up on dongbei (aka northeastern Chinese) cuisine, which is tailor-made for harsh winters. Think hearty stews packed with meat and potatoes, thick breads and pancakes, and plenty of sauerkraut-like pickled cabbage. One must-try dish is guo bao rou, a sort of dongbei-style sweet and sour pork, featuring thin slices of pork deep-fried in a crunchy cornstarch batter and coated in a sauce made from rice vinegar and sugar. The story goes that a local chef came up with the dish at the beginning of the 20th century to suit the tastes of foreign visitors and he definitely got something right. All the visitors we know who try it, love it.
Heaven for winter sports enthusiasts
With its sub-zero temperatures, it’s no surprise that Harbin is a hub for winter sports. Skating on the frozen Songhua River is surely one of the world’s more memorable skating experiences. As preparations for the Winter Olympics in 2022 continue, we have prepared some exclusive opportunities to learn winter sports with national champions too.
One of our favorites in Harbin is curling, which we can arrange in the stadium there. Harbin is also a popular stop-off for people heading to China’s largest ski resort, Yabuli, around 200km southeast of the city in the Changbai Mountains. A popular training ground for China’s national skiing teams, the resort has runs suitable for skiers of all abilities, as well as plenty of natural powder.
Article by Robynne Tindall