Every winter, the capital of China’s northeastern province is home to the super impressive Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. But that's just one reason to visit Harbin.
HARBIN, China – Harbin, China should be at the top of everyone’s travel list. It is a city where different countries, cultures, and religions mix in a unique blend of architecture, food, and people. In Harbin you can find Chinese history, eat ice cream in below zero temperatures, and climb castles made of ice.
Lay of the Land
Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang, China's most northeastern province on the border of Russia. It was an administrative hub for the Chinese Eastern Railway at the turn of the 20th century, and, because of it, became an international melting pot of people, languages, religions, and politics. Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks settled in Harbin, as did Koreans from the south, along with Jewish refugees, Germans, and others, all of whom contributed to its unique architecture, food, and culture.
What to Do
The city comes alive during winter with a surprising number of outdoor activities and spectacular creations of snow and ice. Pack your warm socks and brace for the cold.
The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is a must-see. The festival that began as an ice lantern show in the 1960s has since evolved into a spectacle that sees blocks of ice cut from the Songhua River by more than 10,000 workers who sculpt them into massive, multicolored, illuminated monuments and buildings from around the world. A Taj Mahal can stand next to a pirate ship. It's amazing.
The festival has three different venues: Ice and Snow World, Sun Island Scenic Area, and Zhaolin ParkIf you’re pressed for time, you only need to visit Ice and Snow World. The other two venues are smaller and pale in comparison.
The festival officially opens in early January and closes at the end of February but you can usually visit from December to early March. There are different tickets for each venue. In recent years, the cost of a ticket to Ice and Snow World was RMB 330 or about $50. The other two venues cost a bit less.
Although the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is a major draw for most foreign tourists, Harbin offers so much more. Zhongyang Dajie (or Central Street), one of the original old Harbin thoroughfares, is one of the city's most popular attractions. Lined with beautiful European architecture, traditional restaurants, and souvenir shops, a stroll here is a great way to take in the town history while noshing on frozen candied fruit and ice cream. Locals claim that eating ice cream in below zero temperatures will help keep you warm. Bonus: Since it doesn’t need to be kept in a freezer, it’s usually costs less in the winter. The most famous ice cream in Harbin is located in the middle of Central Street at MaDieer Hotel (also known as Modern Hotel). You can't miss it: There's always a crowd outside eating ice cream, no matter the weather.
Central Street ends at the Songhua River and Harbin Stalin Park. During the coldest months, the river is a playground for locals, who flock to the frozen river to ice skate, sled, bike, and snowmobile. Visitors can rent horse-drawn carriages, join an impromptu hockey game, or get towed in an inflatable raft behind a jeep.
If you have the time, visit Unit 731 Museum, especially if you're a history buff. When Japan invaded and took control of Harbin during World War II, a military unit conducted chemical and biological experiments on Chinese prisoners. The museum is a solemn reminder of a traumatic and terrible episode not often found in textbooks. The museum is free and has new updated English translations of the exhibits. It is located outside of the city proper, but your hotel should be help arrange a round-trip taxi.
Where to Stay
Harbin does not have many hotels that cater to foreign tourists. Sofitel Wanda Hotel Harbin is one of the more luxurious options, but it's a little far from many tourist amenities, which matter a lot when temperatures fall below zero. A better option is Hotel Ibis Harbin Sofia Church. Although it's more modest, it's centrally located — and they do a great job of keeping rooms nice and toasty.
If you don't have much time and visit just for the festival, the two best options close to the festivities are Shangri-La Hotel, Harbin and Aoluguya Hotel. Both are very comfortable and upscale options if a central location isn't a priority.
During the winter, hotels can be expensive and fill up very quickly. Plan accordingly.
Where to Eat
It should come as no surprised that Harbin's melting pot has influenced its culinary offerings. The local cuisine is a mix of Chinese, Russian, and Korean food, with dumplings a favorite staple. A dumpling spot popular with tourists and locals alike is actually the chain restaurant DongFang JiaoZi Wang, which serves a wide variety of dumplings at affordable prices. One of their more popular locations is in the middle of Central Street.
If you look hard enough, you can find North Korean restaurants in random places around the city. My favorite meal in Harbin was at North Korean Flavor, a small restaurant tucked in a back alley just off of Central Street. They served familiar Korean dishes like bibimbap and kimchi, along with meals that were unique, with clear Russian and Chinese influences.
Where to Drink
Nightlife in Harbin is limited, unless you know where to look. You can find great beer at the bottom of a staircase in Nangang at Wan Pi Bi, a tiny bar run by Han Yu, who home-brews and sells it cheap. You won't find a better spot to warm up with a good beer in all of Harbin. Look for Wan Pi Bi at 315 You Zheng Jie, down the street from the Museum subway station.
The rest of Harbin's bar scene can be found near Harbin Institute of Technology, around Qiaonan Street. The Door (find it by copying the following address directly into Google Maps: China, Heilongjiang, Harbin, Nangang, Qiaonan St, 桥南街附44) and Boxtown (No.118 Xidazhijie) nightclubs are great places to dance and the best live music Harbin has to offer.
To say that it gets cold in Harbin during the winter is an understatement. It gets bone chilling, easily dropping to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Frostbite can be a real problem, so make sure that you cover your nose, ears, hands, and face. Don't forget to pack the heavy-duty cold weather gear: thermal underwear, face masks, boots, hand warmers, etc.
At the airport, it's common for legitimate taxi drivers to solicit inside of the airport and to share taxis. Make sure that you ask your driver to use the meter. From the airport, the ride should take about 45 minutes and cost about 120 RMB.
Tipping is not the norm in China, but this is changing. Establishments that cater to foreigners will expect you to tip. Ten percent of the bill is appropriate.
For more insider tips, especially about Harbin's burgeoning rock and metal scene, check out John Yingling’s website The World Underground. He is doing some really cool stuff in Harbin and around Asia.