“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Harbin. The outside air
temperature is minus 29 degrees centigrade [minus 20
Gasps of disbelief filled the airplane, followed by the frenetic
sound of 200 people piling on several layers of thermal wear,
fleece, jackets, hats and gloves. A few minutes later, wearing
seemingly twice my own body weight, I descended the aircraft steps
and sucked in the icy midnight air. It burned like acid in my
Harbin is the capital of China’s northernmost Heilongjiang
(meaning Black River Dragon) Province, which borders Siberia.
Temperate in summer, the weather dips so far below zero in winter
that the city’s mighty Songhua River freezes solid from December to
May. Eighteen years ago, Harbin’s hardy locals spotted a tourism
opportunity. Hauling house-sized blocks of ice from the river, they
began sculpting them with chain saws into replica images of Chinese
landmarks, animals and mythical creatures. The annual Harbin Ice
and Snow Festival which now galvanizes the whole city throughout
January and attracts ice sculptors and visitors from around the
world was born.
The next morning, I pulled back my hotel curtains to reveal a
sharp blue sky and a fresh layer of snow across the city. Watching
me tentatively staring out of the lobby, a departing Texan tourist
“Don’t worry,” she said, “it’s very cold but totally worth
A sign next to her promised a maximum daytime temperature of minus
4 degrees. I pulled on my ski gloves and feigned bravery.
Harbin’s main street, Zhongyang Dajie, is delightful. A mix of
modern Chinese and historic Russian architecture, it is flanked by
cafes, restaurants and several stores selling imported Russian
goods, such as military overcoats, vodka and chocolate. At the far
end and with my feet already starting to feel numb the street
broadens out to reveal the frozen wasteland of the Songhua River.
In summer, this fast-flowing river connects Russia and northern
China with the sea. Today, it is a gigantic skating rink. Glancing
around, I spotted 10 barges wedged into the marina, and a nearly
100-foot-high ice chute speeding young children across the
Above me a cable car silently ferried visitors to and from the
Snow Sculpture Art Fair site at Sun Island, across the river. The
cold was now biting through my layers of clothing, but instead of
the easy cable car option, I decided to hike across the frozen
river. It was a rewarding choice. Every few steps, I swapped
greetings with well-wrapped locals making the reverse journey and
was occasionally passed by horse-drawn hansom carriages seemingly
on loan from Victorian London carrying more ice-averse
The Snow Sculpture Fair is enormous, covering several fields with
intricate, and very detailed, compacted snow sculptures. The most
eye-catching were a clever entwining of the Statue of Liberty with
the presidential faces of Mount Rushmore, soaring replicas of
Beijing’s Forbidden City and Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral and a
30-foot-high laughing Buddha. The stations of a children’s
mini-railway were each carved to recreate a particular cityscape,
including Sydney, Venice, Athens and London. In another field, ice
sculptors from Russia, China, Serbia, Thailand, Montenegro and
Mexico displayed surrealist statues for a competition to be judged
at the end of the festival. By day, the brilliant blue sky combines
beautifully with the frosty snow art; by night, the entire site is
colorfully lit adding more of a theme park ambience.
As darkness descended and the temperature plummeted perilously
close to minus 25 degrees, two further options were available.
Downtown Zhaolin Park is brought to life by a colorful display of
ice lanterns and ice carvings of ships, planes, buildings and
Chinese landmarks. Taking a taxi to a derelict riverside site on
the edge of town, however, provided frozen art on an even grander
scale. Walking into the Harbin Ice-Snow World is like entering a
fairytale. The first building I spotted was a five-storey Cartier
store built entirely from ice, then a life-sized ice castle,
similar to the one that graces Disney cartoons and a functional ice
bar (serving the warming local baijiu firewater) designed like a
wooden log cabin.
That was just the beginning, however. This year’s showpiece was
“Moscow on Ice,” featuring soaring versions of the Russian
capital’s grand palaces, cathedrals, clock towers, fountains and
municipal buildings. Even allowing for the lung-busting
temperature, the scale and detail of the recreations were
breathtaking. Gazing across the landscape, I tried to imagine the
fun that must be had at the festival’s end, when locals and
tourists take mallets and ice picks to the lanterns, sculptures and
carvings and smash them into tiny pieces.
As a parting shot, I climbed to the top of the Disneyesque castle.
The view was sensational the park’s dreamy ice spires and towers
gave way to Harbin’s fast-changing skyline in the background. My
hands and feet were numb, my nose frozen, my lungs sore and my
digital camera battery chilled beyond use but the Harbin festival
is a wintry wonderland that more than compensates for the fear of
|WHERE TO STAY|
The first five-star hotel in Harbin, this long-established
340-room tourist favorite offers excellent facilities, several
restaurants and its very own ice bar.
555 You Yi Road, Harbin
Located in the heart of downtown, this clean, well-managed
144-room hotel is also very popular with visitors.
90 Jingwei Street, Harbin