A Winter Wonderland

China’s northernmost province transforms into an icy escape

By: Gary Bowerman

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Harbin. The outside air temperature is minus 29 degrees centigrade [minus 20 Fahrenheit].”

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 lungs.

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 grinned.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “it’s very cold but totally worth it.”

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 river.

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 tourists.

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 frostbite.


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

Holiday Inn
Located in the heart of downtown, this clean, well-managed 144-room hotel is also very popular with visitors.
90 Jingwei Street, Harbin