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48 Hours in Harbin

This week, Mr and Mrs Smith share their 48 hour adventure to Harbin, the Ice city located in China's northernmost province.

  • Harbin Ice Festival
  • Harbin Ice Festival
  • Harbin Ice Festival
  • Harbin Ice Festival
  • Harbin Ice Festival
  • Harbin Ice Festival

The secret to Harbin is layers. If you get that right you are sure to have a fantastic experience that will add to your memories of your time living in China. With temperatures dipping to -23 and then rising to a barmy -16, 5 layers were perfect for our trip to this amazing ice city last weekend.

Harbin has been on our ‘trips to do in China list’ for  four years and with the uncertainty of not knowing where we might be in a year’s time, a feeling that you get used to as an expat, we headed off on a smoggy Friday evening to visit the ice festival in Harbin.  

We had 48 hours at short notice and so we booked flights, hotel and driver ourselves for a whistle stop tour on Saturday of the Siberian Tiger Park, the Snow Sculpture Art Expo on Sun Island and The Ice and Snow World Park. On Sunday we managed to squeeze in a visit to Stalin Park, Central Street, Sofia Church and Shaolin Park before we headed back to Shanghai on the Sunday afternoon.

Now when they said we were going to see tigers we thought we would keep our expectations low in the hope that we wouldn’t be too disappointed if we only saw one or perhaps two mangy tigers sat in cage. How wrong we were. The Siberian Tiger Park houses up to 800 tigers in an area covering 250 acres. As well as Tigers, which you see up to 100 at any one time, there are lions, pumas, leopards and weirdly a liger; a cross between a tiger and lion. You can debate the ethics of what is only the second largest Tiger park in China. You can feel uncomfortable at this controversial breeding programme seeing such beautiful animals in a restricted area, clearly only able to chase the meat truck rather than live prey, but it was amazing. The only tiger I had any experience of was ‘The Tiger that came to tea’ and here I was looking into the eyes of one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. 

Having feasted on tigers, we were ready for some ice.  The snow sculpture Art Expo on Sun Island has the wow factor.  Each time you turn a corner to see yet more amazing sculptures you have to remind yourself it is snow.  Both amateur groups and professional ice sculptures compete to win coveted prizes.  Here in the winter sun of the afternoon we took in the sights of a snow palace and an ice galleon sailing across a frozen lake.  It was truly magical and with children and adults shouting and laughing as they slid down ice slides, we couldn’t imagine it would get any better, but it did.

The Ice and Snow World Park was the evening activity and as we queued up to be pushed through turnstiles and out through a tented doorway it was like stepping through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia.  Here you were met with endless palaces and pagodas, slides and horse drawn sledges. The led lights embedded in the ice blocks of each building made them appear to be made of Turkish delight with its fine powdering of icing sugar.  You could consider the colours gaudy but the scene was such a delight to take in you couldn’t help being caught up in the festive atmosphere. Although there were 1000s of people it wasn’t crowded and we enjoyed walking through, up and round this world of ice.

Sunday brought a different scene and in the morning, layered up and with our feet and hand warmers tucked into boots and gloves we headed to Stalin Park which is more of a promenade along the banks of the frozen Songhua River. This had the feel of a seaside town with boats and floating pontoons, brightly painted and weather worn wooden huts, and people eating ice lollies.  The frozen lake was a hive of activity and resembled a nineteenth century Frost  Fair, but with a twentieth first century twist. There were people on jet skis and rolling round in inflatable balls. There were dogs and ponies pulling sledges and competitive whipping tops and there were now the familiar ice slides. At one end of the promenade was a railway bridge stretching across the lake and bringing the Trans -Siberian Railway through Harbin and as we headed back towards Central Street, we contemplated a train adventure from North East China to Vladivostok. 

Reaching Central Street, we were brought back to reality with the hustle and bustle of tourists enjoying not a Chinese experience but more of a Russian one.  Architecture, food and the voices on the street all hinted of Russia and reminded us of the history of Harbin as the gateway from China to the west.  Fuelled on sugary honeycomb and spicy sausage from the street vendors we took a short drive to Saint Sophia Cathedral, a former Russian Orthodox Church.  The church has an interesting history, managing to survive the destruction of churches during the Great Leap Forward by becoming a warehouse for the nearby No.1 Department Store. Today it houses a photographic exhibition depicting Harbin’s history and the coming of the railway.

With two hours left before our departure for the airport we took a short walk from the Cathedral down to Zhaolin Park and our last fix of ice sculptures.  With the winter sun glinting on the silky smooth surfaces, highlighting the air bubbles trapped in each icy block, these were some of the best sculptures yet. Surprisingly we had the park to ourselves and so enjoyed the remainder of trip sliding around deers, bears, crescent moons and hares before we headed back to the airport and Shanghai.

This is a great trip to do with the family, but to really enjoy it I suggest you wait until the children are at least 10.  They need to keep warm, walk throughout the day and to be big enough to really enjoy all the slides as there are very few safety restrictions.

Prices of attractions

Siberian Tiger Park – 90 RMB per person

Snow Sculpture Art Expo on Sun Island – 240 RMB per person

Ice and Snow World Park – 300 RMB per person

Sofia Church – 20 RMB per person

Zhaolin Park – 60 RMB per person

Thank you to Simon and Linda Tasker for lending us some fantastic winter clothing and helping to make our trip such a success.

We hope you enjoyed this review of Harbin by Sue Smith.

We are looking for more families and also students to share their favourite things to do around town so if you are interested in being featured, please email Kate Pollitt here.

Ryan Kealey, Marketing and Events Manager