I started 2019 with quite an adventure in the coldest, and northernmost place I have ever been to in my life. Being a big Game of Thrones fan, I can truthfully say that I have been to the strange, icy lands north of the Wall…in this case, north of the Great Wall of China. I visited the city of Harbin, in northern China, near the border with Russia. Harbin is home to the world famous Ice & Snow festival, which is now in its 20th year.
The best time to visit the ice festival is from 25 December until the end of January. For the rest of the year there are only indoor ice sculptures and it is quite an underwhelming experience. This time of the year is the ideal time and the ticket prices increase tenfold from 30 RMB to 300 RMB.
I visited the place with a tour group along with my friend and fellow Game of Thrones super fan, Charmaine from the Beyond Office Hours Blog – check it out & subscribe. Harbin had been on her travel bucket list, so a couple of weeks into December we decided to book the trip. I had read about the ice festivals, ice hotels and so on in different countries of the northern hemisphere but had never planned to visit, nor had I heard of Harbin itself.
To describe the place as “cold” is so arbitrary. I don’t think we were psychologically prepared for the cold. We left shopping for some of our cold weather gear to the last minute. I kept checking the weather in the week before we left. It was around -10C. That scared me. I love warm weather and comfort. When it is -1C in Gauteng province, South Africa it is a serious, dramatic Cold Front! Well, the morning we left for Harbin the temperatures dipped to -17 and on the night we visited the Ice Festival, the mercury plummeted to -21C!
If you plan to visit Harbin, I suggest that you visit a ski shop, as we did on our first afternoon with the tour guide. They will advise you on the correct shoes, gloves, thermal underclothes and ski gear you may need. A thermos is also a very good idea for tea, coffee or something stronger like the local rice wine! We didn’t have hot drinks with us & all of the shops were very crowded, with long queues.
The Ice Festival itself was bitterly cold. Our fingers & toes were freezing, despite the good gloves, boots, socks and heat packs. It was a huge challenge trying to take pictures. There was a lot to see at the festival and also lots to do for those who like snow games. There is a huge slide for adults – some went down in inflatable boats, and a smaller slide for kids.
The main arena of the festival has all of these brightly lit structures and more.
Many of the them are replicas of famous buildings and monuments from the around the world.
Other buildings are inspired by Disney, like this castle from Frozen!
The main sculptures are ice, which is lit up with special lights that don’t give off heat. All of the ice comes from the local river. However, there are a few massive snow sculptures too.
Our tour guide Allison told us there is always a Buddha sculpture at the festival. However, she said this year’s statue was not the largest. In previous years the Buddha has been of epic proportions, apparently.
In the Chinese calendar, 2019 will be the year of the Pig. There was a row of sculptures with all the Chinese zodiac animals, including the pig.
Overall, the Harbin experience was pretty epic. I met wonderful, fun, outgoing people and we explored the city together. The place was bitterly cold, so be prepared for that if you plan to visit. It is part of the experience. After visiting Harbin from being used to warm climates, you will be stronger and know that you could survive just about anywhere that is cold. The great thing about the city is that their infrastructure is set up for the cold. All of the restaurants, hotels and public buildings are very warm, with mandatory underfloor heating. I would consider visiting Harbin again with friends who want to have this experience.
More Harbin posts will follow, regarding different aspects of the city like buildings, food and other tourist activities.
I wish you all a wonderful 2019!