Harbin blog

The cold craziness of Harbin Ice Festival

2 December 2016

The cold craziness of Harbin Ice Festival

Experience a surreal world of ice and snow, colour and light, and the coldest weather you can possibly imagine

If you really hate the cold, maybe cross the Harbin Ice Festival off your To Do list. But if you are up for a genuinely surreal experience, where you'll get miles off the tourist trail and encounter strange and wonderful sights – and you're ready to embrace the sub-zero temperatures with open arms – then Harbin might just be for you.

Where or what is Harbin, exactly?

The city of Harbin is located in far north-eastern China. It's close to the border of Siberia in Russia, and you can definitely see the influence of the neighbours (as well as feel the cold Siberian wind blowing across the border). The population is a mix of Chinese and Russian. You can hear the Russian language in the air, eat Russian food and see the Russian influence in the architecture – the onion dome on St Sophia Cathedral is classic Russian-style.

And what is this Ice Festival?

The Festival of Ice and Snow is a month-long celebration of all things icy, held in Harbin. It's held in the depths of winter, throughout the month of January. There are several elements to the festival but the big ticket item is the huge ice buildings that you can walk through, explore and slide on.

Samantha Briggs, My Adventure Travel consultant from Brisbane, has been to Harbin not once but twice. We talked to Samantha to get the real on-the-ground details of what a trip to Harbin is like.

“It's the coldest, most surreal experience you'll every have. You're freezing, but what's going on around you is not like anything you've ever seen,” says Samantha.

A city made of ice

The festival is held at a location outside the city where huge buildings have been constructed out of solid ice bricks. It's best to visit the festival at night, when the buildings are illuminated with all kinds of colourful lights. The darkness makes the luminous, colourful ice buildings a little surreal.

“It's like a massive theme park built out of ice,” says Samantha.

“You walk in and the entrance is a big wall made of ice, all lit up in bright colours. Against the black of the sky, there's these crazy buildings all lit up. Some buildings are carved to represent, say, the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China. Others are set up for you to walk all over and through. There are corridors and huge staircases and slides so you can slide right down on the ice.

“There are people sliding. Everyone is trying to lick the ice. There are kids running around and everyone has a silly grin on their faces because it's so surreal. You've seen pictures but until you're standing next to a massive building made of ice, you just don't understand.”

Ice sculptures and more

The ice and snow sculptures are another highlight of the festival, at three locations in and around the city. There is an enormous number of sculptures, some carved out of clear ice, others built from white snow, all perfectly frozen – and not melting any time soon. There might be a giant buddha or a Siberian tiger; a huge winged mythological creature or a fisherman hauling nets. The quality of the craftsmanship is extraordinary – as you would expect for one of the biggest international ice and snow carving competitions.

Plus there are loads of winter-themed activities – there's a mini zoo of 'winter' animals such as arctic foxes, an ice maze, an ice restaurant and frozen lollies made directly in the snow with sugar syrup.

The city comes alive in ice

The festival doesn't stop with buildings and sculptures.  The whole city is caught up in the spirit. Samantha tells us more about the mood in Harbin:

“The city itself is covered in ice, everything is frozen. The sun goes down quite early and in the city square people are just out and about. There's lights, there's ice carvings, everyone is playing in the snow.

“Harbin is on a river and the guardrails along the river are covered in ice and lit up. The river is frozen solid and you can walk across it. There are people skating. They have sleigh rides with big clydesdale horses on the river. Everyone just embraces the fact that everything is so frozen.”

The bizarre coldness doesn't just make for a great festival – it's fascinating just to see how people live in the cold. There are subway systems of underground shops, as it's warmer under the ground than above. 

“Walking around the city, you see the convenience stores putting their products outside. It's colder outside than in the store so they bring their frozen products onto the street,” says Samantha.

Just how cold is it?

Very. It's never very warm on the border of Siberia, but in winter, it rarely gets above negative ten degrees.

“At night, when you're at the festival, it's like negative 40,” says Samantha. “You can only be outside for about 45 minutes before your camera stops working, your speech starts slurring and your fingers start to freeze.”

So how do you cope in this kind of cold?

“You're so excited because of all the ice buildings but your body is slowly starting to freeze. They have little demountable cafes that you can go in. Everyone goes in and takes their clothes off to defrost on the radiators and then you put it all back on and go back out,” says Samantha.

The cold is part of the surreal experience. It's physiologically interesting to feel that cold and see how your body reacts. It's culturally fascinating to see a society that lives in this climate. These are temperatures that you might not encounter again in your life.

How do I get to Harbin Ice Festival?

My Adventure Travel is hosting an exclusive Harbin Ice Festival tour from 3-8 January 2017. The 6-day festival tour starts and ends in Beijing and takes the local train to and from Harbin.

Winter is a great time to explore the highlights of Beijing – the air is clear and crisp and there are far less tourists around. “The Great Wall is one of the most amazing things that you can ever do in your life,” says Samantha. “We were the only people on the wall because it was winter; I guess in summer it would be a different story.”

A trip to Harbin offers the opportunity to experience something extreme, bizarre and kind of mind-blowing. The remote location, the freezing weather and the surreal lit-up ice structures make Harbin Ice Festival a genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience. The January 2017 tour is filling fast, so you'll need to book soon to secure your place (and then you can get started packing your balaclavas, fur-lined coats and ear muffs).

Click here for more details or call 1300 020 996 today!