January sees the annual Ice and Snow Festival come to Harbin in China. Explore’s Hannah Methven was lucky enough to visit this breathtaking festival in 2012.
Located in the far north of China and subject to long, extremely cold winters, Harbin perhaps isn’t the first place that springs to mind for a festival destination. However, once a year this city plays host to a fantastic display of ice sculptures and snow carvings which are well worth braving the cold for. The festival was established in 1985 and typically runs for a month starting from 5th January each year, but of course it is very much dependant on the weather.
Deciding to travel to China in winter was met with a few raised eyebrows, but for me it was a brilliant time to travel: we experienced cold, crisp days with brilliant blue skies, tourist sites were blissfully quiet and we even had a sprinkling of snow as we wandered around Tiananmen Square.
Temperatures weren’t as cold as you might imagine. Shanghai was the warmest, at around 10 degrees in the daytime, and as we made our way further north we gradually began to add more layers. When we reached Beijing, the mercury had dropped to minus 10 degrees centigrade. This sounds bad but, with thermals, decent gloves and a hat plus plenty of stops for hot, green tea we happily made our way around the sights before hopping on an overnight train to Harbin.
Stepping out of the station there was a noticeable drop in temperature. As we were getting a taxi straight to the hotel we hadn’t put on more than our ‘Beijing layers’ which in hindsight wasn’t the best plan! A quick temperature check at the hotel confirmed that it was minus 22 degrees centigrade that afternoon, but again the sky was perfectly blue so we layered up and headed out. Zhongyang Dajie, the main street, gave us our first taste of the ice sculptures. The sheer variety was incredible, from love seats to figurines to giant beer bottles. At the end of the street we found the Songhua River and where the real festival atmosphere started. The river had frozen solid and there were hundreds of people playing games, taking horse and carriage rides and even playing paintball on the river. Walking across the ice, which took at least 30 minutes as we slid around and tried to push each other over, we reached the Sun Island Park.
This park is set in a quiet residential area and during the festival is home to enormous snow carvings. This year the main sculpture was a version of St Basil's Cathedral, mixed in with ethereal figurines and cartoon-style characters. The sheer scale was incredible and I can only imagine how long it takes to carve the sculptures.
The highlight of the festival, Ice and Snow World, is located just out of the city. We arrived at around 4.30pm just as the sun was setting; perfect timing as it happens - at 5pm there was a huge fireworks display. The temperature at this point was minus 25 degrees, the coldest point of the trip. But wearing thermals, fleece-lined trousers, four tops, two fleeces and a waterproof jacket plus two pairs of gloves, two scarves and a hat, we spent three hours happily exploring the brightly coloured sculptures, sliding down ice slides and stopping for the odd cup of tea when our fingers got too cold from taking photos.
My advice to anyone considering going to the 2013 Harbin Ice Festival? Don’t be put off by the dramatic temperatures; the incredible sculptures go a long way to making you forget about the cold and the rest can be sorted out with lots of layers and frequent tea stops.
Find out more about our Harbin Ice Festival holiday.