Monday, 16 February 2015

Brace yourself for the big freeze: Harbin Ice and Snow Festival in China

Every year, photo galleries of illuminated ice sculptures in China are emblazoned across news websites. Harbin's International Ice and Snow Festival inspires travellers around the world to marvel and think: “Next year, I'm going there.”

Flashy doorways and inexplicable ice lions at Harbin's Zhaolin Park.
Image by Anita Isalska
Well, this year I did. And I had as surreal – and nose-numbing – experience as I'd hoped. But there are two major things that I learned:

#1 – For an international festival, Harbin's ice-travaganza can be mystifying to foreign visitors.
#2 – There are so many interesting things about Harbin that it would easily fill a visit outside festival season. And you'd spend a lot less cash.

Pose with a tiny deer in front of this enormous snow girl - on Sun Island in Harbin.
Image by Anita Isalska
Let's start with the bamboozling aspects of the festival itself. There are a few different major ice sculpture exhibitions around the city. They're ticketed separately, information about them in languages other than Mandarin is extremely scant, and transport there can be fiendish unless you're a demon at fighting other people for taxis, or enjoy very long walks across frozen rivers.

Hotels are keen to bundle non-Chinese speakers onto overpriced tourist taxis to the venues. Being intent on paying a local fare involved a lot of misses when it came to negotiating with taxi drivers, who know they have a captive market and try to charge flat rates of Y1000 to festival venues; on the meter it should be more like Y300 by distance. The cable car over the Songhua River takes you part-way to Sun Island and to the main venue for Ice and Snow World, but it's pricey (Y500 one-way) and only gets you so far. And walking over the Songhua isn't tough by distance, but wind whipping over the ice makes for a thoroughly face-freezing amble – nay, penguin-like stagger – across the river. As if the ice-streaked pavements weren't tough enough to walk on without slipping.

Any contraption that slides does the job. Fun times on the frozen Songhua River.
Image by Anita Isalska
As for the festival itself, it's pricey – tickets range from Y1500 to Y3000 – but the light wallet is forgotten as soon as you crane your neck at the icy turrets, fairytale palaces and gargantuan snow sculptures. Seeing at least one exhibition by day, and one by night, is essential: the illuminations are as spellbinding as the photos suggest, and the magical atmosphere seems to imbue the attendees with a real sense of mischief – ice slides, toboggans and miniature ponies are the in-festival modes of transport.

But on to the non-festival highlights. Compared to Beijing, Harbin is so laidback it's on a futon sipping green tea. Much less bustle, cafes crafted to please the idle-at-heart, and utterly devoid of the intensity of cut-throat Beijing. Russian flavours and architecture give an interesting lift to the city. Magnificent St Sophia Cathedral jostles alongside neon signs for tea houses, synagogues snooze serenely along major roads, and the pedestrianised streets are crammed with great eateries and shops.

Crick your neck at these splendid domes... St Sophia Church in Harbin.
Image by Anita Isalska
The city's Russian heritage, being an enclave for Siberians in the 19th century, is so strong that Chinese tourists seem to treat the city as a foreign holiday. People were piling into Russian-themed restaurants and chortling over their borscht, and clutching armfuls of matryoshkas bought in souvenir shops. The marvellous muddle of cultures made this a hard place to leave. If the pavements weren't caked in perilous ice, I'd have had a literal spring in my step.

For more on Harbin, check out my Lonely Planet article, 10 fascinating facts aboutHarbin, China's ice festival city.


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