Arriving into Harbin is more than just a bit of a shock, whether you arrive by flight or train you will be beaten in the face with the brutal cold that awaits you outside. Unless you’re from the far reaches of Siberia, you’re going to need to rug up if you want to have any fun at all when exploring this frozen winter wonderland.
The ice festival is separated into two parts: Ice snow world and Sun Island. The first is where you can view the large ice sculptures with the neon lights and is best viewed at night (although it can be unbearably cold when it gets down to about -35 degrees Celsius). The latter, Sun Island, is where all the large snow sculptures are displayed and is a great daytime viewing activity. Both of these sites have gained a lot of tourist attraction over the past few years, which has resulted in steep price increase. Each site will set you back 330RMB. If you’re on a budget and can only pick one, then go with the nighttime ice sculptures.
Say to a taxi driver ice festival or in Chinese bing xue da shi jie (冰雪大世界). No need to buy a ticket beforehand as the taxi driver will take you to buy them and will give you a free ride to the ice festival. Admittedly, it seems like a scam but all they are doing is making money with some group ticketing scheme. I haven’t had any issues doing it this way and have been three different times. They will claim to also offer you a ride back, but of course they disappear. The taxi touts outside the ice festival are the definition of vultures who will try use the cold to up their prices to outrageous prices. Fortunately, there is a bus that will take you from the festival to the city for only 2RMB. Bargain!
Other points of interest in Harbin
To see some history of the region you must go to Unit 731, a memorial site where the occupying Japanese forces engaged in chemical experiments on the local populous. It’s intense but extremely interested and something that should be more widely known about. For some more history head to St Sophia square which has a large Russian orthodox church in the middle and is the iconic symbol of Harbin.
Stalin park, just next to the flood survivor’s monument at the end of Zhongyang Pedestrian Street （中央大街） is where you can find all kinds of activities on the frozen Song River. For 10RMB you can sit in a tube and get towed around on the ice.
The Siberian Tiger Park is also one place that is worth a mention, although if you a squeamish around animal slaughter then don’t go as it is common for tourists to buy a live chicken (80 RMB) to lob into the enclosure to be crunched on by many hungry tigers. Conditions at the zoo have actually improved and the tigers are very well cared for. They still have some other cats such as obese looking lions and a sad looking cougar which are not kept in the nicest of conditions, so if you also don’t want to see this then just don’t go.
Food and Drink
There is very little good information for foreigners on where to eat and especially where to drink in Harbin. Food is fairly easily found all around the Zhongyang Pedestrian Street. For drinking there are two places. The first being Qiaonan Street (桥南街) which has all kinds of popular expat bars such as Ace and Mix. For after-hours fo to Russian Big Size (yes that’s the name). When I went with friends we got a bunch of free alcohol just for “being foreign” which we thought was a scam but was actually not. The alcohol quality however is not the best (beggars can’t be choosers though).
The best thing I ever bought in Harbin is feet warmers. They are similar to the hand warmers, however they are shaped like a foot and line the bottom of your shoe. They will last around 8 to 10 hours and make a world of difference.
And one last time! Never underestimate the cold in Harbin, it is often unbearable and even though you might see locals with no gloves on don’t follow what they do.
So get on your thermals and head to the arctic!