Who wants to drink hot Coca-Cola with grated ginger?
We do! We do! At least, we do when it’s -26C (-15F) and we’re at the Harbin Ice Festival.
You might remember the nervous laughs and “oooh Harbin is cold!!!” reactions we got Every Single Time we mentioned to a Chinese person that we’re going to Harbin. I was starting to think we were a little crazy for even going there.
From lovely, ancient Pingyao, we had to do quite a long train trek to Harbin. 6 hours to Beijing, spend the night (in a very nice Marriott by the train station, thanks to frequent flier points), and then an 8.5 hour train journey the next day to Harbin.
In total, we were in Harbin for just over 24 hours. With 16 hours to and from Beijing (not counting the time in the station waiting for our train!) Was it worth that LONG train journey, just to freeze at an Ice and Snow Festival? You be the judge…
Our experience in Harbin made me really appreciate the sentiment that if you have the correct clothes/gear, the weather really isn’t so bad. Our day in Harbin was much more comfortable than our freezing day in Jiayuguan – because we knew Harbin was going to be cold, and we were totally prepared for it. We wore ALL of our clothes, our warmest outerwear, neck muffs and scarves, hats and hoods, and our guide provided heat patches for our lower backs and toes (one set for morning, a second set for afternoon). So we were actually toasty warm even though it was (far below) freezing cold outside!
After a very Chinese breakfast at the hotel buffet (to be discussed in a later post), we met our guide and set off for the Sun Island Snow Sculpture Park.
Sun Island Snow Sculpture Park
As the name implies, this entire park was filled with amazing snow sculptures – at a huge scale. There was also a frozen lake with ‘amusements’ on it – like ice cycling or ice bumper cars etc. The snow is mainly man-made for the sculptures, which are built in early November and last until they melt in early March. Because it’s man-made snow, they apparently put additives in the mix which make the snow more ‘sticky’ and easier to create these incredible snow sculptures.
Our guide was REALLY into getting us to take photos at all the best photo stops. So there were a lot more pictures of us than we’d normally take. He also declared us the “most romantic couple he’s ever met”, which is kind of hilarious since our guide in Xi’an said he didn’t even realize we were married we were so un-affectionate, apparently! LOL. So maybe it depends on the day? 🙂
In the snow sculpture park, they also had a traditional “trapper’s house”, so you can see how people used to live in Harbin. I found this fascinating! But of course it was a photo opp. The guide wanted us to be “The Trapper and his wife!” So here we are…
Anyway – the most clever thing was the traditional heating system. They connected their main brick cooking stove to their main platform bed – so the bricks of the bed would get heated, and they’d just roll a futon mattress out onto it to sleep at night. So Clever! I think the Pioneers in America would’ve really appreciated heated beds … if they’d had bricks, which they really didn’t. But what a great idea!
After the morning at the snow sculpture park, we had local lunch at a spicy soup restaurant. There’s a huge buffet of raw ingredients – so you fill a mixing bowl with veggies, tofu, eggs, meats, noodles etc – whatever you like – and then pay for it by weight (ours were just over 1 GBP, or $1.50 each!!) – and then it’s passed to the kitchen where it’s all cooked up with spicy soup and served to you steaming hot in a bowl. Topped off with a local pear soda (really nice! A bit sweet but very pear-y), it was a warming, filling lunch, and super cheap!
Then it was time for the main event – the Harbin Ice Festival.
Harbin Ice Festival
We arrived late-afternoon so we could see the ice buildings in the daylight and illuminated after dark.
And, our guide insisted we needed to be there in time to do “recreational activities”. We had no idea what he was talking about … well…
Ice Swimming! (We only watched this one!)
Terrifying Inner Tube Sledding down an Ice Chute!
That was about the point where we needed a restorative drink. I asked for mulled wine, but he said the popular local drink was hot Coca-Cola with grated ginger! A bit strange as boiling makes the Coke lose all it’s bubbles, but you get a sweet, flat, hot drink with lots of spicy ginger. Actually really tasty, and very warming.
Around 4:30PM the lights came on, and the sun set around 5pm. Then it got amazing.
I’d seen pictures before we went to Harbin, but it’s hard to really appreciate the scale until you’re there. These are huge buildings made out of bricks of ice, some illuminated. You can walk up the (ice) steps to the top of some buildings to take in the view.
And of course there are more traditional ice sculptures too.
So our verdict? Was it worth 16 hours of travel just to see this ice festival? We think if you have the time – then YES. It’s unlike any other ice festival or sculptures we’ve seen anywhere. It was really amazing. But if you were spending one week in Beijing, would I spend 3 of those days to go to Harbin? Probably not… but if you get the chance and have the time, it’s such a quirky winter attraction, really unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else!
Now onto Beijing for 5 days of luxury and relaxation (and hitting some major touristy hotspots like The Great Wall and The Forbidden City) before we brave the wilds of Mongolia…