Visiting The Ice Festival in Harbin, China
In North-Eastern China, often referred to as Chinese Siberia, each year they run quite a special event. The ice festival in Harbin. Near the Russian, Mongolian and North Korean borders. I visited it, and it’s almost -30 degrees Celsius yet the Ice and Snow Festival here is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I love a good festival and although it’s painful to admit my ignorance I had never even heard of this one until 5 or 6 months ago, crazy I know! Visiting the Ice festival in Harbin is one of the ‘coolest’ things I’ve ever done, check out all you need to know about the festival yourself.
What is the Ice Festival in Harbin?
The ice festival in Harbin is a yearly snow and ice sculpture festival. Hardly any foreigners make it up here to remote China, but over 10m Chinese visit each winter. It’s officially the biggest ice sculpture festival in the world. It has to be seen to be believed, each year they rebuild famous monuments from around the world. Expect 50m tall statues of Liberty, and Eiffel Towers. Bars that you sit on ice stools and drink beers. Slides, and rides, all made of ice. It’s amazing.
Where is Harbin?
It’s way up in North-East China, what is unofficially referred to as ‘Chinese Siberia’. 1250km northeast of Beijing.
When is the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival?
The official dates of the Harbin Ice and Snow festival change each year. Normally the official dates are the first week of January until Mid-February. However, normally, lots of the exhibitions open up a few days before Christmas though and run all the way through until March. These sculptures take a while to build hence them being there long before (and after) the official dates. If you want to see the fireworks, games etc, then come on the official dates though.
How do I get to Harbin?
You can fly for quite cheap, but Harbin Ice Festival is super popular, so you have to book well in advance.
If you didn’t book in advance like me – I took the daytime fast train from Beijing to Harbin, it cost around $60 USD for a soft seat and took around 11 hours from Beijing railway station. A soft sleeper is around $75, knock about 30% of these prices for the more-than-adequate hard seat or hard sleeper (I took the nicer one because my mother was with me!)
You can also take the bus, it takes around 13 hours and costs around $40. Because I was here during Chinese New Year the trains and buses back were full and I got stung with a last-minute flight back to Bangkok for $230, ouch. So try to book your bus/train tickets a week or so in advance if possible. I know on the road that’s often difficult so at least try to get the station a day or 2 before you leave.
How much is the ticket for the Ice Festival in Harbin?
It’s getting more and more expensive every year. These are the prices this 2019:
- Morning ticket from 9.00am to 1.00pm: 100 RMB ($16)
- Afternoon and evening ticket from 1.30pm to 9.00pm (closing time): 330 RMB ($52!)
- NOTE: Student discount for afternoon ticket is 160 RMB ($25)
If you buy the morning ticket, you have to leave by 1.00 and they check rigorously. The best option of all is to buy the afternoon ticket and arrive around 3 or 4 pm. That way you get to see all the sculptures and building in the daylight, dusk and nighttime. Much more bang for your buck.
How do I get to the Ice And Snow Festival when I’m in Harbin?
A taxi should cost around 20 RMB ($3) from the city centre, it’ll take around 20 minutes. Alternatively, if you’re feeling active you can walk, it takes around 2 hours but it’s a really nice walk. I did it twice and although it was tiring it was well worth the effort.
How cold is it and what should I wear?
It’s f*cking freezing! Temperatures range between about -14 to -30 and that’s without wind-chill. Be smart and come prepared, that means thermal tops and bottoms, hiking boots, hat, scarf, mountaineering socks, a proper coat and plenty of layers. It is legitimately DANGEROUSLY cold. Pack as if you’re climbing a high altitude mountain. I use the same gear when I’m climbing the seven summits as the gear I used here!
My Personal Experience Visiting the Ice Festival in Harbin
I visited a few years ago. I was living in Bangkok, and my mum wanted a ‘cool’ holiday. Harbin was I place I had heard about the crazy ice and snow festival from a travel buddy so I arranged to meet my mum in Beijing and we’d take it from there. Of course, we had done the standard Great Wall of China from Beijing but I hadn’t figured on nearly all the transport to Harbin, and all the hotels there, to be sold out! Last-minute, I managed to secure a couple of bullet train tickets to Harbin city, and a rundown hotel for about $40. I booked 3 nights, and we had to leave tomorrow!
Early start to Beijing train station and hop on the train. Actually, the train was great. Comfortable seats, dining cart and it was an interesting journey. Especially considering what would be on the other end. When we left Beijing it was about 5 degrees, when we finally arrived in Harbin 10 hours later, it was -25! The coldest I had ever experienced at that point (I’ve since run the North Pole marathon though, that was even colder!).
The next day I checked out all the things to do in Harbin, and I sorted out the tickets for the following day to the Ice Festival. I walked from the town centre to the ice park, where I could see lots of sculptures. But we didn’t enter, saving it for the following day where we’d get the chance to come before sunset and therefore see the beauty in light and dark. And so we did just that.
The next day, wrapped up warm, we entered around 3 pm. The grounds probably take about an hour or so to walk around. But there is lots of stuff going on. Fairground games, food stalls, little beer stops. So actually you spend a whole late afternoon and early evening there. Eventually, the cold takes it toll and you’ve had enough. I figured we were there from about 3 pm until about 8 pm.
Seeing it in the day you can appreciate the work that goes into these HUGE sculptures. Months and months of labour. It’s more beautiful when they light it up at night, but the impressiveness of the engineering is more obvious in the light. I loved my time here and a quick tip? Go to the bar! Not only is Harbin beer delicious (no need to be stored in a fridge either!), the bars are also much, much warmer inside. So you get a little respite from the frozen eyelashes and nostril hair!
On the way home, I was really buzzing. It’s rare to see such an amazing, unique site. And I rarely say this, but I’m super keen to go back!
Final thoughts on the Ice Festival in Harbin?
Put it on your bucket list. It’s hard to find experiences that lots of the world has yet to discover, but the ice festival in Harbin is just that. Few foreigners, real travel. It’s a breathtaking adventure and one that I’m super keen to repeat. Just make sure you book your transports and accommodation in advance, otherwise, you’ll be left high and dry!
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