China Expat & Travel Blogger. ATTRACTIONS & THINGS TO DO IN CHINA. See My Fun TRAVEL Adventures in China!
Ah, Harbin's Snow and Ice Festival. Have you been? It's one of the coolest adventures I've ever been on, and take that literally. Well, not cool, but FREEZING. Into to negatives. Apocalyptic cold. And ... well, you get the picture. And you know what? It was definitely worth it!
It was Spring Festival 2016. Together with my girlfriend, we'd link with a local tour group and set out on a 4-day mission to explore a few popular tourist spots across China’s coldest region.
So, arrive by plane and be greeted by paralyzing frigid temperatures, burst of sub-zero winds, and chunks of snow scattered across the ground? Check. Prep a bunch of hot drinks to keep our bodies warm over the next 3 days? Done. And wake up the next day only to find that the amount of snow blanketing the ground had nearly quadrupled overnight? Oh man, were we in for an adventure!
Lots of strange things happen in the cold. Lakes turn into solid ice. Fingers go completely numb. Cars don't start. And roads, well, roads become so icy that they're nearly impossible to drive on.
Yep. It was Day 1, and we'd see and experience all of the above. None of it deterred us from having a good time, though. In fact, we'd just end up making the best out of it.
For instance, with traffic was backed up for miles along the highway due to an excessive amount of vehicles sliding across lanes, everyone in our tour group wound up hopping outside of our shuttle bus and getting into an epic snow fight. Now that was fun.
First Up ...
About time! Our first stop of the day: a pictorial mountainscape that included everything from horseback riding to sliding down manmade hills on inflatable rings. 'Teaser' activities, if you will, but some decent ways to get the party started.
I had found more joy in just walking around and taking pictures of the scenery, though. After all, I'm what you call a 'city boy', and I can count on one hand the number of times I've been in actual snow, so I made sure to capture as much as I could.
By half an hour's time my camera was flooded with desktop wallpaper type shots of thick snow that had crept over the terrain. What do you think?
The Slopes ...
Time to hit the slopes. Ski slopes, that is. Hey, this was Harbin--ice sculptures and snow festivals weren't the only must-do items to experience.
And so, we fell, and fell, and failed plenty, and the great thing is that we also laughed our butts off during all of it. We weren't the only ones too. Everyone hit the 'dirt' at some point or another.
It was good to see everyone having fun, and a fantastic way to cap off our first day of activities.
Skiing in China? Yep, I could officially cross that one of the bucketlist!
"This is What You Came For" ...
Day 2, welcomed by a roaring blizzard complete with bone-chilling winds and blinding snowfall just right outside our hotel door. Heck it was so bad that our tour guide had failed multiple times just trying to park our shuttle bus.
But on to the first stop—a scenic train ride around a snow-capped mountainside. I'll admit, the price tag was just way more than what we bargained for, so much to both our regrets, my girlfriend and I decided to pass. And so lesson learned: Do not skip out on those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, especially in a place like Harbin.
And then, finally--finally, we'd land at the entrance to one of China's most celebrated annual events: The Harbin Ice and Snow World Festival. Boom.
There were ice sculptures big and tall, long and wide, from building sized castles and towers to 50-yard long trains.
We also caught sculptures of animals, popular tourist destinations like the Great Wall, and a bunch of interactive displays, too. You could go from ringing a larger-than-life traditional Chinese bell to speeding down slides or making funny faces in a house of mirrors.
Plus, every display was over-flooded with neon lights, which made the whole experience twice as good at night. Never would I have imaged that ice could look so ... cool (C'mon, I had to throw at least one pun in there!).
Speaking of 'cool', have I mentioned how cold it was in Harbin yet? Eh, maybe not. The Ice and Snow World Festival had been 5x more frigid than any other place we'd been in the city, so much so that each time I'd take off my gloves to take pictures, my fingers would go numb in about 30 seconds. Ouch!
From Russia, with love ...
Day 3. Does your city have a large and wide river running through the middle of it? Harbin did, and it had been completely frozen. I guess the local government was used to it this time of year though, because by the time we arrived dozens of people were already skiing and riding a cableway that stretched over it.
But you know what? That was just for show. What we'd really set out to see? Harbin's very own Saint Sophia Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1907 following the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
I'd seen plenty of images of Russian architecture in brochures, on TV, and across websites, but never had I ever seen any kind of authentic Russian architecture live and in person.
And I guess everyone around hadn't either, cause I'd also never seen so many tourists pointing their cameras and posing in front of a building ever in my life. What do you think? Feel like heading to Moscow?
Afterwards we'd reach our final destination: Central Street, a bustling, densely crowded road dishing out everything from souvenirs and electronics to street barbecue and local cuisine.
And, oh boy, about that street barbecue. I don't know, maybe I was hungry. Maybe it was the intoxicating aroma. Or maybe, and most likely, it was the fact that it was freezing cold, and thus, those meat sticks had tasted 1000 times better than on any scorching summer's day. Listen to me loud and clear: If you love China's street barbecue, absolutely do not leave Harbin without munching on some mouthwatering skewers.
And well, that was Harbin--painstakingly cold but well worth it. I saw thick blankets of snow like I've never seen before. I hit the slopes for the first time in over 20 years. I visited one of China's most famous annual festivals, the Harbin Ice and Snow World Festival. I learned of and saw with my own eyes Russia's influence in the region, and most importantly, I racked up another awesome cultural experience in the country that I never even knew existed before packing my bags and setting sail across the world to the Far East.
You know what? It was my 'coolest' adventure yet! Safe & happy travels!