Harbin was the last stop during my 2,5 weeks trip to Northern East part of China. I started my winter adventure in Dalian – Dandong – North Korea – Shenyang – Changchun then finally – Harbin. The temp in Dalian and Dandong was still not exceeding -5°C even though there was snow blizzard when I was there. But then it dropped to -10°C when I arrived in Changchun and reached -23°C when I first stepped out from the train in Harbin. Such a progressive way to adapt the cold, indeed.
Welcome to Harbin!
I took a train from Changchun and a couple of hours later arrived in Harbin at around 22.00. Surprise – surprise! The city did not really have a reliable transportation in such time (I am talking about metro or subway), Taxi line was crazy – long line and did not even make a significant move within 15 minutes wait time (I tried), Didi (Chinese Uber-like service) put us at 40th something queue with approximate 2 hours wait, they do have bus service but none of us speak any Chinese. And getting a bus that late at night in that horror kinda weather with zero Chinese literature were going to be wrong in so many ways. So, after gave up the taxi line – we tried our luck to find the taxi outside the station building which turned to no luck – lol.
We ended up dragging our suitcases away from the station for about 3 kms in the midst of -20 something degrees celcius and not to mention the blizzard! Geez! Still got no luck in finding taxi, we decided to enter some random hotel lobby to warm up our body, my hands hurt so bad even though I had my ski gloves on. We tried Didi again and waited for 1 hour to finally get one.
That was how Harbin welcomed us on the very first encounter. Not cool but it definitely gave us a shocking slap in the face to enjoy -20°C.
Anyway, we had 3 days to spend in Harbin until New Year with plenty of activities lined-up, although at the end we only settled with some of them due to I-NEED-TO-GET-WARM-LETS-GO-BACK-TO-THE-HOTEL kinda desire every time we were outside for too long. LoL! Not regret it though.
So? How did -27° celcius feel?
Imagine this – my friend put a can drink outside the window of our hotel room, in less than 15 minutes it transformed into ice. Even your freezer need more time to do that!
You know those cold steam that blow out when you opened a freezer? That’s what I see every time I open the door to go outside. It’s like I was going to a giant freezer land that ready to swallow me with no mercy.
In the first few minutes being outside, my eyes got hard to blink because somehow my eyelashes went frosty, I could even see the icicles of snowflakes hanging there. My cheek got freeze and very stiff to make a simple smile. The air felt heavy as if your nose about to suck in something solid and cold, which resulting to unstoppable runny nose! Ewch! Hence, I had my face covered with a mask or shawl to make it feel better.
My body felt alright probably because I wore 4 layers of clothes and a down coat, my legs covered with 2 layers of thermal leggings plus 2 layers of wool socks. The most irritating pain occurred to my hands. Although I covered it with 2 layers of gloves (wool and ski gloves) believe me, my finger tips was still in absolute pain. I had to take a break in every 10 or 15 minutes, coming in to any closest building to chill my frostbites.
In a more simple words, extreme cold like this is vicious and nasty. It’s painful and sucks. Nevertheless I am happy to be able to experienced it and proud that a tropical human like me could survive without any serious damage to my health (both mental and physics ;p).
Hang out at Shonghua river
The river is just 2 blocks away from my hotel, so we decided to go there first. When I bounced out from the hotel door, It felt like somebody locked me up in the freezer, but .. hey I still can handle it – not that bad. That was exactly my thought just before the wind swooshed over and I got completely frozen. Pffttt..
When we got to the river bank, there were lines of cute snow sculpture bigger than human size showcased along the pavement. They were so irresistibly adorable I could not get enough to take pictures of them even though it means I had to sacrifice my poor hands to the God of Frostbites.
From that river bank, I could see the river was in a total frozen state. They really changed the river to amusement park packed with attraction like giant ice slide, banana boat on the ice, bumper car, etc where family and kids were having fun. The entrance was made of ice blocks that carved to a big gate, making it looked so cool and so festive!
It was a great place to hang out for a while if you could stand the cold. Joining a game would be fun (but two games definitely would kill you!). I did not stay long at that time, but I came back to the river on the next day, precisely on 31st of Dec to enjoy the last sunset of the year. That was definitely the best decision! The sun was set in a full adorable round shape – I was blessed to witness such a beauty!
Zhongyang Street or Central Street is said to be the prettiest street in Harbin, it’s cobblestoned and Russian style of architecture stretched for 1 km long, filled with shops (mostly souvenirs), eateries, malls, etc. In the winter time, the street will also filled with ice cravings crafted by many artist around the world that you can enjoy while hopping around.
The must try culinary is the legend ice cream that founded in 1906. I bought it 3x as it was soooo good I’m not lying! You can’t missed it!
I stayed not far from this street so I spent a lot of time wandering around the area. I love love love the ambience, they have this loud speaker that kept playing a song with winter holiday nuance. Also, the lighting of the street when it gets dark was just super pretty and romantic.
My favorite spot to hide from the cold was the book store in Zhongyang street, it has a coffee shop in the 2nd floor. I spent some lazy evening there to sip a hot coffee while observing people in the bookstore down there. So good!
Saint Sophia’s Church
This church sits not very far from the main road of Zhongyang Street, but it felt so long to get there due to the freezing temp. I really am grateful that Harbin has so many underground path, so we could walk towards the destination without getting exposed to the cold too much.
The church established in 1907 as Russian Orthodox church, since there were about 100,000 Russians lived in the city at that time. But they finally closed the church in 1949 due to the founding of Chinese PRC by communists who ended all the missionary works in China. Since 1997, the Church became Municipal Architecture and Art Museum showcasing the multicultural architecture of Harbin throughout the ages.
Harbin Ice & Snow World
Claimed as the biggest Ice & Snow Festival in the world, it became the major draw for International visitor to Harbin since a couple of years back. It has 2 main exhibition area, first is Sun Island located at the opposite of Shonghua river from the city. And the other is Ice & Snow World, an 80 hectares area where dozens of Sculptures made from thick ice blocks taken directly from Shonghua river are erected.
The Ice & Snow world usually open from the late December until the winter is over at the end of February. Admission fee was CNY 290 per person. Best time to come according to many people is from the afternoon just before the sunset so that you can see the park both in day and night time.
I came at 7 pm because I was more interested to see the colorfully illuminated version at night. Also, on that day the temp hit -27°C , clearly I did not want to stay outside for long hours from the afternoon.
Ice & Snow World in Harbin is totally a brand new sight to my eyes. Never I’ve seen such gigantic ice sculptures complete with a sophisticated lighting display various colours and designs. They are as big as castles where you can really walk around on it’s top (be careful of it’s slippery ice surface), and all the materials purely made from ice blocks. It was such an Uber cool and surreal for a human-made.
The only downside was the temperature – for sure. As I said, it was -27°C at that night and I really-really could not stand to be outdoors for more than 10 minutes. It’s just too painful especially to my hands and feet. I used winter shoes with layers of wool socks + heater patch attached but my feet still got frozen. Thankfully they have so many indoor restaurants spreading all over the corner, my safe place to warm up and escape from the evil cold. I literally did 10 minutes outdoor to check sculptures followed by 15 minutes break indoor. And then repeat the same thing for the next couple hours until we really finished exploring all the area. It was crazy cold evening but worth the sight!!
I did enjoy my first ice slide here, there are bunch of them but you gotta prepare a plastic sled to be placed under your bottom so your ass doesn’t get stuck on the ice. It was FUN!
Anyway, there are other interesting places in Harbin that we eliminated last minute that you might want to check out :
1. Sun Island ; As I mentioned before, Sun Island is part of the Ice & Snow Festival took place. Here you can see a bunch of giant Snow Sculpture being showcased. I did not go simply because, it was too cold to be outdoor exploring hectares of snow land. Let’s just cut the shit, save energy to explore the biggest attraction of Ice and Snow World.
2. Volga Manor ; It’s a Russian-themed country park that I dropped last minute given the inconvenience location and admission fee, I just felt like it’s not worth it. If you that kind of person who likes to take a picture with instagrammable background, this place is for you. You can see a Russian castle, infinite snow landscape, and maybe play a little ice slide. Sounds good, but not for me. I mean, if I wanted to go to Russian castle or village, it gotta be in Russia, not in China. Duh!
3. Zhaolin Park ; Actually I went there amidst the freezy breezy wind, but unfortunately the park was closed due to ice sculpture installation. There supposed to be an Ice Lantern Show which also illuminated at night but since I had seen the biggest one in at the Ice & Snow World, so I did not bother to go again.
4. Unit 731 ; To be honest I really was interested to come to this place but the location is too far from the city center. This place used to be a biological & chemical warfare research and development unit of Imperial Japanese Army where lethal human experimentation was undertaken in WW II. The Imperial aimed to create a biological weapon such plagues and diseases. About half of millions of Chinese became the victim through unethical human experimentation. It sounds terrifying, but an eye opening history that this world has gone into so much pain and brutality way back then.
New Year’s Eve in Harbin
Unfortunately, despite getting many International visitor, Harbin does not really celebrate Gregorian New Year. I overheard some Russian tourists complained to hotel reception when they did not get any convincing suggestion on where to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the city. Because just like many other part in China, the city only celebrates Lunar New Year.
However, If you dare – the Ice & Snow World does have New Year’s Eve package that starts from 10 pm (the ticket is different with regular entrance ticket). You can enjoy the countdown and fireworks in the middle of illuminated ice sculptures. Initially, this was my plan. But, my previous visit to Ice & Snow World made me think twice – I did not want to get tortured waiting for the countdown in open air that probably would take at least 20 mins long to stand by, not to mention the temp will be even lower than -27°C since it’s in midnight. So I finally canceled it.
Although the the Hotel reception said that there will be no celebration in the city, I still tried my luck to find one. There was a stage erected in Shonghua river that somehow I had a feeling it was meant to be the place to celebrate the countdown, so I left the hotel and headed there 30 mins prior to midnight. Turns out, I was wrong. The river was super quiet and no clue of any event happening, but… I saw a group of people walking towards the atrium gate of the river that located just in the intersection of Zhongyang Street, so I followed them.
The closer we got to the atrium, the more people we saw. Probably hundreds of people were gathering there, some of them flying lanterns, some others waiting for the fireworks being lit up in the Ice & Snow World that apparently can be enjoyed from the river bank. I am happy that I decided to go there instead of buying the countdown package to Ice & Snow World. It was a low key but still fun and festive place to celebrate.
Amongst other Chinese cities in Northern East of China that I had traveled to, I would say Harbin was the perfect end point to close my winter trip. If you wish a festive ambience and joyful winter wonderland, Harbin is the place you want to go. But make sure you are well-prepared to battle with the extremely nasty subzero temperature.