Between ten and fifteen MILLION people will visit Harbin, #China this year—located at 45° North, where temperatures can reach as low as -30 °C. Who are these crazy people and why would they endure the bitter cold? Well, the answer is most of China and for the Harbin International Snow & Ice Festival, the largest ice festival in the world. Covering 750,000 square meters with ice harvested from the nearby Songhua River, the popular festival is in its 33rd year. Visit and you can marvel at an entire city crafted from ice, with enough colorful lights to rival a Katy Perry concert—it’s an incredible experience. But before you go, arm yourself with some helpful information to survive (while actually enjoying) the freezing festivities.
Wear ALL THE LAYERS
Sounds obvious, right? But trust me on this one. You may think you have enough warm clothing; but you don’t. Chances are, you have never been anywhere this cold before and if you want to enjoy your visit, layering is essential. Wear long, thermal underwear (available on TaoBao—I even scored some with nice fleece lining), ski pants, a sweatshirt+vest+fleece jacket+coat combination, scarf, warm hat, snow boots—the WORKS! A friend of mine even purchased snow goggles and a facemask. The wind is bitterly cold and any exposed skin will go numb. Put on as many layers as possible, and then put on one more—you’ll thank me.
My gadgets and gizmos aplenty…all FROZE
As much as you don’t like the cold, your electronics dislike it even more. Your phone’s battery life will be significantly reduced and it may turn off suddenly due to the frigid temperatures. Put your phone close to your body to warm it back up (or in the same pocket as a hand warmer), but eventually you will need to charge it. Bring a spare battery bank to use throughout the day, because you don’t want to miss any photo opportunities. If you are traveling with a DSLR (like I did), be sure to protect your lenses from condensation. Bring a plastic bag to create an airtight seal for your camera before going indoors. The sudden change in temperature can cause condensation on your lenses or internally, and we all know electronics and water do not mix. Allow your electronics to slowly adjust to the temperature in the bag before taking them out. And if you are changing lenses, you are going to want to do that inside.
Book your trip now!
I don’t know if you heard me before, but within the next two months, ten to fifteen MILLION people are going to descend on this little city. Now is the most popular time to visit Harbin—so be sure to book your room early to avoid disappointment. As always, when traveling in China, be sure to have your hotel address written in Pinyin as well as Chinese characters. There are plenty of taxis at the airport to transfer you to your final destination.
Avoid local tour groups like the plague
Seriously, there is no need to join an organized tour group after you have arrived. Our taxi driver took us to a ticketing location, which we assumed was where we “had” to get tickets. In fact, we were joining a local tour group that was terribly organized and made us wait for 20 minutes in the freezing cold before herding us inside. Once you have arrived at the festival grounds, it is fairly simple to walk up to the front gates and purchase your own ticket for the same price.
Eat like a king
While there are plenty of Western food options (like McDonald’s and KFC), opt for some traditional Chinese cuisine for wayyyy cheaper prices. We found this awesome spot right on the main street called Bian lian qian wang wang pai chuan chuan xiang (I am not sure why it’s the longest name ever). You’ll know it’s the right place by the huge Chinese mask adorning the wall. Inside, you can select from veggies, meat, noodles, tofu, and dumplings for an amazing hot pot experience. And each skewer is ONLY 1 KUAI! So load up, friends, and enjoy. We went semi-crazy with our selections and still only paid 200RMB for six adults.
Unleash your inner child at Songhua River
If you can only visit one of the three festival sites, be sure to visit Ice and Snow World. It is truly the jewel of the festival. The lights turn on around 4pm and it is a beautiful sight. However, at 300RMB a ticket, it isn’t cheap.
If you aren’t looking to drop another 300 kuai on your second day, I recommend visiting Songhua River, the fifth largest river in China. At this time of year, it is frozen a meter thick and becomes a hub for winter sports. Hop in an inflatable tube and get towed behind a truck while holding on for dear life. Or rent a zippy little car and skid along the ice while performing 360s. Each activity only costs about 5-50RMB, a steal! Be sure to bring cash.
Did I mention that Harbin is FREEZING? If you are gung-ho about visiting all the festival locations, the river, and possibly skiing, then three days will probably be plenty of time. However, we were content with paying for the one exhibit and we were ready to head home by the second day. I think an overnight trip is perfect—enough time to check it off the bucket list and still be home before you lose any fingers or toes.
A visit to the Harbin International Ice Festival is definitely bucket list brag-worthy. The ice sculptors are world-renowned (fun fact: they are even responsible for the indoor ice festival in Orlando, FL) and the atmosphere is truly festive. Grab your friends and your hand warmers and hop on a direct flight from Shanghai to Harbin for an experience you will never forget!