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Harbin has the world's largest and most spectacular ice and snow festival. It is bitter cold, but the artistic snow and ice sculptures will wow you. Some sculptures are life size others are gigantic monuments. The snow and ice sculptures are majestic during the day, but wait until it gets dark. The illuminated ice sculptures - some of them even have animated lights - are some of the most impressive and gorgeous man-made monuments on the planet.
We chose Hotel Gfour, because it offers great value and is in a fantastic location. It is only 1 block away from Zhaolin park where the lantern festival (smaller version of the Snow and Ice Festival) is located. The entrance is in the South of the park which is a 5min walk and costs 200RMB. It is also 1 block away from Central Street, the longest pedestrian shopping street in Asia. There are plenty of restaurants and stores and ice statues on display. The hotel is also only a short walk away from the river. We have never had any problems hailing a taxi cab in front of the hotel.
We had an interior room for less than US$40 per night. The room was small with 2 beds and a comparably large bathroom with a large shower. The water pressure in the toilet and shower was low, but OK in the sink. Unlike many other Chinese hotels, our room did not have a dirty carpet but clean wood laminate floor and the bathroom had tiles. The room was clean and the furniture in good condition. 2 complementary bottles of water were provided per day. Breakfast for 1 person was included in the price and we purchased a second for 28RMB per day. The breakfast selection was large and we found it to be tasty. Many different Chinese dishes (incl. 3 types of congee) were provided. The selection on day 1 and 3 was the same. On the 2nd morning of our visit, some dishes were changed, e.g. the Chinese version of sweet and sour chicken was available. Dinner was served in the same room, too.
Long story short: the low price and excellent location make this hotel a good choice. I recommend it.
This is an excellent daytime attraction. You will see artistic snow and ice sculptures ranginmg from less than 10 feet in height to enormous monuments that probably stand 100 feet tall. We enjoyed the humongous park for several hours and opted to walk everywhere. If you don't walk, you can hire a driver.
The park closed at 5pm and they started illuminating the large snow and ice structures in different, sometimes animated, colors at 4:30pm.
It was bitter cold, but there are few warming spots, e.g. a restaurant with large glass windows and a limited selection of food and hot drinks.
When we left at around 5pm, there were only few taxi cabs left. It may be advisable to not leave too late without pre-arranged transportation.
This is the smaller version of the Snow and Ice Festival. It is located South of the river and the only major attraction that can be reached on foot from several of the downtown hotels.
We went to the Snow Expo in Sun Island Park in the early afternoon and our plan was to see Zhaolin Park in the evening. As my wife was frozen stiff at the SNow Expo and wanted to stay in the hotel, I decided to go to Zhaolin Park on my own.
The only entrance and ticket booth are in the South of the park. All other entrances are locked. Surprisingly, there was no English written anywhere on the ticket booth and, you may have guessed it, the cashier did not speak English. Luckily, there were some teenagers in front of me who spoke some English and who explained to me which of the many different prices were for me.
In the park, there are several buildings and 1 slide made from ice blocks and many little larger-than-life ice statues. Many of them very skillfully made. Besides, there are some other activities like bumper-cars on ice.
Every building and almost all ice statues are beautifully illuminated at night.
Downtown Harbin has many shops and restaurants that you can visit. There are also lots of snow and ice statues and several are beautifully illuminted at night. It is definitely worth taking a walk here.
Many stores celebrate their proximity to Russia and their shared heritage and sell a lot of Russia souvenirs.
If possible, you may want to walk up to the river for more fun, like a snow maze and bumper car rides on the frozen river.
If you have time, you mat also want to walk to Saint Sophia Cathedral or "The Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of God" or "Saint Sophia Cathedral" which is a former Russian Orthodox church. It was built in 1907, just a few years after the the Trans-Siberian Railway connected Vladivostok to northeast China in 1903. In 1921, the population of Harbin was 300,000, which included 100,000 Russians. When the communists took over in 1949 and established the PRC, the cathedral was closed and all christian missionary work ceased.
The church was designated a national cultural heritage site in 1996, renovated and turned into the Municipal Architecture and Art Museum which showcases the multi-cultural architectural developments of Harbin.
The Siberian Tiger Park is located North of Sun Island Park. It was created in 1996 with the goal to preserve the endangered Siberian Tiger. They have a breeding program and you can see Siberian Tigers in different age groups in specific sections of the park.
When you arrive by taxi, make sure to get the cab driver to pick you up afterwards as we saw no taxis waiting there.
Alternatively, you can get there by bus. I read that lines 35 and 122 go there and the bus station name is Hu Linyuan. We took a taxi and when we were there, we did not see any buses except fro some tour buses.
You should plan to spend about 2-3h there.
When you buy your admission ticket, they will tell you when your group will depart. You can spend the time until your departure in the museum and gift shop. When they call your group, everybody will be escorted to a small bus that will then drive into the park which is approx. 356 acres (1.4 mio square meters) large. The animals roam free in the park and your tour bus will drive to various fenced-in sections inside the park (like the breeding section, the young tiger section, etc.) where you will see the Siberian tigers and lions from short distance. After the tour, you will be let out at a wooden ramp that leads you above smaller fenced-in areas with even more tigers, lynx, leopards, and black pumas. You can stay in this area as long (or short) as you like. Remember that if you come in winter, it will be brutally cold. While the temperature inside of the bus is not too bad, it will likely be -10 to -20F outside. So come prepared (see my How to Survive Harbin tips).
For us, this was a worthwhile trip. Those tigers and lions are impressive and huge and they don't seem to mind the cold.
Harbin has 2 must-see attractions (Harbin Ice & Snow World and Snow Expo in Sun Island Park) and several attractions that you should see. There are buses that you can take, but we used take taxis to get around.
Check out our other destinations in China.
When I was planning our trip to Harbin for the Snow and Ice Festival, I learned:
The temperature will be a frigid -5F to -20F (-20C to -30C) during the day and the air pollution is enormous as Harbin is powered by many coal fired power plants that supply the entire city with heat and small airborne particulates that will get in your lungs and can cause health problems.
To deal with the cold, we purchased thick winter shoes, knowing that I may only wear them again in Antarctica as I normally don't have problems with cold weather. My wife on the other hand has worn her shows multiple time since Harbin.
Some people suggest spikes or snow shoes and claim that walkways are icy. We walked a lot in Harbin and I can tell you that we saw one small spot that was a little slippery. All the walkways are absolutely safe to walk on.
We purchased hand and foot warming pads and quality particulate filter facemasks in advance. I had read from too many travellers that complained that you can only get expensive but low quality counterfits in Harbin that really don't do anything. We did not want to take this risk.
My wife used hand and foot warmers twice but said she could get along without them. I have read that some other people absolutely needed them. So, I guess it is up to you. If you freeze easily, then you may want to purchase them, otherwise skip them.
Here is a link to what we used.
The face masks were absolutely essential. You ask why? Well, look at the photo of my facemask after 3 days of use (bottom) compared to an unused facemask (top).
We loved our facemasks! The exhalation valve makes wearing the mask so much more comfortable than a standard mask.
Here is a link to what we used.
This is the main attraction in Harbin and an absolute must-see! Yes, it is expensive but worth every penny. Night time is when it is most impressive, with all the different lights and animations. I strongly recommend to go there before dark so that you see everything by day (impressive!) and later on when it gets dark. We got there by 3pm and enjoyed the park by daylight. Then we saw a great 30min skating show with North Korean performers in one of the warm theaters at 4:30pm and a Western style variety show at 5:30pm in another theater. Sunset was at 4:30pm and after the shows it was dark and all the ice monuments were its up in spectacular colors!
For everyone who is afraid of the cold: there are plenty of stores and a large restaurant mall which are heated. As they all have large glass fronts, you will be able to enjoy the ice monuments from a nice warm place. The food is basic and not that expensive. There are several heated restrooms in other buildings (as always: bring your own toilet paper and soap).
One last thing: at the park exit, we were be greeted by many unlicensed drivers who tried to rip us off. Don't even bother talking to them. There were many licensed taxi cabs waiting just a few feet behind them. The rip-offs asked for 100RMB for a ride to our hotel and the regular cab driver charged us 28!
Long story short: this is the best attraction in Harbin and not just an absolute must-see but it should be on everyone's bucket list.