Beautiful powdery snow cascaded down from a container attached to a crane high above the giant white structure. My husband, Mark, and I watched from inside a cafe, cozy and warm with cups of steaming hot cocoa, as workers set about firmly packing the snow down into artful shapes.
We were on Sun Island, one of the three main venues for the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, and it was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. A literal winter wonderland, everywhere you turned was some sort of spectacular snow creation. Sometimes lavishly whimsical or dramatic, and other times of more abstract design, the snow figures ranged in size from unbelievably gargantuan down to human-sized carvings. Placards indicated which ones were done by professional international artisans and which were created from local schools’ ice carving clubs for a design competition.
All of the carvings were beautiful, and awe-inspiring considering not only the skill needed, but also the stamina that one must have to stay out in this subzero temperature for more than a few minutes. We watched as workers rushed to and fro with their various, sometimes scary-looking, instruments to carve out one beautiful creation after another, gearing up for the official opening of the festival on January 5th.
What is it?
The International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节 Hā’ěrbīn Guójì Bīngxuě Jié) is an annual attraction in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, China that runs from December to February. The festival originated back to a tradition during the Qing Dynasty where Peasants would place candles inside hollowed blocks of ice cut from the frozen Songhua River in winter to make ice lanterns.
The first ice lantern festival was held in 1963. Subsequent ice festivals followed soon after throughout Harbin. The Cultural Revolution put a temporary stop to the festivities, but the “Harbin Ice Festival” made a comeback on January 5, 1985 during an official ceremony in Harbin’s Zhaolin Park. The festival became a yearly event, and in 2001, it merged with the Heilongjiang International Ski Festival become today’s biggest ice and snow themed festival: “The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.”
Located in northeast China’s Dongbei region, Harbin has the ideal location and climate to pull off such this enormous feat. This is mainly due to the fact that its temperatures average around 1.8 °F (–16.8 °C), and can drop as low as -40°F (-40°C). Hence the nickname “Ice City. “Also, abundant snow and available ice from the Songhua River combined with killer winds from Siberia, gives artisans ample materials (they harvest ice from the river), lots of space (8 million sq feet, and manpower (because China) to create longer-lasting frozen works of wonder.
Mark and I came to Harbin the last week of December to not only spend Christmas here, but also to beat the Lunar New Year crowds. We attended two of the three main ice and snow attraction venues, mainly because the third was not yet open, and had a fun time! We actually booked a tour that a couple friends recommended to get here, but in retrospect, we probably wouldn’t have paid so much had we previously known how easy it was to get from one place to the next.
One can take public transport or ride a gondola over the frozen river to Sun Island from Stalin Park. The tour we went on included transportation, a guide, and a visit to the Siberian Tiger Park. As it were though, it was nice having someone at the end of our day to drive us back home (in a warm car) and take the stress out of dealing with walking in the cold and waiting for public transportation.
The Three Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival Venues
1. Sun Island （太阳岛）
Only open during the day (8am-5pm, 330 rmb for adults/$48), Sun Island is THE place to be to view some incredible snow sculptures. You won’t find any light inside the carvings, unlike at the Ice and Snow World, allowing for the sparkling brightness of the snow to take center stage.
As we were there before the official opening, lots of the exhibits were still being packed and carved. It was really neat to be able to see the artistry in action! One can catch the scope of some of the more gargantuan pieces from the size of the people working on them in our photos.
There are other activities on the big island besides the snow sculpture expo. We didn’t have time to visit the rest, but I remember the map said there’s a Russian themed village with a Russian art gallery, a theater to watch Russian films and dances, a racetrack, and a couple other parks.
For those not wanting to freeze their toes off, there are shuttles that ferry tourists about the island and back, but you’d need to buy an extra ticket to ride them.
2. Ice and Snow World (氷雪大世界)
Nicknamed “Ice Disneyland,” coming to the Ice and Snow World was a dream come true. It felt pretty magical and surreal to finally be surrounded by the towering blocks of ice I’ve seen in the news every year. It was definitely worth coming to Harbin just to see this place.
The Ice and Snow World is the largest and most well-known out of the three festival venues. It’s by far the largest, covering an area of about 600,000 sq meters with over 100 landmarks made from 110,000 cubic meters of ice and 120,000 cubic meters of snow. This year held a competition with artists from twelve different countries. It’s hours are 9am-9pm. Adult tickets are 150 rmb 9am to noon, and noon onward are 330 rmb.
Everywhere you looked was something incredible. There was a 340-meter long ice slide that was supposed to represent the Northern Lights. There was a beautiful cathedral with ice pews, a huge ice castle, and loads of other carvings and structures.
Additionally, there were other activities one could pay to do like riding fancy horse drawn sleighs, ice skating, sledding, Russian dancer performances, and so much more.
It was not an easy feat, wanting to see everything, but having to battle the biting cold outside. Luckily, there are plenty of little shelters around the area selling hot drinks and noodles. We even stopped into one little makeshift KFC to warm our hands and faces.
We stayed in the area until day turned to night at about 4:30pm, watching as the giant ice lego town became illuminated in a breathtaking kaleidoscope of lights.
Mark and I recommend trying to go during the day and staying until sunset to avoid the intense lines of people at night waiting to enter. When we left, we had to battle crowds upon crowds of Chinese tour groups filling the roads and sidewalks.
3. Zhaolin Park （兆麟公園 ）
The third venue of the Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is on a much smaller scale. Located at Zhaolin Park (adult tickets: 135 rmb day/330 rmb night open 10am to 9pm), near the Central pedestrian walking street, the Ice Lantern Garden Show pays homage to the origin of the festival with lots of man-made ice lanterns.
Sadly, we didn’t get to go in this one as it was closed until December 30 (the day we flew out of Harbin). However, I have heard it isn’t as impressive as the other two places and caters more towards children.
Be prepared for large crowds at each of the venues. Even though we got there early, there were still tons of people! Nonetheless, there is no shortage of things to do and see at the festival (some even for free!).
There are also many free places to view ice and snow art around town. For example, there’s about 2,019 snowmen of different shapes and sizes built along Stalin Park’s riverfront (and a spastic laser light show).
There’s a giant ice castle by the Flood Gate Memorial at the end of Central. Central also has various ice carvings up and down the pedestrian street; some are interactive like one ice race car one can sit and take photos in. One may even walk across the frozen Songhua River freely to one’s heart’s content.
Here’s a random assortment of snowmen at Stalin Park. They are not as mindblowing as the three previously mentioned places, but they are entertaining.
Many of the snow and ice sculptures were still in progress when we were here. It was neat watching all the shops and workers gearing up for the official opening and crowds of tourists on Chinese New Years. Each day we ventured out around town brought new and wonderful surprises.
What to bring?
Because of Harbin’s subzero temperatures, Frostbite is a huge concern. We tried to plan well for this, bringing lots of thermals to layer, but nothing prepared us for exactly how bitingly cold it was. My fingers started hurting as soon as I’d take them out of my pockets to try to take photos and videos. It was pretty painful. My head got a little light-headed at times, and my cheeks and nose would get numb pretty fast. I would try to use my winter mask on and off, but alas, it would fog up my glasses and make it hard to navigate. Luckily I had Mark to guide me!
One tip we found super helpful was to bring little heat packs. I got a packet of 12 from Miniso for 15 rmb. Besides being great to stick in your shoes and pockets, it’s actually beneficial to attach one to your cellphone to keep the battery warm. My friends who had iPhones found their battery would drain really fast because of the frigid air, and this is one ingenious way to combat this. Interestingly, Mark’s Samsung Galaxy S9 wasn’t affected until he tried to charge it with his portable charger, and he was given a warning that it wouldn’t charge due to the cold. Another helpful hint I found, when not using your phone or camera, tuck it in your winter jacket to keep it warm. When you do feel your fingers going numb, please go inside right away and thaw off.
On the frozen Songhua River are a bunch of activities. One may go ice skating, watch an ice fishing show, etc. Since one is walking around on essentially ice, it’s recommended to bring crampons (one can buy a pair for 10 rmb) to avoid beefing it on the ice like so many do. For some of the private activities such as being pushed around in an inner tube connected to a truck, try to bargain for a better price – especially with the peddlers everywhere asking you to buy an experience.
Furthermore, you are allowed to bring in your own drinks and snacks, which would save some money from the expensive makeshift cafés at the different venues. It also helps to do gather all your warm gear ahead of time to avoid the exorbitant prices of hats and scarves in the touristy areas.
Verdict: Go for it!
While getting to Harbin to see the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is a journey, I’d say it’s definitely worth it for the experience. The sights were spectacular! After seeing them in person, I feel that photos and videos don’t do the grand scale and artistry justice. It’s heartening to know that, although we’ve never been so cold in our lives, we were able to accomplish what we set out to do.