Exploring a world of ice and snow at Harbin Ice Festival in China

JUAN MARTINEZ

January 11, 2020

Exploring a world of ice and snow at Harbin Ice Festival in China

I traveled to the Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in China five years ago and from what I have heard, the sculptures are just getting bigger and better.

The annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in northern China is one of the biggest snow festivals in the world. It takes place in the cold and isolated city of Harbin, which is about 1000 km away from Beijing. During the time of the festival, Harbin attracts millions of visitors from all over the world. In 2015 I traveled to this city fascinated about the idea of getting lost in real size buildings made of ice. Let me show you what I saw:

Harbin turns into a city of ice and snow

Structures at the Harbin Ice and Snow World
Structures at the Harbin Ice and Snow World

The Harbin Ice Festival has been taking place since 1963 and is one of the oldest ice festivals in the world. In comparison to other ice sculpture events from Europe and America, the Ice Festival in Harbin has been getting way more recognition for the large amount of structures and the incredible size of these.

After my arrival in the cold Harbin, advertising about the festival is all over the city. This festival is probably the main reason why travelers visit Harbin on winter and tickets can be booked either at travel agencies all over downtown or at the entrance of each event.

The largest snow sculpture festival in the world

Ice sculptures in Harbin downtown during the Ice Festival
Ice sculptures in downtown Harbin during the Ice Festival

While walking around downtown Harbin, I could already see some ice and snow sculptures. However, there are four key events in Harbin that each visitor should learn more about: Harbin Ice and Snow World, Harbin Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo, Harbin Ice Lantern Fair and Harbin Wanda Ice Lantern World.

Prices for each one of these events are different and although China is a relatively inexpensive country for European travelers, a visit to Harbin for the Ice Festival can cost up to 150 EUR only including event tickets.

Prices for each event are available at the official website of the Ice Festival. Regular tickets start at 20 EUR for one event but can go up to 42 EUR for special exhibitions, such as the Harbin Ice and Snow World. Based on my budget and reviews about each event, I decided to visit only the Harbin Ice and Snow World and Harbin Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo.

A glimpse of Siberian life in China

Sled dogs at the frozen Songhuajiang river in Harbin
Sled dogs at the frozen Songhuajiang river in Harbin

With temperatures going as low as -40 °C during winter, life in Harbin is completely different than in the rest of China. The Songhuajiang river in Harbin freezes completely during winter and the city uses it as one of the attractions for locals and tourists.

Although using vehicles is not allowed on the river, locals cross the frozen river using sled dogs or simply walking. However, sled dogs are more a tourist attraction in Harbin than a real transportation method.

Furthermore, when the weather allowed it, families simply enjoyed spending the day with the several activities done on the frozen Songhuajiang river. Some of these were sled dog tours, ice skating, sleds rentals or simply playing on the ice.

Art turned into snow

Beautiful sculptures at the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo in Harbin
Beautiful sculptures at the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo in Harbin

At my first day in Harbin I went to the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo. Here, I was able to spot snow sculptures up to 15 meters high.

Sculptures variate from statues to real size building replicas. Inside the park, I was able to wander freely and as long as I wanted. Each snow sculpture was done by a different artist, with some even coming from other parts of the world.  

Inside the park there are also some restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. Depending on which day you visit the Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Expo, the park can be quite empty. You might end up wandering alone in museum of snow – quite a special experience in my opinion.

The lights turn on when the sun sets down

Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo in Harbin at night
Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo in Harbin at night

One of the most beautiful things about the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo is how some of the main structures get illuminated at night.

It is a wonderful attraction to see at the Art Expo and is definitely worth the wait. The sculptures look completely different from day and night.

During the day, I was walking around a monochromatic landscape of white tones. While in the night, I was getting lost in a world full of color and fantasy.

Creating real size buildings out of ice and snow

A bridge made of ice blocks in Harbin
A bridge made of ice blocks

Creating this new world out of nothing is not an easy task. Most of the ice comes from the frozen surface of the Songhuajiang river and it is very hard work.

Artists carve the ice into blocks by using swing saws and then use tools such as chisels, ice picks and several types of saws for designing each little detail.

This work, which takes several weeks, can turn into a race to get ready before the festival begins. According to AFP deionised water is also used in some structures replicating transparent bricks that look like crystal clear glass.

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Ice structures that mesmerize the public

Ice structures and buildings in a city of ice and snow
Ice structures and buildings in a city of ice and snow

One of the things that amazed me the most is how each ice brick is located one under the next for creating these real size ice structures. When you even look into detail, it even seems that each brick has some kind of reinforcement inside. Later in the evening I realized these were multicolored light tubes, that get illuminated at night.

Each ice building has different color lights that make the whole park look like a frozen and colorful world.

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Inside the Harbin Ice and Snow World

Castles, bridges and buildings at the Harbin Ice and Snow World in Harbin
Real size castles, bridges and buildings at the Harbin Ice and Snow World

If I could only select only one out of the four events of the Harbin Ice Festival, I would probably select the Harbin Ice and Snow World. This is the largest event in the city and the place that put Harbin’s Ice Festival on the map.

It’s like a small city made of ice. I was astonished while seeing replicas of real size buildings and capturing each detail of the structure.  Although most of these structures were simply for display, there were also other ice formations in which travelers can step on and wander around.

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A full reason to visit Harbin

Harbin Ice and Snow World at night
Harbin Ice and Snow World at night

I traveled to Harbin only because of the Ice Festival and all my expectations were absolutely fulfill. The number of events and activities is incredible, and the beauty of the structures unbelievable. Even though many consider the ticket prices to each of these events a little bit high, take into consideration the amount of hard work behind each of these structures. Besides, travelers without a higher budget can also get a short glimpse of the Ice Festival all over the city and participate in some of the free events taking place almost every day at the frozen Songhuajiang river.

Once the Ice Festival in Harbin finished, travelers can also experience way more of the area. Visitors in Harbin can go to the Siberian tiger sanctuary only some kilometers away or try some winter activities such as snowmobile tours.

Finally, if you have the time and the budget for it, you can continue your trip by going north and take the Transiberian Railway – Harbin is one of its stops.

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