Each winter, people from all over Asia take an unexpected turn and migrate North to the city of Harbin. There are very few things that could prompt me to take a vacation further north in the dead of winter. However, I was more than willing to lay my bikini aside and join the migration to Harbin, which just so happens to be the host of the largest ice and snow festival in the world.
Located in the north of China in Heilongjiang Province, temperatures can reach extremely cold levels which makes it ideal for crafting and sculpting works of art in the ice and snow. The festival first started in 1963 with the Ice Lantern Show. Ice lanterns have been used in Harbin for over 200 years and were a practical way to keep the blustering wind from extinguishing a flame. Water was poured into a lantern and frozen, then hollowed out so an oil lamp could fit inside. The fire wouldn’t blow out because it was enclosed in ice and the ice wouldn’t melt because of the frigid temperatures.
Over the years, it has grown to be the most prominent ice and snow festival in the world. Each year, the parks are reinvented with different sculptures by artists creating record-breaking masterpieces from snow and ice blocks that are taken from the river or frozen specially. The theme for the 2015 festival was, “Ice Snow Harbin, Charming China Dream.”
The festival consists of four main theme parks: Harbin Ice and Snow World, Harbin Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo, Harbin Ice Lantern Show and the Songhua River Ice and Snow Happy Valley.
The Songhua River is full of daytime activities and likewise, the Sun Island Snow Sculptures are best seen during the day, as the park closes around 6pm. As night falls, this is the best time to head to the remaining two parks, as the ice sculptures are illuminated with bright colors that shine through the ice.
Harbin Ice and Snow World
This park first debuted in 1999 and is by far the largest of the parks with an expanse of 750,000 sq. meters across Sun Island. It was built to resemble an icy Disney Land and has retained its fairytale-like theme ever since (Maybe this is where Disney got the idea for Frozen). Ice castles are sprinkled around the park as are ice and snow sculptures, ice slides and of course hot drink tents for when you feel…well, frozen.
The cost of admission for the Ice and Snow World is ￥300 and on any holiday is ￥330. I decided to take a chance and went during Spring Festival on the night of Chinese New Year. Having traveled during other Chinese holidays, I was prepared for the worst of the crowds. However, most people stay home with family on Chinese New Year and within an hour, I nearly had the entire park to myself (a rarity in China!).
The festival begins in mid-December and lasts until the end of February. I went in the last week that it was open and while some of the smaller ice sculptures for the competitions were not as intricate as they probably had been a month ago, the park was still intact and had not yet shown any real signs of melting.
Harbin Ice Lantern Show
The Harbin Ice Lantern Show is the oldest of the parks and is a smaller version of the Ice and Snow World. It’s located nearest to the city center in Zhaolin Park and has many interactive ice exhibits.
The Ice Lantern Show was the first park that I went to (being the smaller of the two, I didn’t want to work my way down). Smaller, yes, but it didn’t disappoint! I had just as much fun exploring the exhibits.
The entrance fee for Zhaolin park is around ￥150 and both parks stay open until 9:00pm. Was it cold? Yes. I have never been more frozen in my entire life. But was it worth it? Absolutely! The festival is just as magical as it looks in pictures.