“Ahhh… Harbin winter… like a punch to the face.” – Me and Anna on the pleasantness of stepping outside of our hostel in Harbin.
Harbin is one of the coolest (and coldest) cities in china. It’s even cooler (and colder) if you visit for the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. The festival is famous for the huge castles they build out of ice, decorated in colorful lights at night. It is a classic bucket list trip. You should really know what you’re getting yourself into when you are planning a trip to Harbin (aka Siberia) in the middle of the winter, but if you’re prepared, Harbin is one of the most fun weekend trips you can take in China.
1. Be prepared for the cold. I can’t stress this enough. I severely underestimated how cold this place is. I wore two layers of wool socks, LL Bean Boots and my feet still were numb (painfully numb) within a half hour. The cold won’t hit you all at once but will slowly take over. I was totally fine walking around Harbin for about a half an hour at a time, but then I would slowly start to lose feeling in my feet, and God, it hurt so bad! My feet actually went completely numb at one point, which was the strangest feeling, and you can’t really understand it until it actually happens to you. Imagine trying to walk when you can’t feel your feet! I felt slow, ungraceful, and unbalanced. Definitely try to get some of the heat pack foot warmers to put in your shoes. Bring them from the US if you can, because I bought some in China and they were terrible, didn’t work at all.
2. Have a plan when you step outside. Don’t think you are going to aimlessly wander for a while, and that it will be so pleasant. You only have so much time until the Siberian cold starts to set in. Know where you are going and know when you will next be able to go inside. try to break up activities and site seeing with getting lunch from a restaurant, or stopping in a cafe.
3. Beware taxi drivers. The taxis in Harbin are HORRIBLE! I’ve never had so many issues with taxi drivers. Harbin taxi drivers will pick up multiple people at a time, so you have to wait for those people to get dropped off first, or even worse, they won’t pick you up if you aren’t going in the same direction as they are, leaving you waiting in the biting cold. Anna and I even missed our flight because of an issue with a taxi. Our driver drove us all the way to the other end of the city to drop off someone else before even starting to drive to the airport! It took us almost three times as long to get to the airport as it was supposed to take!
4. Visit the Siberian Tiger Park. It was one of the coolest things we did. It is a safari styled park, so you will get into a fairly large van with lots of other tourists, and be carted around the enclosures. Throughout the park, you will see groups of both red and white Siberian Tigers, hanging out, doing their thing, and for China, these tigers have a fairly good set-up. The one strange thing was that they actually had African Lions at this park. This was kind of uncomfortable, because these lions obviously shouldn’t be sitting around in Siberia.
The best part of the tiger park was at the end of the tour. The van pulled into a very large enclosure with a whole lot of tigers running around. Our driver then gave us the option to buy a chicken, goat, or even a cow to have thrown into the tiger cage! so absurd! Well, we really wanted to do this, but didn’t have the heart to send a sheep or cow to its death (or the money), so we bought a chicken to have thrown to the tigers (which still made me feel kind of bad). After we pay our driver, we see a jeep covered in some type of metal armor come speeding out across the snow. All the tigers started sprinting after this car (I would NOT want to be the guy in that car). One tiger was actually keeping pace with the armored vehicle, running right along the drivers door. The,, the man in the car was just like YOLO, opened the car door (a tiger could’ve jumped right in!) and throws a chicken in the air. It was five tigers versus one chicken, so you know what happens.
5. Definitely visit the Saint Sophia Russian Orthodox Church. Harbin’s architecture is so beautiful, I forgot that I was in China! Being so far north, it shouldn’t be surprising that this city was founded by Russians. Harbin has Russia written all over it, from the cobble stoned streets, to the large domes on top of churches, not to mention large population of Russians in the city. The Saint Sophia Church is the crown jewel of the Russian Culture here, and it’s easy to see why. The church is so beautiful, if you posted a picture of it on Facebook, people will think you are actually in Russia.. The inside of the church has been converted in to a museum, complete with your typical Chinese propaganda (according to China, the city always belonged to the Chinese.)
6. Learn about the history of the city. Anna and I thought the clear diversity of the city was so interesting. Harbin has mosques, synagogues, and churches. The fact that all of this was in one city in China, a fairly non-religious country, is a window into what this city used to be. The old pictures at the museum inside the Saint Sophia Church can give you a fairly good idea of that. Before Shanghai took over the title, Harbin used to be referred to as “The Paris of the Orient,” because European fashions would first hit Asia via Harbin on the trans-Siberian Railroad (Harbin is the final destination).
How cool is the European architecture with chinese letters?
7. The most important part of visiting Harbin is seeing the International Ice and Snow Festival. There are two parts to the festival and both should be visited. the first is the snow sculpture exhibition on Sun Island, which is open during the day. These snow sculpture are awesome, but they are not the main event so don’t make yourself miserably cold by trying to see everything.
The grand finale is of course the Ice and Snow World, which is only open at night. They have literally huge castles made out of ice and they are all lit up in fun colors at night. First, we hit up the giant Ice Slide. While climbing to the top we had a great view of the rest of the park. After that, we found a small restaurant area on the edge of the park that we used to warm up. While inside, we came up with our game plan for seeing the rest of the park, and it was pretty simple: run between each structure so we could see everything as quickly as possible. We only had so much time until our feet went numb! That’s about all I can say about the ice festival. Pictures are a much more valuable means of communication here.