Since even before coming to China, one of my dreams was to visit Harbin China and go to the world famous ice and snow festival that takes place every year. Since I moved to China last year, this dream turned into a reality. I decided to take advantage of the company holiday for Chinese New Year and booked my trip to Harbin China.
Since Chinese New Year is a big holiday where pretty much every single Chinese person travels back to their hometown it was imperative that I booked travel early. In the end my girlfriend and I booked travel about three months before hand and planned to stay three nights. The ticket came out to about $350 and the hotel (Shangri-La Harbin) came out to about $1000 for two people. Even before going to Harbin I started to prepare. Harbin is located in the far north of China and is known for its extreme cold and unforgiving climate. For that reason I had to buy a bunch of very warm cloths. In hindsight it was a bit overkill, but I bought:
- Three pairs of thermal underwear/longjohns
- Winter gloves
- Ear Muffs
- Winter Jacket
- Russian snow cap (pictured below)
I’m a Russian ninja
I bought the majority of these on TaoBao (kind of like the Chinese Amazon) with the exception of the winter jacket. I went to the fabric market here in China and got that custom tailored for about $200. It is a wool/cashmere blend and is very warm. I will definitely be using this jacket for many winters to come!
The airline that we went with this time was China Eastern Airlines. Since it was domestic travel there was no choice to opt for any better luxury airline. After catching an Uber from my apartment, we got to Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai early in the morning and boarded our flight. The flight had a quick stopover in Qingdao (famous for its beer). It was a bit odd because normally when there is a stopover (without a plane change) you get to stay on the plane while others disembark/board, however in Qingdao everyone had to get off the plane. We got to walk around the Qingdao airport for about an hour, however after that we just ended up boarding the same plane and took off for Harbin.
Getting off the plane in Harbin I was expecting an arctic chill that instantly froze any patch of bare skin, however it actually wasn’t that bad. It was probably around 25F and with all the layers of clothes I was wearing I didn’t seem to notice the cold too much. Anyway, after taking a bus from the airplane to the airport (it was the old school way) and grabbing our luggage we met our hotel provided taxi and had a 40 minute or so ride to The Shangri-La Harbin. I do have to say that I was very impressed with the service at The Shangri-La. The moment that we got to the hotel we were greeted by the staff and went directly to our room to check in.
The hotel room was nice. Since I am a frequent guest at The Shangri-La I was able to get on the club floor with a good view of the frozen river. The bed was warm and cozy and the view alone was simply beautiful. At night you could even see the ice festival off in the distance. After unpacking our luggage a little bit, we decided to see if there were any good places around the hotel to eat. At the advice of the hotel staff, we decided to go to a nearby Harbin style restaurant. Walking to the restaurant we got our first taste of Harbin City. My first impression was that it looked somewhat European. Being so close to Russia, the buildings had a very distinct Russian influence.
The streets of Harbin
After fumbling around a bit we were able to find the restaurant (with the help of Google Maps through VPN). The restaurant was… an interesting experience. When we first entered the staff seemed somewhat surprised and confused to have foreign guests. After some more confusion, we were somehow able to understand that they wanted us to go to the second floor. When we went to the second floor it was somewhat deserted, however the waiter insisted on sitting us in the empty hallway by the window. They also shuffled in another group of foreigners, however they soon migrated downstairs to get a more “authentic” atmosphere. Even weirder was there was a guy who was randomly taking pictures of me and my girlfriend. At first I though he was just some random Chinese guy that rarely sees foreigners, however later (after he brought us printed pictures) we were able to guess he either worked for or owned the restaurant.
In lieu of a printed menu, we were handed an iPad with pictures of all of the different foods that we could order. This is where I made a major mistake. I guess the saying is that “your eyes are bigger than your stomach”, however I (not my girlfriend) ordered way too much. To make things worse, the food wasn’t exactly anything special. It was OK- however nothing to write home about. I’ve highlighted a few of them below.
After dinner we walked back to the hotel. On our way back we stopped by the frozen river and enjoyed the beautiful sunset. There were bug chunks of ice on the lake and the whole scene was like something out of a poem.
Sunset at the river
I love the colors
Afterwards, we went back to the hotel to gear up for the ice festival.This involved bundling up with all of those warm clothes that we bought. The ice festival is known to be prettier at night with all of the lights illuminating the ice sculptures. After putting on enough clothes to survive a winter hibernation we got a taxi to the ice festival. The taxi charged by hour (70 RMB an hour) and we were told by the hotel to keep him on the clock while we visited the ice festival as taxis were supposedly hard to get during the Chinese New Year festival. One surprising thing was how much tickets cost to the ice festival- about 330RMB (about $50). That’s even more expensive than Six Flags in Dallas! Still, for the experience, we shelled out the money for the ticket.
So how was the ice festival? Not bad. It was definitely quite impressive to see all of the different structures that they made out of ice. I had to constantly be on guard to not slip and break my tailbone on icy floors- however the entire experience was quite enjoyable. There were a few times we were reminded that we were still in China- a couple of times where there were urine stains in some of the more discreet snow sculptures, but overall it was a very beautiful festival. One of the big attractions was the huge ice slide, however the line was too long and we did not want to weather the cold to get on it. Below are some of my favorites from the ice festival.
Entrance of ice festival
Me on ice horse
After we saw all that we wanted to see, we found our hired taxi and made our way back to hotel. After winding down, we settled in for the night and prepared for a full schedule the following day. The next morning our plan was to go to the famous Siberian Tiger Park. After a wonderful breakfast at the breakfast buffet we caught an hourly taxi to the park. This park was a bit more reasonable (90RMB per person) and didn’t seem to crowded (we did get there early). After getting our ticket, we went into the entrance lobby where we could pay 50RMB to take our picture with a baby Siberian tiger. I think the tiger cub liked my girlfriend more than me (he kept gnawing on my gloves), however he was super cute and I got a great picture.
After our face time with the tiger cub, we boarded a caged bus and were taken through the tiger preserve. The whole experience is pretty amazing- in the park there are about 100 or so tigers just chilling out everywhere. You can tell that they are very well fed and most of them have a bigger belly than mine. In addition to tigers, there were different cats such as lions. At one point of the tour a caged jeep came around the truck and a guy through a bunch of live chickens out towards the tigers. The tigers definitely knew what was up and instantly tore the chicken to pieces.
Tiger chilling out
A lion couple
That poor chicken
After the bus ride, we were taken to a raised/caged boardwalk area where we could see the tigers a bit closer. Definitely an interesting experience being able to get that close to the tigers. There was a guy that was selling live chickens and dead meat that you could feed to the tigers. Not wanting to incur any bad karma by playing chicken executioner, I opted for the tongs of dead meat. The problem was that at first I pointed to the live chicken (I misread the Chinese characters). The guy proceeded to yank the chicken out of the cage and it made an awful squawk, however after realizing that I wanted the dead version he shoved the chicken back into the cage and gave us two tongs of dead meat. You took the tongs and placed the meat in between the links of the cage. The tiger would then leap up and eat the meat giving you the chance to take some awesome pictures.
Live chickens and dead meat
Feeding the tiger
There were also white tigers, leopards, lions, and a host of other cats. After we had enough of the board walk, we walked around to the exit and caught our taxi back to the hotel. The entire experience was very cool and I definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Harbin. After getting back to the hotel, we wanted to go out and get some lunch. My girlfriend found a very popular Russian restaurant close to downtown so we decided to take a taxi. The restaurant was very posh and clean. The food was great and they had this very sweet and delicious homemade wine. They also had a very delicious borscht as well as an awesome pickle/sausage platter.
Pickles and sausage
After dinner we decided to walk to one of the famous walking streets in Harbin called Zhongyang Dajie. We miscalculated how far it was from the restaurant and ended up walking about an hour through some “interesting” parts of Harbin, however eventually we found our way to to road. It was very picturesque and old fashioned. The road itself was closed to all but pedestrians and was made of old cobblestones that gave off a very European ambiance. We stopped at a Russian souvenir shop where I bought some Russian chocolates for my office and my girlfriend bought a Russian doll. Afterwards we stopped by a supermarket where we both bought some Russian fish eggs.
After taking a breather at a cafe, we went to go see St. Sophia’s cathedral. We were a bit tired at this point (and it was a bit crowded), so we decided to just take pictures and not go inside. We then took a taxi back to our hotel for a lazy night of eating an (uninspiring) dinner at the hotel Dim Sum restaurant and watching movies in the room.
St. Sophia Cathedral
The next day for lunch we had an appointment at the ice restaurant (everything is made of ice) for hotpot, however the weather was a little warm and the restaurant had to close because it was melting. Instead, we decided to go to another Russian restaurant that was on Zhongyang Dajie. After catching a taxi from the hotel to the restaurant, we found that it was packed. Determined, we took a number and waited for about an hour until we were seated. It was typical Russian fare and was very delicious. The highlights included borscht, pepper steak, and a strong Russian ale.
More Russian food
At this point it was pouring rain, however we were somewhat lucky and were able to catch a taxi pretty quickly back to the hotel. I decided to go for a nice swim and we both relaxed in the hotel until dinner. I had some food credits saved up from Shangri-La so we decided to try out the dinner buffet. We had high hopes, however the buffet was very mediocre. This was a disappointment because the breakfast buffet (that we went to every morning) was awesome. Still, it was free for me and we made the most of it before retiring for the night.
The next morning was super cold and by far the coldest day of the trip. Our flight was at 11am so we had a bit of time to walk around again on the frozen river. It was really picturesque and somewhat amazing that an entire river could be completely frozen. There were a few instances where it looked less frozen than other places. In those instances, we hastily retreated.
Very cold river
After walking around the river, we took the hotel taxi to the airport and returned to Shanghai. Overall the trip was quite enjoyable. This was one of the only domestic travels that I have done in China before. It was very interesting to see a city so different from Shanghai and taste very unique food. I would definitely recommend Harbin for anyone who wants a quick vacation in China during the winter.