Harbin is cold. Temperatures in the capital of Heilongjiang, northernmost province in China, rival those in the most frigid regions of Siberia. Minus 35 degrees Celsius is not uncommon during any of the winter months.
But Harbin’s climate plays to its advantage. The city is rich in ice and snow. This may not seem to equate with wealth, but savvy city management has managed to turn the white stuff into a lucrative economic asset.
Today, Harbin is one of China’s “hottest” winter tourism destinations. The winter landscape is magnificent: skiing, ice-skating and ice fishing opportunities abound, and the city’s many old European-style buildings look grander still under a light layer of fresh snowfall.
The city’s biggest winter tourism draw card is the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. It attracts hordes of tourists every year – 350,000 in 2011 – many of whom come from abroad to witness one of the world’s four largest ice sculpture festivals. With every passing year, the pieces of ice art on display grow bigger, bolder and more ambitious.
Visitors to Harbin for the festival, held throughout the month of January, will witness enchanting ice and snow scenery and manmade snow sculptures. But that’s not all they’ll see. Ice and snow culture in Harbin runs deeper than the January festival. The city lives and thrives on the cold, and kind-hearted locals will be keen to show newcomers the wealth of snowrelated activities the city revels in during the winter months.
During the day, winter sports a-plenty are on offer. Tourists join locals taking a frosty dip in an ice hole in the Songhua River. Sleigh riding is a popular pastime on the frozen river surface, and the more audacious among the crowds ride the river on bicycles and motorcycles.
Sun Island Park boasts snow sculptures of its own. Taiping Lake is a popular spot for ice fishing; watch locals for clues on drilling holes and icefishing techniques. Volga Manor is home to the ski slopes closest to the city. When evening comes, the ice and snow sculptures, lit up in an array of brightly colored spotlights, add charm to the nighttime scene. Though temperatures drop as night falls, the festival sees even greater numbers of visitors. Children play on ice slides, couples pose for photos in front of grand ice gates, and foreign tourists congregate to watch singing and folk dancing displays amongst the sculptures.