Inner Circle

Winter Wonderland

Home of the world’s biggest ice carving festival, the northern Chinese city of Harbin comes into its own during the coldest months of the year.

Winter Wonderland
Lined with art-deco buildings, together with a few Baroque and Byzantine architectural relics, it offers a fascinating insight into the history of Harbin.

In winter, the temperature in Harbin can plummet past minus 25°C but that’s when the city’s tourist season really starts to heat up. The capital city of Heilongjiang, China’s most northerly province, is a thriving metropolis of around five million people, who don’t let a bit of chilly weather spoil their fun.

All winter long, the frozen Songhua River that slices through the city resembles a scene from a Victorian Christmas card. Couples ice-skate, children sledge down the steep banks and old men whip spinning tops with straps of leather – even horse-drawn carriages are on hand to ferry folks across the ice.

Harbin Ice and Snow World

The carriages are bound for Sun Island Park, a strip of land in the middle of the river that houses the Harbin Tiger Sanctuary, home to dozens of Siberian tigers bred for reintroduction into the wild. As well as getting up close and personal with big cats, Sun Island invites visitors to ogle its remarkable exhibition of snow sculptures. Huge busts of historic figures, reclining Buddhas and full-sized railway locomotives; all are meticulously cut from tons of snow every winter.

But more so than snow, it’s ice that has come to define Harbin around the world. Every year, thousands of artisans join forces to create the Harbin Ice and Snow World, the world’s largest festival of ice sculptures. Started in 1999, it’s better to think of it as a theme park made entirely of ice, complete with fantasy castles, replicas of famous buildings, hair-raising ice-slides and stalls selling Bing Tang Hulu – frozen candied fruits on sticks. 

Russian Heritage in Harbin

Strolling along Zhongyang Dajie, one of China’s last remaining cobbled streets, is like taking a trip back in time. Lined with art-deco buildings, together with a few Baroque and Byzantine architectural relics, it offers a fascinating insight into the history of Harbin. As recently as the mid 19th century, the city was little more than a fishing village on the Songhua River, but all that changed when Russia was granted concessions to build a railway through the province on to Vladivostok, trimming the total length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the world’s longest rail journey, in the process.

Russian heritage can still be found in everything from the architecture to the locals’ love of bread and sausages, but nowhere is it more gloriously apparent than St Sophia Church, an onion-domed Orthodox cathedral of green and gold. Built in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was an icon of Russian spiritual life in the city, at a time when a third of Harbin’s residents were Russian. The church was almost swallowed up by the sprawling city towards the end of the 20th century, but it was rescued from oblivion and restored to its former glory in 2006.

New Landmark

Inspired by Harbin’s most famous monument and the city’s proud ice carving heritage, the newly opened Songbei Shangri-La, Harbin, has opted to combine the two by constructing its very own ice restaurant. Designed to resemble the church, and made entirely from huge blocks of ice, this outlandish eatery is one of the most extraordinary places in the world to enjoy traditional Chinese hotpot. Heated seats and tables help take the edge off the cold, and the scalding hotpot soup does the rest. When the chill gets too much, you can retire inside to the hotel’s toasty German-inspired bar, De Drunk’n Pig, for a classic cocktail or craft beer nightcap. 

Built in the rapidly urbanising Songbei District, which is now also home to the city government, the hotel offers stunning vistas of the Songhua River from its 25 floors, as well as provides a window on to the Harbin Ice and Snow World, conveniently located just five minutes by car from the hotel.

Also close by is the stunning Harbin Grand Theatre, a modern design marvel that writhes and flows like an alien spaceship, and has garnered several prestigious architectural awards since it opened in 2015. Shangri-La’s concierge team can help you secure the best seats for international opera and ballet performances.

Songbei Shangri-La, Harbin is the second Shangri-La property to open in the city and is on the other side of the Songhua River from the long-established Shangri-La Hotel, Harbin, close to Stalin Park. But whichever you choose, you can count on the warmest of welcomes in China’s coldest city.   


 Book a two-night stay at Songbei Shangri-La, Harbin from just 2,000 GC Award Points per night Back to Destination 

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