A stunning winter wonderland, Harbin promises a memorable white Christmas.
In the evening, taking a horse and carriage among the glacial palaces and climbing icy stairways to crystal castles is like entering the realm of the Snow Queen.
Thirty degrees below zero and the river iced over — perfect! Perfect that is for Harbin, where these are ideal conditions for the chilled thrills the city is famous for. With the frozen fantasia of its ice and snow festival and some of the best skiing in China nearby, Harbin revels in being the proverbial winter wonderland. But there is more to the city’s charm than just its festive appeal, and a visit at any time of the year will be both memorable and enjoyable.
Harbin's ice and snow festival , which officially begins on the 5th of January and lasts for a month, is by far the city’s largest attraction. It holds around a million visitors spellbound every year, especially after dark when the spectacular ice sculptures are illuminated and glow in a myriad of changing colours.
In the evening, taking a horse and carriage among the glacial palaces and climbing icy stairways to crystal castles is like entering the realm of the Snow Queen. There are also slippery slides to ride and “ice cafes” offering warm tea and hot food, and winter swimming for those who are brave or foolhardy enough to take a literally breathtaking dip. The frozen river is also playground for skating and winter sports.
For those who prefer skiing to skating, Harbin is home to the best ski slopes in China, some of which serve as the primary training venue for the national teams. Yabuli is establishing itself as an all-round winter resort so it offers other activities such as horse sledding through the pine forests for those who don’t want to try the ski runs.
Situated opposite Sun Island, overlooking the Songhua River, Shangri-La Hotel, Harbin is ideally located for those visiting for the ice and snow extravaganza, and coming back to its warm friendly service and excellent facilities means you won’t mind venturing out into the cold. It is also easy and entertaining to walk along the riverbank from the hotel to the pedestrianised street that is the heart of the old town.
Harbin began as a small fishing port. Its name is a Manchu word meaning “where the fishing nets are dried”, but the completion of the railway linking it with Vladivostok at the end of the 19th century transformed Harbin into one of China's most cosmopolitan cities, with the initial influx of Russian traders and Jews fleeing the progroms creating a thriving environment that soon attracted people from all over the world.
The city's legacy can be seen in the Russian Orthodox churches and the former synagogue, which is now a museum covering Harbin's Jewish history, while a stroll down the cobble-stoned Center Street will reveal a variety of architectural styles influenced by the Belle Epoque. The street itself is popular with locals who promenade up and down looking at the furs and jewellery while eating ice cream.
If the idea of ice cream in winter doesn’t appeal you can dine on some of Harbin’s famous dumplings at Orient King of Dumplings or sample some stroganoff or borscht at one of the many Russian restaurants in the area, such as Katusha near the flood monument. This is also the place to stock up on warmer socks and gloves, as outdoor specialists such as Jack Wolfskin and Columbia are located on one of the side streets.
On the riverbank opposite Center Street you’ll find the station for the cable cars that glide across the river to Sun Island Wetland Park, which is the main site for the ice and snow festival and the locals’ favourite destination for recreation during the summer months. The park consists of one large island, some smaller islands and several beaches where you can swim in the river or sunbathe, as well as lakes for boating, a fairground and an arms museum.
The northern part of the main island is mainly forest areas and is home to the Siberian Tiger Park, which offers a chance to see these beautiful animals up close, although it is not for the squeamish as most visitors come to see the powerful predators red in tooth and claw.
Harbin is keen to promote its wetlands, and venturing out of the city to see its rich variety of wetlands in the warmer months is a great way to cool off. There are also mountain parks for those who have the time to travel further afield. While most famous for its winter offerings, Harbin’s verdant, shaded streets in summer offer respite from hotter climates, making it the ultimate year-round destination.
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