It’s just one jaw-dropping spectacle after another when you walk through the gates of the Harbin Ice Festival’s showpiece ‘Ice and Snow World’, where everything you see elicits an involuntary ‘wow!’
Harbin builds excitement about its annual Ice Festival from the moment you arrive in the city. Every corner, every roundabout, and every public space is graced with an ice sculpture – small archways contain ice Venus de Milos, ice pavilions large enough to walk through sit alongside rows of giant carved ice vases, and parks are lined with ice colonnades. Even the pavements are fenced in a zig-zag patterned ice barrier. It’s over the top.
Which makes it hard to imagine that Ice and Snow World might not be something of a let-down, a tacky overblown, overpriced folly. From our hotel room on the first night I can see what appears to be a sprawling multicoloured neon ice city on the opposite side of the frozen Song Hua River. It looks massive, the size of a whole city block, and the coloured neon lights flash and change colours continuously. I can make out something that looks like the Kremlin with a flashing pink onion dome.
But the Ice Festival is what we’re here for and night-time seems the best time to go with all those neon lights, but first we have to figure out how we can spend several hours outdoors without freezing. To death.
Harbin is seriously cold – daily maximum temperatures during winter are minus sixteen to minus twenty degrees, with overnight temperatures dropping to minus thirty or more. The ideal place to build a whole city out of ice and light it up with crazily-coloured lights.
But for an Australian from sub-tropical Brisbane, this sounds dangerous. My family asks me what the treatment for frostbite is, and I’m forced to admit to them that in my medical exams I kind of skipped over the chapter on frostbite on the grounds I was never likely to encounter it, and instead studied practical and useful wilderness medicine like snakebite, sharkbite and heat stroke. And venomous spiders like funnelwebs and redbacks, because we have a lot of those in Australia.
Spiders would be hard pressed to live in Harbin.
Just to make sure we have no chance of getting frostbite, or chillblains, or hypothermia, each of us is wearing enough clothes to outfit a small village – thermals, ski trousers, down jackets, glove liners, ski gloves, undersocks, snow socks, balaclavas, beanies and snow boots. For extra warmth, we’ve also bought eight packets of adhesive heat-packs in every size. My husband, who has large feet and couldn’t buy any snowboots, has discovered his thick-soled shoes are useless in this cold so ingeniously he’s using the heat patches keep his feet warm but looks like a bizarre nicotine addict with stick-on patches on the top and bottom of each socked foot.
When we do finally make it to the festival, in the sparkling company of travel blogger Sally of unbrave girl (She’s famous! Just been nominated for a Bloggie!) who happens to be in Harbin too (and is wearing four fewer layers than us because she’s from Buffalo, and therefore tough), we realise this Ice Festival business is going to get expensive. Really expensive.
Money falls out of your pockets at every turn, starting with the extraordinary 300 yuan entrance fee, and doesn’t stop until you’re back at your hotel and have paid the taxi driver his 70 yuan/hour fee for waiting for you so you don’t freeze to death walking home. Want to cuddle a baby snow fox? That’ll be an extra twenty. Ride on snow yak? Thirty. Recline in a horse-drawn carriage with sleighbells? A hundred. Never mind, this is an Ice Festival, and building a whole city from blocks of ice hauled up from the Song Hau River by 12,000 workers isn’t cheap. Even in China. So just empty your pockets and enjoy it I say!
Harbin Ice and Snow World
Runs annually from Jan 5 for approximately one month, open 7 days and nights
Adults 300 yuan
Children 160 yuan
Ice slides and all shows and hourly performances free
Eating bing tang hu lu 10 yuan
Holding a baby snow fox 20 yuan
Sitting on a snow yak 30 yuan
Riding in a neon-lit pumpkin coach 50-100 yuan
Taxi from downtown Harbin approx 15 yuan. Ice and Snow World is in a fairly isolated spot and you may have difficulty finding a taxi back. Your driver will wait for you for a negotiated fee, around 70 yuan/hour.