Festival Fuss: Harbin, China’s Ice and Snow Sculpture Fest
LED ice sculptures, dog-sledding and tubing down a frozen river—your average day at the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival
Southwest flight attendant Cynthia Esquieres has gotten to see a lot of the unusual on her travels but nothing quite so wondrous as the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in Harbin, China. The winter festival, which attracts more than 10 million visitors each year, is known for its massive, interactive ice sculptures that explode with color when the sun sets. But, as they say, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What exactly is the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival?
The Harbin Ice Festival is…WOW. It’s incredible how Harbin, China, transformed its venues into a surreal winter wonderland and the largest ice festival in the world. Even though the temperature is well into the negatives, there was no shortage of people out and about engaging in various outdoor activities, including dog-sledding and tubing down a frozen river. Of course, the big draw is the massive ice sculptures carved to look like giant snowmen, life-size basilicas and giant roosters celebrating the Chinese New Year. To make this festival possible, blocks of ice were taken from the frozen Songhua River, and sometimes, we stumbled upon the artists at work, carving away at huge blocks of ice. For a dramatic effect, many of the sculptures are colorfully lit at night. Once the sun goes down and the neon lights come on, you can really feel the excitement build among visitors of all ages, who “ooh” and “aah” amid a roaring applause.
Let’s talk transportation. Where did you fly to? And how do you get around the festival once there?
I flew nonstop from San Francisco to Beijing on United Airlines and spent a couple nights there. We then flew on China Southern Airlines from Beijing to Harbin, which took approximately two hours.
I joined an Access China Travel group tour, which was organized by my mom’s coworker. She had been to Harbin several times before, and without her, I would’ve found it difficult to attempt this trip solo—especially since I did not speak the local language. The tour included all transportation via bus, which made it very convenient especially in the extreme weather conditions. Also, because the minimum number of participants (28 people) for the tour had been met, they were able to bring the cost down of the total price—It was hard to pass that up.
Can you give us the lay of the land and describe the different venues for the festival?
The entire city of Harbin is decorated with icy works of art, and scattered throughout are smaller parks and venues. But there are two main attractions. One is Ice and Snow World featuring ice sculptures (some as tall as 150 feet) that light up the dark skies with bright lights. The second is Harbin’s Sun Island, best known as the snow sculpture display and competition area to be visited during the daytime. Both were truly incredible to witness and a “must-do” on everyone’s Harbin itinerary.
What were the stand-out highlights of your festival experience?
Aside from the ice and snow sculptures, my tour also included a visit to the Siberian Tiger Park, a swim show (which consisted of Russian grandmas jumping into a pool cut-out from the frozen Songhua River) and an impressive Beluga Whale dance show at the Harbin Polar Land theme park on Sun Island. Our program was jam-packed with activities, but some of the stand-out highlights were tubing on the frozen river, ice biking and getting to play with a baby snow fox.
Also, when in Harbin you do as the Harbinese do … which is stand outside, in long lines in the freezing cold for coconut-flavored popsicles (which you also eat outside in the cold)!
What advice do you have for first-time travelers?
My advice would be to book a tour, and if you can’t do that, at least have someone with you who can speak the local language [Sino-Tibetan Chinese Mandarin Chinese]. Aside from Mandarin, the only other language you can get by with is Russian.
When I travel, I typically rely on Google translate to get by. However, China does not allow Google (unless you have a VPN to break the firewall), so an alternative translation app would be very helpful in this situation.
What are some things you’d do differently if you could do it all over again?
If I can do anything differently, I would spend an extra day or two in Harbin. I opted for the three-day tour. It allowed me to do and see almost everything on my list, but it felt more rushed than I would’ve liked.
What are some things that everyone must pack when going to this festival?
Some essentials to pack are hand- and feet-warmers that you can stick inside your gloves and boots. I would recommend putting extras in your pockets and purses. The extreme cold will freeze your phones, cameras, and electronics if you keep them exposed for too long. I, unfortunately, learned the hard way (RIP to my Nikon DSLR). Every few minutes, you’ll want to warm up your electronics in your pocket or bag.
How long did it take you to save for this festival?
I definitely spent more than I normally would on a week-and-a-half vacation, but it was worth every penny. I went to Harbin in the beginning of January, and I started putting away money in the summertime, a little bit each month until it was time to leave. I also made this holiday season a “handmade Christmas gift-giving year” to help alleviate additional expenses.
Any advice for maximizing your time and money while there?
Some ways to add value to your trip is to take advantage of all the activities at the festival. There are many indoor and outdoor activities that are included in the entrance price. For example, I watched an indoor ice skating show at Ice and Snow World—imagine an elegant mix of lights, ice skating, comedy, a Victoria’s Secret Angels-like show and the grandeur Las Vegas. It was fantastic! Also, don’t be afraid to bargain. It’s almost expected that you ask for a discount, and most vendors usually accept the haggling. Always negotiate the price first, especially for any of the activities that you want to do on the frozen lake.