The Chinese are known for their rich and varied culture. Sreeram Viswanath explores why snow-bedazzled Harbin and the Ice and Snow festival is the perfect place to take a sabbatical amidst the hustle and bustle of our existence
Every New Year in Harbin, China’s northeastern ‘Oriental Paris’, begins with a festival of ice, as fabled as it is majestic. This city is home to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, the largest such festival in the world. The iconic event draws millions of people to Harbin’s freezing climes, with temperatures nearing – 40 degrees Fahrenheit. But the harsh weather is worth it when one witnesses the skillful, massive decoration of ice sculptures, colorfully lit to glow ethereally under the inky sky. With that time of year just around the corner, Harbin prepares to welcome the multitudes with a kind of warmth that the Chinese are always known for.
A Storied History
While the festival made its foray into the world in 1963, it may have its roots in the days of the Qing Dynasty, when peasants and fishermen placed candles inside blocks of ice cut from the Songhua River to create makeshift lanterns. Interrupted due to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it made an illustrious return in 1985 that drew local and international visitors in strong numbers. At the beginning of the new millennium, the Harbin Ice Festival merged with the International Ski Festival in Heilongjiang to form the grand winter celebration known as the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.
The event bagged the prestigious Guinness World Record for the world’s most giant snow sculpture; it was 250 meters long, 27 feet high, built over 13,000 cubic feet of snow. This composition consisted of two parts – depicting the Niagara Falls and the ‘Crossing of Bering Strait’. The popularity of this mega-event even made Disney drop into China as a featured sponsor of the event in February 2009. This particular event displayed beloved Disney characters, princesses, and Disney-themed buildings and moments.
The festival draws participants from across the globe. Artists and experts of different nationalities, including America, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Russia, China, etc., play a defining role. Teams of 10,000 people build the ice and snow structures in just 15 days. The annual festival forms an essential part of the Chinese culture and creativity, as well as Harbin’s local customs. While the theme changes every year, some sculptures are recreated over the years following resounding fanfare. The festival also has a hint of romance to it, as those looking to tie the knot can do so in a memorable wedding ceremony, surrounded by glittering snow and towering ice castles. Can it get any more romantic?
Get your long woolen coats ready for the 38th Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival begins on the 5th of Jan, 2022. The highlights of the festival include:
Harbin Ice and Snow World: This little ice world is a pure delight to the eyes. It houses gigantic sculptures like palaces, buildings, and even the Great Wall of China, which are particularly stunning at night.
Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo: This island, the second biggest venue of the festival, is also home to some larger-than-life sculptures. For those who wish to venture into the wilds, the venue also houses a zoo for the majestic Siberian tigers.
Zhaolin Park: The Ice Lantern Fair at the Zhaolin Park is among the three principal competitions and one of the prime attractions of the festival. The gorgeously lit sculptures are extraordinarily detailed, imaginative, and very quirky.
Harbin Songhua River Ice and Snow Carnival: The Harbin Songhua River Ice and Snow Carnival celebrated on the Songhua River is thronged by visitors who enjoy ice and snow activities.
Did you know? The Songhua is one of the main rivers of China and the longest tributary of the Amur. As we’ve seen, this river is intricately linked with the origin of this festival.
Four hundred years later, nothing has changed. The sculptures cut out from the gigantic ice blocks of the river are used to make beautiful castles, monsters, and giant goddesses, for instance, the Egyptian Sphinx, a massive steam train, and a giant pagoda. The river is also an adventure spot for those who wish to skate and cycle on its frozen horizons. It is humbling to remember this river as the origin of this enduring tradition.
The Yabuli Skiing Festival: The Yabuli Skiing Festival is held at the Yabuli Ski Resort, built on the Yabuli Sun Mountain, a part of the Changbai Mountain Range. The resort is the largest of its kind in China with the country’s largest ski jumping facilities. The thrilling activities, the adjoining forest, and the availability of luxurious amenities make this place a haven for tourists.
Harbin will host more than 400 activities for its latest festival, highlighting its trademark charm of ice and snow in tourism, culture, fashion, trade, and sports.
Harbin, a City that embraces Ice
The Chinese are known for their vibrant culture, thanks to their storied history, unrivaled optimism, ‘never quit’ work ethic, and the ability to adapt to hardships – that typifies the people of this country. Harbin folks are a long-standing example of this adaptability; in the sub-zero temperatures, while some motorcyclists wear thick-layered furry clothes, others choose to embrace these extreme weather conditions without winter apparel. Likewise, its occupants have been known to courageously swim in the icy waters of the Songhua as the ice begins to melt.
Harbin, a sub-provincial city of Heilongjiang province, is a multicultural city that has traces of Han culture, Manchu culture, and Russian culture. In fact, Harbin was named after a Manchu word and translates to ‘a place of dying fishing nets’.
The Songhua River not only forms the basis for the origin of the Ice Festival but of the city itself. The city was founded in 1898 with the coming of the Chinese Eastern Railway and first hit the limelight as a region occupied by an overwhelming majority of immigrants from the Russian empire. Apart from its Russian legacy, the city today serves as an important gateway in Sino-Russian trade. No wonder then, the China Tourism Administration voted it as “China Top Tourist City” in 2004.
The Sound of Music and Trade
Harbin has more to offer beyond its icy heritage. Its musical roots date back to 1908 when China’s oldest symphony orchestra was formed in Harbin, as was China’s first music school, founded in 1928. The city is also known for the Harbin Summer Music Concert, held every year in August. In addition, the city was appointed as a “UNESCO City of Music” in 2010 as a part of the Creative Cities Network.
Harbin supports flourishing industries such as textile, food, automobile, aircraft, electronics, metallurgy, chemicals, building materials, and power manufacturing. Their major corporations include the Harbin Aircraft Industry Group, Harbin Electric Company Limited, and Northeast Alloy Processing Factory. In addition, the city hosts the Harbin International Trade and Economic Fair every year, attracting 1.9 million exhibitors and visitors from more than 80 countries.
Places of Interest
Many tourist attractions are proof of the versatility this city offers to China and the world. To round out your trip to Harbin, a visit to these historical places is an absolute must:
Saint Sophia Cathedral: The largest Orthodox Church in the Far East, Saint Sophia Cathedral is a monumental work of art. The cathedral has now been turned into Harbin Architectural Art Gallery that showcases Harbin’s many multicultural and architectural aspects.
Zhongyang Street: As Asia’s longest, with its 1400 meters long and 21.34 meters wide Pedestrian Street, locals dub Zhongyang Dabe as a gallery of European architectural art. The street is divided into different portions that feature remarkable western architecture, stores, and restaurants.
Long Ta-Dragon Tower: The Chinese certainly are architectural innovators. This 336-meter-tall multi-purpose steel lattice television and observation tower is the tallest in China and the second tallest in the world. The dragon tower serves the purpose of television broadcasting, telecommunication, transmitting FM/TV broadcasting, and observation. The tower is built-in with buffet restaurants and observation decks that provide a panoramic view of the city.
Those seeking a little more thrill can take a walk on the ‘Exciting Ring’, the longest transparent glass walkaway in the world that guarantees to make you euphoric and dizzy at the same time.
Grand Theatre Opera House: This is a feature building, one which will leave you awestruck with its unique horseshoe shape, only amplified by its blissful natural surroundings and topography. Its brilliant architecture was recognized by ArchDaily, a magazine known for its extensive architectural coverage, for the “ArchDaily 2016 Building of the Year Award”.
Don’t pack light
The weather conditions at Harbin are for those at the peak of their endurance. It is imperative that you stock up on fur-lined shoes, fur-lined leather gloves, ear muffs, packs of shoes, down jacket, padded pants, scarf hat, and masks. Digital cameras and other electronic equipment can be kept inside the jacket when not being used, as the batteries drain quickly in the cold weather. Remember, the festival is all-too-popular. We recommend booking your tickets much in advance.
Can we Travel?
China still follows many safety restrictions that prohibit people from certain countries to travel. Citizens of the UAE and the Middle East can travel to China provided they have a confirmed history of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, or Sinovac, and a COVID negative certificate prior to three days of travel.
Foreign nationals from the following countries are temporarily restricted from traveling to China:
If your country is on the restricted list, there’s always the next time. And for those who can, the hospitality of Harbin will keep you warm and fulfilled even in the coldest of winters.