The Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin, China is one of the biggest winter festivals in the world and probably the most likely to make you feel like a penguin on an acid trip amid leviathan ice sculptures lit with neon.
Zhaolin Park is in the city, towards the river and a nice place to start the festival. The ice sculptures are smaller than the ones in Ice and Snow World, but just as beautiful. And it has the added benefit of being the place where ice carvers come from all over the world to compete. A stroll through the park doesn’t take more than an hour, but can last you a while if you stop to take a picture of absolutely everything. More pictures.
During the day it’s nice to visit St. Sofia, an old Russian Orthodox church. Harbin has a rich history of both Russian and Chinese influence, so it’s not difficult to find buildings with a Soviet or Russo decor. St. Sofia itself is now an architecture museum for the city. If you’ve seen a lot of Orthodox churches, it probably won’t be too impressive, but for someone like me who’s never seen one it was lovely. More pictures.
If you’re on Harbin’s Central Avenue, be sure to stop at this eclectic restaurant. The menu has more pictures of the owner dressed in cowboy costumes than food selections, but it’s worth it just to feel like you’re in the Twilight Zone for forty minutes. Anthony Bourdain was there a few years ago for his TV show and can give you an idea how insane USABucks really is.
At the north end of Central Avenue, you can go out onto the frozen river and putz around. Or, hop in an carriage or snow buggy.
Then to the north of the river–about a 20 minute drive outside of the city–there’s a tiger park where visitors can hop into a bus Jurassic Park style and watch dozens of tigers. There’s even an option to get raw beef, live chickens, and other tasty snacks to feed the tigers and other big cats. A lot of people get squeamish about that, but there’s something to be said about seeing the animals up close and putting you in a state of awe when you notice that just one paw is as big as your face. More pictures. For the kid that wrote down this in fifth grade;
Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: “A tiger.”
…this was the highlight of the trip.
Between Zhaolin Park and the tigers is Ice and Snow World, where the HUGE ice sculptures and ice slides are. It’s nice to get there just before the sun sets so you can avoid crowds and see the sculptures in daylight and at night. Tom and Cass have more pictures of this attraction as the cold killed my camera battery pretty quickly…
ANYWAY. If you are in China during January or early February, this festival in Harbin should be at the top of your list. Two nights are needed at least to see everything I mentioned here, and three would probably be even better.