Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival

Paris of the orient

China is so much more than Shanghai, and Beijing. With the biggest population on earth, China offers more diversity than any other country. In this blog post we’ll be introducing one of the most beautiful places in China (And coldest). Way up north, in the most northern part of China, lays the winter wonderland of Harbin.

An old sleepy city until the Chinese Eastern Railway brought the city on the map back in 1905. Located as north as you can get, without passing into Russia. Here lies Harbin, the biggest city in the Heilongjiang province.

Harbin Traditions Ice Festival China Winter

A hidden pearl

Formerly known as the fashion capital of China, since the newest fashion from Russia, and Paris pass through first, before channelling down to the main lands. The name of the city originally means “A place for drying fishing nets“ (Not too fancy, if you ask me…) but among drying fishnets, and passing trains, Harbin has risen as one of the most beautiful, and well visited cities in China, with 10 to 15 million visitors annually.

Harbin Traditions Ice Festival China Winter

The coldest weather in all of China

Northern Chinese people are known for being a little rough around the edges. Maybe it’s because the winter is long, and goes down to -35 Celsius (–31 °F) or maybe it’s just because us fancy pants in the big glowing cities are used to being catered to all the time.

Nonetheless, Harbin host’s one of the most popular, and biggest Ice Festivals in the world, attracting tourist from all over the globe.

Harbin Traditions Ice Festival China Winter

The world’s biggest ice and snow sculptures

Harbin Traditions Ice Festival China Winter

Every year the famous ice city turns in to a glowing ice paradise for a whole month. The festival turns the city into one big party, and all around the city activities such as Yabuli Alpine Skiing (Yeah, I had to look that one up too) it is just regular skiing, but in city near Harbin, with a cool name. Winter swimming (Dear god…) is a popular activity as well, and a more appropriate ice-lantern exhibition takes place during the festival.

Originally a national gathering, but over the years the interest has sparked a massive international crowd attending every year.

The festival originated in 1963 as an ice lantern show, and a garden party for the inhabitants of Harbin. But has grown to be the biggest, and most important place for national, and international sculpture artists to show off their incredible work. The festival is around 600,000 square meters (That’s around the size of 100 football fields, the American ones. Sorry)

How is it done?

Huge ice blocks are brought up from the frozen surface of the great Songhua River, and then carved out in every imaginable size by huge saws. Ice sculptors begin their work creating the big sculptures long before the festival takes place, and they work day, and night to finish their masterpieces. Deionised water (Water with no minerals) can be used to create ice blocks transparent as glass, and multi-coloured lights are added to create a unique atmosphere during the dark evenings of the festival.

Harbin Traditions Ice Festival China Winter

An insider’s guide to Harbin

Cold showers during summer, Russian style fur, and steamed donkey dumplings.

At Hutong School, we have students, and employees from all over China, and the world. From beautiful Argentina, and sunny Mallorca to the cultural treasure Russia.

Fortunately, Jiǎ Xīn, 贾欣 one of our beloved teachers is a native Harbin citizen, and she has agreed to give us an insiders guide to Harbin. (I want to know about the drying fishnets, and what about the winter swimming!?)

Harbin Traditions Ice Festival China Winter

First of all, “What’s with the winter swimming? Is that really a thing?”

“It is! But it’s usually only men (Huh, who would’ve figured). They break a hole in the ice, and jump in. Usually people show up, and watch these maniacs in small swim trunks swim in -10 degrees.” “So it’s like an attraction?” I asked. “Yes!” People in small trunks jumping in ice cold water? (I am in).

“But you have to practice before! Very important to practice, or else you’ll get sick. The way you do it is by showering with cold water throughout the year (What!?). Gradually turning down the temperature every month, if you start in the summer periods, your body will get used to the cold. A bonus effect is that you’ll never catch a cold. My father did it, and he hasn’t been sick for years

Are there any special traditions during the Ice Festival?

“I have never been to the Ice festival”

(WHAT!?) Don’t say that. That kind of ruins my whole article, I have to convince people to come to Harbin, Jiǎ Xīn…”

“The fifth of January is a public holiday, so we usually spend the day with our families. The Ice Festival is a modern celebration, so there are no traditions bound to it, at least not any officials.

As a local you don’t pay much attention to it, that’s why I’ve never been to one of the big ones. But that’s a little uncommon maybe. I sometimes skate on the frozen rivers that surround the festival spots”

Knowing how big China is, there has to be some differences between Shanghai, and Harbin. What are some of the biggest differences?

The people are of course different. It’s a different mentality up north. The pace is slower. Harbin folks are big, and strong (You’d have to be in that cold) People are not so busy like here in Shanghai. Northern people are very open-minded, and easy to befriend. If you ask a Harbin citizen for directions, he might even follow you to the place, and he won’t charge you anything.

Shanghainese people always smile, but they don’t mean it every time. Up north there’s a more direct communication. We go straight to point, no sugar-coating. But they also have a temper! (Good luck surviving the Shanghai metro)“

Anything else we should talk about while we’re at it?

“Don’t forget about the food! Harbin is a food city, a melting pot of cuisines from different ethnic groups. Especially food from the Korean and Russian ethnic groups, as well as the Chinese Muslims, shape Harbin’s cuisine. The food up north is sturdier, and the portion sizes are bigger.

Not like here in Shanghai, where you hardly get anything.” “Name an iconic dish from Harbin” I asked: “Steamed Donkey dumplings, only for special occasions. Very good! (I honestly didn’t know people ate donkeys)”

“I want to tell you a funny story about my friend from Harbin who visited Shanghai. We went out to eat, and had a variety of dishes, with rice of course. But the bowl of rice was so small, that we had to ask to get more rice three times.

The fourth time my friend wouldn’t take it anymore, and he demanded that they just brought in the whole damn rice cooker, and place it on the table”

Harbin Traditions Ice Festival China Winter

“A fun fact about people from Harbin. They love eating ice cream during winter. It’s a big thing!)

Have you already experienced the beautiful neon covered streets in Shanghai, or been surrounded by the ancient traditional atmosphere in Beijing? Why not spend a winter in Harbin, and experience your own fairy-tale winter adventure.

Interested in learning more about Chinese culture? See our article on all the different cuisines in China, or see our article on how it is never too late to start learning Chinese. Just got to China? Read our survival guide!

Are you already packed and ready for a new adventure? Get in touch with our program consultants and start the process. Apply for free, and start asking questions. Apply here.