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Harbin’s Snow and Ice Festival – and a hot dog diet

I had never been anywhere near Russia before I was in China. Sound like an oxymoron? Not really. When I was teaching English at a Chinese Uni for a year, I perpetually forgot how large the country is. It goes from more northerly of Harbin (which often was -20C during the winter) to Hainan province, which is basically equatorial. So, over winter break I did what all the smart kids do when it’s cold – I went further north.

Why, may you ask, was the southerly route not in the cards for me? I wanted to see the Snow and Ice Festival, and there could be no snow and ice festival if…well, if there was no snow and ice. So north to Harbin it was. Perhaps the main reason Harbin is on any tourist’s radar is because for one month (usually most of January, and sometimes into February, depending on when the lunar new year falls on any given year) there are massive ice and snow sculptures on display.

I actually ended up going with a friend, which was nice, because I was introduced to his family and got a more local experience of Harbin. Mind you, I didn’t really have any choice in the matter – when my friend heard that I was planning on going to Harbin, he insisted that I go with him. It didn’t matter that he is only in the city with his uncle a few times a year, I was a teacher at the university, his friend, and foreign. There was no saying ‘no.’ So I didn’t. I was as grateful as I could be as a Westerner unused to being gracious, and enjoyed my short stay in Harbin.

When I arrived it was only -12C; as I mentioned, much of the time the temperature hovers a bit lower than that.

Harbin's snow and ice festival

A risky place to walk your dog

One thing that I miss the most about China is the variety of food. Harbin was no exception. With Russian influences, Harbin made some great sausages (unlike many other more southerly cities in China) – and the cold gave me an excuse to eat endless hot pot. Which is like a choose-your-own-soup situation where you order the soup base and the raw ingredients and cook the meal yourself at the table.

For a more taboo tasting, if you want to try dog, Northern China in the winter is the place to. I didn’t, though I almost did. If you want to try this winter delicacy, don’t worry about the restaurant killing the neighbors pet – like any other domestic animal, these dogs are bred and raised to be put on your table

When I arrived, pretty much the entire city of Harbin was in festival mode, especially the old parts of town – the old city. Mind you, the Ice Festival was probably a good 15-20 minute ride out of town, but the whole area got involved. In the winter Harbin is particularly reminiscent of Russia, with the onion domes and more Western architectural influences. You’ll see street vendors hawking nesting dolls as often as you’ll find them trying to sell you rip-offs of the latest gadgets.

The pedestrian section of the old city is especially decked out for the festival, with larger than life ice sculptures dotted throughout the streets and restaurants. There were also other festival-like activities going on in the actual city of Harbin – you could go dog sledding on the ice or rent skates and skate on the ice; it was all good proper fun.

The next day in the early evening we headed over to the Ice and Snow Festival. The entrance fee was somewhere around 200RMB – only about £20 – but a very big deal in China. Before we left, my friend told me that it would be at least a few degrees colder within the actual festival grounds because of all the slowly melting ice. He was right – I was glad I wore an extra layer or two, though gloves probably should have been on my list.

Harbin's snow and ice festivalRegardless of how warm (or how not) I was, the Snow and Ice Festival was definitely impressive. To reflect the upcoming year, there were quite a few enormous tigers sculpted in snow. It was quite the sight. There was everything from carved buildings in ice – Eastern pagodas, western skyscrapers – to giant chess sets and Buddha snow statues. To see the entire scope I had to crane my neck to grasp the entirety of the sculptures.

For the more…secular sculptures, the one that stands out most in my memory is the giant bottle of Harbin Beer carved in ice. Of course, it stood tall right next to a warmed building where you could buy a bottle of Harbin beer or something warm to drink. There was also an ice slide – for the young as well as the young at heart, ice biking and a lot of other typical festival activities.

We were there for a solid three hours, meandering around the sculptures and doing our best to stay warm – I wouldn’t be surprised (especially considering the price) that there were families who were spending the entire evening there.

Though the weather of Harbin is cold, the warmth lies in the community – and the food. If you are looking for somewhere to experience China for the first time, Harbin is a great place, as there are some aspects of the familiar there (though perhaps it might just be more jarring that way). If you’ve already been East, Harbin is still and wonderful and unique place to explore and experience.

Jade Evans is a writer by profession, traveler by passion. Not a meeting planner or travel agent, she will sit you down and give you what advice she has.

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