Tigers and Ice
A Brief Guide to Harbin’s Attractions (China)
Harbin lies in China’s far northeastern province of Heilongjiang. The city has long had a distinctly international flavor. In the late 19th century, Russia based the administration of the recently constructed eastern section of the Trans-Siberian railroad in Harbin. This led to the influx of a large Russian minority to the city. These imigrants influenced everything from architecture to education and even today the city has a decidedly Russian atmosphere.
Harbin’s claim to fame is not history, but weather. Harbin is one of China’s coldest cities. As a result each year the city plays host to several ice festivals and snow festivals. Since 1985 the collection of festivals, collectively called the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival have been wow-ing crowds and setting records earning it a place as one of the worlds largest Ice festivals.
There is more to do in Harbin than just Ice and Snow, so here is a brief guides to some of Harbin’s attractions.
1. Ice and Snow World (哈尔滨冰雪大世界)
The Ice and Snow World is possibly the most famous of Harbin’s attractions. It is a city of skyscrapers and fortresses constructed from large blocks of ice and lit in fluorescent colors. There corridors through the buildings and steps that lead up to ice slides that put your feet back on the snow covered ground.
It takes a labor force of nearly 10,000 to create this ice world each year and the experience is truly unforgettable.
Ticket Cost (2016): RMB 300 per person except for New Year’s Day, Spring Festival and Lantern Festival when it costs 330 per person.
Hours: 11am – 9pm
Pro Tips: Enter the park around 3pm to get a view of the sculptures and structures before the sun goes down, and then to see them lit after the sun goes down.
There is plenty of fast food (Chinese Fast food like rice and noodles as well as KFC) inside the park, but finding a place to sit in the crowded (and warm) food pavilions might be tricky – if you see a spot, you should grab it and send someone else for food.
Getting There: To get there take Bus 88 or 118, or the tourist bus from Yaoyi station. Or you can take a Taxi (哈尔滨冰雪大世界).
2. Sun Island Snow World (太阳岛)
Sun Island Snow world is where you will find the entries in the ice and snow sculpture competitions as well as some of the most impressive large-scale snow sculptures ever created (and that statement isn’t exaggeration).
The park is quite large (and oddly disorienting at first) but you can buy a ticket for the electric bus to save some walking (but know that it really isn’t too far to walk – I bought a bus ticket when I realized how big the park was, and then wished I hadn’t when I realized that it was big, but not that big).
Ticket Cost (2016): RMB 240 per adult regular ticket, RMB 260 for a ticket that includes the bus.
Hours: 8am to 5pm
Pro Tips: There are cafe’s and bathrooms inside the park where you can find hot tea, instant coffee, and hot cocoa as well as instant noodles. If you are accustomed to more substantial vitals, it is worth packing those yourself. I did not see anyone objecting to guests eating a home-made picnic at the indoor cafe tables.
Getting There: or you can take a taxi (太阳岛, 150000松北区警备路3号)
3. Ice Lantern Garden at Zhaolin Park (兆麟公园)
This is the smallest, oldest, but least impressive of Harbin’s Ice parks. It is a fun place for photo-ops and for some exploration. Also this is the park where it all got started. See it if you can, but if you need to skip one, this would be the one I choose.
Ticket Cost (2016): 150 Yuan per person.
Pro Tips: Because this is the lantern festival, it is best viewed after dark. The park has a number of ice rides for kids including ice carts and tubes. A visit will take less than an hour (without time for the rides) and the park is pretty close to the Center Street so it is the kind of thing you could combine with a visit to the center. There are no concessions inside the park so be sure get any refreshments you might need outside the gates.
Getting There: Bus 8, 53, 74 and several others serve Zhaolin Gongyuan (兆麟公园).
4. Siberian Tiger Park (东北虎林园)
The somewhat controversial Siberian Tiger Park lies on the edge of the city and offers visitors a close-up view of the northern Big Cats. For 90 Yuan, visitors ride through large enclosures in a small bus covered in steel screens.
Tigers, some white but most orange, lounge casually by the road-side watching the bus make progress through the park. The experience is terrifying and thrilling. One can easily imagine Jurassic park-style “accidents” at every bend. One guest on our bus kept trying to open the door so he could get a photo without the protective wire in the way (face palm).
When you get off the bus, an elevated walkway carries visitors over smaller enclosures back to the entrance. Here people buy bits of chicken to drop to the predators in the enclosures below. The experience is fascinating if moderately off-putting.
Ticket Cost (2016): 90 CNY for Adults and 45 CNY for children
Pro Tips: The main road by the park does not have a lot of traffic, so unless you want to wait for a while for a taxi to drive by, it is worth negotiating a fare that includes your taxi driver waiting for you (or returning for you at a designated time) while you visit the park.
Responsible Tourism – Think before you go: Before you visit the park, it is worth knowing that while the park is advertised as a “refuge,” it is in reality a tiger breeding farm. If you want to read more about the controversy surrounding the ethics of the enterprise you might read Stuart Leavenworth’s very well written and carefully researched critique of the experience for McClatcheyDC.com.
Getting There: Bus 35 and bus 122 both stop on the main road near the park. A taxi from the center is quite reasonable and might be worth it in the frigid northern weather (东北虎林园, 150028松北区松北街88号).
5. The Songhua River Snow Park
In the winter the Songhua River freezes over and near Stalin Park, it transforms into a winter wonderland of frozen activities. Snow mobiles pull long trains of inter-tubes out onto the ice and whip them around for a thrilling, frozen ride. Ice skating, sled riding, ice-style bumper cars, ice sailing, and many more things that I couldn’t even begin to identify all formed a very fun looking ice-amusement park along the Songhua River.
Pro Tips: Harbin is cold – and can be VERY cold. Moreover the river is quite wide – giving the wind a large corridor. Make sure you dress appropriately for a day of winter fun before venturing onto the frozen ice.
6. Center Street and St. Sofia Orthodox Church (索菲亚广场)
The heart of Harbin lies on the central Zhongyang Pedestrian street. 19th century Russian architecture lines the paved pedestrian zone and during the ice festivals, various ice sculptures provide entertaining photo-ops. This is Harbin’s main outdoor shopping area and is a great place to try the local street food and people watch. Also, it terminates near the St. Sofia square at one end and the Songhua River at the other end, providing an entertaining corridor connecting attractions.
Ticket Cost (2017): The Central street is free, and entrance to St. Sofia costs 20 Yuan per person
Hours: The museum inside the church is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm.
Pro Tips: There is little inside the church to merit braving the crowds or paying the fee. The beauty, in this case, lies on the outside.
Getting There: The Church is walking distance from Stalin Park, the River, and the Ice lantern Festival in Zhaolin Park. Bus 101 connects the Cathedral with the railway station. Or you can take a taxi.
7. Unit 731 Museum (731部队罪证遗址)
Unit 731 was a Japanese Military research unit that committed heinous crimes against the civilian population during the second world war. They infected civilians with various diseases and studied the effects of those diseases on the body during various stages of the progression. That statement puts the crimes in the softest light possible and visiting this museum has a comparable impact to visiting one of the concentration camps in Europe.
Ticket Cost (2016): Most museums in China are free of charge, but ID is required.
Hours: The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 AM to 11:30 AM and from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM. Last entrance is at 3:30 PM. It is closed on Mondays
Pro Tips: ***Take your passport!*** Most museums in China require government ID (or a passport). Some museums do not enforce this rule, but the Unit 731 Museum does. Sometimes a photograph of the passport ID page is sufficient (but sometimes it isn’t).
Even if the museum is closed when you visit, a walk around the grounds is haunting if you understand what happened here. A good place to start reading would be “The Other Doctor Mengel” published on ecapeartistes.com. For a shorter read, try this piece by Didi Kirsten Tatlow on the New York Times blog page.
Getting There: Bus 343 goes to the museum from the west train station, but it is certainly faster to take a taxi (731部队罪证遗址, 150000平房区新疆大街).
8. Harbin Brewery Museum (哈尔滨啤酒博物馆)
Ticket Cost (2016): 50 CNY – includes a small glass of Harbin Beer at the end.
Hours: 9:00 am-5:00 pm, Tuesday-Sunday (Closed Mondays).
A Map of Harbin’s Main Attractions:
Remember that Google products don’t work in China, so it is worth getting an off line version of this map or creating screen shots of the most important places.
link to this map.
When to travel and how to get around in Harbin
When (and When Not) to go
Travel during Chinese Holidays is often hectic. Train travel, in particular, sells out quickly and is quite crowded. It is best to visit Harbin during December or early January and to avoid the Chinese Lunar New Year. Having said that, I visited Harbin During the three days before the new year in 2016 and the town was quiet and hotel rooms were not outrageous.
The day after the new year, as we left town we saw long rows of tour buses coming into town carrying Chinese tourists. Sights that had been moderately crowded when we visited were packed. If you are planning to visit see some of Harbin’s attractions during Chinese New Year, remember that many people prefer to spend the actual new year’s day with their family and will not be out at tourist destinations.
Getting Around in Harbin
While it is certainly possible to get around town by bus, when I was there I took taxis just about everywhere. The fares were reasonable and the taxi drivers friendly. As always, make sure the drivers use the meter.
I’ve tried to include the Chinese names of each destination to help you with this and included a short-list you can easily screenshot here:
Ice and Snow World (哈尔滨冰雪大世界)
Sun Island Snow World (太阳岛)
Zhaolin Park (兆麟公园)
Siberian Tiger Park (东北虎林园)
Unit 731 Museum (731部队罪证遗址)
St. Sofia Orthodox Church (索菲亚广场)
Harbin Brewery Museum (哈尔滨啤酒博物馆)