China: Harbin (哈尔滨) Snow & Ice Festival

Day three in Harbin consisted of snow sculptures, Siberian tigers, and ice sculptures all lit up at night. This is the reason people really come to Harbin. The featured image on the top of the page is “snowflake girl” who welcomes you to sun island, home of the snow sculptures. Sun island is basically a large park that is just PACKED with snow sculptures for you to gawk at this time of year.

Before we get to the best part (the photos) I feel compelled to share what was an incredibly bizarre way to enter the park. We had opted to only have a guide our first two days in Harbin thinking we could navigate ourselves through the day 3 & 4 activities pretty well. Imagine our surprise when we show up here and are told we need to wait for our “free” guide to lead us into the park. 45 minutes later it appears our whole “group” has arrived and we can enter. Our “guide” literally walked us 3 minutes to the entry gate and said “have a good time.” We could not stop laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing despite the fact that we had just wasted 45 minutes standing around. The best that we can guess is they have three times set-up in the morning to meet a “guide” who likely gets everyone discounted group entry tickets. The company who helped us set-up the driver had said all entry fees were included in the cost for their services, so we were not inclined to buy our own tickets at this point, incurring additional expense. I am assuming someone saved some money through this bizarre transaction. Either that or it was the most useless guide service I have ever encountered. Being that we were in China, either scenario was equally likely.

And now, please enjoy the following eye candy:

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The baby arctic fox looks sleepy.
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2017 – Year of the Rooster

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Apparently opening week means there could still be some smaller sculptures not ready yet. All the big attractions were complete the week we arrived.

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This little snow village part was my favorite. I think they even had some snacks for sale inside these houses.
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I got a photo without this man, but I think this one is more fun. He did stand there posing an awfully long time, so I could not resist.
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Rudolph the red nose…dragon?

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A how-to tutorial on ice biking…

After the snow park it was time to go visit the tigers. For the best view you get to hop into little buses with bars on the windows and drive right past a bunch of tigers just chillin’ outside. We had a few escape their enclosures and follow our bus into a check point of sorts, so I think we got a bit of an extra show which involved a lot of horn honking (standard Chinese driving protocol) and spinning in circles trying to herd the tiger back towards its enclosures opening. A few warning shots from a nearby control tower and two more jeeps running circles honking in the same area later and everyone managed to get back into their enclosures.

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For some real fun you can purchase a duck, chicken, goat, or full size cow to feed the tigers. We watched a few people buy a chicken and decided against purchasing one ourselves as it literally disappeared within one second in a violent puff of feathers. We were expecting it to take at least 5 seconds so we could process what was going on. Truly terrifying. On a related note, don’t be like the guy who recently decided to enter the tiger enclosure to play with the tigers. It did not end well for him. I also have it on good authority that these tigers have recently taken down a drone that was supposed to encourage them to exercise more. Alas, wild animals were not meant for captivity.

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And another bus goes by…

Our next stop was a very late lunch where we grabbed a few too many bites of dumplings (we ordered three large plates of them). We needed to warm ourselves up for the last activity of the day: ice and snow world.

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That look says it all: we ordered too much food. Again.

After donning our third pair of pants and double jacket layer in the parking lot we generally found we were a bit overdressed that particular evening. We were still comfortable in the park, but being from a northern location ourselves, we overestimated how cold it was this particular day. The sheer amount of people and the fact that the ice sculptures broke up the wind probably helped a bit too. If nothing else the multiple layers of pants made for extra protection when sliding down the ice luges.

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I think Queen Else might live here…
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Yay, another castle!

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There were two large ice carving competitions that were part of the ice and snow world exhibition. Teams from all over the world contributed carvings to the competition.

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And of course, Matt’s shirt had to make an appearance.

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Extra pants layer coming in handy here.

Perhaps the most unusual thing we saw for the ice carving were the painted ones they kept inside a large dome.

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We even managed to find some curling, though it was only a demo and the sheets were shorter than regulation anyway.

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To round out the night we opted for a ridiculous hot pot meal in an igloo. I believe we were the second two of only four people to have eaten there the entire evening by the time we arrived around 8:30 pm, but plenty of people would stop in and take photos of it nonetheless.

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The igloo restaurant across the street from our hotel.

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They gave us nice hand warmer pockets while we waited.

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…and then the massive hot pot feast ensued.

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Interaction was a bit difficult what with all the steam coming off everything, but we managed OK I think.

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img_5633When we woke up the morning of our last full day we thought to ourselves “oh wow, we can actually see the buildings off in the distance.” Sure enough the pollution had dropped into moderately healthy levels. The last bit of Harbin we got to experience thanks to our allotting too much time to visit was Volga Manor. Located about a 45 minute drive outside the city, there is this quaint replica Chinese/Russian village that has been set up with hotels, restaurants, shops, and activities to participate in (such as painting your own Russian nesting dolls). During the winter a majority of the restaurants are closed with the exception of the hotels themselves, but they do have a ski hill and toboggan run set-up for your winter enjoyment. We left the hotel after a quick snack and incredibly expensive $6 water that David insisted on due to laziness. On our way to Volga Manor we stopped by a themed indoor shopping center for some browsing and managed to get our entire lunch (beer included) for less than the price of that water he just had to have. I guess this is what you call “balance.”

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Lunch: <$6.

Welcome to Volga Manor, home of the castle luge. The manor itself is not a single building as the name would suggest, but rather a collection of many buildings, some of which are replicas of those destroyed during the cultural revolution (such as St. Nicholas). We spent the better part of the afternoon wandering around here until the sun went down and things started to get properly cold.

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We could not stop giggling the whole way down. If you visit you must try the tubing run.
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Inside the castle. I imagine it would be a very nice place to host a fancy party.

img_6849Alas, as is all too common in China, even very beautiful things can become marred by black mold and other unsightly phenomenon. This castle was still under construction above the second floor if that gives you any idea of its relative age. We see this a lot in the south where the humidity is high, especially in the summer. I was surprised to see it this far north though.

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Fancy Schmancy

Eventually one must leave the castle though. I recommend the following route for your exit:

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The last thing we visited on our way to the airport the following day was Unit 731. It is located about an hour outside the city to the south and tells the story of the horrible human experiments that were conducted by the Japanese on Chinese and Mongolian prisoners. The museum itself is quite well done overall, though we were a bit rushed through it due to our timeline. It was a depressing topic to end our trip on, but so much of WWII history is. Despite being taught about this subject in school, our classes did not begin to scratch the surface of the global impact that war had, particularly in Asia.

Some General Travel Tips for Harbin:

  • Arrange a driver ahead of time or opt to stay in a more expensive hotel that provides a shuttle service. We were told taxis can be hard to come by due to the cold weather and popularity of the ice and snow events. After our less than stellar taxi experiences in Beijing (北京) and Hangzhou (杭州) we were not eager to be at the mercy of their availability when the temperature was -26C or so.
  • Better yet, join a tour group. We have friends who chose this option for simplicity and cost effectiveness, and the only reason we did not do this ourselves was because we chose to visit for longer than is “normal” and we wanted to customize our experience a lot more.
  • img_5618Bring hand/foot warmers for yourself and your cell phone. If you are feeling particularly creative attach them directly to your cell phone for like I saw several Chinese people do. I learned a handy trick from our guide and found storing the phone up my sleeve kept it both easily accessible and warm for the duration of our trip. When all else fails, bring a battery pack to jump start your device. Interestingly my DSLR/Canon SL1 (aka – my big girl camera) had no problem with me carrying it around outside exposed. This could be because I kept turning it off when not in use.
  • Keep an eye on the aqi (air quality index) and bring or buy masks if necessary. We are used to filtering crap through our lungs at this point, but I am told it can make for a very uncomfortable visit if you are sensitive to these things.
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Note the bad air day and good air day, it’s rather obvious. Both photos were taken from the car headed the same direction into the main part of the city.
  • Eat all the food. Remember this word: Guo Bao Rou (锅包肉). It is the northern China version of sweet and sour pork, and it is simply amazing. There are several delicious food options to choose from though, so try to enjoy them all! They surely know how to make a hearty meal in the north.

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