With negative 20 and 30 degree Celsius temperatures you’d be forgiven for doing a double take when hearing that winter is Harbin’s peak tourist season. You’d be right to do so. -30 is cold. The Harbin Ice Festival runs officially from January 5th until February 5th but is really open until warm weather melts it (usually the end of February or early to mid March). But you can see it before it opens too (although some of the sculptures may not be finished).
Things to see at the Harbin Ice Festival
Zhaolin Park (pronounced Jao-lin) is the smallest part of the Harbin Ice Festival; it is an easy walking distance from Central Street and the Old Russian quarter. There are mostly ice sculptures here but there are some snow sculptures as well. The indoor section has ice sculptures of amazingly refined detail, I thought they were great. It is probably not as much of a must see as the main Ice Festival, but I still thought that it was really good. The Park is best seen at night with all the lights on.
Snow Sculptures at Sun Island
There are huge snow sculptures on Sun Island that are best seen during the day. Getting to the island is easy; you can take a taxi over the bridge or simply walk directly over the frozen river (you can even take a taxi over the river). If you cross from the end of Central Street you will come out fairly close to the Snow sculptures on Sun Island.
Ice and Snow World
I loved this, the sculptures were amazing. Ice and Snow World is best seen at night; I’ve been past in a taxi during the day. It still looks cool, but it is beyond words at night. There are indoor sections where you can warm up and get something to eat and also see some sort of show if you wish. If you want to queue for all the long slides and see a show then you may need longer but if you just want to have a good look around the Ice Sculptures (and maybe go on a small ice slide) then 2 hours is a good amount of time.
Prepare for the cold.
Warmth wise, I wore thermal leggings, 2 pairs of trousers (one thin, one thick), thick socks and boots, 2 pairs of thin gloves (so I could still use my camera), top thermals, a t-shirt, a jumper, a ski jacket, a woolen hat, a scarf and a face mask and woolly ear muffs that I bought at my hostel. I also put one of those hand warmer things in my clothes for warmth. There was not much wind when I went, but I have heard that it can be vicious.
I would highly recommend bringing a second camera battery as they run out really fast in the cold. I booked the ticket for the Ice Festival from my hostel and got free transport to and from the sculptures, but you can take a taxi or a bus. I know people who were staying in a central area of Harbin and have gotten a taxi there and back for 40 yuan each way. So don’t let the drivers start quoting 100+ amounts; (although it does depend somewhat on where you are staying in the city) make them use the mileage reader.