Harbin was the first Chinese city we visited and oh my, did we know we had arrived in China. (I wrote a blog post about how much of a culture shock it was here). Crazy, alarming and absolutely freezing cold!
Our first full day in Harbin was dedicated to exploring the best sites around the main pedestrian street: Zhongyang. Harbin is way bigger than I imagined so the journey was fairly long. The metro system is not as extensive as many other cities and since we weren’t confident enough to manoeuvre the bus yet we had to endure a particularly cold, arduous walk to get there.
Saint Sophia’s Church
I won’t lie, I wasn’t expecting to see much in the way of Christian Orthodox Churches in the famously religionless Republic of China. Yet this Russian church is a beautiful landmark and many of the locals are extremely proud of it. It wasn’t always so! Although the church originally missed out on destruction during the cultural revolution in China it fell into disrepair over the years. During the mid-90’s the church was named a national cultural heritage site. Finally, it was restored and became the Municipal Architecture and Art Museum in 1997.
We had planned to visit the much recommended ‘Oriental King of Dumplings’ however, cold and hungry we piled into the first noodle shop we saw.
By the time we finally made our way to the street, it was getting dark! This made it all the more beautiful! The famous Ice Sculptures lined the street, glowing with the multi coloured lights!
The street was busy and filled with little market stalls selling mostly food. We decided to try the famous meat sticks we had read so much about and seen all over the place since arriving!
The road ended at the river and the plan had been to look out over the frozen expanse and take a walk along it. When we arrived however, we realised there was a lot more going on than we had first imagined. There were massive ice structures announcing the presence of a theme park ON the frozen river! Mind blown!
There were people everywhere, music pumping and lights flashing: it was pretty overwhelming. Bearing in mind this was no where near the actual Ice and Snow World!
I’ll be frank, we did nothing but eat delicious food and hang out in the hostel today.
How could we start the day without eating even more food. I’m surprised I am not a stone heavier than when we arrived. Plus, I ate copious amounts of garlic, so I’m also surprised I have any friends either.
Winter Theme Park
We went back to the Theme Park on Ice to take a look in the daylight and we were NOT disappointed. There were ice buggies, ice chairs (Not sure how that’s great fun but…?), ice go-karts that ran on petrol and a jeep dragging along a banana boat full of people.
Frozen River Walk
Next, we started to make our way to Harbin Ice and Snow World, which happened to be across the river. Of course, you could walk across it so we weren’t going to pass up that opportunity!
It was pretty crazy! The view of the sun getting low with such a spectacular horizon was really special. And the ice, it was so eerie to look down into the black nothingness of the river. The cracks gave an indication of how deep and thick the ice was and how vast the river was. It was creepy and strange but just fascinating. We had the option of a cable car but I’m so glad we took the extra time to cross on foot, even if we had to walk with extra care due to the treacherous footing.
Our Weird Police Encounter!
Part 1: Initial Meeting
So now it gets to a particularly weird part of the day. We were wandering around looking hopelessly lost, as tourists are want to do, desperately looking for the famous Harbin Ice and Snow World.
We’re approached by a friendly looking Policeman, score! He will definitely know where we want to go.
We get a picture of the Theme Park on our phone to show him, but he is one step ahead and had a flyer in his hand! Perfect this guy is our golden ticket, he will for sure know where the bus or whatever can be found.
He shouts over his colleague. Ok, maybe this guy can speak english, we wait patiently.
Turns out that was not the case. No no, this guy is here to give us a lift.
Ok, so that’s quite confusing. A Policeman giving us a lift to a tourist hotspot. It feels a little bit weird, but they are definitely Policemen. The uniform is legit and the car most certainly is. What could realistically go wrong here?
Probably a lot, but the temptation of a free lift and respite from the cold is too much so we get in the car.
So the ride is fine. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself in this warm comfortable car knowing we will be at our destination soon. It also becomes increasingly apparent that we were totally in the wrong place and we’d have never made it without this lift. Seriously, it took about 20 minutes to drive there on main roads, there is no way we could have walked it.
It is taking a hell of a long time, so I check my maps. We’re going the right way though so I’m obviously over-reacting.
Just as I am sure I can see the bright lights of the Ice & Snow World in the distance, the driver pulls into a scruffy lay-by. James and I look at each other.
Is this where we die? (Or get scammed out of all the cash we have?)
Ok, so things start to look sketchy. The driver stops and when James gets out of the car he is told to get back inside. (What?) We haven’t started to panic yet but I’ve not ruled it out.
Another guy, who is definitely not a Police Officer is trying to get James to give him the 300 rmb each for our tickets into the park. This was certainly not explained as part of the deal when we were offered a lift.
After a quick look around we can see many other people stopping to collect tickets. They are also accepting the flimsy pink receipts as tickets so maybe this isn’t a farce.
We decide to just go ahead and buy the tickets against our better judgement. Worst case scenario we have lost £30 and learnt a valuable lesson.
The Tour Guide
So we finally get to the Theme Park and expect the Police Officer to drop us off and let us go on our way.
He parks and escorts us just outside of the doors and tells us to wait with him. Why you ask? Apparently we were getting a tour guide! No doubt this was going to be at an unwanted extra expense and which we were not cool with.
Unfortunately for us, we deciphered through our broken communication that we were going to need the tour guide for our entrance. Cue waiting around in the cold for another 15 minutes.
When the tour guide finally arrived, we said a fond (not) farewell to our Police Officer and were herded into the park and counted up like cattle ready to be released! It would have been a pretty surreal but ultimately interesting experience, had I not already been so fed up with the stress!
Amazingly, we got through the ticket office without incident! As soon as we got through those gates and into the park, we were off!
Harbin Ice and Snow World
Once we had stepped into the wonderland that was Harbin Ice & Snow World, the cares and worries of how we got there instantly melted away.
It was simply breathtaking!
The ice structures were phenomenal! Unbelievably big pieces of art that went on forever! I couldn’t get over how much of it there was to see – and all of it bathed in light. From garish pinks to stark blues and warm glowing whites.
And that was just the entrance area. There were many different zones featuring intricate snow sculptures. Some were small and dainty, others covered an entire 20 foot wall. I saw some sculptures that were literally the size of a house. Snow sculptures of an actual house.
My favourite area was the ice sculpture competition that featured entries from all over the world, Some were beautiful, some weird and interesting, some funny! All were stunning and spectacularly presented. I was also perplexed to see some of the countries that had entered. I wasn’t aware that Mexico, Portugal and even the UK usually had much snow and ice to mess around with!
James was also delighted to see that there were also some truly massive ice slides! Of course, we had to have a go! We spent a good half an hour queueing for a 30 second ride down a hill, in an inflatable donut. It sounds not worth it, but it totally was.
The whole thing took hours to explore, with multiple stops for coffee to warm up. I was sad to leave having not really felt like I had even scratched the surface. Unfortunately, the desire to beat the crowds and hop on the bus before closing time was too strong.
No one want to be standing for a bus in -25 degrees!
So there it is, Harbin. Mostly all about food with some ice sculptures thrown in! I’ve pretty much had it with the freezing conditions so I am ready to start exploring Beijing!
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