Harbin is one of the most unknown tourist destinations in China for Westerners and even Chinese. It is really isolated, from other metropolitan areas. In our case we flew from Xi’an to Shanghai, Shanghai to Harbin, the airport is very nice, modern clean and organized. It is located far from the city and it took us around 40 minutes to arrive in a regular taxi. There is a lot of greenery and forest along the ride in, a theme which repeats itself in the city’s many parks and breathable spaces.
Going to Harbin was something we did with a little apprehension. It is less well known and touristed and the research we kept finding in our preparations showed a lot of disappointment with the city. It is famed in winter for its life size ice sculptures, but others said there is simply nothing to do outside of this time and event, and we found them to be incredibly wrong!
We went to enjoy both a new destination and the opening of a new JW Marriott hotel. English is more limited here and there is a noticeable lack of Western tourists, but the staff at the hotel were more than hospitable making a big effort to welcome us and upgrade our stay.
The following day we went out to walk and found an incredibly organized, clean, airy and green city. The sheer number of parks is exciting as well as places to walk, cycle and run. The weather was pleasant and it felt so much like being in a standard European city, complete with a historic old part of town. It is a huge city on the world stage but not a tier one like Shanghai or Beijing. Luxury stores, skyscrapers and all the trappings of modern, urban Chinese life are easy to find.
Being located close to the Russian border there is a fascinating cross over with Russian style architecture and artefacts around the city. Most of the souvenir stores sell Russian products and the central pedestrian avenue is a place to see and be seen. The city takes its spring and summertime beautification process seriously since it has long cold winters.
The following day we went to explore the indoor ice sculpture park. Many people don’t know if its existence, just the wintertime one outdoors, but this exhibition goes year round. Whats amazing is that even local concierges in the hotel seemed unaware of its existence and there was hardly anything about it online. We found one concierge who finally knew about it and how to get there.
Its good to be sure you’re getting the proper directions or else you’ll end up in an empty field (as we did) when the first concierge misunderstood our request. It is located on Sun island in a park. The building outside is non descript, but it is called “Ice Art Gallery” and nearby tourist offices can help you get the right directions.
The entry fee is 120 yuan and you get a massive parka to wear to endure the inside temps. They don’t provide winter hats, so you may want to bring your own, its friggin cold. This is really one of the must see segments of a visit here and it is just a taste of what you can expect in winter time where the outdoor sculptures are ten times the scale! You get a nice hot cup of tea on the way out too, to warm up.
Harbin is a place to enjoy all year round. It is the gateway to Chinese winter sports destinations, for the famous ice carvings and it is really a hidden gem off the well-worn tourist pathways of China.