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Published: January 25th 2017
We have all seen these images for the last 30 years on our national and international news each first week of the year. I guess actually few people have any idea where Harbin is on the map. So here it is, we give you the Ice and Snow International Festival of Harbin. This is actually only the second blog on travelblog.com to feature any image of this exceptional experience. Imagine, the first year of the Festival was back only in 1985!
Harbin is closer from Vladivostok than Beijing. The northern city of more than 5 millions souls is only 500 kilometers from the bother of Russia or even North Korea...but you'll need to do over 1000km to reach Beijing! The window to visit the Ice and Snow Festival is a pretty tight one too, with a maximum of 5 weeks from the start of January. So be ready, it is going to be either cold...or very cold....who wants to visit ice sculpture...with a no freezing day!
So you can guess, with such a short window of time, nothing is cheap around here! The direct flight from Shanghai is just short of three hours. Even 8
months ahead, they had nothing below 500usd available online through international sites. I knew these flight would be crowded...and they ended being pretty full. So I used 20,000 miles per ticket from Cathay...to book a return flight on Air China. Now the fun part about it! Air China is part of Star Alliance....Cathay is part of Oneworld...but these two have done a share swap....and are therefore owned by each other. So as I may not have been able to put my Thai Airways membership in the system at booking...at check-in, we could still use the business class queue and the lounge, compliments of Star Alliance! Weird airlines world!
Now the bad about Harbin....very few western tourists...nobody speak anything else than Chinese here...and they are ready to cheat you...big time! Northerners in China....are not soft people...I can imagine with that tough weather...so if you want to cheat me, it's ok, but I will play your game...and it's going to be heated! It went...twice in 48 hours...and trust me...the cheater didn't get it well at the end. If only they could be like Korea. In South Korea....you may not understand anything around, they may not speak English...but they will
take you by the hand and care about you. In Northern China, it's just the opposite.
We stay outside of Harbin at the Sheraton. Brand new gorgeous property opened just a year ago...and cost close to nothing. Hotel is beautiful...f&b is the worst I've seen in years...service....which service? But I have to admit, if you want something slightly international, you have the choice between a Sofitel or two Shangri-la....in a city with 5 millions people...this is it...so do with what you get, and try to do the best about it if you can!
After all, I did check tripadvisor for restaurants. Are you ready? Number 3, 5 and 6 are....Mc Donalds, KFC and Pizza Hut...I'm not kidding! Well, they had a Burger King next to the hotel...missing on that top 6...even if they are better than Mc Do....you can laugh, I do!
Back in 1920, 120,000 Russians lived in Harbin. They were mainly fleeing away from the Communists...by 1980, only over 400 of them were left....they had been either deported to better lands....or murdered by either the Chinese, the Russians themselves or even the Japanese. Japan had invaded the area by
the early 1930...have you heard of Unit 731...medical tests on human being killing millions....that was in Harbin too! The Japanese killed obviously way more Chinese than Russians.
So you guess it, the past has not always been very smooth and friendly to human nature around here!
We first left the hotel to visit St Sofia, the Orthodox cathedral today used as an urbanism museum. We than continued by walking the Central Street, the main walking street of the city. The Central Street ends with the river. In winter, this place is a huge amusement park where you can rent all sorts of toys...all this, on deeply frozen water!
We made it just before 3pm to Sun Island for the Snow Festival. Little warning, here, bring cash...and cash! The Snow Festival is one entry ticket, the Ice Festival is another ticket...and you speak of more than 80usd per person for both tickets. Not cheap, but once in a life time! The Snow Festival is open during the day and close at 4.30pm, just after sunset....the Ice Festival is the opposite...opening just before sunset.
We made it just on time
for the Snow Festival. It may be -18 degrees outside....but the light is amazing....with a full dark blue sky...fabulous!
The Snow Park is in a huge park, so you walk from one place to the other...discovering bigger sculptures at each turn. Just enjoy the pictures! Trying to find a taxi that will accept to put the meter to here could be a challenge...and between here and the Ice Festival....next taxi, next challenge!
The Ice Festival is actually a more concentrated affair, but a way bigger one than the Snow area. 15,000 workers cut blocks of ice from the local river...starting in December, and it takes them a good two weeks to built each year this place. Chinese recent constructions all over China can be seen as kitsch by many, me including. But this is a seriously well run operation. I have to admit, the place is simply beautiful. Just don't forget, it is going to be cold...very very cold. We had no problem with this....nice stop at the Decathlon in Shanghai...and we were ready for the below -20 degrees at night! It took us a good 3 hours to explore the full place strolling
from one construction to the next...from one carving to the next!
Interestingly, the taxi driver who get us back to the hotel wasn't a thief...an exception here over 48 hours in Harbin! We didn't move much from the hotel that night.
Next morning, it was skiing time. A first for Tanya...and my 16th country in terms of skiing for myself. We could have gone to Yabuli. They have a Club Med, and the biggest ski area in China...with 5 lifts...but aswe are close to Chinese New Year, prices do sky-rocket big time...oh, and Yabuli is 190km from Harbin!
So we are settling for the Jihua ski field. Not sure how many runs they have...we saw maybe 5 of them...but today, there is a chairlift open and a ski lift...and that's it....it will do for a nice two hours skiing late morning. Well, this after being cheated again by another taxi driver who offered us a little detour of over 40km....even after being personally handpicked by the concierge of the Sheraton! Trust me, he only ended with the fare that was supposed to be paid for the shortest way here!
Once at the ski center...first...there are not many people around...nice! Next, nobody speak any English at all....I know, I should be speaking Chinese....but I don't, and I'm not really sure I want! Skiing here is cheap....once you find out what you need and want....staff are kind of helping...but a professional ski place, this is not!
Look at my skis on the pictures. I first didn't check...but they had mounted downhill fixation and shoes...on cross country skis! Insane, dangerous, but was actually quite fun to try them...so did one little slope...and return them after it. Next, got proper skis....but imagine....they don't care about your weight....there is zero fine tuning...these ski are simply not set properly....this makes it for a very dangerous adventure. Don't forget, it's close to minus twenty degrees....no fresh snow...it's icy...and falling on this can hurt, big time!
I didn't fall on my last 30 days of skiing over the world, not a single time. Here, I fall where I should never have fallen before. No damage! So I decided to keep it very relax, and not to do any slope that could put me in a difficult situation. Out of the
question to break a leg here! No way!
It was the first time trying down skiing for Tanya. So I took her a private lesson....mainly in Chinese! I have to admit, when I spotted here twenty minutes in her lesson, I couldn't believe it...she was skiing like somebody with 10 hours behind her....so she'll be back with me on the slopes....next time, with proper skis, proper snow!
Here we are...enjoy the pictures! These 48 hours were at time challenging, if not heated with arguments with the locals. This is deep China....be ready for the challenge, and just enjoy the experience. We did! Just don't expect a warm welcome!
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