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Once Upon a Time in a Winter Wonderland
Foreigners in China
Discovering China’s Frozen Paradise

By Chiden Balmes
 
How far can you go in China on one winter holiday when the temperature plummets below zero degrees? For someone who’s totally afraid to take the risk of frostbite, hibernating in a well-heated room seems the perfect escape from the biting cold. But if one is bold enough to appreciate nature’s frozen beauty despite the villainous winter cold, going further north of Beijing will take you to Harbin—a mesmerizing city considered among the world’s finest winter wonderlands.
The moment we got off from the train from Beijing after thirteen long hours, there was no doubting we were in the “Ice City”. The vapor that came out from our mouths (as if we’re all smoking) every time we exhaled was solid evidence. The cold was much like being trapped inside the refrigerator, or perhaps more precisely, inside the freezer. But that should come as no surprise, since Harbin is located at the northernmost part of China, where winter temperature frequently drops to as low as -30 °C.

Our first stop was the Sun Island Park, where, year after year, various snow sculptures are creatively crafted by different artists from around the world. Replicas of famous world landmarks such as the Great Wall, Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Egypt and the like are intricately showcased in ice and snow form.

Being proximate to the Siberian wilderness, Harbin also boasts an indoor zoo-cum-museum called Polar World, where various animals such as the endangered polar bears, Siberian tigers, wolves, tropical fishes, dolphins, and whales can all be seen for an entrance fee of 100 RMB.

Of course, one would not completely savor the splendor of this frozen paradise without touching, feeling, and actually sliding on the ice. Yet another exciting destination in Harbin had me sliding down a steep ice slope with the cold winter wind slapping hard at my face at an accelerating speed. And though swimming in a place as chilly as Harbin might seem a downright crazy idea, some locals (or should I call them daredevils) are just so accustomed to the weather that they even dive into the cold water and stay there for a while.

Harbin also happens to be known as the “Little Moscow of the East”—and with good reason. Wandering around the busy avenues of Central Street evokes a feeling of being in Russia as manifested by the old Russian architecture and other European-inspired edifices, the most popular of which is the St. Sofia Orthodox Church—the largest mainstream church in the Far East. An entrance fee of 10 RMB will take you to the church’s interior where various pictures and murals are displayed.

If Shanghai has the Oriental Pearl Tower and Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Harbin prides itself in the Dragon Tower, which ascends as high as 206 meters, making it pull rank as one of the world’s tallest towers. For 180 RMB, visitors are treated to a magnificent bird’s eye view of the bustling city below. It is especially stunning at night, when colorful and moving lights pervade the scenery, while the cold winter breeze penetrates your bones.
But the excitement and awe go up a notch at the annual Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, where large chunks of ice from the Songhua River are transported and carved to become splendid ice lanterns, statues and miniatures, then brightened up by sparkling vivid lights. Going to Harbin without seeing this magical spot would be a big mistake because it’s certainly the most exhilarating part of the trip—well-worth its price of admission of 75 RMB. The exhibition is most wonderful at night, where neon lights within the ice are laid to light up the towering translucent ice and snow sculptures that create a colorful evening panorama. The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is a combination of ice and snow carvings, dazzling lights, fun music, ice-skating performances, winter goodies— name it. It is, in essence, a frozen Disney World.

I spent my second day in Harbin at a skiing village quite a distance from the heart of the city. A three-and-a-half hour bus ride will take you to Yabuli Skiing Center. Riding the cable car for 150 RMB is a nice sightseeing experience from the top of the snow-packed forest surrounding the village. But for those who have come to hit the slopes, the resort provides skiing suits and equipment for only 60 RMB.

Surviving Harbin, for me, was an achievement. If not for my two layers of thermal underwear, three long-sleeved shirts, two pairs of pants, one thick bubble jacket, two pairs of gloves, two bonnets, a scarf, mask and winter shoes, I would have suffered hypothermia and frozen to death. Good thing my camera was also able to withstand the deadly cold. The secret lies in keeping it (relatively) warm inside your jacket right after taking photos.

Harbin projects an outstanding model of a place that has turned a seemingly unfavorable element (cruel winter) into its greatest attraction. The city is all about exploring and utilizing its winter resources to its own gain by producing something creative from ice and snow.

The first winter in my life has passed, with me experiencing its most splendid beauty in Harbin. Having grown up in much warmer weather, it was only natural for me to fear winter. Nevertheless, it also became the season that I fell in love with the most. Those short yet very exciting days of snow-filled fun took me to a freezing escapade which I never thought of experiencing.

Chiden Balmes is a graduate of the University of the Philippines, Diliman with a Bachelors Degree in Public Administration. In 2007, he was selected as one of the scholars to be sent to China under the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation Scholarship Program.
 

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