Harbin; nicknamed the “Ice City”, the capital of the Northern province of Heilongjiang is nestled in the region formally known as Manchuria. The city of Harbin has become a central hub of the North-East of China and an area that has received vast influence from surrounding cultures and historic conquerors. Evidence of which can be seen from the noticeably Russian architecture, nearby Korean cultures and more dark reminders of former Japanese colonisation.
As the city’s nickname would suggest, the city is best known for when the weather seemingly turns for the worse and sub-zero temperatures dominate the region for months on end. The people of Harbin have taken this in their stride, turning a negative into a positive by taking the ice and cold by the balls and making it work for them. It’s a city that holds more than one title for “the world’s largest…”, which included the highest number of nationally protected animals, but also holds one of the biggest festivals of its kind in the world.
Here is the list of the top 8 highlights in the city of Harbin.
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1. Siberian Tiger Park
The endangered Siberian Tiger once roamed across the entirety of Asia, however, these days their range has been reduced to the harshest corners of Siberia and Northern China. To combat their decline in numbers, Siberian tigers have been a nationally protected animal in China since the 1980s.
In an environmental effort to boost their numbers and prevent their extinction, the 350-acre Siberian Tiger Park was established as a place to breed and protect this majestic animal. Starting with a humble 12 tigers, the park is now home to over 1,300, more than double the number of those left in the wild. This makes it the largest park of its kind worldwide!
What makes this park really special is that the typical zoo roles are reversed! Visitors drive through the open paddocks, where the tigers roam freely, in heavily armoured Dawn of the Dead-style buses as the tigers come to investigate you.
There’s also an advantage to China’s lack of health and safety, where you’ll have the opportunity to feed the tigers. This is available along the walkways above the paddocks and even on the bus, where you’ll get even more of an up-close and personal look at these fascinating creatures in action. A fascinating opportunity, of which there isn’t many in the world.
However, being as it’s China there has to be a certain level of animal cruelty, as you have the opportunity to feed the tigers LIVE animals. There’s even a handy price list showing the price per species. Vendors along the walkway also have a cage full of apprehensive looking chickens on stand-by for any willing customer. There are even horror stories and footage of cows being dumped in the paddocks right in the middle of the salivating tigers.
2. Ice and Snow World
This is an annual festival held in Harbin during the winter months (late December to early March), in line with Spring Festival. This particular festival is considered absolutely unmissable and one-of-a-kind. Not only is it a must-see in the North-East of China, but the entire world. Attracting over 18 million visitors annually, the festival established in 1999 has now become the biggest of its kind throughout the world, and arguably the best.
Within the festival, monstrous buildings and structures of epic proportions are constructed entirely from ice collected from the Songhua River which runs through Harbin. These include the likes of famous landmarks, castles, churches, palaces and even a post office. Some of these are even functional buildings, where others you’re able to explore via exquisite ice staircases. It’s truly hard to fathom how they were created.
Undoubtedly the festival is best witnessed when the sun goes down. This is when the LED lights crafted into the structures are illuminated and beam with fabulous neon colours. The lights have the spectacular effect of reflecting through the crystal-clear ice, making it seem like one big enormous neon light straight off a bar wall.
The public will even be lucky enough to explore within and atop some of these miraculous structures. This would include climbing to the top of an ice palace before descending to the bottom via an ice crafted slide. Alternatively, you could walk through the arches of an ice cathedral or attempt to use the ice vending machine (which sadly doesn’t work).
Amongst the spectacular examples of ice art, there are many other things to take your interest in. Such as areas to ice-skate, horse-drawn sledges, stages with regular performances, a 4D experience, ice mazes and various other winter-related activities for the whole family.
3. Jile Temple
Noted as an important cultural heritage site, Jile Temple is known as one of the most important Buddhist temples in all of China. A place of real significance as this is the heart of North-Eastern Buddhism, being the provinces biggest temple.
Within you’ll find a generous selection of beautifully colourfully designed gates and halls built in accordance with traditional Chinese Buddhist style. Each hall is put in order of priority, starting with the Heavenly King Hall and extending to the Hall of Mahavira, the Hall of Three Saints, Scriptures-storing Tower and Chanting Hall.
This also includes a spectacular selection of carefully designed high-stacked pagodas and figures which surround the courtyard. However, the most dominating image is found in the centre of the area; an enormous golden Buddha stood over-watching the courtyard.
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This is an island famous amongst the Chinese after a hit 80s song that brought it to the public’s attention. It’s famed for its natural beauty and cultural attractions found across the 10,000-acre park. Placed in the middle of the mighty Songhua river, there are more than 20 scenic spots across the island.
The island can be divided into 3 sections. The northern end has the wildlife, with some residents being red-crowned cranes, deer and squirrels that roam the area. The centre is where the lakes and surrounding flowers are found along with various snow art (time-dependent). The southern end has some galleries and museums, as well as the old Russian quarter.
The island lives different lives depending on the time of year. During the winter months, the island takes part in the Ice and Snow Festival, where the festival had originally started. A section of the park will be dedicated to displays of ice and snow sculptures along with more hands-on activities such as ice-skating and snow slides.
The summer months are when the park will burst into life when the banks of the island become a natural river beach. Within the island, there will be paddle boats on the lakes and even a small amusement park. This is also when the numerous museums in the park will be in full swing. These include the Sun Island Museum of Art, North China Fine Arts Museum, Yu Zhixue Museum of Art and Russian art galleries.
5. Saint Sophia Cathedral
Along with the constant visitors, and the odd helpfully translated signs, Saint Sophia’s cathedral is the clearest indication of a historically strong Russian influence in the city of Harbin. Built in 1907, this stands as the largest Orthodox Church in the far East. This significant cultural relic stands as evidence for the city earning the nickname “Little Moscow” among its constant Russian visitors.
The structure was originally built from timber, however, following years of damage and restoration has developed into the extravagantly beautiful work of art we see today. These days sadly the cathedral is wedged between the ever-developing landscape of department stores and high-rise buildings.
6. Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base
This place is evidence of the little talked about atrocities that occurred during the Second World War. Most people are probably unaware that after Russia and Germany, China had the biggest number of deaths. That was the result of the Japanese invasion of what was then known as Manchuria. During which the Japanese underwent particularly cruel and immoral acts of war. One very particular example of that cruelty was at this place.
At this site, approximately 3000-4000 prisoners from not only China, but other allied nations such as Russia, Korea and even America found themselves, victims, to particularly gruesome experiments. This included being frozen alive and infected with numerous diseases including bubonic plague and syphilis.
These days the site has been converted into a museum to illustrate the horrors that once occurred here. Within you’ll find extensive exhibits and photographs of the time, including some of the equipment used by the Japanese.
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Here’s a square dedicated to a mass-murdering dictator, none other than Mr Stalin, however it was built out of more honourable reasons. Although the name-sake, the square was dedicated for more affectionate reasons. It was built to represent the friendship between Russia and China. More specifically to honour them for the support they had given the people of Harbin following a devastating flood in 1957.
At the centre of the square stands a Roman cylinder topped with statues of heroes of that time. Along with the square, there’s also an adjoining street that runs parallel to the Songhua riverbank. A walk along which provides the best opportunity to see not only the river itself but also Sun Island in all its glory.
Nearby you’ll also find one of Harbin’s biggest attractions, the Flood Control Memorial. Although the latter attraction won’t be functioning during the winter months, the deficit is filled as the entire street is brightened up with never-ending lines of public built snowmen. It’s also the best opportunity to see the expanse of the frozen river as well as being able to set foot on it. Along with many frozen lake-related activities such as ice slides and ice-skating.
8. Zhaolin Park
This park nearby the banks of the Songhua River is the very first park built in Harbin, dedicated to General Li Zhaolin. The park includes the likes of Meigui Mountain (Rose Mountain) in the East and Huaguo Mountain (Flower and Fruit mountain) as well as a specially built lake at the centre. As well as this the park includes an open-aired theatre, a skate park and even regular fish exhibitions.
The Park however takes a different turn during the winter months when it becomes another mainstay of the Ice and Snow Festival. Although much smaller than its counterpart on Sun Island, however, it has its own unique event. It’s the site of the annual Lantern Garden Party, where there will be specially crafted ice lanterns displayed, for which the party is named. The festival lasts from early January until the end of February.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.