Lonely man in Songhua River January is well known as one of the worst month to live in north China as the wind from Siberia brings icy air.
The temperature in Beijing is rarely more than 0 degree on sunny days. How should it be to live in Northern provinces of China?

This was to answer this question that I got the idea to go to Harbin 哈尔滨 in Heilongjiang province (Black Dragon’s River). I really wanted to do this travel to be able to see the famous Ice Festival which is every year in this northern city; the cold was more a constraint than a desire…

To live a real immersion in a Chinese life, I decided to go alone and used Couchsurfing (website to find friends who can accommodate you; for free). I had the luck to find a friendly Chinese family who accept to accommodate me for the weekend.

Harbin Ice Festival 2012

They gave me lot of advices and tip on the city and its famous tourist sites, gave my personal bedroom in their home office and offered me every morning a nice breakfast. I tried my best to speak with them in Chinese to exchange on our personal experiences; on their side life in cold Heilongjiang province, on my side life on a new expatriate in China. I made some important progress on my Chinese but it also gave me the gap between discussion with a teacher and real life discussion.

I had to prepare in advance this weekend as the temperatures in Harbin at this period of the year are between -15 and -25 degrees Celsius (I bought a big coat, long underwear and fleece gloves). My Chinese family for the weekend loaned me some fleece shoes as my baskets were not suitable for this weather.

Temperature in Harbin: -14 degrees Ice sculpture

I thought that I was ready for this impressive cold (long underwear, a jogging and a jean for my legs, skiing socks…) but it was not enough as the wind was freezing. I had to go to a hot place (mall, restaurants…) every 2 hours to warm my body.

Downtown animations

Harbin was previously under Russian control. It is still visible in the city centre where the typical Russian architecture is on some old buildings. The contrast is striking between the Old Russian style and the new Chinese buildings.

Old Russian Style Buildings in Harbin Sculptor working on a snow sculpture

Shangzhi Dajie is the main pedestrian street with lot of old Russians houses and couple of ice sculptures.

Russian Style in Shangzhi Dajie

The Ice festival is present everywhere in the city; even some sculptures are at the airport.

A traditional group made specific animations to distract the tourists.

Street Dancers - Shangzhi Dajie Animation - Shangzhi Dajie

Songhua River

During winter, the river is frozen and becomes one of the city animation centers. Lot of attractions settled directly on the ice and benefit of this natural ice rink.

Ice Castle on Songhua River Animations on Songhua River

I went through the river on foot and came back with the cable car. It was really impressive as the river width is almost 150m and even some car cruise on the ice. :)

View from the cable car - Songhua River

Saint Sofia Cathedral

The Orthodox Cathedral, built in 1907, is the famous site from the Russian history of Harbin.

Today, this cathedral stopped to be a place of worship. This is a museum (ticket – 20 yuans) which displays lot of photos about Harbin’s history: development with the Russian, opening of the railway line between Russia and Harbin…

Saint Sofia Orthodox Cathedral Inside Saint Sofia Cathedral

Zhaolin Park

This park is used for another Ice sculptures show. Each sculptor get a big piece of ice and sculpts their own idea.
I visited this site during daytime as I had not enough time to see it at nighttime during my short trip to Harbin. I was there at the opening (15:00) and was the only tourist visiting the park during one hour. I had the chance to hanging around alone and took some nice photos without Chinese family posing in front of the sculptures.

Plenty of Ice sculptures - Zhaolin Park Boats on an Harbour - Zhaolin Park

I also got in touch closely with the ice after a splendid fall when I looked at a big ice wall (picture below). I was more frightened than hurt and got only few bruises on my back…

Ice and Snow Wall - Zhaolin Park

Even with this polar freezing weather, Harbin got a particular spirit. The inhabitants look happy and are really welcoming. The Ice Festival is something really incredible as soon as the sun is going down. The ice blocks start to illuminate and the perspective is completely different.

More really soon on the Ice Festival itself…

All the pictures are available on my Flickr’s page, Harbin album.