Famous For Being Cold

Written by Nov 20, 2006 05:11
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Harbin: A Place To Stay

A mere 5 civilised train hours from Jilin City is the most famous cold city in China: Harbin. Travellers tales abound about how cold this place really gets and I was more than a little apprehensive, even after braving the permanence of the sub-zero temperatures of its fellow northeast Provinces of Liaoning and Jilin.

I was pleasantly surprised therefore to arrive in Harbin and find myself still moving, although my ears were quickly numbed. At a roundabout I stopped to stare at the blocks of ice forming a glacial wall: they might have been made of glass. There’s certainly no pretending about the cold here; even the ice has turned to stone: melting, it seems, is not an option.


My least favourite part of travelling alone is hunting down accommodation. I lose count of the amount of hotels I’ve wandered into to haggle over room rates and just as often left because the price doesn’t suit my budget.

This afternoon with an especially heavy rucksack from a while on the road, I was lucky to run into a Harbin couple who, after a brief conversation, offered to help me to locate a hotel. The second place they took me to, realising my tight budget, was less a hotel and more a hole in a wall. I would have walked right past it assuming it was condemned and never suspected what lay behind it.

For 40RMB a night I couldn’t resist. I never plan on spending much time in my accommodation when I travel, as long as there’s a place to sleep I’m happy. So I agreed to stay there, despite the lack of hot water or a shower. (I would wash my hair in the sink under a freezing cold tap!) The owner couldn’t read my passport and dismissed all thoughts of paperwork with a casual shrug. The room had 2 beds, thick blankets, a heater and a TV. The lack of curtains was actually rather nice, providing a great view in the evenings over the city’s brightly lit buildings.

Harbin: A Taste Of Russia

Turn left from the train station and head towards the Songhua River (松花江) and you’ll find yourself in a part of town called Daoliqu (道里区). I enjoyed this part of town immensely as it is here that the influences of nearby Russia are most apparent. Here, the curls, spires and cobblestone streets are distinctly un-Chinese and there’s a curious skyline of modern Chinese buildings verses Russian architecture.

It is in this area you can find the much talked about Church of Saint Sophia (圣素菲亚教堂). Built by the Russians in 1907, it’s difficult to miss her muddy green domes and spires topped with golden crosses. She appears very gothic and fantastical amidst the square high rises of the city. Christmas trees flank the entrance and in the grounds are stalls selling fur hats, fluffy clog-like slippers and Russian Dolls.

Towards the River, where Zhongyang Street meets Toudao Street, you can eat at the Russian restaurant, Café Russia 1914. It is small and cosy, and a popular place for foreigners, with a good selection of dishes that certainly aim to be authentic. The sausages were delicious and I also tried Pelmeny, which is similar to a dumpling filled with minced meat, yum!

Harbin: Shopping, Eating and Flood Control

Zhongyang Street (中央大街) is mainly pedestrianised and makes for a pleasant place to wander, go shopping and dine out. You can buy Russian caviar and Swiss Toblerone, order a rich hot chocolate in a French-style café or lose yourself in one of the large shopping malls. Alternatively Western-style bars make a great place to escape from the cold and unwind over a beer and a fruit pizza.

Zhongyang Street runs at 90 degrees to the Songhua River and you can follow the street right down to the Flood Control Monument, passing a variety of turn of the century Russian-styled shops and the ubiquitous American offerings of McDonalds and Walmart.

The Flood Control Monument commemorates a great flood that occurred in 1957 causing the loss of many lives and also the resilience of the Harbin people who overcame it. At night, lit up against the sky, it looks quite spectacular.

Harbin: Zhaolin Park Ice-Lantern Display

Located one street east of Zhongyang Street, on Shangzhi Street (尚志大街) is the well-known Zhaolin Park. When I visited, it appeared to be closed during the day and came alive at night, when it resembles a fantasy world of ice, light and fun.

It gets dark early in Harbin, especially in the winter, and the temperatures plummet. Zhaolin Park offers a playground of ice sculptures from boats and bridges over the frozen lake to giant slides for the apparently cold-resistant children. The lumps of ice from the Songhua River are first carved into square blocks and then arranged into numerous forms and lit up with a carnival-like array of multicoloured lights.

A competition between sculptors from around the world was displayed in the centre; the intricate carvings as pure and clear as glass, gleamed in the light.

The park is large enough to wander for a couple of hours, but the intensity of the cold that night drove me back to my room prematurely. My camera and I both struggling to function!

Harbin: The Snow Sculptures of Sun Island Park

There are many ways to cross the frozen expanse of the Songhua River, cable car, horse and carriage or dog and sled. I decided to walk. Having never walked on a frozen river before, I wanted to experience it with my own two feet and I was glad that I did.

Walking out to Sun Island was strange. I could hardly imagine that beneath my feet was a river, it felt like some wild, icy plain in Siberia. The great metal legs holding the cable cars were packed in with ice and a steady stream of horses and carts made the crossing. I wandered alone, occasionally shifting away the snow to look at the great, cracked icy river.

I reached a side entrance of the park, alone, and entered quietly. The day was perfect. No wind and the sun looking wide and pale and casting a yellow glow over the snow sculptures. I was shocked at both the scale of the creations and their intricacy.

I was a happy and cold wanderer, determined to stay in the park until the sun went down so that I could appreciate the snow by night too. Snow buildings, snow people, snow cities, snow monsters, snow rabbits… No imaginary feat is too great to be fashioned by snow it seems. It was a wonderland of white stone, for surely snow can not be fashioned into life-size buildings that I can walk through ?

Of course, all the sculptures are made of snow, and all the more amazing for it. I easily walked the afternoon away drifting around the park until at 4am the evening began to settle. The sun grew red, casting the snow in fiery light and then the lights came on, spotlighting the snow in pools of brilliance and deep shadow.

As usual the failing light and cold were pressing me to leave and I decided to return across the river on foot. It was murky, dusky and magical. The city sprang, light by light, into existence. I felt I was walking back to reality. Never has a city seemed more warm and inviting than that night, from that icy stretch of darkening river, from that land of snow.

Harbin: The Unexpected Culture Park Zone

My last day in Harbin saw me heading away from the river in search of something different, though I wasn’t sure what. The morning dawned in 3 beautiful stripes: the white land, the old pink of dawn and the blue sky. I was mesmerised.

I got on a bus munching a pancake and took a ride through the city. The streets were packed and everyone seemed to be smiling, there was a warm holiday mood to this city that did much to thaw the cold. The proximity of Spring Festival I’m sure added to this atmosphere.

The route passed a huge big wheel, but I remained on the bus till the last stop and found myself in a quiet street in the suburbs. I decided to walk back to the big wheel, as it was the only landmark I recognised. An hour later, through the sometimes silent and sometimes bustling streets, I found myself at the big wheel, but more interestingly underneath an ornate gateway.

The small street was lined with shops selling incense and the familiar thick cloying scent filled the air. I made my way down the street to find a large temple complex and immediately went to investigate.

The complex was dominated by a courtyard that seemed to be crammed with Buddhist icons. It felt almost as though I had stumbled upon someone’s private collection left here for safekeeping. A giant golden Buddha dominated the courtyard, surrounded by pagodas, stupa, statues, lanterns and temples. The incense burning lent the surroundings a mystical aura and many visitors were praying in huge sweeping gestures on the plump prayer mats scattered around.

The trees decorated with lights, jaunty prayer flags strung overhead and the swinging red lanterns gave the place a carnival-like look, but the feeling was distinctly spiritual and peaceful. The big wheel backdrop and occasional Russian-style turrets added to the surrealism of this unexpected enclave.

Harbin: Farewell My Favourite

Rarely a city lover, there was something about Harbin that had me hooked from the moment I stepped off the train.

The snow, the ever-changing colours of winter, the holiday atmosphere, the cleanly-spoken putonghua (as crisp as the weather!), the delicious local beer, the Russian influence, the river-freezing cold and the warmth of the locals.

Harbin has something for everyone, it will delight and amaze even the most weary of travellers and richly deserves to be on an itinerary.

Harbin is a beautiful city, famous for being cold but capable of surprising and unforgettable warmth.

Information (January 2006)

Harbin is one of the largest cities in Northern China, located in Heilongjiang Province and famous for being cold and for its numerous ice and snow festivals. Winter is peak season and definitely holiday time in Harbin.

Getting there

From: Jilin (吉林) to Harbin (哈尔滨)
By: Train
Takes: 5 hours

Tourist Attractions

Zhaolin Park Ice-Lantern Display
40RMB per person
60RMB per person includes a guided tour! (not worth it in my opinion)

Sun Island Park (太阳岛公园) Snow Sculptures
80RMB per person

Harbin Culture Park Zone (哈尔滨文化园区)
Inlcudes the Temple of Bliss (吉乐寺) and the Seven-Tiered Pagoda (七级浮屠塔)
10RMB per person (a bargain!)
Catch the Number 14 bus and get off at the big wheel.

I do recommend Café Russia 1914.
My dinner for one, Pelmeny, sausages and a beer cost 57RMB.


If you’re looking to catch up on chocolate, then you must visit the Sweet Chocolate Shop. It’s a tiny shop located just off the main drag at the southern end of Zhongyang Street. It really is like the gingerbread house, especially after you’ve lived in China for a year !! Expensive though.


Yes, it’s very cold. Warm clothing is essential.
Winter temperatures, when I was there in January, ranged between -15°C and -30°C.

 More Harbin Travel Reviews
1. Regarding Harbin Life ILOVEHARBIN from CN Feb 4, 2006 22:02
2. <A> A frozen wonder, the ice city of Harbin CHIIIINITA from ES Jan 14, 2006 02:01
3. Harbin on Ice MISHEN from NZ Jan 11, 2006 06:01
Comments (6)


Nov 26, 2011 05:04 Reply

Mr.DICKSON from Malaysia said:

Hi. Does anyone able to recommend some good hotels in Harbin? Is it difficult to move around in Harbin? I plans to visit Harbin in the end of Jan2012. What about the entrance ticket for the ice lantern display? How far the area from the train station?

Appreciate you kind info.


Nov 9, 2011 11:03 Reply

Mr.HARSH from India said:

your article is very informative, except the accomodation thing. Could you please tell me where did you stay?Or suggest me some cheap hotels?Even i have a very limited budjet (same for almost all students like me) but still i am going there. I will be there in January, 2012.


May 5, 2007 22:25 Reply

HBBE734 said:

Good job, real superb article.


Nov 21, 2006 03:38 Reply


grrrrrr!! oooops!! sorry!! I mean 极乐寺 is right!!!


Nov 21, 2006 03:29 Reply


Thanks Cali...you are right...it should be 级乐寺...! :)

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