Winter Festival – Harbin, China

When I tell people that I work for the World Bank and travel all over, they are envious because I go to places on a regular basis that they dream of seeing one day. While we do jet all over the world, usually slumming it in nice hotels, we seldom have the opportunity to play the tourist. This is because our time in country is filled up to the last minute, and we hanker to get home to our families.

Since Lis was on vacation in New Zealand, I had no reason to rush home, and this visit I resolved to see the Harbin Winter Festival. This is one of the most amazing winter festivals in the world, renouned for its ice and snow sculptures. Lis and I were told about it last year when we visited the Quebec Winter Carnival and since I was in the area (on mission to Shenyang – an hours flight from Harbin) at the right time I decided to spend the weekend at the festival.

As you can see from the map below, Harbin is about half way between North Korea and Siberia. It is therefore ideally suited for a winter festival since it gets COLD. I had also picked a good time to visit – it was the coldest week in 50 years in Russia and we were getting the spill over. The temperature was -29 to -20 C (-20 to -4 F) for the time I was there. With the wind chill I don’t know how cold it got, but even skiing in Canada I didn’t suffer such numbness, or perhaps I’ve just got worse with living in the tropics all those years. Either way, I could last about 1.5 h before I needed to head inside.


A city of over 2 million, located on the southern bank of the Songhua River, Harbin is the capital city of Heilongjiang Province. The Songhua was in the news in December when a chemical factory upstream from Harbin blew up and dumped benzene and other toxins into the river. They shut the water system down for 4 days for ‘maintenance’ and when the people found out the real reason they were a bit upset. That is unfortunately very typical of China where the media does not always report on what is happening and people either don’t find out or learn about it from the rumour mill or the overseas media.

Although the toxic slick is well past, they made one concession. The ice used for the festival was taken from tributaries of the river. That’s a good thing as one wouldn’t want a toxic puddle come spring.

Founded as a railway town by Russian engineers in 1895 when czarist Russia began to build the Trans-Manchurian Railway (later named the Chinese Eastern Railway), RIMG0001 (Small) Harbin became home to the Chinese Eastern Railway’s headquarters and tens of thousands of Russian engineers, colonial bureaucrats, soldiers, traders, and their families. As a result, while much of the city reminds one of any other city in China, it has managed to keep a section of it with the old European style buildings. Quite a shock to see these in China.

It experienced an early boom in its economy and infrastructure during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) when it served as the major supply base and staging area for the Russian armies in Manchuria. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, tens of thousands of new settlers arrived in Harbin—White Russians (supporters of the czar, or people who opposed the new regime). Its population swelled by these new arrivals, in the 1920s, Harbin boasted the largest European community in Asia. Many of the Russians eventually became impoverished and their businesses taken over by the Chinese. Harbin became known as “the graveyard of the white man’s prestige”.

RIMG0003 The Japanese Guandong Army occupied Harbin in 1932 and used it as an outpost to observe developments in the far eastern reaches of the Soviet Union until 1945. Harbin was also the location of one of the most notorious branches of the Japanese military during World War II—Unit 731 of the Guandong Army. This unit was responsible for developing and testing chemical and bacteriological weapons using Chinese and Allied prisoners. It is now a tourist attraction, but I passed on visiting it as it was just too macabre to even consider.

Like most other Chinese cities, they had converted a citRIMG0002 (Small) y street to a pedestrian walking street with lots of shops. This was where most of the Russian buildings were so I enjoyed strolling along admiring the architecture, at least as long as I could cope with the cold! There were quite a few shops advertising Russian goods. Intrigued, I went in to see what was on offer. It seems that what Russia sells to China is (i) Vodka; (ii) Chocolate; (iii) Those Russian stacked dolls where you take smaller ones out of larger ones; and, (iv) furs. Of course this could be relfection of the interests of the Chinese tourists who visit Harbin so is probably not a fair reflection of the Russian export trade. At least I didn’t see any Lada cars on the street!

RIMG0090 There was a very impressive Russian church called St. Sophia. Construction started in 1907, it is said as a confidence builder for the Russians after they were defeated by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05.

Today it is no longer used as a church, but is a central tourist attraction. Indeed, it is said that at one stage it was completely hemmed in by buildings but the city government decided to remove them and open up the church. It is a good thing that they did as it really is a beautiful structure which needs room to be appreciated.

Like everywhere else in Harbin there were ice sculptures lining the edges of the square. In fact, the city seems to have put them in every place possible.

For ice sculpting they need huge blocks of ice. These are taken from the frozen rivers using a special saw. I didn’t see them carving them but this web site has photos of the whole process, including them getting the snow ready for snow scuplting. It is worth a visit. This is a sampling of what they create. Check out all my photos – I know it is impossible to believe but they are in fact made from ice and snow. Even the 10 story clock tower below.






I walked down to the river where they had skating, dog drawn sleds and other activities. There was a beautiful promenade along the river bank stretching for what looked to be most of the length of the city. I walked back to the hotel along the river and absolutely froze because of the strong wind. And this was in spite of having 3 layers on my legs, 4 on my torso, and a balaclava.

After thawing out at the hotel I visited some of the festival sites. As the photos at show, they were incredible. It was well RIMG0088 worth the visit. The other thing that I did was I visited Harbin Tiger Park. I’ve been to similar parks before and so was a bit skeptical as to what I would see, but I was not at all disappointed.

They claim that the park has over 100 tigers and I would easily believe it. They are kept in large open pens and so can wander around. With an area of 1.2 million square km, the park is huge so we only saw a fraction of it. I only saw one white tiger (who was caged), the others looking like the Bengal tigers we are more familiar with (i.e. orange coloured). They didn’t seem bothered by the weather, indeed, some say that they prefer the cold and in summer suffer big time.


We were bundled into a bus (with closed windows thank goodness) and driven through the park. The animals seemed to be grouped by age into different areas and we drove through admiring the animals. One thing about China is that it doesn’t have the same sensitivities that we do in the west. When buying the tickets there was a sign offering live animals to be fed to the tigers while you watched. They ranged from Chickens ($5) to small cows ($120). I didn’t partake of this, as Lis would never have forgiven me, but I wondered what the show would be like when they are fed. I didn’t have long to wait.

While admiring the tigers they suddenly all jumped up and started running for the gate. A jeep came in which was very unusual. Over all the windows, and even the roof, they had thick steel mesh, the kind that you see on floors of chemical plants. Suddenly the tigers start jumping all over the jeep and two get on the roof, pushing away a third. Now these are not small animals – we are talking fully grown animals weighing up to 300 kg, probably males looking at their behaviour.

As quick as a flash the driver opens the door and tosses out a chickeRIMG0075n  which the tigers on the roof grab while those on the ground jump up to try and get. The jeep then zooms off with the tigers hanging on the roof and the others chasing it. Eventually one tiger wins and jumps off with the chicken.

He heads off to one of the shelters that dot the ground and proceeds to devour the bird. Made me think of our cat Tia and what she does when she catches a sparrow, but that is on such a smaller scale. Up close you can see their huge teeth as they break the bones as if they were twigs. It was awe inspiring to be so close to a killing machine. I’m just glad they didn’t toss out a cow as it was bad enough with a chicken!

There were tigers everywhere in the park, and even some lions. I felt very sorry for them as they are so far from home and, unlike the tigers, not in a climate which suits them. They were often huddling together in a group, as if they were trying to keep warm, which they probably were. Even the tigers were together in packs sleeping of just hanging out.

After the drive through the park the deposited us by a walkway and we could observe a number of tigers up close as they wandered through smaller enclosures. There were raw meat sellers there in case you wanted some excitement, but I declined.

It was a great visit and by far the best tiger viewing I have ever had. Highly recommended if you are ever in the area.

Sunday evening I flew to Beijing. As we went to take off the plane didn’t sound right and sure enough they didn’t even try leaving the holding area. All the announcements were in Chinese but basically it seemed there was a problem and they were going to deplane us while they tried fixing it. After an h many people got up as if to leave but I stayed put, then 5 mins later they sat down. It seemed they fixed the problem so we eventually got to Beijing. I really can’t complain. When you think of the number of flights I take each year this happens very infrequently.

Monday and Tuesday were spent in Beijing wrapping up my trip and tieing up loose ends on several projects in the Beijing office. We have a great local team here and I always enjoy spending time with them. In fact, I must say that this is the best group of people I have worked with. A very colleagial attitude.

Wednesday it was goodbye to China and hello Thailand. Having spent over 3 years in Thailand, I always enjoy coming back, and the fact that I was going to +28 C also put me into a good frame of mind. After all, I left Canada to get away from the cold!


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