Why millions of people will visit China’s coldest city this winter

Harbin is known as the coldest of China’s major cities. Average high temperatures are at or below freezing from November through February. Nightly lows during these winter months are well below 0°F (approximately -18°C). Not only does Harbin have some noticeable Russian influences when it comes to its architecture, it also features Siberian weather patterns that make it even colder than other cities at a similar latitude.

Harbin can get quite warm in the summer, but it is not as hot as China’s other cities, and the evenings are always pleasantly cool. On paper, this city, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, seems like it might be a pleasant place to spend a few days during June or July.

A tourist high season with subzero temps
Harbin’s tourist high season is actually during the coldest time of the year. Though there are ski slopes and wintertime adventure activities near the city, almost everyone who comes here is in town solely to see the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Usually referred to simply as the Harbin Ice Festival, the city-wide event kicks off in early January. It runs through February, though many of the sculptures remain standing until they melt in the spring.

The combined total attendance figure for the 2012 and 2013 Ice Festivals was more than 28 million. That breaks down to 14 million attendees per year - quite impressive given the city's extreme temperatures.

Massive sculptures and impressive lighting displays 

The massive sculptures (think Disney-like ice castles) are made from huge blocks of ice cut from the Songhua River, which flows right through Harbin. There are ice sculptures in squares and along main thoroughfares during the wintertime, but the most impressive are set up in a three different areas. Sun Island, a huge riverside park, is where the snow sculpture exhibition is held. The snow castles, often decorated with whimsical figures, are almost the same size as a real life castle.

A second area, called Snow and Ice World, harkens back to the festivals roots. The winter celebrations grew out of a tradition of making ice lanterns. The ice sculptures and structures at Snow and Ice are illuminated every night.

Traditional ice lanterns and other illuminated sculptures are also on display at Zhaolin Park, a site that many people consider "the main event" of the Ice Festival. Though the sculptures are usually finished by late December, the fully lit displays don’t fully come online until Jan. 5.

A wintertime playground with dangerously low temperatures 

Each of the aforementioned areas has an admission fee. There is no fee to walk along Zhongyang Street (also known as Central Street). You won’t see any huge ice sculptures here, but you will be able to visit some of the city’s best restaurants and bars and appreciate the unique blend of Chinese and Russian architecture that makes Harbin unique.

Harbin has shrugged off its icy image (and air quality problems brought on by coal-powered heating) and really started to market itself as a wintertime destination. Yabuli Ski Resort, a couple hours outside the city, is growing in popularity, and many tours offer snowmobiling excursions, sled dog rides and safari-like trips to see the Siberian tigers that are housed in a local nature park.

These attractions draw lots of tourists during the winter, but the extreme cold and the two-month-long festival calendar mean that things are never really overcrowded. As long as you are prepared for the dangerously low temperatures, Harbin in winter could turn out to be a great experience.

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