Harbin is most famous for its winter ice carving festival. This occurs in January every year when temperatures plunge to -30 celsius. Now, I love art and everything… but minus 30!? That sounds pretty cold to me. We decided to head to Harbin to see what is on offer during the warmer months and we were very glad we did!
Before arriving we had asked around Chinese friends if it was worth making the long trip North to Harbin – even the bullet train from Beijing takes 7 hours. The vast majority informed us we would be disappointed and that it was only really worth a visit in the winter…
We put out some speculative couchsurfing host requests to a number of northern Chinese cities, no set plans were in place, we just rolled the dice to see where they lay. It turned out Harbin had our number, so we booked the next train and zipped off at 242km/h.
Harbin, as you may know, is close to the Russian border. During the earlier part of the 20th century it was in fact occupied by Russia. As such, the architecture of the region is heavily influenced and at times you could quite easily believe you were in St Petersburgh or any other major Russian town, especially when you arrive at the serendipitously designed St. Sophia Cathedral (20 yuan entry fee – half price with a students card and well worth it).
Aside from the Architecture, Harbin is known as a popular student town. The benefit of this is of course cheap eats, cheap beer and fun party times 7 nights a week. We happened to be staying in housing at the Harbin Institute of Technology, so this put us in an even better position to have a good time on a budget!
If you are a little too old to be hanging with the students (we are! but do anyway!), the downtown pedestrian area of Harbin is well presented, clean and has a host of thing to keep travellers entertained, and at lower prices than major cities like Beijing or Shanghai.
For the summer the local population take full advantage by getting out and about, beer & BBQ tents every 50 metres (albeit at prices 4 or 5 times higher than in the student zone), we also bumped into what was possibly the lowest budget Disney parade in history – which included Asian Captain Jack Sparrow!!
Although we had not arrived at the official time of the Harbin Beer Festival – apparently in August – there was still a large quantity of beer to go around. We ate well, we drunk well and we experienced the only city in China which is truly a Russian/Chinese fusion.
For those of you who simply can’t bare the idea of travelling to Harbin and not seeing the ice sculptures, you are in luck! They have a permanent exhibition hall chilled to -15 celsius, year round, coats provided! (130 yuan per person)
It came as a surprise, but Harbin in the summer has been one of my favourite cities in China so far – it’s the vibe. In the summer people are happy, it’s hot but not too hot like the sticky humidity of southern China and above all everyone has a laid back attitude to just hanging out having street food and beer – Harbin is better value for money and utterly unpretentious, unlike the major cities and the tourist hubs.