If you are travelling in the north or north east of China in winter, the one place you really have to visit is Harbin in the Heiliangjiang province which hosts the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. This festival is awesome, amazing and incredibly cold. A real must see.
Harbin city is the capital of Heilongjiang province, the most north eastern province in China with a population of just under 10 million. Half the population of Australia but nothing to brag about by Chinese standards. An amazing city with much to see and a strong Russian influence. Spend two days and one night in Harbin for the festival then come back in summer when the city has had time to thaw out and be more habitable. I’ve visited Harbin at least four times. Twice during the winter for the festival and twice in summer for the many attractions Harbin has.
Harbin is roughly 1061 kilometers from Beijing and the train tip takes 8 hours by fast train and between 12 and 16 hours by sleeper train. Tickets for the fast train cost around 390 RMB and the hard sleeper tickets cost around 260 RMB. Unless you are in a rush, I recommend travelling over night by sleeper train and arrive in the morning. Sleeper trains are great, the beds are comfortable and sleeping is easy, you can socialize with the locals and practice your Chinese and you have a uniquely Chinese experience. You can always fly in but there is no fun in that.
Try to book your hotel before arriving to avoid confusion. If you don’t have a booking, don’t worry, the train station is full of touts who will enthusiastically take you to Harbins’ “best” hotels where they guarantee you will receive a bargain of a life time. The hotel may not (will not) live up to their promises but it should be warm and comfortable. The hotel I used last time has fallen victim to the latest round of renovations so sadly I cannot recommend it to you. The room had one of those glass walls between the bedroom and bathroom. Makes taking a shower an experience if you share the room.
The festival comes alive at night when the lights and lasers bring the sculptures alive so sight see during the day when the temperatures are bearable (comparatively) then see the festival when the sun goes down at around 4:30pm. The festival is located a bit out of town so take a taxi. Tell the driver snow/ice in English and they’ll know where to go. There is only one place foreigners visit at night in winter.
One point I really need to emphasize is Harbin at night is cold, very very cold. The average winter night temperature will be between -30C and -40C. To enjoy the festival you must dress appropriately which means thick winter jackets, at least two layers of thermal clothing, boots, winter socks, thick hats and some form of face protection. I am not exaggerating. I wore this and more and was still cold.
You will arrive at the main gate, pay an admission fee that will vary from 260 RMB to 330 RMB (depends on the day you go) and enter a winter wonderland. You will see amazing sculptures, buildings shapes, famous land marks and more made out of snow and ice. Words really cannot do the festival justice. You will be amazed and freezing. There are even ice slides which are great fun (not that I’d use them).
Circle the area a few times, take lots of photos, keep moving to stay warm, have a cuppa in the ice restaurants, go on a slide or two, make sure you have missed nothing then head back to your hotel to thaw out and savour the wonderful and crazy experience you’ve just had in the far north east of China.