I believe many haven’t heard of Harbin. Harbin is a city in the north-east of China. It is actually pretty close to the border of Russia. We do see many resemblance of the western influence, especially Russian, when we were there. Let me take you down to this road less travelled and share with you some of my experiences.
Harbin was one place my other half and I have been speaking of to visit for the longest time. We’re so glad we finally did! The main reason that brought us there was their yearly famous ice sculptures wonderland. Besides the enormous ice sculptures, there are more stunning natural beauty in this northern region of China. We decided not to join the tours and go and explore on our own. After much research, we prepped our best for this trip, but one has to be there to absorb the experiences right? So here’s my list of things to do and avoid in Harbin:
TRANSPORTATION FROM AIRPORT TO CITY
Once we exited from the arrival gate, there were signs pointing us to the Taxi area. As we exited the arrival hall, we see no taxis at all, except for private car hagglers. Remember, this is China, so haggling is a common thing. Also, it’s Harbin and it is really, really COLD!! I guess this is when we say desperate needs call for desperate measures. We negotiated with one of the private car drivers and agreed upon RMB100. However, what he failed to inform us is that we have to pay RMB60 for toll, which wasn’t included in the negotiated fare. At the end of our Harbin trip, as we were dropped off by a metered taxi at the departure hall, we found out where all the taxis were parked. So my assessment is:
DO: Take the metered taxis if you can. Once you’ve exited the arrival gate, walk towards your right, to the bus ticket counters. Then, exit from that door and walk another 20 steps. All the metered taxis are waiting at that area. In fact, if you take the private cars, do negotiate to RMB100 and pay the toll yourself. It’s almost the same price as the metered taxi. The metered taxi we took was about RMB150.
DON’T: Don’t bother asking the information counter at the departure hall, as the lady behind the counter directed me to the same exit where the signs were pointing yet, there were no taxis at all. Don’t pay anything more than RMB180 if you’re going into the city with a private car.
VISIT PEDESTRIAN STREET
DO: We were there in the beginning of February, right after Chinese New Year. Many shops and the street were decorated with Chinese New Year items. Some Christmas decorations were still up as well. Remember that this is a very touristy place, so souvenirs and food are rather expensive here. There’s a Starbucks here, so if you want a cup of hot coffee or chocolate, this is the place to go to if you want familiarity. Try to eat ice cream in this weather and you’ll take forever to finish one, as it doesn’t melt in this extreme cold. I did get myself a souvenir, which is a Russian faux fur hat! I’ve always wanted one and it cost me RMB250. I’m sure you can get one for much cheaper away from this area, but it was calling for me.
DON’T: Eat on this street unless you’re willing to pay a whole lot more for food. Also, do pay attention to traffic lights when you’re crossing the road. Although this street is closed up for pedestrians, make sure you watch out for the traffic lights when you’re crossing from one block to another, as this street runs for about 2 blocks. Anyway, jaywalking is very common in China.
HARBIN ICE AND SNOW WORLD
DO: Harbin Ice & Snow World is the reason we are here, so it’s a MUST-SEE! To get there, do get a taxi or private car for hire. It took about 20 minutes from our hotel. We stayed at the Sofitel Harbin and the concierge helped us to get a private car to get there. He advised us to get the driver to drop us off at the entrance and wait for us. The entire trip took about 3 hours and we paid the driver RMB250. You can purchase the tickets at the entrance.
We paid about RMB300 per person for the tickets. There are food stores inside so you can stop by for hot drinks if you’re too cold or just needed something warm to drink. If you’d like to save on drinks, bring your own thermos. The weather is so cold that your bottled water will turn into ice in no time!
DON’T: Buy tickets from anyone except at the entrance. There are loads of scammers around. Also, wear a pair of good boots that aren’t slippery since this place is built on top of a frozen river. Don’t buy anything from hagglers that tries to sell everything, from shoe spikes to tickets, outside the entrance. You will not slip and fall if you walk carefully and never try to run.
SKIING IN HARBIN
If you think of skiing, Harbin will not be the first place that comes into mind. You’ll probably thought of places like Switzerland, French Alps, Utah or even Japan. Since we are there in Harbin and it’s a city covered in snow, we explored the skiing option as well. There are not a lot skiing resorts in Harbin city itself, so most of the skiing places are out of the city. The nearest town we found is Lantian Ski Area. It’s about an hour drive from our hotel. We hired the same private driver who took us to Harbin Ice & Snow World. He charged RMB500 for a day of transportation and private tour.
We got to know that the best ski resort nearest to Harbin is called Yabuli Ski Resort. It’s about 4 hours drive from Harbin. If you have the time to stay 2 nights, it’ll be a fun visit. If you don’t have the time, Lantian Ski Area is a good alternative.
DO: Some skills in skiing will help tremendously. If you don’t know how to ski, you can take a lesson there. But first, you must be able to speak some Chinese to the instructor and understand them. They know minimal English. Make sure you put safety as your priority because it isn’t theirs.
DON’T: If you have your own ski outfits, don’t bother renting their ski jumpsuits. Try not to go after lunch. They close at 4pm and the sky gets dark early, especially during winter.
DO: Visit Sun Island in the day and Harbin Ice & Snow World at night and your trip to Harbin will be complete. Sun Island’s ice sculptures are not lit up like those in Harbin Ice & Snow World. They’re both huge, but in my opinion Sun Island’s sculptures are massive! Do walk on the frozen lake or you can even try cycling. Good luck though as it looks pretty challenging.
DON’T: Bring your thermos. You’ll need it if you’re going to be out the whole day. You don’t have to book a metered taxi for the day if you’re going to Sun Island. They have plenty of metered taxis waiting at the entrance.
SIBERIAN TIGER PARK
DO: Take the bus ride into the multiple cages and see these tigers walk and roam around. They’re HUGE! In fact, most of them are obese in size. The bus guide speaks in Chinese, but there are instructions at the entrance translated into English. Basically you should keep your hands in the bus at all times and taking pictures with your phone is at your own risk. If you drop your phone, you can request the bus to stop, but you’re responsible for picking the phone up yourself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
DON’T: Try no to feed the tigers anymore!! You can actually buy life stock to feed these tigers. It ranges from a chicken to a sheep. The driver will bring the live stock into the cage, throw the life stock out and you get to see the tigers run after it. In my opinion, this is really not necessary. They can live without another meal and still be alive. They’re already super fat!
This is a theme park but it’s on the frozen Song Hua River. It blew my mind to see so many activities happening on this frozen river, which takes months to melt. It will fully melt in the month of May.
DO: Go on those ice slides where you sit on a inflatable rubber tube, bicycle rides and snow mobile ride. We had a good laugh sitting on those inflatable rubber tubes behind a jeep that dragged and swung us around. After a few spin, we laughed till we had tears in our eyes. Do bring along a cloth mouthpiece or use your scarf to cover your mouth and nose if possible. When the jeep drag you around the river, those small particles of ice can hit the face pretty hard.
DON’T: Forget to watch the winter swimming! They drill a hole on the icy river like a swimming pool. Then, some brave swimmers (one of them is a 66 years old lady) dive into this icy cold water with just their swimsuit and gave us a show. It’s totally mind blowing.
SAINT SOPHIA CATHEDRAL
DO: You’re able to walk from The Pedestrian Street to Saint Sophia Cathedral in about 5 minutes. This Cathedral was built in 1907 and does not provide masses anymore, but it serves as a historical museum now. If you’re able to read Chinese characters, you’ll learn a little about the history of Harbin and how it was influenced by the Russians and western world.
DON’T: Unless you’re able to read Chinese characters, don’t forget to download Google Translate. It’ll really help you in grasping some key words and understand the history, even if it’s just a little.
Make sure you take plenty of cash with you everywhere unless you have a Union Pay card. Almost everywhere does not accept Visa or Master cards, except hotels. I hope you’ve enjoyed the mini virtual tour of Harbin I provided.
What do you think of Harbin? Would you visit someday?