We were thinking of going to Harbin for the ice festival that lasts for a month and the time was running out. In November, Hari shared a quote that looked expensive. In December, I contacted a company and got a fresh quote. This also was expensive (2870RMB per head, excluding the to and fro travel), but we decided to go ahead. As the days were close, we couldn’t get the sleeper train tickets and we did not want to travel by sitting. I booked air tickets for two (1460RMB for two return tickets, a good deal!).
Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn) is the capital and largest city of Heilongjiang province in the northeastern region of China. Harbin, which was originally a Manchu word meaning “a place for drying fishing nets”, grew from a small rural settlement on the Songhua River to become one of the largest cities in China. With the railway coming in 1898, the city received many immigrants from the Russia.
It was a morning flight, but due to the weather in Harbin, the Air China flight took of late from Beijing and we reached Harbin at 12.15pm instead of scheduled 8.40am. The guide, a handsome young man was waiting for us. His name was Weihong Qiang, but he had an English name ‘Sky’. He took us to the car and we went into the city. There were many ice sculptures in the city in key places.
Our first stop was the St. Sophia Church. It is in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) style. It is also called the cathedral of holy wisdom of God. It was first built in 1907 and rebuilt into brick and wood structure in 1912. The original shape and Latin cross footprint was preserved during reconstruction. It is the largest Orthodox Church in the Far East. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China in 1949 by the victorious Communists, who ended all Christian missionary work, the Russian Church was handed over to Chinese government. The cathedral was thus closed from the period of the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) and Cultural Revolution (1966–76). It was declared as a national heritage site in 1996 and was converted to a museum. The exhibition showcases the multi-cultural architectural developments of Harbin through times.
After the Church, we visited the Central Street, known the Zhongyang Street. This was built in 1898 when there were many Russian businessmen in Harbin. It is as good as an art gallery. It has decorative lining both sides, including Russian bakeries, French fashion houses and Japanese restaurants and so on. The street itself had so many ice carvings, mainly used as advertisements by popular brands. At the end of the street is the Monument to Soviet soldiers built by Soviet Red Army in 1945. Next to it is a frozen lake where many people were playing.
In the evening we visited the Ice and Snow World. Located on the north bank of the Songhua River, this is a major attraction of Harbin dunging the winter due to the ice and snow festival. There were so many beautiful ice and snow sculptures created by artists from all around world. It was very much like a large city with castles and houses made of ice. There were multicolored lights in the ice walls. Some of the snow sculptures were breathtakingly beautiful. Evening came back, roamed around the central street and finished the day with dinner in KFC.
The hotel we stayed was Xiang Jiang, comfortable and strategically located. We got up early the next day. It was a long drive and Sky took us to a typical Chinese meal where we had vegetable dumplings. We visited the Siberian Tiger Park. It is the largest park for Siberian tigers of China, even in the world. There must have been more than 1000 Siberian tigers this park. It was surprising for us to see such a large number of the giant Siberian tigers so close. But it doesn’t have the same excitement of watching the big cats in the jungles of India in their natural habitat. The caretakers come in a vehicle and through chicken at the tigers and the tigers flock like sheep. Sometimes they throw a firecracker grenade and the tigers scatter. The place also had few white tigers, lions, ligers and black panthers.
After this, we were driven to another part of the Sun Island Scenic Area (Tai Yang Dao) to see the world-famous snow sculpture show. This had enormous and unbelievably beautiful snow sculptures. The fineness of the carving was exceptional. The place also had restaurants made with snow. We visited one, where we met a British couple. The lady was also a pharmaceutical scientist like us. We tasted Harbin beer in the restaurant. There was a visitor who acted like a character in dramas and provided entertainment. We returned as Sky was looking for us. We had dinner and departed for airport. The flight was at 10.35pm and we reached Beijing at midnight.
The snow sculptures of Harbin are a must see for any art and travel enthusiast. Once again, we could witness the professionalism of Chinese tour operators. In this case, it was the Holidays International Travel Service Guilin Co. Ltd.