January 8–10: Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
Activities for the Chinese Harbin Ice and Snow Festival typically start from the Sun Island Scenic Area (Tel: +86 451 8819 0230). Among the many interactive features of the surprisingly extensive world of snow and ice, is a luge-like ice slide integrated into the attractions’ larger works (a few years ago the slide doubled as the Great Wall of China.)
The festival offers an ice wall on which daring visitors can test their climbing skills. Aided by ropes and propelled by insanity, the climbers do battle with an almost vertical ice wall with minimal, if any, traction.
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Yurts and pork bones for all
For those who need a break from the frost and frigidity, small, cozy restaurants are scattered throughout the festival in the form of yurts. While it may not feel like walking into a sauna, the brief respite from the cold makes them worth a regular visit. No northeast China cuisine tasting experience is complete without using a straw to suck the juice from inside a pork bone.
Head towards Zheng Yang Lou (No. 252 Zhong Shan Rd. Tel: +86 451 8260 5558) for just such an experience. Need some takeaway? Harbin sausage is tops. Don't be frightened by the long queue at Shangwei Sausage shop (No. 999 Hong Qi Rd. Tel: +86 4515768 359, for some truly outstanding sausages (40RMB per kilogram.)
Mother Russia in the Motherland
As if a little piece of Red Square dropped into the middle of the Harbin, St Sophia church is highly indicative of the Harbin’s history and evolution. Built by Russian troops in the early 20th century, its spires and imposing crosses were at one time all but concealed by the construction of newer buildings.
Community involvement eventually got the buildings removed and the deteriorating church restored. Now the church not only stands as a constant reminder of the connection between the two countries, but acts as a museum that focuses on the area’s art and architecture. (Intersection of Toulong Street and Zhaolin Street. Tel: +86 451 8468 6904. Camera permitted.)
Feeling ill? Take a dip in freezing ice water
This is a sport for the truly adventurous or the insane. For reasons only they understand, swimmers from all around the country take a dip in a pool cut from the ice of the Songhua River and do a few laps in the just-above-freezing water.
It’s not just bravado that inspires these athletes. Supposedly a dip in these icy waters is said to improve all kinds of health issues, but considering that this is a town where food vendors don’t need to worry about refrigeration, it seems like a pretty extreme cure. Just in case you may want to test your guts or watch others testing theirs, there is a winter swimming spot inside Jiu Zhan Park. (Tel: Mr Li Donglin +86 1320 659 9936)
It’s a jungle out there
Not for the faint of heart, vegetarians, or most children, the Siberian Tiger Park is fascinating, brutal, and somewhat controversial. While it’s exciting to see these majestic creatures roaming around and nice to think that the cost of admission goes to their care, feeding time here is a pretty gruesome spectacle.
Live animals (chickens, sheep, and even ox among them) can be purchased by visitors and fed to the tigers that devour the prey in full view of crowds. The practice is said to help train the tigers for life in the wild. (Bus route: 85. Hours 9:00 - 16:00.)
Harbin’s 5th Avenue
Now a strictly pedestrian street, Central Avenue celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1998 and remains the heart and soul of the city’s retail life. With over 200 stores and eateries, the street prides itself on offering goods from virtually every corner of the world, be it French perfume or American food stuffs. European in feel, it’s not only a hub for daytime shoppers but a great place for people watching.
Enjoy a coffee break at USA Ba Ke Bar (No. 166, Central Street. Tel: +86 451 8468 6688). Major quality hotels can be found along the strip as well. Sofitel Wanda Harbin (Tel: +86 451 8463 8855) is one of the priciest, but also one of the best hotels in town. Songhuajiang Gloria Inn (Tel: +86 451 8233 6888) is more budget but also recommended.
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