Quick guide: Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival 2012
When China's winter temperatures drive people indoors, Harbin springs to life.
In the depths of a Siberian-esque winter in the far northeastern province of Heilongjiang, Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节) turns the “City of Ice” into a freezing fantasy of art and light.
Every winter since 1985, artists from around the world have descended on Harbin to craft works of art out of mountains of snow and humongous blocks of ice pulled from the local Songhua River.
Subjects range from historical figures to fairy tale creatures and animals, both real and imagined.
But perhaps the most impressive feats are the recreations of the world's most famous structures -- past favorites have included the Potala Palace, Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall.
The scale of these intricately carved sculptures is hard to digest and it's easy to spend several days exploring the festival, as well as the other sights that make Harbin a unique China travel destination.
Festivities are spread all over Harbin, but if you're looking for the most spectacular ice and snow creations of the festival, the following three main areas are a must.
1. Sun Island Park (太阳岛公园)
January 5 marks the official opening of the 2012 China Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival. Throughout January and February, thousands of tourists will converge daily on Sun Island Park.
This is where the Harbin International Snow Sculpture Expo is held, featuring snow sculptures from all over the world. It's also the location of the world's largest indoor ice and snow art museum, Harbin Ice and Snow Art Palace (哈尔滨冰雪艺术宫).
Sun Island Park is a surreal and pure white wonderland best seen by day, when it's accentuated by the clear blue skies above.
Wandering through this sea of snow sculptures takes several hours. When below-freezing temperatures become too much to bear, many makeshift coffee shops offer steaming beverages.
For kids there are plenty of activities, including tobogganing, dogsled rides and on-ice dodgem cars.
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Admission fee: RMB 240 for adults, RMB 120 for children between 120-140 centimeters, free for children under 120 centimeters.
Opening hours: 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Bus routes: 29, 85 or 88 to Sun Island Station
2. Harbin Ice and Snow World (哈尔滨冰雪世界)
Harbin Ice and Snow World is best seen at night when this crystal-clear ice world is lit up from the inside, giving the whole area a fairy-land feel.
This is the place to explore some of the greatest ice carvings in the world, either on foot or from a horse-drawn carriage.
Crowds mosey through the ice maze, enjoy icy cold drinks at the ice bar and slide down a steep embankment on rubber tubes (definitely a highlight).
It may be beautiful, but ice is also very slippery and it's common to see people's good times cut short by a nasty fall.
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Admission fee: From 1:30-9 p.m., RMB 300 for adults (RMB 330 for January 1-3, January 22-28), RMB 160 for children between 120-140 centimeters, free for children under 120 centimeters. From 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., RMB 100 for adults, RMB 60 for children.
Bus routes: 211, 212, 213 or 346 to Sun Island Road Crossing (Taiyangdao Daokou) Station
3. Zhaolin Park (兆麟公园)
The Lantern Show in Zhaolin Park is a dazzling array of more than 1,500 ice sculptures embedded with lights.
Best seen at night, the sculptures light up the park with the intensity of many thousands of lanterns of all shapes and sizes.
More than 100 of the world's top ice sculpture artists from more than 20 countries show their work in Zhaolin Park.
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Admission fee: RMB 200 for adults, RMB 100 for children between 120-140 centimeters, free for children under 120 centimeters.
Opening hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Bus routes: 8, 53, 74, 83, 113, 114, 201 or 206 to Zhaolin Gongyuan Station.
The 28th China Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival will be open from January 5 until mid-February. The exact closing date depends on weather and is yet to be announced.