Take a vacation in a bitterly cold, arctic environment? Wholeheartedly yes — if you’re planning to go to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in Heilongjiang, China. Harbin is considered one of the world’s top winter festivals and has been described as an “ice and snow Disneyland.”

The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is based on a tradition that began during the Qing dynasty when peasants and fisherman placed candles inside blocks of ice to create makeshift lanterns.

Inspired by a piece of history, the festival originated as an ice lantern show in 1963. It was interrupted for a few years but resumed in 1985 and merged with the Heilongjiang International Ski Festival in 2001. It is typically held in January for a month. HarbinIce.com offers a schedule online.

Originally, festival participants were mainly Chinese. Harbin is, after all, located in the very Northeast of China and known as “Ice City.” But as the festival grew in popularity, visitors from all over the world came to see the world’s biggest ice sculpture festival and artists came to win the annual competition.

Harbin is also one of the world’s biggest snow sculpture festivals. Last year, Harbin Ice and Snow World spanned more than 600,000 square meters, including more than 100 landmarks, according to CNN Travel.

This included snow sculptures 46 meters (151 feet) high and 2019 snowmen of all shapes and sizes built along the river.

The stunning, frozen scenery is why people travel to Harbin, but there are also activities for all ages, food, music and dance, ice skating and sledding. Here’s some of what you’ll find in the three main venues:

  • Sun Island Scenic Area displays snow sculptures that can be only visited during daytime. This area is not lit up like other parts of the festival and it is so bright you will need to wear sunglasses. There is also an indoor ice and snow art museum.
  • The Ice and Snow World offers a city of ice where visitors walk in between buildings, churches, palaces and towers as if they are walking through a small town. This ice architecture park is lit up with computer-controlled LEDs, sparkling multicolor lights and other lighting into a beautiful night display. There’s even an ice maze, ice bar and ice hotel.
  • Zhaolin Park displays thousands of ice lanterns, lit by candles or other glowing lights, as part of the Ice Lantern Garden Party. Ice sculptors from about 20 countries carve and display their ice art and it is best seen at night.

And, if you time your travel for January 25, you’ll be able to participate in Chinese New Year festivities which last for seven days. 2020 is the year of the rat, a sign of wealth and surplus. Harbin is one of the top places to travel for this annual event, which includes colorful fireworks and red Chinese New Year decorations amidst ice and snow sculptures.

Travel & Safety Tips

Global Operations Security Department reminds travelers to practice situational awareness and smart travel habits in order to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip. This starts with being prepared and making an effort to understand your destination environment before you travel.

This includes checking trusted travel resources. The U.S. Department of State risk rating for China is a level 2, exercise increased caution, because of exit bans randomly imposed by Chinese authorities and restrictions on dual nationals. Canada gives this location a higher risk rating — exercise high degree of caution — as does Britain.

The real safety risk is the teeth-chattering temperatures. Siberian air currents sweep across Mongolia and China, leaving behind severe winter cold and dry conditions with little snow. The average winter temperature is -14.2 degrees Celsius (6 degrees Fahrenheit). To avoid frostbite, Global Rescue recommends:

  • Wearing layers: down coat, thick jacket, wool pants, thermal underwear, gloves, hat, scarves and wool socks
  • Wearing a mask to warm the air you breath to protect your bronchial passages
  • Wearing boots that are waterproof and have good traction
  • Leaving expensive camera equipment at home because of the extreme cold (or wearing a loose coat to wear your camera close to your body and keep it relatively warm)

Don’t forget to wear sunglasses or wrap-around goggles to prevent snowblindness, a sunburn on your eyes from ultraviolet rays reflecting off the snow.

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