Tourists Transform Harbin into “Erbin”

Harbin has long been a major wintertime destination, but its Ice and Snow Festival has reached a whole new level this year

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8:45 PM HKT, Fri January 12, 2024 2 mins read

When temperatures plummet below freezing, most cities experience a lull in activity. However, this is not the case for Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province in China’s Northeast (Dongbei). Harbin is aptly nicknamed the Ice City (冰城 Bingcheng), as it receives heavy snowfall and is a perennially hot tourist destination during cold times. In fact, this winter it has been particularly successful at attracting domestic tourists.

While Harbin is also known for its European architecture, the legacy of Russian colonialism in the region, the primary draw for the recent influx of visitors is the globally renowned Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival. This annual spectacle entices over 18 million attendees and generates billions of dollars in revenue. The festival, which kicks off in late December and extends into late February, features an array of handcrafted ice sculptures scattered across the city. The main attractions are the two grand exhibitions: Sun Island and Ice and Snow World.

Sun Island is an open recreation area featuring an exhibition of extravagant snow sculptures. In fact, back in 2007 the area hosted the world’s largest ice sculpture, titled Romantic Feelings, which was 35 meters tall and 200 meters long.

Ice and Snow World, which is even more popular, is a near-200 acre park constructed yearly from scratch with 2-3 feet thick ice blocks sourced from the nearby Songhua River. In the day, it’s a dazzling display of frozen architectural wonders such as castles, entirely composed of ice. But daytime visits are just the tip of the iceberg. At night, it is illuminated with every color of the rainbow, making the park a dreamlike fantasy land you can actually step into and explore.

This year the festival has been so successful it’s even indirectly led to new internet buzzwords. Harbin has been abbreviated to the cutesier “Erbin” and tourists from the south of China have been nicknamed “Little Southern Potatoes.” The latter moniker refers to both the supposedly shorter stature of Southern Chinese people, and the appearance of tourists in warm, bulky clothes.

Among the new projects launched this year by Harbin due to the ever-increasing popularity of the festival are hot air balloon rides to give a bird’s eye view of the massive ice attractions. As netizens commented, “Why go to Turkey for hot air balloons when you can ride one over such a surreal world of ice?”

Bingtang hulu Harbin

Traditional bingtang hulu sweets, with some less traditional seafood. Image via Xiaohongshu.

The Harbin government has curated specialty desserts for the winter season, ranging from frozen pears and sliced radishes to potato greenhouses. Locals have humorously remarked upon the city’s transformation. As one Harbin local posted on Weibo, “Frozen pears, sliced radishes, potato greenhouses, artificial moons, horses walking on ice, hot air balloons, hovercrafts, and taxi driver bros speaking like Southern girls — our hometown is becoming more and more unfamiliar.”

Tourists, in turn, have expressed genuine appreciation for the efforts of Harbin’s tourism agency. The Ice and Snow World’s prompt public apology for excessive queues has also helped win it fans.

“I initially visited the Ice and Snow World with the mentality of a casual tourist, but I was genuinely amazed. It was my first time seeing such large ice pillars. On a day when Harbin experienced heavy snowfall, standing amidst the snow and various ice sculptures felt like being in the world of a fantasy epic,” one Xiaohongshu user commented.

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