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72 hours in Harbin

China has been rolling out a new 72-hour transit visa policy in major cities throughout the country, making visiting China even easier. Now travelers from the U.S., Canada, and 49 other countries can include China as an additional destination on an existing trip without needing to get a visa. Under the policy, visitors are able to enter select Chinese cities for up to 72 hours without a visa, as long as they have a booked plane ticket to a third country or region within the 72-hour time period. This applies to the cities of Beijing, ShanghaiGuangzhou, Chengdu, ChongqingShenyang, Dalian, Xi’an, GuilinKunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin and Tianjin. China continues to expand this policy to additional locations throughout the destination. In the meantime, these cities are the ideal stopovers or add-on destinations for travelers already in Asia.

Harbin (4)
Harbin (30)
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Harbin (6)

Northeastern China’s Harbin is known as the “Ice City” for its frosty winter season and for the famous Harbin Ice and Snow Festival it holds at the beginning of each new year. Located in Heilongjiang Province, Harbin is the capital city of this swan-shaped province. (Take a look on a map: the province does indeed resemble a swan facing west!) Harbin is in the southern stretch of this very northeastern province; its placement gave the city its other nickname of “the pearl beneath the swan’s neck.” Harbin is the center of culture, education, and politics in Heilongjiang, and serves as a link between north and south Asia, as well as with Europe and the Pacific region. Harbin was once a sleepy fishing town until the Chinese Eastern Railway began connecting Russia to China at the turn of the 19th century. As the region grew into a valuable trading post, hundreds of thousands of émigrés came to Harbin, bringing with them foreign influences. This mixed cultural heritage can be seen throughout Harbin in the architecture and cuisine to this day. Harbin’s natural offerings are also quite unique. Harbin’s winter and surrounding icy activities are most well-known, but its summers are also spectacular, with enjoyable cool weather and excellent summer resorts. Now that visitors transferring through Harbin’s Taiping International Airport can explore the city for up to 72 hours without getting a visa, the only question is what you want to see and do while there. Following are some of the top sites and activities in Harbin to make the most of your 72-hour trip.

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

Sun Island (25)
Harbin (9)
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The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival has been held for more than 30 years, taking place each winter from January through February. It is one of the world’s largest ice and snow carnivals (ranked along with Quebec, Oslo, and Japan) and its Snow Sculpture Art Expo is world-famous, with artists from all over the globe traveling to Harbin to create whimsical masterpieces in snow and ice. The Festival is held throughout the city, but the biggest collection of ice artwork can be seen at Ice & Snow Amusement World, Sun Island Scenic Area, Zhaolin Park, and along the iced-over Songhua River. Festivities include fireworks, performances, and of course the massive ice structures, which are intricately carved, brightly lit at night, and often record-breaking in size. The most recent Festival featured a 160-foot “fairy tower” made of ice and steel, including a full-sized steam train made of ice. Visiting Harbin during the festival – especially at night – is magical, as the entire city turns into a winter wonderland, created by thousands of workers, artists, and sculptors. While most of the sculptures are contained to Harbin’s parks, the festival is also celebrated on the Songhua River, which freezes solid by the middle of winter, and then serves as a veritable playground for skating, biking, pony-riding, and more reveling. The many visitors to Harbin and its freezing temperatures only lend to the festive atmosphere of this fantastical winter festival.

Ice and Snow Amusement World

Harbin (33)
Harbin (9)

From late December through early March each year, a fairy tale amusement park of shining ice and snow opens for guests from all over the world to visit and enjoy. Harbin’s Ice and Snow Amusement World launched in 1999, just before the millennium celebration, and has since seen millions of tourists visit its 120 acres (and getting larger each year). Many of the ice and snow sculptures throughout the park are inspired by Chinese fairy tales, but world architecture – such as the Great Wall, the Egyptian Pyramids, etc. – can also be seen carved in ice and snow. A children’s area has ski fields, sledding, playgrounds, an ice labyrinth, inflatable buildings and more. Adults too will delight in the ice fountains, multi-colored screens, giant ice colonnades, sleigh rides, ice disco, and even a “glass” restaurant made of ice. There are also acrobats, cartoon characters, and other performances, as well as “folk gardens” that highlight local traditions and culture. The park is quite cold – the temperatures can be in the negative degrees – so visitors should be sure to bundle up, but there are also indoor cafés and large food tents where you can warm up with a toasty beverage or treat.

Sun Island (Tai Yang Dao)

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Sun Island
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The Sun Island Scenic Area sits on the northern banks of the Songhua River. While Harbin is often most well-known for its winter activities, Sun Island (or “Tai Yang Dao” in Chinese) is a year-round destination within the city. The large scenic area boasts crystal lakes, flowers and blooming gardens in the summer, ice and snow in the winter, and beautiful scenery all year round. There are more than 20 scenic spots throughout the area, with designated areas for fishing, camping, or simply strolling among the gardens and pavilions. In the summer, visitors to Sun Island can swim in the Songhua River or sunbathe, picnic, or relax on its beaches. Bicycles are available for rent and make an excellent way to explore the expansive scenic area; there are also trolleys to take tourists around the park. In the winter, ice skating and hockey are popular here. Sun Island is also a major host during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, with a large indoor ice and snow “art museum” that is open to the public starting in November each year.

Harbin Polarland

Harbin - Polarland

Located on Sun Island, Harbin Polarland is home to thousands of polar animals including beluga whales, penguins, sea lions, dolphins, sharks, walruses, arctic wolves and foxes, fish, and more. For visitors seeking the polar experience, or even just refuge from Harbin’s winter temperatures, Polarland is a great place to see and interact with incredible creatures from the earth’s poles. There are two shows – a beluga show and a walrus and sea lion show – each of which runs several times a day. Various scenic areas throughout the park mimic the animals’ natural habitats, ranging from mountains to ocean habitats. “Whale’s Bay” showcases seals, while “South Pole Penguin’s Island” has swimming and diving penguins, as well as Manpo, the first South Pole penguin born in Harbin. But perhaps the biggest starts of Harbin Polarland are Mira and Nicola, beluga whales who perform a romantic “Heart of the Ocean” routine.

Siberian Tiger Park

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Just north of Sun Island is the Siberian Tiger Park, a preserve for this endangered species (the largest of the big cats, and a protected animal in China). The refuge park extends for more than 350 acres and provides a protected natural habitat for these Siberian tigers to live safely in a wild-like atmosphere. There are more than 500 pure-bred Siberian tigers at the park, with 100 of them visible to visitors. The park is also home to white tigers, Bengal tigers, lions, pumas, and lynx. The Siberian tigers roam freely throughout the park, with tourists being able to view them from buses and select protected areas. The set up of this park allows visitors to get up close to the tigers while keeping both the animals and viewers safe. The park also has a feeding area, where guests can watch or, for a fee, assist in feeding the tigers. (Note: the feedings are not ideal for the faint of heart or extreme animal enthusiasts, as the tigers are wild animals and do not hesitate to devour their meals).

Central Street (Zhongyang Pedestrian Street)

Harbin – Central Street (1)

Harbin is sometimes referred to as an “Eastern Moscow” and Harbin’s Central Street is a reflection of the Western influences that imbued the city during its early trade port days. Built in 1898, Central Street (or “Zhongyang Dajie” in Chinese) was originally used to transport railway supplies. It was paved in stone in 1924 and became home to many shops, bars and hotels. Goods from all over the world – French perfume, British textiles, Russian leather, and more – were sold there. Today’s Central Street still features European influences, especially as seen in the architecture lining this charming corridor, mixed with local tradition. Central Street became a pedestrian-only street in 1997, and is prime for strolling, shopping, and site-seeing.

Saint Sophia Cathedral

Harbin – St Sofia
Harbin – St Sofia (2)

Less than a mile from Central Street is the historic Saint Sophia Cathedral, the largest Russian Orthodox Church in the Far East. Located in the central district of Harbin, the Byzantine-style church stands 175 feet high, painting a vibrant silhouette on Harbin’s skyline. This church was originally built by the Russians in 1907, renovated in 1911 and 1923, and finally reconstructed and unveiled as a monument in 1932. The iconic architecture and footprint of the church were maintained through each of the reconstructions, and remains today. In 1997 the local government repaired the building after years of decline, maintaining its red brick exterior, iconic dark green onion domes, and golden spires. The interior was converted from a cathedral into a museum with photographic gallery and historical information. Visitors to Harbin may want to visit Saint Sophia Cathedral in the daytime to take in the architecture in the daylight and read about its full history, then go back at night to see it and the musical fountains around its square illuminated.

Yabuli Ski Resort

Harbin (44)
Harbin (45)

The Yabuli International Ski Resort is approximately two hours east of Harbin city central, sitting atop Yabuli Sun Mountain. Yabuli Ski Resort is the largest ski resort in China and includes the country’s largest ski-jumping facilities. Thanks to Harbin’s cool climate and the high altitude of the mountain, the resort enjoys fresh powder that is not too hard and not too powdery, and that allows the resort to remain open through late March. The ski resort’s slopes offer trails for all levels of skiers, but its advanced trails are especially enjoyable – in fact, Yabuli was the primary training venue for China’s national ski teams and hosted the 1996 Asian Winter Games. In addition to the top-notch ski slopes, Yabuli offers snowboarding, ice skating, and tobogganing – the Yabuli Toboggan Run is currently the longest in the world. In the summer, visitors can enjoy tennis, mini golf, hot air balloons, paragliding, and more in this leisure area. There are many options for accommodations in the Yabuli area, ranging from ski resorts to hotels and bed and breakfasts.