During winter, the Songhua River freezes absolutely solid, to a depth of a metre or more, and transforms into the most fantastic winter sports playground – so much so that it seems a shame to take the cable car across it. And playing on the Songhua River is one of the best things for kids to do in Harbin.
Head down Zhongyang Dajie to the Flood Control Monument, and kids will be in clover. There are ice slides of every size and persuasion, some descended in tubes, others on mats, still more on toboggans, while vendors sell everything from hats and gloves to Chinese toffee apples, jewel-like kebabs of candied fruit.
And the Chinese inventiveness when it comes to ice play is in evidence all across the river. Want to tour the river? You can walk at will, or opt for a horse and cart ride, or even a dog sled, though these are smaller affairs than the traditional Nordic husky teams.
Just want to play? Hire ice skates to skate on the small rink area – the Songhua river itself is too bumpy and often snow covered to permit skating. Bear in mind that Chinese ice skates are not the sturdy plastic affairs you’ll find in a Western ice rink – more the white, lace-up boots familiar from old photos — and that even the best groomed river ice is not as smooth as the ice in a commercial rink.
Or try out a pedal-propelled ice bike, or a ride-on chair propelled with sharp poles (which can be quite hard work until you get used to it): little kids will love being pushed on a ride-on chair.
Bigger kids will love the ice vehicles on offer on Harbin’s river. One section offers the chance to drive your own small tank on ice around a tight track of ice walls, which most boys will find irresistible.
Other options include snowmobiling, ATV-ing on a dedicated track and the bizarre round dodgem-type vehicles the Chinese describe as hovercraft. Be aware that helmets are not provided.
Prices for activities start at 20 kuai and head upwards. There is windchill both on the river and the riverfront, so you should wrap up extra warm.