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Walking through a wintry Harbin is like falling through the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland and landing in a fairytale.

The 27th Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival in this north-eastern Chinese city is the biggest ever, an incredible demonstration of the same industrial-scale creativity that was on display at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The riverfront and streets are lined with hundreds of intricate ice sculptures, including a full-size replica of a Disney castle. At night, lit by multi-coloured lasers and lanterns, the effect is magical.

This year's festival also sees Harbin reclaim its past, via a frozen re-creation of the St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. A legacy of the time before World War II when the city was home to 100,000 Russians, the church was destroyed in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution. "For my parents' generation, that sculpture brings back many memories," says Zhang Qingying, a local lawyer.

More than a million visitors are expected to attend this year's festival, as Harbin establishes itself as China's winter-sports playground. The nearby ski resort of Yabuli, the country's biggest, is being upgraded and extended, a sign of how China's burgeoning middle classes are increasingly taking to the slopes, while rumour has it that Harbin is a frontrunner to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

David Eimer is the co-author of Lonely Planet's China guide and the Beijing City Guide. He lives and works in Beijing.

This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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