Chill out in China: Harbin’s Ice and Snow Festival
Illuminated horse ice sculptures set the scene at the Ice Festival. (Keren Su/LPI)
Temperatures that can dip to -30C, ferocious winds that howl down from Siberia and a distinct lack of sunlight from the mid-afternoon through the night might not sound like the ideal weather conditions for a holiday.
In Harbin, though, the arrival of winter signals the beginning of the peak tourist season. From late December, visitors flock to this city in Heilongjiang Province in the north-east of China to experience one of the finest ice and snow festivals anywhere in the world.
Hundreds of gigantic, intricate ice and snow sculptures line both sides of the banks of the frozen Songhua River, which cuts through Harbin. Ever wondered what the Forbidden City or the Great Wall would look like if they were made of ice? Or perhaps Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral and Egypt's Sphinx? You will also see icy versions of pagodas, skyscrapers, dragons and sea monsters.
Carved by around 15,000 workers and designed by local engineering students, the sculptures are normally ready by late December, although the festival does not officially start until 5 January. At night they are lit up by multi-coloured lasers and lanterns. The effect is magical enough to take your breath away - if there were not already a freezing mist hanging in front of you. But the upside of Heilongjiang's arctic-like climate, which corresponds to that of neighbouring Russia, is that it is often close to the end of February before the sculptures start to melt.
Launched in 1963, Harbin's festival is now ranked as one of the four largest ice and snow carnivals in the world and attracts close on a million visitors. Many are Chinese tourists from warmer parts of the country, for who snow and ice is an unseen novelty. The festival has also contributed to Heilonjiang's growing reputation as a winter sports playground. China's best ski slopes are at the nearby Yabuli Ski Resort, while in Harbin itself the Songhua River provides space for ice skaters and ice hockey games. Now, Harbin is expected to bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Snow and ice are only one part of the city's unique charms. Like Shanghai, Harbin has a remarkable recent history of foreign influence. Until the end of the 19th Century, Harbin was little more than a fishing port, but the construction of a railway line from Vladivostok in Russia in 1896 transformed Harbin into one of China's most cosmopolitan cities. Russian traders and Jews escaping pogroms were the first arrivals. Then the outbreak of the Russian Revolution resulted in Harbin becoming a refuge for those fleeing the Bolsheviks. By the mid-1920s, more than 100,000 Russians were calling Harbin home.
Far less welcome was the Japanese army, who operated an infamous concentration camp, in Harbin's southern suburbs in the 1930s. The camp is now a very sobering museum. The Russian legacy lives on in the abandoned Russian Orthodox churches dotted around town, and a former synagogue is now an excellent museum covering Harbin's Jewish past.
Most evocative of all, though, is the Daoliqu district. Its centre is Zhongyang Dajie, a street lined with early 20th Century buildings in a mish-mash of European architectural styles. Some are now hotels, like 1906′s art nouveau-inspired Modern Hotel. Harbin is also home to the vast Sun Island Park and a Siberian Tiger Park. Best of all, Harbin is a surprisingly laidback and friendly place. The pedestrianised Zhongyang Dajie and the long riverfront make walking an attractive choice, which is not the case in most Chinese cities, as well as providing endless eating options. Just do not forget to wrap up warm.