In the often frosty reaches of China’s Dongbei region – formerly known as Manchuria –you will find the northernmost province of Heilongjiang. Its cosmopolitan capital Harbin, features a distinctly European architectural heritage, but is in fact more famous for its annual International Ice and Snow Festival.

People chad in warm winter clothing mill around huge 6m-tall ice-block statues that are glowing purple, blue or green.
At night the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival comes alive with lights © TonyV3112 / Shutterstock

Each January and February, the city is lit up like a child’s snow-dome and intricate ice sculptures hold firm in an ethereal winter wonderland. Past displays have included a scaled-down Forbidden City and a Great Wall of China that doubled as an ice slide.

A snow sculpture, titled 'Pigtails', depicting a dreaming young woman's head. Towering nearly 20 feet tall, this sculpture was an entrant in Harbin's Snow Sculpture competition on Sun Island.
Towering nearly 6m tall, this sculpture was on display in the Sun Island Scenic Area during the Ice and Snow Festival © Anita Islalska / Lonely Planet

The bulk of the sculptures can be found in central Zhaolin Park and Sun Island Scenic Area, while the hardiest of festivalgoers can join Harbin’s winter swimmers for a dip in the frozen Songhua River. Temperatures in Harbin can drop near to -40°C in February, so bring every bit of warm clothing you’ve ever owned. Stick around until the festival’s end for the fun of destroying the sculptures in an ice-axe free-for-all.

The ornate Church of St Sophia, which is topped by a huge bulbous dome (much like that on the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg).
Seemingly straight out of Russia, the Church of St Sophia is a highlight in Harbin © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet

Other local attractions

Admire Harbin’s Russian heritage in the Daoliqu area and the Church of St Sophia, while the city’s rich Jewish past lives on in the restored buildings on busy Zhongyang Dajie, and around the Old Synagogue, now serving as a classical music hall. Check out Wanda Indoor Ski Park, the world’s largest (for now), if you feel the urge for an urban shred.

Travellers on the Trans-Siberian Railway to or from Moscow can start or finish in Harbin.

You might also like:
Exploring the ancient towns of Guangxi, China
Highlights of Guizhou, China's secret southwest province
China's Buddhist caves: the enduring art of the Silk Road

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This article was first published Feb 4, 2010 and updated Dec 19, 2019.

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