Unfurling up to Russia in the north, Heilongjiang (黑龙江, Hēilóngjiāng), meaning 'Black Dragon River', is one of China's most beautifully rugged provinces. Forests, lakes and mountains, and the dormant volcanoes of Wudalian Chi beckon well beyond the capital Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn), an architecturally diverse city with a distinctly cosmopolitan feel.
Of course, it gets cold – sub-Arctic cold – in China’s northernmost province, but Harbin is a winter playground, hosting a world-renowned ice-sculpture festival and a brand-new indoor ski centre. The province also boasts some of China's most established ski slopes, which are increasingly popular as the country prepares for the Winter Olympics in 2022.
From Mohe, China’s most northerly city, you can access the remote Beijicun and Beihongcun for bragging rights to say you have stood at the very top of the Middle Kingdom.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Heilongjiang.
The signature venue for Harbin's winter-long Ice & Snow Festival is the main reason that both domestic and international travellers chase the cold weather here in huge numbers every year. It's a photogenic and fun-filled wonderland of iconic ice-sculpture, ice mazes, ice bikes, snow sports and snow slides. Live concerts and an ever-changing theme ensure an unpredictability that attracts return visitors. Like most major attractions in China, it's much better to visit during weekdays.
The red-brick Russian Orthodox Church of St Sophia, with its distinctive green onion dome and roosting pigeons, is Harbin’s most famous landmark. Built in 1907 and expanded in 1932, it was the largest Orthodox church in the Far East and the centre of spiritual life for 100,000 Russian settlers. After surviving the Cultural Revolution it was used as a warehouse for a department store. Declared a protected landmark in the 1990s, the church was under renovation at the time of print due to damage caused by the resident pigeons; it is not known when it might reopen.
Laohei Shan is the humble zenith of a prehistoric landscape washed clean by hardened lava where ghost-like trees snake up from dormant craters, and brilliant blues shimmer off a cloud-strewn lake. It's also user-friendly, with mostly easy walking apart from the mainly uphill 1km stair climb to the summit of Laohei Shan itself, one of the area’s 14 volcanoes. Do a circuit of the windy crater lip for panoramic views of the lakes and other volcanoes dotting the landscape.
This museum is set in the notorious Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base (Division 731). Between 1939 and 1945, prisoners of war and civilians were frozen alive, subjected to vivisection or infected with bubonic plague, syphilis and other virulent diseases. Three to four thousand people died here in the most gruesome fashion. The museum includes photos, sculptures and exhibits of the equipment used by the Japanese. There are extensive English captions and an audio guide is available for ¥15.
The beautiful old Main Synagogue, built in 1909, has been refurbished as a concert venue. You can buy tickets on-site to a variety of musical performances, including opera, usually starting around 7pm on most nights. The former Jewish Middle School shares the same compound.
Across the water from Stalin Park is Sun Island, a 38-sq-km recreational zone with landscaped gardens, a ‘water world’, a ‘Russian-style’ town, and various small galleries and museums. It’s a pleasant place to have a picnic, walk or cycle (¥60 per hour) in summer, though as usual you need to pay extra to get into many areas (most people find these too kitsch and not worth the money).
Zhalong Nature Reserve near Qiqiha'er is the most accessible and most visited of the nature reserves established to protect endangered species of wild cranes in Northeastern China. The reserve is home to some 260 bird species, including several types of rare cranes. Four of the species that migrate here are on the endangered list: the extremely rare red-crowned crane, the white-naped crane, the Siberian crane and the hooded crane.
Walk astride the Russian border in this quaint Chinese village 100km from Beijicun, where wandering souls are welcomed with a glancing smile. No tourist tack around here – and usually no tourists, but you will find reindeer roaming freely in winter, and nowhere to go but back south. While there's not much beyond wooden houses and swaths of farmland, it is a quiet, idyllic spot and lays claim to being China's real northernmost village.
Heilongjiang’s largest temple complex has an active Buddhist community in residence, giving it a genuine religious atmosphere despite the ticket sales. There are many large statues here, including Milefo (Maitreya, the Buddha yet-to-come) and the Sakyamuni Buddha. The Seven-Tiered Buddhist Pagoda (七级浮屠塔; Qījí Fútú Tǎ) dates from 1924. There is also the dubious novelty of seeing a temple with a Ferris wheel in the background. The entrance to the complex is on the left at the start of the pedestrian street.