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Popularly known as the ‘Ice City’, Harbin is the capital of the Heilongjiang Province in northeast China with a population of more than 10 million. Around 400 kilometres west of the Russian border, the city exudes an atmosphere of "China meets Russia". This is largely because Harbin was for many years part of the Russian empire, which extended much further south, into Liaoning province. One can view remnants of Russian rule throughout the city, in the architecture, the cuisine and the local culture. This is certainly one of the attractions of visiting the unique city, and set Harbin apart from many other Chinese cities.

During the early 20th century when the city was being constructed, there was a strong emphasis on, and a huge influence from, Swiss and Italian town planning, thus giving the city a distinctly European flair. Harbin was taken by Japanese forces in the 1930s and remained under their rule until after the Second World War, when it was briefly taken by the Soviets before being handed back to China thereafter. From a cultural and architectural perspective, this rich history makes Harbin a fascinating place to visit.

For many in China, Harbin is a byword for cold, and this is rather deserving - visit in the winter and you will understand why! But if one is to visit Harbin in the winter, the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is an event not to be missed. Usually taking place throughout January and into February, this is a true winter wonderland. The Ice and Snow Festival has been held in Harbin since 1963; it has developed over the years into a huge and impressive spectacle which includes an entire themed city made from ice blocks cut from the Songhua river, an international contest in which ice sculptors from around the world compete for prizes and create an incredible and very extensive sculpture park in Zhaolin Park. Disney-like sights range from rainbow castles and snowy animal sculptures to brightly-hued bridges, icicle-adorned bushes, life-size temples, and recreations of elaborate and opulent palaces, all carefully sculpted from ice.

The Songhua, a wide sweeping river that flows through Harbin, freezes in the winter and plays host to a carnival-type atmosphere, perhaps reminiscent of the frost fairs that used to happen on the Thames in London hundreds of years ago. You’ll find dog-sledding and ice-skating among other games and activities, and hundreds of people eating and drinking as vendors barbecue and sell delicious skewers, known as ‘chuan’ in Chinese.

It’s imperative to wrap up warm. Harbin can see average temperatures dip to -20 degrees Celsius; at the height of the festival in January, temperatures closer to -30 are not uncommon.

Features in the following itineraries

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There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.
Robert Louis Stevenson

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