The province of HEILONGJIANG (黑龙江, hēilóngjiāng) has always been considered a little remote to the Chinese – a perception that remains intact, even in these days of high-speed trains and cheap flights. “Black Dragon River” is a land of extremities: this is home to China’s northernmost and easternmost points, as well as its coldest. Winter temperatures regularly plummet below -30°C, though this is actually high season in the provincial capital Harbin, which hosts a world-famous annual ice festival. Though the shuddering cold makes it hard to truly enjoy the city itself during this period, come summertime it’s one of the most pleasant in the land.
Beyond Harbin, Dongbei’s northeast is little visited by Western tourists, with the main draw being the Zhalong Nature Reserve, near Qiqihar. If you’re journeying any further, it’s likely you’ll be on the Trans-Manchurian train and on your way to Russia, via Hailar and Manzhouli, both in Inner Mongolia.
HarbinThe capital of Heilongjiang province and laid out on the southern bank of the Songhua River, HARBIN is most famous for its wonderfully photogenic winter Ice Festival. While visiting at this time is highly recommended, it’s certainly worth popping by in a warmer month too, for this is one of the few northern cities with a distinctive character. A few roads near Harbin’s centre are lined with gorgeous colonial-era structures, most of them painted in soothing lemon tones. In fact, the city used to be nicknamed “Little Moscow”, and though much of the old architecture has been replaced with sterile blocks and skyscrapers, corners of Harbin still look like the last threadbare outpost of imperial Russia – leafy boulevards are lined with European-style buildings painted in pastel shades, and bulbous onion domes dot the skyline. There are several Russian restaurants, and the locals have picked up on some of their neighbour’s customs: as well as a taste for ice cream and pastries, the residents have a reputation as the hardest drinkers in China.
Harbin’s underground mallsDue to frosty relations with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s (subject of Ha Jin’s excellent Ocean of Words, a book of short stories by a former PLA soldier who was based on the Siberian border), Harbin also boasts a network of underground bomb shelters turned shopping malls. You can enter at the train station and walk all the way to Dongdazhi Jie and beyond.
The Ice FestivalIn compensation for Harbin’s cruel winter weather, the annual Ice Festival (冰灯节, bīngdēng jié), centred on Zhaolin Park, is held from January 5 to February 5 – though with the influx of tourists, the dates extend each year. Sculptors, some of them teenagers, work twelve-hour days in -20°C December weather to help transform the park into a fairy-tale landscape: the magnificent ice sculptures they create are sometimes entire buildings, complete with slides, stairways, arches and bridges. Carved with chainsaws and picks, the creations often have coloured lights inside to heighten the psychedelic effect. Highlights of past festivals have included detailed replicas of St Paul’s Cathedral and life-size Chinese temples, though these days cartoon characters outnumber more traditional Chinese subject matter.
The festivities take place in various places around the city, though the two largest exhibitions are over the river on Sun Island. Here you’ll find the Snow Sculpture Art Exhibition (8am–5.30pm; ¥240) and the Ice & Snow World (9am–midday ¥150; midday–9pm ¥300). Back in central Harbin, there’s the smaller Ice Lantern Garden Party (2–9.30pm; ¥200) in Zhongshan Park. At all venues, festival’s end is marked with fireworks and pickaxes; visitors are encouraged to destroy the icy artwork by hand.
To Russia on the Trans-ManchurianFor those with time and a little bit of patience to spare, the evocatively named Trans-Manchurian railway is one of the best ways to enter or exit China. The line barrels northeast out of Beijing, eventually crossing the Russian border to connect with its far more illustrious sibling, the Trans-Siberian. Indeed, once a week direct trains run the route all the way between Beijing and Moscow, avoiding Mongolia and thus the necessity of acquiring an extra visa. The trip takes around six days, starting almost simultaneously in both Moscow and Beijing each Saturday evening; trains are comfortable, with private rooms and restaurant cars. Visas must be arranged in advance both ways, and the difficulty of acquiring a Russian one (not to mention buying the ticket itself) means that many choose to organize the trip through a travel agency. Prices vary enormously depending upon whether you go through an agency or do things by yourself.
With a little advance planning, it’ll be possible to visit other Russian cities before hitting Moscow, with the Siberian city of Irkutsk a favourite thanks to its proximity to Lake Baikal, the world’s largest body of fresh water. Easier to organize are stops at Chinese cities on the way: Shenyang, Changchun and Harbin all have their merits, and new high-speed services have cut travel times considerably. From Harbin, the train cuts through Inner Mongolia before hitting the Russian border, passing through the pleasant towns of Hailar and Manzhouli.