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.
The 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.
Due 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.
In 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.
For 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.
With rail connections as well as an airport, Hailar (海拉尔, hăilā’ěr) is the main transport hub of the region, and a centre for grassland visits. The town itself is of minimal interest – the chief reason most visitors come to Hailar is to see the Hulunbuir grasslands (呼伦贝尔草原, hūlúnbèi’ěr căoyuán), an apparently limitless rolling land of plains and low grassy mountains. As elsewhere in Inner Mongolia, there are the CITS-approved villages of Mongol herders; though you could try to strike off independently, it’s worth noting that the grassland tours here don’t attract hordes of people. A day-trip from Hailar to eat a traditional mutton banquet on the grasslands, for a group of four people, costs around ¥420 each, or a little under double that to stay the night. For bookings and more information, contact Hailar’s CITS (t 0470 8224017) at their office on the third floor of Beiyuan Hotel (北苑宾馆, běiyuàn bīnguăn; t 0470 8235888; ¥288) on 20 Alihe Lu, one of the better accommodation options in town.
A few hours to the west of Hailar is Manzhouli (满洲里, mănzhōulǐ), a bustling centre for cross-border commerce whose wholesale demolition, renovation and development – much of which has involved the surreal addition of Versailles-inspired facades to communist tower blocks – has left it with little atmosphere. It’s worth a visit for trips to the surrounding countryside, as well as air fresher than you may have experienced elsewhere in China. There are plenty of hotels in town, and eating is a treat if you love Russian food. Those staying the night may care to visit the great Dalai Lake (达赉湖, dálài hú; Hulun Nur in Mongolian), a shallow expanse of water set in marshy grazing country where flocks of swans, geese, cranes and other migratory birds come to nest. In June and July, the grasslands in this region are said to be the greenest in all Mongolia, and coming here may be the most rewarding – and least expensive – way to see the region’s grasslands. A taxi from town will cost from ¥250 round-trip.