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Harbin is the largest city in northeastern China, capital of Heilongjiang province in the heart of Manchuria. It is the Chinese gateway to Russia, and has much Russian influence particularly as the Russians built the railway line through here. There are nearly 5 million people living in Harbin, making it approximately the size of Madrid.

Harbin is the coldest place I've ever been, it was minus 25 Celsius when we touched down at 10am one Saturday in early 2009. We went primarily to see the ice and snow festival, a world famous event where sculptors and artisans from all over the world create some of the most impressive works of ice you'll ever see. Harbin was quite the most bizarre and fascinating place I visited in China.

Bridge over Songhua river

Cable-stayed bridge over part of the Songhua River, as viewed from Sun Island. Harbin sits below freezing for 4-5 months of the year, but the river continues to flow under a metre of ice. Just visible in the background are the shadowy towers of new Harbin.

Some of the fabulous snow sculptures crafted by international artisans in the park on Sun Island..

Snow sculptures

Snow cathedral

There was even a cathedral made from snow.

A full-size steam train complete with carriages made entirely from snow. You could even go in to parts of the carriages. Hogwarts, anyone?

Snow train

Snow eagle in progress

A snow eagle nearing completion. The snow is man made and trucked in, as Harbin is in fact a very dry place so there is not always enough snow lying around. It's certainly cold enough though!

Also in Harbin is a Siberian tiger reserve, which claims to have over 800 tigers, probably more than there are in Siberia. It was like Jurassic Park cruising around in a bus through packs of the maurauding beasts.

Siberian tiger

They're grrreat!

An armoured truck drove by and chucked out a few chickens, which didn't last long at all. The park claims to be rearing the tigers for release back into the wild, but these tigers won't be very well equipped to survive if they keep getting spoon-fed.

Ice forming on the inside of a tour bus window.

Frozen bus window

Lights of Harbin

As evening fell outside our hotel, the colourful glow of winter Harbin by night became apparent.

The 10th annual Harbin snow and ice festival ground was absolutely spectacular, I've never seen anything like it. Blocks of ice cut from the Songhua river, hollowed out for neon tubes and built up into castles on a scale I could scarcely believe.

10th Annual Harbin Ice Festival

Giant icy beer

A giant icy example of the local brew, Harbin beer, founded by the Russians over 100 years ago.

A snow bird's nest stadium seen through LED trees. Even The Beatles couldn't have come up with this.

Snow Birds Nest stadium

Ice fairytale castle

Fairytale Cinderalla castle, build entirely from ice and neon. I was particularly impressed with this one.

But it wasn't just about seeing the sights, there were activities too, in the form of ice slides! Here you can slide your way down from an icy acropolis, if you can brave the length of the queue.

Ice acropolis

Icy arches

Icy arches underneath another series of ice slides.

Back in the historic centre of Harbin, the European and Russian influence is apparent. This is the Harbin Xinhua Bookstore.

Downtown old Harbin

Russian restaurant

We had dinner in a traditional Russian restaurant, which was a slightly odd mix of Russian food and Chinese service, and lasted a good 7 courses.

Of course I had to try the local brew, so we stopped in at the ice bar in the Shangri-La to warm up. It was a balmy minus 18 degrees, and my beer froze rapidly.

Frozen beer in the ice bar

Japanese germ warfare research and torture centre

We visited the Unit 731 Japanese germ warfare centre, used by the occupying Japanese forces during the second world war to carry out cruel and horrific experiments on the local population. It was as cheerful as it sounds. After the war, many of the Japanese perpetrators were granted immunity from trial by the Americans, in exchange for their research findings.

Back over at the Songhua river, and these boats had a long wait before going sailing again.

Frozen Songhua River

Ice swimming

In the meantime, the industrious pensioners of Harbin had carved a swimming pool shaped hole in the ice, and were having a rare old time diving in for the crowds.

St Sofia Church is probably the most iconic of the Russian buildings in Harbin today. It was completed in 1932 and is now a museum.

St Sofia Church

Cool jazz

I couldn't resist having a shot on an ice piano. There was even an electronic keyboard built into the console. Unfortunately it didn't work, so I wasn't sure how much the gloves were improving my playing.

The Thinker, one of the many ice recreations of famous statues dotted around the centre of Harbin.

Ice Thinker

Russia Café

Our final stop before the airport was the famous "Russia Café" for a snack.

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2010