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The frigid lands to the northeast, once known as Tartary or Manchuria and now referred to simply as Dongbei (the Northeast), represent one of the least visited and most challenging regions in China and its last great travel frontier.

Dongbei was the birthplace of China's final dynasty, the Manchu-ruled Qing (1636-1912). It was declared off-limits to Han Chinese from 1644, when the first Qing emperor took up residence in the Forbidden City, until the dynasty began to lose power in the late 19th century. The ban preserved Dongbei's image as a mysterious and menacing place separate from China proper. "The Chinese talk of Tartary as a country half as big as the rest of the world besides," Lord Macartney, George III's emissary to the court of the Qing Qianlong emperor, wrote in the early 18th century. "But their conceptions of its limits are very dark and confused. There is a wide difference between pretension and possession."

Japan and Russia waged a series of battles for control of Dongbei in the first half of the 20th century; the Chinese finally took genuine possession of the region at the end of World War II. Using Japanese- and Russian-built railroads, China's new Communist leaders made it the center of their efforts to bring the country into the industrial age.

The name "Dongbei," which conjured images of wild invaders on horseback or ruddy-faced factory workers for their friendliness, is on its way to being a modern area. Despite industrialization, Dongbei still claims China's largest natural forest, its most pristine grasslands, one of its most unspoiled mountains (Changbai Shan), and celebrated lakes (Tian Chi). The architectural remnants of the last 350 years -- early Qing palaces and tombs, incongruous Russian cupolas, and eerie structures left over from Japan's wartime occupation -- also make the region unique. It also houses one of the four biggest snow events (Harbin Ice and Snow Festival) in the world.

The region has been undergoing a tourism makeover in an attempt to replace income lost in the spate of state-owned factory closures. With a boost in hotels, modernization, and standard of English, it is not as difficult place to visit as it was. But at the same time, it still offers visitors the chance to travel in a place largely free of the exploitation and cultural hyperbole common to tourism in more accommodating parts of China.

The region is notoriously freezing cold in winter, from December to February. But this extreme weather also creates an incredible venue for the celebrated Harbin Snow Festival. From July to September, the flora blossoms on the grasslands and in the mountains, and the rice fields turn spring green. Note: Unless noted otherwise, hours listed in this guide are the same daily.