Heilong Jiang Province, 1,421km (881 miles) NE of Beijing, 553km (342 miles) NE of Shenyang
Harbin (Ha'erbin), originally a Russian-built railway outpost carved out of the wilderness on the banks of the Songhua Jiang (Sungari River), is the northernmost major city in China and capital of Heilong Jiang Province. Named for the Black Dragon River that separates Dongbei from Siberia, Heilong Jiang represents China's northern limits. It is the country's coldest province, with winter temperatures that hover, on average, around -26°C (-15°F). Like many border regions, it is an amalgamation of clashing extremes, home to one of China's roughest mountain ranges (the Greater Hinggan or Da Xing'an Ling), some of its most fertile soil, its largest oil and coal fields, its most pristine wilderness, and most of its few remaining nomad groups.
Harbin itself suffers from a similar internal antagonism, one that ultimately makes it the most compelling destination in Dongbei. The city was founded in 1897 as a camp for Russian engineers surveying construction of the eastern leg of the Trans-Siberian railroad (called the China Eastern Railroad, or CER). Demand for labor and the city's laissez-faire atmosphere quickly attracted a diverse population of outcasts from Latvia, the Ukraine, and Poland, as well as Manchuria. It was, at its height, one of the most bizarrely cosmopolitan cities in Asia -- cold, dirty, rife with speculation and venereal disease, architecturally vibrant, and a model for ethnic and religious tolerance. The town fell under Japanese control during World War II and was finally recaptured in 1946.
Most original foreign residents fled at the end of World War II. The city has begun to recover some of its former face, however, as trainloads of Russian merchants and prostitutes flood back to take advantage of China's new economic momentum. Harbin attracts visitors year-round, especially in winter, when it hosts the famous Ice and Snow Festival (Bingxue Jie). The summer's mild temperatures allow for leisurely strolls past the truly stunning clusters of Russian buildings, with their lonely cupolas and embellished pediments that still brighten older parts of town.
The Ice and Snow Festival has successfully turned the city's worst feature -- villainous winter cold -- into its greatest asset. The winter, despite the frostbite-inducing weather, is the best time to come as it's the town's most festive time of year. The festival now covers most of the city and features some truly outstanding ice and snow sculptures. Past highlights have included translucent reproductions of the Great Wall and Beijing's Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'an Men), life-size pagodas, structurally sound multilevel houses, and a massive statue of Elvis -- all equipped with internal lights.
It's easy to underestimate the cold (temperatures often drop below -30°C/-22°F), so bring more warm clothing than you think you'll need. Wearing five layers of sweaters and a down coat might sound ridiculous until you get there. Admission can be expensive, but there are increasing numbers of free displays on Zhongyang Dajie and other major streets. Major venues include Zhaolin Gongyuan (admission ¥100 adult, ¥50 children and student, from 4pm to 9:30pm; ¥50 adult, ¥ 25 children and student, from 10am to 4pm) on Shangzhi Jie for ice sculpture; Taiyang Dao Gongyuan (Sun Island Park) (admission ¥50 adult, ¥25 children and students), across the river for snow sculptures; and the Ice and Snow Palace (Bingxue Gong), a collection of buildings constructed entirely of ice and snow on the banks of the Songhua Jiang. Admission is ¥150 for adult and ¥75 for children and students.