The coolest show on earth
Harbin is a forbidding, dark-at-4pm town with roads covered in ice. The next stop north is Russia and gazing out of the window of a hotel on the edge of Stalin Park - across the frozen Songhua River to trees rimmed by frost - it's easy to imagine that this is what Siberian labour camp inmates would have looked out on. A crow flaps across the sky, a breeze sends flurries of dusty snow spinning from the surface of the glacial river and the thermometer outside the room reads minus 20 degrees Celsius.
But from across the river comes a twinkling of lights, phosphorescence smudging the sky like a neon aurora borealis, the source of which turns Harbin from a bleak end-of-the-world town of frosty exile into a winter wonderland.
This year, the Heilongjiang provincial capital celebrates its 26th Harbin Ice and Snow Festival and it's bigger and better than ever. The town is connected to the festival site by cable car and bridge but who needs to ride in a taxi when you can walk? The ice on the river is thick enough to drive a bus over and enterprising locals are offering rides on sleds pulled by hairy dogs whose muzzles are covered in frost or on a horse and cart fitted with metal blades instead of wheels. Even better, there is an inexpressible joy in feeling metres of ice squeaking beneath your feet - and a brisk walk keeps you warm.
The best time to arrive at the festival - which began on January 5 and will last as far into next month as the weather will allow - is an hour before dusk, allowing enough time to enjoy the unadorned and flawless beauty of all that ice before multicoloured neon strips flicker on. Entrance is a hefty 200 yuan (HK$250) but this only seems expensive until you pass through the enormous gates (made of ice, of course) into the carnival beyond.
Inside there are icy terracotta warriors, frost-bound Japanese castles, glacial Russian churches, frigid pyramids and an enormous Forbidden City. Everything is encircled by a twisting Great Wall that is as smooth as glass and almost as sturdy as the real thing.
It is said the Inuit people of the Arctic have 20 words for snow; 20 superlatives would be insufficient to describe the ice sculptures in Harbin. They are unexpectedly massive and impressive whether lit or unlit but they feature astonishing attention to detail and artistry. Every warrior's face is different and there is a carved lion's head knocker on the Forbidden City door, a serene smile and jewelled earring on the head of a Thai temple Buddha and a cornucopia of flowers and grapes at the top of a Roman Corinthian pillar.
It's too much to take in at first sight and spending hours here in such temperatures would be impossible without the cafes, built like wooden chalets, in which visitors hunch over hot chocolate and mulled wine and nurse fingers and toes back to life. If you tire of marvelling at details and gazing at the sculptures as they change colour, there is plenty of people-watching to be done: locals sliding down frozen icy chutes, shrieking and slipping in high-heeled shoes or eating iced fruit and hot sweet potato bought from vendors who crouch over their stoves to keep warm.
Harbin has gained international recognition for its ice and the local council clearly knows when it's onto a good thing; it has introduced a Snow Sculpture Park, too. Entrance here is 150 yuan but its sculptures are also amazing, huge and improbably detailed. The park has a strong Chinese theme, with snowy lions, dragons and plenty of stripy cats, in anticipation of the Year of the Tiger. Also here is an enormous historical frieze of freezing Han, Ming and Qing dynasty figures that ends in huge, white glistening space rockets and a massive powdery figure of Liu Xiang hurdling his way to Olympic gold.
Harbin is not just about ice and snow. Visitors also get a chance to mix with real big cats at the Siberian tiger park, through which buses drive as the animals prowl around them - funnily enough, they don't seem to feel the cold. Mainland safari parks can be a grisly experience and a sign announces that live animals - from a chicken for 40 yuan to a cow for 1,500 yuan - can be bought to throw to the tigers. But the park has a highly successful breeding programme; these animals are extremely rare in the wild and the conditions seem relatively spacious and humane.
A brisk walk back across the frozen river leads to the heart of the old town, along the cobbled Zhongyang Dajie. Harbin has a heavy Russian influence and department stores are filled with jars of caviar, matryoshka dolls and huge fur hats that look too warm even for minus 20 degrees. The main street is lined with more ice sculptures, which sparkle in the late afternoon light, and there are plenty of Russian traders here among their Chinese counterparts, who scurry, hands in pockets, to the market, gold teeth glinting in the sun.
Harbin has an old Jewish cemetery and a former synagogue - which houses a cafe and shops but still has the Star of David in its windows - but it's the Russian Orthodox Church that has left the biggest architectural legacy. At the end of the main street is the glorious Saint Sophia Church, whose early 20th century green onion domes could have been lifted straight out of the Kremlin. It's a miracle that the church survived the violence and upheavals of the last century and the interior is well preserved, hosting a collection of black-and-white pictures of old Harbin, in which Russian emigres dance, eat picnics and bathe in a luminous Songhua River free of ice.
Russian food is suited to subzero temperatures. Along the river is the 1914 Russian cafe, which is covered in frosty ivy and whose interior is a treasure trove of candles, icons and gilt-edged mirrors. After a meal of black bread, borscht and piroshki cabbage, potato and meat rolls washed down with huge steaming mugs of Russian tea, you'll be ready to face the Harbin winter again.
Across the river the festival lights are flickering to life. There are two bright moons, one in the sky, the other reflected in the frozen river, on which tourists ride sledges and pirouette on skates. I pull on my hat and stamp my feet, trying to keep warm as I walk through trees bowed under the weight of snow; fog billowing in vaporous clouds from my mouth and freezing on my scarf.
Harbin no longer seems forbidding.
Getting there: Hong Kong Express Airways (www.hongkongexpress.com) flies between Hong Kong and Harbin three times a week.