A Winter Wonderland

While winter in Dongguan will never bring us snowfall, this month’s weekender gives an option for those seeking snowflakes and a reason to drink hot cocoa. Plan an escape to the ideal winter wonderland.

In the far northeast region of China, Heilongjiang province, is renowned primarily for one thing—ice. The province lies with its capital, Harbin, on the eastern border with Russia and originally prospered from a small rural settlement in the late 1800s due to a majority of immigrants from the Russian empire, and the development of the Chinese-Eastern Railway. Today, Harbin has become a megacity of over 10 million inhabitants and is a key political and industrial hub in the region, as well as a top tourist destination.

Situated on the Songhua River, the city’s name derives from a Manchu term meaning “place for drying fish nets,” but the area’s history can be traced back further to the Jin Dynasty 1,000 years ago. The site of the old Jin capital remains preserved as a museum, with many artifacts on display. The region saw numerous transitions of power through the centuries including the Mongols, Manchurians and eventually Japanese, shortly before World War II. However, the proximity to the Russian border was a constant influence on the city throughout its more modern history.

Flights to Harbin are frequently available from all the airports near Dongguan with a round trip price of roughly 2,000 RMB. Four and a half hours will see you arrive on the cusp of the Arctic circle where the average December temperature is minus 20 degrees. It goes without saying that thermal clothing and numerous layers are essential. A 15-minute taxi journey will put you in the city center, and it is worth taking a moment to set up basecamp in your hotel. Fortunately, almost everywhere has heating indoors, so you can warm up before planning the next excursion.

I used my following day to visit the famous Russian Saint Sophia Cathedral, which has long since been converted into a small museum.

I was in Harbin for one main reason: to see the infamous Ice City. Since 1985 the city has showcased an array of ice sculptures that inspire awe to any who gaze upon them. Accentuated by colored lights at night, the features become an even more eye-catching dynamic and cannot be rivaled by many other places on earth. I thought the ticket price of 350 RMB was reasonable, and I spent a few hours wandering around the park feasting my eyes on the exquisite designs of many of the works before finishing off with a go down an ice slide.

Main mission completed, I used my following day to visit the famous Russian Saint Sophia Cathedral, which has long since been converted into a small museum. I also visited the humbling Unit 731 Museum, where many horrific experiments took place in the 1930s. It is an emotionally moving place, and I would suggest going here only if you have a strong disposition.

Skiing is available roughly two hours from the city, but unfortunately, I did not have the time to get on the piste. Instead, I settled for a brisk evening stroll around the city’s central street to admire its Baroque and Byzantine architectural facades.

There are endless eateries to choose from offering up the usual cuisines from all over China, but I always try and seek out the local dishes. I noticed many Russian style bakeries selling a large round bread called da lie ba which has a sour and chewy consistency. There are also seemingly endless varieties of sausage present, most notably the smoked garlic red sausage which I found delicious. Other common staples were, guo bao rou (batter-fried sweet and sour pork) and demoli (stewed live fish). My pick of the bunch was tu dou ni, which is essentially a disassembled cottage pie.

Another weekend completed and it was back to warmer climes. This trip is not for everyone, but if you are looking for something a bit more extreme, then it may be time to go sub-zero.