In remote Harbin, an ice city emerges each winter as master sculptors create transient artworks, writes Charlotte Metcalf.
At first we didn't understand the man in the mink hat. His family was giggling at his frantic sign language and it was only when he pulled a camera from his pocket that we realised what he wanted. A pair of Western women is rare enough in Harbin that we were worth capturing for the family album.
On the plane from Shanghai, my friend and I were the only Westerners, but then Harbin is as remote as it gets, way up in northern China, on a par with Vladivostok. You would think that a city in the middle of snowy tundra, where temperatures can plummet to minus 40 degrees, would be unlikely to draw visitors. Yet Harbin epitomises China's entrepreneurial spirit, transforming its brutal climate into its biggest asset. Twelve years ago, Harbin's locals started the Snow and Ice Festival; every December they build a city from ice and fill Harbin's parks with snow and ice sculptures. Chinese tourists flock here for the two-month festival, and international tourism is waking up to this extraordinary event.
Night is the time to visit the ice city because it is lit from within, so that it shimmers with brilliant colours that change every few seconds. The cityscape includes pagodas, towers, castles and bridges - the sheer scale is breathtakingly spectacular. It's wildly beautiful but also majestically Walt Disney-on-acid kitsch. Sun Island, a huge park, is given over to an exhibition of snow sculpture: during our visit there was an Italian theme, with a gigantic copy of the Mona Lisa, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, the towering heads of Medusa and Athena, and Michelangelo's David.
We went one bitterly cold but dazzling morning and met a merry group of Manchurians in traditional full-length scarlet coats and fur hats, dragging each other around on wooden sledges. Later, as it grew dark, we went to the Ice-Lantern Garden Party in Zhaolin Park, which houses Harbin's international competition for ice sculptors. Throughout the park are big blocks of ice, on which keen amateur sculptors can set to work. These are stunning enough; however, the work of serious artists is on display in a tented pavilion. Here, ice is chiselled into sinuous and complex shapes - a Thai dragon with finely etched scales, arrow-sharp tail and long tongue; Alice's face through an ice looking glass; a stag with elaborate antlers fighting off a leopard. The craftsmanship defies belief.
Harbin still feels like a frontier town, despite a population of 10 million and its determination to put itself on the global tourist map. Restaurants and cafes aimed at foreign visitors are virtually non-existent and the huge Japanese restaurant next to the ice city turned out to be a dismal empty hall with some enterprising young people selling snacks from plastic boxes. In the ice city itself, people were offering to take photographs of us for money but there were no hot drinks for sale, as if the fine details of this enormous endeavour had yet to be worked out.
Harbin is built on an industrial base of coal, oil, chemicals and aircraft parts and is growing steadily. It is said that China devours enough steel and concrete annually to build seven New Yorks; driving from central Harbin, it's easy to believe. There are more cranes than you can count. On the streets, new wealth is in evidence - there is plenty of sleek fur trimming the fashionable padded jackets of the young and warmly cloaking the elderly, while designer handbags and the latest mobile phones are much in evidence.
Though Harbin feels as if it is on the cusp of establishing itself, it was a Manchurian settlement as early as the 10th century and is steeped in history. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews fleeing persecution in Russia began crossing the border, helped by the completion of the East China Railway. They bought or established coalmines, sugar refineries and oil mills and soon Harbin was a flourishing centre for European-style culture, full of theatres, concert halls and sturdy mansions.
At one time there were about 25,000 Jews in Harbin. Though many left for Israel in 1948, Huangshan remains the largest Jewish cemetery in Asia and Harbin's synagogue (China's biggest) houses a fascinating display of photographs showing groups of finely dressed Europeans outside their mansions and factories or in their banks or stores.
Some of this legacy also survives in the fin-de-siecle architecture along Central Street. Built in 1898, the street is one of Asia's longest and widest pedestrian thoroughfares and is still home to the once-glamorous Modern Hotel. Hoping for iced vodka and caviar, we went to dinner in its Russian Restaurant.
In a dismal, violently overlit ballroom, heavy square tables stood in rows among marble pillars. Maroon velvet curtains hung at windows, dusty and fading. It was practically deserted. A waitress sauntered forward and eventually brought huge laminated menus with photographs (no caviar in sight). Under the chandeliers, we resigned ourselves to frozen, microwaved food and were subjected to blaring muzak - pop tunes, Rachmaninov-style.
We left via a corridor lined with neglected glass cases displaying tarnished silver cutlery, elaborate samovars, porcelain and crystal from a long-gone era when the hotel was the fulcrum of Harbin's glittering social scene.
While this hotel is a throwback, much else in the city looks forward, making Harbin an ideal starting point from which to understand China's ability to adapt and embrace change. But even leaving this aside, along with the city's cultural heritage, the Ice Festival alone is enough to justify the long journey - a glowing emblem of China's extraordinarily inventive and continually evolving spirit.
China Eastern has a fare to Harbin from Sydney and Melbourne for about $770 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Shanghai (about 10hr), then to Harbin (2hr 50min). See www.flychinaeastern.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
Shangri-La is Harbin's finest, a five-star, 404-room hotel with English-speaking staff and great views over the river. The food is good, especially during the festival when the Ice Palace is open. Rooms cost from $157 a night. See shangri-la.com.
Sofitel Wanda is further from the Ice Festival but in the business district next to a plaza full of shops and restaurants. This 322-room hotel has a spa, pool and three restaurants, including a good Japanese one, and several fun bars. Rooms from about $145, sofitel.com.
Holiday Inn City Centre is fairly basic and has been undergoing recent refurbishments. Its main advantage is that it is in the city centre, a 15-minute walk from Zhaolin Park and the staff speak good English. Rooms from $76. See holidayinn.com/hotels.
Don't miss the "winter sports" in Stalin Park, a bizarre and hilarious display of resilience as Harbin's hardiest citizens strip to their bathing suits, dive into an icy pool and roll around in the snow. 10am and 1.30pm daily; entry $3.
Harbin's subway is not expected to be finished until later this year, so the traffic is heavy all day, particularly around Central Street.
Taxis are plentiful and cheap, costing $1.30 as a starting price and then 30¢ for every kilometre after that. Taxis will stop for you (especially when it's cold) even if there are other passengers on board.
Good hotels will provide big, warm coats so check before you go, but take warm boots, plenty of thermal layers, thick gloves and a hat.
On the Go Tours has an 11-day Chinese New Year tour beginning in Beijing that includes two days in Harbin during the ice festival. Tour costs from $1999 a person, twin share. Phone 1300 855 684; see onthegotours.com.au.
Travel Directors has a 22-day tour that combines travel in Japan and China and includes Harbin's ice festival. Tour is priced from $13,947 a person, twin share. Phone 1300 856 661; see traveldirectors.com.au.
The Shangri-La Hotel builds its own Ice Palace during the festival and serves vodkas and hotpot dinners in igloo surroundings; the ice bar is definitely worth visiting.
The Shang Palace in the Shangri-La specialises in north-east cuisine and Cantonese home-cooking.
Shang Dong Restaurant in the Dao Li District is clean, light and airy with good, reasonably priced food, friendly staff and helpful photographs of the food. At 85 Shanghai Road, Dao Li; 8663 9333.