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In compensation for the cruel winter weather, the annual Ice Lantern Festival ,
centred on Zhaolin Park, is held from January 5 to February 5. The park becomes a
fairytale landscape with magnificent sculptures and sometimes entire buildings, complete
with stairways, arches and bridges, made of ice, carved with chainsaws and picks, and
often with coloured lights inside them to heighten the psychedelic effect. Sculptors,
some of them teenagers, work in -20°C December weather, earning ¥20 for a twelve-hour
day. Highlights of past festivals have included detailed replicas of St Paul's Cathedral
and life-size Chinese temples, though these days cartoon characters outnumber more
traditional Chinese subject matter. Over on Sun Island, a snow sculpture display is
held. You can walk across the river yourself or take a horse-drawn carriage for ¥10.
During the festival, plenty of other cultural events take place, and its end is marked
In summer, Harbin hosts a classical and traditional music festival from the middle to
the end of July, during which orchestras and smaller groups play in the city's eight
Harbin's most notorious and macabre attraction is outside the city proper, about 30km
southwest, in the tiny village of PINGFANG , near the terminus of bus #338 (¥2), which
you can catch at the train station. This was the home of a secret Japanese research
establishment during World War II and is now open to the public as a grisly museum
(daily 8.30-11.30am & 1-4pm; ¥10 foreigners, ¥3 students). Here prisoners of war
were injected with deadly viruses, dissected alive and frozen or heated slowly until
they died. More than three thousand people from China, Russia and Mongolia were murdered
by troops from unit 731 of the Japanese army. After the war, the Japanese tried to hide
all evidence of the base, and its existence only came to light through the efforts of
Japanese investigative journalists. It was also discovered that, as with scientists in
defeated Nazi Germany, the Americans gave the Japanese scientists immunity from
prosecution in return for their research findings. The museum's collection comprises
mostly photographs labelled in Chinese. Looking at the displays, including a painting of
bound prisoners being used as bomb targets, you understand why many Chinese mistrust
Japan to this day.
Jingbo Hu (Mirror Lake), 150km east of Harbin, is one of Heilongjiang's prettiest
spots. At 45km long, set deep among forested hills, it's a good place to go fishing,
boating and hiking, or just to sit and eat fruit, as many of the Chinese visitors seem
to do. There's a rash of development concentrated at the northern end, which most people
stick to, and mile after mile of virgin countryside beyond. To get here, take a train or
bus to Mudanjiang (4hr) and then a tourist bus (3hr) to the lake itself. It's possible
to stay in Mudanjiang at the Mudanjiang Hotel, 188 Majia Jie (tel 0451/3638488;
¥100-150), or on the north side of the lake at the Jingbo Hu Binguan (tel 0453/6270091;
¥150-200). There are plenty of Chinese-only guesthouses around that are a lot cheaper,
but you'll need to do some persuading to convince them to take you.
The ski area of YABULI is the place to be for Heilongjiang's International Ski
Festival from December 5 to January 5. The resort spreads across the southern side of
Guokui (Potlid) Mountain (1400m), 100km southeast of Harbin. A free bus from the Swan
Hotel makes the four-hour trip at 8:40am and 1:40pm, though you'll be expected to stay
at Windmill Villa (tel 0451/3455168 or 3455088; dorm ¥200-300, double ¥300-500).
Equipment rental and lift tickets start at ¥100 for two hours or ¥240 for the day.
There's also a 2.5-kilometre steel toboggan run , built in 1996 when the resort hosted
the Asian Winter Games. Yabuli is regarded as the premier ski resort in China, and as
such, Windmill Villa draws guests from all over the country via its offices in Shanghai,
Beijing and Guangzhou.