Harbin, capital of China's northernmost province Heilongjiang boasts a repository of some amazing old Russian architecture. That makes it worth a visit anytime of the year, but it's in winter that the city really comes alive.
As the mercury dips to -30˚C, the tourists arrive. In the main, they come to see the world-renowned Ice Festival, though there's more on offer than frozen sculptures...
8:30am: Start with the buffet breakfast at the Modern Hotel. Like most breakfasts in the north, this one is hearty and features loads of kimchi. Granted, the hotel has seen better days, yet it can't be beat for history. Built in 1906, it was the place to stay for European style and luxury back in the early part of the century when there were more foreigners living in Harbin than Chinese and the city held the Paris of the Orient crown.
9:30am: Wrap up warmly (down clothing and thermals are de rigueur here) and venture into the cold. Take a taxi across the Songhua River to Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair, now in its 20th year. The huge sculptures hewn into cliffs of snow must be seen during daylight hours as this is the only park that closes at 5pm.
Midday: Head back into town and duck into the warmth of Cafe Russia 1914. Hearty Russian sausages and cabbage rolls should help you stave off the cold in the afternoon.
2:45pm: Zhaolin Park, in the city center, is the smallest and cheapest of the three winter sites and the venue of the annual Ice Lantern Festival. With amusement park rides set among long ice slides it aims to provide fun for all the family. After 4pm the lights inside the ice sculptures are slowly turned on bathing them in kaleidoscopic fluorescence. The park is also home to the international ice sculpture competition, attracting teams from all over the world. Each creates its art from a square block of ice around two meters in size.
5pm: As evening falls, head for Snow & Ice World across the river. This is the largest and most commercial of the sites. The sheer scale cannot fail to impress. Hunks of ice, usually hauled from the nearby Songhua River, are built into brightly lit structures that tower into the sky. For RMB 60, you can tour this wonderland by horse-drawn sleigh. You can also try your hand at skiing or take an ice bike for a spin.
8pm: For dinner, visit a branch of the Lao Chang Spring Pancake restaurant, which offers a basic English menu for those who can't read Chinese. Roll the pancakes with meat, spring onions and hoisin sauce for a Chinese-style fajita.
9pm: Wander along Zhongyang Dajie, which is lined with European-style architecture. The shops on this pedestrian street sell Russian chocolates and must-have fur hats. At the end of the street, you'll find the frozen Songhua River where locals gather in the evening. Here, enormous slides hurtle people across the icy river-which is as good a way as any to end a day in Harbin.
(That's Beijing January 9, 2008)