BEIJING, Dec. 2 (Xinhuanet) -- When visitors wander along Harbin's bustling Central Avenue, they are treated to the sight of marvelous European architecture that bears the record of the city's thriving history. You can visit the magnificent Santa Sophia Cathedral while enjoying the hearty rhythms produced by a red-nosed Russian organist nearby. When night falls, one can enjoy the flavors of original Russian food in a pillow-filled restaurant decorated like a cozy bedroom. But in January and February, Harbin is living up to its name as a city made of snow and ice. The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is in full swing and has lured tourists from all around the world.
Fantastic ice sculptures and lanterns of various shapes reveal the most brilliant and mysterious aspects of the city.
When you see a 70-year-old man take a deep breath and plunge into the icy waters to compete with younger fellows, one can surely be amazed by how much snow and ice have become so much a part of the character of the local people - optimistic, brave and friendly.
And their warmth will dispel the freezing cold for any visitor.
If you want to escape the dullness and tiredness of winter, then take a colorful and vigorous tour of Harbin. Here are five places to check out if you go:
1. Central Avenue
Built in 1898, it is one of the longest and busiest shopping streets in Asia. With a total of 71 European-styled buildings, numerous modern shopping malls, exotic restaurants and cafes, pedestrians may feel they are strolling down an old European city.
As a newcomer to Harbin without any idea of where to go, it is recommended you start your journey from this street.
2. Santa Sophia Cathedral
The church was built in 1907 by Russians and has become the most photographed building in Harbin. With a typical Byzantine style, it is the largest Orthodox Church in the Far East, and fits more than 2,000 people.
Its unique structure reflects mixture of Chinese and Russian culture in Harbin.
The main structure of the church is laid out as a Latin cross and has exquisite and radiant red walls inside.
The most eye-catching part are the ornate, huge "blue onion" domes with four other domes around it.
At the top is a bell tower, with each of the seven bells representing a note and it can produce pleasant rhythms. Inside the church is a museum showcasing the multi-cultural history of Harbin.
3. Sun Island Park
This sandy island on the north shore of Songhua River is surrounded by crystal clear waters and lush forests. In winter, the snow-capped island is even more enchanting. The magical setting provides a picturesque view, and could easily be a real life replica of a well-crafted Chinese painting.
It has also become one of the venues for the snow sculpture festivities by gathering the world's best snow carvings. In summer, it is an ideal place for escaping the sweltering heat and taking a picnic.
4. Siberian Tiger Park
The park is the largest natural park for wild Siberian tigers in the world. There are more than 500 pure-bred Siberian tigers, with 100 visible to visitors. In addition, visitors can also see white tigers, lions, lynx, leopards and other big cats there.
Tourists take a bus, which is specially protected by wire mesh, and can see the tigers walking leisurely in their natural surroundings. Visitors can also buy live animals to feed them, including ducks, chickens and even cows.
If you go
A flight to Harbin Taiping International Airport from Beijing takes about two hours and prices start from 670 yuan ($102), while flights from Shanghai take about three hours and cost 1,060 yuan.
bHarbin has four distinct seasons with a long cold winter and a short cool summer. Winter can be very cold, averaging -15 C to -25 C from December to February, plummeting as low as - 40 C during some windy nights. There is plenty of rainfall in summer from June to August and the average temperature is 23 C, making it an attractive escape from sweltering temperatures elsewhere in China. Autumn is short with fluctuating temperatures, and the weather is dry and a little windy. It has little rainfall. Late spring and early autumn are great times for a visit. But if you are a snow sports fanatic, visit in winter.
Harbin cuisine is an intriguing fusion of tastes from Russia, Japan and other parts of China.
Red and dried sausage (European-style smoked pork sausages)
Jiaozi or dumplings with various fillings
Lie ba (a large Russian bread with a cracked crust)
Harbin spring rolls (Tasty pastries with potatoes, cucumbers, sausages and eggs)
Shredded chicken cooked with mushroom
Imported Russian goods, such as vodka, fur hats and babushka dolls.
Ginseng, (deer) pilose antler and pelts of marten are regarded as the "Three Treasures" of Northeast China.
February is an excellent time to visit Harbin but most shops are closed between Feb 2-5 during the Spring Festival vacation.
Be sure to bring more clothes. Woolen trousers, hats, gloves and ear covers are must.
Even though it is cold, it's still quite dry, so use thick moisturizers.
Keep your camera warm, since the shuttle and lens of your camera may break down in such weather.