Bordering Russia, Inner Mongolia and Jilin province, China's northernmost province is known to travelers largely thanks to the otherworldly Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival (Jan 5-Feb 5 yearly), where you can wander a fanciful frozen city featuring crystalline castles, giant ice slides, world landmarks from the Taj Mahal to Beijing's Bird's Nest, a 24-meter tall frosty Santa and over 2,000 other amazing ice sculptures, all lit up at night in every color of the rainbow.
Heilongjiang's growing reputation as a winter wonderland is enhanced by the presence of China's best ski resorts, the Harbin Ice Lantern Festival, and an infusion of Russian culture that is reflected in the region's architecture and cuisine. The province, whose Chinese name translates to "black dragon river"—an evocative name for the snaking and often snowbound waterway that forms Heilongjiang's northern border with Russia—long served as a key industrial base thanks to its great mineral and oil wealth, though, as in much of Dongbei (China's northwest region), heavy industry has declined since China's initiation of reform and opening.
This decline has seen a significant rise in the tourism industry, as the province looks to capitalize on its unique cultural heritage, skiing and natural beauty. Still, easily accessible attractions beyond Harbin and are limited, though outdoor enthusiasts will revel in the vast expanses of forest and lakes, including gems like Jingpo Hu (Mirror Lake), the Wudalian Chi volcanic region and the world-renowned bird refuge of Zhalong Nature Reserve near Qiqihar, an extensive marshland frequented by nine of the world's fifteen species of Siberian Tiger reserve.
When it comes to skiing, the main attraction is definitely the Yabuli Ski Resort, just three hours southwest of Harbin, which hosts the annual Heilongjiang International Ski Festival from December 5 to January 5. Boasting over 3,800 meters of slopes on the south face of Guokui Mountain, Yabuli is presently serviced by six lifts.
From Heilongjiang you can move on to Russia via the Trans-Siberian train, which passes through Harbin every Friday. If the romance of the train isn't your thing, Harbin serves as the region's international air hub.
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