Spotlight on a Chinese Province: Heilongjiang

Saint Sophia Cathedral
Saint Sophia Cathedral | Courtesy of the Author
Rachel Deason

Heilongjiang, once known by the name Manchuria, is China’s northernmost province. It lies just below Russia and has seen many rulers throughout its history, with the Jurchens, Manchus and Japanese being among the most influential. While Heilongjiang, like much of the rest of China, is now dominated by the Han ethnic group, it is home to a large Russian diaspora. In fact, it is not hard to find Russian influences in the region, particularly in architecture. Its Siberian climate lends the province to bone-chilling winters and temperate summers. Sub-zero temperatures are certainly not for the thermosensitive, but the weather makes the province a haven for winter sports like ice skating and ice hockey and also allows for the province’s greatest modern claim-to-fame: the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.

Major Cities

Harbin

Capital of Heilongjiang, Harbin, is the best place to appreciate the province’s rich cultural heritage. Go downtown to the central district of Daoli, and you’ll find the Saint Sophia Cathedral and other remnants of the city’s Russian past. Or go just an hour outside of the city to find Volga Manor, a Russian-style forest garden that transports visitors to days past when such quaint landscapes were common throughout Harbin.

Walking into Volga Manor

Harbin is also thought of as the best place to learn standard Mandarin.

The Ice and Snow Festival should not be missed. Taking place from late December to late February each year, the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival takes “winter wonderland” to a whole new level, with huge ice slides, sculptures and buildings that put Queen Elsa’s castle to shame. Be sure to bring plenty of cash with you when you go: The festival does not accept credit cards, Alipay or Wechat Wallet.

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

Qiqihar

In addition to being a delight to pronounce, Qiqihar is the second largest city in Heilongjiang, behind Harbin. It is heavily industrial but located near the Zhalong Nature Reserve, which is a dedicated wetlands area and migratory bird sanctuary.

Other Travel Destinations

Yabuli Ski Resort

Yabuli is the largest ski resort in China. Located a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Harbin, Yabuli Ski Resort is the training grounds for China’s national skiing teams and has hosted several international winter games. Skiing enthusiasts and newcomers alike are welcome. There is also a panda house on site if you need a break from the winter sports.

Shuangfeng Forest Farm

No trip to Heilongjiang is complete without a venture into remote Shuangfeng Forest Farm. Nicknamed “China Snow Town” for its annual 7-month long snowfall, Shuangfeng Forest Farm is the place to experience China’s deepest snows. Once just a one-street logging village, China Snow Town has gradually transformed into an idyllic tourist destination, with many of the original homes now converted into guesthouses. The town is accessible via a tourist bus from the city of Mudanjiang.

China Snow Town

Jingpo Lake

Formed over 10,000 years ago by volcanic eruptions that blocked the flow of the nearby Mudan River, Jingpo Lake is famous for its limestone cliffs reminiscent of those in the southern city of Guilin, Diaoshuilou Falls, and turquoise waters filled with freshwater coral.

Cuisine

Heilongjiang cuisine fits into the larger Dongbei, or northeast, style that starts in Beijing and spreads upwards. Many of the dishes are extremely hearty, with potatoes and wheat being staples in most. Popular dishes include steamed dumplings, pickled vegetables, twice cooked pork and di san xian, a stir fried dish consisting of potatoes, green peppers and eggplant. Dongbei is a cuisine favored by foreigners, due to its mild and approachable flavors.

Dumplings

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